Disclaimer: JKR owns everything you recognise. Henry V belongs to Shakespeare.
“Nellie?” Annabelle Sterling rapped her knuckles lightly on the guest room door, and I paused in the midst of throwing items in my overnight bag.
“Come in!” I shouted, and after a moment the door creaked open carefully and she stepped inside. Everything about Annabelle was soft, from her delicate smile to her warm brown eyes. She spoke in dulcet tones and even syllables, and with her tranquil bedside manner I knew she would one day be an excellent Healer.
“I have a couple of your things from the laundry,” she said, setting them on the bed all folded perfectly, and I had never appreciated her mothering tendencies more, since I hated doing laundry.
“Thanks so much,” I told her, and she smiled as she backed out of the room once again, shutting the door just like she had opened it, gentle and precise.
Adam had started dating Annabelle his Seventh Year of Hogwarts when I was only a Third Year. It was a hard year for all of us including Scorpius, but Annabelle somehow managed to coax him out of his shell of grief and moodiness. She was good for him - she always had been - but as a result Adam had morphed into a more positive and responsible person, a change that perhaps I resented a little.
Now, as I exited the guest room I could hear the two of them talking, but when I moved to join them I heard Adam sigh, and the sound was so full of a stressed and resigned exhaustion that it made me stop in my tracks.
“I’m worried about her.”
“I know.” I could hear Annabelle, her voice matronly and soothing, and I could imagine that she was rubbing his arm comfortingly like she always did.
“She just...she’s never had a grip on it, and now everything is about to change and she doesn’t even know. I’m afraid she can’t handle it.”
“She’ll handle it just fine. Your mother did. Why should Nellie be any different?”
Adam responded, but his voice was too low for me to hear, and so I twisted the doorknob loudly and walked with heavy feet towards the main area in order to give them warning of my presence.
“Hey,” Adam grinned at me, none of the previous anxiety that I was so sure had coated his words anywhere etched onto the relaxed lines of his face. “What’re your plans for tonight?”
“I’m going to Fred Weasley’s New Years’ party,” I replied, forcing myself to smile. “While you two have a lame night staying in.”
Adam and Annabelle were such an old married couple that they had turned down attending the annual Quidditch League bash in Dublin in favour of sitting on the couch. It was shameful, really.
“Hey,” Adam protested. "It is not lame to eat cheesecake in our pajamas and fall asleep at ten-thirty!”
“I’m just calling the cauldron black,” I shrugged, and Annabelle laughed. “Anyways, Mia’s waiting for me, so I’ll see you later.”
“See you next year!” Adam called, and I yelled something unseemly back, because not even I would make such a terrible joke.
Although a bit of distaste still sat in my stomach from the conversation I had overheard I forced myself to push it from my mind as I Apparated to Mia’s apartment in the city, a sprawling open-concept flat fit for a family of eight instead of the three Templetons.
“Nellie, dear,” Mrs. Templeton greeted me warmly, not even bothered by my sudden appearance in her kitchen. “Just Epparated in, now, did you?”
“Mum, it’s Apparate,” said Mia exasperatedly as she entered, no patience at all in her voice.
“Well, I was close enough,” Mrs. Templeton replied, continuing on icing her cake. She had dark hair like her daughter, and with her soft Spanish accent it was easy to imagine that she had been just as captivating when younger. “At least I make an effort to adapt to the Wizarding World, unlike some people in the reverse.”
“Hey, I went with you to the Goldman’s party the other night,” Mia countered, dipping her finger in the frosting before her mother swatted her away.
“You told Alana Goldman you would put a curse on her if she didn’t let you have the last macaroon!” Mrs. Templeton paused over her cake rather indignantly.
Mia turned to me grinning. “The cover story is that I go to some exclusive boarding school in the States, and their snotty daughter is so superstitious that I couldn’t help but tell her the school is haunted just to freak her out a little. But in my defense, the rest of them still do believe it’s a regular school.”
“Until at dinner when Raymond asked what your favorite subject was and you told him Herbology,” Mr. Templeton broke in from the sleek couch in the sitting room, glancing up from the midsized screen he was holding. “Mary Beth Goldman pulled me aside later and asked if I knew that you were studying marijuana at school.”
“It was worth the laughs for me,” Mia shrugged inconsequentially, and then tugged me down the hallway towards her bedroom. “We’re going out soon, so don’t wait up.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Mr. Templeton called airily, and I gave him a little wave as Mia shut her door.
“I can’t believe James slept in the same room as you!” Mia squealed, unwrapping her strands of hair she had been curling with her wand.
“That’s what you got from the story?” I remarked, swiping on the last bit of my mascara. “Not me almost dying?”
“Well, did you want me to focus on that part?” Mia asked intuitively, and I realised she understood me almost better than I did myself sometimes. “Anyways, that’s really sweet. Who knew James Potter could be sweet?”
I certainly didn’t, but even though I was sure that his tender affect was strictly circumstantial, for the first time ever I was still confident that we would somehow end the night together.
“Let’s see how sweet he’ll be six drinks in,” I rolled my eyes as I stood up, my tall heels wobbling slightly as I did.
I was wearing a short shift silver dress held up by spaghetti straps; it was the shimmery kind which fell to the middle of my thighs, hugging my body at the top and subtly widening out at the end. Mia had straightened my hair and it fell in a sleek bob just past my shoulders, and with my matching silver heels I felt genuinely sexy for the first time in a long while.
But of course Mia was an absolute vision; in her black fitted dress, she was all boob and skinny waist and lush curves, and even though I envied her I also for once appreciated my subtle slim.
“Where is this thing, anyways?” Mia asked, grabbing her little purse as she fluffed her hair in the mirror.
I repeated the address that Fred had owled me a couple of days ago, his invitation complete with multiple sexual innuendos and one rather heartfelt “get well soon” sentiment.
Mia frowned. “That can’t be his house, is it? I thought all of the Weasleys lived farther out.”
“No, it’s his cousin Victoire’s. She and her boyfriend are on some island so they’re letting him throw it in their flat.”
“The Victoire Delacour-Weasley, the designer?” Mia’s eyes bulged. “Merlin, I bet their place is absolutely huge!”
“You can sneak off and look in her closet,” I teased, and while Mia pulled a face at me I was sure she was legitimately thinking about doing just that.
In no time at all Mia had gathered Floo powder as was requested by Fred, and soon enough we were yelling out the address and spinning into the requested grate, our outfits and hair somehow unharmed by the soot and flames.
We entered into a wide space and I immediately could tell Mia was right in her predictions of grandeur. The flat was enormous, all glass walls and open concept and dark floors. An assortment of drinks stood by the grand piano in the corner, and just behind it double doors led out to a balcony overlooking the entire city. Down the hall I could hear music pounding, but so many people were just milling about in this space, most recognisable but many already-graduated Hogwarts students in the mix as well.
“You made it!” Flynn Klein roared before either of us had taken a step, and then he was gripping Mia into a forceful hug. As he grabbed me to do the same, I saw Mia step back, her face pink with surprise until she composed herself, taking a large sip of the drink that she somehow already had in her hand.
I’d almost forgotten that Flynn was quite attractive, but in the lighting of the party it was clear to see how he could be considered rather fit. He was tall and much more built than Scorpius or Albus, his auburn hair was dark enough to not be so startlingly ginger like Louis Weasley, and especially now when he was clearly much too pissed his sort of exuberance and charisma was contagious, and I found myself beaming back at him.
“Drink with us!” Flynn bellowed before Mia or I could say anything, then he was motioning us over to where Albus was standing around with Scorpius and Rose
“Happy New Year!” Scorpius hugged me, and then Rose, who looked a bit apprehensive but when I sent her a genuine smile she relaxed a bit.
“This is amazing,” Mia marveled, handing me a glass of champagne from Albus, who hugged both of us as well.
“I know, I can’t believe Teddy is letting this happen,” Rose said in her normal emphatic manner, shaking her head. “I’ll bet Victoire has no idea this is going on.”
“Of course she knows,” Al rolled his eyes, and his tone took on that sort of snappiness that always came out when he argued with Rose. “Fred bribed her.”
“Oh, yeah?” Rose countered. “With what?”
A smug look settled on Al’s face. “Promising not to pull anything during their wedding like he and James did at their engagement party.”
Rose faltered, and then shrugged after a moment in a rare moment of acquiescence. “Yeah, that’d do it.”
“Sorry - did you just give up on an argument?” Scorpius feigned mock shock, and Rose rolled her eyes and pushed him slightly, to which he grinned at. It was so weird to see them joking around and poking fun of one another when there wasn’t absolute loathing in their eyes, but I kind of liked to watch it. Strangely enough, they fit in well together, their mannerisms bouncing off one another and their movements somehow in synch, not physically touching but still aligned, always aligned.
But I knew they weren’t being touchy because of me, so after a head tilt from Mia we slipped away from the conversation and grabbed some of the jell-o shots from one of the tables, shivering as the cold jelly went down.
And as I set the plastic cup down, that’s when I saw James. He was already staring at me, mouth slightly ajar, gaze running up and down the length of my body hungrily before he finally met my eyes. His mouth opened into a lazy smirk - an invitation - and I sauntered over to him, somehow not nervous at all.
“I told you you have the best legs I’ve ever seen,” said James Potter. With my heels on I was much taller than normal, but even so James somehow still had a large advantage over me.
“You’re crazy,” I rolled my eyes but I was beaming despite myself, and Mia slipped away from my side just as James stepped closer.
“How’re you feeling?” asked James, but his hands had wound around my torso in that slow way that always managed to make me want more, and so bravely I kissed the side of his cheek, allowing my lips to graze against his skin lightly, at which a faint groan escaped from his mouth.
“Better now,” I whispered against the nape of his neck, and I felt a shiver run through his body before he tightened his grip on my waist, pulling my body towards him even more.
“Dance with me,” he said huskily, and as he led me towards the music I grabbed another shot, embracing the way it slid right down into my stomach and warmed it from the inside out.
The flat was all glass windows and smooth floors, and the room where the music was coming out of seemed like it could function under normal circumstances as a huge living room - but here, it could've easily passed as the hottest new club. It was dark with orbs of coloured lights floating and flashing above the crowd that pulsed to the beat of the music, and it was already so packed that it truly did feel like an actual venue.
“Nellie!” Fred bellowed the moment James and I entered the throng, and then he was twirling me around and around and around, finally setting my down on my feet and moving me like we were doing the salsa. He kept kicking his legs out dramatically and I couldn't stop laughing, my stomach starting to hurt with the hilarity of it all.
And then strong arms grabbed me and I was back with James, and we moved with just our chests touching at first, until I turned around and dropped down low, slowly working my way up with my backside against him. As soon as I was upright James put his hand lower and lower on the front of my waist, pulling me tightly into him, and as we kept dancing like this we were hot and sweaty and purely obsessed with each other, no room between us and no doubts to disrupt. Everything else lost its meaning when I was with him, reduced to nothing compared to the adrenaline through my veins and the way his eyes darkened when he looked at me, and I liked him, I liked him so much and somehow it finally felt okay for me to admit it to myself because maybe I finally trusted him a little.
We were shouting out the lyrics, now; everyone seemed to know them, and Mia was dancing with Will Davies, and Fred was handing us drink after drink, and Albus and Scorpius were shooting out lights with their wands from on top of the grand piano in the corner, and it was so invigorating and magical and happy that I could barely comprehend it at all.
It could have been minutes or hours that we danced like that, glowing with the freedom of our age, but after some time James led me back towards the room with all the drinks in it, my mixer from Fred still in my hand, spilling a bit as I stumbled over my own feet.
“Easy there, love,” James grinned, tightening his grip on me, and at that very moment I decided that I loved when he smiled like that at me, like I was the only person he could see in the entire world. He was so beautiful that I could hardly stand it, but of course I had to be as combative as usual; that was just the way we worked, and I could hardly believe it but it did work.
“I’ll have you know I am not easy,” I said stoutly, leaning against the counter.
“No, you’re not,” he agreed. “In fact, you’re famous for being quite hard to get, if I do recall.”
“Well, I would give all of my fame for a pot of ale and safety!” I declared, straight from Shakespeare’s Henry IV or Henry V or - who even knows, just one of the Henrys, and I reached for a shot with the hand not holding my drink but James blocked my action.
“I think we better cut you off for now,” he said, exchanging my glass with a cup of water so quickly that I couldn’t have even tried to get it back.
I pouted. “Why?”
“Because,” James grinned, snaking an arm around my waist, and I settled easily into the alcove of his shoulder like it was made for me, “you are hammered.”
“I am not!” I protested. “And, I’ll have you know, I am extremely offended by that accusation!”
“Are you, now?” he smirked down at me, and I played along.
“Extreeeemely,” I grinned, my smile wide and happy and my eyes sort of half closed.
James barked out a laugh; it was almost full of a delighted surprise as he shook his head. “I’m going to go get you something to eat before you meet some of my friends.”
“Cauldron Cakes?” I asked hopefully, and James laughed heartily along with me before squeezing my hand and disappearing back through the crowd. It was strange how natural it was to act like a couple with him, even though we technically weren’t one, it almost felt like we were. Were we?
Well, he was planning on introducing me to his friends and wanted me to make a good impression. That certainly meant something although I wasn’t quite sure what, and as I thought about all of this someone said my name from behind me.
I turned, and my mouth dropped open.
“H-henry,” I stuttered, and in my moment of confusion he had swooped me into a hug. Even in my fogginess I still felt it, that electric sort of zap I always got when I was near him, a rush that made me instantly crave more of the security of it.
“How’ve you been?” Henry Mulligan released my waist but still held me out with one hand as if he was inspecting me, and I took it as an opportunity to do the same to him. He looked exactly the same as he had in June when I last saw him: brown shaggy hair, deep blue eyes, bushy eyebrows, and as I stared I realised I had yet to respond to him so I blinked to focus myself.
“Good,” he said, and he took a step closer to me. “Listen, I’ve been meaning to-”
“Mulligan! How are you?” James had returned, and was thumping Henry on the back before he could finish whatever he was going to say.
“Potter! Good, mate, and you?”
“Excellent,” said James, and then he glanced to me and then back to Henry. “Henry, you know Nellie Burke, yeah?”
“We know each other,” I managed to say, and I tried to send warning eyes at Henry but he wasn’t looking at me anymore.
“Quidditch,” I said, as Henry said, “We dated.”
James’s mouth opened slightly as he glanced from me to Henry, but in a second it was gone as he clapped his hands together, grinning once more.
“Oh, right! You were on the Ravenclaw team!”
“Right you are. Had to keep up with this firecracker here,” nodded Henry, and from the way he looked at me I could just tell that he wasn’t over me, and I knew James saw it, too. “She has the best tracking instincts I’ve ever seen.”
“She really is amazing,” James agreed, and when his hand snuck around my waist this time I knew it was a calculated and purposeful move of a pawn instead of a simple gesture of drunken affection.
Henry opened his mouth but then just sort of held it there, emotions morphing from confusion to shock to hurt, all in a second. “Yeah...” he said slowly, and without a word of farewell he was making his way out of the kitchen and back through the dense crowd.
“I should go talk to him,” I untangled myself from James’s grip as quickly as I should manage with the fogginess in my brain.
James didn’t try to stop me, just narrowed his eyes, a rather cold glint to his gaze. “Seriously?”
“I’ll be two minutes,” I told him, and I didn’t wait to see what his response was as I turned around and made my way into the thick of the party.
It wasn’t hard to find him. He had gone out the glass doors to the balcony and was gazing out into the heart of London, and when I opened the doors and stepped outside he didn't even move, as if he had expected me to chase him down.
“Hey,” I said carefully, rubbing my arms against the frigid breeze.
He glanced at me, and then back out to the city lights. “Hey.”
I walked over to the ledge and leaned over it slightly, mirroring his position. “How’s Sports Administration?”
“Cut the rubbish, Nels,” Henry turned to me, but it wasn’t unfriendly. “How long have you two been together?”
“We’re not,” I told him, but even as I said it I wasn’t quite certain myself.
Henry snorted. “Yeah,” he grimaced, and it had an almost sardonic tone to it. “Sure.”
“Even if we were, it wouldn’t change anything.” I said quietly. We had both gone back to staring at the view, perhaps because it was easier to say the things we needed to when we didn’t have to look the other in the eyes.
“Wouldn’t it, though?” Henry pressed. “We were good together, I think. I know.”
I bit my lip, trying to find a constellation in the night sky like I always did. “I’m not so sure.”
Henry sighed,the sound of it long and tortured. “Well, I guess that’s what happens when you tell a girl you love her and she doesn’t say it back.”
“No, that’s what happens when a guy is manipulative and tells her he loves her as an apology for freaking out when her friend just hugs her,” I snapped, because I was so beyond past letting Henry act in the wounded animal role that he had wielded so expertly when we dated, and when I was drunk my already short temper was easily ignited.
“I guess you’ll always see it that way,” Henry murmured. “But I meant it, and I think you know that.”
I looked at him just as he looked at me, and as we held our gaze like that I realised that he did mean it, but only because he truly thought he meant it. But he had no idea what it was like to actually and unselfishly love someone just as I didn't either, and so his declarations could never be the actual truth. Never were, never would be.
“Good luck with everything, Henry,” I said finally, turning away from him when I couldn't take his stare any longer.
He watched me walk back to the balcony doors, unsurprised by my response, and as I slipped through them I heard him say, “You too, Nels.”
It took me longer than expected to track down James again. I found Mia almost moments after I re-entered the party, dancing with Will Davies in a way that I truly didn’t care to witness, and Scorpius and Rose were locked an embrace that frankly seemed way too intimate for public, but finally I spotted that mess of dark hair, still in the kitchen where I'd left him a few minutes ago.
“Hey,” I said, coming to a stop in front of him, and for the first time all night I felt nervous.
James looked at me and then away, his gaze settling onto something unseen past me, and even though part of his charm and mystery was that no one ever knew how to interpret his enigmatic looks, I knew what he was about to say before he snapped back into attention and opened his mouth.
“You and Mulligan dated?”
I leaned against the counter, staring at the floor. “Yeah.”
“For how long?”
I didn’t answer.
“Wow,” James said, after a pause. “And you didn’t think to mention that?”
I immediately grew defensive. “Why should I? Have you told me about every girl you’ve been with?
“I mean, it’s kind of a long list,” he snapped.
“Yeah, I figured,” I bit back, and then we both sort of stopped as we realised we were entering into our usual battlefield territory, and as we stared at one another it seemed like for once, neither of us wanted to go there.
James ruffles the already messy hairs on his head with his hand. “It just doesn’t exactly bode well when you’re with a girl and suddenly she goes running after her ex-boyfriend.”
“I just had to explain to him what was going on. He feels emotions really...strongly, and I didn’t want to cause a scene later.”
“What do you mean, strongly?” James asked flatly, and I knew he had been picking up on the intonations I was trying to hide.
“He’s just always been very dramatic.”
“Hm,” James frowned slightly, and I knew I needed to stop him from thinking so hard, so I took a step closer to him, looking up through my lashes.
“But, I mean...” I wound my arms around his waist, pulling him in to me.”There’s kind of someone else I’m interested in right now.”
I could hear James smile in his voice as he reciprocated, his muscular arms holding me close. “Is that so?”
“Mmm.” I was tired all of a sudden, most likely due to the alcohol, and as I leaned my head against his sculpted chest James kissed the top of my head.
“Let me take you out,” James murmured, his lips still against my hair. “For real.”
I glanced up at him skeptically. “We go back to Hogwarts the day after next.”
“Next Sunday, then,” James straightened up, grinning. “We are going to Hogsmeade, and I’m going to buy you dinner, and it’ll be the best date of your life.”
A slow smile spread across my face. “I’m going to hold you to that, you know.”
“Do,” he said, rather cheekily. “I just love when you hold me.”
“Oh, shut it,” I said, and then everything was back to normal, just like that. James had me eat a Cauldron Cake and then poured us a glass of champagne and we went to dance again, our bodies pressed close and our lips never too far apart. Henry was nowhere in sight and Mia and Will were dancing with us and Flynn was on the piano and Scorpius and Rose were doing some sort of jig, and everything felt right again, almost like it had never been off balance the first place.
It seemed like we’d only been at the party for a few minutes when people started yelling that it was almost time, and together we all counted down: five, four, three, two, one - Happy New Year!
Amid all the confetti and blowers and fluourescence, James and I kissed slowly, unhurried and savouring. We kissed like we had time.
My hair was arranged down my back in its normal slightly wavy fashion. I was wearing a black turtleneck and slim dark pants, a chic look that Willow had let me steal from her closet. Mia tried to convince me to wear more makeup than usual, but I truly didn’t see the need to so I refused. If he still wants to go on a date after he saw me nearly bleed out on his brother’s bed than I don’t think he’ll mind a lack of eye shadow, I told Mia drily, and she had pouted rather petulantly at my logic.
So now I was on my way to the Gryffindor Common Room where I was to meet James before we went to Hogsmeade for dinner. He had chosen the restaurant and the time, only telling me to wear something nice and shrugging rather obnoxiously when I asked any other questions. I had to think this fit in with his usual personality trait of needing control, but in this case I was more than happy not to fight him for the upper hand.
James was waiting for me outside the portrait of the Fat Lady, leaning against the wall in his khakis and light button down. His hair was in its usual rockstar disarray, but with his suit jacket on and nice shoes he looked absolutely fit as fuck.
“Cornelia.” James smirked slightly once I reached him, his left corner of his mouth curving upwards in the way I always liked best.
“James.” I replied, my mouth rather dry all of a sudden. “Are you ever going to call me Nellie?”
“Oh, absolutely not,” said James, and instead of leading me down the corridor he led me to the open porthole door and helped me climb through it. “Our reservations aren’t for a bit so we can chill for a little here.”
The Gryffindor Common Room was at its usual Saturday night capacity with the seating around the fire occupied barring one loveseat, and although at first I thought we would go up to his dormitory James settled onto the smaller sofa easily, pulling me down with him.
“‘Sup, Nel?” Fred called from the armchair across from me as we sat down, and I realised a little too late that it was all of his friends surrounding us, and holy crap I was meeting all them for the first time.
“Hey Fred,” I tried my best to shoot him a smile, but whereas I hadn’t been nervous at all before suddenly anxiety was creeping into my demeanor. All eyes around the circle were on the two of us, although I recognised all of the boys the three girls opposite me were unfamiliar.
“Guys, this is Nellie,” said James, and I was greeted with a chorus of hello’s and one enthusiastic hi! from a girl with olive skin and dark hair.
“We’ve met before,” said Axle, and I nodded, remembering him from the Three Broomsticks a couple of months ago. His curly hair was a little shorter since the last time I’d seen him but his other features were still markedly the same: upturned nose, wide smile, brown eyes.
“Yeah, well, it’s not all about you, Peterson, is it?” the girl across from me retorted. She had one of those slightly round freckled faces that just looked so inherently friendly, and as she beamed at me I couldn’t help but smile back at her. “I’m Marley, and this is Riley-“ an angular blonde girl next to Marley gave me a slight nod, “Q-“ Q flashed me a full on grin, “and, of course-”
“Leta,” the girl with olive skin introduced herself from the chair next to me. “I’ve just been dying to meet you!”
“Jesus, Leta, you’ll scare her off,” Fred smirked from his horizontal position across the armchair, flicking her with his foot.
“If you haven’t already done that, I think we’re safe,” Leta responded, flicking him back, and everyone laughed easily.
James smirked from next to me. “To be fair, the first time Nellie met Fred he had just pulled her into a broom cupboard at eleven at night."
“You liked it, though, love, didn’t you?” Fred said to me cheekily, winking.
“I liked when you were caught by Prefects because you tried to pretend to be a statue,” I responded smoothly, and everyone laughed incredulously, but I couldn't tell whether it was at my comedic timing or Fred's idiotic mishap.
“Did you actually do that, Fred?” Marley groaned, and I could tell sorts of conversations like this one were customary surrounding Fred’s questionable actions.
“What can I say?” Fred grinned that devilish smile of his, his dark eyes glinting. “I think quickly on my feet.”
“Anyways, did you see what happened to Q in Herbology today?” James asked, pulling me slightly into his body. I liked how he claimed me in this way in front of all of his friends, and as I leaned into him I noticed the blond girl Riley shoot me a strange look.
Leta frowned. “No, what?”
“We were trimming Bubotuber leaves when my grandfather’s gold watch slipped off my wrist and into the neck of the plant-”
“And so then Q starts freaking out, moaning about how it’s his most prized possession-”
“It is!” Q interrupted James. “Anyways, I had to reach into the plant - elbows deep, mind you-“
“Elbows Deep - title of Q’s sex tape.” said Fred immediately. Everyone ignored him.
“-and pull out mounds and mounds of rancid pus until I found my watch. I swear to Merlin I don’t think I’ve ever done anything more repulsive-”
Axle smirked at Q from across the couches. “What about the time that you got with Gulia Pionetti directly after she got her wisdom teeth out?”
“Oh, yeah. So much drool,” Q grimaced, and in response everyone made similar noises of disgust.
“You’re all going to make a bad impression on Nellie!” Leta admonished. “I swear, we’re not usually this vulgar.”
“Yeah, usually we make a joke about Leta and Fred shagging and then leave it at that,” said Marley innocently, and Leta smacked her while Fred leaned back and grinned proudly, his hands resting behind his head.
“Or we mention the Left Boob Incident of ‘23,” said Riley, speaking for the first time since I had arrived. Her voice was lower than I thought it’d be and had an almost husky quality to it, which alone was intimidating.
“We’ve been over this! My shirt malfunctioning was not my fault!” Marley protested, and James barked out a laugh, throwing a Chocolate Frog wrapper towards her hair. I liked seeing James in this setting; it humanised him, in a way, and suddenly he was just any other teenage boy relaxing with his friends, who were all refreshingly down to earth and balanced out his self-confidence nicely.
“Where are you guys going after this?” asked Leta, and I could tell her eagerness didn’t stem from malicion or jealousy but true excitement about us going on a date.
“Erm,” said James, and suddenly he seemed rather nervous as he glanced towards me and then back to Leta, his hand pausing in my hair. “La Bella.”
There was a moment of silence as all of his friends stared at him. Riley shot me a half curious, half distrustful look, but said nothing.
“Wait,” Axle said after a beat. “Really?”
“Why’s that so surprising?” asked James defensively, but even I was surprised we were going to La Bella, because it was undoubtedly the most expensive restaurant in Hogsmeade, and I had frankly anticipated a couple rounds of drinks at the Three Broomsticks.
“Because of your rule,” said Marley, and then immediately threw James a guilty look in response to his indignant one.
“What rule?” I asked, even though I knew I shouldn’t.
“Oh, look at the time - we should be going,” said James hastily, standing up and then pulling me onto my feet too, grabbing our coats in another movement.
“Oh, now you’ve done it, Marls,” smirked Axle, rather unbothered by the turn of events, and Q snickered from the corner while Leta tried to smack him.
“Sorry!” Marley squeaked, waving a little too enthusiastically as James ushered me through the Porthole. “Have fun!”
As the portrait of the Fat Lady shut, I could make out Fred’s lilting voice: “But not too much fun, you dirty slags.”
We made lighthearted small talk on our way to Hogsmeade, but by the time we were walking on the cobblestones of the main street, my curiosity got the best of me.
“So, what’s your rule?” I asked casually. Our hands swung by our sides as we walked, and ever so often they would collide into one another's more purposefully than not.
James glanced warily down at me before sighing. “Never spend more than five sickles on a girl.”
I frowned. “Then, why are we going to La Bella?”
“I daresay you can determine that for yourself.” he said drily.
I pursed my lips self assuredly. “You fancy me.” I said confidently.
I wasn’t expecting him to do what he did next - to pull my waist in and kiss me so deeply that I forgot how to breathe for a moment - but it fit so perfectly in the scheme of things that I couldn’t imagine it any other way.
The restaurant was as nice as it sounded. It was all dim lighting and soft piano music, with candles on each table and each table so far apart that it was truly private. James made fun of me for ordering pasta, and then I made fun of him for not liking pasta, because who the hell doesn't like pasta? And then he ordered us wine - me white and him red - and we talked about everything we could think of, from our favourite professors to Puddlemere United's shit season to the time Fred had used the invisibility cloak that James and Al shared to torment Peeves and Filch alike.
“This is really nice,” I commented after we both sipped our wine, and I knew he could tell that I meant it.
James's eyes twinkled mischievously. “Thought I’d bring it up to the Pureblood standards.”
“Like your family isn’t used to good meals,” I rolled my eyes. Even though three months ago I would’ve cursed him out for referring to my family, now it was almost an inside joke between us.
“We’re not!” James protested. “Only because every time we go to a restaurant it turns into absolute mayhem.”
“Really?” I asked, as the waiter quietly set down our meals and then disappeared before I could thank him.
“Oh, yeah,” he nodded emphatically, taking another sip of wine. “There’s always at least two screaming matches usually involving at least one of the Delacours, and while Fred and I are prone to pulling pranks his dad George is even more so. It’s a right shitshow, I’d say.”
“That sounds kind of fun, though,” I said wistfully. I had never gotten to enjoy the environment of a large, hectic family, and I was always envious of Albus when he told us stories about his own. “Who’re you closest with?”
“Well, Fred, obviously,” said James immediately. “But Dominique is one of my favourite cousins, even though she's only a Fifth Year. And Lily is fucking annoying, but we’re the most similar, I think, except she's much more blunt and boisterous,” he said that word with a grin, and it was so apparent of how much he loved his family that I felt another little pang of jealousy.
I twirled my spaghetti carbonara with my fork. “What about Albus?”
James glanced up from cutting his steak. “You know what it’s like with us.”
I did. They weren’t particularly close and never really had been; Al was always exasperated by James’s antics and reputation, and James was always annoyed that Al was such a martyr. But they didn’t dislike each other, not nearly, and I’d always imagined them to have one of those relationships where they’d grow close a bit later in life.
“So what about you?” James asked, after we concentrated on our food for a moment. “What’s your family like?”
My breath sort of hitched at the question, but I fixed my face to be neutral and even, the perfect poker face.
“Well, my grandmother is my grandmother,” I started, and at the mention of her James immediately became stony faced so I hastily continued. “But having Adam as a brother is a complete handful, of course.”
“He’s been doing really well in the league, though, yeah?” asked James. “I’ve been following him.”
“Yeah,” I nodded proudly. “I think he’s going to be really great one day. And his girlfriend Annabelle is really sweet, too, and I have half mind they’ll get engaged in the next year or so.”
“Wow, you think?” his eyes popped open wide for a moment, then he shook his head. “That’s so weird. Like, we went to school with them a few years ago.”
“It’s so bizarre,” I agreed. “People leave school and just...grow up.”
“Let’s never do that,” James grinned at me, and I couldn’t help but beam back.
We settled into a comfortable quiet, eating and drinking, and I was about to ask him about curse breaking again when he spoke first.
“What’s your father like?” James asked, and then smirked. “Is he a big Shakespeare nerd, too?”
I had no idea if my father liked Shakespeare, or even if he knew who Shakespeare was, so I paused over the words, because how was I supposed to describe my situation to him? How was I supposed to tell him that I didn’t really have anyone but Adam, who was only four years my senior, as a parental figure? How do you tell someone that you grew up in an empty house, that the only words you’ve ever spoken to your father were vague pleasantries and questions left unanswered, that you’ve never really felt at home in your home?
It was the sort of saved by the bell situation that only happens in movies, except this one brought a fate worse than having to discuss my family.
“Nellie Burke!” someone called, and as James and I both glanced up we were met with the sight of none other that Professor Longbottom towering over us.
“Come with me. You too, James.”
Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck-
“But, Neville,” said James lightly. “I haven’t even finished my steak frites!”
“Pay and let’s go.” Professor Longbottom ordered, unsmiling and grim, and I think my heart practically dropped to my feet. I had never gotten into trouble this badly ever, and I knew it would be bad - we were off school grounds, and we could get expelled for such a thing.
I stood up shakily, and James could tell that I was absolutely freaking the fuck out because he put his hand on my lower back and kept it there as Longbottom led us out of La Bella, the atmosphere of the restaurant suddenly seeming dark and somber instead of romantic.
“It’ll be fine, Burke, I promise,” he murmured to me, low and reassuring, just before Longbottom stuck out his arms at us, indicating we should grab them. When we appeared from the suffocating darkness, we were in the Headmistress’s office. I had never been in there before, but I knew enough about it to know what it looked like - cavernous spaces with various trinkets all around, posters of previous Headmasters lining the wall, and most curiously a scratching post for cats in the corner.
“Neville, this was all my fault,” said James immediately, and through my anxiety I managed to shoot him a bewildered gaze. “I was bringing Nellie on a date and I didn’t tell her it would be outside of Hogwarts.”
“Right now I’m going to overlook the fact that you were off grounds when you weren’t supposed to be,” said Professor Longbottom, strolling over to sit at the large desk, and at first I thought I’d heard him incorrectly until I heard James breathe a comically exaggerated sigh of relief. We weren’t to be expelled, and I almost laughed with the alleviation of it all.
“Wooh. Thanks, Neville. Won’t happen again, I promise.”
James was smirking through all of his words, and so Longbottom shot him a look that clearly said I’m not an idiot and then turned to me, his expression inexplicably softening into what I could only interpret as concern.
“Nellie...I have some difficult news. Perhaps you should take a seat.”
The smirk slid off of James’s face instantaneously, and my whole body tensed up because I knew what had happened - it was Adam, something had gone wrong during Quidditch and he was hurt; the same thing had happened to Scorpius in Third Year, when Astoria had passed away: Professor Sinistra had come and said those exact words to him, I have some difficult news, and in that moment even though he knew what had happened, he still asked, “What is it?” just like I did now.
Professor Longbottom hesitated. “Do you want James to leave?”
“I don’t care,” I waved aside his question as quickly as my mouth would allow me to. “Just tell me.”
Longbottom glanced at James and then back to me, taking in a deep breath before saying, “It’s your father. It appears there was an accident while on duty, and he is at St. Mungo’s Hospital.”
James gasped slightly, his eyebrows pinching together in concern as he appraised my reaction, but the only thought that went through my head was that it wasn’t Adam.
“Oh,” I said slowly, and I tried unsuccessfully to hide the relief that coated my tone. “Is he okay?”
“I’m afraid I don’t know,” said Professor Longbottom gravely. “But he’s asking for you.”
My mouth opened slightly, and all I was able to do was squeak out, “Me?” because I hadn’t spoken to my father since September, and even that conversation was no more than ten seconds. There was no possible explanation for him requesting my presence at his bedside; if it hadn’t been standard policy to alert family members I doubt I would have even heard of his accident in the first place.
I looked helplessly from James to Longbottom, suddenly wishing it had been Scorpius or Mia with me when I had gotten this news.
“Erm, okay,” I chose my words carefully. “I hope he feels better.”
Professor Longbottom frowned in confusion. “Don’t...you want to visit him?”
“I have homework,” I said lamely, and at that James gaped openly at me.
“You’ll be excused from classes for as long as you need,” Longbottom said, and with the way James was looking at me I knew that there was no way out so I sighed, dully and resigned to my fate.
“When should I go?”
“Now, if you’d like. The Floo portal has already been activated for you,” Longbottom gestured towards the fireplace which was indeed flickering with green flames.
“Okay,” I bit my lip. “Can I just have a moment? To collect myself?”
James exchanged a look with Longbottom, who seemed to get the hint and exit the room
I sank down into the chair, my legs suddenly too shaky to hold my weight. I couldn’t fathom a reason my father would ever ask for me, considering that in the past three years we have said about a hundred words to each other, and the only possible explanation was that he was dying. My father was going to die, and while the thought of that still didn’t make me feel any emotion towards him, I was suddenly terrified for myself. I didn’t know what to do and I didn’t know how to react, so I breathed in and out and repeated soothing mantras, you’re fine, Nellie, it doesn’t matter, until my head was clearer.
After a couple of minutes of silence (breathe in, Nellie, you’re fine, you’re fine), James had had enough.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I glanced up at him. “I’m fine.”
“You don’t have to b-”
“I am.” I stood up, my legs still a little hollow, and made my way over to the far side of the room where the Floo was.
“But you would rather do schoolwork than visit your father while he’s in the hospital?” James asked incredulously, taking a step closer to where I was.
“Sorry not all families are as perfect as the Potters.” I turned away from him, instead facing the fireplace, where the flames were already green and inviting.
“You think my family is perfect?” James hissed, as the flames jumped a little higher, and I knew his firecracker temper had been ignited. “Is that what you seriously think?”
“Pretty much, yeah.” You’re fine, it doesn’t matter. Get it together.
“Fuck’s sake, Burke, I thought you were different.”
“I guess I’m not,” I said, but he was already going off on one of his tangents, and nothing I could have said or done would have stopped him.
“Do you know the kind of pressure I’m under? The kind of pressure we’re all under? Everything we do is publicised and criticised! My entire life has been up to speculation and no matter what I do, I’ll never live up to my parents - my grandparents! No matter what, I’m destined to be a failure!”
“I didn’t know,” I said, but somehow I had become more angry with him than ever before, and I had to fight to keep my voice level. You’re fine. It doesn’t matter. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go to St. Mungo’s.”
“What, love, you’re not going to argue back? Claim your life is somehow harder than mine?” His voice was cruel and vindictive, saturated with sarcasm, but I didn’t take the bait. The arguments worth winning were the ones that you maybe shouldn’t have won at all, and if it came down to it this stupid, selfish dispute would go to me, no question about it. So I didn’t fight back. It wasn’t worth it.
“No,” I said finally. I didn’t raise my voice to meet his, didn’t challenge him with my tone, didn’t do anything to provoke the situation further. “It seems like you’re going through a lot. I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with all of those expectations.”
James was taken aback. “I...thank you.”
“Tell Scorpius what happened,” I said, and before James could respond or grab my arm like he had reached out to do, I was stepping into the green flames and whirling through minute glimpses into lives and families and worlds that I would never be a part of, imagining the different conditions that could be affecting a man who had existed in my life as a vague constant for as long as I could remember.
Author’s Note: This was supposed to be two individual chapters but I sort of smooshed them together, hence the length. Hope you enjoy, since the next two chapters are gonna get craaazzy! And please please review, I don’t think you understand how much they motivate me but I check them every day and it seriously makes me write faster and sometimes gives me actual ideas! Thank you!
Up next...A story of green meadows, knowledge, and warnings.
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