“Val Sullivan, I am going to kill you!” Lessie shouted. I grinned and wiped off the residual snow left on my hands from the snowball I had just thrown at her.
“You’re the one who wanted to go on a walk outside. There is snow on the ground, therefore I will throw snowballs. It’s a law of nature,” I said, grinning impishly.
It was now mid-December. A plethora of Christmas decorations had been put up around the castle and snow blanketed the grounds. After the Quidditch match, I had achieved a momentary surge of fame. Countless people offered me congratulations on my record and others extended sympathy for my trip to the Hospital Wing. While I would smile and thank them, I wished they would just leave me alone. My closer relationship with the entire Weasley family – at Hogwarts, at least – had also given me a degree of notoriety, but it was all unwanted. Perhaps it was James’s influence, but I no longer wanted my large group of friends. I was content to spend time with the girls, Blake and Zeke, and James and his family. Frankly, that group was large enough on their own.
Lost in thought, I didn’t notice the snowball flying towards my head. Spotting it at the last second, I quickly ducked and it hit Jessamy in the face instead.
“Alessia Persephone Karalis!” she gasped.
“Val started it!” Sometimes Lessie truly astounded me with her level of maturity.
“I don’t care who started it, I’m ending it!” said Jess, going into strict parent mode.
“Hey, Mum” I called to her teasingly. She turned and I threw a snowball at her face.
And with that, the three of us began an epic war. We hastily built forts and created as many snowball as we could. The rules were simple: to win, you had to conquer your opponents’ bases while protecting your own. If you were hit with a snowball three times in a row, you were sent back to your own base.
The game ended after about half an hour. As a Chaser and the most athletic in the group, I had a clear advantage. But by teaming up against me, Lessie and Jess put up a valiant fight, but in the end I was victorious. We were all lying in the middle of the war zone, out of breath and covered in snow, when Fred and Rhiannon walked up to us, holding hands.
“See? This is what happens when I leave these three alone,” Rhiannon said in amusement.
“Hey!” Jess protested. “We all know I’m the voice of reason in this group!”
“Then why do you look like you just got your butt whooped in a snowball fight?” Fred asked.
I got up and brushed snow off myself. “Because she did. They both did, actually, despite their cheating tactics.”
“Nowhere in the rules did it say there couldn’t be teams,” Lessie retorted.
“So you’re saying you two still lost to Val even though you were working together? Remind me to never make her mad. She’ll probably eat me,” Fred said with a shudder.
I scoffed. “I wouldn’t eat you, Fredward, that’s gross. You’d be way too tough and stringy. If I were to eat anyone, it’d probably be Jess.”
She quickly sat up in surprise, eyeing me warily. Fred looked equally disgusted and amused and Rhiannon started laughing. Lessie looked slightly troubled. “Why wouldn’t you eat me?” she whined.
“You’re way too petite,” I dismissed as everyone else looked at her incredulously. “There isn’t enough meat on your bones. Fred and Rhiannon are both too muscular. But Jess would be perfect. She’s nice and lean, but still substantial enough to be a good meal.” I looked at her thoughtfully. “I bet you’d make a lovely roast.”
“I’m guessing this was a bad time to enter the conversation?”
We all turned to see James, who was standing with Lessie’s brother Mike, looking at us with a confused smile.
I winked. “We were discussing who would be best to eat if I were to resort to cannibalism. Hypothetically, of course.”
James and Mike started laughing. Mike came over and pulled me into a hug. “I swear to God, Val, you make life worth living.”
“Thanks Mikey-Wikey,” I said, leaning my head on his shoulder. Sometimes he reminded me uncannily of David. Over his shoulder, I was James scowling darkly at us. I shot him a confused look, but he turned away. Well. Someone was a bit moody.
“Mikolas,” Lessie called to him, “what have I told you about Val?”
Mike turned to stick his tongue out at her. “Off limits, I know. How come, according to you, every time I touché her, it’s because I have sinister intentions? Why can’t this just be a friendly hug?”
“Besides, Less,” I chimed in, “who’s to say I don’t have sinister intentions. I was planning on eloping with Biker Miker.”
“Ours is an insurmountable love,” Mike sniffed, sounding so snooty that we all started laughing. Except for James. He glared at Mike so viciously that his left eye started twitching. It was actually kind of scary.
“But seriously,” Lessie said, suddenly sobering up, “if you try anything with my baby brother, I’ll rip your perky little boobs off.”
I lifted an eyebrow. “Harsh.”
“Little?” Fred asked with a leer. Rhiannon, James, and I all hit him, me breaking out of Mike’s embrace to do so. While Fred whined about getting bruises, Mike put his arms around me again.
“Okay,” James said, hastily pulling us apart, “let’s not forget why we’re here, Mike.”
“Oh, right,” he muttered.
James turned to Fred. “Extra Quidditch practice. Say goodbye to your lady love and your arse on the pitch.”
Fred groaned, but obliged, kissing Rhiannon on the cheek and saying, “I’ll se you later tonight, Ann.”
James grabbed his arm and Mike’s arm and began towing them towards the Quidditch pitch. Raising my hand it a wave, I called, “Bye Mikey! Bye Fred-O! Bye James!”
Mike and Fred returned the farewell, but James just kept walking, completely silent and looking straight ahead.
That evening, I was feeling pensive. What was up with James? He’d been acting so strange this afternoon. He’d been acting so strange this afternoon. I was helping Blake with Transfiguration in the common room when it became too much. Pushing aside my book, I turned to Blake.
“Hey, I just remembered something I need to do. Is it okay if I leave?” I smirked slightly. “I’m sure Jessamy could help you.”
Blake blinked twice, a slight flush creeping up his neck. Winking at him, I left the room, heading towards Gryffindor Tower. The Fat Lady in the portrait leading to the common room gave me a disapproving look, but let me in nevertheless when I gave her the password. She gives me that look every time I come here. She probably thinks I’m up to something bad.
Looking around the room, I didn’t see James, but I did find Fred with Simon Longbottom. I walked over to them, smiling at Al as I passed. He was listening to Rose rant about preparing for their O.W.L.s with a glazed look in his eyes.
“Hey Frederick, Simon,” I said, sitting in the chair next to them.
“Val,” Fred nodded. Simon flinched, looking at me nervously. He was the guy Lessie snogged back during the Halloween party. Apparently, he was still frightened of me, even though it’s been a month and a half. In his defense, I did punch him in a rather sensitive area. Next time he should just stay away from girls when he’s drunk.
“James around?” I asked. “I need to talk to him.”
“He’s up in his dorm,” Fred said, jerking his head towards one of the staircases. “He kicked all of his dorm mates out earlier.”
“He’s been really grouchy today. He’s been up there since their Quidditch practice ended, just brooding,” Simon commented.
“Yeah,” Fred scoffed, “not to mention the fact that he was a complete Nazi during practice. He was just moody and yelled at us the whole time. He nearly made Maisie cry.”
I stood up from my chair. “Well, good. That’s what I wanted to talk to him about. Later.”
I walked towards the boy’s staircase, pretending not to have heard Fred’s mutter of “good luck.” Ascending the stairs, I almost ran into Hugo, who was leaving the third year dormitory. He winked and smiled at me kind of creepily and I patted him on the back. He was an interesting kid. Probably his father’s influence.
I knocked briefly on the door to the sixth years’ dorm before flinging it open. James looked over at me in surprise. He was the only one in the room and he was lying on his bed, presumably, the curtains hanging open. He was also shirtless. I blinked in surprise and tried not to stare. While he wasn’t ridiculously muscled, there was definite definition.
Shaking myself slightly, I looked at James’s face. “Hey, Mr. Grumpy Pants, still sulking in your man cave?”
“You heard me. Are you PMSing right now or did you lodge a stick up your arse?” I asked, smiling pleasantly.
I walked over and sat down on the bed next to James’s. I looked at him, quirking and eyebrow. “Seriously, James. What was with you today? Everything was fine, but then you turned into the Hulk out of the blue. You were just glaring and scowling at everyone and then you completely ignored me. I talked to Freddy and Simon, they said you were practically a slave driver during your practice. And you made a third year cry! What’s up?”
“Why do you care?” he asked sullenly, rolling over to face away from me. His back was as muscled as his front. Damn.
“What do you mean, why would I care? Of course I care! You’re my friend, James.” I was more than a little shocked at his behavior.
James laughed cynically. “We’re just friendly acquaintances. You don’t have friends, remember?”
I looked down at my hands. “I do now,” I whispered.
James whipped around and sat up, staring at me, eyes wide. “What?”
“You’re my friend, James,” I said, biting my lip but looking at him directly in the eyes. “You’re the first person I’ve ever considered a friend since Joy died. Somehow, when I’m around you… I feel like-like everything will be okay. I’m actually sort of happy. Against my better judgments, I can’t help but trust you. So… don’t waste it, I guess.”
I crossed my arms in front of me and looked away again, feeling incredibly vulnerable. To say I was scared was a gross understatement. I was completely terrified. I had opened myself up to another person, grown to need him. My breath was shaky and I trembled, my eyes squeezed shut.
The bed I sat on sank a little as a new weight was added to it. James put his arms around me, pulling me into a hug, my head now resting on his shoulder. “Thank you,” he said, his voice low and intense. “I won’t ever hurt you, Val. I promise.”
I clung to him. “No, James, thank you,” I whispered. His words were touching, but on the inside I felt cold. Under my breath, quiet enough that James couldn’t hear, I said, “Don’t make promises you’re not sure you can keep.”
“Hey, Blakers, come here for a bit,” I called. I was sitting at the Gryffindor Table in the Great Hall, eating breakfast on Thursday morning. I was sitting with James, Al, Rose, Fred, Roxy, and Maisie Finnegan. Fred was currently trying to put scrambled eggs up Al’s nose while Roxy cheered him on. You can definitely tell those two are twins.
Blake ambled over, wearing a slightly confused expression. He smirked as Al started slapping Fred with a piece of bacon. “What do you need, Val?”
“Do you still have my Transfiguration notes from Sunday night? Rose wants to look at them.”
“But she’s a fifth year…” he responded, sounding perplexed.
I grinned at Rose. “She’s also a little nerd who wants to prepare for next year.”
Rose blushed and glared at me. “Just in Transfiguration. That git, Malfoy, is catching up to me in that class and I want to get well ahead of him. Prat won’t know what’s hit him next year.”
I smirked. Young love. I can’t wait until the day that Rose and Scorpius realize they’re perfect for each other. I really, really hope I’ll be able to see the reactions of their fathers, as well. I’d bring popcorn.
Blake lifted his eyebrows at Rose, but said nothing to her. “I’ll bring your notes to Herbology.”
“Thanks Baker Blaker!”
He left with a salute. Al gave me an odd look. “Baker Blaker?”
“Don’t be so critical of another person’s pet name, Allison.” Al winced. That’s right. Don’t mess with me, Potter.
“I changed my mind,” Al muttered. “Call me Ally all you want.” Bam. Victory is mine.
“Since when does she call you Ally?” James asked, puzzled.
Al shrugged. “About two or three weeks ago. She has all sorts of ridiculous ones, but Ally, apparently, is her favorite.”
“It’s because you’re so adorable,” I said nonchalantly, helping myself to some more waffles. I had just finished three of them and now I grabbed four more. Everyone stared at me.
“How the hell do you eat so much?” Fred asked bluntly, sounding simultaneously impressed and disgusted.
“Quidditch. Dance. I run five or miles every day. I’m tall and I have a high metabolism. Ergo, I need a lot of food. Thank you all for being so judgmental.” I smiled at them all sweetly.
“You still dance?” James asked.
I nodded. “Yup, the Room of Requirement transforms into a really nice studio, and I see my teacher whenever I’m home for the summer holidays.”
“Can you show me sometime?”
I bit my lip. “Maybe.”
The truth was, no one other than my teacher had watched me dance since Joy died. James, understanding the tightening around my eyes and my sudden stillness to mean I was fighting off the pain, gently took my hand under the table. When did he start reading me so well? Normally no one noticed the changes, as they were incredibly subtle.
May looked like she was about to ask a question when the morning post arrived. Mathilda landed gracefully in front of me, holding out her leg and hooting dolefully. I gently stroked her head and detached my letter. Pushing a bowl of cornflakes toward Mathilda, I glanced at the outside of my letter. I was expecting it to be from Victoire – she’d been bombarding me with letters about the weeding for a month – but instead I saw my mother’s handwriting.
“What’s Vic freaking out about now?” James asked, grabbing a pastry. “Finally realized the with you and I as a couple for the wedding, no one will be able to tear their eyes away to look at her and Ted?”
I kicked him under the table and rolled my eyes. “It’s a letter from home, actually.”
James looked at it in interest, the nosy git, but before I had a chance to open it, Rose let out a horrified gasp. “I didn’t realize that the post was so late. We’re going to be late for class! Come on, Al, we have a Defense test!”
She seized Al’s arm and began dragging him away. Chuckling at his martyred look, I called, “Good luck, Albert! Make me proud!” Then I turned to James, who was now frowning. “Let’s go, James, Herbology is a-waiting.”
Ignoring the deepening of his frown, I walked out of the Great Hall with him lingering slightly behind me, my letter now forgotten in my pocket.
That night, I met Al in the Gryffindor common room for tutoring, rather than the library. We were joined by Louis and, of course, James. The amount of time he and I spent together had been increasing exponentially ever since Halloween. Things, however, had seemed almost awkward after Sunday when I told him he was my friend. We sent each other secret smiles and I often found myself blushing. When we walked to class together, we would casually bump hands or shoulders. More than anything, we were reminiscent of first years with their first boyfriend or girlfriend. It was actually kind of sickening.
My feet were resting in his lap as Al and I discussed the Unforgivable Curses with Louis, who was just learning about them. Al was now excelling at Defense Against the Dark Arts, so all that was left was to catch him up on four years of struggling.
“What are some of the signs that someone is under the Imperius Curse?” I asked, trying not to laugh when James tickled the bottom of my feet with his quill.
“Oh, I know this one!” Louis exclaimed. “We talked about it today.”
I snapped my fingers in front of his face. “Hush, Loubacca, I’m tutoring Algae, not you.”
“Loubacca?” Al asked, but rolling his eyes at his own nickname.
“Yeah, like Chewbacca from Star Wars.”
“What’s Star Wars?” Louis asked.
I gasped, staring at him in shock. “Oh, Merlin, did you really just ask that? What has the world come to?”
“I agree with Lou, what’s Star Wars?” asked Al.
“They’re these Muggle movies from back in the 70s. Well, Episodes IV, V, and VI are. Episodes I, II, and III come later. But most of us fans don’t really like to talk about those.”
Al and Louis just stared at me. “That makes no sense…” Al said.
“Really, Al?” James interjected, sounding disappointed. “The original Star Wars trilogy is pretty much the greatest set of movies ever made. Dad and I have watched them a billion times at home. How can you not know about them?”
“Yes!” I shouted. “Thank you, James. You see, this is why we are friends!”
James grinned brightly at that and even blushed slightly. I bit my lip, smiling back. Friends. After Joy died, I didn’t think I’d ever have an actual friend again, and if I had, I never would have thought it’d be James Potter.
Al was looking at us suspiciously, but Louis was oblivious to our silent exchange. “So, who’s this Chewbacca guy, then?”
“He’s a Wookie,” I explained. “A large, strong, and very hairy creature from the planet Kashyyyk.”
“He’s also the copilot of the Millennium Falcon and best friend of Han Solo, the infamous smuggler,” James added.
“Mmm,” I sighed. “Han Solo. That man was dreamy.”
James frowned at that but Al laughed. “Trust you to dream about a fictional character, Val.”
“Hey!” I protested. “The actor who played him was fit. Seriously, do not even get me started on him in the Indiana Jones movies. Holy hotness in a fedora”
James broke in hastily. “Yeah, yeah, no need to go on. Tangent aside, didn’t Al have a question to answer?”
I clapped my hands together. “Right! Okay, Allosaurus, signs of the influence of the Imperius Curse. Go!”
And so, with James frowning more deeply than before for some odd reason, Al, Louis, and I continued studying. We were there for about an hour. After that, Louis went up to bed and Al looked for Rose to ask her a question about the homework they were set in Astronomy.
James and I stayed in front of the fireplace. We had moved out of the armchairs and were now sprawled on the floor, my head resting of James’s stomach. Although curfew was fast approaching, I felt no desire to leave.
“Hey, what did your mum say in her letter?” James asked, playing idly with my hair. We were actually supposed to be finishing our Arithmancy homework, but I didn’t really have any motivation to do so.
“Oh!” I said, sitting up. “I never read it.” I pulled it out of my pocket and laid back down again to quell James’s protests. I opened the letter and began to read.
My Dearest Val,
How are you dear? It’s been a while since your last letter. I imagine you’re quite busy, though, with all your classes, tutoring, and that fancy game you magical folk play. Those records don’t break themselves!
I’m writing to talk to you about Christmas this year. I assume you’re coming home, as usual? Hope and Dave will be staying at home and they’re both quite excited to see you again! I know you and Hope will have to be attending several meetings and appointments for Victoire’s wedding. Do you have other plans to see your friends during break?
Lastly, I have some exciting news. As you know, you and Joy were much loved by everyone in Roscrea, especially our church community. So this Christmas, there is going to be a memorial service for Joy. It’s going to be one big celebration of her life. And they want you to speak at it! Isn’t this exciting? I know you don’t have a lot of time to prepare, but I’m sure you’ll come up with something. Won’t it be great sharing your memories of Joy?
I hope you are well and I can’t wait to see my beautiful daughter again!
As I read the letter, my hands started shaking and cold dread settled in my stomach. My chest felt tight and the room spun in circles. When I finished the letter, I jerkily tore it into pieces, crumpled them together, and threw them into the fire with all the strength I could muster.
“Val?” James asked tentatively.
I ignored him, instead looking wildly around the room. They want me to speak about Joy. Won’t it be great sharing your memories of Joy? Why on earth would that be great? I never talk about Joy. Only with James.
I ripped out the elastic holding my hair into its ponytail. I began running my hands through my hair, pulling and clawing at the roots. I started rocking back and forth and my breath was coming in shuddering gasps. I could feel the tenuous happiness James had given me crashing down around me. I can’t tell people about Joy. I can’t. It was hard enough having to tell James. Now I’m expected to talk about her in front of a large group of people? I couldn’t do it at her funeral and I sure as hell am not going to do it now.
“Val,” James said urgently. “Val!” He grabbed at my arms, forcing them down by my side. I struggled with him, but he managed to overpower me.
Everyone remaining in the common room was staring at us. The members of the Weasley family looked anxious, almost frightened. Roxy had actually risen from her seat, and looked like she was about to come over to James and I. Noticing this, James pulled me to my feet and practically dragged me out the portrait hole. I was still in a state of panic.
James ended up bringing me to the Room of Requirement. He pushed me into one of two chairs that had appeared in there. Kneeling in front of me and taking my hands in his, James looked me in the eyes. “Val. Talk to me. Tell me what’s wrong.”
I squeezed my eyes shut. Memories assaulted me. Listening to Joy sing and play piano. Making scrapbooks together. Pulling pranks on the other kids in our primary school. Sneaking around the neighborhood. How was I supposed to tell people about this?
“There’s going to be a special memorial service for Joy over the holidays. My mum just wrote me, talking about how exciting it is. I’m expected to give a speech or something, talking about Joy and our childhood.”
James blinked. “Well, that’s good, isn’t it? I mean, it’s been helping you to tell me about it all, won’t it be nice to talk about Joy with people who knew her?”
I stared at him incredulously. “James, it took me six years to talk about her. And the fact that you never knew Joy made it easier, not harder. There is no way I can tell all those people who still treat me like a little girl about how wonderful Joy was.”
I took a deep breath, trying to slow my heart rate. My hands still quivered, but I was beginning to obtain at least a semblance of calm. “It might seem stupid, but I just… can’t face those people. I had a happy childhood, but now it just makes me feel bitter. Talking about it isn’t really high on priority list.”
James’s hand found its way under my chin and he lifted my head to look at him. He eyes bore deeply into mine, but I closed my eyes. There was something in his eyes when he looked at me… something I was afraid to see. Then, in a surprisingly tender gesture, he carefully wiped away the tears on my face. I opened my eyes and let out a slightly breathless laugh.
When he cocked his head in confusion, I explained. “I used to do that for Joy. Wipe her tears away, I mean. But no one’s ever done that for me. Joy just let me cry into her shirt.” I wrinkled my nose. “It kind of tickles.”
James laughed loudly at that. He sobered up quickly, though, and looked at me in concern. “What are you going to do about Christmas, then?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I sighed. “I really don’t want to speak at the memorial, let alone go. I guess I’ll just have to figure it out.”
“Just remember how strong you are,” James said gently. “And know that if you ever need to get away, tell me. Anytime you need me, I’ll be there. And write to me even if you don’t.”
I leaned forward, pulling him into a hug. “Thank you,” I breathed into his ear.
There, in James’s arms, things felt like they would end up okay. But I knew that it wouldn’t be, that the feeling was only an illusion created by his warm embrace. The truth was I had a hard decision to make. If I refused to speak at the service, I’d need a good reason. Nothing would work but the truth. This left me with two choices: I either had to talk about Joy to a bunch of strangers or to my parents.
So… yeah. Not so happy anymore. Things were getting too good for Val, of course something bad would have to happen. This story is nowhere near done!
James and Val are officially friends, though! That’s good, right? Things are going to get really… intense and sad during the next chapter, so just be prepared for that. It’s not very nice.
So here it is, a teaser for chapter 16.
“Val, you have lots of friends,” David said, rolling his eyes. “Everyone in that entire school loves you."
“Not like this one.”
“Who is it?”
I bit my lip, not quite meeting his eyes. “Funnily enough, it’s James Potter.”
“Really?” David’s eyebrows shot up. “The guy who told you that you were cold and heartless is now your friend?”
“Yeah, I didn’t really see that one coming, either,” I muttered sheepishly.
Disclaimer: The Harry Potter universe is owned by J.K. Rowling. Also, George Lucas owns Star Wars and Indiana Jones. And huge thank you to The Beatles, also known as the greatest band in the universe, for being extraordinarily inspirational and easing the writing process. The words practically write themselves when I listen to their lovely voices and other exceptional musical talents.
EDIT July 2012