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"OK, good practice team," James says, grinning.
It's an odd look on him. Normally when he's on the pitch he goes for a mixture of dark brooding and unrepressed fury.
"Wait, what?" Fred stops, looking completely gobsmacked.
He isn't the only one. The rest of the Gryffindor quidditch team have turned to stare, open mouthed at James. Cameron appears to have gone into a state of shock.
"Um…you guys played well today," James frowns at the astonished expressions around him, "What?"
"Are you…feeling OK, James?" Rose asks tentatively.
"Yes, I'm fine. What? Do I not look fine?" James is laughing, "Would you all stop looking at me like I've just sprouted fangs?"
"I think we should take him to the hospital wing," Roxy mutters in a low voice to Fred.
"I agree," Fred nods.
"Guys!" James says, "What are you all on about?"
"Well, normal James would be telling us that our grannies could have played better, that we don't stand a chance against Ravenclaw, and that we're useless, lazy, and weak," I explain to him.
"…So we're going to have to assume that either someone is impersonating you right now," Cameron adds, "Or you're actually about to come down with something like glandular fever, and it's making you light headed and woozy."
"And since you've been in my sight since morning," Fred says, "We know you're not being impersonated. Therefore we're going to assume that you're bleeding internally, and take you up to the hospital wing for immediate treatment."
James rolls his eyes at us, "OK. Maybe I've been laying the criticism on a bit thick these last few weeks-"
Rose lets out a loud, pointed cough to show what an understatement that is.
James sighs, but still retains that smile, "…Fine, months. But I think we're finally there, you know? The house cup is within our reach this time. I can feel it."
We're all still staring at him, me in particular.
"Roxy, you've really perfected those dives," he says, turning to her, "And Cameron and Rose, I think the three of us have finally found that perfect rhythm of passing to one another. Fred and Archer, you guys are really working as a team, and Archer you especially, I've noticed you getting really good at directing the bludger. And Stella, well, I don't think you'll miss a single shot against those Ravenclaw chasers."
I suddenly can't help but blush.
Ever since we've agreed to be friends, and nothing more, James has been doing his upmost to praise my skills as a keeper. Over the last few practices, I've heard so many 'Good, Stella!' or 'Nice save, Stella!' or 'Excellent catch, Stella!' being yelled out over the wind that I'd grown sure it was all a figment of my imagination.
"Er…thanks, James," I say.
He gives me a somewhat awkward clap on the back, as if I'm his best mate, "Well, you deserve it, Stella. You've clearly been working hard since you took so long off from the team."
Fred throws up his hands in the air in surrender, "I give up. Seriously, I don't know what's happening. I just..."
He stumbles off towards the changing rooms.
Cameron looks at James, "Great. Now you've broken Fred. I hope you're happy."
James rolls his eyes yet again, "See you all at practice tomorrow. And to those of you going to Grace's birthday party tonight…no drinking."
Cameron looks outraged, "But-"
"Seriously," James says with more insistence, "If I see you or Fred with a drink in your hand you'll be running laps around the pitch until you hurl."
"Now there's the James we all know and love," Rose grins.
James grins, picking up his broom and heading for the changing rooms.
I notice Rose giving me a look.
"What?" I ask her.
She rolls her eyes, and heads after James towards the changing rooms.
* * *
It isn't until after we're both fully showered and dressed, and walking up to the castle, that Rose finally says something.
"You're not fooling anyone, you know," she says to me, raising her eyebrows.
"What?" I ask her, staring.
"You and James," she says, "Give me a break, I'm not blind."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," I say.
"Uh huh?" she asks, "So you two haven't picked up where you left off?"
Getting her drift, I scoff, "No! Absolutely not!"
"Then what's with all the chumminess?"
"We've turned over a new leaf," I say, "We're friends."
Now it's Rose's turn to scoff, "Wow. Really? Friends? How's that working out for you?"
In truth it's going fairly well. Aside from the awkward memories which crop up every now and again of me throwing myself at him, and him pushing me away, we've managed to keep things moderately pleasant.
"It's going OK actually," I reply.
Rose continues to look like she doesn't believe a word of it
"Whatever, I'm pretty sure you mean friendship with a few nice benefits on the side."
I elbow her, "I mean it. Just friends."
"Yeah, alright," Rose rolls her eyes, clearly not buying a word of it, "Let's go and get breakfast. I'm absolutely famished."
"You guys going to breakfast?" James asks, jogging up casually towards me and Rose, "I'll join you, I'm starving."
He walks alongside me and I catch Rose giving me yet another appraising look. I do my best to ignore it.
"Hey, er, Stella are you still going to Grace's party?" he asks me.
"Um, yeah," I reply, "I'm meeting Luke at around seven."
"Right, Luke, yeah, of course," he nods multiple times, almost looking like he's having a seizure, "He hasn't told you anything about…"
"About Ravenclaw's top secret quidditch plans?" I raise my eyebrows, "Sorry, he's not that stupid."
"Just checking," James grins. We both laugh.
I can feel Rose's eye roll beside me even without even seeing it.
"You sure?" he asks, "Not even a little slip-"
"We don't talk about quidditch," I reply, "Sorry to burst your bubble."
"Alright, alright," he says, grinning at me, "I guess we'll just have to wait and be surprised along with everyone else."
"Guess so," I shrug.
"So," Rose says, and her tone conveys that she wants us to remember that she's still here, "I hear Al broke up with Cecily."
"Yep," I nod.
"So when is he planning on asking Ray out?" James asks me.
I look at him, shocked, "How did you-"
"Please," James rolls his eyes, "He's my brother. I know he's held a torch for that girl since he was fifteen. Stuff like that doesn't just go away."
"Is he planning on asking her out?" Rose asks, looking excited, "Yes! Maybe that'll finally get Ray out of her mood."
Ray has been in an angry, irritable state ever since she's returned from her cousin's wedding three days ago. She snaps at anyone who remotely annoys her, goes off on long solitary walks, and generally acts as though she's a brooding bad boy from a film noir.
"I'm sure Albus has something nice planned," I nod.
"He's a Potter," James says, nodding, "Potters are big romantics."
Rose scoffs, "Er, since when?"
"You know all about my grandad," James says, proudly, "He pursued my grandma with declarations of love until she finally saw what a great guy he was."
"Um, correction," Rose interjects, "It's called stalking, he did it for five years whilst she kept telling him to fuck off, and then, when he finally pulled his head out of his arse, she deemed him to be a reasonably acceptable suitor."
"You're such a cynic," James says.
"And you're not?" she asks, "When was the last time you made a romantic gesture?"
My mind flashes back to the multitude of hidden kisses in dark corridors, rushed fingertips on waists, and angsty bickering. James was many things. Romantic was not one of them.
"I, uh," he says, giving pause for thought, "I bought Claire flowers once."
Ah yes. Claire Smith, James' fourth year girlfriend. They'd held hands and kissed in the corridor a lot, while I sat in a corner and tried not to brood too much.
"So the last time you made a romantic gesture was when you were fourteen, to the girl who let you feel her up at parties and stick your tongue down her throat," Rose says.
Thanks, Rose. Lovely mental image there.
James tries to look hurt, "Hey! Our relationship was a beautiful journey or self discovery and first love."
"He's right, Rose," I say, "Cut him some slack! I mean, it was an epic love. Romeo and Juliet had nothing on them! I mean, sure, it lasted about a week…"
Rose laughs, and James cries indignantly, elbowing me playfully, "Oi! It was two weeks."
"And I'm sure those two weeks were beautiful," I pat him on the shoulder consolingly.
He puts a hand to his heart, "They were, actually. Sometimes I hear the wind over the mountains, whispering her name to me: 'Claire…Claire.'"
I elbow him back, "Didn't she break up with you because you wouldn't share your dessert with her at dinner?"
"I'm sorry, but nothing gets between a man and his chocolate cheesecake," he shrugs, "I can't help it. That's just the way it is."
"I guess those romantic gestures were all for nothing, huh?"
Suddenly James stops, looking back towards the quidditch pitch.
"Shit," he mutters, "I left my quidditch notes. Can't have another team find them. I'll see you guys at breakfast in a sec, I'd better go back and get them."
He jogs off in the opposite direction, and me and Rose continue on towards the castle.
"See?" I say to her, "We're just friends."
"Yeah," she shakes her head, "Teasing and flirting are sure fire signs that there's nothing going on between you."
"We weren't doing anything of the sort!"
Rose raises her eyebrows in disbelief, "You clearly need to look up a definition of teasing and flirting, because if you did, you'd find a record of that exact conversation."
I roll my eyes, "Can we talk about something else, please?"
Rose shrugs, "Oh sure, that'll convince me."
* * *
The following morning I'm awoken by the sudden blare of sunlight in my eyes and the sound of the curtains around my four poster bed being ripped open.
"Oh good, you're awake," says Ray, looking down at me.
I stare up at her, more shocked than angry. "I..what are…you can't-"
"Come on then," she says, "Let's go to the Owlery."
"I'm sleeping," I roll over.
"The fact that you're speaking contradicts that," Ray says, "Now come on."
"Go to the owlery by yourself," I groan, throwing a pillow over my face to block out the sun, "I'm tired."
"Lazy. The word you're looking for is lazy, Stella," she says. "It's eleven o'clock already."
"It's a Saturday," I remind her.
"Why waste the weekend?" she shrugs, "And it's such a beautiful day too."
She gestures to the sunlight streaming in through the open window. I can even hear birds chirping.
"Piss. Off," I repeat.
"Come to the owlery with me," she says, undettered, "Then you can have all the peace and quiet you want."
I groan again, sitting up properly to look at her, "Go with Lexie or Rose."
"Lexie's gone to the library," Ray says, "And Rose is visiting Scorpius."
"Why are you so desperate to go to the owlery?" I ask her
"I've got a letter to send," she says, "Why else?"
I roll my eyes, and fall back onto the pillows, "You're not going to leave me alone until I get up and come with you are you?"
She shakes her head, and I catch the hint of a smile on her lips.
* * *
So that's how I've come to be standing sulkily in a corner of the very smelly owlery, fiddling with my nail beds as Ray scrawls a quick letter to her mother.
"I can't believe you dragged me up here so you could write to your mum," I grumble.
Ray looks over at me, "What? Don't you want to spend some time in the fresh air?"
"Of all the words I would use to describe the air in here," I say, my nose crinkling, "Fresh is not one of them."
"Oh stop whining," she says. She finishes off her note, and attaches it to the leg of her tawny owl, letting it fly off.
"Right," she says, "Thank you for coming. Let's go."
I'm surprised so much by her thank you that it takes me a few moments before I remember to follow her.
But suddenly someone's there blocking our path.
Albus and Ray stare at one another for a moment, face to face.
Ray breaks her gaze and looks back to me, beckoning her head to the exit.
"You haven't replied to any of my messages," Al says, putting one hand on either wall, blocking her path. He's staring at her intently.
Ray goes pink, but doesn't look away from him, "What messages?"
"The ones I sent you," he raises his eyebrows at her, "I know you got them."
"I don't know what you're talking about," she says stiffly.
Albus breaks his gaze on Ray, and looks over her shoulder at me, "Stella could you give us five minutes?"
I glance at Ray uncertainly, "Er…sure."
"No, Stella," Ray says, blocking my path quickly and agilely, "you can stay."
It suddenly occurs to me that Ray insisted on me accompanying her just so she wouldn't run into Albus alone.
"Please, Stella-" Albus is beginning to look frustrated.
"I want Stella to stay," Ray looks at him.
"Stella really wants to go," I say with more insistence.
But Ray grabs my wrist, stopping me from going anywhere.
Albus looks angry all of a sudden, "Fine. Stella can hear everything? That OK with you?"
"Fine." Ray shrugs, a little defiantly.
"Since you clearly don't want to be alone with me, Stella can stay."
Ray goes pink at the accusation, but says nothing.
Albus looks extremely frustrated and tired, as he asks in exasperation, "I sent you three messages. Why haven't you replied?"
"I still have no idea what you're talking about," Ray replies haughtily, "I've been very busy, you know."
"Yeah, hanging out in the Owlery at eleven thirty on a saturday implies how overwhelmed you are."
"Don't you have things you could be doing?" Ray asks, folding her arms and glaring at him, "Quidditch practice? Homework? Getting out of my face?"
"I don't know what more I can do," he says, scratching the hair behind his head, "I told you how sorry I am. How I broke up with Cecily. How I wish I could take it all back."
"And yet me ignoring them doesn't send a clear message?" she asks him.
"So you did get them," he says, looking somewhat smug even though she's still glaring at him.
Ray rolls her eyes, "Of course I got them."
"And yet you don't think to reply?" he frowns slightly, "A simple fuck off would have sufficed."
"Oh, my apologies," Ray says, her gaze stony, "Fuck off."
"You still have feelings for me," Al says, his voice steady, unwavering, with his gaze fixed entirely on her.
"What?" Ray looks momentarily stunned before returning to her usual combination of irritated and offended, "I do not!"
"You don't?" he raises his eyebrows.
"I don't!" she reiterates, "Is it so surprising to you that a girl doesn't immediately fall at your feet when you snap your fingers?"
"No," he says, "It's surprising that you can lie so easily."
Ray scoffs, "Let me put this plainly, for you, since you're apparently too dense to understand. I don't like you. I never have, never will."
"Bullshit," Albus snaps quickly, "You've been in love with me since christmas."
"No, I haven't!" she insists, although even I can see her guard breaking down.
"You have, and if you deny it again, I'll laugh."
"You are really testing my patience," Ray growls, "Now get out of my way."
Now it's Al's turn to roll his eyes, "No."
"I swear, Albus, if you don't move-"
"You'll what? Hex me?" he taunts, "Go ahead. I'd like to see you try."
Ray looks almost murderous, "You really want to test me?"
"Sure," he says.
Ray reveals her wand from underneath her cloak with a shaking hand, "This is your last warning. I swear I'll do it."
Albus doesn't move, "'Course you will."
Ray pauses, wand still firmly in her grip, knuckles practically turning white. I have no doubt she'll do it. She's knocked a guy's front tooth out for looking at her the wrong way. Albus is pushing all the wrong buttons, and she's quickly starting to resemble an active volcano.
But she still doesn't move. Her face is close to Albus', almost trembling with rage and even a hint of anxiety. Al keeps his face calm and centred.
All of a sudden his gaze softens, and his voice lowers, "I meant every word I said in those letters."
She looks down to the ground, shaking her head as she avoids his gaze, "You can't."
Albus, still not daring to touch her, lowers his head to meet her gaze, "Even if you won't forgive me, you have to know that I meant what I wrote."
"You can't mean any of it," she says, raising her eyes to look at him.
"Why not?" he implores her, "You have to know how much I care about-"
"Why do you care so much?" Ray cries at him, "You went out with Cecily for three months! Clearly my feelings, if I had any, are unreciprocated! So why do you care?"
Albus shakes his head, looking tired and smiling all in the same breath, "I've been in love with you since our fifth year potions class, when I asked you what page of the textbook we were on."
Ray looks frozen for a second, "What?"
"I love you."
"But...you were with Cecily," Ray's brain seems unable to comprehend anything that Albus is saying.
Albus looks sheepish, "Well, when you hit me and told me you never wanted to speak to me again, my chances were looking slim at best."
Ray is still staring at him, "You moved on fast."
"Tried to move on," Albus corrects her, "but it was hopeless. I knew it, and Cecily knew it. You know what she said to me when I broke up with her? She said 'I'll tell Ray good luck.' That's how obvious it was."
"You called me a hypocrite for going to the party with Fred," she says, as though listing off all the reasons that prove that Albus doesn't have feelings for her.
"I believe I apologised profusely for that in letter number two," he says, "And for being pig headed, an insensitive idiot, and an all round jealous prick. But just in case you burned it before you read it, I'll say it again: I'm sorry."
"You're sorry?" she repeats.
"More than you can imagine," he says.
Ray swallows with effort, opening her mouth to reply. No sound comes out.
"And before you burn this one, I'll read what I've written in this fourth letter that I was about to post," he says, brandishing a piece of parchment from underneath his cloak.
Ray continues to say nothing.
I turn to stroke one of the owls sitting on its perch, wishing Ray had let me go as I'm suddenly forced to witness what feels like a very private moment.
Albus glances at her for a moment, before turning his attention to the parchment in his hand. He coughs before beginning, "Ok. So you don't want to talk to me. Just let me say that I want to be with you. I've made a royal mess of everything, but you at least need to know that. You are one of the most terrifying, intimidating people I've ever met, and I've never been so transfixed by anyone so bright and so effortless. But it was when I spent time with you alone, when I saw you let down your guard that I saw you were funny, bloody difficult, and yet still completely spectacular. And I realised that I was a complete goner. But I was never even on your radar-"
Suddenly Albus stops talking and there's a scuffling noise.
I turn to see that Ray is kissing Albus with all her might, her hands tangled in his hair. Albus looks too shocked to respond.
When she releases him he utters in a hushed voice, "I was trying to read that. You interrupted me."
"Sorry," she murmurs quietly, a little smile spreading across her face, "Continue."
Albus pretends to make a show of opening up the letter again, focusing his attention on the parchment and clearing his throat loudly.
But then he scrunches up the parchment, throws it into a corner of the owlery and simultaneously kisses Ray, one arm wrapping around her waist as the other goes to her hair.
Worried that they think I've suddenly become part of the furniture, I cough awkwardly, "I'll be going now then."
I slip out of the owlery, practically running down the stairs and back towards the castle.
* * *
"Well it's about time," Lexie says, as she dusts eyeshadow over her lids.
"It was sickeningly adorable," I add, "All those sweet declarations of love. It took me a good few hours to get over the nausea."
"I guess we'll have to get used to another couple around here," Rose says, flipping through her magazine.
"Like it wasn't bad enough having you and Scorpius canoodling every chance you get," I roll my eyes.
"We do not canoodle!" she says indignantly, "I hate that word."
"Soon I'll be the only single one," I say grumpily.
"You've still got me," Lexie says, smiling over at me from the bathroom mirror where she continues putting on makeup.
"Please," I say, "Like you and Tim aren't a thing."
She shrugs, in a very non-Lexie sort of way, "It's not serious."
"That doesn't sound like you," Rose says curiously, and I detect a note of worry in her voice.
"Are you sure?" I ask Lexie, "I mean…he's got a reputation."
"Guys, you think I'm not fully aware of his reputation?" she says, raising her eyebrows, "Come on, when it's Fred or Cameron no one seems to mind."
"We don't mind because Fred and Cameron are idiots," Rose retorts, "And they wouldn't hurt a fly. There's something…icky about Timothy Davies."
"I'll be the judge of that," Lexie replies, and there's a tone to her voice that's warning us to back off.
"Well," Rose says, deliberately changing the subject, "You might not have a man, Stella, but at least you're getting invited to fun parties. Here I am in my sweat pants, while you two are getting all gussied up."
"Speaking of," Lexie says, "Who invited you Stella?"
"Luke," I reply, "But it's just as friends."
Rose scoffs, "Yeah, like you and James are 'just friends'."
I roll my eyes for what feels like the millionth time today, "We are just friends."
Lexie pokes her head around the door, this time with straighteners fixed in her hair, "What is this? Stella has a man after all?"
"I do not," I reply, my teeth beginning to grit.
"Her and James are having a little something on the side," Rose says to Lexie, ignoring me, "But they're telling everyone they're just friends."
"We are!" I reiterate, "Why would I lie?"
"You're not fooling anyone," Rose grins. She looks at Lexie, "They were flirting shamelessly earlier. You should have heard them."
"Stella!" Lexie looks amazed, "I thought you two just snogged once at the quidditch match. Why didn't you tell me this was going on?"
"BECAUSE NOTHING IS GOING ON!" I yelled, suddenly losing my temper in spite of myself.
They both look taken aback, staring at me.
I'm breathing heavily suddenly, and I look away from them, embarrassed by my outburst.
"That's the problem," I mutter, loud enough for them to hear.
Rose peels herself off her bed and comes over to mine gently. Lexis sits opposite me on the edge of hers.
They both look at me in concern.
"What's going on, Stels?" Rose asks me, carefully putting a hand on my arm to coax me into looking at her. When I do, her eyes are full of pity.
"I…" I pause, "It's so stupid."
"Clearly it isn't," Lexie says, "Tell us."
So I do. I tell them the whole thing.
I tell them about mine and James' brief tryst last term, which was broken off after a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications. I tell them about the New Years Eve party. I tell them about Rose's own party, when Roxy caught us together. And finally I tell them about that horrible evening on the quidditch pitch, where I pretty much threw myself at him, and got rejected.
This part is difficult to tell without crying, but I swallow down my rising tears and continue.
When I'm finished, Rose looks guilty.
"I'm so sorry Stella," she says, "I shouldn't have been going on about all that."
"You couldn't have known," I tell her.
"So…what do we do now?" Lexie asks.
"Nothing," I say, "It's over. I have to accept it."
"It sounds to me like he still wants to be with you," Rose says, "He's just letting his stupid rule get in the way."
"Sounds like a pretty stupid rule to me," Lexie remarks, wrinkling her nose.
"It is," Rose agrees, "All started because Roxanne and Archer couldn't keep their hormones to themselves, and Fred was too protective. But James won't get rid of it, especially if he risks looking like a hypocrite."
"He's a strange boy, that one," Lexie says.
"He's my cousin, and I love him to bits," Rose says, "But he can be a fucking idiot at times." She looks at me curiously, "I mean, I know you two are just friends, but you can still see how he looks at you."
"You're just saying that to make me feel better," I roll my eyes, "It's OK, guys. I'm fine."
"Well, fine or not fine," Rose says, sounding resolute, "You realise this means we have to make you look insanely good tonight, right?"
"Please, no," I say, "I just want to wallow in a corner."
"Stella Wood does not wallow," Rose says, "She is the life and soul of the party. She is the girl of James Potter's dreams. And Stella Wood is going to be the hottest person there tonight."
"Well Stella Wood is feeling tired of trying to impress anyone," I reply.
To my surprise, Rose doesn't protest any further.
"Alright then," she says, "We'll go for best actress nominee rather than victoria's secret model. "
A/N: OK, so I basically wrote one insanely long chapter, but it just got too rambly and way too convoluted, so I've split it into two.
Look out for Part II which I will upload to the queue as soon as this chapter gets validated!
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