Chapter 2 : II. Getting the Girl
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II. Getting the Girl
In the face of sudden love, James Potter thought.
His thinking was not the same sort of thinking Ellian did, though — that would be very silly indeed. Love in graphs and numbers and rationalization. No one would ever describe him as rational. Planning was a more precise term. One had to sort out matters of the heart with careful considerations of the risk and reward. This was the bit that everyone missed. It was how Romeo and Juliet died. How Troy burned.
Ellian was too important to simply follow his gut. She was his best mate, next to Fred — maybe even better than Fred. She smelled nicer and always had an extra quill handy. James knew enough to worry about what would happen if she didn't fancy him back.
But how to approach the problem?
He ought to tell her. Sensible. Boring.
He could wait and see if the feeling went away. No, that never went well.
Then he had a tiny side of him that wanted to burst through the common room doors and sweep Ellian away in a trail of rose petals. She would be reading on the left side of the sofa as she always did, where the cushion was dented. There would be exactly two hundred and fifty petals — conjured, of course (Neville wouldn't be too keen at the idea of James plucking away at his prized rosebushes). And, as the finale, they'd fly out the window on his broomstick into the sunset.
James didn't know why he found that appealing, nor why that specific fantasy was so detailed, but it was very worrying. Ellian was his best mate (sorry, Fred); he wasn't supposed to have notions like that about his best mate. Especially because she'd probably scold him for interrupting her reading and for making a mess in the common room, and that looking directly into sunsets was bad for the retinas.
Perhaps it was best to observe her first. See if Ellian would be receptive to his feelings. With Project No Date Left Behind underway, James already knew how to conduct an experiment of his own, and he'd seen enough reactions from girls to decipher good from bad — even if Ellian wasn't just any girl.
He did enjoy a challenge.
After James' Wizard set refused to play (one too many games of suicide chess), he and Fred had to borrow Ellian's Muggle chessboard. They practically rearranged the entire sofa to build their cushion-table; one couldn't underestimate the quality of prime chess-game seating. Ellian was content to finalize the data in the meantime — on the rug, flat on her stomach, and legs jutting out in a yoga position, all while reading one of the many parchments that surrounded her in a circle like some cultist ritual.
Just another day in the Gryffindor common room.
While Fred took another eternity to figure out his next move, James hung off the the side of the sofa. "Oi, Ell. What are you going to do about the ball?"
She did not look up, quite used to the habit of not humoring him, whether he wanted to be humored or not. "What about it?"
"Are you going?"
"You are very aware that I don't like dances."
He did, but what about those blokes in the hallway? James cleared his throat; upside down, it was like forcing a watery hair ball up against gravity. "But I, uh, I don't know if you changed your mind."
She curved her legs toward each other until they touched — a new position for a new parchment. "You are also aware that I don't tend to change my mind."
"Would you do it for me?"
This made her look straight at him. "Change my mind or go to the ball?"
He should have said the latter, but what came out of his mouth was, "Change your mind."
She rolled her eyes upwards (downwards?) before returning to the parchment. "Don't be so full of yourself, James."
There was a sudden blip in her expression that James swore he saw, but girls were hard enough to decipher right side up and without all the blood rushing to his head.
Fred peered over the chessboard at him, causing the cushions to slant. A few pawns tumbled off the side. "Have you asked anyone to the ball yet?"
"Uh, well, no." Very carefully, James launched himself back into a sitting position. A dozen spots swarmed his vision. "No big deal though; I've got girls lining up. Yeah." Twisting around, he tried to glance at Ellian's expression, but a giant black blob obscured her head. "Like, um... Miranda Twinner."
"Miranda Twinner, who was snogging Walt in the library earlier?"
"That pock-faced twit?" James whispered with horror, shaking his head and blinking. The spots faded away. It didn't matter; Ellian still wasn't paying attention. How was he supposed to gauge her jealousy if he couldn't even see her expression?
Maybe he could ask Uncle George to make a draught that turned people green when they got jealous. They could make millions — !
He smacked the side of his head, which echoed with a resounding thump. Matter at hand first.
Smoothing over his momentary profit fantasies as best as he could, James continued, "Well, uh, Miranda was kind of iffy. I also heard — what's her name — Cora! Cora's interested."
Fred scratched his brow. "Cora went home for the holidays."
"...oh." James needed to figure out some proper signals with Fred. He hadn't told Fred about Ellian, but for Godric's sake! Fred was his wingman; he ought to have figured it out by now.
"It's a bit late. Why don't you just go with Ellian?"
Fred's words brought out the first real reaction in Ellian, who threw back her head and laughed; perhaps he wasn't so useless after all.
James blinked, mouth agape, but she didn't see as she promptly resumed looking at her scribbles, tucking her hair behind her ear. "James wouldn't want to go with me," she said.
James scrunched up his brows. "I wouldn't?"
"You like arm candy," she said, shrugging, before turning swiftly to Fred. "So, who are you going with?"
"Wait, but — "
Fred's dreamy sigh overshadowed James. "Prietta Laroque, fairest of them all." He snapped up suddenly. "Oh bugger, I told her I'd meet her right now."
Fred plunked his piece down onto the board and scrambled off the sofa. He was out of the common room before James could examine the board properly.
"Oi, you moved the rook diagonally!" James yelled after him. Snorting to herself, Ellian gave no sympathy.
A line of phantom sweat trickled down the back of his neck. They were alone now, he noticed.
Things happened when two people were alone.
Alone with only his beating heart to interrupt, his brain to shut down, and his mouth to spill something he'd regret later. He was just sitting there; how were there still so many ways to go wrong?
James took in a deep breath for courage and flopped belly-down onto the carpet beside Ellian. "Arm candy?" he said. "What are you saying, Ells? That I only like pretty girls?"
She arched a brow. At the same time, she lifted his elbow away from the parchment it was crushing. "That would mean you're saying I'm not pretty enough for you."
Public enemy no. 1 of conversation topics. "N-no! I just thought — "
"I know." Her lips curved into a smile, chuckling, and she patted the back of his hand. "I just meant that I know I'm not your type. At least not your going-out-with type."
But she was so wrong. Amazingly wrong. James stared at her ink-stained fingers that slipped away too soon. All he needed was to say a few words. You're the most impossibly, frustratingly beautiful girl I've ever met... Figuratively, anyway.
There were much more beautiful girls than Ellian, but none quite as frustrating. That was the difference.
He opened his mouth. Courage failed him. He would find it again a minute later, but the moment had already passed.
At the next morning's breakfast, Ellian showed James their experiment's final reports. She took a seat next to him while he was in the middle of inhaling half of his plate, and the combination of his fluttering heart and constricting windpipe nearly suffocated him as the food went down.
"It's pretty good stuff actually." Ellian passed him the papers. "Mostly common knowledge, but we discovered quite a few social patterns that aren't too well-documented. Girls tend to react positively to the word 'orange' — I never would've guessed. That and 'chocolate', but I could've told you that. And then there's this..."
James was suddenly struck with an awful thought. "What about the people who end up falling in love?"
She pushed her glasses up the bridge of her nose. "It's not really the point of our studies, is it?"
"But... to give advice on picking up girls but not what happens afterwards — that's irresponsible!" James only understood love's keen head-warping, hormone-pumping sting after this dreadful holiday. "If people read this and fall in love, then what? I haven't told them how to deal with it!"
He certainly wished someone would tell him how to deal with it; he'd even share some of his profit.
"I'm sure whoever your readership is, they'll manage." Ellian patted his cheek; she had taken to doing that lately. Maybe it meant something. "Life doesn't exactly have an instruction manual, James."
He was so close to pressing his hand against hers until she continued blithely, "'sides, billions of people have figured out love before you existed. That is... generally how you exist."
James shuddered. Sometimes he wished Ellian never corrected him about where babies came from; he was never quite the same after that day in third year. The stork story made more sense, anyway.
"How do they know?" He slumped onto an arm, a bite of cereal still stuck in his cheek. He had forgotten to keep chewing. "How do you know you're in love?"
Ellian blinked. "Eh?"
"Um," he stuttered, cursing inwardly. If these blunders kept up, he'd be proposing to her in song by the end of the week. "I mean, blokes aren't really taught how to handle feelings."
"Am I supposed to know because I'm a girl?" She was mimicking his position with one arm on the table, but she somehow made it seem enchanting with her curved lips pressed against her fingers and her nose slightly crinkled. If he could sell a book on how she was doing that, he'd make even more millions.
"You're supposed to know because you know everything."
She sighed and a sheepish laugh seemed to ring through her words. "If I must. I think... I think love is when someone who makes you happy when you see them or think about them. And you want to make them happy. Like your best mate."
"But there's more than that, right?"
Ellian shrugged. "I don't see a difference. But I don't know if there's something more out there yet, either. Who knows?" She bit her lip. "Sorry, you probably weren't looking for an answer like that."
No, but he hadn't asked the right question.
Does that mean you love me?
James tugged at his collar and tie, standing proudly in front of the framed photo of his namesake. It hung alongside other notable Gryffindors in the common room, a whole collection of oval and rectangle frames. For the most part, they were celebratory pictures, taken at Quidditch victories and end-of-the-year parties. Sometimes, he liked to stand in front of them and pretend they were clapping for him.
Finding Granddad's seventh year photo was one of the first things he did when he arrived at Hogwarts in his first year (twelve frames from the floor, three to the right, just underneath one of a young McGonagall). He had no problem spotting him; there was no mistaking the charismatic, mischievous grin that mirrored his own.
"Dad told me my granddad went stag to his first dance, too," James said as Fred approached.
"Yeah, but only 'cause your Gram kept rejecting him."
If only Fred knew how close the stories ran.
Granted, Ellian couldn't reject James if he didn't ask her. He was still working on that part. She was so close, yet so far away, sitting in a desk to his right and scritch-scratching her quill.
His eyes flicked forward before either she or Fred could notice him staring at her. "I'll manage. I'm James Sirius Potter."
"It is a very confident name," Fred said with a nod. "I still wonder what your mum and dad were on when they had Albus."
A voice called from the boys' dorms. "Hey! I happen to be named after highly-respected war heroes!"
"So am I, but you don't see me needing to mention that at every introduction!" James yelled back.
After a bout of loud stomping, Albus appeared around the corner of the staircase, cheeks red and puffy. He had decided to go to the Yule Ball last minute and had gone diving into James' wardrobe for a pair of shoes to fit his growing feet.
Just as Albus opened his mouth wide to retort, he spotted Ellian and paled, looking fit to faint. "H-hi Ellian." He gave a little wave as he shuffled down the steps nervously. "I didn't know you were — um, could I talk to you p-privately for a moment?"
James saved him the trouble. "If you're going to ask her to the ball, she already has a date." He waggled his eyebrows like dancing flobberworms, just as creepily as Uncle George had taught him. "Lots of dates. Durmstrang boys."
The quivering fourth year's eyes grew as wide as saucers.
"James." The glare Ellian gave him was far less amused than his own. "I don't think I'm going, actually," she said hastily. "And your brother's just talking nonsense. They're my cousin's friends — awful silly lot."
James couldn't help but smile to himself. He knew there was a proper explanation for that crowd!
Albus pulled himself slowly back up along the banister. "Er... well, never mind then."
"I'm sorry, Albus. It's very sweet of you, though — "
He had already ran off. Shaking her head, Ellian's attention immediately went down to her papers again, without a single look at James, whose grin dropped.
All right, it was a little mean but, "You should turn him down properly for once. Poor kid's fancied you since you visited last summer. It's weird."
"He only fancies me because I defend him from you." Her voice was unexpectedly stern. "You should stop abusing him so."
"Or the more obvious solution: he needs to learn to be a man, right?"
"He was going to ask me before you so eagerly interrupted him." She jabbed the end of her quill at him, flecking ink onto her sleeve. "Give him credit. He's a lot less shy than he used to be, but it'd be even better if you'd stop making it harder for him. Just accept that he's never going to be like you."
A itch crept up James' neck like a spider of guilt, sticking to his shoulders. They never had much of a fight before; this was usually as far as it got — some sharp reprimand to put him back into place. Though it didn't take Dumbledore to know that James had the tendency to act like he owned the world, few people pointed it out as bluntly as she did.
But it didn't feel like another one of those times. James was feeling quite low in the world, in fact. It wasn't until later when he sat himself down and really thought (a full fifteen percent of his brain in use) that knew the reason behind his sudden outburst.
Even his timid little Hufflepuff brother had the guts to ask Ellian to the ball.
James had never known such restlessness until that hour. With everyone else caught up in the Yule Ball frenzy, he had little to distract himself that day besides Ellian's company. At least she had proved to be exceptionally distracting lately.
His chin was flat on the table as he watched her draw neat bar graphs onto the parchment. "Am I bothering you? I feel like I'm bothering you."
She dipped her quill into the inkwell and siphoned off the extra ink by the rim. It dripped down in thick black rolls. "I am tolerating your existence, like I do every other day."
James checked his time-piece again. It was still eight hours until the ball. Eight more hours of staring at Ellian.
His thoughts had been wandering far and wide back in time. He needed to know — when had he first fallen in love with her? She seemed very much the same Ellian Cearney he had known for the past six years. He just noticed her a bit more. A lot more.
There was young Ellian with a face full of frosting on the Hogwarts Express. She had tripped onto the trolley, but everyone had thought she had devoured a cauldron cake whole. Mostly his fault. (Entirely his fault.)
"I'm sorry I ever called you the Chubby Cake Monster."
Scritch-scratch. "That was years ago, James."
Then there was third year, when James had charmed the fifth eye onto her forehead after learning what four-eyes meant.
"And five-eyed hydra." The hydra part had been added in just for good measure.
Scritch-scratch, scritch-scratch. "I don't even remember that."
He couldn't recall what prompted 'spawn of Aragog', but he remembered being rather proud of that one. "And spawn of — "
"I think I love you."
Full, utter silence. James couldn't even hear his heart beat — just a vacuum of sound as the seconds crept past like time had stopped, freezing Ellian in place with too much fringe in her face and an inscrutable expression behind it.
Suddenly, the incessant sound of her quill picked up again. "Stop joking around," Ellian whispered. "I need to get these charts done."
The racing thunder of his veins threatened to explode with the broken silence. There was no way he was letting her slip away like sand now, with her little smiles and cheek-patting that made him go weak. "I wasn't joking. You should stop making assumptions, Ell. It's your worst quality."
Scritch-scritch-scratch. "I have far worse qualities than that."
"Like completely missing the point?" James slid forward on the table, a little closer to her failing facade of calm.
"I was deflecting. There's a difference." Her scribbling quickened. "Besides, you don't know what love is."
He craned his head lower to peer at her face. "You told me what love is."
"Ellian." He reached over and stopped her hand.
She glanced up just as James leaned forward. He didn't think he had ever seen her so nervous. She was calm and collected and certain of herself but never nervous.
Her breath tickled his nose, soft and warm, before it turned cold with a sharp inhale. "James, I — "
Ellian turned away, smiling almost sadly, and a tiny chuckle escaped like a hiccup. She had been laughing quite a lot that week at him, he remembered. He had done much to be laughed at. But the single most important detail about her seemed to have slipped his mind until then.
She laughed when she was nervous.
"James, I'm sorry. I can't."
A/N Felt like rewriting the next bit -at last- I don't know if anyone was waiting for it (Lily ♥ p.s. her fluffy Louis/OC oneshot totally inspired the initial rewrite because I was like, "Allll the fluff please," after reading it).
There is one more part after this :) Do leave a review! I have no idea what people think of the rewrite.
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