I glanced up to see James poking his head into the kitchen, disheveled from practice with a smug of dirt on his face.
I nodded, suddenly shy. “You’ve been the one cooking this entire time. I thought I would help around,” I said, ducking my head as I stirred the soup in front of me. “It’ll be ready by the time you shower,” I added.
I looked up just in time to see the surprised look on his face. But it was quickly replaced by a small smile. “Thanks Natalie.”
He disappeared to clean up, leaving me to my thoughts which were always ended up thinking about him and this whole predicament. We had finally adjusted as best we could to the strange routine of casting the spell on each other before going to work. Things between us weren’t better, but they weren’t worse. It was becoming easier and easier to hold conversations with him that didn’t end in an argument. But there was still a tension between us that wouldn’t let me forget what had happened before and how foolish I had been. And there was always that hurt that comes with unrequited feelings which I couldn’t push away no matter how hard I tried.
James was back in the kitchen ten minutes later, his hair still slightly wet.
“That was quick,” I said, raising my eyebrows. I poured the soup into two bowls before placing the bread on a plate.
James grinned. “It smelled good and I, for one am starving.” His hazel eyes twinkled as he smiled down at me. I felt a swoop in my stomach. I grabbed two bottles of butterbeer from the fridge in an effort to act cool and casual in front of him.
James grabbed the food and we sat down to eat at the small table in the kitchen. I shot him looks out of the corner of my eye as we ate, trying to see if he was actually liking my cooking or not.
I looked up in surprise when James started to laugh. “Relax, Natalie. It’s good—I’ve never had such good chicken soup before.”
My cheeks flushed. “I was just worried,” I said in defense. “I used to be horrible at cooking. Remember that one time Al and I tried to cook for the family one summer? That was the absolute worst.”
James laughed again, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “Oh, I remember. I didn’t know pasta could congeal like that.”
I shook my head, a smile on my lips. “I swore I would never cook again.”
“Well, lucky you didn’t follow through with that.” James said, his voice laced with amusement.
I hid my growing smile by hurriedly swallowing another bite of soup. We were quiet for a couple minutes and then James lifted his head, a serious look on his face. “I’ve been thinking.”
I raised my eyebrows at him.
“We should try and help Aunt Hermione with figuring out how to break the contract. She gets busy enough and now she has us to worry about.” He paused, toying with his spoon before fixing me with a determined look. “I’m sure if we research and find the right book we can figure out how to get rid of the spell.”
I nodded. “That’s fine. I’m sure I can squeeze in some time while I have breaks at Mungo’s and when I’m here.”
James frowned. “Hang on. I don’t want you to take on too much. I mean you’re busy enough as it is with Mungo’s—a lot busier than me. I don’t mind doing most of the research.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Are you really suggesting that? You know I’m never going to agree to it.”
He looked at me for a long moment and then he sighed. “It was worth a shot,” he said with a shrug.
A smile spread on my face. “Thanks anyway,” I found myself saying. James tilted his head in acknowledgement. I could feel his gaze on me as I finished eating. I looked up in anticipation to see him surveying me with an odd look in his eyes—a mix of amusement and frustration.
“What?” Inwardly, I winced. I couldn’t have sounded more defensive.
He shook his head. “You’re so hard to figure out, Nat. But sometimes I swear to Merlin I can read you like a book.”
I stared at him, my eyes wide as his words processed through my mind. And then I found myself saying, "I can never understand you." His eyebrows rose in surprise. We stared at each other for a moment.
“I’m going to clean up,” I finally muttered, standing up hurriedly to clear the table.
James nodded in confirmation as he stood up too. “Yup. Sometimes I can read you like a book.”
I gulped, my stomach fluttering with nerves. What does that mean, I thought anxiously as I cleaned the dishes with a flick of my wand. Is he trying to tell me he knows how I feel about him? Why are boys so bloody difficult?
I was so concentrated on trying to figure out what James had meant that by the time I put the clean dishes away, I was surprised to see that the table was spotless—the leftovers already in the fridge and the bottles of butterbeer in the trash. But James had disappeared.
Well, you’re the one who ran from him first I thought with a wry smile. I peered into the living room to see him situated on the couch, a Quidditch game playing on the TV. Not wanting to make things more awkward, I got ready for bed and settled in on the bed for a long night of reviewing the cases of my patients at Mungo’s.
I had just come out of a patient’s room when I noticed several of the interns on-call in the spells ward all a-flutter. “What’s going on?” I asked with raised eyebrows. “Shouldn’t you be on rounds with Blake?” I added.
“James Potter’s here,” Lauren informed me. “I think he’s waiting for someone.”
I turned with anticipation to see James sitting comfortably at the end of the hallway, reading a magazine and avidly avoiding the gazes of the fascinated interns.
“Well, he can sit in the waiting area. He’s not supposed to be in here,” I reminded them before marching towards James.
“Aw, come on Wood,” I heard from behind me.
I rolled my eyes. James looked up when I reached him and gave me a smile. “Ready? But you’re not coming like that, are you?” His face was filled with amusement as he surveyed my lime green robes.
I glanced down at my robes for a second before frowning. “Ready for what?”
He raised his eyebrows. “We’re going to look for books that would have anything about magical contracts? You said you’d be done by the afternoon and I could come meet you here.”
I stared at him blankly until I remembered our conversation the night before. “Right. Well, I have to change. I’ll just meet you outside,” I said. I glanced towards behind me to see the three interns still watching keenly.
I turned back just in time to see a deep frown on his face disappear. “I’ll see you outside,” he muttered before disappearing.
I shrugged. As frustrating as it was, I had learned to accept his mood-swings when it came to our relationship. I mused over that as I changed and grabbed my bag, before hurrying outside of Mungo’s to find James leaning against a phone box, an unreadable look on his face.
We made our way to Diagon Alley in a tense silence. I was just about to open the door to Flourish and Blotts when James reached out and grabbed me hand, tugging me to the side of the store.
His hazel eyes trailed over my face. “You haven’t told anyone about us, have you?” James questioned.
I gave him a blank look, unsure of what to say. His gaze was unrelenting. “Honestly, what’s there to say? It’s not like we’re in an actual relationship,” I finally said.
James frowned. “Well, then why does it matter? Why didn’t you want your co-workers see you leave with me?”
I gulped. I didn’t think he had noticed that. “I--,”
“For Merlin’s sake, Natalie. My best friend thinks we’re actually together. But you—Merlin. You’re so bloody frustrating.” He ran his fingers through his hair in frustration.
My stomach swooped with nerves. I frowned, suddenly confused. “James, why does it matter? We’re going to find a solution to this and it’s not going to matter who knew and who didn’t. And it’ll be easier if people don’t think we’re together so we don’t have to come up with an awkward explanation when we can finally break the spell,” I reminded him.
He gave me a long look, his eyes narrowed in irritation before he let out a sigh. “Whatever, Natalie. Let’s just get this over with. The sooner we do this, the sooner I can get back to my life.”
My stomach swooped again, but this time with the hurt that accompanied his words. I turned and walked into the store, trying as best as I could to push what he had said to the back of my mind, to just forget all about it.
We split up when we went into the store, James taking one side while I took the other, grabbing any that I thought would have anything related to magical contracts. I met up with James in the middle, both of our arms laden with several books.
“I think this is good enough for now,” James said.
I nodded absent-mindedly, my attention diverted to the display of books in front of me. “Oh, Merlin,” I whispered.
“Who’s Jacques Leroy?” James questioned as he looked over the name of the author, abruptly interrupting my moment.
“Who’s Jacques Leroy?” I sputtered. “He’s only the most influential Healer of our time. I can’t believe you don’t know who he is.”
“Says the girl who had no idea who won the Quidditch league last year,” James muttered with an amused look on his face.
I ignored his remark as I looked over the books. “These are first-editions of all his books. I’m waiting till I graduate to buy them.”
“It’s just a goal I set for myself,” I said as I gave the books a fond look. “Plus, they’re pretty pricey.”
James nodded with a grin, an amused look still playing in his eyes. “Well, let’s come along. We can’t loiter around all day Nat.”
He placed his hand on the small of my back to gently nudge me towards the cashier and the spark that passed between us jolted me to attention. I blushed and then hurried to pay for the books, trying to pretend that I couldn’t hear his chuckles following behind me.
“I’m done for the day, by the way,” James told me once we returned to his apartment. “We can get started on researching if you want.”
I nodded as I placed the books on the small table in front of the couches. I grabbed a book and got comfy on the couch as James settled on the opposite seat. I started skimming the book, trying to find any mention of how to get rid of a magical contract that can bind people together.
Half an hour in, the words started to blur and I found my mind drifting off to a day spent at the Potter’s during winter break.
“Natalie Wood. What in Merlin’s name do you think you’re doing?”
I looked up to see James standing in front of me, a stern look on his face.
“Studying.” I gave him a blank look. “It’s only a couple more months before I have to take N.E.W.T.s.”
Before I knew what was happening, the book in my lap had disappeared. James was holding it high above him, a mischievous look in his eyes.
“It’s Christmas, Lee. I forbid you to study at our house during Christmas break.” He laughed as I tried to jump up and snag the book back.
“Come on. If I don’t study, I’m going to fail!” I protested as I hung onto his arm in a failed effort to get custody of my notes back.
James laughed again. The deep sound send a shiver down my back and I moved away from him in surprise. Since when do I get shivers around James?
With a flick of his wand, the book disappeared. “I’ll give you your notes back if you help me decorate the tree,” James offered with a huge grin.
I scowled at him. He reached forward and gently tapped me on my nose. “Well actually you have no choice.”
Again, before I could realize what was happening James wrapped his arm around me and dragged me with him to the Potter’s living room. Knowing I wouldn’t be able to escape, I resignedly started to shift through the boxes of ornaments in front of the huge tree in the corner of the room. “Where’s Al?” I asked, suddenly noticing that he wasn’t around.
“He got stuck helping in the kitchen. He got into a fight with Lily and hid her broomstick.” James said. I could hear the smile in his voice as I reached up to place a gold ornament on the tree.
“What are you doing?”
I turned to glare at James. “What now?”
“Well, you know there’s a little thing called magic we can use--,” James started sarcastically.
“Oh, shut up. You can, I can’t. Plus anyway, if you want me to help you with this, we’re going to do it the proper way—without magic,” I told him. I shoved him in the chest as I gave him a stern look.
James rolled his eyes and grumbled incessantly for a couple minutes but soon we were laughing as we placed the rest of the ornaments around the tree, making sure the ugly one of the gnome was in the center.
“One more.” I reached on tip-toes to place the angel on the top of the tree, struggling to make sure it was straight. I stiffened when I felt strong arms encircle me. James had wrapped his arms around me in an effort to help me. His broad chest was flush against my back and I could feel the muscles in his arm move as he reached up to place the angel at the top.
“Good?” His warm breath fanned over the side of my face as he leaned down to whisper into my ear and my stomach swirled with butterflies. I glanced up to see James grinning down at me. But he had a curious look in his eyes that sent another jolt through my stomach.
“Yup.” I nodded. “I’m gonna go see if Al needs help.”
I managed to walk out of the room in a calm manner, making sure that James wouldn’t notice how flustered I felt. What was all of that? James had always been like a big brother to me and now my palms were sweaty and my heart was racing just from that? I shook my head. I must have just been imagining things.
My eyes drifted open to see James, his face close to mine. My gaze slowly trailed over his hazel eyes, the freckles that dotted his face and then I jolted upright. “What happened?”
“You fell asleep.” James paused, a worried look on his face. “I would have moved you to the bed but you haven’t eaten dinner yet.”
“I’m fine,” I shook my head, trying to clear the sleep from my eyes. “I think I’m just going to sleep now. I had a busy day at work.” I ran a tired hand over my face.
“Are you sure?” James asked. “You work so much. I think you should eat before--,”
“Its fine,” I interrupted abruptly. His eyes flashed with hurt and I felt a pang of guilt. “I just want to sleep.”
I could feel his eyes on my back as I walked away from him and the guilt I was feeling increased. But I just had to get away from him and all the memories of falling from him for awhile.
I was absorbed with a patient’s chart when I felt a prickling feeling as if I was being watched. I looked up just in time to see three nurses glancing away. I frowned at the small smirks on their faces. Ignoring it, I returned to scribbling notes on the chart. I scowled again as two first year interns walked by, giggling loudly. As I turned my stare on them, I was surprised to see their amusement directed towards me. Both girls scurried off when they noticed they had been caught,
but not before throwing another glance back at me, their giggles following quickly behind them.
My mood worsened and my scowl deepened as I received the same treatment throughout the day—quick glances my way, whispers, a quiet laugh—and I grew increasingly paranoid. Finally as Katie approached me, an odd look on her face, I asked her bluntly, “Is there something on my face?”
The look on her face didn’t change. “No?”
“Is there a note on my back that says kick me?” She shook head. “Can you see my underwear?” When she shook her head again I threw up my hands in exasperation. “Then why in Merlin’s name has everyone been acting so strange around me?”
Katie’s eyes widened. “You mean you don’t know?”
When I stared at her blankly, she sighed. “There’s something you should see.” I continued to stare at her in confusion.
She dragged me down the hallway, quickly grabbing a newspaper from a cart that went by us before pushing me into one of the break rooms. My stomach dropped as she thrust the paper into my hand. I stared in shock at Witch Weekly’s front-page. My hands shook as I took in the pictures of James and me, our hands intertwined as he talked to Luke Zabini. There were several more from that night, ones I certainly had not noticed being taken or even remember happening. My eyes were fixated on the image of James bending to whisper something in my ear. I was glancing at him with a small smile on my face, looking for the entire world like a proper couple.
My stomach dropped even lower as I scanned the article.
“Is Witch Weekly’s handsomest man of the year ready for commitment? James Potter was seen out and about with a new fling. But that’s not what has our whole office in a flurry and why his enthusiastic fan club will soon be crying tears of disappointment. Is that a ring we see on Natalie Wood’s finger? We couldn’t believe it ourselves but the picture tells all. We spoke directly to his most recent ex who spilt all about the horrible way James treated her. Turn to page 3 to read our exclusive interview.”
Just when I thought I wouldn’t be able to feel worse, I looked at the pictures again and realized with a jolt that there were also some from the Quidditch game. The one that stood out was a side shot of me watching James fly around the pitch, my face lighting up in a smile and then turning to look at the camera in surprise. But it was only Grant that took that picture I thought, my mind a blur. But that means….
I looked at the small detail under the pictures numbly: Photos by Grant Rogers
“Is it true?”
I raised my head slowly to look at Katie. “I guess I shouldn’t have asked that. I mean, look at the pictures.” She laughed softly.
“Katie—” I started.
She shook her head. “It’s okay, Nat. I know how private you like to keep your life. But I thought we’d become good friends.” She gave me a small smile, but I could see traces of hurt on her face.
I swallowed the lump in my throat. “Katie, don’t. It wasn’t like that. It was complicated. I didn’t—.” I paused, unsure of what to say to her. “I didn’t think it would last this long,” I finally admitted. That was somewhat truthful.
“And for Merlin’s sake, I’m not engaged! Come on, it’s Witch Weekly. That paper has always blown things out of proportion.” I stared at her, silently pleading for her to understand. But at the same time, I subtly pulled the sleeve of my robe to cover my left hand, where the ring burned on my finger.
Katie looked at me for a long moment. And then a smile broke onto her face again, but this time I knew she had believed what I said. “James Potter, huh? Merlin, Natalie I never would have guessed,” she said with a sly grin.
Underneath my smile, I could feel my control wavering. It was all becoming too much. But this wasn’t the time to break down, I told myself. So I pushed all the numbness and shock away and laughed along with her.
It wasn’t until I came home that I allowed myself to snap. The day had been too long, filled with too many whispers about me, too many looks thrown my way, too many people giggling about our relationship, reminding me all too much that there really wasn’t any sort of relationship with him at all.
And I understood what James had meant. It was frustrating and tiring to have so many people pick apart everything you did and I had only survived one day of having the public know about the both of us. I didn’t know how he did it on a daily basis.
I felt sick to my stomach thinking of what Savannah could have told the paper. And then there was Grant. He had seemed so friendly…..I blinked in surprise as tears started to fall from my eyes.
I found myself dozing, waking several times between dreams of James and the night that had started this all. Still partly asleep, I didn’t recognize that the warm hand gently wiping away my tears wasn’t part of my dream. By the time I realized that the sensation of that strong hand lightly stroking my hair was too real to be a dream, I had fallen asleep again.
I woke with a start an hour later. I stared blearily at the blanket on top of me, not remembering placing it there.
My head turned in surprise at the sound of his voice. He was sitting on the couch next to me with a book on his lap and a wary look on his face.
“I’m sure you saw the paper by now.” James ran a hand over his face as I nodded. “I should have been more careful but honestly, it was bound to happen sooner or later,” he admitted. “For some reason, my personal life is of huge interest to the wizarding public.” His voice was sarcastic. “But I’d hoped we’d be done with….this by then. I thought we’d have found a solution by the time they decided they needed new gossip about me.” James said with a sigh.
I finally found my voice. “It’s my fault. The guy who took the pictures—I met him at your practice. I didn’t know—”
“It’s okay. Like I said, it was bound to happen.” James shook his head. “I should have known Savannah would have gone blabbing,” he muttered.
“Do you know what she said?” I asked hesitantly.
James chuckled, but it was a bitter sound. “I try to avoid spiteful gossip about me.” James sighed. “And Merlin, my family is going insane at the news. Even though this isn’t the first time the papers have spread rumors about me.”
His face turned serious then. “Look, I know you’re not used to this kind of attention. All of this is hard enough for the both of us. But until we find a solution, we’re just going to have to pretend we’re together.”
I nodded. But my mind was somewhere else, going over and over the word pretend
. That’s all this relationship really was. And that’s why I felt so trapped by doing this, why it was so painful to do this. Because we were just pretending.
A/N: Hey guys! Thank you to everyone who's been reading, who commented and who favorited the story! I love reading your reviews--they help me write faster, and they've given me several ideas for the whole Al/Natalie/James triangle :)
Also, if you didn't understand, the little flashback was of one of the first times Natalie realized she liked James! Let me know what you think about the new chapter!