I shivered as I waited for Luke's girlfriend, Daphne to meet me in Diagon Alley. It was already the beginning of December, a fact I'd been oblivious to until the weather turned a little bit colder and our neighbors started to put up their Christmas decorations.
Time had flown by and somehow James and I were beginning our third month of being together. The days were sometimes a blur, with me too tired from work and James too tired from training to find the strength to argue and be irritated with each other. Other days time crawled, the hours excruciatingly drawn out, moments between us exceptionally awkward as we struggled to balance on a thin line of friendship. But I was learning to treasure the times when we were able to just talk.
A voice jolted me out of my thoughts and I looked up to see Daphne striding towards me, a smile on her face.
"Sorry to keep you waiting! I had some last minute paperwork to finish," she explained when she reached me. "Are your ready?" She asked, her eyes sparkling with excitement.
I nodded. "I do have a question. How formal is this event, exactly?"
James had been invited to another event, one explained to me as having no way of getting out of. It was an annual silent auction thrown by the Quidditch Association with a highly exclusive guest list, ranging from famous alumni to current players. The fact that James had told me about the event in advanced allowed me the opportunity to buy my own dress without James lavishly spending money on me, unlike last time.
"It's one of the biggest Quidditch events all year. I would say it's pretty formal," Daphne told me as she lead me down the street. "Really, if you pick the most extravagant dress you'll ever find, there'll probably be a some girlfriend of some player wearing something way more puffy, and fluffy, and ridiculous."
Oh Merlin, I thought. “Hopefully I can spare James that embarrassment,” I laughed.
Daphne paused outside of a small boutique. "Luke was being ridiculous but he made me promise I’d tell you that James particularly likes shades of red." She gestured for me to follow her into the store. "And lots of leg," she added over her shoulder with a roll of her eyes.
"I'll be sure to keep that in mind," I managed with a straight face. Luke would say something like that. But I started down a row of dresses with my mind in a panic, frantically going over whether I should dress to impress, or if I should keep it classy, or--. I took a deep breath, a small effort to calm myself.
She grinned. "All joking aside, I'm sure he'll find you beautiful in anything you pick out. He can never keep his eyes off you anyway."
My cheeks flushed. "Yeah, yeah," I muttered, unable to voice just how wrong she was.
The only sound then was the soft clattering of the hangers as we shifted through the pile of dresses in front of us. Some of them were too extravagant, with ornately decorated sleeves and bedazzled bodices. I met Daphne in the fitting rooms ten minutes later, several dresses in my hand.
Already having decided no on the first couple of dresses, I reached for the last one--a deep magenta gown, with lace sleeves and a sweeping skirt that flowed softly to the ground. The fabric gently draped my body and it fit perfectly when I tried it on.
"Oh, its beautiful, Natalie," Daphne gasped when I opened the door to show her. "It's so you."
"It's perfect, isn't it?" I smiled. I couldn’t help but feel terribly cliche, but there was something about this dress I loved. And there was no way to reign in my imagination which had run amok, dreaming of different ways James could react to this dress.
I waited as Daphne finished trying on her last dress and then went to the register to pay for the dress.
"I’m sorry, miss. This has already been paid for.” The man informed me as I tried to hand over my money.
“But...that’s impossible,” I sputtered, knowing immediately who was behind this. “Please, just take the money.”
The man gave me a sheepish look. “I’m sorry, I can’t. It’s already paid for.”
“Yes, I understand that,” I gritted out. “I swear, I’m going to kill James the moment I get home.”
I didn’t miss the amused look Daphne exchanged with the cashier. I eventually followed her out of the store after she paid for her dress, very obviously in a grumpy mood.
“Oh, come on Nat. It’s sweet that James spoils you like that,” Daphne told me, a wide grin on her face. “Honestly, Luke could take some lessons from him.” She winked.
I sighed. “No, you’re right. It was sweet.” But it unnecessary, unwanted. I wasn’t someone he needed to spoil; it only served to make things harder.
James was sitting in the living room when I returned home. He nodded his head at me when I apparated into the room, giving me a quick "hi."
I ignored him, going into our room to place the dress on a hanger before grabbing a small bag out of my purse. I marched back into the living room and tossed the pouch of galleons onto his lap.
"Oi. What's this for?" James questioned. He struggled to keep a straight face.
"This is me paying you back. Dammit, I told you I'd buy it James," I informed him. “How in Merlin's name did you manage that, anyway?"
His innocent expression was gone. "Hmm, I don't know. Maybe magic?" He grinned. “And maybe Daphne let slip which stores you’d possibly be going to.”
I paused, suddenly thrown. "What? Merlin, she didn’t say anything. But there was no need for this.” I rounded on him again. “I'm not accepting it."
James narrowed his eyes. “Just why are you so against this, Natalie?”
“I don’t want you spending unnecessary money on me, James.”
He chuckled, but his voice had no humor. “Please. You don’t need to worry about that, I have more than enough--.”
“It’s not even about that!” I interrupted, unable to listen. “There’s nothing between us and having you do this makes me feel like I--like I’m somehow indebted to you and I don’t want that.”
His eyes flashed with anger. “Let me make it clear then. I don’t in any way think that you owe me, by doing this. I don’t even know why I’m bother, if this is what I get.”
His face was so full of disappointment that I couldn’t help but feel a little bit foolish. “Um. I'm sorry.” I cleared my throat, suddenly uncertain. “I"m not saying, it's not kind of you, James. It was very considerate of you and I appreciate it. But just let me spend my own money,” I said softly.
James tilted his head in acknowledgement as his eyes softened. Before I knew it, he was throwing the pouch back at me. "Well, I'm still not accepting this."
My hands raised up on instinct and caught it before it could hit me right in the face.
"James, you're keeping this money."
"Yes." I tossed it onto his lap and then bolted before he could throw it back to me. A strong arm snagged my waist and I groaned as James grabbed onto me, squirming violently in his arms. The sound of James laughing, his lips brushing gently against my ear sent shivers down my back. We toppled to the floor as James did his best to restrain me. I landed on my back with James on top of me, a wicked gleam in his eyes.
And then it only took one moment to become completely aware of each part of his body against mine, how close he was to me--the warmth radiating from his skin. In my panic, I struggled even harder against him, desperate to escape his grip. It only served to make James laugh harder.
"I'm not letting you up till you say you'll keep the money," he informed me. His hazel eyes danced with amusement.
"Fine! Fine, just let me up," I gasped.
He tilted his head in acknowledgement, his lips quirked up into a smile. "Now, was that so hard?" He moved to shift his body from mine and then a grimace graced his face. "Fuck."
"What is it?" I sat up, watching as he clutched his stomach.
He was sitting next to me now, wincing as he ran a hand up and down his side. "It's fine. My injury from that last game is just a bit sore still."
"Here." I reached for his shirt, raising my eyebrows when he backed away. "Let me just take a look, James. It might be sore or it might not be healing."
With a sigh, James nodded. He watched quietly as I lifted his shirt, my eyes scanning his ribs quickly. "Still bruised," I muttered. I placed my hand gingerly on his skin. "Does this hurt?"
"And this?" I moved my hand across his bruise, gently applying pressure around his injury. My heart was beating fast and my cheeks were hot; I kept my gaze focused on his side but I could feel his eyes on me.
"No," he breathed out, his voice slightly deeper than usual. Or did I just imagine it?
I cleared my throat as I finally lifted my hand from his warm skin. "You haven't been applying the balm they gave you, have you?"
He shrugged as he tugged his shirt back down. The sudden tension between us was gone as quickly as it came. "I thought it was healed by now."
"Merlin, James. Is it really that hard to apply it before going to sleep?" I questioned lightly, not wanting to sound too critical. "I know you practically have Healers at your beck and call but you also need to follow our instructions." I paused, raising my eyebrows at the look on his face. "I'd better see you using it or else I'll do it myself."
James grinned. "Alright, Mum."
I groaned. "You'll thank me later," I teased as I got up. I glanced back at him. He was still watching me, a thoughtful expression on his face. "What?" I brushed a strand of hair from my face, feeling self-conscious.
"You're different when you're in Healer-mode," he replied.
I looked at him in surprise. "Hopefully it's a good different?"
"No, of course. I just meant you can be my Healer any day," he told me with a wink as he stood.
A strangled laugh fell from my mouth. "Thanks, I guess."
"That didn't sound as eloquent as I meant it," James said with a laugh. "I was trying to say...," he paused. "I can see why this is the perfect job for you," he finally said, his voice warm.
"Thanks, James." My cheeks flushed again. I hesitated. "That means a lot. Really."
He nodded, flashing me a smile. "I'm gonna take a nap before dinner. There's leftovers if you get hungry," he said as he walked towards our room. "And don't worry Mother, I won't forget to put the balm," he added over his shoulder.
I shook my head, sticking my tongue out at him with a grin. I settled down with some notes to review for the next day when a soft knock sounded on the front door. I opened it to see Ginny holding a box and looking somewhat apprehensive.
"Hi!" I said, surprised to see her.
She gave me a warm smile. "Hello, Natalie. It's good to see you."
"You too. Please, come in." I gestured her into the living room. "I'm sorry, James is taking a nap actually," I added as I followed her.
Her eyes were disappointed but she waved it off. "It's fine. I thought I'd drop by some food. I cooked a little too much for Harry and I." She handed me the box she was holding, still warm from the food inside.
"Oh, you didn't have to, really. But I'm sure James will appreciate it," I said.
A look crossed her face--one I couldn't quite read. She looked hopeful, as strange as that seemed to me.
"I actually also wanted to say that our house is always open whenever you and James want to stop by." She smiled, but it was weak, strained. "To be honest, we haven't seen James in a while and I--we miss him."
I tried to hide my wince. I knew things were rocky with her and James. "I'll be sure to tell James," I promised her.
She nodded her head. “How is everything going with James?” She questioned, her face curious.
A small sigh escaped my lips but I gave her a smile. “It’s going. I suppose we’re just trying to make the best of it but its hard sometimes,” I said honestly.
“I’m sure. I know it’s not ideal.” She paused, her voice contemplative. “But if you don’t mind me saying...I’ve always believed that things happen for a reason. I feel like you and James were meant to help each other.”
My eyes went wide with surprise.The look on her face made me feel like she knew more about whatever this was between me and James, more than she let on.
We chatted a bit more and then she left shortly after. James found me a couple minutes laterl in the living room, his hair mussed, eyes still blurry with sleep.
“You just missed your mum,” I told him, trying to keep my voice casual. But I saw the way his shoulders stiffened.
“What did she want?” His face was blank, as if he could care less.
“She dropped off some food. She’d also like to see you.” I said. “It’s been awhile since you visited them?” I questioned.
James was quiet for a moment, so still that I wasn’t even sure he’d heard me. But then he nodded his head before turning away from me to head to the kitchen.
He stopped in his tracks abruptly. “Don’t, Natalie,” he said, his back still to me. “I don’t want to talk about it or think about it, okay? It’s been a long fucking day.”
“Okay,” I replied softly. It wouldn’t have been fair to question him about why he was so bitter about all of this when I could barely talk to him about Oliver and my sister.
James turned back to me, the tension in his shoulders suddenly gone. “Do you want to go somewhere? We can take the food and make a picnic out of it.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I just need to get out of here for awhile.”
“James,” I paused. “It’s freezing outside.”
He laughed, his eyes crinkling endearingly. “Magic, love. Magic.”
I couldn’t resist the gleam in his eyes, the sudden warmth in his eyes. And so after packing some food, I grasped James’s arm and closed my eyes as he apparated us.
I could feel a cold wind gently brushing my face when we landed. I opened my eyes to see that we were standing on top of a grassy hill, high enough to look over the Arrow’s quidditch pitch and isolated enough that all the stars in the night sky were perfectly visible, twinkling brightly above us. It was quiet around us, still and peaceful.
I turned to see James watching me--as if he was waiting for a reaction from me.
“I come here sometimes after practice,” he told me quietly. His eyes held a hint of vulnerability.
“It’s lovely, James.”
We stared at each other for a moment, silence lingering between us. The thought that James had wanted to bring me here and show me this place sent butterflies fluttering frantically through my stomach.
I swallowed hard before grabbing the blanket we’d brought with us and laying it on the ground. I sat down gingerly and James followed. He muttered a quick spell and instantly the air around us was warmed, stopping my shivering. We ate mostly in silence, occasionally talking about how our day had been. I cleaned up the leftover food we’d brought and then looked over to see that James had lain back on the blanket, his arms thrown casually behind his head and his eyes closed.
I scrutinized his face for a moment, tracing over his jawline, his high cheekbones mentally. He looked so much younger and innocent with his eyes closed, his eyes free of all the arrogance, bitterness, anger I’d seen during all this time with him. But then, the other side of him that I loved--his passion, compassion, persistence, confidence--was absent.
A jolt ran through me when his eyes snapped open suddenly. A surprised but pleased look appeared in his eyes when they met mine.
Trying to ignore the fiery blush on my cheeks, I spoke quickly, “So what are we doing for Christmas then?”
James groaned. “Shit. I hadn’t even thought of that.” He frowned. “I suppose we could do Christmas with your mum and New Years with my family. At least for New Years, my family will make it a party.” He rolled his eyes in mock exasperation.
I nodded. “Sure. Sounds fine.”
“What do you and your mum usually do for Christmas?” James asked, watching me closely.
I thought about it for a moment. Our holidays were usually very quiet, just the two of us. Occasionally we’d visit some extended family. “We cook too much food. After dinner we put on the telly while Mum knits and I study. Her sister usually pops by with her family.”
A smile spread across his face. “Sounds peaceful.”
I tried to laugh. “Lonely and boring, more like.”
“No, really.” James shook his head. “As much as I love my family, there’s not a moment alone sometimes. And they’re all mad, anyways.”
I shrugged. “It sounds perfect.”
James shrugged, imitating me. “To each to his own, I guess.” A hesitant look crossed his face then.
“What?” I questioned curiously. I’d learned by now that look when James wanted to say something.
“It’s just...what does Oliver do for Christmas?”
I stiffened. “I wouldn’t know. I haven’t seen him since...you know.” I swallowed the sudden lump in my throat.
“He’s tried to keep in touch?”
“Yes,” I replied curtly. “What about it?”
James was quiet. And then, “Nothing, Lee. Nothing.”
I played with the corner of the blanket, unsure if I should say anything. But then curiosity got the better of me and I wanted to know what James would say.
“Ginny said something I haven’t been able to get out of my mind.”
James raised his eyebrows. “And what was that?” He questioned nonchalantly.
“She said...things happen for a reason.” I turned away, instead lifting my gaze to the night sky. “I don’t know. I don’t know if I believe in that.” I started counting the stars one by one, forcing myself to stop the sudden prickling in my eyes.
I vaguely felt James sit up, his warm body suddenly very close to mine.
“I do, to some extent. When I think about my dad’s life, he wouldn’t have been who he was without all the things that happened in his life,” James said softly. “But some things like death...I think they’re just part of life that we can’t stop, Lee. They might not happen for any particular reason, but they happen.”
A part of me wasn’t surprised that James knew exactly what, or rather who I was talking about. I hesitated and then grasped his hand, squeezing it tight for a second before letting go, giving him a silent thank you.
If James was startled he didn’t say anything. But I watched out of the corner of my eye as a small smile played on his lips. The flutterings of the butterflies in my stomach grew stronger. I turned my gaze back to the sky, my eyes wide and my mind suddenly considering the possibility that there was something there. We sat there together for a long time after, staring at the sky as we got lost in our thoughts, our shoulders warm against each other.
A/N: First, I am so incredibly sorry that I took forever with this chapter. I just had one of the hardest quarters at university and it didn't help that my laptop got a virus twice, the second time wiping everything I'd been working on for this story. So again, I'm really really sorry and thank you for reading and sticking to this! I should have more time this next quarter so I promise I'll be updating more reguarly.
Anyway, I really hope you liked this chapter and please let me know what you think! Happy New Year :)