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Chapter 18: Darkness, Time, And All That Jazz
Things are better.
Not great, not good, not even okay - but better.
And honestly? I’ll take it. Because better means that life is, well, better. An improvement.
That’s not to say that everything is exactly how I want it to be, but it’s getting there. Each time Jett gives me a small smile or nod in passing is a little reminder of that. We haven’t really talked or spent any time together, but that’s okay by me. I know he needs space right now - space to think things over, space to get his head on straight - and I can give him that. If that’s what it takes to earn his forgiveness, then I will patiently wait it out.
Dom, however, is an entirely different story. I quite honestly cannot figure her out. For someone who proclaimed herself to be my “best friend,” she sure has been rather cold. I can’t recall her saying a single thing to me in the past few weeks and I don’t really understand why. As far as I know, she was never all that close with Jett - considered him a friend, probably, but that’s about it. So I just don’t get why she’s freezing me out. Yeah, I know I messed up big time, but as a best friend, she’s supposed to stick it out with me. She’s supposed to listen to me.
But still, life is better. Even without Dom, my life is looking up.
Right now, for example. I’m sitting in a remote section of the library at a tiny corner table with Aiden, parchment covering our whole table and chunks of the floor as well. The combined smell of our own drying ink and the mustiness of books not read for centuries is a bit odd, to say the least, but regardless, the library serves our purpose well.
Aiden scrawls a few more notes on a piece of parchment in his spindly writing before pushing it towards me for approval. I glance at the notes and nod slightly, so he transfers the written work into a diagram in our newly devised “play book” for the Ravenclaw Quidditch team.
With all that’s been happening lately, I’ve been so completely stressed and burned out that I haven’t been able to give the Quidditch team everything that I should. So, Aiden and I decided to be co-captains - unofficially, of course, because he technically hasn’t been sanctioned by the school, as I’m pretty sure they don’t go for the whole “sharing captaincy” thing. But hey, it makes him happy.
“I think that’s good for now,” he mutters, beginning to gather up the tornado of parchment into a single stack.
“Yeah,” I agree with a slight yawn.
“See you then,” Aiden mumbles as he heads out of the library.
I yawn again, but pull the stack of parchment towards me, knowing that I still have work to do on the plays. With the game against Slytherin fast approaching, I have to make sure that everything is perfect - they aren’t going to be as easy to beat as the Puffs were.
The flickering of the lamp near me casts an ambient glow over my table, providing the late hour with a scene to play in. I feel my eyelids growing heavy as I sit mesmerized by the dancing of shadows across the parchment. Before long, my head starts to droop and my eyelids slowly shut, letting my brain turn off and my thoughts drift to wonderland...
A pair of hands on my shoulder, gently shaking me awake.
Some more shaking, but I’m too tired to care.
“You best get up now, otherwise I’ll be forced to tell you lame Quidditch jokes until you do.”
Lame Quidditch jokes? Too tired for that.
“Jett?” I ask groggily, straightening up and rubbing the sleep dust from my eyes. I squint around in the half-illuminated room, struggling to make out his face through my sleepy haze and the dim light of the lamp.
“Would anyone else threaten you with lame Quidditch jokes?” he says teasingly.
“Probably not. What are you doing here?”
“I was just sitting up in the balcony and I saw you sleeping down here. Figured I should rescue you from breaking curfew.”
“Gee, thanks. How chivalrous of you,” I mutter sarcastically.
He lets out a short bark of laughter and I make out the roll of his eyes in the lamplight. “Shall we go?”
“No, not yet. Just let me sit for a bit first,” I say.
I don’t think I have the energy to move right now. In fact, I feel like I don’t have any energy at all. And it’s not just tonight, either - I’ve been constantly exhausted, twenty-four seven, regardless of how much sleep I get.
Jett pulls up a chair next to mine, and we sit together in comfortable silence for a few minutes. It’s nice, just having him here. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking or even if we’re friends. Him being here makes me feel a little less alone.
“I’m going to talk to James tonight,” he says quietly, voice taking me a bit by surprise.
I turn my head slightly so I can look at him and find his eyes averted from mine, gaze directed just slightly above my head. His hands twist nervously in his lap, and I’m suddenly aware of how awkward he must feel right now, bringing the subject up.
“That’s good. He really misses you.”
Another silence settles over us before Jett breaks it again. “We should probably go now.”
“Okay,” I agree softly, gathering my papers and pushing out of my chair. But as soon as I stand up I know that something’s off with me. My vision darkens and I feel blood rushing to my head, pounding loudly at my temples and flushing my face with heat. I shut my eyes quickly and lean one hand against the table, using it to support my weight.
“Are you okay?” Jett’s voice cuts through to my brain.
“Just - just give me a second.” I breathe in deeply and open my eyes as the dizziness subsides before shooting him a smile. “All ready.”
I grab my stack of papers off the table, but as I do so, I notice his brow furrowing in disbelief and disapproval at my comment. He doesn’t say anything, though, and we proceed together out of the library.
Once we’ve made it to the corridor, I clear my throat and settle to a stop. “I guess I should have told you earlier... but I kind of need to run down to the Quidditch pitch and drop these papers off in the captains’ office.”
“You’ve got to be messing with me right now,” he says flatly.
“Um... not really.”
“Seriously? You couldn’t have told me that like five minutes ago?”
I smile sheepishly at him and drop my gaze to the floor. “Sorry.”
Jett sighs in exasperation and says, “Well, fine then. I guess I’ll just head off to the common room... See you tomorrow.”
“Yeah, see you,” I mumble awkwardly as we head off in opposite directions. I was honestly kind of hoping that he would offer to walk down with me.
After a solid twenty minutes of walking, I reach the pitch and veer off immediately towards the captains’ office. I’m really cutting it short on time, but I’m worried that if I don’t drop these papers off tonight I’ll forget to take them to practice tomorrow. And, you know, I really don’t want Aiden to murder me. Living is kind of nice.
I shove open the door to the office with my shoulder, not really paying attention to what’s going on around me. And to my surprise, when I enter the office, I notice something that I really should have seen before: the lights are on. Which means someone’s here.
And it doesn’t take long to figure out whom.
A head of jet black hair whips up from the table, hazel eyes boring a hole through me. I feel my mouth go dry as I stare at James, completely at a loss for words. I feel like I should leave, but my feet are rooted to the spot. All I can do is stare at him as he stares back.
But then I realize - he’s not simply staring. He’s glaring at me.
But this isn’t just any glare - oh, no. Wizard God wouldn’t let me be that lucky. This is the glare. The one I’ve only seen him use on one other person. The one I’ve only seen him use on Alex.
It’s a look of pure hatred.
“James,” I find myself whispering, “I’m s-”
“No. Don’t say it. I don’t want to hear it.”
His voice is so cold that I half expect to find myself shivering upon hearing it. This isn’t right. He isn’t acting like himself - he isn’t acting like my James. And I know that I shouldn’t be expecting anything other than what’s in front of me - I honestly have no right to - but still... This just isn’t right.
A silence falls over us, but James continues with his icy glare unflinchingly. Anxious to get away from it, I quickly unlock the Ravenclaw team locker and shove my papers inside. Then I shut the locker with a bang and hurry towards the door, wishing desperately to get away from his gaze.
But just as my hand reaches for the doorknob, James’s voice lashes out suddenly, forcing me to a standstill. “That was a really dick move, you know. Kissing Alex. But it really serves me right, doesn’t it? Serves me right for not listening to what everyone said about you. I guess I should just go and confirm everything, then. Tell them how much of a bitch you really are. Or maybe whore would be more appropriate.”
His voice is like a knife, slicing through every bit of happiness I’ve gained in the past few days. I feel my breath catch in my throat and a wave of nausea pass over me as my hand quivers on the doorknob, feeling the weight of his words.
I should leave. I should leave right now. I should shove the door open and run away from him, from his anger, from his words, from his piercing glare - but I can’t. I can’t move my body, can’t think about anything but how much he hates me right now. All I can feel is my heart shattering into a million pieces, scattering all across the floor.
“Oh, don’t act so wounded,” he hisses out venomously. “You don’t have the right to play the victim. But before you go, I have to ask - do you actually have a heart, or is there just an empty cavity of air in your chest?”
“I’m so sor-” I begin, but he cuts me off again.
“I’m so fucking tired of this. Just shut up. Shut the hell up. I don’t want to hear it anymore, I really don’t.”
“What don’t you fucking get?” I let out a gasp of shock as his chair slams back into the wall and he stands up, face completely filled with fury. “I’ve had enough of this! I want you to get the fuck out of my life! I never want to see you again, I never want to speak to you again, I never want to hear your fucking name again!”
My whole body shakes under his rage, and I find myself slowly inching away from him until my back is flush against the door, but I’m still unable to open it. All I can do is stand there, watching James through tearstained eyes in both fear and heartbreak. I can’t find the will to say anything. I can’t even find the will to think.
“Oh, please. Don’t even start with the crying because I’ve had enough of that too. I’m fucking tired of sitting there, giving everything for you, listening to you, and watching you choose someone else every fucking time. But you know what? I can handle that. I really can. In fact, there’s only one thing I can’t handle anymore. Do you know what that is, Aria? It’s being in love with a heartless bitch.”
“Listen to me -”
“Do you ever think of anyone but yourself? Do you? Or are you honestly that fucking selfish? And here I was, deluding myself into thinking that you might, oh, I don’t know care about me or something - but obviously that was completely off the mark because you only care about your own fucking self!”
By this point he’s flat out screaming. Not shouting, not yelling, but screaming. His hands are balled into fists at his sides, clenched so hard that I can see them quivering with the effort and spot the muscles straining in his arms. Never before have I seen him this angry. Never.
I feel the tears slipping faster and faster down my face, feel every piece of me splinter under his words, but I still can’t find the will to move. It’s like I’m paralyzed, body totally unable to function. What I want more than anything is to get out of the room, but I can’t. I’m just frozen, stuck listening to his hatred.
James goes off on another round of screaming, but suddenly it’s like I can’t hear him anymore. His voice slowly drains away from my consciousness, and the world is spinning, my vision going darker, sight melting away. Bright spots of multicolored lights appear in the darkness of my eyes, and the dizziness passing over my body is overwhelming. I lean harder against the wall, letting it support me as I clutch desperately at my head with my hands, listening only to the pounding in my head.
I stand propped like that for a good minute, sick to my stomach and unable to make out the world in front of me. Eventually, though, the sickness passes, returning my mind to the present.
“Call it morbid curiosity, but I have to know. Why, Aria? Why did you fucking do it, huh? Are you trying to make me hate you? Is that what you want? Or are you just a sadistic bitch whose goal in life is to fuck me over? Why’d you kiss him? After everything - everything - after I sat there and talked with you for fucking hours, after I listened to all your problems, after I -”
“I did it for you.”
My own voice surprises me - quiet, but somehow confident, despite its shakiness. James is taken by surprise as well and he splutters a bit, apparently shocked at my sudden discovery of vocal cords.
“You - you - you fucking - ha, that’s rich. That’s really rich. You did it for me. Wow, what a good one, Aria. What a good fucking joke. I’m practically in stitches.”
“You’re not listening to me,” I say, still as quiet and calm as before. “He said he wouldn’t tell Jett if I kissed him. So I did.”
A raw silence rings around the room. James’s face is a mixture of confusion and fury, and I watch as he blinks once, twice, three times, but says nothing.
“He gave me a choice, and I - I -”
But my words are lost as once again the darkness strikes, worming its way into my eyes and sending my senses spiraling. I feel the world spinning around me, hear the heavy throbbing in my ears, spot the colored dots in front of my eyes.
This time is worse - oh, so much worse than the other two. It feels like a heat wave is rushing through my body, worsening all the symptoms and sending me into a deeper spiral. My legs shake, and unable to stand anymore, I let my back slide down the wall so I can rest on the ground.
I immediately tuck my knees up to my chest and rest my head against them as I settle onto the floor. My breathing quickens as I gasp desperately for air, trying to force it down my throat and into my heaving chest.
Gradually I become aware of someone trying to say something to me - yelling, maybe, I can’t really tell - but through my muddled up brain it feels like I’m underwater, listening to someone who’s above the surface.
“Aria... Aria... can you hear me? Come on, come on...”
I feel a warm hand grasping my upper arm and another reaching out to touch my forehead. Eventually I string together enough coherent thought to realize that this must be James, as he’s the only one in the room with me. The hand on my forehead gently brushes my hair behind my ears, while the one on my arm shakes me slightly. But it’s no use. I still can’t see anything, save for a tiny piece of vision near the center of my eyes. Everything else is pitch black.
“Can you hear me?” he’s saying again. “Give me some sign that you can hear me.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I somehow manage to babble out. “I can hear you...”
“Oh, thank God. Now tell me what’s wrong. You have to tell me what’s happening.” His voice is still so far away, but I know he’s sitting right next to me.
“Lightheaded... dizzy... can’t see... pounding...”
“Okay, okay. Keep your head there, right between your knees. Breathe in through your noise, out through your mouth. Can you do that for me? I need you to do that for me. Just - just -” His voice breaks off suddenly, and I hear the rustle of his clothes as he stands up and the noise of his feet as he paces around the room.
And even though I can’t see him, I can picture exactly what he’s doing - yanking his hands back through his hair, locking his fingers behind his head. That’s what he always does when he’s stressed.
The pacing noise stops suddenly. “I’m going to be right back, okay? Just stay here.”
I nod dumbly and listen to his pounding feet as he sprints out the door. It feels like an eternity before I hear him reenter the room, but it honestly can’t have been more than thirty seconds. Then suddenly he’s right next to me, pushing what I think is a plastic cup into my hands.
“Drink this. Slowly.”
I do as he says, taking small sips of water and resting my head against the back of the wall in exhaustion. After a minute or so of drinking, the cup is empty, so I set it on the ground and curl my knees tighter against my chest.
Gradually the darkness begins to shrink, and I feel my head begin to clear as the throbbing and swirling sensations give out. I let out a deep sigh and stretch out my legs, watching in wonderment as the room gently stabilizes before me.
“How are you feeling?” James’s voice is soft and measured, and I can tell that it’s being carefully controlled. But there’s an edge to it - an edge to his voice that betrays the hysteria right underneath the surface, the panic that he’s holding back.
“Here,” he mutters as he rummages through the Gryffindor team locker. “Eat this.” He holds something out to me, something that looks suspiciously like -
“Chocolate?” I ask in disbelief.
“Chocolate makes everything better. At least that’s what Teddy Lupin tells me.” James hands me the bar of chocolate, and I unwrap it slowly, my eyes never leaving his face. “Oh, for God’s sake, just eat the fucking thing,” he snaps.
I flinch at his tone and obligingly nibble at the sweet, making little dents in it here and there. And then, before I know it, half of the bar is gone, three-quarters, the whole thing. The only noise in the room is the rustling of the packaging as I push the wrapper away, shoving it inside the long forgotten cup.
“You scared the fucking shit out of me, do you know that?” James demands angrily. “Do you even know - how could you do that to me? I thought - I thought -”
“I’m sorry, just please - please don’t start screaming at me again,” I beg, feeling the ragged desperation pulsing through my voice. “Please, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, James. Don’t scream at me. Don’t - please -” I break off, unable to go any further, and bury my face in my hands, waiting for it to begin again. Waiting for him to get it out. Waiting for him to lose his temper. Waiting for the screaming.
But to my surprise, he doesn’t scream. In fact, he doesn’t say a word. Instead, I feel his body brush up against mine lightly as he takes a seat beside me. There’s a long silence, and then his hands latch onto mine, pulling them away from my face and setting them gently in my lap.
“I’m not going to scream at you.” His voice is back to the calm and careful tone it was before. It’s like the anger has simply dissipated into the air, left in wisps from his body.
I turn my head slightly to the left so I can look at him. His face is like stone, emotionless. Like there’s nothing there. Not even in his eyes. Just... dead.
Then suddenly the stone cracks.
James snaps his eyelids shut instantly and turns his face away, hiding it from me so I can’t see whatever telltale emotion is scrawled across it. His hand clenches into a fist unconsciously on the floor, then relaxes just as quickly.
This time it’s James who says it. His voice is rough and husky, filled with some emotion that I can’t even begin to place. He’s still facing away from me, but I can see him bite his lip, make out the squeezing of his eyes shut as tight as they can go.
It hurts my heart to look at him. It hurts every part of me to see him so close, yet so far away. It aches. All of it. Everything. There’s nothing that doesn’t hurt anymore. I thought that I was going to be okay. I thought I could get through this. I thought I was stronger.
I thought, I thought, I thought.
Oh, so foolishly.
And I know, without a doubt, that we’re both thinking the same thing in this moment. We thought we could handle this. We thought we could get a grip on our lives. We thought we could move on.
We were both being foolish.
Silently, gently, he slips his hand into mine, and I weave our fingers together. A joint effort. The two of us.
James lets out a long breath and tilts his head straight back against the wall, eyes open now. Whatever emotion he was hiding is gone, replaced with one of resignation. I see in his eyes how tired he is, spot the exhaustion hiding under the surface.
“Do you know what you do to me?” he asks seriously.
I ponder his question briefly, eyes locked on our intertwined hands. He has a tiny scar on the knuckle of his pinky, so pale that I can barely even see it.
I don’t know what I’m expecting, but whatever it is, it’s not how James reacts. I barely even know that my answer has registered with him for all the emotion he shows.
“You drive me insane,” he says quietly. “You make me want to scream until my voice is shot, but at the same time, all I want is to sit here and be with you. You make me hurt until there’s nothing left, but then I look at you and it’s like none of that matters anymore. And -” He swallows roughly, taking his free hand and raking it back through his hair. “And I feel like all you do is take, and all I do is give.”
Time hangs still. Motionless. Frozen. There’s nothing but us.
James takes a ragged breath and shuts his eyes tightly again, still running his fingers wildly through the black mess atop his head. “And - I just - I don’t know what to fucking do anymore. I really don’t think I can live like this much longer. I can’t take it anymore. But I have to. And I don’t know what to do.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“I feel like I’m trapped. I can’t get out, no matter what I do. I can scream and kick and fight all I want, but at the end of the day I’m still trapped.”
Silence. Nothing but my breathing. The beat of my heart.
“I hate this,” he says. “I hate it. I’m out of options, cornered up against a wall. And there’s no way out. No exits, no windows, no doors. Nothing.”
More silence. Nothing but his breathing. The beat of his heart.
“And I just - I can’t. It’s too much. It hurts so badly, but there’s nothing left that I can try. I feel like - like I’m ready to collapse. Every single morning I think there’s no way I can do it all over again. I can’t get up, I can’t go to class, I can’t act like there’s nothing wrong. It hurts - God, it hurts - and I can’t take it anymore. But I have to. I have to get up. The world doesn’t stop turning.”
Complete silence. Nothing but our breathing. The beat of our heart.
“You don’t understand. You don’t know what it’s like. You have Jett back. It’s okay for you. It’s -”
And then he stops. He just... stops.
The stillness is broken. Time shifts back into motion. Nothing left of the moment except our memories of it, fading away with every second.
“God, why is this happening?” His hand rips out of mine, voice harsh and angry. “I don’t understand this!” Then he’s up on his feet, pacing furiously, both hands tugging at his hair. “I didn’t fucking ask for this! I don’t want this! I -” He catches sight of me, and his hands slip slowly from his head, falling down to his side. “I didn’t ask for you.” He’s quiet, whispering now.
Without a word, I push off of the ground and stand up. James’s eyes follow my every movement, watching silently as I walk across the room and gently wrap my arms around him. He responds by hugging me back, tightly pulling me against his chest, and dropping his head onto mine, burying his face in my hair.
“You don’t know what you do to me,” he says quietly, words muffled slightly.
“I think I might have a pretty good idea.”
“When you were about to faint, I thought I was going to lose it - I was so scared -”
“Wait, what?” I ask suddenly. I tilt my head away from James’s chest, and his head goes bobbing off of mine. “What did you say?”
“I thought I was going to lose it -”
“No, not that. The first bit.”
I watch as his eyebrows knit together in confusion, eyes staring down at me intensely. “When you were about to faint?”
“Yeah, that,” I say. “That’s what that is? Huh. I’ve been wondering about that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, it’s the third time that’s happened today -”
“Godric, Aria -”
“James, don’t scold me -”
“- you cant -”
“- I’m perfectly fine -”
And then we both cut off at the same time, staring at each other, locked in a battle to see who will back down first.
“I don’t want to fight anymore,” he mutters, looking away.
I rub at my eyes with the heel of my hands, trying in vain to wash the tiredness from them. Yawning, I sit back down on the floor and rest my back against the wall. James joins me, and before I know it, I’m leaning over to the side, laying my head on his shoulder.
“How did you know?” I ask quietly. “How did you know what was happening to me?”
“I went to Quidditch camp last summer and got dehydrated. Nearly passed out. What you described to me, that’s exactly how I felt. So I kind of knew what to do because of that.”
“But somehow I don’t think that dehydration is the cause of your episodes.” James shifts around a bit so I’m forced to sit back up and pull my head off of his shoulder. “Be honest with me - what’s going on?”
“I don’t know.”
He gives me a suspicious look and grabs my hand, holding it up so it’s right in front of my face. “Look. You’re shaking, even when we’re sitting down on the ground. You’re not eating, are you?”
“Yes, I am,” I mutter.
“What do you want me to say, James?” I demand, truly mad at him for the first time tonight. “My life’s a mess, my best friend isn’t talking to me, Alex is turning this year into my own personal hell, my reputation’s shot, we’ve got a huge match coming up that I’m not nearly prepared for, and, to top off the gigantic pile of suck that is my life, you go and fucking leave me. So forgive me for not having an appetite.”
“You’re angry with me,” he says quietly, stating the obvious.
“Of course I’m fucking angry with you! How could you do that to me? How could you just stand there, after everything - after I trusted you, after I finally opened up to you, to someone, anyone - how could you stand there and choose to walk away?”
“How could I? How could I? What did you expect me to do, lose my best friend of ten years for you?”
“No, I -”
“Why do you even think that I would choose you over Jett? Why should I? Why should I drop someone I’ve known for so long, who I actually mean something to, for you? Why should I give it all up for a girl I barely know who feels nothing for me?”
“I wasn’t asking you to choose!”
“Wasn’t asking me to - that’s complete shit -”
“You didn’t have to -”
“Of course I had to!”
And he’s back on his feet, screaming again. I let his words echo around the room without responding, and he gradually cools off, expression slowly softening to what it was before.
Again, it’s James who says it. Once more his voice is raw, filled to the brim with an emotion that I still can’t place.
And just like before, I stand up and walk towards him. Silently I lean my head against his chest and feel his arms around me, tighter than before.
“You’re upset because I left?” he asks softly, all hints of former anger gone.
“Of course I am.”
For a while there’s nothing but the sound of our breathing, no movement but the beating of our hearts. I think I could stand here forever and not even know that a second’s passed, or a day or an hour or a year.
“I don’t want to choose,” he murmurs.
He loosens his grip and pushes me away slightly so he can look down at me, straight in the eyes. “I have to.”
“You don’t understand. I can’t risk losing him. I can’t.”
“We’re not even together anymore -”
“It doesn’t matter.” His voice is bitter now, but the sting isn’t directed at me. “It really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you’re dating him or not. It happened. It’s done. You’re off limits. Besides, you’ll get back with him eventually. I know you will.”
“But that doesn’t mean -”
“That doesn’t mean what? That I have to stay away? Of course it does, Aria. I don’t trust myself. Not around you. What if I slip up again? What if I do something stupid? What if I say something stupid? None of it will matter except for my mistake. It’s always my own fucking mistake. And I don’t want to make one again. I can’t make one again. I just - I have to make sure. I have to make sure that I don’t lose him.”
“But that means you’re losing me.”
There’s a pause, and a sad smile slowly slips across James’s face. “You were never mine to lose.”
I watch as the fingers of his right hand reach out to brush against my left. Lightly, delicately, his hand curls around mine and together we walk to the wall, letting our backs sink down against it to the floor.
“It’s past curfew,” I say quietly.
James nods, eyes locked onto the clock. “I know.”
“We should go back to the castle.”
“It’s not that late. We wouldn’t get in that much trouble.”
“I could probably talk Wes - I mean Professor Parkes - out of suspending your Quidditch captaincy.”
“You probably could.”
And yet still we sit there, motionless, hands intertwined, watching as one minute after another ticks by on the clock.
Tick. The second hand. Tick. The minute hand. Tick. The hour hand.
“You need to go back,” I finally say, breaking the silence. “Jett was going to talk to you tonight -”
“He can wait.”
“No. He can wait. If it’s really that important to him, then he can talk to me tomorrow. Or the next day. Or whenever. But you - all I have with you is tonight, and I’m not going to lose that.”
“Would you stop thinking like that already?” I demand angrily, taking my free hand and giving him a solid shove to the shoulder. “Stop acting like you have to leave. You don’t have to. You’re choosing to, and it’s not a choice you have to make.”
“I don’t want to argue about this anymore,” he says calmly. “We’re going to sit here together tonight, and when morning comes, I’m letting go of you. And that’s all there is to it.”
I pause, searching for the right words to say. The right words that will make him stay here. The right words that won’t make him choose.
But in reality, I don’t need to think about my words. I know exactly what I want to say - what I want him to understand - and it’s the absolute truth.
“Don’t go. I need you.”
He squeezes my hand and lets out a small exhale of breath in resignation. “You don’t need me.”
“I do,” I insist, but he shakes his head stubbornly.
I can tell that he’s not going to budge on this, being the stupid Gryffindor that he is, so I let out a huff of exasperation and lean my back against him without another word. James doesn’t seem to mind my use of him as a human pillow, as he wiggles his hand free of mine and wraps both arms around me like we’ve done so many times before.
I brush my thumb lightly over the backs of his hands as we fall back into silence. There’s the press of his lips against the top of my head and the continuous ticking of the clock, but besides that, nothing breaks the stillness.
And as we sit there, content to just be with each other, a thought strikes me. A memory. You see, when I was little and my mom took me to the store with her, I would always try to get her to buy me little candies and toys and such. Sometimes she would buy them for me, but for the most part, she would give me a firm “no” and put the item back on the shelf. Of course, I would pout and throw a tantrum, and she would calmly sit me down and explain to my six-year-old self that there’s a difference between what we want and what we need.
Well, back then I didn’t understand what she meant. I’m older now, though, and I can finally comprehend that difference. I understand that what James so desperately wants is to hear me say that I love him back. But I also understand that what he needs more than anything is his best friend.
If I told him that I love him, he would stay. Without a doubt.
But that would be selfish.
I know that not saying anything is hurting him, but it’s what he needs. At this moment, at least. What he needs is to have Jett back, and I can’t take that away from him. I’m not going to be selfish anymore. It’s better for the both of them if I just zip my mouth shut, so that’s what I have to do.
“I feel so awful now,” James says quietly.
“Why? Merlin, Aria - because I stood there and screamed at you, called you horrible things, ranted about how selfish you are, when in reality -” He cuts off abruptly, words caught in his throat. “When in reality, you’re anything but.”
I don’t say anything, just stare down at his hands and feel him rest his forehead against my shoulder. After a few minutes he lifts his head back up and another light kiss is pressed onto the top of my head.
“You’re really beautiful, you know that?” he murmurs.
“Please, don’t -”
“I meant on the inside.”
“Oh,” I choke out.
I bite down on my lip as hard as I can and squeeze my eyes shut, trying desperately to make the pain go away. I don’t want to hear him say things like this. It hurts too much. He makes my heart break with every word, and I need it to stop.
“You knew,” he says softly. “You knew how much I was going to hate you. You could have just let Alex tell him - I mean, I’m sure you could have eventually told Jett that your half wasn’t true. He would have believed you. There was nothing for you to lose. My friendship would have been the only thing that broke. But... you didn’t. Why?”
“I already told you. I did it for you, silly,” I say, then promptly twist around to give him a kiss on the cheek.
“I’m sorry - I just - in front of all those people? Even with all the rumors? Do you even realize what people think about you now -”
“It doesn’t matter. They’re going to think what they’re going to think, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I don’t care anymore. I’ve gone through so much - they’re just irrelevant, those rumors. The people who matter know the truth, and that’s really all that counts.”
I shrug, and James stays silent. I feel like he’s so... I don’t know. He’s perceptive, and he gets me, but at the same time, he’s so infuriatingly blind. I just don’t understand. How can he not see how much I care about him? How can he be so - so - stupid? It’s all right there, all right in front of his face, and he keeps convincing himself that I feel nothing for him at all.
“Can I ask you something?” he says suddenly, voice serious.
“When’s your birthday?”
And it’s such a trivial question that I immediately burst out into laughter, throwing my head back against his shoulder, hair splaying everywhere. Here I was expecting him to ask me some deep and profound question - and he asks me when my birthday is.
“Well, if you must know,” I say through giggles, “March fifteenth.”
“The Ides of March. Very fitting, Ms. Shakespeare,” he teases.
“I swear my dad planned that on purpose.”
“I wouldn’t doubt it.”
James yawns as he finishes off his words, and I feel my eyelids growing heavier and heavier with each passing second. I know I haven’t got much time left before I can’t stay awake any longer, so I take care to turn around and press my head into his chest, snuggling up against him.
And before the minute’s up, I’m out cold.
A soft rustling noise and the shifting of my pillow gradually works its way into my consciousness, pulling me out of my slumber. Which is odd, I manage to recognize through my sleepy haze, because pillows don’t move of their own accord.
“Are you awake?” James whispers as I let out yawn, and everything comes flooding back in an instant.
“Did I wake you?”
“It’s half three,” he says quietly. “Go back to sleep.”
“Why aren’t you asleep?” I ask, grabbing his hand and twisting my fingers through his.
“Because I only have a few more hours with you and I don’t want to waste them.”
“Oh,” I whisper, and he presses a light kiss on the top of my head. “Can I ask you something?” James nods, so I continue onward. “I - it’s just something - something I’ve been wondering about for a while. And - I just - be honest with me, okay? I want the truth.”
“Do we have to do this right now?”
“Yes, because - because - you’re -”
But I can’t bring myself to say it. I can’t let the words slip past my lips. If I say it, then it’s going to come true.
“Because I’m leaving.”
I gulp slightly and press my lips together in a sharp line, willing myself to push away the hurt. But it doesn’t go away, and I know that it’s not going to, no matter what I do.
“Why do -” I swallow again, clutching at his hand desperately, like it’s my lifeline. “Why do guys like - like -”
“Alex? Ryan?” he prompts softly, squeezing my hand back.
I nod and let out a breath I didn’t know I was holding in. “Like - like them - him - well, why do they - why do they treat me like that?”
There’s a silence, and it stretches on for so long that I nearly think James has fallen asleep. But then he answers, voice ringing calm and clear throughout the room. “Because you let them.”
At his answer, I feel my heart plummet into my stomach, dropping like a weight. “So - so it’s true then?”
I shake my head and press my fingertips to my temples, squeezing my eyes shut tightly as the memories start to bubble to the surface. I want them gone. I don’t want them here. I want them locked away in the safe little hole at the back of my mind where I’ve kept them for so long.
“Talk to me,” he whispers, bending his head so that his lips are next to my ear and planting a soft kiss on my collarbone.
“I - it was my fault. It was my fault that he cheated on me.”
“What?” James asks, confusion coloring his voice.
“That’s what he always told me. It was my fault because I wouldn’t give him what he asked for. He had to - those were always his words. He needed to. And he wouldn’t have had to if I would stop being such a frigid bitch and just sleep with him.”
Again, the silence is so long and deafening that I begin to think he’s finally fallen asleep. He hasn’t, though, and when he does answer, his voice is carefully measured with a hint of anger riding beneath the surface.
“That’s not right.”
After such a long time to think about his words, I was expecting a bit more than that. But judging from the look on his face, those three words are all he can manage to get out without betraying the extent of his fury.
“You just said -”
“I know what I said,” he growls, “but that was different. This - this isn’t the same thing. So don’t you dare think for one second that it was your fault. It wasn’t. He cheated because he was a selfish bastard that didn’t appreciate what he had. Trust me - even if you would have... you know... he still would have done it. Don’t you ever think it was your fault, Aria.”
“Thanks,” I whisper, burying my head into his chest and cuddling up as tightly as I can to him, my right arm flung haphazardly around his back. He responds by curling his left hand around my lower waist, tugging me even closer to him in a sort of half hug. His other hand is still wrapped up in mine, and he seems to be keen on keeping it that way.
My face is pressed into his chest, and by opening my eyes and peeking down I can just barely make out our tangled hands. I watch as James’s fingers gently weave in and out of mine, as he’s apparently found my hand to be a fascinating play object.
“Did you love him?” James’s voice is so low that I have to strain my ears to hear his words, even though we’re so close together.
“Do you love Jett?”
“I - no.”
James lets out a short breath in what I can only assume is relief. “Do you -”
Then he stops abruptly, empty sentence hanging uncompleted in the air. But I know what he was about to say, what he was about to ask me, and it seems to fill every crevice of the room with its weight.
Do you love me?
At least that’s what I think he was going to say. I can’t really be sure.
“Do I what?”
“Nothing,” James murmurs. “Aria?”
“Yes?” I raise my head up to look at him, and before I even have time to blink, his lips are crashing down on mine.
In shock I immediately jerk away, breaking us apart. But then I realize what’s going on, come to my proper senses, and close the gap between us, kissing him back.
“If you don’t want to -” he mutters, pulling away slightly.
“I want to.”
The corners of his lips twitch up into a smile, and his thumb brushes down the side of my face, across my cheek, over my lips. And then he’s kissing me - on my nose, my mouth, my jaw, my neck - and I feel a blush start to spread across my face at the, well, intimacy of it.
James takes his right hand out of mine, loops that one around my waist as well, and tugs, meaning that I am literally lying on top of him now, with his face buried against my shoulder as he presses a trail of kisses down my collarbone.
Well, this is awkward.
“Er - yeah - so - I - um - is this weird? Because I feel weird. This is pretty weird, right? I mean, am I the only one who feels weird here? I -”
James laughs and props himself - well, us - up with his elbows for a few seconds before sitting completely upright and leaning his back against the wall. Which makes things pretty uncomfortable for me, let me tell you, so I twist both of my legs off to the right and wrap my arms around his middle to keep from falling off my newly found chair.
“What are you doing, Bel?” he murmurs, latching his hand onto my left leg and swinging it to the other side of his hip.
I feel my face flush even further - I’m probably a deep burgundy by now - as his hand gently loosens its grip on my calf. Great. Now I’m not just sitting on him but straddling him. Oh, sweet Merlin, this is awkward.
James, however, appears completely at ease, and he rests his hands on my waist again and leans his forehead against mine, the tips of our noses just barely touching. “Do I make you nervous?” he asks teasingly before landing a short peck on my lips.
“I - er - I - I -”
James laughs again, a look of delight lighting up in his eyes. “Come here, you,” he says, and he pulls me in for a long, tender kiss, letting his lips linger against mine. “Don’t be nervous.”
“I am not nervous, James Sirius Potter,” I mutter in resentment, but he just chuckles and tucks a bit of stray hair behind my ear.
“If you say so, love.”
I mumble some incoherent angry ramblings under my breath in frustration - which apparently amuses James to no end - and pull myself against his chest, sitting in a weird (awkward) hug kind of thing.
“You’re really strange.”
“Gee, thanks,” I say sarcastically, pushing my hands against his chest so I can move away.
“In a good way.”
“Because that makes it so much better.”
James rolls his eyes and says, “Stop being such a twat and come here.”
So I do.
And I know I’ve thought this before, but it really isn’t like any of the other times I’ve done this. Made out with a guy, I mean. It’s not all tongue and hands and impersonal teenager stuff like it was with Ryan or even with Jett. Yeah, sometimes that happens between James and I too, but it’s mostly just - I don’t know - us. And to be honest, I don’t really mind.
I like how his hands stay on my waist and don’t try to go down any further. I like how I can just turn my head to the side and relax without a word of complaint from him, and how he’ll simply sit there and let my nose brush along the side of his throat. I like how he’s more than happy to just hold me, foreheads pressed against each other’s, and have a whispered conversation.
But most of all, I love how he’s all mine. In this moment, all his attention is on me - on us - and that’s the most important thing to me. To feel like maybe somebody does care about me. For once I am enough, exactly the way I am.
So Ryan can just go to hell.
“James?” I ask suddenly, a thought popping into my head.
He murmurs something - the sound is muffled by the fact that he’s currently pressing a row of kisses onto my neck - but I take it as a positive response.
“Would you wait for me?”
“What?” This time his voice is clear, head lifted from my skin and eyes snapping up to mine.
“I mean -” I flounder a bit, searching for the right words. “I mean, what if - what if things with Jett cleared up? What if all of this mess got better? Would you wait? Two years, maybe three? Would you wait for me?”
“I -” James clears his throat gruffly, eyes darting to above my head. “I - I -” But he can’t seem to get the words out, so I knot my fingers in the front of his shirt and pull him towards me, landing a gentle kiss on his lips.
“Because I would wait for you,” I murmur, resting my head against his shoulder.
“I - you - you would?” he stutters out in disbelief.
“Mmhm.” I bob my head up and down a bit and kiss his shoulder through the fabric of his shirt.
And then one of his hands is cupping my chin, pulling my head up to look at him. His eyes search mine - looking for I don’t know what - and he leans down, lips skimming lightly to my ear.
“I don’t think I really have a choice,” he whispers. “But as for now, it’s quarter of five. Go to sleep.”
I grumble a bit and James gently pushes me off his lap to the side, rearranging my body like a doll’s so that I can lean against him comfortably and he can wrap his arms around me.
I am tired, though, come to think of it...
But I don’t want to go to sleep. I have this really sick feeling that if I close my eyes he's going to be gone when I open them again. And I don’t know if I can handle that.
Then the thought of him leaving hits me all over again, and the agony goes splitting straight through the middle of my chest, slicing me in half. Everything I’ve pushed away while we sat and talked and kissed comes flooding back, and my fingers clutch at his shirt desperately, my head buried in it, holding on for dear life.
“Don’t go,” I find myself pleading, tears starting to slip inexplicably from my eyes.
James tightens his arms around me but doesn’t say a word, and the tears run even faster because I know I haven’t changed his mind. No matter how much I let him in, no matter how much I open up, no matter how much I show to him that I need him, he’s still going to pick Jett over me.
And maybe I’m being selfish again, but that really hurts.
Should it hurt? Should I honestly expect him to drop everything and stay with me? Do I have a right to want that?
I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore.
All I know is that I have to let him go, even if I don’t want to.
Because that’s what you do when you love somebody, right? You let them go, no matter how much it hurts.
And the tears come even harder - I don’t know what to do - I just - I don’t think I can handle letting him go like that - I can’t lose him - and my brain is all muddled - and -
But then I gasp and force my mouth shut, cutting off the words I was about to utter. The words that are off limits.
“What?” he murmurs, but I shake my head and press my face further into his shirt, refusing to say anymore.
And as much as I want to stay awake, as much as I dread shutting my eyes, I can’t fight it anymore. I’m exhausted, and my body just can’t take it.
But right as I’m dancing the thin line between wake and sleep, I swear I hear him say something through my semi-conscious haze.
“I love you, too.”
Maybe it’s just my frazzled brain making things up. Maybe the stress of the past few weeks is causing me to hear things. Maybe I’m just going crazy.
Or maybe he really does say it. I’ll never be sure.
All I know is that I can’t stay awake any longer, and I’m fighting a losing battle. But I keep my eyes open as long as I can, listening to his breathing and feeling his chest rise up and down. Soon, though, my eyelids are falling shut and the world fades out to black.
And when I wake up the next morning, he’s gone.
A/N: Woah. Sorry about the length of this chapter. I really wasn’t planning on it being this long. It just... happened. So hopefully you liked it!
And if you did like it, you should scroll on down to the bottom of the page to fill out that little review box. Because it is very, very hungry and needs you to feed it.
So what do you think? Did he really say it, or was she just imagining things? The hungry review box wants to know!
Also, I'm taking a bit of a poll. I have the first three chapters of a new story written - it's a Next Gen called Thunder, and it's a Louis/OC that takes place outside of Hogwarts. Would anyone be interested in that?
P.S. I didn't take three months to update this time. You’re welcome ;)