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Birds of A Feather

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The next time she opened her eyes, light was filtering through the thin gap between the curtains. At some point in the night they had shifted so that her head dangled off of the edge of the pillow, her body curled forward and the weight of his chest pressing against her back. His breath was warm against the nape of her neck and the arm that was slung over her waist had crept under her pyjama shirt, his hand resting against her bare stomach. The sensation of his skin on hers shocked her slightly and her breath caught in her throat.

Now that she was fully awake, her thoughts turned back to the night before. James’ relationships had always confused her; for someone with so much love to give he seemed to attract always the wrong sort. She had watched him be hurt time and time again; his first girlfriend’s cheating had been the talk of their school, leaving Mandy to patch up the pieces of his broken heart; even worse was his most long term girlfriend, Sam, whose wholehearted distrust of his friendship with Mandy had been rivalled only by her ability to find James’ weakest spots and scrap away at them until Mandy barely recognised her best friend.

Her entire second year had been spent worrying about him back home, slowly pulling away from her until she realised it had been two months since he had replied to her messages and had marched back to Welford to confront him. Arriving at the pub, a part of her had been a little heartbroken to find him in contacts rather than his usual glasses, hair uncharacteristically slicked back, quiet and polite in his greeting, and shrinking back in to himself when Sam stormed over to wrap her arm around his. Mandy had pleaded with him to talk to her, to tell her what had changed between them. He had been reticent when he spoke to her, but had hugged her tight before he turned back to his girlfriend.

In the end, Sam had been so furious about Mandy's involvement that she had thrown her glass at James’ face in the pub- ending in a police caution and Mandy and her mum cleaning up her distraught best friend’s face in the Animal Ark surgery room. She remembered the way he clung to her and sobbed- humiliated and inconsolable- as she kissed his cheeks, promised him everything would be okay and her mum looked on helplessly. At the time, Mrs Hunter had been so preoccupied with her divorce being finalised that he had been left without an anchor, and before she went back to university Mandy made her parents swear that they would be there for him as best they could.

He still had a scar next to his eyebrow from that night; small enough that no one would notice, especially with his shaggy hair, but she knew he was shamefully aware of it at all times. She was too.

Some time later had come Daryl, who seemed suave and attentive and wholeheartedly supportive of James’ friendship with Mandy after their initial meeting, but who she could not bear to see touch her best friend. He was older, a few years older even than Mandy herself, and the way he petted James like he was something to be shown off, a sweet thing he possessed, made her skin crawl. He always kissed him too hard, his fingers gripping his chin tightly, when they said goodbye to one another whenever Mandy was around and it left her with the feeling that a point was being made. He’s mine, it said, Leave your childish fantasies behind. Still, James had been besotted and she hoped she was wrong because being right didn’t feel very good. Not then, and certainly not now that she had the full picture.

She wanted him to find his person. But part of her stayed up at night worrying that there was something sweet and vulnerable about him that would be cracked open over and over again before that happened. A small, nasty part of her wondered if she was partly to blame for being there so constantly for nearly his whole life and then leaving so suddenly. She often tried to temper those thoughts by throwing herself so completely in to being the best friend she could be to him now that she was back. Being a good friend came easy to them when they were together and the thought comforted her when she nestled back against his chest.

Soon enough, he stirred against her back, tightened his arm and made a noise of sleepy greeting in to her hair.

“Good morning,” she murmured when he peered over her shoulder at her, “Sleep okay in the end?”

He nodded, eyelids still heavy. “You make a good pillow,” he yawned and pressed his face in to the back off her head. His hand was still nestled under the fleece of her pyjamas and she waited for him to make a noise of embarrassment and withdraw it with an apology; instead, she found herself pleasantly surprised when he drew little circles on her bare skin with his thumb.

“Thank you, for last night,” he whispered after a few quiet seconds, “I hadn’t realised how much I needed to tell someone.”

“Any time,” she squeezed the arm that was around her still, “No matter what, I’m always here.”

“I know,” he breathed, tightening his arm briefly before he settled back to his loose-limbed hold.

She felt the tension in his body lessen and when his hand stilled she realised that he had fallen back asleep.