Chapter 1 : I. The Girl
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I. The Girl
For all its decorations and picturesque weather, Yule Ball season was not a pretty sight. No amount of tinsel and baubles could cover up the embarrassment of lunchtime mingling. The foreign allure of the Beauxbatons and Durmstrang visitors was too much for the resident Hogwarts students to not make a fool of themselves.
In the case of James Potter, Fred Weasley, and Ellian Cearney, making a fool of themselves was the point.
The pursuit was somewhat noble: find out which wooing tactics worked and which didn't so that blokes could be spared the terrible humiliation of a rejection.
But it was mostly about the profit.
James thought of the idea after his dream girl of the moment declined his invitation to the ball. She was—in no shortage of vagueness or brevity—"busy". The following day, she agreed to go with Lloyd Finkleton.
"I don't understand what went wrong," James muttered. "I did everything right." He turned to one bespectacled Ellian Cearney, who was fast at work on a History of Magic essay. "Everything."
"As shocking as it sounds, there do exist girls who can resist your many charms."
"But there's a method! It's foolproof. A certain smile, a certain walk, certain words. James Potter's Proven—"
"Proven Practices for Pursuing Partners, yeah I know. A shorter term for it is charisma."
She didn't even have the decency to humor him. James sat sulking the rest of the night, flicking around Kneazle treat crumbs at Mr. Welly. He was doomed to languish until, at the stroke of nine, he struck a most enterprising thought: if his ego was so terribly bruised after that experience, there must have been thousands of others in the same situation.
"We should make a guide!" he told Fred the next morning. "Muggles know a lot about this sort of thing. They've got shelves—hell, whole libraries—of just dating advice books. We're looking at an untapped market here with wizards!"
Fred thought it was bollocks, but Fred thought everything was bollocks. James tactfully ignored him and continued on with the idea as if it were perfectly sound. Eventually, he talked about it so much that the idea started sounding almost decent to Fred. (James Potter Pro-tip: One should proceed with confidence, even if the course of action is complete rubbish; one cannot persuade others without persuading oneself!) Though James was quite grateful for his cousin's standards; he never knew Fred as less than necessary—the ever vigilant wingman.
"If we're going to make a book, we're should do it the proper way," said Fred during a suppertime brainstorm. "Have some hard facts to back it up. Might as well make the whole effort count." There he went, complicating things again with his common sense and practicality.
But he was right—they needed organization. Statistics, perhaps. James had always been fond of these little numbers wherever they popped up, simple yet powerful (50% off sales at Gladrags Wizardwear sent girls flocking; if only he could attach the same sign to himself and have that happen just the same). Alas, there arose a new problemh: someone had to help with the math. Fred, though well-educated from his accounting days at his father's shop, was reluctant to do the work on something so ridiculous. Bea, a Ravenclaw in Albus' year who had been helping him and Fred develop Wheezes products, was arithmetic-minded but also had the organization skills of a tornado.
That left Ellian.
"James, this is your most idiotic idea yet."
"Even after the asparagus-flavored butterbeer fiasco last year?"
This time, James had interrupted Ellian's Herbology essay. The girl was essay after essay, and he was fairly sure her quill was a permanent feature of her hand.
He, on the other hand, was sprawled across the library desk in front of her vexed glare. She would have been reading her supplement The Life Cycle of the Peruvian Spotted Fungus had he not been forcing the book down every time he tried to further the conversation.
Persistence followed persuasion in his list of skills.
Ellian didn't reply. She just rolled her eyes, shaking her head in that way loosened the hair tucked behind her ears (she would push it back again in no small haste).
It only took him until later that night to convince her with his oh-so-charming smile... and possibly, the new set of parchment and quills he put on her desk. It was a re-gift of a Christmas present from Aunt Audrey which, with its enthusiastic use of curly florals, was definitely not missed.
Ellian's official excuse for agreeing was that she couldn't resist the idea of a social experiment. She was one of those analytical types, and James always wondered if the Sorting Hat didn't make a mistake sorting her into Gryffindor. She always seemed more of a Ravenclaw, like Fred, though James would never complain. It was tricky enough planning escapades with one of his best mates in a different house; he couldn't stand to have both of them elsewhere.
But James knew her real reason. It was mostly about the profit.
As luck would have it, their plan coincided with the arrival of the Beauxbatons and Durmstrang students for the Triwizard Tournament, which tripled their subject pool. They whipped up a plan for attack. Originally it was just James braving the turbulent waters of love but when Ellian mentioned off-handedly that it would be nice to get multiple results, he jumped on the chance to drag Fred down with him.
"Oi, no," said Fred, sinking into his blazer. "Nothing you say will convince me."
He wouldn’t hold. James could convince anyone. He reckoned his dad had some secret Veela blood he never knew about. Sure enough, when they put the plan into motion, Fred was right there beside him, grumbling.
"It's for your own good," said James, punching his shoulder. "Not an old dog yet. Learn some new tricks."
And so, off they went, dazzling girls with spells, showing off their Quidditch muscles, and pretending to be sensitive. Meanwhile, Ellian recorded all the information they sent back, trying her best to make sense of the boys' chaos. It wasn't easy with James pestering her while she worked. His favorite activity: sifting through her piles of parchment and pulling them out at random. He was never one to make heads or tails of the charts and check-boxes underneath her hand, enough to make anyone dizzy. It impressed him because it was like magic to him, though Ellian assured him it was the complete opposite of magic.
"That's one voluptuous graph," he said one evening with a low whistle, staring at the diagram she was working on.
"Normal people call it a bell curve," she said smoothly over the scratch of her quill.
Of course, James never really bothered her, or at least she hardly ever pointed it out. Ellian wouldn't be Ellian if she didn't speak her mind far more than necessary, though it was never in complaint. Sometimes she even smiled, as if she were genuinely amused by how senseless he could get. James took this as an excuse to act as ridiculous as he could possibly be. When he informed her of this, her only response was a laugh.
But not at him. With him. He laughed, too.
The big question for that week was the success rate of the notoriously fickle pick-up line. They tried everything from the cheesy to the flattering to the vaguely inappropriate. James scanned the courtyard as throngs of girls poured out of the Great Hall post-lunch. His keen eye spotted a lone blonde reading on a bench. A romance, from the looks of it.
He slid over and swung his arm over her shoulder, causing her to jump up in surprise. "Hello, beautiful," he drawled, carefully adjusting his gaze for maximum appeal. "Can you call a healer? Because I think you stopped my heart."
The girl shrank from him, crinkling her brow. "Are you not zat creep boy who told me to feel ze muscles of your arm las' week?"
James realized her unsettled I'm-going-to-hex-you-with-mace frown did seem familiar. He improvised a coughing fit and excused himself, looking back only when he was safe inside the castle.
As he walked along the outer hallway, he craned his head and tried spot her through the windows. She stuck out with her bright yellow scarf. He made a mental note. Yellow scarf-girls had a tendency to be nutty anyway—not that he wanted to generalize; statistically speaking (although according to Ellian, he was hardly qualified to use the phrase), there was a spike of crazy when it came to yellow scarf-wearing girls.
Or blokes. The blokes were even nuttier.
James spun around, knocking into Fred—and Fred's danish, which flew gracefully onto his forehead.
Fred cleared his throat and extracted his smashed pastry from James' face. "I was calling you from way back there. What the heck were you staring at?"
"I've already hit on the same girl twice." James wiped his brow of jam and took a taste. Strawberry. "I think we ought to call it quits now. We've got a lot to work with already."
"Can't keep up with all the ladies throwing themselves at you?"
"More like can't wait to stop acting like such a bloody fool," Fred muttered, rubbing his shoulder. "If we weren't up to odd things every other week, people would figure we've gone mental."
James raised a finger. "What is love but going mental?"
As Fred turned his head, James caught a glimpse of pink on his cousin's collar. "Oi, what've we got here?" He grabbed at Fred, who tried to swat him away, and then broke out in a grin as the shape of the mark confirmed his guess: lipstick. "Come on, who is she?"
Fred scowled but then joined the stupid-grin club. "It's Prietta Laroque."
"The 'Batons beauty?" James whistled. "Looks like the pupil has become the master." He always suspected Fred had a weakness for the glamorous sort, stunning bombshells with better-than-perfect figures and legs a mile long. But then again, who didn't?
"She likes soft piano," he said dreamily, "and perfect circles and—"
"Your soul mate; I got it, Fred. Hold the waxing lyrical. Where's Ellian?"
"Thought she was with you. That's why I came looking."
Thankfully for the both of them, they didn't need to look any further than the next corner. James hadn't noticed her at first. He certainly wasn't expecting her to be at the center of a group of Durmstrang boys... flirting?
"No, no I can't—shut it Steven, I know where you live," she laughed. "If I don't have a plan, maybe. You know I don't like dances."
They were asking her to the Ball.
James didn't know what was going on with his hands. They were restless, flighty, like they suddenly wanted to smack the whole lot of blokes away. Not that he was possessive. Ellian wasn't his. And he wasn't planning to ask her, so...
Perhaps he didn't like the prospect of her being taken away. He liked his options open and Ellian was an option and now that option was threatened.
Yes, that was it.
Besides, he knew where the train of emotions would be headed otherwise: butterflies, stuttering, sweat, and that lurching pull from the underside of his heart. But that was impossible. This was Ellian romantic-as-a-fencepost Cearney; there was no station to dock said train. The destination didn't exist.
It was the ball. Right, right, that bloody ball—and maybe how she'd been biting her quill lately. But he wouldn't cheapen their friendship by suddenly wanting her now, when his sudden flutteriness was obviously the product of desperation. All this talk of dates and love. Ellian was like a sister.
Well, no. He didn't want to ship her off to Bulgaria.
But the rest of the metaphor fit. And to prove it, he strode confidently forward, feelings-free, and nearly walked straight into a first-year carrying her weight in textbooks when Ellian flashed a bright smile.
Fred pulled him out of the way at the last second (not that it mattered; poor girl toppled over five steps later). "You really aren't paying attention today."
"I'm paying lots of attention. Er, look, there's Ellian."
"Yeah, she's only right in front of us."
It seemed that Ellian had spotted them too as she was now walking toward them. Were her hips sashaying? Should he care?
"Hey, James. Fred. I've got the data on—" She waved a hand in front of James. "What are you staring at?"
Your hips. "Your... hair. Did you get a haircut?"
Her eyes squinted at the edges as her lips pursed into a circle. "Okay, what's up?"
"What?" blinked James. Her eyes were also a lovely green and lips pink. He had a rule about looking at a girl's eyes. Once a bloke started describing them with any non-color adjective, it was the beginning of the end—nonsense about pianos and circles and other love-struck poetry.
"I don't have to say it. I could have Mr. Welly attached to the side of my head and you wouldn't notice."
He couldn't refute her; that actually happened once. "Well, your hair looks nice."
She gave him a look. Fred gave him a look. Did he sound that panicked?
"Thanks." Ellian drew her gaze away and onto the parchments in her hand. "Anyway, I have the stats on last week's tests. Fred's actually more successful on average—"
Fred raised a brow. James snatched the page with a frown. The rows of numbers were like Goblin to him, but even he could understand the graphs at the very bottom. Fred's bars were blue and his were red, and blue topped red every time.
"Obviously, fifth year girls are easier than sixth year girls," he muttered, scanning through the symbols for a mistake. He didn't know what he was looking for, but surely there's be something glaring wrong.
Smugness tugged his cousin's lips into a smirk. "What happened to 'pupil has become the master'?"
"I was being charitable."
Ellian muffled a laugh with the back of her hand. "You're very charming. Fred's very charming. Let's leave it at that."
James' stomach growled, unsatisfied with the lick of jam, so he was ready to drop the matter in favor of lunch. If only Ellian hadn't continued.
"Though if I had just met you two, I honestly think I'd like Fred better."
On top of James' frown was a glare to Fred, who bowed his head boyishly. "Aw thanks, Ells."
When James opened his mouth to protest, Ellian stopped him by drawing his chin back up with a thumb (Call a healer. His heart stopped). "Because Fred's got that earnestness that girls find cute," she said, answering his unasked question.
He pouted. "I'm earnest."
"Earnest, charitable; you're a lot of things today, aren't you?" She pat his cheek. "Oh, James."
At some point, while his thoughts were disabled by the warmth of her hand, Ellian had left the space in front of him and had started walking toward the Great Hall with Fred.
"Coming, James?" She glanced back for only a moment, so that James could only see her eyes flutter softly like the first snowflake of—
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