Chapter 15 : Flowers, Flaws, And All That Jazz
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Thump. Thump. Thump.
That’s the pulse of pain through my heart, in case you were wondering. Real physical pain.
You know, I never used to believe it when people would talk about the pain of a broken heart.
But now I know it’s true. I mean, I’ve hurt some after breakups - your standard heart aches - but this? This hurts. It hurts like hell. And I don’t know why.
Yes, I know that I’ve really hurt Jett. And I know we’re over for good. But I didn’t love him. I don’t think I was even close.
It just doesn’t make any sense. I should just feel awful about what I did, I shouldn’t feel so hurt inside. I don’t get it. This shouldn’t be happening over him. I shouldn't hurt this much because of him. It’s not logical. Unless it’s not because of him, unless it’s because of -
No. Don’t even go there. You can’t go there. He’s done. He’s out of my life. I just screamed at him and told him to stay away for good. I can’t go there anymore. Just look at what he’s caused. This is for the better. It is.
Maybe if I keep telling myself that, I’ll actually believe it.
“Dom,” I gasp in relief as I near the edge of the Quidditch pitch. She surveys me silently, clutching Connor’s hand like her life depends on it.
“I can’t believe you, Aria,” she says quietly, voice calm and measured. “I wanted you to be with James, but not like that. Never like that.”
“No, Dom, I swear it wasn’t -”
“Please don’t. Please don’t start. You really messed up. I’m sorry, but what you did was bad, no matter what the reasons.”
No. This can’t be happening. She has to listen to me - she has to be the one who understands -
“He’s my best friend,” Connor says icily. “And what you did - you don’t even know how badly you’ve hurt him. I can’t be around you anymore. I can’t. Not after what you’ve done to Jett.”
“Connor, just listen to me -”
“Let’s go, Dom,” he murmurs, pulling gently on her hand to lead her off the pitch.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
I glance around wildly, looking for someone, anyone to talk to. But everyone avoids my eyes, refusing to acknowledge me. Finally I spot Sophie looking at me from a few feet away, eyes wide with disbelief.
As she meets my gaze, I hold onto the one hope that maybe, just maybe, she won’t hate me. Maybe I’ll have one friend left by the end of the day. Maybe I’ll have someone who will listen to me.
But as I think all of this, I realize that she’s looking at me with the same cold indifference as Connor and Dom, becoming an unfeeling space of nothingness. And I know what that means. It means she hates me, too.
“You knew,” she whispers, voice nearly inaudible. “You knew you were the one James was using me to get over. You knew and you didn’t tell me.”
“I don’t care that it was you. I care that you didn’t tell me.”
“I just didn’t want to hurt you,” I say desperately, knowing that I’m only grasping at straws. You know what they say - no good deed goes unpunished.
“I had a right to know. You should have told me, Aria! I wouldn’t have been mad at you - God, you should have just been honest with me! You knew how I felt about him and you should have said something. That’s the bottom line. Friends don’t keep secrets from each other.”
The last of the straws flutter away in the breeze, and I know that I’ve lost. It doesn’t matter what I say. No one cares. And no one’s going to care. Not after this.
“Come on, Aiden,” she mutters, grabbing his hand as she makes her way off of the pitch.
I lose. Game over.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
There are so many things I should have done but didn’t. So many mistakes that I can’t even begin to make right again.
I should have just stayed at home. I should have screamed and cried and begged and kicked and pleaded so that my parents would have let me stay. I should have tried harder.
I wonder what Adam’s doing now. God, I miss him. He would listen to me. That’s what best friends are for, isn’t it? He wouldn’t be so quick to judge. He would be here for me, when no one else is. He would be my friend, just like always. Forever, the two of us. Completely inseparable.
But now I have no one.
There’s a social stigma hanging about me. When you hurt someone like Jett, when you hurt someone so loved by the entire school, everything’s gone in a heartbeat. You become nothing. And I deserve it.
Absolutely no one has a problem with him - he’s the golden boy of the school. Nice, funny, handsome. Then I go and screw him over.
And let me tell you, screwing over the golden boy does not go over very well. People avoid me like the plague. Everywhere I go, it’s like there’s this bubble surrounding me, this bubble that people are terrified to pop. I live inside my head, on my own, trying to distract myself from reality. No one talks to me. No one looks at me.
As if people didn’t hate me enough already. This is just one more thing to add to the pile, another example of why I was never worthy of him. But at least before this mess people had the decency to say everything behind my back.
No one cares anymore. No one cares if they hurt my feelings, if they talk about it right in front of my face. Why should anyone care when I’ve done something so horrible to someone so good?
But the worst part isn’t even everyone talking. It’s the way he looks at me, or rather, the way he doesn’t. It’s the way he can’t even bring himself to glance in my direction. The look of utter hate on his face when I walk by him. The betrayal. The anger. The hurt. All of it.
It’s funny, though. I thought, after it happened, that I’d feel completely miserable right now. But I don’t feel that way, not really. I just feel broken. Dead on the inside. Like there’s nothing there. And in a way, that’s worse than feeling miserable. When you’re miserable, at least you know you’re alive, no matter how much it sucks.
What’s the point of caring anymore? Why should I even try? Everyone hates me. Nothing’s going to change that. I know he’s not going to listen to anything I say. No one will.
Adam would, if he were here. But he’s not.
I guess now I know how Hester Prynne felt. Maybe I should get a scarlet letter, too. Make my status as school whore official.
And then there’s Alex. God, then there’s Alex. I don’t even know where to start with him. He still terrifies me right down to the very core. But in a way, it’s even worse now, because I know that no one would care if he did anything to me. No one would say a word. They’d probably just think it serves me right.
It’s just so... unnerving. Having someone’s eyes on you all the time, following your every move...
Like now. I’ve just emerged, freshly showered, from the locker room after Quidditch practice, only to find him lounging against the outside wall of the building. I sigh and pull my still slightly damp hair up into a ponytail, glance once at him, and then begin to make the trek back to the castle.
I hear Alex’s footfalls behind me, making it obvious that he’s following me. “You should wear your hair like that more,” he comments lazily. “You look good with it up.”
I pause slightly, then decide to just ignore him and resume my walk. Maybe if I don’t acknowledge his presence, he’ll disappear.
“You know, I've always figured you one to say ‘thank you’ when someone gives you a compliment,” he calls, voice getting closer to me with every word.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Was that meant as a compliment?” I hiss.
“Woah there. No need to get feisty. I’m only trying to be nice.”
“Yeah. Sure. You’re trying to be nice,” I say, a slightly hysterical edge entering my voice. I hear it, and I know he hears it. Not good.
“What? You don’t think I can be nice?” he asks as he falls into step beside me.
I don’t answer him, and instead use my energy to shove open the castle’s doors. Our footsteps echo through the entrance hall, an uncomfortable silence settling over the pair of us. I just want him to leave.
“Fine. I’ll bite. Why are you being nice?” I inquire, placing heavy sarcasm on the ‘nice.’
“Do I need a reason?”
“You know, Aria, if I were you, I wouldn’t be so harsh to the only person who’s spoken to you in... How long has it been?”
“Well, I’m sorry that I’m having difficulty believing that you’re a nice and caring person,” I spit out.
Alex stops suddenly, and for some reason, I stop too. I know I should just keep on walking, get away from him, but something makes me stop. As much as I hate to admit it, he’s right. He is the first person that’s spoken to me voluntarily in over two weeks. And I miss that human interaction. In fact, I’m craving it. So I’ll take what I can get, even if it is him. But he doesn’t have to know that.
Alex stands there, completely immobile, for a good minute, allowing only his eyes to move. They study me, cold and calculating, skimming up and down my body and pausing here and there.
“Here’s the thing about me,” he says as he slowly begins to move again. “I’m not like most people.”
I snort at this and follow him around a turn in the corridor, not even conscious of which way we’re going. Alex slows his pace so I can catch up, but doesn’t move faster once we’re locked in step together. We simply travel at this snail speed, no rush present in our steps.
“I - well, I’m fascinated by people. I love studying them, finding out what makes each individual tick. It’s quite intriguing, really, almost like a puzzle. Every person has their own flaws and insecurities. And honestly? It’s not that hard to pick them out. You can tell by the way they react in situations, how they handle different things, exactly who they are on the inside. You just have to be... observant,” he says, turning off into another hallway.
“Psychology,” I state simply.
“Exactly. I don’t have it down to a science, but I don’t really need to. I’ve got a knack for it. Take you, for example. You were a bit tricky, I’ll admit, but once I’d cracked that first bit of you, well, the rest all just fell into place.”
“Oh? Please, elaborate. What exactly have you figured out about me?”
Alex stops, and once again I stop as well. He looks at me, locking my eyes with his, and says simply, “You’re weak.”
“You’re weak,” he says, shrugging nonchalantly. “But then again, everyone is. We all have weaknesses. It’s just that right now, in this particular moment, all of your faults are exposed. Everything life has thrown at you in these past few weeks is hitting right where it hurts, isn’t it?”
I don’t respond, and he takes my silence as his cue to continue onward. “Here’s some insight into yourself, Aria. Be prepared, it’s not pretty. You’re not decisive, you can’t stand up for yourself, you define yourself by whatever new bloke you’re with, you’re insecure about your body, you - is that enough, or would you like me to continue?”
“You’re wrong,” I say, trying to infuse my tone with a confidence that I know simply isn’t there.
“Love, we both know that’s not true.”
“I don’t depend on guys. I’m independent. I don’t need -”
“Ah,” Alex cuts me off, leaning against the wall with a smirk on his face. “You don’t know that you do it. But you do. I can tell. I’ve seen it.”
“I don’t understand,” I say quietly.
“Let me ask you a question. What’s the longest period of time that you’ve been single in the past year?”
I mentally scan through my mind, thinking back on all the guys I’ve dated, trying to decide the time frame. And when I do, the truth sinks in and saturates itself through my mind, an unwelcome thought consuming every crevice in my head.
“Three weeks,” I say, voice nearly inaudible.
Three weeks. That’s the longest I’ve been without a boyfriend in the past year. That’s pathetic. Completely and utterly pathetic.
“Wow. That’s even worse than I thought,” he comments. “Now answer this. Out of all of those relationships, how many guys have you actually cared about? Wait, no, let me answer for you. Only one - our dearly beloved Jett Nolton.”
He’s right. And he knows he is. He knows me better than I know myself. And to be honest, that really scares me.
“Now let me tell you why you’ve only cared for one of them. You self-sabotage. You search for those guys who you know are bad for you. You know nothing will come out of it. But you need to have those relationships because you need to feel wanted. You need to feel wanted, even if it’s only for your body. It’s just easier for you that way, isn’t it? It’s easier if they don’t really care about you because then emotions don’t get involved. And you don’t deal well with emotions. You need logic. You need one definite answer. You’re a complete emotional wreck, so you depend on those bad relationships for stability. You just can’t deal with your own emotions. You can’t deal with anything. You can’t deal with change, you can’t deal with -”
“Stop!” I say, resting my head against the wall and shutting my eyes tightly. It’s too much. This is all too much. He’s right about everything, and it’s too much.
“Stop? But why? I could keep going for hours.”
“Stop,” I say again, feeling a sickness sweep through my stomach as I open my eyes. “I don’t need you to tell me how screwed up I am, all right?”
“Then why’d you do it?”
“Because I can.”
His words echo aimlessly around the corridor, filling every space with their weight. I continue to lean against the wall and stare at him, yet surprisingly, something’s different than before.
I don’t hate Alex.
I hate myself.
For the first time, I realize exactly how bad of a person I am. I’m selfish and manipulative, no different than him. I use other people so I can feel better about myself. I ignore my own feelings even when it hurts others. I get stuck in my patterns, no matter how much I need to change.
I hate myself.
“Aw, is little Aria going to cry? Is the truth too much to handle?” Alex taunts.
But I don’t cry. And I’m not going to. I haven’t done it since the day of the Quidditch match, when I cried myself to sleep. I haven't done it since then, and I’m not going to do it now. Not in front of him.
“Let me tell you what’s going to happen next,” Alex drawls. “Now, you just want to forget everything that’s happened. You know how messed up you are, but since you have no backbone, you’re not going to change anything. You’re going to fall back into that same pattern that you always do so you can just forget everything that’s happened this year. And do you know where it starts? It starts with me. My offer from a few weeks back still stands. You know you’ll take it. I’m familiar and I’ll make you forget - it may only be for a short period of time, but you’ll be in that same ground that you know so well. It’s the ground of blokes using you, and you letting them. That’s what you know, so sooner or later, you’ll give in.”
“No,” I say quietly, but Alex just grins and shakes his head.
“Come on, Aria. Just think of how easy it would be. Think of how easy it would be to turn back the clock. Have your life back to the way it was before. Have a simple, purely physical relationship. You know that’s what you want. I can make you forget, and maybe have a little fun in the process.”
My eyes skim automatically over Alex’s figure, pausing when I reach his lips. He’s right. But that’s not a surprise. He’s been right about everything else, why not this, too? It would be so easy. It would be so easy and painless to just slip back into that old pattern. At least then I would have control over something. I could know what would happen, just like I always did back home. All I have to do is say yes.
“Here’s the thing,” Alex murmurs, stepping closer to me so that we’re barely inches apart. “You’re going to say yes. I know you will. Everyone else hates you, and you have no one. No one but me. I want you, so you’ll say yes. Isn’t that right? You’ll say yes because you need to feel wanted. You’ll say yes because you’re weak.”
I could do it. I really could. I could just tune everything out. Forget the world, be comfortable again. And honestly? He could tell me to do anything right now and I would do it. I would do it because I’m alone. I’m alone, and he’s broken every bit of me down. Every one of my flaws is out there in the open.
I’m vulnerable. And he knows it.
“Tick-tock,” he whispers. “Time’s running out.”
I know my decision. All I want is to have some control again, not feel so helpless. And if this is what it takes to get there, so be it.
So I grab him and pull him closer to me, pressing my lips to his forcefully, willing everything else to just fall away. Disappear into this familiarity. I know exactly how this will end. I can finally have control again.
Alex pulls his head away, a smirk playing on his lips. But he’s not allowed to do that, not yet. I need more time. I just need to forget.
I bring his mouth back to mine, forcing myself to focus on only this. This is it. I’m back at home, and things are just like they’ve always been. This could be Ryan. Or Noah. Or Mason. Or - it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter who I think about, I just have to think about something other than this year. I have to be back home again.
Time ticks by, and after a while I shift to running kisses up his jaw, but Alex barely reacts. He just stands there and lets me be, content to let me have my way for a while.
“You’re so predictable,” he comments after a few seconds, fingers tugging slightly at the bottom of my shirt.
“What’s that?” I murmur as his smirk widens.
“Every day, at seven thirty sharp, you walk through this hallway on your way back to your dorm. Every day, without fail, for six years.”
“What are you talking about?” I ask in confusion, pulling my head away so I can look at him straight on.
“That’s for punching me, Jim. Do it again, and I swear I’ll do so much worse than this.”
Oh, no. Dear God, no. This cannot be happening. It can’t. James doesn’t deserve this. Please tell me he isn’t here. He can’t be here.
I jerk my head to the side and as soon as I see him standing there, I scramble backwards, away from Alex. “No, James, no -” I say desperately, but I’m ignored. He simply shuts his eyes, turns around slowly, and walks off without a word.
And just like that, my world explodes back into emotion. Everything that I flipped off comes flooding back in - anger, pain, sadness, all of it. Everything that I couldn’t handle before rips through me, intensified a hundred times over by my stupid Veela blood.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
“What is wrong with you?” I hiss at Alex before shoving him away and running after James. I can’t let him leave like this. He doesn’t deserve to have this happen to him. He doesn’t.
“You played your part beautifully, love, just like I knew you would,”Alex calls after me, every word filled with taunting maliciousness.
“Wait, please. James, just wait,” I beg, slowing my run to a walk as I approach his back.
“Why are you following me?” he yells. “Leave me alone.”
“Please, just listen to me,” I say as I reach out to grab his arm.
He stops at my touch and turns around, his face an amalgamation of pain and fury and disgust. “I don’t want to hear it. I’m so sick of your shit. Save it for someone who cares.”
“I’m sorry,” I say quietly, gazing steadily up into his eyes.
“Yeah, I know. The thing is, you say that a lot, and nothing really changes. So forgive me for not valuing your words,” he spits out bitterly as he determinedly looks away from me.
“Can you please just give me a chance to exp -”
“No!” he yells, wrenching his arm out of grasp. “No, because I know how this works. You’ll let your guard down today, but tomorrow you’ll run away and shut me out. That’s how this always works. And I can’t do this anymore. I can’t go through this cycle another time. I can’t do it.”
“I’m not going to run away from you.”
“Yes, you are. Don’t bother to tell me otherwise. We both know it’s a lie.”
“No,” I insist. “James, just hear me out -”
“God, do you ever stop? I know that’s what’s going to happen. Just stop, all right?”
“You don’t know -”
“Yes, I do! I get it, all right? I know how you work. And you can tell me as many times as you want that you won’t leave again, but you will. You left when I needed you the most, so why should things be different now? I’d be stupid to expect things to change this time. Stop insulting my intelligence and go away.”
I open my mouth to to speak, but the words catch in my throat. I just can’t get it out. But I can’t go away, not until he listens to me, not while he’s still hurting. I need him to hear me, I need him to feel better so I can feel better, too.
“Why did you leave?” he asks softly, catching me by surprise with his sudden change in tone. “I needed you. I begged you not to go, but you still left. I know I messed up. I know that. But couldn’t you see -” he falters a bit, but brings his eyes back to mine and gently reaches for my hand. “Can’t you see how much I need you?”
Thump. Thump. Thump.
“I’m so sorry,” I whisper.
“I can’t let myself believe you. Not again. It’ll hurt too much when you leave.”
“What if I don’t leave?”
“But you will,” he insists. “Please, just stop with the lying. I’ve given up so much for you. I’ve put my heart on the line so many times, and you’ve made it quite clear that you want nothing to do with it. The least you can do is extend me the favor of not giving me all this bullshit anymore.”
Once again, I find my mouth empty of words as I gaze at him. I don’t understand this. I don’t understand anything anymore. I don’t understand why I can’t just go away like he wants. But I can’t. I just wish I knew why.
“These past weeks I’ve been so completely alone,” James says quietly, dropping his gaze to the floor. “All I needed was a friend, but you couldn’t give me that. I’m sorry, but I can’t believe you. You left when I was desperate, so I can’t expect anything else. I’ll just stick to being alone. It’s less painful that way.”
My eyes trace over his face, slowly lingering on every detail. As I do this, it occurs to me how much different he looks now, as compared to just a few weeks ago. The dark circles under his eyes stand out heavily against the pale tone of his skin. He’s obviously lost weight, his hair is messier than ever, and the spark is gone from his eyes.
He doesn’t look right.
He doesn’t look like my James.
And then I realize that this isn’t just about me. When he says he’s alone, he means that he’s been just as alone as I’ve been. No one’s talking to him, either. Not even his family, and least of all his best friend.
I take a deep breath and say, “I miss him too, you know. I miss Jett. I know it hurts but -”
“No, you don’t,” James interrupts bitterly. “You don’t know how it feels. You may have lost your boyfriend, but I - I lost my brother.”
Thump. Thump. Thump.
The sound of his voice breaking towards the end of the sentence completely rips my heart in half as the full magnitude of the situation hits me.
He lost his best friend for me. His best friend of ten years.
I close my eyes as the guilt crashes over me, mixing in with every other emotion controlling my mind. This isn’t fair. This isn’t fair to him. This never should have happened.
But I’m distracted from my guilt by the feel of his arms wrapping around me and pulling me into his chest, no space between us. James takes a shuddering breath and pulls me even closer before whispering, “I can’t lose you, Aria. I don’t care if it’s not how I want things to be. I just - I need you. Please. Don’t run away again. Tell me you won’t.”
“I’m not leaving,” I say, unburying my head from his chest so I can look up at him.
“Promise. You have to promise. Promise me you won’t shut me out. You can’t shut me out again. You can’t.”
A small flicker of relief dances across his face at my words, though it’s gone almost as soon as I spot it. “I want to show you something,” James murmurs, gripping my hand and leading me down the corridor.
“Where are we going?”
“You’ll see. Just be patient.”
He pulls me off through some sort of secret passage behind a tapestry and then another and another and soon I have absolutely no idea where we are any more. Sometimes I catch glimpses of areas of the castle that I know, but they disappear all too quickly. Finally, he ducks off into a last passageway and drags me up a set of stairs that I know I’ve seen before, I just can’t quite place where.
When we emerge at the top, James pulls me eagerly through an archway and into the little balcony/alcove area that Jett had brought me to before, the invisible one overlooking the library. “Welcome,” he says grandly, gesturing to the view in front of us. “What do you think?”
“You’ve been here before,” he says with a bit of disappointment coloring his voice.
“Yeah. With Jett.”
James sighs and leans his forearms on the banister of the balcony, gazing out blankly onto the peaceful library before us. “I miss him, Aria,” he says quietly, and once again I hear his voice break. “Every time I try to talk to him, explain things, he just walks out of the room. It’s like I don’t even exist anymore. He’s never going to forgive me. Never.”
“That’s not true. He’ll forgive you eventually, he just needs time.”
He laughs bitterly and turns to face me, a cynical look set in his eyes. “No. You don’t understand. He hates me. I know him a lot better than you do, and trust me, he’s never forgiving me. Not for this. I knew better, too. I knew this would happen. I just couldn’t - I can’t - I tried everything. I tried so hard to stay away from you. I knew it wasn’t right. I knew how hurt he would be. But - I just -”
James sighs again as he loses his train of thought and paces over to the wall. He leans against it and slides down to the floor, guilt evident in his expression, then drops his head into his hands. I watch him silently for a minute or two, giving him his space to clear his head before joining him on the floor.
“Hey,” I murmur, touching his arm lightly. He doesn’t move, so I slide my hand down his arm until I reach his hands and gently remove them from his face. “Don’t put all the blame on yourself. Not everything is your fault.”
He looks up at me briefly before averting his eyes again and says, “No, you were right. You were right when you yelled at me. Everything’s always my fault. I’m like a walking disaster zone. I ruin everything I touch.”
“James, don’t say that. It’s not true. I didn’t mean what I said - I didn’t mean any of it. I shouldn’t have screamed at you, I shouldn’t have said those things. I was upset and I needed someone to blame. It wasn’t all your fault, so don’t let yourself think that way.”
James shifts his hands so that he can grip mine more tightly, and I feel his thumb unconsciously begin to rub small circles on the back of my hand. “Why did you do it?” he asks quietly after a few minutes of silence.
“I just told you. I needed someone to blame and -”
“No, not that. I was talking about Alex.”
My stomach drops as soon as he mentions it, and when James tries to meet my eyes, I immediately look away. “Because I’m weak,” I whisper.
“I don’t unders-”
“There’s this point,” I begin slowly, haltingly, trying to figure out what to say. “There’s this point that you reach, this point where you’re so desperate - it’s a breaking point. It’s a point at which you’ll do anything to make yourself feel better. And I’ve reached that point. Hell, I’m so far beyond that point that I can’t even see it anymore.”
“What does that have to do with Alex?” James asks, still rubbing the circles gently into my hand.
“Do you know what it’s like to have someone stand there and list every single thing that’s wrong with you? Do you know how that makes you feel? It makes you feel worthless. And when you reach that point, you would do anything just to feel like someone cares. Like someone actually wants you. Alex could have told me to jump off a cliff and I would have done it. I would have done anything he asked.”
“I’m sorry, but I still don’t understand how you could -”
“Don’t you get it? He got in my head, and I broke. All I wanted was for things to go back to the way they were before. I wanted to have control again. You don’t understand how I am. I need things to stay the same, James. At home, I had this pattern - I would date guys who didn’t care about me, and when they got bored, they would move on. That’s it. It was always the same. Alex was giving me that again, that chance to know exactly what was going to happen.”
“I just - I don’t - after everything he did? After everything you know about him?”
“I know you don’t understand. But I just wanted it all to be gone. I have my pattern, and that’s what I know. Emotions don’t get involved. Things don’t get messy. I don’t get hurt. And right then, that’s all I wanted. I wanted to feel in control again. The whole situation was so familiar. I’m comfortable with that. I’m comfortable letting guys walk all over me. At least then I know how everything will end. At least then I know my heart won’t get broken.”
“Aria, that’s not healthy,” James says forcefully. “You can’t do that. It’s not right. You can’t just let people use you like that.”
“I know that!” I exclaim angrily, snatching my hands away from his. “I know that, James. Do you think I like being like this? Do you think it makes me feel good about myself to know that boys are only interested in me because of how I look? I hate it. I hate being like this. It makes me feel like shit to know that. I don’t do this to myself because I like it. I do it because I don’t know how to change.”
“Aria, calm down. Just breath, all right? You need to relax.”
“I hate being like this,” I whisper after a short silence. “I hate myself.”
“Aria, no. No, you have to stop. Don’t you ever say that - don’t ever go there. You cannot think that way, understand?” he says immediately, grabbing my hand back and squeezing it tightly.
“Why not? It’s true. I hate everything about myself.”
“No. I won’t let you think like that. Yes, you have flaws, but everyone does. It makes you human, nothing less.”
A silence lapses over us again as James’s words hang in the air. After a few minutes, I wriggle my hand out of his grip and weave our fingers together. He glances curiously at me and squeezes it again, a sad smile on his face.
“Do you know that I’ve never gotten a rose on Valentine’s Day?” I ask quietly. He shakes his head minutely, and I continue on. “I know it’s stupid, but it kind of stings, you know? I mean, it’s not really about the flower. It’s about the fact that none of my boyfriends have ever cared enough to send me one. When people look at me, they see a pretty face. That’s it. It’s not that I don’t appreciate what I have, it’s just that most of the time, that’s all people see. It's like I'm an object. No one cares about what else I can offer. No one cares except my parents. Well, my parents and Adam.”
“Adam, your best friend from home, right?” James says, taking me by surprise. “The one who punched Ryan at the fair?”
“Yeah,” I say disbelievingly, staring at him in wonderment. “You remember that? I only told you that story once and it was months ago.”
“Of course I remember. I remember everything you tell me.”
I don’t know how long we talk after that. We discuss anything and everything - Quidditch rankings, our families, favorite books, just everything. He asks me about home, about Adam, about my old friends, and I let it all out, all walls abandoned. Hours must fly by, but I don’t notice and I don’t care.
I don’t care because for the first time in weeks, I really smile. For the first time in weeks, I’m actually happy.
When I open my eyes, everything’s dark, and I realize that I’m still lying on the floor of the little library balcony. My head rests on James’s chest, and one of his arms curls protectively around me. As I lie there, listening to his breathing and feeling the rise and fall of his chest, I realize something.
I realize that throughout this entire year, he’s the only thing that’s been constant, the only person who’s always been there for me. He’s the only person I completely trust and the only person I can really be myself around.
He’s the only person who understands me.
And before I know it, the words are forming and tumbling out, leaving me no time to even think about them.
“I love you.”
The words sink in, my heart rate accelerates, and my breathing picks up as an uncontrollable panic takes over. I blink a few times as the panic spreads, then attempt to scooch away from him as fast as possible, but the arm curled around me puts a stop to that.
James yawns and opens his eyes sleepily, rubbing at them with his palms. “Did you say something?”
My panic ratchets up a notch as I look at him, mouth dry and devoid of words. I could tell him. I could tell him right here and now. I could put it all out there.
People say that falling in love is hard. But it’s not. Falling is easy - it’s so easy that you don’t even know it’s happened. And really, it’s not something you can know. It’s something you just have to feel.
Falling is easy; it’s the jumping that’s hard. You can fall, but if you don’t jump, if you don’t put yourself out there, that other person is never going to catch you. How can they if they don’t even know?
I could jump right now.
But that’s just wishful thinking. I can’t jump, not really. I can’t because of Jett. I’ve hurt him so much already. I can’t do this to him, too. It wouldn’t be right.
So I take a breath and shut my eyes, preparing myself mentally. I have to keep myself from jumping. I have to do it for Jett.
“I didn’t say anything,” I lie. “I was just moving around a bit. I’m sorry if I woke you.”
“Don’t worry about it. I think I just slept more than I have in weeks, so I should really be thanking you.”
I smile at him, but inside I’m struggling to control the pain crashing through my chest. I just want him to know. I want him to know that I won’t hurt him again. I want him to know that I won’t shut him out anymore. I want him to know how I feel. I want him to know how scared I am, and I want him to help me through it.
“Aria,” he says softly.
“Have I ever told you why I call you Bel?”
“No,” I breathe, letting his arm curl back around me.
“Is it now?”
“Yes.” James pauses and breathes in deeply, locking my eyes with his. “It’s French for beautiful.”
I swear my heart literally stops beating at his words. God, I just want to tell him. I just want to tell him right now. But I know I can’t. It’s not fair to Jett.
“Je t'aime,” he whispers before pressing a kiss on top of my head.
“What does that mean?” I ask quietly, not wanting to disturb the stillness of the moment.
“You’ve spent over a half a year around Louis and you still don’t know any French?” James says with a laugh.
“How could I possibly learn an entire language in half a year just from listening to your cousin?”
“It’s a common phrase, Aria. Figure it out.”
“Come on,” I whine. “Just tell me.”
“Okay, okay, but you’re not going to like it.”
“You didn’t like it very much when I said it in English, so I doubt you’ll like it any better in French.”
“James, just tell me.”
“It means -” James stops abruptly and tilts his head so he can look me in the eye again, then continues. “It means I love you.”
“Oh,” I choke out, and I think my heart stops beating again.
This boy cannot be good for my health.
“I told you that you wouldn’t like it,” he says. “Now I’m going back to sleep. I would say that we should go back to our dorms, but I’m sure it’s past curfew and I cannot get caught breaking another rule this year. After I punched Alex, Parkes threatened me with Quidditch suspension if I even so much as thought about breaking another rule. So... goodnight.”
James shuts his eyes, and I nearly lose it. I’m not sure if I should cry or laugh or be happy or what. I just want to shout at him that he’s wrong. I love it. I love that phrase. I love him. But instead I pull myself closer to him and shut my eyes, preparing for a long night in which I know I’ll be getting very little sleep.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
A/N: So... what did you think? Did it make up for the last chapter? Hopefully it did ;) Let me know!
In case you were wondering, the story about Ryan and Adam is waayyy back in chapter 8. I figured you guys might have forgotten. But James didn't!
Oh, and I don’t own the novel The Scarlet Letter. That’s all Nathaniel Hawthorne.
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