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Where the Air is Rarefied

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Lily Evans knew she’d made a mistake as soon as the words were out of her mouth.

It wasn’t her fault, really; it was the prefects, or rather the surprisingly complex yet monotonous task of micromanaging them as Head Girl. She and her unlikely counterpart James Potter were sitting in an empty classroom, parchment spread between them, trying to balance sixteen different timetables, Quidditch practices and personalities in the most harmonious way possible. It was a frustrating and thankless task, Lily had learned quickly, which was probably why it was one the professors delegated to other students.

She slumped over the proposed schedule, fighting back both a yawn and the desire to set the parchment on fire. James was slouched back in his chair, arms behind his head, feet propped up on the desk dangerously close to his inkwell. On more than one occasion she’d found herself unexpectedly grateful that her partner in drudgery was someone with a preternatural ability to find fun (and trouble) just about anywhere. Today, though, even he seemed to be coming up short.

“No,” she said, rubbing at her eyes with one hand, “we can’t put Spinnet with Underwood again, they can’t stand each other.”

James snorted. “No one can stand Underwood, he’s a bastard.”

Lily would have chastised him, had it not been so true. “Well, we can’t leave him with Spinnet, they’re going to hex each other into oblivion.”

“Why, Evans, I’m sure upstanding citizens like our prefects would never dream of such a thing,” said James, in a tone suggesting the exact opposite.

“If we move him to Thursdays—”

James shook his head. “Can’t. Slytherin’s Quidditch team practices on Thursdays. Put him with Miller.”

“The Hufflepuff?” she frowned. “He’ll walk all over her.”

“Nah, Miller can hold her own, trust me — I’ve played Quidditch against her for the better part of five years.” He grinned. “He gets out of line, she’ll lob a bludger at him when Hufflepuff play Slytherin next month.”

He mimed swinging a bat, and Lily cupped her chin in the palm of her hand, raising an eyebrow. In the seven years she’d been watching Quidditch, she was sure she’d seen James be the target of more bludgers than was statistically likely. “Speaking from experience, are we?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” he replied, lifting his hands in an innocent gesture that, if anything, made him look more guilty. “I’m just saying, Miller’s got great aim as a Beater.”

“Vigilantism on the Quidditch pitch.” She couldn’t keep the amusement from her voice or the wry smile from her lips. “That your idea of conflict resolution, Potter?”

“Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it.”

And that was when it happened. If pressed, later, she’d say it was exhaustion that caused her to forget who she was talking to, and it was that same exhaustion which prevented her from foreseeing the inevitable fall-out of telling James Potter, “Ugh, no thanks, I hate flying.”

What?” He sat up straight so fast the inkwell on the table wobbled precariously. “Since when?”

“Since always,” she said briskly. She tapped the stack of papers with her quill to try and draw his attention back to safer matters. “Anyway—”

It was no use. “That’s ridiculous!”

“It’s not a big deal—”

Not a big deal?” he sputtered incredulously.

“I just don’t care for it,” she insisted, trying to sound firm without sounding defensive. “I don’t need it, anyway. There’s the Floo network, I can Apparate, I can drive—”

James gestured dismissively with his quill, showering tiny droplets of ink across the papers. “Oh, but flying’s better than any of those! Go where you want, the wind in your hair…. Can’t beat it.”

His expression was blissfully pleased, and she shook her head in equal parts amusement and exasperation. “I think I’ll keep both feet on the ground, thanks.”

“How can anyone hate flying?”

He looked so personally offended by the notion one might think he’d invented the practice himself. Two years ago, she’d have said he was arrogant enough to believe that was true. But over the course of the last year his ego had deflated to a size best described as robust rather than overwhelming, and so far he’d been surprisingly pleasant to work with as Head Boy. Now, two months into their final year, Lily would even say they were friends.

But friends or not, this wasn’t a conversation she wanted to have with many people at all, much less Gryffindor’s own star Chaser.

“Drop it, Potter,” she snapped.

She didn’t mean for it to sound as harsh as it did, and as his expression turned to confusion she felt a twinge of guilt.

“Come on,” she said, adopting a lighter tone again, “let’s get this done. I’ve still got Charms homework to do and I’d also like to sleep sometime this century.”

—-

It was almost a week before he brought it up again.

She was sitting in the library, surrounded by a mountain of books and three feet of a Transfiguration essay she’d left far too late, when he plunked himself down across from her so suddenly she jumped.

“You fell off your broom,” he announced without preamble, as though he was surprised with himself for not realizing earlier. “I remember now. It was only our second lesson. We were barely off the ground, you turned too sharp and slid right off.”

Lily wasn’t sure which was worse: proof that someone else recalled an embarrassing memory, or proof that they’d forgotten until you reminded them. For a moment she blinked at him in disbelief, then she nodded slowly. “Yes, I remember that, actually, Potter, I was there, but thanks for bringing it up.”

“That’s why you hate flying.” It was a statement, not a question, and it held a note of pride, as if her aversion to flying was some sort of extra-credit puzzle he’d been determined to crack.

Lily wasn’t sure whether she found that flattering or off-putting.

“I mean, that’s no reason to hate flying,” he barrelled on.

She sighed.

“Lots of people fall off when they first start.”

“Potter...”

He puffed up in his seat. “Not me, personally, but—”

James,” she said sharply, and he sank down in his seat, finally focusing on her again. “That’s not why.”

One of his eyebrows crept skeptically up his forehead. “Pure coincidence, then?”

“I didn’t say that.” He looked about to argue again, and Lily lifted a hand to cut him off. “Why does it matter so much to you anyway?”

“Because I think you’re missing out,” he said simply. He leaned across the desk towards her, eyes narrowed like he was trying to solve her. “Why don’t you want to tell me?”

“Honestly?” She hadn’t wanted to say this, but he was leaving her no choice. She stretched forward to look him in the eye. “Because I don’t think you, of all people, would understand.”

He didn’t look away, didn’t even flinch. “Try me.”

The steadiness in his voice felt like a challenge and a promise all at once, and the last of her resolve crumbled in the face of it.

“Fine.” She cast a look around the library, checking that the other students seemed too far away or too absorbed in their own work to pay her any attention. She took a breath and squared her shoulders. “If you must know, flying was the first thing at Hogwarts that made me feel less than for being Muggleborn.”

The confidence on his face melted away immediately, replaced at first by surprise and then by something skirting so close to pity that she looked down, smiling nervously and fidgeting with her quill. A second of awkward silence settled between them, and then suddenly the words were pouring out of her:

“Up until then it didn’t feel like it mattered — in classes you couldn’t tell, and nothing seemed any harder for me than the other kids. But then we got out on that field, and all the purebloods, all the kids with a witch or wizard in the family... they knew what to do. They’d all been flying since they were five, playing Quidditch in their back garden, it was easy for them, it was fun for them, and I…”

She paused there, lifting one shoulder in a half shrug. “I fell off, second day, and everyone laughed.” She aimed an embarrassed smile at the top of her desk. “I know it’s silly, and it was ages ago, and it’s not a big deal, and no one else even remembers it. But I do, and it was the first time I felt different because of my blood.” Heat spread across her cheeks but she sat up straight in her chair, lifting her chin. “So I hated that class, and I hate flying.”

Confession finished, she met James’ eyes again, her heart pounding a little louder in her chest in a mix of defiance and shame. He looked at her like he was trying to solve a riddle, the cleverness that had made him Head Boy struggling to come up with an answer.

She could imagine what he’d say next, which well-meaning but oblivious platitude he’d decide to go with. Lily had heard and hated them all before. Maybe aw, Evans, that’s ridiculous or it’s not that big a deal or that’s no reason to hate flying. Worst of all of them was don’t worry, no one thinks that — except, of course, for half the Slytherins and some others besides, the powerful Dark wizard waging war outside the school with all his violent cronies, and even the little boy who had once promised her blood made no difference.

But he didn’t say any of those. Instead he said, “I could teach you.”

Startled, Lily blinked. “What?”

“To fly. I could teach you how to fly. Properly, I mean, not that rubbish from first year.”

She sat back in her seat, sighing. She’d known he wouldn’t understand — after all, wasn’t he one of the very purebloods she’d described? — but still it stung. “That’s… that’s not really the point, Potter.”

“I know,” he said, seriously enough that she believed him. “But I can’t fix those other things. I can teach you how to fly, though.”

Immediately she was shaking her head and folding her arms protectively across her chest. “I don’t know…”

“You were right before,” he went on. “You don’t need to know how to fly. There are loads of other ways to get around, and it doesn’t mean you’re bad at being a witch. But I still think you’re missing out, and you shouldn’t have to miss out because of something that happened in first year, or because a bunch of inbred idiots want to drag our society back to the Dark Ages.” His expression was earnest now, the usual mischievous glint gone from his eyes. “You don’t have to do it if you don’t want. But if you’d like to learn, I’d like to help. What do you think?”

Lily bit her lip as she watched him, considering him as much as she was considering his words. When he really got going, his focus and determination was magnetic; in those moments it was easy to see how he’d always won so many admirers, why even the professors seemed to love him in spite of the havoc he wreaked on the school. To be at the centre of it was both inspiring and intimidating. Given the right cause, she could imagine him convincing almost anyone to do anything.

It was a dangerous skill for someone to have. Lily was as surprised as she was relieved to realize that she trusted him not to abuse it anymore.

So she nodded. “All right. Fine. But I’m making no promises. One lesson, and if I still hate it...”

The arrogant smile was back in a second. “You won’t.” His chair scraped along the floor as he sprang to his feet. “Good luck with the essay, Evans.”

—-

It had been decided they would meet Sunday after lunch, a mere two days after the initial proposition; Lily had the impression James was worried that she would back out if given more time to think, and privately suspected he was right. She’d skipped lunch that morning under the pretense of finishing her Transfiguration essay, only to spend the hour in the Common Room, chewing the end of her quill and bouncing her leg up and down, her essay sitting untouched. It was no use denying the obvious: the prospect of getting on a broom again made her nervous, as did the possibility of humiliation.

Somehow, ludicrously, telling herself that James Potter would be the sole witness to any potential humiliation seemed to invigorate the butterflies in her stomach.

She told herself it was only reasonable. After all, he was Gryffindor’s captain, a Quidditch Cup winner, and in first year he’d been one of the students whose talent in the air she had resented. Embarrassing herself on a broom in front of him again would only further cement her disdain for the art of flying, and she’d have to live with him knowing that. That alone was reason enough be anxious at the thought.

If she was brutally honest, though, there was more to it than that.

This would be the first time she voluntarily spent any time alone with James Potter without the excuse of Head duties to fall back on. Part of her was afraid that at any moment the veil might be lifted, that the illusion of maturity and likability he’d concocted would shatter, and he’d transform back into the immature tosser she’d spent years avoiding.

A very different part of her was equally afraid that he wouldn’t.

A crisp fall breeze rattled through the leaves by the time she trekked across the grounds that afternoon, painting her cheeks and her nose pale pink. When she arrived at the pitch, James was already there, and Lily hid a satisfied smirk behind her scarf at the thought of him heading out early to wait for her.

“Ah, Evans,” he called once she was in earshot, a lazy grin spreading across his face. “There you are. I was beginning to worry you’d stood me up.”

“I thought about it,” she teased, no longer hiding her smirk. “Figured you’d never let me hear the end of it if I did.” But as her gaze travelled to the broom slung over his shoulder, she frowned. “Sorry, was I meant to bring a broom? I thought—”

“Nah,” he shrugged, waving a hand. “We’ll only need one today.”

She stared at him, mouth ajar in confusion, for about five seconds before she folded her arms across her chest. “No way.”

“Evans,” he began, raising a hand to stave off her protests.

She shook her head. “Absolutely not.”

“Look, if you want to learn how to fly, you can start by seeing what real flying feels like. Besides, it’s safe.” He grinned. “Have you ever seen me fall off?”

Lily shifted her weight to one leg, looking away. “I’m not interested in being patronized.”

“I’m not trying to patronize you.” He sounded a little hurt at the notion. “This is how I learned.”

“What, when you were four?”

He shrugged and smiled. Lily took that as a yes and tilted her head incredulously.

“We can get another broom if you want, but the school brooms are rubbish, and it’ll be a lot harder for me to help if you fall.” Not discouraged by her silence, he took another step forward. “At least let me take you up. I know the best view of the castle. Can’t let you leave Hogwarts without having seen it.”

A gust of wind rolled over the pitch, tossing Lily’s hair into her face and leaving James’ looking even more ruffled than it usually did. Stubborn and resolute, Lily watched him suspiciously as she tucked her hair behind her ears. With another step, he closed the gap between them and ducked his head to better catch her eye.

“Come on, Lily,” he said gently, “I’m only trying to help. Honest.”

Huddled into her scarf, Lily studied his face, searching for any sign of mischief and deceit but finding only eagerness and warmth.

With a loud, exaggerated sigh, she nodded. “All right, we’ll try it your way.” She jabbed a finger at him. “But don’t get any ideas.”

His hopeful expression melted into a grin. “Evans, you have my solemn promise to never have any ideas, ever again.”

Ignoring her exasperated eye roll, he slid the broom off his shoulder, letting it drop. Before it could hit the ground he reached out, and the broom floated obediently back up into his outstretched hand, hovering about three feet off the ground.

“Show-off,” Lily muttered, but she was biting back a smile again.
James gestured to the broom with a flourish. “Ladies first.”

Mounting the broom was every bit as awkward as Lily remembered it, and whatever benefit came from not being surrounded by other eleven-year-olds was nullified by James Potter climbing onto the back of the broom behind her and stretching his arms around either side of her to grab the handle. In spite of the cool November breeze, Lily found she was much too warm.

“Ready?” His breath tickled her ear.

Lily shook her head. “No.”

“Do you trust me?”

“Absolutely not,” she replied frankly.

She could hear the grin as he said, “Well, hold on tight, then.”

They were in the air before Lily had a chance to follow his instructions, the ground shrinking rapidly beneath them. She yelped in surprise as her feet left the ground, lurching backwards, and one of her hands instinctively abandoned its grip on the broom in favour of grabbing hold of his wrist. Behind her James was laughing, the vibration of his chest rumbling against her back.

“All right, Evans?”

“Warn me next time!” she yelled.

“Next time?” he called back, and Lily groaned.

They levelled out near the middle of the pitch just as her heart rate did. Relaxing now that they were parallel to the ground again, Lily took in her surroundings. The vast, empty stands were a strange sight for Lily, whose only time spent near the Quidditch pitch went hand-in-hand with matches.

“Must be quite a view up here, during a match,” she said, imagining the stands as she usually saw them, filled to the brim with students and banners and scarves and chants. “All those people cheering.”

“Or booing,” he added, and Lily laughed. “To be honest with you, I’m usually looking at the Quaffle.”

She twisted her neck to look back at him, eyebrows raised. “The adoring fans don’t factor in?”

The casualness of his shrug was unconvincing. “They don’t hurt.” He nodded towards the other end of the pitch, suddenly businesslike. “All right, let’s see what you remember. Fly us through that centre goal post.”

The tone shift surprised her; she’d nearly forgotten there was a purpose to this beyond sightseeing, and it was embarrassing that he’d stayed more on task than she had. She gave him a look of mock deference. “Yes, Captain.”

“You’re going to have to give me my wrist back,” he said, amusement crackling in his voice.

Grateful to have her back to him, Lily mouthed a swear as she let go of him. Of all the reasons she’d considered this to be a terrible idea, it was becoming clear she’d overlooked a major one: James Potter himself was a distraction.

Closing her eyes, she took a breath and mentally reprimanded herself. A hundred feet in the air was no place to be having this kind of epiphany. She focused instead on dusting off the distant memories of Madam Hooch’s instructions, all the gestures and motions that seemed so intuitive to the other kids and so alien to her.

Grip the handle, she could hear Madam Hooch saying, lean forward...

Perhaps it was her inexperience, or perhaps James’ own broom — his pride and joy — really was that much better than the school’s, but they shot forward much faster than Lily was expecting. In only a few seconds they were almost at the goal post —

But she had steered them too low, she realized suddenly — they weren’t going to fly through the hoop, they were going to crash into it. She pulled up sharply to correct it and the broom reared up beneath them like a bucking horse; she slammed back against James, who wrapped one arm firm around her middle and wrested control of the broom with the other. They did a wide arc up and over to the left, nearly upside down before they levelled out, facing the opposite end of the pitch.

Lily sat frozen even after the broom came to a stop, stomach in her throat, her knees feeling like they’d been hit by the world’s strongest Jelly-Legs Jinx. James let out a breathless laugh behind her, but his hand was still clutching her robes, and she could feel his heart racing against her back. She grabbed onto his arm, closed her eyes, and leaned into him, willing her blood pressure to return to normal.

“Blimey, Evans, are you trying to kill us?”

“I hate flying,” she muttered miserably.

“I can see why,” said James, sounding more amused than he had any right to be. “You know you don’t have to fly at breakneck speed?”

“Shut up,” she moaned.

He sat up straighter, and Lily relinquished her grip on his arm. “Let’s try again.”

She pulled a face. “Seriously? Were you not here when I nearly crashed us?”

“Ah, we’ll be fine,” he said, like she hadn’t nearly flown them both into a metal pole a mere minute ago. “Where’s that Gryffindor spirit?”

“If you die right now, which poor sod gets custody of Black? Remus? I’ll not have that on my conscience.”

“It wouldn’t be on your conscience, you’d be dead,” he reasoned cheerily. “You just need to be gentler; you’re too aggressive. You react too quickly.”

Lily sighed. The frustration of first year was coming back anew, uneasy lesson after uneasy lesson as she struggled with actions that were already muscle memory for others. The previous failures all mounted together, creating a bigger hurdle each time she tried.

“Just this week I saw you brew a perfect Restorative Draught,” said James. “Lily, you can do this.”

Potions is easy, she wanted to say. Potions was all the hours she’d spent in her mother’s kitchen, working her way through family recipes with — and eventually without — Petunia. Potions was eagerly poring over the books Severus managed to sneak out of his mother’s rooml; it was throwing leaves and twigs and stones together in a plastic bowl in her back garden while fantasizing about a world where things like Amortentia and Veritaserum were real. Potions was a set of clearly-defined instructions mixed with just enough gut instinct to keep things interesting.

Flying wasn’t any of those things. Flying was uncertainty and risk and the same bottomless feeling in her stomach she remembered from the rollercoaster in Blackpool; flying was other students’ laughter and trying to hide bright red cheeks behind dark red hair.

But flying was also — at least for the moment — an empty Quidditch pitch, words of encouragement and James Potter’s arms holding her securely in place, so she closed her eyes, took a breath, and set her shoulders.

“Right, well,” she said, wiping her palms on her robes and opening her eyes. “Hold on.” She adjusted her grip on the broom, then leaned forward cautiously.

This time the broom moved at a reasonable pace — quick enough for Lily to feel the wind in her hair, slow enough that she felt in control. As the goal drew closer, James tapped her elbow.

“Lift us up just a bit,” he said, “not too much, not too fast… There we go.”

They sailed through the centre of the goal easily this time, and Lily was smiling as she brought them to a stop.

“See?” said James, sounding as smug as if he’d accomplished some great feat of daring himself. “That wasn’t so bad.”

“Mmmhmm,” Lily agreed facetiously. “Soon I’ll be able to out-fly any first year who challenges me.”

“You underestimate my tutelage, Evans,” he protested, with a mock-seriousness he usually reserved for speaking to professors. “I’ll have you out-flying second years in no time.”

She rested her chin on her shoulder as she looked back at him, unable to stop the teasing smile tugging at the corners of her lips. “Oh? That a guarantee, Potter?”

“It’s a promise.”

The beat of silence that followed lasted long enough for James’ grin to begin to fade and for Lily to become acutely aware of the scarce few inches between them. She was close enough to see the smudge on the left lens of his glasses, the windswept pink on his skin, the specks of green scattered among the brown in his eyes.

She realized she was staring at the same time she felt herself blush, and she looked away quickly, faking a cough.

James cleared his throat, sounding just as awkward as she felt, which was a relief. “Anyway—”

“Yeah.”

“We should keep practicing.”

“Yeah.”

They spent the next hour like that, looping back and forth across the Quidditch pitch, in and out of the goals, cutting different patterns through the air. Each new manoeuvre was rough; more than once James had to take control of the broom, or to grab Lily around the waist to keep her — or himself — in place. But slowly, surely, it started to get easier. The ride became smoother, her actions were more natural, James’ interventions came fewer and further between until his arms were resting loosely around her waist.

Eventually, incredibly, despite being on a broom, despite how high in the air they were, despite James Potter’s breath on her neck, Lily found herself relaxing.

“Not bad, Evans,” said James, after she’d completed a figure-eight with no moments of panic. “You’re getting the hang of it.”

Torn between pride and embarrassment, Lily settled on self-deprecation. “Took long enough.”

“Did you want to stop? We’ve been at this for a while.”

Lily opened her mouth, perfectly ready to say yes, thanks, I’d like my feet on the ground again, but something stopped her. This was the most she’d ever enjoyed flying, and she was suddenly reluctant to see it end.

So instead she said, “What about the castle?”

“...What?”

“The castle,” she said breezily, hoping the suggestion sounded more casual than it felt. “You said you knew the best view. That I shouldn’t leave Hogwarts without having seen it. But all I’ve seen so far is the Quidditch pitch. Were you lying to get me up here, Potter?”

He squawked in mock offense and relief. “I certainly was not! You want the best view of the castle? Hold on, then.”

He leaned forward to take control of the broom, and Lily smirked as she hunched back into him, relieved to let him do the flying and pleased to be able to relax against him and follow his cue.

They flew up and over the stands of the pitch, heading across the grounds. The difference in flight was remarkable. For as much as Lily had improved over the last hour, it had never felt as smooth or effortless as this. Though they were moving much faster than Lily would have dared, it felt safe, controlled.The broom responded to his slightest touch, as though the two of them were intuitively connected. This, Lily supposed, was something simpler than blood and rarer than practice: natural talent.

Not that she was going to tell him that.

For a moment she closed her eyes, appreciating the rush of cold air against her skin and how it contrasted with the warmth of James behind her. When she opened her eyes again they’d reached the treeline of the Forbidden Forest, and she watched the trees zip by below them, catching glimpses of the forest floor beneath the canopy of trees and trying to imagine what was in there. The Forbidden Forest was a part of the grounds known to her only by rumour and whisper, and even after seven years at Hogwarts, Lily found it no easier to distinguish between fact and fantasy in the wizarding world.

Some days, it was frustrating, and left her feeling as though she’d always be an outsider in this brave new world.

But other times, rarer times, times like this, now… she still had the same wonder she’d felt when she was eleven years old and first learned of magic.

“Do you think it’s true?” she called back, still staring down at the treetops. “Everything they say about the forest?”

“That depends,” he answered. “What do they say?”

“That it’s dangerous.” She grinned mysteriously. “Full of wild magical creatures.”

“Well, that part’s definitely true.”

She looked up him, her eyes narrowing suspiciously even as her grin stayed fixed in place. “Have you been in it?”

“The Forbidden Forest is out of bounds, Evans.” The amusement in his voice belied his serious expression. “As Head Boy, I would never condone such flagrant rule-breaking.”

“Right, you’re truly reformed, then.”

“Of course,” he said solemnly. And then, with a wicked grin, “Hold on.”

This time Lily was prepared; she tightened her hold on the broom with one hand and grabbed the top of his arm with the other just as they veered sharply to the side, directly over the trees.

“And this isn’t out of bounds, Mr Head Boy?”

“We’re not allowed in the Forbidden Forest,” he reasoned. “I can’t recall Dumbledore ever saying anything about not being allowed above it.”

“If they try to expel us, I’m going to say you kidnapped me,” she announced matter-of-factly.

There came a horrified gasp from the vicinity of her right ear. “After all I’ve done for you?”

She shrugged. “Every man for himself.”

“Lily Evans, I am shocked at your ingratitude.”

“Can’t be helped,” she said firmly. “I’ve got to get a job after Hogwarts, you know, not all of us have fortunes awaiting us in Gringotts.”

“Evans, if I get us expelled, I promise to share.”

“I’ll bet you say that to all the girls.”

“Nah.” He paused. “Although, come to think of it, I may have said something similar to Remus once.”

“You’re a bad influence.”

“My mum has warned me that’ll be my epitaph.” From the pride in his voice, it sounded as though they’d both paid him a great compliment.

“Sounds like a smart woman.”

James hummed in agreement at her ear. “She’s the one who taught me how to fly like this. Properly fly, I mean, on a real broom.”

Lily tried to picture it; she wondered if it had been a clever attempt from Mrs Potter to make her son sit still for half an hour. “Does she fly well, your mum?”

“Not bad, in her day,” said James, and Lily had the impression that in this context ‘not bad’ represented a level of skill far beyond what she herself could hope to achieve. “Gryffindor Keeper!”

Of course she was, Lily thought but decided, for fear of his ego, not to say. “Well, my mum taught me how to drive, which doesn’t quite win you the same accolades at Hogwarts.” She paused. “Or anywhere.”

“You could teach me!” he suggested. “Return the favour.”

Images of chaos and destruction on the motorway came to mind, and Lily made a face but stayed quiet, deciding a couple hundred feet in the air was not the best place to be criticizing the pilot’s navigational skills.

The implication of her silence didn’t seem to register with James, who carried on, “Sirius really wants a motorbike.”

To hold her tongue on that was asking too much. “Oh, God. I’d never go on the road again.”

“He wants to make it fly.”

“I’ll never go in the air again.” James was laughing while she shook her head. “I’ll never leave the house.”

“I think it’d be fun.”

“Of course you do, you have the self-preservation instinct of a lemming.” Not wanting to be sidetracked into a long conversation about why she didn’t trust Sirius Black with a motorbike, she added, “So where’s this view, anyway? You’re taking us away from the castle now, is this a real kidnapping?”

“So impatient!” he chided. “Actually, we’re almost there. Close your eyes.”

Opposite to the intended effect of the instruction, Lily turned back to stare at him. “Why?”

James stared back at her as if utterly baffled as to why she might resist his instructions. “For a dramatic reveal, obviously. You know, you’re a very suspicious person.”

“Well, you’re a very suspect person,” she shot back. But she closed her eyes anyway.

The sensation of hanging in the air with her eyes closed brought back some of the nerves she’d finally managed to fight off. She stiffened as they changed direction again, her knuckles whitening on the broom handle — but then James reached out, resting one of his hands overtop of hers in reassurance, and Lily swallowed, somehow feeling both safer and more nervous all at once.

“All right,” he said after a moment, once they’d come to another stop. “Lily Evans, allow me to present to you the very best view of the Hogwarts castle.”

WIth so much fanfare, as Lily opened her eyes she was, in all honesty, braced for disappointment.

She needn’t have.

“Wow,” she said bluntly.

James Potter, never one for wasted modesty, said, “I told you.”

From this height, at this angle, the view of the castle and its grounds was expansive. It was more of the castle than she’d ever been able to see at once, the Gryffindor tower, the astronomy tower and the owlery stuck out like beacons amongst the rest. Just across the way she could see the Quidditch pitch, its goalposts glinting in the sun. To the other side there was the lake, steady waves rumpling the surface, lapping at the shore, crashing against the docks. There was Hagrid’s hut, and the Whomping Willow, deceptively calm.

She felt almost as though she was staring down at a highly detailed dollhouse, the sort she and Petunia had coveted once upon a time. What brought it to life were the little black dots clustered or swarming like ants. All around the grounds she could see students, carving their way across the view — heading to the castle, sitting by the lake, practicing spells.

“This is incredible,” she said. “I wish I had a photograph from up here. I could show it to my parents. They’ve never seen…”

She trailed off, not sure how to summarize all she was looking at in one succinct phrase. For all the stories she shared, all the times she’d flouted the Statute of Secrecy to share her life with her parents, she knew it was difficult for them to imagine, knew that it all sounded like fantastical fairytales to them, far removed from any reality. Sometimes she had the impression that they thought of her as two separate entities: Lily Evans, real girl and daughter up until age eleven, and Lily the witch, a character in their favourite new television programme.

“That’s not a bad idea,” James agreed, pulling her out of her thoughts. “Have you got a camera?”

“No,” she said quietly. An all-too-familiar ache had settled in her chest.

“Hmm.” He contemplated it for a moment, and then said, “I could get my hands on one. Take you back up, you can get your photo.”

She shook her head. “You don’t have to do that.”

“It’s not like I’m offering to slay a dragon, Evans.” He sounded bemused. “Besides, seventh year, last chance. You’re right, it would be a good photo.”

The ache in her chest took on a different timbre, and she nodded. “Okay. Yeah.” She tore her eyes away from the view in order to look back at him and said, very sincerely, “Thank you, James.”

His answering smile was sweet, and gentler than she’d realized he was capable of. “You’re welcome, Lily.”

The precarious sensation that swept over Lily had little to do with being two hundred feet in the air. She was very aware, suddenly, of his hand overtop of hers, and the seconds of silence ticking between them.

Feeling awkward and exposed, she hastened to break the silence. “I should probably… I’ve still got to finish that Transfiguration essay,” she said lamely.

She thought she saw a look of disappointment on his face, but it was gone as quick as it had come. He chided her with a shake of his head and a cluck of his tongue. “Still? So last minute, Evans. I’m disappointed in you.”

Grateful to be back in familiar waters, Lily rolled her eyes and scowled at him affectionately. “Oh, please, like you’ve even started it.”

“Started? I’ve finished it.”

“You have not!”

“I have,” he insisted, straight-faced. “I finished it yesterday.”

“You did homework before the last possible second?”

He shrugged. “Transfiguration’s easy. And I’ve got plans tonight.”

She raised a dubious eyebrow. “Doing what?”

“Ah,” he said evasively, “if I told you, I’d have to kill you.” Then, perhaps to keep her from prying further, he said: “All right, we’re going to go back down the fun way, so this time you really will want to hold on.”

‘The fun way’ (a phrase which Lily presumed was synonymous with ‘the terrifying way’) was not one she’d have agreed to as recently as two hours ago. But the air and the indefinable flutter in her stomach made for a strong cocktail, so instead she nodded, hunched down onto the broom and grabbed it with both hands.

“All right, then. Fun way it is.”

She hadn’t been wrong about the synonym. They shot forward faster than before and dipped lower, too, skimming just above the tops of the trees; Lily instinctively tucked her feet up, lest they crash into a rogue branch. Once they reached the edge of the forest they shot down, hurtling towards the ground at a steep angle that sent her stomach to her throat again and turned the world into a blur.

She thought again of the rollercoaster in Blackpool, but it was different this time — not the childish panic that had filled her when the cart had click-clacked its way up the tracks, but the heart-thumping joy that had followed after that first steep dive, her own scream of delight mingling with Petunia’s cry of terror and their parents’ laughter. She was screaming like that again now, her smile threatening to split her face in two, her hair whipping behind her, adrenaline surging through her veins like a live wire.

Just as it began to seem inevitable they would crash, they pulled out of the dive, running parallel to the ground again, close enough that Lily could have stood. James leaned back, Lily followed his lead, and the broom decelerated until they came to a stop not so far from the pitch where they’d began.

“Your stop,” he said, gesturing with a flourish.

She laughed as she stepped off the broom, her hair an absolute windblown mess, her fingers almost numb with cold and her heart still racing. Beneath her shaky legs the solid ground felt both reassuring and alien, and while she reached up to try and tame her hair she looked towards the Forbidden Forest, trying to reconcile how high up she’d been mere moments ago with the grass beneath her feet.

James remained on the broom, hovering in front of her, arms folded across his chest, looking so pleased with himself that Lily had to fight an instinctive urge to do something to counteract it.

“Go on, Evans, admit it,” he said. “Flying’s not so bad.”

Stuffing her hands into the pockets of her robes, Lily twisted her lips like the truth was being wrenched out of her. “It was… surprisingly enjoyable,” she admitted.

If possible, he seemed to puff up even more. “Well, I’m full of surprises.”

Lily sighed in exasperation and stared at him. He was so bloody smug.

“I’ve created a monster,” she said regretfully, shaking her head. “Which is a real shame, because this is only going to make it worse.”

To Lily’s great satisfaction, the smile on his face was washed away by a look of confusion. “What is?”

She said nothing, taking the moment to revel in his wrongfootedness, and then she stepped forward, rolled to the tip of her toes and kissed him. His lips, like hers, were cold and soft, and once the shock wore off he leaned into her, glasses bumping into her nose.

As first kisses go, it was neither prolonged nor dramatic. He’d barely had time to respond before she sank back down onto her heels and opened her eyes, biting her lip as she smiled. The look on James’ face as he loomed above her — wide-eyed and awestruck and speechless — was one she wanted to commit to memory forever.

“Evans…” he stammered eventually, seemingly unable to come up with the rest of a sentence.

Lily replied with an innocent shrug and a smile. “What can I say? I’m full of surprises. Besides, seventh year. Last chance.”

It seemed his language faculty had still not recovered, because he spluttered, “Is… are we…?”

“Depends,” she said coolly, raising her eyebrows in a challenge. “You gonna take me somewhere?”

“Yeah.” Finally, his brain seemed to catch up, and a hint of a cocky smile pulled at the corner of his mouth. “All right. Hogsmeade. Friday.”

He was leaning so close to her she could feel his breath again. “It’s not a Hogsmeade weekend.”

The smile was much more than a hint now. “I know.”

“All right, then. Friday.” She lifted her chin, adopting a smirk to match his before she took a step back. “Impress me, Potter.”

She was sure he had some arrogant reply to that, but she never heard what it was, for the next second, having leaned too far to follow her, he overbalanced and tumbled off his broom, landing in an unceremonious heap on the grass.

Smothering a laugh in her scarf, she grabbed his broom before it could drift away.

“Don’t worry,” she called breezily, dropping the broom next to him as she turned to head back to the castle. “I’m told everyone falls off sometime.”