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Birds of A Feather

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Mandy Hope threw the last of her bags in to the boot and sighed, leaning against the bumper and wiping her forehead with the back of her hand.

“That everything?” Her best friend James had seated himself on the rim of the boot and was watching her with an amused expression on his face. She gave him a sharp look in response.

“You could have helped, you know,” she frowned and pouted at him, but the effect was short lived; he’d known her long enough to see her through her fake annoyance. They broke in to giggles and she flopped down next to him.

“It’s so much more fun to watch you struggle,” he said when they’d regained composure, bumping her gently on the shoulder, “Besides, I had to pack up all the camping equipment myself this morning. Where were you then?”

“True.”

They sat in companionable silence for a moment, each staring out down the empty road. The sun had barely risen, although it was nearly seven in the morning, and for a moment Mandy amused herself by watching her breath condense in strange shapes in front of her. ‘Camping equipment’ was an over statement- they were heading for a cottage in Scotland- but James liked to prepare for every eventuality. Somewhere buried under their duvets and bags would be an assortment of cooking equipment, utensils, spare batteries and gas lamps; thinking of the photos she’d seen of their upcoming accommodation, Mandy was pretty sure that they would eventually need it all.

Although James had happily agreed, the trip had been her idea; a road trip up to the Loch Lomond where, she’d been reliably informed on a student Facebook group, there was a prime spot for some of the bird species she’d been hoping to write her dissertation on. Having finished a year out of university after her second year to work in her parent’s veterinary practice she was ready to delve back in to her wildlife conservationism degree. Thankfully, her and James’ schedules had aligned and he had jumped at the chance to join her.

The stillness of the street was broken by the jangle of the Hope’s front door and out stepped Mrs Hope.

“All ready to go?” She sauntered down the path and leant over to give the pair of them a kiss on their cheeks. She handed them each a flask, which they took gratefully. “Coffee for the drive. Google tells me it should take a little over five hours as long as the roads are clear. Your phones are charged, right? Do you need any food for the journey?”

“Mum! Stop fussing!” Mandy rolled her eyes while James stifled a laugh beside her, “We’ll be fine. We’re stopping for breakfast en route and James has a bag full of snacks.”

“How did you know?” he raised an eyebrow at her mockingly.

“Many, many years of friendship,” she quipped. When she looked back at her mum she was giving her a strange look.

“Come in and say goodbye to your Dad. He’s got a cold so I don’t want to drag him out in this weather.” Mrs Hope pulled Mandy by the hand back to the front door and in to the warmth of the hall. Before she shut the door gently behind them, Mandy caught a glimpse of James smirking at her; the warm glow from the early morning sun glinting off of his glasses.

“It’s been a while since you and James have been on holiday together,” her mum said smoothly, “When was the last trip he came on? Our trip to South Africa… you would have been, what, sixteen?”

“Sounds about right. After that his Mum always said he needed to focus on his exams.”

Mrs Hope, who at that moment had decided to take a sip of her tea, spluttered and flushed.

“Funny, that,” she said quickly, dabbing her lips with a handkerchief. Mandy watched her fold it carefully and clear her throat; a gesture she recognised from many conversations with difficult pet owners over the years.

“What?”

“Hmm?” Her mum gave her an innocent look.

“You’re implying something. What is it?”

“it’s just… you know... I always wondered whether the two of you would ever-”

“Mum!” Mandy flushed hotly.

“I know, I know. Friends first. Just, be careful. I see how he is with you and I’d hate to see either one of you get hurt.”

Mandy pouted and folded her arms. Just then, the living room door opened and her dad stepped out in to the hallway.

“Aren’t you off yet? Thought you wanted to beat the morning traffic!” He looped an arm around his wife’s shoulders and kissed her red hair softly. Turning back to Mandy, he jerked his head toward the door. “Go on. Don’t keep the lad waiting!”

Out on the step her dad waved a hand at James as Mandy made her way back down the steps. He had shut the boot now and was hopping from foot to foot and rubbing his hands together. Shocked by the sudden cold air herself, she gestured to get in the car quickly and slipped in beside him in to the passenger seat.

“You were gone a while,” he raised an eyebrow at her as she fastened her seatbelt and gave it an experimental tug.

“Just… my mum being her usual worrying self.” She flashed him a quick grin before turning to wave at her parents as they pulled away from the curb.

She watched him carefully as he manoeuvred his car through the village. His face was so familiar to her after so many years; his floppy black hair, the glasses that still fell down the bridge of his nose, the way he bit his lip when he was concentrating or that spot on his neck that she had kissed during a drunken moment at Amelia Barnes’ leavers party a few years previously.

The memory came back to her suddenly. Despite being a year younger her school friends had happily let him join her at the party, their first one unsupervised. He had tasted like cheap vodka and apple sweets as he kissed her against a tree in the garden- his hands snaking up underneath the back of her shirt. She had been kissing her way down his neck when he suddenly jerked back, eyes wide, and apologised as if he’d trodden on her toes.

They had talked about it afterwards- awkward and quiet and flushed and hungover- and for a while neither one of them could quiet meet the other’s eye. But since then it had been a thing unacknowledged between them, a memory dampened by years of distance.

“Penny for your thoughts?” James broke the silence, pulling Mandy from her thoughts. She shook herself forcefully and fiddled with the buttons on the dashboard, avoiding his eye.

“Just a bit cold, still,” she said finally when she felt the warm air flowing from the heat vents.

“Here,” he kept his eyes on the road but reached in to the back seats, pulled a blanket out and dumped it bodily in her lap with a smirk. “There. Now, where do you want to get breakfast?”