. 12:14 .
For fuck’s sake. Sirius would choose to live in a building two (rotting) steps above a bloody tenement.
“Swotty snob,” the blighter had scoffed ten minutes ago, when James had had the astonishing audacity to point this out. (The fact that Sirius had been eating ramen out of the very same bowl he’d been using to trap an errant cockroach most of the morning seemed apt, if unspoken.) “I am living,” Sir Ramen insisted.
Living, emphasis sarcastic, is one way to put it. James closes the flat’s door behind him, noting the sound of his best mate clicking, clacking, and sliding the nine different locks and deadbolts it takes to secure his new home into place on the other side of the closed portal. It’s a bleak, foreboding symphony, and James cannot quite suppress the rueful shake of his head. After fifteen years of friendship, he does not know why he is surprised that Sirius would abruptly decide that living in romanticized poverty was the perfect way to spend his twenties (while his hefty inheritance conveniently continued to accrue interest in the bank, mind), but somehow, here they are.
James plods down the corridor, hunching his shoulders, dubious of brushing against the cracked and stained walls. He passes a dark, narrow stairwell that spirals steeply downward. Sirius would naturally also be on the top floor. There’s a sad-looking elevator, one of those cupboard-sized traps that had you holding your breath with every painstakingly slow moment of ascent and descent, but at least it’s something. James jabs the down arrow, watches the button light up, then darken, then light up again, not quite able to decide if it felt like working today.
Sirius would get Remus here only on the pain of death, James is certain of it.
There’s an ominous ding and the elevator doors rattle open. James steps inside, wondering how he is supposed to explain to his mum that, no actually, she cannot come visit her de facto second son in his new home, because she might very well catch a rat plague and die.
Euphemia will love that.
James pulls out his phone, texts Mum leaving sirius’s now, pray 4 him with excessive emoji praying hands, adding an X-eyed smiley for good measure. The blue line of sending things ticks up to three-quarters, then stalls.
Of course. Shotty service, too.
James sighs, shoving the phone back into his pocket as the elevator doors begin to creep closed.
“Hold the elevator!” a voice shouts.
James whips out an arm, risking possible amputation to stop the closing doors just in time. The elevator groans in protest, but obediently rattles back open. A second later, a woman appears at the opening—deep red hair, huge dark sunglasses, a slim green coat. Her arms are laden with tote bags and a phone is pressed firmly against her left ear.
All right. So perhaps the building isn’t all bad.
Thank you, she mouths at him with a fetching smile, a second before she says into the phone, “Of course I rang him. I rang everyone. I have sucked the teat of my male acquaintances dry, and nary a prospect. No one wants to go to this sodding thing.”
She swings around, giving James her back (don’t look at her arse, don’t look at her arse, it’s so rude to look at—Christ, that’s a good one). She attempts to juggle fitting both herself and her bags into the tiny space without blocking the doors or crushing James, and is not overly successful. She shuffles closer and closer to him.
“Who?” she says next, lifting her arm in the air, looking to use vertical space to her advantage. There’s a clack of glass—she must have some kind of bottled beverage in one of the totes—but it’s still not quite enough. She scoffs in disgust. “That—Terry Heaney? Are you mental? You are. I may as well just call a bloody escort service.”
She sighs heavily as the elevator begins to beep in impatient anger. In last ditch resignation, she glances back at James with an apologetic wince, then presses herself against him.
“Don’t think I haven’t considered it,” she mutters into the phone. The elevator doors—finally, reluctantly—begin to slide closed. “Look, I’m in the lift, practically suffocating some poor bloke. I’ll call you from the car. Keep brainstorming—not Heaney! My feet—” There’s a beep, and the redhead pulls the phone from her ear, regarding it with exasperation. “Dropped. Brilliant. She best have heard that.” Then she looks guiltily to James. “Sorry.”
James waves as much of a carefree hand as he can manage while simultaneously being plastered against her and her belongings. “S’fine.”
“I swear, I’m not usually this much of a production.” With the doors now closed, she’s able to ease off him some. She presses her back against the lift doors, letting out a long breath and blowing an errant strand of red hair from her face. “It’s just one of those days.”
“Teat sucked dry,” he recounts in understanding.
She laughs in surprise, jabs a finger at him. “Exactly.”
There are a few seconds of silence as the elevator finally begins its rickety descent.
James tries not to stare, though in his defense, there’s really nowhere else to look. In the back of his mind, he tries to recall if Sirius ever mentioned moving in next door to a local goddess, but his mate is often blindly oblivious to such things. Still, it’s hard to imagine not noticing this one. Even with her face mostly covered by the big glasses, her expression piqued, James can tell she’s a looker. Good sense of humour, too. Really, he doesn’t much mind her sort of ‘production’.
He wonders who she is.
Say something. Anything. Talk to her.
She’s frowning down at her phone, a thoughtful pinch pulling her lips.
Hi. Hullo. My name is James Potter, and you have dazzled me into dithering dullness.
“Do you reckon if I Google ‘male escort service’,” she says suddenly, “I’ll immediately get flagged by Interpol for human rights violations, or is there some kind of helpful pass for extenuating circumstances and past good behaviour?”
James snorts. Good sense of humour and criminal tendencies, apparently. But he doesn’t believe she’s actually looking for a response—isn’t certain she’s even really talking to him, rather than simply aloud to herself—until she glances up from her phone and cocks a questioning eyebrow at him.
He bites back a grin.
“Interpol?” He tilts his head with clear dubiousness. “Local girl’s internet searches are a bit small fish for their likes, no? Reckon you’ll see an immediate upswing in porn advertisements on your Facebook, though.”
“You still have Facebook?” She’s back at her phone, but smiling. “Precious.”
“Hey. Leave off my Facebook.” Who doesn’t love a good cat video or a shockingly ignorant political rant by a distant relative every now and then? “Who are you to judge, anyway? You’re being investigated by Interpol.”
“Not quite yet. Not quite yet.” Another hefty sigh. “Strongly tempted, however. But now you’re practically an accomplice in the whole thing, so really, what’s mine is yours, mate.”
Wouldn’t so much mind that, thanks. What’s the going rate for escorts these days? I could use a few extra quid.
No, no, no, you berk. Clever, not creepy. Christ. Are you new to this?
The entire lift quakes and shudders. The redhead stumbles forward with a surprised gasp, drops her phone. James jolts toward her, catching her and her bags and the whole production against him as best he can. His heart jumps in his chest as a weightless feeling hits. The dim lights in the lift flicker, but remain on. There’s another unpleasant screeching sound that makes them both flinch. The redhead’s sunglasses tip off her nose. James sees a flash of startled green eyes as the shuddering abruptly stops. Then there’s nothing but damning silence and stillness.
Oh, hell. Shit.
Mind whirling, James immediately starts to assess. Is she fine? Is he? The elevator is most definitely not fine.
“All right?” he asks her.
Assessing too, she slowly bobbles her head. “Yeah. Yeah, fine.” She eases off him, pushing the sunglasses fully up her head. Her gaze sweeps the now-still elevator car in obvious alarm. “Shit. Shit, this isn’t good.”
“No.” He looks about, too. “Do you reckon Interpol is on to us?”
“You know. Teach us a lesson. ‘Don’t yarn about our prowess, you plebeians, or I’ll trap you in an elevator’, etcetera?”
“I—” She stares at him. Seems stuck somewhere between laughing and yelling. “That—you—”
James has the good sense to flush. He cracks jokes when nervous. “Sorry. Too soon?”
She chokes out a laugh. “Maybe a touch.”
Right. Didn’t really need to be told that. He grapples for something else.
“Is it completely stopped?” He doesn’t know why he asks—they both know it is. A little more useful, mate. “Is there an emergency button?”
She spins on her heels, reaching for the button panel. She tries the bright red alarm button first, then more frantically jabs at all the others. Nothing responds. Nothing lights. Nothing.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck.” She drops her head against the burnished metal wall. Her bags collapse from her arms onto the floor as she knocks her head a few times. “Today only wanted this.”
James pulls his phone out of his back pocket. His text conversation with Mum pulls up first, the telling red “Not Delivered” warning blaring obviously at the bottom. He is frankly unsurprised to find “No Service” in the upper left corner.
“I haven’t got service,” he tells her regretfully. “Have you?”
Sluggishly, she bends to grab her phone from the floor. Checks. “No.”
“Okay. All right. No need to panic.” James clears his throat, straightens. “Someone will notice soon. It’s fine.”
“Last week,” the redhead relays miserably, “Patrice Hollis from the third floor was stuck in here for two hours before someone even thought to call the landlord.”
“Two—” Fuck. Oh, fuck, fuck, fuck. “Well, that’s…yeah. Unfortunate.”
She’s begun thumping her head against the wall again. “This thing hasn’t been properly inspected since 1981. It’s a daily active danger. When I finish my law degree, I’m going to sue everyone associated with this bloody building, I swear to God. I’ll be a bittrillionaire.”
She’s a law student.
A pretty, clever law student. Who you’re now trapped in an elevator with. For potentially several hours.
Jesus Christ, shut up, you ponce, does now seem the time for this??
“Well.” He clears his throat again. “Always good to have a long-term plan. You plot that one. But in the meantime…” James strives to focus, considers options. Two hours. Bloody hell. Even with a fit companion, that seems an awfully long time. He’s not the claustrophobic sort, but damn if the walls don’t already seem to be creeping in. “What about your friend?” he tries. “The one you were meant to call from the car? Will she get concerned when she doesn’t hear from you?”
This gives the redhead pause.
“Well…she does watch quite a bit of Law & Order.” She mulls it further, but eventually shakes her head. “But any promptness about it is unlikely. She’ll just assume I’m wallowing in self-indulgent misery, listening to moody podcasts or something. What about you? Please tell me someone’s going to miss your immediate absence?”
James pretends to ponder it, but considering his grand plans for the rest of the day had consisted of beating his own high score on Candy Crush, poorly training his cat, and roving his drawer of take-away menus for the best lunch special, it’s not likely.
He does not see the need to spew these exact details to her, however.
“Two days from now, if I don’t call my mum for our weekly chat, she will absolutely immediately contact the United Nations,” he relays instead, sadly dead serious. “But until then…likely not.”
The redhead wilts. This is not the answer she was hoping for.
“Right.” She runs a tired hand down her face. “Two days. United Nations. Not helpful.”
James would make another crack about Interpol and her dangerous disregard for international policing bodies, but something tells him she’s still not quite of the mind to appreciate that particular line of hilarity. “So we…?”
“Bang and holler? Yeah, reckon so.” Before James can even say a word, her head jerks around. She’s quite gimlet-eyed. “And I mean ‘bang and holler’ as in ‘thrash the walls and yell for help’, not ‘loudly procreate in the elevator car.’ ”
He blinks. “Right.”
“Just to be clear.”
“Clearness is good.”
“Not that I think you’re a dodgy molester or anything. But you never know.”
“Why can’t you be the dodgy molester?”
She reaches down to slip off one of her heeled shoes. “That’s statistically unlikely.”
“You were looking to hire a male escort literally four minutes ago,” James reminds her flatly. “My maths was never that strong, but I reckon—statistically—that makes you an outlier, not the curve, no?”
She grins, jabs her shoe at him. “Touché, my good man. Touché.”
Then she spins on her bare foot, whacks her shoe against the metal doors, and begins to shout.
. 12:37 .
“I’m Lily, by the way.” She sticks out her hand. “Lily Evans.”
Slumping back against the elevator wall, James slips his hand into hers. “James Potter.”
Her handshake is firm. Her lips tip, gamefully grim. “Well, James Potter…I think we’re going to be spending some time together today.”
James lets out a knackered, halfhearted laugh.
Banging and hollering, they’ve quickly discovered, is both fruitless and exhausting. They’d put some effort into it at first, clattering and yelling with hopeful zeal, stopping every once in awhile to see if they heard something on the other side of the closed doors, some acknowledgment of their plight. But as one minute turned into five, five into ten…hope slowly but steadily slipped away. Banging and hollering—in all instances—is tiring business. It’s not astrophysics to discern the attempts are falling on deaf ears.
So the pair of them had slumped to the ground in defeat, Lily with one heeled shoe still off, James half-sitting on one of her many errant tote bags that litter the elevator floor. She reaches for one of them now, fishing inside and coming back out with a generously-sized bottle of champagne.
“When all else fails, get a little bit sloshed,” she announces, expertly unwrapping the top. She has nimble fingers, quick-working. It’s only moments before she’s popping the cork, which smacks against the useless lift wall. She brings the mildly frothing top to her mouth to quell any overflow. When she’s satisfied it has frothed its last, she removes her mouth and then gives the bottle lip a slight wipe with her sleeve. “I don’t have glasses,” she tells him regretfully, offering the bottle. “We’ll have to share germs.”
James does not have a problem with that. He accepts the bottle without qualm, though he’s been known to get a bit stupid on champagne. The bubbles go straight to his head. Still, a little bit sloshed sounds rather lovely right about now. “You always carry bottles of champagne around with you?” he asks, taking a swig.
“Life’s a party,” she offers with a quick smile. (James’s stomach does a bit of a flip-flop, which he’s certain is the bubbles. Probably.) “Or, you know, my sister’s engagement party begins at five. One or the other.”
“Oh. Shit.” James winces sympathetically. She does appear quite done up, now that he considers it. She’s got a floral dress on under the green coat, not to mention the heels. “That’s not good.”
“No, it is not.” She takes the bottle back from him, tipples another sip. “We don’t get on. My sister and me, that is. She rather despises me, actually. Might throw a mini celebration at my absence. But my dad’s dead and my mum’s fragile at best, and she’s putting the whole thing on in our tiny garden, so I wanted to be there to help Mum survive the day.”
“That’s…difficult.” It’s an insufficient adjective, but James is not really certain what else to say. He doesn’t know her. He can’t be certain how long they’ll be here. “Five isn’t for ages, though. It’s still possible you’ll make it in time. How far is it?”
“Twenty minutes or so.” She sighs. Rubs at her eyes. “But then there’s also the date thing.”
“Mum likes to worry. She doesn’t really get law school, or why someone might choose to pursue it in lieu of picket fences and babies. So to keep her mildly happy and to save myself from poking my eye out with a fork at every conversation, I may have told her I’ve got a boyfriend. Even though I haven’t. And she may be expecting to meet him today.”
“Ah.” James can’t quite keep back the smirk. “The escort service.”
“Right-o.” She takes another long swig, then shoots him a flinty stare. “Don’t judge me.”
James splays his hands up innocently. “No judgment.”
“I haven’t got time to find a boyfriend,” she defends stiffly, likely not for the first time. “Do you have any idea how difficult law school is? When I’m not in class, I’m in the library, or at home studying, or trying to remember to eat. Unless she expects me to start chatting up the spotty check-out clerk who rings up my digestives at the Tesco Express, I’m not certain what she wants from me.”
“Hey, I’m on your side,” James insists, giving his head a rueful shake. “Trust me, if I could get a fake girlfriend past my mum, I’d be ringing up agencies right beside you. Unfortunately, my mum’s an evil genius who’s eight steps ahead of everyone, always. She’d sniff out the ruse before we even got through the door. She may in fact work for Interpol. I’ve never been able to disprove it.”
Lily cocks an eyebrow. “Reckon she can give them our devout apologies, then, and get this elevator working?”
“Likely. Though, come to think of it, she may have been the one to shut it down.”
“Made her cross, have you?”
“No. I mean you.” At her confused stare, James nods firmly. “Oh, yes. Meddling extraordinaire, Euphemia Potter is, and not the least bit subtle about it. And you? Clever, gorgeous girl who tries to please her mum and is studying to be a barrister? You’re her dream daughter-in-law.” James stops, sighs, reconsiders. “Actually, no. On second thought, she’d quickly decide you’re too good for me. She’s very realistic that way. She’d set you up with Idris Elba instead.”
“Your mum knows Idris Elba?”
“My mum knows everyone.”
“I think Idris Elba is already engaged.”
“Engaged isn’t married.”
Lily shakes her head, but James thinks he spots a bit of red cresting across her cheeks. “Yes, well.” She clears her throat, fidgets. “I think I’ll leave Idris to his present happiness all the same. But if your mum wouldn’t mind somehow transferring her stamp of approval over to my own mother, I’d be much obliged.”
James gives a brisk salute. “I’ll get her right on it.”
They both laugh.
James decides he likes Lily Evans, there in that moment. Not that he’d expected to dislike her, of course, but James is honest enough to admit that there have been many-a-time in the past when he’s been shallowly dazzled by a girl’s appearance only to be immediately disappointed when they’ve attempted anything more than looking. Sometimes it’s him, sometimes it’s her, sometimes it’s neither, but inevitably there’s a fizzle. An unpleasant fizzle. Not a champagne, giddy-stomach, smile-when-she-smiles sort of fizzle. Not that James knows if this here with Lily is that exactly—frankly, he could already just be that tipsy. He hadn’t bothered with breakfast and champagne is the enemy—but it’s…well, he likes her. As he’s said. She’s clever and funny. Driven and a bit of an oversharer, really. Interesting. She’s got edges, and James fancies edges.
Or James is drunk.
Though that seems unlikely, three sips in.
He doesn’t know.
But fortunately (unfortunately?), seems he’s got nothing but time to figure it out.
“So, James Potter.” Lily pushes off the elevator wall, turns to look at him fully. Her green eyes glint with grudging amusement and her lips quirk upward. She lifts a pointed eyebrow. “What exactly do we do now?”
. 1:09 .
“We don’t know one another that well.”
“Mm…fifty-three minutes and counting.”
“Right. So I hope you don’t take this the wrong way… but I think you may have a slightly unhealthy obsession with your cat.”
James glances up from where he’s been attempting to get her old, dodgy phone to respond to his prompts. It’s frozen now, stuck with the twirling circle of endless buffering. She sits beside him, long legs extended out and casually crossed. She’d put her shoe back on, but shucked her coat. She’s watching him very carefully, his phone in her hand.
“‘Unhealthy’?” he repeats.
Lily flips his phone around. A picture of Algernon, James’s spectacular ginger cat, fills the large display. He is perched on James’s bed and staring with utter boredom at the camera, as is his usual. Lily’s finger swipes across the screen. A second picture of Algernon appears—in a bowler hat, ha HA, that hilarious bastard. Swipe. A third. Swipe. A fourth. Swipe…swipe, swipe, swipe, swipe—
“You have 849 pictures on here,” she says slowly. “And I’m rather certain 400 of them are of your cat.”
James grins as her next swipe reveals an image of Algernon and a bacon sandwich (which Algernon, despite numerous prompts, had not fetched. James had gone through a phase where he’d been trying to employ a sort of Pavlovian tactic—see my face, fetch the bacon sandwich—but the whole thing had rather backfired, whereas now every time James saw Algernon’s face, he wanted a bacon sandwich, so he ended up making one himself, which Algernon inevitably stole. But really, classic either way). “400 sounds like a rather low-range estimate, actually,” he muses.
“I know. I was striving to be kind.”
“What have you got against cats?”
“I haven’t got anything against cats,” Lily insists. “What I have got is a few questions for any twenty-four-year-old whose entire camera roll consists of images of his cat, selfies, selfies with his cat, selfies of his best mates with his cat, his mum with his cat—then a strange string of tube and bus stop ads. What’s that about?—more cat—”
James lunges to snatch his phone from her, but she lifts it out of his reach. “I’m a bloke of limited interests,” he defends.
“Those being felines and your own face?”
“Specific felines and my magnificent face.”
“You are very talented at the selfie,” Lily concedes, lifting his phone up again. She squints an eye as she compares one of his captured images with its in-the-flesh counterpart. Her expression is teasingly approving. “Very nice.”
James refuses to be pleased or flustered when she’s just nearly insulted the best animal to ever grace the cosmos. “It’s all in the angles and lighting.”
“Algernon teach you that?”
“No. Kim Kardashian.” He’d offer a few more Kardashian-inspired pointers for her own selfie technique, but Lily’s phone is still frozen, so he has no first-hand examples of what he’s dealing with. “I think your phone is frizted,” he tells her.
“It’s fine.” Lily holds out her hand, fingers wiggling. James hands the mobile over. She scrunches up her lips, jabs repeatedly at the lock button, then bangs the phone a few times against the floor. She lifts it back up, presses the lock button one more time, then grins. “All fixed.”
James accepts it back with amusement. “You need a new phone.”
Lily snorts. “Sure. Anytime you’ve got seven hundred quid lying around, sign me up.”
He winces. Right. She’s a student, likely isn’t rolling in pounds, and he’s a knob. “You can get a refurbished one—”
“And risk having some skeevy blighter’s Cloud sync up with mine, dropping eight hundred dick pics in my lap? No thank you.” She lifts his phone, gives it a jaunty wave. “I am glad to see a severe lack of that on here, by the way. Bravo.”
“Bravo?” James rears back. “You thought I’d let you snoop through my mobile if I had pictures of my penis on display?”
“I have quit trying to guess at the inner workings of males and images of their genitals.”
“Life of the modern woman, mate.”
“And you’re complaining about my cat?” James glances back down at her phone, shaking his head. She’s laughing all smugly, but he can rid her of that quickly enough. What’s the elitist picture patrol got on her roll that’s so impressive, anyway? Accessible now, he begins mutinously swiping through her gallery, unsurprised to find the usual fare—person(s) + Lily in various climes, arms thrown about each other, grinning or mugging as needed; the occasional well-lit tree or park scenery; a fitting room mirror shot of Lily in what James can only assume is a bridesmaid’s dress, a frilly pale pink number that reaches her toes and has photo!Lily cringing comically at her reflection; several snaps of various types of half-eaten street food, which James surmises are Lily’s way of reassuring numerous concerned parties, “Look! I’ve remembered to eat today!” which is not a problem James has ever had, but apparently would-be barristers do; one pitiful photo of a cute puppy, who is not even Lily’s puppy, as they’d already discussed the sad lack of animals in her life.
Boring, boring, boring, ha.
(Though her photo technique is, annoyingly, quite on point.)
And…well, it’s not like James is specifically looking for males in Lily’s pictures. He’s skimming all of them, causally, dutifully, with vengeance in mind…but perhaps it is not entirely incorrect to mention that he’s not devastated by what seems to be a general lack of potential romantic interests overall. There are a few gents in the group shots, but none particularly recurring, and never any overly familiar with Lily herself. Logically, James acknowledges that this is not terribly surprising—she’s already told him she hasn’t got a boyfriend, and she does not seem the sort to keep reminder photos of old beaus on her very-limited-space phone—but logic is not what James is working with right now. He’s frankly too much emotion, far too soon (fifty-three minutes!), but try telling that to his swiping fingers. They’re speeding quite happily along until he gets toward the end of the roll and pauses on one exception.
The photo definitely isn’t recent—the resolution isn’t as sharp, and Lily’s hair is much longer than it sits now, a bit past her shoulders. But it’s a simple shot of just her and a sharp-nosed, greasy-looking bloke on what seems to be perhaps graduation, and they’re standing close together. She’s smiling; he’s not. Still, looking at it more closely, something in James’s stomach feels indignant, unsettled.
“Don’t tell me this is your type,” he mutters, flipping the phone around to show her. He sounds far more condescending than he means to, feels far snippier than he means to. “No wonder you’re so jaded. He definitely looks the sort to send dick pics.”
Lily pauses in her ardent task of adding selfies of herself to his camera roll, hair ruffled, eyes crossed, tongue out. Her face morphs back to normal as she leans in to look at the photo. Almost immediately, she blanches and recoils.
“Christ, how far back have you gone?” She fairly balks, jabs at the screen. “Bin that.”
James is all too happy to take the phone back and hit the delete button properly. “Bad break up?” he prods. Quit it. It’s none of your bloody fucking business.
“He wasn’t my boyfriend.” She’s back to staring at James’s phone now, but there are no more funny faces. In fact, she slips her sunglasses down over her eyes and her shoulders have a protective slump to them. “Just a…childhood remnant left lingering too long, I guess. We haven’t spoken in years.”
“Oh.” She’s upset. James feels like an arse. “Sorry.”
She shrugs. “It happens.”
Maybe, but that doesn’t mean James had to goad her about it, all because he was jealous—jealous!—fifty-three minutes into their acquaintance. It was mostly accidental, but he still feels like scum. Even just an hour in, he senses she’s a blunt sort of glib, resilient in her frankness, but he’s chinked her armor some. James wants to punch the blighter in the photo right after he punches himself. He hasn’t got any right to be brusque or condemnatory about her love life, or friend life, or any life. He should apologise again, properly. But what is he meant to say? Sorry I was rude about the jackhole in your photo. I seem to have acquired the largest crush on you possible in simply an hour and was overrun by irrational envy. I am a useless ponce, please fancy me anyway?
It’s the equivalent of an emotional dick pic, for fuck’s sake. But he’s got to say something.
She lets out a sudden laugh, the sharp, happy sound cutting him off. James glances up, finds her smiling brightly at his phone again. She flips it around, the screen filled with last year’s Christmas letter photo: Mum, James, Sirius, and Algernon in matching Santa hats and sunglasses, giving what Sirius—that year’s Christmas Letter Creative Director—had termed “moody model moues.” James had photoshopped Dad in afterward, for Fleamont couldn’t quit laughing mid-photo, throwing the rest of them off, and Mum and Sirius had quickly kicked him off set. There were few things those two took more seriously than the yearly Christmas letter.
“That’s a good one,” Lily says.
“The outtakes are better.” James scoots over. He gets a whiff of her perfume—something vanilla-y—as he leans closer and swipes through until he gets to that long run of photos: Dad now in the mix, always mouth-open, expression contorted, mid-chuckle; Mum often similarly agape, mid-yelling; Sirius, hands up, dramatically exasperated; James, making kissing faces at Algernon, who stares at him with his usual, Get hold of yourself, you peasant ennui. The timer had caught some gems.
Lily swipes one picture too far and finds the photo of James Titanic-ing with Algernon on the bow of a yacht and, quite simply, collapses in hilarity.
It’s not an apology, but she is soon laughing so hard she’s nearly tearing up, so that’s something.
. 1:27 .
“Aren’t elevators meant to have escape hatches? All the elevators in films have escape hatches.”
“I don’t think that’s a real thing.”
“This can’t be the first time the bleak realities outside film have disappointed you?”
“I spent months peeking through keyholes trying to catch my toys in action after Toy Story.”
“Adorable? Yes, I know.”
“I was going to say ‘unsurprising’, but thought that might come off too presuming. Rethinking that now.”
“The little buggers are good. I never caught them once.”
“Wasn’t there an elevator escape hatch in Toy Story 2?”
“…fool me once, those bastards.”
. 2:08 .
James hates this game.
He really, really hates this game.
And Lily does not.
Lily seems to be enjoying herself quite thoroughly, actually.
“Drink!” she crows in victory.
James moans loudly. “No-ooo.”
“Then answer.” She thrusts the champagne bottle at him, a taunting consequence. “Those are the rules—you answer or you drink. You agreed to the rules. You made the rules. It is not my fault you get sloppy on champagne.”
“Evil,” he whines, throwing an anguished hand over his eyes, a failed attempt to block it all out. “You are evil.”
She cackles with a fittingly malevolent edge, but does not quit jabbing his side with the champagne bottle. They are lying on their backs, side by side, legs propped up on the elevator wall. James is definitely going to have about twelve showers after all this—fuck only knows what this elevator floor has seen—but he can’t much bring himself to care at present. His face is flushed and it’s not solely because of the several other swigs of champagne he’d been forced to take before this. Lily had quickly caught on to his reluctance to pick ‘drink’ after he’d confessed his issues with bubbly alcoholic beverages, and she’s been gleefully whipping him killer shots ever since.
Not that this particular question really ought to be any kind of knockout swing. She’s only asked him when the last time he’d had sex was, and the date itself is not a big to-do, except for when society says it is, and Lily does not seem the sort to be much affected by societal expectations. But there’s other bits involved, and he’s frankly not certain how to skirt them without sounding like a conceited wanker, not to mention she’s now talking about sex, and James very obviously would like to shag her, and he’s a bit tipsy again, and this seems a horrible combination, still trapped in an elevator with her, a relative (beautiful, brilliant) stranger, one hundred and twelve minutes in.
So he remains tight-lipped and red-faced, being poked by a bottle.
“Go on,” she bullies. “Sex is natural. Fly your flag. This is not embarrassing.”
“I’m not embarrassed,” James lies.
“Well, you’re certainly something. Look how shifty-eyed you’ve got.” She smirks. “Which has now made this verrr-y interesting. Are you still a virgin, then?”
James shoots her a look. “No—though please note your judgmental tone of surprise. Virginity is a construct, you know.”
She rolls her eyes. “Yes, thank you, Introduction to Gender Studies. And it wasn’t a judgmental tone of surprise.”
“Yes, it was.” He swats at her. “And quit poking me!”
“Was it…this morning?” Her head whips around. She’s somewhat horrified (fly your flag, his arse) but mostly amused, and does not mask either very well. “Oh god, you randy blighter. You’ve literally had sex this morning, haven’t you? We’re talking hours. You have Joe Keery hair. It all makes sense.”
“I have better hair than Joe Keery.”
“Ha! Delusion, thy name is James. But you’re not going to distract me. What is it?”
“Mind your own!”
“Then answer.” She pokes more. Poke, poke, poke, poke, poke. “Drink or answer. The rules—”
“It has been,” he finally pronounces, cutting her off with all glares, all outrage, “some time.”
“How much time?” She’s quit jabbing him, at least. “ ‘Some’ is not an answer.”
James is all dignified primness. He swipes her sunglasses off her head and slips them on himself. Over his own specs, he probably looks like a maniac, but he appreciates the comforting tint. “Time is a construct, too.”
“You are prevaricating.” Oi, Christ, with the big words and the poking again. “What’s your damage, Heather?”
“Dunno why you’re so obsessed with my sex life in the first place, Lily Evans,” he tries. “We should unpack that.”
“Will do, as soon as we unpack why you’re so reticent in talking about it.” She steals her sunglasses back, pushes them up her nose. (She does not look like a maniac.) Her pink lips purse thoughtfully. “You’re almost irritatingly loquacious about everything else, not to mention vainly self-aware. Lemme guess—erectile dysfunction? There are drugs for that, you know.”
“I do not—” James huffs in a sharp breath. She is attempting to goad him into a response with the penis play, of all things. And he’s fallen for it. The shame. Normally he would not have succumbed, wouldn’t mind explaining in simple terms his views on fornication, except Lily is very canny and too blunt for her own good and would no doubt see right through to the heart of the thing, bypassing whatever simple he offers, excavating down to the more complicated, and that makes him want to squirm.
But she’s also determined—resolute and single-minded, like the runaway train speeding down the rails—and James is wise enough to know he’s no match for her kind of locomotive.
So he spews it out in part. “I don’t shag outside of relationships.”
“Oh?” He has her attention now. She pushes the sunglasses back up her head. Her green eyes narrow, regarding him speculatively. “Interesting.”
“Right.” He crosses his arms over his chest. “That’s it.”
“And your last relationship was…?”
Dull and predictable. 1/5000 the length of this one, and yet inexplicably can’t compare. “Five months ago.”
“Ah.” Then, nearly immediately: “Why?”
(Which James supposes is better than how, as he’s endlessly keen on avoiding any discussion of masturbation and pornography inclinations, thank you very much, but all the same—)
“Why haven’t I been in a relationship since?” Pot! Kettle! “You are one to bloody talk—”
“No. Why do you only have sex in relationships?”
“That’s a different question. And it’s not your turn.”
She jabs him again, with her finger this time. “Come off it.”
He jabs back. He’s not expanding on this. He’ll sound like a raging egomaniac. Or worse. “Come off what? Who are we to thwart the game? Or was it not just you who was all but chanting ‘rules, rules, rules’—”
“I have a working theory this seems to support. I want to see if it’s correct.” She rolls up to her knees, sweeping her legs to the side, floral skirt pooling about her thighs. Her gaze is far too knowing, far too pleased, and James doesn’t like it. He wants her sunglasses back, but they’re too far away. He knew she wouldn’t let this lie. “Why do you only have sex in relationships, James?”
“Because I’m a sentimental sod.” Which isn’t even a lie. “My body is a temple.”
She does not disagree with these (naturally), but waves them off. “And?”
“Fornication can lead to procreation, and the world isn’t ready for two of me yet.”
“You joke when you get jumpy.”
“Is that your theory?”
“No. Do you want to hear it?”
“Is ‘no’ a real option?”
“It’s a rich person thing.” She says it so simply, so offhand. “You know, stemming from the larger, ‘My dad created Sleekeazy Hair Solutions, and I am thus filthy, disgustingly wealthy, and always have been, and I am wildly self-conscious and uncomfortable about it’ paradox.”
The what, what, what?
James chokes off a feral laugh. “The larger what?”
Her lips are fair quivering with satisfied victory. “The rampant rich-person guilt complex.” Her hands fold in her lap. “I reckon you’ve got one.”
James stares at her. His…oh, Christ. This is the most extra, outlandish claim he has ever heard. And he spent ten years living with Sirius, who has never met a psychological diagnosis he didn’t want to WebMD and incorrectly attribute to self, friends, and strangers alike.
“You are,” he laughs, “so off.”
“All right.” She says the words agreeably enough, but her eyes blaze with Knowing. Delusional Knowing. “I could be wrong, of course. It’s been known to happen—rarely. And we have only known each other…” She grabs her phone from the floor, does quick maths. “…one hundred and eighteen minutes.”
“Right.” James nods definitively. He sits up from the floor, too. Something tells him he ought not be giving up his physical advantage right now. “Exactly. One hundred and eighteen minutes.”
“And that bit about no casual shagging”—she waves a hand—“that’s not because you reckon women want to fuck you for your money?”
“That’s…different.” Except that it isn’t, because sometimes they do. Have done. But you just don’t say it. “Redirect, barrister.”
“Fair enough.” She twirls a bit of hair around her finger. Innocently. Too innocently. “And your job.”
“You work for a charity foundation.” Her head tilts. “Right?”
Well, there was a more complicated answer to that one for certain, but James was hardly going to get into that. So he merely bristles. “Yes. What of it?”
“Nothing,” Lily replies. “Just building a profile. And earlier—when you thought I ought to buy a new phone, and I sassed you about the price? You didn’t kick yourself for it?”
“Of course I kicked myself for it. It was a knobbish thing to say. Presume.”
“It was a logical thing to presume,” Lily corrects. “My phone is rubbish. No one in the world should put up with it. I only have done because I need to.”
“And that’s your evidence?” James shakes his head in disbelief. “That I’m disinclined to ulterior-motived fucking, that I spend my days conjuring up ways to squeeze money out of people for a cause, and one well-placed wince?”
She nods. “More or less, yeah.”
“It’s not a bad thing.”
“Talk about presuming!”
“In the larger picture, having rampant rich person guilt is loads better than having rampant rich person ignorance.”
“Why are those my only two options?”
“They aren’t,” Lily says. “I’m just conveying my theory.”
“Your theory is crap,” James gripes. “I haven’t got a complex.”
Or, James thinks, he’s rather certain he doesn’t.
“My turn.” He’ll flip this on her, the smug little wretch. “When was the last time you had sex?”
“Me? Hmm…a few weeks ago?” Her face is utterly placid. “Single-night shag. He was called Ted, or Craig, something that ends in a consonant…probably. I picked him up at a pub and then sneaked out like a pilfering thief the next morning before he woke up, because it wasn’t that great and there’s nothing worse than idle morning chat after it’s not that great, and also I had class.” She buffs her nailbeds against her collarbone, sniffs, examines them. “Not my finest moment, I admit, but it was getting dusty down there.”
James is cross that he smiles, but how can he not? Because he likes her, even though her psychoanalyzing is rubbish and Ted or Craig or Whoever-Consonant-He-Was should burn in hell.
She perks up and grabs the champagne bottle again.
“My turn,” she sings.
“This isn’t fair,” he complains, watching her mull over likely endlessly clever and devilish possibilities. “Nothing throws you. You’re a fortress of glibness, and I have complexes I didn’t even know about.”
She grins at that, a pretty, sunny one that is very clearly delighted at his tacit acquiescing, but James refuses to be dazzled by it. Mostly.
“There’s plenty that throws me,” she insists. “You just don’t know how to ask the right questions. Or you’re too polite to try. It’s an unfair advantage, really. Girls spend years’ worth of sleepovers playing this game. You’re brand new.”
“I should have a handicap, then.” James nods. “Like golf.”
“Golf is stupid.”
“This is stupid.”
“Fine. We’ll give you a handicap. Your turn again.”
“What throws you?”
Lily tosses back her head and laughs. “Oh, well done. The student learns quickly.”
James will not pretend not to be quite smug about that.
“What throws me. What throws me.” She tucks her lower lip into her mouth, nibbles on it thoughtfully. “Plenty, really.”
“What’s plenty?” James parrots. “ ‘Plenty’ is not an answer.”
“I hate being wrong,” is what she starts with, nodding slowly with the admission. “To, honestly, a severely detrimental extent. I will argue nonsensically to the end on something simply to avoid having to admit to it. My dad used to question it, nudge at me, ‘Are you really willing to die on this hill?’ And I would say yes. Always. Even when I was so obviously in the wrong. And few people really call me out on it anymore. I reckon it will come in use in court someday, but everywhere else…” She lifts her hands, shrugs. “Not so much. And I’m big enough to admit it likely makes me a tad insufferable at times.”
“You don’t say,” James mutters, which earns him a playful thump in the arm.
“Oi. Be nice. Or the fortress closes back up.” But despite the threat, she seems to settle into the question, willing to play along with it. She takes her time, too, which James also finds intriguing. He rarely takes his time with anything. Probably half his problem. But why bother lingering, when rushing ahead blindly usually serves him just as well? “And I suppose…part and parcel with that…” More pauses, lip nibbling. “I can be…well, I can be too forgiving, let people get away with things I shouldn’t, just so I don’t have to admit I was wrong about them. I’ve burned myself a good few times there.”
Something in the way her lips quirk downward suddenly, the mild wince of it, reminds James of earlier. “Like with the sod in your picture from earlier?” he asks. “The one you had me bin?”
She jerks a bit in surprise. “Oh. Er, yeah. Like that. I didn’t think you’d…” Her eyes get a bit squinty, but amused. “You’re quick. I didn’t think you’d remember that.”
James is rather certain he’s going to remember every single sodding second of this nightmare elevator trip. But that one hadn’t been rocket science.
“What happened there?” he asks instead.
She has every right to bristle, shrug, vacillate. If it were him, he might fall back on the game, claim, “You’ve only got the one handicap!” and laugh it off. He’s not particularly good at talking about things that make him uncomfortable, tends to joke or make a mess of himself, as this past half-hour has made abundantly clear. If she chose that route, he’d let her. She’d pegged him for it earlier—he’s simply too polite to force the issue much.
But he is interested. He may have only known Lily Evans for…one hundred and twenty-four minutes…but she doesn’t seem the sort to let people walk all over her. At all. Yet by her own admission, it’s happened before.
The fortress has dents in her walls, apparently.
“We were childhood friends,” she tells him slowly, seeming to be tip-toeing her way through the words. “When I was younger…I don’t know. I’m a fixer and a nurturer by nature. I reckon that’s what tricked me into it from the start. If ever there was a person who needed fixing and nurturing, it was Sev. He had a really shitty home, and I liked that I was able to make him feel better, and he was the sort of person who seemed to always have an answer for everything, and I was perpetually filled with questions.” She smiles without pleasure. “It didn’t occur to me until I was a bit older that just because he had an answer to something didn’t make it the right one.”
She lets out another long breath, fiddles absently with the ends of her hair. “Years went on, things got worse. I let him get away with so much—too much—so certain I’d been right about him at age seven, that he’d snap back into decency. I despised his friends, was disgusted by the filth rhetoric they spouted, the cruel things they found funny…hated how easily Sev ate it all up to make himself feel important. There were a lot of holes left in him, I always knew that, but when given the choice, he filled them with tar, and I spent way too much time attempting to clean out a sieve that wasn’t even my responsibility to begin with. He’d treat me terribly, all the while claiming to have my best interests at heart. Even said he loved me once, at the end, but I’m rather positive he didn’t really know what that meant and wasn’t looking to learn. Eventually, it wasn’t worth it to have been right about him. So I cut anchor after graduation. Went to uni. Tried to learn something from it all.”
“And did you?” James asks, wanting to lay out this blighter even more now, fairly quaking with it. Wanting to wrap his arms around lovely, kind, soft-hearted Lily Evans more, squeeze her hard.
She chokes out a humourless laugh. “You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But then here I am, on my way to my sister’s engagement party, trying to bribe her into being halfway decent to me with presents and bubbly and appetizers.” She shakes her head, all rueful self-recrimination. “Some impulses you just can’t shake, I suppose.”
She may not be wrong about that, but James reckons she’s not quite right, either.
Lily Evans is nearly all good impulses. He’d stake his life on that one.
“If the worst thing you can say about yourself is that you’re willing to give people too many chances to be decent,” he says flatly, “then I think you’re doing all right.”
This earns him a proper smile, her first in this particular question set, and James feels a bit like a champion. Christ, even her fortress dents are appealing. This is terrible.
Made worse, when she reaches out and chuffs at his hair. “You’re a decent sort, James Potter.” Her green eyes twinkle at him. “Even if you have got a rich person complex.”
“Thank you,” James replies gruffly. She’s touched him. “I try.”
“And you’re getting good at this game.” She resettles herself on the floor, gets a diabolical sort of shimmy to her. “Which means I’ve got to quit going easy on you now.”
“That was easy?” James chokes.
Lily lifts the champagne bottle back off the floor, palms it idly between her two hands as she regards him shrewdly and concocts—Lord help him—difficult questions.
When she perks up, eyes brightened with idea, James does not feel wrong to acknowledge the vague shot of panic.
“Tell me,” she says, “your biggest secret.”
I think I may be in love with you, James immediately thinks, startling even himself. Then: Or Ron. I could tell her about Ron.
Neither of these things, James is quick to recognize, are ever, ever in a million years going to leave his mouth.
The first, because, frankly, that’s insane.
The second, because…well, same thing, really.
He is not going to tell her.
The first or the second.
Of course he’s not going to tell her.
. 2:59 .
He’s told her.
Lord bloody hell, he’s told her.
Not about the first bit—hell, even he’s not that bonkers—but about the other. The second. The, arguably, much worse.
He hasn’t told anyone, not a single other person in its entirety in all these weeks—for reasons!—but now he’s told her.
A stranger. A friend. A more than friend. A destiny, maybe, if one believed in that sort of thing, which—today—James may just be foolish enough to do.
Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.
She regards him disconcertedly through slitted eyes, munching idly on a pretzel dipped in hummus (“Oh, we’re definitely going to need sustenance for this,” she’d muttered when he first started, whipping out the snack from another of her bottomless totes. So much for sisterly bribery). She hasn’t said much yet, content instead to merely nibble on her treat and listen with rapt attention as he rambles on. James can hardly blame her. He’s managed to stun himself into silence, as well. What can one really say, after all, to confessions of this caliber?
There is nothing to say.
Absolutely, embarrassingly, nothing to say.
But this is Lily Evans, a superhuman, so she is naturally not silent for long.
“So, let me see if I have this.” She finishes off the last of her pretzel, mouth playing with it, savoring it, like she’s likely playing with all the ways in which she can escape this elevator and the absolute nodcock she’s managed to get herself trapped with. “You are…catfishing your father?”
James chokes and sputters.
Stammers and snorts.
He is a fish, gulping and gasping, all gills and no watery oxygen to fill them.
Fucking hell, this woman.
“I am not,” he replies with all the outraged dignity he can manage, “catfishing my father.”
“I’m sorry. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood, then.” She grabs another pretzel, swirls it around in the hummus. “You are…not pretending to be someone else, communicating with him as this other person, through the anonymous masks of modern technology?”
Put that way.
He glares at her. “Quit making it sound so sordid! I’m not posing as an ingénue, asking him to send nudes, for fuck’s sake. I just…I’m only…”
“Catfishing,” Lily supplies again, grinning. He opens his mouth to argue, and she amends, “Professionally catfishing. Or, rather—amateur catfishing in a professional-minded capacity. No nudes or particular skill involved.”
James drops his head into his hands and groans. Loudly.
“I told you,” he whinges. “It all got out of hand really quickly.”
“I never meant…how was I to know it would take off like this?”
“Well”—more swirling—“you had to hope, no?”
James doesn’t know what he’d hoped. That’s part of the problem.
“I just…acted,” he confesses, gripping his hair. “For weeks—months—Dad’s been griping about Useless Ben and his shit marketing plans and how he’s got to sack him and find someone else. Sales are stagnant. Sleekeazy’s fading in the modern zeitgeist. Everything’s very grim and bothered. And then I’m waiting for the tube one day, not even really thinking about it…and there. It’s there.”
“Your idea,” Lily fills in.
James nods. “There’s this girl, see? Listening to music on her phone? She’s got headphones, but it’s so bloody loud she’s got to be rupturing her eardrums, I swear. We can all hear it. ‘Take On Me,’ of all things. And then Toto’s ‘Africa.’ And she’s got this hair—just all curly and really big and very on-point for her personal 80s morning soundtrack, right? And I’m thinking, ‘Well, that’s apt. Her hair matches her music.’ ” James grabs Lily’s arm. Squeezes. “Her hair matches her music.”
Lily is very clearly biting back a smile. “Lightbulb.”
“Right! Lightbulb!” James is talking quickly now—maybe too quickly, but this was how it all started. Excitement. Eagerness. Blind tunnel-vision and really, really poor decisions. “Because she’s not the only one, is she? Different types of music stroll hand-in-hand with certain hairstyles all the time! Grungy grease and beehive 60s and streak-haired punk rock…or maybe you’re my octogenarian neighbor, Melba, who uses approximately nine bottles of hairspray a day, looking like Doris Day, but listens—loudly and, as far as I can tell, exclusively—to One Direction.” James waves a wild hand—the possibilities. “Match or mismatch, who cares? ‘These are my hair products and this is my playlist.’ Bus stop and tube ads. Close-up of the person in the middle, done up with their best look. Playlist on their left, Sleekeazy products that made it happen on the right. It’s so simple.”
James can still remember standing there on the tube platform, a bit stunned at his own idea, thinking, “Well, someone’s had to have done this already.” Rushing to his job at the charity foundation, ignoring Remus, who’d been trying to get his attention on some actual job matter, blind in his frantic Googling and researching, seeing if this could work. Could it? Would it? His mind had been awhirl.
“You could bring in Spotify or Apple Music,” James goes on, fleshing it all out now as he had then. “Tidal, if you’re keen on Beyonce. Get other celebrity endorsers, too. Half of them already curate their own playlists on these services anyway. Rather universal, isn’t it? Hair and music? It’d be almost too simple to tie all together. Or…” James sighs, swipes his hand through his hair again. His mum is constantly on him to quit doing that. It’s a nervous tic. “Or, it could have been simple. In execution, anyway. The idea was there. The potential. But then I… got nervous.”
“Nervous,” Lily repeats with understanding.
James winces. “Dunno. I just thought…well, what the fuck do I know, anyway? I run communications for a charity organization, mostly because I’m good at putting on events and charming people out of their money. I have a bloody Classics degree. I did uni for laughs and the potential of free alcohol. I didn’t study any of this. I have no practical experience. I know fuck-all about markets or sales or how to ring up Spotify and say, ‘Got an idea for you, mates!’ I could be Useless Ben Part Two. And…well, Sleekeazy is sort of a subject all its own.”
Lily tilts her head in question. “What’s that mean?”
James shifts uncomfortably. God, he hates getting into this. “My dad’s always wanted me to work for the company.”
“And you…didn’t?” Lily asks.
“I didn’t,” James affirms, which is a truly simplistic way of putting it, but it’s the answer all the same. “Or—I suppose I didn’t like the way he was going about it. When I was younger, it was just assumed, you know? ‘Oh, look, you’re decent with numbers. Perhaps you’ll take up CFO’ or ‘Well, that’s the sixth volcano you’ve blown up, so I suppose Sleekeazy’s not getting a new R&D executive!’ Things like that.”
Lily bites her pretzel and nods.
James knows how it all sounds. “You don’t have to say it. I know. It’s the most swotty, privileged problem to have, yeah? Dad wants to hand over his multi-billion pound company, and poor pampered ponce is balking. Talk about your rampant rich-person complex.”
“I wouldn’t put it quite like that.” Lily swallows and shrugs. “You’re entitled to want your own path. Complexes aside.”
“I don’t fight with my parents,” James tells her, honestly, solemnly. This is where it all gets bleaker. “They’re not…I was a late surprise. They’d tried for years and had rather given up on kids when I appeared. Neither of them is in their first bloom of youth. And they’ve done nothing in their entire lives except love me blindly and unconditionally, even at my most difficult, and I know I’m lucky to have that.” He wasn’t going to get into Sirius’s history just now—it wasn’t his place, and would deviate off point besides—but suffice to say that James knew how damaging it could be to have a family that didn’t support or love you enough. And sounds as if Lily did, too. “I’m always keenly aware of it. But after I’d graduated…and Dad kept thrusting Sleekeazy job postings at me, just waiting for me to pick one, expecting me to pick one…I…snapped.”
James shudders just remembering the bitter scene. Any old Friday, his mum and dad in the dining room midway through dinner, just idly chatting about a position opening in executive that would be just perfect for James—he’s so organized, such a people person, he’d love it so much, they’ll just ring up Rhonda in HR, shall they? It’ll all be set by Monday. And James had sat there in his chair, clutching his fork with white-knuckled fingers, growing angrier and angrier for no reason that separated itself from a million other conversations exactly like this one…and that was it. He’d exploded.
“I just…lost it,” he tells Lily, fairly wincing with the memory. “I yelled. I called them selfish, of all things. I told them I’d work at Sleekeazy’s over my dead body. Dad went white. Mum—who always has something to say—could barely get a word out. It was…ugly. Irrational. Unfair. I apologised afterward, so many times, but…well, needless to say they quit harping about a position at the company after that. Wouldn’t so much as mutter Sleekeazy in my presence for months. It was…bad.”
It was, frankly, the worst James had ever felt about himself in his life.
He feels a sudden weight settle on his hand, and jerks in surprise. Lily’s fingers grip his, firm, understanding. Her skin is soft, and he feels the warmth of it down to his toes. When he glances up, she’s regarding him kindly. Too kindly. More kindly than his stomach is protesting he deserves.
“You’re allowed to have ugly moments,” she tells him. “It happens.”
“I know,” James concedes, because he does. Sort of. “But this was…two years ago? Barely? And there I am now, with this ad campaign idea. For Sleekeazy’s. One that, for all I knew, was utter rubbish. And I was meant to just go up and present it to him? After all that? The huge row? Making my parents feel like that? I couldn’t. It’s as if all of it would have been for nothing. But the bloody idea wouldn’t leave my head.” He clutches that traitorous body part now, shakes it. “And then Dad finally sacked Useless Ben, and I knew they were sort of at odds and ends, and I thought…there’s a way I can do this.”
Lily’s kindness takes on a humoured tint. “By submitting it under someone else’s name?”
James gives a hapless shrug. “It didn’t seem so insane at the time. A large part of me was still rather convinced I’d fixated on a heap of turd anyway, so in that case—why risk the headaches? I pulled together my notes, spent days creating mock-ups and scavenging whatever contacts I could to give this thing legitimacy. And there’s this woman who heads the advertising team—Sarah. Really brilliant, no nonsense. If I’d concocted a dung pile, she’s the first one who’d tip the whole thing into the rubbish bin, good day and good night, on to the next. No harm, no foul. So one day, I stopped by the office to take Dad to lunch, and I slipped the package onto her desk. Left it with a cover note, ‘Enclosed is the campaign proposal commissioned by Ben Browning. Blah, blah, much obliged. Signed, Ron A. Glen.’ ” Here, James winces, nearly whines. “Sarah was meant to tip it in the rubbish bin.”
“But she didn’t,” Lily guesses with amusement. “She liked it.”
“She loved it.” James moans, still hardly able to believe that. “She e-mailed Ron the very next morning. I got to Friday dinner with my parents and Dad was beaming. Useless Ben had done something Significantly Not Useless. Except when Sarah rung him about it, he couldn’t even recall commissioning anything. Which made him Useless once more.”
That had been James’s hope all along—using Useless Ben’s uselessness to his advantage, sorry ol’ boy—but he’d sat there at dinner sort of stunned by how seamlessly it was all going off. Listening to Dad extol the brilliance of this fellow Ron, raving about how much the team loved the idea, how quickly they were all working to make it happen…it had been the most surreal thing James has ever experienced. He’s not certain he’d eaten a thing that night, just prodded his food around the plate in astonished, blind, manic, giddy panic.
“It all happened so quickly,” James says, shamefaced and resigned. “There’s this super dodgy genius teenager who lives in my building called Mal. He helped me set up the front corporation for licenses and payments—Glen Advertising & Creative.”
“A front corporation?” Lily’s mouth gapes. She snorts. “That is hardly ‘everything happening so quickly’, James!”
“I didn’t know what else to do!” he cries. “Sarah was asking for details! Mal set up a website!”
“A website?” Lily covers her face, keels over in her laughter. “Oh god.”
“I know.” He wants to laugh as well, but it’s too sad when it’s his reality. “There are business cards, too. And an address that leads to a questionable bodega where Mal buys his pot. They give me a free bag every time I pick up my mail. And whenever I chat on the phone to anyone at Sleekeazy, I have to mask my voice”—he coughs, rasps—“like this.”
Lily wipes her eyes laughing, clutches her stomach. “Stop. Oh, god. This is too much.”
“Stop laughing!” he shouts. “This is very serious!”
“You are catfishing your dad!” she strangles out. “And a multibillion-pound corporation!”
“I know.” He drops his head against his propped-up knees, banging it a few times. Her continued laughter fills the elevator car. “It’s bloody shambles. Such complete and utter shambles.” Then he lifts his head, sulks at her. “And it’s only getting worse.”
Her eyes go wide. She’s giddy with anticipation. “How?”
“There are meetings next week,” James confesses. “With potential partners. Spotify. Amazon. Apple. Sarah and Dad want Ron there.”
“Oh hell.” Her lips quiver with badly repressed laughter. She grabs his hand again. “James, you have to be at those meetings.”
“They can manage without me,” James insists. “I can make this work. Maybe Ron is agoraphobic.”
“That is the most obvious catfish ploy there is!”
“Be sensitive to Ron and his struggles!”
“Ron is you.”
“Don’t you want to be there?”
“Of course I do!” The words rip out of him, anguished, almost angry, because he does. More than he wants to breathe, he wants to be at those meetings. “But what am I meant to do? This has been going on for weeks. I can’t just stroll into the office, whip off a fake moustache, and shout ‘Surprise!’”
“Well, no, I wouldn’t take that exact tactic,” Lily agrees, still very clearly entertained by all this. But she’s growing more dignified in it now at least, is regarding him with a bit more gravity and respect for his tenuous—if self-afflicted—position. “Look.” She squeezes his hand supportively. He’d be terribly flustered by it again, if he wasn’t so tormented. “Yes, you’ve gotten yourself into a real shitstorm. But you could schedule a meeting with your dad and Sarah. Confess all beforehand. Spring it on them kindly. I mean, what exactly is your alternative?” Her look goes pointed. “Waiting until it blows up in your face? Because it will eventually blow up in your face. You know that. You’re just digging your grave deeper at this point, mate.”
James knows this. He knows all this. He’s been telling himself the very same since practically the day it started. But the idea of walking into headquarters…calling in Dad and Sarah…admitting to this lunacy, this perfidy...
He shakes his head. “I can’t.”
“What exactly do you think they’re going to do?” Lily prods. “Your dad loves you. You can likely murder someone and he’d still stick strong with the ‘Well, I’m certain he had reasons’ defense. This is nothing. And Sarah is a savvy businesswoman, isn’t she? You being a catfishing madman doesn’t erase the fact that you’ve come up with a brilliant campaign.”
These are all good points. She’s a very smart person, Lily is.
“As for the Sleekeazy bit,” she goes on, giving her hand a wave. “Well…you’re not exactly interested in working for the company exclusively anyway, are you? So you’re not negating that row with your parents. Not betraying your hard-gained independence.”
This has James’s attention. He cocks his head, confused. “What do you mean?”
“You’re keen on the work you do with the foundation, right?”
“And you like the work you’re doing now for Sleekeazy.” She doesn’t wait for his confirmation on this one, just keeps going. “So it sounds to me as if you actually want to do what Ron does—Christ, now you have me doing it. What you do. What you’ve already done. Start a PR and advertising consultancy firm. Potter Advertising & Creative.” She grins jauntily. “I’m sure Mal will make you another website. You’ll likely lose some free pot along the way, but sacrifices must be made.”
James blinks. Stares. “A…consultancy firm.”
“Isn’t that what you want to do?” She asks it simply, almost nonplussed. “Isn’t that what you’re doing?”
James isn’t certain how to answer that. Truth be told, up until now, he’s tried very, very hard not to think too hard about or look too deeply into what he’s been doing. It’s so embarrassingly juvenile, so clearly mental, he’s been quite glad to just blindly keep forward with little to no awareness of the rest. Maybe, in some ways, this has been his approach since that row with his parents. Part of James’s frustration with that whole situation had been that he hadn’t had an easy answer to the inevitable question that had followed his refusals to work for the company. That single pointed query: “But if not that…what?”
James didn’t know what. He didn’t know what he wanted to do with himself.
He’d taken the job at the foundation because Remus had been involved for years, had seen James struggling and grappling after the row with his parents, and there’d been a position open in the communications office. He’d more or less charmed his way through the interview. James was good with his brain, when he tried. He was creative. He liked people, was keen on helping them, and admittedly got a bit of a thrill from the unavoidable swindling and dealing that sort of went part and parcel with charity work. The foundation subsisted on how well they were able to get the message of their cause out. James had concocted a strong handful of campaigns to assist with that. He was legend at putting on events that begged attendance. Wasn’t shy about calling in favours from well-placed friends and acquaintances, if it was for the greater good. Maybe it could all get a bit disheartening at times, a bit grubby, but he enjoyed it. It challenged him. Kept his juices flowing.
James didn’t regard it as a lifelong career…but it was something.
An advertising consultancy firm.
‘Potter Advertising & Creative’ did have a bit of a ring to it, didn’t it? Perhaps his first major campaign coming from his own father’s company wasn’t the most independent way to hang out his shingle, but a new company would have to take opportunities where they came. And James had loads of ideas. All the time. True, nine out of ten of them were utter crap, but there was always the one. The good one. He had some of those, didn’t he?
And, well, James had money. Loads and loads of money. It was crass to say it, privileged as hell to take it for granted, likely would not help at all with the alleged complex…but it was also a reality of business. Entrepreneurship required capital. James had capital. Monetary and social.
Potter Advertising & Creative.
His head jerks up, pulled from his thoughts, his daydreams, his plotting and planning and holy hell he can start a consultancy firm? Lily is watching him carefully, clearly unaware of what she’s just done. He wants to hug her. Kiss her. For reasons other than the fact that he fancies her. Though, you know, that, too.
He is only a man. He cannot resist. But he only pecks her on the cheek.
“You are very, very intelligent, did you know that?” he says.
She looks startled, a bit flushed. She laughs somewhat uneasily, but nods firmly enough. “Of course.”
“It’s going to be fucking mortifying, confessing,” he admits, lest they lose that point in all this. “My dad’s going to have a stroke. Sarah is going to want me committed.”
“She’s going to want your idea more,” Lily argues reasonably, still a bit red and twitchy (interesting). “She’ll have you sign all the paperwork clearing it though, then she’ll call the authorities.”
“Fair enough.” James nudges Lily’s side. “I’ll have to hire you as my barrister. To get me released.”
Lily scoffs. “I’m not representing you. I’m on Sarah’s side. You’re touched.”
James laughs—can laugh. Look at that. They both laugh. He really, really, really would like to kiss her again, somewhere other than her cheek, but his luck has only gotten him so far today. They’re stuck in this elevator for who-knows-how-much-longer. If he does something she doesn’t like, if she’s not interested (is she interested?), she’ll still be stuck with him and that’s unfair. To her and to him. He’ll feel like a lecher. She’ll think him a lecher. He’ll ruin this thing happening now, this easy, fizzling camaraderie, among other things. He’s selfish enough to want that to last, coward enough not to test it.
But that doesn’t change the facts: he really, really, really would like to kiss her.
Her features have scrunched up thoughtfully. Suspiciously.
Oh fuck. What now?
“Ron A. Glen…” She says it slowly. “Where’d you come up with that?”
He scratches his neck. Dithers. “Er…you know.”
She’s caught on. Of course she has done.
“Fucking hell.” She slaps a hand over her face. “Fuck-ing hell.”
“ALGERNON!” She shouts it. James winces. “You catfished your father with an anagram of your bloody cat?”
. 3:41 .
“You should keep the blender.”
“I’m not going to keep—”
“No, look, hear me out. It’s like this—Petunia and…what’s-his-face? The craphole bigot whale?”
“Right. Vernon. They don’t deserve a blender. They barely deserve humanity, sounds like, much less your presence—with gift along—at their dull, useless, soul-sucking celebration of two people agreeing to jointly lower their taxes and living expenses while laughing evilly together, probably, at some point.”
“James Potter for Marriage, ladies and gents.”
“I have strong feelings about this specific partnership.”
“The members of which you’ve never met.”
“Am I off?”
“No, you’re spot on. Please proceed.”
“Thank you. So that sort—the rubbish, vile, cackling tax manipulators—they neither need nor deserve a blender. Much less your blender. Whereas you…”
“…am not manipulating my taxes?”
“Need a blender. Or, at the very least, need the thirty-seven quid you spent on the blender.”
“This is true.”
“So you keep the blender.”
“It’s a wedding gift.”
“It’s an engagement gift. Which, mind you, traditionally you’re not even expected to bring gifts to engagement parties. It’s badly done.”
“They sent their registry with the invitation.”
“Apologies, Miss Manners.”
“Keep. The. Blender.”
“I cannot keep the—”
“You cannot give blenders to bigots, Lily! Dame Maggie Smith would never give bigots her blender. And if it’s good enough for Dame Maggie, it’s good enough for everyone.”
“You don’t know that Maggie Smith would keep the blender.”
“Yes, I do. I really do.”
“No, you—oh my god.”
“James…does your mum know Dame Maggie Smith?”
“Oh my god—”
“All right, fine, she was at the house one time—”
. 4:03 .
James cannot move.
He cannot move, he cannot speak, he cannot, frankly, even breathe all that deeply, because otherwise he might ruin it. This. This perfect, fragile moment, wherein he has somehow found himself nestled beside Lily Evans, his future wife (he’s recently decided), her head resting upon his shoulder, his head resting upon hers, in the quiet, dirty, still-stopped elevator car of their nightmares.
She still smells like something vanilla.
Every time she sighs, he feels it in his bones.
Her fingers are toying somewhat absently with the ragged knee of his jeans, and he wants to cover those fingers with his, squeeze, stroke, but he’s afraid to, for see Point A, re: moving.
And the thing is…he shouldn’t be reveling so thoroughly in this. It’s terrible, terrible form. Lily is sad. They’re slumping ever-closer to Hour Four inside this helltrap (lord help them), and she’s coming to realise that it is very, very unlikely that she will make it to her sister’s engagement party. This, James knows, is upsetting. She’s told him it’s upsetting. She’s confessed a lot, in fact, about this engagement party—blender gift and bribery assertions aside—and how, even though Lessons in Letting Go must be learned…Lily still hopes.
She’s a hoper, Lily Evans is.
And in that hope, Lily imagines the time when perhaps her sister would be so happy, so delighted by this engagement, so filled with goodwill and joy in the future, that she would see all the supplies and foodsnacks and blenders that Lily has brought along with her to the party (or had intended to bring. Admittedly, Lily and James have drank and eaten most of it now), would be so touched by Lily’s appearance, so blown away by this occurrence, she’ll suddenly decide, “Oh, yes, I should stop being such a vile hag and reconcile with my long-estranged sister, shouldn’t I? Because she is lovely and perfect and wonderful, and look at all she’s done and how much she cares—it is astounding, really, how much she cares. She is astounding. And I should appreciate this and let bygones be bygones and begin to rebuild. Cheers!”
(These were not, unsurprisingly, Lily’s precise words when she was recounting this potential moment herself, but James reckons his personal summary suits quite well all the same.)
So this nestling, in fact, is not an act of romantic intimacy, but an act of quiet, companionable disappointment. That James is choosing to view it through the first lens makes him rude and grasping and undeserved.
He is quite certain of all this, but he still, stubbornly, is not going to move, just in case he’s wrong.
He’s probably not wrong.
But it seems James Potter is a bit of a hoper, too.
“What time is it?” Lily asks, not for the first time.
James reaches into his pocket as carefully as he can, loath to rustle, and pulls out his phone. Lily’s, in the way of old crap phones everywhere, had abruptly died a good hour ago. James was still at 44%, which made him itchy. He was the sort who began to panic if he so much as inched past 60%.
You know, because what if he got trapped in an elevator, and needed to call someone in an emergency?
He clicks on to his lock screen. Lily has replaced a photo of Algernon with a photo of herself. She has her sunglasses on, and is very nearly touching her nose with her tongue. Impressive.
“4:05,” James relays, though she can likely see it, too. She shifts slightly as she sighs, but—thank God—doesn’t lift her head. “You could still make it,” he tries. “Eventually, someone’s going to grow desperate for take-away and realise the elevator’s stuck. It’s the weekend. That’s practically physics.”
“Maybe it’s all for the better,” Lily allows, but she doesn’t sound as if she means it. “Likely I was placing far too much expectation on this party, anyway. And at least now I don’t have to deal with escorts or Terry Heaney or Mum’s look when she finds out I lied.” She drums her fingers against his knee. “It’s not quite as bad as catfishing her, but rather mortifying all the same.”
“So long as I’ve given you proper perspective,” James offers magnanimously, and she laughs.
He can make her laugh.
She makes him laugh.
She’s still touching him.
They won’t be in here forever.
No, no, no, hell, she’s lifted her head off his shoulder and her fingers drop from his knee, shit shit damn it. James is certain she must feel how he tenses, but she merely holds out her palm and gives her fingers a wiggle.
“Give me your phone,” she says.
James is too cross with himself to do anything other than oblige. That was it. His moment. Their moment. And he was too much of a pansy-arse to make a move. Fucking hell.
Their fingers barely brush as she takes the phone from him and quickly jabs in his passcode. She doesn’t mention again that it is literally Passcode 101 not to use your birthday, chastise him for it like she had earlier, but he knows she’s thinking it all the same. He knows loads of what she’s thinking. Four hours and two champagne bottles and terrible, horrible secrets worth. What he doesn’t know, of course, is whether or not any of that means to her what it has somehow inexplicably come to mean to him. And he doesn’t know how to ask. He wishes they were still playing the Question Game from earlier. Maybe he’d find the courage to bring it up.
He doesn’t look at what she’s fiddling with on the phone, probably something else to pass the time or look at anything but him or a million other things James is too bitter to contemplate now. It isn’t until she nudges him in the side, presses the phone back into his hand, and drops her head back into the crook of his neck that James regains sense enough to take a peek.
She’s opened a new text message box. There’s only one message, already pressed through, but not delivered. There’s still no service.
Hi, Lily! it says. I’m so glad you gave me your number. You’re the most brilliant woman I’ve ever encountered and you’re right about everything and I love you even more than I love Algernon.
And then there are approximately nine hundred kissing-face emojis, and one cat.
James snorts out a laugh (she’s given him her number!) and jabs out a response.
ha ha JUST KIDDING I WOULD NEVER LOVE ANYTHING MORE THAN I LOVE ALGERNON besides we both know that it’s YOU who really loves ME and who can blame you? (no one) (certainly not me)
He grins and passes the phone back to her. She barely lifts her head as she begins to read, but lets out a rather indelicate splutter. Her fingers fly over the keys, then she shoves it back to him.
Ha ha HA HA I am DOUBLY kidding. Algernon will learn to share my affections and I will also learn to be more humble and gracious about my looks (&etc), especially considering I was the one staring lustfully at YOU for the past four hours ha ha HA
HA HA HA HAAAA SUCH A LAUGH algernon doesn’t share anything and also humbleness and graciousness have their place and I already have enough complexes. besides I think we both know I was only RETURNING lustful glances because I believe very firmly in consent and my lustful glances would not be unprovoked HA HA HA
ALL THE LAUGHTER IN ALL THE WORLD because I must be OFF MY HEAD if I thought YOU were the first one to lust MY way because I was checking out your arse THE VERY SECOND YOU ENTERED THE LIFT.
you saw that?
The blind man down the road saw that, James.
fine that ONE time unprovoked
There were other times.
you were giving me LOOKS
Because YOU were giving ME looks.
YOU were the one to bring up sex. YOU
It was a game!
yes, the game of you wanting to get into my pants
that is ridiculous
You’re doing it now.
YOU’RE doing it now
I know. So can you get on with it already and kiss me?
James drops the phone.
It clatters to the elevator floor, possibly breaking, new screen shattered, but he bloody well doesn’t care.
He turns to Lily slowly, eyeing her carefully. She’s watching him just as warily. She had lifted her head off his shoulder sometime during the text battle, and now it’s facing him, chin tilted up proudly, but there is no mistaking the blush on her cheeks. She’s not as cavalier as that last message played off. This is something for her, too.
Thank god thank god thank god.
“I’ve wanted to kiss you since the second you stepped into the elevator,” he tells her, points for honesty. “The literal second.”
“I had that inkling,” she replies, but now she’s flushed for it. Pleased. “I didn’t think you were terribly ugly myself.”
“Oh, good.” James’s heart is pounding against his chest. “That’s always nice to hear.”
She breathes out a huffy sigh. “James.”
“Right,” he says again. “Hop to.”
She squawks out a laugh. “Hop to—?”
He swallows the words with his mouth.
She sighs into it, deflates against him, and all he can think is god yes good. He hasn’t kissed someone in ages. Too long, probably, by certain standards. Rather than feeling rusty, he feels cleansed. Or possibly that’s just Lily, lifting herself against him, sifting her fingers though his hair, making this tiny little sound in the back of her throat when he moves his lips more roughly against hers, prompts them, parts them, gets to taste her properly. Every kiss is silky, wet, delicious. The allowances make him clumsy, eager. He clutches her waist and tugs her closer. When her tongue slips against his, flicks it just so, he makes a very embarrassing noise. He bites her lower lip—how dare you degrade me so—and she promptly compels him to make it again. Oh well. These things happen.
He’s not certain which of them pushes for the move, but suddenly she’s in his lap, knees straddling his hips. His mouth can’t keep still—lavishing against hers, over her chin, down her neck. Lily Evans has a soft, lush, brilliant neck. She’ll likely punch him in the gut if he leaves a mark there, but he’s tempted anyway, just a little one, she can cover it with make-up. He’s still debating whether to risk it when her hands rove down to his jaw and angle his head back up. She wants another taste. Lo be it for him to deny her her pleasures. He supposes he’ll just have to kiss her some more there. Ach, Christ, there goes the noise again.
“We are very good at this,” he praises them, when some time has passed, but he doesn’t quite know how much.
She’s taking her turn nibbling around his pulse point, likely not the least bit concerned with what mark she’ll leave there. Her chuckle is husky, breathless.
“That we are.” She fairly licks back up to his mouth. “Not too shabby, really.”
“Probably ought to do it more. You know. For science.”
“Is science involved?”
“Science is always involved,” he says. He kisses her more. Harder. “Something about…chemistry…or…I—” He hisses as she rolls her hips against his. “Fucking…Lily.”
“What?” she asked innocently. “Science. Biology.”
“That’s not biology,” he grits. His fingers dig into her sides. Every nerve in his body is sparking. “It’s anatomy.”
“Ah.” She does it again, the saucy minx. “Muscles. Bones. My mistake.”
“You’re forgiven,” he says. Then: “Do it again.”
She laughs, and very happily complies.
“Do you know something?” she says, several…minutes? hours?…later. James has recently discovered that the floral dress zips up the back, and with wily hands he’s snagged it down inch by teasing inch. When his fingers skim up Lily’s bare spine, she gives a very tempting type of shiver.
“What’s that?” he asks, a bit dazed, as Lily’s caught on to his zipper game and slips a retaliatory hand beneath his t-shirt.
Her fingers splay over his abdomen. “I’m not that cross about being trapped in an elevator.”
“Is that so?” James bucks subtly up against her—ha. “Funny, that.”
“Funny, funny,” Lily murmurs, hissing, closing her eyes. “Funny, funny man.”
He catches her mouth again.
Sometime later, when they are both quite out of breath, and James has lost sight of where body parts have gone or where they’re meant to be or if the two of them were ever once two separate beings, rather than this twisted up fusion of chapped lips and hooked legs and flushed skin, Lily suddenly—tragically—stops, jerks to a abrupt halt, and sputters, “Move.”
James has to blink himself back into the conversation. He admittedly does not have much blood left in his brain, but she’s got no one to blame for that but herself, and frankly hasn’t seemed to mind it as she’s sat perched upon his lap, resplendent and writhing.
“Move?” He repeats it dumbly. “Move where?”
“Nononono.” She’s writhing desperately now. No, not writhing—wiggling. She’s trying to get herself loose. What? “James, moving. Moving! The bloody elevator is moving!”
“What?” Somewhere in his lust-soaked mind, James registers her words. As she’s scrambling off his lap, leaving his hands grappling only with air, it’s the only other thing to register, really. The quiet rumbling. The faint vibrations.
The sodding elevator car was moving!
“What the—” is all James manages to get out, a second before there’s a crisp, happy ding, and the elevator doors—oh fucking hell Christ—slide easily open.
And because this is his life, and it is just that sort of day, on the other side of the now-open doors stands Sirius, gawking, staring, taking in the whole nonsensical tableau in appropriately stunned silence.
“Er,” he says, eyeing James, eyeing Lily. “What?”
“Oh my god,” Lily cries, lunging for the door. “Ohmygodohmygod.”
James fairly springs up after her, diving through the open portal like this is the Cave of Wonders, and the lion’s mouth is rapidly disintegrating.
“Don’t let it close!” he shouts, though no one is doing anything of the kind. “Don’t—”
He collides into Lily, and the two of them bounce off each other like cue balls, into walls, into air, back into each other.
Lily takes a gulping breath when they crash into each other the second time, clings to his waist. “James! Oh my god!”
Now he’s started laughing like a maniac, sucking in air like it’s going out of business. “We’re out.” His arms go around her. “We’re out.”
“Oh.” Sirius’s grim sound makes James glance up, and his mate is sporting a guilty wince. “Right. Sorry. Should’ve warned you this thing’s a bit dodgy. Last week, some bird from the third floor—”
“We know,” James and Lily babble at the same time. Over each other. Into each other. They’re clinging together like Titanic survivors. Jack and Rose have nothing on them.
Behind them, the elevator doors close innocuously again, seeming to think their job is done.
James laughs. He can’t stop laughing. It’s desperate and sort of broken and makes him sound mental, but there’s no help for that. He clutches Lily, grabs her face, kisses her hard, and laughs again.
“We’re out,” he says once more, because it needs repeating. “We’re out! And you can make your party!”
“Make my—oh. Oh!” Her face lights up. “I can make my party!” She glances somewhat warily at the now-closed elevator doors. “All my things are in there,” she laments. “My coat. My phone. Your phone. The blender. And good god, I need to have a shower first.”
“You might also want to”—Sirius waggles a finger at Lily’s back, looks amused—“do something about that. Lovely view as it is.”
Lily glances over her shoulder, spots her quite open dress zipper, and lets out a protesting squawk.
“Oops.” She gives her back to James, shimmies. Then rethinks it. “Oh, whatever. It’s coming off in a second anyway. But don’t ogle or James will punch you,” she warns Sirius, who cocks an eyebrow.
“Will he.” There is much smirking and smugness.
James scowls. “Might do it anyway, considering you got me trapped in a fucking lift for four hours.”
“Yes, I can see how terribly that worked out for you,” Sirius replies, not even having to so much as nod at James and Lily, who are, to be fair, still sort of brushed up and clung together. Sirius eyes Lily in particular, though. “You live next door. Er…Laura?”
“Lily,” she corrects, but she’s not paying him much mind. Instead, she’s bouncing on her toes, running tasks through her head. “I can shower quick,” she mutters, thinking out loud. “But it’ll take at least twenty minutes to get there—more, if traffic—and I need to get more champagne at least, and we didn’t eat that many of the biscuits, so those should still be fine…”
James slaps a bit at his pockets, finds his keys in the back left. He tosses them to Sirius. “Go grab two bottles of champagne,” he orders. “The fancy sort.”
Sirius pulls a face. “What am I, your errand boy? You go.”
“There isn’t time. I need to have a shower, too. And Lily and I have to leave—”
“ ‘Lily and I’?” The girl in question repeats the words on a startled blink. Then she does it again. “Lily and I.”
“Oh.” James feels startled, too. Shit. Well. That was assuming quite a bit, wasn’t it? But he’s just spent the past four hours with her, the last eighth of which was with her in his lap, snogging him stupid. He was going to marry her. Probably. Though she didn’t need to know that bit yet.
He gives her a look, tries not to seem too bothered. “Am I…not going?” he asks.
She stares at him for a few moments, seconds that seem to linger too long as James fills them with endless amounts of panic and worry and how the hell could I have fucked this up so quickly is that even possible?
Then she smiles.
Bright. Happy. Shiny and starry-eyed, frankly, which makes James want to thrust his fist into the air with victory, à la The Breakfast Club.
“Well,” she mutters, twisting her fingers in the bottom of his t-shirt, tilting her head thoughtfully, “you are, I suppose, a better option than Terry Heaney.”
“I get that a lot,” James replies.
Lily gives a giddy sort of laugh, lifts up on her toes, and presses another quick kiss to his lips. Then she claps her hands together.
“All right. Okay. Shower.” She prods James in the stomach, pushing him down the corridor. “You shower. Me shower. And”—she tosses a pleading sort of look over her shoulder at Sirius—“champagne? Please?”
“I don’t see how I got involved in this,” Sirius gripes, pulling a face. “I was going to yoga.”
“People who do yoga are the worst,” Lily says. “This is much better.”
“I don’t think that’s true.”
James opens his mouth to step in—Sirius is going for champagne whether he likes it or not—but Lily is quicker.
“You owe him,” she says, with a forceful finger at James. “For the Russian pilot and the cantaloupe squares.”
Sirius’s mouth falls open. His outraged gaze shoots to James with nothing short of blind betrayal.
“You told her…you told her…”
“We were in there for four hours, mate.” James can only give an apologetic shrug. “I ran out of embarrassing stories solely about me in the first thirty minutes.”
“I will take it to the grave,” Lily promises, crossing her heart very solemnly. “…So long as you fetch the champagne.”
“And toss me your keys,” James adds, holding up a hand. “So I can shower.”
“Also, if you wouldn’t mind grabbing our things from the elevator?” Sirius looks gobsmacked at this furthering list of demands, but Lily glances at James and mutters, “I mean, we’re using your Russian pilot cache. Might as well make the most of it.”
“Clever girl,” James praises. And kisses her again. Because he can.
Also because he very much likes kissing her.
And interestingly enough, it seems she very much likes kissing him, too.
“Jesus—will you two quit it? I will go for your sodding alcohol.” Sirius gives James in particular an overly disdainful look, but—good ol’ lad—tosses his keys. “The water pressure drips like an old man’s piss stream, but you deserve no better. Anything else?”
James grabs the keys, grabs Lily, thinks about it.
“Yeah,” he says. “Word to the wise—take the stairs.”