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Tug Of War by platform 9 3_4
Chapter 16: New Year's Resolutions
I pause, glancing at myself up and down in the mirror.
"Green or purple?" I ask Rose, who is lying on my bed with her nose stuck in a magazine.
She glances quickly at me, "Purple. Shows off your legs."
"You sure?" I ask uncertainly, holding each one against my front again and furrowing my brow.
"Yes. You have nice legs. It's not a crime to show them off once in a while."
Purple it is then. We're in my bedroom at home. The snow has now fallen thickly around the house, so that it settles onto the window pane. Thankfully inside it's toasty warm.
I put the green one back in my cupboard, and look quizzically at Rose, "Listen, are you sure about this?"
"Merlin Stella, wear the green dress if that's what you really want!"
"No, I meant do you really think we should go to this?"
Just over a week ago, both Rose and I had received an invitation to Anabelle Zambini's New Year's Eve party. It was unexpected. Anabelle is rich and popular, not to mention very pretty. She has all the makings of a future Socialite. But she's never shown any interest whatsoever in me. She's a Ravenclaw. I'm a Gryffindor. There was never much time to get to know one another.
Yet still the invite came in the post two days after Christmas, written on shiny, gold card in glistening white writing. When you opened it the card was charmed to shout 'HAPPY NEW YEAR!' very loudly until you shut it again.
I now have to put a paperweight on top of the card because anytime a breeze enters the room, the card flutters open and there's a loud noise that's enough to burst your eardrums.
Rose rolls over on her side while simultaneously rolling her eyes at me, "Yes Stella. Pretty, dressed up people will be there. That's not something we can afford to miss."
"Ok," I shrug, "I was just thinking with Scorpius and everything…"
Rose goes pink, "It's fine. We're friends now."
I raise an eyebrow at her, "You're friends now? What happened to pretending like you didn't know one another."
She blushes even more furiously, "Well, since his accident, we've gotten to know one another again."
"I thought you only visited him in hospital when he was asleep?" I frown.
"Well, once he woke up while I was there…and then he sort of figured it out. Anyway, we've been talking a lot lately, and he…we're friends now!"
"Okay then," I mutter, "So is he going tonight?"
"Yes," she mutters in a low voice.
I tease, "And will you be kissing him at-"
"No, Stella, I won't be kissing him at midnight!" she snaps defensively, "We're just friends!"
"Whatever you say," I mutter.
They're totally going to kiss at midnight.
"And who will you be kissing?" Rose changes the subject, waggling her eyebrows at me, "I hear you and Mr. Ridiculously hot quidditch captain have gotten close."
It's almost worrying that I'm not 100% sure who she's talking about. But since she watched me cry over the fact that James no longer wants anything to do with me, I'm assuming she's talking about Luke Corner.
"Not that close," I reply, feeling embarrassed.
"Really?" she replies slyly, "Is that a letter from him on your dresser?"
"No!" I cry out, but too late. She's already jumped off the bed, quick as lightning, and grabbed the letter.
She reads it manically, her head going from left to right as her eyes travel the page, her grin growing wider and wider.
"Oh, he liiiiiiiikes you," she laughs.
"No he doesn't!" I cry.
She clears her throat, and reads the letter out loud, "Are you going to Anabelle's party on New Years Eve? I hope you are, it would be fun to see you, especially after we've been away from school for so long."
"See?" I reply, a little hopelessly, "Completely platonic."
She widens her eyes, "Stella Evangeline Wood! You little liar!"
Yes, my middle name is Evangeline. No, I don't want to talk about it.
She scoffs, "Yeah, OK. And Ray is queen of the sugarplum fairies."
"He was nice to me after James…you know. He's a nice guy. He's probably friends with lots of other girls, who he sends letters to."
Rose snorts, "Yeah, and I bet he says 'I hope you're coming' to all of them. No fair! Why do you get the hot quidditch captain?"
"I haven't got him!" I cry, "Seriously Rose, stop!"
"Ok, Ok," she laughs, "But, in all seriousness, you and James…you're over?"
I shrug, trying to seem casual, "We were never dating."
"I know that, but, well…"
"He told me he doesn't want me on the team, and that he doesn't want us to speak anymore. I'm sure that means we're over."
"He's been pretty absentee this whole holiday," Rose muses, "He's not in the house much, just pops in occasionally and then he leaves. Although that might be because Albus and Cecily have been practically camped out on the sofa, doing all those annoying, cute couple-y things."
"Well whatever he's doing, it's not any of my business anymore," I reply reproachfully.
It feels mature to say that, like I'm moving on properly. James is officially no longer a part of my life, thanks to his desire to never utter another word to me again.
Maybe soon, I'll be over all of it. For the first time in months, it seems like a genuine possibility.
There's a sort of awkward silence. Rose sits back down on the bed and casts her gaze over the magazine that still lies open.
"Hmm. There's an article here on the best places for dinner dates in Diagon Alley and Hogsmede," she grins, "So which ones have you and Captain Gorgeous gone to?"
I grab the magazine and swat her with it. She cackles evilly.
"Stella!" someone shouts up the stairs, and I recognise my mum's voice, "There's someone here for you!"
I frown curiously at Rose, who shrugs.
I walk down the stairs and follow the sound of my mother's chatty voice into the front hall.
To my surprise, I see my mother chatting away to Ray, who is doing her best to smile, although from here it looks more like a grimace.
"Stella!" Mum looks cheerfully at me, "You didn't tell me you had another friend coming over!"
"Oh, she didn't know," Ray tells her, "I just thought I'd stop by."
"Great!" Mum continues to smile, unfazed by Ray's awkwardness.
My mother is, above all other things, extremely friendly. She likes to talk as much as possible, even though the people she usually can't shut up around are people she's only just met.
"Well, I'll let you two go upstairs!" she says, "I was just telling Ray about my new range of magical fungi that I've just bought for my patients! I've heard it has fantastic medical properties!"
Mum is a healer at St. Mungo's. She's always trying these new herbal remedies. And she's always telling people about it. Still, she means well.
I beckon to Ray and she follows me back towards the staircase.
"Sorry," I say awkwardly, as we climb the stairs towards my room, "She likes talking to new people."
"Oh no, she's…nice," she says.
I'm not sure what sure to say to that, so we remain in silence until we reach my bedroom.
"Look who's here, Rose," I say as I open the door.
Rose looks momentarily startled, "Ray! What are you doing here?"
Ray stands self consciously in the door frame, and for the first time I notice that she has a large plastic dress bag over one arm.
"I…," she hesitates, "I thought I would go to this party thing that that Zambini girl is having."
"Oh," Rose looks to me. I shrug to indicate that I had no idea she was coming over.
Ray continues, "And, well, I didn't really have anyone to get ready with."
There's a weird silence that follows.
"Isn't that what you guys do?" Ray asks, "You go over to each other's houses to get ready? And you curl each other's hair, and do each other's nails, or whatever?"
"Do you want…" Rose looks a little uncomfortable, "Do you want me to curl your hair?"
"No!" Ray replies quickly, "I just thought I would go to the party. And I need a lift. And…I thought we could get ready together."
Rose and I nod vigorously, "Okay then," I grin, "Well, we're leaving in an hour."
"Okay," Ray nods, almost robotically. She waits a moment, before she puts the dress bag onto my bed. "Where's your bathroom?"
"Just down the corridor," I reply, pointing, "Second one on the left."
She leaves, and once she's in the bedroom, Rose and I stare at one another.
Rose grins, "Do you think she wants to be friends?"
"You think that's why she came over?" I whisper.
"She's making an effort!" Rose laughs under her breath, "Why do you think she said all that stuff about doing each other's nails?"
"Wow," I pause, "Ray Mitchell…interacting with other humans."
"It does sound a little odd," Rose admits.
"OK then," I nod, "Let's start acting like it's not awkward."
"Good plan," she scoffs.
But when Ray comes back in Rose does make an effort, "So, how was your Christmas?"
Ray shrugs, "Cameron spends most of his time wallowing about Lexie. And my mum doesn't believe in Christmas, she's into all these weird hippie things where we heal one another's souls."
Rose and I exchange an alarmed glance.
Suddenly my mother doesn't seem so bad.
Rose mouths I tried at me.
"Let's see your dress then," I smile at her in an effort to be friendly.
She looks at me strangely, as if to say you have your own dress, why would you want to see mine?
But she unzips the bag all the same. Inside, the dress is decidedly plain. It's black, long sleeves and a skirt that comes down below the knees.
"Oh," Rose says, although she's clearly underwhelmed, "It's…lovely."
"It's the only thing I have," Ray mutters, "I don't really wear dresses."
She pulls out a pair of black flat shoes and some black tights.
At the sight of the shoes, Rose is shaking her head, "No. I'm sorry, no."
Ray looks startled, "W-what?"
"I'm not letting you go out like that," Rose says, shaking her head violently while she suddenly turns to my clothes cupboard.
I'm staring at her. No one has ever spoken to Ray like that.
Ray frowns, looking offended, "I'll wear what I want!"
"No," she says, "It's practically illegal to wear flat shoes on New Year's Eve."
I'm watching the exchange, my head snapping back and forth, desperate to see what will happen next.
And then Rose is raking my clothes hangers across the railing, examining every piece of clothing with detail.
"It's just a stupid party," Ray mutters sulkily.
"It's Anabelle Zambini's house," Rose reminds her, "Her dad is completely loaded! Like, mansion loaded!"
"So?" Rose looks at her incredulously, "Seriously what planet are you from?"
Yes, Rose, for all her perfections, does lack one thing. Tact.
Rose continues to rant, "The party is black tie! As in classy black tie! As in waiters in uniforms and live music! As in party favours!"
Ray looks completely alarmed. She looks quickly at me, but I shrink away.
"Rose?" I ask her timidly, "W-what are you doing?"
"I'm finding her a bloody dress!" Rose snaps, "Aha!"
She pulls out the dress that I bought for my cousin's wedding last year. It's a dark red shift dress, but Ray seems to coil away in horror at the sight of it.
"It's so bright!" she protests.
"Sometimes you have to go bold," Rose says, "Go and try it on."
I've never heard anyone boss Ray around like this. But if anyone's going to do it, I'd rather it was Rose than me.
Ray takes the dress, resigning herself to looking sulky. "Fine, but no heels."
* * *
"I said no heels!" Ray cries fourth-five minutes later.
She's standing in the middle of my room, wearing my red dress, and looking unfairly pretty in it. She's looking grumpier by the minute, but Rose still hasn't given up on her.
"You have to wear heels!" Rose insists.
"Guys make you wear those to make your bum look smaller," Ray frowns angrily.
"Well, I'm a girl, and I'm telling you to wear the bloody heels!" Rose cries.
This continues back and forth for the next five minutes.
I turn back to the mirror, and try to fix up my makeup as they argue. Looking over at the invitation, still trapped underneath the paperweight, I suddenly feel nervous. What if Rose is right? What if Luke likes me? What if I like him?
I turn back to my eyeliner, something far less confusing.
Would it be so terrible if I were to move on from James? Might it be easier to move on from him than I thought?
No, I can't think about that now.
Instead I turn back to where Ray and Rose are still arguing.
"We have to leave in ten bloody minutes!" I shout at them, "Now get a move on!"
"Yes, Ray, put on the shoes, there's a dear," Rose gives her a look.
Ray glares at us, "I hate you."
"Could you say that while you're putting the shoes?" I ask.
She scowls angrily, but sits down on the edge of the bed, and begins to fasten the tiny buckles on the silver shoes that Rose picked out for her.
"Oh, shit, still have to do makeup," Rose exclaims, rushing over to the mirror where I'm standing.
I make room for her and she starts to speed apply eyeshadow.
"Do you think Anabelle invited everyone?" I ask her.
"Probably," Rose muses, "I hear she's got a pretty huge house." She laughs, "You should have seen Al's face when he got the invitation. He thought it was a joke."
"Well," I point out, "So did we."
I notice Ray in the mirror reflection. She's looking out of the window. Her hair is perfectly curled. She even let Rose fix up her nails. I start to wonder if she only let Rose do that, or if she's only coming to this party, because Al will be there.
"Is he bringing Cecily?" I ask Rose in a low whisper.
"I think so," Rose nods, also in a low voice, "Guess this might not be such a great night for Ray, huh?"
We both go back to our makeup for a minute.
"Hey, maybe you could share Luke with her," Rose grins.
I elbow her hard.
* * *
"Holy. Shit." My mouth is dropped open, completely overwhelmed by the sight in front of me.
Anabelle Zambini's house is huge.
And not huge huge. Like, ENORMOUS huge.
Rose, Ray and I land via portkey on her front doorstep, and are immediately taken aback by the sheer size of the building in front of us.
It has at least four floors, with a width of what looks like fifty windows. The front door is large, the double doors thrown open to reveal the glittering, golden interior.
I look about me and see about a kilometre of driveway.
"What do Anabelle's parents do?" I ask in awe.
Rose continues to stare reverently, "I don't know but I bet getting pay check must feel good."
Even Ray is gaping at the cultivated front lawn, obviously impressed.
I notice about twenty other people around us, having also just arrived by port key. They all seem amazed by the size of it too.
"Well, let's not waste any more time," Ray says abruptly.
We follow her through the double doors and into a marble floored entrance hall, complete with a huge winding staircase and chandelier.
The entrance hall and the rooms beyond it are milling with what seems like hundreds of people. Loud music is pulsing through the walls, and somewhere from inside one of the rooms there are flashing lights.
For a moment we're all lost, staring around in awe. Then we see Lexie, waving eagerly at us.
"Hi guys!" she cries, looking enthusiastically at us.
"Lexie," Rose grins, "You got invited too!"
"Well, sure," she says, "I know Anabelle from tutoring. She invited me, and I told her to invite you guys too."
Ahh, so that had been our mysterious link.
"Isn't it brilliant?" Lexie asks, gazing around her in amazement. Obviously the shock doesn't wear off very quickly.
She looks beautiful in a short black cocktail dress made out of a sort of floaty silk. Her hair is down, and her whole face is radiant.
"Come on, guys," she grins, leading us through the crowd, "I'll show you around."
She leads us into a large room on the right. It is filled with round tables covered in white table cloths and expensive looking decorations.
"Wow," I murmur, "Dinner."
"I know," Lexie's eyes widen, "It sounds wonderful too. Everyone's sitting down for dinner at 9."
"Isn't it all a little formal for a high school party?" Ray asks uneasily.
"Oh, this isn't a high school party," Lexie says, "Anabelle's parents have invited all of their colleagues and friends. They told her to invite whoever she wanted."
"And she invited the entire school?" Rose asks incredulously.
"Well," she admits, "Only 6th and 7th years. And we have our own party going on in the ballroom. There's dancing, and there'll be champagne and fireworks at midnight!"
"Impressive," Rose says.
Suddenly Anabelle Zambini, dressed immaculately in a gold silk dress, comes rushing over to us.
"Lexie!" she says eagerly.
They hug, and compliment one another on how they look. The rest of us stand about awkwardly, waiting for either one of them to acknowledge us.
Anabelle looks at us, "Oh! Are these your friends?"
"Yeah," Lexie grins, "This is R-"
"Wish I could stay and chat but I've got to go. Plenty to do, plenty of people to meet!"
And with that she's gone, leaving only a trail of faint perfume in her wake.
Ray looks after her, "She's…nice."
"Yeah," Lexie agrees, not picking up on Ray's sarcasm, "She is."
We move around the different rooms. I see plenty of people from school. Some of them I'm more eager to see than others.
Over in the centre of one room I see Eve, looking beautiful as always in a sky blue dress and large jewelled earrings, chatting to several people all at once. Thankfully, she doesn't see me.
I realise that Lexie is right. I notice the surprising number of adults standing around, talking politely to one another while they exchange nervous glances about all the teenagers that are wandering about.
"Stella!" someone shouts from behind me, "Rose!"
We all stop and turn to look.
Fred and Cameron, looking equally sharp in well-fitted black dinner jackets, come towards us, big grins on their faces.
"Don't you all look swell?" Fred grins cheesily, "Stella I didn't know you had those legs!"
"Hey, quit it, perv," Rose says at him, "Where's our cousin?"
"You're going to have to narrow it down for me Rosie," Fred smirks, "We have quite a few of those."
"James?" she raises her eyebrows, "Mr. broody? Mr. I've-barely-been-home-since-christmas?"
"Oh, yeah," Fred looks around, "I think we left him back in the entrance hall. Or he headed straight for the bar."
I feel my stomach plunge. It hadn't even occurred to me that James would have been invited. Who was I kidding? Of course he had been invited.
Cameron stands around behind Fred, looking slightly uncomfortable.
"Hi Lexie," he says uneasily.
"Hi Cameron," she says cooly, not looking at him in the eye properly.
"How has your holiday been?" he presses on awkwardly, his voice strained.
"Fine, thank you," she replies, her tone still frosty.
Clearly they still haven't made up.
Cameron looks down at his dress shoes, embarrassed.
To break the silence, Fred suddenly grins cheekily at Ray, sidling up to her, looking up and down, "Cameron you didn't tell me your sister was this fit."
"Look at me that way again and you can kiss the New Year goodbye," Ray says immediately.
Fred takes the hint and backs off. It's good to know that that Ray hasn't lost her touch.
"Well," Fred says readjusting his jacket, "We'll see you ladies around. Cameron and I are on the prowl."
Rose looks at them, "You're pathetic. The pair of you."
"New Years Eve, Rosie," Fred sighs, "Drunk girls, excitement, all that regret, all those resolutions."
"Speaking of which, don't you think your New Year's resolution should be to grow up?" Rose raises an eyebrow.
Fred sighs, looking wearied by her apparent ignorance, "Rose, I don't need any resolutions. I'm already perfect."
Lexie looks slightly downcast as Fred leaves. Cameron pauses awkwardly, as though he wants to say something more. But he decides against it and follows Cameron into the crowd.
"I'm…going to the bathroom," Lexie says, her voice barely a hush.
She turns and weaves her way through the crowd.
"Poor thing," Rose sighs, "I should go with her."
She follows Lexie through the crowd, leaving Ray and I to our own devices.
Which is horrible because it is this exact moment when Albus and Cecily choose to spot me and come over to say hello.
Cecily looks nice in a lace dress that's light pink. But on Albus' arm, somehow she looks even better.
"Stel-" Albus starts eagerly. Then he cuts himself off when he sees Ray beside me.
Ray looks down at her shoes. Albus' eyes trace over her from head to toe, taking in her transformation. I mean, Ray was already prettier than the average girl at Hogwarts, without any of the makeup or the clothes. Now she looks like some sort of bloody supermodel.
Cecily doesn't seem to understand how awkward things are, and she leans in to hug me, "Happy almost New Year, Stella!"
"Yeah," I reply, "You too!"
Albus looks very uncomfortable. So does Ray. It's up to me to break the ice.
"This is Ray," I say to Cecily.
She smiles sweetly at Ray, "Hi!"
Ray can barely acknowledge her. She nods stiffly, not even looking her in the eye.
Cecily looks a little baffled at Ray's response. She looks at me, and I shrug.
"Sorry," Ray mutters suddenly, before running off into the crowd.
All three of us stare after her.
"Goodness," Cecily exclaims, "Is she alright? She looked completly mortified."
For a split second I catch Albus' eye, who also looks equally mortified.
"She's fine," I reply. But when Cecily continues to look concerned I elaborate, "Her...pet died today."
"Oh how awful!" Cecily exclaims, "Was it her dog? A cat?"
"No, her parakeet," I reply, before immediately regretting it.
A parakeet? Really? Does anyone mourn a parakeet? Does anyone get choked up and socially awkward because of the death of a parakeet?
Where does my brain come up with this stuff?
Cecily nods, then changes the subject, "So, are you here with a date?"
Ha. Ha ha.
I shake my head, "No. I'm here solo."
Albus looks a little more relaxed, "I heard you and Luke Corner have been getting close."
"From who?" I snort, "Rose?"
"Have you?" Cecily asks eagerly "Been getting close?"
Ugh, she's too damn sweet. How can I deny her?
"Well we wrote a few times. We're friends."
"He's so good looking," Cecily gushes. Albus coughs. "Oh, but nothing compared to you," she grins affectionately at him.
"Come on," he grins at her, "Let's go get a drink."
She smiles and they leave together, but not before Albus jerks his in the direction that Ray left, with a look that says: should I go and talk to her?
I shake my head at him.
Together they leave, and I immediately dart through the crowd in search of Ray.
There are too many people, all together, chatting and laughing happily. I scan the crowd for a blonde head, but Ray must move fast. There's no sign of her.
"You made it!"
The call makes me turn my head, and my gaze falls on Luke Corner.
Bloody hell, he looks good in a suit.
I open my mouth several times before anything coherent comes out of it, "Yeah."
He smiles, "You look-"
"Have you seen Ray?" I interrupt, before he can finish his sentence.
He looks a little flustered at my abrupt question, "Blonde girl, right? Wearing a red dress?"
"That's her," I nod.
He looks behind him, "She just walked past me actually, looked a little upset. I think she went through there.
He points at a more empty looking passage way.
I nod, and walk in the direction he's pointing. To my surprise, he follows me.
We walk through the door at the other end of the room and find ourselves in a deserted passage way. No one is there, but I can distinctly hear shuddery breaths coming from somewhere near.
The pair of us begin our search, following the trail of noise.
I find behind an old coat stand, there's a long curtain.
And either the curtain suddenly developed the ability to breath, or someone is behind it.
I pull aside the curtain gently to see a small alcove, filled with shoes and umbrellas. And onto of the bench sits Ray, clutching her stomach and hyperventilating as though she might throw up.
She barely sees me. I stare at her.
"R-ray, are you OK?"
She looks up at me but she can't answer, she's too busy gasping for air.
Luke jumps to action, "I'll get her a bag or something."
He shuffles around the coat stand, opens some drawers in the dresser, before pulling out a crumpled brown paper bag.
He hands it to me, and I pass it to Ray. Ray grabs it and starts breathing violently into it. The bag expands and then crumples, expands and then crumples.
I hesitate, before patting her gently on the back.
Slowly, Ray's breathing rate decreases.
"I feel sick," she says weakly, after giving up on the bag.
"Do you need to be sick?" I ask her, "Did you eat something funny?"
She shakes her head, "No. It isn't supposed to feel like this."
"Should I get someone?" Luke whispers to me, looking concerned.
"No," Ray repeats, before choking out, "No one ever tells you about this part."
I frown, "What are you talking about?"
"No one ever tells you about feeling nauseous every time you see him," she says angrily, "They don't write songs about how it's all you can think about. How it bloody consumes your life!"
"Are you talking about Al-"
She continues, ignoring me, "I can't get it out of my head." She closes her eyes and puts her head in her hands, "It just runs around my brain, and it won't stop. It's making me sick."
I stare at her, "I didn't know you-"
"And how when you see her with him, all you think is about her lips on his, and them together, and their hands entwined. I can't bloody breathe."
She pauses for another few seconds to take a few deep breaths, "You put on a stupid dress and stupid shoes that hurt all the fucking time, but it doesn't help. No one ever tells you that it won't help. It won't make it better. He'll still be with her. It's all a lie. When they tell you how great it is. They're all liars."
She folds over and hugs her chest to her knees, closing her eyes and whispering, "This can't be happening," over and over again, like a stuck record.
Luke raises his eyebrows at me. I can't look at him. I don't know what to say to that.
All I could say is that I understand her situation completely.
He crouches down beside Ray. "Listen," he pauses, "I know it's horrible. I had this thing for my friend for…ages. But she never felt the same way."
"Did she kiss you, tell you she liked you, and then suddenly get a new boyfriend?" Ray mutters from under her arms.
"No," Luke admits, "But I was always just her friend. And it hurt. It hurt like a bitch. It hurt so much that sometimes I thought I was destined to spend my life being in love with someone who never wanted me. But things change. You move on. And so do they."
Ray lifts her head then, looking curiously at him, "How long did it take?"
"Years," he replies, "But it's alright now. It gets easier."
And I'm here wondering who the hell would reject someone who looks like him.
It turns out pretty people have sucky lives too.
"I feel like I'm choking when I see him," she says, "My brain is aching with all of it. I can't even sleep sometimes."
Man, I bet when Albus first set out with his master plan to seduce Ray by dating me, he didn't in his wildest dreams imagine he would be so successful.
Almost too successful.
"It'll pass," Luke replies, "I promise."
She looks at him then, bleary eyed, hopeful and almost eager.
Ugh, why is he such a good guy? Seriously, it's disgusting.
"And now?" she asks, "You're moving on?"
"Yeah," he smiles, "I've moved on."
"Okay," she mutters shakily, "How?"
He chuckles, "I stopped entertaining the possibility that one day we'd get married and have ten kids. And after a few months, it worked."
She nods, "I'll give that a go then."
"Great," he says, smiling at her.
I suddenly feel so out of place. These people who are trying to change their lives, make sense of their feelings. And here I am, still a complete and utter mess.
Ray stands up and smoothes down her dress.
"Let's go and have a good time then," she says determinedly, "And my new year's resolution will be to get over Albus Potter."
Luke grins, "Good idea." He looks at me then, "You coming, Stella?"
I look at the pair of them. Why can't I be more like them? So simple, not messy and unclear.
Maybe I should try and follow their example.
"Yeah, of course," I smile at him.
We walk back out into the party, walking towards the room where Anabelle's party is.
Inside the room it's much darker, with flashing lights and a dance floor. At the far end there's a band playing loud, joyful music.
The walls are lined with tables laden with drinks and food. There's champagne fountains and towers of shiny crystal glasses.
Apparently Anabelle Zambini's parents are not only OK with a bunch of teenagers at their party. They're also OK with a bunch of drunk teenagers at their party.
"There you are!" It's Rose. She walks over to us. Lexie is by her side, so clearly all is well now. And, to my surprise, she also brings Scorpius in tow.
"We've been wondering where you got to," she grins. She spots Luke, "Luke, right?"
"Yeah," he says, "Rose, right?"
"Stella's number one," she grins cheekily at me, "Don't think you can slip in and steal my spot, pretty boy."
Clearly she's already had a few drinks. I feel a powerful blush spread over my cheeks.
But Luke laughs, "Ok then."
Lexie looks at Ray, "Shall we dance?"
"Sure," Ray says, dragging her off towards the crowd of people dancing.
This morning Ray would have been completely opposed to dancing, or anything remotely recreational.
I guess that's what seeing a Potter does to you.
"Well, Scorpius here," Rose giggles, swinging an arm around Scorpius' shoulder, "was just about to have some champagne."
Scorpius nods uncomfortably, clearly feeling awkward at Rose's very sudden affectionate attitude towards him.
"Don't do anything I wouldn't do, Stella," Rose laughs, before dragging Scorpius off to the drinks table.
I have no idea what she means by that.
Luke and I stand there in awkward silence.
"She was just joking about the number one thing," I laugh nervously, hoping he'll see the joke, "And the whole…she's stupid. Rose…well, she doesn't know what she's talking about. Really, she's nuts-"
Luke chuckles, shaking his head at me, "Stella, relax. I just came here to have a good time on New Years. I thought, since we're friends, maybe we'd spend a bit of it together. But if you'd rather-"
"No," I cut across him, "I'd like to spend it with you too."
It's all part of this New Year's resolution I have. To stop messing up my chances with fit quidditch captains.
His face breaks out into a grin, "Good."
And just like that. Simple, no games, no hot and cold. It's friends, talking, having a good time.
No complications in sight.
Luke leans in and says in a low voice, "Did you…do something in quidditch to piss off your teammates?"
I look at him, "What? No! Why?"
"Well, then it's definitely me that Potter is glaring at," Luke says, looking over my shoulder at something in the distance, "It must be the whole rival captain thing."
I whip my head in the direction he's looking in.
Through the crowd I notice James. He's definitely glaring in our direction.
And I see the complication.
* * *
"Dinner is served!" Anabelle cries through the microphone of the band's lead singer, "Everyone to the dining room please!"
I glance at Luke, "I'm a little nervous about this."
"Well, it's only for an hour or so," Luke says, "We'll be back here for the countdown."
I nod, smiling at him. Something in my stomach is writhing, twisting and turning. And I feel sick. Really, really sick.
James is here. I wonder how long I can go avoiding him?
He was watching us. Or watching me. Or watching Luke. It's difficult to tell with all the lights flashing around everywhere.
What I am sure of is that his eyes were pointed in our general direction.
Which just makes me nervous.
As we all make our way into the dining room, everyone spreads out.
"It looks like we've got assigned places," Luke says, eyeing the place settings.
I realise he's right. Among what seems like a hundred tables, there's a place card at every seat.
Lining the wall are tables covered with little cards, all sorted into alphabetical order.
People begin to pick up their cards and make their way to the right table.
Luke and I push our way through, and look through the rows of cards.
Walters…Weasley (there's several of these)…Wilson… Wood!
I pick up my card and look. Table 23.
Luke looks at me apologetically. "Table 14," he says.
I shrug, "I guess I'll see you after dinner."
Rose comes over to me, brandishing her card, "Table 25!"
"I'm table 23," I tell her sadly.
"Oh, weird," she says, frowning, "She must have arranged us at random."
I make my way over to table 23, and find my name card. Once I take my seat, I'm grateful to see at least one person I know.
"Stella!" Fred grins cheerily, "Fancy seeing you here!"
"You too," I reply, "It's a weird seating arrangement."
"I know," Fred says, "Let's see who else is sitting here."
He peers around at the other cards.
"Oh," Fred says, "Scorpius is here…and Albus and that new girlfriend of his. Ooh and that Elizabeth O'Connell. She's a real looker."
"You know," I mutter, "I'm surprised with your track record that you haven't hooked up with every girl in the school."
Fred puts his hand on his chest and pretends to look wounded, "Hurtful!"
I roll my eyes at him and look on either side of me. I read the card to my right aloud, "Georgia Deely."
Fred whistles, "She's fit. I mean, enemy team and all, but still."
With a jolt, I suddenly remember who she is. That Hufflepuff quidditch captain, the one who Luke was teasing when we were practicing together that one afternoon.
His childhood friend.
Suddenly I piece two and two together. Is she the one that he was in love with for so long?
"Who's on your left?" Fred prompts me.
I glance at the card, and my stomach drops for the second time that evening.
I don't need to answer Fred, because the person seated to my left takes his place.
"Jamesie!" Fred looks relieved, "Thank god."
"Hey!" I say indignantly, glaring at him.
"Sorry Stella," Fred says, "But Jamesie is so much more fun once he's had a few drinks in him."
I glance nervously sideways at James.
He looks almost lethargic, leaning back lazily in his chair without really bothering to look at anything.
That suit looks unnaturally good on him though.
Fred frowns, "Although maybe it's been one too many."
"I'm fine, Fred," James replies sharply, "I'm just bored of this party."
I fold my arms indignantly, but close my lips. Any contribution I make will probably result in some kind of snarky comment on his end.
Albus and Cecily join us, looking annoyingly happy.
"Oh look," Fred grins at them, "It's the love birds."
"Shut up Fred," Albus says, pulling out Cecily's chair so she can sit down. But neither of them stop smiling.
Al looks at me, "Is she…alright?"
I know he means Ray, "Yeah," I says, "She's fine."
"Oh, tell her I'm sorry about her parakeet!" Cecily says sweetly.
I nod, "…sure."
Albus avoids my gaze guiltily. Cecily continues to smile at all of us obliviously.
Someone takes their place to my right. I look and see Georgia Deely.
Up close, she's actually quite…plain. Well, simple features.
She has nice hair, long, dark and shiny. But other than that, I would have expected to see Luke in love with some sort of supermodel-type.
If she is the girl he was in love with.
"Hi there," she says to us, smiling broadly. Her smile makes her entire face light up.
I can't help but smile back. "Hi."
"I guess this is kind of random seating, huh?" she laughs lightly. I notice how her voice is sort of low, kind of husky.
"Yeah," I say. The rest of the table nods along.
There's a moment of pause.
"You're Stella, right?" she asks me.
"Yeah," I pause, wondering how she knows my name.
"Yeah, Luke's mentioned you a few times," she nods.
Without even looking, I feel James' jaw set.
Or maybe I'm imagining it.
"Hey James," she looks around me and grins cheekily at him, "Looking good."
"You as well Georgia," he says, playing along.
"I'm looking forward to our game next term," she says, "Hufflepuff and Gryffindor. It's going to be fun."
"I think it might be a more realistic to dread it," James replies.
"Nah," she grins, "I think we can take you."
James smirks a little, "I guess we'll see, won't we?"
"Guess we will."
"Who else finds this boring?" Fred asks, raising his glass.
By now Scorpius and Elizabeth O'Connell, the girl who Fred thinks is so fit, have joined us.
We sit in an awkward silence for a moment.
"How about we go around the table and say what our resolutions are?" Cecily suggests, "Mine is to be do more things that make me happy."
Albus goes next, "I want to be more daring."
Elizabeth says, "Hmm, I think I want to exercise better."
Fred shrugs, "I guess mine is to try and focus on work a little more."
I'm momentarily surprised by Fred's maturity.
He grins at me, almost teasing, "There are so many hot library girls I need to impress."
And the moment's over.
Scorpius pauses, "Eat healthier? I don't know."
Georgia sighs, "I think I want to improve my quidditch skills."
Then it's my turn. I hesitate, "I guess I want to just be...braver."
It's James' turn. He opens his mouth. Then closes it.
Then surprisingly he looks straight at me, "Mine is to be a little more relaxed."
Albus and Fred both scoff at this, and James gives them the finger.
Then he says something I'm not expecting, "And to be braver."
I can't help but stare at him. He looks back at me for a moment, a quick, burning glance, before breaking his gaze and looking down at the ground.
The same resolution as mine. To be braver.
I feel my heart rate pick up.
Is that supposed to mean something? In James Potter language does that translate to 'hey, I'm sorry, I was a jerk earlier, want to snog?'
But James doesn't look at me again, and I realise it doesn't mean anything of the sort.
"So," Fred elbows Scorpius, "How long until you and my cousin hook up?"
Scorpius goes bright red, and mutters, "None of your beeswax."
"Touchy!" Fred laughs, "Cool it, Malfoy. I'm just having a laugh."
I look curiously at Scorpius. He looks angry, not embarrassed.
And somehow it feels like it's more about Rose than Fred's teasing.
As we wait for the first meal to be served, Albus and Cecily already strike up a conversation between themselves. Fred turns to Elizabeth and starts flirting shamelessly.
The other half of the table peer around at one another awkwardly.
"So Stella," Georgia says, "I hear from Luke that you guys are friends now."
I cough uncomfortably, "Yeah, sort of."
"He's a really great guy," she says, "I mean, I've practically known him since birth. Our mums were best friends at Hogwarts so we sort of grew up together."
"Wow, really?" I'm impressed.
So this is more than a high school crush. They go way back.
"Wait," Scorpius says, looking curiously at Georgia, "is your mum Francesca Deely? As in the former seeker for the Appleby Arrows?"
"Yeah," Georgia grins.
"My mum is such a huge fan of hers," Scorpius gushes, "She saw the match where your mum caught the snitch in fourty-five seconds flat against the Wimbourne Wasps. Says your mum is a legend."
They continue talking about Georgia's mum, and then go on to talk about quidditch.
I keep watching them, but I honestly don't know what they're talking about anymore. I would be interested, except I'm far too distracted by the fact that James is sitting beside me.
I can't concentrate. The conversation all makes sense, but none of it's actually going in.
He sits in silence too. I glance sideways at him, watching the slightly more unkempt hair, the way his tie is loosened at the collar because he finds it uncomfortable. His arm is resting on the table, inches away from mine.
I look at his hands. Big hands with long, almost delicate bones, knuckles prominent under his skin.
I feel like I should say something but it's like my voice is trapped inside my throat and my lips are sealed tight.
Suddenly the waiter comes between us to serve the soup, and as James shifts to allow him space, his leg accidentally brushes against mine under the table.
Spasms run through me. Does he know that's my leg? Why is he not moving his leg away?
But the leg stays paralysed against mine, even after the waiter has moved on, and the soup is in front of us.
I want to move but it feels awkward and unnatural to try.
The whole table continues to chat away, but I've stopped breathing, completely tense at the thought that his leg is touching my leg.
Neither of us reach for our soup spoons, even though everyone else has.
And, as I strain my ears to listen, I hear that he's holding his breath too, trying not to exhale and move his leg for fear of disrupting some weird, unknown force.
I glance at him. His eyes are fixed on the table cloth, staring pointedly at a minute stain, faint but definitely there.
The whole look is forced, much to stoic and posed.
He glances at me quickly, and I look away like lightning.
It probably wasn't fast enough.
Suddenly his leg breaks from mine and I feel like I can breathe again. He leans down over my side, and I tense, completely frozen as his head lowers towards my knee.
When he reemerges he's holding a napkin, "You dropped this," he says to me, putting it next to my bowl.
"Right, thanks," I reply, my voice completely strained.
I lift up the soup spoon and start to eat.
But I continue to feel his eyes on me for another few seconds.
All I can hear is how loudly my heart is pounding in my chest.
And all I can think is that his resolution is the same as mine.
* * *
"That was a bloody good meal," Fred says, patting his stomach.
Elizabeth giggles, and Fred looks very pleased with himself.
The waiter clears our plates, and someone stands up to give a speech.
Judging by the expensive clothes and the uncanny resemblance, this is Anabelle's mother.
"On behalf of my husband and I, we would like to thank you for coming," she says, "We hope the rest of the evening…"
Her speech continues into another round of pleasantries, and I stop listening.
James and I haven't said a word to one another for the entire meal.
Georgia has tried to engage in small talk, but I keep failing to continue a real conversation. Every time I try it's like there's an invisible cord, holding me back. I feel like he's watching me, I feel like I'm being scrutinized.
It sounds so cheesy to say that there's this energy, this force between us, but that's the only way to describe it.
We exchange brief glances, and it's like fire.
And it's not out of anger, or misunderstanding. I almost forget everything he said to me before the holidays began.
How he wanted to not speak to me anymore.
No, I remember that with a bitterness.
Everything Ray was talking about, the breathing, the choking, the consumed thoughts, it's all true. It's all so painfully true.
"…and since there's only fifteen minutes until midnight," Mrs. Zambini continues, "We invite you to go outside for the fireworks and join in the countdown with us."
And then, just like Ray did, I feel sick. I feel so sick that I wonder if I might suffocate
Bloody hell, how can he do this to me? Without even saying a word.
Everyone gets out of their seats and starts walking towards the open doors, while talking resumes.
I get up with them, but my breath is picking up, and I need to get out of here, I need to get away from all these people.
I turn the other way, to the other side of the room where there are more closed doors that line the opposite wall.
I don't know if he's following me. It doesn't bother me either way. All I know is that I need to get away from all these people. I need air.
I push through the open doors, and feel cooler air hit me in the face.
I'm in an entrance hall that leads to the back garden. Although from here it looks more like a national park. The hall is dark, deserted, and deliciously cold.
I hear footsteps behind me.
So he did decide to follow me.
"How can you bloody do that?" I snap at him, not wasting a second, "How can you tell me you don't want to talk to me ever again, and then you just look at me with Luke, and then you make the same resolution as me-"
"And then you touch your leg against mine, and pretend like it's not there. And then you just hand me my napkin! How can you do that?"
"Seriously how can you bloody do that you, you-"
"I know," he says, "I'm sorry."
"Don't tell me you're sorry," I snap, "Tell me why you can't talk to me! Tell me that, at least!"
"I-" he pauses, and looks to the ceiling, perhaps for some sort of inspiration, "It hurts too much."
"To talk?" I continue with my raised voice, "It's not that hard Potter. You open your lips and you use your voice box."
"I can't talk to you without it hurting," he says, and I can tell that it's causing him pain right now. Just being in the same room is uncomfortable.
I don't even know how to answer that.
I fall slowly backwards against the wall, and slide down to the floor, my legs stretched out in front of me. It's all too exhausting.
"Here", he takes off his jacket and tries to put it around me, "You look freezing."
I shake him off, "I don't need you to rescue me. Stop trying to confuse me."
"I'm sorry!" he tries again, "I'm just…sorry."
"You know it really hurt when you said those things to me," I reply, "Like I was nothing to you, like you wanted to toss me aside. It might be better for you, but it certainly wasn't better for me. And this! All those looks, and all the knee touching under the table! That's not better for me either. You're being selfish."
"I know," he sighs, putting his coat down on the floor, and taking a seat against the wall, beside me. He loosens his tie completely and throws it on top of the coat.
"I know I made a mistake," I tell him, "I thought you weren't interested in me. I was paranoid. I thought…you didn't care."
"What would ever make you think I don't care, Wood?" he says, his voice low and barely a whisper.
I pause, my voice suddenly becomes gentle, "I told you I was wrong. I know I was wrong."
"And I was wrong too," he says.
We sit in a sort of comfortable silence for a few minutes. Neither of us say anything or do anything. We just sit and stare at the opposite wall.
Although we're sitting side by side, neither of us touch. Our legs are stuck straight out, our arms placed on the floor, so close to touching, yet not.
"You know where I've been every day this holiday?" he asks me suddenly. Without looking at him, I shake my head. "I've been going down to the quidditch stadium near London."
I frown curiously, "Why?"
"It's where the Holyhead Harpies practice every day," he says, "And they're so good. I mean, so good. At first I went to take notes and watch their moves for tips on how to strategise. I wanted to forget all of last term, forget you, forget everything that happened. And then I just started going every day, out of habit. I'd just watch them all day. There was this keeper. She reminded me of you."
I pause, waiting for him to explain.
He sighs, "She does this thing when she catches a shot. She leans back, and she sizes it all up. And then she just leaps for it. Doesn't matter where it is. She just goes for it. And she catches it."
"And that reminded you of me?" I ask.
"Yeah," he chuckles darkly, "I tried to get you out of my head. But now it's like anything I see reminds me of you."
I sigh, chuckling slightly to myself, "Bloody hell, Potter, you're such a mess."
"And I am too," I admit.
He looks curiously at me, "So…Luke Corner, do you like him?"
It's not hostile, or jealous. It's just a question. A simple question.
"I-," I hesitate, "I don't know. Yes. Sort of."
He nods."He's a good bloke. And, like you said, I'm a mess."
I shrug reproachfully, "Being a good bloke doesn't automatically mean that I like him."
"No," he sighs, "It just means you should."
I roll my eyes, "Please don't do that thing where you're the martyr who tells me to be with whoever's best for me. It's so…gushy romance movie"
He lets out a short snort, "No. Please, I'm not that selfless."
We both laugh for a moment, and the sound echoes in the dark passage, bouncing off the tiles.
Then it's my turn to ask the question, "So, you want to be braver, huh?"
I mean to tease him, but he instead looks serious, "Yes. I want to stop avoiding things. Take more risks, you know?"
"Yeah," I reply softly.
Distantly, I hear people shouting, 10, 9, 8.
"It's almost the New Year," James mutters.
"Resolutions," I say, barely a whisper, "We have to stick to them now."
"Be braver," he says, "Right."
We look straight at each other then, our heads turned flat against the wall.
"So why did you decide to talk to me again?" I whisper.
We're so close, it's almost unreal. It feels like he's a ghost, and I'll lean out to touch him, but he'll be gone. Only an illusion, vanished in an instant.
"I can't help it," he whispers.
Somehow, without even moving closer, our lips brush for the briefest of seconds. It isn't a kiss, it's more like the end of a conversation. Like saying goodbye.
Then there's loud cheering, and I hear the sound of sputtering, crackling fireworks. We both sit back instinctively, our lips separate, burning from the contact.
"Happy New Year, James."
"Happy New Year, Stella."
A/N: Super quick note before I go to SLEEP: Hope you liked the chapter! Please let me know everything you thought. Everything you were dissapointed by. Everything you loved. What you want to see more of. Your feedback means so much!
And happy new year to you guys as well!
Now, I must go, my bed is calling.
Go be awesome and write a review. You know you want to :)