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"Have you got the map?" Fred asks James urgently.

Horror fills James' face as he hurriedly does up his shirt, "No! I gave it to Al!"

"Fuck," Fred mutters, "Well I'd guess we'd better start looking for her."

Before James and I can ask him anything else, he's out of the dormitory and running down the stairs at top speed. 

Me and James run quickly down the stairs after him, through the common room and into the corridor after Fred, who's practically sprinting, the sound of his feet pounding on the flagstones.

"Wait! Fred! WAIT! YOU HAVE TO TELL US WHAT'S GOING ON!" I cry after him, desperately trying to slow him down.

Fred slows reluctantly to a fast walk, looking over his shoulder at us, "She, I mean, Lexie, disappeared with Tim an hour ago! She was getting more and more drunk. I mean…after Cameron left I guess she felt embarrassed. I tried to get her to stop, I swear! She could barely even stand, so I went to look for someone to help me get her back to the common room. But as soon as I turned my back she was gone! Tim wasn't nearly as drunk, and he's gone too. I think he's taken her somewhere, but no one knows where they went."

My heart pounds in my throat. The idea of Lexie, trapped somewhere with someone as infamously lecherous and vile as Timothy Davies sends a chill down my spine. I exchange a glance with James, which is a mistake because as soon as our eyes meet, the chill down my spine is replaced with a burning to my cheeks. I notice that James missed a button on his shirt when he was doing it up, after I'd practically ripped it off him.

I still can't believe that Fred caught us.

I look quickly away from James, as we hurry together to catch up with Fred. 

"Did you try the Ravenclaw common room?" I ask Fred.

"I couldn't figure out the bloody riddle!" Fred says, sounding frustrated, "I mean, it's a ridiculous system, isn't it? There must be so many kids waiting outside the common room every night because they don't know the answer."

Neither me or James have time to reply to this, because to our surprise, Cameron comes around the corner, almost crashing into Fred, who is still speed walking.

He steps back and looks at the three of us.

"Cameron," Fred starts, "Where-"

"I'm not really in the mood to speak to you, Fred," Cameron snaps, poorly disguised rage simmering in his voice.

"Cameron, this is serious. We can't find Lexie," Fred says, putting out a hand to stop him from passing us.

Cameron immediately stops and stares at us, "What do you mean? Where has she gone?"

"After you left Lexie kept drinking," Fred says, "I tried to get her back to the common room, but Tim-""

At the mention of this name, Cameron turns away from Fred and starts running back the way he came. We immediately resume running after him, while Fred fills him in on all the details.

"How could you let this happen?" Cameron asks Fred, his voice now full of panic.

"I tried to stop her!" Fred exclaims, "I thought it was harmless drinking! I never thought Tim would-"

"You never thought Tim, who's taken advantage of more women at Hogwarts than anyone else combined, wouldn't start plying her with drinks at the first chance he got?" Cameron asks furiously. 

I see guilt flashes painfully across Fred's face, and feel a sudden rush of sympathy for him. Although he went about it in completely the wrong way, he was just trying to make Cameron and Lexie talk to one another.

He knows how important Lexie is to Cameron. He knows how Cameron feels right now. Fearful, guilty, and anxious.

"Everyone just calm down," I say, "I'm sure we'll find her. We just have to ask the right people." 

But as I say it I realise I can't keep the note of panic out of my voice.

Soon we reach the entrance to the Room of Requirement. Inside the music is still loud, and people are still dancing.

Cameron immediately takes off around the room, demanding if anyone has seen Lexie in the last half hour. The rest of us do the same, but we soon realise that no one knows anything.

After we've each asked at least ten different people, and all gotten the same ten shakes of the head, we all reconvene in the middle of the common room. 

"No one knows where they went," Cameron says, "Not even Tim's friends. They just shrugged and said they don't know." He's sounding more and more scared.

"Well let's start at the Ravenclaw Common Room," James suggests, "That's seems pretty logical."

We all nod, and leave the Room of Requirement without another word.

Suddenly there's a loud peal of raucous laughter outside in the corridor.

As though by magic, Tim, and about three other guys are rounding the corner, all laughing loudly.

It's like someone's flicked a switch in Cameron. 

Within half a second, before any of us can register what he's doing, Cameron is hurling into Tim, and has him up against the hard stone wall with a loud crash.

Tim struggles, "What the fuck, Mitchell!" He roars, "Get off me!"

His friends, all equally burly and tall, start grappling with Cameron, but Cameron swats them off like flies, still holding Tim firmly to the wall.

"Where is she?" he shouts.

"Who?" Tim sneers, still trying to push Cameron's arm out from under his throat.

"If you don't tell me in the next five seconds," Cameron says, "I will personally rearrange that pretty face of yours into something that resembles the giant squid's great grandmother!"

Tim doesn't look too intimidated by this, however.

"How should I know?" He shrugs in fake nonchalance, "The bitch could barely stand. Who knows what part of the castle she ended up in."

Cameron's elbow digs up underneath his chin, "Say that again."

Tim continues, clearly gleeful that he's found Cameron's weak spot, "She's a bloody tease. Comes to a party, gets so drunk she can't remember her own name, and then at the last minute decides she doesn't want to shag me. I'm done wasting my time."

"And what about the part of her not remembering her own name makes you think it's OK to try and shag her," Cameron demands, his voice trembling with fury. I can tell that he's trying not to hit Tim with all his might, but he needs answers more than the satisfaction of hitting him, so he just jams his elbow into Tim's chest.

Tim grunts in pain, but still doesn't stop. He laughs at Cameron, "You're so whipped."

"TELL ME WHERE SHE IS," Cameron roars.

"In the bathroom on the sixth floor," Tim replies, "She wouldn't stop crying."

Cameron lets him drop to the floor, and we immediately run past them, but not before Tim shouts out. "Maybe she'll let you shag her Mitchell. That is if you've got the courage. Which after our little game of Truth or Dare, I'm pretty sure you don't."

Cameron pauses, then turns around and his right hook swings. The sound of the smack he delivers to Tim's face echoes multiple times around the corridor.

Tim slumps to the floor, completely out cold. His friends immediately start yelling at Cameron, but Cameron has already started running after us, until we are all well out of earshot.

We race down the nearest staircase, the sound of our clattering feet bouncing off the walls.

I reach the girls bathroom door, and ram myself into the door.

It falls back more easily than I thought it would, and crashes against the wall.

We stare about us. The bathroom is empty, practically spotless.

Then there's the sound of somebody breathing shakily.

It's coming from the end cubicle.

"Lexie?" I call.

"S-Stella?" comes an immediate reply, a voice full of choked sobs.

I rush to the end cubicle, and push open the door.

Lexie, sits on the shut toilet seat, her knees pulled up underneath her chin, as she hugs herself tightly.

Her makeup looks like something out of a horror film, black thick streaks running down her cheeks, smudged here and there where she's touched her face. 

The four of us stand at the cubicle door, shocked at the sight of her.

Lexie's shoulder's still tremble with tears, and the sight of this jolts me out of my surprise.

I rush forward, putting my hands on her shoulders.

"Lexie? Are you alright?"

It's a stupid question. Of course she wasn't.

"I-I'm sorry," she says in barely a whisper.

I notice to my horror that her sleeve has ripped where it meets the neckline.

"Who did this? Did Tim do this?" I ask her urgently.

She stares at me as though I'm speaking a foreign language, and her bottom lip shakes.

"I'll kill him," Cameron says quietly, but his voice is still deadly.

James turns to him, "No, you won't. That won't help anything."

"I bet you it will," Cameron says, turning away with a murderous look in his eyes.

But James grabs him before he gets one step away.

"GETOFFME!!" Cameron roars. He kicks out arms and legs madly, trying to loosen James' grip, but James holds on.

"The only thing that'll happen is you'll get a detention," James says.

"I don't care," Cameron says through gritted teeth.

"Lexie needs you," James shouts, trying to stop him from moving.

This thought makes Cameron pause for a moment.

Lexie suddenly droops forward, nearly falling off the seat. I grab her shoulders, shouting, "Lexie? Lexie!"

But she's barely able to open her eyes.

Fred crouches down beside me, tapping Lexie firmly but gently on the cheek, "Lexie? You need to tell us if you took anything. Have you had anything other than alcohol?"

Lexie seems to register what he's saying, and shakes her head drowsily, "No."

Fred looks at me, "OK, if it's just alcohol, we just need to make sure she gets to bed safely."

I stare at him, "Tim might have put something in her drink, Fred!"

Fred's face drops, "Shit."

"Do I have permission to kill him yet?" Cameron says through gritted teeth.

"No," I stand up, "You're going to take her back to the dormitory and get her to bed. I'm going to find out if he put something in her drink."

Cameron looks me up and down, "I don't think Tim'll respond much to your way of threatening him."

I glare at him, and withdraw my wand, "Timothy Davies has never seen me truly angry. That's enough to threaten him, trust me."

Cameron looks reluctant, but slowly nods.

Fred slides an arm under Lexie to help her up. Cameron immediately steps forward and scoops her up easily in his arms, one arm under her back, the other at the crook of her knee.

"See you all back there," I nod to them.

"I'm coming with you," James says, in a voice that tells me not to argue.

I nod at him, secretly grateful for backup.

We leave the dormitory, Cameron and Fred rush down the corridor as quickly as they can whilst still balancing Lexie, whilst James follows me back up the staircase towards the room of requirement.

Neither of us speak to one another. We listen to the sound of each other's footsteps, the sound of our breaths. Maybe he can hear my heart pounding in my chest.

As we reach the door to the room of requirement, suddenly he reaches out and touches my hand, placing his thumb on my palm as his remaining fingers close over the back.

It isn't a way to hold me back, or stop me. It's a gesture of comfort, of solidarity. He can sense my fear, and my anger.

His fingers squeeze mine. I don't even look back at him, but I wrap mine over his and squeeze his back, thanking him, telling him that I want him there with me.

Our hands drop to our sides as we open the door and reenter the party.

It's busy and crowded, people constantly moving in and out of my vision.

"Do you see him?" I ask James.

"No," he replies.

We stand there for a moment, surveying the people around us.

I ask the person nearest to me, "Have you seen Tim?"

The girl looks over her shoulder, "Last I saw his mates dragged him in here. He looked like he'd been knocked out cold."

"Thanks Cameron," James mutters underneath his breath.

"They've put him on one of the sofas, over there," she points to the other end of the hall.

James and I run in the direction of her pointed finger, pushing past countless people.

Finally in a secluded corner we reach the couch, where Tim is still lying, out cold on top of it.

His mates, three of them, are staring at him.

"Maybe we should just leave him…" one of them starts.

"I think I know a revival spell," another adds.

"Well, what is it then?"

Before they notice our presence, I whip out my wand.

"Expelliarmus," I say. 

One of the wands flies out of their back pockets.

"What the-" he starts, turning around in alarm.

But before he can finish the sentence, I've already disarmed the other two.

The three of them are staring at me.

"Give us back our wands!" one of them cries indignantly, "What the fuck do you think you're doing?"

"Did Tim put something in her drink?" I ask them calmly, although my hands are trembling.

They stare at me.

"What the fuck are you talking about?"

"Answer the question," I tell them, "Lexie Clarke. Tim was with her. Did he spike her drink?"

"Oh yeah," one of them jolts the other one, "That girl Tim was trying to shag."

"Good job, Sherlock," I smile coldly at them, "Now, let's try this again," I pull out my own wand, "Did he spike her drink?"

I point my wand directly at them.

One of them goes slightly pale, but the other two laugh, "Nice try short-arse," one of them says.

He reaches out for their wands, but my wand hand reacts with a snap.

"Ow!" he cries out sharply in pain.He pulls up his shirt sleeve, "You bitch!"

"Hey!" James shouts from behind me, "Don't call her that!"

I glance over my shoulder, "James, it's fine. Now, any more stinging hexes?" I ask, "There's plenty more where those came from, and I'm not in a patient mood."

The other two look slightly more afraid now, as the other one clutches the red mark appearing quickly on his forearm, muttering low under his breath.

"Perhaps even a bat bogey hex if you're feeling particularly unforthcoming," I add.

I hand James their three wands, and catch a glimpse of his face which shows complete and utter shock.

Now is not the time to be making eye contact with James. It'll only make me flustered.

I turn back to them, and raise my eyebrows, "Anyone?"

The shortest one, who also looks physically the weakest, caves, "Fine! Tim used to cook up this thing. All it had was a bit of Asphodel and bulbadox powder, but he said if you mixed it with alcohol it would make you totally crazy. He used to slip it to girls at parties."

"Is it harmful?"

He shakes his head, "No, they just feel a bit woozy when they wake up the next morning."

"Something tells me Tim isn't the only one who distributed it," James mutters darkly.

The sudden look of panic in their eyes confirms this theory. I glare fiercely at them.

James hands me back their wands, "Come on, let's go tell the others."

I take the wands gingerly, "Yeah. One sec."

I walk slowly up to them. "Just so you know, McGonagall will most definitely be hearing about this. And I'll personally make sure that no girl comes within a mile of your slimy, despicable selves."

"We never used it for…you know," One of them squirms under my gaze.

"Thanks for putting my mind at ease," I say, my words full of loathing.

"He's telling the truth!" another one says, "We just wanted to have some fun."

"You're all regular good samaritans, I'm sure," I utter, tossing their wands at their feet.

Before they can say another word, the jinxes are out before I can stop them.

All three of them clutch their arms in pain as the stinging jokes hit them fiercely.

Any more and I'd be sure to get a detention. But remembering Lexie's tearstained face, her shaking body, I want to cast the foulest spell I can think of.

Suddenly there's an arm gently on mine, "Let's go, Stella." James says in a low voice that says he understands.

I decide to take his advice. These despicable shits aren't worth a detention.

I turn and nod to him, and together we leave the party.

It takes me a few moments to realise that I'm shaking from head to foot. I don't know if its rage or adrenaline. Maybe a combination of both.

I glance at James, but I see his eyes locked onto me, staring at me in shock.

The word that jumps to mind is flabbergasted.

"What?" I ask nervously, seeing him staring at me, "Too much?"

"Merlin help me if I end up on the wrong side of you, Stella," he says, but there's an amused tone to it.

I blush, feeling embarrassed, "I didn't mean to-"

"That was amazing," he says, sounding almost breathless with wonder.

If I was blushing before, it was nothing compared to the way I turn scarlet now, so surprised by this statement that I have to turn away from him, walking briskly up the corridor. "Um, we'd um-I mean we should, er- we should tell the others-you know, that, er, that everything, you know, that everything's fine."

Fucking hell.

I feel rather than see the huge grin plastered across his face.

We don't talk all the way back to the dormitory. Talking about what happened between us seems wrong, now that we're worried about Lexie. It seems suddenly so trivial.  

But from time to time I can feel his gaze fixed on me. It burns into my skin.

Once we're inside the portrait hole, we go upstairs.

We find Cameron, Fred and Lexie in the boys dormitory. Lexie is curled up on Cameron's bed, and there's the sound of deep breathing coming from her. Fred is sitting on his bed, whilst Cameron is sitting in a seat beside Lexie, watching her carefully.

"Well?" they ask us.

"He probably did slip her something," I tell them, "But upon interrogation, it'll only make her a bit woozy when she wakes up. No lasting harmful effects."

Cameron snorts angrily, "No harmful effects my arse. I could kill them."

"Stella nearly did," James, and I detect a note of pride in his voice.

Something strikes me suddenly, "Why didn't you put her in her own bed?" I ask Cameron.

"I didn't want to wake Rose or Ray," he explains. "Besides, I don't mind staying up for her."

My heart warms towards him. He turns his gaze back to the sleeping Lexie, as though he regrets tearing away for even a second.

She looks peaceful as she sleeps, her eyelashes trembling and her mouth slightly open.

I look over, and notice the rumpled sheets on James' bed. It brings back memories that burn my cheeks.

Fred is flicking his gaze between me and James, as though he's wondering whether we'll just pick up where we left things.

"I'd better go to bed then," I say to them, "Let me know if there's any change, won't you?"

Cameron nods, and I leave the dormitory.

I'm only a few steps down the steps when the dormitory door swings open and shut, "Stella?"

I look around to see James standing in the stairwell above me, half of his face eclipsed in shadow.

"Hey," I say.

"Hey," he replies.

"Are you alright?" he says, "I know it's been a horrible night."

"I'm fine," I reply, "Thanks for asking though. And thanks for helping. And…it wasn't all horrible."

He looks down at his shoes, but I discern an unmistakeable smile, even in the darkness. There's something private about the smile, and I suddenly get the feeling that James smiles more to himself than he does in front of others.

There's a silence. A very awkward one.

"I…" James is the first to break it, "I want to talk."

I lean slowly against the wall, "So do I."

He looks relieved, "I mean…you should go sleep. We can talk in the morning. I just…wanted to tell you that I want to."

I realise my sudden exhaustion as he says it. It's nearly three am. And it's a school day tomorrow.

"Yeah," I sigh, "I'm so tired."

"OK," he smiles, "Me too. Let's sleep on it."

"Yeah," I reply, "OK."

"Sure," he says, "Goodnight then."

"Goodnight," I reply.

"Sleep well."

"You too."

I take a few steps down.

"…Stella?"

I turn back to him, "Yeah?"

"…It wasn't horrible for me either."

It's said with a hint of amusement, and I can tell he's still smiling to himself.

As I'm unable to hide the growing, uncontrollable grin on my face, the only thing I can reply is, "Night, James."

 

*     *     *

I'm awoken by a very angry squawking in my ear. I roll over blearily and nearly jump out of my skin to see a large Tawny owl sitting on my bedside table, looking very impatient.

I stare at it in shock, then notice that it's James' owl, Vosper, named after one of the English chasers.

It squawks again loudly, and indignantly, as though it's impatient, before dropping a note onto the end of my bed.

I look down, and notice that it's on top of a pile of other scraps of parchment, all delivered while I was asleep.

I reach forward curiously, grabbing the pieces and reading them.

They're from James. In spite of myself, my heart rate picks up.

I place them on my lap and begin to read, somewhat frantically.

The first one that arrived reads:

Are you awake? I didn't want to knock in case you were trying to sleep. Come find me when you're up.



I nearly leap out of bed, but force myself to keep reading. The next one reads:

I guess you're not an early bird. Well, whenever you're awake...I thought we could talk over breakfast before classes start.

J

I guess these must have been sent a while ago. The third one reads:

Seriously? It's half past eight in the morning! I'm pretty sure you've got class in half an hour. I mean, I know you're not a fan of punctuality, but surely McGonagall's withering stare is enough to compel you out of bed?

Followed by:

WAKE UP WAKE UP WAKE UP WAKE UP

And one final one:

Ok, either you clearly need a new alarm clock, or you're avoiding me. If it's option B, I probably look like an insane stalker right about now, so just ignore everything I just said in those past…god is it four messages? If you weren't avoiding me before, you definitely will be now. Well, I'd better get going. You may not fear McGonagall's withering stares, but I'm afraid I can't say that I am that courageous. And yet they still say I'm a Gryffindor.

Maybe I'll see you later. I mean, provided that you don't run in the other direction. And after all these messages, I honestly wouldn't blame you.

Sorry.

J

I start grinning uncontrollably. 

But, wait, what time is it?

I look at my watch on my bedside table. It reads eight minutes to nine.

"FUCK!" I shriek, even though there's no one in the room to hear me. Because they've all gone to class. Obviously.

I throw off the covers and pull on the closest remembrance to a school shirt I can find, lying crumpled on the floor.

Merlin. My life is a complete mess. 

How can you expect me to make time to talk to the completely gorgeous boy that's sending me adorable messages, when I can't even wake up in time for class.

Have I even done the homework? Was there any homework?

I guess we'll find out…

 

* * *

 

It turns out there is homework, and I have not done it. 

Professor Binns is less than impressed when I race into the classroom three minutes late, my hair a rats nest, my shirt buttoned up inside out, looking bright red in the face (because no matter how much quidditch I play, I will never be fit, it seems).

Binns is even less impressed when I tell him my owl must have eaten my homework, because I definitely did it.

I sit back in my seat once Binns is done with his disparaging remarks about punctuality and the importance of reaching deadlines, and has gone back to doing what he does best: boring us to tears.

Rose looks at me, eyebrows raised, "Fun night?"

"It was somewhat eventful," I nod, looking around, "Lexie isn't around, is she?"

Rose shakes her head, "Cameron told me she was ill last night, so she's going to sleep a bit more," she says, "Something about Tim slipping her something?"

I tell her the rest of the story. When I'm finished, Rose's mouth has dropped open in horror. "We have to tell McGonagall!"

"I know," I reply, "But we have to warn others. Apparently it's a regular thing they do."

Rose opens her mouth to protest, but Binns swoops down and interrupts, "Miss Weasley, Miss Wood. If you talk any more, it'll have to be a detention for the pair of you."

That shuts us up.

 

*  *  *

 

After class Rose and I leave, Rose chatting away about the match, which is in two days time.

I can barely focus on her. All my brain wants to think about is talking to James. James James James.

James Potter and his annoyingly beautiful hair.

James Potter and his insanely sexy voice.

James Potter and his disgustingly adorable messages.

James Potter standing at the other end of the corridor talking to Fred.

My breath catches in my throat. There he is. 

God he looks good. It's so unfair.

I push through my instinct to shyly follow Rose to Transfiguration, avoid him, run from any potential confrontation. Strange, how even after last night I still feel afraid that he might reject me. 

No, Stella. Those messages from this morning were the exact opposite of rejection.

"I'll meet you at Transfiguration," I tell Rose, "I need the loo."

Thankfully she doesn't offer to accompany me, but instead nods and agrees to save me a seat.

I walk over to the James and Fred, finding it hard to stop the corners of my mouth twitching into a smile.

Fred notices me before James does, and, raising his eyebrows suggestively, nudges James in my direction. 

James turns, and his face lights up when he sees me. It makes my heart race. Even my breathing becomes shallow.

Fred nods at me, "Hey Stella."

"Hey Fred," I reply, still keeping my eyes firmly fixed on James, "Mind if I talk to James for a moment?"

"Afraid I can't allow that," Fred says, "If I leave, you two might stop undressing each other with your eyes and actually start undressing each other. Someone needs to think of the children."

"Fred," James says warningly, his gaze still locked on mine, the corner of his mouth twitching in amusement.

Fred sighs, picking up his bag, "I'm just saying…If I'm already pretty scarred after witnessing you two last night, think about what an image like that will do to all these first years."

"Fred," I say, in a tone that doesn't allow for any further argument.

He raises his hands up in surrender, "Fine! Fine!" He turns to leave, "But try and think of the children, won't you?"

He leaves us, throwing occasional glances over his shoulder and I swear can see him smirking through the corner of my eye.

James looks at me, his head tilted slightly to the side questioningly, his lips pulled up at the corners. "I'm guessing, since you're here, I didn't scare you away with my overly persistent messages this morning."

I smile and shake my head, laughing a little, "Not exactly. Sorry I didn't get up in time."

He shrugs, still smiling, "That's OK. I figured you needed the rest."

"How was Lexie this morning?" I ask.

"Fine," he nods, "Although, I don't think Cameron got a wink of sleep. He was so worried she might wake up and freak out. They were talking to each other when I left. She looked happy."

"It's nice of him to go out of his way like that," I nod, "I'm amazed he went to all that trouble. Most people would just send her off to Madame Pomfrey and forget about it."

James shrugs again, hands stuffed in his pockets, "I dunno. I think…Cameron cares about her. A lot. I've never seen him like this. He's never cared about anything as much, not even quidditch. When you care about something that much, their safety, well, everything else loses it's importance."

He smiles at me, his grin slightly lopsided as he looks at me, which somehow manages to drive me crazy. My mind starts replaying last night. His hands on my waist. His lips on my jaw. The feel of his skin under my fingertips.

Focus Stella. You can't be late for Transfiguration as well.

"I'd better go to Transfiguration," I say reluctantly, "But I'd like to talk. Maybe we could do dinner…I mean, not do dinner. I just…" I sigh, "You know what I mean."

He smiles that horribly sexy grin again, sending me into another round of tremors, "I know what you mean."

"OK," I smile, "See you later then."

"Bye," he replies, his gaze still fixed on me.

"Bye," I say, wishing I didn't sound so hopelessly flustered.

As I turn, he says, "Stella?"

I turn back, probably too eagerly "Yeah?"

"Um, did you know your shirt is inside out?"

My eyes snap down to my shirt. I had already realised my shirt was inside out during History of Magic. It was one of the results of waking up seven minutes before class was due to start. But I had forgotten all about my mistake before I'd decided to approach James.

My cheeks are suddenly flaming. It's OK Stella. Your shirt is inside out. It's not the end of the world.

A bolder version of me would say something like, 'Would you care to help me rearrange it?"

But this isn't one of my Aunt Trudy's romance novels. You know, the one with the guys with washboard abs and perfect hair were holding up women in long ball gowns that fell off their shoulders, who swooned as though the guy's sexiness was just too much for their feeble feminine legs to handle.

So instead I say, "I…Yeah, I know. I overslept. I forgot, I guess."

Great answer Stella. Now he knows personal grooming is high up there on your list of priorities. Why not add in that you're wearing your second least attractive bra, since all the others are at the bottom of your wardrobe because you couldn't be bothered to do laundry?

"Right," he nods, looking like he's a mixture of embarrassed and amused at my own embarrassment, "I wasn't sure you knew. Thought I'd better say something."

"Cool."

Cool?!? Honestly Stella.

"I'll see you later then," he says.

"Yeah. I'd better go fix my shirt."

God I'm such a mess.

Suddenly he smiles, and laughs. Not laughing at me. Just laughing at the hilarity of the situation. 

It's infectious. In spite of my embarrassment, I find myself grinning and laughing too.

"I'll see you," I say to him, containing my laughter, although I can't stop smiling.

"I look forward to doing dinner," he says, that quirk of amusement still lingering in his gaze.

I suppress another laugh as I leave.

I turn to leave, but I still feel his eyes fixed on me. I feel uncomfortably warm as I push past the crowds of people and turn the corner, where I feel like I can finally breathe.

In Transfiguration I do my best to focus on what McGonagall is telling us, but it seems to be almost impossible. 

Every time I manage to focus, my mind quickly travels back to James. I'm still replaying last night in my mind. 

Over and over and over. 

I hear his words in my mind, like a stuck record.

I mean, fuck, I've been trying to kiss you for over six years! And then when I finally do, I manage to fuck it all up!

Hardly swoon worthy. James won't be winning any poetry prizes any time soon.

And yet, whenever I think of those words, my heart rate picks up.

It was the look in his eyes as he said them. There was something tangible about the way he looked at me, like a warmth that wrapped itself around me and refused to let go.

I think about him all the way through Transfiguration. All the way through lunch. Charms. Defence Against the Dark Arts. Potions.

It isn't just the memories of last night, memories that still bring heat to my cheeks, but the sense of anticipation.

We're going to talk. I don't know what about. But we're going to talk. To one another.

I remember that I still have to breach the topic of sex. And the fact that if Fred hadn't walked in, it was likely that we would have had it.

Needless to say I haven't had sex before. It is undiscovered territory. I haven't really thought about it much, I just always hoped that when it finally happened I wouldn't regret it the next morning.

If Fred hadn't walked in, would we have continued? And if we had, would I be sitting here feeling terrible and guilty? Or would it have been amazing or magical or whatever else it was supposed to be?

At this point my own thoughts are making my head hurt, so I'm grateful when Albus catches my attention.

"Stella! You're totally distracted! Look what you've done to the newt tails!"

I look down at my handiwork. The newt tails are diced into tiny squares instead of their prescribed long strips.

"I'll do it," Albus sighs, moving over to the supply cupboard and leaving me feeling guilty.

"Sorry," I murmur, "My mind's been on other things."

"James," Albus nods understandingly.

I start, "Y-yes, h-how did you-"

"I know how hard he's been working you all lately," Albus says, "For the game on Saturday. I don't think he could take it more seriously if he tried."

I don't answer. My mind flashes back to the look in James' eyes when I guessed correctly that he doesn't actually like quidditch. I wonder what the rest of his family would think.

"How he'll ever get a girlfriend is completely beyond me," Albus continues, "No one wants to date someone that high strung."

I still keep my lips sealed, afraid I'll betray something in the tone of my voice if I replied.

"See?" He points to his neat handiwork on the chopping board, "Thin slices."

"Right," I reply, continuing from where he left off. After a few moments, I say with a sly smile, "So? How's it all going with Ray one day into the relationship?"

"She's only threatened me with her right hook four times today," he jokes, "So I would say pretty well."

I roll my eyes, "In all seriousness, are you guys happy?"

"Of course we are," he smiles. This time it's a private smile, like he's remembering something between him and Ray. I feel almost like I've intruded.

I pause, carefully considering my words before I ask him, "Al…how do you deal with Ray when she goes through those mood swings. You know, you never know if she's hot or cold, if she'll kiss you or yell at you. I mean, it's enough to drive someone crazy, isn't it?"

Al gives me a funny look, a slight frown developing on his face, but he still answers, "It took me ages to figure it out. I mean, every time she blew up at me, every time she tried to push me away I thought she was rejecting me. But then I realised, she was just trying to avoid feeling something. Those people, the ones who shut themselves off from any possible relationship, or refuse to let themselves feel anything, those are the ones who need it the most. Every time she's blocked me out, pretended like she doesn't care, I have to remind myself that those are the times when she's the most anxious that I'll leave. In a way, it's a test. She wants to see if you'll still stick around. That's why I sent her all those letters. To show her I wasn't giving up easily."

"But what if they're just…confusing?" I sigh, "Sometimes it's not that simple, I mean, one minute they act like they only want to be your friend, and the next you're tearing off each other's clo-"

I stop myself short, realising I've gone too far. I look down at my lap, and I feel my face go hot.

When I dare to look up Albus has his eyebrows raised to his hairline, looking amused, "No, please, continue. I didn't realise you had such an interesting sex life, Stella. You've been keeping this mysterious lover under wraps."

I give him a small shove on the arm, cringing internally at the word 'lover', "Shut up. We didn't actually-anyway that's not the point. The point is, how can you trust someone like that?"

Albus turns his attention back to the potion, stirring a few times as he considers his answer, "I guess you just don't know if you can trust them or not. You can hope they'll stop messing with you, and risk heartbreak if they don't, or you can close yourself entirely, and stay safe."

I nod, staying silent. It's hardly an easy choice. 

"Or…" Albus pauses, "You can give them an ultimatum."

I look up, "An ultimatum?"

"You know, are you all in or are you not?" he says, "Demand answers."

"And if you know their answer already? You know they'll say they're in, but there's always that risk."

Albus side eyes me, "It sounds like I'm not the one you should be having this conversation with."

I nod awkwardly, "Right. Yeah, sorry."

I'm so anxious about talking to James over dinner that I've started the conversation earlier.

The bell rings, signalling the end of classes. Dinner is in half an hour. 

Al starts packing away. I follow suit, scraping the scraps into the bin. As I approach the desk again Al says to me, "Stella, if he's not all in, then he's an idiot. You know that right? And if he says he's not, just let me know and I'll beat him up for you. Or I'll tell Fred, and he'll beat him up. That might be more effective."

I smile at him, "Thanks Al. And…I'm so glad that everything worked out between you and Ray."

Al smiles that private smile to himself again, "So am I."

 

*       *       *

 

I approach the dining hall, my hands trembling. 

I already know what I'm going to say. What I'm going to tell him.

I reach the great hall, and with a lurch, I see that he's already there, looking slightly uncomfortable with a book propped open in front of him.

Suddenly someone falls into step beside me.

"Hey, Stella."

I stop and look up. To my surprise and mild horror, I see Will, the guy who I spontaneously asked to dance at the party yesterday (which now seems like an age ago).

"Yeah. Hey," I reply, not sure what he wants.

"So, you should go to Hogsmede with me sometime."

I do a double take. This was the last thing I was expecting.

He has a slightly smug look on his face. Like him asking me to go with him is such an honour I should be on my knees thanking him.

I stare at him, "Um, wow. That's so flattering. Thanks for the offer, really. But I'm not interested. I'm sorry."

I wait for a look of annoyance or rejection, but the smug, arrogant look is still in place, "Why? You've got a boyfriend or something?"

"No," I reply cooly, although I'm growing more irritated by the second, "I just don't want to go out with you."

"Didn't seem like it yesterday," he shrugs.

I stare at him, "If me having a boyfriend is really the only reasonable explanation that will explain to you why I'm not interested, then sure! Why not? I've got a boyfriend."

"Come on," he says, leaning in, "I know you like me. I can tell."

He dares reaches up a hand to take a brown curl that's fallen loose and tuck it behind my ear. I flinch, leaning away from him.

He lowers his voice so it's almost a whisper, "Plus, I've heard you like quidditch players. Albus Potter. Luke Corner. I'll bet there's a few more in there, but we'll pretend those didn't happen." Then he winks, "What do you say?"

I'm shocked now, anger rising up in me, "Will, I don't like you. I have no idea why I asked you to dance yesterday, but I'm regretting it every second that I keep having this conversation with you. Now go ask some other girl to Hogsmede. Or better yet, don't. Have a shitty day."

I turn on my heel and walk away from him, trying to shake off my revulsion.

As I reach the table James is staring at me, his whole body alert, "What did he want? Are you OK?"

I realise that he saw the whole exchange.

I sigh grumpily, and sit down opposite him. Somehow I have Will to thank for making me forget my nervousness in front of James.

"I'm fine," I reply.

James nods, his gaze darkening, "I've heard things about him. I've heard he hangs out with Davies a lot."

This makes me shudder as I remember the drug, and Lexie's anguished, tear stained face.

"What did he want?" James persists, "I saw you two dancing yesterday. I figured maybe he was asking you out."

"He sort of was," I reply.

"He was?"

I shake my head, "It doesn't matter."

"What did you say?" he asks.

I stare at him, "No! Obviously! God, do you honestly think-"

"No," he shakes his head hurriedly, "Sorry, that was stupid of me. I just…" he trails off, "the thought of it…of you and him." He trails off, shaking his head some more. His eyes are looking anywhere but me.

A thought dawns on me.

"Are you...jealous?" I ask him incredulously

His eyes snap back to me and our gazes lock, "Of course I am! I've seen the way guys look at you."

I roll my eyes, "They don't look at me in any way."

James leans forward, his voice lowering, "Harold Zambini is checking you out right now."

I quickly look to my right, where James' gaze has settled. Sure enough Harold Zambini is looking over at me from the Ravenclaw table, his gaze extremely appreciative. When he sees me looking he quickly looks away.

I spin back around to face James, suddenly feeling warm.

"Is he making you uncomfortable?" James asks me suddenly, lowering his voice, "Because I'll get him to stop, if you want."

"It's fine," I reply, "He's not looking anymore. Look, I don't know why Will thought he should ask me to Hogsmede. It's completely baffling. But-"

He interrupts me, frowning, "Why wouldn't he? You're beautiful."

The only thing I seem to be able to reply in is shocked silence. I feel heat creep over my cheeks.

He looks embarrassed by my own embarrassment, "I mean because, you know…well you're um -er, intelligent, and cool, and funny and er, good at quidditch…But that doesn't mean you're not attractive. As well as all of those other things…shit."

An uncontrollable smile tugs at the corners of my lips, watching him stammer.

It's still so bizarre to me. Watching James, perfectly calm, calculated, cool James, stumble over his words like he's an actor who forgot his lines in a play.

"Why do you sound so nervous?" I ask him.

After a long pause, he says, keeping his voice low "You make me nervous."

Some instinct makes me reach out my hand across the table and take his.

He isn't expecting the sudden contact, and he takes a sharp breath in.

My finger strokes the inside of his wrist, and his fingers instinctively wrap around mine.

James' gaze softens after a moment, "I'm sorry. We're supposed to be talking."

Right. The talking.

"We are talking," I say, managing a smile.

"You know what I mean," he replies, his gaze soft.

There's a pause. I take a deep breath. I withdraw my hand from his. The contact is too distracting. I need to forget what his skin feels like on mine for a minute.

"OK, I need to say something, and I need you to not interrupt me until I'm finished," I tell him shakily.

He nods uneasily, before saying slowly, "OK."

I swallow once. Another breath in. 

"First thing," I start, trying desperately to go slow and not babble. I look down at my plate, unable to look him in the eye, "Last night. It was amazing. I'd like to repeat it. Sometime in the future. Hopefully the near future. But…it's just…Idon'tknowifImreadytohavesex."

The words come out in quick succession, sounding more like gibberish than anything else.

James' eyes widen, his head shaking, "Stella-"

I put up a hand, "Just let me finish."

He stops talking, but still looks anxious.

"Second thing," I say, "I still don't know if I trust you. I mean. Last week you wanted to be my friend. Now that's a mistake. Every choice you make turns out to be one you regret, so how do I know you won't regret last night. How do I know next week you won't be telling me that you don't want me. Because I don't think I can go through that again. So what I'm trying to say is that…this is it, James. You need to be all in, or this is over. And I'll get over it. I'll get over you. Eventually. But I need you to make it clear to me that this is what you want. Are you sure?"

I finish, and fight the urge to keep babbling to fill the ensuing silence.

I wait for his reply.

He's looking at me in that way again, the way that is filled with so many different emotions that it's impossible to identify what exactly he's feeling.

"Can I talk now?" he asks softly.

"Yes," I reply quickly.

He takes a breath, and I detect a slight nervousness in the way his hands keep moving, fiddling with his shirt cuffs, then rearranging his knife and fork. 

"First off," he says, "Please, never think that I'm expecting sex from you. I mean, don't get me wrong. It's definitely on my mind. But I don't expect anything from you. You could have stopped last night at any point and it would have been fine," He looks away, his voice lowering even further, "Might have required a cold shower on my end, but, my point is, we'll only have sex when we both decide it's the right time."

I stay quiet. 

Damn. Getting through this conversation without kissing him is going to be more of a challenge than I thought.

"Secondly," he says, "Just so that we're clear. I may be confused and totally idiotic sometimes, but the mistakes that I regret have nothing whatsoever to do with my feelings for you. I don't know what I want to do after I leave Hogwarts. I don't know if I like quidditch. I can't even decide whether I want the sticky toffee pudding or the creme brulée after I've finished this meal. But there is one thing about which I have always been certain. And that is you. I like you Stella. Very much. Always have. I liked you when I teased you as we played quidditch. When I got angry with you and made you run lap after lap of the pitch. I liked you even more when you got angry and yelled back at me. You don't know what it did me when I thought you were dating my brother, the relief I felt when I found out it wasn't real, the desperation to kiss you every time we touched. I know it looks like I can never make up my mind whether I like you or not, but the truth is there has never been any doubt in my mind when it comes to you. My only mistake was taking this long to figure out how to tell you that."

I can't reply. Thoughts, words in my brain have all turned to mush. I feel like my whole body has melted.

"You confuse me," he continues, urged on by my silence, "You challenge me. You terrify me. That night on the quidditch pitch when I rejected you…at the time, I thought I was doing the right thing. None of this had gone the way I had planned. You were like a whirlwind storm that swept through my life and left me completely disorientated. You couldn't care less about quidditch. You quit the team. You fought with me. You kissed me. You took everything that I tried to control and fix and understand, and you changed all of it. So when you told me you wanted to be more than friends, I was scared. I thought it was safer to shut myself off from you. 

All my life, I've had this ideal vision of what my life should look like. I would be the perfect son, my parents would be proud, I would follow in their footsteps. You changed all of that, and being with you was scary as hell because all of a sudden I didn't know what I wanted any more. That vision of perfection…it was unattainable. I want a different life to that. I want one full of possibilities, the chance to fuck everything up and put it back together. That old life was smothering. Sometimes I felt like I couldn't even breathe, but with you breathing was easy. You've been in my head since the moment I met you, and I realised last night that pushing you away won't change that. You are one of the best things that has ever happened to me."

I can't breathe. My heart is pounding in my chest. 

"So," James takes a deep breath, and for once his hands are still, "Yes, in answer to your question, I'm sure. And yes, I'm all in."

 








A/NSo...what did you all think? I'm really excited about the next chapter. I'll try and upload it in a timely manner! xxx

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