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The Gryffindor common room was buzzing with post-Christmas gossip as people shared stories from their holidays and described their gifts in great detail.  The fire crackled cheerfully in the fireplace and I watched the flames dancing brightly as I slouched in a cushy armchair in the corner, but I couldn’t seem to get comfortable.  The cushions were too soft, or the fire too hot, or the voices around me too loud or excitable.  I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reason for my irritable mood, but I suspected it was related to the way I looked up at the portrait hole every time I heard it open, and the way my heart sunk a little when the person climbing through wasn’t Lucy.

I’d barely had a chance to speak to Lucy since she’d run off after her sister at the New Year’s Eve party.  There had been a brief moment on the train where I got to see her smile and talk to her long enough to determine she wasn’t mad at me, but all we’d managed to really say was ‘thank you’ for our respective Christmas presents.  I had hoped that we might get some time together before classes started again, but I supposed that without our study sessions I didn’t have much of an excuse to pin Lucy down.  Even now, she was nowhere to be seen, even though I knew she wasn’t with the other girls in our year.  Of course, I could have just asked Rose where Lucy was, but I was a bit over my cousin’s knowing smirks whenever Lucy came up.

“Hey Al, you hungry?” Will called out across the common room.  He was with Justin, Louis was nowhere to be seen.  It was early for lunch, and I wasn’t particularly hungry but I figured doing anything would be better than moping about in the common room.

“Sure,” I shrugged in reply and pushed myself out of the armchair in order to follow them. 

“So why are you looking so mopey today?” Will asked bluntly as we headed down a fight of stairs.

“I’m not mopey,” I responded; unconvincingly I assumed, from the raised eyebrows my two friends exchanged.

“Alright then, you’re not mopey,” Will shrugged.  “Hey did you read about the new keeper that the cannons have just signed on?”

“No,” I replied, unable to resist the sporting news.  During the boxing day match between the Chudley Cannons and the Wimbourne Wasps, the Cannon’s keeper had been struck in the head with a bludger and fallen off his broom.  Unbelievably, at the exact same moment, he was hit by a stray confundus charm from a somewhat drunk spectator in the stands, who was mucking around with his mates.  The result was that the poor bloke’s brain was a bit addled and made him do strange things like think he was a chicken.  Since the healers at St. Mungo’s were having a bit of difficulty fixing him, the Cannons had no choice but to find a new keeper mid-season.

“His name is Bradley Muller, he’s 23 and only ever played on his local team, but decided to try out when he heard about the accident.  Apparently he’s got lots of raw talent, and the word is that he could be the turn-around that the Cannons are looking for!” Will looked pretty excited by this news, even though he wasn’t a Cannon’s fan, but then again, most people felt kind of sorry for the team that hadn’t won a game in goodness knows how many years.

“I bet Uncle Ron will be excited about that,” I grinned.  The quidditch talk was enough to distract me through eating lunch, and by the time I’d finished off my second roast beef and turkey sandwich, I was feeling almost cheerful. 

“Hello lads!” Louis practically bounced over to us and plonked himself on the bench opposite me.  “Fantastic day, isn’t it?”

“What sort of potion have you been drinking?” I asked with a chuckle.  Louis is always a bit crazy, but this was over the top, even for him.

“Oh nothing, I’ve just been enjoying the lovely winter weather with an even lovelier companion.”

“Hawthorn,” Will and Justin both said with a nod, laughing at their identical responses.

“I may have just been for a walk with a very attractive member of our quidditch team, yes.”  Lious replied with mock indignation, but the glee on his face an in his voice was impossible to miss, and it brought my grumpy mood back with it.  Here was Louis, flitting around the school with Hawthorn without any trouble at all, and I couldn’t even find the girl I’d almost kissed only a few days earlier!

“I’m going to see Hagrid,” I announced, standing up and moving away from the table before my friends could respond.  I stomped across the great hall, not even bothering to go back upstairs to find my cloak or a scarf.  I was wearing a fairly warm jumper and I figured I could make it across the lawn to Hagrid’s hut, which was always toasty and inviting on a cold day.  Anyway, I was so frustrated at the whole situation with Lucy that I didn’t care if I did get frostbite or a cold; maybe she would turn up to visit me if I ended up in the hospital wing.

Where is she?  I thought to myself as I pulled open the vast wooden doors that led out to the front of the castle.  I stepped out in to the icy air and suddenly, like a vision of perfection, there she was!  I halted on the stone landing for a moment, letting the huge door crash shut behind me as I watched Lucy approach.  She was wearing a deep purple cloak over muggle clothes.  A blue scarf was wrapped around her neck, some of her beautiful brown hair was caught in it and she tugged it free as she climbed the steps.  Her eyes met mine, and suddenly the sun seemed to come out of nowhere and shine on us both, lifting the dark cloud that had been following me around all day.

“Bell!” I exclaimed, cringing internally at how overly excited I sounded.  Calm down Al, play it cool or she’ll think you’re the biggest dork since Malfoy’s grandad!

“Visiting Hagrid or sneaking into the Forest?” I teased, pulling my voice in to a more casual register.

“Hagrid,” She replied, and then put of a look of mock annoyance before adding, “And I resent the implication that I would break school rules by sneaking into the forest!”

“Sure you do,” I laughed.  “I’m headed that way myself, how’s the tea today?”  Tea?  Al, seriously, you’re asking about tea?

“Strong, but otherwise, not too bad.”  Lucy replied.

“Rock cakes?” I asked, pretending to wince because Hagrid’s rock cakes could break a tooth!

“Scones,” She said with a little smile that made me feel like I might trip over.

“Good thing I’ve just eaten lunch,” I laughed, and she smiled back at me, whether from amusement or pity, I wasn’t 100% sure.  I wanted more than anything to stand there and chat with Lucy for the rest of the afternoon, but I didn’t want to look to eager and desperate.  Leave her wanting more…isn’t that what they say?  Plus, my conversation was pretty pathetic so I decided it was best to cut and run.

I gave her a little awkward wave and continued towards Hagrid’s hut, when I was overcome with the urge to look at her one last time.  I glanced over my shoulder, and surprisingly she was still standing on the top step, looking at me, looking completely adorable as a few stray snowflakes fell around her.  At that moment, I don’t know what came over me, but it was if just seeing her caused my brain to malfunction and the words seemed to slip out of my mouth of their own accord.  “Get inside Bell, it’s freezing out here and you don’t want that cute little nose of yours getting frostbite!”

In the split second after I heard myself say those words, Lucy’s cheeks flushed a bright shade of red and her eyes widened slightly in surprise, a small, stunned smile frozen on her face.  I spun back around and hurried across the lawn, my own cheeks burning with embarrassment at what I’d just said.

Cute?  CUTE!?!?  Oh bloody hell Al, way to play it cool! 

I couldn’t believe how stupid I’d been, and Lucy was obviously embarrassed by the comment; the way she’d blushed and that sort of frozen, polite smile on her face.  Ugh!  I am such an idiot!  I tried to take a few deep breaths as I approached the slightly wonky wooden hut, knowing that Hagrid could be far too perceptive for my liking, and I’d already embarrassed myself enough for one day and that was more than enough for me.

“Rose, you are being ridiculous!  Of course I know your O.W.L’s are important, I’m kind of in the middle of studying for some rather significant exams myself.  But you have to ease up a bit and let Jane come to practice!”  James pleaded with Rose across the small wooden table in the common room.  Jane had come to quidditch training the night before with an announcement that our darling cousin had drawn up a revision timetable that didn’t allow for any extra-curricular activities – quidditch included.  James may have been in a moody haze about Lucy’s sister running off on him on New Year’s Eve, but even that wasn’t going to stop him captaining a good, strong Gryffindor team; and that team includes our brilliant keeper.

“Rose, I think maybe you could let up a little bit here,” I added in a gentler voice than James’, because my brother was beginning to look like he’d taken too much pepper-up potion; there was practically steam coming out of his ears.  “I want to do well in my O.W.L’s just as much as anyone does, but non-stop studying without a break to do other things or just relax, isn’t the way to go about it.  We are all going to need a bit of down time this term if we want to survive the pressure!”

Rose raised an eyebrow at me, and I knew straight away that she saw through my calm, measured argument.  Of course Quidditch mattered to me, and I wanted us  to win the cup this year, and of course that meant we needed Jane at training sessions, but my motivations weren’t really sports related.  As with everything in my life at the moment, my argument had everything to do with Lucy.  After our awkward encounter on the castle steps, Lucy seemed less elusive, and once classes started up again, I saw her several times a day, including our study sessions.  Maybe I was imagining things, but she seemed almost eager to spend time with me, and I had found myself beginning to wonder if I actually could make her fall in love with me, if I could just spend a bit more time with her.  But that precious one on one time was going to be threatened if Rose’s insane timetable was put into effect.  And of course, my darling, clever, pain-in-the-neck, know-it-all, best friend of a cousin was perfectly aware of my pathetic little plan.

“Fine,” she said, turning her eyes back to James.  “I will change the timetable so that they have time for Quidditch training and…other important activities.” Rose gave me a slight smirk as she said this and I would have jinxed her if I hadn’t worried it might make her change her mind again.

“Well thank Merlin for that!” James exclaimed with a smile, getting up from the table, leaving me with Rose and her infuriating smirk.

“You’re welcome,” She said.

“Oh shut up,” I snapped, but her responding laugh told me she understood my silent gratitude.

Fortunately, Rose’s obsession with O.W.L’s meant she didn’t have much time to nag and tease me about Lucy, something I was thankful for – most of the time.  Occasionally, I would have liked her insight into what Lucy was thinking, because I just couldn’t work her out.  Sometimes, I could almost convince myself that Lucy flirting with me, she would catch my eye across a classroom or the common room and smile in a way she didn’t seem to smile at anyone else.  One day, during a practical Charms lesson, I decided to try something out, to see if I could confirm my theory.

We were working on charming small objects to grow legs, so the classroom was pretty noisy and slightly chaotic, particularly when the teacup or ink pot someone was working on decided to jump off the table and go racing across the room.  I was working next to Louis, who was getting slightly frustrated with his rosebud teacup, which wouldn’t grow legs. 

“Stupid cup,” he muttered, poking it aggressively with his wand.  He grumbled the incantation again and suddenly, four short but thick legs sprouted out of the bottom of the cup.  Louis watched, stunned, as the cup stumbled on to its feet and seemed to stagger a little bit.  Then suddenly, it ran towards Louis, and with one of its stumpy little legs, kicked his hand.  “Ow!” Louis exclaimed, snatching angrily at the cup, but he missed, and it ran across the table, dodging between classmates.  “Why you rotten little…” Louis grumbled, dashing around the desk to try and catch it. 

Laughing, I glanced across the room and caught Lucy watching.  She smiled at me when our eyes met and I smiled back.  Then, before I could give it a second thought, I raised my hand and gave her a small wave.  I held my breath to see how she would react, and almost instantly, Lucy lifted her hand and returned the wave.  I decided to take it a step further and mouthed the word ‘hi’.  This time I had to wait a few seconds before Lucy responded.  She looked unsure for a second, like she didn’t know if she should respond, and then she suddenly mouthed the words ‘having fun?’ Before I could answer, Louis threw himself back into the seat next to me, wrestling with his teacup.  I watched him for a second and then smiled back at Lucy, rolling my eyes.  She seemed to laugh for a second, then lowered her eyes back to her own teacup, biting her bottom lip.

It was moments like this that had me almost convinced I could ask Lucy out and she might just say yes, but then all of my doubts would creep in.  Doubts like the fact that I’d ignored her for four years or the idea that she still might be hurting over McMillan.  Plus, even though we often had long, funny, interesting conversations and joked around together a lot when we were studying, Lucy didn’t seem interested in spending any other time alone with me.  We were always in groups in our classes or in the common room or at meals, and I often found myself watching her, frustrated as she sat with the other girls.

I’d thought that maybe Rose could help me out, give me some insight in to what Lucy might be feeling, but she had recently become extremely difficult to get a hold of.  I knew she was consumed by O.W.L preparation, but she seemed to be off studying every spare minute she had!  Every time I saw her, she was in a group or dashing off to a class, so I couldn’t pull her aside for a chat.  I considered asking James for advice, but since he was still moping around about Alice, he was barely useful at Quidditch training, let alone helpful with girl problems.  I was frustrated, confused, and on top of it all, I still had the Quidditch cup and exams to worry about.

One Sunday afternoon, I was headed down to the library to find some Defence books before my study session with Lucy.  As I turned a corner on the third floor, I nearly ran smack into Rose who was coming from the other direction. 

“Al!” She exclaimed, her voice a little higher than usual.  Under normal circumstances, I would have been more suspicious, but I was so amazed to be alone with Rose that I was only focussed with not letting this opportunity pass.

“Hey Rosie,” I smiled.  “Long time, no see!”

“Huh?  Al, you see me every day,” Rose looked confused, and if I wasn’t mistaken, slightly guilty.

“I just meant I’ve only seen you in classes or at meals lately,” I explained.  “You’re really taking these exams seriously huh?”

“Oh…exams…yes!”  Rose stammered.  “Yep, study, study, study!  That’s me.”

“Right…” I said slowly, raising an eyebrow at her odd behaviour.  “Anyway Rosie, look I really need to talk to you about something, have you got a second?”

“I…I guess so,” Rose looked a bit nervous and I wondered why talking to me would inspire such a reaction.  She followed me into an empty classroom and I sat on the end of the teacher’s desk while she stood awkwardly near the door, like she was preparing to run away.  “What did you want to talk to me about?” She asked, that oddly high-pitched tone in her voice again.

“I wanted to ask you about Lucy,” I said.  The reaction was instantaneous, Rose’s body automatically relaxed and she gave me a genuine smile as she moved to sit on a desk opposite me.

“What about Lucy?” She asked, her voice back to normal once more, in fact, there was that sort of smugness to it that annoyed me so much.

“Rose, I’m going nuts,” I confessed.  “The more I am around her, the more I want to be around her.  It’s doing my head in!”

“Geez Al, you’ve know Lucy for pretty much your whole life and now you suddenly can’t live without her?  You sound like you’ve taken a love potion!”  Rose giggled, but I just frowned at her.

“I know!” I groaned, rubbing the heel of my hand against my forehead.  “I know, I’m such a prat, how can I have not seen how fantastic she is before this?  This is so messed up Rosie.”

“Al, I don’t see what the problem is, just ask her out already!” Rose’s voice was stern, but when I looked up at her, she had a caring smile on her face.  I let out a frustrated sigh before answering.

“I can’t Rose, believe me I’ve tried.  A couple of times I was so close and I thought ‘right I’m just going to say it,’ but then I just can’t make the words come out.  What if she rejects me Rosie?  I don’t think I could cope with that.  I haven’t known her for very long and I don’t want to do anything that’s going to cause her to leave my life.”  I was perfectly aware of how pathetic I sounded, but to Rose’s credit, she just continued to give me that understanding smile.  She looked thoughtful for a moment, and when she responded, the stern tone of her voice was still clear, though it was tinged with kindness.

“I understand what you’re saying Al, but why are you so sure she’s going to turn you down?”  She paused for a second as though she expected me to answer.  When I didn’t, she continued.  “You’re a great guy, I’m sure she sees that.  What girl wouldn’t want to be with you?”  Oddly, there wasn’t any irony in Rose’s voice, she was giving me a genuine compliment. 

“She’s doing my head in Rosie, whenever I see her my brain just turns to mush and I say the stupidest things.  I have to be so careful about how I act around her.” I moaned, feeling rather hopeless.

“Look Al, I think you need to just ask her; if she says no then you’ll know won’t you?”  Rose reasoned.  “You can’t keep torturing yourself like this, how are you going to make it through exams?  I think you should just march straight out of this room and go and ask her; do it now before you lose your nerve.”  She sounded oddly like James did when he gave one of his little pre-match inspirational speeches; there was a conviction in her voice that made her words incredibly convincing.  She was right after all, how was I going to get through my O.W.L’s and the Quidditch cup if something didn’t change?

“Just go and do it?  Like right now?”  I could hear the disbelief in my own voice, but even more disturbing, I was beginning to consider what Rose had suggested.  Rose could obviously hear it too, because her response was swift.

“Right now.  At least then you’ll know,” She said, looking incredibly serious.  She seemed so sure that her idea was right, that I should just go and ask Lucy out.  And as I stood there considering it, I felt a lightness in my stomach, like Christmas morning mixed with my birthday mixed with a herd of stampeding butterflies.  I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to focus my thoughts, I felt so confused!  Lucy’s face floated across my mind and for a brief moment, smiling at me sweetly.  I let myself fantasise about what it would be like if she was my girlfriend, if I could kiss her or hold her hand whenever I felt like it.  I felt my heart rate pick up at the mere thought, the hope rising up in me like a balloon. 

And then suddenly, the face in my mind disappeared and was replaced with another; it was still Lucy, but this time her expression was a mixture of embarrassment, irritation and pity.  It was the image of my fear – the face that Lucy could pull if I told her how I felt.  It would be the last face I saw on her before she stopped talking to me, studying with me and being my friend.

My eyes snapped open to Rose standing in front of me, arms folded across her chest as she watched me with curiosity in her eyes; and yet the image of Lucy didn’t disappear, at least not completely.  It seemed to dance on the edges of my mind, taunting me, torturing me.

“I can’t,” I sighed resignedly.  “Look I need to go study; I’m supposed to be in the library right now,” I added, because Rose looked like she was about to argue with me.  She pressed her lips together and stared at me for thirty seconds before unfolding her arms, crossing the space between us and hugging me tightly.

“It will all work out Al,” She said quietly.  “I’m sure of it.”

I wanted to respond, tell her I hoped she was right but I doubted that she was.  Instead, I found my voice had disappeared on me and I simply pulled away from her, forcing my lips in to what was supposed to be a smile, although I could tell from her expression that it wasn’t terribly convincing.  I nodded and patted her on the arm before picking up my bag and stepping back out in to the hallway.

I sauntered towards the library, knowing that I was now late but not really wanting to get there any faster.  Normally I couldn’t wait to get to these study sessions and see Lucy, but the face I’d conjured up in my mind was haunting me, following me along each corridor and down every step.  An irrational fear had bubbled up inside me that when I walked into the library, that face was going to become real, and Lucy would look at me with that pity-filled expression as though she could read my thoughts and know what I felt for her.  When I could see the wide open library doors ahead, I began dragging my feet, taking deep breaths and telling myself over and over to ‘get a grip’.  When I reached the table and she looked up at me with her usual smile, I felt a surge of relief and get a burst of annoyance at myself for my own cowardly behaviour.  Lucy was watching me intently as I sat, no doubt curious about the range of emotions I knew must be crossing my face.  I took a deep breath, looked up at her and said the first thing that came into my head.

“We need to do something about that brother of mine."

AN: Ok, confession time - I really don't love this chapter.  Seriously, I've been working on this chapter for about two months and I couldn't seem to get out more than a paragraph at a time, which is why it might feel a bit stiled of disjointed.  I apologise for that, I was trying to show what is going on in Al's brain, but it just wasn't translating properly!  So, I hope you still enjoy the chapter and it doesn't turn you off the story, but if it wasn't your favourite, I do apologise.

I haven't written much of the next chapter, but I think it should be fun because it involves some fun stuff.  Here's a little look at what I have so far:

“Come help me,” I said to Louis, yanking on his sleeve as I stepped towards the bar.  “Four butterbeers please,” I said to the harried looking barman, who nodded and then promptly disappeared into the back room.  I wondered curiously what he was doing, and leaned forward on the bar to see if I could spot him through the half-open door.

“Hey Al, you reckon you could help me with something?” Louis said suddenly.

“Hmmm?” I replied, still craning my neck.

“I want to see if I can get some time alone with Jane this afternoon,” He said, his voice wavering a bit.  I continued to lean on the bar but turned my head to look at him.  “I thought maybe I could ask if anyone wants to come to Uncle George’s shop and maybe you could keep Rose and Lucy occupied when we go over, so I can sneak in a bit of one-on-one with Jane.”  Louis spoke quickly, and I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d been rehearsing this speech in his head.

“Sure,” I said.  “I’ll do my best, I mean Jane and Lucy are best friends, but I’m sure I can distract her long enough for you to get Hawthorn into a quiet corner.” I winked at Louis and chuckled out loud when his ears turned pink, but before he could defend himself to me, the barman returned with our drinks.

“So we have a deal?” Louis asked as he picked up two of the frosty glasses.

“We have a deal,” I nodded.  And if I could just get rid of Rose, then I might even get my own alone time with Lucy, I thought to myself.  

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