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Birds of A Feather

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They hadn't chosen the most comfortable position on the sofa. Mandy was tall; only a few inches shorter than James- whose penchant for food as a child may have had something to do with subsequent growth spurt- so she bent a pyjama-ed leg to make it easier for him to press the ice pack to her ankle. Her other leg stretched out in front of her and across his lap; she settled in the nook created by the pillows and his thigh and rested her cheek against the back of the sofa. Their pyjama bottoms were thick and fleecy- the usual Christmas presents from his parents received the year before- and so they barely needed the blanket that James had thrown over them.

The stress of the day had overcome them and they sat in silence; the crackle of the fire was the only sound other than the slow sigh of breathing and the occasional rustle of fabric against fabric. Under the blanket, James’ hand rubbed circles along her thigh comfortingly and she eased herself lower in the pillowey softness of the sofa. Slowly, his hand inched upwards until his fingers laced gently in her hair.

She thought of the phone call she'd overheard earlier. His firm insistence that there was someone else that he loved, this secret person that she couldn't even picture. Part of her longed for the days when he told her everything- every thought or secret or opinion, no matter how trivial- but then a bitter part of her thought about the fact that she couldn't even broach the subject with him. How could she expect him to open up if she couldn't even ask him the right questions?

He hadn't mentioned anyone recently to her. No first date, no girl or guy he'd met, and no one in Welford seemed a likely candidate. Nancy Borg had once joked that James would have to look pretty far afield before he found a girl who wasn't intimidated by his friendship with Mandy. At the time she had scoffed, but there was an element of truth to the idea; girls never lasted long around James after he insisted that they meet 'one of his favourite people'. Daryl had been the only exception, after their first meeting where he had remained surly in the corner, he had seemed so assured of himself that maybe he never considered Mandy to be any sort of threat. The only other explanation was that James simply had stopped introducing her to people; determined to pull away for the sake of finding love. The thought hurt. While she had been at university he had stayed in Welford, his parents divorcing when he was seventeen had given him an incentive to stick around for his mum, and she wondered how much their sleepy little village was holding him back.

Thoughtfully, she toyed with the blanket, fingers running patterns along the chequered fabric; he mimicked them in her hair, stroked her like she was a beloved pet. A thought rose, unbidden, that she was sure he would be good with his hands in other ways, although she wished she could banish it as soon as it arrived- it was too complicated, too laughable to entertain. But there it was; she wanted him. She wanted to know what it would be like to sleep with him, to kiss him again, to have him look at her as more than a friend.

Slowly, she straightened so that their faces were level and his hand dropped to hers in her lap. When she met his eye he was watching her carefully, his expression serious, and she finally saw the look he’d been giving her for what it was; longing.

"Oh," she breathed, thoughts a jumble as her heart beat faster. There wasn’t anyone else.

She leant forward to press a kiss gently to his lips, but before she could pull away he was opening his mouth to her. This time he didn't taste like vodka and she was shocked by the warm sobriety of it; he kissed her like it was the most natural thing in the world, with a hand coming up to cup the back of her neck. The hand that was pressing the ice pack to her ankle faltered then held firm; she felt a little giddy jump in the pit of her stomach at the way he never stopped looking after her and a sigh escaped her lips.

He pulled back suddenly.

"I'm sorry!" he said quickly as she was filled with the familiar jolt of loss. This time, she shook her head and curled her fingers in the collar of his shirt. His face was red and flushed, lips parted and she smiled at him.

"Don't apologise, I wanted you to ki-"

"No," his blush deepened, "I meant... I thought... Your ankle."

She glanced down to where his hand had settled on her leg protectively; he looped his fingers around the back off her foot, it tickled and she squirmed slightly before looking back at him. His eyes were wide behind his glasses, slightly obscured by the reflection off the fire in the lenses but still burning bright in to her. She melted under his gaze, feeling a strange sense of deflation, like she could relax for the first time.

"I thought you were apologising again for, you know?"

"Again?" his face darkened with confusion and for a moment she was gripped with a painful panic. Then, his face cleared and he chuckled. "I didn't think you'd still think about that."

She shifted in place and cocked her head.

"I haven't," she said quietly, "Just... Something made me think of it the other day and then I couldn't stop."

"I think about it all the time," he whispered, then louder, "All the time.  For a little while I was a mess over it... Over you. You left for uni and it started to feel like it was a goodbye. Like I'd realised what I wanted too late and that was it."

He spoke quickly, as if he had no control over the words coming out of his mouth and when she reached up to touch his cheek he sighed and relaxed under her.

"You never said..." She trailed off because, truthfully, she recognised the feeling and knew she was being a hypocrite. Those first few weeks of university had confused her deeply; nights of drunken freshers parties and new people and quick fumbles with boys in her halls. All accompanied by the deep set feeling that she was betraying her best friend. At the time she had put it down to leaving him behind, knowing that he was back in Welford finishing school while she explored new places, but hindsight told otherwise. She had left before they could really figure out where all those new feelings could lead; then rationalised that their friendship was too precious to put at risk.

Maybe all along it had been obvious to everyone other than them; her mum had seen it, anyone they’d dated had seen it. It was like hearing a joke and knowing she was the only person who didn’t understand the punchline; everyone else could explain it but she didn’t realise how crushingly, overwhelmingly big her feelings were for her best friend until it was staring her literally in the face.

“You know I love you, right?” he said softly, his eyes sad, “You’re my best friend. My favourite person in the whole world. And I never want to do anything to lose you.”

Lacking the words, she kissed him again, without any hesitation, and felt his arms come up and around her. His fingertips burnt through the fabric of her shirt and she shifted closer to him, drinking in every second as his lips moved over hers. A bold, warm feeling enveloped her and she embraced it fondly.

“I think I need to go to bed,” she whispered, pulling back from his lips to look at him. His eyes were searching hers, looking for an answer to a question she knew he couldn’t bring himself to ask. She kissed him again, once, softly. “Will you come with me?”

He made a noise like a gasp and buried his face in to the crook of her neck; his glasses were cool against her skin and she held him there, heart pounding, while she thought of what the night would mean for them.