I glanced up to see Katie waving her hands in my face.
“Hello? Anyone there?” She raised her eyebrows. “I’ve been saying your name for the past three minutes.”
I looked around me, realizing I had been standing idly in the hallway, staring down at a patient’s chart in my hand with glazed eyes.
“Right. Sorry. I guess I’m a bit distracted today,” I shook my head before giving her a smile.
Katie gave me a look. “No kidding.” She watched as I finished adding some notes to the chart before vanishing it away. “Let’s go. Blake wants us to oversee a patient’s case.”
We started to walk down the hallway. A small sigh escaped me; I just wanted to crawl back into bed and hide until this was all over. I glanced over at Katie and couldn’t help but smile at the inquiring look in her eyes.
“Come on. What’s going on? It’s not like we’re working the thirty hour shift this week. What’s up?” She looked at me expectantly.
I ran a hand quickly over my face as I mulled over the fact that nothing got past Katie’s sharp eye. I should have known that she of all people would notice something wrong. We hadn’t been this close at Hogwarts, but working alongside her for the past two years at Mungo’s had created a strong friendship between the both of us. We’d both collapsed many times in the break rooms to blow off some steam by making fun of our department healers, or by gossiping about the latest scandal that had occurred in the on-call room, or to simply question why we had ever considered this career.
“I just have a lot on my mind right now,” I managed; giving her what I hoped was a convincing smile.
My eyes strayed to the empty space of air just to the right of me, knowing that James was following along, hidden under the invisibility cloak. The first two days had gone by….not as smoothly as I had hoped they would. I was almost late to work the very first day because James had moved at a glacial pace getting ready. He’d also brought a book along with him, saying that at least he wouldn’t be bored to death while I worked. He soon discovered that it would be impossible for him to sit around as I ran around the different wards, supervising rounds with the interns and following up on my patients. He had no choice but to follow me around Mungo’s. Surprisingly, James hadn’t complained once. But I hadn’t missed the surly look on his face when he was finally able to remove the cloak.
“Blake’s had word of several of your incidences.” Katie gave me a sympathetic glance as I groaned, thinking back to the near misses James and I had had.
I’d been muttering to James about what time we could finally leave when one of my fellow healers walked by me and gave me a strange look. Another time James had ran into a stretcher, causing a rather loud commotion and I had to cook up a story that make it look like it was my fault, even though I hadn’t been close to it at all. The most embarrassing one was when James had started whispering something in my ear from behind me, and I trying so hard to hear what he was saying that I didn’t notice the residents watching me as they waited for a diagnosis which I then completely flubbed.
Those weren’t the only things however. I’d been completely jumpy for the past two days. It unnerved me, knowing that James was watching my every move, hearing everything I was saying and because of that, I wasn’t the calm, in-control Natalie that everyone expected to see. It was somewhat worrying that even though it had only been two days, people had already figured out that something was wrong.
“Merlin.” I shook my head. “Some of them completely jumped on the chance to make me look bad in front of Blake, didn’t they?”
Katie laughed. “Cut them some slack. It’s not often that his golden girl is off her game.”
I rolled my eyes but didn’t say anything to deny it. I’d worked hard to get to the top of the third-year residency class and I was proud of it. I should have only been in my second year but with Mungo’s option to complete the first intern year in half the time, I was already a year ahead. My hard work had earned me the respect of one of Mungo’s best healers, Blake, and I’d become sort of a favorite of his. This however didn’t stop him from assigning me some of the hardest cases, and the worst shifts. He said it was to “build my character.”
“Ah. Healer Boot, Healer Wood. Thank you for joining us,” Blake said as we walked into the patient’s room.
Two first years were standing by him, hanging on to his every word.
“We seem to be having some trouble with this patient,” he continued, gesturing to the small girl sitting on the cot. Her neck, face and arms were covered with huge, painful looking boils, and her hands and face were severely swollen; she looked miserable.
“Her mother spotted several of these boils yesterday and tried to treat it with a homemade boil curing potion, only to see her get worse. She also has a high fever. Healer Jack has suggested trying the boil curing potion again.” He gestured to the first year beside him. “What would you recommend, Wood?” Blake asked, looking at me expectantly.
Katie raised her eyebrows at me. This had always been Blake’s way of making sure the older residents could still handle small cases while teaching the newer students without outright telling them they were wrong.
“Well, it’s clear that the original boil curing potion went wrong, because of her side effects from it: the swelling, the fever, the growth of the boils,” I started. “Fevers can be caused by excessive amounts of snake fangs, which are ingredients in the boil cure potion. But before we give her the boil curing potion again, we have to get rid of the side effects. First we treat her fever and then give the antidote for the swelling, both which should remove the effects of the snake fangs. Once those are reduced, we can follow up with the boil curing potion—this time, made correctly.”
Blake gave me a pleased nod while both the interns stared at me, in awe I’d like to think. “Thank you, Wood. Boot.”
Knowing we were dismissed, Katie and I left. She shook her head. “Those poor interns.” She laughed.
“Hey. I study.” I said in protest. “That’s all they need to do.”
“You study too much,” Katie said firmly. “Seriously, when was the last time you actually went out? And not with Al. I mean, the whole getting all dolled up, going out to the club with all your girls and getting hammered before leaving with a tall, dark and handsome stranger that you would do unspeakable things to?”
I gave her a look. “When’s the last time you’ve done that? I know for a fact you’ve been working the night shifts for the past month.”
Katie sighed. “Fair enough.” Her eyes suddenly lit up. “Speaking of, are you going to that get-together to celebrate the start of our final year?”
“I don’t know. Things are pretty hectic for me right now.” My eyes drifted again to where James would be standing.
Katie laughed. “Your life is never hectic, Nat. I’ve never met someone more in control of her life than you.”
Oh, the irony I thought, shaking my head.
“You’re going,” she declared imperiously. “I have to head down to the spells ward. I’ll see you later.”
I groaned inwardly, knowing she would see through any excuse I made not to be there.
“How much longer?” A quiet voice questioned in my ear.
I glanced at my watch. “Two more hours,” I murmured, turning slightly so he could hear. I felt him sigh. His warm breath fluttered across the nape of my neck, sending a shiver down my back.
“So are those normal days for you at work?”
My head snapped up at the sound of his voice. We hadn’t spoken much when we returned to the apartment and we had started dinner in complete silence, save for the sound of the radio playing softly from the kitchen.
“Um. Well yeah,” I said awkwardly as I picked at the remaining food on my plate.
James gave me a look. “I just mean, it seems like a lot of work.”
I laughed quietly. “Well,” I said again. “No one said being a Healer was easy.”
He shrugged as he took a sip of water. “Why do it then?”
I felt my cheeks flush with irritation as I looked down at my plate. Anyone who knew me at Hogwarts knew how focused I’d been to get on the right track to be a Healer.
James reading me correctly sighed. “I know that you’ve wanted to be a Healer all your life, Natalie. Merlin. I just never knew why.”
Seeing that he was done eating, I stood up abruptly and grabbed his plate. “I’ll wash the dishes tonight,” I said. I didn’t miss how his eyes flashed with frustration.
He stayed seated at the table until the last moment before the pain started, forcing him to follow me. I washed the plates quietly, trying to ignore the way his eyes were burning into my back.
“I’m just trying to be friendly.”
My hand jerked, startled by the sound of his deep voice breaking the loud silence.
“I thought we agreed to make this as easy and uncomplicated for each other as we could,” James continued. “You don’t have to be so cold.”
My face burned. “I am not cold.” I turned around, my hands clenched in anger. His dark eyes scanned my face.
“I know. I know you’re not, so why do you act like it?”
I laughed bitterly, the sound jarring in the quiet room. “I can’t believe you. Why in Merlin’s name do you think you have the right to say these things to me when you haven’t properly spoken to me for the past year?” I bit out.
He didn’t reply and I turned around breathing hard, my eyes blurred in the effort to keep my temper in check. My face was flushed and I couldn’t get that image of James out of my mind: the frown that was always on his face when he looked at me, his eyes surveying me with frustration.
The next four days were filled with long silences and barely any conversation. It was frustrating and exhausting and I was at my wits end, not sure how much longer I could take being with James twenty-four seven. I knew he felt the same way but I couldn’t care less; all I wanted was to be alone.
And then we finally received some good news. Or at least, what we expected to be good news. I waited anxiously beside James as he greeted Hermione with a hug and a broad smile. After settling on the couch across from us, she surveyed our expectant faces for a moment.
“I’m not quite sure where to start.” Hermione sighed. “I can’t find anything related to the situation you two are in. I don’t think I’ve seen a case of actual humans being physically bound together like this but the problem is that magical contracts have the power to do just about anything.”
Dismay filled me instantly. I tried to keep my voice steady as I asked, “What does that mean?”
Hermione hesitated. “I don’t have a full solution for this just yet.”
My stomach sank with disappointment. I glanced at James nervously, wincing slightly when I saw the grim look on his face. I clenched my hands together, trying to ignore the thoughts in my head that wondered if we’d be stuck like this forever.
“I’m going to look into this whenever I have time,” Hermione promised. “I do have something you can try, however. ‘Finite’ is typically used to stop the effect of a spell. I think it might work on you two—but temporarily. Try it in the morning before you go to work and see how long it lasts,” she explained. “You won’t be free from the contract but the spell should give you some leeway around it by temporarily stopping the part of the contract that doesn’t let you two separate.”
James clarified, “Cast it every morning on each other? And we’ll be able to be away from each other?”
“See how it works tomorrow. If it lasts long enough for both of you to be separated from each other throughout the day, then continue to use it. You’ll be able to go to work regularly but again, I don’t expect it to last the whole day.” She gave us a sympathetic smile. “I’m sorry that I can’t help you much more than this.”
My smile was strained. “Thank you for even taking time to come and talk to us.”
She stood up to give us both a warm hug and then she was gone, leaving us to stare bleakly at each other.
“Let’s just go to bed,” James said with a sigh as he ran a hand through his hair. “We’ll try the spell in the morning.”
But I couldn’t sleep once we were in bed. I tossed and turned; unable to stop worrying about how tomorrow would go.
I turned to move again when a hand slid across my waist. I froze, stuck awkwardly on my side and with the blanket halfway off me as his strong arm pinned me down to the bed. “For Merlin’s sake, will you please stop fidgeting?” James whispered.
I stayed in that position, uncomfortable as it was, until he released his hold on me. Waiting until his breathing slowed again, I tried to move again as slowly and quietly as I could.
I stopped when I heard a loud sigh. I turned my head to see James watching me, a slight smile on his face. “Go on then. Get comfortable,” he said, a laugh in his voice.
He waited until I stopped squirming around, finally having found the perfect spot. “Are you going to tell me why you can’t sleep?”
I raised my eyebrows at him before realizing he couldn’t see my face. I chose to remain silent instead.
“The past few days, you’ve been so exhausted from work that you’re asleep before I can even turn off the light.” His voice was quiet. “I know something’s on your mind.”
I traced small patterns on my pillow. “Why do you want to know?” I asked, trying not to sound as defensive as I felt.
James sighed again. “Because I want to get some sleep tonight.” But the curiosity in his voice said otherwise.
I stared up at the ceiling. “What if the spell doesn’t work?” I questioned quietly, making sure to keep the panic out of my voice.
He didn’t speak for a moment. “Aunt Hermione knows what she’s talking about. If she thinks we have a chance with that spell…then we should just trust her,” James finally said.
The room fell quiet again. His words settled over me in a reassuring caress. Just as my eyes were drifting shut I murmured slowly, “Thank you, James.”
I took a deep breath and raised my wand, pointing it at James. “Let’s just get it over with.” I tried to keep still as he counted to three.
I cleared my throat before saying, “Finite.”
James stood still as the spell hit him. He waited a moment before casting it on me, his voice clear and confident.
Another moment passed. I frowned. “Did it work?” I questioned anxiously.
“Shall we find out?” James asked, raising his eyebrows. “Wait here,” he said. He walked slowly away from me, backing up more and more into the kitchen.
I closed my eyes, dreading that sharp tug of pain that would force me to close the distance between the both of us. But it never came.
My eyes flew open. “Oh my god. Oh, thank Merlin.”
I felt weak with relief. James appeared back into the room, a broad smile on his face. We both stared at each other for a moment, unable to believe it worked. Laughter bubbled through my lips as I sank onto the couch, my mind buzzing with all the things I would be able to do now. I could go to work! I could go to work without worrying about James following my every move and every step. I could go see Albus without having James scowling at the both of us.
“I can go back to practice.” James’s deep voice broke through my thoughts. “I don’t know if the coach will let me but I might even be able to play in the next game—I wasn’t out for too long.”
He looked up at me, his eyes bright with excitement and I couldn’t help but smile back.
“So I’ll see you tonight, then?” I asked as I stood.
The excitement in his eyes faded as his eyebrows scrunched together with concern. “We should try to come home a bit early. We don’t know how long it’ll last….,” he trailed off.
I nodded, waving goodbye before I left for work. I wasn’t able to keep the smile off my face throughout the day. I felt giddy and light, as if a weight had been lifted off my chest that I hadn’t realized was there till it was gone.
“What’s up with you?” Katie raised her eyebrows at me.
I took a bite out of my salad before I shrugged, the smile still playing on my lips. “I’m just having a good day.”
She gave me a suspicious look. “Well….okay.” She tore the piece of bread in her hand absent-mindedly as her eyes drifted behind me. “Oh, god. Be still my beating heart.” She let out a woeful sigh.
I rolled my eyes, knowing immediately who she was fawning over. “Katie. He’s married,” I said after a pause, wondering how plainly I could put it.
“That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the good looks he’s been given,” Katie scoffed as she watched Healer Alex walk across the cafeteria.
I shook my head. As I waited patiently for Katie’s attention to come back, my own mind drifted to thoughts about James. All morning, I had been so happy that I could go about with my life and work without being held back by the contract. But now, a different worry started to give birth. How much longer would we have to live together? Someone would find out eventually. I’d have to pretend that there was some sort of relationship between us and I didn’t know if I could do that.
“Hey. So,” Katie’s eyes snapped back to me. “We’re all going out tonight, remember?
I groaned. “I can’t. I have to go home early to—”
She cut me off. “To do what, exactly?”
“Katie, I just have—” I tried again.
She smirked teasingly, “A lot going on?” Katie laughed. “You’ve used that excuse too many times, Natalie. I am not taking no for an answer.”
I glare at her. “Fine. But I can’t stay for long.”
“As long as you make an appearance,” Katie said with a grin. She left soon after to check on a patient, leaving me to mull over how it had been a while since I’d gone out. Maybe tonight would help me relax for once.
I tugged self-consciously at the dress I was wearing. Katie had brought it for me to wear, knowing I hadn’t planned on going out with them and knowing if I went home to change, I’d probably never leave.
Katie’s hand grabbed mine before I could reach to adjust it again. “Stop,” She ordered. “You look fine.”
“It’s not too short or anything—”
“It’s fine. You’re gorgeous.” She gave me a look as we walked. “Do me a favor and have some fun tonight. You deserve it. I don’t know anyone who works as hard as you and then goes home to study some more. And it’s only the start of the year.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said with a sigh.
We reached the front of the short line into the club and the bouncer ushered us in. I followed Katie to the table the third-year residents had congregated around.
We were greeted by loud cheers and claps before being grabbed into clumsy hugs. Apparently most of them had started early. Once everyone settled down I found myself seated between Amy Foster and Sarah Davies, one of who pushed a shot of Firewhiskey into my hand.
“Wouldn’t it be more reasonable to celebrate at the end of the year when we’re actually done?” I questioned.
Sarah laughed. “It’s never too early to start.”
I shrugged and then downed the shot, wincing at the strong, burning taste. The drinks Katie had ordered for us appeared in front of us and I reached for that, hoping it would numb the taste.
A little while later I found myself feeling quite comfortable. I leaned back in my seat, watching languidly as Amy and Sarah argued about god knows what. I found myself joining in a minute later, the three of us getting louder and louder as we tried to talk over each other.
And then I felt it. Panic flooded me as that familiar sting of pain, that iron hand tugged at my chest.
“I need to leave,” I said hastily and got up, my heart pounding. No one noticed as I left. I stumbled blindly, unable to see where I was going.
The pain increased and increased; my whole body shook with it. I could barely think. My heart ached and my head throbbed. I couldn’t breathe. It felt like my body would shatter open. Another moment and surely it would. But somehow, somehow, I was able to gather enough concentration to disapparate.
I shut my eyes, my arms clenched around my stomach until I knew I was in James’s apartment. I collapsed on the floor, too weak to move as the pounding pain slowly ceased.
“Where the hell were you?” A hoarse voice asked.
I opened my eyes slowly to see James sitting on the couch, his body hunched over. His face was pale and his eyes were filled with raw pain.
“I had no idea where you bloody were. There was nothing I could do until you came home. God, what if you hadn’t apparated in time? What if you had splinched yourself apparating? Not to mention, we have no fucking idea what could happen if we’re separated too long like that! Or do you just like the pain?” His voice shook with anger.
I stayed quiet, letting James rant at me. But underneath my composed face, his harsh voice cut through me like a whip; a different pain than the one I’d just experienced minutes ago, but one that hurt just as badly. And I felt guilty. It was my all fault.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered, wincing as he glared at me. “I—I lost track of time.”
James exhaled loudly before walking over to help me up. His touch was gentle, despite the hard look on his face. His eyebrows rose as I stood. “You’ve been drinking. Firewhiskey?”
“I was out with people I work with,” I managed to get out under his stare.
He shook his head in disbelief. “The one time you do,” James muttered as he walked me into the bedroom. “Bloody irresponsible when you knew we still had to figure out our limitations with the spell,” he spat out. We stared at each other for a moment. His piercing eyes scanned my face and for a second his eyes softened. But they were still full of pain, disappointment and something else I could never quite figure out.
“I’m going to bed,” he finally said, breaking our gaze. He let go of me and left me standing in the middle of the room, still slightly shaking.
A/N--Okay, so by now the re-edited chapters should be up. For anyone who's actually continuing reading it from before, I just made changes in the relationships between Al, James and Natalie. I hadn't liked where I was going before with it and that was one of the reasons I had such bad writer's block for this story!
But that being said, this story is definitely back. I'm not going to disappear after a few updates--I'm very determined to finish this! Also, please review! I'd love love love feedback!
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