He took a deep breath, combing a hand through his pudding-soaked hair, and stuck a businesslike expression onto his face. “Er, Aurelia. Can I have a word with you…in private?”
“Okay,” said Aurelia, looking around at the corridor. It was fairly private already – most people had cleared out from the Great Hall after lunch, off to their common rooms, the library, or their next classes. There were a few groups of younger students chatting in the corridor, but they seemed too far away to hear Aurelia and James’ conversation. “Where did you have in mind?”
“How about the Prefects’ bathroom?” suggested James, taking off toward the nearest set of stairs.
Aurelia blushed, staying put. “Er…”
“Don’t be stupid,” said James over his shoulder without breaking his stride. “I just want to get the pudding out of my hair.”
Oh. Right. The Pudding. Aurelia hesitated for a moment as James started up the stairs in his usual confident stride, and then followed dutifully after James. The last time James had needed a word, she had ended up on a fake date that had tugged painfully at her heartstrings, teasing her imagination with a taste of what it would be like to be with James. If he needed another favor like that again, she would have to turn him down – it was just too confusing.
“Thanks for helping Albus out, by the way,” said James with a smile that made Aurelia’s heart flutter. “He would never have gathered the courage without your help.”
Aurelia shrugged modestly. “I just gave him a little push. You and Scorpius weren’t being very supportive, anyway.”
“That’s called male bravado,” explained James. “You’re not allowed to show any emotions or be nice to anyone – it isn’t manly.”
Aurelia snorted – and immediately cursed herself for making such an unattractive noise. Boys don’t like girls who sound like pigs, Aurelia, she told herself angrily, and then reminded herself even more angrily that it didn’t matter, that she only wanted James to think of her as a friend.
“Anyway, he really – well, everyone really seems to see you as…” James rubbed his unshaven chin thoughtfully. James often went days without shaving, earning himself extra attention from girls who thought it made him look rugged, and extra disapproving glares from Evander, who was always clean shaven. Just a few weeks ago, he had asked Aurelia whether she liked him better with or without the hair, and she had told him honestly that she liked him either way. “I mean, as we’ve all known you so long and everything, I think we all just see you as a part of the family.”
Aurelia blinked. She had never considered herself even remotely a part of the Potter-Weasley clan, which their knitted sweaters and love of trouble. She had always seen herself as more of a quiet onlooker on their antics.
“I remember the first time I saw you,” said James, and Aurelia grimaced, remembered the weird looking, bug-eyed midget she had been back then. “You looked like a little doll. And there were all those Slytherin gits following you, and I couldn’t understand why they’d want to hurt something so sweet. So, I s’pose I’ve always felt sort of protective of you.”
Aurelia raised her eyebrows. “Like an older brother.”
“Yeah, like-” James broke off, and laughed. “Well, no, not exactly.”
They reached the Prefects’ bathroom on the fifth floor. Aurelia hesitated, but, rolling his eyes, James grabbed her hand and dragged her inside with him. Once inside, James walked over to the nearest sink and bent over it, running his hair under the tap water. The outline of James’ strong back and arms were illuminated by light streaming in from the window.
Aurelia looked around nervously. She was in a bathroom with a boy. This was totally against the rules. Evander would probably have a fit of Prefect-madness and murder them both on the spot if he walked inside.
“I make it a point to take a bath here once a week,” said James cheerfully. “It’s sort of a waste of water, but everybody likes to feel like a princess now and again.”
Aurelia giggled, trying very hard not to imagine James lounging back in a steaming hot bathtub filled with multicolored bubbles. Wearing a pink tiara.
“I’ve always thought baths were sort of boring,” admitted Aurelia. “I don’t really know what to do with myself.”
“I can think of a few things,” said James casually, scrubbing his hair with his fingers.
Aurelia blushed. Was he flirting with her, all of a sudden?
“For instance, I like to read the Prophet while I simmer,” continued James. “Hand me a towel, will you?”
Oh – he wasn’t flirting after all, just making conversation.
Aurelia grabbed a plush white bath towel off of the nearest shelf, and handed it to James. He straightened up from the sink, throwing the towel over his head and rubbing it into his hair with one hand. Aurelia glanced at herself in the nearest mirror, taking in the wide eyes, messy bun, and still slightly pink cheeks. She wondered what she looked like to James – did he still think that she was like a little doll?
“So,” James said.
Sensing that he was going to get to the point, Aurelia leaned back against the shelf of towels, looking cautiously at James. He looked awfully cute when his hair was slicked down all over his face, dripping water down the ridge of his nose.
“So,” he said again, drying his glasses on a corner of the towel and then jamming them carelessly back onto his face. “About the match on Sunday.”
“What about it?” said Aurelia curiously.
“Well,” said James, his chest swelling as he took a long, deep breath. “I thought it’d be nice if you joined me in the Gryffindor box. We could meet in the Great Hall, and bring along some breakfast.”
“You mean as…?”
“I mean as my date,” said James firmly, sweeping the floor out from underneath Aurelia’s feet. “Aurelia, on Valentine’s day, I realized that…well, Albus and Rose and the rest may think of you as a sister, but I think of you very differently.”
Aurelia just stared at him.
“This is why you and Rose have been acting so bizarre lately,” she finally said.
“Yeah, it is,” admitted James abashedly. “So, what do you say? If you think of me as more of, you know, an older brother…well, I’ll understand.”
“I don’t,” said Aurelia. “I’m not exactly sure how I do think of you, anymore.”
“Right.” James stuck one hand into his pocket, and used the other to rake back his wet hair from his forehead. It stuck up in jet black spikes. “Well, think it over, will you?”
“Yeah,” said Aurelia.
James nodded curtly and stuck his other hand into his pocket. He stared at Aurelia for a moment, eyebrows furrowed, looking almost dejected. Aurelia stared back at him, taking in the handsome features, the warm eyes, the disappointment clearly etched across his face. James took one sudden, jagged step toward her – and then turned and left the bathroom, shaking his head.
Aurelia stared at the door as it slammed shut.
Was he angry at her? James probably wasn’t used to being turned down by girls – but then again, she hadn’t really turned him down. She just needed some time to sort things out in her head. It wasn’t really fair for him to expect her to answer him on the spot. She’d been confused about her feelings for James for years, and she couldn’t sort them all out in a second.
But that look he had given her…
Aurelia sighed, reaching up and letting her hair down from its messy bun. She stared at herself in the nearest mirror, threading the ribbon in between her fingers and feeling the silkiness of it.
So he found her attractive, after all. Aurelia couldn’t count all the nights she had sat awake wondering what he thought of her – analyzing every moment they spent together, every word and glance and gesture. Now she knew, but she almost wished she could have gone back to not knowing. Everything seemed so complicated now.
If she said yes to James, she’d be the envy of every girl at Hogwarts. James was sweet and handsome and fun to be around. When she was with him, she always had a good time. But was having a good time the most important thing? James tended to go through girls rather quickly – maybe he’d be done with her after a few months, like he was with Valerie Vane. And once they broke up, things couldn’t go back to the way they were now.
If she said no to James, it would put a serious chink in their friendship. Not only would James be disappointed – Rose and Albus would probably be, too. Aurelia knew that that shouldn’t matter to her, that she should concentrate on trying to figure out what would make her happy, but it wasn’t that simple.
Suddenly, she realized what she had to do.
Aurelia left the Prefects’ bathroom and made her way up to her dormitory in the Ravenclaw tower. She didn’t have any classes for the rest of the day, so she would write a nice long letter to Terrence, and he would help her figure things out. Maybe the act of writing out her thoughts would help her mull things over, too.
She passed by Evander as she hurried through the common room. He was bent over a table, surrounded by an enclosure of books. At a second glance, Aurelia realized that he had fallen asleep.
Probably studying for exams already, thought Aurelia, and found to her surprise that she actually felt concerned for Evander. She stopped with one foot on the first step up to her dormitory, turned around, and grabbed the nearest afghan.
Aurelia approached Evander cautiously.
He was sitting on the edge of an armchair, his head resting on one of the many large, old books stacked on the table. He looked very different when he was asleep – his face was relaxed, not all screwed up with frustration like usual.
He was actually very handsome.
Aurelia unfolded the afghan and spread it over his back. Then she hurried upstairs, feeling more confused than ever.