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Chapter Four
The Remembrance of an Incredibly Altered Memory


Though my parents have never told me, I’m pretty sure the first time I walked on my own, I ran headfirst into a wall.

The first time I kissed a boy, I accidentally bit his lip so hard, he started bleeding.

When I lost my virginity - well, we won’t even get into that one. I don’t want to scar you for the rest of your natural life.

Anyway, I think it’s suffice to say that I’ve established that I’m not the most graceful person on the face of this planet, and I never have been. I was born with two left feet and a tied tongue, cursed to forever walk at a slight slant to the right and say incredibly stupid things at incredibly important times.

This was an incredibly important time and I had just blown it.

Epically.

Like, not even the fucking Big Bang could rival how epically I’d blown it.

It wasn’t entirely unexpected of me to say something stupid, considering all of the trouble my tongue had gotten me into as a teenager, but even I was shocked when the words fell from my lips. I hadn’t expected for my boldness to actually come forth.

Apparently, neither had James.

His hazel eyes widened in surprise, and his mouth fell open ever so slightly. The smile disappeared from his face, replaced by a sombre, ridiculously stiff line that was so tight, it could’ve rivalled McGonagall’s infamous Lip Purse. He cleared his throat in what I assumed was an attempt to break the thick blanket of awkward ice that had formed between us, but naturally, he was unsuccessful. He shifted his weight from his right leg to his left one and removed one of his hands from its pocket to run it through his hair. I resisted the urge to charge forward and slap his hand away; it was one of his more annoying habits that he exhibited only when he was embarrassed or extremely uncomfortable.

I imagined that he was feeling a peculiar mixture of both, just like I was. At least I hoped he was. He deserved to after what he’d put me through. What you’d put each other through, some vague part of my subconscious reminded me, but I quickly shoved it aside. Now was not the time to contemplate the consequences of my decision to hide my pregnancy from James, though something deep in my gut told me that the consequences would very soon reveal themselves.

“Your mum owled me,” James blurted randomly.

I blinked at him, confused. “Why would my mum owl you?”

He gave me a look. “Did you really just ask that question, Mara?”

My heart gave a pathetic little pitter-patter against my ribcage. It’d been much too long since I’d heard my name on his lips, the last time being right after he came. I quickly shook the image of James’s face, clumps of dark brown hair clinging to his sweaty forehead, the smoky lust clouding his eyes, and an unbelievably satisfied smirk gracing his swollen mouth, knowing that such thoughts would do me absolutely no good at all. Except get me pregnant with another one of James’s children. Which, obviously, I didn’t want to happen since he didn’t even know about the first one.

When I didn’t answer, he continued, “When I received word that Granny Gus had died, I caught the first Portkey out of Algeria to get here for her funeral.”

“You weren’t at the service,” I snapped, upturning my chin.

The corner of his mouth quirked upward. “You were looking for me?”

Shit, shit, shit! I wasn’t supposed to say that out loud!

This was yet another prime example as to how I found myself in bizarre situations on a nearly daily basis - it was because I couldn’t control what I say. Early on in life, I discovered that I possessed no filter between my brain and my mouth whatsoever. And as you can tell, the lack of said filter was constantly landing me smack in the middle of problematic scenarios.

“No, I wasn’t. Gin - I mean, your mum apologized for you not being able to make it,” I lied, cutting my eyes toward him. “She said that it was your busy Quidditch schedule and that you were in. . .”

“Algeria,” he supplied when I trailed off, leaving him to fill in the blank like some beyond weird game of Mad Libs.

“Right, Algeria. So,” I said after a brief huff. “That’s why I knew you weren’t at the service. Because your mum told me that you probably wouldn’t be able to make it, not because I was looking for you.”

He rocked back on his heels awkwardly. Scratched the side of his neck. “I see you’ve picked up your gran’s habit of being brutally honest regardless of the situation,” James commented dryly.

“Yeah, well, this is a day of remembrance,” I replied stiffly, tucking my hair behind my ear and sorely wishing that I had a drink in my hand to knock back.

“And I’m assuming you’re trying to keep her memory alive by illustrating certain aspects of her personality?”

“You assume correctly.”

“Somehow I think she’s going to be a little disappointed,” he retorted, a sly, shit-eating grin consuming his lips. His tone might’ve been light and joking, but still, the words stung.

My eyes narrowed to their own accord in a fiery glare as I crossed my arms over my chest, one hip cocked out to the side. In my mind’s eye, I saw an eerily familiar projection of my mother standing in the middle of the living room, throwing daggers at me for breaking curfew yet again. And they marvelled that a supposedly responsible girl like me got knocked up by her best friend. Yeah, because no one saw that one coming.

The smile disappeared as quickly as it had cemented itself to his face. “I’m just going to go out on a limb here and venture that that wasn’t the best thing I could’ve said, was it?”

I shook my head once. “No. Somehow I don’t think it was.”

“Oh, come on, Mara,” he began, an oddly desperate note to his voice. “I’m just trying to break this. . .” he gestured wildly between us, waving his arms up and around. It was quite the comical sight.

“Incredibly stifling awkwardness between us?” I offered nonchalantly.

I watched as his entire body heave a mighty sigh of relief, the tension all but disappearing from his shoulders. What I wouldn’t give to be able to relax at the drop of a hat. If anything, the ease in which he switched from tense to perfectly relaxed was quite disconcerting and made me wonder if I had abnormally high stress levels or if Granny Gus was right and he just didn’t give a shit about anything.

“So, I’m not the only one who feels it?” James hedged, an oddly hopeful glimmer in his eyes.

“No,” I assured him, chuckling to myself. Merlin, now would be a wonderful time for my mother to materialise in the doorway with a nice glass of fire whisky in her hand. “Definitely not.”

His eyes danced with an excitement so familiar, it was almost foreign. It didn’t make much sense, but despite the fact I could recognise that mischievous glint in his eyes anywhere, the initial feeling that something - and I mean something big - was out of place about his general being came screeching back to me. I cocked my head to the side, hoping that maybe it was my equilibrium that was throwing off my James vibe and not the actual man himself.

“That’s good to hear,” he muttered loud enough that I was able to hear him. When I quirked my brow in question, he quickly rectified his statement. “Well, obviously I’m not glad that things are weird and tense and all that other shit between us, but -”

“I know what you mean, James,” I cut him off, sparing him the misery and humiliation of having to explain his feelings in words. Like me, he was all but incapable of expressing his feelings through words; we were both very physical people and our son was proof of that.

My favourite crooked smile took residence on his handsome face, the dimple in his left cheek making itself known after being gone for so long. I hadn‘t realised how much I had missed it until then. “You always did.”

“Still do,” I corrected, fighting off the frown.

Why was he speaking in past tense?

I mean, sure, we haven’t talked in almost a year and a half, but that was only because things had become extremely complicated between us. After all, it wasn’t every day that your best mate in the entire universe surprises you in a foreign country, offering a rare reminder that you weren’t crazy and the people you left behind hadn’t forgotten about you. It wasn’t every day that said friend insisted on experiencing an authentic night on the town and the pair of you end up getting so drunk of a combination of margaritas and shots of tequila. And I’m almost certain it wasn’t every day that you decided to throw all caution to the wind and wave off the repercussions that sleeping with your best friend would cause, and just go for it.

Had he stopped considering me his best mate after he’d slept with me or after we had stopped contacting one another? Though if I may, it was James who stopped returning my letters; I wasn’t the one who gave up all together. I tried to salvage what our friendship to the best of my ability, but I guess it wasn’t enough. Of course, by that point in time I realised that I was pregnant with my best friend’s son and decided that it probably wasn’t best that I keep in contact with him because if he had the nerve to leave without so much as a goodbye, then why the hell would he care about a kid?

As scared as I was of James and all of the memories and drama and potential conflicts he brought with him, a part of me - and a rather large one at that - still considered him to be my best friend in the entire world. I couldn’t imagine myself without James; sure, we hadn’t talked to each other in a prolonged amount of time, but I was one of those firm believers that if a friendship is true, it can stand the test of time. Perhaps James just didn’t share my enthusiasm.

I coughed into my fist awkwardly.

“So,” I drawled, looking over his shoulder at the witches and wizards milling about the living room. It was strange, even though there were others only feet away from us, it felt as though James and I were the only people around for miles and miles. I was half-tempted to pull my wand out of my pocket and Summon a glass of liquid confidence for myself, but James prevented me from doing so.

“So,” he parroted, his hands returning to his pockets. “How’s training been going for you? All right, I hope?”

“I completed my training over a month and a half ago,” I informed him, unable to hide the self-pride in my voice.

“Really? That’s good to hear,” James replied over-conversationally. A line appeared between his eyes and his bottom lip warbled to the side. “If you completed your training, then why did you stay in Panama? The last time - I mean, you always said that you would catch the first Portkey out of there.”

“I stayed because I loved the weather.” The expression on James’s face was enough to make me laugh aloud. “I’m yanking your wand, James. You know that - well, I hated the weather there. It was too bloody hot.”

“So why’d you stay?”

He sounded genuinely curious now, not like he was trying to destroy any chances of awkward silence settling between us like he had been.

“Some of the local Curse Breakers had found an old Aztec temple in southeast Mexico. They wanted a few extra hands and I volunteered to go up with them alongside a few of my other colleagues. I wanted the experience,” I added at an afterthought as soon as I saw his mouth fall open ever-so-slightly.

“Oh. Well, did you last any mummies to rest?”

I rolled my eyes, not bothering to correct him. “No,” I said, smoothing an invisible wrinkle on my blouse. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to.”

“Why not?” James asked, an eerily familiar note of teasing in his voice. “Did you chicken out like you did when we snuck out of the castle to spend the night in the Shrieking Shack to make good on the bet we made with Julian Smith?”

I gasped in mock-shock. “I did not chicken out!”

“If I remember correctly, you totally did.”

An unattractive snort escaped me before I could hold it back. “Your memory’s shot to hell because I have absolutely no idea whatsoever what you’re talking about. Obviously, you’ve taken one too many Bludgers to the head, Potter.”

He threw his head back and laughed. It was the second best sound in the world, the first being my own son’s laugh. I’d always loved hearing James laugh; he had such a rich, smooth laugh that was seriously infectious. If you were in the vicinity of James when he found something particularly amusing, there was no use in trying to stifle your life, for it was one of the most unfeasible feats in existence.

“I’ll agree that I’ve taken one too many Bludgers to the head, Longbottom,” he replied, pushing a calloused hand through his hand casually. “But it hasn’t altered my memory at all. If anything, I think it was that Panamanian heat that’s corrupted your memory of the evening in question.”

I laughed and shook my head. “Oh, no, no, no. I wasn’t the one who chickened out. I might’ve been the one who screamed and sprinted all the way back to the castle, but you were the one who was second-guessing our decision all the way down to the Whomping Willow.”

“Me? Second-guessing a decision to sneak out of the castle?” James sounded absolutely appalled by the mere suggestion of such a ridiculous notion, and he let me know that. “I am absolutely appalled by the mere suggestion of such a ridiculous notion.” I’m sure if he had long hair, he would have flung it over his shoulder haughtily and upturned his nose at me. Instead, he lifted his chin in defiance. “I was the one who made the bet with Smith in the first place, so why would I second-guess it?”

I assumed my best Hannah-Longbottom-is-Absolutely-Pissed stance and raised an eyebrow in what I hoped was a threatening manner. “So you don’t remember saying ‘Mara, this was stupid. I think we should go back‘ ?”

“No. I mean, yes, I remember saying those words, but not because I was scared,” James responded.

My brow furrowed in confusion. “Why did you say that then if you weren’t scared?”

“Because you were clinging to my arm so tightly that you were cutting off my circulation and shaking like a leaf on a tree,” he reasoned.

I tried not to let my shock for such a kind sentiment show on my face. “Only because it was the middle of bloody January and I had forgotten my cloak on my bed!” I argued, hoping that I had disguised my expression thoroughly. “I wasn’t scared at all.”

It was his turn to cross his arms over his chest defensively and raise an eyebrow in question. If he was aiming to be intimidating, he’d hit his target right in the center. Obviously, I had. “Then the why hell did you scream?”

I threw my hands up in exasperation. “Because you jumped about a metre in the air!”

“So you shrieked at the top of your lungs and took off toward the castle?”

“If I remember correctly, you followed in much of the same manner!”

“I didn’t shriek at the top of my lungs!”

“Sure, you might not have screamed at the top of your lungs, James, but I distinctly remember that you passed me right up and ran all the way up to the common room, not once looking over your shoulder to see if I was all right.”

James must’ve heard the timbre of hurt in my words because his arms fell away from his chest, fell to his sides. His hazel eyes found mine, and I saw that they were full of a pitiful mixture of disbelief and realisation; the realisation that he had acted like an idiotic, exceedingly arrogant bastard that night.

“Oh,” he muttered, breaking eye contact with me to stare at his feet. It was only a moment before he looked up at me again. “Well, if it’s any consolation to you, I’m sorry for acting like an arse.”

“It’s okay, James,” I assured him, laying a hand on his shoulder without realising it.

When my fingers fell over the familiar curve of his shoulder, felt the chords of still-tense muscle underneath my fingertips, my eyes widened and I pulled back. My entire arm burned as if it had been dipped into a vat of boiling hot water, and I shook the blistering pain from my hand. I glanced at James to see if he had felt it too. Apparently, he had: he was massaging a small circle on the precise spot where my hand had been.

It was ridiculous and clichéd, the intimate heat that passed between us at the faintest touch, but it was real. It existed. Tearing my eyes away from James, I averted my attention to my hand and turned it over, inspecting it for blisters.

Once we recovered, our eyes met again. We laughed uneasily.

“That was. . .” he trailed off.

“Yeah,” I agreed, tucking my still-warm hand against my side to staunch the random, invisible prickles dancing across my palm and making me want to itch it.

Once again, a stiflingly awkward silence passed between us in which neither of us could bear to so much as look at the other. I lowered my gaze to my blouse, smoothing non-existent wrinkles and picking at imaginary lint. James stared at the unique painting on the opposite wall near the window, though it was easy to see that he wasn’t interested in Luna Scamander’s inventive paintings that adorned the walls of the peculiar house.

Whether it was because the silence had finally gotten to him or he was desperate to talk about himself - I had a feeling it was the former opposed to the latter; James might’ve been arrogant from time to time, but he wasn’t that self-interested - he caved.

“Quidditch has been going well,” he commented as though I had just pointed out the odd cloud formation outside the window.

“Oh, really? I haven’t been able to follow it since I’ve been working so much,” I replied. Immediately, I realised that my comment could be misconstrued as condescending. For some reason, a good majority of witches and wizards, most of them older, thought that a professional Quidditch player wasn’t much of a job at all, that it was an excuse to joke around day in and day out. I used to believe that until James was placed on the reserve team for Puddlemere United. He had since switched to the Chudley Cannons and they had been kicking arse and taking names ever since.

“Last I heard,” I continued, licking my lips and doing the Awkward Shuffle. “You guys beat Russia?”

A wide, proud smile consumed his mouth and I found my heart skipping a beat. It had been so long since I had seen that smile - it may have been one of the many smiles James had in his arsenal, but it was the only one he used when talking about his life-long love, Quidditch.

“We didn’t beat Russia, Mara,” James informed me. “We pulverised them.”

“Final score?”

“Three hundred and fifty to ten,” he answered back, all but glowing from the memory of their victory.

“Wow,” I whistled, letting an appreciative smirk dance briefly on my lips. “That’s impressive. Was your Seeker having an off day or was it an unanimous decision to humiliate the Russians?”

“Wilson? No, he was perfectly fine. Actually, their Seeker was quite good, but every time they chased after the Snitch, it disappeared.”

“That’s odd,” I remarked.

“Yeah, it was,” James agreed with a bob of his head. “The refs suspected foul play, but neither of the coaches made all that big of a deal of it, so they let it go. The only reason why we won by so big of a margin is because their Chasers were horrible.”

“Just how horrible were they?” I asked, recalling the old game we used to play as kids to see who could come up with the most inventive analogy. The last time we’d played it, we were on our fourth margarita and listening to the band play at the bar.

It was obvious from James’s response that he hadn’t caught onto what I was trying to communicate. I blame selective hearing. “Do you remember the match against Canada?” When I didn’t answer immediately, he ploughed on, launching himself into a long anecdote of the match against Canada before he remembered the initial vein of our conversation and switched back to the match against Russia, describing nearly every play.

While I was particularly interested in the nitty, gritty details, I basked in the warmth emanating from him. His face was alight as he spoke, he gestured wildly with his hands as he tried to demonstrate the various stunts he and his fellow Chasers, Mulroney and Boone, had pulled. His expressions were comical, to say the very least, and I found myself laughing despite the fact I wasn’t truly paying attention to the words falling from his lips. James had just reached the climax of his story when Mum appeared in the doorway.

“Mara, are you -” she stopped talking the moment her eyes landed on James. Her blue eyes turned to me and she raised a questioning eyebrow as she glanced back and forth between us. She had a suggestive look on her face. I hadn’t realised until Mum had pointed it out with said look that James and I had situated ourselves on the couch and were sitting so close together, our knees were very nearly touching. “Oh,” Mum said, her cheeks colouring as a glimmer of hope welled in her eyes. “Well -”

I was surprised at how quickly James rose to his feet and strode toward my mother. “Mrs. Longbottom!” he exclaimed happily, enveloping her in a warm embrace.

She gasped in shock. “Um,” she pat him once on the back and stepped out of his arms, tilting her head back to look up at him. “Hello, James. I didn’t know you were here.”

“I almost didn’t make it, but I convinced my trainer to let me leave,” he explained. Keeping his hands on her elbows, he stepped back to look over her once. After his eyes completed their overdramatic journey, he whistled. “Wow, Mrs. L, you look great.”

Once again, Mum’s cheeks turned a bright, rosy red and she chuckled sheepishly. “Oh, James. I don’t look that good.”

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Mum had always been taken by James’s sweet charms and had hoped that we would end up together. I couldn’t even begin to count the number of times that she had claimed James and I would end up falling desperately in love with each other, get married, and have at least six children. Each and every time she did, James and I had snorted in amusement, told her to keep on dreaming yet her response was always the same. ‘I will’, she had said defiantly, placing her hands on her hips. Unfortunately for my poor mum, things hadn’t turned out that way. Sure, we had a child, one that James most certainly did not know about, but we weren’t in love, we weren’t married, and I highly doubted that another child, much less five more, would follow Jack.

She had wanted a fairy-tale romance for her daughter, but she had gotten a stereotypical result of an innocent weekend turned horribly guilty. Wasn’t I the daughter of the century?

Before James could respond, however, another person entered the sitting room. Upon their head was that ridiculous hat that I’d seen floating around the living room, flitting to person to person to engage in conversation. Much to chagrin, they were holding my son in their arms, their head bent and cooing at him. My son, who looked entirely too blissful for his own good. I vaguely wondered if Mum had gone against her promise and had given him the strawberry flavoured formula. She had never been able to resist a baby face. I knew from experience.

“What in the name of,” James said at the two new arrivals, clearly surprised. “Um, Sophie, why are you holding a baby?”

Sophie? Who was - oh! That was the faceless woman’s name, wasn’t it? But then, how did James know her? Perhaps she was a friend of his family’s that had come to pay her respects to my grandmother?

When the woman in question lifted her head, I had to hold back a gasp. She was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen in my entire life. Her honey blonde hair cascaded down her shoulders, stopping somewhere near her elbows, in big, bouncy waves. Her eyes were an intense mixture of blue and green, piercing yet oddly gentle. She had a cupid’s bow mouth, her bottom lip full and pouty. To top it all off, she had an hourglass figure, completely with perfectly rounded breasts, a trim waist, and full hips.

This - this was Sophie!? A feeling of dread sank in my stomach like a lead bullet in water at the swirl of thoughts that spiralled through my brain. Obviously, this woman was not a family friend - family friends didn’t look like that! Family friends looked like me, average looking with a little extra baggage around the middle.

“Because, James,” the goddess herself began, batting her eyelashes coquettishly. Or maybe that’s how she blinked, all sexy and definitely not like any mortal woman I knew. Also, she had an American accent. “I’ve been waiting nearly an hour and a half to hold him; he’s been passed around from person to person like a hot potato or something.”

I was standing next to Mum now, blindly grasping for her hand, but it was out of reach. I cursed, hoping against all hope that I wouldn’t crack and blurt out something ridiculous.

“Oh, well,” James paused, blinked, and then shrugged. “I guess that’s all right. He’s a cute little bugger, isn’t he?” He leaned forward to peer into Jack’s face, a finger extended. “Hey, little guy,” he said, a smile lighting up his face as Jack wrapped his fat fist around his index finger. James made the motion of shaking someone’s hand, which made Jack giggled.

My heart nearly burst out of my chest at the sight. I had to bite down hard on my tongue to prevent myself from awing. This was the first time James had ever met his son, and he was acting the way any father would when greeting their chid for the first time. Except that James had no idea that this was his kid.

He straightened up, but didn’t pull his finger out of Jack’s grasp. “He’s a cutie,” he remarked, looking directly at Sophie. “What’s his name?”

“It’s Jack,” I blurted before I could stop myself.

James looked over his shoulder at me. “How do you know that?”

“I know,” I answered, knowing that it was pointless to skirt around the issue, especially since I had three people staring at me like I was the sacrifice for some freaky village of satanic people things. I resisted the temptation to cross the room and take my son out of the beautiful blonde's arms. I took a deep breath, fearing the worst. “Because he’s mine.”

Mum groaned, letting her head fall into her waiting hands. So that was why I hadn’t been able to find it.

His hazel eyes widened. “He’s yours?!” he exclaimed. “You can’t be serious!" When I didn't reply immediately, he pushed both of his hands through his thick hair, looking as though he had just seen a ghost. “Mara, what the hell? Why didn’t you tell me you had a baby?!”

I shrugged, averting my gaze elsewhere, to anything but James and the scandalised expression on his face. “You didn’t ask,” I said feebly.

He rolled his eyes. “I’m a man, Mara, you should know by now that I don’t ask those sort of questions. Besides,” he added as an afterthought. “I didn’t expect you to pop out a bloody kid since we last talked!”

I felt every muscle in my body go rigid. Dear Merlin, please, please, please don’t let him calculate the time between our last conversation and Jack’s approximate age. Fortunately, there was no inquisitive look on his face, only one of startled surprise.

“Well,” I said, searching for anything at all to say. Any way to take the attention away from myself and onto someone else's shoulders. My eyes landed on Sophie, who was looking insanely confused. “Who’s she?” I questioned, jerking my head in the blonde’s general direction.

The already-building knot in my stomach tightened considerably at the unexpected smile that graced his features. His arm around its way around her slim waist, and I found myself revolted by how charming they looked together, the three of them: James, Sophie, and Jack. To be completely honest, I wasn’t entirely that surprised when James uttered his next sentence, for I had been expecting it ever since she had entered the room and revealed her face, I had just hoped that it wasn’t true.

“This,” he said, another note of pride in his voice, as he pulled her closer to his side, “is Sophie.” She beamed up at him, all perfectly straight, white teeth with no gaps whatsoever. Bitch. “Sophie, this is Mara, my. . .best mate from Hogwarts,” he smiled at me, eyes twinkling. “And Mara, this is Sophie, my fiancé.”

And I thought things were already complicated enough between us.

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