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Saving Grace by AC_rules

Format: Novel
Chapters: 24
Word Count: 104,636
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Strong Language, Mild Violence, Scenes of a Sexual Nature, Contains Slash (Same-Sex Pairing), Substance Use or Abuse, Sensitive Topic/Issue/Theme

Genres: Humor, Romance, Angst
Characters: Albus, James (II), OC
Pairings: James/OC, Other Pairing

First Published: 09/18/2010
Last Chapter: 01/15/2013
Last Updated: 01/15/2013

Summary:
Banner Terminator at TDA l COMPLETE



I imagined by the time I reached twenty seven my life might have been a little different... As it currently stands (well, it might be too pathetic to actually be standing as such...) I’m single, unemployed, living in a grungy flat my parents are funding and still afraid of running into anyone that might possibly remember the embarrassment that was Hogwarts years. Or accidently ending up in the same country as James Potter....


Chapter 1: May.
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I felt that considering I was now twenty-seven years old my life should have sorted itself out. I’d made it through the messy-angsty-embarrassing teenage years fairly safely (although with a few major humiliations that I’d just about lived down now, provided I avoided everyone who’d ever had knowledge of these major transgressions) labouring under the impression that the second I reached twenty-five my life would automatically sort itself out.

I’d miraculously find a guy and would be happily married by now. I’d probably be giving birth to my first child in a couple of months’ time and would have a wonderful group of close friends who I couldn’t live without. I’d probably have my dream job and would be blissfully and annoyingly happy in everything that I did. It was all supposed to be entirely conventional and normal. 

So it was a bit of a kick in the teeth to realise that, actually, I was a complete and utter failure in all respects.

After graduating Hogwarts... nine years ago (blood hell that’s depressing) I went jetting around the world for a bit to ‘experience life’ and get away from the shame of some of the more embarrassing things that had happened at Hogwarts (there was a significant list of things I’d rather have forgotten). That turned into a nine year vacation away from England where I experienced a lot but gained absolutely nothing. Except debt and a well deserved dislike of myself.

I’d started off getting a job teaching English at Beauxbatons; interesting, considering I couldn’t speak French at the time. I got sacked after telling some girl that she was an annoying stuck up slutty bitch when she was being particularly irritating and I’d written off a career of teaching after that. Even if it had been true.

Then I’d spent a couple of years in various countries doing this and that: waitressing, cleaning, bar tending...Then I’d moved to Spain (which was a far superior place than France) and lived there for about two and a half years doing this and that. 

I’d visited occasionally but gradually I’d had less and less to come back for: my friends (by friend’s I mean ‘friend’ and that was bit of a loose term after the argument and just a damn lie now) all had their own incredibly more sensible lives and I’d never been particularly close with my family – a couple of letters a month was enough. Then I’d found more to stay around for. 

He was tall, blonde, tanned and completely not interested but it took me awhile to realise that (it was rather cringe worthy actually). Then they’d been a couple of embarrassing one night stands. Then I lost my job (one I’d actually liked). Then I’d decided I’d had enough of seeing the world – although more importantly, the growing list of reasons to hate myself was getting ridiculous and my empty pockets’ complaints were getting louder by the minute. So then I came home. 

I’d woken up this morning with a bitch of a hangover, swollen lips (I remembered snogging some guy who resembled this guy from France, but I had no idea what his name was), a phone number was written on the back of my arm (which was completely unreadable so I assumed that my own sweat had made it smudge, which was just lovely) and I had an impressive amount of eyeliner smudged around my face. It was also impressively late; one PM was not an acceptable time to emerge from a hangover outside the safety of your teenage years (and as much as I hated to admit it I was so far out of my teenage years that I’d probably start referring to them as the ‘good old days’ any day now). 

The whole not-waking-up-till-one thing was considerably worsened by the fact that I was supposed to be at a big family meal at two (a strange time for lunch, I know, but I don’t control them). A French restaurant, as my parents thought that I was now ‘cultured’ I would actually be able to stomach French cuisine. Now wasn’t the time to explain that fast food existed in every country, so picking up culture had been unnecessary. All in all, by the time I’d extracted myself from my bed I had about minus ten minutes to make sure I was completely sober – which was actually in doubt – clean myself up and mentally prepare myself for several hours of unprofitable boredom and being set up by various aunts and uncles who found my current lack of love life incredibly amusing. 

In the end, I was twenty minutes late which was actually a personal record for me as I usually aimed for thirty minutes late as far as my family was concerned. Then another record was set and it took a mere thirty seconds before the questions started.

“So Gracie how’s the love life?” Uncle Eddie asked and I feel my carefully painted on expression (literally, I had so much make-up on to hide the bags under my eyes that my skin felt stiff like corrugated cardboard) crumble slightly. 

The mention of the words ‘love life’ brought back a vivid image of last night (I was really too old to be partying like a just-out-of-Hogwarts-graduate). The guy who’d looked like that French-dude who I’d ended up snogging had chatted me up with the line “I like the older woman” and for some reason I was so drunk that I found this comment so immensely flattering that I’d thrown myself on him. I think... although I hoped to God it wasn’t true... that I’d taken the word of some magazine (which I should definitely stop reading) about the art of ‘lip biting.’

I really wish at this point I could assure you that by ‘lip biting’ I mean the nervous habit someone people do when they’re well... nervous. Unfortunately for me this had been about a sort of... kissing technique... which included biting the other person’s lips. 

I had been drunk and I’m a sloppy drunk and I think – although I hope to Merlin that I’m just making this up at the minute – that I had bitten his lip. Then it had started to bleed. Then I had started apologising in embarrassment and realised, to my horror, that this French-dude-look-a-like had been a first year Gryffindor when I’d been in my seventh. 

That had been an awkward moment along with the closet I’d got to sleeping with anyone for five and a half months (basically since I got back to England).

“Brilliant!” I answered cheerfully to Uncle Eddie’s question. 

“Got a boyfriend then Gracie?” Uncle Eddie’s wife – Annie – asked with more gusto and enthusiasm than anyone should possess.

 Eddie used be the brilliant drunken uncle who’d started looking down everyone’s tops (including my friends but thankfully not me) the second he’d had more than a glass of wine. His party trick was showing us all how hairy his arse was (which was surprisingly impressive and a little bit grim) and he often managed to convince himself that he could juggle cigarettes which had always been pretty funny. Unfortunately always-cheerful-and-clean-Annie had straightened him out and they’d started spawning mini Eddie/Annie’s who were ‘affectionately’ named by me as ‘Sprog one’ and ‘Sprog two’. They had real names but I forgot them and they seemed to think that these names were incredibly funny and not due to my inability and lack of motivation to learn their real names. Children’s naivety was far too easy to abuse.

The only other kids present – thank god – were Aunt Sarah’s lot. They weren’t actually her children as none of us knew about them until today when she’d turned up with her new husband (who was called Calvin and was actually very rich) complete with three children that had belonged to several previous marriages. They were strange children and sat down the younger people’s end of the table (which I was also half sat on. I was also on the adult’s side so they could send me torturous questions about my love life).

“No.” I answered Annie, giving her a sugary sweet smile that I hoped she believed was genuine. I probably should have performed a cheering charm on myself before I turned up because these sorts of events, although rare, had a habit of leaving me thoroughly depressed. “Sailing solo at the minute.” I added nodding as if this news absolutely thrilled me. Believe me, it didn’t. 

“Well you better get going! Think of your biological clock. Tick-tock. Tick-tock!” Annie said accentuating her point by turning her finger into the clock hand and waving it about cheerfully. In my head everyone in the table says ‘Tick-tock’ together over and over all grinning at me. 

Damn hangovers. 

“I’m only twenty seven!” I protested wishing that I’d slept even later and had to call Mum and tell her that I had been throwing up and would be unable to attend. 

She’d have probably thought I was pregnant or something though. Thing is, she’d be so disappointed when she found out I wasn’t. 

“Yes dear, she’s quite right. She doesn’t need to be thinking about children just yet!” Aunt Shannon – the coolest of all my aunts – put in and I swear that I will spend more than a five Sickles on her birthday present next year (or maybe just actually remember). “She needs to find a husband first!” She added to roars of laughter.

“More like a boyfriend!” Mum said and her betrayal stung more than I'd bargained for (along with the utter humiliation). I smiled around at them and laughed along as if I found the whole thing very funny. 

I picked up my glass of white wine (how very civilised – what’s wrong with beer?)  and took a large sip in the hope that it would have some affect and actually make this painful situation funny. However, as my body had become a lot more used to the presence of alcohol in my body since my first drink at fifteen (which was one of the most incriminatingly embarrassing things I’d ever done) so now the sip of wine had no effect (unlike at fifteen where half a bottle of pumpkin juice Bacardi made me start throwing up over the James Potter) so I was stuck feeling utterly sober.

“I have a boyfriend.” Sprog one said and everyone turned to look at her. I think most of the adults found this revelation hilarious given Sprog one is seven years old and all her social activities can be summed up in one word – nursery. I suppose it isn’t actually a nursery given that she’s seven and more a ‘Child care centre’ where she goes when always-active-and-amused-Annie is out doing her part time job.

 I, on the other hand, actually find this to be the most depressing thing I have heard all day (and there have been a few) because Sprong one is ginger, has wonky teeth, glasses, freckles, might be beautiful in the future but certainly isn’t now, wears clothes knitted by Annie and is seven years old (or something like that). Yet she still has more of a life than me.

Annie, Eddie, Sharon and my parents all shrieked with laughter at this. Sprog one was predictably offended (and I can see how having all her relatives mock her blossoming love life might cause offence, really I can),  set down her knife and fork and appeared to be going on hunger strike. Eddie/Annie didn’t seem bothered by this either given that Sprog one was also a little on the plump side. 

“So Gracie,” My Dad bellowed from the other end of the table where he was wedged between my grandparents and his in-laws (who absolutely love him). The other end of the table was a long way a way which explained why I hadn’t heard his dulcet tones since the beginning of this slow torture, “how’s the job search going?” He yelled and all the adults start chatting excitedly because now there was another part of my life that they could start abusing. 

“Still looking.” I returned brightly before turning back to my wine and downing my glass. Of course that didn’t go unnoticed as they were all looking at me. Shannon started spouting facts about binge drinking, alcoholics and the benefits of drinking one glass of wine a day (good for your heart) whilst Uncle Eddie, my mother, cousin Dave and Nana Josephine started to suggest a million places where I could apply to. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that my NEWT grades fell a little too far short for any of the jobs they were suggesting to be the slightest bit possible. Especially given that I’d lost every job I’d ever had and was therefore without any shiny references that could potentially help my case. 

“What about the Daily Prophet dear!?” Nana Josephine put forward to a murmur of general consent. “You always used to love writing stories. Do you remember?” She exclaimed. I sighed and started to dread the inevitable story that was coming next – it seemed like there would never be a family occasion where this story wasn’t considered fair game for mocking material. “She always used to write her own stories! Even sent them off to some publishers to see if she could get it published – she was only six.” 

“Once upon a time there was a princess called Grace,” Mum began as the others around the table started either listening to Mum reciting this embarrassing story for quite possibly the millionth time or discuss what a cute child I was and how it all went wrong (only they’d stop short at the bit which actually went wrong, because that was never mentioned at dinner), “she invented a machine that flipped pancakes which she named ‘the tosser.’” Insert hysterical laughter here. Ha ha. 

“I work at the Prophet.” Cousin Dave – my new favourite relative given that we all knew that my infamous ‘Princess Grace story’ got a lot worse as it went onwards. “I think that there might be vacancies – I can look if you like?” I nodded gratefully. 

Getting a job would mean having colleagues which meant potential friends/boyfriends /husbands/ potential babies. I realised it was immensely stupid to get worried about my body clock just yet (twenty seven is young damn it) but my family had a tendency to do this to me (as in make me worry incessantly about things I would normally not have given any thought to).

Cousin Dave had also saved me from hearing about Princess Grace’s invention of the ‘love maker’ which manufactured love which you could drink when you were lonely. If I remember correctly this manufactured love tasted like strawberries. 

I was far too innocent as a child.

“I’m just going to the bathroom.” I told everyone, despite the fact that they were no longer listening. They were now all grilling Cousin Dave (the other ‘young adult’ of the family) about his life. He had a job (assistant editor of the sports section of the Daily Prophet which sounds pretty crap considering the only wizarding sport was Quidditch) and a fiancé and a baby (currently within the fiancé but still there all the same). I was immensely jealous of him and generally felt bad about refusing to talk to him at Hogwarts to improve my ‘reputation.’ Turned out the joke was on me anyway.

I decided that given they were now torturing Dave – who deserved it for being so lucky – I could actually get away with going outside for a fag. 

Smoking was a nasty habit which I picked up in France and ever quite put down again, although all my family are blissfully unaware of this unfortunate and expensive habit which was relief. One of my Uncles – Francis (yes, yes, Francis) was a therapist, who thankfully wasn’t present today, and had a habit of dealing with all family issues in a free (which I was supposed to be happy about – as if I would pay the stupid prick) session which basically involved him nodding seriously at all my sarcastic answers as if they actually meant something before telling me I had ‘low self esteem’. No, it was much much easier if they didn’t know about the whole... smoking thing. They’d start telling me it was another nervous habit I’d gained from being exposed to childhood trauma and what not.

I leant against the wall outside the posh restaurant and lit the fag. They wouldn’t notice me for a good fifteen minutes, hopefully, so I could enjoy the fresh (sort of) air for a while before dragging myself in to face desert. 

“Oh my gosh! You’re Grace Whitehall!” A voice said and I turned around and saw Roxanne Weasley. She hadn’t changed all that much over the years and, anyway, given she was quite distinctive in terms of appearance I probably still would have recognised. I did the maths in my head and worked out that she was about four years younger than me and so was... twenty-four. She had a job too (full waitress uniform) which meant she was two up on me and I hated her already. 

“Yes.” I agreed, hoping against all hope that she just remembered me as a girl in Rose’s year not... well... the embarrassment I was during the Hogwarts period. 

“You’re the girl who wrote a love letter to Flitwick, got so drunk that you wet yourself and sent a picture round of yourself naked because you were trying to get James to date you.” 

Brilliant, she remembered. 

I pulled out another cigarette and lit it. 

“I heard you were abroad?” Roxanne said in a tone that was asking me confirm it. I nodded and wondered how in hell she knew that. I suppose the Potter/Weasley gang all talked about me whenever they needed a good laugh. I didn’t blame them – if I wasn’t physically and emotionally attached to all my previous acts then I would laugh at them too. As it stood... they really weren’t that funny. 

“Did you really send one of the teachers a pair of your dirty underwear?”

“No!” I declared dropping my cigarette and stamping out on the floor.

Roxanne looked incredibly amused by my appearance and it felt good to brighten up someone’s day (or you know, not so much considering this girl was laughing at me for things that happened nine years ago. Nine bloody years ago). 

“Well, I better go back in.” I said awkwardly as she kept on staring at me as if I had three heads.

“One second.” Roxanne said, pulling out a camera from her pocket, pressing the button and taking a very close up picture of my face.  “Thanks – James will love this.” She said, collapsing into giggles as she went back into the restaurant. 

I tried very very hard not to think about what I did at Hogwarts. I went abroad for the best part of nine years to avoid the sheer embarrassment of the moment when James Potter – who joked for three years about getting a restraining order against me and carried out a lot of my supposed actions out himself to boost his reputation (including the picture of me naked which was actually some page three model with my face stuck on it) – found out where I was. 

It was stupid to think that nine years after all of... that happened... he would still be determined to ruin my life (well actually I don’t think that was the point. He just didn’t think about my life at all and I’d pretty much ruined it myself anyway). No. That was the least of my worries. 

What I should be concentrating on was finding a job, making some friends, getting a boyfriend, somehow getting him to propose, getting pregnant and building a happy life together. All before I was twenty eight (in three weeks time). 

Wish me luck.

I gave myself another ten minutes outside in the hope that the smell of fags would dissipate somewhat, but I knew that there was a good chance that Annie would wrinkle up her nose the second I walked back over the table. Still, the desert would probably have arrived now and I really didn't want to miss out on such a wonderful opportunity to flavour French cuisine (eurgh) and banter with my delightfully supportive family. 

“We’ve got to stick together, yeah!” Francis’s voice rang out as I walked back over to the table. I winced and wondered when (and why) he had arrived. “Gracie!” He declared as I approached the table warily. He stood up and took three strides towards me. He rested one hand on my back and looked at me intensely. “Life aint getting you down, is it Pet?” 

The problem with that was that he wasn’t being sarcastic. The question was genuinely a serious one which defied comprehension. I often found the whole lot of my nutty family easier to deal with if I pretended that they were just being sarcastic all the time.

I sat down and smiled politely at him (whilst trying to move as far away from his hand as possible, I didn’t know where they'd been). “It will get better. This dark hole you’re residing in will soon be filled with light. You will find love! You won’t spend your whole life single, alone, jobless and without a next of kin.” 

“Thank you Francis, you’ve made me feel so much better!” I returned sarcastically. 

“That’s what I’m here for pet.” Francis nodded before sitting back down next to Sharon (his other half). 

“How do you get someone to stay away from you?” Sprog one asked attracting the attention of the adults closest to the kid’s end of the table. “I got told off for telling this girl to shut up.” She continued. 

“Neely!” Annie exclaimed. “You never told us that. You must never tell someone to shut up!” 

“What if they keep talking?”

“Was she calling you names sweetheart?” Eddie asked looking slightly embarrassed at the scandalous expression on Annie’s face (guess who Sprog One picked up the phrase from?) and seemed to want to sort out the situation as quickly as possible. 

“No. She just kept talking to me and she’s boring. If I can’t tell her to shut up then how do I get her to stay away from me?” 

“Get a restraining order so she can’t come within twenty feet of you.” One of Sarah’s new kids answered seriously and I suddenly felt very very sorry for that Child and her siblings. Calvin looked away awkwardly and Sarah started coughing. I looked away and back down at my hands. 

“Why don’t you just walk away from her?” Eddie suggested and Sprog One nodded and started tucking into her desert. 

“Grace?” I turned around and saw Dave sitting across from me. Dave was nice enough; fairly quiet and a little bit boring, but he’d always been a lot nicer than I’d been. Hufflepuff.

“Ya-huh?” I said, turning towards him and smiling (or at last attempting to). He’d saved me from hearing the infamous ‘when Grace was lonely she’d turn on the love maker and drink the juice it made’ line for the billionth time and was therefore my current hero. He looked slightly scared by the fact that I was smiling – something that hadn’t happened much since I’d come back ‘home’.

“What... what NEWT’s did you get?” He asked and I made a face at him. 

“Erm... I got an A in Charms and Herbology. An E in Transfiguration and well... I didn’t erm... pass the others.” 

Cousin Dave had gotten straight O’s and ended up being a junior editor of the sporting section... I didn’t have a hope of getting anywhere. 

In my defence I’d had a crap time at Hogwarts and by that point I’d only had two ‘friends’ one of whom was working with my enemy to make me look like even more of an idiot (for her own amusement) and the other had been so deluded that she followed me round like a lost puppy until I called her ‘a stupid annoying sidekick who I only kept around because I needed someone to do my dirty work’ at the graduation party and thus ending our seven years of friendship. I was constantly pranked and spent most of the time trying to save myself embarrassment by becoming popular (which was the purpose to everything I ever did) and ended up making myself look like an even bigger joke. 

I’d had other things to worry about than exams. 

Cousin Dave’s eyebrow’s rose and I thanked God that he was two years older than me and had therefore missed the most embarrassing two years. I decided I didn’t like Cousin Dave much after all.

“Well, have you worked anywhere?” 

“Yes.” I snapped and pulled my CV out of my handbag (where I had twenty copies of it in case I ran into somewhere with vacancies that interested me – this had yet to happen mainly because England was a very very boring place).

“You taught at Beauxbatons?”  He asked in surprise. 

“English.” I said nodding and feeling a little proud of myself. I’d proved Dave-the-Douche wrong about how I was a failure at life (sort of). 

“How come you stopped?” 

“Ermm...” He looked up at me expectantly. “I... er... verbally insulted one of the students.” Cousin Dave coughed and carried on looking down the list. 

“You worked in Greece? As a weather girl on the television?” 

“Yup.” He was about to ask why that didn’t last. “I didn’t know the word for ‘rain.’ I didn’t bother learning it because it didn’t think it ever rained in Greece so I just told everyone it was going to be supper sunny. Then there was a massive storm.”

“Bulgarian waitress?” 

“I erm... assaulted the head chef because he said ‘nice breasts’ and I thought he was sexually harassing me. He was talking about the chicken as it turns out.” 

“Spanish beautician?” He asked incredulously. 

“Don’t ask.” I said with a grimace. Even the thought of that unfortunate waxing experience made me internally cringe and wince at the same time. 

“How did you get all these jobs?” He asked looking up at me seriously. 

“Womanly charms?” I suggested doubtfully. He glanced down at my CV again before placing it back down on the table. 

“How many language’s can you speak?” He asked and I shrugged. “French, Germany, Spanish, Italian, Bulgarian, Greek and Dutch. That’s quite impressive.” I nodded, not particularly wanting to admit that my knowledge of those languages were very limited (especially Italian. All I’d learnt was ‘Hello’ and they agreed to hire me at the call centre until they realised I couldn’t actually answer phone’s considering I hadn’t got a clue what they were talking about) but it seemed like languages were the only things I actually had going with me.

“I’ll see what I can do.” He assured me folding up my CV and putting it in his pocket. I sighed – I’d heard that one before.

“I’m not allowed to go to the toilet on my own.” One of Sarah’s lot – the same one as before – said as her and her sister stood up together.

“Why not?” Sprog Two asked. Her little blue eyes widened in curiosity and for a second she looked rather cute. Oh bloody hell – I better not be getting broody. I would not let my family win on that account.

“Mummy might accost me again. Or try to run me over.” 

An awkward silence rippled through the silence again. 

“I’ll take you.” Sarah said standing up and taking her hands. 

“When was your last boyfriend then Gracie?” I debated banging my head repeatedly desk but instead decided to do something productive and get myself a drink. Because if in doubt, there was always more alcohol. I excused myself with a quick answer of “Oh, in Spain – I think I just saw someone I know at the bar. I just want to check...” 

I didn’t know anyone at the bar. At least I thought so until I got there ordered a Bacardi, downed it, and placed it back down when the bartender said “You’re not going to wet yourself are you?”

I looked up at her sharply and tried to recognise who she was but there were so many people that knew of the infamous Grace Whitehall that the cause was more than a little bit hopeless.

She looked to be in her earlier twenties. Say she was twenty two...that would mean she’d seen the last two years of my seven year long embarrassment. I groaned and pressed my fingers to my head. I’d forgotten how many people went to Hogwarts in England. To avoid everyone who knew about my many embarrassments I’d have to avoid all people at least seven years younger than me, and at least four years older. Along with all their siblings. 

I was doomed. 

I turned back to the bar and saw Roxanne Weasley standing at the doorway in fits of hysterics holding out her camera and snapping pictures of me. I lifted my middle finger in her direction and ordered another Bacardi.

Really, my life had not sorted itself out just yet. 

Give it a month or two, and I’m sure it’ll be fine.



Hello and welcome to all new readers to this story! I'm writing this at the point where this story has seventeen (soon to be eighteen) chapters and it really is lovely to have you join in and stuff. I've really enjoyed writing this story, particuarly Grace who never fails to cheer me up and I guess I just wanted to rewrite this authors note to say, I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I've enjoyed writing this! And I'd love to hear feedback about anything you want to say. Thanks for being here :)

*Edited January 2013



Chapter 2: June 13th.
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

In the past three weeks I had:

Been on a whole three dates (which, sadly, was a personal record).

Started, and lost, three new jobs (again – personal record).

Drank more alcohol and smoked more cigarettes than I’d ever done before.

And... been offered my worst nightmare in the form of a job at the Daily Prophet sporting section which basically consisted of writing questions for interviews to ask big headed sport (Quidditch) stars so that pathetic teenage girls could drool over their pictures and dream of getting married to them. (Ignore the fact that I had just short of a decade long subscription to every Quidditch magazine going so I could cut out the pictures and stick them on my ceiling/walls so that I could dream that they were in bed with me, because I don’t think it’s fair to hold one’s teenage crushes against them). 

You would think, considering I have achieved so many personal bests within the past week I would feel slightly fulfilled but... it was not the case. I felt sorry for all those people in the Record books who must have worked so hard to earn a title for doing something so stupid and ridiculous and then to find... they didn’t feel any sense of accomplishment or fulfilment at all. I, for one, actually feel even worse than I did three weeks ago for one very simple reason (ignoring the over-drinking, over-smoking and over-eating)... 

My life sucks. No seriously, my life actually sucks.

Today, apart from being a gloomy pathetic excuse for a ‘summer’s’ day given that there was no sun (even though it’s June for god’s sake), was also my twenty eighth birthday. 

You would think, if my life resembled anything close to fair, fulfilled, or good I would at least have a boyfriend who loved me (and wants to marry me and have children with me) by this very late point within my life. However as it stood nothing really had changed within the last three weeks and I was still; jobless, friendless, penniless, single, lonely and pathetic. Only now I was officially a year closer to thirty with nothing to show for myself at all.

The joyous feelings are so strong that I was tempted to buy twenty eight candles so I could light them and throw them at people until they burn to a crisp, or shove them up some of my fellow Hogwartians arses because – let’s be honest – who wouldn’t want to be in my situation? Single, practically middle aged, unemployed and friendless. And, of course, spending my birthday alone.

Somebody throw a party.

Except nobody did. I had expected, stupidly, that my family would throw some sort of surprise bash for me as nothing had been mentioned prior to this truly joyful occasion, although frankly I should have known better. As it turned out when I had quizzed mum about her lack of concern for my birthday she’d assumed I was ‘doing something with one of my friends’ and that I was ‘too old for birthday presents now.’ I, feeling incredibly stupid and a little bit crappy, had informed her that of course that was the case and I was going out with one of my friends from the dry cleaner’s to celebrate. 

She’s asked if this friend was male.

The said friend didn’t exist so I told her that yes he was male, and now she’s told all of my relatives that I have a date which brightened up their days I’m sure. So at least there is a silver lining – for someone else at any rate.

I screwed up my list hastily and threw it into the bin when I heard the doorbell of my flat go off (my parents were paying for it). I picked up my tub of (double chocolate chip) ice cream before walking the great distance (half a meter) towards the door and throwing it open.

You get to a point in life, for me it turns out it’s my 28th birthday, when you have to throw your dignity and grace (haha, pun on my name – hilarity) out of the window mentally sod the world and answer the door mid ice-cream-binge dressed in somewhat inappropriate clothing. Or maybe I reached that point at the age of eleven.  Who even cared (nobody, Grace, nobody cared)? It was probably just someone trying to sell me windows or something – although obviously I had windows already, well, I had a window and I wouldn’t exactly mind having another but that wasn’t exactly possible – so the extent of this conversation was going to be me telling him that he was wasting his time and shutting the door in his face.

It was Cousin Dave. Oh well, that was an exciting and thrilling turn of events.

“Hi.” I answered gloomily stabbing the ice cream with my spoon and shovelling a scoopful into my mouth.

“Hi.” Cousin Dave said awkwardly taking in my appearance. I still had my pyjamas on but unlike any normal twenty eight (ew) year old my sleeping gear was neither sexy or attractive and instead consisted of a T-shirt I’d had since I was thirteen. I hadn’t done my hair either. Or my makeup. I may have looked a little bedraggled/ rough/ like I’d been living in a bin for the past few years of my life. “Your mum said you were... out.” He said as I shoved the spoon back into the ice cream tub. “On a date?” 

“I lied.” I said opening the door to allow him to enter my apartment. He was carrying a pot plant with the tag ‘Happy Birthday’ written on it and a bottle of cheep looking wine. Still, it was the thought that counted.

“Erm... happy birthday.” He said, glancing around my pitiful excuse of a flat. He was acting moderately polite and made no comment on the fact that I had three days’ worth of washing up to do, had clothes all over the floor and three empty tubs of ice cream on the counter.

He pressed the bottle of wine into my hands and I took it and headed over to grab one of the glasses out the cupboards.

 “Where do you want this?” He asked awkwardly holding up the plant. All work surfaces we’re covered in clutter and/or crap. I pushed of a pile of newspapers from the coffee table and placed the plant down on the surface instead. 

“Take a seat.” I said gesturing towards my sofa. I hoped he wouldn’t accept, and would instead excuse himself to go have fun with his pregnant fiancé or whatever, but he didn’t. He headed towards it carefully, stepping over the various mounds of crap on the floor, and sitting down gingerly.  “Would you like some?” He nodded politely and I poured two glasses (large glasses – it was the best way these days) before heading back over to the sofa and slumping down on it. I passed it to him. He took it. 

There was a long awkward pause whilst none of us said anything. 

I’m pretty sure I hadn’t had a real conversation with Cousin Dave since I was around twelve years old which was a bloody long time ago. 

“Thanks for the plant.” I said at exactly the same time he said –

“Having a good birthday day?” 

There was another awkward pause. I took a sip of the wine. It tasted crap, but better than the stuff I had in.

“Does it look like I’ve had a good birthday?” I asked gesturing around my flat. 

“No.” He answered truthfully. He took a sip of his own wine. “How come you aren’t... out?” He asked looking dubiously at what I was wearing. 

“Who would I be out with?” I asked. “I don’t have any friends and my own family couldn’t be arsed. I’m the most pathetic twenty eight year old ever.” I complained feeling altogether rather pathetic (as former mentioned and probably inferred from embarrassingly crap circumstance). 

“No you’re not.” Dave assured me unconvincingly. He looked very scared at the prospect of having a depressed/emotional female on his hands. Wasn’t his fiancé pregnant? He should learn to deal with it fast. If you thought about it, I was doing him/his fiancé a big favour.

“I have no friends. The highlight of my week was when I found a galleon in the pocket of my coat. I’ve been on three disastrous dates in the past two weeks but am otherwise completely single. I’ve started three god awful jobs. Lost three god awful jobs. My parents are paying for my rent. I’m relying on my family to give me a social life. I’ve put on a stone since coming back to England and it’s my birthday and I’ve spent the whole day on my own, in my nightwear, eating fecking ice cream which I only brought because it was on special offer!” I wailed. 

Dave looked at me for a second and placed down his glass of wine. He picked up one of the newspapers (the Daily Prophet) and began looking through the ‘jobseekers’ page where I had circled a few things and crossed a few things out. 

“You’d honestly rather do waitressing work than work at the Daily Prophet, where there’s actually a chance of moving up in your job? Where you get almost twice the amount of pay? And where you probably won’t get fired considering I’m one under the big man?” He asked and I thought about it for a second. 

He had a point. 

Grace Whitehall, welcome to your worst nightmare.

*
I’d shoved myself into one of the skirts (which I’d had to enlarge slightly for it to fit around my fat arse) that I’d brought when I’d been waitressing in Germany. Then I’d shoved my boobs into one of my shirts and had just about managed to fasten it. Then I’d tried on every shirt in my wardrobe to make sure I had the one which made me look thinnest on before leaving the house and flooing to the headquarters of the Daily Prophet (fifteen minutes late – oops). 

It was depressing how much weight I’d put on since I’d last had a real job which required office type wear and how utterly hideous I looked. You would have thought, given I couldn’t afford my rent let alone my food bill, that I would have lost weight, but no...it seemed my distinct lack of money was still enough to keep me supplied in chocolate and comfort eating.

I’d go on a diet tomorrow – a real diet – a full on healthy eating, exercising diet. Honest.

“So this is your desk.” The vapid girl said pointing at what was, unmistakably, a desk. All the girls in here seemed to be the sporty types with no real figure and muscles which made them look a little butch (no offence intended to them, but that’s what they looked like) which is what I would have expected in the sporting section. This would be where all those not quite good enough to play professionally would end up – writing about those who’d beaten them. Well, no wonder they all look depressed. “If you need anything, ask someone.”  She added in helpfully. 

On the upside most of the males here were hot, although I seriously question how riding around with a broomstick between your legs can be good for a man… but I supposed Harry Potter managed to reproduce (unfortunately) along with the rest of the Weasley clan which definitely meant that it couldn’t have too much of a negative influence. Still.

“What am I supposed to do?” I asked before she had a chance to leave. 

“Oh.” She said. “Dave will come and tell you when he’s found something.” She said before walking off with a man-swagger and sitting down at her desk ungracefully. 

At least here I looked womanly and graceful, which didn’t happen in many other places. The downside was that compared to all these tiny and perfectly proportioned, and muscled, sport types and I looked like a half giant or a colossal walking globule of fat in a shirt, skirt and suit jacket which wouldn’t quite stretch over my chest and therefore refused to do up. I was sure that’s a look that most men go for though. In mental homes.

“Hello.” A voice said. I jerked around abruptly to see a woman sitting at the desk next to mine who was definitely nothing like the others. She was pretty pale (not surprising in this weather, bloody England), had black wiry (slightly frizzy) hair which was hanging limply around her shoulders and bright red lipstick on. Interesting. She was also wearing a brilliantly out of fashion pair of glasses and a tourist T-shirt with a picture of a bear on and the words ‘send more tourists, the last ones were delicious’ written in big white font. 

“Hi.” I said awkwardly and sat down slowly (so the chair wouldn’t break which was likely considering how much heavier I was compared to the others. Well, not the males, they all seemed to be 99% muscle and 1% stupid long hair) and looked at my desk. It wasn’t a particularly fascinating desk, as desks go, but seemed to be fully functioning as a future work surface.

“I work here.” The woman next door informed me and I nodded (again slowly because so far she seemed a little... weird). “I’m Jill.” I nodded again. “I got transferred. Two weeks ago.” Her voice made her seem far off and a little spaced out. 

“I’m Grace.” I said holding out my hand for her to shake. She took it and smiled at me warmly. She seemed all right. “What’s it like here?” I asked and Jill shrugged and pulled open the draw on her desk. I looked downwards to see what might be in there (because I’m a nosey cow) and saw that she had a bag full of lollipops and a jar which seemed to contain... muggle party poppers? Right...

“It’s all right.” Jill answered pulling out a ruler and measuring her desk. “Could be worse.” She continued leaning over to measure the length of my desk too. “Same size.” She said seeing the strange look I was giving her. “I got transferred because I held a protest about how some people had larger desks than others because it was sizest, ageist, sexist and prejudiced against the workers. So they transferred me. How come you’re here? You don’t seem the sporty type?” 

Read: you’re fat and have breasts.

“No...” I said slowly. “I’m just desperate for a job.” 

“Ah, okay.” She nodded. “That happens a lot. I’m divorced.” She added and I nodded. “I have two children under the age of five, I’m on anti-depressants and now I live with my therapist who has been divorced twice.”

“I’m single and pathetic.” I said back. 

“Aint life a bitch.” She said before pulling out a folder of pieces of parchment and rearranging them on the desk. “I do the layouts. Well, I design them, get told that they’re too un-boring by each individual writer and then I redo them to make them the same as they were the previous week.” 

“Sounds fun.” 

“Not really.” Jill said. “I hate my job.” 

“Oh, okay.” I said picking up a piece of parchment and starting to doodle on a piece of paper. Obviously I had nothing to do at all and if they were going to pay me for it I wasn’t going to complain. In fact when I got home I was going to be so incredibly impressed by how fantastic my day had gone that I’d probably start on the washing up, if I wasn't too tired from actually being dressed for such a long period of time.

“Do you like this one?” She asked pulling a piece of parchment out and waving it in front of me. I looked over and saw the article title ‘SNOGALICIOUS!’ float across the parchment and make bubble popping noises. A very realistic fish swam across the article and the article itself seemed to be moving like it was underwater. 

“That’s amazing. Although slightly irrelevant and completely mad.” I was never one for subtleties – they usually eluded me and went drastically wrong when I did attempt them, so I decided that honesty was the best policy and if honesty wasn’t an option, keep your mouth firmly shut. The layout was really quite beautiful and I really did feel like I could be underwater.

“Yes...” She said, nodding. “Maybe I should make it themed about... the jungle!” 

“Or why not about... kissing?” I suggested reading the name of the article again. Who writes an article entitled snogalicious anyway? It sounded like a disease, or a teenager lip gloss trying to selling itself to desperate teenagers who were dying to become ‘snogalicious.’ Not that I’d know anything about desperate teens.

“Oh, maybe.” She nodded before beginning working on her layout. She turned back to her pieces of parchment, pulled out her wand and started muttering. I turned my attention back to my doodle and added in a couple of flowers and some hearts onto it with my biro. How productive.

“Jill!” A sing song voice exclaimed and I felt my heart sink dramatically in my chest. Even after nine years I recognised her voice and it still made me mildly suicidal. Cherry Mandise. James Potter’s ex-girlfriend and Grace hater extraordinaire. The second title was earned in between the time when she broke into my dorm and set all my clothes on fire and the time where she spiked my pumpkin juice at breakfast which was supposed to make me think I was her best friend (thus making a fool out of me) but instead resulting in all my hair falling out.

There’s always ones girl at school, who you’d pay a year’s wages – not that that’s very much coming from me – just so you’d never see her again. My own personal experience of schooling meant that I’d pay good money to avoid all of them, but Cherry was definitely in the top five of who I most wanted to avoid (James Sirius Potter claiming spot number one by a couple of hundred miles). I’d hated everything about her: her stupid blonde hair; the way she always managed to get her skirt the right length – whilst mine refused to cooperate and insisted on being either slagish or nunish, and never allowing me to get to that crucial medium – and her stupid flirting ways which were so much more fruitful and successful than mine. 

She was the year above, skinny, clever and absolutely horrible.

As if this job couldn’t get any less appealing. Now I’d rather have a sex change then be forced to spend infinite amount of time in this cruddy office. I was going to quit. I was going to walk out right now and –

I tried to look very busy at my desk and shoved my piece of parchment complete with doodle in one of the drawers and pulled out another. She couldn’t know it was me. I didn’t know what she’d say.

“Have you got my layout?”  She asked and I hoped that she was the author of ‘snogalicious’ because then I could secretly hate her and laugh at how pathetic she was. I crossed my fingers under the desk and hoped and wished that she’d leave before realising who I was (and accidently trip over and die). 

“Yes.” Jill said opening up a fairly normal looking layout with a big picture of a pretty attractive Quidditch player. 

Here comes the bitching and the tearing apart of every single aspect of Jill’s character and, no offence to the woman, but from what I’d seen so far there was plenty she could find to tear. Jill would be reduced to a snivelling and dribbling mess by the time Cherry Mandise was finished. I’d have to peel her off the floor and send the remains to her therapist/children in an envelope. It was a shame. I was sure she’d been a charming person, if only I’d had the chance to get to know her properly.

“That’s really good.” She nodded much to my surprise. My organs combusted. My brain exploded. My feet dropped off in shock. “Could you make this bit a little larger?” She asked. “I need the picture to take up most of the page because that guy is as boring as hell – thanks.” She said as Jill made the desired changes. I glanced at her, using my hair as a shield from any glares/unwanted attention, and noted that she was no longer blonde, and that she was smiling in a subtle manner that utterly shocked me.

Maybe she wasn’t Cherry Mandise? It had nearly been a decade, after all, but... at the same time I was sure. I’d had nightmares about running into this girl... 

“Also, Dave said I was getting a new assistant...” She began and I internally died. This could not be happening. Seriously. “And he was placing her near you...” 

“That would be Grace.” Jill said nodding over to where I was sat. I was screwed. Done for. She was going to laugh in my face and start talking to me as if I was a rather stupid dog that didn’t understand the concept of communication and was actually more interested and chewing up bones and sniffing fellow dog’s arses than listening to her speak. To be honest, I think chewing up bones and sniffing people's arses probably would be more fun than listening to her - so at least she got that right.

“Grace.” She said looking over to me. I looked up warily. “Grace Whitehall!” She exclaimed. “My god!” She said looking me up and down. “Where have you been all these years?” 

Why hadn’t she slapped me? I’d been waiting for it – counting on it even.

 “Abroad.” I answered a little defensively. So far she had done nothing to evoke a negative response from me but still.... I was allowed to be on guard given everything that had happened before (which will not be expanded any further – memories of these times are completely unnecessary).  She’d been bitchiness personified.

“I don’t blame you!” She exclaimed. “I was going to try and find you,” She continued. “I mean, I am so sorry! Hogwarts... I was such a bitch! Sorry! I was just screwed up because of my mum’s alcohol addiction.”  

Oh. Wow.  

“Oh. Did she... get well?” I asked awkwardly. Who would say that?

“No, she died.” Cherry said. “But I got over it and I decided to become a better person. Now I’m an interviewer.” She said with a genuine smile. I wasn’t used to that expression being on her face; it was normally a fabulously fake bitchy smirk and it made me doubt everything I’d ever thought about the wall. “Sorry, this might be a lot to take in...” She trailed off and smiled. “Anyway! As it turns out you’re my assistant – I wonder why Dave didn’t say. He probably wanted it to be a surprise...” she trailed off and turned around which meant, at this different angle I could see something that I had completely missed before... she was pregnant.

Well, I reprimanded myself angrily; you can’t have expected everyone to stay exactly the same for the past ten years. Half of my school friends could be married, mothers, in sensible careers. 

My stomach churned. 

“You’re pregnant!” I said in my most intelligent voice. I was always known for being a bit of an intellectual, if I say so myself.

“Yes.” She agreed. “Didn’t Dave tell you?”

“No, why would he tell me...”  Then I saw the great big shinny engagement ring on her finger and began putting things together... “Are you engaged to...?” 

“Dave, yes.” She said grinning. “We’re going to be cousins-in-law! How have you missed this? Oh I suppose you were abroad for a couple of years and I haven’t been coming to anything with your family recently because I’m absolutely snowed under – which is why you got the job as my assistant I suppose!” 

“It was probably mentioned but I don’t listen much to their ramblings.” I said and she smiled prettily. I had to admit that now she’d stopped bleaching her hair blonde and oranging herself she was very... naturally beautiful. It sickened me to my core. I liked to imagine her in a slightly less respectable position – like in prison. 

“Oh, this is all working out so brilliantly!” She exclaimed happily. “We’ll talk more in my office.” She said standing up and gesturing for me to follow her. “One thing that’s good about being engaged to the boss – I actually get my own office now but don’t tell anyone I said that.” She added. “Jill might start another protest!” 

“Is Jill a bit...?” 

“Odd.” Cherry supplied. “Yeah, well...  She’s lovely though. Brilliant too.” She said pushing open the door to her office and gesturing at a seat opposite her desk. I sat down. “My job is basically to interview Quidditch players. I started off doing the snogalicious -”

“I’m sorry but what is that?” I asked cutting across her. She rolled her eyes and sighed dramatically as if was something she very much disapproved of. 

“They hire a pretty young stupid girl straight out of Hogwarts to go out and kiss some of the Quidditch stars and write about their kissing skills. They have a scale and everything, it’s awful. Anyway, I ended up doing the interviews. I’m going to train you up and then you’re going to do some of them for me because at some point I’m going to have to go on maternity leave. Also, they’re more likely to answer the questions from a pretty young thing like yourself than knocked-up-little-old-me.” She said this all in a matter of fact tone without any regret about this whole job thing... “I’m not sure if I’ll be coming back to work after the baby’s born so you might end up with my job!” She exclaimed happily. “This is such a good opportunity for you!” 

“I can’t interview people!” I exclaimed and she raised an eyebrow at me. “I can’t! I’m Grace Whitehall! Everyone from Hogwarts thinks they’ve seen me naked!” 

“That was nine years ago.” Cherry said softly. 

“And people still laugh at me because of it!”

“Well, tough. You need the money right?” She asked and I nodded. “Well then, you’re stuck here.” 

“Brilliant.” I said sarcastically and she smiled. 

“This here is what we’re working towards each week.” She said presenting me with a newspaper insert named ‘Sport’ how very original... I turned the page and found articles about the latest matches, articles predicting what would happen next match, team profiles, player profiles – probably what the whole interview thing for – reviews of games, letters from the readers, a ‘who’s hot’ page (wow, that’s really pathetic) complete with Quidditch fashion disasters for males and females, a ‘wags’ page, shit loads of adverts and finally a page on the back which seemed to have information of other wizarding spots, one of which was named... ‘Wizard Ball’ oh how very inventive.  Still.... all this in a week?

“Impressed?” She asked dryly before taking it out of my hands. “It gets published in Saturday’s edition of the prophet, we give it to the boss to edit on Friday – which will probably be the only time you see him – so Thursday’s the panic where everything has to get done.” 

“Right.” I nodded trying to take in this big over haul of information at once.

“Any questions?” She asked and I shook my head.

“Actually, I have one.” I said when I was halfway towards the door. “What am I supposed to do?” 

“Erm...” Cherry said considering this for a second. “I’m not really used to having an assistant... just... occupy yourself until I find something for you to do.” She said smiling at me warmly. “Don’t worry, you’re not getting paid on commission.” 

I nodded and walked out of the office. 

Was it worth being in the same building as Cherry Mandise – who was, apparently, going to become a member of my family – to keep a job where I seemingly had to nothing for relatively good pay...?

I suppose I was going to have to wait and see.






Edited, 10th January 2013


Chapter 3: June 25th I.
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

A/N - And we have... chapter three! Enjoy.... :)

“I’ve been working here a whole week!” I declared happily to Jill who was busy doing some layout for one of the sports writer girls who didn’t have a sense of humour and was never happy with the way Jill had done it (hence why she was doing the layout on Monday of all days, way early). Jill tended to be in a ‘bad mood’ whenever she was dealing with Tyler – the sports writer girl – which is when she’d started rambling a little more about things she could protest against which I always found rather funny.

I had successfully adjusted to the job and decided that, shock of horror, I actually quite liked it (given so far I’d really done nothing but make Cherry coffee occasionally this wasn’t actually that surprising -  I’d be able to pay for both my rent and my food bill this month). I’d made.... acquaintances with some of the people and was now considered as part of their little group although the only ones that really talked to me where Cherry, Jill and Dave.

“I think that’s cause for celebration!” Jill exclaimed pulling open her draw and getting two muggle party poppers from the jar.

“Yes.” I agreed taking the party popper without feeling that bemused. You got used to Jill’s little quirks soon enough.  She also handed me a lollipop before pointing her party popper at the ceiling and setting it off. I followed suit and watched in satisfaction as the coloured string attached itself to the light fitting.

Several people – including the songalicious girl (no one actually knew her name) – jumped at the sound before looking at Jill, shrugging and turning back to their work.

“Happy week anniversary.” She added pulling off the wrapped of her lolly and putting it in her mouth.

“Thanks.” I said leaning back on my desk and watching other people working.

“Where’s mine?” George asked leaning back on the side of Jill’s desk and offering a quirked eyebrow in my direction. George was the only other one I’d really talked to in my whole week of working at the Daily Prophet (how posh and successful do I sound right?) and I decided I quite liked him. He used to play for some team (don’t ask me which, don’t know, don’t care) and had to stop due to a back injury. He was the oldest male in the department (at around forty something) and was friendly, and a little cheeky, to pretty much everyone.

Jill looked a little flustered and opened up her draw and began fumbling around to retrieve one.

“You can have a taste of mine if you like?” I suggested in a friendly – flirtatious way which I knew he would take as a joke (although if he wanted to take me up on the offer I was single enough to let him).

“Now there’s an offer I can’t refuse. What flavour is it?”

“Strawberry.” I answered.

“Ah, I’m more partial to the Banana... What are we celebrating anyway?” He said as Jill presented him with a lollipop which he promptly unwrapped and put in his mouth. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a forty something fairly burly guy eating a lollipop ten you probably wouldn’t understand what a comical sight it is. I can now say... I do.

“My first full week at work.” I declared happily. He looked down at my desk where there were several pieces of parchment covered in elaborate doodles and raised an eyebrow.

“Work?” He question.

“Well, okay. My first full week of being here.”

“You’re far too happy about it.” Jill said where she had her teeth gritted as she tried to do something complicated with Tyler’s layout.  “I fricking hate my job. Arghh.”

“It’s for Tyler.” I mouthed to George.

“I figured.” He answered.

“Well then, I’m very busy. Please leave.” I said picking up my pen and beginning to draw yet another doodle.

“You should go ask Cherry for something to do; you’ll get fat sat on your arse all day.” Jill said and I turned to her with my mouth open.

“You did not just call me fat?”

“She said you’d get fat.” George corrected me.

“I’ll have you know that my arm muscles are huge due to all this doodling.” I said impressively. George raised his eyebrow again before glancing at his watch.

“Must be off ladies, nice taking. Thanks for the lolly.” He said to Jill who became very flustered and began writing quite violently. If she wasn’t living with her therapist then I’d reckon she had a bit of a soft spot for him...

“Well. I’m going to go and get something to do.” I told Jill standing up and walking the distance to Cherry’s office. Twice now I’d walked into her office and found her and Dave wrapped in some tight embrace which generally made the situation very awkward. I have nothing against PDA (especially not in your own personal office), in fact I’m a bit of a fan myself, but I really don’t want to see my cousin and my former hater snogging. It’s... strange.

I rapped on the door twice with my knuckles and leant against the door waiting for her response. I found it easier to think of Cherry as a completely different person who was not at all connected to the girl who resulted in my second period of temporary baldness (very temporary considering the nurse woman fixed it within ten minutes, but it was enough for Potter to get a picture which was later blown up and stuck on top of the Fat Lady. Fortunately for me she didn’t appreciate having a picture of me stuck over her face and refused to open if Potter was on his own for the next year until they called in McGonagall had words) and the continuation of my eternal embarrassment.

She looked different and it was only occasion that I remembered that she’d once tried to put a doxy in my bra. It was a good job I hadn’t been wearing one – until she’d decided to rip my shirt apart instead so I was stood in the great hall topless. It wasn’t my fault that someone else (probably Sarah – my supposed ‘best’ friend) had vanished my underwear the previous day. The point was...  I still found the whole thing weird and couldn’t really accept her as a friend. She was too nice now -something which I never thought I’d say.

“Come in.” A voice sobbed and I pushed open the door warily. Cherry (what a bloody ridiculous name anyway. Although, she said her mother was an alcoholic. She was probably named after liquor or something) was leant over her desk and was in floods of tears.

Oh.

I’m not sure if I’ve made this clear yet but I am generally not really a people person and have an amazing ability to make so much of an arse of myself that people steer clear at almost all costs. This means that people really don’t come to me with their problems which then leads to the fact that I’ve never ever comforted someone when crying (except one really weird boyfriend/fling who turned out to be gay anyway) so I really didn’t have a clue what to do...

“Do you want me to get Dave?” I suggested and she shook her head and tried to stop herself from sobbing. She wiped her face of tears before promptly crying some more out again. “I can go?” I suggested awkwardly. She shook her head again and took a deep steadying breath.  She wiped away her tears again, blinked a couple of times and looked up at me with her normal gracious smile. That was...weird.

It also made me slightly scared. She could have been crying for hours and just wiped her face and BAM she’d be right as reign again. As someone who never cries (embarrassment toughens you up) I’ve never really stressed about how hideous I look crying but even I was jealous of her amazing ability to look perfectly happy again right away.

“Hi.” She said. Her voice was slightly breathless but other than that it sounded the same as normal. “I was just writing up this article,” She said, “I can’t really get the hang of this....”

“What’s up?” I asked awkwardly as I walked towards my normal seat in front her desk.

“Nothing, nothing.” She said shaking her head and ruffling through some papers. She took another deep breath before writing something else out. A single tear escaped and ran down her face before she could hide it from me.

“Right, I’m getting you a strong coffee and then we’re talking.” I told her. She smiled gratefully at me and I smiled back (awkwardly) and went to take a trip to the coffee machine. Due to some stupid law that I’ve never remembered we can’t make food appear out of nowhere and apparently this also applies to coffee... so we have a coffee machine – muggle style.

Of course the one time where I actually need to be doing something useful (as in helping a crying pregnant woman – I should get a raise) there is a queue. Admittedly the queue consists of a whole one person but it exists all the same so I sigh noisily and start tapping my foot on the floor behind him in that annoyingly frustrating way which makes you want to turn round and punch the person behind you in the face or staple things on to their forehead.

“Sorry, is there something you wanted?” He asked turning round to face me with annoyance etched across his gorgeous features.

He was seriously gorgeous – blonde, tall, muscleled... I’m a sucker for a blonde (James Potter was the exception to this rule) and he was full on sandy locks blue eyes and some nice masculine stubble. Phwoah.

“No.” I answered quickly suddenly feeling quite rude (only because his looks were so angelic, nothing else could make me doubt my mannerisms. I’m too set in my ways). “Actually, yes. Are you single?”

“Yes.”

“Are you gay?”

“No.”

“I’m Grace.” I said holding out my hand for him to shake with what I hoped was a flirtatious smile.

“Scott.” He answered in the same irritated tone as before. Apparently he didn’t like impatient people...

“Sorry, I’m just in a hurry. Cherry’s got a craving for Coffee and I promised I’d get her one. She’s all hormonal and crying all over the place. I didn’t want to leave her alone for too long when she’s like this.” His expression softened – bingo.

“What type of coffee?” He asked.

“White with sugar.” I answered smiling as sweetly as possible.

“Have mine.” He said handing it over. “Did you want one too?” He asked and I nodded.

“Thanks, that’s really nice.”

“It’s Scott Hall by the way.” He told me as he handed the second cup of coffee over.

“Whitehall – pretty similar huh?” I asked before turning away with coffee on hand and walking back to Cherry’s office. I thought about turning back around with a quick hair flick but decided with my amazing talent to embarrass myself and the two hot coffees’s that it was best to just to strut a little more. Bad choice. I tripped slightly and the coffee spilt a little over my nice (new) white shirt. I cursed in annoyance and saw the George was laughing at me. I stuck out my tongue before pushing open the door of Cherry’s office and preparing myself from impending doom.

Really. Me and crying girls? Not a good plan.

“Right. Talk.” I said presenting her with an almost completely full coffee.

“Don’t you just hate yourself sometimes?” Cherry asked. I took a sip of coffee and thought about this for a second.

“I tend not to think deeply enough to care.” I answered truthfully. “I hate my life, sure, but myself? Meh.”

“What’s wrong with your life?” She asked and I shrugged and took another sip of my coffee. Scott Hall (yum) really can’t make coffee to save his life. There’s half a ton of milk in here and absolutely no flavour at all. I like coffee so strong that it could keep you awake for a week. This tastes like diluted shit – If, by some chance, I ended up marrying Scot Hall (not that I’m imagining our weddings/children) I’d have to give me proper coffee-making lessons... “But... at Hogwarts? I was so mean!” She wailed. I nodded – it was a perfectly fair comment.

“You’ve changed, it doesn’t matter.”

“But... I turned your shampoo into ginger hair dye!” She wailed, clutching her sickeningly perfect manicured nails up to her face as a way of convey her distress.

“That was you!” I exclaimed thinking back to that eventful time. “And that would why be it kept turning back...” I said slowly. “Everyone thought I was trying to be a Weasley to fit in with their crew so I could sleep with Potter.” Cherry was biting her lip and I could see she was trying not to find it funny. Good. Laughing was good. “Then someone charmed my face orange to match. I’ve never heard so many ginger jokes before – honestly.  I had freaking Lily Potter yelling ginger jokes at me when she was stood there with her bright red hair.”

“Okay, it was pretty funny.” Cherry admitted.

“Weren’t you dating him at that point?”

“No, that was the year before.” Cherry said downing the rest of her coffee (I wondered how she could drink it? I was going to donate mine to the plastic plant. “Anyway, enough on James Potter. What was it that you wanted?” She asked and I looked at her in surprise. Had that two minute conversation really cheered her up? “It’s just pregnancy – it screws you up.” She assured me at the sight of my expression.

“Oh, okay. Well I wanted something to do.”

“I’ll hold you to that.” A voice said from the doorway and Dave appeared bringing with him a tray of iced doughnuts. I had a feeling he’d been in her office whilst I was talking to Scott Hall (Yum) at the coffee machine but I wasn’t about to make any comment when there were a million things either of them could bring up to embarrass me out of my mind.

“It’s Monday.” Cherry said. “I haven’t got much to do myself as I haven’t even been told who I’m interviewing yet. I’ll let you know though.”

“If I find anything I’ll be sure to tell you.” Dave said sitting on the edge of Cherry’s dress and looking up at me.  “Just because you got this job as a favour does not mean that you’re getting paid for nothing.”

“A favour for you too – you’re fiancé’s assistant...” I said as I shut the door behind me and walked back to my desk. I’d left my coffee on her desk. I’d let Cherry drink it. I was generous like that.

“I’m going into Diagon Alley for lunch.” Jill said the moment I sat down. “I’m going to meet with my ex-husband to talk about custody arrangements. We do it every Monday.” She informed me and I nodded as if this made any sense to me at all (and like I really cared).

“You know I’ve now been working here for seven and a half days... cause for celebration. No?”

She pulled open her draw and passed me one of her lollipops. I smiled in satisfaction and leant back on my desk... only five minutes till lunch time.

*******

“I’ve got Banana flavoured this time.” I said walking over to George and trying to do the raise-an-eyebrow thing like he did. I read too many magazines but the old ‘mirror the other person’ trick works like a treat. George was there, fairly attractive, and seemed easy enough to flirt with so why not try out all my normal tricks? Since getting to England they’d been vastly neglected and would probably be forgotten soon. I was preserving the art.

“She gave you another?” George asked and I nodded.

“Now she’s gone into Diagon Alley to me the ex-hubbie, so...”

“So?”

“Would you please eat lunch with me so that I’m not completely alone?” He shrugged and sat down at Jill’s empty desk. The place doesn’t have a canteen and instead everyone just eats where they work. I pulled my lunch out my bag and stretched my legs out. Partly because I wanted to stretch them and partly because I have nice legs and I shaved this morning.

“I saw your display at the coffee machine.” George said conversationally.

“Enjoy it?” I asked.

“Very impressive.”

“It gets better.” I assured him with another slight, subtle (or not), raise of the eyebrow.  His own mirrored my action and I smiled in satisfaction. I can still flirt. Yay!

“So do you flirt shamelessly with everyone...?” He asked bluntly.

“Just the ones I take a fancy to.” I retorted before taking a bite out of my sandwich which was sure to be attractive. Still, my stomach calls. Loudly sometimes too.

“Taken a fancy to me then have you?” He asked his eyes sparkling cheekily.

“What can I say? You’re a good looking bloke.”

“I’m not looking for a relationship.”

“Who said I was?” 

“Your body language?” He suggested looking at my legs very deliberately. I liked this George guy. Even if he was like... forty... he was fun. I smiled and tucked one leg under the other and leaned forwards.

“Are you opposed to sex too? Or just relationships?”He laughed and I let my face break out into a proper smile. I resumed my normal stance and continued eating my lunch. He could think what he wanted, I didn’t mind.

“You’re good.” He said taking a bit of his own sandwich. “And a lot more interesting than some of the lot here.” He continued and I shrugged as if to say ‘what can I do?’ and glanced around the room in search for Scott Hall (yum). “How come you ended up here?”

“Desperate.” I shrugged.

“In what way?”

“Any way you want me to be.” I said which made him grin his lopsided grin at me and shake his head. I was about to say something even more funny and brilliant when Cherry suddenly appeared behind me.

“You said you wanted something to do?” She asked. “Can you go to Diagon Alley and get me some anti-sickness potion. I keep vomiting.”

“I’ll catch you later.” I said to George before heading to the fireplace to floo away.

**************

I decided, given it was technically my lunch break; I could take a ten minute break to have a fag before returning back to work. I was sure they had some sort of anti-smoking policy but I hadn’t found it out yet and had instead been sneaking outside instead of going to the toilet to have a fag. Jill must think I have a very weak bladder, or maybe she’s worked out what I’m doing (as I tend to come back surrounded in a cloud of smoke) but she hasn’t mentioned anything which I’m assuming is that polite universal courtesy that I seem to be missing.

I leant against the wall of some Quidditch shop (which just happened to be the one I’d chosen to lean against) and watched as people hurried across the street with bags full of shopping. I hadn’t been wizard shopping for absolutely ages and usually just brought muggle ready meals from the super market because it was easier than finding my wand and bothering to do it that way. When my parents called me up on this I always told them that I thought it was important to understand and respect how muggles live, which is the only way we can create harmonious relationships with them – and considering they lived through the war they could due to show some respect.

“Well if it isn’t Grace Whitehall.” A voice sneered (although it was actually quite a nice voice and he wasn’t really sneering, but that’s how it sounded in my head because I hated him with every single fibre in my currently vastly oversized body). My heart literally stopped in my chest and I turned around slowly to find, oh yes, James sodding Potter. 

Number one on the avoid at all costs list. Number two on the who has the most dirt on me list. The last person on the ‘who I’d like to see list’ and this scene was number three on the most recurring nightmare.

Basically, I’d just walked into hell.

“Is this a coincidence or have you taken to stalking me again?” He asked and I realised he must have just come out of the Quidditch shop and mentally reprimanded myself for being so sodding stupid (really, a public Wizarding place connected with Quidditch? Stupid). I shouldn’t have come within a mile of the place, I should have known that he’d be here, talking to me, mocking me, making me feel like a stupid teenager with a shed load of issues carried on my back.

“Coincidence.” I assured him before pushing off from the wall and continuing to walk down the street (as quickly as possible in the hope that he’d just dissolve into thin air, or that someone would accidently apparate on his head causing extreme amnesia so he’d forget who he, and more importantly I, was).

“Ah, always knew I’d see you standing on a street corner at some point in your life.”

“Funny.” I commented back but inside all my organs were in turmoil wondering quite how I was supposed to react. Really, I hadn’t planned on ever meeting him again. Ever.

“What’s in the bag?” He asked pulling it out of my hands effortless and pulling out the potion. “The only way to prevent morning sickness,” He read out. “Growing a sprog are you?” He asked turning his attention to my stomach. I breathed in as much as I could.

“No. It’s for my... boss.” I said folding my arms over my chest.

“Where are you working then?”

“The Daily Prophet.” I answered. “Now leave me alone before I get a restraining order.”  He stopped bothering to keep up with me and to my horror my body betrayed me and I stopped walking too.

My face flushed for a second as I tried to think of an explainable reason as to why I stopped walking too. Maybe it was just an automatic habit of mine that I hadn’t lost in the past nine years.

“Still pinning after me?” He asked smirking at me. He looked me up and down slowly. “I’m still not sure you’re my type, Whitehall.”

“Shut up Potter.” I snapped.

“I like the skinnier ones, are you sure you’re not reproducing?” 

“Shut up.” I repeated breathing in as much as I physically could this time. As if he just called me fat? Age has definitely turned him into even more of a prick – as if that was possible. God.

“Why don’t you just leave?” He suggested smirking at me in exactly the same way as he used to in the Hogwarts years. Very sad and pathetic thing? It still filled my stomach with that nervous excitement that it used to do. I swallowed it down and instead concentrated on my that acidic bitter feeling I’d managed to preserve.

“You have my potion.” I said. He handed it back to me. I put it back into my bag and turned away.

“Oh and Whitehall?” Potter asked and I turned around without meaning to. “Nice arse.” I gave him the finger and stepped backwards... tripping over my feet and falling on top of my ‘nice’ arse. Oh. My. God.

Potter sent one last smirk in my direction before walking past and leaving me sat on the floor.

I was burning with embarrassment - I’d forgotten how it felt – and struggled to stand myself up again. My face was literally on fire and I wanted to tear my own hair out, crawl into a ball and die. James Potter. James freaking Potter. Oh, god.

“Here.” A voice said holding out a hand and helping me up. “How about we get a coffee?”

A/N - Happy new year y'all! And yay for the queue being open :D
I would enjoy reviews. I'm just saying ;)



Chapter 4: June 25th II.
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A/N - I don't really like this chapter, which is why it took me quite awhile to update... cause I love Grace and I love this story... and I have quite a bit written, I just couldn't get this chapter to work properly. So do excuse that, and please review - even if you're just going to agree with me and say that chapters not as good as it should be :D

 

I don’t believe in love at first sight. Not at all. I just don’t buy it (even though I claimed to have ‘loved’ Potter the moment I saw him. I was eleven though, so...). Lust at first sight however... That I believe in whole heartedly.

I think that whole ‘knight in shining army’ quality definitely helps with lust at first site because the second I looked up at the guy who helped me up to my feet I decided three things: he was very, very hot; he was definitely my type (even though he was the complete opposite of what I would have expected) and he was going to like me ( I should have realised at this point that these were the same danger signals I should have picked up on the last... four times I’d fallen for someone. Mild Obsession. Yay).

“Hi.” I said breathlessly as I looked right into his eyes and actually took them in. I often find that you can talk to someone and look directly at them without really taking anything in about their face but I was seriously taking this in.

He wasn’t exactly young, probably in his late thirties, and had chiselled dark mysterious and handsome thing going on. Then his eyes – hazel – which seemed to brighten up his face slightly and make him seem intense, serious, important and funny all at once... God.

“Coffee?” He suggested and I took a moment to make my head make sense again. I needed to act cool. My normal slightly flirtatious self...

“Only if you’re paying,” I said smiling at him in a way that was definitely more flirtatious than I had intended. This guy could be a complete psycho for all I knew, but bloody hell did I want him.

“Of course.” He said turning back to give me a deep smile which actually seemed to make my soul start jumping about excitedly in my body. It wasn’t my fault I’d been single and abstinent for ages. I’d barely even flirted with anyone...

“It’s good to know chivalry isn’t dead.” I said trying to get my voice to stay steady so that he wouldn’t know the extent I was undressing him in my head (his body was even better than his face, although that might just be my imagination).

“Not whilst I’m still practicing.” He quipped backwards and I felt my heart beat erratically in my chest. I bit my lip (something which I never do) to try and stop myself from saying something stupid by mistake. Instead I decided to take the time to take in everything about this... man-person.

He had a nice arse; it was actually there which was always nice (guys with skinny arses were a big no no if you asked me) it was sufficiently rounded and altogether a good point scorer.

We’d only exchanged about... six lines in this whole conversation yet it was taking all my self control not to grab his expensive looking tie and snog him senseless. I wondered if he was feeling the extreme sexual chemistry or it was just a one sided thing?

I quickened my step slightly and ‘accidently’ brushed up against his arm. He turned to look at me and his eyes were smouldering and definitely undressing me mentally. I smiled slightly and blinked twice.

“Where are we going?”

“Just in here.” He answered not taking his eyes off me for a very long moment.

“What are we having?” I asked wondering what implications he might chose to take from my statement. I don’t care about how it look like or anything right this moment, I want him.

The intensity of the moment completely disappeared for a second and he smiled an amazing bemused smile. “Coffee.”

He was playing my trick! After a few lines of intense flirting and sexual innuendo’s drop the whole thing so it sounds like a joke and you can get away scot free if you so wish. If the other person is interested in persisting then they’ll carry on flirting, so then you know exactly where you stand.

“Anything else?” I asked looking up at him through my lashes (and feeling quite stupid in all honestly, but hopefully it would do the job nicely). The corners of his (gorgeous) lips upturned a little at my comment but he said nothing as he led me inside the coffee shop.

“You sit; I’ll get the coffees.” He instructed and I sat down on a table far away from the window and out of public view. I hoped he’d guess my vague intentions by my table choice but I doubted he’d be that over analytical simply because he was male and probably didn’t care.

I decided to use the time productively and make sure I had enough cleavage showing. Given my excessive weight gain there was a fair bit to show but the shirt wasn’t really doing them any justice. I experimented undoing the top button but you could see a little too much of my bra. I did it up again. I undid it.

I was allowed to be slutty occasionally. It was a special occasion anyway.

I was just about to re-do and swear to win over this nameless bloke by my personality alone when he arrived back and sat down opposite me. His eyes trailed down to my shirt and hovered for a few seconds before he looked back up to my eyes. Good choice Grace, good choice.

“Thanks,” I said smiling at him. “For the coffee and for saving me earlier.” I added. “I really appreciate it.” Who cared if I looked like a right dolt to anyone watching? It was working.

He was half smiling at me as he took his own first sip of coffee. I picked mine up, without taking my eyes off him, and took a sip.

It was boiling. Scalding Hot. A rather attractive expression which was a mixture of pain, shock, and trying to prevent myself from spitting the coffee back into the cup, flittered across my face for a few seconds before I managed to swallow the burning liquid. Then I started chocking.

Well, really, this is great. Just the way to win this guy (I still don’t know his name) over. By chocking on him.

“I’m fine!” I spluttered even though my lungs were still protesting from the lack of oxygen and I couldn’t catch my breath. He was glancing at me with an amused expression which I suppose meant that he hadn’t written me off just yet. It could work in my favour? Damsel in distress and all that? Hmm?

He wasn’t helping me though, was he?

 “I’m just going to...” I gestured towards the ladies toilets, stood up, and scarpered. Once behind the safety of the door I managed to gain power over my lungs again and took the time to examine myself in the mirror. Oh dear. The whole undoing-button-on-shirt-to-maximise-cleavage was definitely a mistake. I had forgotten about my unfortunate tan lines (which hadn’t quite gone after five months in England) and my fluorescent white boobs. I quickly did the button up again and silently cursed myself for being such an eternal embarrassment... I’d ruined my chances and at some point I was going to have to walk back out there and face him.

He wasn’t that good looking anyway. No, Really.

Still, if you ignored the whole chocking-coffee incident and the whole tan-lines incident it hadn’t gone too badly. Thankfully this morning I had gone for the attractive office worker look complete with highly impractical heels and a high waisted skirt. I titled my head and examined my reflection.

It wasn’t bad.  Being in England too long had made my tan, which had been permanent for at least nine years, fade more than I would have liked but I was still a nice brown colour compared to everyone else. My dark hair had been cut quite well a couple of months ago and, although it had mostly grown out, you could still tell it had a shape. It was quite short (to save me money on shampoo) and framed my face quite nicely. Now I had a job I’d grow it out again, though.  Then my lips were tinted in my usual lipstick (every girl should have a base lipstick that they wear on all occasions) and my dark eyes were framed by my subtle/mature/twenty-eight-year-old-appropriate make-up. It could have been a little more exciting, but it was good enough.

Just then the door was pushed open and I hastily made about washing my hands so I didn’t look vein to whatever bint had just walked in.

“Are you okay?” A very masculine voice asked. I whirled around and saw my coffee-companion standing in the doorway of the girl’s toilets with a worried expression on his face. “Sorry about before, I should have tried to help you...”

“No, no it’s fine.” I assured him turning around quickly. I rested my palms on the back of the counter and smiled at him, as if he hadn’t just caught me looking at myself... Still, it was sweet of him to come looking for me. Very nice actually. Mmm... “I have a tendency to do very stupid things.”

“Really?” He asked raising a perfect brown eyebrow. I was internally swooning but somehow managed to prevent myself from collapsing into a ball on the floor. “See,” He took a step forward so that he was standing in touching distance away from me, “I’m more...” Another step. “The reckless type.” Then he kissed me.

I was good. So, so good. Don’t ask me how but I’d somehow managed to get this god-of-a-man to want to kiss me. I was the queen of seduction. I was brilliant. I was absolutely fecking brilliant.

At first the only parts of our bodies that were touching were the lips. He had one hand leaning on the bathroom counter behind me and then he placed his other on my hip and pulled me towards him a little more. My eyelids fluttered close and I marvelled in how truly brilliant I was.

On the other hand, it hardly counted as seduction. What normal, self respecting guy wouldn’t go for a girl who’d clearly demonstrated how easy she was? So he was probably just using me. Not that I cared. He could use me all he liked.

“Now,” He said drawing back away from me and looking at me with a bold smile which made my knees go weak. “You should get back to the office.” He said taking a step back and leaning against the wall of the bathroom.

“But -” I stammered unable to speak properly after that fine performance.

“I’ll see you around.” He said before pushing off from the wall and sauntering out, as if he had no issues with hanging around in the girl’s bathroom.

I was gob smacked and utterly confused. What kind of man was he? Apart from devilishly sexy.

I left after making sure I looked normal but given the kiss had lasted what... two minutes tops? I’d managed to escape without my hair being tousled and shirt untucked ect...  What sort of a man goes looking for a girl in the bathrooms, before leaving after a minute-long-snog? I shook my head.

I’ll see you around, my arse you will, he didn’t even know my name! I’d give him I’ll see you around.

Was I that bad of a kisser? Maybe I should have tried the infamous lip-biting thing?

I shook my head, I did need to get back to the office. I was already... feck. Thirty minutes later than I should be. I hurried out the bathroom, receiving a dirty look from an old lady who’d probably seen the guy (I didn’t even know his name, how bad was that?) leave the toilet too, and discovered that the little cafe place was equipped with a fireplace.

Time to floo back, eh.

*********************

“You, are so dead.” Jill said when I rushed in and sat down at my desk. She shook her head at me before returning to her laptop and typing out formats and what-not. “Cherry’s on the warpath. She’s been vomiting everywhere and... You’ll see.” She said nodding over to where Cherry was storming over. For once I could see the resemblance between my cousins fiancé and the girl who’d given James Potter’s girlfriend a love potion so she’d cheat on him (with another girl) thus resulting in their break up and her chance of getting in there. She looked utterly livid, and I was scared for my life.

I tried to make myself look small but she’d all ready caught my eye and I knew I was done for. And... I’d left the anti-vomiting potion in the cafe. Oh hell.

“My office. Now.” Cherry said. I stood up and dutifully followed her. George caught my eye and mouthed ‘good luck’ and Scott Hall (yum) sent me a sympathetic expression. Apparently dealing with a highly angry, highly hormonal Cherry Mandise wasn’t something most people enjoyed. I was, as Jill had so eloquently put, so dead.

I pushed open the door behind her and walked in warily. It reminded me of one of the many times I’d been sent to Professor Longbottom’s office at Hogwarts, except this was scarier, I could always laugh at how red Longbottom got when he was telling me off for indecent exposure and unladylike behaviour. “What is this?” Cherry asked slamming a copy of the Daily, sorry Evening, Prophet down on her desk. Her voice was icy sharp and cutting. I found myself harbouring a lot more respect for the girl now she wasn’t doing the nicey-nice reformed Cherry. Reform was something I generally avoided; I favoured the running away from it till people forget option.

I bit back my response of ‘It’s a newspaper’ and instead looked at the page she had it open to. Oh shit.

There, in the centre of the page, was a giant picture of James Potter pulling a bottle of morning sickness potion out of my hands with a humungous caption reading “James Potter – soon to be dad?” They’d also, kindly, drawn a big circle around my other hand which was holding my cigarette and pointed an arrow at stomach with the words ‘is this the mother of the chosen one’s grandchildren?’ 

“It’s not what it looks like!” I exclaimed pulling the paper out of her hands and looking at my stomach. Did I honestly look pregnant? I didn’t think my weight gain was that bad! Sure I was a bit rounder round the edges and a little over-curvy but there was no way I could pass for pregnant. Look at Cherry – she was bleeding huge!

“I know it’s not what it looks like.” Cherry snapped sitting down at her office desk and glaring at me with her sharp blue eyes. She nodded at the seat and I sat down gingerly, as if any second it would explode and I’d be turned into a mouldy lemon. “Obviously that is my potion. Speaking of which, do you have it?”

“I... erm... well.”I began before attempting to shrug casually. She let out a very loud breath in a way that made her sound like a dragon puffing out smoke. Cherry Mandise – pregnant dragon lady. It sounded quite good if you asked me.

“It hasn’t been published yet, but it will be by the evening addition of the Prophet.” She informed it, probably hoping that it would make me angry/upset but I’d worked it out already. I nodded in response.

She fumed in silence for a few more seconds and I debated how long it would take her to start breathing fire. Then she recovered the use of her tongue and reverted to a more businesslike harsh tone which was even worse. “Well then, it appears that you cannot be trusted with the simplest tasks and therefore -”

“Wait! None of this was my fault! It’s not my fault James Potter is a -”

“This picture was taken twenty minutes after you left.” She cut across me. “You should have returned in fifteen minutes; however you apparently stopped for a cigarette break, a little chit chat, and then didn’t return to the office for another thirty minutes.”

Okay, yeah, that sounded bad.

“You don’t understand!” I protested but she made a movement across her lips which signalled me to zip it. I zipped it.

“Obviously we...” She trailed off when someone walked straight into her office with such an air of arrogance and authority that it shut her up completely. I looked up to send a grateful smile to my saviour when my stomach dropped dramatically – it was made-out-with-me-in-the-girls-toilet’s guy.

“What on earth is going on?” He asked walking over to the filing cabinet on the other side of her office and pulling a yellow folder out of it. “For goodness sake, Cherry, if you can’t keep your hormones in check you shouldn’t be here. I can hardly work because of your insolent droning polluting my eardrums.”

“I’m disciplining my assistant.” Cherry said with her teeth gritted. Apparently it was taking her a great deal of self control to keep her mouth shut around whomever made-out-with-me-in-the-girls-toilet’s-guy was.

“Oh yes.” He said with an eye roll. “As I told Dave, if he really thinks that you’re struggling enough to have an assistant then you should be on maternity leave. You shouldn’t be too hard to replace, really.” He continued walking over to Cherry’s desk and glancing at the newspaper. “Ah.” He said glancing down the article.

“My assistant arrived thirty five minutes late from an errand she was running for me and I am taking the matter in my own hands. With all due respect, you are really not needed here.”

“Well, Cherry, if you’re incapable of controlling your assistants then I hardly see how you possess the natural authority to continue with disciplinary action. In any case, this simply looks like a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, if you ask me.” He said glancing over the article. Cherry stood up, scowling, and walked over to her filling cabinet which the guy had left open. Made-out-with-me-in-the-girls-toilet’s-guy sent me a wink as Cherry forcibly slammed the filling cabinet shut.

“Was this errand a professional need? Or was it for your personal needs?”

Cherry didn’t look at him and her hands were shaking with rage.

“Grace needed something to do, she was only too happy to get me the Potion.”

“Really? It seems to me you’ve realised that you do not actually acquire an assistant other than to help you in your sensitive state. This ends now. I’m taking... Grace under my wing and ensure that she is given proper training and proper work to do. I am not going to allow your incapability’s to drain my profits. Good day.” He finished before walking out with the yellow file clutched in his hand.

“That,” Cherry said fighting back tears of rage, “Was the boss.”

Well shit.

A/N - Reviews, reviews, reviews? :D
 


Chapter 5: June 26th.
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A/N - Hello there :) I like this chapter much more than the last one... hopefully I'll get back on track at updating this story very soon. Please review!

 

I never classed myself as I respectable woman, or anything of the sort, and was probably more likely to describe my life as one ongoing monumental fuck-up rather than an anything resembling success but I was feeling entirely more unsuccessful that normal when I woke up the morning after.

The morning after what, you may be thinking, and to be honest that question is at the foremost of my mind too because, now I come to think of it, yesterday is just one great big confusion.

After the disaster which led to me appearing in the evening prophet (and probably this edition of the daily prophet too) with James Potter and morning sickness potion, there was the disaster with the-guy-who-made-out-with-me-in-the-toilets who turned out to be my boss.  Then Cherry had yelled at me for about an hour (given the boss had put her in a very bad mood) which naturally the whole office of had heard. Then after what was possibly the crappiest day ever, the boss had called me into his office and... invited me out for a drink.

What did I say? Yes.

Of course I said yes and that set the calibre for the rest of the evening: yes, I would like a drink; yes, I would like another; yes, I would like to kiss you; yes, you can come back to my apartment; yes, feel free to take off all my clothes...

Then, when I was lying in bed this morning I realised that I’d only been in my job for a week, but I’d already managed to sleep with the boss and screw up astronomically at the only thing I’d been asked to do the whole week – get some morning sickness potion.

I screwed up my eyes as the worst of the hangover began hitting me. Really, I thought, I should grow some self-respect and start acting properly. I’d hazard a guess that most people went through a crazy couple of years where they accepted any offer for drinks which usually led to a drunken fumble in a strangers flat; years where they spent every day with a hangover, and every night drunk; years where nothing was stable and there was an interchangeable array of jobs, partners, and which pub you were going to go to next, but I’d also guess that most people had sorted themselves out before they hit their mid-twenties.

I’d probably started being crazy prematurely too – by deciding that I was going to end up being married to James Potter and having his babies no matter what. That was similar to my decision yesterday when I saw him, my boss, and decided that I was going to have him. And I did.

Now what?

During Hogwarts I had not dated a single person. I had a reputation as being a completely obsessed bordering on psychopathic nut case who would send you one of her bras in a frame after the second date, or be convince that your admission of ‘I like you’ was a wedding proposal so people stayed clear, well clear. There had been a few drunken incidents, even there, where I had ended up making out with someone behind a sofa (including James Potter, actually) which had become the type of story that everyone would laugh about when their hangovers had cleared – oh God! You know who I got off with last night.... Grace Whitehall... I know! How drunk I must have been! 

That meant, at the age of 18, no one had ever kissed me whilst sober. So the second I’d gotten abroad I went a little crazy and flittered from one guy to the next. I lost my virginity in the first week of France to a guy who couldn’t even speak English, and over the years it was hard to count how many similar incidents had occurred. It wasn’t exactly my fault, I’d never had a real relationship so couldn’t really tell you what one entailed, and instead I just had one night strands, friends with benefits or just weird situations that – as far as I knew – where too complicated for names. Dates meant nights clubbing. A relationship meant a person you regularly had sex with. Serious meant going to the cinema, or shopping, or for coffee... usually the things that people did first.

Even after nine-and-a-half-years I hadn’t quite got the hang of relationships and they usually ended in embarrassing incidents that the other person couldn’t quite forget, being cheated on, being discovered cheating (usually the result of too much beer), me thinking things were more serious than they were, or me thinking that things weren’t serious and deciding to move on elsewhere.

The longest relationship I’d had was with a very strange German who was convinced we were soul mates. I was flattered, but thought he was joking, and hadn’t been aware that the relationship had been a serious one until he’d proposed to me. I’d been sleeping with his best friend. I left Germany very quickly, and I never came back.  That ‘relationship’ had lasted the entirety of two months.

Still... my boss. It wasn’t like I hadn’t slept with a boss before, believe me I had, it’s just that this job was one I liked, one that could have had potential. It was unlucky too, because I hadn’t known he was my boss when I’d sunk my teeth in and sold myself to the idea of him. Plus, from what I’d seen about the way he treated Cherry he was a complete arsehole.

I pulled my weary body out of my bed and glanced at the clock – it was seven. I had two hours before the beginning of my nine till five shift of doing sod all, and I was really not in the mood. I’d have to sit there with the memory of Cherry’s voice filling my eardrums with insults and the knowledge that, just behind that black office door, was a man who had spent last night running his hands over my body and kissing me fiercely.

Never dip your quill in the office ink, my mum always used to say whilst tutting over tales of young girls who’s slept with their bosses who turned out to be married and had ended up falling in love with them and having a complete breakdown. She’d shake her head, turn to me and say, “Grace, never dip your quill in the office ink – it only leads to trouble,” and I’d nod as if I really cared about what she had to say.

Right now, as the morning light shone through the tiny bedroom window made my eyes burn and my head spin, I wished for a minute I’d listened to her warnings and advice.

I was sure that somewhere there was, admittedly a rather expensive, hangover potion which would cure my headache and uneasy stomach in an instant. Even if I had the money I saw hangovers as the price you had to pay – a sort of punishment for whatever happened the night before. It eased my guilt if I thought I was being properly punished.

The normal I-don’t-give-a-toss-Grace wasn’t present on mornings like these –the morning’s after which made you question yourself, re-evaluate your priorities and realise that you’ve got everything wrong. I groaned and put my head in my hands, willing myself not to cry. I never cried, never.

I usually never sunk to hating myself either, but it was hard not to when I knew the crappy hollow way I was feeling was entirely my fault.

I stumbled out of my bedroom and contemplated the fact that I might actually be still drunk, and tripped up over the piles of washing and crap that was lining the floor. I dragged my body into the bathroom, turned the shower onto cold, and forced myself to stand under the freezing water (which hurt like hell) until I felt much more awake.

I wrapped myself in one of my cheep towels when I stepped out twenty minutes later. I walked into the kitchen, feeling a bit brighter, and got myself a glass of water from the tap. I drank it quickly and looked around my apartment before averting my eyes from the mess. I decided instead to find myself some bread – which is always the think to eat after nights of extreme binge drinking – and found to my surprise a loaf under a pile of my clean thongs. 

Unfortunately, it was covered in a vicious looking green mould. I grimaced and decided that I was going out for breakfast – to hell with the cost.

 

 

I found myself, half an hour later, in a type of bar which I’d never heard of before (which is an unusual and a rather startling occurrence) – a breakfast bar. It was right in the centre of Diagon Alley which meant, almost definitely, that it was going to completely cripple my bank account just by ordering toast and tea. If I was going to go down, I was going to go down properly, and so brought myself a Danish pastry and a large mug of coffee.

I had chosen Diagon Alley because I had decided to get Cherry another bottle of the morning sickness potion as a pathetic attempt at an apology. Now, I was regretting the whole thing because I could hardly enjoy this wonderfully exquisite and divine Danish pastry when I knew that it would mean asking for even more of a loan off my parents.

Then I tried the coffee, and all thoughts of price were forgotten. Heaven. Heaven.

I was blissful for a few minutes with the remains of my hangover pushing off my guilt and all other undesirable thoughts stayed away. I just sat, looking out over the street, and sipping my coffee with a small – and probably vacant – smile on my face.

“Grace,” A voice said and a newspaper was slapped down onto the table in front of me. At the other end of the newspaper, and with it an arm, a body – oh what a body – and of course an over large, arrogant, pompous and very ugly (okay, not really) head.

“Potter.” I said grimly. I was about to ask him what the hell he was doing, when he sat down opposite me and smiled. My grip tightened against the coffee cup and I seriously debated walking out of the breakfast bar and saying to hell with breakfast.

“Now, don’t be like that. I’m only trying to be friendly.”

“Overly friendly.” I muttered taking another sip of the glorious coffee.

“Did you learnt that phrase in the court case?” He asked, smirking. “About the restraining order?”

“Funny.”

“Hmm.” James said looking me up and down with a curious expression on his face. “You’re a lot browner than I remember – it suits you.”

“Thank you.” I said curtly.

“Sexier, too.” He ran his finger round the rim of his coffee cup and raised a challenging eyebrow at me. I drank my coffee silently. “Aren’t you going to say, you’re more muscular James? More handsome? More bloody gorgeous.”

“Please don’t talk so damn loud.” I grimaced.

“Hungover?” He asked with a wicked grin.

“No.”

“Sure.” He said relaxing back in his seat. “You could at least try to be polite, Gracie – I haven’t seen you for nearly ten years. It’s been much too long.”

“You think so?” I asked glaring darkly at a point just over his shoulder – I would not look at him. I would not compromise what’s left of my dignity so.

“Oh yes, I’ve always wanted to see a lot more of you, Miss Whitehall.”

“I think you might have seen enough.” I retorted.

“You mean the time when you flashed me?” He asked, smirking his damn head off. I met his gaze and glared at him with all the strength I could. “Ooo, feisty.”

“Oh, shut up.” I said clutching my head and rubbing the spot where it ached. “Why are you even here?”

“I just saw you sitting here, all morose and I thought, I bet she could do with cheering up!” He said quite loudly which I had a feeling might have been on purpose. It was also falsely bright and altogether not the voice you want to hear when you’re ever so slightly hungover.

“I didn’t.”

“And I wanted to see what you thought about this article.” James said picking up the paper and beginning to read. “Sport legend and son of the chosen one – James Sirius Potter – was seen in the centre of Diagon Alley with a curvy brunette who -”

“Please.” I protested.

“Who has been identified as his former classmate, Grace Whitehall.”

“Oh God.”

“One of his friends has stated that Grace Whitehall always claimed to be in love with James Potter and described her as ‘scarily desperate’ during their Hogwarts years.” He stopped reading abruptly.

“Is that it?” I asked.

“Yes.” He answered shutting the paper carefully. I pulled it out of his hands, raising an eyebrow at him, and opened it up to find the rest of the article.

“Is it possible that James Potter, who is well known for working his way through the members of his fan club, has picked up yet another person who has a borderline obsession for him? Wizarding psychologist – Marin Grey – has stated that some people find the need to be in a relationship with someone who hero-worships them and idolises their actions. Doctor Grey states that these are not real relationships but are instead ways in which James Potter can fuel his self confidence. Does this statement imply that behind his arrogant facade, James Potter is just a scared little boy? Is it possible that with such large shoes to fill, James Potter is cracking under the pressure of making his name known? Will this psychotic need to be loved finally break the strength of his following? Or will this open a new, sensitive side, to James Potter’s persona?”

There was a few seconds of silence before I chucked the paper back onto the table and raised my eyebrows at him. “That’s possibly the worst written article I’ve ever read. I’m all for using literary techniques, but how many rhetorical questions did they want to use?”

“It goes on to talk about how you’re pregnant and an unfit mother on the next page.” He informed me.

“How did they work that out?” I asked picking up my coffee and finishing it.

“You were smoking.”

“So I was.” I said. “Speaking of smoking...” I glanced around for a non-smoking sign and didn’t see one. “You don’t mind do you?” I asked and he shrugged as I lit up.

“When did you start smoking then?” he asked, curiously. Comparing his behaviour to how he normally acted he was being practically saintly, and it was strange.

“Urgh... seven years ago?” I answered before adding “Bloody hell.” When I realised how old I was. “I should really stop – I’d always figured it was just a sort of phrase.” I said taking another deep inhalation from the cigarette before stubbing it out again on the saucer.

“Classy.” James said and I shrugged and placed the half used fag down on the table. “Look, Grace, I know I’ve been a bit of an idiot in the past -” he began just the second I glanced at my watch and saw the time – five to nine. Oh, hell.

“Bullocks!” I said and James looked at me unexpectedly. “I’m going to be late for work.” I explained standing up and quickly. “If I leave the money here, could you pay for me? It’s just, I really need to go.” I rambled as I pulled out several knuts from my pocket. I swore and shoved my hand into my handbag scraping around the bottom trying desperately to find a couple of galleons...

“Seriously, it’s fine.” James said warily. “I’ll just pay for it.”

“Are you sure? Really? Thanks – I could kiss you.” I said before turning and dashing towards the fireplace. I threw the floo powder into the fire and was already starting to spin when I heard James say “Any time, Grace, you’ll just owe me till next time.”

Great, I though as I span through the fireplaces dizzily, I owe James Potter.

 

 

The bizarreness of the whole thing was settling on me more as I sat at my desk and waited for something to do.  James Potter, the James Potter, had seen me eating breakfast and had joined me – more than that... Unless I was very much mistaken, which had happened a few times I’m afraid to say, James Potter had flirted with me.

I supposed that it was a reflex reaction for someone like James Potter – flirt like an idiot. He probably had several girlfriends. The article had said that he was getting with his fan-girls so he probably just flirted with anyone with breasts, and after this extra weight I’d put on, I definitely had breasts. Or just large rolls of fat around the chest area. Same difference.

Or there was the scenario that he was seeing if I would fall head over heels with him again because it would be a brilliant story to share among all the Weasley-crew that, after ten years, I was still obsessed. Then he could also make a very witty comment about how good I was in bed, or what not, because I’m sure he’s wondered.

I tossed the thoughts out of my mind and began staring at the wood of my desk grimly. My head still hurt; my eyes were disagreeing with the amount of fluorescent light in the room and I felt very sick.

“She didn’t fire you, then.” Jill said turning to glance at me.

“No.” I answered.

“You’re on time, too.”

“Yes.” I agreed wanting more than anything to slump on my desk and sleep. I couldn’t do that though. If I lost this job I’d never find another one. The only reason I’d gotten this one was because Dave felt guilty that his life was so astronomically more successful than mine was, and his fiancé needed an assistant anyway. They only job I could have ever gotten here otherwise was as one of the Snogalicious girls and even then they’d probably turn me down because I was too fat.

“Lollipop to celebrate?” She suggested. My stomach twisted at the thought and I shook my head and let out a very small hopefully inaudible groan. “Hung over?” She asked and I didn’t answer. “Shall I get you some coffee?”

“Yes, please.” I said leaning on my elbows and burying my face in my hands. I muttered a long stream of words under my breath which included swearing off drink, cursing alcohol and some colourful swearwords.

“Grace?” Cherry’s voice said from behind. I was startled by how much nicer she sounded when she wasn’t screaming bloody murder about how I was a failure at my job and shouldn’t have even dreamed about smoking anywhere near her potion in case it left traces and resulted in her baby being born deformed or something. I snapped my head around and looked up at her through my bleary eyes. “My office please. Two minutes”

Oh balls.

I nodded and smiled as if there was nothing I’d rather be doing than getting fired. I deserved it though – I’d probably nearly killed her baby, failed at the one thing she asked me to do, and slept with the boss. All in seven days. Congratulations Grace.

“Drink.” Jill hissed passing me the coffee. “You still look half drunk!” She said by way of explanation. The coffee was scalding but I downed half the cup anyway before taking a breath. Jill pulled out a makeup bag and started messing with my face “You can’t go in like that,” she added. I realised we had quite an audience although no one looked too concerned apart from George and, wonderfully, Scott Hall (swoon). “Finish the coffee.” She added and I knocked the rest of it back which reminded me spectacularly of drinking shots at some point last night... “Okay, you’ll have to do.” She said. “Play nice. Don’t argue, agree with everything she says, and don’t get fired. I’ve become used to the company.”

I nodded, wearily, and pulled the bottle of morning sickness potion out of my handbag. Jill looked impressed. I, however, felt it was inadequate and wish I’d brought her a couple of months supply.

“Good luck!” she said cheerfully, before returning to her computer. Everyone watched me as I walked over to Cherry’s office and I felt like I was walking to the gallows. I knocked and pushed open the door. I peaked around it warily hoping, for once, that Dave would be there so I could bow myself out and splash my face with cold water.

“Hi.” I said. I sounded like I had sandpaper in my throat. I wondered why this was bothering me so much – I’d lost plenty of jobs before and I probably could find another brainless, sitting in an office type Job that I’d almost certainly be over qualified for. Maybe I was just scared of Cherry, what she could say about me...

“Grace,” She said with her voice softer than normal. I wondered if that was her firing people voice.

“I got you -” I began.

“You’re hung over.” She said looking at me appraisingly. She was stood behind her desk and was on it with her fingers splayed.

“No I’m not.” I counted, silently cursing as I remembered Jill’s rules.

“Don’t lie, Grace, I don’t like it.” I kept my mouth shut. “How much do you drink?” She asked with that same appraising expression on her face.

“Too much.” I said, before realising that it wasn’t exactly a quality most people searched for in an employee. She had said she didn’t like people lying, though.

“Do you think, maybe...?” She bit her lip. “That maybe you need help?”

“I – what? No!”

“Grace, I recognise the signs of... alcoholics because of my mother, Grace, and it’s not normal to instantly have a drink if something bad has happened – for example, a bad day at work.”

“Yes it is!” I protested. “That’s a perfectly normal thing to do.”

“How much alcohol would you say you drink every week?”

“A normal amount.” I answered through gritted teeth.

“You know more than 14 units of alcohol a week is classified as binge drinking.”

What had Jill said? Don’t argue with her. Agree with everything she says... Well, sod that.

“Look, just because I drink a lot does not mean I’m an alcoholic. It’s probably not the healthiest thing, but it doesn’t mean I’m an alcoholic. That’s like saying just because I eat carrots a lot, I’m addicted – I’m not, Cherry. In the same way I’m not addicted to sex, or drugs, or potions, or -”

“Okay.” Cherry said, cutting across me. “I’m just wary, that’s all.”

“I suppose you don’t drink at all.” I returned in a grumble. This whole conversation was making me feel awkward. I had long since given up on the idea of self improvement so, other than the morning-afters like these I ignored my faults and just lived as I was. So this conversation, which was bending far too close towards my faults and transforming myself, was far from my comfort zone.

“No, I don’t.” Cherry answered. God, did she have to be so perfect? “But, given you’ve got a history of becoming addicted to things...”

“Who have you been talking to?” I asked sharply, no longer feeling hung over in the slightest. This conversation was definitely delving too far in the past for my comfort. In fact, it was sending a pang of nervousness down my spine and it was all I could do not to spring up and leave immediately. It was only the fear of losing my job that kept me in my seat.

“Dave and I were talking about you last night. I said I felt bad about yelling at you like that, especially after all the things that happened at Hogwarts. Then I told him about some of the things they used to do to you at Hogwarts, and then he started talking about the stuff before Hogwarts and with your sister -”

“Please,” I said, my chest aching painfully at the word. “I don’t want to talk about it.” Even the vague mention of that incident was bad enough to make me want to crawl into my bed and sleep for a couple of days, as long as the nightmares were kept far from my reach. I gripped hold of the skin of my arms and tried very hard to look as if even the mere mention of the word ‘sister’ hadn’t almost resulted in a break down.

“Hmm...” She looked at me for a very long moment. “Okay, but we got talking a lot and then Dave told me about finding you alone in your apartment on your birthday -”

“Excellent.”  At least this was safer territory.

“And how you always had trouble getting close to someone after... Then I asked about your friends and he said that you’d spent so long moving about that you hadn’t really got any. So then we talked about how maybe, because of what happened before, you were having troubles settling down and sorting yourself out. I know that you had therapy at the time but... maybe you should consider going back -”

“No.” I cut across her. “I’m not mad, okay. I don’t need to go to some therapist.”

She looked at me for a very long moment.

“Fine.” There was silence for a few minutes. “Dave and I think that this is a really good opportunity for you, and we want to help you start over as much as possible. We talked about how -”

“How much do you guys talk, seriously?” I cut across. She smiled at me in the way that someone smiles at a four year old who’s just asked how babies are made. I remembered the expression that my mother usually had plastered on her face whenever I asked anything about the world – like I was too damn stupid to understand anything she ever said.

“– how having Cuffe being determined to train you up could actually be a good thing.”

“Cuffe?”

“Maxim Cuffe – the boss. I absolutely loath him because he’s a sexist pig and can’t get over the fact that someone who started on the Snogalicious can actually get somewhere in life or be decent at writing, but there you go. He wants to train you up, and so you will be trained. If I’d suggested that he would have told me to stop wasting his money,” She said before calling him something very crude which made my lips twist up into a smirk. That was the real Cherry.

“Is he any good?”

“Oh yes,” she said darkly. “I’d love to say that he only got the job because his father used to be the editor, but no. He’s good. He’s the reason we even have a sports insert, before that the Prophet went as far as scribbling down the scores in the biggest leagues’ and left the rest to Quidditch Weekly.”

“Right,” I said. “So you’re not going to fire me then?” I asked and she raised an eyebrow in my direction.

“I would have no grounds to fire you.” Cherry said. “I was asking you to run a personal errand in your lunch break. Really, it had nothing to do with work, and I had no right to yell at you. I was just hormonal. I just wanted to talk to you today because... I really wanted to talk to you about what happened to your sister, I really feel like I can help you -”

“Well, as this isn’t strictly business I feel that I can just walk out. So that’s what I’m going to do.” I told her before doing just that.

I did not like talking about my sister. I refused to drag up those memories of my pre-Hogwarts years even more than I chose not to dwell on those Hogwarts years. I do not think about it, and I did not need Cherry freaking Mandise trying to make me do just that. I was angry at her for prying in my business, and angry at Dave for discussing it with her, and angry at the world for not making the whole things just disappear and leave me alone instead of haunting me for the rest of my life.

It was like an annoying fly that kept following me around wherever I went. I couldn’t get rid of it. It couldn’t just sod off and leave me to my life alone.

I slammed the door behind me and stalked across the floor of the office towards the toilets. My heart was beating painfully in my chest, my breath was shallow and an icy wave of unwanted emotions was running through my veins. I thought, for once, I might cry.

So, I didn’t stop at the toilets. I walked straight out. I went home and I barricaded myself in bed for the rest of the day. I ate two tubs of ice cream and a great quantity of out of date chocolate. I had several beers (but not too many to prove to Cherry that I did not need to drink) and I slept for eleven hours. But I did not cry.

A/N - Reviews please :) How are you finding Grace? James? Cherry? :D
 
 


Chapter 6: June 27th.
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A/N - The queue is still so short! Soon enough I'm going to catch up with all my pre-written chapters and actually have to start writing again. Hope you enjoy! Please Review :)

 

I woke up at three in the morning, after going to sleep around four the previous afternoon, and decided that I might as well do something productive. Now my hangover was fully gone again I decided that enough was enough, and I started to clean.

It took me thirty minutes to locate my wand, as I hadn’t used it for a couple of days, but it turned up under a pile of books that I’d gotten from a library in Portugal but had never touched (other than to throw out of my way). I then spent another fifteen minutes finding a book entitled ‘a hundred house hold spells’ which I’d also never opened, but had received for my birthday several years ago from one of my naively hopeful parents.

I hadn’t cleaned the flat since I’d arrived back in England but the mess didn’t bother me. I’d lived in places in various degrees of squalor and clutter since I moved into the dorm when I was eleven. They’d been a bit of a baby boom after peace was restored and thus there had been nine girls in our dormitory which lead to absolute chaos. Two of them left after OWL’s but if you’ve ever tried living with six other eighteen year old girls who are constantly in competition for guys, popularity, friends and general status you’d understand that anything would seem like a nice place to reside after that.

I usually avoided roommates after my Hogwarts experiences which usually meant I ended up in the crappiest place going because it was all I could afford. I’d had a few roommates though when I didn’t have any other choice, including a girl who kept having ‘friends’ up to her room (which were different every time and mysteriously left her a lot richer with every visit), a guy who’d slept with me before kicking me out and an elderly lady who’d died in our bath a week after I moved in. On that last occasion they’d been talking about taking me in for questioning about the suspicious circumstances of her death, but had eventually just decided that she was a very old lady who should probably have been in a care home long ago.

That last one had reminded me so vividly of that other time I’d seen a dead body – only then it had been a young, familiar, bloodied and broken body – and I’d left immediately and drove a couple of hundred miles to get away from the whole thing, even though I had a decent steady job nearby. I just couldn’t deal with that things that reminded me of that, and after that I’d lived completely alone in crappy flats.

What I really wanted, more than I’d care to admit was my own house. I could imagine getting a sweet little cottage with roses above the door and a little sign outside with one of those standard cottage names that all cottages had. They’d be a little red mail box, a cobbled path way, and a blooming garden.  Inside would be full of period features that didn’t quite work properly and little notes which would read ‘you are my saving grace’ with lots of kisses and maybe a heart or two scribbled in the top corner in a very manly way which would be left by my loving and devoted husband.

Although, it startled me to realise, I was the one that needed saving. What had I achieved in my life so far? Nothing. It had all been a twenty-eight year long story which had never really got started. The events were usually quite amusing stories to tell, but when I looked at the whole picture I hadn’t gone anywhere. I was still that eleven year old girl sat in front of a therapist declaring that she was fine and she didn’t need any of this crap. That scared me.

So I kept cleaning. I did all my washing and stuffed my clothes into the tiny closet. I got rid of most of the mouldy food and began organising the stuff that hadn’t yet turned green into the cupboards. I chucked away all the old newspapers. I threw away the dead flowers that were still sitting in the vase.

Around lunchtime I suddenly realised that I should be at work, but cooked myself some noodles straight from a packet instead.  I could go in tomorrow.

I changed my bed sheets after that trying not to pictures the way my boss, Maxim Cuffe, had pushed me against the headboard and kissed me so deliciously. It had felt so good and right at the time, it was unfathomable that it had led to so much shit (well most of it had been down to Cherry daring to mention my sister). Had it only been the night before last? Hell.

After that I tackled the empty bottles of wine and beer. There were more than I expected, but then I hadn’t cleaned the flat out for Merlin knows how many months. I realised grimly that I probably had rats or mice by now. I lined the bottles up on the counter (and it took up all of the room given how titchy the counter was) and then realised that in another couple of hours I’d be done.

I was right. By about half three I realised that I’d successfully tackled all the build up of excess mess and now my flat was tidy. Then I polished, scrubbed and cleaned until every neutral sodding surface gleamed. 

Then I realised why I’d let my flat get into such a tip – it was horrible. There walls were cream but without the warmth, the carpet was grey and coarse, the kitchen counters were white and the wood of the table was cheap beach wood trying to look expensive. It was ugly.

I gritted my teeth in annoyance and realised that I had no photographs or ornaments to put up. I’d spent all my life since Hogwarts living out of a suitcase that I’d never thought to collect such stuff. Now I was stuck in an empty apartment which was so banal that it made me feel slightly nauseas. Before I could reassure myself by saying that it was only temporary, I realised there was nothing temporary about England. England was permanent and I’d probably be living here for the rest of my life with nothing to show for myself.

I picked up one of the empty wine bottles of the counter and threw it at the blank wall opposite. It shattered and fell. It didn’t make me feel better in the slightest.

It struck me as quite ironic that my name was Grace, when clearly I lacked every form of elegance and refinement in existence. It made me consider that if Hope had lived she’d have been a die-hard pessimist who didn’t believe in happy endings. I couldn’t see it, personally, but it was dangerous territory so I stopped thinking about it and instead concentrated on the glass shattered on the floor.

The cheap doorbell rang and I made my way over to the door glad that, for once, I was fully dressed and looked relatively presentable. I was half expecting it to be Mum, Dad or some other family member because I couldn’t think of anyone who’d visit me so I was relatively surprised when I saw Cherry standing in the doorway looking at me expectantly.

She closed her fingers around the edge of the doorframe so that I couldn’t shut it on her without breaking her fingers (tempting) so I begrudgingly opened it for her a little further before turning my back and attempting to hide some of the empty bottles. I vanished them quickly whilst she was taking in the lovely interior of the flat.

“It’s clean.” She commented sounding a little surprised.

“Yes.” I agreed because it was.

“Dave told me that it was -”

“A shit hole.” I finished eloquently.

“Well, yes.” Cherry said stepping through the door and beginning to look around.

My flat was as small as it could possibly be with all the required furniture for someone to live a life of squalor. When you walked into the flat you found yourself in the main room, with the back of the kitchen units immediately to your right and a tiny useless space to your left.  The useless space on the left was like a very thin corridor which led nowhere, which filled in the gap between the end of my bedroom and the outer wall of the flat. In that space I’d erected a sort of fireplace so I could connect myself to the floo network and actually be able to get around. The ‘kitchen’ was essentially a semi-circle of counters with an oven, a sink, a microwave and a tiny fridge that came to the height of my mid-thigh. There were cupboards and stuff attached to the walls above them all of which were several centuries old. The only other thing that fit in the room was a sofa – in an interesting shade of distressed brown – and a coffee table.

 Then there was my bedroom, which fit in a double bed if you were thin enough to be able to walk round it (or, if you’re me, just jump on it rather than bother), and a bedside table with a lamp on it. There wasn’t a wardrobe so my clothes were all still in several suitcases on the floor and came out creased. I would have taken the time to iron them, but I didn’t own an iron and there was no space quite large enough to erect an ironing board, and so they just stayed creased.

The final room of my ‘home’ was the bathroom. It was probably the most effective room out of the three, given that it actually had everything that I required in it – as in a shower that dribbled hot water or drowned you in ice, a toilet that flushed (most of the time) and a sink which I couldn’t find fault in other than the fact that the red tap was cold, and the blue tap was hot.

“So,” Cherry said. I bet she lived in my dream house with Dave and never once thought about the fact that her mother was an alcoholic who drank herself to death, and instead dreamt about her baby and her lovely shiny happy life that was radiating in front of her. At that moment I completely hated her. “Look, Grace,” She said, “I should have dragged it all up – Dave warned me not too. I just... I just know that if someone had come to me when I was sixteen and said ‘Cherry, tell me about it, and I’ll listen’ then I would have been eternally grateful.”

“Well,” I said. “I’m not sixteen anymore.”

“No,” Cherry said. “You need to come back into work tomorrow. Cuffe was asking about you – wanting to start your little training scheme, the bastard. He came into my office demanding that you came to see him immediately. I hope you don’t mind that I told him I’d sent you to do some research for me.”

“No, I said. “I’d rather the boss didn’t think I’d just walked out, thank you.”

“So you’ll come back?” She asked eagerly.

“How else am I going to pay for my shit hole?” I requested sardonically.

She glanced around my humble abode again, possibly trying to find some redeeming feature to comment on. She came up with nothing and flushed slightly.

“Didn’t Dave buy you a plant?” She asked.

“Yes,” I told her. “It died.”

“Oh,” She said. “Well, Grace, I’ll see you tomorrow!” Cherry said in a bright and cheerful voice that sickened me to the core, before walking out the door to go back to her period cottage or whatever.

I rolled my eyes at her back as she left before my brain caught onto one thing...

Maxim Cuffe had asked about me. My boss had asked about me, no, my boss – who slept with me – had asked about me.

Well...

I looked back at all my great experience with relationships, love and the like in an attempt to draw an accurate and reliable conclusion as to what something like that might mean for my future; where this might relationship might end up going after these new developments and how this potential new relationship might affect my lifestyle as a whole... I ended up with a very articulate sentence that summed up all of my feelings towards this new found piece of information...

What. The. Bloody. Hell.

 

 

 

If there was one thing I prided myself on, it was my ability to bounce back. Admittedly I never quite recovered completely – I still had internal scars from pre-Hogwarts years (too many of them), then the Hogwarts years... and even after then some of the rejections and job-losses had a lasting effect on me, but no one would know that by just looking me in the eye.

I wore all this pain and whatnot... on the inside, and it very rarely had an opportunity to rear its ugly head, primarily because I refused to let it. The down side of that means people don’t think I’ve ever suffered and instead see me as an over-confident blunt bitch who has no compassion or emotions, which I can assure is true, but maybe not as completely true as they think.

However, it did mean the next morning I was able to walk straight back into that office with my pride only a little dented. In fact, I sauntered straight to my desk in my most spectacular pair of work-suitable black stilettos, with fabulous red lipstick, and a new skirt (I may have gone emergency shopping after Cherry left... but it was completely necessary for my dramatic comeback).

 Just so you know, the tarting myself up was purely in the interest of showing I hadn’t lost face, and nothing to do with the fact that Maxim Cuffe has asked after me.

Nothing. Whatsoever.

Jill was busy tapping away on her laptop whilst trying to ignore George who was sat on my desk and attempting to talk to her. I walked over with a small seductive smile on my face which implied that I had not had a mental breakdown in the past twenty four hours, but had instead gone on an impromptu spa break or something of that calibre. I was relaxed. I was confident. I was happy.

I was, perhaps, overdoing it with the smiling... people were looking at me as if I was about to pull out my wand and start murdering people.

“Excuse me,” I said looking pointedly at my desk.

“Well fuck me,” George said as he took in my appearance.

“Oh, maybe later,” I said folding my arms and smiling (but to a lesser slightly less manic extent).

“I told you she hadn’t been fired.” Jill said rolling her eyes. “Cherry’s hardly going to fire her fiancé’s cousin. Especially when Cuffe seemed to have expressed a particular interest in her...”

“What’s up with her?” I asked nodding at the back of Jill’s head. Her shoulders were tense and now I was close enough I could see that she typing furiously.

“You don’t want to know,” George muttered darkly.

“I’ve been up since five in the morning!” She practically yelled, turning around and glaring at me. “Because every time one of the brats stopped crying, the other one started – and you know why? Because Derek walked out and they missed him! We want to go with Daddy, where’s Daddy!? So I told the inconsiderable brats that their father wasn’t Derek, and was a complete jerk who divorced me so he could fuck a glamour model, and that Derek was a complete bastard who cared more about being a therapist than his partner! And do you know what?” She hissed. “They kept crying.”

“Derek’s the therapist she lives with right?” I asked George in a small voice. George nodded nervously.

“Not anymore.” She said with gritted teeth. “He left because I refused to marry him – the bastard.”

“And the brats are?”

“Her children.” George supplied.

“That’s nice – affectionate.”

“Oh shut up – like you’d know squat about being a mother. I had to leave them with their idiotic father today, the gloating look on his face was awful – the son of a bitch. For all the trouble it’s caused I should have just sodding married him!” With that admission she fell silent and turned back to her computer.

I looked at George. He looked at me. We both looked at Jill. I raised an eyebrow at him. He shook his head. I rolled my eyes. He shook his head with more fervour. I turned away from him and back to Jill.

“Can I have a lollipop?” I asked.

“That’s it!” She said in a shriek. “I’m going to call Derek right now and tell him that I’ll marry him! I can’t deal with this stress!” Then she grabbed her dragon hide handbag of the side of his desk and headed for the fire.

“Why didn’t she want to marry him?” I asked slipping into her chair and helping myself to a strawberry lollipop.

“Well, he’s been divorced twice.” George said with a shrug. “You really haven’t been fired then?”

“Not yet,” I said. “Give it another week.”

“Oh no,” George said. “If Cuffe wants to train you up your in this for life.”

“What?”

“The last person he trained up ended up being promoted above him in a year, and now he controls the content of the entire paper – that’s why he never trains people up anymore. He was completely humiliated when he had to ask him to be allowed to start up the sports insert...”

“Well, he let him didn’t he?” I said with a shrug.

“Because it’s good for the paper – Cuffe trained him well enough that he would never jeopardise the success of the paper for a personal reason, but he kept him hanging long enough for him to worry.” 

“Grace Whitehall?” A voice rang out and I melted a tinsy embarrassing bit inside. Maxim Cuffe. “My office.” He said with a straight unreadable face that sent my brain into an extreme overdrive. I stared at him. He stared back for a few seconds and tilted his head to one side for a split second. “Now.” He clarified darkly. I jumped up quickly (slipping over the heel of my stiletto and twisting my ankle badly as I did so). “Good luck,” George said wryly. Cuffe turned and disappeared back into his office as I tried to walk across the office floor with my head held high.

Maybe he was going to fire me.

That would be a bit rude though, wouldn’t it? Share a night of drinks and amazing sex, and then fire me at the next available chance?

It’s not like I was asking for a promotion... I just didn’t want to be fired.

I pushed open the heavy black door and let myself into his office. He turned and looked at me sharply with the same ‘I’m an arsehole’ expression as I’d seen him wear in Cherry’s office before. Cherry was sat on the chair opposite him with a hand on her pregnant belly and a highly irritated expression etched across her face... her expression changed to surprise and fear when she saw my face in the doorway. She made a weird movement with her head which could have been a shake of the head, or could have been a strange head spasm.

“You will knock before you enter my office.” Maxim Cuffe said.

“But you just invited me in,” I pointed out. Cherry made the strange head movement again and widened her eyes significantly.

“You will knock before you enter my office.” Maxim Cuffe repeated in a much slower authoritive voice which was mildly scary. It was twice as hot as scary though... The disciplinarian thing was undeniably sexy.

“Cherry,” He said with distain and shot her a dirty look for good measure before turning back to face me. “Has informed me that you spent yesterday doing some research.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Would you like to inform me what that research was on?”

“I...” Cherry was mouthing something at me. Her eyes were wide and I had absolutely no idea what she was saying. My inability to lip read had got me into trouble before – I’d once mistaken ‘Do you needs some coffee?’ for ‘Do you need to fuck me?’ which had resulted in a very strange and very awkward conversation between someone who, at the time, had been my best friend. It was undeniably strange and very, very awkward. “Quidditch.” I answered sending an innocent smile in his direction.

Cherry shook her head more in a blatant warning.

Well,” Maxim Cuffe said. His voice was dark, foreboding and for a split second I actually thought I was going to die. “At least, this time,” She said to Cherry. “You hired someone with a personality.”

Cherry looked as if she had just died of shock. I swallowed and smiled weakly in his direction. Oh my God – what’s happening?

“Obviously you are not allowed to just take days off to do ‘research,’ and I’m going to hold you completely responsible for this.” Maxim said turning to face Cherry with a steely expression.

“I took a day of for personal reasons.” I blurted out suddenly. “My grandmother died,” I said. It was true. She had died... twenty years ago. “We were very close and Cherry said that, that it would be okay.”

Cherry looked as if she was about to die of shock.

I think I just died of shock too, had I just.... inadvertently helped Cherry?

Still, it was a standard excuse. I’d used the dead grandmother excuse so many times it was unbelievable. There was that really awkward time in Holland where I accidently killed off three grandmothers in a month. I then had to make all this rubbish up about how I had step parents, and step grandparents – which he brought, at least until I ran up a grand total of nine dead grandmothers and he ‘disciplined’ me about it, which is actually as dirty as it sounds I’m embarrassed to admit. He had to ‘let me go’ when I moved on to grandfathers which was a shame because I’d been planning on drawing my third grandfather’s death for a long time with some terminal illness that meant I could have multiple days off to go home and ‘comfort’ my second step-mother (which would have been easy because she doesn’t exist).

 From that point onwards I killed off aunts – you could have unlimited numbers of those, but I supposed the pressure of having to come with an excuse quickly had got to me, and I’d submitted to the will of my deceased grandmother who was no doubt mentally nudging me with her crazy handbag and screaming ‘REMEBER ME! TALK ABOUT ME, GRACIE!’ which is something she’d do, whilst simultaneously stinking of sherry and scaring the shit out of me. I was sure she was positively glowing with the idea that her death was being put to good use...

Or cursing me too a life of singledom and lonely days. Not that I needed cursing for that to happen, but there you go. She was a selfish old hag – if she couldn’t get laid (due to being dead) then neither could I.

“You took a day off for her funeral?” He questioned. “And, Cherry, you decided to lie about this to me....?”

“No, no,” I said quickly. “It wasn’t her funeral.” If I was going to try and get Cherry out of trouble, I might as well do it properly. Max, who if you’d forgotten SLEPT with me yesterday, was being a total jerk and the whole thing was kind of my fault, well... partially. Cherry shouldn’t have mentioned it. Dave shouldn’t have told her about it... actually, I was just going to blame James Potter. He was the reason I was currently in the daily profit, smoking whilst carrying morning sickness potion – and had been the, admittedly non-direct, cause for all the events which had happened. So it was his fault.

Smarmy bastard.

“Do you need a day of for her funeral?”

“No,” I said quickly. Bugger. Should have said yes – could have had a day off too. In my defence, it was hard to concentrate when I knew exactly what the bloke in front of me looked like naked (and he looked good naked). Plus I was kind of very very much attracted to him. Scarily so. Much more attracted to him than I had been to anyone for... well, ages. The bloke was a god with an amazing –

Concentrate, Grace.

“Why?” Max asked. Cherry was staring at me with wide eyes and a partially open mouth – she looked extraordinarily articulate.

“No body,” I said. “No funeral. She, erm...” I began wildly. “She set fire to herself, by accident, and the, ermm... ashes blew away.”

“Well,” Max said looking mildly taken aback by this appallingly fake excuse that was so appallingly fake that he was scared to argue with it. “I’m sorry for you loss, I offer you my condolences. Cherry – out.” Max said, keeping his eyes fixed directly on mine. It made me uncomfortable, but it also made me want to undress him. This was not good. I was going to lose my job for sure. Maybe he’d feel so bad about my fake-grandmother’s death that he wouldn’t fire me...

Shit, I should have gone for a terminal illness.

“Right, Miss Whitehall,” He began standing up and striding round his office and big boss-man style steps. “I am going to train you up to become, a proper writer.” He said before perching himself on my side of the desk, pausing for a moment, and then smiling. “How would you like to get a drink later?”

Yes. Yes. YES!

 

A/N - Pleeasseee Review :)
 


Chapter 7: July 31st.
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

A/N - Because the queue is INSANELY fast and I can't help myself. Enjoy!

 

As much as I am not one for relationships, or more relationships are not for me, there is one thing that I genuinely value about that shit... that feeling of waking up next to someone. It’s like my morning-after thing, I just always feel so guilty and dirty if I wake up alone. It pulls back that bitter feeling of loneliness and being unloved which I can’t stand, and makes me feel vulnerable and delicate, which I also can’t stand.

Even after a one night stand my guilt is completely eradicated if the other person involved in said one night stand is still there when I wake up (which, honestly, is usually my queue to leave). There’s just something about it which resonates with me.

Maybe it’s because I’m not good at mornings before I’ve refined my thoughts and set my brain on the right track, rather than veering off down the road of unwanted thoughts, and having someone – anyone – there with their arms wrapped around you is such a good distraction, and makes you feel so protected and safe that it hardly matters that the other person is a complete stranger, or a psychopathic stalker – as long as someone is there.

Which was it was getting at me so much. This was the eighth time I woke up to find my bed sheets tangled around me and a distinct lack of person where there should have been. Well, where Max should have been. He’d stayed once. He’d left eight times. Now, not only did I feel lonely, I was also bloody confused.

He probably had some decent reason for leaving in the middle of the night, but it had yet to become clear to me what the hell it was, I just knew that he always left when I was asleep and never left any kind of note or anything that showed he’d actually been there. Why?

The phone rang – the noise drilling through my fried brain painfully. I groaned and dragged myself out of my bed – making a mental note that I needed to wash the bed sheets – and headed towards the phone. I discovered upon loosing the bedcovers that I was wearing a bra, no pants and one sock, but decided not to question – as I’d woken up wearing much weirder things (for example, once woke up partially covered in raw chicken – thank you very much, James Potter).

It was probably some member of my family.

 My family’s contribution to my life was to irritate the hell out of me and offer me a constant reminder about how really, I should be thinking about marriage, husband, career and babies before it was too late and no one wanted me anymore because I was too wrinkled for you to be able to see my ‘gorgeous face.’ Mum had called subtlety mentioning a weight loss program and dieting, until I slammed the phone down.

Yes, I’d put on a little weight, but now I was in a sort-of-almost-relationship that weight would drop off due to all the calorie-burning sessions. All nine and a half of them. That meant I’d lose all my England-weight within another month, with no fuss and virtually no effort on my behalf (this theory only worked if you ignored that fact that I was being taken out for dinners, so meals I’d usually have skipped I was actually eating in, although the restaurant was a bit posh and thus the meals hardly counted – they were more like over grand tasting sessions. So I ordered in Chinese take aways afterwards).

Still, it was worth enduring a three hour lecture about eating vegetables to make the phone shut up, and I could always do what I did last time and hang up. Also... it could be Max. He had my phone number after all...

I’d explained to him my whole not having an owl thing, and he said that he had a telephone too, so it was sorted. I could hardly have owls flying into my muggle flat. Anyway, I had a nasty habit of killing owls by accident (in my defence, it wasn’t my fault that the bird seemed to think that gas stove was some sort of play thing, and maybe if I’d had my wand at hand, I could have put it out – but none of it was intentional, not that pacified the ex who’d owned that owl).

It wouldn’t be Max though. It was Sunday – I’d see him at work tomorrow. It was all fine and dandy. Except... he might be phoning, to take me out for another tiny dinner, or some other fancy place that made me awkward and slightly special at the same time. Or he might be ringing to explain why he left last night! To apologise!

I snatched the phone up and tried talking in my most attractive voice. “Hello,”

“Grace? Are you ill? Have you got tonsillitis?” Mum asked, her voice sounding almost as shrill and annoying as the sound of the telephone ringing.

“No, Mum,” I sighed, leaning back against the wall and twirling the cord around my fingers. “It’ll be all that smoking,” She said down the other end of the phone. I stopped suddenly. Smoking? She didn’t know anything about me smoking. “Your aunt Sarah popped round the other day, and she said to me – did you know your Gracie was in the newspaper a couple of weeks back,”

Oh shit. I forgot my parents inhabited the same world as me, and weren’t part of some separate alien world where pictures of me smoking, holding morning sickness potion and talking with James Potter never existed. I’d always just assumed that my parents would never find out about my less than respectable ways, and would remain blissful in the knowledge that the reason why I was single/friendless was due to bad luck, not to bad decisions during my teenage years.

“Oh, well, they’ve got it all wrong mum.” I said quickly.

“Of course they have,” She agreed. “You couldn’t be pregnant with James Potter’s baby – he’s famous and successful.”

Ouch.

“Plus he’s never liked you,” She added. “But you are holding a fag Grace, there’s no denying that – and morning sickness potion too, but I’m sure there must be a reasonable explanation for that – you don’t even have a boyfriend.”

“I do,” I said definitely, suddenly regretting it the moment the words had left my lips. Was Max a boyfriend? It was more relationship-y than most my other relationships had been, but still... boyfriend?

“Oh, really?” Mum’s voice said excitedly from the other end of the phone. “Is it that bloke from the dry cleaners?”

“Yeah,” I said – Max had said it was best to keep the whole thing quite because people would talk. Anyway, if I told Mum who he really was she might start writing him letters and inviting him round to meet the family – which was never going to happen.

“Taken you anywhere nice?”

“Oh yes,” I said. It was easy to add the excitement to my voice because, secretly, I’d been longing to talk about Max to someone for at least a week and... I didn’t really have many options. “Alexandro’s in London,”

“The restaurant?” Mum asked, I pressed the phone against my ear and nodded even though she couldn’t hear, allowing myself to smile a little.

“Yep – five star.”

“That doesn’t change that fact that you’ve been smoking, Grace Whitehall,” Mum said. “Your distraction tactics won’t work on me. I’ll talk to Uncle -”

“I wasn’t smoking Mum,” I reassured her. “I was just, erm... holding the cigarette for someone. Anyway, I’ve got to go mum – I’ve got loads of work to do...” I said before slamming down the phone and taking a deep breath.

The phone rang again. Max? I snatched it up again and pressed it to my ear.

“Hello,”

“Grace, are you sure you’re not ill?” Mum replied. “You sound like you’re coming down with something.”

“Mum, I’m fine.” I complained. “Now will you just -”

“I was just making sure that you were coming later,”

Later?”

“It’s your Dad’s sixtieth birthday, Grace!” She declared. Oh sod. “We’re having a family get together – and you are going. You promised.”

“Oh yeah, obviously, I... I hadn’t forgotten about that at all, what time?”

“Six,” She snapped back. “And maybe you could bring your boyfriend, introduce him to everyone,”

“He’s probably busy – very busy guy, okay – lots to do before six, bye Mum!”

Sod. Why did I have to go to his stupid sixtieth when no one did anything for my twenty-eighth? This was a sodding joke. I needed to buy him a present, and a dress, and a decent piece of mind so that I could actually stand the whole thing.

Well, at least I wasn’t going to be staying in.
 

 

“How was your weekend then?” Jill asked me as I twiddled my thumbs and seriously thought about getting another coffee. I’d already had four though, so it probably wasn’t a good idea. I might start shaking. Or getting addicted to caffeine . Again.

I grimaced.

Sunday night was abysmal to say the least, but it was over eventually – and the fact that Dave and Cherry was there had been a nice distraction from the family who were at least given some other material than going on about my dress made me look like an overgrown elephant, in a delightful shade of fuchsia (I’d had to dig out something that had fit me last time I was this big, which had been long ago).

I needed to go on a diet. Blah.

In fact, it was a good job I’d gotten laid this weekend or I’d probably spontaneously combust over it’s lameness. Thank Merlin for Max.

Except not really, because Max hadn’t called. I wasn’t even sure why I was expecting him to call, but I had been, which meant I spend the whole of Sunday on edge waiting for the phone to go, or whilst at the ‘party’ (is it really a party when most people are over seventy and ‘agadoo’ is played a grand total of three times? When the drunkest person there was Uncle Eddie who was dragged away before he could start demonstrating the fact that he was still part ape, by showing us his backside? My father, the sixty year old, ended up going to bed around eight – EIGHT – and yet I was obliged to stay until ten when my ancient grandparents fell asleep. So really, not a party), but whilst I was there apart from dreaming of listening to people scratch their finger nails across whiteboards or history of magic lessons with professor Bins – both of which would have seemed exciting at this stage – I kept wondering whether or not they’d be a message on my phone when I got home.

There was not.

Thus the whole evening was a huge fat disappointment, and I’d thrown myself to bed in a sulk and woken up feeling like I hadn’t slept for a week, and I wasn’t even hungover.

“It was okay,” I told Jill on reflection. There was absolutely no need for details.

“Yeah,” She said, “Same.” Then she grinned slightly scarily. “I’m engaged.”

“Now that is definitely cause for a party popper,” I said, invading her ‘bubble’ and grabbing several party poppers from her draw, letting them all off in quick succession. “How’s about a lollipop?” I asked. She dutifully handed one over.

Work wasn’t so bad after all.

 

 

 

 “Grace!” Maxim called, popping his head out of his office and beckoning me over. Loved work. Best job ever.

I grimaced in Jill’s direction as if this was a great hardship, before trying to stop myself from running over to the office door. He probably just wanted to teach me how to write or whatever. Should I tell him my mum did that when I was five? Probably not.

“Did you have a good weekend?” He asked as I sat down in the chair opposite his desk dutifully. I shrugged – didn’t want him getting too cocky now, did we. Plus, Sunday had been abysmal to an impressive degree. “Feel refreshed and ready for the week? Good.” He said strolling around his office, occasionally glancing back round at me. “I’m going to give you a style model,” He said, “And I’m going to give you a subject, I want you to mimic it. You have until next Monday. Today, however, the sugar-plum fairy has some work for you to do.”

“Sugar-plum fairy?” I questioned.

“Plum, Cherry – whatever,” He shrugged. I decided to ignore the blatant insulting (and slightly sexist) nature of his comment and focus on the fact that it was quite funny. Anyway, Cherry was the girl who once set my knickers on fire, and made ‘Grace’ voodoo dolls (she tried to charm them so they actually worked, but the teachers found out and stopped her, which is a good thing too because Grace-Doll turned up in my bed a few days later with no head).

Then he turned to look at me properly. “I do wish that you were staying around the office today so I could fully appreciate that outfit of yours.” I smiled. I may have woken up a little bit early (five AM) so I was wearing something Max simply couldn’t ignore me, work wear wise. Apparently my amazing sense of dress was working.

 “Sadly, Miss Sugar Plum has a doctor’s appointment in ten minutes. In a few minutes, you will go to her she will inform you of your work for today.”

“Why in a few minutes?” I asked raising my own eyebrows at him.

“Because,” Maxim said with one of his normal smiles. “You’re going to be rather busy for the next few minutes.”  Why was work so good? Why did I love this job so much? It was fabulous. Don’t know why I’d ever delayed applying.

He walked over to the door and turned the lock.

“Am I really?” I asked. “It’s just, I really think my work’s more important than...” but by that point he was sat on the edge of his desk, waiting for me to stop talking.

Then he kissed me.

 


“Grace!” Cherry declared as I knocked on her door thirty minutes later wearing a false apologetic look that I hoped was almost convincing. “Let me guess, Cuffe kept you,”

“Erm, yeah.” I agreed. That was one way of putting it.

“I thought he’d do that,” She grimaced. “So I lied about my appointment time, it’s not for another half an hour.”

“What’s the appointment for?”

“Scan,” She replied – pointing to her stomach. Right. Pregnancy. “Right, so... I’m off for the rest of the day and, well... “Well,” Cherry said glancing down the sheet of parchment in front of her and grimacing ominously. “Did you have a good weekend Grace?” Cherry asked overly sweetly. Something was definitely up.

“It was all right,” I shrugged. “That party certainly wasn’t the highlight.”

“Yeah? Your Mum said that you’ve got a boyfriend now,” I shrugged modestly. I should have known she’d have told all my relatives, and potentially rang up the Daily Prophet and begged them to let everyone know her daughter wasn’t a complete failure and at least, right now, had a man in her life. “So it can’t have been that bad?”

“I suppose not,”

“Well that’s good isn’t it?” Cherry said in a faux-bright voice that I knew too well accompanied semi-bad news. Really bad news was told in extra serious and emotionless voices with the added ‘sorry for your loss’ and those ‘condolences’ which had about as much value as wands do to muggles, as in, none.

“What is it?”

“The snogalicious girl has mono.” She admitted in a resigned voice.

“That’s... worrying.” I admitted. “Although a little irrelevant.”

“Oh, you wish,” Cherry said, the tiniest smile creeping on to her face. “I’m afraid you, erm... you’ll be covering her today, too.”

“So, you’re asking me to cover a job which caused some poor girl to catch mono...”

“Well, I’m almost a hundred percent certain that the guy in question doesn’t have mono.” Cherry said, the little smile widening on her stupid face.  She was finding this amusing. She was finding the fact that I, Grace Whitehall, had to go snog someone and write about funny. Well, it wasn’t too bad. Getting paid for snogging people? Not exactly classy per-say, more like very mild prostitution, but it wasn’t like I was going to morally object to it. “Although I doubt that’s any consolation to you.”

“Alright, whatever – who’s the guy?”

“Well,” Cherry said slowly. “Now, please don’t kill me... It’s the same guy you’re interviewing for me. It’s like a special entirely dedicated to this one person... because he just made it to the England international team and, well... that’s a big deal.”

“Sounds like it,” I said offhandly. Hell, you’d expect that sort of thing if you’d just made the England International team. I’d want the entire issue of the prophet to be about me, too, not just the crappy insert – who reads it anyway?

“So you’ll do it?”

“Sure, whatever – as long as he doesn’t have mono. It’s something to tell the grandkids anyway – I snogged an international Quidditch star.” If I ever had grandchildren that is, I supposed I had to get round to the children bit first, and with that the serious boyfriend/husband.

“So you’ll definitely do it?”

“Yes.”

Definitely definitely?”

Yes.” I told her exasperatedly. “Seriously Cherry, it’s normally the word ‘no’ that people struggle with – but if you honestly don’t understand I’ll buy you a dictionary for Christmas or something.”

“You really don’t know anything about Quidditch do you?” she asked in an amused voice.

“Of course not,”

“So you’re completely ignorant about who has recently been transferred from the Tornado’s to England’s international squad which incidentally made the front page of the prophet, which weekly and every Quidditch magazine in existence.”

“That sounds about right.” I answered, leaning back in her chair and smiling at her innocently. She wasn’t going to fire me.

“Well then you fully deserve the day you’ve got ahead of you.” She said pulling a file out of her draw and handing it over to me. For some strange and incomprehensible reason the file was entitled ‘James Potter’ and had a huge photo of his ugly (well no, very sexy, but that’s not the point) mug stuck on the front.

“I do not want to look at that, thanks.”

“Well... I’m afraid that James Potter has just made it into the International Quidditch league.”

I hate my job.

A/N -  That's pretty exciting, right? Worth a review?
 


Chapter 8: August 1st.
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I am well aware of the hangover etiquette. In fact, I’m pretty certain that I have enough experience of the stupid things to be able to write the etiquette – because I’ve broken every single rule there is.

It would have been useful for me to have a hardcopy of this after my first drunken experience, because I hadn’t got a clue what to do with said hangover. Given this delightful experience was in the midst of the teenage years, what most people did was have two glasses of wine and then walk around clutching their heads, refusing to eat anything and wincing melodramatically when anyone spoke. Or, for the even more dramatic amongst them, crawling into the foetal position and wailing ‘I was so smashed last night!’ and for those who could manage it, throwing up. This is more commonly known as ‘the play up.’

I thought this was ridiculous, especially considering they hadn’t been that drunk in the first place, so I went for the second option – ‘the play down.’ This entailed both hiding my embarrassment in the previous night’s events and pretending like I wasn’t affected by the hangover at all. My theory was I’d look cooler and more used to drinking if I had no hangover, and thus everyone would like me. It was a good theory, but I didn’t realise it would just convince people that I hadn’t been drunk in the first place and I that I’d just run around topless without being utterly zonked.

This lead to my first change in hangover tactics – when in doubt, play it up.

Now I’d progressed from those messy and horrible teenage years the rules were different. When in front of your boss, play it down (aka – pretended it doesn’t exist and the closest you’ve ever been to wine is during Holy Communion). If you did anything particularly embarrassing play it up to the death. If someone else did something particularly embarrassing, ignore your hangover and be as loud and cheerful as physically possible to spite them, because you know that normally you’re the embarrassment.

Still, I’d hit a gap in my knowledge. When one is presented with a hideous and horrible situation is it ever acceptable to pretend one has a hangover? Because that’s what I felt like doing as I walked towards the photo-shoot area where I was to meet James Potter.

I didn’t want to have to great him brightly and cheerfully inform him that I had to talk to him for two hours, and then I had to snog him. And after that.... I had to write about snogging him. If I could hide behind a hangover and feel groggy and mildly nauseas I honestly wouldn’t be freaking out about everything so much. I could just drag myself there and be all ‘yo, Potter,’ then grab his face and make out with him as though that wasn’t weird or anything.

I could have, and probably would have, been hungover if Cherry hadn’t decided to spring it on me and then send me merrily on my way (which was probably why she had done that – the girl may be a bitch, but she’s smart). But no. She probably planned it to be after my dad’s sixtieth too, because no one can get drunk at that sort of party (well, I have done before – but it isn’t advisable).

“Hello?” The woman at the desk said as I wondered down the corridor deciding that if James Potter made any comment about Hogwarts I would actually quit.
“Hi, I’m er... looking for the photo shoot? From the Daily Prophet – Sport.” I said holding up my identification tag Cherry had forced round my neck, before pushing me in the direction of the fire whilst ignoring the number of swear words that were coming out of my mouth.

“Who?”

“James Potter.” I said through a grimace. The name felt horrible on my lips. Like saying ‘vodka- and-coke’ after a slight indiscretion the day before involving the substance – nauseating and making that aftertaste come back, or the slight smell, so that my stomach jolted and squirmed uncomfortable. I never wanted to say the words again. Never wanted to meet him again. Last time it had been thrust upon me, so I hadn’t had a chance to really get thinking about the extent of my desire to never have to look at him again.

I moved away for nine years to avoid him... I couldn’t face him now. Cherry couldn’t expect me to. I could just turn around and walk out, right now. I stopped walking forwards and froze. I screwed up my face. I was just going to go back home, well no – to my flat. I was going to go back to my crummy flat, and then what? Max was definitely not going to call if I bailed out on my job, and I had no friends, no qualifications... fuck. I was utter screw up.

And I was also a Gryffindor. A fact which only seemed to be important when I was faced with something I really didn’t want to do, then it crept up on me, sickeningly. I was Gryffindor, thus obliged to do this. Then before I had time to argue with this ridiculous thought about how I owed Hogwarts nothing, how this wasn’t bravery – it was stupidity, and how I hadn’t been a Gryffindor for nine years I’d walked into a new room in the complex, where James Potter was stood in front of a green screen, having his photo taken...

Half naked.

Not that it mattered. I was a mature woman who’d seen far too many guys topless for that to faze me. I wasn’t a teenager anymore where James’s favourite Quidditch-star stunt had been to throw his shirt off into crowds of screaming fan girls (before getting someone to get them back for him the next day) and I’d turned to a puddle of jelly after one glance of his moderately attractive torso.

Although, saying that, James Potter was also no longer a teenager and he’d moved from being a little on the skinny side, to being rather a lot on the muscled and gorgeous side. So there was a tinny amount of the jelly-legs syndrome returning, but that was most probably due to nerves and not due to his like bazillion-pack, or whatever. I was seriously nervous though. Practically shaking.

I could not do this. So I was just going to leave, no one had seen me. I could just go. And I was just about to move when –

“You must be from the prophet?”

Oh shite.

“Yeah,” I said gesturing at the ridiculous identification tag that swung around my neck.  Then a woman in even more corporate clothing than mine (which were work-slutty, my personal speciality) walked over and held out her hand. “Grace Whitehall is it?” She asked. Her voice rang across the room, and James Potter’s head snapped in our direction just as there was another flash. “Yes,” I said. “I don’t mean to be rude, but who are you?”

“Mr Potter’s agent.” She said impressively. Potter had an agent? Bloody hell! What was he? Like, an international sports star or something? Oh yes! That’s right! Internal joke. Hilarity.

“Oh, right, of course.” I nodded. Naturally. Why not? I needed to calm the fuck down. There was internal hyperventilating and everything, and if I had to talk to him for any longer than thirty seconds I was just going to fall over and die.

And I had to kiss him.

Not that I hadn’t done that before. But that was ten years ago.

“Cherry said that you’re new to the prophet?”

“Relatively.” I agreed, nodding like I cared what the hell this woman was jabbering on about. Which I didn’t. Not. At. All.

“I do hope,” She began in a mildly aggressive tone which made me want to slap her round the face. “That you will be covering all bases with this interview – I will not accept a slapdash job just because you’re new. I have no sympathy with you.”

“Now, now Fiona, there’s no need to tell Grace here how to do her job,” James said, now with shirt, placing a hand on Fiona-agent’s shoulder and smiling. Why was he so charming? Why was said charm working as he turned on me and offered that same stupid smirk that simultaneously made me want to die, or made me think I’d already died and gone to heaven?

No, actually, I was fine. That stuff was practically a decade ago. I was twenty eight.

I had to kiss him!?! And write about it!?!

“So we meet again, Grace,” James said, raising an eyebrow.

“I didn’t ask for this job!” I exclaimed desperately. “It got thrown on me!” Woah, Grace, chill.

“You’re doing both the interview and the snogalcious stuff aren’t you?” Fiona-agent said. I internally died.

“The snogalicious girl has mono.” I said lamely. “And all other female members of staff are busy.”

“Right, well, if we just finish off here then,” She said briskly. “Off with your shirt again, Potter,” Fiona-Agent said with a little hand wave.

He looked a little awkward. “Could I not do the rest erm, fully dressed?” He glanced at me for a second, then ripped his gaze away.

“Rubbish,” she said. “No one wants to see fully dressed Quidditch players.”

“It’s true,” I said. “All those bludgers to the face are only excused by a decent visual display elsewhere. In fact, topless probably isn’t far enough.” I winked.

Oh. My. God. I winked. I bloody winked. And told him to get undressed...

What was wrong with me?

“She’s right,” Fiona said. “Strip to the Boxers, Potter.”

Potter looked horrified, and for a second I felt mildly pitiful. I had, for a very (very) short period of time, taken on a modelling job. Classy job – the interview had consisted of an inquiry into my bra size and my willingness to bare all. I hadn’t lasted a full shoot, when I turned up in my dressing gown and underwear and the photographer said ‘yes... it’s a shame about the face’ to which I thought, bullocks on this, I’ll just get another waitressing job and left. The country. Still, I could almost understand how horrified James would be feeling at this point. Especially considering I, Grace Whitehall and his own personal ex-stalker, was in the room.

“Then again,” I said, and all attention was on me before I realised I hadn’t got a clue what I was going to say. That was okay though; my middle name isn’t bullshitter-extrodinaire because I’m truthful (my actual name is after my great aunt, Eliza, who we don’t see much anymore because she’s living in Australia with her girlfriend – this was a great scandal at the time, because Eliza is Dave’s mother and was married for thirty years before announcing she was a lesbian). “At the minute, we’re going for a more intimate less stylised image for the insert,” I said, utterly clues about what I was chatting on about. “Natural you know,”

“That’s interesting.” The photographer says. “Still or moving?”

“Mixture.”I answered quickly even though I hadn’t got a clue what he was on about.

“To make like an intimate and colloquial-istic relationship?”

“Yeah,” I nodded. If in doubt – paraphrase. “Really close and casual,”

“In every day clothing – so it’s relatable?”

“Yeah, average clothes, so the readers understand.”

“Look straight at the camera, straight at them?”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “Directly at, erm... them.” I stumbled, realising my paraphrasing technique wasn’t working ideally at this point.  I caught James Potter’s eye and he was looking at me intently, slightly curious and slightly confused.

“I like it,” the photographer nodded.

“I’m not sure,” Fiona said. “I say we do both – Potter, undress. Sorry about this, Faith,” She said.

“It’s Grace,” I corrected her.

“Yes, well, sorry Grace, this is going to take longer than expected, you can talk to the photographer if you like?” She suggested, pushing me over in his direction like I’d be any use whatsoever.

 

 

“Like that?” The photographer asked.

“Hmm.” I said in agreement, pretending to be looking at where James Potter was now standing awkwardly, trying to look smouldering or something, whilst wearing what he’d worn this morning which, as it turned out – wasn’t particularly flattering. Still, it was better than the hundred-galleon-a-piece garbage they’d had him parading around him before, in my opinion at any rate. “Actually, no.” I said, deciding that since I was here I might as well be useful. “He looks constipated.”  Potter flushed slightly. “Will you just relax, Potter?”

He dropped his shoulders and looked slightly disgruntled.

“That’s better,” I said. “Take one of that look.” I told the photographer before Potter had another chance to rearrange his features. The camera flashed. “Now, try for a smile,” I muttered, but it was audible enough that he heard.

“Now?” The photographer asked. Why he was asking me of all people, about photos – because let me tell you I was not a photo-taking person, really, I didn’t have a clue. But he seemed as useless at his job as I was about mine, and I did feel sorry for the bloke. Who wants to take pictures of arrogant arseholes like James Potter all day? Then again, if he was gay – it wasn’t exacty a bad view.

“No,” I snapped in frustration. “Look, it’s all off centre and the lights wrong.” Fiona-stuck-up-agent-woman was staring at me. “Potter, head up a bit, shift to the left, now...” I strode forwards and my heeled shoes clicked embarrassingly loudly against the floor. “Okay,” I said squinting at the image dynamic. “Arm up a little, chin to the left, someone move that light so that’s its not putting half his face in shadow, and now, you have it.” I said turning back to the photographer. He stared at me.

“That’s as good as it’s going to get with this one,” I told his dumbstruck face. “His head was so large he fell of his broomstick – ruined his face.” I explained to him, inducing the tiniest smile on James Potter’s face, which seemed to bring the photographer into action and... the photo was finally taken.

“I think that’s enough,” the photographer said, “I’ll send you all of the photos by the end of the day,” He said, before wondering off with his camera.

“Right,” Fiona –agent said striding over. Who’d have thought a flaming interview would be this freaking complicated? “Well, then, interview time. I presume you have some prepared questions you’d like to ask?”

I nodded, my hands automatically going to my pocket, pulling out a packed of fags. Then I became aware of my other hand going for my lighter, and I had to quickly shove both back into my pockets. I looked up at Fiona, and noted that James Potter eyes were following the movement of my hands – he’d seen the fags.

“Excellent, well, whenever you’re ready.”

“Actually,” James said. “I find that it’s erm... always better for interviews to be somewhere more casual, like, er... over coffee or something.”

“Or lunch.” I added encouragingly, because I was bloody starving. He better not think I was trying to get him on a date somewhere, because I wasn’t – not at all. I just hadn’t eaten yet (my own attempt at being ‘on a diet’ which meant skipping breakfast and eating a big meal at 11 instead, and then lunch, and then dinner – strangely it wasn’t working).

“Yes,” James agreed. “I know a nice cafe around here...” he suggested.

“Yes, of course,” Fiona nodded, “I’ll just grab my bag and -”

“I was more thinking just me and Grace here,” James said smoothly.

“Do you know each other?” She asked sharply.

“Let’s say,” James said putting an arm around my waist. “We have a history.” Oh I was going to kill him.

“Is it really appropriate for -?”

“Oh don’t worry,” James said, “Grace is definitely going to portray me well,” I needed a cigarette. And a drink. And a hole to go die in.

“But if you don’t think it’s appropriate I’m very happy too –” I interjected, hoping against hope that this was my way out, my escape route...

“No, no,” She said quickly, “go ahead.”

“Great,” I muttered sarcastically, throwing James Potter’s off me the second she’d looked away. “Where’s this cafe then?” I asked. James Potter grabbed his jacket off one of the many pieces of junk lying around, the nodded towards the door.

“I genuinely hate you.” I told him the second we were out of the building, and back on the street. I thrust my hand into the depths of my pockets and pulled out my cigarettes and my lighter. I lit up, but even that slightly lethal mixture of nicotine, tar and rat poison couldn’t stop me from feeling so shaken up. 

“And why would that be?” He asked calmly, with a slightly smirk, falling into step beside me.

“She thinks I’m going to shag you.” I deadpanned.

“You’re not?”

I stopped and turned to look at him. “You haven’t changed a bit.”

“You have,” He said running his gaze up my body. Shit. Why hadn’t I turned up wearing a bin bag or something? I actually looked quite decent, and now it would like I’d made an effort for him. If I’d have known... well, I’d probably be unconscious in a ditch right now, or dead.

“Jerk,” I muttered, turning around and beginning to walk off again.

“Aw, come on Gracie – you got your cigarette didn’t you?” I stopped again – I probably looked like some malfunctioning robot with all this stopping and starting, only I had a cigarette.

“You said all that, so I could smoke?” I asked, putting the cigarette too my mouth again and taking in a deep breath. I was so hopelessly addicted – it made me feel better almost instantaneously. I hated it – being dependent on something was not good, but it was better something than someone. He shrugged. “All that crap about being alone? Bullocks you did.”

“Fiona would never let you smoke in front of me, I’m getting more unfit and less good at Quidditch every second I’m breathing the same air as you.”

“Then why don’t you scuttle on back to Fiona,” I said. “Or better yet, breathe in enough of my air, get lung cancer and die.” Then I turned around and continued walking.

“Gracie, wait up,” James said.

“What? For you?”

“No, it’s just... you’ve gone the wrong way.” I stopped again and was struck by the hilarity of the whole thing, and laughed. I hadn’t laughed for a very long time – I was normally a just sit and smile occasionally, type person, rather than a facially active person – but James Potter seemed to be inducing my old glare, my old sarcastic expression, and strangest of all – my laughter.

Forget hungover, I was acting bloody drunk.

“All right, Potter,” I said, turning around to face him with my defensiveness toned a little more down. I was letting him get to me, that was the problem. I wasn’t like that anymore though – I sat and watched other people on their emotional highs and lows, staying at a happy emotionally blankness with the occasional variation into more positive/negative versions of the same emotion. If I could just treat James Potter the same way I treated everything – as just one of those things – and look upon it as if it was a vaguely amusing show, rather than my life... then, then I’d be fine.

My laughter had been short, and thankfully (because I sound like I duck when I laugh) quiet, but it had managed to get my head on a little straighter. “Lead the way,” I said offering a meaningless and slightly vague smile over at him.

James Potter considered my change in attitude, looked at me curiously, and then made for the left turn that I’d walked past, and I doubled back and followed him.

 

 

 “So,” I said my eyes skimming over the list of questions Cherry had provided me with.

“You’re coffee,” James said placing my double espresso on the table next to his triple. He looked as if he could do with more than a triple espresso to wake him up. I’d say he was the one with a hangover.  “Thanks,” I said glancing around our separated both before pulling the ‘self writing’ quill out of my handbag and placing it in the air over the parchment, it hovered...

Sometimes, when I didn’t think about it properly, I truly loved magic. Things like this were made much easier but simple spells... and then it filled me with the desire to find my wand and start acting like a proper witch, but then that desire just went... I felt you should work for some things, after all, and lots of magic-use was plain laziness.  “Can I ask a trial question?” I asked and without waiting for a response. “How’s your coffee?”

“Drinkable,” James said, and the quill was already scribbling away both question and answer.

“Excellent,” I said, and then the quill wrote that down too. “Okay, so,” The quill wrote that down. “I’m going to be... erm, interviewing you...”

“Have you ever interviewed anyone before?” James asked.

“I believe I’m the one who’s supposed to be asking the questions, Potter,”

“You’re supposed to call me James,” He said. “And I’m supposed to call you Grace.”

“I’d prefer Miss Whitehall,”

“Not married then?”

“How about,” I said trying my hardest not to glare at him, “You let me get this interview done first, and then you can ask me whatever you like,” I said, “About the last nine years,” I added as an afterthought. I did not, however, imply that I would be answering said questions in any way – which I would not.

“When do you do the snogalicious bit?” James asked, picking up his cup and bringing it to his lips with a smile.

“At the end.” I decided and then I looked down at the parchment to see that our whole conversation to date had been scribbled down – it was working a little too well. I sighed and pulled out a fresh piece of parchment.

“I’m sitting here with James Potter who’s just been accepted into the England international squad, tell me James – how does that feel?”

“Pretty good,” He shrugged nonchalantly.

“Yeah?” I questioned finding myself nodding along as if I cared. “How exactly does that feel.”

“It feels a bit life I’ve been accepted into the England international squad,”

“Could you try and work with me here?”

“Are you single?” James asked, leaning back on his chair and looking at me curiously.

“No.”

“So you have a boyfriend?”

“I don’t really think this is any of your business...”

“So you don’t have a boyfriend.”

“That’s not what I said!”

“So you’re a lesbian?”

“No!” I exclaimed, “Not that it effects this interview, but I am in a sort of relationship.”

“Sort of?” James asked. “How long?”

“One month.”

“So it’s not serious?”

“James Potter orders a triple espresso, he seems to be feeling the strain of training at an international level – or is it a new girl that’s been keeping you up all night?” I asked sweetly.

“Well, I don’t know about any new girls,” James said in a falsely bright interview voice. “I’m not really looking for a relationship right now, I’ve been on a couple of dates, but I really have to concentrate on my career at the moment. I’m tired due the vigorous training they’ve started me on – it’s much tougher than I expected.”

“Do you really think you’re cut out for the job? Or do you think you should have stuck to minor league?”

“Minor league?” James questioned with an amused smile on his face. “You don’t know anything about Quidditch, do you?”

“I don’t like Quidditch. What would you say to defend your profession to those who think the whole industry is a huge waste of time and money?”

“Well, Quidditch it’s great. I think it’s really important that the wizarding world should have a sport that unites people and bring them together. Plus, there are so many people who just love Quidditch – and it allows previously powerless people to have their views made known. Many Quidditch players have gone on to donate money to charity and the like, and – let’s face it, it’s good fun. Plus I’d probably remind them that they’re getting paid write about Quidditch stars kissing skills which I’m sure is a very valuable profession.” He smiled at me.

“There’s been a lot of talk about your father being disappointed in your career path – he loved Quidditch too, and yet he really did some good in his life instead of devoting it to flying around on broomstick throwing balls.”

“Yeah, my Dad did do some good in his life – he saved the entire wizarding race from Lord Voldermort and, let’s face it – I’d never beat that, so I’ve never tried. But, like I said – I’m sure writing about Quidditch stars really helps so many people...”

“And what about these rumours that you fuck your fan girls?” I asked, “What’s the appeal James? No one else stupid enough to sleep with you? Or are real woman looking for a little bit more, if you catch my drift.”

“You’ve got to give the fans what they want,” James shrugged. “They want me – they get me.”

“Well, that really is setting a good example to all those spotty teenagers dreaming to be just like you, well done James, you really use you’re influential power beautifully.”

“Well, Grace, I’m a beautiful human being.”  He was grinning now.

“And don’t you know it! Thank you for agreeing to talk to me, James arsehole Potter and this is me, Grace Whitehall writing utter garbage about a pile of shit that isn’t important now please, James,” I said trying to stop the corners of my lips from twisting up into a smile, “Can you work with me on this one and answer the questions properly?”

“I can’t make any promises,” James said. “But we can give it a go,”

“Alright,” I said, taking another sip of my espresso and turning back to my list. “Were you surprised when you found that the ESQ – the English society of Quidditch – were considering asking you to join the international squad?”

“Well Grace,” James said. “Considering I have been on their short list for the past three years, I wasn’t that surprised – but I was definitely shocked when they called me and said I had the job, I nearly had a heart attack, my sister had to run and fetch me some emergency water – I thought I’d missed my chance.” He continued.

“So you’ll be playing alongside your old Quidditch rival...” I began, reciting the text of my questions sheet in my most falsely excited monotone voice. “How do you feel about that?”

 

 

 

 “And finally – we know you like to be secretive, but we have to ask – for reasons which are beyond me and are not written down on this sheet – how’s the love life?”

“I don’t think I should answer that,” James said.

“Only a month ago there were rumours that you were in a serious relationship with an old classmate – Grace Whitehall.”

“Well, Grace is a good friend of mine who I haven’t seen for quite a few years, we were catching up. We’re not an item.” He said, then after a few seconds of silence. “Yet.”

“Yet?” I questioned, raising an eyebrow and discarding the question paper on the table.

“Well, you’re going to snog me now aren’t you?” James asked with a grin.

I swore. “Okay,” I said, “How do you want to do this?” James shrugged. “This is so awkward it’s unreal – I don’t know, do I just? I mean, do I just lean over and snog you?”

“That would probably work.”

I closed my eyes for a brief second in an attempt to gain some inner strength, then I opened them, lent forwards and...

Snapped backwards to the safe side of the table.

“I can’t do it,” I admitted, “It’s too weird.”

“What do you know – Gracie has become a prude.”

“A prude?” I questioned. If he’d seen me this morning in Max’s office he would not be making his allegations. “I am not a prude – I’m not. I just find it a little weird that I have to snog you and write about. I mean, that’s not natural and just -” and then I was cut off by James Potter’s surprisingly soft lips landing on my own, and then he snogged me. With lip-biting and all.

Sod.

A/N - and soo... it BEGINS. Reviews are wonderful and great :)
 


Chapter 9: August 5th.
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James Potter starts off slow and seductively, his hands taking a gentlemanly position at my waist – without even thinking about creeping downwards, but it’s quite clear that James is no gentleman. His lips are deliciously soft and commanding. He takes the lead. He runs his lips over my own, and he smiles against them – it’s surprisingly sweet, but James Potter has so much more to offer...

I stopped and slumped on my desk. I couldn’t write this. I genuinely could not write this – it was impossible. I couldn’t write 300 hundred words about any kiss, especially one that had been engineered for this very purpose.

“How’s it going?” Jill asked, smirking at me over her layouts.

“It’s like writing for a mills and boons novel,” I complained. “I’m essentially just writing... ugh, total crap.”

“What have you got?”

“A load of bullocks.” I muttered. “How do you write three hundred words about a kiss?”

“See that’s the thing,” Jill said. “You were probably supposed to snog him for longer to give you more to work with – how long was the incident.”

Fifteen minutes.

“Ermm... not long.” I muttered, flushing into my desk. I tried to think pale thoughts to prevent Jill from noticing this sudden rush of colour – I did not need her asking any more questions than necessary about the whole sordid affair.

“Well, what was it like?” Jill asked. “Was he awful?”

“No,” I conceded, “he definitely knows how to snog, and he’s definitely improved since sixth year.” I muttered. “This is impossible.” I turned back to the parchment mentally wishing that it would burst into flames. I needed to blow something up (a large picture of my mother, perhaps?).

His teeth run over the edge of my lip deliciously and I can feel my heart thudding in my chest. I’m practically having a heart attack even though this kiss is fake and extremely awkward. After fifteen minutes of accidental vigorous snogging, in which I knock over the cold dregs of my espresso and pour it down my top so that it looks like I’ve shat from my breasts, Potter laughs at me for being so awkward and invites me out of coffee the following day to ‘catch up.’ I only realise after coffee the following day, during which he tells me what everyone else has been doing for the past nine years, that it could be considered as mild cheating on my boyfriend of like, a month, who’s actually my boss. Then I realise my life is actually a joke, which is confirmed by the fact I have to keep on replaying the stupid kiss in my mind to write about it.

I only realised after I’d committed the last word to the parchment that if anyone read this I would almost certainly be fired, so I pulled my wand out my pocket (I’d found it last night, wedged inside the toaster where I’d tried to use it to spear a crumpet – you’re not supposed to use a knives for that, after all) and actually set fire to it. It was quite satisfying. Maybe I should set fire to things more often... a new form of stress management?

“Come on,” Jill said, “it can’t have been that bad.”

But it was. It was so bad. Disgusting. A disgustingly good snog.

“Grace?” Cherry called, sticking her head out of her office and nodding me over in her direction. Oh hell. I’d tried my best to turn my nine pages of notes into a decent interview piece, but there’d been so much dribble that I had found it impossible. In the end I’d admitted I couldn’t do it, and turned in all the pieces of parchment to Cherry for her to sort out. Now she was probably going to have a go at me for being a crap interviewer.

“I’m going to be fired.” I told Jill, dragging myself off my seat and stepping into Cherry’s office wearily. She rolled her eyes and ignored me. I may have been saying this daily for a few weeks now.

“Take a seat.” Cherry instructed. I sat down and stared at her blankly. I didn’t care if she fired me, actually. As long as I was never forced to interview anyone again, or snog famous Quidditch players – it just wasn’t fair. “James Potter is notorious for being very closed during interviews,” Cherry said. I nodded at her blankly. “Yet you managed him to talk about things he’s never mentioned in interviews before – his dad, his love life...” She continued. I started at her blankly. “This,” She said, holding up the thick wad of parchment, “is really good.”

“Really?” I asked, totally shocked. I’d done something right? Really?

“Sure,” She smiled, “this is going to read really well when I’ve filtered it out a bit, how long were you talking to him for?”

“Too long,” I muttered through gritted teeth. How long had it been? I couldn’t remember.

“There’s just one thing I was a little unsure of,” Cherry began; I nodded to signify that I was indeed paying attention to the dribble that was coming out of her mouth and so that she would continue and I would not be fired (at least not today). “James Potter was flirting with you.” I made an inaudible noise that sounded a bit like ‘Hmfgh’. He kind of had. “And you flirted back?”

“What?” I snapped, looking up at her in alarm. “I did not!” She raised an eyebrow. “I did not!”

“All right,” Cherry said, sifting through the pieces of parchments... “James Potter: I have to work out regularly.  Grace:  Is that how you got such big muscles...? later,” She said flicking through again. “Grace: It’s a shame you don’t have much time for socialising, James: why, are you interested...? Then, finally – James: I’m not looking for relationships, Grace: Who needs relationships anyway? All you need is the odd one night stand and you’re golden. Case and point.” She said, smirking at me.

“The last one was not flirting – that’s my genuine ideology when it comes to relationships, and the one before that I was being ironic, you took it out of context and...”

“The first one?”

“It was a genuine question, all right – his muscles are freaking huge.”

“Checking him out were you?”

“No!” I spluttered, “I had to stand and watch them take photographs of him for an hour, it wasn’t my fault he was topless!”

“Oh yes,” Cherry smiled. “Fiona wrote me a letter – said she was very impressed with the way you started bossing around the photographer, although she said was inappropriate for you to be interviewing him given you’re ‘history’” She was smirking at me.

“Oh, that was James making some shit up so I could go out and have a fag.”

“Okay,” Cherry said, “You know you’re allowed a ciggy break every thirty minutes - although if you take it every thirty minutes people won’t be impressed. The accepted amount is usually once every two hours.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“There’s just one other thing,” She said, “What exactly happened here...” She said gesturing where on the transcript I stopped mid sentence, and then suddenly there was a long space and then James started laughing and talking about how I spilled the coffee...

“The kiss.” I muttered.

Cherry was practically gleeful. “I wasn’t expecting you to go through with it! During the end of my time doing it, I’d just peck them on the lips and then make the rest of it up – no one complained because I was always very flattering. Anyway, thanks Grace – you did a great job.” Then she ushered me out of her office and I stared at the closed door dumbly – why hadn’t I thought of that? Why hadn’t I just lied?

Oh hell.

 

 

James Potter moves from my lips and instead runs his lips over the skin of my neck teasingly, stopping just below my ear to whisper “As if Whitehall,” and then I’m pushed over, and I’m in Hogwarts and everyone’s laughing at me and...

Fuck. Where was my wand? I wanted to set fire to something.

I tore up another piece of parchment. I needed to sort this, tonight.

His hands move up to my hair, where his fingers curl around my hair not allowing me go and then he smiles into my lips and his hazel eyes bore into mine. Then he moves his lips again, and with each word he forms his lips brush against mine gloriously. “I’m sorry,” He says – sincerely and honestly, “for everything that happened at Hogwarts, and everything that happened to you before and everything that happened before it – I think you deserve much,” he kisses the corner of my mouth. “much,” he continues, stopping to kiss the other corner of my mouth, “more.” Then he kisses me properly...

This would be fantastic if I was aiming for a bad clichéd romance novel, which was more leanings towards ‘fantasy’ and ‘fiction’ than anything true. Maybe if I used some of it... put bits of all of it together...

Why did it matter? Could I not just have 85 words? What was wrong with that? Not that I actually had 85 words...

There was a distinct tapping on the window (and I mean the window my flat is so good that it only had one window. And it’s in the bathroom) and I looked up eagerly – welcoming any distraction. Anyway, it could be Max – it must have been a busy week at the office or something, because I’d only seem him briefly since the James Potter incident.

It took about three steps to get from my sofa to the bathroom, and then I had to complete the obstacle course to get to the window. I went for the ‘standing in the bath method’, rather than the ‘leaning so far you usually fall over and end up in the bath’ method to yank open the window, and lo and behold the owl fluttered into my flat, hooting loudly.

“Shush!” I exclaimed hopefully. I had muggle neighbours after all and normal muggles don’t have owls flying around their flats.  However, the owl was already swooping across my flat and heading for the mouldy bread. Well, I guess it could help itself to the mouldy bread as it wasn’t like I was going to eat it. I wanted my letter though.

I inched forwards towards the owl slowly. “Here nice owl,” I said softly. “Just give my letter and you can have the bread, my letter...” And then I was apparently too close, and the owl screeched indignantly and flew straight at me. I screamed, ducked and felt it fly over my head.

This owl was a psycho.

I grabbed my inkwell for protection before beginning to advance on the owl for a second time. It was perched on the sofa... and if I could just get there and grab the letter. “Nice owl,” I muttered taking a tentative step forward. It remained unaware of my presence until I was right behind it; hands outstretched... waiting...

Then it turned its head towards me. A pair of yellow eyes stared straight at me menacingly. For a second neither me nor owl moved: it regarded me and I regarded it for a very long moment in history. We were statues.

...And then the owls’ beak darted forward narrowly missing my nose and causing me to throw the inkwell into the air. It smashed on the ceiling, dosing the both of us in blue ink and bits of glass. I almost felt guilty, but then the owl took off and I tried to grab it, and then I was chasing it forwards – millimetres behind – and it’s wing caught me across the face. “Please!” I yelled, “give me the sodding letter!” And then the owl dropped the letter in my lap, just as I lunged at it, and the door of my flat flew open to reveal Mr O’Neil, my elder neighbour, armed with a sauce pan.

“You screamed!” he said breathlessly, and then stared at me for a very long time. In fairness, I was lying on the floor, covered in ink and glass, clutching a piece of parchment like my life depended on it. During the fall I had managed to fall out of my bra. The owl was gone.

I was alone in my apartment, lying on the floor with my breasts out. I had ink in my hair and smashed glass all over my clothes.

He almost definitely thought I was drunk or on drugs.

For the first time in my life, that was a good thing. I had no explanation for why I was lying on the floor, covered in ink, with my breasts on display clutching what I now found to be two pictures... one of which the model was half-naked.

Kill me now.

Preferably in the least violent way possible, and the least painful because this moment was enough pain for a life time. Maybe I could set fire to myself?

I’d have to find my wand first.

So what does one do in these occasions? One rolls over, kicks her legs in the air (accidently showing off a bit of knicker – and I honestly mean accidentally in this case), laughs manically and rambles on about various different names of drugs. Then I pulled myself off the floor, readjusted my top half so that I was at least decent and grinned at My O’Neil manically.

“Wants some?” I asked. The ambiguity was deliberate and hopefully quite intimidating for poor old Mr O’Neil.

Mr O’Neil shook his head nervously. Old people never know how to deal with the concept of being in the presence of people high on drugs – especially the old fashion types like Mr O’Neil. Knowing this was often helpful for rare but horrible situations such as this one.

I pouted, tripping over and leaning against the kitchen counter casually. Why wouldn’t the bloke just leave? How long could I keep this up? I should have gone for the time old some-terrible-event-has-just-happened-and-has-left-me-unhinged. It is always so much easier to keep up tears as opposed to tripping for an extended period of time... inconsistencies tend to creep in with both scenarios but really... Mr O’Neil was far too nosey for his own good. Maybe I could set fire to Mr O’Neil?

“Are you okay?”

“Ecstatic,” I answered, twirling a little on the spot, “how are you, Sir? Are you going to stay? If you stay you have to...”

“Err, no, I’ll be leaving thanks.” He nodded, stepping backwards and closing the door far too slowly for my liking. Bloody hell.

“Bye bye!” I yelled before rolling my eyes and leaning against the wrong-side of my kitchen counter with a frown so that I could properly examine the photos the crazy-owl-of-doom that had (eventually) dropped for me. I brushed a few bits of glass out of my hair and in doing so inadvertently smeared more ink all over my face. Then I stopped my actions suddenly and stared at the photos in front of me.

 They were the photos of James from the shoot yesterday; one of him topless looking around with an expression of pure comedic horror that I identified as the shot that was taken when he had first heard my name. The other was the final photo that had been taken...

In a purely artistic way of looking at things, of course, I had to say that the photo looked quite good. The lighting was soft and James Potter was looking at just the right angle that highlighted the line of his chin beautifully...

I ran my fingers over the edge of the piece of parchment and thought for a long few minutes. Maybe the photos were from Cherry as some sort of practical joke? Mocking me for accidentally flirting with James Potter? Or... for some professional reason?  Or...

No, I was out.

I turned the photos over in my hand and found something scrawled on the back... a series of numbers – a phone number. And under that... An untidy letter ‘J’ and a kiss...

James Potter you flirt.

If he genuinely thought there was anyway I was going to call him then he was an absolute tool. After everything that happened? There wasn’t a chance.

I stared at the photos with a bemused smile playing across my lips; He had a nerve, you had to admit that, and he definitely had style, but there was absolutely no way...

But before I’d finished my pathetic internal sentence I found myself punching the numbers into the phone and then it was ringing before I had a chance to stop myself. Put it down, my head was telling me. Put the god damn thing down. It rang again. Put it down damn it, Grace. I made a tiny jerk towards the receiver when a voice on the other end said “James Potter speaking, how much do you want me?” I froze. I couldn’t speak. “Hello?” The voice said and for a glorious second I thought he was going to hang up. “Grace?” He said. “Is that you Gracie? Don’t hang up – I’ll just call you back.” I could tell he was grinning.

Why had I phoned? Now I looked like a desperate twit. I could at least have waited a few hours, or better yet, a few days before diving towards the phone and dialling the number like my life depended on it. “You’re a fool Potter.” I said, leaning on the kitchen counter and resigning myself to the status of desperate singleton for life. Even if I kind of had a boyfriend.

“Huh, I wasn’t expecting you to be so rapid on the call back.” I gritted my teeth. “I mean, how close do you live to me?”

“You’re a fool for expecting a call back at all.”

He laughed at that. “Why might that be?”

“For a start I might not even have had a phone. It’s not the typical form of wizarding communication.”

“Well, my Owl’s pretty violent so I tend not to send her on errands too much.”

“You don’t say,” I muttered, “thanks to you my muggle neighbour thinks I’m a drug addict.”

“Not even going to ask.” James said. “So, you called back.” I could tell he was smirking.

“Anything to distract me from writing this stupid article.”

“What are you writing?” He asked.

Oh my god. Awkward.

“Your snogalicious thing,” I admitted. He laughed at me again and I smiled, twisting the phone wire around my fingers. “I’m about two hundred and fifty words too short.”

“So how many words have you got?”

“About fifty.” I answered.

“Let’s hear,” He said, I sighed and summoned the parchment with my wand (that I’d stuck in my pocket for safe keep – for once). It soared straight into my hands which was satisfying enough to make it worth being lazy. “All right,” I said, unfolding the screwed up piece of parchment which was my current final draft. “James Potter starts off slowly, his lips barely brushing against mine. James Potter smiles. His lips are deliciously soft and commanding. He takes the lead – his hands creeping up my back, his fingers running over my skin gently. But James Potter is no gentleman.” 

For a few seconds all I heard was his laughter and when he’d finally recovered “I’m sure that would be a lot sexier for me if you didn’t keep saying my name,” James laughed.

“It ups the word count,” I countered.

“Be honest, you just like saying it,” I remained silent. “It’s great, Grace, really,”

“Oh shut up, I know its crap – you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve tried to write this. Occasionally I end up writing alternative endings and dialogue.” There was silence. “That wasn’t supposed to come out like that,” I said quickly, flushing. “Oh god,” I groaned.

“What sort of dialogue?”

“Minimal dialogue.” I muttered. “Shit, lets’ just forget about the dialogue. I might just write out last week’s Ian McLaggen’s piece – I doubt anyone would notice.”

“Excuse me,” James said. “I am not having my snogging techniques compared with McLaggen’s.”

“McLaggen isn’t a bad snogger,” I said defensively.

“He’s not as good as me,”

“If you say so.”

“Well, did he make you have a little accident?”

“All right,” I muttered. “So I spilt my espresso – big deal. Anyway, goodbye Potter, I’m going to go write about snogging you, even though it’s impossible and stupid.”

“How hard can it be?”

“I’m going to assume you’re talking about writing the article here,” I said with a slight smile. “And if you’re so good – you try it.”

“Kissing James Potter is the most incredible, indescribable and mesmerising moment in my entire life.” James said in a mock seductive voice that induced an eye roll even though I couldn’t see him. “I don’t think I can put it into words – but I’m going to try.”  James continued, I imagined him adding in hand gestures and flourishes, but I couldn’t exactly see through the telephone. “I think you’re making it a bit too sexual Grace,” James said. “Write what people want to here,”

“Too sexual?” I question.

“You know, all that James Potter’s lips brush over my skin, causing tingles and mild electric shocks stuff.

I might put that in you know, I’d love to see Cherry’s face,”

“Cherry Mandaise?” Potter asked.

“She’s my boss,” I clarified.

James said something inaudible that could have been ‘talk about mild electric shocks’ or could have been something completely different. “My point is, be more like ‘If James Potter doesn’t kiss me again, I’ll die and whatnot.”

“I think I’ll live to be honest,”

“Well, let’s hope you never have to find out.” I laughed again. “Or be like ‘I love James Potter with every fibre of my being – I can’t live without him, he’s my god’ – they’ll suck it up.”

“Yeah, you do look like Buddha.” I retorted, but suddenly there was a deadly silence at the other end of the phone. “James?” I questioned. “James?” I said again and then the dial tone rang through the phone.

James Potter just hung up on me?

Sodding hell.

I shoved the phone down feeling disgruntled and turned back to my piece of parchment with a grimace. I had nothing else more to say about snogging James Potter. James Potter – who’d, just hung up on me

. It wasn’t like I’d never been hung up on before, because I had. Once I’d called my at the time boyfriend ‘Henry’ when his name was Federico and he hung up immediately (this might me because his brother’s name was Henry) and I was also hung up on once when my cheating-ex panicked when I’d asked why a girl picked up the phone (I’d been more surprised that he’d conned two people into sleeping with him than anything else, to be honest). I’d also hung up on many people before, but this was slightly more humiliating...

Because this was James Potter, and I shouldn’t have rung him in the first place.

The phone rang again and I snatched it off the hook – James Potter ringing to apologise?

“Hello,” I said breathlessly.

“Grace?”

“Max!” I exclaimed, biting my lip. How bad was it that I was disappointed? I was such a terrible excuse for a human being.

“I’ve been trying to get through to you for twenty minutes,” Max muttered, he sounded disgruntled and overly annoyed. It wasn’t exactly my fault that I’d been on the phone and I wasn’t in the mood for him being a moody bastard right now. He was more mood-swingy than a hormonal teenager sometimes. Worse! He was more hormonal than my menopausal mother (not that menopause had made that much difference to my mothers temperament –she’d always just been a heartless bitch). “Well, that doesn’t matter.”

“Are you okay?” I questioned.

“Yes, I’m fine.” He snapped. “I just had an argument with... with my mother.” He finished. What was he, like twelve? I forced down my annoyance and tried to focus on the fact that he was very attractive boss who took me to fancy restaurants and was sexy and brilliant – most of the time. “Are you free Saturday night?” He questioned.

“Erm... yes,”

“I’ll pick you up at eight.” He said before yet again I was reacquainted with the dial tone. Sodding men.

The phone rang again – my mother? Or James? Or Max? Or Cherry? I let it ring three times before picking it up this time. “Grace Whitehall speaking.”

“Oh good,” James said, “I was hoping it was you. Look, sorry about before, well... Lily came in and heard one end of the conversation, when I was talking about how amazing it was to kiss myself, and about tingling and stuff... she thought I was talking to my, well, actually – it doesn’t matter, but she was genuinely terrified and I had to go explain.”

I let out a shaky laugh.

“What the fuck did you do to my owl?” James asked curiously.

“Erm, what do you mean?” I asked. The owl had just disappeared, I hadn’t like vanished it? Or murdered it? Or made it go bald again (I’m not good with owls, all right)?

“Well, it’s blue,”

“Oh, right, it’s just ink – I tried to use it as self defence.”

“Oh yeah, she’s pretty violent. Anyway, I wanted to know if you wanted to go out Saturday night.”

“Oh,” I said totally thrown off balance. “Well, I’m kind of busy,”

“Friday then?”

“Why?”

“You still haven’t told me what you’ve been doing with yourself for the past nine years, have you? I just talked about myself last time and I want to prove to you that I’m not a selfish bastard,”

“Anymore,” I finished off for him.

“Well, yeah,” He agreed. “Go on Gracie, you know you want to give me a second chance.”

“Okay,” I said. “But I’m on a mission too – I’m going to prove to you that I’m not an attention seeking slut,”

James was silent for a second. This was good, I’d laid down the law – I’d basically told him he wasn’t getting any from me, which meant that it definitely wasn’t a date. So it didn’t have to have any negative impact on my (currently somewhat shaky) relationship with Max whatsoever... and I could still catch up with James, who seemed... fun.

“Sounds like a deal,” He said. “I’ll meet you in the leaky cauldron at eight,”

“We’re not eating there or anything are we?”

“No,” James laughed. “I’ll take you somewhere nice.”

“Dress code?”

“Minimal.”

“I’ll take that to mean nothing with glitter or bows,” I said. “See you,” I added and then I put the phone down before he could say anything else.

Well... that could have gone worse.

Then I picked up my pen with a new and sudden flow of inspiration...

Kissing James Potter is a sensation unlike no other – truly indescribable. So I’m not really going to try (although I will say that his use of the often neglected lip nibbling technique is to die for, and that he could probably wake up any muggle fairy tale princess from the dead – not just snow white – with those lips).

 I had coffee with James Potter pre-snog, and the most startling revelation of afternoon was not that he has lips that are so soft it’s like being kissed by a dream, although that’s a hundred percent factual, no – it was his company. James Potter is the full package. He makes me laugh, joking about Quidditch, espressos and mundane things that the average man render boring beyond belief. We chat about everything from the weather to politics and I realise that his brain cells haven’t all be knocked out by the odd bludger, no – despite all the evidence to the contrary James Potter is smart and plays the role of the perfect gentlemen impeccably.

We’ve drunk our coffees and ordered seconds. By the time it’s snog-time the table is littered with cups and I’ve drunk so much espresso that it’s definitely going to result in a caffeine addiction – but I’ve barely noticed the time passing. In James Potter’s company times flies just like he does – much too fast. There’s an adrenaline rush too, and I find myself getting more than a little nervous as the seconds tick by.

James, however, remains calm and collected and eases my nerves with one of those famous casual smiles (which are all the more attractive when not in print, by the way) and my knee-jerk response is to smile straight back.

Then there was the snog. Let’s just say this: I am a twenty eight year old woman, and I was reduced to knocking my coffee all down my chiffon-shirt when the kiss reached its peak. And what did James Potter say? I quote, never mind eh, I guess you’ll just have to take the shirt off.

Maybe not such a gentleman after all.

 
 


Chapter 10: September 7th.
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

“Grace, this is excellent.” Cherry declared setting the piece of parchment down on her desk with a grin. “Although I don’t think it quite beats your James Potter scoop.” She said with a grin. “Now, I’ve wondered, what did he think about that?”

“He thought it was bloody hilarious.” I replied flatly.

“So you’re in touch with him?” Cherry said with a mischievous grin that suited her a little too well for my liking.

“No, I just, you know, imagined that he’d find it very funny.”

“Imagined?” Cherry asked. Of course I was lying. He’d laughed down the phone about it for twenty minutes, and insisted that I repeatedly read it to him and then, at our dinner – which had incidentally been the same day the article was published, he kept quoting different section at me till even the word Snogalicious, which had initially been a source of amusement, now made me grimace and start making me want to pull my hair out.

 All that aside, the point was Cherry didn’t have to know for two reasons... one, she would jump to her own false conclusion that would be very false (because there’s not a chance in hell that I’d go near James Potter romantically) and two, because she might mention it in front of/too Max, which would make me look like a very bad person. Then I’d lost my job.

“I always said you should have been in Slytherin,” I stated, raising an eyebrow at her.

“So, you’re in touch with him?”

“We went out for dinner once.”

“And...?”

“And then he didn’t call me or contact me at all.” Not that I minded. At all...

Except, really, it was a bit impolite to give me the silent treatment after we’d formed a, dare I say it friendship. Maybe this friendship had only spanned across an interview, a few phone conversations, coffee and dinner... but I’d still, wrongly apparently, thought that at some point in the near future we’d arrange to continue ‘catching up.’

I mean, hell, for someone like me who’s social record as a little... well, let’s say abnormal, three meetings and four phone calls was practically equivalent to evenings spent bonding over camp fires and ‘bffl’ necklaces.

I didn’t help that I’d forgotten what it was like to have a social life, and now it appeared he’d caught up with enough and I’d probably never talk to him again in my whole life.

Bummer.

“Well,” She said looking a tad awkward.

“It doesn’t particularly matter,” I said, “But considering you were so interested in the whole thing...”

“Did you sleep with him?” She asked.

I looked up at her sharply. “I’m in a relationship,” I said slowly. She flushed slightly, and I found myself feeling irritated. Must everyone assume I hadn’t changed in the past ten years? Admittedly the idea of cheating on someone didn’t usually exactly bother me, but Max...

It had been what? Three months?

For me, that was practically marriage. It wasn’t very serious yet though, still in there ‘let’s go out for a meal, talk for a long time, and then come back to yours and have sex’ sort of stage – not that I was complaining. I could just about manage that stage successfully without screwing it up, and given we’d been there awhile I had become accustomed to it.

It actually helped that it was my boss, because I was always very aware that if I did something overly stupid then my job might be in difficulty too, and... Shockingly I loved my job.

It had never happened to me before; it was a bit weird actually. I assumed that jobs were designed to be annoying pesky things that paid for you to live – that putting up with your job was the price you paid for being alive, and that those strange people who said they loved their jobs were merely deluding themselves into positive thinking and to convincing themselves that they were ‘happy’ but...

I really did love my job.

Some days I didn’t do anything, and other days I’d be covering various people’s posts – although thankfully not the snogalicious column, whist Max set me little tasks and stuff to ‘improve my writing skills’ that I usually really enjoyed doing. Several times I’d stayed up late because I was mid flow writing a character profile or whatever fancy words he decided to throw at me, and better than all of the above – I was genuinely good at it.

“Grace?” Cherry questioned. “We’re having a muggle games evening tonight, if you want to come?” My face betrayed my dislike of the idea a little, but... think of all the ways I could embarrass myself playing muggle games? “Well, think about it. It’ll be at seven.” Cherry said.

“All right,” I conceded, before offering her my best attempt at a smile and leaving her office.

“What have you got today?” Jill asked me as I sat back down.

“Nothing,” I replied lazing back on my chair and examining the ceiling. “What about you?”

“Oh, you know,” Jill said. “A dozen or so layouts, an actual job. And you get the same pay as me – I’d protest,” She said. “But I enjoy your company too much, anyway I like this department – it has comfy chairs.”

“That it does,” I agreed, letting my eyes flutter shut for a pre-lunch time nap.

 *


I tapped my pen, yes pen – I refuse to use Quills, and they’re impractical, stupid and belong in Merlin’s time, against the side of my parchment. I know that’s illogical, using pen and parchment, but I don’t have any paper in my shithole (aka – flat) and the parchment in question was the back of a letter my mum sent me last week demanding to know whether I was still alive. Recycle, that’s my motto, because it’s cheaper and involves less effort on my behalf.

Write about two character’s first meeting using meta-narrative.

That was today’s task, and I didn’t have to have it done till next week but... well, I had no life and thus nothing else to do. Unless I decided socialising with Cherry, Dave and her other really cool mates looked like fun and, if I was honest, the likelihood of that happening was about on par with me deciding to go to Hogwarts reunion or me getting married to James Potter as in – not in a million bloody years. So... back to my homework.

Two characters... that was the hard bit, springing two characters up from my imagination and getting them to interact together like they were real people, when really the existed solely in my head...

How this was going to help me write articles about Quidditch I don’t know, but I wasn’t going to question him.

The phone rang. I walked over slowly and picked it up on the forth ring, like every good respectable woman should do – especially when it’s likely that the person calling is previously mentioned respectable woman’s mother. Or great aunt or something.

 “Hello,”

“Hey,” Max’s voice came from the other end of the phone. “Are you free Wednesday night?”

“Let me just check,” I said before mentally imagining going through my nonexistent social diary to ensure that I was indeed free. Obviously I was, but that wasn’t the point. I stayed silent for another few seconds for added effect before saying “What time?” as if that had any effect on whether I was free or not.

“Around se -” He began, and then he stopped suddenly. “I’ve got to...” then I was met with the dial tone. Fantastic.

It was nearly two minutes later when the phone rang again. Either Max ringing back or my mother trying to organise fun mother-daughter things we could do together, like ten years of absence wasn’t enough for her realise that I didn’t actually care about having a mother-daughter bond.

“Hello,” I said, pulling a cigarette from my pocket along with my lighter, I then lit the thing whilst waiting for the person on the other of the phone line to speak. They didn’t. “Hello?” I repeated. I took a deep breath in. “You know, it’s customary to speak when on the telephone,” And when I still received no reply I put the phone down again.

“Right,” I muttered. “Time for a bit of meta-narrative.” Then I realised that I’d pretty much just talked to myself, and so shut my lips tightly, reached for my pen and curled up on the sofa.

Then the phone rang again. I picked it up. No one spoke. “Look,” I said, “If you’re not going to say anything then don’t bother calling, and if you think it’s funny to have me running around like a headless gnome then to be quite frank, your just a sick person.”
“Err... hello?” A voice asked. Male. Interesting. “You know, Gracie, usually the other person speaks first.”

“What? Oh, James. Right.”

“Who else?”

“Many people,” I said. “I’m in high demand.”

“Yeah, all these people ringing and not saying anything,” He suggested. “Anyway, point is, I’m cooking dinner on Wednesday – interested?”

“Why?”

“Tradition – I always make my own attempt at a Hogwarts style banquet round the first of September to remind myself how good House elves cooking is,”

“That’s not what I meant. Anyway, Wednesday is the ninth, surely that’s a bit late...”

“Well, I’ve been away,” James said flippantly.

“Oh, where?”

“Touring, we had a ‘friendly’ match against Portugal, and then we went over to America for some press stuff – none of it half as exciting as it promised on the tin.”

“Oh,” I said – was that why he hadn’t called? “When did you get back?”

“About ten minutes ago, anyway are you interested? If not I’ll have to invite my family instead, and then I’ll be a right looser.”

“What time?”

“Sevenish,” He replied. Same time as Max’s thing.

“Well, we can’t have you looking like a looser now can we?” I answered without really thinking.

“So you’re coming?”

“Yes, wait... no,” I said. “I... I don’t know.”

Right...”

“I’m supposed to doing this other thing,”

“Well, what time? I’m easy.”

“I’m not really sure,” I said, “It never got finalised.”

“So fuck that and try my cooking, I’m not bad you know – no one’s died, yet.”

“Well...” I began, stopping again. Why was I considering this? I couldn’t! I mean... it was perfectly within my rights to cancel on Max, especially considering he’d hung up on me, but everything would feel slightly tainted if I cancelled on Max because of James. “No, I don’t think I can,” I said, leaning on the wrong side of my kitchen counter and suddenly feeling terrible, my positivity just draining away.

“Because...”

“The other thing is supposed to be with my erm...” I took a deep breath. “With my boyfriend.”

“Your boyfriend?” He repeated.

“Yeah,” I said. “And I really shouldn’t, I mean... I should be there instead. I’m sorry for forcing you to socialise with your family though, honest.”

“Well, I’m not quite that sad, I’ll find someone else.”

“Okay then.” I said. “Well... I guess I’ll erm, see you soon?”

“Yeah, right,” James, sounding a little put out, on the other end said. “Bye Grace.”  And then, yet again, me and the dial tone were reunited. I’d done the right thing.

So why did I feel so bad about it?

And now this meta-narrative definitely wasn’t going to be written given I’d just slaughtered all the inspiration I’d had. The walls of my shithole (flat) seemed to close in around me and I realised just how shit the place was. My tidying now looked like it had happened a decade or so ago...

I needed to get out.

Oh, sod it. I rummaged round until I found my phonebook, and then punched Dave’s number in.

“Hello,” Cherry said, sounding so annoyingly chirper I almost slammed the phone back down again.

“It’s Grace,” I muttered reluctantly. “I think I might join you for that, erm... muggle games night thing.”

Marriage to James Potter and Hogwarts reunion... here I come.

 *

Monopoly is the longest most tedious most suicidal-making game in the whole bloody word. Honest to Merlin, its worst than Quidditch, worst than watching paint dry... worse than playing gobstones or chess – it’s dire. I’m positive that it speeds the aging process up and that by the time I’m allowed out of this stupidly nice house, I’ll be forty eight rather than twenty eight. Then I really will be suicidal.

“That’s Mayfair with a house on please, Grace.” One of Cherry’s friends, who I was sure had gone to Hogwarts years back, because they’d given me incredibly weird looks when I’d fallen out of the fire twenty minutes late (I’d tried to locate my wand – I still didn’t trust Cherry), said with a triumphant grin.

“How much?” I asked holding up my fistful of hundreds and five hundred pound notes. Unfortunately I appeared to be doing quite well at this game and no matter what I tried – I could not seem to lose. I dutifully handed over the cash, realising with joy that it had made a dent in the amount of money I had. Maybe the torture would soon be over!

“Oh no!” Cherry’s friend’s boyfriend exclaimed. “Oh, I’ve landed on yours Grace – Oxford Street with four houses!”

Sodding hell.

 
*

 “Why don’t we play cluedo?”

Fuck no.

“I’m just going to help Cherry, I think I’ll sit this one out,” I said with a false smile. Dave caught my eye and smirked at me, well sort of – it was more a slightly twisted smile, he wasn’t quite capable of smirking. I navigated my way through the different rooms – that’s right, Cherry and Dave lived in a place where there were more than three rooms, and the walls were painted in a nice creamy colour that was light and cheerful, rather than a grey that looked like the walls were covered in year’s worth of dirt. Although, knowing my place, they were.

Her kitchen was especially nice compared to my three counters, a cooker, a sink and a microwave affair. They had a nice tall fridge, rather than a little one that came up to my knees, and a washing machine.

“Hello, monopoly champion.” Cherry said. I grimaced at her. “What are they playing now?”

“Cluedo, whatever that is.”

She laughed. “Wine?” I shook my head. “So tell me, how come you changed your mind?”

“A grave misjudgement on my behalf,” I returned.

She smiled again. “Its tradition,” She supplied. “We do it every September, and it was my turn to host.”

“Why does everyone seem to have September traditions? I try and ignore the month completely,”

“Who else does?”

“James Potter,” I answered reluctantly.

“He called?” I shrugged. “So...?”

“So I told him that I couldn’t see him because I was going out with my boyfriend.”

“Ah,” She supplied. “And how did he take it?”

“It cut the conversation short.” I replied, leaning on one of her kitchen counters and glancing up at the ceiling. “It’s the right thing to do,”

“Maybe,” Cherry agreed. “Are you staying? It’s cards next,” I grimaced. “There’s the fire in the living room if you fancy facing them again, but I won’t be personally offended if you just apparated.” I sent her a relieved smile, and then spun slightly on the spot and apparated back into my flat.

On top of my kitchen cupboard...

Shite

 *

So it had been a total of fourteen minutes, which I knew because I was reading off the clock on the top of the cooker. I was reading it from upside down. It told me that it was currently thirty two minutes past five, even though it wasn’t  - but I was pretty certain it still worked on a sixty seconds to a minute basis, even if it had been wrong since I’d moved in.

I was wedged, very comfortably, between the top of the kitchen cupboard and the ceiling, which was great. No, seriously – where else would I rather be? There was nothing quite as comfortable as being hunched over, staring at the floor which looked a very long way down, on top of your coffee cupboard, that was probably going to collapse at any second... Into the sink, obviously, because that’s how good my life is.

The phone rang. Fabulous. The one day in my entire life it seems like I have a social life I get stuck on top of my kitchen cabinet, having to listen to it ring off the hook. It rang four times. It was like torture...

Wait! I had my wand. Somewhere... my pocket. I twisted my body round with difficulty and managed to ease it out of my pocket as it rang for the ninth time... “Accio phone!” I declared desperately, it flew haphazardly in the general upwards direction just after my awful answer phone message cut in “Hi this is Grace speaking, please leave a message...” I caught it, miraculously, just as the phone wire was stretched to its maximum. “Er, hi...” the voice on the other end of the phone began. “It’s -”

James!” I finished, slightly breathless from the effort of not falling of the top of the kitchen counter and dying. “I am so glad it’s you,” I muttered. “Look, do you think you could help me?”

“Erm... sure?”

“It’s just, well, bit embarrassing really, but... I mean, I don’t normally use magic and then...”

“What have you done?” He asked sounding amused this time.

“I apparated.”

“Splinched?”

“No, no, it’s not that bad. I just... well, see, I’m stuck...”

“But you’re in your flat?”

“I’m stuck on top of my kitchen cupboard.” It was extremely obvious that he was doing his best not to laugh, and I couldn’t say I blamed him. I suppose it was funny, if it didn’t actually happen to you.

“Why don’t you jump?”

Jump?” I exclaimed. “I’d probably die! It’s all right for you; you’re used to being a million miles above the floor staring death in the face. I get nervous looking out of second floor windows!”

“What do you want me to do?”

“Get over here and help me!” I exclaimed.

“All right, where do you live?”

“Erm,”

“You don’t know?”

“No, I do know, but it’s not like I have to give my address out very regularly, oh shite, I’ve dropped my wand.” I muttered as it clattered to the floor. I fumbled with it, and the phone slipped from my hands, soaring towards the floor and clattering horribly. “I’VE DROPPED THE PHONE!” I yelled, hoping that my voice would carry. Then I leaned forwards and squinted at the post-it note which had my address on it, it was stuck on my fridge, and it was just... I could just about read it.

I yelled my address in the direction of the phone, then added a more pitiful ‘Please help me!’ before giving up completely.

James was a tosser and probably wouldn’t even try to help, which mean I was probably stuck here for the rest of my life. At least until my mum came round demanding to know why I’d been ignoring her, where she’d probably find a rotting corpse, or bits of skeleton dropping down from the top of the cupboard.

I straighten up a little bit more in the interest of not destroying my back anymore than necessary. Hmm... I manoeuvred my legs so that they were spread wide enough apart (classy) so that I could open the cupboard bellow. I opened it with one hand and felt around trying to locate something edible or alcoholic. I leaned over a little more... damn it; there was just a load of coffee... well at least if I got stuck here for too long I could just live off coffee beans.

Well... instant coffee granules.

Same difference, really it just meant that...

There was a loud crack, I screamed, overbalanced and found myself hurtling towards the floor in a rush of limbs that regrettably all belonged to me (remind me to diet, please).

James, who I assumed had somehow found out where I lived and apparated into my front room, darted forward in an attempt to catch me that could never end well...

Nope, I just sent him toppling over.

“Holy shit.”I muttered with my face squashed against the floor. I dragged myself upwards to find that I was incredibly dizzy.

“You were stuck up there?” James asked climbing to his feet and looking at the space between the top of my kitchen cupboards and the ceiling. “How did you fit?”

I turned around and glared at him for a long moment. The absolute prat. Maybe I wasn’t at my smallest, and I was probably several times bigger than his blonde Quidditch-loving bimbos, but that did not mean he could insult my weight. “No, I didn’t mean that,” He added quickly. “I mean, height ways.”

“I need a drink,” I muttered, still shaking. I rummaged through my cupboards wondering where the hell I kept the vodka in this place, but finding nothing but coffee and tins of some muggle crap that I was never going to eat. I was still shaking and felt more than a little uneasy.

“Are you all right Grace?”

“Mmmhmm.” I answered, bending to my knees and trying the floor cupboards. Ahha. I pulled out one of the bottle to find... empty.

Typical.

Well then. I shut the cupboard before James could see what I’d been looking for and accuse me of being an alcoholic just like Cherry had done. “I’m never doing magic again,” I said, turning round using the counters to steady myself. “I swear to Merlin.”

“Nice place,”

“It’s a shithole, you don’t have to be nice – goodness knows you’ve never bothered before.”

“I take offence to that,” James replied. “Maybe I was a jerk when I was seventeen, but that was a long time ago Grace and maybe you should -”

“You were a jerk when you saw me in Diagon Alley.” I accused, still clutching hold of the counters tightly. “You were a complete arsehole.”

“Yes.” James admitted. “Okay, well, it wasn’t intentional. I always said if I saw you again that I wouldn’t act like such a...”

“Cold hearted arrogant bastard.”

“But you took me by surprise! You were just there, and I wanted to talk to you, and I did... and then it all just started flowing out. I felt like I was seventeen again, and I felt terrible afterwards, which is why I tried to be nice when I saw you the next day but...”

“Oh, whatever Potter.” I muttered, folding my arms over my chest and glaring at him. “Why should I trust a word you say?”

“Because that’s what people do – trust each other. And I came to help you out here, right?”

“No, you apparated so loudly that I fell and nearly killed myself.”

“It’s the thought that counts.” He tilted his head and examined my disgruntled expression. “Have you eaten yet?”

“No.”

“Well, why don’t you come over to my place – I’ll get you a drink and cook you something to eat. You look a bit shaken up, and in the name of chivalry I wouldn’t feel right leaving you here on your own.”

I thought about it for a few seconds. Free food, free drink, free company...

“All right,” I said with a slight smile. “In the name of chivalry it is, Potter.” 

 *

“Grace,” Max said, hovering over me as he pulled on his shirt and began doing the buttons up. “I have to get back now.” I looked up at him and bit my lip, pulling the sheets around me so that my nakedness wasn’t too exposed.  I screwed up my face at him slightly, annoyed by the very idea of him leaving again.

Especially when it had been such a wonderful, wonderful night. I’d suggested we do something different. I’d ordered in pizza, and we’d eaten in my flat – lazing about and talking openly. Then he’d kissed me, and the pizza lay forgot on the coffee table as we explored the merits of having a really cheap non-leather sofa.

“Why?” I asked, sitting up and pulling the blankets up with me. We were in the bed now. I glanced at the clock – it was just past two in the morning. He’d been here since eight but... I still didn’t feel like we’d spent enough time together.

He leaned over me and brushed a piece of my hair out of my face. “I just do,” He replied, smiling at me. He was honestly gorgeous.

“You don’t,” I returned, reaching up and kissing him. He paused, let his eyes flicker shut for a split second, then grabbed his tie off the floor. “You really, really don’t.”

“Grace,” He reasoned.

“Max,” I returned, fluttering my eyelashes at him childishly. He frowned. I pouted.

“I really must...” he said leaning forward to kiss me on the cheek. I wrapped my arms around his neck and pulled him towards me properly, thus resulting in the loss of the sheet that had been hiding the fact I was completely starkers. “Graacee,” He complained, kissing the spot just below my ear. “I have to go.”

“Stay,” I implored, somehow flipping the whole thing over so he was the one pinned to the bed. “Now you can’t leave me,”

“I don’t want to leave you,” Max returned, flipping the whole thing back over so that he was now on top. In the office he was strictly smart, and it was almost surreal to have him kneeling over me clad in only his boxers and a wrongly buttoned up shirt.

“Then bloody don’t,” I concluded, not moving this time, but just giving him my best persuasive look. “It’s one night, Max, you can stay.”

“Okay,” he said, surprising himself with his answer.

“Good answer,” I said, wrapping my legs around his waist and pulling his body back to the bed, where it belonged “I’ll make it worth your while,” I said running my fingers through his short dark hair and closing my eyes.

Max. Max was the priority. Max was my boyfriend.

I was not going to accept anymore more invitations from James Potter.

No way.

A/N - Reviews are glorious and wonderful things! Thanks for reading :)
 


Chapter 11: October 5th.
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

I smiled languidly as I walked into my apartment and placed my bag on the desk. I was practically blissful. How long had it been? Months.

I sighed, and twirled on the spot, grinning around at my apartment as if it was actually a nice place to be. The restaurant Max had taken to me was gorgeous and expensive, he’d brought me a freaking necklace – which I was almost positive was diamond, not that I was going to ask – and then I’d looked all gorgeous and expensive. And I’d lost four pounds.

Two messages on the answer phone. I frowned at it but pressed the ‘play’ button, whilst leaning on the counter and staring dreamily up at the ceiling. Life was good. I loved England. I loved my job. I loved... having a boyfriend. I loved the necklace that former mentioned boyfriend had brought me.

“Gracie!” Mum’s voice exclaimed down the other end of the phone, “I was wondering -” I slammed the ‘delete’ button down hastily and waited for the second message to play.

“Hi, Grace, it’s me...James.  Haven’t heard from you in awhile. Feel free to come round whenever, or call me... or something.” I raised an eyebrow at that one. I replayed it, smiling even more at the ceiling. Embarrassingly, it was an old message that I was yet to erase. And I wasn’t going to erase it either.

Years of having James mock me, avoid me, plot against me... and I had real proof that now everything had changed, and that James Potter wanted me to ‘come round whenever’ and to ‘call him, or something’ which was beyond satisfying. Thus I’d been replaying the message whenever I returned to my flat as a little reminder that times had moved on since Hogwarts...

It made me feel so much better about being here – in crummy England.

Right, I decided, looking in the direction of the kitchen thoughtfully. There was no way I could survive on one of those tiny little potions of food, which were artfully presented in tiny galleon sized circles – or in worst case scenarios, sickle-sized portions. How was a girl supposed to survive on that, I ask you? Diet or no diet, I refused to starve myself.

Then I spotted something by the door.

I had mail. I stepped forward and examined the piece of heavy parchment on the floor. It was the type of posh cream parchment with a pattern engraved into the surface, the kind that looked so expensive that you didn’t want to touch it for fear of leaving black marks across its flawlessness.  I bent down on the floor next to it and lifted it up gingerly – taking care not to crush any of the corners for fear of destroying the most beautiful thing that had even been pushed under my door.

Miss G. Whitehall

There was some familiar memory attached to the handwriting – a sort of simplified calligraphy – and this alone made my heart start beating heavily in my chest. There was something about it that made me reach out and touch the letters, following them with my finger as I continued to read. I work of art more than a jumble of letters thrown into a words and sentences. Why was it so familiar?

You are cordially invited to the wedding of Elizabeth Caudwell and Albus Potter,

I suddenly had a vivid image of Elizabeth Caudwell sitting beside me in Transfiguration or charms, bending over her notes as she formed each word so beautifully that it was impossible. She’d never finish her notes and would end up having to copy my barely-there notes at the end of each lesson to keep up. Elizabeth Caudwell.

My mind suddenly jarred on the second point of the letter – Elizabeth was getting married. God. Of course I couldn’t think of a single reason why she’d invite me other than to rub her success in my face (although she never was that type) because despite being my ‘best friend’ for seven years things hadn’t exactly finished off on a good foot.

If I was getting married (to Albus Potter!!!), I certainly wouldn’t invite the bitch that said I was a stupid annoying sidekick who they only kept around because they needed someone to do their dirty work.’ Instead I supposed that by inviting me they were planning to save money on entertainment and provide everyone with a good laugh.

Look at Grace Whitehall! Look at the unsuccessful bint, she’s nearly thirty! Ha ha!

Elizabeth Caudwell was getting married to Albus Potter? God, what a turn up for the books. Good for her, I supposed, but my mind was still struggling to process that it was happening. I wanted to slate the idea of marriage and insinuate that they were too long but, Christ how it had happened, but we weren’t young anymore. They were twenty seven – a perfectly normal and acceptable age to get married.

Bloody hell. I was going to die alone and be eaten by owls. My body would be found when the smell got to the point that the council wanted to tax me for it. Bullocks.

I turned back to the invitation: there was a date, and a location, but my eyes instead found the closing comment - The future Mr and Mrs Potter eagerly await your RSVP.

Then it washed over me with a shocking sense of familiarity. I could picture Elizabeth, or Liz –as I’d called her then – staring at me with eyes swimming with tears at that party. She’d been shockingly shy, and eternally insecure in herself. She hadn’t liked herself, that was clear – but then, that’s what we had in common. She’d joined me on my mission to become popular on the sidelines, become ostracised through her decision to remain my friend, but on that night she’d been different.

I always was horrible to her, I can see that now, but I’d told her no one was ever going to look at her if she carried on wearing such plain things. I shoved her into this dress of mine (after I’d shrunk it significantly, I was bigger than her then so no doubt now I was at least twice the size) that was completely opposite to her normal modesty. Fuchsia, short and far too old for us at eighteen years old.

Turns out I’d been right because the second little Liz walked in, her chicken-wing legs balancing precariously underneath her with the added imbalance of very high heels (also mine) everyone’s eyes had been popping out their stupid faces. Looking back now, she looked much better in her dark grey to-the-knees smock dress, but as teenagers we all lapped up anything that showed enough skin that our imaginations were made redundant.

Men were still in the stage where less is always better and where the need for class is bypassed for the need to have as much sex as possible so everyone could try and convince themselves that sex didn’t matter.

They were all over her like a pack of grindylows: swarming her with complements, insults, attention and respect. Basically everything I’d been dying for since my second week at Hogwarts (after that terrible start) and I was very near to flipping out and screaming. Then Albus Potter had started talking to her and that was it.

After years of fruitlessly – or not quite – chasing James Potter my quiet little best friend was going to get exactly what I’d always wanted. So I’d been a completely bitch and stormed out of that party to jeering, cheering and calls of ‘cat fight.’

And that was the last time I saw the majority of my classmates and it was the last time I’d spoken to good old Liz.

So why was I being invited to their bloody wedding?

I was suddenly drowning in nostalgia and I hated it. I hated the sickly feeling the past brought, when you either realised things were better then, or worse – exactly the same. It made my head spin, and it made me itch to rip my hair out and scream. I didn’t want anything to do with the past – nothing. I wanted to be rid of it and away from everything that reminded of those god damn years Hogwarts.

Elizabeth was getting married?

Then, another thought.

James Potter.

The tosser, he must have known about this for ages. I doubted that Liz was the type to rush into a weddings and relationships – given she’d always been so reserved and nice – no, they must have been together for awhile. So why the bloody hell hadn’t James thought to tell me that my old best friend was engaged to his brother?

So we’d have little catch up sessions, he’d spend months making my phone bill painfully expensive and then he thinks he can just chose not to relay important and relevant information? Bullshit.

He was going to answer for this.

I tucked the gorgeous piece of parchment – which was so thick and expensive that I’d probably never be able to afford my own piece – inside my clasp bag before angrily grabbing some floo powder, throwing it into the fireplace and saying ‘James Potter’s apartment’ before that familiar spinning feeling took over.

It was a lot like thinking about the past – when everything was a spinning confusing mass of cause and effect, and it all spun around and made your stomach feel like it was about to drop out of you. I hated it. I lived in the present and the ambiguity of the future was bad enough without thinking about the concrete facts of the past – I could never decide which was more terrifying.

I shook my head, half-fell, half-stepped out into James Potter’s apartment and glared.

The apartment was sickeningly fabulous – all done up in stylish colours and overflowing with spare galleons. It was exactly the place I’d imagined myself living in my early twenties (not that I was in my early twenties anymore) and the first time I’d been here I’d been so sick with jealous that it had been quite hard to speak.  It was a double bedroom flat (and he lived alone – how greedy) and had taken on the ‘open plan’ idea a lot more successfully than my own flat. He had a three piece white leather suit, a 40 ft plasma screen television, a snooker table (why he’d even want a snooker table was beyond me) and his little kitchen unit had bar stools.

Worst of all – he had a nice bath.

“James!” I declared loudly, suddenly realising how weird it was that I’d just walked into his apartment, uninvited. Sod it. I never abode by these bloody social conventions.

“Grace Whitehall,” James said in mock surprise as he emerged from his bedroom whilst doing up his tie.

“You haven’t got someone in there have you?” I asked suspiciously. He shook his head. Then I thrust the wedding invitation in his direction and glared in his direction.

“Oh, you’ve got one too,” James commented, pulling his own invitation off the top of the drinks fridge – I noted that it was crumpled, folded in half at least twice, and worst of all – he’d spilt something on it. I inwardly cringed at the pure abuse of such expensive parchment and glared at him.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I exclaimed.

“It never came up?” James suggested, taking a step backwards in alarm.

“James!” I half yelled.

“I thought it would make you uncomfortable, all right.” He said taking another step backwards.

“Oh,” I said, stopping straight and blinking. That was almost... considerate.

“Look, Grace, I’m supposed to be going out,” James said gesturing towards his suit, which even I had to admit – was rather posh. He looked good, actually. Almost too good. It hurt a little bit. Bloody Quidditch stars.

“Well,” I said suddenly feeling beyond foolish and fighting the urge to go hide in a cupboard and never think about weddings or Hogwarts again. I’d just stumbled into his apartment when he was about to hit the town looking like James Bond, probably for some hot date that I’d totally just ruined.

“But I am supposed to bring a date,” he said, looking me up and down. So it wasn’t a date. It seemed, now, I was the potential date. My, how the tables have turned.

“I’m not dressed...” I began, then I realised I was still in my dress from my date with Max, and was even wearing the potentially-diamond necklace. “Okay, well, maybe I am.”

“Well, it would be a great help...” James said. “He’d made some comment about Quidditch players being gay, and so I’d asked if I could bring a date to prove I wasn’t, and then...”

“All right, James, enough with the bullshit – I’m not going to go.”

“But you look so gorgeous right now, and I can tell you all about the courtship of Miss Elizabeth and my brother.”

“I’m not interested.” I replied.

“They slept together at the graduation party.”

“Where exactly are we going?” I asked picking up my clasp bag with a raise of my eyebrow. 

 ***
 
“James,” I muttered irritably, staring at my glass of wine. “If this was all some elaborate ploy to get me out on a date, then -”

“It wasn’t,” James assured me, glancing at his watch and staring at the front of the restaurant with a slight frown, “that would be much more effort than you’re worth. Anyway, I’ll still tell you about Beth and Albus,”

“Beth?”

“That’s what she goes by these days, rather than Liz – she wanted a new start.”

“Figures,” I muttered. “She’ll always be Liz to me,” I added, taking another sip of the expensive wine that the waiter had ordered for us. Was it slutty of me, to essentially go on two dates in a night – and not even change clothes? That was bad even for me. I’d usually at least not wear the necklace, considering it had been a gift from the first guy. Still, I hadn’t exactly been planning this... “This guy you’re supposed to meet isn’t going to turn up, is he?” I asked grimly.

“No,” James said looking quite irritated. “And even if he does, it’s not my business to wait around for forty minutes...”

“In fairness,” I said slowly, “You were twenty five minutes late yourself.”

“That’s my prerogative,” James returned. “And the waiter said he hadn’t arrived yet so, I say we leave – unless you want dinner?”

“Well,” I said looking around the restaurant – it was typically posh, and would almost definitely serve the same tiny portions. “I’ve already been out,” I said gesturing to my outfit, “but it was one of those shitty places where they expected everyone to have shrunken stomachs or order eight courses – and to be honest, it’s not my cup of tea.”

“Still hungry?”

“Yes,” I complained, “but this place is not my style.”

“Want to get some chips or something?” James asked.

“Now you’re talking.”

 ***

“So let me set the scene,” James said, as we walked down some London street in search of somewhere that sold chips at this time of the night, “it’s the Hogwarts Graduation party, you arrive with Beth – after having a very loud and public bust up/cat fight with Taylor the previous week,”

“All right, all right,” I muttered. “I remember it pretty god damn well okay, there’s no need for the context reinstatement.”

“Don’t interrupt the story teller. So you two walk in, look stunning as normal – Beth wearing some pink dress that I’ve been told about so many times,” Fuchsia, I wanted to say –remembering how I’d sold the colour to her in the first place, lamenting the fact that it wasn’t pink, “and your wearing, well, I don’t know that much – I wasn’t there.”

“A little black number, no back and plunging neckline” I put in with an eye roll.

“Well that does help with the visuals,” James said with a grin, “and because Beth is looking so different to normal, everyone starts speaking to her, even my little brother. You flip out; scream at her, before apparating away not to be seen for the next ten years. Beth, in total shock, flees to the toilet for a little cry. My brother, being the absolute prat that he is followed her in bringing her firewhiskey and saying that ever famous line ‘I like your dress, the pink looks really nice with your skin’ to which Beth replied ‘its fuchsia’ and then she took the drink-”

“Liz doesn’t drink!” I exclaimed.

“Well, she did then, and she does now – if you were wondering – and then she wrapped her arms around his neck and snogged the living daylights of him. The rest is history.”

“So she didn’t even say anything? She just snogged him?” I asked in disbelief. This was Liz, quite and sensible little Liz...

“No... she said ‘fuck that bitch’ first.”

“Oh,” I said, considering this for a second. “That’s fair. Wait... how do you know this?”

“Because,” James said, “As soon as Al got home – at four in the morning I might add, bit of a shock to our parent’s considering he was the angel of the family, and he walks straight into my room, turns the light on and proceeds to tell me all about it.”

“Oh,” I said again, wrapping James’s suit jacket around me tighter. Being the gentleman he was, I’d been offered the suit jacket when James realised that walking around in just a dress isn’t preferable for those who don’t enjoy hypothermia.

“How about here?” James suggested, nodding towards a small cafe that definitely sold chips. That was enough for me, anyway, and I hardly cared that we were sure to look like complete tools for being dressed in formal wear to get a portion of chips, “Table for two please,” James said to the waitress, who looked up at him and jerked her thumb towards the empty cafe.

We headed for the booth looking out onto the street, even though the view consisted of cars travelling past at high speeds and the occasional homeless man transporting boxes and what not. “Are you sure?” James questioned, eyeing the menu doubtfully.

“Do they sell chips?” I asked. He nodded, “well then, don’t be so stuck up” I said, wrapping the jacket around me a little more as not to look so over dressed. James loosened his tie slightly. 

“So,” James said, “Haven’t heard from you in awhile,”

“Hmm...” I replied, making a point of examining my menu carefully.

“Are you going to the wedding?”

“Probably not, but please, let’s not talk about it,”

“Then what do you want to talk about?”

Anything,” I said.

“I could tell you about myself?” James suggested cheerfully. I couldn’t help but laugh and shook my head.

“How’s Quidditch?” I questioned, glancing up at him through my hair and smiling slightly.

“Hard,”

“Well, it is international level.”

“I suppose,” James said shrugging. “It’s just, it’s so serious now... it hardly fun anymore. I guess I miss when I could mess around in practices and eat what I wanted and stuff. They have me on this diet thing, and this daily training program and... well,”

“I suppose I can understand that. Well, not really, I reckon doing something you loved for a living would be pretty great,” I reasoned.

“It is,” James agreed, looking oddly thoughtful for a moment before shaking himself out of it, “but I’m not allowed to eat chips.”

“Quit,” I advised, attempting to catch the bored waitress’s attention for long enough to order. “Nothing’s worth sacrificing chips,”

James grinned. “So how’s the Prophet? They haven’t sacked you for not knowing what a Bludger is yet?”

“I know what a bludger is,” I countered. “And it’s all right. It’s better than most jobs I’ve had,”

“Which ones were better?”

“Erm...” That stumped me. I thought about it for a long time. I did like Prophet, actually, which was a dramatic improvement on any of my other jobs. Still... I supposed it helped that I was shagging the boss, friends with several of my co-workers (Jill, George, Scott Hall, well... okay, maybe not the dreamy Scott Hall – but a girl can dream right?) and then I didn’t really have to do anything. It was like having a sex life and a social life, but being paid for it (although that brings back memories).

Most of the time I couldn’t find a single fault in my job. Except that... I wasn’t used to having a job and the idea that I could be working there for the rest of my life was oddly... suffocating.  “No,” I said after a few moments of silence, “I’m out. Still, let’s talk about something else,”

“What?” James asked soundly slightly frustrated, then the waitress wondered over looking very bored and glanced at us expectantly. I ordered a pint (to which James raised an eyebrow at, his normal dates probably drank wine or something) and a plate of chips. James did the same then looked at me for a long moment, seemingly irritated. “Well Grace, what do you want to talk about?”

“Anything,” I said, feeling equally annoyed. “Just not about the Wedding, or Liz, or my job or Quidditch.”

“Anything else? You won’t shoot me down again?”

“Course not, I don’t think you could take it.”

“Okay, I have an idea.”

“Shoot.”

“Promise not to veto it?”

“Promise,”

“Let’s talk about Hogwarts,”

“No,” I said immediately, staring down at him as the waitress brought over our chips (despite professing he wasn’t allowed to eat them – typical James) and set my beer down with a clunk. I’d need a lot more than a single pint before I was ready to talk about Hogwarts.

“You promised you wouldn’t shoot me down,” James said triumphantly.

You tricked me,” I accused.

“We’re going to talk, about Hogwarts.”

“No, no, no,” I said firmly, flicking my hair out of the face (and looking incredibly stupid for doing so).  I picked up my glass and took a drink, “let’s not talk about Hogwarts.”

“Why?”

“Oh, why don’t you think about that?” I suggested scrunching up my face attractively to signify my displeasure at the mere mention of the world, “even the word’s ugly,” I told him disparagingly, “Hogwarts,” I shuddered.

“See that, I don’t understand,” James said leaning forward to pick up his own glass, and taking a huge mouthful of the stuff, “how can you dislike Hogwarts?”

“I appreciate that the building’s amazing, and that it’s got all this history and stuff, but to be perfectly honest – I hated being there.”

“Well,” James began tentatively – watching me to make sure I wasn’t about to throw my half empty glass at his head or whatever – before continuing at a pace that was slightly faster than his norm, “you didn’t exactly help yourself,”

I didn’t blame him for being nervous about my reaction. I could feel my irritation levels rising exponentially and the urge to cause him bodily harm was definitely increasing. Hogwarts was not a topic of conversation I was open to in any way. I supposed, given our history, I probably should have expected him to bring it up now we were... acquaintances, but did he really have to catch me off guard like that?

 James seemed to misinterpret my silence as an invitation to carry on talking, which it definitely was not. I suppose I could forgive him for not fully understanding given I hadn’t seen him much in the past decade, but it was still irritating, “you brought a lot of it on yourself.”

“Oh no, Potter,” I said darkly, “your memory is most definitely selective – you don’t remember what you don’t want to remember. I might not have, exactly... dealt with things in the right way but the question as to whether I would fit in was answered the moment I got there,” He sent me a questioning look and leant back in his chair again,” do you remember,” I asked slowly, leaning forwards and resting on my elbows (making sure they were actually supported by the table first), “my first day at Hogwarts?”

“No,” He returned with complete sincerity.

“I do,” I informed him, “And I think, with a little prompting you might do too... it’s your second year at Hogwarts. You’re watching the sorting; it’s nearly at the end when...”

“When your name’s called up,”

“Sure. So I walk up to the front, except I’m causing quite a bit of controversy...” I trailed off watching him think in a painfully slow manner.

“You...” he began, “everyone was laughing because...” He paused for a second and met my gaze, “because you were half-bald.”

“And you yelled...?”

“Is it a boy or a girl?” James finished, “my insults were very uncreative when I was twelve,” He said by way of apology.

“I’m sure that’s probably normal,” I said.

“Half-baldness is, well, not,” James said glancing at me, “hey, is that why you ended up in Gryffindor – because you were bold.”

“You used that one too,” I deadpanned, “and it wasn’t funny the first time.”

“Damn.” James said, seemingly drifting into thought. Probably about the memory of half-bald little old me. I could remember how lopsided my head used to look and how I used to hate being forced to confront my reflection, even after it had been fixed.

“Let’s skip forward to second year,” I said, “your third. I caused quite a controversy then as well,”

“You...” He began. “You were screaming and crying because... because you were scared of the horses that drew the horseless carriages, and... everyone thought you were mad.”

“Bingo,” I said taking a somewhat larger sip of my beer with the realisation that I might have said a little bit too much...

“Thestrals.” James realised after a few seconds. “Which means...?”

“Drop it,” I muttered, sinking back in my chair and hiding behind my pint the best I could. I suddenly felt far too exposed and like I should be dragging up old emotions and feeling them even though I couldn’t drag them up from within myself anymore.

 “Grace,” James said very seriously. A small part of me – the part that was still a teenager – still found a thrill and a slight rush of adrenaline when he said my name. That was probably why I didn’t immediately run and apparated away – he’d follow me anyway, and he knew where he worked. And lived. Creepy, when you thought about it, “why were you half bald when you came to Hogwarts?”

I ran my tongue over my teeth as I considered my next few words – how to explain what I barely even allowed myself to think about? “Have you ever heard of Trichotillomania?” I asked after a long heavy pause.

“I can safely say that I haven’t.”

“It is,” I began with another gulp of my beer, “A... a disorder. Some people say its self harm, some people say that it’s compulsive – like OCD – and, and... it, it basically means you pull your own hair out.”

James stopped moving all together, his eyes found mine, and he stared at me with his mouth half open in a way that could almost have been comical.

“It’s most common in children, and it’s like, it’s hard to explain to someone who doesn’t understand.”

“I’m listening.”

“It’s like an itch, or a need, that needs to be satisfied and like an itch it’s almost subconscious, so you find yourself with your hands just there and then, then... then you pull it out,” I explained fighting to keep my own hands resting on the table rather than going up to scratch my scalp, which they were so longing to do, “it doesn’t hurt much, but it’s like... a release, like you’ve lost something... although people do it anywhere, like eyebrows or eyelashes,” I said, “or, well,” I paused, “anywhere,” I finished lamely.

“You pulled out your hair?” James asked in a way that wasn’t condescending or patronising, like I’d have thought, it actually sounded as if he cared. I hated that.

“I didn’t even realise I was doing it,” I said truthfully, “it just happened, sometimes I still...” I stopped short and looked at my hands. They were tensed up and resting on the table, “eyebrows are the thing now – it sounds really stupid – but I just, the thing about it is getting the hair from the root and pulling it right out, and then I’m there with a pair of tweezers and I just have to get that one hair out, even if it’s still under the surface of the skin and I end up, sort of digging it out from...” I stopped again.

Why was I talking about this? With James Potter no less.

James Potter himself reached a hand forward and placed it over my own tense hands. “What did you say it was called again?”

“Trichotillomania... You’re not going to tell anyone are you?”

“No, what kind of bastard do you take me for? I was just going to research it – see if I can understand a bit more.”

“They don’t know much about it. People think of it is a mild form of SI,”

“SI?”

“Self-injury, sorry – crazy people speak. There are slangy names for everything, like Trich,”

“You’re not crazy,”

“No?” I asked, “You didn’t seem to think that seventeen years ago.”

“Well, I was twelve.” James said. “I hardly think you can judge me on something I said when I was twelve.”

“I didn’t,” I said, “But you’ve given me plenty of material to judge you on since then.”

There was suddenly a stiff awkwardness and the flow of the conversation had evaporated as quickly as it had come. I pulled my hand from under his and looked away awkwardly. Things had been going so well – I’d almost enjoyed spending time with James Sirius Potter...

Damn Hogwarts.

“So you pulled your own hair out,”

“That’s not a very good conversation starter,” I snapped back.

“Well someone’s got to do the conversational shitwork,” He retorted.

“Why? All I wanted to know is why I’ve been invited to this wedding and since when your brother has been engaged to my ex-best friend,”

“You might as well finish your beer,” James said with a slight raised eyebrow, he leant back on his seat and continued looking at me steadily.

“Look, you just shouldn’t have brought Hogwarts up, okay?”

“It was seven years of your life; you can’t just pretend it never happened,”

“Why not? I’ve been managing for the last ten.”

“Yeah, by running away and leaving all your friends -”

“–I didn’t have any friends,”

“Then why has Elizabeth invited you to her wedding?”

“I can honestly say I have no idea, that’s what I came to ask you, remember?”

“She heard you were back in the country,” He shrugged.

“From you?”

“From Roxanne,” I sighed in frustration and finished the rest of my beer in one swig. “What? Of course people are going to be curious – you disappeared for a decade! You’ve changed a lot you know, and then at the same time – not at all,”

“Well thanks for that enlightening statement,” I said with an eye roll, “but I’m not going,”

“Oh come on,” James said, “You might even enjoy yourself,”

“Enjoy everyone laughing at me?”

“It was ten years ago Grace, people have moved on – they’re not going to care about some stuff you did when you were a teenager,”

“Then why did Roxanne take a picture of me?”

“She shouldn’t have done that,” James conceded, “but, you know, it’s not too late to start again,”

“I’m twenty eight James; I think it’s a little late to be reforming myself,”

“I’m thirty in four months,” James deadpanned.

“Fuck,” I said in astonishment. “We’re getting so old. I’m supposed to be married and have kids by now,”

James laughed. “So,” He began leaning forward on his elbows. “Are you going to explain anything more about the Trich?”

“No. I shouldn’t have mentioned it in the first place.”

“Isn’t repressed emotions more of a teenage thing?” James said “Bit old for this aren’t we, surely we can talk as adults?”

“It’s inclusion in the conversation was only to demonstrate the fact that Hogwarts wasn’t completely my fault. If you turn up for your first day at school with half your hair missing, people aren’t overly friendly.”

James considered this for a few minutes. “Why didn’t you charm it back, or have a wig or something?”

“I should have done,” I sighed, “Sinistra went mental when she found out because my parents had written to her but they didn’t mention the Trich. She said that they’d ruined my chances at fitting in and that she couldn’t do anything about it now, because they hadn’t told her. She said that if she’d known before hand I could have had like, an illusion spell put on me, or given me some potions, or I could have shaved my head and had a wig, but... it was too late then. Everyone had seen me. Mum got all worked up about it, and then she was yelling and I was just sat there pulling clumps of hair out in her office,” I shuddered slightly and blinked.

It was strange to think back to how I’d felt then and how horrible it had felt to hear them yell about how I was never going to fit into Hogwarts and whose fault it was... now it felt like a part of someone else’s life.

“After that Sinistra organised proper therapy for me, I’d had some at home, but well... then I was put on some hair re-growth potions and had to try and let it grow back. That didn’t work for awhile either, so they put a charm on me so I couldn’t do it.”

“Why didn’t they just do that in the first place?” James asked.

“They wanted me to overcome it myself – they thought it would be more beneficial for me and I’d feel like I’d made it over another hurdle, so to speak. They were probably right.” I sighed.

“But you have a full head of hair now?”

I shrugged and turned back to my empty glass. “I really don’t want to talk about this, James,” I said with that familiar uncomfortable realisation. I didn’t think about Hogwarts. I didn’t think about any of that, and I certainly didn’t talk about it. It was unnecessary when all that stuff was shoved safely back in the past, “I don’t like thinking about the past, why is that so difficult to understand? I’ve moved on, I’m not there anymore – I don’t need to think about it.”

“I beg to differ,” James Potter said finishing his beer and chucking a galleon onto the table (in the muggle cafe), “I don’t think you’ve moved on at all,”

So I gave him coat back and went home.

A/N - So this was a big big chapter! I wrote this one sometime ago and surprised myself by how much my writing has improved since then. I had to nearly rewrite this whole chapter. Anyway, please review - this was an exciting chapter after all :)
 


Chapter 12: October 28th
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

I stared at the ridiculous assignment and was distinctly reminded about something my therapist had tried to make me do when I was eleven. Write 500 words persuading me that you’re the best person on the planet.

I started at it for a few long moments. He wanted me to finish it for tomorrow. I’d meant to do it last night but I’d got caught up in a ridiculous phone conversation with James about eyebrows and tequila which had completely distracted me. Then Max himself had just arrived at my house. In a very bad mood, mind you, had drunk the rest of my gin and complained irritably about how frustrating people could be. By the end of the four hour rant I pretty much agreed with everything he’d said and had yawned so many times I was surprised I hadn’t gotten jaw lock.

Best person on the planet? Not likely.

I was undoubtedly in the bottom twenty percent as far as greatness went, and that included all the dark wizards and creepy weirdoes in the world. I could lie with the best of them, but that lie seemed a little too extravagant, farfetched and ridiculous to pull off successfully.

I clicked my pen irritably and decided that writing such garbage would be much easier if I wasn’t stuck in some shitty flat. I was so bored I was even tempted to phone my mother, that’s how bad it had gotten. Maybe I could ask her why I was the best person on the planet? She’d probably laugh me off the phone and tell me to be realistic.

The phone rang. Sadly it probably was mother. Or James. Possibly Max. Cherry had phoned me once or twice, if I was honest.... The phone had been ringing off the hook for about a week. I had no idea how I’d suddenly become so freaking popular. It was irritating.

“Hello?” I said in a bored voice.

“No need to sound so down in the dumps Gracie!” Oh dear Merlin. Uncle Francis.

“Oh, hullo Francis!” I said, trying my best to sound cheerful so he wouldn’t try to council me into happiness. I almost definitely sounded drunk. “What can I do for you?” Maybe I was overdoing the cheerfulness slightly. Next thing he’d have diagnosed me with bipolar.

“Well Pet,” Future reference: anyone who calls me Pet deserves to die. Painfully. “Your mother called and she’s been worried about you – said you seemed a bit down in the dumps!”

For Merlin’s sake.

“Relationship problems? Remember if it’s not making you both happy it’s not a healthy relationship!” Sad thing was, he’d generously donated these pockets of wisdom so many times that I knew them off by heart. “Trouble at work? Remember Gracie -”

“- it only pays the rent.” I finished. I wasn’t sure how that was supposed to make me feel better if I did have work problems, but... “Really, Francis – I’m fine, great actually!”

“Well, your mother said you called her twice last week,” Well next time I won’t bother. Bloody hell. Either I’m calling too much or I’m being snapped at for not answering my phone for a month. Jesh. I am grown woman, “and we all know you only talk to her when you’re feeling a bit low,”

“I am not feeling ‘a bit low.’”

“It’s okay Grace!” Francis assured me. “You’ve been through so much Pet, relapses are inevitable.”

Inevitable? Wonderful. I’ll look forward to it.

“We’re all so proud of you! If there’s any way I could help?”

“Yes, actually,” I said. “I’ve been pulling again; from a rather sensitive spot, if you get what I’m saying, and my boyfriend seems to think it’s weird. Any suggestions?”

Silence.

There’s nothing like a well fabricated lie to make your therapist-uncle uncomfortable enough that he never attempts to call back. It served him right. He should never assume that his input would be remotely helpful in any way shape or form.

“Wax?” He said very quietly.

Dear lord. This hadn’t exactly worked to plan... and now I was discussing hair removable with my Uncle. That was much too weird. I hung up and shuddered.

Bugger. I hadn’t even gotten anything useful for the bloody assignment and Francis was the type of the person who’d have stores of positives about people’s characters waiting to be spewed out in another display of mindless dribble. I pressed the redial button.

“Hello there, Francis here!” Fuck he sounded mental. If he was my therapist I’d definitely top myself.

“It’s Grace,”

“Oh,” His voice seemed to drop. “Hi, Grace!”

“Sorry about that, my er... rice was bubbling over.” Yeah, right, as if I actually cooked for myself (although, honestly – I had been doing recently just to give myself something to do), “thanks for the suggestion; I’ll probably go... wax my armpits tomorrow,” Good recovery Grace. Nice. Awkwardness vanquished – and people say I’m not good at magic? Pfft, “you’re right actually, I feel like absolute shit. I just really hate myself, you know?”

Those seemed to be the magic words. I grabbed my pad of paper – I’d invested – and my pen as the usually ridiculous dribble dripped from the phone in a wave of monotony.

“Don’t say that Gracie! You’re brave, courageous, righteous, loyal...”

It was great that he was just listing the Gryffindor traits. That was probably all he could come up with. I suddenly felt so much better about myself.

 “...strong, stubborn...”

Was that I good thing? It always made me think of Donkeys.

 “... intelligent...”

Has he seen my NEWT’s?

 “... an excellent writer, hard working, determined...”

 Now he was definitely talking about someone else. 

“...spirited, audacious, up-for-anything...”

(Read: a slag).

“Experienced.”

Slag.

“Good with people, non-judgemental, non-discriminatory,”

Slag. Slag. Slag.

“Interesting.”

Ah, he was getting desperate.

“Curvy, determined, and motivated. “

“Wait, what was the last one?” I asked scribbling down ‘determined’ despite being sure he’d already mentioned it once. I ignored ‘curvy.’ I didn’t need to remind myself that even my relatives (probably especially my relatives) thought I was fat.

“Motivated?” He suggested unsurely.

“Motivated,” I repeated, copying it out in my bold print.

“Another thing Grace, pet.” Francis said down the other end of the line. “You’ve got a great sense of humour!” He honestly had no idea. I hung up at that point and sighed, glancing at the piece of paper feeling decidedly dejected. Maybe I was feeling a little low. I put down my piece of parchment and stared at the phone for a few long moments feeling lonesome. Would it be considered desperate? Had we reached a point in our relationship when I was acceptable...?

Oh sod the etiquette to hell. I punched in the number and snatched the phone off the hook with a grimace. “Hey,” James’s voice said down the end of the receiver. I reposition myself to ensure maximum comfort on my crap sofa, hugging my spare arm around myself.

“Hey James,” I said quietly, “I feel a bit shitty,” Then the line went dead and I cursed myself for ever believing that James could make me feel better, and put the phone down on the coffee table with a sigh.

As well as cooking for myself, which in itself was pretty radical, I’d started the second cleanup operation of the year. On one of these infamous phone calls to mother she’d gone on about the importance of cleanliness and then had the nerve to turn up at my apartment with cleaning potions. It seemed like a waste to ignore them and as James was an idiot (and as Max hadn’t called) I figured now would be as good a time as any to clean my sorrows away.

I pulled my dressing gown tighter around my shoulders and headed to the cupboard under the sink. I removed a purple bottle from its depths and glanced at the front ‘oven cleaner’ - I briefly read the back and got the general idea that you were just supposed to put some of the potion in the oven and leave it to air for a bit, clean it out thoroughly and hey presto you no longer had to pick out of bits of charcoaled pasta bake from your casserole when you’d finished cooking.

James was an idiot. He’d hung up on me. That was just humiliating.

CRACK. I knocked the bottle of oven clean over in surprise, flooding the bottom of the oven in glittering purple liquid. It stank of dentists.

“Bullocks, James?” I muttered turning round to see him standing awkwardly in my pathetic excuse of a kitchen, “what are you -?” and then I realised that his response to my declaration of ‘feeling a bit shitty’ was to just turn up in my flat.

Cute, but slightly unnecessary.

“Are you cooking?”

“Cleaning,” I grimaced, straightening up the bottle of oven cleaner and realising that there was only about an inch left at the bottom. Never mind, I hadn’t cleaned my oven since I’d gotten here. It probably could do with a decent wash.

“Well shit,” James said and it was then that I realised he was armed with a bottle of peach Schnapps and a board game entitled ‘Guess Who.’

I stared at him for a long moment. “Hi James,” I said. He grinned, pushing the coffee table out the way and beginning to set up ‘Guess Who?’ on the floor. I internally smiled and stood up, grabbing two almost clean glasses from the sink and lying down on my crappy carpet.

“Good day?” James grinned, pouring me half a normal sized glass of peach schnapps.

“My therapist Uncle phoned because he thought might be a bit down,” I grimaced. James raised an eyebrow and poured himself a glass of schnapps, “I’ve been chaining it all day, shit it’s been a long week,”

At the mere mention of a fag I suddenly found myself wanting one. Sod it. I fumbled in my dressing gown pocket (dear Merlin, it’s gotten this bad) and retrieved my cigarettes and my lighter fondly.

 “Any more thoughts about the wedding?” James asked as he flicked up all the people on his board.

“Well, Max said he’ll come with me, but I have my doubts.”

“Max?”

“Oh right, the boyfriend,” I rolled my eyes and lit up, “how do you play this game again?”

“Pick a card and that’s who I have to guess. Ask questions, try to identify who it is and put the people who it can’t be face down, got it?”

“Erm, so like is it a girl?”

“Yes and yes,” I put all the Toms, Dicks and Harrys down and found myself face to face with a startling variety of cartoon women, “okay,” James said looking up at me with a grin, “would I shag it?”

It was going to be a long game then.

 

“Well, let me have a smoke,” James said, propped up on his elbows on my living room floor like he was enjoying himself far too much, “you’re hogging all the anti-oxygen,”

“Carbon monoxide,” I corrected.

“Tar,” James added.

“Rat poison,”

Nicotine!”

“You’re not allowed to smoke,” I returned taking a deep breath inwards, “you’re an international Quidditch player – start acting like one,”

“Now come on Grace, this flat is so full of smoke that I’m going to get cancer anyway. I’d rather at least enjoy my death properly,”

“Well that’s just morbid,” I said, passing him my cigarette so he could take a breath, “did you ever used to smoke then?”

“No,” James said breathing in once before passing it back to me with a smirk, “I’m beyond vices,”

“Well I’m obviously not,” I snorted, swirling round the remains of my glass of schnapps and stubbing out the rest of the cigarette on the face of the Guess Who card ‘Grace’ who wasn’t as beautiful or sexy as me, and was therefore an insult to my name, “I’m beyond Quidditch though,”

“Remind me where you work?” James grinned, flicking ash of Guess-Who-Grace’s face and regarding her with a slight smile, “she’s blonde,”

“Codswallop, Graces’ aren’t blonde,”

“Did you just say Codswallop?” James grinned, topping up both glasses of schnapps with the remains of the bottle and an eyebrow raise.

“Shove off, Potter, everyone can make mistakes.”

“Obviously,”

“And what’s that supposed to mean?” I demanded, “What’s the biggest mistake you’ve ever made?”

“Hmmm,” James said considering this with a rather profound expression across his face, “not snatching you up when you were a teenager?”

“Well here’s to colossal mistakes,” I laughed, clinking my glass against his with an unexpected elegance which really did suit me, “but you shouldn’t flirt Potter, I have a boyfriend,”

“I’m not entirely sure he exists,” James returned, narrowing his eyes at me, “it wouldn’t be the first time you’ve made a boyfriend up,”

“Sod off,”

“I want him to not exist,”

“and why is that?” I asked finishing off my glass and staring at him, “what’s with this sudden Grace interest anyway – you hated me and now you’re all flirting and here and stuff. What’s with that, Potter?”

“Are you sure you have a boyfriend?” James asked and then suddenly he was a lot closer than I thought he had been and all the Schnapps hit me at once and James was blinking at me and, Merlin, what the hell did he think he was playing at?

“Grace,” A voice called out and then I shot upwards, staggering and blinking rapidly because,

“Sodding Max,” I muttered,

“Grace? What the -?”

Remind me to find away to prevent people from flooing into my apartment without warning.

“Erm, Max this is James, James, Max...” I said pointing between them vaguely.

“Are you drunk?” Max asked looking livid. There was a certain question as to whether his anger was reasonable or not. I suspected that it very well might be.

“No!” I spluttered unconvincingly. I was so drunk, “well, not really,” James behind me seemed to be finding this slightly amusing. By all rights he should now be mourning the fact that this boyfriend of mine did actually exist, right? Tosser.

“So you’re drunk with some stranger in your apartment,”

“Look, James isn’t a stranger,” I said before realising that probably wasn’t the best thing to say, “James Potter – you got me to write an article about him!”

“A snogalicious article?” Sodding hell, “I thought I could trust you Grace,” Max said, folding his arms and glancing over my shoulder to glance at James. I’d purposefully tried to block their view of each other for no reason other than to prevent more awkwardness, but I suddenly had a thrilling thought – what if Max felt emasculated by James? I mean, James was now an international Quidditch player where as Max was older, less fit and less successful.  A bit of jealousy could really spice things up a bit.

Then I realised that I was a terrible person for wanting my boyfriend to be insecure.

“Maybe I should leave,” James said quietly, picking up the empty bottle of Schnapps and the board game – which made everything look more suspicious than anything.

“I’ll call you,” I muttered faintly, which I probably wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t been drunk.

“What the fuck Grace?” Max demanded the second the ‘crack’ signalled James’s departure.

“James is my friend from school!” I said slightly hysterically, “am I not allowed to have friends now?”

“Well that’s the thing Grace, I thought you didn’t,”

“So that was a good thing was it?” I asked wildly, “you want me to just socialise with you and no one else or something?”

“I just don’t know how I’m supposed to trust you,” Max said stiffly, now he stepped further into my apartment and took a look around the carnage that had been left due the drinking and guess who. He stood on Grace card/ash tray and folded his arms.

“I didn’t do anything,” I said weekly, “I didn’t even do anything. I was feeling down so James came over – what’s wrong with that?”

“Well why didn’t you call me?”

“You hate it when I call you! You always sound so pissed off if I ring! Oh no, Max, you always have to be the one in control and drawing all the lines and I haven’t done your stupid assignment!” I finished, picking up the piece of parchment with my supposed ‘good qualities’ scribbled all over and threw it at him.

“This is ridiculous,” Max muttered sharply, letting the parchment fall to the floor, “I’m not talking to you when you’re this drunk,”

“I’m not that drunk!” I yelled back at him, “you just can’t take the power shift!” but he’d already used my floo powder to vanish in the flames leaving me standing drunk alone and angry in the middle of my flat.

I hated relationships. I picked up the piece of parchment and ripped it right down the centre of the word ‘experienced’ which was ironic  considering I’d had plenty experiences of arguments but not even a sixth as many experiences of resolving them.

I glanced at the clock on the oven that still didn’t say the right time and decided  that comfort food was the only answer (given I was too drunk for comfort drinking to be an option). A glance through the tiny fridge summed up my life: two bottles of beer, half a green pepper (and we all know the green ones are the worst), a packet of cream cheese, two ready meals and a pizza. No bacon, which was another real blow. The second real blow was that the microwave wasn’t working which left me with no other option but the pizza.

I wacked the heat up and stuck the pizza in the bottom of the oven. I set the timer without bothering to read the back of the packet – I’d be able to smell it when it started to burn anyway. I picked up the four Guess Who cards that had been left in my flat – placing ‘Grace’ with her ash covered face near the phone for safe keeping. I considered phoning James then decided that I was too mad at him. For no real good reason, of course, but I was still mad at him.

After what felt like an eternity of sitting at my sofa trying to decide where else I could work if Max fired me (and coming up with very few options), the oven timer began its incessant bleeping.

Three bites in I remembered the whole oven cleaner thing, mostly because the pizza had a rather strange aftertaste to it. And it was blue.  I was hungry though so I decided I could probably ignore both the intriguing bring blue colour and the fact that it tasted a little like mouth wash – only with a slightly coconut after taste.

Half way through the pizza I began to feel slightly sick. I took the next slice with me as I knelt on my knees and opened the oven to look inside it curiously – the fumes that the oven gave off were so overpowering that I started chocking. I was a little unsure how I’d managed to miss them when I’d gotten the pizza out of the oven (with my hands, which was idiotic even for me) but now they made me slightly dizzy.

When dizzy, eat more food. The forth slice of pizza made me feel even more dizzy.

I opened the alcohol cupboard and pulled out the now very nearly empty bottle of oven cleaner and turned it over in my hand.

I really wanted to talk to somebody – I was drunk, angry and now feeling a bit sick. I hated feeling ill. I dropped the pizza back onto the plate and decided I couldn’t eat anything that blue. I deposited the one a half slices left in the oven and wondered over to the phone with the bottle of oven cleaner still clutched in my hand.

I ended up punching in mum’s number, third time recently, and feeling more morose than I could have expected as I waited for it to ring. I turned the bottle over in my hand to distract myself, reading the list of ingredients – bat wings, dragon dung, Billy wig stings... none of which I really wanted to consume.

“Hi mum,” I said when she’d answered the door, now feeling so sick that I had to put my head in my hands. My eye sight was going wobbly but not so wobbly that I didn’t catch that innocent looking warning on the back of the bottle ‘do not inhale fumes or consume this product. If consumed or inhaled in any quantity please seek medical assistance immediately.’

Well bugger.

“Think I consumed too much oven cleaner,” was all I managed to say before I dropped the phone and threw up all over the carpet. Then I passed out, knocking the telephone to the floor with a crash and finding myself face to face with the Grace Guess Who card.

 




 

“Hello Ms Whitehall, I’m Healer Peters, how are you feeling?” I remembered filling in my medical forms with ‘Ms’ because I thought it made me different and unique. That was nearly a decade ago and now I was acutely aware that ‘Ms’ made me sound like someone very... precious.

“All right, thanks,” I muttered sitting up and blinking around at the ward in St Mungo’s.

“Excellent, here are your potions,” Healer Peters said. I decided just to drink whatever she gave me rather than kicking up a fuss – I was the first class idiot who’d managed to swallow a little too much oven cleaner to be helpful, “your mother brought you in,” Healer Peter’s said whilst I drank the potions, “she was here to visit you just awhile ago, she has been extraordinarily worried,”

“Well, I’m fine – aren’t I? No worrying necessary.”

“Considering what you have done, Ms Whitehall, she has every right to be worried,” Healer Peter’s lips were thin.

“What?” I asked stupidly, staring at her with my mouth slightly open, “I’ll admit it was idiotic but it’s hardly something to get upset about,”

“Idiotic?” Healer Peters questioned primly, “You have very little regard for your life, Ms Whitehall,”

“Er, fine?” I said in agreement, feeling bewildered with all this talk. Peters sniffed, folded her arms over her chest and walked off looking a little too haughty. A bloke on the bed next to me was staring, “what’s with her?” I asked.

He looked away very quickly and pulled the covers up around him. In doing so he exposed his wrists towards me for a fraction of a second – scabbed and covered in dried blood. I blanched. He’d slit his wrists, even I could see that, and for a second I turned to the front and blinked furiously.

In the bed opposite me was a girl who looked so papery thin that I was scared she’d break if she stood up. Horrifically thin, skeletal and frightening.  I closed my eyes.

Oh my god. Where was I? Why was I surrounded by these people? It seemed insensitive to put someone like me, who’d accidently consumed some dodgy potion, amongst these sorts of people. I opened my eyes again and looked around – most of the other people looked fairly normal, but had a strange dead look to their eyes which made me want to run away and rip my hair out. I couldn’t be faced with the depressed.  It was too real, too emotional and much too big for me to be able to deal with.

Healer Peters came back with a glass of water.

“Look, I think I’m on the wrong ward,” I said quietly, refusing to look at the people in the bed’s next to me.

“Potions abuse,” Healer Peters said emotionlessly. She handed my file to me and raised an eyebrow. I blinked at the implication of the heading ‘overdoes on toxic potion.’

“Oh no no no,” I said quickly, “you’ve got it all wrong – I didn’t take the oven cleaner on purpose, I didn’t... I mean, it was an accident!”

“You inhaled fumes and consumed the potion. We found it mixed in your blood stream with alcohol and -”

“No! I’m just stupid, not depressed,” I said as quietly as possible, “it was an innocent mistake, look – I just don’t clean very much... putting me in here is insensitive, please, move me,”

“There was a picture labelled ‘Grace’ with a cigarette burn in the middle of the face by where you were found,”

“This is all a misunderstanding,” I said helplessly, “you can’t put me here, these people deserve more than to have me around. I’m insulting them, I just... I just got confused. All I did was eat blue pizza! Please, nurse Healers, please move me,”

She nodded.

 

 

Thus, I am hiding in a corner of St Mungo’s using one of the magi-phones to call James. I’ll admit I could be being a great deal more discreet and that the smoking really isn’t helping me look conspicuous, but I’m not allowed to leave the hospital and I’m not allowed to smoke.

“... So they think you tried to do yourself in?”

“It’s not funny,” I returned, trying my best not to flick ash all over the floor, “and I don’t know what the bloody Hell Max thinks,” I admitted staring at my feet glumly. Sure, it didn’t look good – me ending up in hospital less an hour after our first proper argument due to, all be it accidental, potions abuse.

“Oh dear,” James said, grinning.

“Anyway, Potter, I was serious about what I was asking before – why do you even care about me? I’ve been thinking about it and it doesn’t make any sense. Why did you even have the inclination to be nice to me? You know I’m a nut case.”

“I... can’t you just accept that it was your good looks and charm?”

“No, I can’t,” I returned, breathing in more of the sweet cigarette smoke, “so will you just fess up – especially as this whole thing is your fault anyway,”

“Hardly, and... well, I think it’s best if I tell you face to face. Dinner next week?”

“Can’t,” I muttered, dropping my finished cigarette to the floor before cleaning up the whole mess with my wand, “Max is taking me on holiday. I’ve been given time off work because, you know, they think I’m delicate at the moment. So Max is taking me on his business trip to Spain next week – he came to visit and told me... that’ll be a fun trip, considering he currently thinks it’s his fault I’m in hospital. Bloody hell, what a fuck up,”

“He’s brave, taking you on holiday,” James commented, “considering the potions abuse thing...”

“You know that I didn’t mean to do it, don’t you James? You don’t think...”

“No,” James said, but there was a small part of me that seemed slightly unconvinced by his answer.

“Do you honestly think that I’d ever care enough about a relationship to get that upset about it?”

“No,” James said, “I don’t really think you have any emotions at all, Grace. You just exist,” and then James Potter hung up and I was left sat on the hospital floor, listening to the dial tone and feeling oddly hollow.

Bloody hell.

 




A/N - I don't own Guess who or oven cleaner. Or Harry Potter. Just Grace, really...
 


Chapter 13: December 1st - December 14th
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Sometimes I get sad because I know that when I was eight years old I believed in love stories and self worth, and I believed that one day I would be married and I would have children and I wouldn’t feel the need to continue self destructing. I don’t know when I stopped believing it. I guess those teenage years were a mass of blind hope, rather than sceptic thoughts like I’d like to think of them, and maybe I became a cynic when I ran away. 

That’s why it was strange to get back on a plane. But this time I wasn’t alone and Max was there with a hand draped over my shoulder, believing that I was even more messed up then I was.

***

I’d wound up sitting at some many bars in my life it was becoming difficult to differentiate one to another, but I had to admit that this one was slightly posher than the places I inhabited during my decade abroad. It was very obviously European though, nothing at all like England, and given England had been so wholly suffocating lately it was a breath of fresh air to be away for awhile.

“Another vodka and coke?” the barmaid suggested lightly, glancing over at me briefly from behind the bar.

“Just a coke,” I muttered in return glancing at my watch and wondering how long Max’s meeting was going to last for. As much as I liked drinking, it seems a little bit too much to drink too much vodka before midday. It was never acceptable, unless hung over. Or still drunk. If you’re hung over or still drunk then near anything is acceptable, “you’re not Spanish,” I realised allowed, looking up at her and narrowing my eyes.

“English,”

“We have so much in common,” I deadpanned, taking my coke and swirling it around in my hand as if it were some fine wine or a test tube with some chemicals in (dated a chemistry student... well, for awhile – mostly it turned out there was too much chemistry. The periodic table generally isn’t the biggest turn on and I don’t give a crap about amines).

“Holiday?” She asked, looking up at me for a moment.

“Sort of, boyfriend is on a business thing. You?”

“Working,” She replied, glancing at me for a second before her gaze returned downwards all over again.

“I did that – worked aboard,” I said trying to lean over the bar to see what she was concentrating on without looking like I was trying to peer over the bar to look down her top or something. I know I’d already mention having a boyfriend, but that still left options – bisexual or closet lesbian. She might still think I was trying to hit on her or something. “Started in France,”

“Hmm,” She said.

“What are you writing?” I asked, peering over the desk and seeing that what she was concentrating on happened to be a pad of paper and a biro. A biro that, apparently, wasn’t working very well because she was hastily trying to scribble it back into light. She snapped her head up to look at me and raised her eyebrows. She definitely thought I was interested in her now. This was the female equivalent of a really creepy drunkard. She must hate me.

“I’m just writing,” She said, covering the notebook with her palm and flushing slightly, “nothing really,”

“Stories? Poems?”

“Stories,” She said hastily, “Novels,” Obviously she didn’t want me to think she was writing poetry about me. I’d officially cemented my current stance as ‘hitting on her’ and I wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to do about it.

“Romance Novels?”Apparently I was going for the ‘pretend it was intentional’ method. She squirmed slightly. Secretly, she was really glad to have captured the attention of a woman like me. I was hot.

“Er... adventure, mostly,”

“I’m a writer,” I said cheerfully, “well, journalist,” Her eyes widened slightly. I do not think she believed me, “what’s your name again?”

“Hannah,” She said stiffly, “people call me Hanzi,”

“What does your girlfriend call you?” I think it was worth her thinking I was a lesbian with a boyfriend to see the look of mixed alarm and slight amusement on her face.

“My girlfriend?” She half squeaked, “I don’t have a girlfriend, I mean... a boyfriend... my boyfriend is called, er, Nebuchadnezzar,”

“Like the bible?” I asked with an eyebrow raise, “I dated a creationist once, nice bloke – pity about the ‘no sex before marriage’ lark, or else we could have been happy together. You’d be a good writer though. You’d look good on the side of a book – has anyone ever told you that you look like Shakira?” She blinked at me and swallowed. I leaned forward and leered at her “can I get you a drink?”

“That’s my job, thanks,” She replied, picking up her pen and scribbling something furiously on her pad of paper.

“Sorry, am I coming on too strong?” I asked feeling the distinct amusement of the whole thing, “look, honestly, I’m not actually hitting on you. I don’t even go for your species normally, I just thought that flirting with you might ease some of the boredom – you know?”

“You’ve won me over now,” Hanzi said with a slight trace of a smile, “I’m a hopeless romantic,”

“So what’s it like working here then?” I asked.

“Oh God, you don’t even want to know – it’s a circus of freaks, essentially. How’s your holiday?”

“Well, everything’s a bit awkward really,” I said, glancing up at the ceiling for a moment, “I mean Max, my  boyfriend, only invited me on holiday because he thinks I tried to kill myself after we had an argument, I tried to explain but I didn’t exactly work the way I intended so now he’s being super nice and, well, I can’t deal with that shit. It’s not all bad though – the sex is good,” I looked at Hanzi for a few moments, “too much information?”

“Maybe,” She said, hurrying off to the other side of the bar to serve another customer, looking distinctly scared.

Another one bites the dust

***

I was going to kill Maxim Cuffe.

For someone who apparently ‘cannot feel emotion’ I was consumed with something dangerously close to anger (which I was going to rant to James about as soon as I next saw him – which was going to be in about ten minutes, as it happened).

“What do you mean, not coming?” I spat down the phone, hoping round my flat as I tried to get my slingbacks on my feet (even my feet had got fatter – and I know from experience that enlarging shoes by magic ends in nothing but impromptu hospital trips), “is this some kind of sick joke?” I demanded, grabbing my bloody clutch bag off the side and shoving my wand in it. The wand was too long. It seemed everything was trying to go wrong today.

“I’m sorry Grace, but I just... some work stuff came up and...”

“I’ve been badgering on about this for months. I need your support for once in my life and you’ve got some ‘work stuff?’” I questioned angrily, enlarging my bag and staring at in horror as it grew to the size of a large rucksack, “bugger!” I muttered, shrinking it again and debating whether or not to leave my wand at home: probably best not, no doubt I’d need it. If only to turn the damn thing on myself.

“I’m sorry -”

“Forget it, I don’t even – shit, I’m so late. Whatever Max,” I finished shoving the phone back down on the receiver and doing a brief check that I had all the necessary things: wedding day card (was a present really required?); both shoes;  wand pocking out of the top of the bag, whatever; both breasts and – yup, I had my cigarettes.

I took a deep breath and disapparated.

James had showed my exactly where the church was. I’d even practiced apparating so I didn’t humiliate myself by being taken off on a stretcher, just as Liz peeped out from the church in all her white finery.

I guess it wasn’t Max’s fault he didn’t understand what a big deal the stupid wedding was: I had tried to explain, but listing all the hideously embarrassing things that had happened in my years at Hogwarts was not something I really wanted to do to someone who I was in a relationship with. And anyway – where would I start with my story? There was no real beginning: just a growing list of problems which would, no doubt, one day catch up with me again.

And I had a feeling that day would be today.

It was a muggle church – Liz’s parents always had been traditionalists – so I’d been told where the designated apparition area was. I now found myself blinking around a muggle alleyway with thankfully, all my body parts. So, it wasn’t going too badly even if I was, shit, ten minutes late.

Wedding always start late though, right?

I’ve never been to a wedding before, that was the issue, and therefore I had a complete panic about what sort of thing you’re supposed to wear. Most of my formal dresses (no robes: muggle church) were brilliant red with plunging necklines, and I wasn’t going to step into a church wearing something quite so revealing again anytime soon. My mother always said you couldn’t wear black to a wedding, which left me with a grand total of three possible things to wear – a light pinky-purple floaty thing that made me feel like I was wearing an overly formal doily, a backless orange dress that made me look like a fake tan accident and a sari. It was best not to question the sari.

Hello Grace Whitehall, the spinster doily extrodinaire!

I did have matching shoes though, so it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Plus I’d actually attempted to make my hair have a shape. Call me shallow, but today I was facing a whole lot of people I’d ran away from for about a decade and damned if I was going to walk back into their lives looking like I’d been eaten by a cat and then promptly regurgitated when the cat realised I was that little bit too fat for it to consume properly. I’d tried losing weight too, but I like food.

I slipped out from the alley with the frilly bits tickling the back of my legs and making me want to rip a good few inches of the bottom of the dress to stop it being so darn irritating, but I decided to concentrate on getting to the church before the service finished.

“Oh balls!” I yelled a little too loudly as the heel of my shoe slipped of the edge of the curve, there was a snapping noise and then I was falling forwards and wound up kneeling on all fours on the middle of the road. A car beeped its horn extraordinarily loud in my face, so I lifted up my middle finger in the driver’s direction but, unfortunately, nearly stuck said middle finger up the nose of the poor elderly man who was asking me if I was all right.

“Yes, quite fine,” I said distractedly, pulling myself to my feet, wobbling and slipping over again, “oh gawd, the heals snapped,” I wobbled again and ended up making a mad grab for his shoulder, “I’m late for a wedding,”

“Would you like a hand across the road, dear?” The old man suggested. This is the point my life has gotten to: tottery old men now help me across the road. At least he didn’t think I was drunk. And wasn’t calling the police accusing me of trying to kill him by that tried and tested finger-up-the-nose technique.

“Erm, yes please,” I muttered. He led me over to the pedestrian crossing and, oh Merlin, he was pressing the god damn button. I was so late now it wasn’t even funny. The lights stayed frustratingly green for a long time, each car seeming to be very smug as they drove past me. I had muddy knees from my fall and only one functional shoe. I was being escorted to a wedding by an old man and my boyfriend had stood me up.

Why am I doing this again?

Finally the old codger deemed it safe for us attempt to cross, and held out his arm for me to hold as I rose and fell like a bleeding seesaw with each step across the tarmac.  “Right, enjoy your wedding dear!” The old codger said, nodding at me, “and be careful about those shoes – yeah?”

I nodded at him and turned towards the ominous church doors – great big steel imposing ones. My stomach was clenching. In all the panic of getting ready I’d forgotten that I was scared shitless to walk into the church. I’d been up all night panicking about the damn thing – I’d called James at half two (he hadn’t been impressed) begging him to let me stay at home. That was probably why I’d slept in.

I should really just turn around, especially after everything that had already gone wrong in this little expedition, but... I was here now right? And James had told Liz to expect me – surely she’d told other people? They’d all be glaring at my empty seat and questioning why the hell I hadn’t showed up. I didn’t want to seem rude.

I took a deep breath and opened the church doors.

Oh bloody hell, not only where they heavy and impressive – they were also very very loud. Opening them was quite possibly one of the most powerful experiences of my life, but this sense of sudden greatness was quickly sapped away when I realised the consequences of my lateness: Liz was already at the front of the church, as was Al Potter (he’d gotten hotter since he was eighteen) and a few women dressed in pale fuchsia dresses. James was there looking at me with a mild expression of shock which quickly turned to one of extreme enjoyment. I could spot Liz’s dad at the front too, squinting at me as if trying to work out who I was. I suppose it had been awhile. Still, I wondered how I’d managed to forget the bikini incident.

Everyone was staring at me. Of course they were. First, I was Grace Whitehall – that would have generated stares from this crowd (I recognised so many faces it was hard not to throw up) even if I’d turned up discreetly. Second, I was very late to this wedding. I mean, really late. Should I apologise? Best not to speak.

Oh my god. There were no seats, well –not quite. There was one spare seat on the third row back. On the grooms side. At the very front of the church.

I coughed quietly to relieve some of the tension (it didn’t work) and then began limping my way up the aisle, my eyes fixed on that empty seat. I couldn’t even imagine how ridiculous I looked with my broken shoe and muddy knees, but there was nothing I could do about it now – anyway, I was Grace Whitehall and this sort of mishap was probably to be expected, even if this was slightly more extreme than normal.

“As I was saying,” the vicar said pointedly, “if anyone knows any just cause or impediment why these two should not be joined together in holy matrimony -”

I’d walked in at the objections part. Fucking hell.

James caught my eye and mimed clapping. I rolled my eyes and crossed my arms over my chest, picking up an order of service and looking at the pretty paper slightly wistfully. By my definitions, James was currently the second-worst man rather than the best man.

“Grace Whitehall is it?” the man sitting next to me asked, leaning forwards with a grin. He was ginger. Dear Merlin, “George Weasley – I’m a big fan,”

***

“I am going to kill you,” I muttered in James Potter’s direction as I filed out the church amidst a crowd of excitedly chattering Weasley’s who hadn’t quite mastered the art of keeping their voices down whilst talking about someone you’re standing right next to, “I’m genuinely homicidal right now,”

James was stood in the line of wedding royalty: all of whom were there greeting the other guests and having their hands shook a lot. I wasn’t in the mood to shake Liz’s hand and issue a ‘congratulations’ because there was a lot more to be said than that. James, for all his worthlessness, seemed to sense this reluctance and broke out of the line – leaving a gaping space between two of the bridesmaids.

“That was a wonderful entrance,” James grinned, offering me an arm to help with my inability to walk at the minute.

“I look like a demented penguin,” I complained, “I sat next to your Uncle at the wedding – everyone was staring at me! I was so late! Shit, James, am I wearing the same colour as the bridesmaids? Oh my god, I am,” James was laughing to I hit him with my clutch bag, “why didn’t you tell me what colour they were going to be wearing?” I demanded.

“I didn’t want you to purposefully synch up,” James grinned, still laughing in my face, “look, they’ve just started the photos. One of me and Grace!” James demanded, pulling me along (or else: half dragging me with his stupid Quidditch muscles whilst I stumbled along behind him with my stupid shoes), “she made the wedding after all,”

“Don’t be bloody ridiculous,” I muttered, then he physically picked me up – the broken shoe fell off and wound up lying dejected in a pool of dirt – and then I was placed on my feet next to Liz, Al and Lily just as there was a blinding flash.

“Dennis Creevey,” The photographer yelled cheerfully over his camera, “pleasure to meet you – try to smile a bit more Grace!”

“James!” I hissed, “Don’t you think I’ve had enough public humiliation for today?”

“Her date stood her up,” James told his brother conversationally, “that’s why she was late,”

“You’re insufferable,” I muttered, straightening up my dress to prove a point and storming off in the direction of my broken shoe. There was another flash.

“Oh God, its eleven years ago,” Lily Potter said, frowning at me for a second as I tried to escape as quickly as possible.

“Why are you this to me?”I demanded James, “why would you do this? I’m going to be in the bloody wedding photos! Just let me go home and rot alone and decrepit until my next door neighbour gets confused and eats me, please?”

“You are coming to the reception, aren’t you?” Liz asked, blinking at me hopefully. I couldn’t disappoint the bint on her wedding day.

“I’ll escort her there myself,” James said, “well, sort of; I’ll meet you at the bar!” James said as I put the broken shoe back on my foot and resumed walking away angrily.

“Die,” I spat in return. Liz laughed. Personally, I wanted to weep.

***

“Hey Grace,” James said, slipping into the seat beside me at the bar with a grin, “how you holding up?”

“Okay,” I said quietly, staring out at the hall feeling more than a little glum. In my head I’d walked in with my head held high, looking so stunning that everyone immediately forget all that had come before. But instead everything had sort of gone wrong, just like it always did, and now I just looked like a bigger idiot than ever before, “thanks for putting me next to Cherry and Dave for the meal,” I said.

“That was all Beth,”

“Right,” I scoffed, “nice speech – wish you hadn’t mentioned me,”

“Come on, you loved it,”

“I hate you,” I said dejectedly, turning away as I saw someone I didn’t even recognise stare at me without blushing.

“Come on, Grace – you look great,”

“I’ve got mud on my knees and my shoes are broken,” I retorted. James took my wand out my bag and looked at me seriously, before pointing it at my shoe and fixing the heel wordlessly, “see why the hell didn’t I think of that?”

“What are you drinking?”

“Nothing,” I said viciously, “the last thing I need is to get wasted and flash my thong to everyone,”

“You’re wearing a thong,”

“Bloody hell James, do you have to be so... and why does Amy Carter look like she wants to kill me?”

“Oh, right,” James said, “that would be my fault again. A firewhiskey and a Flying Abacus please,” James said, turning to the bartender with a grin.

“Weren’t you like, BFFs?”

“Weren’t you and Beth BFFs?”

“I still haven’t talked to her,” I grimaced, glancing over to where she was dancing with Al – her hands wrapped so tightly around his waist that it made my heart twinge a little. Not out of jealous, like normally, but because they really did look happy.

“How was your holiday?”

“Good,” I smiled, “except this English waitress thinks I’m a lesbian,”

“Explain?”

“Well, Max was off doing something business-y... and then I was chilling in the bar trying to entertain myself. So I was talking to this waitress, then I thought it sounded like I was hitting on her so then I did hit on her – just because I thought it could be funny. Then I told Hanzi that I was only pretending to hit on her and then, well... the next day I fell on her,”

“You fell on her?”

“And, err, we were very much face to face,” James thought about this for a long moment.

“I’ve got to admit: I’m a little jealous,”

“For God’s sake,” I muttered, staring at the ceiling for a long moment, “can you give it a rest? And anyway – you promised you’d tell me why you’re hanging around me like a bad smell,” I said, suddenly remember a conversation we’d had over the phone on holiday: me crouched on the floor in the hotel bathroom and quietly asking him what he meant about me not having emotions as Max slept – he’d told me that for one, it was not acceptable to call at three in the morning, and that it was something we’d talk about when I was back.

Well, here I was.

“So, what is it?” I prompted, watching as he turned to the bar for a moment. Normally James Potter didn’t avoid my eye and it was a bit strange to have him evasive and unconfident.

“Let’s grab a table,” James said, “and a drink,”

“James -?”

“It’s not bar talk,” James said stiffly, smiling at the bartender and getting us both a second drink, “it’s not really wedding talk,”

“I don’t usually go to weddings; I’m unfamiliar with the etiquette,” I shrugged, grabbing my glasses, wedging my bag under my armpit and heading to one of the empty tables squashed up against the wall. I caught a glimpse of Cherry, now so pregnant it made me want to sit her down, dancing around the room with my cousin. I thought back to school days: it was strange, back then there paths simply would never have crossed. And now they were married.

“Okay,” James said when we were both sat down at the table, “you remember Heddy?”

“Sure,” I said with a grin, “Heddy Vane – the only person in the school who was more unpopular than me, and that was without you occasionally hiding her underwear to make her look like more than a prick. What was it about Heddy, anyway? Was it just the name?”

“Stop, Grace,” James said wearily. The existence of Heddy Vane, Hedwig Vane before she enforced the slightly better nickname, had always served as a slight confidence boost for me: I remembered her trying to shrink into herself despite her bulging size and I remember her trying to hide behind her greasy hair so that no one would attempt to make fun of her anymore. James had been her main tormentor, just as he had always been the one to torment and mock me – although it had been funnier when he made fun of me because I had convinced myself that I was in love with him, “she’s dead,” James said.

“What?” I asked, setting down my glass and staring at him, “but she... she was our age? How can she be dead? She wouldn’t even be thirty, I...”

“She died about six years ago,” James said, the same stilted tone to his voice. Not like himself at all, “there was a fire,”

“Oh,”

“But Grace,” James implored, turning towards me again with his eyes burning, “she had her wand with her. She was sat there with her wand, but she let herself burn. The muggles said it was arson, but...”

“She killed herself?” I said, the revulsion rising up in my throat. I couldn’t deal with people who were broken beyond repair: just like when they’d put me in that ward, I’d found the dregs of society who couldn’t eat, couldn’t live and never found the strength to smile so repulsively emotive – sympathy, regret and a shit lot of guilt.

“It was my fault,” James said, “her mum reported that she’d never recovered from being bullied at school, my name never came into it but I knew,”

“Fucking hell,” I muttered, glancing up at the ceiling, “so that’s what this is all about? You think you’ve got blood on your hands so you’re using me to ease your guilt? What, James? You think if you sleep with me it’ll be my dream come true and I’ll be happy?”

“Grace,” James said.

“Let me be straight with you James: you don’t owe me a damn thing, okay,”

“Anyone can see that you’re messed up,” James said, “I’m not saying that’s why we’re friends, but I mean – that’s why I wanted to talk to you again, I wanted to make sure that you were okay,”

“Well I’m fine,”

“No you’re not,” James said, “you don’t understand what it was like Grace... that’s why Cherry changed too, I mean she lost her mother and then Heddy and she just transformed into this whole new person,”

“I am perfectly fine James,”

“You’re not going to kill yourself, if that’s what you mean,” James said, glancing up at the ceiling, “not unless you get really bored, anyway,”

“James,” I said fiercely, “I’m already mad, why are continuing to dig your grave?”

“You don’t even see it!” James said in frustration, bringing his fist down onto the table so that both our drinks shook, “crap, Grace – you ran away for ten years of your life and now you’re letting yourself be pulled into another dead-end relationship, cursing through life without feeling anything,”

“I’m angry right now,”

“Are you?” James said, “considering I haven’t explained properly yet; you think I’m trying to get in your pants because I as good as murdered Heddy, in which case you should have hit me by now. You’ve barely even threatened me,”

“Jesus, James. Just drop it; I’m fine, we’re all fine – so why don’t you go back to laughing at my memory and leave me in peace,”

“Is that what you really want?”

“I don’t care,” I said stiffly, taking another sip of my drink, “it’s not your fault – I was messed up before I met you. This one’s off your shoulders,”

“Why is that?” James asked, leaning forwards on his elbow and looking at me seriously, a trace of the usual glint in his eye, “why did you pull your hair out Grace? What happened to you?”

“That’s off limits,”

“Beth said you weren’t an only child,” James said, moving backwards and glancing to where she was dancing with one of her bridesmaids.

“hmmm,”

“A sister?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Is she still around?”

“No,” I said, “she is not,” then I had to look away for a few long moments to gather my thoughts. They weren’t even thoughts I wanted to consider, let alone consciously accept them enough for them to be gathered. What I needed was a cigarette, and I was just about to voice this when I turned back to James to find him staring at me a little too intently.

“Maybe it’s not my fault, but I do care,”

“Care until your back breaks if you like, and it’s not your fault that Heddy died,”

“She killed herself,” James said, narrowing her eyes.

“Maybe not – maybe she just let herself die. Either way, James, sometimes people just can’t live – it’s not necessarily anyone’s fault,” I said with a frown, “now, please, I don’t want to talk about this anymore. I don’t want to talk about anything ever again – I want to go home, get drunk, sleep and then murder my boyfriend,”

“Stupid boyfriend,” James said, and then he leant forward, kissed me and returned to his normal position in less than a second.

“Watch it Potter,” I muttered, “I don’t care if you’re responsible for the genocide of the entirety of Gryffindor; you’re not getting that kind of sympathy of me,”

“It’s a wedding Grace,” James said, smiling at me, “everybody gets drunk and sleeps with each other,”

“I don’t normally go to weddings: I’m not familiar with the etiquette. Go try one of the bridesmaids,”

“But I want you,” James said, reaching forwards and kissing me again – this time pressing his lips against mine for a long moment before I pulled away and folded my arms.

“Grow up,” I muttered, standing up and pushing my chair in. Liz caught me on the way to the bar and nervously began questioning me about my years abroad. James followed me twenty minutes later, hovering behind me like a persistent shadow until I was finally allowed to go home.

***

That night I dreamt of Heddy: I lay awake half the night remembering how I had persuaded Liz to sneak into her dorm with me and charm her shampoo to make her hair even greasier, ‘she never uses it anywhere’ I used to say, then we would hover over her bed – Heddy used to snore, of course she did, it was like her entire being was designed to make her as repulsive and irritating as possible: I used to hate her, rely on her to make me feel slightly better about myself and laugh at every stupid mistake she made. I dreamt of her burning; the edges of her bulging stomach curling in the flames like a packet of crisps.

In the morning I had three showers to wash away the memory, and then I called James to make sure that he was okay.

 




So this should explain a couple of things... As of 2012 I'm answering all reviews as soon as I get them (go New Years resolutions!) so if you want to keep your author busy... just leave a quick review ;)
 


Chapter 14: January 12th - January 25th
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

Everything had become strangely too real since the wedding: everything had intensified, as if I was on the edge of feeling things, and my usual flat moods seemed to expand into something resembling happiness and something else rather resembling depression. All these years I’d been accustomed to just feeling contentment and glumness, but now there was more and less. And it was half terrifying and half exhilarating to feel.

Sometimes I wanted to talk it out with someone and other times I pushed it back down into the depths of my stomach and pretended that it didn’t happen. I thought that, maybe, if James asked today I might be able to give him an answer.

Maybe.

Everything was changing again. Cherry had gone into premature labour just after Christmas and now she was the proud owner (mother?) of Noah. Thanks to the advantage of sleeping with the boss – at least there was an advantage – I was being allowed to cover her job despite being under-experienced and under-qualified. Cherry and Dave were adamant that I should feel some attachment to Noah, as if seeing such a cute baby might melt my heart and teach me how to feel (and I didn’t think I’d even noticed before how many people seem to be worried about me) – my parents seemed to be in support of the notion and kept calling me asking me whether I knew that it gained an extra pound.

It was typical that it was cute when a baby gained a pound when it made me less and less cute whenever I gained weight. Speaking of which, thanks to Max taking me to slightly less posh restaurants where they served more food I was expanding – something which I was very aware of due to how little room there seemed to be for me on the sofa.

Although Max also being on the sofa didn’t help.

“Don’t get the phone,” Max muttered, his arms around my waist, “it’s not important,”

“Could be,” I returned, “the office might need me...” I said pointedly, leaning over the top of the sofa to grab the phone. “Hey,” I muttered, pulling the phone cable as far as I could make it pull and tucking the phone under my ear.

“Grace,” James beamed down the other end, “I’ve been hoping to catch you – I know you’ve been busy,”

“I actually am, kind of busy I mean,” I shook my head at Max and sat up a little more, staring out at the grey walls of my flat. I’d hardly seen James. Last time I’d seen him he’d tried to talk about Heddy for a really long time – not appearing to pick up on my hatred of talking about anything to do with death or messed up people who needed therapists. I could tell that he resented the fact that I was more than happy to pretend that everything was just fine, and I suppose now he knew full well that he wasn’t getting anywhere near my pants he’d given up a little bit.

I’d tried talking about things. I’d sat through a horrible dinner with Liz/Beth – who naturally knew everything there was to know – as we tried to make small talk about relationships and travelling, without bringing up the fact that I was still messed up and she was so perfectly normal. We’d exchanged brief phone calls too, but so much had changed. It made my head hurt even trying to associate this new Beth Potter with my Liz.

 “Oh,” James said.

“No, its fine,” I said quickly, pulling my cardigan over my shoulders. I’d missed hearing James’s voice, I had to admit. It was a damn shame that he just wanted to get some, because I’d been dangerously close to having a friend.  Functional relationships were always sort of big deals for me, given I was so adept at messing things up they didn’t usually last (and damn James for making me that little bit more introspective) “it’s not important – shoot.”

Max gave me and affronted look and combated this insult by wrapping his arms around my waist and kissing my shoulder distractedly. I shifted away from him, sending an eye roll and glancing up at the ceiling.

“Beth said that you two talked.”

“Yeah,” I said, ignoring Max pressing his lips against my neck, “we need to... do something at some point. Catch up... if you want to?”

“Is your boyfriend there?” James asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Trying to undress you as we’re talking?”

“Something like that,” I muttered, pushing Max’s hands away from the top of my skirt, “look, he’s being needy. I’ll call you back –“

“It’s my birthday soon.” James said.

“Yeah, James... later tonight?”

“My thirtieth birthday.”

“Are you fucking serious?” I asked, standing up suddenly and walking round the sofa. My head began to spin dizzily, “no, James, you’re not thirty, you’re still fifteen.”

“You’re a paedo then,” James grinned, “for wanting me.”

“James, this is serious! You’re thirty!”

“Hey, don’t age me prematurely – I’m still only twenty nine.”

“But that...”

“What Grace?”

“My life wasn’t supposed to be like this when I was nearly thirty,” I hissed. “How can this have happened? How can...? You’re not allowed to turn thirty James, freeze your body for science.  Just don’t... Merlin. James, you need to come over or something so I can kick your arse for lying to me, I...”

“Do you want me to go?” Max asked, standing up and sending an irritated look in my direction.

“No,” I said, “no.” pressing the phone into my neck.

“Turning thirty’s not a big deal.” Max shrugged.

“Just because you’re old, Max -”

“-I’m not old Grace.”

“You’re older than me!” I said loudly.

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” Max said, rolling his eyes and slipping on his jacket, “go freak out with Potter or something,”

“So I’m good to come over?” James’s voice said from the other end of the phone. “Excellent. How old is this Max?”

“Thirty eight,” I muttered. “Max, don’t go,” I said distractedly, but already he was stepping into the fire and flooing away from my apartment. I gritted my teeth and collapsed back down on the sofa. “Buggering shit.”

“Thirty eight? Jesus, Grace, you’re dating a pensioner.”

“Will you just sod off James? This is all your bloody fault anyway.”

“So you don’t want me to come over?” James asked sharply, “enough with the bipolar.”

“Forget it,” I muttered, “I don’t need your bloody sympathy.”

“What am I supposed to be sympathetic about? Your crumbly boyfriend? Because I’m very much not.”

“What the hell do you want from me, Potter?” I demanded, “Why don’t you just fuck off and get laid?” and then I threw the receiver in the direction of the phone, both phone and receiver fell of the kitchen counter and ripped the plug off the wall. I think, on balance, he might have got the message.

I ran my hands trough my hair, my hands unconsciously grabbing hold of great chunks and, once again – Jesus it had been a long bloody time – I wanted to rip it out of my skull. I wanted it away from me; I wanted to tear a part of this away and just be able to sit and not think again. I hated this. If this was feeling things I didn’t want anything to do with it – I wanted to be impassive and just fine. And I wanted to cry until my eyes fell out.

James apparated into my flat ten minutes later, removed my balled up fists from my hands and poured me a mug of firewhiskey.

“Merlin’s pants, Grace, you’re not even the one turning thirty,” James said sitting down on the sofa next to me with his own glass of firewhiskey. “Talk about an overreaction.”

“I thought you wanted me to feel.” I muttered.

“Anger hardly counts,” James said, and then I leant against his chest and let him wrap an arm around me. “Are you okay?”

“Wonderful, thanks.” I returned, closing my eyes and breathing in the scent of the firewhiskey. How many times in my life had I wound up here in my life? This god awful feeling of helplessness and seeing your whole damn life pass by before you had a chance to do anything with it.

“Cry it all out.” James suggested, curling his fingers around a lock my hair.

“I don’t cry.”

“Of course you don’t,” James said softly, taking a sip out of his firewhiskey and continuing playing with the lock of my hair, “go on then Gracie, hit me with it – when was the last time you cried?”

“Before I left for France.”

“So, what, ten years ago?” James said, sounding distinctly amused. “So you’re genuinely telling me that you haven’t cried for a decade? Not for a bad break up? A sad book? Nothing? Not a single tear?”

“No,” I said, biting my lip and closing my eyes – why were there always so many things to think about? Why were there always a hundred things waiting for you to just think about? “I don’t have bad break ups James, I barely have relationships. Max is the longest relationship I’ve ever had with anyone in my life. And I don’t read books.”

“Jesus, Grace – how can you not see there’s something wrong with you?” James sighed, pulling me closer towards him. I obliged, mostly because I needed a physical presence with me right now. Max had always been shit at actually being there, leaving in the middle of the night to wake up in the morning alone. I hated that. I hated when that feeling of loneliness crept back on you. “So, what was it that made you cry?”

“I got done for dangerous driving,” I said, looking up at him for the first time, “a hundred and ten on the motorway, I just wanted to get away. I needed to escape things, so I just got in the car and drove –too fast, apparently. Then the police guy asked me if I knew that I was driving significantly over the speed limit and then I just burst into tears.”

“Right,” James said, his lips twisting up slightly, “and then what?”

“And the next week I got on a plane with a suitcase and I didn’t come back,” I shrugged, “it doesn’t matter James, I don’t care – stuff like that happens, life is shit. That’s the way it’s always been.”

“You’re not going to talk about it with me, are you?”

“No,” I said, “I can’t.”

“I think we should talk about Heddy.”

“What do you want me to say?” I demanded, sitting up and staring at him clutching my firewhiskey with both hands and blinking at him. “That it’s not your fault? That it is your fault? That I’m really sorry that this had to happen to you?”

“Okay,” James said, “we won’t talk about it.” there was an edge to his voice that I didn’t like. As if I’d disappointed him in some way.

“James, you know me – this is me. This is all I can give you, okay, don’t expect me to be able to talk to you and make everything better. I’ve got an Uncle who’s a therapist, if it’s killing you inside – but he’s a nutcase so just, whatever, don’t think about it.”

“You could try,” James said stiffly. I looked away. “Okay, well, the only reason I called was to invite you to my thirtieth birthday party. You’re not allowed to bring a date, though.”

“You’re not allowed to try and hit on me then.”

“So you’ll come?”

“You know me, can’t resist a party,” then a sudden thought struck me with the weight of something large and heavy.“How many people are going to be there?” I asked warily. There was a silence for a few seconds as James made a big show of stretching his arms and avoiding my gaze. “James,” I complained.

“About a hundred.”

“No way,” I answered folding my arms over my chest and raising my eyebrows at him, “you’ve got more chance of getting me to sleep with you than you do of persuading me to come.”

“Guess what? Both are going to happen.”

“You’re a jerk and I’m not coming.”

 “Come on, you missed the last two Hogwarts reunions.”

Hogwarts reunion?! There isn’t a chance in hell. I don’t need to give everyone another reason to see me as an ongoing joke, James.”

“I want you to be there.”

“Well then, don’t invite anyone else.”

“Now that’s just stupid.”

“I know. Can I not just come over and celebrate your birthday with you by myself? You know I’ve avoided these people for most of my life.”

“Precisely. Don’t you want to show them how sexy you’ve become?”

“Flattering me isn’t going to get me there, James. If you were trying that you should have probably gone for ‘beautiful’ rather than ‘sexy’ in any case.”

“Please Grace, you’re my friend.” I melted a little bit.

“But you probably won’t even talk to me all night. You’ll hire some prat to take people’s coats, you’ll be talking to some blonde chick so will blank me and I’ll spend the whole night hiding in your humungous bathroom to avoid everyone.”

“But,” James said, pouting slightly, “I have a Grace-comeback plan.”

 

*

“Grace,” James beamed, brushing away a disgruntled Amy Carter and holding out his hand to take my coat – just as he’d promised – reaching forward for the kiss on the cheek and ‘accidentally’ getting a little bit too close to my lips instead.

“Behave, James,” I said, raising my eyebrows at him seriously, “we talked about this.”

“Yeah, you talk a lot – drink?”

“God yes.” I muttered, following him towards his kitchen which was for all intents and purposes actually just a bar. It was a bit of a fight to get anywhere with what was distinctly more than a hundred people fitting onto James’s four roomed flat. It was a bloody miracle, if anything.

“Something up?” James asked quietly, having to speak directly into my ear – bloody idiot – so that I could hear him.

“Max,” I muttered, “he’s irritated that I’m coming here tonight.”

“Did you tell him how we kissed?”

“You assaulted me, James, there’s a difference.”

“It was a wedding,” James shrugged. “What are you drinking, then?”

“You’re supposed to subtlety know my drinking preference James, we talked about this – imply that we spend vast amounts of time together.”

“Not enough,” James said cheerfully.

“You said you wouldn’t keep hitting on me.” I said, irritably taking the vodka and coke James poured for me.

“It’s my birthday,” James shrugged, “I’m turning thirty, give me a break Grace.” James said, catching my hand and forcing me to stand close to him.

“And you’re slightly drunk.” I returned as James continued invading my personal space by engineering a standing position where I had my back up against the bar and had nowhere else to go to.

“I’m thirty tomorrow Grace; of course I’m drunk.”

“Okay,” I said, pulling my hand out of his, “but you know you’re not going to get anywhere with me.”

“That’s a lie,” James said, pouting slightly, “I’m going to teach you how to feel emotions again, Gracie.”

“To ease your conscience, right?”

“Nope,” James said with a grin, “so you’ll love me.”

“James,” Albus said, walking over to the bar with Liz/Beth in tow and his eyes raised, “you might want to leave Grace alone for a bit – Amy looks murderous.”

“Blah,” James said, picking up somebody’s half empty beer and wondering off. Dear God. Admittedly, I’d just about been able to work out that James’ comeback plan was probably going to wind up badly (because  when had I ever been able to spend more than five minutes ‘gliding around the flat oozing charm and, of course, Grace’?), but the fact that I’d already wound up alone wasn’t looking good for the state of my sanity.

“How much has he drunk?” I asked, unsure whether to feel amused to slightly frightened.

“He was pretty pissed when we turned up,” Liz/Beth said, smiling grimly, “and that was awhile ago.”

“Jesus,” I muttered, picking up my vodka and coke – and naturally James had made it excessively strong, and sipping it delicately (well, as delicately as I was capable of doing anything – which wasn’t exactly saying much), “I guess he’s just ruined all plans of a graceful comeback.”

“Yeah,” Liz/Beth said, “James... well, he mentioned how he’d persuaded you to come. Al could try and sober him up, if you like?”

“No,” I sighed, glancing at James, “I don’t think I’m destined for grace – irony, it seems, is essentially my first name. How many people are staring at me?”

“Mostly just Amy,” Albus said. Like at the wedding, Albus Potter seemed unsure whether he should be laughing at me or not – he definitely didn’t seem to understand how or why James and I had become friends, and now that I knew the truth I suppose he attributed it to Heddy as much as the next person did. It hadn’t occurred to me before that everyone might be looking at me and seeing Heddy, or that everyone who saw James and me talking would assume that this was a pity party to avoid another suicide.

“Carter?” I questioned, “huh.”

“Anyway, Grace,” Liz/Beth said, “got to say hello to Trisha,”

“Sure,” I said, watching them push their way through the crowd feeling distinctly alone. I knew all of these people, of course, but I had absolutely nothing to say to them – my life had, if not moved on, remained stagnant whilst everyone else moved on. And then here I was shoved back into their company, looking at them and seeing their teenage selves.

“Grace,” James said, reappearing with another drink which he pressed into my hands, “let’s get you drunk.”

“That’s definitely not part of the plan.”

“Well you need to relax a bit, come on – the best alcohol is in my room.”

“If that’s a trick, James, it’d work better if I was drunk first.”

“No,” James said, “I had some spell work done,” he continued and then I walked into James’s bedroom to find, much to my great confusion, an exact replica of his sitting room, “wasn’t enough room. So I tripled the space – triples of everything.”

“Fuck, James, how many people are here?”

“I have a large family,” James shrugged, “there’s only four bedrooms though,” James added, “but then we’re only going to need one.”

“I could get pissed off at you very quickly,” I said. There were less people in the second sitting room and even fewer in the third, to the point that there were only a few sparse groups of people socialising.

“Shall we do shots?” James suggested, sitting down in his third bar and looking up at me, “I’m not as drunk as you think I am,” he added helpfully, “I just like hitting on you.”

“I’m going to need shots,” I said warily. “What’s with Amy Carter? You’re BFF?”

“Complicated.”

“Hypocrite.” I muttered, letting James pour me a shot of dark black liquid. Nothing black lead to an easy morning the next day, I knew that much.

“Fine,” James said, knocking back his shot before placing his glass back on the table, “she used to live here with me. Things got... messy.”

“Elaborate – I’m familiar with all kinds of messy.”

“Kinky,” James grinned, nodding towards my shot glass. I grimaced as I drank it, before placing it back down on the counter deliberately.

“She suddenly decided that she fancies me,” James grimaced, “I, being a tosser, thought that if we dated I could sort of grow to see her like that. Anyway, didn’t work out. I tried to explain everything, but she... eh, she didn’t quite forgive me. Ever.”

“So that’s why you have a two bed place?” I questioned, taking the second shot and downing it, “I thought you were just rubbing your wealth in my face.”

“Nah,” James said, “anyways, turns out everyone’s always on the dumped person’s side.”

“Shocker.”

Another shot, simultaneously this time – with added grimaces.

“Acting like she was being really kind by not going to the press.”

“James, I didn’t ask for your life story.” I said quietly.

“Then the Heddy stuff came out, quite a few people were mad at me about that. Mostly it’s sort of awkward to look at someone and know that you’re both responsible for someone’s death.”

“Tell me about it.” I muttered.

“What?” James asked, looking up at me sharply.

“I understand more than you think, okay.”

Another shot.

“What was your sister called?” James asked, doing the invading-my-personal space thing again, pouring me another shot and burning me with his bloody intense gaze.

I had to look away for a long moment.

“Is she...?”

“Don’t,” I said through gritted teeth, “don’t ask me about it,”

“Don’t you think that if you talked about it, then maybe you could... you know, feel?” James suggested, placing his hand over where mine was resting on the corner of the kitchen counter. I glanced down at his hand. I didn’t have the heart to pull my hand away but, mostly, I just didn’t have a heart.

“I don’t think I can.”

“I thought, maybe, you were close to feeling stuff the other day.” James suggested.

“Yeah,” I admitted, swallowing as I looked up at him, “it doesn’t feel so far off right now, but I just – I’m scared.”

“I want to fix you.”

“You can’t fix a person,” I returned, my other hand balling into a fist, “people aren’t machines, James, you can’t just waltz in and make everything okay again.”

“But I want to.” James said.

“Well, you can’t,” I muttered, watching James wearily, “this is me. Take it or leave it.”

“Can I take you, please?” James suggested, leaning on the bar; and once again I was backed up with no way of escaping him. He seemed to have bloody planned it.

“You’re impossible,” I muttered with a shaky laugh. It was stupid about how scary James being this close was: mostly because I didn’t trust myself. I’d shown time and time again that I had about zero levels of self restraint, and after such a long straight with Max without really fucking up it seemed like James would be the one to mess it up for me. He always did wreck everything.

“Are you okay?” James asked, once again.

“Yes, James, I’m fine,” I snapped, “it’s bloody you – you’re just, you keep getting in my face about all that stuff. I’m not normally so flaming delicate, you’ve just...I don’t want to know about Heddy or about how you’re a lonely git with no girlfriend.”

“Whoever said lonely?”

“Well why else won’t you just back off?”

“Maybe it’s because I like you,” James suggested, “you don’t always have to be so resistant to everything. I think you should ditch your boyfriend and give me a chance, Gracie.” and then he reached forward and kissed me again, one hand curling around my hip and the other round my back. The shots were beginning to go to my head and everything felt slightly woozy.

“Don’t,” I said, turning away “you promised me you wouldn’t.”

“Can’t you just kiss me for a minute?” James sighed irritably, stubbornly not taking a step back away from me - so that our foreheads were still practically touching.

“That’s not how it works, Potter.” I said, ignoring the hand on my back and looking at him defiantly.

“If you didn’t have a pensioner boyfriend?”

“You’re getting on a bit yourself, James.”

“Is he hotter than me?”

“No one’s hotter than you,” I said sarcastically, “don’t be ridiculous.”

“True,” James said, pressing his lips against the corner of mine for a second.

“I’m not interested, James.”

“Humour me for a moment, then I’ll leave you alone,”

“No, James.” I said firmly, pushing past him and pouring myself a glass of water from the tap, suddenly feeling angry.

“You used to think you were in love with me.”

“When I was seventeen – I believed a lot of crap when I was that age.”

“Like what?”

“That people weren’t disposable, that people could change, that you were a half decent person – for a start. I also believed that by the time I was twenty eight I would have actually gotten somewhere in life, instead of still being flailing about like some stupid kid. I told you that Max is the longest relationship I’ve ever had – so why are you trying to fuck that up for me?”

“So I’m selfish,” James said helplessly, “I can’t help that.”

“You’re thirty – grow up.”

“You think I didn’t think I’d be married and have kids and shit, Grace? Just because life doesn’t always work out like you want it to it doesn’t mean its shit. Why are you so determined not to have any bloody hope?”

“My sister, James, was called Hope. And yeah, she is dead. Are you done now? Have you got what you wanted?”

“I told you, I want you.”

“Get over it.” I said simply, glancing over at the door – I wouldn’t exactly say that everyone was staring, but several people were defiantly noticing our rather heated conversation over by the kitchen. A couple of James’s relatives, perhaps, and then a few of his old school mates. Too many familiar faces.

“No, you get over it.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Get over it, Grace,” James repeated, “whatever it was, it happened in the past. Stuff I did, it was in the past. It was a long time ago. Get over it.”

 “Great,” I said, feeling something – what it was, I didn’t want to know – welling up in the back of my throat, “I’ll just go do that.”

*

“I’m going home James,” I said stiffly, finding him chatting to one of his cousins – I couldn’t even be bothered to work out which was which anymore, what did they ruddy matter? – in the second living room, “I’ve just had Philip Bedford telling me how old I am, except I thought I was talking to Robert... and it turns out he’s in hospital getting treatment for cancer.”

“I’ll get your coat.” James said, setting his drink down on the side and offering me a sympathetic smile.

“And all I managed to do was start mumbling on about the only wrinkles I had being on my ironing pile, and then... Amy Carter knocked a drink over me, which was wonderful, and despite all your promises about this great big plan you’ve still ignored me all night and thus... I can’t take anymore.”

“Okay, Grace, I’m not going to argue with you.” James said, kicking the door of the first-spare bedroom open with trepidation before returning a second later with my coat.

“It seemed you were pretty intent on it earlier.” I said in return, pulling on my coat. James opened the front door to his flat and stepped out onto the landing with me.

“Yeah, sorry,” James shrugged lightly, “I’m glad you came.”

“Okay.”

“You’re not going to apparated on top of your kitchen cupboard again, are you?” James suggested with a grin.

“Probably,” I said, “I’m even worse at apparating when I’m drunk.”

“I’ll take you home,” James said, “if anything I’m better when I’m drunk.”

“Kay,” I muttered, running my hands through my hair before linking my hand through his.

The horrible feeling of being forced through a very small straw wasn’t that different to what I was feeling anyway, because suddenly seeing everyone who used to see daily ten years on was so strange and suffocating and horrible. So many people were married, successful and happy, but so many more seemed just as lost as me – was everyone just making it up? How did these people who used to be such bright young things, wind up here? Did everyone’s dreams just circle the drain as soon as you left school and got a good taste of how bitter the world was?

“Grace,” James said, glancing around my flat for a second, “are you okay?”

“I’m great.” I said stiffly, wandering round to my kitchen and pulling out my bottle of Firewhiskey with a grimace, “night cap?”

“You don’t want me to sod off?”

“Not really.” I said, taking too glasses out of the sink... glancing at them a second time and decided that they did need washing again.

“You can’t even stay angry properly,” James said with a bemused smile, “I’m sort of proud you managed to show up though.”

“You gonna leave me alone then?”

“It’ll take a little bit more than that.”

“Good.” I said, handing him the other glass and frowning at my own thoughtfully.

“Merlin’s arse crack – I’m old Grace,” James complained, collapsing onto my sofa and obviously jarring his neck on the back of it. He winced slightly but made no noise, his head tilted up to the ceiling. I pondered that maybe he was too drunk to feel it right now; either way I slid onto the sofa next to him and raised my eyebrows at him.

“It’ll  be me next.”

“Fucking thirty years old – I didn’t think it would bother me.”

“I’m going to cry, and for me that’s actually a big deal.”

“Shit, Grace, my careers nearly over. I’m an old Quidditch player.”

“Better get on that diet,” I said, pulling out my cigarettes from my bag, “and you certainly shouldn’t let me smoke anywhere near you.”

“I like second hand smoke,” James muttered through close eyes, “but put it out before you set fire to your flat.”

“No.” I said, breathing in deeply and joining James in looking up at the ceiling, “shit, I feel like such crap and I’m not even hungover yet.”

“What really bothers you about seeing everyone?” James asked turning to face me for a second – firewhiskey in hand and a weary smile on his face, “that everyone’s happy and you’re not?”

“No,” I returned, closing my eyes and breathing in cigarette smoke, “I’ve more or less given up on myself. It’s seeing people that aren’t happy. It’s seeing how time just destroys people, God, I hate that.”

“So what about me?” James asked, turning on the sofa to watch me talk. I took another deep breath – the best thing about cigarettes was knowing that they were slowly damaging your body. That they could make you die faster.

“You’re anomalous,” I said, finishing my firewhiskey and stubbing out my cigarette in the empty glass like the classy bird I was, “because, well, haven’t you got exactly what you wanted?” I asked, “International Quidditch star, bachelor extraordinaire, interviews and Snogalicious – isn’t that exactly what you wanted?”

“Something like that,” James said, “but its crap. Getting what you want, it’s crap, because you just wind up questioning your judgement.”

“Precisely, you’re not happy. I couldn’t deal with hanging out with you so much if you were really happy. Don’t get me wrong, I want you to be happy I just... God, I don’t know James, things are pretty complicated.”

“Yeah,” James said, finishing his own glass of firewhiskey.

“I just don’t understand how so much time can have gone by when nothing’s changed.” My voice cracked uncomfortably and I sat up suddenly and felt something stirring up in my chest – my heart beating hard in my chest, the familiar feeling of not quite being able to breathe, the edge of hysteria.

“Grace.”

I blinked a couple of times, brining my hand up to my throat and staring right out at the wall of my flat.

“Grace,” James said again, leaning forwards with me and looking at me seriously, “Grace?”

And then: what if I could feel? What if James Potter could make me feel?

It was easy: I reached out for a second and then I kissed him.

“Shouldn’t have done that,” I said quietly, “you should go back to your party.”

“Bullocks, should I.” James muttered, and then he kissed me again.

Its strange how we go through the same routines with so many people; that you can talk to them and flirt with them and they can be entirely different but it almost always feels entirely the same when they’ve got their hands all over you.  It’s strange how everyone seems to think that’s okay.

It wasn’t working. I’d picked the wrong tact and the more James kissed me the number I felt. Me, but not me at all.

James; hands, lips and then, both of us rolling off the sofa.

I’d always envisioned that those so-busy-eating-each-others-faces-you-forget-about-gravity moments would be exhilarating and exciting moments filled with passion and that crap, but I think those romantic heroines must have softer carpets than me.

“James?” I asked, biting my lip with my eyes wide, “are you...?”

“Fine,” James said, trying to pull his body of the floor, managing for a second and then giving up and brining a hand up to his head, “no, not fine. Crap. My head. If you’ve given me concussion, woman –“

“It’s hardly my fault.”

“It was my head that hit the floor,” James said, closing his eyes for a second, “which means it you were the one who caused the might decent.”

“You... you kissed me.”

“You kissed me first, nutter.”

“No, I didn’t – you started this whole thing at the bloody wedding.”

“No,” James countered, “when we were sixteen, you definitely kissed me first.”

“You’re definitely not thirty, Git.”

“The least that could have happened is I could have got amnesia and forgot about the thirty thing. Shit, Grace, my head. I think I’m going to die.”

“Great way to go though, right?” I said, offering him a hand and blinking at him. James stood up woozily and instantly turned very white. “Oh, God, you’re actually not okay – erm.... I’ll er, call the hospital or –”

“Just get me some ice.” James said, clutching onto the kitchen counter for support and closing his eyes again, “I really fucked that up.”

“I thought it was my fault?” I asked, bending down and desperately scrabbling through my fridge for something cold, “I don’t have a freezer, James, but... I can offer you a bottle of milk?” I suggested, pressing into his hand. “Although –“

James pressed the bottle of milk sideways against the back of his head.

“-there’s a hole in the lid,” I finished unnecessarily, because the second he’d tipped the bottle a white waterfall of milk had rather enthusiastically left the bottle of milk and made their home on James’ clothing.

James blinked for a moment.

I burst out laughing.

“This is quite possibly the worst birthday ever,” James said after a full couple of minutes where I crippled myself laughing harder than I had for quite a few years and James stood there, still looking slightly pale and woozy, with the added addition of a bottle of empty milk in his right hand, “I’m turning thirty, I nearly knocked myself out and I am covered in milk.”

“James,” I said weakly, “I ate blue pizza and ended up in St Mungo’s – you’re doing better than that.”

“We’re made for each other,” James said with a grin, placing the bottle of milk down on the counter and taking a deep breath, “crap, help me clear this up? I could take my shirt off and you could wash it?”

“What, think I’m going to be so impressed by your abs that I’ll snog you again?” I asked. “Use your wand, James, my momentary lapse of judgement has passed.”

“I feared that.” James sighed.

“Happy birthday, James.”

“Where’s my present?”

“It was the bottle of milk.”

“I’d take another snog.”

“Go home James, you can call me in the morning.”

“Why?” James asked, pressing his fingers against the saw spot on the back of his head.

“So you can apologise.” I said sweetly.

 

 

 





This story has been getting a little more love recently, which I'm so happy about! Usually this story is one of my more unpopular ones, which makes me sad because I actually think its one of the better ones. I certainly love it more than some of the others, so it honestly makes me so happy when you guys leave me lovely reviews and such. I implore you to continuing doing so, because it makes me very very very happy. And I like being happy.

Although, I'm pretty happy with writing at the moment anyway. Everything just seems to be going really well - I've been winning challenges and I keep seeing my name crop up around the forums. Not to forget the writers duel (AHHHH!)... so basically I just wanted to get all emotional and thank all of you - when everything else is going wrong its lovely to have such dedicated and loyal readers on side. So, yeah, that's me done :)

Up next: You get to find out what happened to Grace's sister. Max is very much not happy and James has a bit of a headache, for various reasons...

Excited?
 
 


Chapter 15: January 26th and 27th.
  [Printer Friendly Version of This Chapter]

My annoyance at being woken up by the delivery of a letter was quickly outdone by the horror of receiving a letter from my mother saying ‘why didn’t you tell me you were dating James Potter?’ with a copy of Witch Weekly enclosed for that extra dash of joy.

It was a double page spread. Apparently, the nation has so little gossip to thrive upon they’d invented a so called relationship between me and James Potter. And had gone through the effort of acquiring photographic evidence.

The first was the photo that had appeared in the Prophet months ago, a bottle of morning potion sickness potion jauntily in my hand and a horribly unimpressed expression on my face. Better than the second, third and forth, perhaps, all of which depicted me at the wedding – the worst of which had a moving version of James trying to kiss my cheek over and over, as I turned my face away and sent him a glare.  Then there were another four photos of James and I talking at his birthday party (as in, when James had me backed into a corner and was talking very much in my face).

“Holy shit,” I muttered, unable to make sense of the actual words printed across the double page due to my hangover but fully able to comprehend the fact that there were enough pictures which depicted moments when James decided to be excessively close to me – an arm around my waist, another attempted kiss and me, always trying to move a little further away.

I was so screwed.

*

“James,” I muttered down the phone, “I think you should come over here.”

“I thought I was supposed to ring and apologise or something?” James muttered sleepily – it was quite clear that he was still in bed and that the horrible being-awoken-by-something-loud-and-obnoxious-thing had happened to both of this morning, with me being the loud and obnoxious thing this time (a good thing too, I’d be awfully confused if James had been woken up by my mother).

“You’ll need to grovel later,” I said, “but we have a bigger problem right now.”

“If you’re pregnant, it really wasn’t me.”

“Don’t be such a shit, James. Do you get like... publicity stuff being sent to your house?”

“If it’s embarrassing, the fam has a competition to see how quickly they can send it to me. First one to send a copy gets teasing rights.”

“Expect owls,” I muttered darkly, “knowing the Weasley’s – expect a whole zoo load of owls.”

“Owls don’t live in zoos. Mostly they live in the wild or like those bird places where they have falcons and,” James yawned loudly down the receiver, “blue tits.”

“Stop thinking about bloody tits, blue or otherwise.”

“Stop talking sexy down the phone to me then.”

“Merlin, James, when are you going to take this seriously? There is a rather sizeable news article about you in Witch Weekly – do you not care?”

“No,” James said, “can I go back to sleep now? If you really want to see me, you could just come over? No need to make some bullshit up about Witch Weekly and...” James went silent for a moment before the rather muffled similar to the owl post in the morning at Hogwarts could be heard through the line – completed only by James angrily swearing at several birds and throwing the phone against very loud heavy things. Given that I was significantly hungover and he was too, I didn’t think this was helping anyone involved.

“Oh,” James said after the noise had died down and all that was to be heard was his slightly panicked breathing, a few owls dully hooting and the sound of Witch Weekly being opened at page three, “well your boyfriend is going to kill you.”

*

“Right,” James muttered, collapsing onto my sofa and staring at the ceiling, “so... what do you want me to do?”

“Fix it.” I said, throwing the newspaper in his direction and continuing to face my flat with a frown.

“Grace,” James complained, pressing his fingers against his forehead and looking distinctly pale – I had little sympathy due to the fact that we were both battling with hangovers. Maybe James, who’d drank an obscene amount of alcohol, had it worse than me but I’d never claimed to be nice, “I can’t ring up Witch Weekly and make them retract all the magazines. Everyone’s already read it.”

“Precisely,” I muttered, forcing James to take over less of the sofa and sitting down next time, “Oh, God.”

“Grace, it’s not going to be that bad.”

“It’s okay for you,” I said angrily, “sure, your cousins are going to give you some stick but, God James, and you’re just going to get a slap on the back for screwing someone else. And me, shit, could I get more of joke? Hogwarts, disappearing for nine years, coming back and then these bloody pictures!”

“Grace, I know,” James muttered, shuffling around on the sofa slightly until my head fell on his shoulder, “I’ll talk to my agent later today. No doubt she’s already arrived at my apartment and what not.”

“Right,” I said, grabbing hold of the magazine and flicking it open to the dreaded page all over again. This time, my eyes focused enough for me to be able to read the first part of the article. On the day of James Potter’s thirtieth birthday, it has come to light that our favourite bachelor has set his sights on settling down. The lucky girl, fellow ex-classmate Grace Whitehall, appears to be reluctant to succumb to his charms (at least, in public). “Shit,” I muttered, “James it’s your birthday. I’m sorry, happy thirtieth.”

“Its fine,” James said, “let’s pretend it’s not happening. I don’t want to be thirty.”

“I don’t want to be twenty eight.”

“Quit whining, you’re still young and beautiful.”

“You’re so hungover.”

“Probably still drunk,” James muttered, “Jesus, I’ll do an interview with the Prophet and tell them that the photos are an optical illusion.”

“Well that’s not going to go down well,” I said, smiling slightly, “considering I’d be the one interviewing you. Do you want breakfast?”

“Yeah,” James said, “more than anything, I want bacon.”

“I’m not sure I have bacon,” I admitted, pulling myself off the sofa and shuffling towards my kitchen (trying not to move my head to much for fear of needing to vomit) and kicking the cupboard draw open, “nope...” I continued upon opening the fridge, “no bacon.”

“What are my options?” James muttered, now with a pillow over his face and lying across the entirety of my sofa. It was pretty strange to think that just yesterday I’d enthusiastically made out with James on that same sofa. I suspected that James’s mild concussion was actually the best possible outcome for that string of events – nothing good could possibly ever come out of confirming anything Witch Weekly said, particularly as this was going to be more than a little difficult to explain to Max...

“I’ve got about three cans of dented soup,” I suggested, “two carrots, a piece of ham... and a questionable chicken leg.”

“Oh, you do spoil me.” James muttered.

“Do you want to walk to the shop?” I suggested, “Get some birthday bacon?”

“Yeah, all right,” James said, throwing the sofa and pulling himself to his feet, “anyway, after last night, I think you’re out of milk.”

*

The crisp January air and the prospect of food made both James and I feel slightly better, meaning by the time we were re-climbing the stairs up to my flat we were both much more cheerful. I felt more comfortable when things were going wrong rather than when things were going right, mostly because I felt more like myself when I was continually screwing things up and generally being rubbish. So, actually, having this article in Witch Weekly actually made me feel slightly less on edge – because I didn’t have to wait for the next thing to go wrong, we were already there.

“How was the rest of the party?” I asked as we reached the third flight of stairs. “Did Amy Carter throw herself on you?”

“Something like that,” James said with a grin, “who was it that passed out? That girl who used to be your friend but was secretly, like, telling everyone your secrets...”

“She was there?”

“Oh yeah,” James grinned. “She was trying to avoid you – scared shitless, I imagine. After Heddy, God, she was a mess.”

“Let’s not talk about that,” I muttered, “let’s talk about bacon!”

“The candles were unnecessary,” James grinned, “although I can’t wait to see what happens when you try and light them.”

“Hey,” I said, “everything that can go wrong has gone wrong today, so...” I fumbled around in my pocket for my keys, detracting them from my pocket and trying to get them in the lock and turn them with a week’s worth of shopping bags weighing my arm down.

“I wouldn’t bet on it,” James muttered, “but don’t worry – I’ll get on to Witch Weekly and tell them about how you keep rejecting me as soon as I get home.”

“What are your birthday plans?” I questioned, finally managing to unlock the door and bursting through into my flat.

“Sitting around moping mostly.”

“Well we could do something, right?” I suggested. “We’re both hungover and depressed so really, match made in...”

Max was stood in my pathetic excuse for a kitchen, leaning against one of the counters and idly flicking through one of the several copies of Witch Weekly that seemed to now exist in my flat (James had apparated with a great wad of magazines still in his hand and had thrown them in the direction of the bin to vent frustration at the world).

I stared at him, mouth agape for a few moments as I tried to imagine what things looked like from his perspective: James’s coat was still draped over the sofa – the idiot had forgotten it during the walk to the supermarket– two ignored cups of coffee were sitting by the sink, I was framed in the doorway holding a great deal of shopping and James was stood right behind me, carrying more shopping bags. It very much looked like James had stayed the night. Forget that, it almost seemed like James was two carrier bags short of moving in.

“Max,” was the first word I managed to say, my hands desperately fumbling around trying to free myself from the carrier bags, “it’s not what it...”

Max looked up at me for a minute, then returned to casually flicking through Witch Weekly.

“James, I think you better go,” I said hastily, trying to take all his carrier bags off him and conveying exactly how bad this was through my erratic eye expression. James didn’t need telling twice and quickly deposited the bags on the table and apparated away with a loud CRACK.

“Morning.” Max said lightly.

“I called James and told him to come over when I saw the article,” I began hastily, “so we could sort out what to do... I mean, it’s not true. Nothing, nothing happened.”

Well, sort of.

I mean, more or less.

Sod.

*

At work on Monday everyone clapped as I walked into the building, particularly George who seems to find the whole thing immensely hilarious. In my imagination, Scott Hall was immensely disappointed – but in reality since I’ve taken up residence in Cherry’s office he seemed to have forgotten about our beautiful relationship. Damn.

“A love story beginning with Snogalicious.” George said, perching on the desk behind Jill’s as I crossed over to talk to her.

“And ending in murder,” I finished lightly, “you shouldn’t believe everything you read in the papers, George.”

“Why? Because you’ve written some of it.”

“Something like that,” I smiled, sitting down at my old desk for a few moments, “eurh. What a weekend.”

“How mad is Cuffe?” Jill asked.

“What?” I asked, suddenly feeling self conscious – in my mind everyone at the office was completely and utterly ignorant about the fact that we were sleeping together and in a form of a relationship (I thought Max’s ridiculous paranoia had taken care of that), but apparently Jill knew that he was mad.

“Well, it’s a real annoyance for him. Normally, we’d have jumped on a story like that in an instant, but because you’re involved it screws everything up. Did he start about the whole ‘you should have told me first so I could print it before everyone else, lark?’”

“Not yet,” I muttered, “but after seeing what work I’ve got to do for the week... I’m down for covering Snogalicious on Thursday whilst the Snogalicious girl interviews James. I’m not looking forward to going in there.” I said, glancing towards my office.

“How bad can it be?” George grinned, “Cuffe seems to like you at any rate – he is training you, after all, he never does that.”

“Nah,” I muttered, wrapping my arms around myself slightly, “I reckon I’m going to lose my job, one way or another.”

“Just spill the dirt on James Potter,” George shrugged, “tell the world if he’s good and bed and stuff.”

“Wouldn’t know,” I muttered, “bloody Witch Weekly. They should at least get their facts right before they start printing things.”

“So you’re not sleeping with him?” George asked. “Why not, he secretly married or something?”

“Nope, that would be me,” I quipped in return, “a husband in every continent.”

“It’s illegal to marry penguins,” Jill intercepted, “so good luck with Antarctica.”

“I’ll bare that in mind,” I sighed, standing up and completing the walk of shame towards my office. I wasn’t ready to face Max: after our long conversation yesterday, in which I ended up explaining the whole James story from when I was sixteen years old to present. In hindsight, I didn’t think chronicling how I’d been convinced I was in love with him for six years was particularly helpful towards my cause but I never was very good with sorting out relationship stuff.

In the end, Max had declared that he needed to think about things and left me to sit alone in my apartment with a great deal of grocery shopping. I had considered phoning James and getting him to come back over, meaning at least we could eat the bacon-with-candles-stuck-in-it, but I didn’t think I deserved the luxury of company. Instead, I’d splayed out across my sofa and felt miserable for several hours before crawling back to bed and declaring that I’d do whatever it took to sustain both my relationship with Max and my friendship with James – even if it required resetting some boundaries and juggling.

Still, having two whole people who seemed to care about what I was doing was a nice change. And with the other people who were creeping in my life: Cherry, Dave and maybe even Liz/Beth I was beginning to find that people had a genuine value.

I looked up from my desk as Dave walked in.

“How’s Noah?” I asked, sending him my best attempt at a smile (a poor one, smiling never was my forte).

“He’s not sleeping very well,” Dave said, “better than us, though. You’ve caused a family scandal with this James Potter lark,” Dave said, “I told them it wasn’t true.”

“It’s not,” I said, “but I guess pictures, well, tell otherwise...”

“Yeah, anyway – you all right, Grace?”

“Fine,” I said, “might nip out for a fag break in a minute.”

“I’ll leave this here, then.” Dave said, tossing a pile of paperwork onto my desk and sending me a smile. I didn’t even want to know what it was Max wanted me to do today.

*

The horrible thing about all of this was that I’d actually really started to love my job. It wasn’t obvious now, when I was trying my best to dwindle time by chatting to George and Jill, taking extensive cigarette breaks leaning outside the building and filling my lungs with the stuff that would probably, eventually kill me... but I’d really started to enjoy the interviews, the organisation, the writing aspect of everything. I liked the stupid, pointless tasks that Max set me – labelling them as ‘training’ – when really they always just seemed like a bit of fun.

Everything was moving much too fast, I decided, and I bet that by next week I’d be single and unemployed and it would almost be as if I hadn’t really achieved anything at all. .

That wasn’t surprising given I had an impeccable talent for ruining things the first time the spark of something that was truly good came up, largely because I was more comfortable with myself when things were running badly. That and I had a tendency to cause awkward and embarrassing things to happen without even giving them thought.

All I knew was that now, with a host of new current problems to content with, I felt further away from feeling than I had done since returning to England.

I hated England. Especially in January.

I sighed, stubbed my cigarette out on the side of the wall and squashed it beneath my foot.

The walk back up to my office wasn’t long enough but I manage to make it stretch out by stopping several times to adjust my shoes, take an extended visit to the toilets (in which I started at my abysmal reflection for a good few minutes before washing my hands unnecessarily) and then stopping at the coffee machine.

It was only when I had sat back down in my secluded office, kicked off my shoes and flicked through the various pieces of paper that Dave had left on my desk that I saw it. A singular piece of parchment, on which Maxim Cuffe had written my instruction for today’s training.

Write about hope.

*

The chances were that Max was attempting to ease my mind by sending subliminal messages through the stupid note, but ever since I’d read the damn thing I’d spent most of the day blinking stupidly around the office, and then round my flat, with the piece of paper clutched in my left hand.

Write about hope.

Except I hadn’t read it like that. To me the piece of paper read ‘write about Hope’ and that was the crucial difference. Hope. I very much doubted that I had the writing ability to write about Hope, my sister and all the things that followed it. I didn’t have the words in me to knuckle down and write but this was the first time in years that I’d wanted to try.

I blamed James and the assertion that maybe if I talked about it, I could feel. I couldn’t talk about it. I’d always been lousy at speaking: too clumsy, too likely to stumble over my words and too likely to accidently insult someone mid flow. Writing...? Maybe I could do that.

I picked up the biro that sat next my phone and a pad of paper. I wasn’t sure I could do it. I wasn’t sure that I had the guts. Gryffindor. I could do this.

I sneered at the blank piece of paper, shook the tension out of my shoulders and forced myself to write.

*

I grew up in Whitby and, as much as I hate England with its dreary weather and endless cups of tea, I have not for a second been able to bring myself to hate Whitby.

Whitby was the backdrop for my childhood: fish and chip shops dominating the streets, each claiming to be the best in Whitby, none of them as good as our regular fish and chip shop; the tourists that came every summer, flocking around the beach and to Whitby Abbey; the boats, the salty smell and the northern accents.  Black Whitby jet always seemed the most romantic, Whitby Abbey always framed the sky and every summer the streets burst into life. The best years of my life were spent slowly and gently growing up in Whitby.

I learnt how to sail. My best friend’s uncle had a boat and he used to let us take it out for trips when there weren’t enough tourists to keep the tours going.  Later, we smuggled beers on board and had our own stupid parties, with fish and chips wrapped up in white paper and sticks of rock and fudge. When we were younger we used to buy postcards and send them too each other, even though he lived three doors down. It was him and me and her.

My sister and I used to take our pocket money down to the arcades. There were a lot of differences between me and Hope: for a start, her name wasn’t a misnomer – whereas I spent most of my life tripping over my feet and attracting all manner of disasters and catastrophes she was forever the optimist; she’d inherited my mum’s blonde hair and she didn’t have the knack with the penny slots like I did. That’s sort of how we found out, through the slot machines. I’d always surprise the arcade owners be presenting mounds of two penny coins and requesting that they could turn them back into a fiver, please, and although they watched me like a hawk there was no explanation for the way I managed to get the timing right every time. Other than magic, of course.

Hope never could manage it, as much as she willed the coins to do her bidding, although she’d never give up: she took her two pounds of two pennies and would bite her lip with concentration, feeding the machines until she had a single penny left. Then she’d hand it to me reluctantly, I’d double her starting amount and we’d buy ice cream.

Hope was a squib.

That’s what they were arguing about, that day. It was the beginning of August, Hope was eleven and there was no Hogwarts letter – we hadn’t expected one really, but we remained, well, hopeful.  Neither of us had gone to primary school, and now where was Hope going to go? She’d be woefully behind on history and maths and science if they put her straight into secondary school, but if they homeschooled her she’d be forced to remain at home and friendless whilst I went to Hogwarts and learnt magic.

The other thing about Whitby is the roads. Everything is on a hill and the roads are those twisting, turnings, got-to-get-your-uphill-starts-right roads.

It was a number of things: my parents arguing, eyes not on the road; that bend (an accident waiting to happen, the newspapers said) and a tourist just touching the drink drive limit.

Hope and I were trying to block out the arguing. She’d undone her belt and shifted herself to the middle so that we could play slaps. Blonde, brown eyed skinny little Hope wedged in the middle of the car. If she had lived she would have been the pretty one, but that would have been okay. I would have had magic and she would have had optimism and beauty.

 I couldn’t describe to you the expression of horror on the tourists face as he came round the bend too fast, the screeching of the brakes, the collision. An argument cut short and never needed to be resumed again: never to be even acknowledged. Jerking forwards. The belt snatching me back to my seat. Hope flying. The glass. My mother screaming. Colours, movement, bystander’s horror and then everything stopped and I couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think.

I remember that. I remember every second. Always have, always will.

My parents were trapped by the body of the car, but I was free enough to force myself out the car and watch my sister die on the tarmac.

She wasn’t so pretty all bloodied up and broken.

 I had enough magic running through my veins to have survived the crash, the impact of the pavement, the glass – but Hope, Hope was a squib. I could have been the one to undo my seatbelt and sit in the middle. It could have been in the collision and I would have lived.

I always found it strange how apt her name was. I’ve never had hope since then. Hope died, and I watched her die, and I crouched beside her body until the ambulance came. I had no hope, I’m not sure I ever have done since. I was nine and now I am nearly twenty nine. When I sit here and I look at my life, nothing’s changed: I’m still nine years old and numbly watching my world crumble. I can still feel the road slipping away from beneath me, the car swerving and the brakes screaming into action too late. I’m still waiting for the impact of the next crash.

The pen fell and I didn’t pick it up. I pushed the piece of parchment away from me and pressed my head against the wood of the counter.

Forty minutes later I sat up and phone my mother.

She almost sounded pleased to hear from me.
 



Hey guys! I was delighted with the number of lovely reviews on the last chapter and all the mentions of this story over on formspring or people who've mentioned starting to read it over on the forums. Thank you guys so much! Hopefully they'll be another update soon :D

Thank you and please review!

AC/Helen


Chapter 16: January 29th.
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Mum took a glance at the piece of parchment before pushing it back over my side of the table and running a hand through her hair, a self-conscious habit that I’d always thought she’d picked up when I’d been pulling out my hair – as if she’d just become very aware that she had hair.

“So that’s what this is all about.” Mum said, taking a sip of her cup of tea and looking at me with her normal unyielding expression. I don’t know what I’d expected. My mother and I never seemed to be on the same wavelength: when she wanted to reach out, I wanted to run away to another country, when I wanted to see her she just looked at me with her cold eyes and said nothing.

“It was an assignment at work,” I said, “they’re training me.”

“I know,” She said, taking another sip of her tea, “Dave and Cherry were telling me about it.”

It wasn’t like I couldn’t see her point. I hadn’t visited her for years and years, sending her half hearted letters and phone calls. Several times her and my Dad had apparated out to where I was staying – Germany, France, Austria – and we’d have dinner in some local restaurant where they spoke none of the language and felt like they didn’t belong. They didn’t belong. I hadn’t really wanted them anywhere near my life. I hadn’t wanted them to belong.

I still didn’t. Even back in England I did my best to avoid my mother: ignoring her phone calls for weeks, never coming to visit, letting her find out about my career through Cousin Dave.

“What do you want me to say, Grace?” Mum asked, looking at the piece of the parchment and looking uncomfortable.

“Don’t know,” I admitted, taking the piece of parchment and shoving it into the depths of my pocket, “I don’t like thinking about it.”

My parents were two of the few people in the world who had the capability of making me feel and it was only natural that I’d want to be as far as way as possible

Mum nodded stiffly, reached out across the table and gave me a hug.

*

“Hey, James.” I muttered into my phone, looking up and down the street and folding my arms over my chest. Whitby was mostly dead in January, but the air still smelt like salt and as horribly reminiscent as it was, it almost felt like home.

“Gracie,” James said, “I was beginning to think your boyfriend killed you.”

“No,” I said, taking the sloping steps two at a time and finding myself face to face with the arcades, “I’m alive.”

“Good to know.” James said.

I took the side street, walked past the pier and found myself on the sand. I thought about it for a minute, looking out over the water. “Hey,” I said, “James, how do you like the seaside?”

*

“This is where I grew up,” I told James, glancing up at Whitby Abbey and feeling that familiar jerk in my stomach that being at home always made me feel – not good, but not bad either, “Whitby. Ever been?”

“No,” James admitted, shoving his hands in his jeans – and he looked strange in fully muggle clothing – and smiling at me, “we used to go to Cornwall.”

“Up north is where it’s at,” I returned, “this chip shop sells the best chips in Whitby.”

“Don’t they all say that?” James grinned.

“Yeah,” I said, pushing open the door and nodding up to the walls, “but some have better judges than others.”

For a second I had to search amongst the other certificates and awards before I found it: there, just as it had been when I’d last been in this chip shop, just as the chippy owner had always promised me that it would be the day I left for Hogwarts. We’d made it together, Hope and I, scribbled in some crayons that had been left around in Connor’s house – a certificate of excellence, our own smiling faces of approval now preserved for ever in a frame on the wall.

“As declared by Hope and Grace Whitehall,” James read, smiling slightly as he took in the colour, “so you made that when you were, what, five?”

“Seven,” I corrected, “don’t insult my colouring.”

“Sorry,” James said, nudging me with his arm, “it’s cool that they’ve kept it.”

“I was given an oath,” I smiled, “anyway, chips?”

“Yeah,” James said, pulling out his wallet and taking a fiver, “I’ll get them.”

I nodded, glancing up at the familiar memory and not feeling suffocated like I usually did when I was given a kick from the past. But these were the good days, racing down one of the many flights of steps with Hope and whoever’s-last-pays-for-the-chips. I remembered the first time I’d been allowed to make the walk to the chip shop by myself, clutching the white paper bundle to my chest as I solemnly walked back to our house. When Hope and I went together, she’d peel back one of the layers and pop a chip into her mouth, beaming. I was never one for such frivolities.

Grace?” A voice asked, and I jerked out of my reverie to find the manager – the same old manager who’s declared the picture would never come down seventeen years ago – stepping out from the kitchen and looking at me curiously. “Is that you?”

“Yeah,” I answered, feeling my lips pull up into a smile before I could help myself, “I can’t believe you still work here.”

“I’m not quite at retiring age yet, Gracie,” He grinned, “put your money away,” he added to James, staring at me with his grey eyes blinking at me with excitement, “I’ve always wondered if you’d come back, Grace! Your mother said you’d gone travelling.”

“Yeah,” I answered again, blinking up at him and taking the chips that were pressed into my hands feeling dazed, “thank you!”

“You take care.” He said, waving me out the door, beaming.

“They still remember you?” James asked as I pulled back the paper and took a chip – as good as I remembered, crispy and salty. The curry sauce used to be superb.

“I’m very memorable.”

“Never doubted it,” James returned, taking a chip, “I could never forget you, but still... all this time.”

“I was the girl who lost her sister,” I said sharply, “that sort of thing sticks in people’s memories.”

James was silent for a long few moments.

“Did you hate it here?” James asked, following me down one of the side streets as we walked away from the pier and the beach, towards the collection of pretty little shops. A few of them had changed, but Whitby never changed much – tourists always wanted the same things, after all.

“I loved it.” I answered honestly, pausing to look at the Whitby jet and being very aware of my heart beating in my chest. Hope had told me that when she got married, she’d only say yes if she were brought a ring of Whitby Jet and diamond. I’d told her that she didn’t suit the black stone, that she needed something with more colour. She’d laughed and said I certainly didn’t.

“Why did you leave?” James asked, turning his face towards me. I faltered slightly. “You didn’t have to leave the country, Grace. You could have hidden away here if you wanted.”

“Yeah, well,” I shrugged, forcing myself into motion again.

“Grace.” James muttered.

“Look, James, I have a tendency to do what will make me more miserable. Haven’t we established this shooting myself in the foot territory?”

“I suppose,” James said, “but it seems like a lousy excuse.”

“What do you want me to say?”

“You’re different here,” James countered, “I only arrived fifteen minutes ago, but I can already tell that this is your home.”

“Not anymore.”

James went quiet again and for a few minutes we walked side by side in silence. 

Thanks to the usual British weather and the breeze coming in from the sea, it was bitterly cold – the only thing that was keeping me warm were the chips I was still holding close to my chest. I brushed my hair out of my face and glanced between the rows of the shops, where the sea was just about visible.

“They are good chips.” James said, taking another and offering me a smile.

“Best in Whitby,” I agreed, taking another, “do they have arcades in Cornwall?”

*

“So, what brought you here?” James asked, his concentration almost entirely fixed on the claw he was trying to navigate towards some fancy gadget that played music. It wasn’t like either of us knew what the damn thing was, but James thought it looked exciting and so was trying to pick up that rather than the things I’d suggested.

“I got given a work assignment to write about hope,” I admitted, leaning against the slot machines as I watched James grow gradually more frustrated with the whole thing, “took it a little too literally.”

James swore loudly and slammed his fist against the machine as it timed out.

“Penny slots,” James said, approaching the machine closest to me and pulling out fistfuls of muggle pennies, “Grace, now, I’m going to warn you – I am an absolute boss at the penny slots. Try and keep your pants on, because this is going to be impressive.”

“Really?” I asked, stepping sideways to watch is inexpert fingers reach upwards towards the slots. “Because you should know my house is about a ten minute walk away from here, and I am definitely not an amateur.”

“You ain’t seen nothing yet,” James countered, looking up at me with his eyes flashing with something that made me want to laugh, “this shit’s getting real.”

“All right,” I returned, “I bet you I’ll win.”

“Stakes?” James suggested.

“Dinner.”

“Boring,” James said, “if I win, you owe me another kiss.”

“Fine.” I returned, placing a hand on my hip and shaking my head at him.

“So what do you want?” James grinned. “If you were, by some miracle, to win.”

“Dinner.” I countered. James rolled his eyes.

“I knew you wanted me,” James said as he turned to face the slot machine again – sizing up his enemy, “knew you’d come round.”

“No, James – you’re just not going to win.”

“You haven’t seen me in action.”

“I’ve experienced you in action,” I quipped, raising my eyebrows at him, “more than once.”

“Are we counting snogalicious?” James asked, narrowing his eyes as he watched the movement of the machine. He let his first penny drop, landing at exactly the right moment but in precisely the wrong place – no points for James.

“More importantly, are we counting that?” I asked, running my own penny through my fingers and raising my eyebrows at him.

“I’m going to get my snog.” James said, pretending to polish his penny before dropping it into the machine again. Still nothing.

“I thought we agreed on a kiss? Not that it’ll matter, by the looks of the things.”

“Got a plan,” James said, “ten pennies?”

“You’ve got eight left.”

“I’m glad you called me,” James said. Penny number three. The penny’s close to the edge of the machine shifted slightly, “shameless flirting disregarded, I don’t want to lose you Gracie.” Penny number four; a single penny fell over the edge and into the change compartment.

“Even if I won’t sleep with you?”

“Sure, but...” James said. Penny number five sent a number of pennies over the edge, clattering downwards very loudly, “I do get lucky.”

Penny six did nothing. Nor did seven or eight. The penultimate penny gained James another two and the very last sent a very loud number falling downwards.

“Not today,” I said, watching as James picked up the pennies he’d won and counted them, “it takes more than a bit of a strategy to beat me.”

“What does it take to win you?”

“Oh, shut up. How many?”

“Fourteen,” James said, leaning on one of his arms as he turned to face me, “four pence profit.”

“Quite the business man,” I returned, examining my first penny before stepping towards the machine. It had never felt like magic, rigging the slots, it had always just felt like I was willing the coins to do my bidding and they were simply happy to oblige – maybe it wasn’t magic at all, maybe all the luck I was destined to have in the world was concentrated into penny slots, “but I think my margins might be better than yours.”

The first penny brought my three my coins, and that was my worst shot.

Victory, Grace Whitehall.

*

“So, you wrote about Hope?” James asked as we sat on the beech eating ice cream, huddled relatively close together because sitting on a beach in January is a downright stupid thing to do if you hadn’t planned on becoming an intimate friend with hypothermia or that feeling you get when it no longer feel like your toes are a functional part of your body.

“Yeah,” I breathed, looking out over the sea and licking my ice cream again, “then I showed up here and tried to talk to my Mum. Big mistake.”

“Not close?”

“I left the country for nearly a decade, it hardly screams mother-daughter bond, right?”

“No,” James said, drawing a heart in the sand and proceeding to write our names in it, “so, it was just you and Hope?”

“Yeah,” I said, scattering the sand that spelt out my name with my foot, “so yeah, it is like how you’re thinking: one daughter died and the other ran away for ten years. Yes, she’s bitter. But only when I want to talk to her, the rest of the time she spends hounding me with letters and phone calls and shit.”

“I was never close with my Dad,” James said, now mounding sand up into a quasi-sandcastle, “he still doesn’t really know what I’m doing. Thinks I can’t take things seriously. Always thinks he knows best.”

“That’s what it’s like with my Mum. Like, when she didn’t tell Hogwarts about me pulling out my hair and about saying I didn’t need any more therapy sessions after awhile, said I was fine. Then because, well, Hogwarts...” I made a face.

James nodded with a half trace of a smile.

“You were an interesting teenager.”

“Difficult, definitely.” I agreed, scrabbling the sand with my fingers and adding more sand to the castle, which was more of a pile than anything else. “She wouldn’t read what I wrote.”

“I’d read it.” James said.

“I know.” I answered, drawing James’s face in the sand with the heel of my shoe, hoping the excess movement would defrost my toes.

I didn’t.

*

“So this is a family friend’s boat?” James asked, holding onto the white railings and looking out over the sea with me. It was strangely nice to take this piece of my childhood and share it with someone, and I was suddenly acutely aware that this was James – the James Potter I’d spent my teenage years pining after and whining about during the summer, the James Potter who’d humiliated me more times than I could count and James Potter who told me about Heddy.

“Yeah,” I replied, feeling the sea wind whip back my hair and remembering how that had used to spark ideas in my head. When I was a teenager, there’d been something so woefully dramatic and beautiful about standing with my hair blowing back around my face like some glorious model, until, of course, the wind changed direction and I got to appreciate the taste of my shampoo instead. It was almost the same, actually, as if having my hair pulled back from my face made the whole situation more intense and interesting. “I nearly lost my virginity on a boat.”

“This boat?” James asked.

“Might have been, actually.”

“Who too?”

“The guy who should have married my sister. If she lived, I mean. Connor Matthews, the boy next door. She was always good with people, Hope, formed attachments easily. Connor and Hope were nearly inseparable and I was the tag along, except she got mad whenever he called me that – she didn’t like the idea of me feeling left out. So every time he’d try it she’d desert him for the day and buy me some fudge.”

“She sounds great.”

“She was,” I said, without the usual pang in my chest but an almost acceptance, “anyway, I was sixteen and he was nineteen.”

“Bit old.”

“Maybe,” I shrugged, “Hope would have been seventeen. I was back for the summer holidays and well, he and his mates were allowed to take the boat out on there own. They smuggled beers on board, and me actually, and his mates were sailing it whilst we were making out over there.”

“And you didn’t because?”

“Well... I mean, it hurt too much, I freaked out and started crying, then he panicked because I was crying on him and, well, it wasn’t the most successful of endeavours.”

“So when was it?” James asked, nudging me with his shoulder. “Hogwarts?”

“After I’d left the country,” I said, “with a French guy.”

“Really?” James asked, turning around to face me with his eyebrows raised.

“Yes, really. You Hogwartians were all so convinced I was a slut that no one would touch me. Well, you did – if you remember – but that was mostly so you had a good story the next day and even you wouldn’t sleep with me. I didn’t have a chance!”

“So you were?”

“Nineteen years old.”

“Shit,” James said, shaking his head, “I was fifteen. Much too young.”

“Why was that such a long time ago?” I sighed, running my hand through my windswept hair and shaking my head. “I wish I’d been nine years old forever.”

“Was that when it happened?” James asked, his voice dropping low and serious.

“She was eleven.” I nodded and then I crossed my arms and walked to the other side of the boat. I’d come nearer to talking about it than I could have imagined, but I didn’t have any words left in me to give. I was at my limit. There was only so much my body could take, after so long of pushing back the mere thought of everything that had gone on before it.

“Grace,” James called after a few long minutes when I’d looked out across the sea and felt the years falling away, “you know you’ve hardly smoked today.”

“Don’t remind me.” I countered, reaching into my pocket to locate a fag and instead cutting my finger on the piece of parchment. I folded it in my hands and then extracted it, ready to throw it overboard and watch the words sink away from me.

“Is that it?” James asked. “Don’t throw it away, Gracie.”

“I don’t want it,” I said viciously, “I don’t want to think about it.”

“Stick it in a notebook or something. Grace, you might want to read it again someday.”

“Why would I want to read it?” I asked, my fingers itching it screw it up into a ball or rip hair from my scalp.

“Every time I’ve thought you were close to feeling, it’s been like you’re on the edge of a breakdown,” James said, “but today it seems like you’re bordering on actually enjoying yourself. Anyway,” James continued, flashing me one of his smiles, “perhaps one day you’ll let me read it.”

“Keep hoping.” I muttered, feeling the last word form itself on my lips and pausing for a second. Maybe there was something in that. In thinking about Hope.

In coming home.




Hey everyone and welcome to Saving Grace month! The month where this story is going to be my focus. Expect frequent updates, such as this one, lots of review responses and lots of Gracie loving from my direction. I'm also aiming for 222 reviews by the end of the month, which is quite a heafty goal, but hopefully some of you guys are up for helping me get there? Thanks for all your support for this story and now I'm going to stop writing :)


Chapter 17: January 30th and 31st.
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 The next day reality returned with a vengeance.

I should have known that visiting home and suffocating myself with nostalgia would only exacerbate the rawness of everything lately – something which I was probably going to blame on James for pushing me – and although yesterday it had felt manageable and almost like progress, today I felt like never getting out of bed again.

It was worse than the creeping feeling of a morning after, when I woke up alone and the sense of loneliness seemed concentrated over a single moment. I wanted to call Max.

I didn’t call Max. The phone was far away and although my wand was actually within reach for once, I didn’t think ‘accio’ would make the extension cable to the phone any longer, and I’d learnt the hard way not to mix electricity and magic. Max would call me when he wanted to talk.

I didn’t want to call James: his presence was thick in the forefront of my mind and it was difficult to block him out. It would be even worse if he was actually talking and James reminded me of things that I didn’t want to think about – of Hogwarts, dreaming of being his next arm candy and desperately stamping over my sense of dignity to get there.

The problem with dreams was that they could crush you: becoming so invested in anything, really, is asking to be torn apart. To let your soul want something, to let yourself envision it, to need it to be happy... I couldn’t remember the last time I was passionate about something. I could remember the day the dreams died, not with Hope, years after that when I waited for something to save me and all the came was more rejections and more desperation and years of me making a fool of myself just because I wanted to be happy.

I spent years at Hogwarts trying to outdo my entrance – the bald eleven year old who screamed when she saw the thestrals – and wound up as more of a caricature than a person, performing some stupid act in an attempt to gain affection and to make people forget. I thought that if I was liked and loved then that would make me stop hating myself, but then I stopped hating myself and just existed instead.

I laid in bed and wished I could explain it to James how it felt to be crushed to the point where you no longer recognised yourself.  How it had felt when I was driving that car, the end of Hogwarts weighing on my mind, and Hope, and James, and Liz, and how I’d barely noticed that I was accelerating or that I was driving too fast until I was pulled over. Crying to some strange police man, clutching hold of the steering wheel and weeping until it made me dizzy – the last time I’d cried.

But it was stupid to dwell on those sorts of things, but with the thoughts of Hope and Whitby and my mother spinning round my heard it was hard not to think of everything that I usually tried to forget and to think of all the things I refused to let myself do.

To feel, to want, to dream.

I sat up in bed, pulled my duvet around and chain smoked. But then I thought of Heddy, burning to death in a fire she could have stopped and I wondered what I’d do if one of the ashes from my cigarette caused my bedcovers to burst into flames and then my head was pounding because I couldn’t decide whether or not I would pick up my wand, or if I was just like Heddy – if I would let myself burn just because I could.

Heddy hadn’t killed herself. There was a crucial difference between actively choosing to take your life and actively doing nothing to save it. Just like there is a difference between over dosing on potions and taking up smoking because you know that it will probably make you die quicker. They’re subtle differences that don’t make sense to anyone who has never felt truly empty, and they’re differences that I’d never try to justify to anyone.

I stopped myself from stubbing out the cigarette in my arm, just about, and pulled myself out of bed – feeling like my chest was going to cave in with the weight of everything. I wanted to cry but I hadn’t had any tears for years.

I turned on the shower but stood with only my shoulders in the water and lit another cigarette, half wanting to laugh at myself as I smoked out of the tiny bathroom window. Ridiculous, really.

The first time I had a cigarette was at Hogwarts and I remember someone teaching me how to smoke properly – when to inhale, when to exhale, and the strange feeling of my brain blurring slightly – I think I must have been drunk at the time – and how I could still taste it then next day, even after I brushed my teeth over and over.

After the shower I collapsed on the sofa in my dressing gown, pulling my knees up to my chest as I saw the raw crapness of the flat I lived in. It wasn’t exactly as if I had been looking at the world through rose tinted glasses, but more like I’d been purposefully avoiding looking at the world at all – and now I was forced to confront it and I couldn’t. It was dirty again. Characterless, bland and more student then twenty eight year old.

Tomorrow, I would be okay. I’d stuff my ever-expanding chest into a work shirt, a pencil skirt and whatever else I could actually find in the mess that was my flat, I’d walk into work and wait for Max to come and say whatever he was going to say, rather than flailing about with alluding to things through work assignments that sparked up whole other decades of despair that I just couldn’t afford to think about right now. I’d lived through years of this. All I had to do was wait for the day to be over, crawl into bed and wake up the next day feeling back to normal again – or, if not normal, not like someone had carved out my insides with a spoon and left nothing but a gaping hole where my internal organs used to be.

Someone knocked on the door about half twelve and the noise hurt like I was hung over. I buried my face in the material of my dressing gown and counted my breaths, just for something to do. The doorbell bleared through my vision. I wasn’t in a fit state to face people, particularly if it was someone that wanted money off me.

“Grace,” A voice said irritably from the other side of the door and I sat up, “Grace!”

I stood up, pulling the dressing gown tighter around my body and pulling the door open. When I was face to face with my mother I wondered whether I’d look like her in thirty years time. I expected with the cigarettes and the alcohol that it was more likely to be twenty years time.

“Thank God,” My mother muttered, running a hand through her hair before stepping into her apartment, “I thought I was going to be murdered out there. Don’t know why you wouldn’t let us get you a nicer flat, Grace. It’s no wonder your Uncle thinks you’re some sort of prostitute.” I didn’t have the energy to question this new development in my life, or which uncle (probably Francis) seemed to have gotten this impression.

“Hi.” I muttered to my mother, standing helplessly in the doorway to my flat and beginning to realise the levels to which it smelt of cigarettes. My previous attempts to hide my smoking habits had been poor and unbelievable, but if she’d been doing that mother-in-denial thing I’d well and truly shattered that illusion.

“Why didn’t you open the door?” She asked, stepping into my apartment and triple locking it behind her.

“I thought you were the charity collectors,” I said, “they posted a flier through my door saying they were going to come down today.”

“Shouldn’t be allowed,” My Mother muttered, quite clearly trying not to breathe in the amount of cigarette smoke that was polluting the air; good job I disabled the smoke alarm, really.“Pointless, anyway,” she continued, walking round the perimeter of my flat, “half the money just goes to the bloody government to fund more wars.”

Cynicism, the one vice my mother and I shared in times of troubles.

I sank back on the sofa, my knees feeling surprisingly weak. My mother tried to not look too disgusted about the mess. As always, our paths had not quite crossed: now I was in near-breakdown mode she wanted to talk and yesterday she had wanted me to leave as quickly as possible.

 I’ve always maintained that the Parent-child relationship should be based on pretend-ignorance that wasn’t discussed: I know you’re drinking the alcohol in the cupboard, but I’m going to pretend I don’t to save the argument; I know you’re probably having sex, but that conversation would be awkward so we’re all going to pretend that you’re about to join the monastery and I know you’ve been a heavy smoker for about a decade, but if I pretend I can’t see the ashtrays then it’s not happening. It was the same with how I was – a bit of a mess, really – but if we put on the facade of everything being okay then maybe it could be.

It had its drawbacks, because it was down to this method that I ended up heading off to Hogwarts with half a head of hair and because of this that the therapy stopped prematurely because everything was ‘okay’, but the very fact that she’d turned up at my flat spoke volumes about how much she actually understood me – she knew that today I would be falling apart and she’d turned up to make sure we didn’t have another Heddy-situation on our hands.

“Trevor Barker said he saw you in Whitby with your boyfriend yesterday, at the chip shop.” Mum continued lightly, turning around to face me. I had implied that I was going home, barely making the decision to call James until I’d walked down the familiar steps to find a safer apparition point. And then I hadn’t wanted to leave.

Then she sat down on the sofa next to me.

“Grace,” Mum said, letting me rest my head on her shoulder, “I know that – ”

“-I don’t think I can talk about it today, Mum.”

She nodded, pulling my face towards her and kissing me on the forehead, adding a “you’ve really decimated your eyebrows, Gracie.” before her presence on the sofa was lifted and the familiar scene of her perfume and she was stood up in the kitchen. I’d plucked my eyebrows last night: my face pressed against the mirror as I ripped the hair from underneath my skin.

“I’ll cook you lunch,” She said simply, pulling out her wand and charming the dirty dishes from yesterday’s take away to clean themselves, “you always have been terrible at it yourself.”

“I’m not a terrible cook.” I said, twisting round in the sofa to watch her bustle about in the kitchen, like I was thirteen years old and whining to her about James Potter’s Quidditch skill whilst she was trying to make lasagne.

“You put yourself in hospital reheating a pizza,” My Mum said with an eye roll, “you’re hardly a masterchef.”

The doorbell went again.

“That’ll be the charity people,” I muttered, pressing my fists against my forehead, “just don’t answer it.”

Mum ignored me, crossing the flat and throwing open the door. I half expected her to tell the hopefully collectors that their cause was probably funding perpetual poverty, but instead she handed them a crisp twenty pound note and went as far as to wish them well.

“What happened to charities being corrupt?” I asked her weakly.

“Grace,” my mother said, hand on hip as she started frying onions, “those people genuinely believe that they’re going to do good in the world. How many people do you think just didn’t open their doors or hand them a few muggle coopers? I’m not going to be the one who makes them realise that they can’t change a damn thing. The money’s irrelevant, I’m just not prepared to kill their hope, however damned stupid they may be.”

My heart jumped up into my throat and continued breaking until lunch had been cooked, eaten and cleaned up afterwards.

*

“Breakfast isn’t dinner,” I muttered as I took a second Danish pastry from the stack James had ordered, “even if it is a ‘Breakfast Bar.” I finished, glancing around the interior – it seemed fitting that we’d ended up here, the home of our second accidental meeting that had sparked up a semi-friendship.

“Well then,” James said, “we can split the bill.”

“What would that entail?” I questioned, taking a sip of my coffee – proper coffee – and another pastry. This wasn’t so bad, really.

“Worth every galleon.” James returned, buttering some sort of fancy bread. Of course James was probably used to all these fancy breakfasts, but my attempt at breakfast was usually a double espresso (Muggle instant, of course) and a Cigarette.

“You lost me when it cost more than a galleon.”

“Aw, Gracie, aren’t you enjoying it?” James asked with a grin. It was difficult to enjoy anything much with my breakdown yesterday and the prospect of facing Max after a glorious weekend of avoiding the fact that I was sleeping with my boss and then appeared to be rather snugly with an international Quidditch player in several papers (including the paper I worked for, unfortunately).

“Well,” I said, finishing the dregs of my coffee, “in my world, if you go out for breakfast you get a fry up with extra ketchup.”

“You worried about what Max is going to say?”

“More worried about losing my job,” I admitted, examining the last quarter of my third pastry and trying to size up whether or not I wanted another, “I’m really going to miss Jill.”

“Backtrack... is Max your boss?”

“Did I not mention that?” I asked lightly, trying to catch the eye of a woman who had it in her power to increase my caffeine intake.

“No, you didn’t.” James grinned. He looked bloody delighted. For someone who kept hitting on me, you’d think he’d be more concerned that losing Max and becoming homeless were two concepts entwined far too close together for me to be comfortable.

“This is all your fault, anyway.” I told him, rolling my eyes and putting down the remaining piece of pastry, “if you weren’t so bloody famous.”

“You knew I was an international Quidditch player when you got involved, Gracie.”

“No I didn’t,” I said, “not really. I hardly know what international Quidditch is. And anyway, I’m not involved. And furthermore, international Quidditch player my ass – you’ve yet to pay in a proper international match and I swear you spend the whole time doing fuck all. Shouldn’t you be training?”

“It’s very much off season at the minute,” James said, “anyway, we played Algeria yesterday. A friendly, of course but...”

“Oh, did it go well?”

“Three hundred points to twenty,” James said, “so yes. I would have thought,” he grinned, “that considering you wrote an article about it last week –“

“I’ve been distracted,” I interrupted, “but you’re missing the point. You’re supposed to be on some strict Quidditch diet and –“

“Bread’s allowed.”

“Fish and chips and ice cream?”

“No, but... Gracie, you’re the one missing the point,” James said, leaning back on his chair slightly and watching me carefully. “What are you going to do?”

“What do you mean?” I asked coldly, resolutely pushing the plate with the remaining piece of pastry away from me and leaning back away from him.

“You know what he’s going to do,” James said, “hell, I’d do it. If he was going to dump and fire your ass, he would have done that all ready. Instead he sent some mysterious hope message, so... when you go to work he’s going to give you a choice.”

“If it’s tea or coffee, I pick vodka.”

“Grace, don’t mess me around. It’s him or me. That’s what he’s going to say.”

“Not necessarily – ”

“That’s the way this works. You know that just as much as I do.”

“Do I?” I muttered irritably, crossing my arms over my chest to ignore him.

“I want to know what you’re going to say, Grace.”

“Look, James...“ James frowned, leaning forwards in his seat and looking at me carefully, “I haven’t decided yet.”

“Bullshit.” James put down his cup and shoved his hands his pockets, his eyes narrowing slightly.

“No, look, you know I have the sort of self destructive tendency to do the worst thing possible for myself. My wand has a magnetic attraction with my foot, that sort of thing.”

“I believed we discussed it.” James said stiffly.

“I want to tell Max to stuff it,” I said, leaning forwards again and trying to get James to listen, “I want to say screw it and just, I don’t know –”

“Then do it,” James said, “I think you should chose me, Gracie.”

“But if I always do the wrong thing,” I said, “then that means I should go against what feels like a good idea, because then... that would be the right thing?”

“You’re fucking the boss, how right can it be?”

“Oh shut up,” I snapped, “you’re such a kid. You found the whole thing funny ten minutes ago, so don’t have a go at me for it now. You’re just not used to being second best.”

“So you are choosing him them?” James asked, his lips pulling into a frown. “So, I just don’t matter, right? Just something to fill in the time.”

“Now you’re just making shit up.”

“Grace,” James said, leaning forwards and making a grab for my hands, “if Max was the right choice, then why didn’t you call him yesterday?”

“Shooting myself in the foot syndrome – not letting myself get close to someone I’ve been in a relationship with for like, seven moths... instead talking to the guy who he thinks I’m cheating on him with?” I suggested. “I don’t know, James, I’m so messed up it’s hard to work it out.”

“We’d be good together.”

“But that’s the point, James. We’re not together and say Max spontaneously disappears, that still doesn’t mean we’re together. It’s not that I don’t like you, it’s just that it doesn’t work like that. Witch Weekly be damned, we’re not in relationship.”

“We could be.”

“But we’re not.”

“If you weren’t so bloody self-destructing –”

“How are you so sure that you’re good for me?” I asked. “I spent yesterday in the foetal position, for Merlin’s sake. You weren’t wrong about being on the edge of a breakdown.”

“You could have called me.”

“You were playing an international Quidditch match against Algeria! Not that I knew that,” I said, trying to focus my head – I felt like I had a cigarette hangover from yesterday’s rather expensive consumption of more cigarettes than I cared to count, and the half a bottle of wine I’d had after my Mum left probably didn’t help, “I just don’t know why you’re so sure that you’d be so much better for me than Max.”

“You haven’t told Max anything.”

“Because I’m shooting myself in the foot!”

“Hasn’t he ever asked?”

“James,” I said irritably, “he’s not like you – he didn’t see my half bald, steal my underwear and make shit up about me flashing to everyone. It’s hardly the same context. Why would he know that there was something to tell?”

“Look at you!” James said, waving his hands around exaggeratedly. “You’re a walking disaster!”

“I’m not always such a bloody mess,” I retorted, “when you’re not around, I usually manage to be fairly composed.”

“Hiding yourself.”

“Better than breakdown and whining about something that happened nearly twenty years ago! You’re so convinced that you’re going to save me, James. And I’m just not buying it. You can’t just walk into someone’s life and fix them.”

“So that’s it.”

“No, it’s not it,” I muttered irritably, “I haven’t had a friend in about a decade, James. I don’t want to lose you over some stupid -”

“-it doesn’t work both ways, Grace. If he actually gives a shit about you, which I doubt he does by the way, then he’s not going to stand for you to still carry on spending time with me after that bloody article.”

“Well then,” I said, “if he doesn’t give a shit then it doesn’t matter, does it?” I spat, folding my arms and shaking my head, “I haven’t decided what I’m going to do yet, so don’t push me.”

“I know what you’re going to do,” James said, frowning as he pulled a handful of galleons out of the pockets of his robes , “don’t call me when you’ve made the decision.”

The usual sense of numbness crept up from my stomach as I watched him walk away, throwing his hands in his pockets in frustration and stepping out into the snow outside. I didn’t move for a little while before I lent forwards and pressed my knuckles against my forehead.

That was it then. He’d made the decision for me. Done.

But, when Max was delivering the ultimatum in his office later that morning, I rather thought that I would have picked James if he’d given me the chance. And I still couldn’t decide which of the two options was the self-destructive one. 




So, yeah, I just had to look up how many days there are in January. I feel like a right idiot, but we won't go there. You guys! So many reviews on the last chapter! Ah! I'm so excited about this story. It's all planned out and everything now (hey, look at me being all organised)... so, yes, be excited! I hope you're all enjoying Saving Grace month! Reviews are, as always, lovely :D

Up next: Grace visits Cherry and the baby and finds out something fairly interesting.


Chapter 18: February I.
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 “I’m just saying,” Jill said irritably, “that I think it’s only fair that it works both ways.”

“I don’t think the wizarding world is ready for your rants about sexism.” I countered, smiling slightly as I sat on one of the bar stools in the Leaky Cauldron feeling rather strange about everything. It was hardly a common occurrence for me to be actively social, but after another of the long and difficult conversations with Max, I’d actually agreed to join them at the pub. I’d continually turned down their offers, although I never was quite sure why exactly, because any chance to drink was fine by me – but drinking with two work colleagues, perhaps, had not appealed to the side of me which like to ruin every chance of happiness I ever had.

“I’m certainly not.” George countered, ordering a dark ale and shaking his head slightly.

“I was only using you as an example,” Jill said irritably, pulling at another of her altogether rather intriguing outfits – this time a T-Shirt displaying a rather alarmingly glittery snitch saying ‘I’m still playing hard to get’ and a floral skirt that went down to just above her ankles. I’d often thought that Jill had either fallen into her wardrobe and decided to wear the first thing that she ended up choking on, or she was trying to emulate something of the muggle fashion world and had just flat out missed. It was nice though. I liked how Jill was such a quite extrovert, “I didn’t mean it necessarily had to be you.”

“Aw, George, don’t you want to snog all the hot Quidditch players?” I asked, running my finger over the top of my glass and smiling slightly.

“I’m sorry,” George said, “but the last time there was a hot female Quidditch player was Ginny Weasley, and anyway it would more be the writing that’s the issue. We’re not all like Grace here, who’s perfected the art of writing about graphic snogging.”

“But if there’s a Snogalicious article about men then there should be one for women!” Jill said finally.

“Start another protest.” George suggested to her, elbowing her and quirking up his eyebrows.

“What was the last one about?” I asked.

“Max,” George said, “and his blatant and rather horrific sexism. You know, I still think that’s why they transferred you here in the first place. So at least someone would complain about it.”

“Well,” Jill said, running a hand through her hair and downing her glass, “at least Max likes Grace, here.”

It was slightly surreal that the more Jill drank the more, well, normal she seemed. It was undeniably odd, but she seemed less ditzy and less... high.

“Your little fight over then?”

“Something like that,” I said, thinking about Max kissing me in his office earlier, “I think he felt bad.”

“Doubt it,” Jill said, rolling her eyes, “what business is it of his if you’re tight with James Potter? Technically, he did pay you to kiss him and write about it anyway.”

George laughed, draining his bottle of ale and placing down onto the desk. It was slightly uncomfortable, to be drinking with these two people that I’d spent almost every day cooped up in an office with – but it was sort of nice, I supposed, it I ignored the part of me that seemed to be screaming that this wasn’t right.

“How’s your therapist-fiancé?”

“He’s a bloody idiot,” Jill said derisively, “thinks we should have an expensive wedding and it should be the best day of my life, or something.”

I exchanged a look with George. He looked just as amused as I did.

“What about you Grace, how’s the mystery bloke of yours doing?” George asked.

“Why, you interested?” I smirked, taking another sip of my drink. “Well he was ever so slightly pissed by the whole James fiasco, but... I think he might be over it now.”

Jill shook her head and ordered another Vodka and coke (fair to play to her, really).

“Really?” George asked. “Blimey.”

“James was more upset that the mystery bloke.” I added, feeling strangely self conscious about talking about James. Talking about Max was different: those conversations felt more superficial and easy, but James was... well, the closest thing I had to a friend in the world. Admittedly, I hadn’t called him since he walked out in the middle of our breakfast but I was definitely going to. I was going to call him and say, well, I hadn’t decided that yet.

Which was why I hadn’t called.

“You ruined his image?” George grinned. “I had to interview James about a year back. He was quite a nice bloke, actually.”

“Yeah.” I agreed, pursing my lips slightly.

“He’s hot,” Jill added, “what?” She said defensively when George sent her a mock-surprised look. “I spend half my life arranging photos of him on bloody layouts, I’m not blind – he is hot.”

“Grace has tapped that.”

“Shut up,” I returned with an eye roll, “I haven’t. Anyway, he’s not talking to me. It’s all very dramatic. Let’s move on and talk about Jill’s therapist fiancé. Better yet, how’s your ex-wife George?”

“Other than pregnant?” George asked, drinking half his drink and placing it back down on the bar. “No idea.”

“God, talking about our respective love lives is depressing,” Jill said, “Grace will think this is what we always do.”

“What do you normally do?” I asked

“Last time George ended up singing karaoke,” Jill said, pulling her hair of its hair band and running a self conscious through her frizzy locks, “well, singing might be a strong word.”

“She spiked my drink, Grace. I think she was trying to take advantage.” George said in a faux-whisper, leaning across Jill to inform me of this story. I found a smile pulling at my lips and shook my head slightly. It was quite nice, actually. Just sitting and having drinks and a little banter.

“Aren’t we all?” I returned.

“Speaking of James Potter.” Jill muttered quietly, nodding towards the door where the entire Potter family seemed to be filing through the door: James, Albus, Liz/Beth, Lily with a guy I recognised from the wedding, with the added addition of Harry and Ginny Potter.

“Christ, it’s a regular family outing.” I muttered, turning back to face the bar very quickly and hoping that James didn’t know me well enough to recognise me from my back.

“James is the only one without an extra, Grace, you’re still in there!” George said in a whisper that carried over to Hannah the bartender, who raised her eyebrows at me slightly.

“Leave her alone,” Jill said ordering yet another drink (my respect for her was increasing with every vodka and coke she seemed to drink like water), “Grace won’t come out with us again if you keep being such an idiot.”

“No,” I said, shaking my head slightly, “just say alcohol and I’ll probably be there.”

“Why did you agree to come out with us today, Grace? We were just about ready to stop asking.” George said, turning his curious gaze back to mine. Both him and Jill assessed me, both continually drinking their drinks – and how fast they were drinking was somewhat alarming. And Cherry had accused me of having a drink problem.

“That’s probably why,” I said, shrugging my shoulders slightly, “I’m a bit... self destructive.”

“You should definitely have been coming, then,” Jill said, “I’ve never felt so destroyed after that rendition of ‘I’ll be your seeker’ from George...”

I smiled slightly uncomfortably at that, finishing my first glass and suddenly wanting to rip my hair out of my skull and explain everything. “No, I mean...I’m really messed up.”

“You don’t seem too crazy.” George said.

“Did Cherry not tell you why I had that week of work?” I asked curiously, “I mean, I thought Max or Dave would have told everyone...”

“What?” Jill asked. “There was an actual reason? I just thought Max liked you and let you have a holiday.”

“Erm yeah, in fairness that was an accident... I er, I ate blue pizza. I’d been trying to clean my oven, see, and then I just... I accidentally consumed more than the advised amount of Oven Cleaner Potion,” George and Jill seemed to blink at me simultaneously, “anyway,” I continued, feeling a slight smile pull at the corner of my lips, “my whole family was convinced I’d tried to do myself in, I got put into this rehab ward and...”

“Because you accidentally ate blue pizza?”

“Yes,” I muttered, smiling properly now, “and no one would believe that it was an accident,” George let out a shaky laugh, shaking his at me with an expression of incredulity, “not even James, really, and he should have know better than that, considering he was the one who helped me when I accidentally apparated on top of my kitchen cabinets. Then of course, I fell on him and...”

“Grace,” George said, eyes wide and smile widening by the second, “slow down, you apparated on top of your kitchen cabinets?”

“I was in a rush to escape playing monopoly with Cherry and then -”

Jill folded her fingers neatly over her vodka and coke and was slightly shaking with laugher. She exchanged a look with George. They both looked back to me (and it was only now that I was out with them that I began to realise the extent of their bizarre friendship – normal, sane George and the kooky Jill going out for drinks, bitching about colleagues and winding up singing karaoke – it seemed so damn normal) and then they were both laughing out right.

“You need to write this shit down,” George said appreciatively, “it’s solid gold.”

“After the Snogalicious thing, I helped with the photography a bit too, because I’m a mouthy bitch who can’t keep her mouth shut, and then... he sent me one of the photos and his phone number and, I attacked his owl with an ink well and then he had to ask why it was blue and... then my muggle neighbour -”

I tailed off, because George had already been reduced to giggles – legitimate and actually giggles – where as Jill favoured the silent, breathless laughter. I expected the alcohol they’d consumed had something to do with that, but I almost wanted to please them. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly why I suddenly decided to disclose this information, but suddenly I wanted to make these people laugh. I wanted to be a part of their strange, perfect friendship.

“You haven’t proved you’re messed up, Grace.” Jill said when she’d finally recovered and had ordered us all drinks (doubles for her and me, and something strong and smoking for George which he drank in one).

“I don’t believe a word of it.” George said, ordering another drink and nudging Jill with his elbow – she sent him an irritated look and rolled her eyes.

“No, honestly,” I implored, finishing half of my drink in one go, “I haven’t cried in ten years.”

“You definitely need to see George sing Karaoke.” Jill giggled and then they were off again, laughing madly – Jill silently, George loudly – sending each other meaningful looks and exchanging this easy banter.

“I’m going outside for a fag.” I told them, pulling my jacket off the bar stool and slipping it over my bare arms. I was putting on weight again. I’d lost some recently due to lack of interest in food, but that had returned again. And so was the weight.

Walking past the table where both James and Liz/Beth sat was difficult – partially because I didn’t want them to look up at the wrong moment and notice me and partially because I did want them to.

I still wasn’t sure exactly what I was feeling. It was hard to judge and get a hold of properly. On the one hand, the depression seemed to have loosened its hold over my stomach, but at the same time I was become acutely aware that it existed. It had been easy enough to talk myself into believing that I was okay, really, that this way of not really feeling and just existing was just part of my character – but with James sticking his nose in and reminding me of just how acute feelings could be before then walking out again because I wasn’t about to make the decision he wanted me too – I was beginning to lose a grip on who exactly I was supposed to be.

There was that old dream – of friends, of a husband and of children. I wasn’t entirely sure I’d ever wanted that. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing, really. But things seemed to me moving in the right direction.

I stood facing the wall which led to Diagon Alley, wondering benignly whether I’d even brought my wand today. I hated magic. I really did. Not least because on the occasions I did attempt to use it, mostly out of laziness, it went wrong and something catastrophic went wrong. Magic could have saved Heddy. Magic could have saved Hope. It didn’t.

I lit the fag clumsily, feeling the alcohol begin to roll over my mind as I inhaled. I was so accustomed to the way smoking increased the effects of alcohol that I could barely feel it. I could barely feel a lot of things, these days.

“Gracie,” James said, stepping out into the courtyard and leaning against the wall next to me, “you okay?”

“Yeah.” I breathed, pulling one arm around me and leaning more against the wall. I wasn’t sure I wanted to have another argument with James. I wasn’t sure if I had another argument in me. After the argument with James, I hadn’t been able to muster up more than just nodding and shrugging at Max – having so many people mad at me was exhausting, especially when a part of myself was still trying to filter through everything to ascertain which part of me was still self destructing and which part of me was on the right track.

Everything was too conflicted to make much sense. My own feelings were so deeply buried within myself that it was much too hard to work out which were the red herrings I’d planted for myself, which were the diversions used to stop myself and why I’d let myself get so distant from everything in the first place. I thought I hated England, yet James seemed to think I loved Whitby.

I did love Whitby, even I couldn’t deny that.

“Who were you with?” James asked quietly.

“Work colleagues.” I said quietly. I looked at him. I hoped he understood the significance of that: I didn’t want a congratulations, or anything, just an acknowledgment that I was at least trying to move in the right direction would be nice. A small I can see that you’re trying, maybe. But for all James knew I regularly went out with my work colleagues. It’s not like he’d know, really, how much I isolated myself.

Maybe he understood more than most other people because for some strange reason I’d let him in – whether it be because of his darn persistence or something else I couldn’t be sure. He knew I wasn’t okay, where as Max and all the other people in my life – as few as they were – seemed to think that I was doing okay. Cherry and Dave were different, instructed to keep an eye on me due to the fact that we were family and my Mum, well, she tried.

Was letting James understand a self destructive act, or a step in right direction? Or maybe it was something else entirely. I thought of my Mum: maybe James was my charity, letting him believe that I could be saved, that he could help me, that he could clear his guilt and change everything about me. You can’t fix people. They’re not machines.

“Sorry about last Monday.” James said quietly.

“Whatever.” I said, breathing in the cigarette smoking and closing my eyes. Smoking was so easy. Letting yourself fall apart – it was so simple, so self indulgent, so difficult to recover from. It was difficult to remember, with my shoulders hunched up from the February chill, why I’d brought that first packet of cigarettes. Because you wanted to fuck up. You wanted to know how it would feel to disintegrate. Because you knew it would make you die faster.

“I should have just left it.”

“Probably,” I agreed, dropping the finished cigarette to the floor and immediately lighting a second, “you know me better than that, James. You shouldn’t have tried to get in there first.”

“You shouldn’t smoke so much.” James said distractedly, watching as I finished squashing out the first under my foot.

“You know what doesn’t make sense to me?” I asked. “You’ve let me smoke in front of you a hundred times. You’re supposed to be an international Quidditch player James; surely you’re actually supposed to have a degree of respect for your health – I’m sure second hand smoke is against your health plan.”

“Yeah,” James said, “strictly forbidden, guess that makes you special?”

“Why try and muck everything up?” I retorted, purposefully breathing away from him.

“You’re mad at me.”

“I’m mad at everything.” I returned.

“That’s a good start,” James quipped, “aw, come on Gracie. Don’t be so cold.”

“You know I take the easy way out,” I returned, “you know that. I left England for nine years because I thought it would be easier. It was, actually. And so you made up that stupid breakfast excuse because you wanted to make yourself the easy option. The first option. Plan backfired, considering you ended up getting mad and storming off but, honestly?”

“I didn’t think of it like that.” James said, stepping away from the wall and hovering some point between the wall and the door back into the Leaky Cauldron. “I never thought of it like that, I swear Grace. I wasn’t even going to bring it up... I just, I don’t want to lose you.”

“I think I’m beginning to understand the single thing.” I returned scornfully.

“Look, if you think this Max thing is a good idea then... well, I guess I’ll just have to stick that.”

“That’s big of you.”

“You’re my best friend, Gracie,” James muttered miserably, “and, really, I’m also as bad as you are when it comes to people. I drove everyone who isn’t a blood relative or on my team away years ago, when I had that breakdown about Heddy.”

“What happened?”

“I thought you didn’t want to talk about it.”

“I don’t,” I said irritably, “look, James, I’m not a good ‘best friend’. Nor would I be a particularly good girlfriend, so I think you should just sod off.”

“No,” James said, “I’m not going to. Look, I’m not going to lie to you – I’m slightly drunk and family things always make me feel a little perversely sentimental, but it’s probably about time I didn’t get what I wanted. I know I’m a git. I’m still here.”

It had started to snow. The wet sludgy sort that had put out my cigarette before I’d really registered that it had began. James looked so absurdly vulnerable that I almost wanted to accept his declaration – he was no angel. Neither of us were particularly well put together and mentally secure people, perhaps, and I’d never considered that he’d want to talk about Heddy and me for any other reason than to fix me before.

“Thanks.” I said, dropping the cigarette and pushing back inside to join George and Jill. I wouldn’t mention me being messed up again, not unless they asked about it, but I might volunteer a few more of those stupid stories. I might join them again next week. I might even enjoy myself.

James wasn’t a sensible plan. James was, somehow, incredibly, my friend (best friend?). But I couldn’t date him. I couldn’t be in a relationship with him. Not right now.

But, he was still there.

*

Although I had no skill no patience with children, they did tend to form a bizarre connection with me. Sprog one and two were very much besotted with me despite the fact that I’d never learnt their names, and little baby Noah seemed to thoroughly deluded into thinking that the slightly confused expression on my face had been designed to entertain him.

Instead, I was fixated on the fact that something that had been so small and an awful shade of pink had become so plump – it looked like someone had fixed a foot pump to his back and puffed up his cheeks until they were so very rounded. He had chubby little fingers too. The biggest eyes I’d ever seen on a living creature (and I’d once caught site of Professor Trelawney walking around the astronomy tower when I was trying to find where James had hidden all of my underwear) and was very heavy and very warm.

Cherry was sitting in one of the arm chairs opposite and was watching her small chubby baby as if it was something marvellous and wonderful.

“He likes you.” Cherry smiled.

There had been similar conversations every time I’d been coerced into visiting. The baby had been shoved into my arms almost immediately and then Dave, Cherry and whichever of my other relatives were darkening their doorstep at that current moment in time would watch me with a bizarre sense of awe.

I poked Noah’s stomach – not, obviously, in a way which would cause it harm, but in a way which still satisfied my curiosity on exactly how wobbly the chubby baby felt. Noah looked delighted at this and the stream of gargling and burbling that followed were enough to confuse me any further.

It was as thought with a baby in my arms they could pretend that I wasn’t such a damn failure.

Although my Mother had assured me after the first of these visits that I shouldn’t get any ideas, because having a baby would no doubt kill me. She’d said something about getting post-natal possession and the baby going into care after I had a mental breakdown and at that moment I’d been half tempted to tell her I’d gotten my ovaries snipped to piss her off. Instead, I’d told her the only reason I’d ever be a mother was to prove that I could do better job than she did – and then neither of us had spoken to each other until I’d rang her up after writing that damn thing about Hope.

“How’s Max been at work?” Cherry asked.

“Not too terrible,” I shrugged, thinking back to Max spending the last three nights in my flat – something which would have been unusual even before the whole James incident, so I assumed that I’d been forgiven for the whole James issue. Not, as I found, I was particularly bothered anyway.

Max was a convenience. He was sex, dinners out, quite nice treatment at work (except when I appeared in the newspapers with some other guys, in which it was God awful treatment at work) and a way to fight off the loneliness. I’d known that. James, to at least some level, seemed to know that.

That was all I was capable of, anyway. As it turns out, all my talk of needing to find a husband and a baby and a job and the only thing I really think I was ready for was the latter. I was too messed up and mixed up for a real relationship. And that was okay.

“He’s probably relieved not to have me around,” Cherry said, taking a deep breath and glancing at the ceiling, “I really can’t stand that man.”

“Really?” I questioned sarcastically, wondering how I could best get rid of the baby. The thing was a strange and uncomfortabe wriggling weight in my lap. “I think I need a smoke.”

“Ah.” Dave said, swooping into the room and snatching Noah out of my arms. No one wanted the smoker next to the baby – true fact.

When I came back inside after my cigarette, Dave and Cherry were still chatting about work; Noah in Cherry’s arms as Dave sat on the edge of the arm chair and looked down at them both.

“I was just saying how well you’ve done at the Prophet,” Dave said, “cup of tea? Coffee?”

“Coffee, please.” I said with a forced smile. This was the second time I’d been out of the house on an almost sociable occasional this month and it wasn’t even Valentine’s Day yet. I’d been out for dinner twice with Max, too, and had even been about to pick up the phone and invite James over before I thought better of it.

“He’s right, you know,” Cherry said with one of her sugar sweet, mother smiles, “I was worried when I saw you that first day.”

I nodded stiffly. I still felt uncomfortable around Cherry, even after all this time. More so now she had this baby thing. It made her an unknown.

“Scared I was going to walk in and start causing havoc?” I muttered, only half feeling indignant over the assumption. It wasn’t like I hadn’t walked into the office and immediately tried flirting with everyone (mostly because this is the one sort of social interaction that I was actually quite adept in, even though it usually ended in humiliation).

“I didn’t know what Max would make of you.” Cherry said, making a face at the mention of his name.

“Why do you hate him so much?” I asked, resuming my seat from before and feeling strangely displaced again. I wanted to talk to James.

“He tried it on with me,” Cherry said irritably, glancing down at her engagement ring, “figured I was just some stupid snogalicious girl.”

“Oh.”

“I think he forgot that I’d already met his wife.” She added shrewdly.

The words took a few seconds to sink through my deliberately thick skin and when they did that familiar numbness crept up in my stomach. I didn’t feel anything. Barely reacted. For a split second, I felt slightly disconnected from reality and then I was back.

And I don’t think I was even surprised. 




This chapter didn't turn out it exactly how I was expecting it to turn out (at least, I don't think). I was having trouble with it and then ended up writing the whole thing in one sitting. Still, I hope you guys enjoyed the reapperance of Jill (thank LWG especially, cause she's been quite nice to Jill...) and George. I'd missed them. AND THE BIG NEWS. Well, everyone knew right? Thanks for all your lovely reviews through SG month! It's now onto Muggle Studies month/ All the Abstract Nouns month (check them out) and... yeah. I love you all quite a lot.


Next time: Grace + fake ilness + rebounding. Yup. It's all going on here.





Chapter 19: February II.
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Recently, the feeling of completed helplessness and emptiness had been crashing around my ears much too often. I supposed that it was given considering it seemed I was pushing my preset boundaries (boundaries that had been carefully refined over the years, to avoid any Heddy-esque break downs). With the added fact that, apparently, the longest relationship of my life was with a married man.

It was the sort of thing that I should have expected. It was the sort of typical thing that would happen to me. And Max... he wasn’t a good man. I’d known that. He was sexist and an idiot and used me, but that was fine because... because I was using him to not feel quite so lonely and pathetic. It was just unfortunate that there was a wife involved.

I hated the encroaching feeling that, no matter what happened, I could still end up here with this harrowing empty hole in the middle of my chest. This was the thing that no one seemed to understand: that I’d do anything, anything, if I thought it would curb the edge f the feeling. This feeling when everything seemed pointless and hopeless. It was worse than feeling dead and flat, because at the least then it was easier just to exist.

I stood in front of the mirror and look at myself. I wasn’t entirely sure how I’d let this happen. Twenty eight: a smoker, a drinker, a mistress.

What the hell had I gained from living through all these years? I was stood here with nothing to show for twenty eight years but a bunch of stupid stories and a bunch of vices that were keeping me standing – just about. I could disappear and no one would notice. I wasn’t doing anything, wasn’t affecting anyone.

That’s what I get for running away from everything for ten years. That’s what I get for letting myself become self destructive and stupid, for always taking the easy way out and for allowing something to take over my life and define who I was.

I think it was the first time I realised what it was. What the feeling was. The stupid word that people threw around so haphazardly, as if they could understand it, as if anyone could understand sadness without reason and limits.

So, I turned back to my reflection and continued to pluck my eyebrows.

Depression.

*

“Hey George,” I said, leaning against the bar with my fingers clasped around a drink, “do you want to be my rebound?”

“Always, Grace,” George grinned, “so, how married was he?”

“Very, I think. I’m a bit hazy on the details.” I admitted, thinking of the half admission that I’d gotten from Cherry – for all I knew there could be children involved, a whole life built up that I knew nothing about and that I was slowly ruining without even intending to get involved. Some poor woman was going through hell because of me: because of course she knew – what about the phone calls where no one spoke? And when Max hung up and rang back later claiming he’d had an argument with his mother? Damn, I was an idiot.

“You better have had serious words,” Jill said grumpily, supporting another fabulous t-shirt this time with a slogan ‘putting the weird in the weird  sisters’ which was entirely appropriate and wonderful, “men like that deserve strong girls like you hexing them into next week.”

“Try next year,” I returned, “I feel like such an idiot.”

“Well, you annihilated him, right Grace?” George suggested, grinning. “I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong end of our Grace.”

“Awh, George,” I pouted slightly, “all my ends really are wonderful.”

George cracked a grin at that and I raised my eyebrows in response – they probably didn’t realise that there was a degree of avoidance surrounding their questioning about how my confrontation with Max had gone (not that they knew I was talking about Max, mind) mostly because the idea of lying to two people who I was beginning to consider calling my friends did not seem like a very good idea.

There had been no confrontation.

As far as Max knew, I was as naive as ever.  Nothing had changed except the fact that I ended up feeling physically sick a lot more than normal; but, I hadn’t had the argument in me. James, for all his stupidity, had gotten that assessment right on – I took the easy way out. Right this second, blissfully pretending my boyfriend wasn’t married to someone else was much, much easier than facing the truth, losing my job, my dignity and the longest relationship I’d ever had in one swoop. Denial may not exactly be healthy – in fact, I was very much avoiding delving into the psychology surrounding that one – but damn was it easy.

“What about James Potter then?” Jill asked. “He still waiting around for you?”

“James Potter is damaged goods.”

“And you’re squeaky clean?” George asked.

“No, I’m one crack away from broken,” I said, assessing my drink for a second before finishing the rest of it with one final gulp, “hence the whole idea of that could only end in two humungous breakdowns.”

“How damaged is damaged?” Jill asked, making a face. “My ex-husband was… a bit messed up. Then the utter dependence, well, it doesn’t make for a happy break up.”

“I don’t know yet,” I admitted, “he’s utterly intent on, I don’t know, saving me. Being saved has never been such a bloody occupational hazard. He doesn’t even know about the married boyfriend thing yet. So, George, enough about us women – how’s your ex-wife?”

“Very pregnant.” George said, making a face.

“What’s the dirt with that?” I asked. “I think I missed most of the fun drama by not coming out with you guys for months.”

“She didn’t want kids,” George sad, “with me, anyway. Apparently the bloke she met two weeks after the divorce came through has better genes than me.”

“Ouch,” I said, swallowing slightly “makes a married boyfriend seem trivial.”

“Suddenly blows my problems under the bridge,” Jill said, frowning; “now he thinks we should go on a honeymoon too. As if a wedding wasn’t bad enough.”

“I take it back, George,” I grinned, nudging him slightly; “I don’t know how Jill is managing it.”

“Too true,” George returned, grinning, “to love being a pile of shit!” George declared, holding up his drink. Jill grinned and held her glass aloft too. It took me a few moments to join them because my brain had jarred on one solid very important word. Love.

Well, I wouldn’t know much about that.

“And to relationships being the socially acceptable equivalent of a dementor’s kiss.” I finished, clinking my glass against theirs and placing it back down on the table.

I’d never been in love with Max. Love was one of those woolly concepts that I’d ended up not capable of feeling properly (or at least, that was my assessment of things). I’d never exactly tried it but then again it seemed to me like one of those things that you weren’t supposed to try for – at least at the beginning, anyway, falling in love was supposed to be easy and staying in love was the bit that took the effort.

But, given I wasn’t in love with him, why was I even upset? I supposed I’d gotten used to him. I’d been wronged. I certainly felt like an idiot.

“So,” I said, ordering another drink and sending another look at George, “you’re not volunteering your services for a rebound?”

“Sorry, Grace,” George said, pulling out a couple of galleons to pay for my drink, “wouldn’t want to ruin our friendship.”

“Good,” I said, thinking of James all of a sudden, “it’s nice to have someone who doesn’t want me to ruin the friendship, even if it does mean that sorting out a rebound situation will be much more difficult.”

“I’ve got faith in you,” George said, “what about that guy?”

“You mean the balding one with grey hair?” I asked, taking a sip of my drink. “Shit, one day I’m going to be so old that I’ll look at that man and think he’s attractive.”

“I’m not there yet,” Jill shrugged, “and I’m nearly forty.”

“Shit.” I muttered appreciatively.

“How old are you then, Grace?” George asked.

“Loaded question. How about you guess?”

“I’ve fallen for that one before,” George said with a grin, “I’m curious. Tells us.”

“Twenty eight.” I answered, feeling the growing age panic flutter in my stomach for a minute.

“I don’t even remember being twenty eight,” Jill said, shaking her head, “I think I was with the ex-husband.”

“The closest I’ve got to married is being in a relationship with someone with a wife,” I frowned, “I feel like I should have a couple of serious relationships under my belt at this point.”

“Oh, sod it,” Jill shrugged, “wizards last forever, anyway. My great great Uncle is still alive and he’s only just gotten married for the first time – said he didn’t want to be tied down, bloody git. Now he’s talking about how he’s finally found someone he wants to settle down with. How much settling is there to do when you’re a hundred and eight?”

“Don’t plan on living that long,” I said frowning, “the cigarettes will have killed me by then, right?”

“How long have you smoked?” Jill asked, curiously.

“Decade. Christ, that’s depressing.”

“I smoked once,” Jill said, “well, more than once; I mean I maintained a smoking habit for a period of time. I had a stoner boyfriend.”

“You know, that doesn’t even surprise me,” I said, shaking my head slightly, “I should probably go home and drown my sorrows in a bottle of something too expensive to buy by the shot.”

“Classy, Grace.” George grinned, nudging me slightly. “See you at the office on Monday? Or will you be pulling another sicky like yesterday?”

“Hey,” I said, “I was seriously ill with suspected spattergroit.”

“Suspected hangover,” Jill said, “possible case of wallowing in self-pity.”

“We’ll let you off,” George said consolingly, “given he was married.”

“Bit shit, really.” Jill said, sending me a sympathetic look which, on her, looked slightly alarming.

“Exactly right,” I agreed, standing up (stumbling only silently: damn sympathy drinks), “really quite shit. Night guys, see you on Monday.”

“Good to have you with us!” George said and it almost sound like he meant it. Maybe I was being a bit presumptuous about the whole thing, jumping the gun, but… it almost seemed like I’d been accepted into their little duo – friendship. It was nice.

Maybe I’d failed on all other accounts: I was still single (sort of: the status of singledom had yet to be truly confirmed, given the confrontation with Max simply hadn’t happened yet), having almost gone backwards on that account, I was no doubt on the verge of having to leave my job and I definitely wasn’t about to be fulfilling the children criteria of my childhood perception of what my late twenties would be like…. But friendship was one thing. Before coming back to England I’d been more emotional stable – if no emotions counted as stable – but I’d also had a distinct lack of anyone I could go and see just if I was feeling sad. Now there was James and there was Jill and George.  Liz/Beth didn’t exactly count. Cherry wasn’t exactly like a friend, but they were people I could almost rely on.

So maybe I wasn’t as doomed as James Potter thought I was.

*

James said he was going to still be there.

James had somehow become my best friend, so it almost seemed natural to turn up at his apartment with a hangover feeling ashamed and bit crap: nothing like a morning after to make you painfully aware of how much of a crap person you are and given this wasn’t the first consecutive morning after the levels of self-hatred were increasing exponentially per day.

“Gracie?” James questioned as he stepped out of the bathroom to find me curled up on his sofa, one hand supporting my head in case it fell off (as a forth night of excess in a row, I was beginning to think that I’d over done it and it was best to swear of alcohol forever – it wasn’t young enough to hack it anymore, and I’d become that random slightly older person in a room full of under twenties).  “Didn’t expect to find you here. Adding breaking and entering to your resume?”

“Well it’s looking a bit thin,” I countered, stretching my neck upwards to look at him, “and I might need to search for a new job soon.” James was lent on the back of the sofa, looking at me curiously, and from this angle I had a rather strange view of the muscles in his neck.

“Drink?” James asked, pushing off from the sofa and heading towards his kitchen-bar area.

The thought of alcohol made my stomach churn slightly.

“Course.” I said out loud, for reasons unbeknownst to my liver who seemed to have gained a voice and was using it at full, head pounding volume.

“Need to look for a new job?”

“Very shortly, I imagine.” I grimaced, taking the bottle of Red Currant Rum from James and feeling the cool glass against the palm of my hand.

“Discovered you know balls about Quidditch?”

“No, James,” I countered, smiling as he collapsed onto the sofa next to me, “that’s the problem, I don’t know anything about the balls involved in Quidditch – I’ve lasted thus far calling them the red one, the gold one and the one with anger management problems.”

“Write a comedy novel about your life,” James suggested, nudging me with his shoulder, “so, your utter incompetence at understating Quidditch aside, why would you possible need to leave your job?”

“Take three guesses.”

“Okay, I’m good at these games,” James said, passing his own bottle between his hands for a few seconds and looking thoughtful, “you were covering a Snogalicious article, you accidentally ate someone’s face and they’ve decided to take you to court?”

“Shockingly, no.”

“But it would have been a great chapter in your autobiography.” James grinned.

“I know I managed to stretch a kiss with you to five hundred words, but I don’t think I could make that into a whole chapter.”

“Five hundred words about kissing me? Gracie, love, you were condensing. Okay, so, a second guess… you went utterly crazy and suggested that I might lose a match at some point in my future and everyone knew that was utter crap and tested you for crazy potions?”

“So close.” I said, smiling at him before taking the sip of the Red Currant Rum. Damn, I’d missed spending time with James. It was a stupid and inconvenient truth, but it was a truth all the same. Still, I’d got a promise about that – he was still going to be there.

“Thought I had it then,” James said, “okay, so… you slept with your boss?”

“Bingo,” I said, taking a longer drink from the bottle, “although that was working out for me pretty well until recent events…well, made things a bit… shit.”

“My fault?”

“Don’t look so damn pleased, James, and no. Wish it was your fault.”

“What is it then?” James asked, the first lines of concern appearing across his features.

“Do you have an Uncle called Charlie?” I asked, sending a glance towards the door of the spare room, the front door, anywhere but directly at James. It didn’t want to see the slight smugness that was going to accompany the truth, because he wouldn’t be James if he wasn’t at least a little bit overly satisfied with the fact that he was right and I’d gotten so caught up in trying to decipher my double bluffs and self-destructive decisions that it had been too hard to know which was the bad decision. As it turned out, my gut had wanted to go with what would probably have been a marginally better decision – it had wanted, originally, to pick James.

“Grace, don’t change the subject.” James said, leaning ever so slightly, ever so subtly, closer towards me. I should have known that instead of being my friend he’d go back to trying to pull me out of the depths of my darkness, or whatever. I mean right now I was fine and I genuinely mean that: I was a little hung-over, a little tired, but I actually felt better than I had in a long time. Slightly more free, slightly more aware of my own issues and for the first time I had every intention of sorting them out. I’d try and do something, although I hadn’t worked out what yet, which could possibly push back the edges of this grey, nasty feeling from my stomach.

I wasn’t supposed to feel like this. Apparently, there was an alternative. Right this second, I felt on the cusp of that alternative: and it wasn’t because of James or Max or anyone else, it was because I was prepared to change.

“Do you?”

“Yeah, ginger, works with dragons. Oldest bar Bill.”

“Married?”

“Why, are you interested?” James asked, raising an eyebrow. “Wait, is that what happened? Is Max married?”

“Yes,” I said eventually, frowning slightly, “that was… did you know?”

“No!” James said hastily, “No,” he said again, calmer this time, “you don’t think if I knew I’d have used that to sink your relationship rather than an ultimatum? I think I met him like… eight years ago I thought there might have been a wife there, but I just thought he was probably divorced. Grace, honestly, shit… so, he was properly married?”

“It was legal and everything,” I said sarcastically, “do you remember what his wife was like?”

“It was eight years ago,” James said, making a face, “I wouldn’t exactly call it a clear memory.”

“James, you remember every detail of my graduation party in frightening detail and you weren’t even in attendance.”

“Yeah,” James said, “because I’ve heard Albus tell the story so many damn times. She was blonde, I think, possibly a brunette -”

“You’ve just covered about eighty percent of all hair colours.”

“Hey,” James said, “in my world, ginger accounts for at least fifty percent all by itself.”

“Which obviously shows you need to spend less time with your family.”

“Well,” James said, finishing the rest of his drink, “I would like to spend more time with my beautiful brunet best friend, but she chose her married, boss boyfriend over me.”

“Sounds like I’d have a lot in common with this girl, you should tell her to write to me.” I said sardonically, finishing my own drink and placing in on James’s carpet feeling immensely tired all of a sudden.

“She’s probably hate you.” James said with a side order of grin.

“Was that your I told you so?” I asked wearily. “I don’t think I could handle anything more garish.”

“It’ll do for now. Sorry he’s married, Grace, but I’m not sorry I’m right.”

“Course not.” I said.

“Are you okay? Other than the rebounding?”

“Whoever said anything about rebounding.”

“So you’re suggesting you didn’t sleep with a ginger bloke called Charlie and then mentally convinced yourself he was my Uncle? You’re safe, Gracie, Charlie’s in Romania.”

“Oh thank Merlin,” I said, pressing a thumb to my forehead, shutting my eyes and smiling slightly. “Didn’t think I’d ever be able to face you again if it had been that Charlie.”

“It would definitely make for an uncomfortable family dinner when I introduced you to all my family.”

“Are we playing imaginary scenarios that will never happen? Because I have a whole host stocked up.”

“One day, Gracie, we’re going to be a couple.”

“You really are spectacular. I didn’t come here for a rebound.”

“No,” James said with a grin, “this Charlie took care of that. Anyway, Gracie, I have no intention of wasting a chance with you on being your rebound.”

“Please stop talking,” I said, turning towards him with a slightly pained expression, “you know it will only irritate me.”

“You love it,” James grinned, “another drink?”

“Will it make me ill?” I asked, frowning up at him.

“The third one might,” he pushed off the sofa and returned with several more bottles, “or maybe the forth. I’m betting on the forth, actually.”

“As long as we all know where this is headed,” I said, watching as James opened the bottle and passed it over to me, “alcohol induced vomit and a Sunday morning hangover; lovely.”

“That’s my Gracie,” James grinned, “wait, you haven’t lost your job yet?”

“No,” I said slowly, “not yet.”

“Because…?”

“James,” I said irritably, “why don’t we cut the faux deductions and questions and skip to the part when you tell me how messed up I am?”

“You haven’t dumped his ass. And he’s okay with you knowing his married?”

“He’s hardly got a moral compass.”

“You haven’t told him you know he’s married,” James said incredulously, not sitting down from when he’d gone to fetch the drinks and instead staring at me with raised eyebrows, “you’re pretending you don’t know he’s married?”

“I’m not pretending, exactly, I’m just… not mentioning it to him. It’s great, he’s not mentioning it, I’m not mentioning it – it’s like it never even happened.”

“So you’re still sleeping with him?” James asked, tilting his head slightly at me.

“Only a bit.”

“Only a bit?” James grinned. “How does that work?”

“What, you want a diagram?” I asked irritably. “I haven’t… I am avoiding him. It was necessary the other day though, to get him off my back. Not like that James, mind out the gutter. But, yes, I suppose I am technically still sleeping with him.”

“That puts you on the wrong side of moral correctness, you know Gracie.”

“Yeah,” I said, scrunching up my face, “I’m not entirely sure when I ranked ease of life above morals, but you could probably hazard a guess if you wanted James – as my unpaid, unwanted therapist.”

“That’s not fair, Grace,” James said, frowning, “I’m not saying anything.”

“And you’re not going to hit on me?”

“Nope,” James said, “we’re just going to have a nice, friendly evening talking about relationships fuck ups. So, first time you’ve slept with a married man?”

“Third that I’m aware,” I said, “suspected forth, but he didn’t speak English so I’m not entirely sure. Your married woman count?”

“Two,” James said “and one who had just separated.”

Nice,” I grinned, “thanks James,” I said finally, “if you don’t hit on me or try and council me, there’s this small chance you might be a decent friend tonight.”

*

I think it’s a sign of making a very bad decision when, as the decision was being implemented, I was already working out what exactly I was going to blame the whole thing on: it was currently a toss-up between alcohol, James, myself and Snogalicious. Because, indirectly, if I’d never been forced to snog James and write about it, I probably wouldn’t have been aware what kissing James was like and I probably wouldn’t have… well, I don’t know, but it might have not ended up here.

As in, back down on James Potter’s sofa, not quite drunk enough to explain it away, with former mentioned James Potter also adrift the sofa, one of his hands at my waist, one of mine on his back, lips connected and altogether a terrible, terrible decision in the making.

Ah, to self destruct.

 




I would apologise for leaving on a cliff hanger and then making you wait for ages, but then… well, I haven’t really resolved anything here and there is yet another cliff hanger so I don’t think I’m in a position to apologise. But I am sorry about the wait – WIP juggling when you’re as uncoordinated as me usually ends up with me getting hit in the face with a spare WIP, but this is one of my favourites so I shouldn’t think it’ll be too long before it’s update time again (especially as I have a large proportion of the next chapter written). Anyway, thanks for reading and review – it really makes my life – and I’m very excited about so very close to three hundred reviews! As it happens three of my stories were all teetering round the brink of the 300 mark for a while, which is strangely what happened when Curiosity, NJAB and TAOS were all on the edge of getting 200 – so it means a hell of a lot that SG has caught up with Curiosity and NJAB! I also thought I was going to get to a million posted fanfiction words, but it’s not to be so… next update, one-shot, anything will do though. Thanks for sticking around with me guys, hope you enjoyed the chapter and didn’t hate the long authors note too much. Reviews are, as always, lovely :)
 


Chapter 20: February III.
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 When I was six years old, my sister snuck into my bedroom and told me she thought she was a squib. It’s one of those moments that could have been yesterday, which had been bizarrely unaffected despite the years that have passed since then (and, frankly, there’s been far too many years past since then). It was a premature declaration, but I think every child from a wizarding background has likely thought themselves a squib at some point in their childhood except, for most, it never turns about to be true.

She slipped into my bed in the middle of the night, long after I should have been asleep, but I hadn’t been: I’d watched her tiny figure framed in the doorway, tiptoe across the floorboards and ease under my covers.

She’d said “Are you awake, Grace?” and I’d blinked at her in response, to show that it was a stupid question that I didn’t warrant answering. She’d held my hand, which I never liked and only agreed to when Hope insisted on the grounds of my safety – always keen on road safety, Hope, which was a stab in the gut in itself – but it showed that it was important. “I think I’m a squib, Gracie.” She said, brushing my ridiculous fringe that I refused to be let cut out of my face with one of her sad, perilously optimistic smiles.

“Then I’ll be a squib too.” I’d said, scrambling up into a sitting position. Hope laughed. “I will,” I said, and I honestly believe it, “we’ll neither of us go to Hogwarts or do magic. I’ll be a squib, too.” If it had been another subject, we might have painted out a whole picture of our futures as squibs together, but I guess that Hope knew better than that.

I’m glad she didn’t.

Instead, Hope pulled out one of my books, flicked on the light switch and we read an illustrated version of Rapunzel. Another irony, now I can remember sitting in the bathroom, back to the bath, door locked and pulling out fistfuls of my hair.

It was the next day when it happened. 

That memory was less clear, as if constantly viewed through eyes blurred by tears, or maybe I just didn’t want to remember it as much.

We’d both slept in that morning, having stayed up much too late reading story books, had filled up on much too many sweets and were hyperactive and silly. Hide and seek, or some variant of it, had led to the pair of us being exiled from the rest of the house and confined to the kitchen.

Hope had this bright idea of seeing what pure sugar tasted like. Kettle just boiled, Mum and Dad talking in another corner of the kitchen, not watching. Hope reaching for the sugar, the counter just beyond her reach, the sugar bowl caught on the wire of the kettle and then and then… the kettle was pulled, too, and it would have fell and it was still falling and –

I stopped it.

The kettle was suspended in the air, the water prevented from tipping, Hope screamed, I stood frozen in the kitchen with my hand stretched out.

Magic.

For the next hour, I was inconsolable. My parents put it down to the fear of Hope being hurt (retrospect had a horrible way of biting, come to think) but Hope understood. I mumbled apologises, sobbed into my knees, dug my fingernails into my knees until little red marks remained and I shook with it  - I'd never felt so guilty before.

That was the first time I betrayed my sister.

The dream about the kettle was a standard one, cut together with the swooping feeling of a car skidding out beneath me, of the collision of two masses of metal and that sheer feeling of panic – as if my mind was trying to inform me that, maybe, I could have done something to save her again.

More prominent though, was that odd mixture of shame and pride that I’d felt after that first time I accidentally used magic. A knowledge that I wanted to repress something natural to please someone else, a knowledge that I would never  get to live out those years at home with Hope scorning at Hogwarts students, a knowledge that, despite it all, my parents were proud of me and I had, actually, done something right.

It was the same mixed up feeling that stirred up in my stomach and hollowed out my heart with every morning after – a mournful, aching feeling of loneliness and letting someone down and pleasing someone all at the same time; of shame. It was the feeling that placed me back there, at six years old, when I felt like the world had ended and could never be the same again – that was what was most disturbing, I think, to realise that whole decades and life times could pass and I could still feel exactly the same. Regardless of time and circumstance, I would still feel empty. I would still be Grace Whitehall.

I would still have this innate ability to fuck things up, let people down and ruin just about everything.

And here I was, over twenty years later, with James Potter’s arms wrapped around me as if he thought I was about to fall apart (which, likely, James probably thought I was), my knife in my head where my brain had once been and desire to never move. I could just rot here, in someone else’s bed, until I was just dust and could no longer feel the poignancy of this goddamn moment.

My whole life was on repeat: different men, different jobs and the same Grace over and over. I had nothing in the world to lay a claim on. I was nothing, really. Expendable. A rented life, so temporary, that I had to pass over to someone better when the time came.

Like Max, I was just borrowing my whole life.

And, frankly, they could take it back; it wasn’t much cop anyway.

At least James was still there in the morning.

*

“Grace?”

“Please don’t talk, James, then I can pretend this isn’t happening.”

“Past tense, love – I thought you were supposed to be a writer?”

“Ah, I reminder of my impending unemployment. Why are you single again James?” I asked sarcastically, my eyes still jammed shut to avoid the visual onslaught that was going to accompany this. Plus, a side effect of consuming too much alcohol was drunkenness, and hangovers seemed to follow the excess of alcohol, which meant that light would probably be a tad unwelcome. Right up there with reality, noise and waking up in a bed with James Potter.

Excellent.

“Because you won’t agree to date me?” James suggested, pulling his arms closer around pressing his lips into my neck.

“James,” I complained, “you can’t really -”

“I know, Gracie. Don’t worry,” James said, releasing me, “I’ll get you some coffee.”

“Just get me some draft of living death and have done with it.”

“Too early to be that sarcastic, Grace.”

“Too early to deal with you.”

“Whose fault is that?”

“Interesting question,” I said, my stomach turning over slightly, “is it my fault?”

“Honestly,” James said, hovering somewhere near the door, “I don’t remember.”

The sound of the kettle was a little like having a drill through my head, but it was no worse that the idea of James coming back in here and continuing to talk in about thirty seconds time. At least when he came back he’d come with coffee. There was, apparently, always a silver lining.

“-James,” I began when the coffee arrived.

“Grace,” James said, kicking his feet up and sitting next to me on his stupidly comfortable bed, “I know what you’re going to say.”

“Really? And I pride myself on being really unpredictable.”

“You’ve made yourself clear,” James said, rolling his eyes, “this wasn’t supposed to happen, you think a relationship is a bit of a pants idea and we’re just going to put the whole thing behind us.”

“Right,” I said, feeling my forehead wrinkle with confusion: considering how bloody difficult James had been of late, I really didn’t expect him to be so obliging. It took about thirty seconds more to realise that James had actually gotten what he wanted, when you thought about it, and to supress an eye roll; typical, absolutely typical, for all his talk... “Well, we can move on from the circles of you flirting with me and me turning you down, then.”

“I’m offended,” James said, taking a sip of coffee, “I listened to you Gracie, you could extend the courtesy.”

“Sorry?”

“I like you, Grace.”

“Why?”

“Masochist, or just a sucker for a pretty face, either way we are going to end up together. Just… well, it wasn’t exactly supposed to end up like this.”

“No,” I agreed, distractedly running my gaze over James’s duvet and wondering where he’d even got a double bed covers with snitches on, and whether he had prettier bedding in the other bedroom and took girls back to that room normally. Because, honestly, the snitches were giving me a headache (well, it might not exactly be the snitches’s fault, but they weren’t helping) with all their glinting and flying around.

“In the interest of friendship though, Grace, you might want to get dressed.”

“Bugger off and make me breakfast then.” I said, taking another sip of the coffee and glancing up at him – as awfully hideous mistakes go, the repercussions of this wasn’t too bad. James wasn’t acting horrendously awkward and, really, I’d slept with enough people for it not to bother me for the most part. He wasn’t acting like a whiny teenage girl, he’d almost dropped the relationship talk, and he was actually obediently leaving the room to make me breakfast.

Maybe I should get drunk and sleep with James more often.

“Okay,” James said, “but, after that, we’re going to talk.”

Oh, bullocks.

*

“I don’t do talks, James,” I muttered irritably, pausing to chew a mouthful of the toast James had provided, “especially not slap bang in the middle of a morning after. It’s cliché and it’s rubbish.”

“Oh, Gracie,” James said, buttering another slice of toast on his stupid kitchen bar thing, “you shouldn’t always be so reluctant, you know.”

“I flat out refuse to talk about my feelings when I’m this hungover.”

“I thought we’d agreed you don’t have feelings?” James said cheerfully. He must have taken some pain killer potions or something, because he was not nearly as hung over as me – admittedly, this was an accumulative hangover thanks for five days of straight drinking but my boyfriend was married. And also my boss. “But that’s fine, Grace, I’ll just talk about my feelings.”

“Your feelings?” I repeated, scrunching my face.

“We need to talk about Heddy,” James said, his smile faltering slightly as he paused in buttering his toast, “and you can say that this isn’t the ideal time, because my liver is currently at war with the rest of my body, because we did something really stupid last night and because, well, you want to avoid this conversation as long as you can… and, Gracie, you can say that you don’t care but you do and I want to talk to you about it.”

“James,” I said (and there’s a flashback for you), my lips not forming the words properly as I looked up at him, “I… I don’t think I’m the right audience.”

“You don’t get it, do you?” James said. “There’s no one else. I haven’t got anyone else.”

“You’re James Potter,” I returned, frowning at him, “you spent seven years at Hogwarts being Mr Wanted, with your Quidditch superstar best mate who everyone knew was in love with you, with your girlfriends and your pranks and your future all mapped out.”

“Why do you think I fashioned my thirtieth birthday as a Hogwarts reunion? The only people who ever liked me, liked me ten years ago.”

“Well, no one ever liked me.” I said harshly, folding my arms over my chest and leaving a half-eaten slice of toast to sit mournfully on one James’s plates: I knew James was pretty messed up himself, sure, but it struck me as a bit rich to start with all this pity talk after everything that happened. James was an international Quidditch player, fulfilling his lifetime goal before the age of thirty; he had his pretty flat and a family so large that he barely needed to have friends, anyway.

“Heddy died on August thirtieth, five years ago.” James said, his voice taking on that odd stilted tone he always did when she was brought into conversation.

“And before that, you had it all set up?” I asked sarcastically. “And then you just fell apart.”

I was getting angry now. I didn’t want to talk about this. I didn’t really want to talk about any of it. James wasn’t allowed to have his own sob story whilst he continually goaded me about mine, because that just wasn’t fair – if he was as really as haunted as he was making out then he should just sort that out instead of being an utter hypocrite and turning this whole thing around on me. Uncomplicated, my arse.

 “It was bad, Grace, I... I did a lot of stupid shit.”

“Did you pull all your fucking hair out?”

“No,” James said, offering me a nod, “but I broke my best friends heart and drove everyone else away from me. Pissed off most of my family, got kicked off my Quidditch Team, got arrested for using magic in front of a muggle when I was absolutely wankered. I had everything, Grace, but then it was all tainted cause it was built with Heddy’s fucking grave stone, so –“

“– so you threw a grenade and let it explode around you. Oh, to self destruct. It’s not like I don’t get it.”

“I hate her, Grace, I ruined her life.”

“So instead of dealing with your shit like a normal person, you decide to transfer this all onto me? Crap, James, I have enough to deal with without your misguided attempts to fix me.”

“I could do it.”

“Then fix your fucking self.”

“Grace -”

“I don’t want you to fix me, Potter. Maybe you didn’t break me but you certainly got a couple of dents in and I don’t want someone to walk into my life and say I need fixing. Don’t you see, James? We’d be horrible. It’s not a matter of whether I like you or I don’t like you. You don’t know what you want. You need to sort your head out.”

“What about you?”

“I know I need to sort my head out!” I said angrily, “Fuck, James, you’ve made that clear. But, you know, it doesn’t actually help for you to make me out to be some broken toy when you’re completely hypocritical and are exactly the same.”

“Not hardly,” James contradicted, “at least I’m capable of feeling emotion.”

“I’m angry right now,” I said, “does that count?”

“No, it doesn’t. You need to -”

“-for God’s sake,” I muttered, “James, you’ve most definitely done all you can do. Now just back off and let me deal with it myself. You’ve made me critically aware that I’m a depressed, emotionless mess – and I’m going to try and save myself. So, congrats, if taking credit for that makes you feel better about yourself, give yourself a pat on the back and move the hell on.”

“I think we’d be good together.”

“With all due respect,” I said, raising my eyebrows slightly, “you’re a bloody idiot. You’re my friend James. Actually, to hell with it, you’re my best friend. That’s not saying much, considering I’ve got about two friends full stop, but you mean a lot to me. But I cannot date you.”

“You slept with me.”

“God, what are we? Sixteen. Big deal, James. If you want us to be some shiny happy couple then how about we both take a break from each other and try to lessen the emotional baggage.”

“Grace,” James said, “I just... can we not talk about it? Your sister, I mean.”

“What’s there to say?” I asked coolly, pulling in my arms around me.

“ A bloody lot,” James said, “your sister died in a car crash and you never got over it. That’s the truth.”

The usual feeling I associated with the memory were dulled slightly by my anger. It was still enough to make me shut up, though, pulling my arms in around me and locking my jaw. James was utterly ridiculous. I could understand, to an extent, why he would think talking about it might help – it might actually help, too. But bringing it up now...

“Wait,” I muttered, “I didn’t tell you that.”

“What?”

“I never mentioned a car crash. Never.”

“Yeah…you, er, did when we were in Whitby you said – ”

“Don’t lie,” I muttered, feeling something uncomfortable rise up in my throat, “you asked Beth. Oh my God, you asked Beth and she told you.”

“Grace,” James said, easing himself off the bar stool and taking a step towards me, “Grace, I just wanted to understand -”

“You think you understand?” I asked. “God, you’re worse than I thought. If I wanted you to know I’d have sodding told you.”

“You were never going to tell me!” James exclaimed, he’s own face flushing slightly as he faced me. “I wanted to help you, Grace.”

“Well I never wanted your help! You think you have a right to say you understand because some sad girl killed herself and you used to be mean to her? I watched my sister die on the pavement, James. She was sat in the middle of the without her belt on and she was a squib. And if I’d been the one head bleeding out on the pavement, then I’d have survived because I was magical. So yeah, that’s why I can see theastrals. And then I ripped my hair out of my skull and I moved country for a decade. So there, now you understand, right?” James swallowed slightly. “We were playing slaps, see, right before it happened – did Beth tell you that? And I was winning and I was gloating and Hope was laughing.”

“Grace,”

“No, Potter, you have no right to Grace me. I don’t care that you’re an idiot who doesn’t get the message, or that you keep telling me that you’re going to save my life, or whatever, because fine that’s just you and who cares, really? It’s annoying, but I’m annoying too; so who gives a shit. But you don’t go messing around with stuff like that. You leave Hope out of this. You just… you can’t do that.”

“Please, Grace, I didn’t mean to pry I just…” James took another step forwards and the thought better of it, “I’m sorry, Grace.”

“About what? About sticking your nose in or about my sister?”

Both.”

“And I picked on Heddy too and I didn’t want to know all those stupid details.”

“Where are you going, Grace. Come on…”

“Look, if I were you I’d just stop talking.” I said, shaking slightly as I grabbed my coat off the side of the sofa and pulled it over my shoulders. I wasn’t entirely sure I remembered ever being this angry, but if I spent any longer in James’s company then it was only going to a lead to a full scale breakdown – yelling things was bad enough, but if this was going to be the first time I cried in over a decade then I definitely didn’t want James Potter running over to put his arm around me and tell me it was the first step to recovery. If he even touched me.

I slammed his front door behind me, which is something I haven’t done for a very long time (probably since I was a teenager, actually, which is the last time I think my body had managed to feel this much emotion all at once – even if it was all anger), and had to stop outside the door and breathe before I attempted to apparate. I’d probably wind up apparating in front of a train, or something, and be dragged back off to that horrible ward in St Mungos.

I gave myself a full minute of regulated, slow breathing before I apparated back to my flat, fully intending to collapse in bed and not think for at least twenty four hours.

“Where the hell have you been, Grace?”

Max.

“James’s place,” I muttered, throwing off my coat and not looking at him in the eye – as much as I’d been pretending that I was still ignorant, it hadn’t been easy to ignore the sick angry feeling that I got every time I saw him. Every time he flirted with me I wanted to punch him in the face, but I didn’t have another argument in me and I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Max’s lips twisted into a hard line.

“I’ve been waiting around in your flat since seven. Going to tell me you were researching an article or something?”

“Do you get some sort of kick out of this?” I asked, turning around to face him. “Of accusing me of being a cheat?”

Aren’t you?”

“Aren’t you married?” I returned; hands on hips and dangerously close to making something explode. Objectively, Max’s expression at that was quite brilliant – it was quite similar to James’s ‘I’ve just been caught out’ expression and, I supposed, quite similar to that same expression of every other idiot male. All his features froze for a minute, he was silent for a second too long, then there was the confusion, then the oh shit moment. Except it was a tad hard to feel really objective when the reason behind the appearance of the expression was that my boyfriend was sodding married.

It seemed James was right. Apparently talking, or more yelling, about my sister did help with the whole lack of feeling. Except I didn’t want to feel right now. It would be lovely to remain objective and calm.

“When… how did you -?”

“Find out? Cherry let it slip last week.”

I could practically see him doing the maths in his head – realising that I’d still slept with him post-realisation. It was strange, actually, because for the first time Max was let in on exactly how messed up stuff in my head was. If he’d known, he probably wouldn’t have picked someone with so much emotional baggage as a mistress.

I was a mistress and had accidentally ruined someone’s marriage. What would Hope say to that?

“But, honestly, all that shit about not seeing James – you’re just… you’re sick, Max, and you’re twisted and you’re a sexist git.”

“We were having marital problems,” Max began, but I cut him off.

“What exactly are you attempting to achieve by an explanation, Max? I’m not going to sleep with you again and, frankly, I couldn’t care less if she’d been trying to kill you. Save the sob story and eff off.”

I was shaking again. Given I normally couldn’t sum up such an emotional response to things, it was probably a good job that these two events had collided in such a horrific way – maybe, with me on the edge of something that had a very real chance of killing me – Max might end up feeling some degree of guilt.

Or he was just a tosser.

“And shove your job,” I added, turning away from him and heading for my cigarette draw, “yes, that’s a formal resignation. I’d put it down on paper, but I don’t think the reason why written on paper would exactly help your career.”

“Grace.”

“Send my regards to your wife,” I said curtly, “now get the hell out of my flat.”

*

I imagined by the time I reached twenty eight my life might have been a little different, as it currently stood (or more, lay face first in the dirt), I didn’t exactly have many things I could lay a claim to.

Without a job, a boyfriend or a best friend to speak of (or at least, not one that hadn’t just betrayed all my previous conceptions of trust) and living in a flat that my parents would be funding, yet again, due to this sudden lack of income it was fair to say that I hadn’t made any damn progress.

I might as well be six years old, solemnly declaring that I could be a squib too, even though it was some odd, impossible and illogical dream that I probably wouldn’t have been able to handle anyway: the same still stood for what I’d been aiming for since I was a teenager, too. For all this talk of wanting a proper job and a family and some friends, I was no better equipped at handling that than I would have been at being a squib. There was a very real chance that failure was just in my blood stream.

Still, there were silver linings; cigarettes still existed and even though I’d been chain smoking for several hours, I seemed to have enough packets backed up to get me to through the new few hours (oh, yeah, that was right – I’d made a vague non-committal decision to try and cut back on smoking; oh well), and wine still tasted pretty good even though it was cheap and nasty and I was too old to be drinking straight from the bottle, but it was staving off some of the hangover quite nicely.

I wasn’t blaming the hangover on alcohol anymore. Alcohol was too good a friend to me for me to blame it unnecessarily, so instead this hangover was the residue from feeling so damn angry. I’d decided it and was therefore willing it to be the truth.

“Gracie!” Uncle Francis’s voice said down the phone, the same oddly surprised and knowing tone that I’d come to associate with him telling me to be cheerful about the fact that my life was utterly rubbish. “What can I do for you?” I pressed the phone against the crook of my neck so I could light another cigarette.

“Hypothetically,” I began, inhaling the stuff that was surely, soon, going to kill me, “if I wanted to change a couple of things… about my life,” I was hoping he wasn’t going to ask for a list, it was tragic enough that I was slightly tipsy, definitely on a nicotine high, on the phone to my therapist Uncle without having to start explaining the full extent of my failings, “Where, exactly, would you suggest I start?”

Really, my life had not sorted itself out just yet. 

Give it a month or two, and I was sure it would be fine.




Hopefully you'll be able to forgive me for the last chapter being slightly fillerish, now? We've been building up to this for a  long time... also, twenty whole chapters! This means this is the second story after TAOB of mine to ever reach twenty. Well, thanks for reading and I'd love to know what you think :)


Chapter 21: March 5th - March 12th
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 My sister died and the aftershocks still running through my body were the only things that were keeping her significant. My parents were still living, her old best friend had grown up and was probably married, no one else had known her – not really – and they missed her, but she was no long prominent. And then there was me and that one event, her life, had twisted my whole being into this mess. If I was okay, then Hope had no legacy to speak of. I wasn’t much of a legacy, but I was proof that a girl called Hope Whitehall had lived and breathed and died on the tarmac. That once, years ago, there was a squib girl who couldn’t work the slots, that made her little sister hold her hand when they crossed the road to get fish and chips, who’d crawl into her bed at night and read her stories because she couldn’t sleep.

And she’d have hated me for dragging out such a legacy for so long, but I wasn’t selfless enough to give her up just yet.

But what would my legacy be? Less than Hope’s, certainly, and she’d lived for a mere nine years – nothing at all, a speck of history – and I’d had much more time than that. And what would there be left of me? A bunch of funny stories about a messed up teenager and an equally messed up twenty-something.

My landlord would have to find a new tenant. That was the sum total of my life – an occupation in a flat I couldn’t actually afford and my parent’s strained and slightly distant affection towards something they were obliged to love.  My untimely death was sure to have an effect on James, too, but he was more resilient than he realised if only he’d stop wading around in his anguish because he felt he had to. He’d get over it in that way you do with grief – when you stop thinking about it all the time, and then you stop thinking like you should be thinking about it all the time.

And then Francis said something that made me think that there was a way out. My stupid Uncle Francis, who’d I’d called because I was slightly drunk and riding on a significant amount of nicotine, and I’d wanted something that I could find funny.

Other than Francis having an utterly ridiculous name he was generally quite a ridiculous person. I generally blamed the fact that by wizarding law Francis didn’t need an actual qualification to become a therapist, instead he just decided that he might be quite good at it (possibly on the advice of some slightly deluded girl who fancied him when he was twelve) and opened a practice. And that was it.

So, normal advice from Francis usually involved growing some sort of plant (apparently supposed to create a sense of achievement, apparently you were supposed to bond with the plant – if that’s how his clients were leaving, I hated to think how they were turning up) which was why I was generally quite surprised when Francis’s advice hadn’t had me in stiches.

Own your life, Grace.

And my heart had seemed to stop in my chest and then if felt like it was breaking. I wasn’t entirely sure I’d believed hearts could break, but then the accumulative weight of years of living without hope (in any sense of the word), without changing anything or doing anything, without feeling and just being seemed to hit me all at once. And it hurt.  

Because maybe there was a way out.

“How?” I’d asked; my voice had cracked, the ash of my burnt out cigarette scattered into my lap, the wine seemed to sour suddenly.

And then Francis told me.

*

It didn’t start with a plant which was probably good considering my record with keeping anything living in my apartment – after the time I’d set fire to my cactus before falling into the still-sharp smoking thing in an attempt to put the fire out with a bottle of nail varnish remover I’d given up on co-inhabiting my flat with anything that wasn’t either dead or had never been living. It summed up my life quite aptly, I thought. I hadn’t watered the plant Dave had given me for my birthday once, instead choosing to watch its slow progression as it withered and died.

No, this time it started as a list.

Well, actually, there were several lists.

“So,” George said, “you’ve quit.”

“Indeed,” I agreed, “enjoying navigating the realms of the unemployed.”

“Knew it,” Jill grumbled, “soon as Max said you’d quit I bloody knew. When did you find out?”

“Last week,” I admitted, rolling the confession over in my brain and shrugging my shoulder slightly.

“What, sorry?” George asked.

“How did you..?”

“Oh,” Jill said, spontaneously popping a piece of bubble gum I hadn’t known she’d been chewing, “I know his type.”

“Anyone want to explain this in a language I can understand?” George suggested, casually ordering himself another pint before turning fully in his seat to stare at both of us. “What’s Grace done now?”

“Max,” I said.

“Oh, Christ,” George said raising his eyebrows, “no, actually, that makes a lot of sense. Damn, Grace. Drink?”

“I… I’m trying to cut back.” I admitted, feeling oddly like everything about myself had been transplanted into someone else. Having decided that a new start would coincide with the new month, I’d spent the last evening in February very very dunk and informing a slightly confused bloke that I was going to start owning my life and was likely either going to start with a tattoo or a baby. In the morning both of these had seemed like pretty horrible ideas (the bloke at the time had thought so too and had run off when I said the B word) and ‘drinking’ became top of the ‘things to change’ list.

Shortly followed by smoking, excessive eyebrow plucking, my weight and lack of fitness. Those were the physical things. And then after I’d started writing the list just kept getting longer – improving my CV and therefore getting a serious, proper job (maybe to do with writing?), a whole list of relationships I wanted to patch up…

Apparently there were a lot of things I wanted and I hadn’t even realised. I was so intent on not thinking beyond the next week that I’d never really considered what I wanted from life. It hadn’t really occurred to me that there were parts of life that it was possible to reach out and grab.

“Did you hit your head really hard?” Jill suggested, raising her eyebrows and shrugging, “a double for me, George. You all right though, Grace? I could stage another protest.”

“About what?”

“Transparency in terms of marital status.”

“Well,” I said, grinning, “what’s your marital status, you mad woman?”

“Engaged,” She admitted grimly, “we’ve set a date.”

“Crap.” I said, raising my eyebrows slightly.

“Wanna come, Grace? Bring a hot date and got sloshed. Sure you don’t want another drink?”

“Well,” I said again, frowning slightly. When I’d said drinking I’d more meant sitting at home alone with a bottle of wine than drinking with two of the people I actually counted as friends, and I didn’t think there was anything wrong with going to a bar and having a drink… it was thinking drink could fix my problems and dull the whole sense of feeling things, “sod it,” I said decisively, “I’ll give up smoking today instead.”

“Complete life evaluation?” George suggested, ordering me a double vodka and coke and turning around to look at me. “Max induced?”

“Not really,” I admitted, taking my drink and considering changing the nicotine patch (rubbish things without that feeling of tar filling up your lungs and the impending healthy problems to come with it), “it was James.”

“James Potter?”

“Bring him to the wedding,” Jill said, “that can be my present – James Potter at my wedding. And tell him it’s a nudist wedding.”

“Not something you want to see.”

“Oh,” George said, “developments.”

“Please don’t make me talk about it,” I said, pressing my fingers into my forehead, “the basic frame of the story is a colossal argument and a phone call with my shitty therapist Uncle – and now I’m eating ‘Weight Witches’ ready meals and spending a fortune on nicotine patches.”

“You know, Grace,” Jill said thoughtfully, “if you need another therapist, I’m marrying one?”

*

“Mum?” I asked, frowning into the receive as I stubbed out my cigarette feeling mildly guilty. It was only one. “What… what are you calling about?”

“Grace,” Mum breathed, “Francis said that you called him.”

“Oh God,” I muttered, pressing my lips together and feeling my chest tightened. This really wasn’t something I wanted my Mum involved in. I couldn’t deal with the extra emotional pressure of having my Mum cheering me on when I’d already accepted the fact that this was going to fail and falling back down into the ugly pit was going to hurt way more than it usually did.

This was hope. And it was probably going to kill me.

“Can I come round?”

“It’s not a good time, Mum,” I said, glancing around my flat feeling oddly sick – I hadn’t actually thrown out my cigarettes, or any of the alcohol that was under the sink, or done any washing for about a month, and my list of things to improve was spellotaped to one of the kitchen counters and frankly I didn’t want my mother to see number eight ‘no one night stands’ or number nine ‘no relationships with shit men’ because she was sure to ask questions at the exact moment I didn’t want to talk about it. “I’m… about to go out.”

“Who with?”

“Erm, James,” I lied, glancing round at my flat feeling a bit lonely all of a sudden. Maybe I should see James.

“James Potter?” Mum said, “okay, Grace love. But I have some things I’d liked to send over. I’m sending my owl, okay – so turn of the hob. I don’t want a repeat of last time.”

“Fine, Mum,” I said, shaking my head and pressing my forehead against the sofa, “oh, Mum…I lost my job. And, well, I was wondering if…”

“I’ve paid your rent for the next six months,” Mum said, with her slightly strained voice that I hated hearing, “don’t argue with me about that, Grace. Just… please, do something positive with that time.”

So, that was that. Six months to change my life.

*

Most people don’t understand what it feels like to fall into the depths of yourself and to believe with your whole soul that there is no true escape from that feeling – it didn’t matter whether I built a whole new life for myself, if I gave up the smoking and cut back on my drinking and truly invested in myself (which honestly I’d never done). Hope could still spring upon me and I might watch her die or else rekindle the survivor’s guilt that drove me to rendering myself half bald and friendless. That had led me to the unhappy conclusion that it wasn’t worth pursuing the idea at all: with the prospect of being given six months of my life to reinvent myself free of charge courtesy of my usually misguided mother, it seemed like it might be worthwhile – Muggle students were fiven their time at university to elarn for the sake of learning, to travel and to expreinece things that the responsibilities of real life simply didn’t permit. The magical world had Hogwarts to make friends for life to learn the magic which enriched their future lives and lead them to ceears – I’d left with little more than a lingering hanfover and a few embarrassing stories… then I’d ran away for years and years.

As I looked over my CV I began to wonder whether that was necessarily a bad thing – not many Wizards could have claimed to have travelled as much as I had, worked so many muggle jobs, taken some time off before pursuing a career. I’d picked up little more than my rudimentary language skills but that must, surely, lend me to something beyond one of those teenage part time jobs because, frankly, I felt too old to be squeezing into another waitress outfit…  At least, thanks to Max, I had a few months of solid writing training and we could hardly give me a bad reference when he thought his wife was in the dark about the whole thing.

In some respects I was actually in a much better place than I had been months previously. Or, at least my eyes had been opened slightly to the prospect of change – at least, to the extent that I was now considering the leaflets my mother had sent me about OWL and NEWT refresher courses for mature students (although I very much wanted to object to being branded ‘mature’ and there was probably a fair amount of evidence to chase that label away from a near life time). The courses were free, they lead towards a qualification without taking a full two years as the courses nearly did… as a student I would be qualified for additional language classes and use of the gym and it’s facilities (mentally, I put a tick next to the ‘loose weigh and get fit’ part of my happiness list) – it seemed pretty in keeping with Francis’s mad suggestion.

Own your life, Grace.

And it seemed like my mother had been waiting for me to wake up and start trying to believe that there was still something worth fighting for.

It was oddly terrifying to start taking positive steps towards a future that I knew nothing about. This was well and truly going against my default mode so drastic that just, well, every time I thought about it there was an induced sense of horror – of the unnatural, of wanting to remind myself that the whole thing was going to end in failure and that opening myself up like this could only lead to utter ruin.

And all my application required was five hundred words on education hadn’t worked out for me the first time.

Where to start?

*

I think it was the sudden withdrawal symptoms that lead me to another phone call with Francis; my hands felt empty and useless when they weren’t sliding open a packet of fags and pulling out the lighter, or even rolling my own cigarettes (and Merlin knows I hadn’t bothered with that for years – economical it might be, but it was also a pain in the ass and I always got the flimsy paper the wrong way round) and after tearing off a nicotine patch and flushing it down the toilet without even thinking about the potential plumbing problems I’d grabbed the phone, had half dialled James’s number before cursing myself and punching in Francis’s number again.

“It’s not working,” I said irritably, “I’m not owning anything except a lot of those stupid ready meals you sent me and a lot of nicotine produce which are not the same as actual cigarettes!”

“Gracie,” Francis said in his frustratingly calm voice, “this just proves that you have an addiction. But that’s okay because…”

“- I don’t have an addiction,” I hissed, wringing my hands and closing my eyes briefly. I needed a damn cigarette. I could practically taste one if I concentrated hard enough and it wasn’t exactly like cigarettes even tasted good and yet… “I need to do something with my hands.”

It was a good job I hadn’t called James. He would have had a lot to say about that.

“Then do something,” Francis said, calmly.

“Bloody what? And if you tell me to start gardening -”

“-write something,” Francis interrupted, “that’s what you used to do at your old job, isn’t it? Write things.”

I wasn’t actually intending on taking his suggestion even remotely serious, but his voice was becoming too irritating and I really did need a cigarette so I hung up rather violently and began digging out my last pack of emergency cigarettes (I had eventually thrown them all out, but keeping one for insurance… because I did need them) and heading towards the bathroom so I could smoke out the window.

I’d disabled my smoke alarm when smoking in the flat was a given, but now I thought it best to reset it to ensure I couldn’t smoke… unless the bathroom door was shut and the bathmat was pushed up against it and I smoked up the window so…

Actually, I’d written about Hope, hadn’t I? And it had almost helped. It had, at least, sparked a visit to Whitby and the first time I’d even acknowledged certain things about Hope so maybe I could write instead of smoking.

With a sudden burst of inspiration I ran my nearly-lit cigarette under the tap, along with the whole packet, before throwing them in the bin with the lighter and slamming the lid of the bin down with a satisfyingly loud clang.

I’d written three lines about my first day of Hogwarts before my hand was shaking too much to continue writing. No, definitely definitely too soon. I placed down my quill irritably and summoned my keys with a flick of my wand – I might have managed four whole days without a cigarette and nearly a whole day with no consumption of nicotine, but that didn’t mean I was ready not to have the option.

The rain seemed to take the edge of my nicotine cravings on the way to the off licence, but I brought a ten pack anyway and slipped them into the deepest darkest part of my handbag. I didn’t smoke one though, so that was progress.

*

“Hi,” I said, pressing the phone into the crook of my neck and scrunching up my face into a wince, “it’s Grace.”

“Yeah,” James said, slowly, “I recognise your voice, Gracie.”

Well that was always nice. At least after going a bit psycho on James – enough to prevent him from calling for eleven days which with James-levels of persistence was quite the freak out – he hadn’t written me off as a bad job and blocked me from his memory. Although, in some respects I wouldn’t have too many objections if he chose to block some choice memories out of his mind for a significant period of time – that would be quite nice.

“Excellent,” I said, only slightly sarcastically, “ever tried to chat up a European girl, James?”

“Interesting line of enquiry.”

“So that’s a yes?” I suggested. “How did that work out for you?”

“A part veela French goddess slapped me round the face and I dumped an Italian girl after she wouldn’t make me pizza.”

“Because I really think learning French would be really helpful to your love life.”

“Why?” James said.

“I’m… okay, well…I’m going to a French class on Thursday nights and it would be nice to have some company.”

“And that will improve my love life?” James grinned. I could practically see the self-satisfied expression written across his features and shook my head feeling bemused. I had missed James. I really had.

“That’s not what I meant,” I sighed.

“But you’re not saying no?”

“James,” I said, trying to stop myself from laughing, “coming off the back of our first argument since we were teenagers, it’s probably best you don’t make me change your mind. Come learn French with me, Potter. Thursday evening, half seven sharp.”

“It’s a date.” James beamed.

Honestly, I don’t know what else I expected.

*

“Wow,” James said, raising his eyebrows as his regarded my flat, “you’ve… have you got a house elf now?”

“I am… owning my life,” I said, grimacing slightly as I looked round my slightly too clean flat – as much as I had to admit that my purge of all the dirt and useless crap had felt satisfying at the time, it returned my flat to its previous state of unlived in. I needed some photos or something, but I’d never taken any. I only actually owned three photos – one family photo that had been shoved on me and was currently been used as a bookmark for something, a photo of Hope and the photo of James’s blasted photo shoot that he’d sent with his phone number on the back. And the only reason I’d kept the last one was as proof to the outside world that James Potter had given me his number.

“And that’s quite a clean business, is it?”

“I’m not sure,” I said, subconsciously pulling off the list from where it was currently stuck to the fridge and placing it face down on the kitchen counter. Having only spoken to James once since the Hope related argument I was feeling oddly nervous around him, and ended up wondering around my flat straightening the slightly wilted potted plant that was sitting on the coffee table (a poor attempt – but I was trying existing in the same space as some other living creature… still, the purchase of the plant had cemented my belief that I was going utterly insane).

When I turned back James had picked up the list and was reading it. Course, the prat who’d asked my old best friend about the Hope business wouldn’t find any qualms with reading private pieces of parchment.

“I can suggest a couple of men which aren’t shit,” James said cheerfully and then, when he caught my eye, more seriously, “you look good, Gracie.”

“You’re just saying that,” I said, “because it says lose weight on the list.”

“Total… lifestyle change.”

“That’s the idea,” I said weakly, “My body is a bit confused. Keep ending up throwing up out of shock.”

“Your body is definitely confusing,” James said, before looking back up at me looking vaguely serious again, “I’m sorry, Gracie – I didn’t mean to pry, before. Well, I did actually – if I’m brutally honest – but I didn’t mean to… stir stuff up. I’m really sorry.”

“Yeah, well,” I said, waving this aside, “just promise to distract me from the nicotine cravings if the French teacher talks too much about the imperfect tense.”

“The what tense?”

“Exactly, James, exactly,” I said, reaching out and pulling my cloak on, pulling my list out of his hand and screwing it up – it wasn’t that I was no longer following it, but more that I had it almost memorised by heart by now. I knew what I was aiming for. Maybe it wasn’t much – lord knows most people had achieved more in their lifetime – but I was doing something. And that counted for a lot more than most people seemed to realise.

“Is it just when you get your tenses wrong?” James suggested, holding out his arm for me to link mine through.

“Here’s hoping.” I said, offering him a smile and linking my arm through his. James apparated away with a distinct pop and I considered the merits of framing the photo of James and hanging it over my nearly-dead-pot-plant before discarding it – James would make too many far comments about it for it to be worth the view and, anyway, one photo would only highlight the lack of photo’s elsewhere.

*

Honestly, I was terrified.

That’s what my first draft of my application letter essentially consisted of – a surprisingly honest, much too raw to be appropriate account of this frightening tangible new future and how, sometimes, I felt like I was losing myself.

For such a long time I had been defined by this; the hollow feeling in my stomach and the sense that nothing could ever, ever get better. 

I wrote about how I didn’t know who I would be if that was taken away. That I was terrified of becoming a new person that I didn’t recognise, as well as being oddly excited about reaching out and grabbing something for the first time in my life. I wrote about my mother sending me the application forms and the fact that I didn’t think I deserved a job better than a waitress, not really. I wrote about how little I’d learnt from years abroad and how I’d just been existing and watching my whole life passing me by without achieving anything.

I wrote about James, who made me realised exactly how messed up I was if only because he, himself, was such a mess.  And I wrote that normally I’d have let that ship sink, because it was easier, but that I was going to call James at some point and let him back in – because sometimes people are rubbish and horrible but most of the time they’re worth it anyway.

I wrote about pulling my hair out and starting school bald and Hope and setting bridges ablaze.

And it was definitely more than five hundred words long and it was wholly inappropriate, so I started again and wrote a humorous account of how I’d squandered my time at Hogwarts (euphemistically referring to the gritty circumstances beneath) and that was the one I sent off.

I put them both side by side and stared at them for a long time. It felt like my whole life was cut into these two sections – the dry drunken stories of woe and the underlying issues beneath them.  The vaguely amusing and the downright depressing.

Then my thoughts were quite rudely interrupted by throwing up one of Francis’s recommended Weight Witches’ ready meals (an obviously slightly dodgy Shepherd’s pie) and piled the first draft onto of the scrap of slightly crumpled paper about Hope.




Hello dear reader! I can practically feel the end now - mostly because I've nearly written all of this now. The plan is 25 chapters and for this to be finished before 2012 is (probably with lots of updates next month) and how exciting is that!?! But, yeah, thanks for reading and please keep reviewing! It honestly makes my day :D 


Chapter 22: March 15th and 16th.
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 Whitby had an uncanny ability to wrap itself around my heart and squeeze until I had to catch my breath, but that was nothing compared to the prospect of knocking on Connor Matthew’s door and asking whether he remembered and a girl who he should have married, had she not died when she was still just a kid.

It hadn’t been hard to track him down. I’d known that he’d still be in Whitby somewhere because he was just one of those people whose entire life would only lead to them being displaced by a few hundred meters – ten miles or so tops – and Hope would have been a squib and stayed in Whitby, I’d have still ran away and traversed around Europe, and maybe everything would have ended up exactly the same as it was now. Or it might not.

I very nearly walked away from the doorbell, disappeared down one of alleyways and apparated back into my flat, but I reminded myself that I was a Gryffindor and that I’d gone through all the effort of essentially becoming a stalker in order to turn up at Connor Matthew’s door and ask whether he remembered my sister, or our childhood, or making out on the deck of a borrow boat, or that for a long time I’d considered him my best friend just because we’d both lost my sister. And whilst bringing up the almost loss of the virginity this many years (and blokes) onward entirely reeked of admitting that I was not a kid teenager but in fact an adult with responsibilities, it also seemed pretty in keeping with owning my life.

And closure. Maybe closure would help.

I rang the doorbell.

He was recognisable if you squinted slightly. I could remember him at nineteen years old and how he didn’t shave every day, so that time we kissed it irritated my chin and, later, I’d ran my hand over the skin and thought about stupid it was that Hope wasn’t here to tell me that it was okay that I was a coward and couldn’t go through with the whole business.

“You probably don’t -” I began.

Grace?”

“Connor,” I breathed, and then he’d stepped forwards and wrapped his arms around me, hugged me to his chest. He didn’t smell the same as I remembered him to at nineteen, which was probably a good thing considering, but he still felt just as solid as he had back then. “Sorry about… just turning up -”

“Grace,” Connor said, stepping back and staring at me, “it’s really good to see you.”

“Thanks.”

“And you’re so…”

“Old?” I suggested.

“Grown up,” Connor settled on, his lips twisting into a half smile.

“Oi,” I said, feeling my tense expression fall into a smile too, “don’t be so patronising, you’re not much older.”

“Come in,” Connor said, stepping back away from the door, “you can meet Faith.”

“Your wife?” I questioned, feeling something sticky well up in my throat which was probably related to a very natural emotional response. Faith. Of all the names, he had to marry another girl with an attribute for a name. Really. Life hurt.

“My daughter,” Connor said, leading me into a kitchen, “we… well,” Connor said, smiling again, “not long after you jetted off to travel Europe, I got my seventeen year old girlfriend pregnant. It ended up as a bit of a joke that we were keeping faith, but…”

His daughter was almost but not quite named after my sister. The name was in the same vein, at any rate, and the elongated and incomplete ‘but’ seemed to say that loud and clear. My sister had a legacy, then.

“So she’s…?”

“Eight years old,” Connor said, just as a blonde bundle of very real child burst into the room, stopped at the sight of me and looked near tears, “Faith, this is my childhood friend Grace. She’s shy,” Connor said to me, smiling slightly, “so what… what’s new with you?”

“Not much,” I said, staring wide eyed at this real life and very human little girl eyed me up, “I came back to England about a year ago. I just lost my job, so I’m unemployed again. Single. Definitely childless. But I gave up smoking last week, so it’s not all bad.”

“Well, there’s always that,” Connor said, wondering over to the kettle, “you’ll stay for coffee?”  I nodded mutely. The shock of Connor, who’d lost Hope every much as I had, having a life and a child and a house had struck some strange chord within me. He was fine. It wasn’t comparable, of course, because Hope had been my sister and I’d watched her die, but I remembered a teenage Connor getting in trouble at school and drinking far too much and sleeping with far too many girls (which apparently eventually caught up with him)… I hadn’t expected him to be so put together.

“Course,” I said, just as Faith disappeared out of the room and was heard thundering up the stairs. She was almost the age I was when I watched Hope die and everything fell apart, but she seemed so tiny and insignificant and young.

It hadn’t occurred to me just how young nine years old actually was before, but it was minute. I’d barely been alive. Barely had Hope for that many years. So small and innocent.

“She’s beautiful.” I said, watching as he made a cup of coffee as the bizarreness of it all settled over me again. Her Mum must have been blonde and thin, because Connor’s colouring was darker. Hope was forever tanned with darker hair than mine, and had they got married his children would have looked almost completely different and Faith Matthews would never have existed.

“Were you just in town, or…?”

“Not exactly,” I said, “I’m trying to sort my life out. Everything got a bit… messy.”

“If it helps,” Connor said as he brought the cups of coffee over with milk and sugar and biscuits, “there’s nothing quite like a disaster to force you into sorting your life out. If it hadn’t been for Faith I think it would have taken me years to straighten out.”

“Where’s your bathroom?” I asked, setting down my cup of coffee after one sip feeling distinctly nauseous.  “I feel a bit sick.”

“First on the right in the corridor,” Connor said, glancing up at me with concern, “are you –?”

But I missed the end of the question because the desire to throw up got so concentrated that it was all I could do not to vomit over Connor’s kitchen, and given before today there’d been almost ten years without contact I didn’t really feel like we were in a place where vomiting in each other’s houses (or flats) was very acceptable.

I returned a few minutes later having thrown up another of Uncle Francis’s Weight Witches’ ready meals and stopped shaking enough to return.

“Grace Whitehall,” Connor said, smiling, “in my house ten minutes and you’re already throwing up. Are you really that opposed to instant coffee?”

“Sorry,” I muttered, “think I’ve got a bug, or something.”

“Or maybe,” Connor said, “you won’t be definitely childless for much longer.”

What?

*

I hadn’t known anything about Heddy when I was a teenager, and I knew even less now, but walking up the driveway to her childhood home helped to fill in some of the gaps. My childhood had been happy – fish and chips, sailing, the beach and donkey rides, watching old muggle historical renactments at the abbey and making swift friendships with the tourists who stayed for a week or two.

Heddy’e estate was more suburban and every bit as muggle: near Bristol, which made sense now I thought about the twang of her accent, fish and chip shop in the centre with a small supermarket and a Chinese takeway. There were parts where there might have been play areas until they became prime drinking spots for the secondary school children. It was so normal.

I’d wanted her to live somewhere rough and dirty, so I had some extraneous factors to blame. But I couldn’t deny evidence; Heddy Vane had a happy childhood. There was likely to have been some teasing for the same reason as she’d got it at Hogwarts – a stupid name and not being entirely nice to look at – but she’d have been okay. Most people were.

She became more clear as I walked up her driveway.

Her cheeks were blown up by puppy fat in first year, which had fallen over by the third.  A too short bob that hung around her face. Thick eyebrows, a piggish nose, spots, freckles – her appearance was one of the clearest memories I had of Hogwarts. Eyes so big and magnified by her glasses that she could have been the owl she was named after. There were uglier girls, fatter girls and girls with worst names than Hedwig… but there was something wretched about her that turned her into a victim. I never hated her. She irked me.

I wanted her to disappear and not remind me of how I felt. I wanted her to have never existed, but she did… so we picked on her at and at her until she cried. And we made her cry until she snapped. And we didn’t care or take responsibility until the moment her flesh was scorched and burning and she hated herself and living too much to stop it.

How do you tell a mother it’s your fault her child is dead?

I’d been writing up scraps of the past year at home, dating each piece of parchment before adding it to the growing pile of bits of myself that I’d pinned to paper when I realised that I had to do this. I’d written to her mother – Romilda – and asked if I could please visit her and talk to her about her daughter. I’d half expected a Howler in response, but the return letter had been short and to the point. An address and permission. A time.

Romilda Vane came to the door before I had a chance to knock. She was older than her years and there was a touch of Heddy around her wide eyes. I thought her mother might once have been pretty. I thought, perhaps, Heddy might have grown up to be beautiful too, if we’d hadn’t poisoned her.

“I used to go to Hogwarts with your daughter,” I said, hovering on the doorway and still expecting her to slam the door in my face or spit on my shoes. I deserved it. And Romilda must have known how vile we’d been to her daughter… must have been aware how unhappy he made her. She wordlessly pushed up open the door to grant me in entrance, and I shadowed Heddy’s footsteps down the corridor into the kitchen, “I’ve been abroad for a very long time, I only heard recently.”

“Three students who were at Hogwarts in the same period as you and my Heddy are dead.” Romilda said, not offering me a drink and sitting down stiffly. I followed her lead, feeling insecure and out of please and a little bit queasy (although, really, that might not be related).

Romilda knew.

“I’m trying to turn my life around, Miss Vane,” I said, shaking slightly “because I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of, and I was horrible to your daughter and… I wanted to say that a  lot of people have changed their lives because…because of what we did.”

“I loved my daughter,” Romilda said, “her father and I are separated, but he loved her too. She had been engaged to a muggle several months before. She liked her job.”

“Miss – ”

“- it is not your fault that I had to burry my daughter. She had enough to live for.”

“My sister died,” I said blinking, “when I was just little I watched her die… it was my fault she didn’t have her seat bet on.”

“Her death was not your fault or responsibility,” Romilda said, the same deadness looking out of her eyes, “but anything that happened after belongs entire to you.” There was silent for a long few minutes. “You’ll die too, Miss Whitehall. And it won’t necessarily be anyone’s fault, but it will happen. And then life will carry on.”

“I’m sorry.” I said, but I felt as though I was speaking through a mouthful of cotton wool.

“Heddy was my daughter,” Romilda said, slowly, “it was my duty to keep her happy. I would like to blame you for her death, Grace, but it is every bit more my fault and I will still not blame myself. No mother could live like that. She was her own person and she made a decision.”

“I’m still sorry.” I said, wrapping an arm around my torso.

“Forget about her,” Romilda Vane said, “or use her to fuel some good. Do not allow her to ruin your life.”

And there was a sense of finality about her last comment that I felt like it was time to leave, at last, and leave this behind me.

*

“To what,” James said, answering the door with one of his grins, “do I owe the pleasure?”

“Look,” I said, stepping into his flat and squaring my shoulders against the onslaught of what was sure to be the most horrific conversation of my whole life, “please don’t be in a good mood.”

“Always in a good mood when I see you, Gracie.” James said. “Drink?”

I really really wanted to say yes, but given everything that was probably a little bit too irresponsible. I bit back any reply and walked over to the bar feeling oddly light. It was just bloody brilliant that this had to happen now and that James was such a responsible adult that he had a bar instead of kitchen cabinets. Wonderful.

“How’s not smoking going?”

“Shit the past couple of days,” I said, sitting down on the bar stool and staring at James, “been a bit… stressed.”

“The NEWT courses taking their toll?” James asked.

“Extraneous issue,” I said, still feeling light headed and like I should be slightly drunk or on something, but no – this was just the shock of actually confronting a potential (and it was only a potential) problem in a way that was almost but not quite sensible. Definitely a big improvement.

“Well,” James said, “are you just here to drop hints?”

“No.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“Yes,” I said, still staring straight at him as if the answers were suddenly about to appear tattooed across his chin, or something.

“A clue?”

I pulled the pregnancy test out of the pocket of my robes and placed it down on the surface of James’s bar.  

“Can I borrow your toilet?” I asked, as sarcastically as I was capable of being when I was really, really not sure what I felt about this whole thing.

And that, effectively, ended all conversation for a good few minutes in which I stopped staring at James’s face and started instead staring at his really rather nice flat, wondering how difficult it would be to baby proof if that was what was necessary and then wondering what exactly baby proofing entailed, because I hadn’t got a fucking clue.

“Oh,” James said, eventually, his good mood visibly evaporating to one of his more serious expressions that barely saw the light of day. James took a few tentative steps forwards towards the pregnancy test, as though the whole thing was actually a bomb and I was trying to blow us both up.

“I haven’t taken it,” I said, quickly, “It might not be a… erm, issue.”

“Right,” James said, drawing nearer.

“But I’ve been sick a lot and I’ve been feeling a bit weird and...”

“Right.”

“James,” I said, forcing myself to look back at him, “I am freaking out. So, if it’s at all possible, it’d be nice if you weren’t.”

“I can do that,” James said, squaring his shoulders, “so, Gracie, you might be preggers. How’s that working out for you?”

“It’s nauseating.”

“Is this really the time for jokes?” James grinned, wrapping an arm around my shoulders and pulling him against my chest, “I’m proud of you though, Grace, for not repressing the issue.”

“Well there’s kind of a time limit here,” I said, laughing weakly into James’s chest, “What the fuck am I going to do, James?”

“Well what does it say on the instructions?”

“I didn’t mean about taking the test,” I rolled my eyes, “I just have to pee on the stick, I think.”

“You think?”

“I haven’t actually done this before,” I said, “as much as that may surprise you.”

“It doesn’t, really,” James said, pulling my closer to his chest for a long moment. I suspected that this might be a moment I’d remember for a very long time afterwards, my forehead pressed against James’s chest, staring at a pregnancy test that was about to define the rest of my life, giving myself a few more minutes of blissful unknowing before taking the plunge and peeing on a stick. And it could change our lives.

Well, my life.

I hadn’t really considered how potentially misleading this whole thing was. I’d just needed to have a friend to be present when I was waiting the ten minutes – or however long it was – to determine whether or not I was pregnant, and James was the only person who I really felt I could trust with the issue. But then… give circumstances, I probably should have asked Cherry.

“James,” I said, “just, to clarify I…if I am pregnant, I don’t know how long I’ve been pregnant.”

James winced a bit.

“Reading you.”

“Sorry,” I muttered, taking a deep breath, “it tells me how far along – if I am pregnant – and then I’ll be able to…”

“Will it be specific enough for you, though?” James grinned.

“Oh fuck off.” I said, not that I could really blame him for being snide. The first pregnancy scare of my life just had to coincide with the most promiscuous period of my life to date – I didn’t think they were many people who’d really look down on me for rebounding after I found Max was married or the accidental incident with James. It just looked bad right now because of this.

“There’s three, right?” James said.

“You, your almost greying not uncle or my married ex-boss, and to be honest with you acting like such a prat I'm not entirely sure who I'm rooting for.” I said, pressing a hand to my forehead and trying not to detest myself.

“Three.” James repeated raising his eyebrows.

"It's not like I know how pregnant I am, it's not like I slept with all of you on the same day - stop acting like I'm some kind of whore"

"Well," James said, his lips tilting up slightly, "you're not exactly a nun"

And then the whole thing suddenly felt very funny, and we were both laughing like this wasn't the most terrifying moment of my life so far.

“Sorry,” James said.

“It’s okay,” I said, “well, it’s not, but it’s… my fault, I guess. Can I blame Max, actually? Oh god, I hope I can’t blame Max for this. James, this potential baby cannot be my married ex-boss’s, or I will just… I don’t know…”

“Cry?”

“Yes,” I said, nodding, “I will definitely cry. I hope it’s sodding yours,” I said, “look, I better go pee on a stick.”

“Yeah,” James said, reaching forwards and kissing me. Personally, I thought this was a hell of a liberty and definitely not appropriate for the situation, but James just grinned and said “for luck,” and then pushed me in the direction of the bathroom, and with something like that it was difficult to argue with.

I could bust him for it later, if I hadn’t ruined my life and thus had bigger problems to deal with.

*



"Time's up," James muttered. I looked towards the test. "Wait," James said, covering the test with his hand - and I wasn't going to be the one to point out that I'd urinated on the thing a couple of minutes ago - "Grace, if it's positive - do you want to keep it?"

I nodded.

"And do you want me to be the father?"

I nodded again.

"Okay, well," James said, "I'm here then."

And there it was, a whole tangible future with James. Because he’d do it, I knew he’d do it. He’d be there for me an he’d be a father because both of us had been nearly convinced that a family was something neither of us would ever had – it felt too far off, too distant, and here was an  inexplicable and crazy chance. I couldn’t handle having a baby, of course I couldn’t, when I was barely a functioning adult by myself – but maybe if I had James, we could do it together. No doubt one day the whole is-it-mine thing we come crashing down around our ears, but I didn’t want to think about the future  - there was too much going on in the present.

I reached out and grabbed hold of James’s arm to support myself.

“You look,” James said, removing his hand from the test and looking up at me.

“You do it.” I countered, “I can’t.”

“Well, it’s definitely your baby.” James said with a grin.

I bit my lip, reached forwards and picked it up.

It hit me like a ton of bricks: the wave of unexpected emotions, the knife like pain in my throat, the inability to speak. James looked up at me. The words, when they eventually came, chocked out of my chest.

“Negative.”




Let's just be clear here, I could have made this cliff hanger so much worse than it is. Think about how nice I am, yeah? Next chapter shouldn't take long, but might end up falling after christmas due to the queue closure. I guess we'll see. Reviews make my day!


Chapter 23: March 16th
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 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.

Not pregnant.

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…”                       

“…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! 


Chapter 24: April.
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 “So,” Jill said, glancing up over her pint and trying not to grin, “following your Uncle therapists advice resulted in a pregnancy scare?”

“Yep,” I said, grinning as I took another sip of my drink, “technically, it was the dietary ready meals that his wife had invested in that was causing me to throw up, but basically, yes. My therapist’s advice resulted in prolonged food poisoning and me thinking I was pregnant.”

“My God,” Jill grinned, beaming, “pregnancy scares are terrifying. George, buy us both a drink.”

“I’m not following the logic.”

“You’ve never had a pregnancy scare!” Jill said emphatically, downing the dregs of her pint and placing her glass down on that bar with a satisfying ‘clink.’ I grinned and finished mine off in turn, wondering whether it always felt this good to be sharing scary near-pregnancy stories over a pint (or several) with people you genuinely considered as friends.

“Pregnancy scare,” George sad, “Jill, you have children.”

“And the pregnancy bit was definitely scary.”

“So what did James do?” George asked, dutifully catching the barman’s attention with a ‘same again’ which would lead to me consuming more than the planned amount of alcohol for the evening – but it was nice, really, and I was greatly enjoying myself.

“Well,”

“It’s never a good sign,” Jill said thoughtfully, “a well.”

“Did he flip out?”

“Well it was a bit more complicated than that,” I conceded, biting my lip slightly, “it had been… quite a bad couple of weeks, see, so I wasn’t entirely sure – ”

“Multiple potential fathers?” George said, raising an eyebrow and grinning.  It was nice that there were these people who liked to talk about these things with me and found me amusing. I’d always been a bit of a joke, but it was nice to have a group of people to whom I could play up the joke aspect to things.

“Max?” Jill breathed, her fingers tightening around the glass of her pint as our next lot of drinks arrived.  Her expression tightened slightly.

“Yeah,” I said, “and -”

“- and?”

“Oh my god! Three potential fathers!”

“Please,” I said, shaking my head slightly, “it really doesn’t bare thinking about. And I was completely clueless in regards to a time scale.”  

“Merlin,” George said, “so, how did James take that?”

“Well, he was quite nice about it really,” I admitted, remembering the feeling of his closing his hand over my hand and the really rather sweet declaration of sticking by me – not that I exactly believed him. But I believed that he had every intention of following through on his promise, which was much more than anyone else in the world would have done, and although I imagined if there’d been a real life baby and a whole case of confused paternity to deal with he would have ended up resenting me and slunk away in the middle of the night. But there was no baby, no drama, no extra complication; and he’d tried to mean it, “Although it’s fairly easy to mean that sort of thing when it’s still a fanciful idea rather than… you know, a screaming yelling crapping thing.”

“Spoken like someone with true maternal instincts.”

“Please,” I said, shaking my head, “I’ve got to be one of the few people so ill-suited to motherhood that… well, I can’t even take care of myself. Hell, the number of plants I’ve managed to kill quite clearly shows how much I should avoid all responsibility over living things.”

“Nah,” Jill said, with a touch of glumness in her voice, “you’d have worked it out. As much as you like to claim otherwise, Grace, you’re quite the touch cookie – you’d have been okay.”

I blinked slightly. I think I’d needed that injection of confidence. Ever since that sudden renewed moment of emptiness after reading the result of that damn pregnancy test and then the tears that had come out of nowhere… well, as much as I’d been assuring everyone that it was for the best and that it was a good thing because I’d be hopeless, it was something different entirely to have someone believe in me.

It was another question of the hypothetical, but Jill didn’t think I’d be a terrible mother. Or at least liked me enough (and trusted me to not be insane enough to purposefully get pregnant) to lie.

“Plus,” George said, raising his glass, “he’d have had the best god father.”  

“To Grace,” Jill said, smiling, “who might be unemployed and sort of single and not pregnant, but who is young and free and not drunk enough!”

“- sort of single?” I questioned, clinking my glass against hers with a grin and taking a gulp of drink.

“To Grace,” George agreed, “who is an utter nut case, an awful flirt and a great addition to our regular alcohol-outings.”

“I am wonderful at flirting.”

“To Grace,” Jill finished, “who really needs a new therapist.”

“I’ll drink to that,” I said, clinking my glass for a third time and downing half of my vodka and coke with a distinct grin. “Cheers.”

*

For some god awful reason I was stuck sitting next to Cherry for the bloody christening, the god awful reason being that Cherry and Dave had named me as godmother. Well, one of many godmothers – I was so far from next in line that it would take a serious bout of plague or a natural disaster for to be even remotely possible for me to end up as a guardian for the child, but the thought was there all the same.

Uncle Eddie tapped my shoulder. I turned around and squinted at him, trying my very best not to look like the sort of person who’d been at the pub until two in the morning (we’d been buying so many drinks it had been financially viable for them to push back last orders by an hour and a half, which was just brilliant) and then tried to drunk phone James Potter, got the number wrong and ordered a Chinese to a random house in derby.

“How’s your love life, Gracie?” Uncle Eddie asked, which was an interesting question but not one I wanted to think about until I’d drank at least another litre of water and slept for over a week.

Sprog One shushed him and told him the service was about to start. I’d forgotten how much I loved children.

“Are you hungover?” Dave asked, looking amused as he slide across the pew to talk to me. Cherry was now trying to calm the baby by walking up and down the aisle. I think I’d probably missed that by closing my eyes and concentrated on not feeling sick.

“I wanted to set a standard for the sort of godmother I intend to be,” I said, glancing up at him, “so yes, very much so, and I intend to be the relative that provides the alcohol for underage drinking,” Dave grinned, “but not until he’s at least fourteen.” I added.

“Uncle Eddie will be so disappointed.”

“Uncle Francis is the one that used to slip me Firewhiskey.”

“Says a lot,” Dave said, “how’s the job search going?”

“I’m having issues with references,” I sighed, “as soon as I’ve finished the refresher courses my teacher will be able to give me a reference, and that’s not going to be for a little while. Damn Max.” Dave gave a sympathetic shrug, but I think he still felt a bit awkward about the fact that I’d been sleeping with his boss. “Noah,” I said, as Cherry walked back up the aisle with Noah held close to her chest, “have you considered the number of two by two jokes, Dave?”

“S’okay,” Dave said, moving away so Cherry could sit back in her case, “we’ve got a therapist in the family.”

Uncle Francis was currently talking to Nana Josaphine about incontinence pants.  

I pressed a thumb to my forehead and silently gave up on the lot of them. Bloody crazy, the lot of them.

*

“Hullo,” I said, smiling as I pressed the phone against my neck and glanced up to the ceiling.

“Gracie!” James said, sounding either half surprised or excited or relieved or confused all at once. Oops. That was definitely my fault. I tried to find an appropriate reaction to this within my repertoire: somewhere in between being cold and uncaring, and internally attacking myself for being idiotic.

“Sorry,” I said, “didn’t mean to leave it so long before calling you. Things have been pretty mad.”

“The wildly busy life of the unemployed?”

“That’s the one,” I said, smiling, “look, want to go out for dinner?”

“Like a date?” James said down the other end of the phone. I resisted laughing at that, although I smiled a little – same old James and same lack of subtlety. Good job, too. Enough things in my life were changing without factoring in James going absolutely crazy too.

“Well, that depends on whether you pay or not.”

“Don’t let Jill catch you talking like that,” James said as I got up to pour myself a drink – stretching the phone line to the maximum point – “she’ll be holding another protest. You’re dismissing the work of hundreds of years of hard core feminists by upholding androcentric ideas.”

“Christ, I introduce you to Jill once and - ”

“- I liked meeting your friends,” James said, “but it doesn’t change my earlier point – ”

“You’re not paying because you’re a man,” I countered, “you’re paying because you’re an international Quidditch star, you dolt, and I’m an unemployed skint person doing elementary magic courses in the hope of one day getting a job which doesn’t involve making coffee.”

“Heard anything back from the coffee restaurant then?”

“Yes,” I said, grumpily, “and they don’t want me either. Nor the muggle cinema.”

“Shame,” James said, “I fancied the free popcorn.”

“Do you know what popcorn is, Potter?”

“I’m not entirely sure,” James admitted, “how was the christening?”

“Oh, you know,” I said, “There was a baby. It wore white. They threw water over it and it cried. Several people nearly died of shock when I was pronounced as God mother. My Uncle Francis started crying when he realised I hadn’t gone out for a fag break throughout the whole of the little gathering afterwards and my Mum told him he was being embarrassing and to stop making a scene. My Dad hadn’t realised I smoked. So, pretty eventful in the end. I read about you friendly against India.”

“Oh dear,” James said, “think I’m losing my touch, Gracie.”

“Well, I thought so too,” I quipped, “you looked better at your last game. But the nitwit who wrote about it was all full of praises. I think it was the girl who got promoted from snogalicious. Well, they had to really… after Jill’s protest which got that section shut down.”

“Max lost his job yet?” James grinned.

“No,” I said, leaning back, “but I think highlighting a couple more areas of sexism in the Quidditch section of the paper and he’ll have to go. She really is quite tenacious.”

“I like her.”

“Should I be jealous?” I grinned.

“Always, Gracie,” James smiled, “I missed you. You should have called.”

“Phone works both ways, Potter,” I said, “and you’ve been in bloody India for a week. Pretty sure I can’t afford international phone bills. Not that I can really afford any bills but, well, not the point really.”

“You free tonight?”

“I have homework,” I admitted, grimacing, “oh dear, never thought I’d say that again. Tomorrow, though? Maybe. I’ll just…” I paused, reaching out for the place I’d been trying to keep storing my wand to prevent the continual cycle of losing my wand, finding it, putting it in a safe place and then losing it all over again. I’d been late to my Magic Classes four times thanks to not being able to find my wand (which was, apparently, essential for this magic stuff). “James, where’s my wand?”

“I can honestly tell you I have no idea.”

“Oh… Oh, shit.”

“What?”

“I was… oh, crap, James I was getting my chicken out of the freezer for dinner and then two pieces were stuck together so I was using my wand to separate them and then I… well, I dropped my wand in the freezer and I figured I’d get it in a minute but then I forgot why the freezer was open and… James, James I think I’ve frozen my wand.”

The sound of James laughing down the other end of the phone wasn’t exactly surprising and I found my own lips twisting up into a smile as I left the phone on the side and tugged the freezer draw open.

“James,” I called to the phone, “it’s frozen to the bottom of the bloody freezer draw!”

My attempts at wrenching it free only succeeded in sending me falling backwards onto my arse, swearing a lot and hearing James laugh harder down the other end of the bloody phone.

I picked it up again and sighed.

“Be helpful or I’ll hang up,” I said irritably, “I need my damn wand.”

“How do you usually defrost things?”

“With my wand.”

“That’s ironic,” James grinned, “how much is in the freezer draw?”

“Most of the food I own,” I admitted miserably, “and it’s… it’s pretty frozen.”

“I’ll come over,” James declared, sounding all too happy about the idea, “damsel in distress and all.”

“It’s hardly a dragon slaying moment,” I told the dial tone, “it’s just… Fuck James why do you always have to practically apparate on top of me it’s not funny. Stop laughing at me.”

“It’s not like I know where you’re going to be standing, Gracie. I’m just a good guesser.” James said, walking over to the freezer, peering in then bursting into laughter.  “That is very frozen.”

“Do wands work after they’ve been defrosted?”

“Interesting question,” James said, catching my eye for a second. Then we were both laughing for a few minutes straight, with James’s hand reaching for my arm to support himself.  Or, more likely, just because he could, “We could defrost the whole draw and cook a lot of food?” James suggested, his lips still twitching upwards.

“I bet you made me freeze my wand on purpose so you could come over.” I complained.

“It is a time and tested method. I should have known you’d recognise it. You know how this could have been prevented?” James suggested lightly, drawing out his own wand and taping it experimentally against my frozen wand. Nothing exploded, so that was always a bonus. “You should have just defrosted both pieces of chicken and invited me over for dinner.”

I looked up at him over the draw of the freezer.  If anyone were to walk into my apartment now they would likely be quite confused about the whole thing – both of us crouched next to the freezer over a bit of wood that was frozen to the bottom of the freezer, looking at each a little too seriously for the given situation.

“Didn’t mean to ignore you.”

“That’s all right then,” James said, shutting the freezer ceremoniously, half crawling across the floor to minimise the space between us and kiss me against the bottom half of the kitchen cabinets (and thus, there is proof that romance isn’t quite dead yet;  James was still able to happily wound the concept at will), “next time, you’re coming to bloody India or wherever it is with me.”

“As your partner?” I questioned, to which James responded by kissing me again. Insert Snogalicious moment here. Tingles etc.

“Course not,” James said, “as my bloody translator.”

“Better hope it’s somewhere in Europe then.”

“Better hope it’s somewhere that speaks English,” James said, curling his hand around my waist and half pinning me to the floor. The door of the kitchen counter – the one that always came open of its own accord – shut again thanks to the extra pressure, “or else we’re screwed.”

“My French is passable,” I returned, my fingers twisting in the material of his robes – and with me leaning forwards slightly to do so the cupboard door opened again behind me – “better than yours.”

James kissed me again. The cupboard door shut. I wrapped my arms around his neck. The cupboard door opened.

“God that’s annoying,” I muttered, “and James, this isn’t very dignified.”

“No,” James admitted, grinning, “but you’re not very dignified, your name is quite clearly a misnomer and we need to work out how to defrost your wand so you can do your homework.”

“- this isn’t helping.” I pointed out, running a hand through his infernally and eternally messy hair feeling slightly better about the whole thing. The whole ‘partner’ comment had slipped out without me really meaning it to, because after everything our relationship seemed to just happen all at once.

We flirted a bit. We’d gone out for dinner, I’d stayed over at his (for three days straight, but we didn’t need to talk about that), we’d had coffee. I took him to the pub to meet Jill and George. Lily turned up at his apartment bright one morning and found me eating breakfast in his old Quidditch kit. I was dragged along to Quidditch matches.

We hadn’t precisely talked about any of it, because part of me still thought that it might be too soon for an actual relationship and the other part of me didn’t care. It had just happened. And I liked it.

“On the contrary,” James said, his nose brushing against mine for a second, “I’m finding it all very helpful.”

Maybe I was bordering on twenty nine and was still unemployed, unmarried and utterly childless. Not quite single, but instead semi-committed to a bloke who used to bully me and still believed it was his fault our fellow classmate had taken her life (not in a position I’d ever envisioned when thinking about the future). Not quite friendless, with a motley crew of individuals who were all quite strange and quite inappropriate for friendship material and drank far too much. And maybe the only thing I had to show for my whole life was a bunch of stories I’d scribbled down when trying to ignore the nicotine cravings, but there were some damn good stories.

Maybe I wasn’t there quite yet.

But, give it a couple of months, I’m sure it’ll all fall into place.





I can't believe I'm saying this... but, yeah, this is the end. Wow. I think I'm going to miss Gracie and you guys, but thanks for reading! For the longest time this was my least reviewed, least read, personal next gen story... but I'm so glad for all the support this has gotten from you guys (especially in the past year)! I've loved writing about Grace and her journey and it's been an hour to share in this with other people. There are a few bits and pieces that I have written more but this seemed like the right place to end, so here we go. Hopefully you like the ending :)

A special thank you to Liz for reading this over for me, to my flatmate Alice who reads this story (!!) and to Hanzi for loving Gracie as much as I do.

Thank you all of you! You're lovely and wonderful :)

-AC

 


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