"Merlin, Severus," Lily heard Evan say, as she pushed by the Slytherins, "what did you say to her?"
"Nothing," Severus said, his tone sullen. Lily squashed the urge to glance back, all too aware of the fact that the Gryffindors were just ahead, and were occasionally looking back. She wasn't sure how far to play the wounded, beaten friend, wasn't sure whether to extend it to accusing looks back in Severus' direction.
"You were talking to her all through Potions just now," Avery pointed out, his tone pragmatic. "Plenty of time to say something, I should think."
That was part of what had given Lily the idea to mask her anger as misery, to look the victim for her housemates so they wouldn't be in a hurry to look at what she would be giving them in exchange for Mum's letter. Georgie had taken the letter because she'd thought it would be enough to make Lily fold, and it seemed only natural to pretend to do so to get it back.
Pretending out here in the corridors, with the Slytherins just behind? Well, Lily thought, it wouldn't precisely be her fault if Potter went rushing off with the letter, eager to read it to them and make a big stink. He would think it her fault, of course, as would the rest of her housemates.
Bully for him, Lily thought, as she watched him turn the corner. Bully for them, she added mentally, watching the rest of them trail after him, speeding up a bit to keep in step. Once I get Mum's letter back, they can all jump in a lake.
She wasn't expecting to turn the corner herself, and see them milling around in front of her, lying in wait.
"Look who wants to walk with us," Black said, circling round behind her, eying her up. "Ooh, look who's taken off her precious ribbon."
"You look like someone just broke your heart," Potter said, nudging Pettigrew beside him. "Anything wrong, Thomas?"
"I want to talk to Georgie," Lily said, edging away from him, trying to keep the pocket with Severus' note out of his reach. "Not to you."
"Sirius, stop it," Georgie said, admonishingly, without making a single effort to move away from the boys. Instead, she set to fishing out Mum's letter, shooting Lily a kindly look that would have meant something if Potter wasn't between them, obviously ready to put a spanner in the works. "Just hold that letter out, Lily. You can have this one back."
Lily could feel a lump forming in her throat. "Why can't I have mine back first?" she dared to ask, because she couldn't point out the obvious, couldn't say that Georgie hadn't specified when she would get Mum's letter. "I'm right here, you know. I'm hardly going to run off with it without giving you the one you want."
"I'd like to see you try that," Black said, unhelpfully. "Remus here is rather fast— he'd run you down in a minute."
Lily looked around at the other boys, incredulous, and the only one of them blushing at that bald, rude threat was Lupin. "Sirius," he said, reproachfully; he did not say he wouldn't run her down.
"Ignore him," Potter said, his tone maliciously merry. "Just hand it over, will you? I can see you've got it out." He was looking at her pocket, the one with Severus' letter in it, and Lily could see his fingers moving restlessly, as if he was already imagining the act of opening it.
Back around the corner, Lily heard the Slytherins start to laugh, just as she saw Georgie hand her letter to Potter. I'm not going to get it back, she realized, suddenly. I'm not going to get it back, because he'll keep it.
She almost gave up in that moment, almost let the whole thing go. He would read Severus' letter, and see that it was fake, and maybe raise the requirements Lily would need to fulfill to get Mum's letter back. She would have to get Severus to write a real letter, the sort Potter would like to make fun of, or she would have to make some sort of scene, to say something awful to him in front of everyone.
"Well?" Black said, impatiently. "What are you waiting for?"
Lily blinked. "Nothing," she said, automatically, putting her hand in her pocket. Then she pushed Severus' letter down and out of sight, inwardly thanking him for writing it, for being so loyal. "This is unfair," she said, looking Potter in the eye. "I'm not going to do it."
He looked—of all the things—amused. "True love," he said, putting a hand over his heart. "How touching! Really, Thomas," he said, waving Mum's envelope at her, "it's all right; he doesn't love you, and you don't love him. Hand it over."
The Slytherins were passing by now, giving Black a wide berth. Severus gave Lily a cold, resentful glance, keeping up the pretense he'd begun earlier, one that the Gryffindor girls were the first to notice.
"Did you not see that?" Georgie asked, waving in the Slytherins' direction. "Why bother protecting him?"
"Oh please," Lily said, more than fed up with the proceedings. "If you really gave a toss about how I felt, you wouldn't have taken my only letter from home to begin with." She edged off to the side, avoiding Black, meaning to go past the Gryffindors and be done, and was not entirely surprised to find Potter edging along with her, blocking her path. "Sod off, will you?"
"There's no need for that," he said, tossing Mum's letter away to Black. "Look, if you're that sensitive, we'll only read it once you've gone on." He came closer, hands extended, palm up. "You won't even have to see what he says."
"Sod off," Lily repeated, starting to wonder if they would ever leave off, if they would ever let her get away. "I said, sod off—"
She wasn't sure what tipped her off, exactly. It could have been the way Potter's hands shot up a bit, the right height to grasp her shoulders and hold her still; it could have been the click of Black's odd shoes, oddly loud behind her. Lily moved without thinking, darting off to the right, and found herself running smack into Pettigrew, who was too startled to do anything more than try to hold her.
Lily elbowed him, and wrenched cruelly at the hand that was suddenly in her pocket— she didn't care whose it was, only that she made them hurt. "Let go," Potter said, daring to give her an order, so the first thing she did once she'd elbowed free of Pettigrew was to step on his foot, and shove him. "Merlin! What is your sodding—"
Lily went after him again, cutting him off with another forceful shove. She was too angry for words, too angry to voice her outrage at him starting to ask what on earth her sodding problem was when he and the other boys had gone after her first. She felt horribly close to tears when he dodged out of her reach, circling back around to Black, who was wringing one red hand as he flicked open Severus' fake letter, glancing at her like she was crazy.
"This is fake," he said, over the whispers of the Slytherins, who had stopped short a little way away, wanting to see the show. "This is really, really fake."
"Is it?" Lily said loudly, her tone sarcastically surprised. "How sad for you, that stealing my letter didn't work out."
"You planned this," Black said, accusingly. "You were going to walk up and give us a fake." He crumpled up Severus' letter, shaking his head. "I wonder what your mother will think when you don't write back."
Lily rolled her eyes. "Unlike some people," she said, sharply, "I have a mum who'll understand if I don't write, much less if I'm late writing back because a pack of cowardly idiots stole my only letter." By then, Black had gone an ugly, satisfying red; he said nothing as Lily strode by.
Ahead of her, Avery shook his head, whistling long and low. As she got closer, she noticed him nudging Severus, murmuring something she couldn't make out. Lily walked past them without a word, not in the least inclined to stop and explain what had gone wrong in full view of Potter and the rest.
When she rounded the corner ahead, she went on walking, despite the knowledge that she could safely stop there and wait for Severus and his friends to come round. She rather thought the Slytherins had found the whole scene funny, and couldn't bear to be ribbed over it just then.
Lily thought back to the moment after she'd given up on making the exchange, and wished she had just gone off as quickly as she could. She'd lingered there, talking back to Potter just like Severus had in Astronomy, and she'd been attacked just as suddenly and unfairly as he had.
"Rule number one," Lily muttered, digging through her bag for her timetable, "when they come at you, just run." Finding it, she unfolded it and glanced at the lower right corner, the very last squares under 'Friday'—they'd just had Potions, and that was a double lesson. There was only supper after that, and that should just be about to start.
Rule number two, Lily thought, putting away her timetable, always know where next to go. She sped up her pace anyway, reasoning that she could think of where to eat once she'd got hold of some food, and made her way out of the Great Hall.
In her hurry, she took a wrong turn, and ended up going through the double doors only a hair after the Slytherins did, with the Gryffindors coming up the stairs behind her. At the table, she set herself to packing up anything she could safely take out wrapped in a napkin. Supper was roast and gravy, so that left buttered rolls and not much else.
As soon as she saw Georgie and Mary heading her way, Lily rose, stuffing the bulging red napkin into her bag. She made her way back around the table slowly, weaving round the burgeoning mass of incoming students, careful to keep them between her and her housemates.
Outside the Hall, she came to an uncertain stop, trying to think of where she could safely go. The common room was out of the question, since that was the first place her yearmates would think to look for her if they decided to skip supper in favor of teaching her a lesson. She knew there was a library in the castle, but didn't know where it was, and didn't think anyone would let her eat there in any case.
That left the classrooms, none of which were places Lily thought she could return without the professors taking note. Every classroom had seemed connected to the office of whoever taught the lesson in it— even greenhouse one was connected to Professor Sprout's office, by a door tucked away in the corner.
Madame Hooch was the only exception, with her little shack of an office next to the Quidditch pitch. Lily wondered how much Hooch could see of the pitch from there, and found herself going through the castle doors anyway, determined to make a try of it. If she was seen on the pitch, it would be when Hooch left her office to head to the Great Hall for supper, and it wouldn't necessarily mean anything the way it would if another professor spotted Lily lurking in their classroom on their way out.
It was easy for Lily to point herself in the direction of the pitch, easy for her to convince herself that the Quidditch teams probably didn't need to ask to be let on the pitch when it was their practice night. Besides, it was also early suppertime: if any of the teams was going to practice tonight, Lily rather thought they would do it after supper, not before.
Out on the pitch, Hooch was nowhere to be seen, and there was no light at her office window. Relieved, Lily sat down, taking out the rolls from the napkin. They were sadly squashed, and not quite as hot as they had been at the table, but they were good anyway, and gone very soon.
Restless, Lily got up and walked around, pacing the length of the pitch, wondering how on earth they managed to keep it so even. The wind picked up around her, whipping her robe close, forcing her to tuck her hands in her pockets for warmth. By the time she began to wonder if it might be safe to go up to Hooch's office and see if she could find a broom, she heard loud voices approaching, distorted by the wind.
"Bit late, I know," some older boy was saying, over the whip of the wind. "But you know our roster's fairly set all the same."
"Are you sure?" One of his friends had spotted Lily, and was peering at her across the pitch. "Looks like someone's been waiting for us. You there—"
"Leave it, Lucius," his friend replied, glancing her way. "She's not one of ours."
Lily could now make out the colors of their group, the neat little pieces of green not quite blending into the dark of their robes under the light of the full moon. Suppressing her dismay, she picked up her bag and the fallen napkin, folding the stained cloth with needless precision.
They ignored her at first, two of them peeling off in the direction of Hooch's office, the rest of them waiting about in midfield, mounting up on their brooms. Then one of them looked her way, and began to ease his broom over in her direction.
"Clear off, shrimp," was all he said, once he reached her. He followed Lily a good way off the pitch, too, something that frightened and annoyed her until she remembered the Quidditch gossip she'd overheard in the showers, and realized he probably thought her some sort of spy. Intrigued, Lily kept an eye on him as they approached the castle, wondering when he would deem it safe enough to abandon the watch and fly back to his teammates.
He escorted her all the way to the castle doors. Bemused, Lily paused there, making a production of digging through her bags. She was not entirely surprised to hear the boy on the broom clear his throat, loudly.
"Are you seriously going to wait for me to go in?" Lily asked, unable to help herself. "I'm only a first year, you know."
Close to, the boy looked younger than she'd thought, especially when he blinked like that, looking taken aback. "You could be in polyjuice," he said, after an awkward, silent moment. "What? It's not that hard to make."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," Lily said, shaking her head, feeling even more amused. "Is that a spell or something?"
"If you were a spy," the boy said triumphantly, crossing his arms, "you'd pretend not to know."
"If I was a spy, I wouldn't be bothering to have this conversation," Lily shot back. "Seeing as your captain was just walking about, talking about how set your roster is."
The boy reddened, then sighed. "Could you please just go in? I have to get back."
"Okay," Lily said, closing her bag. "Ooh, wait a minute, will you?" She found herself running down the steps and out onto the path again, going out of breath trying to catch up to his broom. "I have a question!" she called out, slowing abruptly, feeling tired and stupid and hopeful all at once. "Hello?"
There was something very satisfying about watching him turn around so smoothly, coming back at her like a shot. He braked with a showy jolt, looking down on her with a monster of a scowl. "What?"
"I don't know where the library is," Lily said, quickly, recognizing impatience when she saw it. "Could you tell me?"
"That's—" He turned sharply, rolling his eyes. "I can't believe I'm falling for this."
"If you don't tell me," Lily said, walking around so she could look him in the eye, "I'll run all the way back to the pitch."
"Now you're a spy? Christ." He tried to ease around her, and glared at her when she got in his way. "For fuck's sake! If you found your way out here on your own, you can sodding well find it yourself."
"Could you at least give me a floor to start with?"
"No," he said, firmly. "And Merlin, I swear, if you are polyjuiced and I ever find out who you are, I will sort you." He rose up, abruptly, well out of Lily's reach, and shot away in the direction of the pitch.
Lily stood there in the cold, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. Laughter won out, very suddenly, when she thought of the way the boy had blinked at her when she first said anything, as if she were a talking dog. She laughed all the way back to the castle doors, over the stitch in her side, over her aching feet, over the madness that was this place.
Then, when she got inside, and had to navigate her way through the streams of students leaving the great hall, she thought of what the boy had said about finding her own way.
I could get lost, Lily thought reflexively, biting her lip. It would be ever so easy here, with the way the stairs moved, the way the doors didn't always work how she thought they should. She found herself walking on anyway, picking a direction at random, then taking the stairs up to the second floor.
Few people seemed to be out in the corridors here— perhaps it was just like the first floor, with mostly classrooms and loos here and there. Lily spotted a pair of older girls shouldering their way into a room, one of them wearing a prefects' badge, and would have tried asking for directions if the door hadn't locked itself after them.
Shrugging, she went on, occasionally stopping to poke around an empty classroom herself. Lily wedged the door open with her bag, just in case, and went right to the big windows in the side. There was a window-seat on the middle one, dusty as anything, and the tiny office attached to the main room was mothballed and empty.
I can come here next time, Lily thought, backing out of the office and closing the door. She wondered if there were more unused rooms in the castle, more places she could retreat to when she couldn't go out to the pitch, or when this place was taken. She looked around at the perfectly serviceable, dusty desks, and wondered why they'd stopped using this room in particular, why they didn't move the desks out.
Then she checked her watch, and saw it was past time to start the trek back to the tower, if she didn't want to be late back. Lily took one look round the empty classroom, then picked up her bag and slipped out.
There was no one in the corridors now, no one to ask if she went the wrong way. Slowly, she retraced her steps, going downstairs, making sure to go right back to the room outside the Great Hall, so she could at least start her journey to Gryffindor from somewhere familiar. She didn't see any other students until she somehow bumbled her way up to the seventh floor, and the boys she saw were a pack of Ravenclaws, arguing in heated whispers just outside the stairwell.
Lily pushed past them as quickly as she could, not liking the way they went quiet as soon as they saw her. They didn't follow her, though, and her panicky caution receded as she approached the portrait that led into Gryffindor house. It clicked open just as she reached it, propelled by the trembling hand of none other than Lupin.
Lily froze, expecting Potter and Black to be behind him. She stepped back, looking up and down the corridor, just in case they'd thought of waiting around the corner, but there was no one there.
Lupin looked tired, and his skin was paler than it had been on the train. He stood there for a moment, staring at her, then shook his head and set to climbing out through the hole behind the portrait.
Lily couldn't see anyone behind him. She stayed where she was, just in case, watching Lupin fumble his way out. Are you all right? she thought of asking, if only out of politeness. He was the only one of the boys that hadn't touched her, hadn't tried to push her around.
Then again, that was an awfully low bar. Lily had known boys that were perfectly civil when you met them alone, and perfectly nasty when you met them with their friends. Lupin hadn't really said anything to her yet, but she supposed that could just be down to the fact that he was presently sick.
He wasn't saying anything now, either; just propping open the portrait for her like most of the other students did for each other. "Thank you," Lily said, because it had to be said. Then, unable to help herself, she asked anyway. "Are you all right?"
Lupin reddened, and for a moment she thought he might pretend not to have heard. Then, as she took hold of the portrait edge, he nodded at her, acknowledging the question. "Fine," he said, his voice oddly rough. "Just off for a checkup."
"Bit late for that, isn't it? It's almost curfew."
Lupin stepped back, shrugging. "I've got permission to be out," was all he said, calmly, as if that explained anything. Curfew wasn't quite the time to be traipsing off to the school nurse, especially when he could probably have gone right after supper. "I'll be all right."
"Good," Lily said, feeling awkward. She couldn't help but think that this was a conversation he'd had before, only with people that had a real stake in whether or not he was all right. "Good luck making it down there, then."
Then, as he began to walk off, she remembered the Ravenclaw boys she'd passed by the stairs, the ones that had gone oddly quiet as she went by. Lily didn't know why they'd been hanging around there, or why they'd let her pass without any trouble, but she clearly remembered how old they were, and how many. They'd been old enough to be prefects, and therefore old enough to act like they were prefects even if they weren't, just to be annoying.
"Hey," Lily called out, after Lupin. "You might want to go to the hospital wing another way, if you know one."
"What?" Lupin paused, turning to face her. "Why?"
Lily bit her lip, feeling even more awkward about warning him like this. "Older boys by the stairwell," she made herself say, to get it over with. "You know how they can get, if you're alone."
"No I don't," Lupin said, giving her a confused look. "What house are they, anyway?"
"Ravenclaw," Lily said, also confused. "Does it really make a difference?"
"Well, yeah," Lupin said, pointedly. "Ravenclaw entrance is on our floor, you know. They could just have been hanging around near the entrance."
"Oh," Lily said, flushing. "Never mind, then."
"Tell me something," Lupin said, coming closer, a curious look on his face. "What did they do as you went by, that you thought was worth warning me for?"
"They were too quiet?" Lily shrugged defensively, all too aware that that sounded like nothing. "I don't know, they gave me a weird feeling, is all."
"They didn't laugh at you, they didn't say anything—"
"Like I said," Lily repeated, "they were quiet. Have you seriously never been weirded out by silence before?"
"So," Lupin said, crossing his arms, "they weirded you out without saying anything, enough to warn me about?"
"Yes," Lily said, firmly. "Your point being?"
"It just strikes me as a bit odd, really. You're happy to make snap judgements about those Ravenclaws based on them not saying anything," Lupin said pointedly, "but the moment anyone makes the same sort of judgement about Slytherins, all bets are off."
"Snap judgements?" Lily said, incredulously. "Is that what you call shoving my friend around because he came to talk to me? Because I really don't remember saying anything about the stupid things your friends said about Slytherins till you started pushing people around."
"I didn't push anyone—"
"But you stood by and watched it happen," Lily said, cutting over him. "Yet you have the guts to stand here lecturing me when I happen to notice what house the creepy older boys by the stairwell are in."
Lupin had gone an odd, blotchy shade of pink. "I wasn't trying to lecture you," he said, defensively. "I only wanted to say—"
"That I'm a hypocrite? Go ahead," Lily said, coolly. "Not like I can't call you one right back, is it?"
Lupin gave a her a frustrated, guilty little look. "Forget it," he muttered, turning away. "Forget I said anything."
Lily rolled her eyes. "Hypocrite," she said under her breath, climbing through the portrait. "What an idiot." He'd been the one to ask which house the older boys were in, the one to point out how that information was important in that case. And then he'd tried to turn it back on her like she was the one being unreasonable, like she was the one with double standards.
That said, Lily could see why Lupin had brought the house issue up, why he'd asked about it to begin with. She wondered, now, if she would have been quite as concerned about the older boys' presence if she'd known that they weren't completely out of place, hanging about outside the stairwell. But she couldn't see how that made her a hypocrite for being upset when Severus was teased by the Gryffindors.
As she made her way up to her dorm, Lily thought about the last two days, trying to tally up each incident, to see when she might have been a hypocrite. The only time that really stood out to her was the moment earlier on today, after the flying lesson, when Severus had mocked Jemima. Perhaps that was what Lupin had been thinking of, when he talked about 'snap judgements'; perhaps, Lily thought guiltily, perhaps I mistook what he meant.
But she also remembered the aftermath, remembered how bad she'd felt for Jemima, how she hadn't even shown up till the conversation with the Slytherins was well underway. Considering everything else that had happened, before and after the thing with Jemima, Lily didn't think it fair to have it hinted that she was a hypocrite. What had she been supposed to do just then, anyway, grovel? Apologize for behavior that hadn't been half as mean as what Potter and the others had been subjecting her to?
No, Lily thought, climbing into bed. Her dorm mates were nowhere to be found— probably down in the crowded common room, gossiping about how awful she'd been so far. She hadn't apologized then, and certainly wouldn't now. The next time Lupin came up and tried to judge her, she'd simply ask him where her mum's letter was, and sodding well ignore him if he couldn't answer.