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Night of the Loving Dead

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It is Halloween night, and the reckoning is upon her.

That, Lily Evans reflects, as she inches her way behind a dangling, life-sized skeleton which appears—much as she hopes she is wrong—to be fashioned from real human bones, is a dark and undeniably histrionic thought, but certainly holiday appropriate.

Truth be told, there's a moment of reckoning in every woman's life, and Lily has known for a while that hers was tracking her not-so-stealthily, careening in her direction like a runaway mine cart in an old-timey western.

What Lily didn't expect is that it would finally find her here, in a posh two-storey apartment that Sirius Black has just inherited, at his no-holds-barred Halloween housewarming bash, and all because James Potter has walked headlong into a low-hanging decorative spiderweb.

Expected or not, that's exactly how her reckoning finds her, because Lily figures—watching from her hiding place as James attempts to extract a clump of sticky, greyish web from his messy black hair, bathed in the unappealing orange glow of the cheap plastic pumpkin lanterns that Sirius strung up overhead, with a scowl on his face and Peter Pettigrew's ill-timed vomit splattered across the right leg of his jeans—that if all she wants to do at that moment is throw herself upon his person and help herself to his body on the filthy, party-stained floor of dead uncle Alphard's kitchen, she must be madly in love.

As reckonings go, it's a rather cheap affair, because Lily already knew that she was in love with James Potter.

There's a rather sizeable difference between knowing, as she has done for a long, long time, and admitting to that knowledge, however, and it's the admittance that truly floors her. It's that particular moment—though it's one among thousands, though any casual observer might have found it vaguely comical, or mundane, or a strangely opposing mixture of both—which slaps her right between the eyes and scrawls this is how you feel and it's not going to stop across the forefront of her brain, in huge, neon pink letters that she can’t possibly deign to ignore.

It is truly right and fitting that Sirius presented each of his VIP guests with a personalised headstone upon entry to the party. Here lieth one Lily Jane Evans, who died of longing and heartache, as well as the absolute shame of surrendering herself to the most overdone and basic of romance movie tropes: falling madly in love with her very best friend.

Her headstone claims that she was killed by a giant, wayward scythe as she attempted to navigate a complicated assault course built by Phil, the wise-cracking satyr from Disney's Hercules, and while it was nice of Sirius to take her interests into account, he's way off base with this one.

She could have done with meeting her reckoning tomorrow, when it might have melded with a rum-or-tequila hangover and not felt so glaringly urgent, when James wasn't physically there to remind her of her folly, but reckonings don't work that way. Reckonings are all about the "gotcha" moments. Reckonings are the Joan Callamezzos of the human condition, and Lily is naught but a stuttering Ben Wyatt, caught helpless in her trap, and one wrong move away from screaming incoherence.

If only she'd come as Ben Wyatt, instead of this bee costume that she spent days sewing words into ("I'm a Spelling Bee, see? So American!") Lily might be able to appreciate the dramatic irony of the evening.

She looks really bloody adorable, though. Almost everyone but Sirius has said so, because Sirius would never use that word, though Lily felt it was implied when he met her at the door.

James hasn't said so either, but that's only because he hasn't seen her yet. He's been quite busy deflecting Peter's inevitable vomit stream away from delicate fabrics and unsuspecting heads, and besides, the flat is packed to the rafters. Sirius seems to have invited half the city—including a troupe of professional actors that he hired for the occasion—to this party, and it's practically over capacity. One call to the fire brigade would likely get the whole event shut down.

It's therefore no surprise that she and James are yet to properly cross paths.

That, and she's been avoiding him since the minute she got here.

***

The first time James sees Lily Evans at a Halloween party, he is twenty-one, suffering a colossal headache from repeated plays of that Bette Midler song from Hocus Pocus that Sirius won't turn off, and shoving Peter's wig-clad head out the nearest window so his vomit does not land all over their already respectably disgusting student housing flooring.

James is, in most respects, a holiday person. Give him Christmas or a birthday or New Years—he will don the Father Christmas suit, sing loudly and offkey as the candles are blown, and pop the streamers as the clock strikes midnight to the happy clink of toasting champagne glasses.

But James and Halloween have never gotten on, possibly because he would choose a bag of crisps over a pile of sweets any day; he doesn't like horror or gore or people popping out at him from behind various shrubbery with the sole intent of giving him a heart attack; and he finds holidays whose unofficial basis seems to revolve around pretending you're someone else, and sending that someone else into a diabetic shock or otherwise rendering them debilitated with an ugly bout of alcohol poisoning…well, unoriginal, at best.

So by eight p.m. at that first Halloween party, four years ago, James had already felt like he had ample reason to grumble heartily, shake his fist at the disorderly youths, and head off to bed.

Double, double toil and trouble. Shakespeare had the right of it.

So James is not a Halloween person. Has never been a Halloween person. Will likely never be a Halloween person.

Lily Evans—startlingly gorgeous, wickedly clever mate who Housing Services had generously placed in the shared unit with James in their final year at uni—is very much a Halloween person.

Always has been. Likely always will be.

Which is likely why—on that first Halloween, at that first uni party—while James had continued to hold a tremoring Peter against the flimsy window casing, with the heady scent of rancid pumpkin hanging in the air, and someone, somewhere, letting off a blood-curdling scream, Lily Evans had waltzed into their tiny student housing flat, dressed to near perfection in a long blue overcoat, jaunty red bow-tie, and compellingly tilted black flowered hat, and gave James a terribly apt and convincingly stern Mary Poppins frown.

"You're not in costume," she'd complained.

"I told you I wouldn't be," James had replied, and did Peter the small service of comfortingly patting his back as the poor lad began to retch anew. There was another scream—so much bloody screaming—and James could only scowl. "Halloween is stupid."

Lily's black boot heels had clipped crisply across the ugly ceramic flooring as she crossed the kitchen towards them, stopping only when she and James stood nearly toe to toe.

"Hm." She snapped open her carpet bag, stuck her arm deep inside, then quickly sprung it back out, suddenly wielding a tiny tape measure. James watched silently as she made a great show of briskly unravelling the bright yellow stream with a quiet zip. Her lips pursed as she took her time inspecting the thin black marker at precisely the point where James's six-two frame ended. She hummed again, then stuck him with a smug, satisfied look.

"Just as I suspected." Emerald eyes narrowed on him. "Extremely stubborn and suspicious."

It was one of the rare moments James can recall actually, truly laughing on Halloween.

It was also there—just there, all those years ago, with the Halloween misery hanging all around him, and the tape measure zipping back into place, and Peter's Miley Cyrus wig finally losing its last frail grip on his sweaty head and tipping unceremoniously out the window, where it had undoubtedly landed on some poor passerby below—that James reckons he first fell a little bit in love with Lily Evans.

One tiny slice of love.

The tiniest of slices of love.

The fact that those tiny slices have—much like James's devoted aversion to Halloween—only continued to stack up and multiply in intervening years, building and burgeoning until they're now a mountain of slices, the biggest and most insurmountable behemoth of slices, is the conundrum James faces at this present day Halloween party, here at Sirius's new flat, the same old story on a different bothersome day.

Because Lily does not know about the mountain.

No one knows about the mountain.

James does not expect that to change any time soon.

It is a secret he's long resigned himself to taking to his grave—a grave not terribly dissimilar to the personalised commemorative headstones Sirius had gifted favoured guests upon entry to this evening's Housewarming of Horrors (RIP Uncle Alphard).

"Condolences," was the decidedly morbid greeting Sirius had offered in tandem with said favour, just as James had strolled through the flat door earlier.

The headstone was about a foot long, spray painted an ominous slate gray, with an accompanying chain tied at each side that might allow one to wear it as a necklace, if one were so inclined. In a creepily swooping font, it read: Here lies, JAMES WANKSTAIN POTTER, who met his untimely end dressed shabbily in serving wear, indignantly attempting to topple a towering statue of his infinitely handsomer, more successful, more desirable older brother, but who merely got smashed like an ant beneath said sibling's glorious stone visage instead.

Of course.

"It was a mistake," James had immediately lamented, "letting you watch The Good Place."

"It was a mistake," Sirius returned, "inviting you to a Halloween party."

"Thought this was a housewarming?"

"Home-owning is a horror unto itself," Sirius declared, and sneered down at James's t-shirt and jeans. In his full zombie getup—contact-brightened eyes, undead pallor, more skin peeking through his ripped clothes than the costume really required—he still managed to look ablaze with revulsion. His tattered sleeve hung half off his arm as he shooed James out of the entryway. "Get out of my sight. You're an embarrassment."

James had lingered instead, eyeing the basket where Sirius had the headstones stashed. Right on top, he saw "LILY JANE EVANS" and frowned. She hadn't arrived yet.

"Is someone or something going to jump out at me if I try to make it into the kitchen?" he had asked next.

"Yes," Sirius replied succinctly. "Men with weapons."

It wasn't a joke. James sighed. "Brilliant."

"Don't go stashing yourself in some corner with Evans when she gets here either!" Sirius had called, the shouted warning following James as he started making for the kitchen anyway. "I'll be watching!"

James waved his hand in vague acknowledgment, certain he needed a drink.

Or, even more, a scotch with a side of salvation. For while he is rather certain he will be spared meeting his grisly demise in the headstone-dictated Tahani fashion, that does not mean he is entirely safe. He got his drink, quickly located Remus and Peter, received their similarly disapproving frowns at his lack of costume, and tried not to be so terribly obvious about the fact that he would both already like to leave and also like to stake out the foyer until Lily arrived. The minutes ticked on, and he made his requisite trek through the heavily crowded flat, briefly greeting those he knew and indeed finding himself accosted by no fewer than three separate men with weapons, and one female with more fake blood on her than James reckons is fully healthy. Death seemed a possibility looming at every corner.

Really, who needed a falling statue? It is entirely likely James will find himself suffocated by the endless supply of clinging fake spiderweb Sirius has hung from every available surface, and which James can't seem to stop walking into.

Or perhaps he will promptly perish of disgust, as Peter has somehow already managed to get drunk enough to hurl his first traditional bout of Halloween vomit, and James had been too busy staring longingly at the door, waiting for Lily to appear, to dodge the spew entirely.

Better yet? It will be a death-by-flame, as the flat is filled with far too many creepy candelabras next to far too many available sources of alcohol, and James does not think it dramatic to suspect the night could end in an accidental blaze of glory. Sirius best have sorted his insurance.

Or—

The next possible death scenario skids to a halt in James's head.

He stops, blinks.

Lily.

How did I miss her come in? he marvels, even as he immediately begins to soak up her presence like a needy sponge, sad but true. She's tucked away with Beatrice in one of the many dark alcoves littering Uncle Alphard's old flat, looking positively adorable in a glittery-skirted bee costume that has swooping lines of letter tiles scattered amongst the black and yellow stripes (Spelling Bee, James thinks, and grins. So bloody clever, his Lily). She's laughing at something Beatrice has said, a rueful tip to her pretty pink lips, and even in the decidedly unflattering glow of the orange pumpkin lights Sirius has strung up, James's heart goes thump-thump, thump-thump in the most brutal of manners.

Really, it had been a waste of time, attempting to speculate at his potential demise.

There is only one thing that is going to kill James Potter, and he's known it for years.

The complete and utter devastation of being in love with Lily Evans, while she has no idea, and likely never will.

Happy bloody Halloween to him.

***

Something James Potter does not know about himself—something that only Lily Evans knows, quite possibly because she so decreed it—is that he was her University Hot Guy for three years prior to the day they met.

That was a rare phenomenon: a guy who appealed so thoroughly to her specific wants and preferences that Lily could comfortably claim ownership of the knowledge that he was hot, but such a phenomenon she had found in James Potter. He became her University Hot Guy, ogled from afar at the student union, strolled past on the bridge that divided the north and south campuses, and admired in his football gear on sunny days while she ate her lunch by the sports field and feigned an interest in the game.

And not a word did they ever exchange.

Lily had no knowledge of the subject he was studying, she didn't know his name and they did not appear to have any interloping circles in their respective social spheres. He was simply a face that bore looking at more than once, a harmless fantasy to which she could devote minute bursts of imagination, and the occasional, disconnected thought that floated through her mind when she saw him out and about—there goes University Hot Guy again, looking damn good and buying fresh kale like some kind of adult—and that was it, and that was fine.

The thing was, the universe didn't think that it was fine.

Neither did the artificial intelligence program that Housing Services used to automatically allocate students into shared on-campus accommodation.

And so it transpired that Lily, conspired against by fate and random selection, kicked off her final year of uni by happening upon University Hot Guy in the communal living room of her new student flat.

She'd made a real racket clattering through the front door, sandwiched between two suitcases, her rucksack knocking against the frame, but James didn't hear her come in. He was sitting on the small, hard, property-of-the-university couch (a singularly uncomfortable couch that they would both come to loathe in the ensuing weeks) with a pair of earbuds in and a cat-shaped mug of coffee by his side, watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine on a laptop he'd perched upon his knees.

That should have been the first sign that he was the man for her, but Lily had been dating someone—Regrettable Rhys, stole food from her plate without asking, constantly—at the time, and she ignored it.

(Just as she has tried her bloody hardest to ignore every subsequent sign, too, but she really should have caught that first one.)

"I would definitely marry Jake Peralta," she'd loudly announced as she dropped her rucksack to the floor and set her suitcases loose. The combination of all these sounds succeeded in alerting him to her presence and he turned where he sat to stare up at her, yanking the earbuds out of his ears, and Lily smiled at him and thought, you're even better up close. "Hi."

"Hi," he replied, and blinked, then became a sudden flurry of motion, simultaneously pausing the episode and dropping his feet off the ramshackle coffee table where he'd just had his trainers lazily kicked up—but one jittery foot nearly knocked over the cat mug in the process, causing him to lunge for it to secure its safety from an untimely dive off the edge of the table. His computer attempted to tip off his lap during that lunge, so he had to work quickly to salvage that potential disaster, too, hunching his body to trap it against his chest, then just sort of hung there for a second, awkwardly half sprawled on the sofa, one hand holding the mug, torso attempting to keep the lopsided laptop in place, waiting to see if the world was going to throw any other unexpected disruptions his way.

When it didn’t, he grinned at Lily as if he had planned this fraught jumble of minor accidents for her specific and prolonged amusement.

"Well," he declared, "that could've gone terribly. Noice."

Being both exceptionally bright and a huge fan of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, she caught the reference, though she couldn't tell if he was simply expressing his admiration for Jake Peralta or trying to emulate the character so that Lily would, in fact, foster a similar desire to marry him.

There was something disarmingly appealing about the near calamity she'd just witnessed, and the aplomb with which he'd carried it off.

"You have excellent reflexes," she remarked, unsurprised and a little embarrassed to find a telling warmth rushing to her face, "though you also appear to be terribly clumsy. What an unfortunate combination."

"Only when pretty girls turn up in my doorway, speaking of marriage," he replied, and slowly moved to set himself upright again. When he'd successfully returned to his lazy lounge, he took a proper look at her, hazel eyes settling on the luggage she'd rolled in with her. His dark eyebrows lifted as he grinned again. "Pretty girls...who are moving in?"

Lily had spent three years of subtle glances becoming familiar with the structure of his face, his whirlwind of jet black hair, and the shape of his arse, but none of that compared to being on the receiving end of one of his grins, which were crooked and cheeky and gorgeous, and along with the unexpected compliment strove to see her more turned on than she had been in months, and completely at a loss to explain it.

His grins were certainly dangerous—beautiful, dangerous things—and he doled them out like mints, apparently, and thought she was pretty, and Regrettable-yet-at-the-time-Reasonably-Acceptable-Rhys suddenly felt like an albatross around her neck.

She took a single, sliding step towards him, advancing slowly, as if she was approaching an unrestrained animal who might shortly spring at her and bite.

"I think you'll find," she said, "that it's not your doorway, it's ours."

"Our doorway?" The dark eyebrows shot up higher. "You mean to tell me we've forty-five seconds of acquaintance under our belts, and already we've moved in together? Terribly hasty. But why not? I had nothing else important on the schedule today, and you clearly have good taste in telly." He set the laptop aside and moved to the end of the couch to stretch out his hand. "James, by the way. Probably a pertinent detail."

"Lily," she replied, and slipped her hand into his larger, warmer one. It had been unusually cold outside, even for September, but he didn't flinch at the touch of her icy skin. "Lily Evans, if we're to be truly devoted to pertinence."

"James Potter, then. It's very nice to meet you."

"It's nice to finally put a name to your face, since I've been seeing it all over campus for the past three years," she replied, instantly revealing too much, sending the truth of her three-year fascination out into the world where it could not be rescinded.

"Yeah, I've seen you around as well," he'd replied easily, clearly not as concerned about revealing himself on the vague voyeur side of the stratosphere. "I'm pretty certain I stood behind you in the queue at Pizza Paradise last term, and you spoke passionately for ten minutes about how awful Domino's is. It was very impressive. Housing Services clearly took these vital likes and dislikes into account when pairing us for cohabitation."

"I don't know if it bodes well or poorly for us both that the strongest impression I've made upon you seems to have happened while I was drunk," she said, and dropped his hand. "Not that I don't hate Domino's when I'm sober because I hate it in all states, but sober Lily is less vocal about it, and a lot less inclined to hold up queues."

"I was not in the least bit inconvenienced by the hold up, so let's say it bodes very well, at least in terms of take away evenings."

"Good to know you won't be desecrating our kitchen with garbage pizza."

"Do you need any help with that?" he asked, and pushed nimbly up to his feet, then nodded down at her luggage. "Your room is down to the left, and there's a few empty cupboards in the kitchen, since I mostly only know how to microwave. And the empty shelf over there"—he pointed to the corner, where a brown nondescript shelving unit housed one bare platform. The one below it was chock-full of every single board game Lily had ever seen collected in one tiny space—"is yours too. Though you're welcome to the games, as well. You probably ought to know now that I'm wildly competitive and will coax you into playing as often as physically possible. Consider this your warning."

"You say coax like I haven't spent the past two years going to a weekly board game night, or that competing for pecking order isn't my preferred method for resolving household disputes. Which it is, by the way." She gestured towards the shelf. "Neither of us want to take out the rubbish? Settlers of Catan. Dirty dishes piling up? Telestrations. Though, as it's just going to be you and me living here"—Christ, just the two of them—"we'll have to substitute both with two-player-friendly options."

"Scrabble. Or Cluedo. Or—" A sudden bright gleam came over his face, that same devastating smile flashing with wicked accuracy straight to her stomach, already brimming with butterflies. "Or we whip out the best internet purchase I ever made, and something I have a feeling you'll appreciate—a full-scale replication of Cones of Dunshire. Two to sixteen players."

"You bought that?" she exclaimed, her eyes widening like those of a starstruck teenager. "You, my new housemate, have the actual game designed by Ben Wyatt, AKA my original, pre-Jake Peralta television husband? What did you do, sell an organ on the black market?"

"One whole kidney and a healthy slice of liver," he confirmed, and clapped his hands together in obvious glee. "And worth every stitch."

Take off your clothes and show me these stitches that definitely don't exist but I've heard so much about, is what Lily, feeling thoroughly displaced and still inexplicably aroused, would have liked to say.

"You're funny," she told him instead, "which is good, you know. Your sense of humour will be some comfort to you when your remaining kidney craps out."

James's shoulders drew back, the obvious preen accompanied by a light flush reddening his brown skin.

"I also look terribly dashing in the ledgerman's cap," he reported, hand lifting to his dark mop of hair like he was actually tipping said cap. Then he'd waggled a finger at her. "But don't think you can flatter me into going easy on you. If I don't want to take out the rubbish, I will defeat you, gladly."

"The only rubbish I'll be taking out is you, when I beat you soundly," Lily grandly countered, with an accompanying toss of her long, dark red hair. "Case in point, my trash-talk game is quite superior. Is there a white board in this flat? If not, we must buy one as a matter of urgency, so I can start recording my victories as soon as possible."

He'd laughed at that, throwing his head back with great enthusiasm, and Lily was a goner from that moment, even if she didn't know it.

"You know something, Lily Evans?" he'd said. "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

He’d been right. It was.

It has been.

It still is—or at least, it will be, if Lily can get her shit together enough to climb out of this seemingly bottomless pit of unrequited love into which she has stumbled.

The first year of their friendship proved the easiest to navigate, despite (because of?) their close living quarters. Lily had a boyfriend and far too much good sense to make a play for a man with whom she lived by university mandate, imagining the shame of turning up at Housing Services and begging to be rehomed because she'd slept with her housemate and things had gotten awkward. That resolve held until shortly before Christmas, when she dumped Regrettable Rhys, but James was dating Finicky Felicity by then.

By April, when Finicky Felicity departed James's life in a tearful fury, Drudgery Daniel had entered Lily's, hastily procured as a means to help her quash her rapidly growing feelings for a man she desperately wanted to shag, and regularly spied shirtless as he emerged from his bedroom in the mornings. Daniel turned out to be even more regrettable than Rhys and stuck around just long enough to see James into his next relationship with the indomitable Emma One (not to be confused with Emma Two, who was arguably worse). Then university came to an end, Lily and James settled in different boroughs of London—swearing always to be friends—and she never once told him that she missed the sight of his cheerful, handsome face on the other side of the table every day, even though she missed him so much it ached a little.

They've never seemed to be simultaneously single, both having settled into an uncanny pattern wherein one would end a relationship as the other started dating someone new, but the last eight months have seen her and James languishing in identical dry spells, which means the last eight months have been torture.

Hence, the hiding.

It's her only real choice, because she can't be around James lately, not without needing to bite her tongue lest she blurt out how she feels and demand to know why—when he's given chance after chance to the Finicky Felicitys and Gold-Digging Danielles of the world—he never once turned his gaze towards Lily and wondered if the woman of his dreams wasn't right under his nose these past four years.

And if she can't be around James without wanting to lose her head and shout, "I'm in love with you," while a very confused waiter is innocently attempting to jot down their drink orders, she can't be around James. Period.  

Though she's not hiding in the strictest sense of the word—Lily isn't crouching behind a chair or wrapped up in a curtain—she certainly hasn't been in any hurry to make herself visible since she arrived at the party thirty minutes ago. She's been having quite the evening, darting in and out of rooms, sidling behind hanging skeletons, or attaching herself to small, conversing crowds whenever she caught sight of James, who is clearly and decidedly looking for her because he always looks for her at parties, but it's a tiring, arduous process, and he'll find her eventually, and Lily's worked herself into such a heightened state of stress that she feels a persistent need to combat the inevitable feelings of disappointment and pining that he'll no doubt manage to drum up in her heart.

It's with a painful weight in her chest that she catches up with Beatrice at one of many refreshment tables, tugging at the sleeve of her friend's light blue jacket to get her attention.

"I need a new boyfriend," she announces, rather dramatically. She's quite good at pretending that she isn't dramatic—especially when James is around, because he can be so ostentatious that her own brand of drama doesn't show up quite so well in his presence—but she is, and Beatrice knows it, and there's not much point in trying to keep it hidden.

"What?" says Beatrice, blinking slightly. "Like, right now?"

"Ideally, yes, but I'm not expecting any miracles."

Bea glances warily at the bloke she's been talking to. He's a gangling, nondescript looking fellow who has had the audacity to come to a Halloween party wearing a pair of fake vampire teeth, one trickle of fake blood and black t-shirt, as if that's an actual costume, rather than a half-hearted, lazy attempt to throw something together at the last minute. A lazy costume, Lily maintains, is worse than no costume at all.

"Don't even think about it," Beatrice tells the bloke, whose eyes had lit up with interest at Lily's announcement, then boldly pushes him away, turning her attention back to her friend. "Where's James?"

Lily doesn't even blink. "What about James?"

"Just thought you'd have found him by now, is all," says Beatrice innocently. She's quite adept at disguising loaded, meaningful statements as throwaway comments with naught but a flutter of her lashes and an airy tone, and while Lily has always insisted to all and sundry that her feelings for James Potter are merely platonic, Bea has never believed her, just as she's never stopped in her crusade to bring about their spiritual and sexual union. She's incredibly cunning in her machinations, however, and Lily's quite certain that James doesn't have a clue that he's been plotted against for years.

"Well, I haven't," says Lily lightly, looping her arm through her friend's. She points to an alcove near the staircase, which is mercifully empty, save for one devious looking pumpkin. "Let's sit over there. I need a break from all these people."

"Over where?" Bea follows her finger and catches sight of the alcove, then scrunches up her nose in disgust. "But I want to—"

"I'll let you commandeer my Tinder."

"Ooh," says Beatrice, and her light brown eyes take on a wicked gleam. "You know just the way to my heart."

***

"You're hiding without me?" James pronounces in offense, approaching the pair quickly. "Et tu, Brute?"

Both heads jerk toward him at the called accusation, Lily's bee headband bobbling with the movement, Bea's short blonde wig proving much more sturdy and sure, not requiring Eleven's telekinesis to keep it in place with the sudden turn.

James is not sure if it's the off-colour lighting in the flat that makes it look like Lily's face flushes a pink only slightly darker than Beatrice's dress, though nowhere near the red of Lily's hair or the apt smear of fake blood trickling out of Bea's nose, or if she's actually blushing.

He doesn't have very long to examine it.

"Thank Christ you're finally here," says Beatrice loudly, and sits up with a disconcerting kind of speed, as if she's been poked in the back with a particularly vicious cattle prod. She scrambles to her feet with very little grace and thrusts Lily's phone—he can tell that it's hers because she's popped it in a bumblebee-striped case. Never a detail missed, his Lily—directly beneath his nose. "I've been holding in a fart for fifteen minutes. Possibly worse. Take over from me, will you? She badly needs to get laid."

James is grateful for the speedy reflexes that see his hands closing around the tiny phone that Beatrice has already dropped out of her grasp, clutching it to his person as his heart gives a strong thump and his stomach drops into a tenuous swoop at the word laid.

He tilts the phone upward, immediately spotting a big-framed picture of some over-muscled bloke doused in what had to be oil or (better? worse?) sweat, gazing despondently into a gym mirror.

Tinder.

Lily...is back on Tinder?

Feeling a bit sick, James swipes left.

...and surreptitiously twice more, hoping neither of them notices.

He glances down at Lily, who is fidgeting.

"I thought you'd given up on Tinder," he says, striving to sound casual as Beatrice rushes past him with the briefest of punches to his arm.

Lily gives a faint little shrug. "I had, but Mary matched with the actor from that Agatha Christie special with the really weird lips, and it actually turned out to be him when she met him in person, so I downloaded it again last month to have a snoop." She crosses and then uncrosses her legs. "I've been dipping in and out ever since."

"Ah." He swipes some more—there's a limit on the number a day she can see, isn't there? Can he claim to have accidentally swiped 'no' to all of them with any feasibility?—and gently sits down in the spot Bea just vacated. "So that's the new type, then? Odd features and IMDB pages?"

"To be totally honest," says Lily, glancing idly at her phone in his hand, where the face of James's newest potential worst enemy is splashed cunningly across the display, "I think she only dated him in the first place to snoop on celebrities. She got bored after three dinners and lost all remaining interest when he couldn't give her Matthew Macfadyen's phone number."

"Well, this chap likely can't provide any Darcy contact either, and has written 'stand-up comic' as his occupation besides, so I'm thinking that's a firm no, too." James gives her mere milliseconds to glimpse the arse's grinning face before he's already swiped. But like the taunting tool of evil it is, Tinder merely provides another stupid picture to take its place. "So is this why you've been so scarce lately? Off venturing into the bleak Tinder dating pool?"

He swipes left again, and again after that. For good measure. Or so he'll tell her if she asks.

"You have higher standards for me than you do for yourself," Lily remarks, and slumps backwards against the wall, adjusting the folds of her gauzy black skirt. Her long, shapely, bumblebee-striped legs are stretched straight out in front of her. "Nah, I've just been busy with work, and I'm looking for a new apartment, a hellish endeavour that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy."

"You mean you haven't inherited one from a mysterious great uncle and turned it into a house of horrors and vomit on your very first night of occupancy?" The next bloke to pop up on the screen says he likes travel and culture, and he's got a puppy in one picture. He's probably a serial killer. Left. "I thought that's how all the kids were housing themselves these days."

"The kids, perhaps, but we bees must make a lot of honey before we can afford such fancy hives as this." She wriggles her feet. "When are you ever going to wear a costume to one of these things?"

"When Great Uncle Alphard resurrects himself and kicks Sirius out of this flat." James plucks at one of the letters sewn onto her shoulder and grins. "Or, never. N-E-V-E-R. Origin, me."

She sighs. "If you were just willing to throw on a blond wig, a backpack and a black jumper, I could have been Kim Possible this year, but you had to be a killjoy."

"You never asked me to throw on a blond wig, a backpack, or a black jumper," James points out, and deliberately turns the screen away before Lily can spot the next bloke that has just popped up—and whose very first photo is of him dressed as the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. "You Stoppable-d yourself on that one, Kim."

"Because I knew you'd be a bloody killjoy and say no, then Peter would have offered and I would have had to say no to him," Lily retorts. She sits up straight and holds out her hand, her palm facing towards the ceiling. "You're swiping left on all the good ones. Give it back before you leave me with the perverts, the drunks and the Big Bang Theory fans."

James clutches the phone to his chest—he hasn't managed to banish Scarecrow yet. No way she's getting it back now—and shakes his head. "Bea left me in charge. I'll sort out the perverts, the drunks, and the insufferable misogynists."

"Noooooo," Lily whines, and swiftly tries to pry her phone from beneath his fingers, evidently of the belief that she can startle it out of his grip if she moves quickly enough. "You've never liked anyone I fancied! You'll keep swiping left until there's nobody left to match with and I'll be forced to expand my search parameter to include the bloody suburbs."

"I bet there are fewer serial killers in the suburbs," James muses, and switches the phone into his opposite hand, extending it far overhead where her much shorter limbs will have a difficult time reaching. "Besides, I've liked some of the guys you fancied. What about that one—what was his name? Sasmo? He got us free drinks at the pub near the British Library. I loved that bloke."

Lily had gone out with him exactly twice, and it was apparent from the very start that neither of them was particularly enamoured with the other as anything more than friendly chums, which is why James had loved that bloke.

But he also got them free drinks, which is the story James will be sticking with.

"You mean Sebastian, and I had to cut him loose. My sexual appetite is insatiable, and he was chronically impotent," says Lily airily. James can practically see his own shocked flinch, and she bursts into laughter. "I'm joking, you daft sod. Never even slept with the bloke. Give me back my phone."

"You don't deserve your phone, smearing Sasmo's good name like that." And nearly giving James a stroke in the process. Insatiable, for fuck's sake. He shifts his arm from twelve o'clock to three o'clock, and she lets out a huff. "Besides, you can't be left to do this on your own. You've got to date someone who is good for the group. We have a very tenuous dynamic. Like, you can't pick anyone who's more attractive than Sirius. And you can't pick anyone who is pithier than Bea. And what if they like...lawn bowling. Competitive lawn bowling. I can't let Tinder set you up with a lawn bowler. I am too good a friend."

"You're one to talk about the group," says Lily darkly, and tries to reach across him for her phone, but given the length of his arms and the position they're in, that's a ludicrous pipe dream that she ought to know better than to hope for. "What about Felicity? Or Susie the doll collector? Or Emma One? Or Emma Two?" She takes a second swipe at her phone, leaning against him for support, curling her black-and-yellow legs behind her as her free hand rises to clutch his shoulder. "At least I've never dated someone who told me that I wasn't permitted to hang out with you."

James cringes at the reminder. After a mere three months of dating, Emma Two had indeed thrown down that boulder of an ultimatum, which James had incredulously—and guiltily—used as justification to end things with her. He'd told the group it was the audacity of the order that did it; in actuality, it was that Emma Two was not nearly as incorrect in her jealousy as James might have preferred, and it had started to feel cruel and vaguely dirty to continue. He's kept himself removed from dating ever since, not exactly certain yet where he's meant to go with all of it.

"Emma Two was, in retrospect, a very poor choice," he concedes, and his arm ticks down to four o'clock in absent contemplation. "But I'd argue that Susie the doll collector can't even warrant a place on the list. It was one date. Is it my fault that she passed out on the couch, then madly refused to leave the flat for the next seventy-two hours? If you hadn't come in feigning a fire, I think she'd still be sitting there on that same couch cushion, discussing her Madame Alexanders."

"Susie the doll collector stays," says Lily flatly. "You knew she had a doll collection before you took her out, which means you had a chance to run for the hills and you ignored it, but you're harping on about the perils of lawn bowling like I'm the one with terrible taste in partners."

"Toby who bit off his toenails!" James shouts in rebuttal, because two can play this game. "You dated Toby who bit off his toenails for months. And I told you I saw him bite off his toenails, and you said I was making it up! You know what's a truly terrible taste? Snogging someone who snogs his toes." The reminder of Toby gives James renewed conviction. His arm waggles wider. "No phone. You can thank me later."

"Later, when?" she snippily retorts. "When I die alone by your design? Give it back."

Lily does not wait for James to counter this entirely false allegation (contrary to what she may believe, James would grin and bear whatever boyfriend she chose if he felt she was truly happy, though if the world were a kinder place, that boyfriend would be him and she'd have no need for Tinder, weird-lipped actors and all) and lunges for her phone—throwing her full weight across his lap in the process—only to miss her target by several inches.

He doesn't think they've done this—play fighting, scrabbling like children over some petty stolen item—in a long time. Not since their uni days, when the occasional booze-soaked evening they'd allow themselves could potentially lead to some tomfoolery or other. James is taller and stronger than Lily; she couldn't win then unless she resorted to tickling, and she won't win now.

It's another easy victory for him. She'll truly never learn.

Trouble is, it's difficult to focus on the task at hand—holding her phone hostage for the next hour, or better yet, the rest of the night, or best of all, until that godforsaken app is decommissioned, and online dating falls completely out of fashion for the rest of their adult lives—when the fittest woman he's ever known is sprawled across his lap, and the curve of her pert, round, peachy miracle of a bottom stares him boldly in the face, as if she's been a very naughty girl and is waiting to be spanked.

James openly groans.

He does not need to think about Lily's bottom, or spanking.

Hell.

He devotedly hopes the playful jostling is producing enough noise and distraction to keep Lily from hearing the pathetic sound of his woeful sexual frustration, the flagrantly inappropriate thoughts about her that he continuously places on their neat little high shelf where they are out of her eyesight (if never far out of his mind) suddenly trudged out between their squirming bodies, their present reality too keen a reflection of some of his frisky fantasies to successfully keep at bay.

Maybe she'll think one of her rustling limbs got him in some place soft, or that her continued grumbled demands are provoking his own grumbled groans in response, rather than the truth: that having Lily Evans writhing all over his person has been, in one way or another, a constant dream of his since nary the first day that they met.

The phone is suddenly wrenched from his grasp.

"Gotcha!" Lily cries victoriously, pushing herself up and off, one hand braced against his inner thigh while she unlocks her phone's display with the other. She immediately gasps in outrage. "This guy's got a scarecrow costume! And you were going to swipe left, when you know that Dorothy is my favourite? Are you insane?"

James grits his teeth at the very precarious placement of her fingers, scrambling upward with somewhat chaotic fervour, arm already striking out to reclaim the phone.

"Don't you know the song?" he asks, hand catching somewhere over her shoulder, though she whips off his hold with swift alacrity, easily squirming from his grasp. "He hasn't got a brain, Lily. It's metaphoric! He is a clear left swipe!"

"The scarecrow got a diploma in the end!" Lily loudly counters, then lets out a squeal so deafening, one might be forgiven if they mistook it for the fourteenth sound effect on Sirius's Terrifying Halloween Sounds compilation. "Look at that! We matched!"

They matched? James wants to vomit. No more matching. He needs to stop the matching now.

"Give that back—"

One arm was clearly not enough. James goes for a full-on, two-armed ploy, reckons that if he can surprise her from two different angles, the phone is his. He springs forward, correctly expecting that she would effectively attempt to dodge his arm coming over her shoulder again, but—ha! Just as he planned. The arm he snakes in from her opposite hip has her startled, and both his arms close around her as she jerks in surprise, not dropping the phone, but she must have loosened it some, so if only James can—

If only James—

Bugger.

If only James wasn't hugging her from behind right now.

If only his arm—his clever, unexpected, sneak-in-from-the-side-like-a-cunning-cobra arm—wasn't, at that very moment, draped firmly across Lily Evans's torso.

And if that arm draped firmly across her torso was not attached to some very long fingers, which were presently—unmistakably—accidentally cupping her very supple breast.

She goes very still, and very stiff, and very quiet.

It's far too much to hope that Lily hasn't felt it, that she's fallen victim to an inexplicable numbness in the left side of her body and hadn't thought to inform him as of yet. James is no deviant, so he has no firsthand experience, but from what he's heard through the grapevine of female friends and colleagues, women tend to notice when they're groped against their will.

"You know that's my boob you've just grabbed, right?" says Lily in a cool, unaffected tone that's difficult to read and even harder not to fear. "To clear up any confusion, you'll probably notice that it feels absolutely nothing like a phone."

Like he's just been burned with scalding hot tea, James's hands fly out—skittering, shaking, not sure what they're meant to do, or where they're supposed to go, or why bad things happen to good people.

"Yes. No. Sorry. I—" Shit, he can't speak. But he needs to say something, and that something can't be, please let me put my hand back. "Not a phone. Definitely not a phone. Scarecrow is not the only one without a brain, eh? Er. Sorry. I didn't mean—obviously. Sorry."

"Brain or not, Scarecrow might buy me dinner before he feels me up. That's the done thing nowadays, I hear," Lily replies, shuffling away from him, returning to her earlier spot by his side. Her nose is buried in her phone already, her fingers flying across the screen—a demeanour so nonchalant as to suggest that nothing untoward has happened at all, and that stings more than her anger might have done. "Should I message him first? Say hello? Am I supposed to do that?"

"You're going to—" He stops, doesn't finish the question. Because of course she's going to. It was all a game until it wasn't, and this—them—is separate entirely from the likes of Tinder Scarecrow. For her, at least. Clearly, for her. And one accidental, clearly discomforting boob graze is hardly going to change that. James is not allowed to object if it's what makes her happy. He'd decided that much, ages ago. If she wants to message Tinder Scarecrow, he needs to support her messaging Tinder Scarecrow. He cannot say, what you're supposed to do is be with me.

Even though he very much wants to say that. Has wanted to say it for months. Years.

He coughs, shifting backwards.

"Yes," he forces out shortly. "He'll think you bold and friendly. Which you are. So that's good."

"Right," says Lily, frowning down at her phone like it's a complicated equation. "Yeah, that makes sense. Bold and friendly. Sure."

She fiddles about with the screen for a moment, typing or swiping at something he can't see, nor does he wish to look. It's an invasion of her privacy, and likely to make him feel nauseous besides.

Then, in a bizarre and unprecedented turn of events, she hands the phone back to James, screen facing up. Tinder Scarecrow is gone, replaced by an entirely different fellow who loves extreme sports, bitter coffees, and considers himself a 'fish person lol, cats and dogs are overrated.'

"Take it back," she instructs him, "before I change my mind."

His fingers close around the phone in confusion. "I thought you were going to message him?"

"Didn't need to, he'd already messaged me. Said hello, and asked me how I was doing, which is fine, but it means I'd have to respond, and honestly, even the idea of making idle chat with another random bloke I'm not going to wind up with is exhausting, so I unmatched him." She leans against the wall with her legs crossed in front of her, hugging her arms to her chest. "Bloody hate Tinder. It's a bastion of lies and dick pics, and you should bin it out and never let me install it again."  

James blinks, torn between pulling together an impromptu parade in honour of Tinder's forthcoming demise off her precious phone and inquiring why she suddenly seems so forlorn and bitter about it. Granted, there's hardly any question that Bea would have been the instigator in opening the app this evening, but Lily hadn't seemed truly bothered by the prospect of at least absently swiping through until now. Scarecrow, an allegedly worthy match moments ago, is now the baby in the proverbial bath water, chucked with all the rest.

"Are you sure?" he asks, though the words burn on his tongue like bile. "Not that I'm leading up the Tinder fan club, mind, but it hardly hurts to swipe through every so often, yeah? Maybe you too will find your perfectly sub-par Agatha Christie adaptation troupe player."

"If ever I feel any stirring need for a perfectly sub-par Agatha Christie adaptation troupe player—that's a mouthful and a half—I'll know exactly where to look, but otherwise I don't have any dating energy left to expend." She nods towards her phone. "Go on, get rid. If you won't be my Ron Stoppable, you can at least do me this favour and tell Beatrice it was you."

It is exactly what, if asked ten minutes earlier, James would have declared his greatest desire. The end of Tinder. Goodnight and good riddance. His finger hovers over the app, even going so far as to press down on the tiny icon, setting them all shaking.

But his finger won't make the final move.

Something is off.

The switch in her was too quick, too...dejected? She is suddenly being short and strangely downcast, an uncharacteristic mood shift. Well, had been uncharacteristic. Admittedly, she's been acting a bit peculiarly lately overall—dodging calls, skipping their weekly lunch date twice, and now apparently not telling him things like that she's getting back on Tinder, or looking for a new flat, or that work has been particularly hellish.

Has he done something to upset her? Pre-breast grab, that is? James scours his memory, but nothing immediately comes to mind, and it's even more unlike Lily not to immediately let him know if he has done. But he can't ignore that something is clearly wrong.

And it's Halloween. Lily loves Halloween. Parties like this? Fancy dress all around, fake cobwebs attacking unsuspecting passersby, random screams filtering up from downstairs, where Sirius has hired a full-fledged company to put on a version of James's worst nightmare: a pitch dark haunted house filled with blood and horrors and strangers jumping out at you in frighteningly convincing body make-up with deadly-looking props…Lily loves all that. She should be grinning ear to ear, waggling a fake moustache at him in a bid to get him to don at least that much, spiking the already-spiked rum punch, singing "Monster Mash" at the top of her lungs with Mary and Beatrice, trying to convince Remus to go through the haunted house with her, but settling for Sirius.

Instead, she's tucked away in a dark alcove, playing on her phone.

Lily is never tucked away in alcoves. Not without him, at any rate.

And now James can't shake the feeling that it all trails back to some issue with him.

But what?

"Are you certain you're alright?" he asks slowly, ducking his head to try to meet her gaze, which is still firmly on the phone. "You seem...dunno. Less thrilled by the spook in the air than usual. Is it—I mean, if I've done something to upset you—?"

"No, of course not," she sighs, a pink flush blossoming across her pale, beautiful face, but there's no accompanying pat on his arm, no lacing of her fingers through his, no arms wrapping around his shoulders to pull him into a tight, awkwardly positioned hug whether he likes it or not—none of the usual comforting breadcrumbs of affection that make Lily who she is, and their friendship what it is—in fact, she moves away from him, pressing her hands into the floor to shift herself further afield. "You did nothing and I'm not upset. I'm just… really busy, and stressed, and being a bad friend lately, I think. I'm really sorry."

"You don't need to be sorry. You haven't—reckon I'm just being a glutton for your time and attention, as usual. There was bound to be a point where you got a bit sick of it, yeah?" He gets no reaction at that. Nothing at all. "Just...you seem...sad? Or mad? It's Halloween. I think it's the holiday that Satan brought, but you've tended to disagree on that."

"I’m not sick of you," Lily tells him, and though he’s rarely known her to be wilfully deceitful, somewhere in her testimony there’s a glaring omission that he can’t quite put his finger on. She slants a small smile at him. "I’m physically incapable of being sick of you. You’re my best friend," she adds, "even if Beatrice insists you aren’t. If both of you were hanging off a cliff, I’d haul you back up first."

"At which point, Bea would bitterly let go of the cliff, casting herself to death with the sole intent of coming back as a ghost to haunt us both relentlessly in retaliation for all eternity," James replies, and though his heart swells at the sentiment—best friend—it's the sort of bloated expansion that leaves little cracks at the corners, cracks that ought to be filled with emotions different than friendship. They're cracks that are getting harder and harder to ignore lately. Is that the problem? Has she noticed the breakage? "You'd be my first haul too, you know," he affirms, because at least that much is true. "That's why I just want to...make sure you're alright. And we're alright. With or without bloody stupid Tinder."

He glances down at the phone again, suddenly motivated anew to be firmly without. He clicks through her passcode, gets the icons shaking once more, and makes the final press to trash the app.

Delete "Tinder"? it asks.

James jabs "Delete" with pointed gusto.

"There," he says, and presents the cleansed phone back to her. "Ta forever, lies and dick pics."

"Free at last," says Lily, and tips her head back like just she's escaped the Shawshank and is savouring the feel of wind and rain on her face. "Oh, the things I could have seen, the terrible dates I might have suffered, but I've been rescued by a bespectacled ponce without a costume." She gives him a gentle nudge with her elbow. "Best mates, see?"

"Right." James's mouth quirks upward, a tight-lipped smile. He continues to watch her carefully, hesitates in indecision for only a moment, then tosses the reservations aside as silly and snakes his arm around her costume-clad shoulders, tugging her close against his side. She makes a soft noise, and he bends his head toward her, pressing an only mildly lingering kiss to the crown of her head. "Best mates."

They're tactile beings, he and Lily Evans. They play with one another's hair, hold hands, share a bed when space is wanting and curl up in the same squishy armchair every time Remus hosts a movie night. They're seasoned experts in the art of sitting out on parties together, tucking themselves away in alcoves and on porches, sneaking snacks into utility cupboards, once even spending the night in a blanket fort they'd fashioned in Peter's room, with nothing but a torch and a bowl of popcorn for company. On any regular day, Lily might settle into his embrace, return that kiss with an innocent peck of her own, and stay huddled up against him until a drunk and crotchety Sirius stumbled over to scold them both for missing out on the festivities. This is such a common occurrence that Sirius has already prepared for it, the earlier warning at the door only the latest of several increasingly imaginative threats issued to James in the run-up to tonight's extravaganza.

James is terribly, desperately saddened to find that this does not appear to be a regular day.

"Watch my headband," she warns him instead, with a shallow kind of laugh, as she pulls herself out from beneath his arm. "It's cheap and delicate—I already had to fix one of the bobbles with glue before I left the flat."

James's curved limb hangs suspended for a second, like it too can't believe that it's just been spurned from its exceptional happy place around her. A streak of dreaded cold shoots through him, and he's rather certain it's not just from the sudden lack of her body warmth against him.

It is not a regular day.

Absolutely and positively not a regular day.

"Sorry," he finds himself saying, though he's mildly alarmed, and genuinely nonplussed, not to mention increasingly worried, much more than he is apologetic. "It's clever, by the way. Spelling Bee. And pretty—cheap, delicate headband, glittery skirt, and all."

Lily is not looking at him, as there appears to be a lot of invisible dirt clinging to said glittery skirt, and she must apparently brush it all away at once. "I reckon we've got about five minutes before Sirius mounts a search and investigation," she tells him, "or has us officially declared dead, so we should probably get back to the party."

"We've already been declared dead," James returns. "Or didn't you get your personalised tombstone upon entry?"

"I did, and was very touched by the manner of my demise." She climbs to her feet and gives her costume a quick once-over, pausing for a moment to twist the waistband of her rumpled skirt around her hips. "I'll see you later, yeah?"

"Later?" James blurts, and doesn't know why his heart sinks further when she doesn't even reach down a hand to clasp his and haul him up. She always does things like that. Who is this demon replacement, and where has his Lily gone? "Where are you going?"

"To the toilet, and then probably to find Beatrice," she says, frowning down at him. "Is that okay?"

What is he supposed to say? "No, you can't pee"? But this is strange. It's all strange. It prickles at him in all the wrong places, his senses going haywire.

"'Course," he says, and slowly lumbers his own way to his feet. Her bumblebee-striped phone is still in his hand, and he gives it a wave. He needs a hostage. "Shall I keep this for you? Not sure if insects come equipped with pockets."

"Oh, sure, knock yourself out. Post some dodgy tweets, or try to beat my high score on Tetris," she instructs, already stepping back, with nothing more to spare for him but the most absent of careless waves. "Bye, Potter."

"Bye," he returns glumly, though it's more to the now depressingly empty alcove than it is to her—the haunting spectre of his clearly unrequited affections, already diving her way into the crowd of partygoers.

Alone, concerned, James is now certain.

Absolutely, unmistakably certain.

Lily is not all right. Something is not all right. He's done something. Must have.

But what? Have his overblown, increasingly poorly hidden feelings suddenly become as obvious to her as they are to him? The possibility makes James's stomach turn, the overwhelming desire to crawl immediately toward that looming grave in his future appearing abruptly like an entirely lovely prospect, but he has no evidence to support that brewing fear. All he has is his plethora of knowledge about Lily Evans, and how none of those staple puzzle pieces seem to be fitting together correctly lately.

If she knew...if she knew she'd just say so, wouldn't she? Lily is not the sort to sit on uncomfortable conversations. Or was all that moments ago about being best mates supposed to be some kind of hint? Best mates, and just best mates? I'm not sick of you, could never be sick of you, but would like approximately three respectful paces kept between us at all times? Doesn't have the energy to date, especially not him?

Shit, maybe that was it?

James needs to fix this. Whatever is wrong, whether it's the unrequited feelings or not, he needs to fix this. He is not about to lose Lily—his best mate, Lily—over anything. That's why he hasn't purged the truth about being so bloody inconveniently in love with her before. He can't risk it. Won't.

If he can just...release the tension somehow. Show her he cares, but doesn't need to care care. Or doesn't need her to care care. Just...wants her happy. He always, no matter what, wants her happy.

If he can just…in a small way, a telling way...

James stops.

Then he springs to his feet.

He has an idea.

***

"We don't spend enough time together," says Generic Dave, clasping one of Lily's hands between both of his own. "That's such a shame, you know? We get along so well. You get me."

His hands don't feel unpleasant. They're not clammy or calloused or cold.

The trouble is, Generic Dave's hands don't feel like anything at all. Generic Dave's hands feel like two flat, smooth, blandly room-temperature nonentities that just so happen to be attached to the ends of his arms, because he wouldn't be Generic Dave if ever he could be counted upon to be interesting, make interesting observations, or possess a remotely interesting appendage.

He must, however, be drunk off his ass, if he can harangue her with this brand of nonsense while keeping a straight face.

That's a little interesting, Lily supposes, though it's a sad, sad testament to Generic Dave that the most fascinating thing he can do is veer blindly towards the unacceptable end of the drunkard scale.

Sirius skitters past them both, his feeble attempts at a moonwalk throwing the direction of Lily's gaze off course. Everybody knows that the moonwalk goes hand-in-hand with "Billie Jean," not "Thriller," and it's unreasonably irritating that Sirius would commit such a faux pas at his own Halloween party. It's bad enough that he was heard to shout, "I love NSYNC!" during a Backstreet Boys medley earlier in the evening, but to metaphorically urinate all over one of Michael Jackson's most iconic hits is a Halloween crime of the highest order.

"Lily?" says Generic Dave, and shakes her hand as if he's preparing to throw some dice.

"What?" Her gaze snaps back to his thin, pink-tinged face and she pulls her hand away. "Yeah. I agree."

She's already forgotten what they were talking about.

Generic Dave is another uni acquaintance, having first met Lily at the house party of a mutual friend and fallen—so legend has it, for Dave has never gathered the courage to tell her to her face—madly and deeply in love with her after one solitary conversation. "It's so mad that your name is Dave!" Lily had bellowed, rudely and directly in his face, suitably smashed on Malibu and lemonade. "It's so… generic, isn't it? Like a plumber's name—Dave. Bob. Steve. Hey. Hey. Hey. D'you know anything about pipes?"

That's all that Lily can remember of her first conversation with Generic Dave. James had appeared on the scene shortly after that and loudly declared that she was too drunk to function. Then he'd thrown her over his shoulder, bundled her into a taxi and put her to bed with a slice of jam-slathered toast and a kiss on the forehead.

Would that James Potter could pick her up and sling her over his shoulder tonight.

Lily hasn't seen him since she ran off to the toilet, leaving him alone to worry over her behaviour—and he will worry. She knows that, just as she knows that she upset him with her cold, indifferent attitude. If she hadn't, she would have gotten her phone back complete with a brand-new reel of cheekily-snapped selfies, found her Twitter feed clogged with a novella's worth of ridiculous puns, and opened Facebook to see a rambling, unpunctuated status update detailing James's unsurpassed handsomeness with great enthusiasm, but when she'd had it returned to her by Beatrice ("James had to go somewhere, he told me to give this back to you.") not a single change had been made.  

"If you're free for lunch this week," Generic Dave is saying, having speared something—a piece of flan—on the end of a fork, waving it around like a conductor's baton, "we could always—maybe next Thursday? There's a new vegan jazz place on the—"

"Have you seen James around?"

"Who?"

Lily almost laughs in his face. She and James are rarely seen apart, and Dave's seemingly innocent "Who?" is nothing more than a poorly-disguised power play, hallmark of the truly sad and jealous. "James Potter?"

"Oh. Him. No, I haven't," says Generic Dave in a generic manner, eating the most generic flan in his most generic doctor costume. "Not recently."

"Right," she replies, craning her neck to see if she can spy him by the speakers, where Peter has bent to the inevitable and inserted his head directly into a wastepaper basket. It's not unusual for James to assume the role of caretaker when Peter has had one too many, but he isn't there this time. "Maybe he's gone home."

Being in love with James is a particularly scalding kind of emotional purgatory. Lily cannot remain in his presence—not without suffering immensely—yet here she is, faced with the harrowing prospect of James having left and finding herself at a loss to understand if there's any point to being here without him, if a party's worth attending if she can't squirrel herself away with him in some quiet, hidden place.   

She's in love with her friend and that love is so much—too much—that it's driving her to hurt him, when hurting James Potter is the last endeavour she would ever strive to undertake.

James deserves so much better than this. He deserves the respect of a proper explanation.

But she can't. She can't.

"It wouldn't surprise me if he has gone home—he's always such a party pooper at these things," Generic Dave continues, and sucks his disgusting flan crumbs from his finger, careening wildly out of his generic wheelhouse in his efforts to reach the dizzying and hitherto undiscovered heights of Dave the Condescending Prat. "You know he never even dresses up in costume? Well, of course you do. You had to live with him in uni, you poor thing."

You shut your fat mouth, she thinks, and desperately wants to say it. The words rear up in the back of her throat like an angry lioness, desperate to pounce and bite and claw, and shred Generic Dave into a thousand generic pieces.

"Where did you even get flan?" she asks him instead, suddenly struck by the realisation that Sirius Black would have his fingernails prised out with a rusty tweezers before he purchased flan for a Halloween blowout, and desperate to insult Generic Dave somehow.

"Brought it myself," he says, indicating the dessert table, where an enticing array of spooky sweets—chocolate coffins, red velvet cupcakes with edible blood, meringue skeletons, and pumpkin-shaped cookies with bright orange frosting—have been piled up high for the milling guests. "I'm not a fan of most sweets."

"Oh. Okay."

"So, going back to what I was saying about lunch next week—"

"Yeah, sure," she says, and springs to her feet as she spies Beatrice by another refreshment table, her blonde wig sitting lopsided on her head, blue eighties jacket discarded to flaunt her toned, brown arms, "I'll text you." She doesn't have Generic Dave's number. "Just need to see Beatrice about something. Good luck with your surgery."

"I'm not having sur—"

"See you later!" she calls blithely over her shoulder, already halfway across the room.

As she nears the table, Lily sees that Bea has managed to wrangle some one-on-one time with Remus, who is dressed as Albert Einstein and who Beatrice has been angling to shag for years.

Her timing is impeccably fucking terrible.

Bea is going to flay her alive for this, then feed her to the hounds. Just call her Ramsay Bolton.

Still, needs must.

"I need to talk to you," she says, rudely disrupting yet another of her friend's conversations, her arm closing around Bea's elbow as she barrels full-tilt between their sloping bodies. "It’s urgent. And private. Urgent and private." She slants an apologetic smile at Remus. "Sorry."

"No problem," says Remus, ever polite, and departs the scene with a gentlemanly bow.

"Fuck's sake," Beatrice murmurs under her breath, once he's out of earshot. She sets down the can of Diet Coke that she's been tipping into her glass and shakes Lily's hand off her arm. "Again, Lil?"

"I know, I'm sorry, I'll make it up to you la—"

"I’ve told you a million times already," Bea interrupts, sighing like a woman stuck with an overly-curious child on a night of no sleep, "when somebody sends you a dick pic, grab a photo of a bigger dick from Google and send it back."

"You think I'd interrupt your time with Remus because of a dick pic?" Lily pulls a face. "I know you're annoyed, but there's no need to be insulting."

"If you've not been sent a photo of some desperate arsehole's pathetic little Charlie, I see no reason for you to descend upon me like a fucking drama que—"

"I’m in love with James," Lily says, in a bold, bursting kind of way, flinging the words at her like a wayward grenade—see? See? See how fucking serious this is?—expelling the sentiment on a heavy breath that feels as if it has been caught in her lungs for years.

There. She's said it.

There.

Beatrice shuts her mouth. Blinks. Makes a curious humming sound in the back of her throat.

Then she reaches down, plucks a crispy tempura prawn from a large, inviting platter, and promptly drops it on the floor.

"What the hell was that?" says Lily, staring down at it.

"I'm sorry, love," Beatrice coos, and lays a comforting hand on Lily's shoulder. "It’s just—I mean, I already knew that you were in love with him, but I feel like this is a big moment in your life and you deserved to have me drop what I was holding in shock." She lifts up the glass she's holding in her other hand and tips it in Lily's direction. "Can’t really drop this, though, it’s a forty-year-old single malt scotch from Alphard’s personal collection. I looked it up online, and it’s like, well over two grand for one bottle."

"And you’ve mixed it with Diet Coke because?"

"Because I may be cultured, but I’m not prepared to drink something that tastes like fucking paint stripper just for the 'gram," she dryly intones. "Plus, I’m watching my diet."

"You ate an entire cheesecake before we left the flat—"

"Can we stop policing my eating habits and get back to what you said about being in love with James?"

"If we do get back to that, will you promise that you won't spend the next five years laughing because you were right and throwing it back in my face?"

"I'd never do such a hideous thing, and I'm quite prepared to swear it on my life," says Bea, and visibly crosses her fingers in front of her chest, grinning like the cat who just got the cream. "Shoot."

Lily looks around, her eyes raking anxiously over the room. There's nobody nearby who she knows.

"Alright," she agrees, and plucks a thread from her jumper. "Where do I even start?"

***

It is, James admits as he views himself in the large mirror inside the ensuite loo attached to Sirius's new bedroom, a pretty pathetic costume.

Thought that counts, he amends, adjusting the sheet draped over his head, hoping it will stay put. She'll have a laugh. It'll all be great. Thought that counts.

He'd filched the sheet straight from the linen closet, a musty-smelling find on the highest shelf that very possibly could've been there since Uncle Alphard was Sirius's age. If anyone looks closely, they'll notice it's not quite white, but a slightly aged eggshell, but beggars cannot be choosers. It had taken a bit more thought—and infinitely more courage—to confront one of the roving men with weapons, who'd politely relinquished his (troublingly real) sharp knife to James so that he might stab out two rather jagged eye circles into the old sheet, but James had done that too. The circles didn't quite sit at the right place, draping strangely over his specs, one vaguely higher than the other, the second most definitely untidily larger than the first, but the point got across.

James is wearing a costume.

A Halloween costume.

He is wearing a Halloween costume, he is wearing it for Lily, and his heart thrums eagerly with the prospect of surprising her with it.

It's not Ron Stoppable, but a bloke has to start somewhere.

Whatever's wrong, this had to ease the tension some, break whatever wall seems to be building up between them, a gesture of such goodwill and lovable humour that she'd immediately see he is determined to set whatever he'd done wrong back to rights.

He will set this to rights. He will.

Properly doffed and determined, he straightens, gives himself a firm, ghostly nod in the mirror, then opens the door. Sirius had naturally set his own bedroom off limits—"May need it," he'd insisted, eyebrows waggling—so there's no queue awaiting James outside the bathroom. He can hear the sounds of the party already drifting in through the closed bedroom door, but that only sets a quicker stride in James's step. Lily is out there, after all.

Out there...though, as James soon discovers, a bit difficult to locate.

Really, someone whose evening colour scheme consists of fifty percent bright yellow should not be such a trial to spot. Even considering Sirius has most certainly broken twelve or thirteen different fire codes with the amount of people and flammable decor in the flat tonight, not to mention that James's vision is a bit obscured with the lopsided eye holes, there's very little excuse. The universe is clearly set on playing Halloween tricks on him, for as James wanders room to room, he can't seem to find her anywhere. He does spot Sirius, holding court by a giant display of pumpkins, and Peter, frantically cutting the bathroom queue, looking predictably green, but gets distracted by neither. He is a man on a mission, even if that mission is taunting him.

In the end, it is yet another trick, and the farthest thing from a treat, when the first wisp of Lily that James encounters is not, in fact, the woman herself, but the passing sound of her name from an overly loud conversation going on nearby.

"—then Lily says—and get this—lunch Thursday. Lily wants to do lunch on Thursday. With me. Came right up just a few minutes ago and said it! I knew she's always had a fancy for me. Just was playing coy with it—"

James's steps stumble to a halt, the flimsy sheet slipping back slightly at the abrupt skidding.

He doesn't need to turn to know the bastard currently sullying the air with such venomous lies. For they are, unmistakably, the biggest, soggiest, vilest heap of venomous lies. Have to be, without question, lies, lies, lies. The voice is distinct and immediately recognizable—heavy Welsh accent, timbre about four notches higher than is pleasing to the ear, words fumbling over each other in their clumsy enthusiasm.

Dave.

Bloody fucking Generic Dave.

One of those perpetual outer-skirt social circle hangers-on, Generic Dave is not necessarily a terrible, horrible person. Mostly, he's just irritating, and dull as the blandest, palest, driest piece of toast. He may not competitively lawn bowl, but he may as well have done. He is that incredibly boring. That unimpressively mundane. The highest order of personified mediocre yawn.

And—his largest crime of all—he's awkwardly and unsubtly been after Lily for years.

There are about a thousand reasons why Lily would never, ever have agreed to go to lunch with Generic Dave on Thursday, James is certain. For one, the "blandest, palest, driest piece of toast" analogy? Lily's. If James finds Dave a bore, Lily finds him the weariest, most tedious of drags. He can be kindly greeted, chit-chatted with in small doses, but any encouragement of encounters further than that are to be fastidiously avoided. The idea of Lily actively seeking out Generic Dave? Inviting him to an outing in which they'd be required to converse for hours?

No. Not possible.

And most especially because—

Thursday.

Lunch on Thursday.

That's James and Lily's weekly lunch date day.

The lunch date...well, yes, that she'd cancelled on the last two weeks. But she was busy. Bothersome work and all. And searching for a new flat. Neither of which she'd told James before tonight, but that—

And, yes, she'd once, while they'd been drinking flat champagne at Mary's New Years party, squinting her emerald eyes really, really tightly, admitted that Generic Dave's face wasn't the worst thing she's ever seen. That he had, perhaps, an inoffensive symmetry to his strangely compiled features, and very nicely rounded ears.

Deceptively faint with her praise, Lily is, when her emotions are quite strong.

But that doesn't mean…

"—I'll ring her on Monday," Dave is going on, and James briefly considers whether he should punch him, one swift fist thrust out from beneath the eggshell sheet, like a spectre of justice. "She's gone off with Beatrice now, but—"

Gone off with Beatrice. So James has to find Beatrice. Again. Now.

Find Beatrice, and thus find Lily, and let the pair of them handle Generic Dave and his wildly insulting claims. Lunch on Thursday. Lily is not going to lunch with Generic Dave on Thursday. She's not.

Right?

James makes a brisk turn back into the kitchen, a renewed sense of urgency setting his steps even firmer upon the vaguely sticky floors, clopping in time with the swift kick of his heart. Yes, he has always said that if Lily was happy, he'd be happy. He...painfully stands by that. If she wants to go out with Generic Dave, if their Thursday afternoon lunches become Lily and Stupid-bloody-Dave's Thursday afternoon lunches…

Shit. There was that time—months ago, in the summer—when they'd been at that rooftop party, and Dave had cornered Lily, and James had gallantly interrupted, claiming he needed her for a "sunlight emergency" ("Right, yes, sunlight emergency, of course," Dave had said, entirely serious), and Lily got generally stroppy, except she claimed she was grumpy because she just wasn't feeling well, and she had been promptly felled by that gruesome bug twenty-four hours later...but maybe it hadn't been the bug, and she hadn't been sickly annoyed, just genuinely irritated that James had dragged her away from Generic Dave, who thought sunlight emergencies existed.

James needs to find Lily. He really needs to find Lily.

She's not in the kitchen.

Not in the corridor leading to the main floor bedrooms, either.

Missing, is she, from the long bathroom queue, which Peter is undoubtedly still holding up.

Would she have gone downstairs, to the dancing and haunted house? It seems unlikely, but—

There! THERE.

James nearly lets out a vocal whoop, something bright and bubbly fireworking in his chest when he finally spots Lily and Beatrice standing by one of the numerous refreshment tables, heads tucked close together in what appears to be rather fervent conversation. Normally, James might have displayed a bit more decorum about barging in, but he's too impatient now, too determined to show off his costumed grand gesture, too—

Oh, who is he kidding? Too bloody in love with her and too bloody sickened by the prospect that she might, in some universe, actually have feelings for another person.

He floats, appropriately ghostlike, straight for them.

"Sometimes," he hears her strained voice saying as he approaches, one hand clutching Beatrice’s arm, the other clenched tightly around a glass of ominously green Halloween punch, "I have these dreams about him—like, sex dreams, you know?"

James's floating flounders.

Did she just say...

"I’m familiar," says Bea dryly.

"Yeah and it’s like, I don’t touch myself, or anything, at least I think I don’t because I’m asleep, but they’re so vivid and I, like—I mean, I know they’re not real but I’ll be wishing they are and then I get so worked up that I—well, you know." She lets go of Beatrice’s arm and makes a swooping downwards gesture, as if she’s winding a length of yarn around her hand. "I sort of, I basically—"

"Achieve orgasm?"

Oh lord Christ.

Lily flushes pink and presses her lips together in brief disapproval, as if she can’t believe that her friend would dare to speak such words aloud. James cannot believe it either. Cannot believe, on approximately twelve different levels, how he's gotten to this point, here, beneath a sheet, listening to Lily Evans talk about her nighttime orgasms.

Somewhere between her dash from the alcove and this hushed, hurried conversation with Beatrice, she lost her sparkly, bobbled headband.

And somewhere in the time it takes him to notice this, James also recalls that she's talking about a him.

A specific him, with the orgasms.

There's a him.

"You don’t have to say it like that," she reproachfully begins, and Beatrice immediately makes a loud, angry scoffing sound, so Lily holds a placating hand aloft. "Okay, okay, I’m sorry. Yes." She lets out a sigh which sounds as weary as if it scrambled up mountains and encountered impossible dangers just to make it to her mouth. "I just—I want him, you know? Always have wanted him—like, you know how sometimes you’re ravenously hungry but you only want a certain kind of food, only you can’t get that food for whatever reason, so you go to bed starving rather than eat anything else?"

"Literally every Tuesday," says Bea, "when Great Wall is closed and I can’t get my prawn toast and smoked chicken pieces."

"Yeah, well—well I want him like that," Lily finishes, sounding desperately miserable, looking as if she’d like nothing more than to crumple into Beatrice’s arms and be petted like a child. James can commiserate. Feels terribly, irreversibly, like crumpling and weeping all of a sudden too. "Like I’d rather go to bed starving than go with—honestly, Bea, Colin Firth could walk in here right now and promise me the shag of my life, and it’d be like the Sahara down there because he’s not him, and I thought I could move past it but I can’t, and I have no idea what I’m supposed to do to move past it because moving past it seems so bloody impossible."

James takes in the plaintive claims like a battering ram, one swinging over and over against his stomach, pathetic putters of breath the only thing he can manage to expel against the flimsy ghost sheet.

She can't...she can't be talking about bloody Dave, can she?

In his scrambled, devastated head, he sadly realises it doesn't matter if it's Dave she's talking about, or some other tosser, or even Colin Firth's more attractive brother. The problem is that it's someone, and even in her mostly dramatic ramblings, James hears the sincerity in her voice, in the way she frets and sighs and fidgets with her drink. Here, finally, some of Lily's usual honesty.

James immediately unwishes the candor, longs to shove the words back, never wants to hear a true word again, thank you very much.

She lifts her glass to her lips and downs the whole thing—even though it has the colour and consistency of toxic nuclear waste—in one mouthful, as if she’s throwing herself at the mercy of whatever poisons Sirius procured for the night’s festivities.

"Oh, my pretty darling," Beatrice sighs, clearly more amused than she is sympathetic, as Lily winces and sets her glass down on the table. "Oh, my poor, sad, sexually-frustrated little chicken pie. What will I do with you?"

"I love him, Bea," says Lily sadly. "I really love him."

No, James thinks, gutted.

No, no, please no.

"And of all the guys I’ve dated, all the chances I’ve had to fall in love with someone else—literally, anyone else—I had to go and pick the one I can’t bloody have."

"You don’t know that for sure," Bea kindly reminds her, but James doesn't find it kind. Not any of it, a single wisp of this, is kind. "And you never will, as long as you’re set on keeping it to yourself, mooning over him like a soppy tit instead of telling him how you feel—"

"How am I supposed to tell him how I feel? Just walk up to him and blurt it out like it’s no big deal?" Lily snaps, already prepared to lobby this retort, already convinced, he can tell, that she knows better than the person from whom she has actively sought advice. He needs to leave, he decides right then, and promptly spins on his heel, sheet fluttering around him. He needs to leave, get out of here, and go sort out what he's meant to do about...hell. His chest aches. His mouth is dry. All of it. He needs to sort out all of it. He's already taken his first heavy step away when she adopts a high-pitched, cloyingly cheerful tone and loudly says, "Oh, hey James! I know you think you’ve pissed me off because I’ve been skipping lunches and ignoring your texts, but it’s nothing, honest, just this one tiny problem where I love you and want you and desperately want to marry you and have your children. Happy fucking Halloween." The chipper falsetto drops. "That’ll go down really bloody well, won’t it?"

James's pointed trainer freezes mid-step, a heady rush of icy awareness flooding his veins.

James.

She'd said...she'd said James.

Does she...does she know another James? Is there another James?

He whips back around.

"Well, fuck, Lily," Beatrice breathes, after a long, long pause, "don’t start with marriage and kids—"

"You think I should tell him how I feel? That’s how I feel," says Lily angrily. "I’m not fucking around, okay? I’ve loved him for four years, he’s the only one for me, and if I had the chance to change my name to Lily-bleeding-Potter and let him plant his seed in my womb—" She presses both hands to her lower stomach. "—I’d take it, okay? I’m a total fucking lunatic and I love him like crazy and I’d take it in a heartbeat. That’s where I’m at right now, Bea. Sirius might as well hire me to monologue at his guests, because God knows that’d be scarier to witness than some half-drunk twat with a giant rubber axe."

James feels half-drunk, and certainly like someone's cleaved him with giant rubber axe… if the axe were one that attacked with brilliant, unmitigated euphoria.

I’ve loved him for four years, he’s the only one for me...

He takes another stunned step forward.

"That’s a fair point," Bea is saying. "Sirius would find a declaration of love completely terrifying."

"I’m surprised he hasn’t decked the flat out in glittery pink hearts," Lily glumly agrees.

James's feet move faster toward her.

One step. Another, another, another—

Fuck, fuck—too many, too many—he's not paying attention, not paying the least bit of attention, because Lily is standing there, professing things he never thought he'd hear her say—crazy, brilliant, dramatic things that may as well have come straight out of his wildest dreams—Lily-bleeding-Potter!—and he's got a bloody sheet over him, and he's not used to wearing sheets, doesn't know to take note when they slip down too much, getting tangled up on the quickly-moving toe of his trainer—too tangled. Way, way too tangled. And by the time he does take notice—can rip his eyes from her beautiful, wonderful, equally love-stricken face long enough to notice—it's too late. His trainer's still moving, the sheet is caught, it pulls and protests, has no real purchase just thrown over James's head as it is and thus slips down, pooling inconveniently around his ankles, and proves itself a mighty strong detriment to momentum considering its frail age and weight.

Perhaps if James hadn't been so astonished, hadn't been so awash in blind jubilation, a victim to both physical and emotional inertia, he may have been able to stop what occurs next. Might have thought to tuck and roll, or hop with more alacrity, or just about anything that isn't what he does do—namely, grab hold of the nearest solid surface in an attempt to break his fall and regain his balance. The refreshment table, filled to the brim with bowls of punch, half-opened sweets wrappers, and Sirius's expected level of obnoxiously abundant creepy decor.

It's a surface that proves—naturally—to not be terribly solid at all, for Sirius seems to have invested in the flimsiest sort of folding tables for additional furnishings tonight, and James knows it the second his hand claps hold of the tablecloth-covered corner. The table shakes, tremors, and creaks angrily. He barely has two seconds to process that happening before the chain reaction is already set in motion: the shaking turns to dropping, the tremors turn to earthquakes, and the angry creaks turn into the loud, ugly crashing of the entire table collapsing....

...and helpfully taking James down with it.

He's on the floor.

On the floor, back to the ground, like an arse.

As he lay there, sheet still snarled around his legs, thoroughly drenched in whatever green toxic liquid had been filling that punch bowl, a trillion little plastic spiders scattered across his person, James is reminded why he despises Halloween—even this Halloween, now very possibly the best day of his entire life.

He hears a loud, familiar gasp, and looks up.

Lily and Beatrice are staring at him.

Lily and Beatrice are staring at him with identical expressions of horror on their faces, their mouths slightly open, brown eyes as wide and fearful as the green—as if he is no mere imitation, but a genuine spectral being sent from the underworld, intent upon dragging their fragile mortal souls to hell—even Beatrice, who normally finds everything hilarious, but now appears to be terribly shaken.

James only has the sparest of seconds to waste on Bea, however, because there is Lily to contend with, and all that matters now is that she loves him—loves him, wants him, words that spilled from her own beautiful lips—and James desperately needs to get up off this floor so he can reach her, hold her, tell her that he feels the same, that he always has, that—

She retches.

It's a quick, convulsive sort of movement—shoulders lurching forward, hand flying up to cover her mouth, her body curling in on itself like she's just been punched in the stomach—though she mercifully doesn't throw up, but turns to the side as if in a daze. Beatrice clasps her other hand with both of hers and opens her mouth to speak, but Lily wrenches it out of her grasp like she's been burned, then runs—flees, springs away on her toes as if her pretty, glittering bumblebee wings have suddenly come to life—a jerking, rapid recovery from a minor collapse.

James lunges forward, tripping again on the sheet, before he has the good sense to throw it off entirely.

"Lily!" he shouts, finally stumbling to his knees, then he's standing. "Lily, wait—"

But Lily doesn't wait, doesn't even pause in her mad dash straight into the crowd behind her, plowing through partygoers like they are little more than dandelions seeds to scatter to the wind.

James bolts after her.

"Lily!" If she'd just stop, just listen. His legs are longer than hers. He’s gaining on her. "Wait—stop—"

It's a testament to her state of panic that Lily chooses to do what she does next.

She's a clever girl, is Lily, and she never makes things easy for him, not when the alternative option is to pose him some kind of challenge. He's never met a woman with a mind so sharp, so brilliant, so capable of leaping from one point to the next with lightning-quick agility. James adores her glorious brain, marvels at it, counts it as one of the many, many qualities that made him fall so deeply in love with her in the first place, but there are rare occasions—such as when he overhears her declare her undying love for him and needs to slow her down so he can tell her that he loves her too, loves her desperately—where it would be immensely helpful to James if she could dull her bloody senses. Just a little. Just a tad.

But that’s the trouble with Halloween parties—particularly one of Sirius Black's parties—there’s a sheer abundance of props, and said props are readily available to anxiety-stricken women who need to create diversions.

Sirius managed to procure a real hospital cart for the event, and earlier piled the surface with an assortment of eerily realistic severed arms, which he had slashed, stuffing the incisions with marshmallow pieces, and covered the remaining space with tall, fat vials of edible fake blood—fondue for creeps, he'd called it. James knows this because he saw his friend do it, and knows—as Lily grabs the cart by its cold, metallic handle and spins on her heel, hauling as hard as she can, careening it around, shoving it boldly in his direction—that he is going to have to confess his feelings while soaked to the bone in sticky red syrup.

What he hadn't reckoned on were the bottles and bottles of booze that Sirius opted to store inside the cart, hidden by a cleverly draped sheet, which burst out of the side as the cart topples over and slams against the floor, then spill across the carpet, some hitting the wall, some smashing, some rolling back and forth as if unsure of what calamity they should cause, all bringing James to an inelegant, grinding halt before he collides with the whole mess and promptly breaks his neck.

Lily, meanwhile, has vanished like a ghost.

***

Lily had expected, when she first learned of Sirius Black’s plan to throw the greatest, goriest, and most godless Halloween party ever known to man, that she stood an excellent chance of ending her evening on the run from someone—likely an out of work actor with tattered clothes and a ghoulishly painted face, who would brandish a large, serrated knife as he ran and scream for her to embrace the eventuality of her death.

She didn’t think she’d wind up running from James—her James, man of her dreams, love of her life—but that’s what she finds herself doing, pushing through a seemingly endless gauntlet of bloodied nuns, sexy nurses and black-eyed pirates as she scurries away in a blind and horrified panic. Some poor sod in a huge inflatable dinosaur suit is knocked on his arse when she boldly shoves him sideways, but she can’t even begin to feel ashamed of herself. She’ll only stop to help him if she does, and stopping is not an option. Not any kind of option at all.

Exit.

She has to get to an exit.

Sirius’s front door is on the lower level of the flat, past the dancefloor and the house of horrors—a fancy name for a series of connected rooms, into which Sirius has placed a couple of smoke machines, inside which are about fifty blackout curtains, hung and tacked and draped to within an inch of their lives, as well as God knows how many actors with weapons—and Lily only has to reach that and she’ll be free, with several different directions in which she can run, escape, disappear into the night and eventually change her identity. Everything will be fine, if she can get to an exit.

She knows, truly, that everything will not be fine, that everything will never be fine again, and that she will ultimately have to face the inevitable, offer James the opportunity to reject her and lose the best friend she’s ever had—all because she’s a stupid, selfish woman. All because she couldn’t be satisfied with what she had, that she couldn’t appreciate James enough to be content with just his friendship, but had to fall in love with him instead.

It’s this terrifying thought—losing him, losing James—perhaps mixed heavily with whatever Sirius put in that punch, which sends her flying down the stairs and towards the dancefloor like she’s stolen Hermes’s winged sandals, and must escape before the gods discover the theft and vengefully strike her down.

Running from a vengeful god would be easier, perhaps. Lily might even take a serial killer over this.

"There’s two people having sex on the upstairs landing!" she cries, struck by sudden inspiration.

Just like magic, at least thirty curious heads turn in her direction, then comes a sudden whoop, and a crowd of excited party goers are heaving as one in the direction of the stairs, a human barricade of Lily’s own creation. James will certainly be chasing her down, and he’s fast, the bloody bugger, but even Usain Bolt would find himself slowed by an oncoming stampede of drunken idiots looking for a thrill.

God, she’s clever. Clever and tipsy and doomed.

Onwards.

She sprints like the clappers through the horror house, ignoring the dining room zombies, barely noticing the masked assailant in the study, barrelling past some chainsaw-wielding idiot in the living room, who leaps out from behind a dark, hulking mass with a pathetic, "Boo!" and clearly doesn’t expect to find himself shunted to one side. The hallway looms ahead of her, closer and closer and closer and then she’s out, flinging herself against the door because she’s unable to stop her momentum, practically prepared to cry with relief…

...and the fucking thing is locked.

Not locked in any sane, traditional sense. Oh no. Of course not. It would be too easy, too reasonable, if Lily could just twist the latch and make a bid for freedom. Sirius’s commitment to the theme of impending doom has extended far beyond the reasonable and into the realm of nightmares, because he’s fit the door with chains, screwed a deadbolt into the frame, and kitted out the latch with a massive bloody padlock.

That prick!

That evil, cretinous prick!

Lily didn’t get a chance to spy Sirius’s own headstone, but for the sake of giving his death an appropriately eerie twist, she hopes he predicted that his demise would come at the hands of one apoplectic redhead, because she is going to murder him for this.

She’s trapped in this flat and alone and exposed—an unwitting victim in a horror flick come to life—and the crowd of inebriated party people will have surely dispersed by now. They will be heading back downstairs, perhaps, grumbling to themselves about the duplicitous girl in the bee costume who spun a lie about an amorous couple, and James will undoubtedly be the one who leads the way.

Bereft of any other option, she darts back into the house of horrors to hide—behind a curtain, no doubt, because this is the level to which she has plummeted—and practically snarls at Chainsaw Guy when he makes another pathetic attempt to scare her.

"How dare you jump out at me when I’m having an emotional crisis?" she curtly admonishes, too pumped full of adrenaline to fully control the volume of her voice, and snatches the chainsaw from his outstretched hands. She throws it on the floor with a clatter. "Get out, go upstairs and tell no one that you saw me."

"I—I can’t," the idiot stammers, his stupid, blinking face only barely visible in the darkness, "Sirius said—"

"Am I speaking in another language?" Lily interrupts. "I told you to get out, so get out!"

Chainsaw Guy does not make the mistake of questioning her again, but flees the scene in abject terror. He doesn’t even think to take his chainsaw with him before he goes.

Alone again, but this time partially protected, Lily breathes a sigh of relief and extracts herself from her bee wings, which are large and obtrusive and not a desirable accessory when one is in need of a hiding place. She tosses them to the floor, next to the sad, discarded chainsaw, and huddles herself away in the darkest corner she can find, lowering herself to her bottom and pulling one of the blackout curtains—which has been partially tacked to the wall—over her head and body.

If someone were to turn on the light, she would cut an exceptionally strange figure.

Knowing Sirius as she does, he would have removed the lightbulbs in advance to prevent such an intrusion upon his dark and gloomy setup. He is as cunning and sharp as he is cruel.

Cunning and sharp, cruel and dead, because Lily is going to kill him.

Her phone is tucked away in the pocket she'd sewn into the many folds of her glittery tulle skirt, and she pulls it out, blinking when she unlocks the screen and finds her eyes assaulted by a blinding LCD display.

James, of course, is front and centre of her phone’s wallpaper, grinning boyishly at the camera with his arm around her shoulders, appallingly handsome in his gaudy Christmas jumper, with a flimsy paper crown sitting at a jaunty angle atop his head.

He loves Christmas, James does. Makes a massive deal out of it. He loves it as much as he hates Halloween, and Lily has always given him shit for refusing to come to these parties in costume, but she never truly minded. Not really.

She doesn’t realise that she wants to cry until she feels tears prick at her eyes—springing gaily from their hiding place, kept at bay for a while by her escalating panic, finally free to roam her face because she’s taken a second to sit and breathe and realise what she has done—but she blinks them furiously away and opens the WhatsApp thread which houses her every exchange with Sirius Black, because she needs somebody to blame for this, and she’ll break her own heart if she continues to blame herself.

With slightly trembling fingers, Lily types out a message to Sirius—cunning, sharp, cruel, and destined to die when she saws him in half with the chainsaw.

Take the bolts off your door it’s a fucking fire hazard!!!

It takes a couple of minutes for him to read it—and it’s a bloody cheek that he has his phone on him in the first place, for all the lectures he has given her and James in the past about Being Present and Not Neglecting The Party—but then he replies quickly, likely thrilled that someone has finally noticed the true extent of his efforts to endanger the lives of everyone in this flat.

The bolts are ATMOSPHERIC and I have a fire escape upstairs.

You have doomed us all to perish in flames you thick perambulating hellbeast.

So salty all of a sudden, yet you weren’t worried about fire hazards when you sent fifty people charging up the stairs at once and created a major walkway obstruction.

You literally don’t even count as a person at this point.

LOL

You might as well be a decorative spade.

Remind me again how to spell CHICKEN SHIT pls. Didn’t see it on your costume.

I wish we were talking on the phone instead of texting so I could hang up on you goodbye.

With that cutting insult under her belt, she sticks her phone back into her pocket, returning her attention to her general surroundings just in time to hear somebody rustling around on the other side of the room—shuffle shuffle, stop, shuffle shuffle, stop again—and dredge some anger from the pool of bleak despair in which her wanting little heart has chosen to wallow.

"I'm not returning your chainsaw until you tell that prick upstairs to take those bolts off his door," she tells Chainsaw Guy, pushing the curtain aside as she climbs to her feet and marches out to shoo the bastard away, "so don't even think—"

Except it's not the Chainsaw Guy.

Of course, it’s not the Chainsaw Guy, and perhaps Lily knew that, really. Perhaps some part of her just wants to get this over with, and perhaps that’s why she’s stupidly let her guard drop, even though she expended so much effort—wasted so much breath, terrified a chainsaw-wielding maniac and sacrificed the safety of some poor, dinosaur-clad soul—to conceal herself in this dark place.

There’s music thudding somewhere in the background, but Lily feels completely disconnected from every other room in this flat, as if there’s nothing really there, nothing but a bright white blankness outside this dark cocoon in which she and James Potter are apparently going to meet some kind of end.

"Right," she says, quietly, giving in at last. "Hi, James."

"Oh, thank Christ, it's you," his relieved voice expels into the semi-darkness, rough curtain fabric ripped from her grasp as he careens straight into her, long arms clamping around her body in a warm, tight, bone-crushing squeeze that pins her own arms to her sides. "Do you know that there are men with weapons in here? Sharp, deadly actual weapons. That kill people!"

His skin feels tremory and clammy, and his clothes are still damp from the punch and fake blood, and he's hugging her.

That he would hug her at this juncture is immensely surprising.

That he would immediately begin this conversation with his anti-Halloween rhetoric is… slightly less surprising, but still very inappropriate, given the circumstances.

She is about to get dumped by a man she isn't even dating, a man she loves with a warm, consuming, take-a-bullet-for-him kind of fervour, and he's holding her as if she represents a kind of safety in this madness, as if holding her could potentially soften the inevitably crushing blow he is about to deal.

"You eavesdropped," she tells him.

It’s a poor response, but there’s nothing she can say to convince him that he overheard a lie, so she has to veer in another direction. When she sprang away from the scene of her shame like a startled doe at the sound of a gunshot, she made it pretty clear that James was not to follow. It is, therefore, perfectly reasonable for her to be mildly disappointed that he did.

"And you ran off," James returns, like the crimes are of similar standing, "into a maze of horrors where strangers try to kill you."

"Sirius isn't so nuts that he'd hire real assassins to commit murder in his home, and even if he was, you're the last person he'd put a hit out on. You're being really dramatic," she scolds, as if she hadn't just upset a cart piled high with bloodied rubber limbs in her haste to escape.

A sudden shrill screaming comes from somewhere startlingly nearby, and James's whole body flinches.

"Fucking hell." He pulls back slightly, but still does not remove his arms from around her. "Can we please have this conversation not inside this...thing?"

"I came inside this thing so you wouldn't follow me, so you can leave if you want, but I'm staying here," she says crossly, and makes a weak attempt to squirm out of his grasp. "I don't want a conversation, James, though that might have escaped your notice when I ran away."

"Well, I do want a conversation," he says, and makes no move to surrender to her half-hearted wriggling. He goes tightly still, but this time it doesn't seem out of alarm from looming assassins, or general fear of all things that may possibly go creep in this artificial night. "Lily," he says softly. "What you—what you said back there—"

"No," she interrupts, and her efforts to escape are by no means weak this time. She successfully wrenches herself out of his arms, staggers several steps away, lets out the tiniest whoosh of breath as her back thuds abruptly against the wall. "I don’t want to talk about this. I’m not ready to talk about this."

"But you need to—"

"No, I mean it," she says loudly, betrayed at all turns by her stupid, wavering voice and her still-watery eyes. "I can't stand here and listen to a whole spiel about how our friendship is too important to risk, only to never see you again because you feel awkward and we don't know how to speak to each other, so you just need give me some time and I'll get my head together and I won't—I won't love you." The telling catch in her throat at those words is, perhaps, more humiliating than the entire monologue he just overheard. "Or I will, but only as a friend—"

"Would you mind allowing me to give my own spiel?" he cuts in sharply—no, almost indignantly. Her eyes have had enough time to adjust to the darkness, and she can see his features clearly now. Definitely indignant. "I think you'll find the two differ in a few significant ways."

She throws a wary glance at the door, but concludes that there is little point in mounting an escape. He’ll catch her again with ease.

"How am I supposed to know if I mind hearing it when I don't know what you'll say?" she asks him. "Can I at least hide behind that curtain while you do it?"

"I'm unfortunately going to need ready access to you for it to all go off properly," he replies dryly, and his steps are coming closer again—too close. "There's quite a bit to it, I'm afraid, but if you'd prefer the terribly abbreviated version to start—"

His cool hands clamp on either side of her flushed cheeks. She feels the slightest bit of pressure as he angles her head upward.

Then swiftly, without warning, he leans down and kisses her.

Oh, Lily thinks, or says, or gasps. She's not certain which, just keeps feeling it, the shocked little word, over and over. Oh. Oh.

Lily has imagined, of course, what it might be like to kiss James Potter. She has thought of it so many times, dreamed it—lovingly, luridly—so very many times, that it might as well be unoriginal by now, this idea of James Potter's lips moving over hers. She's gone positively Suessical with it at points—in a car; in a bar; while they sat; in a hat—and it's silly and embarrassing and unavoidable and inevitable, and yet none of the multitude of rhymes have prepared her for this—here, inside this makeshift horror palace, back thrust against a gaudy black curtain, mere minutes from the moment in which she'd been certain her life was over, being thoroughly and inconceivably kissed by the man she's loved for ages.

He's kissing her.

Kissing her.

It doesn't make sense, not the least bit of sense, but Lily loses all trace of logic at his touch—his soft, lingering, deliciously luxuriant touch. One that tempts her, toys with her, and it's just the barest of brushes of lips against lips, really, hardly giving her a proper taste at all. His hands are cupped and cool around her burning cheeks, his lips strong and faintly chapped as they acquaint themselves with hers, friendly hullos, little waves to start, then longer, lazier introductions. She feels each gentle swipe all the way down to her toes, and can't stop the shiver.

Her eyes are squeezed shut, certain this is another dream. It must be. Has to be. Because she had said—oh, it's mortifying, all the things she'd said, all the things he'd heard, and suddenly she's overwhelmed with the sense that these two things cannot coexist: the mortification and the kissing. They can't.

She breaks off from him, immediately missing his lips, blinking up at his darling, dear, confounding face as it smiles and sighs and looms over hers.

"You just—you just kissed me," she tells him. "You—just now. I was there, and…"

She trails off, dazed, and the words I think it's the best thing that's ever happened to me are poised on the tip of her tongue, waiting to slide out and incriminate her further, but they stick there, tenuous and confused, because she can't quite believe that what she's experiencing is real.

"And it was pretty fucking unbelievable," he finishes simply, his own heady humour and vague sense of stunned euphoria twining amidst the shared sentiment. "And would've kept going, except you started talking."

"It seemed polite to point it out," she says, "in case—just in case you'd meant to do something completely different."

This is great, really. One kiss and she's morphed into a brainless puddle of goop who doesn't fully realise what she's saying, but is vaguely aware that she likely isn't talking any sense.

His forehead drops onto hers, and she can feel the small waves of vibration from his laughter humming through their touching skin.

"Nope," he says. "Quite planned. Quite deliberate."

Then he does it again.

Kisses her again. Is kissing her again, at first softly—those teasing, lazy tastes—but one nip too many, one press of her body back against his, and the leisure time abruptly expires. His head dips—Lily moans—and now it’s potent, rash, intricate caresses, the sort that can’t possibly be contained to a modest sipping of lips, but which demand a full body immersion: pulses thrumming, hands roving, silky strands of his messy hair clutched between her fingers for some kind of purchase. Her body arches back, taut as a vibrating string, waiting to be soothed or plucked, and he plays her a symphony with mystifying ease. With toe-curling, skin-trembling, head-swimming, soul-shaking ease. Like they’ve done this all a thousand times before. Like they’re made for nothing else. Frivolous, foolish whims she can’t let go of when he’s touching her.

"Do you know how long I've wanted to do this? How many times I’ve—" he cuts off, laughs almost humourlessly against her skin, then kisses her again. It's a stronger, firmer clasp of lips this time, like he wants to brand his mouth upon hers, a scorching reminder to both of them. "It’s like a dream. And a nightmare. All wrapped in one."

"I think—I think I'm starting to get an idea," she tells him, though her voice appears to have lost all strength, merely a whisper now, so soft and slight that her words are in danger of being drowned out by the hard, incessant pounding of her heart. "I'm sorry I ran away, I just—everything I said, James. I was so embarrassed, and you weren't supposed to—I didn't mean—"

Her fingers are twined in his hair, noses brushing, pulled so flush against him that he's lifted her to her toes. Their bodies are pressed together so tightly, as if they've bound themselves as one, no longer him and her, but them.

Lily is breathless and vanquished and eager and scared, feels as if she's floating, completely unsupported, on the surface of an ocean that could wrap her up in warmth or drown her.

Do you love me too? she wants to ask him.

He could. He might. He does, Lily knows, as one friend loves another, but this could easily be less for him, less than what she wants.

She wants to be the very last girl he takes in his arms and kisses. The only girl, ever.

Asking seems like an impossible obstacle, like a cold, gigantic, terrifying beast she needs to slay, even though James has kissed her, once and again and again after that, even though it was everything a kiss should be, even though he's put every other kiss that ever touched her lips to shame, even though he's wanted to for a very long time. Even then, because a kiss is just a kiss, and wanting is just wanting.

"I don't know what I'm doing," she admits, and lets herself drop to her heels, her hands sliding from his hair and coming to rest on his chest. Her heart feels thick with a painfully heady cocktail of joy and confusion and fear. "I have absolutely no idea."

"At least we're firmly in that together," he says, hands moving only slightly to run over her hair, sweeping absent strands of red gently behind her ears. His fingers fall slowly, the backs briefly skimming down her neck. He's hesitating, like his words aren't quite ready to pop out yet either, despite the fact that Lily has never encountered a James who was at a loss for words. It's a new experience, atop all these other new experiences rushing at her in successive, drowning moments. "I never expected...but you did mean—" He stops, tiptoes around the questions, hazel eyes watching her carefully. "Well, perhaps not all the...but you did...you meant...what you said? The general...theme of it. Yes?"

Lily can barely contain a shiver.

James has touched her a thousand times before, brushed her hair behind her ears, held her hand, kissed her forehead and her face and the crown of her head, slept soundly by her side with an arm tucked snugly around her waist, but never has it been like this, not like…

How is she meant to lie to that face? Those eyes? This man?

It belongs to him, her love. It's his entirely, whether or not she wants to pretend it doesn't exist.

"I didn't mean for you to hear it," she says, staring resolutely into his eyes, rather than divert her gaze to the floor, a course of action that tempts her so thoroughly, but she needs to be brave. It's the right thing to do. "Which—really, James, is exactly why you should already know that every word of it was true."

He huffs out a relieved little breath—or perhaps what she assumes is a relieved little breath, hopes is one, rather than the arguably more appropriate rasp of horror at all that had sprung forth earlier.

"Good," he says shortly, starting to smile, like she has just helpfully ticked off something on his to-do list. "That's good. Though, it's exactly because I wasn't meant to hear that I thought it best to...check in. Just in case you were...I don't know. Practising a dramatic monologue. In the middle of a party. With arbitrary names and declarations subbed in."

She does not respond at once, thrown by his sudden, breezy shift in attitude, her brow furrowing in confusion.

If he expects a witty retort at this juncture, Lily finds herself quite uncharacteristically incapable.

"No, I wouldn't, I'm not—was that really all you wanted? To just… check in and see that I wasn't being dramatic?"

"Well, for starters, certainly, though I—" He stops, jaunty voice trailing off.

Now his brow is furrowing, like she's the one being confusing.

"Though you what?"

"Never mind that. What's this?" he asks, and runs his finger over her creased skin, down over her lips, which are dipped in a perturbed sort of frown.

"It's—I mean, I told that—" Her heart contracts with fear. "—I told you that I love you, but you haven't—you haven't said—"    

"Haven't said—" he repeats in confusion, though Lily sees the precise moment he realises what she's circling, asking, aching to have answered. Even in the half-darkness, she sees his jolt of shock, the flash of it in his eyes, the way his fingers tighten on her. Then he shakes his head, and begins to laugh. "Lily—"

The cretin. Lily detangles herself from him, plucking his arms from her with sharp movements. "If you think this is funny, James Potter—"

"Oh, I strongly beg to differ," James retorts, and proves himself wily enough not to be long shaken off. His arms merely tangle around her again, pulling her back against him by the waist. "The very idea that you could—oof. Oi! Watch the elbows!—if you'd...look, are you going to quit squirming long enough for me to tell you I love you, or would you rather tussle this out on the floor first?"

Lily is embroiled in her feeble struggle to win an escape that she doesn't really want, pushing against his chest in a bid to disentangle herself from his arms, her pride more wounded by his careless, boyish laughter than she'd ever care to admit, and then it catches her—I love you, he loves her—squarely in the centre of the chest, though James tossed it in her direction like an afterthought, and she stills in his arms.

The audacity of James Potter. The absolute cheek!

What an idiot he is.

Her idiot.

He's flubbed it completely, confessing to such a massive, all-encompassing feeling—to loving her, of all things—in such a bloody nonchalant way, but so did Lily when she ranted and raved and spilled her soul to Bea, and it's only fair that they make for a matching set—two messy, floundering idiots who couldn't get it right when left to their own devices—and that's fine, because they can do so much better the second time around.

She smiles up at him, eyes adoring, all her indignation melting gladly away, and reaches up to cup his cheek in her hand.

"I love you, James Potter, you complete and utter fool," she tells him, "and I'm in love with you, which is a really important distinction that I feel it's pertinent to state."

The cheeky amusement fades from him, softening into something a wholly different shade of devastating—a brimming, dazzling kind of quiet affection, one that she's seen a thousand times from him before, but never quite in this way. Never with his head leaning in, with his hand lifting to cover hers, holding it against his skin like he needs it there to rejuvenate himself, to burst forth something bigger and better, with his eyes shining and his lips lifting and his voice soft and warm and for her ears only.

"I love you," he says, each little word like a spark of joy inside her. "I'm in love with you. Have been in love with you for...years. Too bloody long to never have said anything. You've always been my best thing, like a missing half, and I should have told you before. Shouldn't have waited until you were so ready to explode with it you're soliloquizing to Beatrice. I'm sorry." His mouth slips down, brushes hers again. "I love you."

"I'm sorry too," Lily sighs. "I've been avoiding you lately, and I know you thought that it was all your fault, but I just—" She can't help the shudder that rockets through her spine as she dredges up the memory of a jealousy that often felt like it was cleaving her chest in two. "Every time you dated someone else I felt like I was dying, and after Emma told you that you had to choose between us, I couldn't—it had gotten so hard and I didn't want to lose you, but I should have told you how I felt. I should have told you years ago. Do you have any idea how much I fancied you before we even met?"

"Before we even met?" he repeats, questioning. "What, you saw me kicking around a ball in youth footie and declared, 'Yes, that one will do, ten or twelve years from now'?"

"Oi," Lily softly admonishes, and wraps her arms around his neck, pushing herself back up to her toes. She nudges his nose with her own. "You might not have noticed, but we did go to the same uni. Just because I had to move in with you for you to notice I existed—"

"You think the first time I noticed you was when you rolled in to cohabitate?" Now he laughs freely in her face. "Our first year, you had an eight a.m. class across the bridge, ugly brick building, Tuesdays and Thursdays. I passed you every single day on my way to practice. And even when I didn't have practice, because I'd show up anyway, just to see if you'd glance up from your tea and textbook. Which you never did." He nudges her back, and somehow manages to make it seem victorious. "Amateur."

"I sat by the window in that ugly brick building every single day so I could watch you practice," she counters, "who the hell are you calling an amateur, Potter? That's pretty big talk considering you never once attempted to start a conversation with me in three years."

"I was a very shy, timid little thing," he insists, the most ludicrous of claims. "And not as if I saw you hefting up that window to shout down a greeting either, yeah? There's a pot and kettle saying, I think."

"And how do you suppose I might have explained that to my lecturer?" She cocks a teasing eyebrow at him. "Claimed that my impertinent disruption of class was completely justified in the face of rampant sex fantasies? 'Awfully sorry, Professor, but I just don't think I can focus on equity and trusts until the fit bloke doing keepy-ups outside pops in here and screws me on top of your projector—mind stepping out for an hour or so?'"

He lets out a half laugh, half groan, arms tightening around her.

"Right. Don't imagine that would've gone off so well." His lips tip up at the corners, rueful. "Perhaps that's the silver lining in all of this. If we'd somehow managed to get over ourselves enough to chat each other up years ago, we likely would not have degrees. I'm not sure I'd've been keen on pulling myself away from the projector long enough to actually attend lectures."

"Living with you for a year was bad enough," she laments. "I mean, I loved living with you, but all those shirtless walks from your bedroom to the shower every morning? I wanted to slam you into a wall, or have you slam me into a wall." She dips her head sideways, contemplating this, finding herself surprisingly undaunted by this exchange of erotic predilections—he's been her best friend for four years, after all. Who else can she be this open with, if not her James? "Either way, there were often walls involved, it's all a bit of a blur now."

"Walls, you say?" His grin flashes in the semi-darkness, his body gently nudging hers until her back brushes against the hard surface behind her. "Sort of like...this wall here?"

"Something like this," she murmurs, and a quick, shuddering thrill of sheer anticipation threads its way through her veins, rockets down her spine, reveals itself in a tense intake of breath. "Guess we're really doing this, then?"

"I think we've waited long enough," James says. "Don't you?"

"I guess we've got a lot to make up for," she murmurs, and presses her lips to his—a brief, chaste, teasing little thing—before moving her head to fulfill a dream of years and nuzzle into his neck. She drops an open-mouthed kiss on the warm, dark, marvellously soft skin she finds there. "You're all messy, though. Should get you out of those dirty clothes first."

Amateur, she thinks, and feels a shudder run through him, his pulse throbbing hard beneath her lips. She'll show him.

"And look at that—I've gone and mussed you up as well." He lifts her straight off her toes, lets out a low, dry laugh at the soft, longing whimper that escapes her lips and drifts gently past his ear, and presses her length higher and firmer against the drape-covered wall. Her legs wrap around his waist and his body fits tightly against hers, heated puzzle pieces clicking into place, and if she wasn't the victim of transfer stains before, she certainly is now. "Profuse apologies."

He's sorry. She's sorry.

They're both very, very sorry—so sorry that they're both in grave danger of repeating their most sincere apologies until the sun comes up and they've both been robbed of breath—but it doesn't bloody matter, he belongs to her now, and she to him, and there are far better things that they could both be doing with their time.

"Don't," she tells him, a rigid, whispered order—don't apologise, don't stop—and threads her fingers into his hair, tugs his head back, and brings her mouth down on his like she must drink the warmth from his lips or perish.

Such needy, wanting creatures, they both are.

"Want your mess," she murmurs, when she's tasted just enough to sustain her for a moment. "Want you."

Abruptly, she feels the sultry contact of his big hands fanning out across the skin of her lower back, deliciously rough calluses skittering over her flesh beneath her striped jumper.

"Lily," he says on a tightened sigh, and she squeezes her eyes shut, wilts in his hold, at the unmistakable rock his body makes against hers. A hand tugs impatiently at her jumper hem from the inside. "Off. I need this off."

The last remaining vestige of her sense clashes violently with an aching, urgent desire to have him, all over her body, entwined with her completely, inside of her, and is swiftly and surely crushed, because she’s pulling her shirt up and over her head before she even knows what she’s doing.

She tosses it aside, waiting for a sudden, trickling cold that never comes, and isn't sure what heats her body more—this heady fever thrumming through her veins—the feeling of his hands on her skin, or his widened, awestruck gaze, which drops to rove over her chest as if he can’t believe what he’s seeing.

"Whatever you want," she tells him, a softly whispered promise. "Is this—is this okay?"

"Hold on," he orders gruffly, one tempting hand skittering downward until it settles supportively—temptingly—right beneath her thigh. He steadies her in place, first with just that hand, then with the strong, insistent press of his body to hers. She's barely gotten use to the pressure of it, hardly had the chance to revel in its tight warmth, the thrilling fusion, James on one side, the wall at the other, when the hand still lingering at her back makes some miraculously swift movement and James has somehow managed to whip off his own shirt while barely jarring her an inch.

Then they're skin to skin, and Lily can't concentrate on wily acrobatics.

It's like a shotgun going off, the quiet clap of his shirt hitting the ground—on your marks, get set, go. It's difficult to tell whose mouth moves first, which of them is clinging harder, moving faster, so desperate are they to speed through this race, this time that's been denied to them through their own follies. They're fumbling and fevered and floundering, but it's in the best sort of waythe best, most wonderful, most maddening kind of way. He makes a noise. Or maybe she makes a noise. Fused as they are, it hardly matters anyway. The sound is promptly and efficiently swallowed by the other, their mouths slanting, so open and unabashed, that it's near impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins.

She feels hot, and lightheaded, and wanted—so very, very wanted. Not shy about that, James is, nor is he the least bit hesitant to flatten himself against her and let her feel how much he's aching for her, to whisper the words against her skin, and perhaps she's the worst sort of lush and tease to revel in that, but she does.

She's lost to it.

Lost, and loved, and languishing, and

and literally going to do murder in this fake murder house if that is indeed the bloody Chainsaw Man who just had the audacity to walk back into this room.

"Erm." The coughed word startles James, who had been quite busy doing something very lovely around the lacy cups of her brasserie, thank you very much, and Chainsaw Guy at least has the decency to look utterly mortified to cause an interruption. "That'ssee, the chainsaw there is on loan, actually, so I have to—to—"

"Come skulking back in here, determined to ruin my night?" she fires at him, knowing it's an unfair accusation—Chainsaw Guy is just trying to do his job, and has no doubt been scolded by Sirius for abandoning his post—but there's James, and he's so—and they were just—"I was trying to have a moment with the love of my life, but if the chainsaw is on loan—"

"I'm not—I mean, I'm really sorry," says Chainsaw Guy, trying most determinedly to avoid staring at almost any area south of Lily's neck, perhaps afraid that one or both of them will swing a punch if he looks as if he's ogling. He clears his throat, an anxious little hem. "Ma'am."

"I told you we should have gotten out of here," James mutters, but any attempt at smugness is deftly done away with by the general wince he sports when he accidentally shifts her against him and his still thoroughly tented trousers.

"Well, where exactly are we meant to go? We can't even leave the flat because your loopy best mate has locked us all inside to die," she swiftly counters, responding to the nudging and shifting and wincing with a well-placed circle of her own hips. "Did he happen to assign you a room in this house of horrors?"

"He did, actually, but I'm pretty certain he's got a Regan MacNeil lookalike in there, spewing pea soup at anyone who stops in from the be—" Suddenly, James goes still. He sucks in a sharp breath. "Wait. I have it. I know exactly where we can go—privacy and no chainsaws included, even."

"In that case," she says, with a brief, final, withering glare for Chainsaw Guy, who has the good grace to turn his eyes away, and isn't all that bad, when it comes down to it. She'll apologise to him later, maybe. "How would you feel about throwing a girl over her shoulder and carrying her off to bed?"

"I feel," James says, and finally allows her feet to touch the ground, only to hunch over a second later and snatch her up and over his shoulder, "that you may be onto something, love."

Then he gives Chainsaw Guy a friendly wave, a walks them out of the horror house.

***

There is undoubtedly a plethora of thumping and shouting that emanates from Sirius's bedroom in the hours directly following James and Lily's hasty, half-dressed escape from the dreaded amateur house of horrors.

There is undoubtedly a plethora of thumping and shouting—which James will cop to, unrepentantly—but this particular plethora, raging through the air at present, shaking old Alphard's walls to their ancient foundations, cannot be laid at his or Lily's currently bare feet.

It is, in fact, not even emanating from inside the bedroom at all, and—what's more—is quickly becoming a bloody nuisance.

THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP.

"Can't you read? OFF LIMITS.The sign says OFF LIMITS! Get your horny arses—"

"Ignore him," James murmurs into Lily's shoulder, arm tightening around her slim waist as he nestles her lovely naked backside even more snugly into the curve of his equally bare front, squeezing his eyes closed, as if that might help the situation.

THHHHHUUUMP.

"—out of my bedroom! MY BEDROOM—"

"A wailing fire alarm would be easier to ignore," says Lily, with a coy little wriggle of her lower half, one which skates perilously close to getting him all worked up again, "which is still a possibility, given his complete disregard for fire safety procedures. D'you think he knows it's us in here?"

"Doubtful." James hitches one of his legs over hers, a vague reproach to cease what he knows are very deliberate shimmies on her part, lest they soon find themselves unable to continue with this nice little nap they'd wisely agreed upon to rebuild their strength. "We'd be getting catcalls and unsolicited raunchy commentary, not bellowing threats."

"GET OUT!" Sirius bellows, and slams the door so hard that it shudders ominously in its frame. "GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT—"

"He's one fraught minute and two blue balls away from fetching an axe and taking the whole thing down in splinters, Jack Nicholson style," Lily sighs. "Move your leg, I'll tell him to bugger off."

She pushes Sirius's duvet away from her soft, curled, delightfully ravaged body and attempts to shuffle herself to the end of the bed, but James is not prepared to let her go so easily, anchoring his leg even more firmly around hers and reaching out to reclose the paltry amount of space she's put between them with her officious duvet doffing.

Nuisance, he grumbles.

"BUGGER OFF!" he shouts, voice barely rising above the cacophony of persistent pounding that continues on the other side of the room. He attempts to lure Lily back into their cocoon. "There. Done."

Except it isn't done, quite far from it, because the familiar sound of James's voice has apparently successfully reached Sirius's ears, but rather than proving a reliable source to soothing his ire, it merely sets him swinging into a whole new round of door abuse.

"You—GO FIND SOMEWHERE ELSE TO NAP, YOU BLOODY KNOB!" The door quivers with renewed vengeanceah, lovely. Sirius has learned to kick. "GET OUT, GET OUT, GET OUT—"

"Hm." James sighs. "That may have backfired."

"Just a tad," Lily agrees, "but I love you, so I'll put a stop to this." She twists her body away from his, writhing out of his grasp and leaving him sadly bereft—all Sirius's fault, of course. "I intend to have my way with you at least twice more before I'm giving that bastard his room back."

"Are you—"

Are you certain?

The question dies on his lips, not because he imagines Lily is not entirely up for thoroughly and effectively thwarting Sirius's attacks and shooing him away, nor because James has any objections to the two or however-many-more sessions of debauchery this bedroom may see before it's generously relinquished to its official owner, but because—

James hesitates, grappling for the night table and quickly slipping on his glasses.

Because Lily is climbing to her feet now, casually toga-ing a bedsheet around her lithe, bare body, gingerly stepping through the messy trail of hastily shed clothes they'd left in a nonsensical path from entry to bed when they'd stumbled in earlier. It won't take her more than a few seconds to reach the shaking portal, where reality—alongside one obnoxious oaf—awaits, and while James does not mind the shift from this dreamlike state, would in fact be quite fine sprinting from one side of Uncle Alphard's crowded flat to another, telling anyone who would listen that Lily Evans loved him, that he loved her right back, and that they were together now—really, properly together—it's not as if he and Lily have had the chance to discuss those particulars yet, or how this is all meant to go. Basically, he's not wholly certain if she'd be all right with such a sprint, and as he watches her move across the room, each floating step bringing her closer to the action point, tiny patches of worry begin to spring forth in his brewing stomach.

He shifts up on his elbow, eyeing her warily.

"Lily—"

"Don't worry, I know what I'm doing," she says firmly, and he wants to smile—does smile, a growing, blooming grin that flashes teeth and expands with a relieved kind of huff, ultimately unsurprised by how deftly she's read him, how neatly she does away with any need he felt to fret. She throws him a quick, knowing smile over her shoulder, winks. "He's more scared of me than he is of you."

Then she swiftly unlocks the door and swings it open, cocking her head calmly to one side when Sirius's flailing fist narrowly avoids a collision with her pert, adorable nose.

"GET OUT OF MY—you," says Sirius, and his eyes—now spooky contact-free and back to their usual grey—widen in surprise at the sight of her. "What the hell are you doing in here?"

"What do you think I'm doing, performing an exorcism?"

Sirius may be a little worse for wear—zombie shirt sporting several damp patches, vodka bottle swinging freely from the hand he wasn't using to batter down the door—but he recovers fairly quickly from the shock, no doubt garnering great enjoyment from the undeniably splendid vision before him, if the way his calculating gaze lingers on Lily's sheet-wrapped body is any indication.

"It looks as if you've been fucking my best mate," he tells her, and crosses his arms above his chest. "Care to confirm?"

"Fucking is what you do, Sirius, like you're out to make it an Olympic sport, but James and I are a little more advanced than that."

"What?" He snorts. "Are you making love?"

Lily tightens the sheet around her body. "Feel free to tell everyone when you leave, which we'd like you to do right now."

"Not bloody likely—I've got a girl out here."

"And I've got a man in here," Lily counters, "which I believe is what the kids these days refer to as 'calling dibs,' so you can play nice and leave us in peace, or I can dip into my already-overflowing goodie bag of blackmail fodder and personally destroy you." She tips her head back, tilting her chin towards the light. "Your choice."

Sirius appears to consider this for a moment, chewing on the inside of his mouth, eyes narrowed in a suspicious glare.

"He denied it, you know," he declares, finger shooting out, pointing in James's direction. Lily turns her head to glance at James over her shoulder, a wry smile stretched across her face. "I knew he fancied you—knew it—but every time I asked he swore he didn't, and I consider that an abject betrayal, the very worst—"

He's cut off rather abruptly when Lily shuts the door in his face.

"I think that's quite enough of that," she says, twisting the key to the right with a satisfying click. There's a long pause as they both wait—for another pounding fist, or for Sirius to explode in a barrage of outraged expletives—but they're met with an unexpected silence, and Lily points to the door with a bright, victorious smile. "See that? He talks a lot of trash, but he loves you too much to try to ruin this."

"He loves that he now knows something the others don't, and is likely crowing over it to everyone he crosses at this very moment," James returns flatly.

The door is locked—securely, reassuringly—Sirius has departed the scene to carry on his adventures in gossiping or possibly one-night-standing in a less occupied space, and Lily elects to place a cherry atop this already blissful moment by dropping her arms to the sides and letting her makeshift toga fall, unwind, and pool around her feet.

"Oops," she says, with a shrug of her beautiful shoulders. "Aren't I clumsy?"

"Terribly," James confirms hoarsely, still not used to the sight of her yet. It’s found him caught somewhere between blisteringly turned on and slavishly adoring, feeling like he ought to be grovelling at her feet over the mere privilege of being bestowed her affections, or perhaps focusing his attentions about halfway north of there, where he might devotedly display his undying gratitude between her parted thighs. "So clumsy, in fact, I fear you might stumble your way over here and accidentally fall back into bed."

"It's a real danger," Lily gravely agrees, and advances like a nymph on the tips of her toes, quickly crossing the room to return to the stolen bed—and to him, which is exactly where she belongs, where she has always belonged, and where James will happily expend every effort, no matter how Herculean the task, to keep her for as long as she'll let him. She pauses right at the edge, a mere fraction of an inch out of his reach. "You'll catch me if I do, won't you?"

"Every single time," James answers, and though they’ve been bantering back and forth, their easy camaraderie so dependably natural and familiar, it’s no teasing promise. There’s a momentary flicker on her face—amusement easing into tenderness, green eyes brimming with happiness—that confirms she knows it too.

He means it. Every damn word.

But there's no need to prove anything just now, nothing requiring him to play safety net, waiting around to see if she’ll stumble her way back to him, not when serving as his own willful force of nature might have the job done much more expediently. His arm snakes out and catches her around the waist, and she lets out a peel of happy giggles as he takes her down to the sheets with him, their bodies tangling up like seasoned experts.

"Pity, though," he comments when he has her under him, then settles his mouth against the soft skin of her collarbone, which is still trembling with her laughter.

"What's that?" she asks, and arches her neck.

He bites gently. "Sirius has gone and ruined our nap. I'm not the least bit tired now. What are we to do?"

"We could tell ghost stories?" she suggests, and threads her fingers through his hair, her nails raking gently over his scalp. "Start a jigsaw puzzle? A ten-point plan for world peace? I could tell you that I've never been as happy in my life as I am right now and it's all because of you, but I know how competitive you are—you'll only try to outdo yourself."

"It's ultimately lazy to rest on your laurels," James replies, relishing in the incandescent bliss he’s feeling now too, and presses skittering kisses going up her neck, flicking his tongue over her pulse point, taking his leisurely time about it until he finally curves his way back over her jawline, then teases a heady path to her mouth. He can’t stop touching her. "Reckon you'll simply have to put up with my endless and increasing attempts to keep you happy. Think you can endure it?"

"I'd endure all manner of truly terrible things if it meant I could be with you, so I think I can handle your endless and increasing attempts to secure my happiness," says Lily, smiling up at him, "as long as you can accept that it goes both ways, as I fully intend to be just as devoted to yours."

"It'll be difficult, but I suppose I can manage." He reaches up behind him, catches her hands in his, and intertwines each of their fingers until they're tightly knitted together. He rests their clasped hands to the bed, then leans down to kiss her again. "I love you. I know I’ve said it a hundred times now, but I can’t—I just need you to know. I love you, Lily. So damn much."

"I love you, too. So much. So much that—that I've felt so many times like I was drowning in it," she says, releasing the words on a soft, abashed little giggle, as if she's admitting to something dreadfully silly and trusting in him to not laugh at her folly. "I know you might have figured that out for yourself when you were stashed away beneath that sheet, but now that I've told you and you haven't run away screaming, I don't know if I'll ever be able to stop."

"The only thing worth screaming over is how much of an idiot I've been, not telling you before." It still grates at him, that. Four years. So many days, months, opportunities. Too much fear and stubborn anguish. "Four years. All that bloody time wasted."

Slowly, very gently, Lily slides one of her hands from his grasp and cups the side of his face, tracing his lower lip with her thumb.

James had thought that he knew everything there was to know about her—that he'd committed the curve of her lips to memory, could paint masterpieces with the colour of her hair, or that he could close his own eyes and count every dusty freckle that trails across her nose—but he's never seen her smile the way she's smiling at him now, not before tonight.

"We're together now, aren't we?" she reminds him, her fingers curling around the back of his neck, tugging his head down so that he might kiss her again. "What are four years, compared to the rest of our lives?"

The rest of our lives. Five little words—dramatic, symbolic things, this arbitrary sense of burgeoning future in one minuscule phrase. In truth, James has been planning this impossible fantasy with Lily Evans—The Rest of Their Lives—for nearly as long as he’s known her, though he never let himself imagine those fanciful wishes might become anything more. And yet, here they are, that potential Great Beyond now expanding and exploding in endless possibilities before them, and James is rattled by the sense of it being inexplicably right and yet simultaneously overwhelming.

He loves her.

He loves her, and she loves him, and that’s perhaps all that really matters here.

James wants the rest of his life with Lily Evans. Wants, in all the silly and serious ways, the multitude of sensational suppositions she’d expounded for Beatrice earlier, and time—his recent enemy—seems to taunt him with that. He’s lost chances these past four years, had moments stolen by a thief called Fear that he’d let run roughshod over the pair of them, and he isn’t about to keep allowing it. He’s done. Ready. Eager. And yet, half his mad impulses are utterly and exceedingly quixotic, and he knows it. He cannot tilt at windmills here. Five hours ago, he was set to enter his grave still languishing in love with the woman presently pinned beneath him. One does not jump from that to rings and seeds and wombs in the same time it likely took Peter to get over his first vomit spiel and jump fullstart into his next.

James is impatient and he is in love, but he is not impractical.

And he has a plan.

Likely it’s apt that the plan is conceived when he is already firmly intertwined with Lily in the bed, mouths moving feverishly, one pair of hands still twined tightly together, the other two generously sent off to explore where they will, like cartographers intent on learning every hill, crest, and canyon of a foreign terrain.

When Lily makes a humming little noise, feet twisting over his, wandering hand pressing ever so slightly against his taut shoulder, James knows exactly what she’s requesting. He obligingly flips to his back, lets her take lead from the top, and earns himself another breathless sigh and an extra scintillating gyration as she settles her legs on either side of his hips, which is quite worth the sudden shift in perspective.

James sits up, bringing their fronts skin to skin. The half-discarded duvet sits vaguely around Lily’s hips and over James’s outstretched legs, but the rest of them is all bare—just two bodies, warm and thrumming and together.

Lily lifts her mouth from his, dips her head as if to start on her own quest to kiss down his torso, but he stalls the journey with firm, framing hands on either side of her flushed cheeks.

Then the plan begins.

"Marry me," he whispers.

Lily’s entire body freezes, limb after limb seizing up into total stillness, fixed in their perch upon his lap, green eyes blinking at him in startled astonishment.

"What did you just—" She flinches, shudders. "Did you—"

"Marry me," James says again, and this time adds a small grin to it. Just the tiniest of little smiles.

Lily is not smiling.

"That’s not funny," she says, and her voice has gone quivery, very nearly shrill. "You can’t just—that’s insane, James. We can’t—you can’t—"

"Why not?" James asks innocently, smile still firmly in place. "You said you wanted as much to Beatrice earlier, hadn’t you? I believe the word desperately was used, and surname changes were being tossed around at whim. Did you not mean it?"

"That’s not—I mean, I do but—but that’s completely besides the point! You just can’t go from mates to marriage in one night, James. There are—there’s a progression you have to follow. You have stages!"

Ah-ha. Stages. "What kind of stages?"

Lily sticks him with an infuriated look. "You might want to try taking your intended bride for a meal or two first, for one, and maybe inform someone other than your mad mate we’ve even gotten together, yeah? Seems pertinent, but what would I know? Maybe you could also squeeze in the time to compile a joint grocery list, see if we can both properly fit in your shower, buy a goldfish, move in together—"

James pounces. "You know, you may to be on to something. There were clearly several skipped stages here. Terribly poor form. Apologies. Though...well, if we’re being thorough, I have already bought you loads of meals, so I think we can tick that one off, yeah? And nearly half the party likely heard Sirius’s bellowing from before, so that’s stage two gone too. We had plenty of joint grocery lists in uni, so check. We can try out the shower thing right now if you’d like, though I’m not terribly worried about it. I’m afraid we do hit a slight hiccup on the goldfish, as I just don’t think Algernon will approve of another creature creeping in on his territory, but we can discuss it with him if your heart is really set." James’s fingers play an absent, giddy pattern against her stiffened spine. "Which leaves us with...ah. Moving in, was it? Excellent. So you’ll move in."

It is, James is willing to concede, not his most stealthily executed plan.

And judging by the way Lily’s eyes immediately narrow on him, head leaning back in quickly growing affront, this fact is not lost upon her.

"You absolute shit!" she cries, and socks him in the arm, a harmless thud with none of the ire she’s currently pretending to foster. "You didn’t want to marry me! You wanted me to move in all along!"

"I beg your pardon," James retorts, and holds up a hand to block her next scolding pummel. He catches the curled fist, tucks it neatly against his chest, resting it over his trilling heart. "I absolutely would marry you. Intend to, in fact, just as soon as all these pesky stages are through. You’re the one who claimed we needed stages, if you’ll recall?"

"You know I’m looking for a new flat, and you—oh my God, you’re haggling," she declares, her voice sinking to a shocked, dramatic, fully-realised whisper as the word occurs to her. "Haggling! Like I’m a vase at one of those Greek flea markets your mother’s obsessed with! You think you can lowball me, you think you can get what you want because I’m vulnerable and naked and want to say yes—"

"But you do want to say yes," James jumps in, a victorious finger jabbing her way. "You've just said it, right there. Want to. So if what you want is what I want...doesn't everyone win?"

"What's it going to look like if we move in right away? What will our mates think? What will your mother think?"

"My mother? The one who already has a Christmas stocking for you that hangs on the mantle? You're worried about that mother thinking this moves too quickly?" James doesn't even need to add the scoff—Euphemia has been fighting James for leadership of the Lily Evans Fan Club since nigh the second she'd met her, and Lily well knows it. "And I think we've already hurdled the worst of the mates just now—and other than being gratefully relieved that we'll routinely be doing this in our own bed rather than his, I don't think we'll get much more reaction. Beatrice might throw a party, but it will be a nice party, and she'll bring very good wine."

"You'd have to agree to couples costumes," she tries, changing tack completely, "every Halloween, from now until the end of eternity, no complaints, no take-backs, and no lazy efforts with dirty old sheets."

"You drive a hard bargain, but I think I can handle a once-yearly stint as your arm-candy, flaunted for all and sundry to see." He lifts a hand, pushes back a strand of her hair, smiling contently. "Anything else?"

"I mean, god, James, I want to, but surely it's not sensible?" she protests, but James can tell by the light, bright sparkle in her eyes, by the half-hidden smile that she struggles to keep at bay, that this question is already answered. Lily is trying to convince herself of a pitfall, prove to herself that she put up a good show of sense and reason before she agrees to an idea that she wanted all along. "We've just spent four years holding everything back."

"And?"

"And I don't know if impulse control is going to be much of a concern for the foreseeable future," she continues. "Say we do move in together tomorrow, or next week—what's to stop you from proposing again in six months. What's to stop me from saying yes?"

"Nothing," James replies immediately, and makes a note in his mental calendar to do just that. She'll have herself a good laugh about the pointed timing of it before agreeing. "But let's cross that bridge when we get to it, yeah? We'll have this same conversation about how madly impulsive it is, then slip on the ring and call it a night."

Lily laughs at that, a soft, helpless little thing, and brings her forehead rest against his own.

"Are you sure you're ready to wake up next to me every morning?" she asks him. "Because you know how much I love your bed, and once you let me claim a stake in it, I likely won't give it back up without a fight."

"I've been ready for four years," James says, the thrilling rush of victory, of future, of the rest of our lives starting to brew in his chest. "So, is that a yes?"

"That is a yes," Lily concedes, "to living together. Possibly marriage. Ask me again in six months."

"Six months," he echoes, and leans in to capture her lips once again. "Deal."

He'll definitely ask her in five.