|SIYE Time:20:19 on 23rd March 2018|
Category: Post-Hogwarts, Post-DH/PM
Genres: Action/Adventure, Angst, Drama, General, Humor, Romance
Warnings: Extreme Language
Summary: Annabel has had a bad day. She tries to deal with it as best she can.
The last thing she needs is to meet someone else who has hurt her, someone who she hasn't seen in many years. Or is it?
Do people really change. Has James Sirius Potter finally grown up?
Note added by admin: while the H/G portion of this tale is secondary and comes later, the story is a fine addition to the Northumbrian post-canon, and is welcome at SIYE.
Hitcount: Story Total: 15912; Chapter Total: 746
Awards: View Trophy Room
It was hopeless. Although I tried to count my strokes, to count lengths, and keep an eye on my times, there were too many other things on my mind.
I was floating, both literally and figuratively. My thoughts were drifting flotsam, broken pieces scattered everywhere. It was thinking about anything and everything, except swimming. Making another attempt to concentrate, I looked up at the enormous digital clock at the end of the pool. I found myself looking at the day and the date, not the time. It was Wednesday the twenty-ninth of September.
It had been a Wednesday three weeks earlier when James had arrived back in my life. Only twenty-one days, that was no time at all. Why was I missing him so much?
Lily’s birthday was the twenty-ninth. Not the twenty-ninth of September, her birthdate was, like my brother’s, unforgettable. I could hear her complaining to him about it.
‘Just shut up about birthday fireworks, Hen. I only get a real birthday once every four years, remember?’
Shaking my head, I again looked at the clock, and tried to concentrate on swimming. On the zero, four hundred metres freestyle, arms only: go!
It was Wednesday, the middle day in our early morning swim cycle. James had missed out on the Monday swim, too, but Monday was stamina, it was simply a case of ploughing up and down the pool for an hour. I hadn’t needed to count on Monday, although it would have been useful to know how far I’d swum; I again found myself wondering where my SwimTracker Band had gone. I’d turned my bedroom upside-down but hadn’t been able to find it. It wouldn’t have been much use today, as today was technique. Today was about James watching me, and me watching James
Wednesday was about me watching James, the muscles on his broad shoulders and upper arms rippling as he pulled himself through the water. It was about me watching James, his torso lightly dusted with freckles, tight black jammers encasing his muscular glutes, as he pulled his glistening wet frame out of the pool and smiled at me.
When I reached the pool side, I stopped. I was panting, but not from exertion. Instead of counting lengths, I’d been fantasising about James. I looked up at the clock and tried again. On the zero, four hundred metres freestyle, arms only: go!
The second Saturday, a week after we’d visited Hathersage, we’d ridden back to Castleton and walked up to Peveril Castle. That day I’d been sensible. During my hunt for my SwimTracker, I had discovered my shabby and worn old Karrimor boots in the bottom of my wardrobe. I took them with me, along with the only pair of walking socks I could find. It was hardly worth the effort; the walk up to the castle was neither long nor difficult. Despite the lack of a decent walk, we spent a pleasant few hours ambling about the place.
James insisted on exploring every nook and cranny. After a while, I became a little bored by his slow progress through the ruins. His ebullient enthusiasm for the place was overwhelming and almost child-like, so I indulged him. He was particularly interested in the area around the garderobe, claiming that there was something magical about that part of the keep. I told him that medieval toilets, even magical ones, were not high on my list of things to examine carefully.
While he messed about, I sat on the grass and gazed across at Mam Tor. It was a much easier landmark to pick out than the castle had been the previous weekend, and the views across the Hope Valley to its summit were tremendous. Above the broken castle walls, above the trees, the summit and ridge were sprinkled with tiny creatures, people doing what we’d done the previous Saturday. The sun was shining, and clouds were high and few. It was one of those glorious late summer days that inevitably brought back memories of my childhood. I sat on the grass, remembered our childhood explorations of the hills around Drakeshaugh, and basked in the September sun.
When we got home that evening, I made us toad-in-the-hole. My batter was a failure, the puddings had barely risen. Vicki said nothing, but James somehow sensed my annoyance. He told me that they tasted fine, and when I protested, he said that too many cooks were obsessed with appearance when taste was by far the most important thing.
I glanced across at the clock and realised that either I was ridiculously slow, or I’d miscounted the lengths. After a few seconds thought, I knew it was the latter. If I’d done the even number of lengths I’d counted, the clock should be to my left; it was on my right. When I’d started going out with Simon, training alone hadn’t been a problem. Unlike James, he had never actually been inside the pool, unlike James he hadn’t filled my thoughts.
Defeated by my wildly drifting mind, I clambered out of the water. If I couldn’t keep count, there was little point in staying. The progress I’d made in my swimming sessions with James appeared to have vanished with him. Unhappy with myself, I picked up my water bottle and headed for the showers. It was only eight-fifteen; I had plenty of time for me to grab a leisurely breakfast before the first lecture of my third year.
As I stood under the shower, I thought back to Saturday, the last time I’d seen James.
We’d originally planned a trip to Nottingham but, because of the weather forecast, we’d decided to take the bike to Loxley instead. Even that much shorter trip had been a mistake. The rain had started just as we’d set off and before we were even halfway there I discovered that my waterproof trousers and cagoule, so useful when I was out walking, were not up to the task of keeping me safe from road spray.
When we got to Loxley, James was again stupidly excited; I pretended that I wasn’t already cold and wet. It worked for a while, but after following him around on his fool’s errand for almost an hour, during which time he pointed out where all sorts of things would have been more than eight hundred years earlier, I was fed up and rather snappy. His enthusiasm, so endearing the previous weekend, wasn’t enough to banish my misery, not when there was nothing to see, and the rain had reached my underwear. When James pointed at a couple of trees and excitedly told me that the great forest of Loxley Chase had, at one time, extended all the way south to Sherwood, I’d finally snapped.
‘Yeah, well the land to the south is now called Sheffield, and it isn’t a fucking forest,’ I told him.
At that instant, James realised how miserable I was. He was prepared to leave immediately, but I argued, stubbornly telling him that I was fine. Fortunately, he ignored me.
We squelched back to the bike and, as James brushed the water off the saddle, I fumed. Despite the fact that I’d hidden my misery from him, and despite his instant action when he knew I wasn’t happy, I was both annoyed that he hadn’t noticed earlier, and that I’d forced him to curtail his explorations.
When we arrived back at the flat, I was soaked to the skin and frozen to the bone. I peeled off my sodden, definitely-not-waterproofs at the bottom of the stairs, dropped them on the floor, and got even more annoyed when James shucked off his own waterproofs off to reveal that, underneath them, he was completely dry. My immediate reaction was, of course, to be totally unreasonable.
‘Look at you, all warm and dry!’ I snapped. ‘I’m fucking drawked, perishing, and mightily pissed off,’ I told him as I shivered. ‘I’m going for a shower, and I hope for your sake that you’re going to make something bloody brilliant for dinner.’
As my fingers dug into my well-rinsed scalp, I again returned to the present. The shower I was under was at the pool, not my flat, and I’d been under it long enough. Picking up my shower gel and shampoo, I wrapped myself in my towel.
Dry and dressed, I bypassed the café in the pool and instead walked up to Daniella’s Delicatessen for a bacon, tomato, and cheddar panini and a pot of Scottish Breakfast Tea–the only decent tea they stocked. I sat on a barstool, all alone, and looked out of the window.
When I finally emerged from the shower, clean and–more importantly–warm, the smell of cooking hit me. My annoyance gone, I wrapped myself in my towel and wandered through into the living room.
‘What’s cooking?’ I asked.
‘Woah,’ said James, averting his eyes.
‘Anna!’ Vicki hissed, staring at my chest.
‘Oops,’ I said, hitching up the towel to cover my accidentally exposed left nipple.
‘What’s for dinner?’ I asked again.
‘Lasagne,’ James told me. He was looking at me sidelong, and for an instant I considered dropping the towel, just to see what he’d do.’
‘Out of a packet?’ I asked dismissively.
‘I bought the Lasagne sheets fresh, and everything else is made from scratch,’ he told me, sounding hurt. ‘Sort of like Mum made, but with a bit of a twist.’
I looked at Vicki. She nodded.
‘Honestly?’ I asked.
‘Yes, honestly,’ Vicki said. ‘Now go and get dried and dressed, please!’
‘Lasagne, nothing else?’ I asked dismissively as I turned to leave.
‘A salad,’ James told me. ‘There’s vinegar, but no dressing; that should suit you.’
Vicki snorted with laughter. I had to smile.
Finishing my tea, I picked up my sports bag and headed up to the University. The lecture room was unoccupied, which was no surprise because I was half an hour early. Finding myself a seat in the front row, I got out my tablet and tried to reread my notes from the previous semester.
James’ lasagne had more bite than I expected. This was due to his sparing use of chillies in addition to the red onions and sliced button mushrooms his mother had always added to the steak mince. The salad was simple and mostly green. The mix of little gem, rocket, and beetroot leaf was supplemented by two sliced beef tomatoes, and the balsamic vinegar was flavoured with garlic ans oregano.
My subsiding stroppiness was finally turned into laughter by the meal, the bottle of red wine Vicki and I shared, and James’ jokes. It wasn’t until he got up to leave that he reminded me that he would be away for a few days.
‘I’m going back to my old school tomorrow,’ he said as we walked downstairs. ‘I need to talk to a fat Friar about a fat Friar. I would’ve gone straight away, but I needed all sorts of permissions to get into the school during term time. Because of my… well, it wasn’t as easy as I hoped it would be. I won’t be back until who-knows-when on Thursday, but I’ll pick you up as usual for swimming Friday morning, okay?’
‘You don’t need to go now, you could stay with me tonight,’ my wine-loosened libido suggested. ‘And we could enjoy ourselves some more.’
‘I… Thanks for the offer, Annie, but I need to pack, and I need to set off very early tomorrow morning. Bye.’
Grabbing my outstretched arms, preventing me from hugging him, he brushed his lips against mine, and almost leapt onto the Tiger. Surprised and embarrassed by his reaction, and a little annoyed with myself, I simply stood and watched him prepare to leave.
‘It’s not that I don’t…’ He began sadly. ‘It’s just… I think… Rose said almost all of my relationships have begun based on a lie. I want you to know something… lots of things, but it’s complicated.’ He rode off, and that was the last I saw of him.
The lecture room was beginning to fill. Hearing my name, I looked up from the notes that I hadn’t been reading, and turned. It was the first time I’d seen Simon since the day James arrived and I had to look twice to make sure it was him. Had his cheeks always been so pinched, his lips so thin, his shoulders so narrow? He saw me looking, and glared.
Simon and his friends were sitting in the back row of the lecture room. The snide comments they made were ridiculously childish, and I had no idea what they were trying to achieve. From their loud discussions, Simon’s cheating on me was, apparently, my fault.
I was at the front; they were at the back. As the lecture room continued to fill, the chattering arrivals finally drowned out their voices. They were easy to ignore once Professor Landis had slouched into the room and everyone fell silent. I forgot all about them as I concentrated on my note taking.
The lecture ended at noon, and Simon and his friends were first out of the room. It took a minute or two before the slowly shuffling students ahead of me made their way to the doors, so when I finally emerged into the corridor, I was surprised to see that they were still in the building. I wondered why; usually they fled Bartolome House the moment lectures ended.
The quartet were clustered at the end of the corridor, near the main exit. Simon had his back to me while Matt, Pete, and Stu stood in a subservient semi-circle in front of him. I’d always felt a little sorry for Stu; he was the fourth member of a gang of three. His attempts to curry favour with the others were always over-eager and a little pathetic. The Kos holiday over Easter had been organised without his knowledge. The other three were more smug than sorrowful when Stu had discovered their plans too late to be able to join them.
Stu saw me first. I saw him stare at me and watched his expression turn to one of eagerness. Although I couldn’t hear him, I was certain he was relaying my presence to the others. Confirmation came when Matt and Pete glanced across at me. Simon, however, didn’t turn to look.
In order to leave the building by the main entrance, I had to walk past them. Wondering if they were testing me in some way, I kept walking. I wasn’t going to turn and seek an alternative exit; that would signal that I was worried about them, and I wasn’t.
This was some bizarre plot, it had to be. Pete was Simon’s oldest friend, they’d grown up together in Welwyn Garden City, but Pete was doing an accounting and financial management degree. There was no reason for him to have sat through a civil rights lecture with the others. They were definitely up to something. Armed with that knowledge, I made my way towards the door. I could ignore them, but they had no intention of ignoring me.
‘Hello, Anna.’ Pete’s voice was an unhurried, condescending drawl. ‘Long time no see. How are you?’
‘I’m very well, thanks,’ I told him, striding on without pause.
‘Bye, Anna,’ he added acidly. ‘Nice talking to you.’
‘Bye, Anna.’ Matt, Stu, and finally Simon chorused their goodbyes.
Simon sniffed loudly as I walked past. ‘Eau de swimming pool,’ he added. They all began to laugh.
Although their behaviour annoyed me, I wasn’t foolish enough to take the bait. It seemed to me that most of the students around were aware that something was going on, but were trying to ignore the puerile comments. I did the same. Refusing to be drawn into their petty game gave me a sense of superiority. As I left the building, I wondered what they had expected me to do. Was I supposed to be upset or annoyed? Did they expect me to fly off the handle, shout and scream? I had no idea, and there was no way to find out.
Heading across the courtyard towards the street, my drifting mind tried to work out how I could sneak up on them and overhear their plans. What I needed, I realised, was a cloak of invisibility. That thought cheered me up and I smiled happily as another long-forgotten piece of memory flotsam popped to the surface of my mind.
I glanced back over my shoulder; they had followed me from the building, and Simon was annoyed. That didn’t bother me at all. I was too busy grinning at the memory of eight-year-old James with a tartan blanket over his head.
‘It’s a cloak of invisibility, you can’t see me,’ James said.
‘James!’ For no obvious reason, Rosie was scandalised. ‘You can’t say that!’
‘It’s just a game, Rosie, don’t be such a silly billy,’ said Henry. He pulled the cloak off James’ head. ‘My turn, Jamie.’
‘You can’t have it, Hen,’ James protested, trying to snatch the blanket back. ‘I told you! It’s an invisibility cloak, so you can’t see me!’
‘You stood on that branch and it snapped. I heard it, so I could tell where you were,’ Henry told him.
‘Yeah,’ Lily agreed. ‘You did, James. I heard you too, but Hen grabbed the cloak first. Henry’s won it off of you, so it’s his turn to be invisibubble.’ She folded her arms. ‘It’s Henry’s turn to have it.’
‘We need rules for how it works,’ Rosie said.
‘Easy. We can’t see anything what’s under the blanket,’ I said.
‘Not blanket, cloak of invisibility,’ Hugo corrected.
‘Yeah,’ Lily agreed.
‘That’s what I meant,’ I protested, nodding as I fully immersed myself into the game.
‘But we can see branches bend and break, and we can hear you moving, Henry,’ l added. I glared at my brother to make sure he could understand me. It was wasted; he couldn’t see me because he had a blanket–a cloak of invisibility–over his head. He wasn’t moving. ‘But when you’ve got it on, you can’t stand still,’ I announced, pulling the blanket from his head.
‘Hey,’ Henry protested. ‘I never moved, an’ I never said nothing, so you can’t of seen me.’
‘No,’ I agreed, ‘But I seen you put it on, an’ you never moved, you said! So, I knows where you was! I was checking to see if you was still there.’
‘Good one, Annie,’ said James, impressed by my logic.
‘But…’ Henry began.
I threw the blanket over my head and ran away, then I tiptoed sideways before finally standing still and silent. I was confident that I was safely hidden. But it was taking all of my willpower not to risk a peek out from under the blanket. The others were still arguing about the rules.
‘Not fair, Annie,’ Henry continued his protests.
‘Them’s the rules, Hen,’ James announced.
‘Yeah,’ I heard the others agree.
‘Isn’t they, Annie?’ James added.
I almost agreed, but identified the cunning in his voice just in time. Realising what James was doing, I clamped my mouth tight shut. I couldn’t speak, because that would give away my position. Holding the blanket out, so I could see whether there were any twigs I should avoid, I shuffled sideways. There was the sound of running, and Rosie pulled it off my head.
‘Hey,’ I protested.
‘Your foot was sticking out from under the blanket,’ Al said, defending his cousin. I was gonna get you, but Rosie was quicker.
Rosie threw the blanket over her head and started to move. The blanket brushed a twig. Al grabbed it.
‘But…’ Rosie protested.
Our discussions about the rules of a game where we tried to find someone we could–in reality–see, took longer than the game itself. I continued to smile at the memory.
When I came fully back to the present, I was well through Weston Park, and I was being followed. One look showed that Simon and his friends were still behind me. He was staring at me, and scowling. It seemed my daydream-induced smile was annoying him, and that made me smile even more.
He wasn’t following me, not really, I assured myself. It was lunchtime; I was taking the shortest route from the Law Faculty to the Union building, and so was he. Most of my fellow law students were also following me. Despite this, something was niggling me. It didn’t take me long to realise what it was; Simon never, ever, ate in the Students’ Union.
Simon and his friends were still dawdling along behind me; they were close enough to see me, but far enough away to be able to claim that their presence was coincidental. By then, however, I was completely convinced that they were Tailing me.
I considered confronting them, but I knew they would deny it and I’d never be able to prove anything. Even as a second-year law student I could easily come up with a solid defence of their actions. They hadn’t done anything. We’d been in the same lecture, and we were now outside the Union at lunchtime. That wasn’t even stalking; it would take many weeks of much more intrusive behaviour before I could substantiate any such claim. Deciding to make a note of the events on my tablet, just in case, I went inside.
Five minutes later I was queuing to buy myself a cheap lunch. I was still a Billy-no-mates I’d seen no one in the building I knew. It was my own fault, I was well aware of that. I could have messaged Vicky, Alex, or Corrine and asked what they were doing for lunch, but I was feeling guilty. It was sobering to realise that I hadn’t lunched with any of my best girlfriends since I’d got together with Simon. Eating alone would be my self-inflicted punishment for neglecting them.
As I shuffled along in the queue, I wondered why Simon’s friends were supporting him so staunchly. Not even Stu, who I’d always suspected had a soft spot for me, had said anything to defend me from Simon’s childish remarks. True, they were Simon’s friends, but there was no acknowledgement that Simon had done anything wrong.
While I waited to be served, I found myself dwelling on the comments they’d made in the lecture room. They were true, in part. While we were together, Simon had been very generous. He’d spent time and a lot of money on me. With hindsight, that was my biggest regret. I couldn’t deny the truth of it. Pete’s loudly expressed opinions had annoyed me. Simon deserved better, I was ungrateful! It seemed that Pete thought of me as a commodity. Simon had spent a lot of money on me, therefore he still had some claim over me.
‘I’m a person, not a chattel,’ I grumbled to myself. The person in front of me in the queue looked around, decided that I was a crazy-woman, and studiously ignored me.
Simon had persuaded me to give up my lifeguarding job and, until I renewed my Pool Lifeguard qualification, I couldn’t reapply. With nothing but my student loan to live on, and having spent more than I should have on breakfast, I selected salad fillings for my falafel wrap, and ordered tap water to drink.
As I paid for my lunch, I thought about James. He’d be back tomorrow, but I wouldn’t see him until Friday. We’d seen each other, or at least spoken to each other, almost every day since our trip to Mam Tor. I’d become used to his presence, and after three weeks in his company, I was missing him more than I thought possible.
Finding an empty table, I tried to convince myself that I wasn’t pining for him. He was a training buddy, and that was all I needed. I tried harder when he was there. He brought out my competitive streak. I would exhaust myself trying to beat him.
I knew I was lying to myself. Since we’d reconnected, his cheerful chatter and stupid jokes had been keeping me sane. This was a good thing, as my dreams were getting wilder. Worried that my stupid, semi-drunken pass at him as he’d left for Scotland had driven him away, I contemplated a life without him.
As I sat, I looked back at the counter. Simon, Matt, Pete, and Stu were looking at the lunch options in confusion, asking advice from the woman refilling the salad bar. It was as if they’d never dined in the Union before.
I was watching them carefully, and wondering what I would do if they tried to sit at my table, when someone approached me from behind. Before I could turn to look, a long-forgotten voice spoke.
‘Annie Charlton?’ she asked hesitantly, stepping alongside me.
I saw her hands first. Her fingers were long, pale, and entirely free from jewellery; the backs of her hands were heavily freckled. She must have been to one of the other counters, as the tray she carried contained a pot of tea, vegetable soup, a cheese savoury bap, and a large slice of carrot cake. I looked up at her face and smiled.
She was tall and gangling. Her cropped curly hair was the same flaming red as her father’s; she had his long, freckled nose, too. The last time I’d seen her, she’d had braces on her teeth, and all these years later her smile was still a little toothy. She wore a rather shabby hand-knitted pullover, and a shapeless and faded pair of brown corduroy trousers.
‘Rosie Weasley,’ I said, smiling. ‘Long time, no see. It’s good to see you! Care to join me?’
‘It’s Rose,’ she said seriously as she placed her laden tray on the table and sat directly opposite me. ‘No one has called me Rosie since…’
‘It’s Anna,’ I interrupted, grinning. ‘But James doesn’t seem to hear me when I tell him that. And it isn’t that long since someone called you Rosie. I know it’s not! I heard James call you Rosie-posy on the phone.’
‘James!’ she said, rolling her eyes. That one word was enough.
‘The tea in here’s pretty bloody awful,’ I told her, looking at the pot on her tray. The Earl Grey’s not bad...’
Distracted, I looked over her shoulder. Simon had looked across at us, frowned, and left the queue. He was striding from the cafeteria. Rose noticed my distraction and turned to see what I was looking at. She was just in time to see Simon’s bewildered friends follow him out.
‘My ex-boyfriend and his pals,’ I explained. ‘I thought they were following me, but now they’ve gone. I must be getting paranoid. I wonder why they came here and then left without buying anything? It doesn’t matter–forget about them. It’s good to see you, Rosie–Rose–how’s life been treating you?’
I’d asked her a question, and her reaction was exactly the same as it had always been. Despite her physical resemblance to her father, the expression as she carefully pondered her reply belonged to her mother. When I was growing up I’d always been a little afraid of Mrs Weasley, so I waited.
‘Okay,’ she said after a lot of consideration. Suddenly, she had her dad’s mischievous twinkle.
As I laughed, she took a spoonful of soup.
‘Bloody hell, Rose, after all that thinking I was expecting a bit more than a one-word answer. Not great, not even good, simply okay?’
She shrugged, and took another slurp of soup before replying.
‘When I moved up here, I was looking to make some changes in my life. I wanted to sort myself out. I wasn’t expecting to get James as a flatmate,’ she admitted.
‘He’s got a job. He’s paying you rent,’ I protested.
‘He’s flipping burgers! You’re studying law, Anna, and James is working shifts in a burger bar.’
‘He’s writing, too.’ I looked into her eyes, suddenly worried. ‘He is writing, isn’t he? He told me that he’d been working on “The Man in the Hood” ever since we came back from Mam Tor.’
‘Yes,’ she assured me. ‘It’s a long time since I’ve seen him so engrossed in something. In fact, I can’t remember ever seeing him this obsessed with anything, and certainly not with two things.’
‘Two?’ I asked. ‘Is he researching Peveril Castle, too? He told me that would have to wait.’
She looked at me as if I was mad, and continued to wolf down her soup. ‘What’s happening between you and James?’ her question was blunt.
‘Dunno,’ I shrugged. If she was going to give one word answers to important questions, so was I.
‘He never stops talking about you,’ she told me.
‘Good or bad?’ I asked, trying to play it cool and not daring to ask if the second thing he was obsessed with was me.
‘Don’t you know?’ she asked incredulously, tantalisingly me by almost confirming my hopes. Putting down her spoon, she stared into my face. I tried to keep it blank.
‘So far as I know, we’re just good friends,’ I said carefully. As I spoke I realised what a cliché that was, and how much our goodbye kisses made a lie of my words. Nevertheless, I suppressed my emotions and continued with the story James and I were telling each other. ‘James says friends is a good place to be, we’ve always been friends. We have, you know that, Rosie. You and I are friends, too. At least we were. We were a gang, remember? We swore an oath, in blood!’
‘Bloody hell,’ she said. ‘We did, didn’t we? A blood oath! What were we thinking? How could I have forgotten all about that?’ Looking horrified, she stared at me. It seemed that she was silently searching for answers in my eyes. She was making me uncomfortable, so I broke eye contact and tried to discomfort her a little.
‘When you sat down, you said you were moving on. From a boyfriend?’
Surprised, Rose tried to shrug off my question.
‘Who?’ I pressed her.
‘There was a boy at school. He was Al’s best friend, so he was always hanging around with us. He kept asking me out, at least from fourth year onwards he did. Dad didn’t like him. Well, that’s not strictly true. Dad didn’t like his dad, so I said no. I kept saying no until I was sixteen.’
‘What was his name?’ I asked curiously.
‘It doesn’t matter.’ She shook her head, apparently unwilling to even speak his name aloud. ‘James warned me about this,’ she muttered. Her comment seemed to be directed more to herself than to me. ‘Anyway, he was clever, really clever! We were sort of rivals. He always got better marks than me in the practical tests, but I was always much better at the theoretical stuff. I thought, well–when we finished school–I thought we’d be–together–you know?’
I nodded, and my mind hunted through the flotsam for the broken remnants of a memory. Pale face, blond hair.
‘He got a job working for his dad, but I wanted to go to university. He said I was wasting my time, that I should forget about the Mu… the mundane world and stay with him. I ignored him, applied to read Maths at Reading, and got in. He didn’t like it. He came to visit, at least for a while, but…’ she looked around the cafeteria and waved her hands everywhere. ‘It was a lot like this place, and he really didn’t like it. He was a bit of a recluse, comfortable in the world he knew and unnerved by anywhere outside his comfort zone. He demanded that I choose him, or University, so I did.’
‘And here you are,’ I observed.
‘Yes, it wasn’t the choice he thought I’d make. We spit up just before the Christmas of my second year.’
‘That must’ve been almost two years ago, Rose. You can’t still be coming to terms with it?’
‘I suppose I am,’ she admitted. ‘Since then there’s never been anyone else. I didn’t want anyone else; I was convinced he’d miss me, realise he was wrong, and change his mind. But now… I’ve only known him a few weeks… We met the same day you and James met. Gunther…’ she stared into my face. ‘He’s a M… He’s like you… No…’ Pausing, she tried to gather her thoughts. I’d never seen Rosie so tongue-tied. ‘Do you really think that you and James could be together? The secrets…’
‘Secrets?’ I asked, puzzled. ‘James said something about secrets, too, but we’re the Drakestone Seven, we don’t have secrets.’ Reaching across the table, I placed my hand on hers.
‘C’mon, Annie, run!’ Grabbing my hand, Rosie pulled me to my feet, but my legs were still shaking. Putting my arm across her shoulders, she helped me stagger down the hill.
‘… okay?’ Rose asked.
‘What?’ I asked.
‘You spaced out there, just for a second,’ Rose said. ‘What happened?’
I was just remembering the time you helped me back to Drakeshaugh,’ I told her. ‘When I… When we… I really can’t remember what, or when.’ I stopped, and waved my hands. ‘I’ve been having some very strange dreams recently. I keep forgetting them, but I think I was remembering one.’
‘I’m in your dreams?’ Rose asked.
‘You all are,’ I admitted. ‘They started the night I met James. What’s he told you?’
‘About what?’ she asked.
‘About what we do when we get together.’
‘You go swimming together three mornings a week, and now you’ve got your lecture timetable, you intend to make it four. Every Saturday you go out for the day on that noisy old motorbike of his; you’ve been to the cinema a couple of times, always on Tuesday afternoons because of that two-for-one deal. Last week James said that you both think that Marvel Movies are losing their edge. And, there’s nothing else going on between you!’ she finished primly.
‘We’re not fucking, if that’s what you mean,’ I told her. She looked scandalised, so I decided to tell all. ‘But he’s one helluva kisser, Rosie, and I’d be up for it. You can even tell him that, so long as you don’t tell him that I said you could. Although after last Saturday, I think he probably knows.’
‘What happened last Saturday?’
‘I got a little drunk and invited him to spend the night,’ I admitted. It felt good to admit it, but I didn’t want her to press me on the subject. ‘What about you and Gunther? Is he an improvement on the bizarrely named Scorpius Malloy?’
‘Malfoy,’ she corrected. Her jaw dropped and she stared into my face. ‘How did you know his name. I didn’t tell you.’
‘You did,’ I told her.
She shook her head.
‘You did,’ I said. ‘Scorpius Malfoy, Al’s best friend from school. Hen and I met him, although I think it was only once. He was a pale, blond, and skinny lad. He was weird. Unsure whether to be absolutely terrified of Hen and me, or to act like we were scum and totally beneath him. I think it was during the Easter break of Lily’s first year.’
Rosie looked at me as if I were mad. ‘When’s the last time we met?’ she asked.
‘My unforgettable eleventh birthday party,’ I said promptly.
‘That’s what I think, too,’ she said. ‘James and I have discussed it. But you’re right, Scorpius did go to Drakeshaugh during the Easter holidays in Lily’s first year.’
‘Which means I’d have been twelve, or even thirteen, depending on when Easter fell that year.’ I said. ‘That’s crazy! How can I remember something that happened an entire year after we last met?’
‘Did James tell you about him?’ Rose asked.
‘Not that I can remember,’ I said. I tried to peer through the sudden fog that was obscuring my memories, but it was no use. ‘But that’s the only explanation isn’t it. He must’ve mentioned your ex-boyfriend’s name. Probably when we were at the pool, he rabbits on about nothing and everything when we’re in the pool. I forget most of it.’
‘I’ll ask him when he gets back tomorrow,’ Rosie told me. ‘So, how are your parents, and how is Henry? James said that he dropped out of school and became a car mechanic.’
‘He did,’ I told her. ‘How long do you have, Rosie? I’ve just left my first lecture, and I don’t have another one until first thing tomorrow morning. You’re going to have to tell me about your folks, and Hugo. My folks are fine, although I think my Dad misses yours. No one laughs at his crappy jokes these days.’
Rosie’s smile transformed her. ‘I’d forgotten,’ she admitted. ‘When those two got together the puns were…’
‘Pun-ishing?’ I suggested.
She put her head in her hands and groaned.
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