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Chapter 6 : six.
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“Going to get something today?” Mister Edwards, the stand owner, was quite used to my presence in the morning. Sometimes we just exchanged pleasantries and other days we had a conversation about a certain cover. Every day he asked me if I was going to purchase anything, despite the fact that I had never purchased as much as a pack of gum.
Conversations with Mister Edwards were nice for a number of reasons. We usually kept it simple, although I knew he was married and had two grown daughters and he knew I might as well start my cat collection now. But he had no idea that I was a reporter, and that made a large difference I had learned. He knew I worked in one of the offices his stand faced but outside of that, I was nothing more than a passing face, which I enjoyed. People had a habit of changing once they knew I was a reporter.
Or a has-been quidditch star that spoke as if she was an expert on the subject.
I took another gulp of my coffee and closed my eyes for a bit, grateful for the extra layer of darkness my sunglasses provided. Already I was paying dearly for my decisions last night with sore eyes, a pounding headache, and an unquenchable thirst despite my stomach constantly reeling at each of its new contents.
“You can’t get much from just staring at those covers every day. One day, you’ll have to actually pick one up and open it.”
“That’s where you are wrong, Mister Edwards. My father always says that everything you need to know about the state of the world, you can tell by looking at the cover of a newspaper.” I clicked my tongue, tipped my imaginary hat, and turned to finally enter the Prophet. I liked to think that what I didn’t purchase with money, I paid with profound advice.
Judging by the cover of the papers today, the world was in a state of chaos caused by some new tax the Ministry was pushing and James Potter punching Alex Browne.
Although it felt much longer, it had actually only been yesterday that I had been standing in the Puddlemere locker room getting yelled at by James. A lesser person would have handled the situation in an irrational manner, probably with tears or aggressive writing in their journal. Good thing I, being completely rational and lacking ownership of a journal, handled my distress the old-fashioned way – with alcohol.
“What a game!” Oliver came from his office across the way and into mine, slamming his hands on my desk and jolting me from my effort to take a nap. “Can you believe that upset? And three games out for Potter? That’s the rest of the preseason and first game of the regular season! I can only imagine how he felt about that.”
“Oh yeah, I’m sure he was, yeah… I think I’m going to get another cup of coffee.” I swung my arms meaninglessly around in some vague attempts of action before dragging myself to my feet and heading towards the break room. Luckily, Cormac was out of the office today for meetings and most of my coworkers had taken the smart approach and stayed home. Which I would’ve, but it was Rachel’s day off and I was hardly in the mood to answer questions about the game.
“Payton! Can you believe that game yesterday?” I meant to turn around as soon as I had entered but Charlie had already seen and cornered me. “From start to finish, just – gah!”
“I think I need some fresh air.” Charlie hardly noticed when I stepped around his excited gestures and took the longer route to the lift so I could just escape. Usually I lived for these conversations at work but today, my stomach could handle as many mentions of James Potter or Puddlemere as it could water without wanting to be sick. I dealt with my Potter-ailment quite simply, by not dealing with it at all.
No thoughts of how he had yelled at or insulted me. No thoughts of the heartbreak I would have to face when the reality that the boy I had loved since I was eleven was actually a git, set in. No thoughts and hopefully, eventually, the sadness would fade into a dull mortification that I would just forget. After all, I was a pro at handling those. It was my fault, obviously. I had spent all this time building James Potter up to be a hero when he was just like every other self-righteous idiot.
At ten-thirty I got up from my desk, took another nausea potion I’d swiped from Rachel that morning, and got a cup of tea. One more hour, I reminded myself. One more hour and then I could take an early and long lunch break in the form of a nap and leave early in the name of “field work” to end this misery.
I meant my hangover, not my life.
It was a little past eleven when I checked the floor mailbox and found a note addressed to me from the eighth floor. “Oliver, what’s on the eighth floor?” He peeked around the side of his wall and gave me a questioning look, his dark eyebrows furrowed into one. I wasn’t even aware there was a method to send mail from one floor to another.
“There’s an eighth floor? Bloody hell, I thought the lift stopped at six.” Anyone looking in on our conversation would have suspected we were examining one of Lord Voldemort’s horcruxes or something equally introspective. But we were just the Sports floor and apparently, even the most basic letters confused us. “Well, why don’t you end the mystery and open it already?” Oliver threw the envelope onto my lap and pushed himself back into his office but I continued to stare at it, perplexed by its sudden appearance.
Six years and I had never had a piece of mail for me. It was only recently I had even learned that there was a large amount of fan (and hate) mail coming in my name, but there was a separate area that was directed to for examination before being passed along to the editors.
“Open it or I will, Payton.” Oliver called once more just as I ripped the thin envelope open at its side and let the parchment slide out.
The writing was bold, neat, and extended an invitation for me to attend lunch with its sender, Rose Weasley, and Albus Potter.
Please meet us that the building entrance at 11:30. Albus suggested a quaint diner that we can walk to together.
Oliver had appeared in my office again, his chair bumping mine. “Was it a love letter?” I caught him looking over my shoulder in interest. “I saw Albus! Is Albus Potter sending you a love letter?”
“Are you daft? As if Albus Potter would be sending me a love letter when he’s got loads of better things to do with his time, like pick his teeth or clip his nails.” Leave it to Rose Weasley to not even leave me any time to decline the invitation. “It’s an invitation for lunch in fifteen minutes.” Perhaps, I mulled, I could just pretend as if had never received the letter to begin with.
“I guess Potter finished picking his teeth and clipping his nails.”
“Potter, he’s done with his ‘better things’ because he’s here.”
“What?” I joined Oliver in looking over my doorway towards the elevator where Albus Potter was currently looking in the opposite direction. “What is he doing here?”
“It was a love letter, wasn’t it? All this time I was betting on you and Potter, the other one, and look at this-”
The half-empty office would buy me some time but not much. Maybe I could just jump out the window; the drop wasn’t that far down. But when Oliver mentioned “the other one” I stopped and began to listen. “What are you blabbering on about?”
“James Potter, after games at Hogwarts he would always comment that as a Keeper, you were his downfall. I ‘pose I just applied it to everything else in his life.” The statement left Oliver feeling sheepish and obviously wishing he had never even opened his mouth. “But what do I know? It’s been years and perhaps Albus is a good bloke as well. Want me to call him over?”
“No, and there’s no romance happening! Just, look - I need you to distract him and tell him I’ve left or I didn’t even come, that’s better. Give me two minutes; keep him in the kitchen area.”
“But what about lunch and the love letter?”
I returned Oliver’s frustrated with an exasperated one. “It wasn’t a love letter. I’ll explain tomorrow over tea, my treat.” Oliver agreed hesitantly and made his way to the direction that Albus had headed towards before. After a few seconds I peeked out into the empty hallway and made my way towards the lift.
Albus hadn’t done anything to me but I couldn’t bear to think of facing him and Rose today over lunch. Not when the conversation would inevitably head in the direction of James. Tomorrow I would send Rose a letter apologizing and asking to reschedule, it was truly no big deal. The lift was just in my view and Oliver’s voice was audible in the area the kitchen was stationed, a clear getaway.
I turned slowly, my finger frozen in the position ready to push the lift’s button and my mind releasing every curse imaginable in Oliver’s direction.
“Albus…” I began, prepared to explain that I had just been leaving to meet them at that very moment.
“Not Albus, actually.” James Potter stepped out of the corner, hands in pockets and obviously avoiding my gaze. “He uh, he went over there a bit ago to search for you.”
“Ah,” I replied vaguely, prepared to panic when I realized that I hadn’t done anything wrong. In the growing silence I saw an unforeseen consequence of our argument - I was no longer nervous about speaking to James.
He was no longer the bloke of my dreams and completely out of my reach. No, he was standing directly in front of me and fiddling with the end of his t-shirt, just another bratty quidditch player prone to tantrums when things didn’t go his way, and those I knew how to handle. James lifted his face for only a moment and I saw the bruising and swelling concentrated under his right eye. Briefly I wondered how much worse Alex looked before pushing the lift button to head down.
We had started and stopped at the same time, conscious of each other’s interruption.
“Albus and Rose set this up because they thought I should apologize. I was so rude yesterday and I can’t apologize enough, you have to know that that behavior is unlike me.”
“So you’re only apologizing because you’ve been forced to?”
James stared at me in confusion. “What? No, I mean-”
“And interestingly enough, you just spoke a lot but never actually said sorry.” He looked at me in silence, opening and closing his mouth but no words coming out. The lift bell sounded behind me and doors slide open as he looked on and Albus came around the corner. “I can’t apologize enough for wasting your lunch hour, Mister Potter. You have to know that that is so unlike me. Perhaps one of my friends can arrange a meeting so I can insult you and then we’ll be even.” I shoved the ground level button in and watched the doors close just in time to hear Albus demand what James had done now.
Served him right, I decided. You wouldn’t get a free ride from me just because you were a halfway-decent quidditch player but apparently shoddy human-being.
On Friday of that week I left work late to ensure that my articles for the week were written and turned in before I left tomorrow morning for Wimbourne with the Charming Cannons. Five days had passed since James had yelled at me after the game, four days since he botched his apology to me, and two since Albus had come to the Prophet once again. He caught me just before entering the Prophet building in the midst of my usual morning routine, managing to intrigue Mister Edwards and force him to rethink my ownership of cats.
“I’m sorry about the other day.” He handed me a large cup of tea that smelled of vanilla and milk and nodded his head towards the large black building that was behind us.
“Would that be Sunday or Monday you’re referring to exactly?” I joked, leaning against the building so I could watch the foot traffic pass us by. The tea, almost scalding in my hands, was quite possibly the only thing hotter than the sun this morning in London. I couldn’t bear to think of its heat when it was actually overhead. “Thank you for the tea, Albus, but you didn’t do anything to be sorry for.”
“I know.” He had moved next to me and gave me a sideway smile after his comment. “James has good intentions, just poor delivery. When he says that he wishes you were never born, he really means that he loves you.”
“Should I expect him at lunch today with that gem?”
“Ah, I think he saves that for family.” Next to me, he sighed loudly and crushed his empty cup. “Just give him some leeway in what he says.” A few feet away I watched a girl around my age if not slightly older; look at Albus before giving me a dirty sideways glance. How pleasant. “Especially with you.”
“What’s that mean?” I cried, straightening up when I noticed him preparing to leave.
“Just that he’s not used to dealing with girls like you, is all. Have a good weekend.”
I barely had time to return the weekend wishes when he disappeared in the crowd heading north, still dumbfounded. I was not the type of girl that boys were nervous around. No, I was type that they felt too comfortable around. Instead of stammering I was awarded excess gas dispersal and the only clammy hands I had ever caused were from wagers to hand wrestle because of my manly-hands and upper body strength.
“That your boyfriend?” Mister Edwards was standing on the other side of his stand and giving me an impressed smile. “Fancy looking fellow.”
“He is,” I replied to the fancy-part of the statement before backtracking, “Fancy, I meant, not the boyfriend part. I’m kind of in love with his brother. Or I was, rather. You know? I better go to work.” After all, I did have eight more hours of putting my foot in my mouth there.
The remainder of the week passed without incidence. I wrote articles, mocked Lorcan’s, and finalized all the details for the weekend. It seemed that life had settled into my routine again, which was nice but also a bit boring. “Better boring than residing at an insane asylum,” though, as my father always said.
There was still sunlight, brilliant shades of orange and pink, when I arrived to the flat door and took a moment to enjoy it before reaching for my key.
The initial fright caused me to scream loudly and swing my free arm out in immediate defense. I recognized the voice immediately, just having it heard twice in a row days prior. When I turned, slightly embarrassed at my scream (but not at my punch), I saw him grabbing hold of my fist with a stunned expression.
“You almost hit me.”
I pulled my hand away from his hold and attempted to regain my breath. Thank Merlin I had gone to the restroom before leaving work. “Are you stalking me or something?” What was it with this family giving little-to-no notice before visiting?
“You almost hit me.”
“You don’t come ‘round from the darkness and expect me not to hit! You could’ve been a murderer!”
“A murderer who gives warning by saying your name? I’ve already got a black eye! Did you want to give me another?”
“You snuck up on me, you, you – fool! And don’t be such a baby; if I hit you and gave you a black eye then you deserved it.”
“You’re insane.” He cried, “completely off your nutter. I don’t even know why I’m even bothering to apologize to you when you’re completely irrational.”
“Oh?” I finally realized I had dropped my satchel and bent down to pick it up, grabbing my key and shoving it in the lock. “Well than why are you bothering? Huh? I didn’t ask for the great James Potter to follow me home and scare me half-to-death with a botched apology so don’t do either of us the favor.”
But when I attempted to shove the door in his face dramatically something stopped me, not as in a sudden change-of-heart but as in something physically stopped me. James’ foot was wedged between the door and frame and he had taken my hesitance at smashing his foot in to push it open and force himself inside.
“Determined are we?”
“You don’t get to do that again,” he replied, taking a step closer to me. “You don’t get to bloody leave in another dramatic flourish and make me feel bad for days before finally getting the nerve to apologize just for you to insult me and leave in yet another, dramatic flourish!” We had done a bit of tango as he spoke. James taking large steps towards me, completely absorbed in his own dramatics and I responded by moving backwards until I was stuck in between his body and the wall. “I’m sorry for the way I acted in the locker room and your office but I am not apologizing for the way I’m acting now because I think you fully deserve it. Although, I am sorry about scaring you and calling you insane, that was unnecessary.”
“Okay.” The mad look in his eyes had disappeared and we both took a deep breath, looking everywhere but at each other’s faces that were still so close to one another. “I’m sorry about calling you a murderer, a baby, and great – although that’s not really an insult, it was the way I used it.”
And then he looked at me and smiled. It wasn’t a large smile that usually accompanied his bark-like laughter or even a condescending smirk that I recognized from when he played. It was small and lopsided, only showing a few teeth, and making the crows’ feet around his eyes prominent. From five years of studying him intensely at Hogwarts and all the time afterward during interviews, games, and press conferences – I had never seen that smile.
“I feel like we should do something really dramatic now, since that seems to be our habit.” He said, still not making any movement to enhance the small space between us. Now that my heart wasn’t racing my body allowed my other senses to come to life again; my nose picked up the light scent of cologne, or perhaps deodorant or aftershave since his clothes, a loose white t-shirt and baggy jeans, and hair, messy and wet, indicated he must have just come from practice. My ears picked up his choice of words, “our habit”, and I laughed in response to the irony that just as I was determined to move on forever hating James Potter, I found myself standing less than a foot away from him. “In the muggle movies, this is where they would kiss, you know.”
“Huh,” I whispered, for lack of more options. In the cartoons, this was where my brain was pushing the large red panic button before running around in circles, pulling out its hair. I wished, once again, that I had been as brave as the girls I had seen during my school days; pulling up their skirts and running their fingertips over his arm teasingly.
“But I suppose that’s not exactly our nature, is it?” He shrugged and moved away to pick up a discarded gym bag from the floor.
“I could always punch you, I ‘pose, or arm-wrestle you.”
After a brief pause James looked at me and smiled again, the same one I had never seen but could find myself getting used to. “You’re a bit strange, you know that?”
“I think the term you used was ‘off her nutter’.” We stood in the hallway of my flat for a bit before I remembered that while I did not how to be smooth or flirtatious, I did know my manners. “I was just going to drop off my things and head to this café, if you’d like to join me.”
“I, I can’t, actually. I’m sorry, I’d love to but there’s a mandatory conference meeting for all the players in the league.”
“Of course, it was just an idea anyway. I mean-”
Was James Potter asking me out on a date?
“There’s this decent Italian place and I’ll give you an interview if you’d like. It’s the least I could do after everything.”
Or a pity dinner and interview. “Thank you but that’s unnecessary, you’ve apologized and I don’t need some interview to make me feel better.” It did bother me a little despite his good intentions; I was still just “the reporter”. I grabbed the straps of my satchel and shrugged good-naturedly at him, as if this standing in front of him wasn’t making my heart race and break, at the same time. “I’ll be in Wimbourne tomorrow anyhow but have fun at your meeting.” The stairs to my right looked especially dark when I began my trek, my appetite lost.
“What about just dinner than, perhaps next weekend?”
“Sorry?” I was sure I had just made up that last sentence in my mind. But James stood at the foot of the stairs, looking up.
“I was just asking if you thought dinner next week would be any good.”
“Was that a question? I swear I know better than to show up at your flat if you say no.”
“No, no, no that wasn’t a question; I meant sure, a definite ‘yes’ to dinner. Next week.”
“Great,” he smiled, “Tuesday okay?”
I nodded my answer, not trusting my voice to not screw it up as it almost had seconds before, and he left with a promise to return at seven-thirty on Tuesday and I promised not to try to punch him. But I remained on the same step, refusing to believe that after twelve years all it had taken was me verbally (and almost physically) abusing James Potter to finally get a date with him.
“He’s just as mad as I am.”
Disclaimer blah blah.
A/N: Sorry for wait but loads of Payton-James interaction!! What are we thinking?!
Gorgeous chapter image by Elenia @ TDA.
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