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i. Summer Means New Love

The Scottish air was still thick with summer, but as students swarmed Hogsmeade station Lily Evans could detect the slightest hint of crispness in the air. She smiled and breathed in deep. It was a comforting reminder. Last year had ended as badly it had, but months of warmth had passed, and the cold had returned, and she had grown. Things would be better. With this in mind, Lily waved her friends on. She had only one of these walks left, after all, after this year. Crossing her arms over her chest, she let the sounds of greetings and how-are-yous wash over her, and the crowd carried her towards the carriages.

This happy bubble didn’t last long, of course. Lily heard him before she saw him, pushing through students to fall in step with her. She kept her eyes trained ahead of her, fisting her hands so they would not tremble.

“Lily,” he said, a plea in the single word.

I will not be cross, she told herself. It’s September first and I’m happy to be back at Hogwarts and he will not ruin that for me.

“What,” she said, more brusquely than she’d intended to. Drat; she darted a glance at her companion.

Severus Snape’s face had fallen at her tone. “You’re...still angry.”

If she had felt any remorse at his expression, it blinked away at that. “Seriously? Of course I’m still angry. I was too angry to want to talk to you in June, or at any point over the summer, or now. Would you like a signed declaration?”

His jaw clenched; she could see him preparing for an argument. This was the problem with her and Sev — he was far too defensive to be really, truly sorry. And if he wasn’t really, truly sorry, what were they even talking for?

“I can’t believe you’re letting…that…get in the way of our friendship,” Severus was saying. “We’ve known each other years—”

“And, pray tell, what would ‘that’ be?” Lily’s leisurely pace had turned frantic, but there was only so far she could walk. Eventually they would arrive at the carriages, and the last thing she wanted was to spend the ride up to the castle trying to deflect her former best friend’s arguments. Lily cared a great deal about the beginnings of things, and this was decidedly not a good start to her sixth year. 

Severus scowled. “You know. The — the lake, Potter—”

Lily stopped short and faced him. He was taller than her now — had been for a year — and it was disconcerting. She did not allow herself to think about the Great Lake.

“For the last time, Severus,” she said, “this was never about him. Just — don’t come near me until you get that into your head, all right?” 

He opened his mouth to retort, but she cut him off with a sharp “No.” 

Thankfully, she caught sight of a friendly face over his shoulder; before Severus could come up with anything else to say, Lily fled. She didn’t want to run — she wanted the argument to be put to bed, once and for all. But she knew her friend too well to expect that. Breathe, breathe, breathe. She counted to ten in her head, and with her last remaining shred of optimism, summoned up a broad smile.

This was the face she wore when she called out to Dex Fortescue, who was waiting by a carriage with a bunch of other seventh-years. Lily’s smile grew genuine at the sight of his goofy grin. A Hufflepuff seventh-year, Dex had freckled skin, sandy blond hair, and a flattering habit of complimenting her until she blushed. Yes, there was much to like about Dex — and Lily liked him very much.

“Lily!” he said, stepping away from his friends as she approached. “You’re looking gorgeous as ever, of course.”

“Oh, stop it.” She could feel her cheeks growing hot. 

A sudden panic joined the butterflies in her stomach — how was she supposed to say hello? Wave at a respectable three-foot distance? Oh, God, if she didn’t think of something soon, she was going to stick out her hand for him to shake and there would be no recovering from that, not least because it was a Muggle gesture… To her immense relief, Dex pulled her into a warm, tight hug. 

“It really is good to see you,” he said, his breath tickling her ear. 

“You too,” she said, a little breathless at the combination of his smile, his voice, his arms around her — focus, Lily, he’s talking to you

“Unfortunately, I don’t have any ice cream for you,” said Dex.

“What a shame. I was obviously only ever using you for the family shop.”

He rolled his eyes, still grinning. “Let me make it up to you. Look...” He sobered, looking away for a moment. Lily was surprised to see him square his shoulders and meet her gaze so gravely — and, if she were being honest, a little endeared. 

“I don’t want to…dive into things, or scare you off or anything, but I liked where we were in August and… I suppose I’m trying to say I’d like to keep seeing you. And I’d like you to be my girlfriend.”

There was a small pause in the conversation. Lily wasn’t sure if she was supposed to fill it. But Dex hurried on.

“We don’t have to be around each other all the time and kiss goodnight and whatever. We can just be together like this summer — except now you’ll have something to call me other than—” He waved a hand.

“Ice cream boy,” Lily supplied, grinning. This was just the sweetener she needed. “Of course, Dex. Of course I want to keep seeing you.”

He rocked back on his heels, visibly relieved. “Great. Great.

“But I might still call you ‘ice cream boy.’” She took his hand and squeezed it.

He cocked his head, pretending to consider this. “I suppose I’ll make an allowance for you.”

Stepping closer, Lily said, “And I do rather like goodnight kisses.” She felt a lick of delight at how his eyes widened. How novel, to have a visible effect on boys, she thought. This explained a lot about some of her friends. 

“Oh, I suppose I can make an allowance about that too,” murmured Dex, meeting her halfway. Lily’s hands made their way to his shoulders and she leaned into him and—

“You coming, Dex?” a voice said amidst hoots and cheers. Dex and Lily separated; she saw that his friends had piled into a carriage behind them, and had a prime view of the couple. 

“Shut up, you lot,” Dex told them. “Want to join, Lily?”

She considered the nearly-full carriage and his own sweet, stumbling proposition. No, she had plenty of time to meet all his friends, and right after they had made things official might be rather too soon. 

“You go ahead. I’ll find the other Gryffindors.”

“If you’re sure…”

“Sure as eggs.”

He burst into laughter, shaking his head. “Whatever you say.”

As he stepped away, Lily pulled him back to her for another brief kiss, to great oohing from the seventh years. She was still wearing her sauciest smile when she walked away to find a carriage of her own. 

Perhaps the beginning had been less than auspicious, but things had got better, as she’d promised herself they would. The spring in her step returned, and Lily fortuitously spotted a boy and a girl in red-and-gold ties already seated in a carriage — both sixth-year Gryffindors. 

“Lily! Come sit with us!” Sara Shafiq was waving madly at her, leaning across an alarmed Remus Lupin. The rest of the waiting area had grown rather empty since Lily had left Severus. She scanned the remaining students to make sure her friends weren’t waiting for her, then joined Sara and Remus. The former gave her a hug; the latter, a warm smile. 

Remus looked worse than usual, Lily noted. He was sick often, and it seemed as though he was close to another bout. Or perhaps it was all relative. Next to Sara, who was tall and willowy and had flawless bronze skin, healthier people than Remus Lupin would have looked wan.

“Had a good summer, Lily?” said Remus.

She made a face before she could stop herself, which made the other two laugh. “So-so. My sister’s seeing this bloke who's got to be the most insufferable man in England.”

“Can he be all that bad?”

“I believe it,” Sara said darkly. “My sister got married a few years ago and he’s great, but before that she dated absolute pond scum. It’s infuriating.”

Amusement shone in Remus’s eyes. “I’m sure it is.” 

Sara patted his hand before turning back to Lily. “I’m sure your summer can’t have been all doom and gloom. We saw you with that cute Hufflepuff — what’s his name? Fortescue? Give us all the news!” She lowered her voice, but her excitement was obvious. Remus, meanwhile, looked like he very much wanted to be excluded from the we she spoke of.

“Dex,” said Lily, returning Sara’s smile. “Yes, we did meet over the summer. The one bright spot, I reckon. Dorcas was dragging me to Diagon Alley so often, and he was working in his uncle’s ice cream parlour — you know the one—”

Lily had so often listened to her friends gush over their boys with the air of a wise spinster, rather the Charlotte Lucas. She found that she sounded exactly like them now — but she didn’t mind this pink-cheeked girlishness. She would have to retell this recent update for her friends tonight...but that was all right. And certainly Sara wouldn’t mind hearing it once more. Things were getting better, she reminded herself.

“—and, well, he asked me to be his girlfriend,” she finished, unable to swallow her smile.

Sara clasped her hands together and sighed. “Oh, how adorable! I do love the tender first few weeks of a relationship.”

“First few minutes, actually. He only just asked me.”

Sara looked as though she was about to implode. But before she — or Remus, whose polite interest now had an edge of desperation — could react, another person practically dove into the carriage beside Lily, and the wheels began to creak forward.

“My heartfelt congratulations,” said James Potter, leaning back and pushing the unruly dark curls from his forehead. 

Was he being sarcastic? Unsure, Lily held her tongue. Sometimes it was better to stay silent around James Potter — a reminder she often disregarded, to considerable woe — and she figured this was one of those times. The incident by the lake loomed large in her mind; she quashed it down and sat a little straighter.

Sara’s lips were pursed in disapproval. “Was that kind of entrance necessary, James?”

The beginnings of a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “Obviously, Sara. A new year needs must begin with a bang.” He surveyed the other occupants of the carriage. “Moony. Evans. Hello.”

Rather than simply saying hello back, Lily found herself saying, “Needs must?

James turned to her, meeting her gaze. “Yeah, and? You have a monopoly on pretty phrases in the English language or something?”

She fought back a glare. “No, I was just surprised. You sounded like you learned to read over the summer. I should be congratulating you.”

“Oh, for Merlin’s sake,” began Remus, but James cut him off.

“I can’t read, of course. What gave you that impression? I had to practice my usage of ‘needs must’ all through the holidays.” And then he folded his arms behind his head and stared determinedly at the darkening sky. 

An awkward silence fell. Lily couldn’t think how to respond; he had spoken so flatly, she couldn’t have said if they were arguing or joking. She wanted to consider this a victory, but he had had the last word. James bloody Potter.

Speaking of the holidays,” Sara said, clearly trying to salvage the conversation, “what did you do, James?”

At this, James showed the first sign of genuine interest. “Mum and I visited family in India. Got to see all the cousins, so that was nice.”

“Oh, how lovely! Give my regards to your mum...and your dad. Does he — did he not come with you both?” Sara seemed torn between the desire to know and the possibility that this was a sore subject; Lily stifled a smile.

James grinned. “Merlin, Sara, you sound like a high society matron. Yes, Dad came with us for some of the holiday — he wanted to see these caves, you know, interesting magical stuff. But Mum’s family overwhelms him sometimes. Poor bloke, can’t blame him.”

Lily tried to imagine a slew of loud, troublemaking Jameses, and found that she quite sympathised.

“Don’t tease me, I was just asking… Where in India are your family from?” 

Lily felt odd listening in but Remus was diagonally across from her, and she doubted they would be able to have a conversation over Sara and James, the latter of whom had begun to gesture wildly as he talked. Remus met her gaze and rolled his eyes, smiling. 

“How was your summer?” she mouthed.

“Fine. Quiet,” he mouthed back. “No arseholes dating my sister.”

Lily let out a snort of laughter. “And the other two?” She gestured between Remus and James.

A hint of guardedness flickered into her friend’s normally serene expression. “Up at the castle, I suppose…”

Two Marauders were the last to leave, and two Marauders were ensconced in the castle already? So they were planning something. Lily thought back to last year’s Welcoming Feast, at which bats had chased the Slytherins out of the Great Hall, and shuddered. 

“What are you up to?”

“Nothing,” Remus mouthed unconvincingly.

Lily raised a warning finger, only half in jest. Remus gave her a pleading look. The sensible side of her knew there was no point getting up in arms about their pranks. He was a prefect, just the same as she was, after all, and he participated. Besides, an argument with Remus, here and now, would inevitably involve Potter, and Lily had had enough contention for one day. 

“As long as it isn’t bats,” she said aloud. 

“Bats?” Sara repeated, looking between Lily and Remus in confusion. 

In mock concern, James said, “Talking to yourself, Evans?”

“Don’t you start, James Potter,” Sara said, swatting him. 

“He started long ago,” said Lily dryly. They had pulled up to the castle; Lily resisted the urge to watch Potter’s reaction to her words, and instead studied Hogwarts’s facade. The familiar squeeze of homecoming seized her. 

But James chose not to respond. “Needs must be off,” he said, hopping out of the carriage before it had stopped and striding away.

“Idiot boy,” Sara said, vocalising Lily’s thoughts exactly.

The three Gryffindors made their way into the Entrance Hall along with the last trickle of arriving students. Only a handful hovered in the antechamber; still thinking of the Marauders, Lily did not pay them much heed. Sara said goodbye and hurried to join her friends at the table, leaving Lily alone with Remus.

“See you later,” Remus said, avoiding meeting her eyes.

“Seriously, what are you up to?” Lily blurted out. So much for not getting up in arms, she berated herself. 

Remus sighed. “You wouldn’t be happier knowing.” 

But I would! She bit back the words. If she wanted to finish this year with her sanity intact, she needed to let their stupid pranks pass her by…and yet. 

Her friend gave her a wave and walked off. She stood there in the cavernous hall, alone, uncertain. Somewhere between Dex and now, her regained carefreeness had been knocked off-kilter. And she didn’t want to point fingers, but it was usually because of…  

“If you’re done being nosy, your dearest, most patientest friends would like to eat,” a high voice trilled.

“Oh— you waited—” Lily swivelled around to look at the girls by the entrance to the Great Hall.

“Damn right we waited!” said the tall Asian girl who had spoken, tossing her glossy ponytail. Mary Macdonald’s leggy, boyish frame gave her an athletic look belied by her vivid blue eyeshadow and pearly-pink lips — and the fact that Lily knew she didn’t have a single sporty bone in her body. “Hurry up, Dorcas is saving our seats.”

“Be nice,” said Germaine King, the other witch and the actual athlete of their friend group, whose pale blonde head just about came to Mary’s shoulder. Despite the look she shot Mary, Germaine grabbed Lily’s elbow and steered her into the Great Hall. 

Neither Germaine nor Mary were in the mood to indulge Lily’s impulse to stop and take in the dining hall’s high arches — “you’ll see it every bloody day!” — and so they made their way to the middle of the table, where Dorcas Walker, a dark-skinned, pretty witch, had already carved out a spot for the four of them. 

“Finally!” Doe huffed, scooting down so Lily could plop down next to her. 

“There’s plenty of space!” Lily protested, which was true; she could not see the sixth-year boys anywhere, which explained the unclaimed seats. Doe, in the middle of tying up her long curls, only shrugged.

“Did you find Dex?” Germaine wanted to know. 

The memory of the whole thing — Dex’s embrace, the heat of his mouth — made Lily blush. “Yes, I’ll tell you about it later.”

“Oh, will you,” Mary teased from across the table.

“This year is going to be a year of change,” Germaine said, tucking her short curls behind her ears. “Thank you for going along with the plan, Lil.”

“Really? What’s your change, then?” Doe said.. 

Germaine held up her hands as if to say wait for it. “Henceforth I will be going by... Gemma.”

The girls looked at one another for a beat. Then Lily, Doe, and Mary burst into laughter.

“Gemma? Gemma?”

Germaine folded her arms over her chest, frowning. “I thought it sounded quite good!”

“Who’s this Gemma? Have I met her?” Sirius Black slid onto the bench next to Germaine; the other Marauders joined him. They were all slightly out of breath, Lily noticed. James had his hands in his pockets and did not look at her.

I’m Gemma,” said Germaine crossly. “I’m trying to get people to call me that.”

“We don’t mean to make fun,” said Doe, trying unsuccessfully to hide her smile. “It’s just — you’re so not a Gemma.”

“Walker’s right, Germy,” James cut in.

“Potter, I swear, I’ll take that smile right off your face—”

“Only if you can reach it—”

I,” Mary said loudly, interrupting this argument, “plan on having a tragic, doomed love affair. It will be terrifically heart-wrenching.”

Doe snorted. “Likely.”

“I’m choosing to ignore that comment, Dork-ass. But just so you all know—” this, directed at the boys “—I am accepting candidates for my love interest in this affair. Oh, not one of you, of course. Just in case you know someone.”

“Of course,” Sirius said, rolling his eyes.

Mary surveyed the students critically. “I think I might go for Crollins, you know.”

Crollins?” James repeated. “Have you heard of taste?”

“It’s weird that you’ll call him that, but you won’t call me Gemma,” said Germaine.

“He doesn’t want to be called Crollins.”

“Yeah, not a very flattering comparison, Germaine.”

Lily followed James’s sceptical gaze, currently fixed on Colin Rollins. He was Head Boy this year, and a Hufflepuff like Dex, but was not one of Dex’s group. Which, in Lily’s opinion, was a mark in Dex’s favour; she had not enjoyed prefect meetings with the boy last year.

“Cute he may be,” Dorcas said, “but you can’t deny he’s a bit of a git.”

“He is, bless him,” said Mary fondly. “But he’s a cracking good kisser.”

 



ii. Sweetheart, Darling, Pumpkin Pie

In short order, the first-years were sorted and the feasting began. 

“A woman teaching us Defence Against the Dark Arts! I can’t bloody wait,” Doe said every ten minutes or so; the fifth-year on her other side was beginning to glare at her. The professor in question, whom Dumbledore had introduced as Aprylline Thorpe, sat next to a beaming Slughorn, who seemed to be pelting her with questions. 

“She’ll have to survive dear Sluggy first,” said Germaine.

“I’m surprised Dumbledore said so little,” Mary said, reaching for the roast chicken. “I mean, people are disappearing and everything…” 

Lily shifted in her seat. She and Mary, the only two Muggle-born Gryffindors in their year, had followed the news with worry all summer. They'd spoken on the telephone after breakfast every morning to dissect the latest Prophet headlines. Hogwarts seemed such a world away from the rest of wizarding Britain…but she had to grow used to the fact that it wasn’t, of course, no matter what it felt like. Without meaning to, Lily glanced over at the Slytherin table, spotting Severus’s dark head next to gangly, fair-haired Anthony Avery, and permanently-scowling Thalia Greengrass. Cassius Mulciber was by Thalia; when Lily looked at him, he met her gaze. Flinching, she turned back to the table.

“Pass me the chicken,” she said hoarsely.

But when Mary tried to hand her the dish, it eluded her grasp — by suddenly floating into the air.

“What in Merlin’s name—” The girls were so surprised by this development that by the time Dorcas had whipped out her wand to try and summon the dish back, it was a good ten feet above them. 

“Oh, bring it back,” Mary said, annoyed.

“What do you want me to do, shout ‘Accio roast chicken’ and be bombarded by every plate of it in the hall?” retorted Doe.

All around them, dishes were rising into the air — not the entire spread laid out on the tables, but a considerable amount of food nonetheless. 

Lily turned to the Marauders. Was that a scrap of parchment Remus was hastily tucking away? 

“What exactly do you hope to achieve with this?” She didn’t mean to sound so peeved. But it was difficult not to feel confused and annoyed and frustrated around the boys...primarily frustrated, of course. 

“Well, you can never have too much food,” said Peter with a grin.

“Who says we’re doing anything?” Sirius said. The jug of pumpkin juice he was holding jerked out of his hand, which made him startle and scowl. “Ah, shit. Can someone give me more pumpkin juice?”

“But — what’s the point?” said Lily, struggling to keep the impatience from her voice. “You’re just…stealing the feast’s food?” 

James shrugged. “Is it hurting you, Evans?” he drawled. 

After how relatively bearable he had been in the carriage, Lily was genuinely taken aback by the scorn in his voice. She glared. All James did was quirk an eyebrow at her, underscoring his question.

“Oh, shut up, Potter,” she snapped.

As if to punctuate her words, the missing food was suddenly replaced on the table — a new roast chicken, a new pumpkin juice jug. The floating food was out of sight.

“God bless the house-elves,” Sirius said happily, grabbing the jug. 

James was once again looking pointedly away from Lily. She angled herself away from the Marauders, seething. It’s such a little thing, she told herself, and you’re overreacting. Let it go. If only they — or just he? — didn’t get under her skin so effectively. She didn’t want to be the shrill, prim prefect all the time, but they — certainly he! — made her that way. Let it go.

The incident recurred when the main course vanished and dessert appeared: plates of treacle tart and gateau took flight, and new versions took their place. 

“Ugh, this cake isn’t as moist,” said Germaine, poking at the new dessert. Her words prompted sniggers from the fifth-years beside them — and the Marauders. Germaine rolled her eyes. “It’s cake, you dirty pervs.”

“Okay, Germy,” Sirius quipped. Germaine tossed her napkin at him.

Icon of a quill drawing a line

“First-year Gryffindors, you can follow us!”

Lily gave Remus a look. He preferred to leave the calling, shouting, and general voice-raising to her in their prefect duties — but he was decidedly in a hurry tonight. 

“Something wrong? Something going to happen?” said Lily sweetly.

“Ha ha. Please don’t start, Lily.”

She waved goodbye to Dorcas and Germaine — Mary had skipped away at the first chance to catch up with Crollins. 

“He’ll be dealing with Head Boy things,” Germaine had pointed out to her.

“Honestly! I’m not going to ask him to take me right there in the Entrance Hall,” Mary had said, rolling her eyes. “I’m only saying hello.”

The seventh-year prefects seemed only too glad to let Remus and Lily take the lead. There were about ten new Gryffindors, wide-eyed and small. The sight of them made Lily forget Remus’s haste for a moment. Her heart swelled; the wonder in their faces was another reminder that she only had two years of this herself. With Remus at the head of their little group, they made their way out of the Great Hall. A curly-haired girl fell into step with Lily, giving her a toothy smile. 

“Hello,” Lily said. “What’s your name?”

“Margaret,” said the girl, “and I’m going to win Gryffindor the House Cup!”

So it was that Lily was busy smothering laughter at this eleven-year-old’s absolute earnestness when it began. First, a plate of mashed potatoes blinked into existence and tipped its contents onto a group of Slytherins. The ensuing string of swearing came from Avery and Mulciber, who — in the immediate horror of being covered in food — forgot to reach for their wands. Lily saw Severus, potato-splattered and scowling, cleaning his robes with a spell. Just as they were all clean, the Yorkshire pudding landed. A gravy boat came for a terrified Bertram Aubrey. 

Lily could not see Mary and Colin Rollins, but she would hear the story later, many, many times. Mary, who was leaning close to the boy and engrossed in her work of seduction, did not notice the wobbling chocolate cake whizzing his way. Crollins did, and wisely ducked. So the cake splattered all over Mary Macdonald’s perfectly made-up face — really, it was the only time she’d ever regret her height — and slid, cold and creamy, onto her white uniform blouse.

“James-Sirius-Remus-Peter I’m going to kill you!” she shrieked.

And like summer rain finally bursting from the skies, the whole load of vanished food began to fall on the assembled students. 

Of course, the chaos was immediate. People tried to push through to the safety of the staircase or the Great Hall; Remus, Lily, and the first-years were trapped amidst the frenzied press. Remus cast a Shield Charm over them, but the food was only half the problem.

“Heaven bloody fucking help us—” Lily said without thinking. Margaret looked positively gleeful.

“Cor, Hogwarts is even better than I thought!”

 


iii. With A Little Help From My Friends

Several hours earlier, when most students were strolling from the station to the carriages, Sirius Black and Peter Pettigrew were far ahead of them. The two had been the first off the train, heading for an alleyway where they changed into their Animagus forms. Thereafter, the shaggy black dog — by now a familiar sight to some Hogsmeade residents, who tossed him food every now and then — and the unnoticed rat made their way to Honeydukes and slipped into the cellar. 

Once in the tunnel to Hogwarts, Peter paused to control a brief sneezing fit. “I prefer Gregory the Smarmy’s route. Gunhilda’s passage is far too dusty.”

“Time is of the essence,” said Sirius. “This one’s faster.”

Peter rolled his eyes. “Speed didn’t seem to matter when you let that old drunk scratch you.”

“Old drunk? Wormtail, that was a kind old man—”

“—who was stumbling out of the Hog’s Head, yeah—”

“Hey, it’s past five o’clock—”

They continued to bicker lightly, in the way of friends happy to be reunited and on home turf once more, until they arrived at the castle end of the passageway. Sirius made to cast the exit spell.

“Wait, what if someone’s on the other side?” said Peter, grabbing his arm.

Sirius shook him off. “Then check the map, what’re you waiting for?” 

As Peter fumbled for the thing, they silently reveled in the pure magic of that sentence. Oh, to be sure, both Peter and Sirius had grown up with magic, the sort they had spent five years at Hogwarts studying and pretending to study. But the map was the marker of a different kind of magic entirely. Neither Sirius nor Peter — nor even the other two — would have admitted this on an ordinary day, but they all knew it, on some deeper level that teenage boys were all too happy to ignore. 

The actual spellwork of the map had taken just about all of their fifth year, the exploration and mapping having been accomplished in pranks and expeditions beforehand. They had spent the summer fine-tuning it, a task complicated by James’s departure for India in the middle of their holidays. James was the most skilled at Charms of the friends; the others spent weeks swearing at the parchment when its Homunculus Charm malfunctioned. (Once, it had shown dozens of Filches roaming the otherwise empty halls. The Marauders had shuddered at the image.) 

What’s worse, in James’s absence the Marauders’ natural meeting place, the Potters’ enormous estate, seemed no longer an option. The Black family mansion was out of the question. Both Remus and Peter had rather less indulgent parents. After weeks of Remus’s hand-wringing, Peter’s passive-aggressive comments, and Sirius’s complaining, James had told them to just go to the bloody place themselves, Dad’s back and he doesn’t like being in the house alone when it's so empty anyway.

The finishing touches — or so they hoped — had been placed on the map in the Potters’ mercifully airy sitting room, outfitted with Cooling Charms to ward off the summer heat. James occasionally made contributions via the two-way mirror, which were sometimes garbled both due to the magic reacting erratically to the distance and James reacting erratically to the time difference. Fleamont Potter, reading in an armchair, had pretended not to know what the boys were up to — aside from the very first day, when he’d told them, “If anyone from the Ministry shows up, it’s me messing around with all these charms, agreed?”

“I solemnly swear I’m up to no good,” Peter muttered back in the tunnel, tapping his wand over the map. Sirius edged closer, his own wand lit. The third-floor corridor that the tunnel let out into was indeed empty, though the dot marked Minerva McGonagall wasn’t far. Both boys hadn’t really expected Filch to be waiting right there, but they had been willing to make any excuse to try out the map.

Sirius grinned. “Perfect. Ascensus.” The statue gave way, and the pair clambered out into the corridor.

Peter and Sirius dusted off their robes, and Sirius pulled out the bundled-up Cloak of Invisibility. Then, huddling beneath it — “fuck, we’re getting too tall for this” — they made their way down to the Entrance Hall. On that journey they had to be more careful; they stopped and held their breaths on separate occasions as Filch and McGonagall passed by. In the Entrance Hall, Dumbledore, sweeping past them in magnificent blue robes, had paused for the briefest of moments.

“He saw us,” Peter whispered immediately after the headmaster was out of earshot.

“Gobshite,” said Sirius, but he too strode a little faster, a little quieter. When the coast was clear, they slipped into the basement, tickled the pear to reveal the kitchens’ entrance, and, removing the Cloak, stepped inside.

The hustle and bustle was like nothing either boy had ever seen in the kitchens, even though they had stopped by on the day of the Halloween feast in past years. House-elves ran every which way through the vast, high-ceilinged room, carrying steaming pots and pans.

“Chocolate cake,” Sirius said happily, peering at the desserts being carted around them. “Wonderful. It’s always just moist enough.”

“You should not be here!” a squat, all-too-familiar house-elf informed them.

“Oh, hello, Pansy,” said Peter nervously. They had had run-ins with Pansy before; perhaps the only house-elf impervious to cajoling and well-versed in Hogwarts rules, she had threatened them and chased them from the kitchens multiple times. 

They needed a distraction; the only thing that came to mind was the manners Peter’s mother had so carefully ingrained in him. “It’s lovely to see you. How was your summer?”

“No, no, no, you won’t divert Pansy with your tricks!”

“Christ, Peter,” Sirius said.

Pansy was now wagging a finger at them. “You ought to be in the Great Hall — I ought to tell Madam McGonagall—”

“No!” Peter shouted. “I mean — please, Pansy, we’re only trying to see what, er, incredible stuff you’ve made for dinner—”

Sirius clapped him on the shoulder. “Keep her talking.” And he strode further into the hall, muttering spells at the finished dishes. 

Peter’s stomach sank somewhere around his knees. 

“Something is up, yes? Some — some hijinks is in the works?” There was a telltale gleam in Pansy’s eyes. It was a gleam any Marauder knew well: the opposite of the mischievous gleam, it was the sparkle of a prefect docking points, or a Slytherin with a hex on the tip of their tongue.

It was just like Sirius to leave him in this situation, Peter thought morosely. 

“All right, you win, Pansy,” he said, which made the elf perk up.

“Hm?”

“You’ve guessed it. Yes, we are planning something, and I know nothing will keep you preoccupied while we get it done. You’re sharp. We, er, respect that in an opponent.”

The suspicion remained in Pansy’s expression, but Peter realised his flattery — unrelated to her competence as a house-elf, and entirely related to her horrible narky tendencies — was hitting home. 

“So,” he said, growing a little desperate, “let’s make a deal, you and me.”

Pansy clapped her hands together. “Oh! And what will you offer to Pansy, young worm?”

Peter winced, recognising his mangled nickname. “You let us carry on tonight — no, let me finish — and the next time you see us getting up to something and you feel inclined to stop us, you can do it. You have our blessing. You can tell — Dumebledore or McGonagall or whoever else.”

Pansy hmmed thoughtfully.

“This one’s really not all that important,” Peter said hurriedly. “Er, the next one will probably be…much more so. Much more rewarding for you to rat—tell someone.” If he didn’t keep talking, he knew, she would figure out the obvious illogic in his offer: she could always snitch the next time she caught them where they weren’t supposed to be. But guessing that the ‘next time’ she would just shoo them out of the kitchens — a predicament simple enough to get out of, now that they had the map and the Cloak — it was a gamble worth taking.

“Very well,” said Pansy, still squinting at him. “Just this once!”

“Right. Thanks! Carry on,” he said weakly, darting past her to help Sirius.

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When the dust — and the gravy — had settled in the Entrance Hall, a hour’s task that required several professors to settle the stampeding students, the Marauders were promptly hauled into McGonagall’s office. The Gryffindor Head of House looked more weary than she had at the feast, James thought, as though the mere reminder that she had two more years of dealing with these four boys had taken a toll on her.

“Evening, Minerva,” said Sirius, giving her a cheeky grin.

She gave him a sharp, quelling look. “Please, Black. Must we begin every year this way?”

“Professor, if this is about the food—” tried Remus, sounding apologetic despite everything; McGonagall snorted in disbelief, as did James, who figured they were years past that defence. “—If this is about the food, you have no proof we had anything to do with it.”

Her hawk-like gaze landed on Remus next, who looked away. 

“If I were making this argument before the Wizengamot, Mr. Lupin,” she said dryly, “I believe they’d agree that five years’ worth of precedent does count for something.” Remus flushed.

McGonagall turned to James. “Mr. Potter? Anything to add to your friends’ scintillating statements?”

James cleared his throat. “Maybe the house-elves were trying out a new way to clean up, and it didn’t work?”

“House-elf magic is considerably more sophisticated than that of teenage boys.”

“Allegedly, that of teenage boys,” James offered. 

McGonagall shook her head. “Five points from Gryffindor for each of you. No — be glad, Mr. Black, that I haven’t the time to prove your guilt just yet,” she added when Sirius started to protest. “Really, boys. All that effort and planning, just to drop food on students? With the first-years there too? I fail to see the point. It’s hardly sophisticated magic.” As she paced, the Marauders exchanged glances — and small smiles.

“Well?” McGonagall barked, startling them to attention. “What are you standing around for? Get back to your beds.”

In this they obeyed her, shuffling out with growing grins.

“Her expressions are the worst,” said Remus glumly.

“Not bad enough for you to actually behave, clearly,” Peter pointed out.

“Cheer up,” said James. “I swear she almost smiled at the end there.”

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The Marauders were sprawled in their dormitory not long after, celebrating success with a smuggled bottle of Firewhisky. Sirius, lying on his bed, poked a foot at Peter, who was sitting on the rug. Remus was the only one of them unpacking, carefully putting neatly folded shirts into his dresser despite Sirius pointing out that he was incapable of keeping them so tidy. For his part, James was slumped against the magicked LP player; The Who hummed softly through the room as he toyed with the tone arm. 

“Was the map all right?” Remus was asking. 

“‘Twas when we were in the tunnel,” Peter mumbled, fresh off a swig of the Firewhisky.

James looked at the map, which was spread out on the rug between him and Peter. It did indeed seem to be working as they wanted it to. The dots that marked the four of them were stationary in Gryffindor Tower. He pointedly did not look at the girls’ staircase. He also did not look at the sixth-year girls’ dorm. He did none of those things; if, hypothetically, he had done those things, he would have registered that the girls were all in their beds. But he hadn’t, so he didn’t. 

“Prongs, you with us, mate?”

James looked up to see his friends all watching him. “What? Yeah.” He turned back to the record player and flicked the tone arm. The music jumped ahead with a squeak. Perhaps wisely, they continued their conversation rather than ask him any more questions.

“The real test is if the spell on the food will hold,” Sirius said. “And then, we can tie just about anything to the map’s magic.”

“It is brilliant,” said James, forcing himself to focus on the others and not the parchment. “Almost like we thought of it ourselves.”

“Just what I was going to say.” Sirius turned to face James, nearly kicking Peter in the head in the process. “So, tell us about the bird from this summer again. Properly, this time.”

James straightened, grinning. Here was a topic he could get behind. They had spent the train ride to school discussing their prank, which allowed for minimal chitchat about James’s trip to India. He had only returned on the last day of August; it was a strange feeling, waking up in the balmy English summer instead of the South Indian monsoon cool, and heading straight to Platform Nine and Three-Quarters. It had taken the better part of the journey for James to sound English again, his accent finally reshaping itself to match his friends’. 

“She’s Shruti’s friend from Beauxbatons,” said James. The boys nodded; James’s second-cousin had visited in summers past. “Her name’s Mélanie. She’s half-Indian too… She and Shruti are doing a holiday around the world or something to celebrate having graduated.”

Sirius nodded sagely. “Worldly, French, older. This is going well so far.”

James rolled his eyes. “Yeah, she was…great.” It was difficult to describe a summer fling, he found, though like all teenage boys he was willing to try. The difference between himself in the summer — away from Hogwarts and his friends, for at least some time — was hard for him to put a finger on, but tangible enough that he noticed it. Probably it was because his friends had a far greater James tolerance than anyone he was related to, save his father. 

You have to understand that of course James loved the attention of being James Potter; he would not have been James Potter if he hadn’t. But…even he could accept that it was probably better for all of wizarding Britain that he had the hols to let off steam — to just be. And especially in his mother’s family’s home in Mangalore, he could be

Mélanie — small, generously curvy, quick to smile that knife-sharp smile of hers — was the perfect extension of this summer tranquility. Neither of them had been interested in anything more than brief, sweaty interludes, not least because they did not want to have that conversation with Shruti. “I dunno, she’s…mellow. Fun to be around — but she wasn’t having any of my shit.”

“How refreshingly new for you,” Remus said dryly from his dresser. James made a rude gesture at him.

“She was the kind of summer fling you’d actually want to write to, afterwards.”

“And will you?” said Peter.

James, momentarily lost in recollection, only blinked. “Will I what?”

“Will you write her?”

“Dunno. Maybe.” In the silence, he moved the record player’s arm and changed the song again. Sighing, he looked up at his friends. “All right. What the hell are you looking at me like that for?”

He didn’t miss the glance that the other three exchanged.

“Well, to put it bluntly…we want to know where this fits, in the grand fucking tapestry of your ever-enduring love for Lily Evans,” Sirius said.

James rolled his eyes. “Not everything is about Evans.”

“No,” Peter agreed.

“But with you—” said Sirius.

“—most things are,” Remus finished.

James considered turning to face the wall instead, but he did not think that would do anything to deter this line of questioning. Over the summer, he had come to an epiphany — why talk and talk about Lily Evans when it solved nothing? In McGonagall’s wise words, he failed to see the point. It was time, truly time, to move the fuck on. This was going to be the year he changed.

“Are you going to say something?” said Peter.

“Yeah, only that I was unaware I’m in the sixth-year girls’ dorm,” muttered James, which the others judiciously ignored.

“Mélanie isn’t going to help you get over Lily if you’re not actually seeing her, mate,” said Sirius. “And snogging her. Et cetera.” He waved a hand in faux elegance, as if to suggest James should fill in the blanks himself.

“Mélanie isn’t helping me get over her,” James said hotly. “I already am over her.” At the others’ disbelief, he said, “Seriously. I am. You know how she looks at me. My life is only so long. What am I going to do, wait for her to stop thinking I’m worth less than the dirt she walks on?”

“To be honest, that’s been your strategy so far,” said Remus.

“Whatever.”

“And you’re not over Evans,” Sirius added.

James groaned, getting to his feet and making his way to the bathroom. He almost wished they could go back to the days when he — foolishly — had pined over her, and the others had — showing incredible, uncharacteristic wisdom — told her he was a hopeless idiot. 

It was simple: he would spend the year away from Evans, instead of scheming for ways to casually run into her. He would be polite at best to her, instead of looking for ways to rile her up. He would focus on other things. Every other thing there was to focus on. Didn’t Muggles say something about when things were out of sight?

“Stop staring at yourself in the mirror,” Sirius said, appearing in the open doorway.

“Fucking hell—”

“You’re not over her.”

“And how do you lot of oafs figure that?” James demanded finally, sensing that was where they wanted the conversation to go and realising he was unable to talk his way out of it.

“You’ve had Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy on the record player since we got back,” said Peter.

“And so?” James said, exasperated. “I fucking like the Who!”

“You keep skipping over “Pictures of Lily,”” Remus said.

Incredulous, James studied the other three boys, all huddled in the doorway and apparently dead serious.

“I don’t even know how to respond to that.” 

James had never thought about whether or not he had a tell that revealed when he lied; he rarely had cause to lie to his friends. He considered it now. He supposed if anyone could see through him, it was one of the other Marauders. So what if he had been skipping that bloody song? That didn’t mean anything It was only part of the process: out of sight, and hearing as well. 

James threw up his hands in exasperation. “This is stupid. Look — this time it’s different. Just wait and see, all right?”

He waited for them to protest again. But perhaps they had seen something else in his expression, because they all retreated.

“Exploding Snap?” Peter suggested.

“Yeah, so long as you don’t fucking cheat again,” said James. So he had been skipping a song — but the rest of it hadn’t been a lie.

Unbidden, Lily swam into his mind, sitting in the carriage with her chin cupped in her hands and her elbows on her knees. She wore a small smile; she said, and, well, he asked me to be his girlfriend... But James stopped himself from going further down that road. This time will be different, he promised himself, and he meant it. 

 

Chapter Text

i. Seeing is Believing

“The way I know I have no true friends,” Dorcas said, meticulously buttering the corners of her toast, “is that I’m taking Ancient Runes alone.” 

It was the morning of September the second, and the girls were at breakfast, comparing schedules. Neither the Entrance Hall nor the Great Hall showed any sign of the previous night’s food fiasco. Even better, Doe thought, Mary had stopped complaining about Crollins and the cake she’d taken to the face sometime around eight in the morning. Bless her

“You wouldn’t be taking it alone if you’d studied with me enough last year,” said Germaine sharply. “Then Anderberg might’ve let me take it.”

Doe paused her buttering. “Would you really have taken it just for me?”

Germaine snorted. “Fuck, no.”

“Fuck you, Germ.”

From a short distance along the table, Peter called, “You’re still taking Care of Magical Creatures, aren’t you? ...Gemma?”

Germaine softened at his use of the nickname. “Of course.”

“Me too,” Mary chimed in. “I needed an easy class to balance things out.”

“You’re the worst, Mare,” Dorcas said with a smile. Mary winked at her. Although, Doe didn’t disagree about Care of Magical Creatures. “Why are you all still taking that class? It’s a terrible waste of time.”

Overhearing this, Sirius said, “I want to be a dragon trainer, so it is in fact the best use of my time.”

“The sight of you’d give even a dragon a fright, love,” said Mary. 

Fanning herself with her schedule, Sara sat down by them. Ever the social butterfly, their fifth roommate had swanned between the Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw tables since breakfast had begun; Dorcas reckoned Sara had made friends at Hogwarts before they’d even got their letters. 

“Defence first!” Sara said. “Are you excited, Doe?”

Was she excited! “God, yes! I mean, we’ve had a new professor every year and it’s only been five farty old men—“

“You liked Bellweather last year,” Germaine said. 

Doe rolled her eyes. “Bellweather? Please. He’s dead to me now. Anyway, did you hear Thorpe used to be a Curse-Breaker? I wonder why you’d give that up to be at Hogwarts. An actual Curse-Breaker — and she was some kind of prodigy too! I’m going to work so bloody hard in her class this year—“

“That’s new,” Mary said sarcastically. 

“—and if she doesn’t love me, I’ll probably die, so I’d say I’m excited—“

Sara’s smile had grown strained. “I was teasing, dear. I live with you. Crollins and Thorpe were all we talked about last night.”

Doe deflated a little, but her friends were laughing. 

“Oh, all right. Excuse me for enjoying our most practical subject. The one most useful to our awful current events, might I add.”

As the conversation turned to other, more trivial things — in Dorcas’s estimation at least — she realised the last of her friends had been silent all through breakfast. Lily was poring over the Prophet, the slice of toast in her hand uneaten. 

“Everything okay?” Doe asked, her voice low. 

Lily started and looked up. “Oh! Yes — there’s just so much to read about… Look at this. A witch’s shop in a Muggle village was vandalised. They left this…awful graffiti…” 

Dorcas skimmed the article over her shoulder, her eyes snagging on get out dirty Mudblood. She felt a reflexive pinch of anxiety: Mum Dad are they all right— Which was stupid, of course, she’d had a letter from her parents just that morning. But Doe had lived her life in an unusual limbo: her mum and dad were magic, but Muggle-born themselves. For all intents and purposes, blood purists would still think of Doe as someone to be cleansed — though, she knew, her parents were in far more danger than she. 

Lily must have noticed the worry on Doe’s face, because she said, “Sorry, there’s no point in making all of us worry.”

No,” Doe said vehemently, surprising even herself. “It’s never better to be in the dark. If–If someone comes for me, Lily, I want to be facing them, with my wand in my hand.” 

Without realising it, Dorcas had raised her voice. Germaine, Sara, and Mary were all watching closely, identical expressions of sympathy on their faces. 

“Don’t say that, Doe,” Germaine said. “Nothing’s going to come for any of us. All right?”

The force of her conviction was nearly enough to dislodge Dorcas’s knot of fear. Nearly. Silence fell; Doe turned back to her food. Lily squeezed her hand. Inhaling shakily, Doe tried for a smile. 

“Forget about it. Let’s just go to class, yeah?”

“I don’t think Lily will be coming with us,” Sara murmured. 

“What?” said the girl in question, looking over her shoulder to see the new object of her friends’ attention: Dex Fortescue. Dorcas registered the little flush in Lily’s cheeks when she spotted him. People in love — and Doe’s friends were often in all-encompassing, girlish love, however much Mary would deny it — were so adorable. 

“Morning, Lily,” Dex said. “Morning...Lily’s friends.”

“Oh!” Lily blushed deeper and introduced them all. 

Dex greeted them individually, his smile so genuine and cheerful that the girls — some of whom had been ready to play the protective best friend — exchanged knowing looks. This, Doe thought, is a good boy. She was familiar with this species herself, having fallen for several in her day — but Doe being Doe, she could never quite take the step of telling them. That was a work in progress.That was going to be her big change this year, she’d decided. 

“You lot have Defence Against the Dark Arts, right? Mind if I steal you away? I’ve got Muggle Studies,” Dex was saying to Lily. “I can walk you there.”

Over his shoulder, the girls saw Lily’s eyes widen as she considered this. It was easy enough to guess her train of thought; as Doe realised she needed a little push, Mary came to the same conclusion. Doe waved her hand insistently, go go go, stupid! Mary, of course, took a more direct approach. 

“Yes! You can walk her there!” she said quickly before Lily could answer. “Go right now. And make it nice and meandering!”

To his credit, Dex laughed, and waited for a red-faced Lily to acquiesce. The two strolled out of the Great Hall; the girls watched them go, and cooed collectively when Lily’s head dropped to his shoulder.

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“It’ll be strange to have Defence with everyone in our year now, not just the Hufflepuffs,” Germaine said, as the sixth-year Gryffindors sans Lily and Sara made their own meandering way to their first class. 

Doe, sensing an opening with some degree of self-awareness, grinned and said, “I can’t understand how our N.E.W.T class shrank. I mean, who wouldn’t take Defence? It’s only the most important—“

This elicited the expected reaction: groans all around. 

“It’s like she’s the professor,” grumbled Peter. 

“And as for why our class has shrunken, ask your blessed Bellweather,” said Mary. “I bet he failed some of the more useless students.”

“I’ve never seen you come to the defence of useless students, Mare.”

“Oh, I’m not. They deserve it. But Bellweather was a perv. I swear I caught him peeking at my chest once.”

“Hey, look on the bright side. Now we can hex Slytherins…for classwork! ” Sirius said. 

“Bloody hell. That’s a bright side for you only, Black,” said Germaine. “More importantly — Potter, how did it feel when the Harpies destroyed your precious Puddlemere?”

As the boys and Germaine argued about Quidditch, Mary fell into step beside Doe. 

“If you’re going to say a word about Crollins again—”

“Blessed Jesus and Mary! Can’t a girl complain just once? This is about my planned tragic romance.”

Doe rolled her eyes. “Does it work when you plan it?”

“Leave the technicalities alone, Doe. Look — I need your help. With boys.”

Doe looked at her friend, incredulous. The last time Mary had asked her for help in a matter even tangentially concerning boys had been in their fourth year, when she’d said, “Dorcas, do you think my tits are asymmetrical? Why are you walking away from me?!” But Mary seemed sincere, her small, glossed mouth pressed in a determined line that her friends knew was a sign: she was on the hunt. 

“What help could I possibly be to you, with boys?” Doe said. 

Mary made a gesture of frustration. “You — you know nice boys! I don’t! I just want to see someone nice for once.”

“Are you thinking of anyone in particular?”

Anyone else might’ve responded with a bashful no. Mary considered the question seriously. 

“Well… Crollins isn’t nice. And Chris Townes isn’t that nice either. And—”

“I get your point,” Doe said quickly. “I suppose I can help. I’ve tried being Lily’s wingwoman for years—”

Nodding, Mary said, “And you’re having excellent results right now, I know.”

“—so I’ll think of someone. Just, be careful.” 

“What d’you mean?”

“I mean, if I’m going to introduce you to my friends…” Doe preemptively winced, unsure how to put this delicately. “Don’t break someone’s heart just because he’s there and interested, okay?”

An unreadable expression flickered across Mary’s face; then she brightened. “Who’s to say I won’t be heartbroken?”

“I’ll believe it when I see it, love.”

They were approaching the DADA classroom, the entrance to which was clogged with socialising sixth and seventh years from the Muggle Studies class across the hall. Doe and Mary hung back, preferring to let Germaine and the Marauders push a path through the crowd. 

Suddenly, Mary pivoted Doe by the shoulder and tried — unsuccessfully — to hide her own tall frame from sight. 

“Ow, what the hell—”

“It’s-Crollins-shhh-hide-me!”

“What’s the big deal?” Doe grumbled as Mary attempted to use her as a human shield. “So you got a cake to the face, it’s not as though you suddenly aren’t lovely and fabulous.”

“It’s humiliating!”

“Well, tough—” Doe broke off abruptly, noticing what few others had, hidden in the high arches of the corridor. It was hovering, as if searching...and then it became very still, as though it were preparing to strike. 

“Mare, look up. You’re going to want to see this.”

“What is it?”

Doubtfully Mary peered around her. The two of them watched as a crusty, day-old meat pie went splat! onto Colin Rollins’s head. Caught unaware, Crollins howled and pawed at the chunks of pie in his hair. 

“It’s in my shirt!” he wailed. Mid-flail, he caught sight of the Marauders, who were now openly laughing. “Potter! Black! You’ll pay for this!”

“Reckon it’s time to get to class, Padfoot,” James said, grinning. 

“Gosh, wouldn’t we hate to be late?”

“Yes, and on the very first day—”

Doe stifled laughter of her own and pulled an awestruck Mary after them. 

“Hypothetically, the planners of this prank might be trying to target specific people,” Remus said to her with a smile. “And, hypothetically, food that’s missed its target might find a way to try again…”

“God, it sounds so ominous when you put it that way,” said Doe.

But Mary smiled back. “Do you know, I might find it in my heart to forgive you after all.”

 


ii.The Whole Boyfriend-Girlfriend Thing

Lily Evans was strait-laced. This had been a fact of her life for as long as she’d been at Hogwarts, though in primary school she had been quite the cheeky troublemaker. Energetic, her teachers had called her, wearing strained smiles. Her parents had been somewhat relieved by the change in her that magical schooling had wrought. Perhaps the distraction of magic had been enough to satisfy her boundless curiosity. She had felt that way until now, at least.

While Lily-at-Hogwarts played that role — well-behaved, self-possessed, in full control of her tenacity and temper — Lily-at-home was quite a different animal. Her mother’s serene outlook and, worse, her sister’s stiff propriety both brought out Lily’s vivacious side. And her rebellious side. And her difficult side. All three had been uncomfortably reined in this summer, what with Petunia’s horrid boyfriend around so often. Wearing a fake smile and watching her sister’s sickening love life had put things in perspective a little. Why should she always do what was expected of her? The Lily-at-Hogwarts way had started to feel too close to the Petunia way.

Lily-at-Hogwarts would date a serious, intelligent boy, like Bertram Aubrey, or Caradoc Dearborn, and focus on her studies. She would take the most difficult N.E.W.T classes she possibly could. She would tell off James Potter when he caused a ruckus. She would roll her eyes and smile at Mary’s antics. But honestly, Lily didn’t like Bertram Aubrey or Ancient Runes or turning up her nose like...like… well, like Petunia! she thought furiously. Mary was no less driven or clever for having spent the last two years kissing Chris Townes. And how awful would it be to leave Hogwarts and realise she simply could not reconcile the strait-laced choices of Lily-at-Hogwarts with a nebulous, still-forming Lily-in-the-real-world? That was her biggest fear — that she would be eighteen and dating a boring bloke and working a boring job, only because it was the thing to do. (Rather like Petunia, she thought sourly.)

This was part of the appeal of Dex Fortescue, of course. He was funny, and easy to talk to, and just plain fun. They didn’t have to talk about geopolitics or philosophy for her to enjoy his company. 

Lily Evans wanted things to be honest, and simple, and right.

This thought occurred to her as they walked to class, her head pillowed on his shoulder. Considering the first of those three desires, she blurted out, “I’ve never had a boyfriend before.”

He pulled away to look at her, slowing his pace a little. “What?”

Embarrassed, Lily cleared her throat. “I, er, haven’t had a serious boyfriend before. So I don’t really know how any of this works.”

Dex chuckled. “Oh. Lily, if my bumbling way of asking you out didn’t prove I’ve never had a girlfriend, I’m a much better actor than I thought.”

She laughed along with him, relaxing. “It wasn’t bumbling. It was sweet.”

“Sweet,” Dex repeated dryly. “Just what every guy likes to hear.”

Lily punched him on the shoulder. “Look, I’m just telling you this because I don’t want to...do things the wrong way.”

“I don’t reckon there is a wrong way.”

“Isn’t there?” She looked at him, really looked at him. She hoped she didn’t sound too nervous. But Lily wanted things to be honest, and simple, and right, and she was beginning to worry that wrong was far easier to identify than right ever was.

Dex squeezed her hip. “So long as we look out for each other, we’ll be all right, eh?”

Lily smiled. “I like the sound of that.” 

The first-floor corridor between her classroom and Dex’s was relatively empty — they were indeed too early for the morning bell. With a mischievous smile, Dex pulled her into a more secluded passageway. 

“Is this what you had in mind when you asked to walk me to class?” Lily teased.

Obviously.”

Tipping her head back against the wall, Lily hooked a finger into the knot of his tie and tugged him close. His hands came to rest on her hips just as his lips met hers. Lily allowed herself to be carried away the solid warmth of him, by how close he held her. A shiver ran down her spine. 

Was that...the sound of throat-clearing?

“Professor McGonagall,” Lily spluttered, detaching herself from Dex. “We’re so — I’m so—”

McGonagall gave her a long-suffering look. “Miss Evans, you are free to do whatever you like, but I would prefer that you not do it right outside my office.” She gave Dex a once-over and strode away.

“Oh, my God.” Lily pressed a hand to her forehead. 

“What did she give me that look for?” Dex said. “Like she’s your mum!”

They looked at each other and burst into laughter. Doubled over, Lily braced herself against her boyfriend and tried to smother her giggles, but every time she managed it she caught sight of him and began to laugh again. 

“Stop it, my sides hurt,” she gasped.

Me? You’re the one who—”

“We can go find a more convenient wall if you’d like…”

At that Dex immediately fell silent. “By all means, lead the way.”

 


iii. Thorpe

The sixth years quieted down the moment Professor Thorpe swept into the classroom, a dark-haired, vaguely familiar wizard in tow. Lily, seated next to Dorcas, could feel her friend practically vibrating with excitement. She herself had been looking forward to DADA class since Thorpe had been introduced; the witch had a formidable air even before you heard her qualifications. 

Thorpe’s dark hair was pulled back from her angular face, emphasising the severity of her cheekbones. Her wide mouth was painted a deep red — the first time, Lily thought, she had seen a Hogwarts professor wearing noticeable makeup. 

“Where do you reckon she gets her lipstick?” Mary murmured over her shoulder.

“Zonko’s,” joked Lily.

“D’you think she’d tell me if I asked her?”

“Please don’t ask her,” said Doe immediately.

“Shh!” Germaine said. “She’s looking.”

Thorpe was indeed scanning the rows of desks. The wizard had taken a seat off to the side. 

“Who’s the bloke?” Lily whispered.

“We’ll find out,” Doe said, waving at her to shut up.

“Good morning,” Thorpe said; her voice was startlingly high, though it carried the rasp of a smoker. She walked towards the first row of desks. Lily could see the Ravenclaws seated there leaning away in alarm. 

“As you know, my name is Aprylline Thorpe, and I will be your Defence Against the Dark Arts professor. Some of you may have heard…” Her dark eyes travelled over the assembled students. “...about my background. I left Hogwarts over a decade ago and have spent that time training to be and working as a Curse-Breaker. My work took me to Brazil, Poland, and Korea, and I am not exaggerating — or, indeed, bragging — when I say that I hope none of you will ever come close to the kinds of dangers I have faced.”

Dorcas inhaled; her eyes were brighter than Lily had ever seen them. Lily elbowed her friend playfully.

“But I’m neither naive nor stupid,” she continued, starting down the aisle. “Even those of you who do not aspire to be Curse-Breakers, or Aurors, or what have you, will leave this school to enter a wizarding Britain more fraught than ever. Unless you’ve been walking about with your eyes closed—” her lips twisted in disdain, showing just what she thought of that “—you will know exactly what I mean. I am of the belief that protection against the Dark Arts is the most important tool a witch or wizard can possess, now especially. I wouldn’t be here speaking to you if I didn’t.

“It is my job to prepare you for this future. Some of you may think I’m being alarmist; others might believe they do not require training against Dark magic...for their own, flawed reasons.” Thorpe’s eyes narrowed.

The class stirred at her pointed emphasis, low whispers filling the room. Lily and Doe exchanged wide-eyed glances.

“Holy fuck,” Doe whispered. “Is she implying—”

“I think she is,” Lily whispered back.

“Regardless, I expect your attention and interest every day we meet this year and the next. You’ve had a rather scrambled syllabus, what with all your different professors, so you will be playing catch-up for the first half of the year. But once that’s done, I don’t doubt that we will progress well.”

Perhaps noticing that she had the class in a mild state of shock, Thorpe smiled a little.

“I sound like a terrible taskmaster, but I promise I will be fair. We’ll be doing a lot of practical magic — and surely I’m not the only one who sees the fun in that?” Her smile widened to a full-fledged grin, and Lily caught herself smiling along. Perhaps Doe’s over-the-top enthusiasm wasn’t unwarranted.

Thorpe clapped her hands. “Enough talk. Everyone up—” 

The moment they leapt to their feet, Thorpe pushed the desks up against the walls with a wave of her wand. A Hufflepuff girl who had moved too slowly found herself whizzing along with her bench; the class erupted into laughter.

“Oh, I’m sorry!” said Thorpe. “Miss…?”

“Florence Quaille,” the girl said stiffly, extricating herself from the bench.

“Miss Quaille, my apologies. I trust that nonverbal magic is a self-explanatory phrase?”

Florence nodded.

“Tell me, what’s the benefit of nonverbal magic?”

“Well... I suppose it can catch someone off-guard?”

“Exactly! Ten points to Hufflepuff — for the answer, and as an apology,” Thorpe said with a wry smile. Florence immediately brightened. “Can someone else tell me a possible drawback of nonverbal magic?”

Doe’s hand shot up so fast, Lily barely avoided the blow.

Thorpe’s eyes landed on them. “Yes, Gryffindor in the middle? What’s your name?”

“Dorcas Walker. Some spells are weaker when performed nonverbally.”

“That’s right. Five points to Gryffindor. Now, you’ve all cottoned on to the fact that we’ll be practising nonverbal spellwork, but what say we have a little demonstration?”

At that, the wizard who had entered with Thorpe sprang to his feet and strode to the centre of the classroom. Without being told to, the students formed a ring around them. If the room had been intrigued before, it positively thrummed with anticipation now. Lily couldn’t recall the last time she had seen teachers face off against one another.

“If you’ll introduce yourself—” Thorpe said to the stranger.

He gave the students a wave and a lopsided grin. “It’s good to be back. Name’s Edgar Bones. I was in my seventh year when you lot were starting here. Went straight from Hogwarts into the Auror program, and I’ve been there ever since.”

“A real-live Auror,” Dorcas breathed. It was hard to believe that gangly, genial-looking Edgar Bones spent his days chasing Dark wizards, Lily thought — but his introduction certainly explained why he’d looked familiar.

“Yeah, he’s also Amelia Bones’s brother, so they rather cancel out on the coolness scale,” said Mary darkly.

“Stand back, everyone,” Bones was saying. “Aprylline sold herself short. She’s just about the most talented witch I’ve ever seen.”

Thorpe rolled her eyes, but she was smiling — a bright, joyful smile that made her look years younger. Lily could well imagine her traipsing across the world as a young woman in her twenties, fearless and breathless with excitement. 

The two adults took several paces backwards and bowed. Raising their wands, they stood at the ready.

“You, in the specs. Count us down,” Thorpe said.

Lily saw James Potter straighten and do as he was told. For the brief heartbeats during which Thorpe and Edgar Bones were still and James was still counting, Lily allowed herself a flash of amusement at how the professor had referred to him. Had James ever been called you, with the specs?

And then Thorpe and Bones leapt into motion. It was a strange sight indeed. Without shouted incantations, their duel looked more like a carefully-choreographed dance than a fight — although, of course, neither of them was really trying to hurt the other. 

Bones struck first, casting a silent Stunning Charm that Lily recognised by its jet of red light. Thorpe deflected it and flicked her wand so a sudden wall of smoke filled the classroom, swirling around the professor and shielding her from view. Lily lost sight of both the duellists — until a flash of turquoise made Bones cry out in surprise. Thorpe dismissed her smokescreen and tried to press her advantage against the temporarily-immobile Auror; but Bones unfroze and shot a spell of his own at Thorpe with a flourish.

“Full Body-Bind,” Doe whispered — but Thorpe warded off the curse with a dismissive gesture. 

The professor retaliated with a grin and a snap of her wrist. Lily registered the familiar spell a moment before it took effect: Edgar Bones began to clutch his sides and laugh.

“Merlin’s — sake—” he gasped; despite the Tickling Charm, he managed to lift his wand. 

The ensuing spell let out a loud bang and caught Thorpe unawares. She skidded backwards, eyes wide, and pressed a hand to her chest as if in pain.

“Call it a draw,” she said after a moment, casting a counter-charm that freed Bones.

“Not too shabby yourself,” he replied, panting only slightly.

The class burst into thrilled applause, which made Thorpe smile and Bones laugh. 

“Pair up and spread out,” she called.

Dorcas seized Lily’s wrist and began to haul her towards a corner. “We have to get started right away, I have to get this right—” she was saying, making Lily snort with laughter.

The rest of the class followed suit. Mary pointed at Sirius, taking both him and Germaine by surprise.

“Why me?” he wanted to know.

“I haven’t yet forgotten about the cake you dropped on me. Let me get a hex or two in,” replied Mary.

“Pay attention to me, Lily,” said Doe, waving at her.

“Sorry!” They stood with a few feet between them, wands aloft. 

Thorpe, weaving through the pairs, said, “Remember, you must concentrate! First one to successfully land a spell on the other earns ten points — and for goodness’s sake, don’t try anything that’ll put your partner in the Hospital Wing.”

With a deep breath, Lily locked eyes with Doe. The Stunning Spell was a good option, wasn’t it? Stupefy, she thought. Stupefy, Stupefy… 

A short distance away, someone succeeded in disarming their partner; “I heard that,” Thorpe said sharply. 

Lily swallowed and focused on her friend again. Doe really did have such pretty eyes — such a lovely, warm brown… Shit. Stupefy! Wait. What if her spell was working, but Doe was casting a Shield Charm? Stupefy! Protego?

For a split second, Doe’s eyes flitted away. Now was her chance — Stupefy! But to Lily’s surprise, she was the one jolted backwards, as though Doe had reached out and pushed her.

“I did it! Oh, Merlin — sorry, Lily."

Lily gave her a sincere smile. “It’s all right. I thought I was going to get you when you looked away for cert.”

Doe’s grin was triumphant. “Yeah, I wanted to bait you into attacking. That way I knew you couldn’t shield yourself from my attack.”

Lily couldn’t hold in a laugh. “Oh, Doe. I can’t believe you planned this out.”

“Can’t you, though?”

Thorpe, hovering nearby, had clearly overheard this explanation. She made her way to Lily and Doe, patting the — starstruck — latter on the shoulder.

“Brilliant, Miss Walker. Ten points for your execution, and I suppose your daring has earned you an extra five.”

Doe looked positively luminous. 

Thorpe, meanwhile, had turned her attention to Lily. “Miss…?”

“Evans,” Lily supplied. “Lily Evans.”

“Miss Evans, you go on the attack now. Miss Walker will try and defend.”

But before Lily had even readied herself, there was a loud thump from the other end of the hushed room. Severus had fallen to the stone floor, stiff as a board. Anthony Avery stood over him, looking just as stunned as if he had been the one struck by a spell. 

In the time it took for Thorpe to come to them and praise Avery’s work, a sullen Severus had recovered and was on his feet again — but he slouched in on himself even more than usual. Lily allowed herself to feel only the smallest stab of pity. 

“Avery?” Doe said, eyebrows raised. “Colour me surprised. He’s got rocks for brains — and that’s being generous.”

Lily hummed in response. Her friend wasn’t wrong. But perhaps Severus had been distracted, and Avery had capitalised… And there were plenty of distractions in a full classroom, weren’t there? Lily felt heat rising in her cheeks, and she turned back to Doe quickly.

“Ready?”

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By the end of class the sixth years were all flushed with exertion, and, for some, the giddy excitement of success. Lily had disarmed Doe not long after Avery had cursed Severus — although before she had, James had tripped Germaine and a Ravenclaw girl had knocked back her partner. Not that Lily was keeping score, of course… Still, there was plenty of time to improve, and it seemed they were going to have an exciting year with Thorpe.

“Did you notice how she made a point of saying she’d be teaching us for two years?” Mary said as they made note of their homework and gathered their things. “I mean, she has to know the position’s cursed. She’s got pluck.”

“She is a Curse-Breaker,” said Germaine. 

“If anyone can last two years at this place, it’s her,” Doe agreed. Germaine was grinning at her. “What?”

“Nothing. You spent all morning fawning over her, but after today I expect you’ll have to fight the whole school for her attention,” Germaine said. Dorcas only scoffed. 

“The real question is,” said Lily, “what’s an Auror doing at Hogwarts on an ordinary Thursday?”

Together they looked over at Thorpe and Edgar Bones, who was now chatting with his pretty, pert-nosed younger sister. 

“Dunno, Auror business?” Germaine offered. “Maybe he’s here to see Dumbledore.”

“Lily has a point,” said Doe. “I should think the Aurors don’t exactly have people to spare — not even to see Dumbledore, and certainly not to give duelling demonstrations to Hogwarts students.”

“If we’re speculating, I think it’s because he and Thorpe an item,” Mary said.

Doe frowned. “Don’t be thick, Mare.”

Mary rolled her eyes. “If you won’t believe me, I heard that Amelia thinks so. Well, I heard it from Chris, who heard that Amelia thinks so. I don’t hear things directly from her, of course.”

Lily shook her head, amazed. “We were in class. How on earth did you have time to gossip?”

“Please, Lily, it’s simple information-gathering. I have my ways.” 

“Do Aurors take time off to see their girlfriends?” Doe said doubtfully, her gaze flitting between Thorpe and Bones.

Mary shrugged. “I don’t know, Doe. Do Aurors fuck?”

“Oh, for Merlin’s sake, must you always be so crass—”

Lily tuned out this bickering as they strolled out of the classroom. Dex was leaning against the wall outside the Muggle Studies room opposite; he straightened and waved when he spotted her. Lily smiled back, welcoming the little flutter of warmth she felt at the sight of him. Her boyfriend. Even thinking the word felt wonderful, like...like Butterbeer on a warm winter’s day.

“Oh, he waited!” Doe said happily. “I love young love.”

Behind them, someone let out a snort. Lily turned to see James studying Dex critically. 

“Young love,” he repeated, looking down at Lily. “How dull.”

“Even you can’t burst this bubble,” she told him sweetly, and made her way to Dex.

He gave her a hug in greeting, which only served to multiply her butterflies.

“D’you want to spend some time alone next weekend?” he said.

Lily blinked. “Next weekend? But the first Hogsmeade weekend isn’t for—”

“Well, it’s a big castle.”

“O-okay…”

“Saturday, ten o’clock, head to the left-hand corridor on the seventh floor. You know that odd tapestry, with the dancing trolls?”

Frowning, Lily recalled the strange hanging from her nights on patrol last year. “I think so.”

Dex nodded. “Right around there. Look, I’ve got to go. Don’t be late!” Giving her a quick kiss, he strode away.

Lily watched him go, perplexed. “But — there’s nothing there!”

“Ten o’clock! You’ll see!” he shouted.

 

 

Chapter Text

i. No More Looking Back

It was a blistering-hot July day in the summer of 1976, and Germaine King hated shopping. In the end this was what caused the whole thing, Germaine would later insist, though Dorcas claimed credit of her own, and, unlikely as it sounded, Vernon Dursley deserved accreditation too. The summer had been one long heat wave thus far, made worse by Petunia and her boyfriend. A more immediate cause for Lily’s annoyance was that the night before, the Evans women had hosted said boyfriend for dinner.

“How can you possibly fancy someone who so clearly thinks himself superior to you?”

Unable to ask Petunia this directly, Lily spoke to Doe instead. The girls were in Madam Malkin’s in Diagon Alley, mindlessly strolling down the aisles as Germaine argued with her older sister Abigail some distance away from them.

(“Those are vile! Why have they got lace everywhere!”

“It’s fashion, Germaine, for heaven’s sake—”)

Doe looked up from the robes she was examining. “Oh, was that last question rhetorical?”

Lily sighed. “Yes. No. I don’t know!”

“I know what you need. Ice cream helps everything.”

“We can’t get ice cream. We’ll have eaten it three days in a row.”

This was true; it was also their third straight day in Diagon Alley shopping with the King sisters. Germaine would be turning seventeen in late September, the first of the girls to come of age, and her parents were insistent on throwing her a belated party in the winter hols. Germaine knew exactly what kind of party they meant — a boring dinner with their friends at which she would have to dress uncomfortably and suffer in silence. It was partly her abhorrence of the party itself that made her so difficult during these shopping excursions. 

But Abigail, who was small and blonde like her sister and just as stubborn, knew they had to find her an outfit before Germaine escaped to Hogwarts, lest she find a way to wriggle out of the whole event. Anticipating many, many arguments, Germaine had asked her friends to come along to act as a buffer against Abigail. But the most effective buffer — fashion-conscious Mary — was visiting her grandparents, and Lily and Dorcas were so drained by the heat that they were little help. Germaine was throwing evil looks at the pair of them in between her dismissals of Abigail’s suggestions. Despite the hostile environment, Lily and Doe were glad to have Side-Along Apparated with Abigail to the shopping street, if only for the magically-cooled shops. 

“Come on, Lily,” wheedled Doe. “Eventually this awful heat will pass and we’ll wish we had an excuse to have ice cream three days in a row!”

“I’m sure you’d be able to come up with something,” Lily said. “But all right, let’s go.”

Grinning, Doe called out to Germaine and explained the plan. Their friend looked immensely relieved at the prospect of a break and promised to be along soon.

Florean Fortescue’s parlour was right across the street. Though the shop’s indoor section was full, the tables outside were all empty — thanks, of course, to the weather. Ignoring Lily’s insistence that she was going to get sunburn, Doe chose the table closest to the doors, so that when a customer walked in or out the Cooling Charm washed over them pleasantly. 

“I’ll pay today,” said Doe. “The usual?”

“Yes, please.”

Shading her eyes, Lily squinted at the trickle of shoppers who had chosen to brave the outdoors. She didn’t often get to visit the magical parts of Britain during the summer holidays, unless she was seeing Germaine, who lived in a Muggle country village that was half-populated with witches and wizards. And that was nothing compared to Diagon Alley, where people were so openly magical. But Merlin, it was too hot to people-watch — sweat was pooling under her arms, and she probably looked hideous…

Doe returned and collapsed into her chair. “Here you go, honeyed oats and lavender. God, I could never get tired of this.”

Lily murmured her agreement. Any longer and the sun would be melting her brains, she thought.

“I wonder if Germaine’s coming, or if we ought to go rescue her— what?”

Doe had gone very still, peering at something over Lily’s shoulder.

“What is it?” Lily said, more insistent this time. She started to turn around, but Doe grabbed her hand.

“Don’t look now, but the bloke from the shop is watching you.”

Lily laughed. “That doesn’t sound creepy at all. Is he the right side of fifty?”

“Ha, ha. You know that’s not what I meant. It’s the bloke from the shop, the one our age. You said he was cute yesterday.” Doe gave her a meaningful look.

“Oh!” Lily fought off the urge to turn around again. They had been served by the boy the day before; she reckoned he was a year above them at Hogwarts. He was certainly not a Gryffindor. Oh, what was his name?

“Is he really looking? And not in a strange way?” said Lily, her heart quickening.

No, in a cute, I’m-interested way. You should go say hi!”

“Absolutely not. It’s hilarious that you think I would do that.”

Doe punched her on the shoulder. “I am going to talk you into doing that. Nothing matches my instinct for when a bloke is interested in my friend. What’s the worst that could happen?”

“I don’t know his name!” Lily protested.

“So ask, you dunce!” 

“I don’t think—”

“You need to stop thinking,” said Doe. “Just go!”

“Rich coming from you, Walker.”

“If you’re trying to change the subject, it’s not working!” When Lily opened her mouth to argue, Doe clapped her hands over her ears. “La-la-la-la I can’t hear you!”

“You are five years old,” laughed Lily. I might as well, she told herself, just to get Doe to shut up. No, I am definitely not doing this because I fancy this boy. Smoothing down her hair and adjusting her floral blouse, she stood up and stepped into the shop.

She spent a few seconds blinking while her eyes adjusted to the light. The cute guy had indeed been looking in their direction — was still looking in her direction, apparently shocked that she was looking back at him. Lily gave him a little wave and went up to the counter behind which he stood.

“Hiya, can I help you?” He had recovered from his surprise. 

“Er, no — I mean, yes. Well, not exactly,” Lily stammered out, cursing herself all the while. 

“Say more, Lily Evans.”

His smile was so wide and open and friendly. She felt her heart skip a beat.

“You know my name!” she said without thinking. Bad to worse, Evans.

“Sure I do,” said the boy, flicking his wand so that a knife on the sideboard near him began to chop fine slices of almond. “You’re at Hogwarts too. Gryffindor, going into sixth year. You’re a prefect. I know you.”

Lily’s aflutter heart sank at this. “Oh… You know my whole introductory thing.”

“Why wouldn’t I?” He snorted. “I’m not a terrible person.”

“Well, you see, the thing is…” Lily looked away from his honey-brown eyes. “I don’t know your name. Or what house you’re in. I think you’re a seventh-year but now I’m beginning to question that as well.”

His friendly demeanour faded. “That’s incredibly awkward. Now I feel like a bit of a stalker.”

“God, I’m sorry! I’ve really put my foot in my mouth, haven’t I?”

“No, you — what? What does that even mean?”

“Sorry,” Lily said again, feeling more and more of an idiot. “It’s a Muggle saying — you know what, I should just go—”

“Please don’t!” The boy’s grin returned. “I’m only messing. Your friend gave me your name.”

“Of course she did.” Lily was so relieved, she almost didn’t want to shake Dorcas by the shoulders for her scheming.

“Yeah, I knew you looked familiar, but I’d hardly remember that you’re a prefect. Is that what you’re used to from blokes who’re chatting you up?”

“Is that what you’re doing? Chatting me up?”

He winked. “Trying to, yeah. Is it working?”

Lily laughed. “Just about. What’s your name?”

“Dex Fortescue.”

“Is Florean your father, then?”

“Nah, my uncle. And my cousin. I mean, I’m related to two separate Floreans. None of this is information you care about or asked for, so I’ll stop.”

She laughed again. Struck by a sudden rush of daring, she said, “Do you want to come sit with my friend and me for a bit? We’ll share our ice cream.”

Dex winced. “Sorry, my shift doesn’t end for a bit. And to be honest, I’m quite sick of ice cream.”

“Oh…” Lily wondered if she ought to just say goodbye. What a nightmare this whole conversation was turning out to be. 

But Dex continued, “I wouldn’t say I’m sick of you at all, though. Maybe you can stop by again before you leave?”

“I think I will. But I have to warn you…”

“Yes?”

“That’s the last time you toy with my emotions, Fortescue.”

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Saturday mornings — or, indeed, weekends at all — were James’s last choice for Gryffindor’s Quidditch tryouts. But that bloody Lucinda Talkalot had beat him to the weekday spots. So he headed to the pitch at the pleasant, agreeable time of four o’clock, far before the sun showed any inclination of rising. The moon was still a pale blot of wax in the dark sky. 

“I have to say, this is up there on the list of your worst ideas ever,” grumbled Germaine, still rubbing the sleep from her eyes. 

“Coming along is up there on the list of our worst ideas ever,” Sirius said. "Or mine, at least. I'm not even on the fucking team anymore." The two of them were lugging the school’s spare brooms in addition to their own.

James ignored them both. He focused instead on measuring out distances for sprinting drills on the already-dewy pitch, marking them with little red flags. His mind was mercifully, blissfully clear — all that existed was the crisp smell of night and the friendly nip of the pitch’s air. He looked up at the goalposts standing silent sentinel over the hushed grounds. They made him feel small, insignificant — and as powerful and infinite as the stars.

“Hello, you,” he breathed.

Behind him, Germaine said, “Oh, good, he’s talking to the goalposts now. As if we don’t already worry he’s lost his mind.” 

“Oh, stop complaining,” James told her. “You’re excited about the start of the season too.”

“The start of the season is exciting when it means flying. Not daggers.” She eyed the cheery flags with great dislike. 

The sprints she referred to were so called by the Gryffindor players because they caused horrible, stabbing pain the next day. Daggers were James’s favourite ground drill — not coincidentally, his team’s least favourite since the day he had first instituted them as practice mainstays.

James grinned. “Don’t worry. We’ll warm up with daggers, and then you and Sirius can demonstrate them for whoever shows up.”

They groaned in unison. 

“I suppose we should start on laps,” said Sirius.

“No use putting it off,” Germaine agreed.

“And I didn’t even have to ask! You’ve learned so well,” James said. 

“Shut up,” they chorused, before jogging to the pitch’s perimeter. 

Setting down his broom and the trunk of equipment, James stretched and let out a long, satisfied breath. The day before had been a nightmare of a tryout — Gryffindor’s slot had been after sunrise, and James had spent more time telling off cackling Hufflepuffs than actually evaluating candidates. And then, when things had just started to settle down, the Ravenclaw Quidditch team had come by to heckle, scaring off everyone who showed promise. He’d spent all morning resisting hexing Stephen Fawcett, their captain, into the next year. 

But that had only been the first day. He had a good feeling about it this time. With this thought in mind, James began his own laps.

“Faster, you two!” he called to Germaine and Sirius.

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Lily was not a morning person. 

The symphony of her daily routine was all too familiar to her roommates. “Shit,” she’d mumble as she scrambled out of bed and silenced her alarm. “Merlin,” she’d say, as she stubbed her toe on whatever book Sara had left on the rug. “Fuck,” she’d groan as she caught sight of her pillow-creased, blotchy face and her tangled hair. So on days when the sound of Lily waking up was mysteriously more cheerful, the other Gryffindor sixth-year girls knew something was up.

“You’re looking awfully pleased today,” Dorcas observed, stifling a yawn. She could see into the open bathroom doorway from her bed, so she had the perfect view of Lily dancing as she brushed her teeth.

“Fank oo,” said Lily, doing a little spin. She spat out toothpaste and examined her teeth in the mirror. She absolutely had to have minty-fresh breath today. Assuming all went well, there would be a great deal of kissing in her near future. 

“No prob. That weird hopping move of yours makes you look like you’re doing a gremlin mating dance, though. Don’t try that in front of Dex.”

“Up yours, Walker.”

That’s not very nice.”

Lily waved her away and shut the door. The shower water was just perfect — a perk of being the first to use it, which she did not often get to enjoy. She allowed herself to linger there longer than she needed to, combing through her long hair with her fingers until there wasn’t a single knot left in it. She was still humming when she stepped out and scrubbed her fist over the fogged-up mirror. Her cheeks were pink and her hair was dripping onto the floor, but she grinned at her reflection.

“You, Lily Jane, are a knockout,” she told herself.

Someone pounded at the door. “Can the knockout hurry up so I can use the loo?” Dorcas shouted.

Rolling her eyes, she put on her robe and padded out to the dormitory. Mary was still sound asleep, and Sara and Germaine had already left. Lily knew that very little could wake Mary Macdonald on a Saturday morning, so she flipped through their shared record collection. It was a Waterloo sort of day, she thought. The cheerful guitar-and-string opening of “Honey, Honey” filled the room.

In that mood, it took her a great deal longer than usual to get ready, what with all the breaks she took to sing into her wand like it was a mic and strike silly poses in her mirror. Mary woke up just as Lily had finished magically drying her hair and applying her mascara. The two of them fussed far more than necessary on her outfit before finally settling on a long-sleeved black turtleneck and a sunflower-yellow skirt of Mary’s. 

“Perfect,” Mary pronounced. “Chic.”

“He’ll die,” agreed Doe, who had emerged from the bathroom to watch the costuming process. “He’ll die on the spot the moment he sees you.”

“I should hope not,” said Lily, but she beamed at herself. It really was a good look, and it went well with the deep red of her hair. 

“Maybe a different kind of death,” Mary said innocently. “A little death.”

“Get your mind out of the gutter,” said Lily, flushing.

Dorcas threw a pillow at Mary. To Lily, she said, “You should go before you’re late.”

Lily checked her wristwatch. It was five minutes to ten, which would be cutting it close… But the spot Dex had mentioned to her wasn’t far from the Fat Lady’s portrait. Waving goodbye to her friends, she skipped down to the common room. 

Now that the fun of getting ready was behind her, a cloud of nervous anticipation had descended. She had walked down the corridor they were supposed to meet in last week, confirming that there was nothing by the funny little tapestry. If she were seeing anyone else, Lily might have wondered if it was all an elaborate joke. But surely Dex wouldn’t do that — he had a sense of humour, but he wasn’t cruel. No, that could not be it. How could she have missed a whole room, though? Damn, she was going to be late.

Turning the corner into the all-important corridor, Lily stopped short. There was a door set into the wall opposite the tapestry, and Dex was holding it open.

“Lily! Come on!”

Deciding to save her questions for later, she grinned and ran to her boyfriend.

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Shit. Merlin. Fuck. Fucking hell

His first instinct about the Saturday morning slot had been right after all. 

It had been six bloody hours since James, Sirius, and Germaine had first arrived at the pitch. Only one incredibly nervous flier had shown up before sunrise, which ought to have been a sign. The way James saw it, his absurd tryout times were only preparation for practice. If people couldn’t handle the former, they were certainly not cut out for the latter, let alone playing time. He had even wondered if his stubbornness would cost him — a remarkable feat of self-awareness, for which he congratulated himself — in the time before the real candidates arrived. 

But his hopes had quickly been dashed once more. Everyone he had seen so far that morning was just wrong. Too weak, too unsteady on their broom, too bad. Part of the problem was that James’s point of comparison, the Keeper who had just graduated, had been a captain’s dream: easy to work with, driven, competitive. She had been on the same page as him, and that was high enough praise. 

With her example in mind, James could be forgiven for reacting poorly to the stringy second-years who tried out.

“Do you think we’ll ever leave?” Germaine said. She and Sirius, in addition to helping run the ground drills, had been enlisted to toss Quaffles at the prospective Keepers. (The latter was not an official member of the Gryffindor Quidditch team, but none of James's actual players had argued when Sirius had volunteered to take their place that morning.) When even Germaine — a Seeker — was scoring with ease, James’s outlook grew pretty grim.

“Do you think we’ll ever see a decent option, is more like it,” James said. He wanted to pace. Perhaps he ought to land his broom just so he could pace.

“What do you reckon our odds of winning the cup are if we just stick a second-string Chaser in front of the goalposts and hope for the best?” said Sirius.

Germaine scowled. “Ravenclaw are good this year. We need a decent Keeper.”

“Thanks, I’m aware,” James said curtly. "And we don't have a second-string Chaser anymore, remember?" He had not meant to sound cutting — to remind Sirius that he had been the first-string Chaser until certain events the previous year — but it came out sharp anyway. He sighed, and turned away.

“Wait, look, someone’s coming—”

James turned towards the castle. Someone was indeed coming — three someones. Two of them had brooms.

“They brought their own brooms. They should be all right,” said Germaine, sounding as though she didn’t dare hope.

Fucking finally, thought James.

“Fucking finally,” Sirius said.

The three of them flew towards the newcomers and dismounted. 

“You know any of them, King?” Sirius whispered.

“I don’t think so,” replied Germaine. “But I’m awful with faces. And names.”

“So, people in general. Got it.”

The two with brooms were both fair-haired and fair-skinned, though one was stout and the other was gangly. Gangly had a stubby ponytail that James immediately disliked. The third, who was hanging back a little, was black and broad-shouldered, with thick-framed glasses. He wished his friends good luck and started towards the stands, which made James deflate a bit. Never mind, two options were still good enough — and if Gangly showed promise, James would come around to the ponytail eventually.

“Names?” he said.

Gangly was called Laurence, and Stout was Richie.

“How long will this take?” Laurence wanted to know.

James stared at him until he flushed. “Why, have you got somewhere to be?”

“N-no…”

“Then you’ll stay for as long as it takes. Obviously you came despite whatever horror stories you’ve heard about me.” 

With that, he strode towards the sprint flags. The others followed.

“I thought Potter was supposed to be fun,” he heard Richie say, his voice hushed.

“What can I say? He’s a good bloke everywhere but the pitch,” responded Sirius. “It’s a curse.”

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“I can’t believe you did all this,” Lily said, not for the first time. “And that you found this room!”

Adorable pink spots appeared in Dex’s cheeks at the compliment. “It was really nothing. What’s frustrating is that the door doesn’t always appear — I have to concentrate really hard on summoning it. A smarter bloke than me would have a field day analysing its magic.”

“Yes, I suppose it’s intent-based,” mused Lily, tapping her chin with a finger. “Although, how can you concentrate on making the door appear before you know it’s even there? It’s an odd thing, hiding the entrance to a common room. Perhaps it’s like the prefects’ bathroom, and the secret of how to call it up has just been lost over the years… That might explain why more people don’t simply stumble upon it… Oh, what are you smiling at me for?”

“A smarter bloke than me,” said Dex, smiling, “or a smarter bird.”

The room in question was cozy and circular, its stone floor covered in warm, plush rugs. A fire blazed at one end and bookshelves lined half the space’s perimeter. The other half was a little kitchen, with cabinets full of utensils and bowls and magical cookbooks. Dex and Lily were seated across from each other on high stools at the kitchen counter. It was lovely and domestic, in the best of ways. 

The whole scene was made even better by the butter-and-sugar aroma filling the room. Dex had brought his own baking ingredients — “there’s never any food here but I wouldn’t dare eat it anyway, who knows how stale it’d be” — and he had coached her through the steps to make shortbread. 

“Are we making millionaire shortbread?” Lily had asked when she’d seen the chocolate he’d brought.

But Dex had looked confused. “What’s that? No, this is something my mum makes, it’s called a Galleon biscuit…”

Lily had learned that the Galleon biscuit was not all that different from millionaire shortbread, substituting peanut butter for caramel. The real magic of the biscuit, though, was in the way Dex stirred the chocolate, adding a strange essence so that it fizzed in the mouth like champagne. The sensation had so startled Lily that she’d jumped backwards and knocked into him, for which she then spent ten minutes apologising. 

Dex was an exacting baker; he told her that he much preferred this sort of cooking to the family’s famous ice cream. There was such a thing as wizard culinary school, too, in France, and Dex had told her with a touch of shyness that he wanted to attend it after Hogwarts.

“You must be terrific at Potions,” Lily said now. The baking biscuits were making her stomach grumble, though she had eaten a good portion of the other food Dex had brought: soft breads and sharp cheeses and juicy grapes.

“I’m all right,” Dex allowed. “But not nearly as good as you. Slughorn adores you, you know. He tells us seventh-years about how you’re a prodigy — you and that Severus Snape.”

Lily felt as though he had doused her in cold water. Dex must have seen her expression change, because he took her hand, regret clear in his eyes.

“Merlin. I forgot that was a touchy subject — I shouldn’t have—”

“It’s really all right,” said Lily, smiling to show him she meant it. Then she sighed. “You heard about that too, did you?”

“Well… it was tough to miss. I was at the lake that day too.”

“So you saw the whole thing.”

“Not the whole thing, but enough, I reckon.” He let out a long breath. “I’m sorry that happened, Lily. I’m sure this isn’t the first time someone’s said that to you, but…”

“It isn’t,” Lily said, “but I appreciate it.” She squeezed his hand; he began to trace her knuckles with his thumb.

 “Snape was out of line. But Potter too — there’s better ways to solve problems,” Dex said, his brow furrowed. “A little civility would go a long way.”

Lily smiled. “You know, I am so glad you said that.”

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“All right, time!” James called. “Give us a moment.” He beckoned Germaine and Sirius over, and the three other fliers — another having arrived since Laurence and Richie had begun their tryout — sagged in relief.

Lowering his voice, James said, “What do you think?”

Sirius eyed the boys. “I mean...they’re all right,” he began.

“Ponytail’s probably the best,” said Germaine. She chewed her bottom lip. “But with the luxury of choice I wouldn’t have any of ’em.”

“Do we have that luxury, though?” Sirius said.

“It’s only the second day,” James reminded them. “We might find someone else.”

“I dunno, are you expecting the perfect Keeper to wake up on Monday and realise they ought to try out? If the right person were at Hogwarts they’d have shown already.”

James considered this. “Let’s keep these three in mind, but I think we’re done for today.” 

He repeated this to the three younger boys, who didn’t look too pleased at the prospect of waiting to hear back. Tough, James thought. Germaine had been right — Ravenclaw were really good, with all their players from last year’s Quidditch Cup-winning team returning. Gryffindor had come close, but close was not good enough. No, it was best to hold tryouts all week as planned and then see where to go from there, though a niggling voice in the back of James’s mind told him Sirius had a point too. 

Sirius and Germaine went to put away the Quaffles and remove the flags from the pitch, but James hovered in mid-air for a few minutes. The wind ruffled his hair in every direction — it would probably look a right mess when he was done… His train of thought careened to a stop, however, when he spotted the boy in the stands. It was the kid who’d come with Laurence and Richie. He had apparently sat through all of the drills his friends had run, and he showed no sign of leaving now. Hang on, is he taking notes?

James shot towards the stands. If this boy was a spy for Ravenclaw, he’d hex him. And then he’d hex Stephen bloody Fawcett until that godawful smirk was wiped off his face for good—

“Oi, you!” James shouted. “What d’you think you’re doing?”

The boy’s eyes widened when he saw James. He looked so terrified, James almost felt sorry for him. “I-I was just leaving—”

“You’re not going anywhere.” James brought his broom to a stop mere feet from him. “Not until you tell me who paid you to spy on my tryouts.”

Spy? I’m a Gryffindor!” All fear forgotten, the boy sounded genuinely indignant. “What would I be spying for?”

“Money. Fame. Whatever Stephen Fawcett promised you.”

“What? Stephen Fawcett— I’m not spying! I just wanted to see what drills you ran!”

James arched an eyebrow. “Is that so?”

“Honest. I live near a Quidditch team and I watch them practice sometimes. I-I wanted to see what you do.”

This piqued his interest. “Really? Where do you live?”

“Dorset — River Piddle,” the boy said. “That’s where—”

“—Puddlemere play,” James finished. He hopped off his broom onto the stands, making the boy start. Running a hand through his damp hair, James sat down and peered at him. “I reckon we got off to a bad start. What’s your name?”

“Percy Egwu.”

“Percy, I’m James Potter.”

“I know.”

“Right. You can forgive me for being cautious, yeah?”

“I suppose. Do you get spies often?”

There was a pause. “No,” James allowed. “But that’s why I was being cautious. Expect the unexpected. So, you’re a Puddlemere fan and you take notes on my drills, but you don’t want to try out yourself?”

Percy looked away. “Well, I normally play Chaser, but you don’t need one of those.”

“No, we don’t. We’re always on the lookout for second-string players, though.”

“Yeah…but Laurence and Richie said you’d think I was too young.” He was clearly embarrassed by this confession, but James noted the set of his jaw. You’ve got pride, Percy Egwu, he thought, with more than a spot of respect.

“What year are you, Perce? Do you mind if I call you that?”

“Fourth. And that’s all right, it’s what my mum calls me.”

James nodded. “Fourth year isn’t too young — we let second years try out.”

“Yeah, but when was the last time a second year made the team?” Percy challenged.

James didn’t have to think to answer. “Me.”

“Oh.”

“Do you have a broom? One of your own, I mean?”

“Yeah — it was a birthday present.” He glowed at the very thought. “It’s a Comet 220.”

James was duly impressed. “Wow. Smooth ride, that.”

“It is.” Percy’s eyes went to James’s still-hovering broom. “How does your Nimbus fly?”

“Like a dream.”

“I’ll bet!”

“Look, let me be honest.” James looked right at Percy. “We desperately need a good Keeper. But Quidditch isn’t all knocking heads and whizzing about — you know that. And we need a Keeper who can think the game, not just play it. Now, I haven’t seen you fly, but I reckon you think the game pretty well.”

Percy blinked owlishly. “But—”

“Just bring your Comet to tomorrow morning’s tryouts, right? Give it a shot. At the very least we could have you as a second-string Chaser, like you wanted.”

Percy looked like he was fighting a smile. “You sure?”

“Me? What matters is if you’re sure. Are you?”

He laughed, shaking his head. “All right. I’ll be there.” 

“Brilliant. See you tomorrow, Perce.”

Percy picked up his notebook and walked away. James sat in the stands for a little longer, smiling to himself. Yes, he was rather shit at a lot of things, he reflected, but not this. This, he was good at.

“Captain dearest,” a sarcastic voice called. Germaine flew into view, her hair tousled and her delicate features scrunched into a scowl. “Any reason you got to laze about while Sirius and I cleaned up?”

James grinned. “Consider yourself freed from tryout duties on Monday. And for your information, I was hard at work here.”

Her frown gave way to curiosity. “Doing what, exactly?”

“Only finding our next Keeper. Call it a feeling.”

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It was nearing noon when Lily and Dex emerged from the room, wearing matching grins. Her hair was rather messier than before, as was his. His lips were rather redder than before, as were hers. Overall, Lily reckoned it had been a very successful date.

No doubt these stolen moments would be scarce as the year went on, what with homework and Dex’s N.E.W.T.s. She was glad that he hadn’t waited until the first Hogsmeade weekend to ask her to see her. Ever a promoter of solidarity among her gender, Lily now allowed herself the briefest pinch of smugness. Other girls would have to content themselves with unromantic study sessions until November. She had a little nook in which to enjoy her boyfriend’s company...and she had enjoyed it a great deal.

“I had a lot of fun today,” she said as they approached the common room’s entrance. The Fat Lady met Lily’s gaze and said nothing, but raised her eyebrows at Dex. Lily chose to ignore this. Someone was whistling a Bob Dylan song; the sound echoed through the corridor as she smiled at Dex.

“Thank you for showing me the room — and for the biscuits. My friends will love them.”

Dex chuckled. “I won’t say I’m trying to bribe them for their affection… but I’m not not doing that.”

“They’ll be getting an extremely complimentary report after today,” she assured him.

“Is that so.” He leaned into her, his hands finding her waist.

“Oh, yes,” she said. “Full marks. Outstanding.” Cupping his face, she pulled him down to her for a long, slow kiss.

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The Prefects’ Bathroom was a long walk from Gryffindor Tower. James had made it even longer, half-humming and half-whistling as he ambled up the North Wing stairs. It wounded his pride a bit to use anything meant for prefects, but he contented himself with the knowledge that a shared bathtub was the closest he’d be getting to real authority at Hogwarts. Besides, it was a great bathtub. He smelled like marshmallow.

James had to briefly break into a jog to catch up to the next staircase before it moved out of place. That very nearly made him frown — the castle was a finicky creature, but he felt as though he had come to know it, had befriended it, even. It was hurtful, honestly, for it to inconvenience him. 

But his good mood was more powerful than moving staircases. James alighted on the seventh floor, putting his hands in his pockets. He had been whistling without paying attention to what, exactly, he was whistling. He now recognised the tune: “Like A Rolling Stone.” The thought pleased him. Even his subconscious was doing well today.

The Fat Lady was watching a kissing couple with disturbing interest. James took in the boy’s blond hair and the girl’s auburn plait. If he were being honest with himself, he took in more than that. He knew, of course, that the girl was Lily Evans. But just as he processed this information, he noticed what hung above them. He stopped whistling abruptly. 

Splat.

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Lily had never thought she was the kind of girl who could shriek. She didn’t think she had it in her. But the unholy sound she emitted when something wet and mushy fell on her head was definitely a relative of the shriek. A close cousin, perhaps. 

Lily jumped back from Dex, groping for her wand. “Oh my God—” A horrible voice in her head was telling her the substance had to be bat droppings. Please, anything but batshit. 

Dex was in a similar state, spluttering and trying to brush the stuff off himself. But that couldn’t be bat droppings — no bat could let loose that much at once, could it? Gross, Lily.

Scourgify,” she gasped, finally locating her wand. The awful sensation finally vanished. She raised her wand to cast the spell on Dex too, but he was...chewing? Oh, Merlin. She was going to be sick.

“It’s...pie,” said Dex, sounding puzzled. 

A sneaking suspicion came over Lily. She looked up — and there it was, an upside-down plate, bobbing up and down as if cheered by its success. And down the corridor, staring at them, was James Potter.

“Dex,” Lily said with quiet fury, “you should leave.”

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The boyfriend registered James a moment after Lily had.

“For fuck’s sake, Potter,” he spat.

James put his hands up in surrender. “I just got here. If you’re suggesting I had anything to do with that—”

“Yeah, I’m suggesting that! I’m not thick, all right?”

“Could’ve fooled me,” said James, shrugging. “What part of ‘I didn’t do anything’ is too complicated for you to grasp?”

By his own reckoning, James was a fairly quick draw. He’d needed to be in the past, having made enemies of so many Slytherins alone that he had to be able to fling back a hex of his own with little forewarning. He considered reaching for his wand at this point, though he was unsure if Fortescue would go that route. Merlin, duelling Evans’s boyfriend had not been in his plans.

But if he looked angry, she was positively murderous.

“You should really leave,” she said. “I’ll handle this.”

Fortescue looked between the two of them. Apparently deciding he liked Lily’s chances, he retreated down the hallway.

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“Really heroic boyfriend you’ve got there,” Potter said, watching Dex go.

“I don’t need protecting,” retorted Lily. There were several feet between them in the empty corridor. Lily was reminded of Edgar Bones and Aprylline Thorpe facing off — except she was a great deal less fond of the person opposite her.

“I didn’t say you did. All I said was—”

“Shut up!” Her shout made the Fat Lady jump a little; the woman in the portrait was apparently too riveted to chastise them. Showing excellent self-preservation instincts, Potter closed his mouth. 

Lily clenched her hands into fists. “Was it me you were trying to hit? Or Dex?”

Potter worked his jaw. “Who’s to say it wasn’t a two-for?”

“Don’t test me, James Potter,” she warned. “I’ve had a bloody short tolerance for you since that day by the lake.”

He grew very still. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Lily knew she was red with anger — and embarrassment, she realised. She did not want to reminisce about that day with him — not like this, not ever.

“If you’re — obsessed with me, or-or in love with me, this is a terrible way to show it! And you can be absolutely certain I won’t return your — fucked-up feelings!”

He gave a short laugh. “Right, because everyone’s in love with Lily Evans. Get over yourself. Not everything that goes on around here is about you, or any of your business.” Lily scoffed. “You heard me.”

“I’m sorry, I thought I was the one you dropped a pie on! Are you now the victim here?”

“No, I see you’ve got that part well covered,” he bit back. 

An incredulous laugh bubbled up her throat. “Oh, fuck you. Just stay away from me, all right?” Striding up to the Fat Lady, Lily barked, “Stop eavesdropping! Gossamer!” The portrait swung open, though the Fat Lady looked terribly offended — Lily supposed she’d have to apologise later. But she wasn’t feeling particularly apologetic just yet.

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James watched Lily disappear through the portrait hole, leaving him alone in the corridor.

“Will you be going in as well?” the Fat Lady said snippily.

“Not yet, thanks,” he said, equally cool. With a harrumph, the portrait swung back over its hole. Shoving his hands back in his pockets, he walked on. He wasn’t going anywhere specific, but he knew he did not want to be near her anytime soon. Of course, he didn’t need to be. His mind had a spectacular ability to replay the sound of her voice. Fucked-up feelings, fucked-up feelings, Lily sang in his head. 

“Oh, shut up,” he said aloud.

At least it would be easier to avoid her now that she had expressly commanded him to.

Saturday mornings were a bad idea after all.

 


ii. Sweet Birthday Baby

Germaine’s birthday was on a Monday, so it was a good thing she wasn’t superstitious. If she were, she would think it a terrible omen for how her year would go on. As it was, she sat in the greenhouses for their morning Herbology lesson and thought her bones were going to jump right out of her body. Your flesh-prison, her awful brain supplied. 

This was why she hated classes that gave her time to think. 

Germaine hadn’t always been averse to the quiet. But as much as she loved Hogwarts, her time at school overlapped with winter too much for her to consider it a wholly positive few months. Nothing made her stir-crazy like the cold — and her late-September birthday heralded days of being cooped up inside the castle for warmth. 

Her sister Abigail worked at the Ministry of Magic, secretary to some fuddy-duddy in the Department of Magical Law Enforcement. The prospect of a job like Abigail’s was sheer torture to Germaine. She didn’t know what sort of career she would pursue — she would like to travel, she thought, but she had no particular destination in mind. Another witch might’ve panicked at this uncertainty, but not Germaine. The open-ended possibility of her future both excited and comforted her. 

At least, that was what she reminded herself on days when it felt like she was dreaming of running away. 

She was not like Dorcas, who was principled and sweet and outraged by injustice. She was not like Mary, who was flamboyant and self-assured and certain of her dreams. She was not like Lily, who was passionate and vivacious and believed in good. Germaine saw herself as a happy medium, flexible enough to stretch sympathetically between her friends. But— What does it mean that I define myself in comparison to them?

Nothing. She was only seventeen and she was finding her way. She had tried to be a Gemma a week ago, but she had already discarded that nickname with ease. And that was all right to Germaine. 

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At lunchtime, having successfully wrangled enough Snargaluff pods to satisfy Professor Sprout, the girls savoured their food and their upcoming afternoon off. 

“I won’t ever get tired of free periods,” Doe said happily. 

“Mmm.” Germaine was picking at her own lunch. The jittery feeling had stayed with her all morning. 

Lily put her hand on Germaine’s arm. “Are you all right? Is it the Germaine blues?”

Germaine smiled at her concern. “A little, yeah. It doesn’t quite feel like my birthday.”

Her friends all immediately looked remorseful. Germaine hurried to add, “No, it’s not your fault. It’s the trouble of having a birthday so early in the school year—”

Mary was shaking her head. “I knew we should’ve thrown a party… Germaine, do you want a party?”

You want a party,” Doe said dryly. 

Germaine sighed. “That’s not it. Really, don’t worry. So long as you’re all coming for afternoon Quidditch?”

Rather than a party, which Mary and Lily preferred, or a small get-together, as Doe would have it, Germaine’s birthday celebration of choice was a Quidditch scrimmage. They had kept up this tradition since their third year, when the four girls had properly become friends. Despite the various levels of Quidditch experience between them, the game was always a welcome break to September’s flurry of activity. Germaine had enough vague acquaintances to fill two seven-a-side teams. 

“Of course we’ll be there,” Doe said. 

“Even though I’ll get my arse kicked, as always,” said Mary with a sigh. 

Germaine turned to Lily. “You too?” Hesitantly, she added, “Potter will be there…”

Lily made a face. “I can deal with him for one afternoon.”

“Are you positive? I can un-invite him.”

“Oh, don’t bother. It’s your birthday, love.” 

The others had heard a blow-by-blow account of that weekend’s argument between Lily and James by then. The two had managed not to be in the same room since, barring classes, in which they sat as far apart as physically possible. Germaine studied Lily but her friend was impassive — there was no way to tell how much she actually minded having to socialise with him. 

“I think I’m going to head down to the pitch,” Germaine said, the words leaving her mouth before she had fully processed her intention.

“Already?” Mary said.

“Yeah, just to… fly around, I dunno. I need to shake off this weird mood.”

The others exchanged a glance.

“Sure, if that’s what you like,” said Doe. “We’ll have lots of fun playing Quidditch, and then after dinner we can have a dance party to ABBA, all right?”

Germaine laughed. “You really know me well.”

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She could feel the ennui burning out of her system as she bounded to the pitch, her Cleansweep in hand. It was a warm afternoon, but not so sunny that being in the air would be unbearable. Just a few lazy laps, and her friends would join, and everything would be all right again… Germaine had just about erased the memory of that morning’s post from her mind. Just about.

When she got closer to the pitch, though, she saw that someone else was already there. Germaine felt a twinge of annoyance — she’d asked James to book their scrimmage with Madam Hooch, so the pitch was theirs by rights. And yet a tiny figure soared above her. Germaine recognised the pattern to the stranger’s flight after a moment: from the goalposts to the edge of the scoring area then back, then to the central circle and back, then to the opposite scoring area… It was an aerial shuttle run. Whoever this person was, they were flying with purpose.

Germaine held her irritation at bay for a moment and simply watched. The stranger was fast and had remarkably fluid turns, which was a more difficult feat on a broom than it looked to be. She didn’t have a stopwatch at hand, but she guessed that she herself flew at that speed — the breakneck pace every Seeker had to have control over and comfort with. 

All of a sudden the flier dipped out of their drill and carved a lazy arc through the air. The change reminded Germaine that this leisurely flying had been her aim today. 

“Hey!” she shouted, waving her arms. “Hey, I’ve got the pitch booked!”

But the person did not seem to hear.

Oh, for fuck’s sake. Mounting her broom, Germaine sped towards the stranger. Once she got closer, she realised it was a girl, her dark plait rippling out behind her. 

“Hello? I’m talking to you!” Germaine said.

Perhaps she wasn’t close enough. Clicking her tongue in annoyance, she caught up to the girl and copied her slow loop-de-loop. At the peak of their circle, Germaine and the girl hung mere feet apart for a handful of seconds, their gazes meeting. The girl’s eyes were wide with surprise. Germaine arched her brows. And then they spun downwards. 

Germaine expected the girl to stop, or to pull up into the same loop-de-loop again. Instead, she reached the nadir of her trajectory and then shot upwards in a near-vertical climb. Germaine could do nothing but follow. She had forgotten to tie back her hair, and its tendrils whipped at her cheeks. 

“Would you slow down?” she tried to say, but the roaring wind swallowed her words easily. 

The girl pointed the nose of her broom downwards once more and Germaine did too, feeling her stomach drop and her head grow pleasantly light. She was concentrating so hard on predicting what the girl would do next, she forgot to think of anything else at all. They zigzagged side by side for a time. Then the girl lurched aggressively towards Germaine, who jerked away just in time to stay parallel with her. 

Now flying the breadth of the pitch, the girl and Germaine were gently descending — and then the girl turned inwards, so she was flying a tight spiral. Enough games. Instead of just tailing her, Germaine shot down the middle of her helical flight pattern, and then braked sharply. The girl had to execute a barrel roll to avoid a collision — though she made even that look graceful. She and Germaine were finally still, their brooms nose to nose, breathing hard.

The girl’s tight plait had unravelled, and damp strands of her hair framed her heart-shaped face. She looked familiar — Germaine was positive she knew her — but she had no idea who she was… Her tie was off and she had discarded her robes, so Germaine couldn’t say what house she was in.

“What are you playing at?” the girl demanded.

Germaine blinked. “Me? What am I playing at?”

“Yes, you!”

“You’re the one who wouldn’t stop when I called out to you! You led me on a wild goose chase!”

The girl’s flint-grey eyes flashed. “You followed.”

Germaine was so incredulous at this line of questioning that all she could do was splutter in disbelief.

“What do you want from me, then?” the girl said. If they had been on the ground, Germaine imagined she would be tapping her foot in impatience.

“I want,” said Germaine, enunciating through clenched teeth, “you to leave the pitch. I have it booked, so you’re not supposed to be here.”

Whatever the girl had expected her to say, it clearly wasn’t this. She sniffed.

“Could’ve said so earlier.”

“I did!” 

But the girl was already turning away, speeding off towards the stands. Germaine watched her go, shaking her head. She had no idea what to make of this bizarre interaction. If the girl’s skill was any indication, though, Germaine had a feeling she would be seeing her on the pitch again. 

Distant voices caught her attention: three little figures stood some distance away, waving. Recognising Lily, Mary, and Dorcas, Germaine flew towards them, still puzzling over the strange girl and her brusque manner.

“We’re ready,” said Doe, huffing and puffing. The girls had carried in the trunk of equipment, though they hadn’t thought to bring brooms of their own. Germaine swallowed a smile — her poor, Quidditch-averse friends. “And we brought your presents!”

Germaine dismounted, pulling them all into a hug. “You’re all so sweet and you know I love you—”

“Germaaaine, you’re sweaty!”

She accepted the three gifts. It was abundantly clear who had given her what. One was wrapped in shimmering gold paper and tied off with a red ribbon, in what had to be Doe’s handiwork. Another was wrapped in brown paper, but tied in the same red ribbon — Lily’s, obviously; she must have started her wrapping and only then realised she had no ribbon… Mary’s was not wrapped at all, but in a gift bag stuffed with glittery crepe paper. 

“I love them so much.”

“You haven’t even seen what they are!” Lily laughed.

But this was also Germaine’s way: presents were to be opened in the last hour of her birthday, on her bed. She had even saved the parcel her parents had sent her that morning, though she could already guess what it was — a watch, as was wizarding tradition. Germaine put all thoughts of that aside, though, because that reminded her of the letter… 

Mary was peering over Germaine’s shoulder. “Oi, who was that person you were talking to?”

Germaine blinked. “Oh… I didn’t actually ask her name. I just told her to leave, since we were going to be using the pitch.

“You could’ve invited her to join,” Lily pointed out. “It’s not like this is a proper practice.”

The thought hadn’t even occurred to Germaine. Based on the girl's attitude, the invitation would have gone over poorly. Rather than get into all that, she said, “We already have enough people for two teams. It’d be weird.”

Lily gave her a searching look but didn’t press the matter. “Well, never mind. Can we get me on a broom before anyone else shows up? It’s been a year and I’m probably going to be terribly rusty…”

 


iii. Thorpe the Elder

The evening after Germaine’s birthday, the girls had carved out a space in the common room by the much-coveted record player. It was currently blasting the new record Mary had bought her; though they had all heard the songs on Abba on the radio by then, there was a special thrill in letting “S.O.S.” warble through Gryffindor Tower. The Wizarding Wireless Network was awfully lacking in Muggle hits, as Mary frequently complained. 

In fact, Abba had kept them up late the previous night too — much to Sara’s dismay — and had resulted in a rushed breakfast that morning. Doe simply would not be late to Thorpe’s class, and she had been so agitated at the prospect that the others had hurried too just so she would calm down. So Doe and Lily had missed their morning perusal of the Prophet, and only then did they spread out the paper to see the massive headline on the front page.

TAVISH’S EMPTY SEAT FILLED: CROUCH TO HEAD DMLE.

“Wow,” murmured Doe. “So they’re finally doing something.”

 Lily gnawed at her lip as she read. The craggy, stern face of Bartemius Crouch looked back at both of them from his photograph. His eyes were disturbingly bright; his mouth was set in a grim line below his moustache. He certainly looked capable of shutting down Death Eater activity… 

“He talks big,” Lily said. “Look here… I believe we must fight fire with fire to protect witches and wizards everywhere… Gosh.”

“Old news,” called Sirius from where he and James were sitting, at the other end of the common room. He had to raise his voice to be heard over “Mamma Mia.” “Crouch was a gimme the moment Minchum became Minister, they’re the same type. Besides, all the Ministry hardliners have been singing his praises for months.”

You read the papers?” snorted Germaine. “What has the world come to, indeed?”

“Do you think he’ll do as he promises?” said Doe.

Sirius shrugged. “All I know is his mum was a Black, but he’s far from a blood purist. Prongs would know better.” 

He nudged James, who had clearly been trying to stay out of the conversation. Lily looked down at the carpet when James lifted his head, silly as she felt doing it. 

“What? Oh, Crouch. Mum and Dad run in the same circles as him, though they don’t particularly like him. He’s not very friendly. But…”

Lily chanced a glance upward. James’s brow was furrowed in thought.

“...I mean, he’s forceful enough for the job, I suppose.” 

“Hold on,” Germaine said, loudly. “Hold on. What’s his name?”

She had scrambled to her feet to turn down the record player.

Sirius rolled his eyes. “Barty Crouch. Blimey, Germ.”

Germaine clapped a hand over her mouth. “Big news soon,” she mumbled. “Big news soon, that’s what Abigail said, only she didn’t say what big news…”

“You’re being weird, Germaine,” Doe said. “Spit it out!”

But Lily thought she could guess where this was going. “Is Abigail — your sister — Bartemius Crouch’s secretary?”

“I-I think so.”

Mary whistled, dropping her head onto the carpet with a thump. “That’s a big promotion, if he’ll keep her around. Abigail can tell us all the insider info.”

Germaine scoffed at that, though traces of shock still lingered on her face. “Please. She didn’t even tell me her boss was going to be named head of the DMLE. She isn’t telling anyone squat.”

“Well, give our congratulations to Abigail,” said Doe, reaching for the paper to skim it again. “And time will tell how Crouch does. We’ll have to wait and— what the fuck.” She slapped a hand onto the Prophet as if to pin it in place. “What the fuck!

“What is it now?” Mary said, rolling over to face her.

“They’ve interviewed a bunch of people about Crouch’s appointment. Lots of Ministry folks expressing approval — just like you said, Black. But listen to this.” Doe cleared her throat.

Mr. Crouch is not unique to the DMLE in his failings. Those failings all stem from a refusal to accept a fundamental truth about magical society: the greatest danger posed to us is not by the so-called Death Eaters, but the dilution of magic caused by the influx of non-magical peoples into our world. Until this concern — shared by well-bred, upstanding families across Britain — is adequately addressed, I have little hope that the DMLE, Minister Minchum, or anyone at all at the Ministry is in fact working for us, witches and wizards of Britain.”

An uncomfortable hush fell over them. Germaine smacked a hand on the record player, cutting off ABBA with a loud click. Doe pushed the paper away from herself and sat up.

“How could they print that?” said Lily, her throat tight with anger. “How could they put that bigoted bullshit on the front page — and all that rot about upstanding families! That’s-that’s—”

Sirius and James both walked to where the girls were, their expressions dark. Lily did not even remember to be angry at the latter as they sat down on the carpet.

“Who said that,” said James quietly. “Who’d they quote?”

“Let me see — in a written statement to the Prophet…” Doe trailed off, her eyes growing huge.

Sirius was scowling. “Well, who is it?”

She handed them the paper as she spoke, looking around at each of the expectant girls.

“Someone named Marcel Thorpe. Radio personality.”

Lily shook her head. Her mind was struggling to keep up with all these developments. First Crouch, then Abigail… now this drivel in the Prophet… 

“Thorpe as in the professor?” she said.

“Odds are they’re related, I guess,” Germaine said. She had gone pale, and was fidgeting with her hands. “She was so blunt in class too…”

“This might shock you, but family isn’t everything,” said Sirius dryly. 

James was squinting at the article. “They’re practically giving him free publicity. I mean, who is he? His show isn’t even on the WWN.”

Doe was still wide-eyed, staring into space. Mary scooted closer to her and took her hand.

“What’s his show called?” she said, her voice icy. “I’ll bet the fucker is irrelevant.”

“Creatively enough, it’s just The Thorpe Hour. And you’re in luck,” said James, getting to his feet. “Apparently his show starts...five minutes ago.”

They all watched in silence as James strode over to the common room’s radio, bringing it to their spot on the carpet. He spent a few seconds turning the dial; snatches of news broadcasts and music faded into static. And then, there was a pleasant chime.

“Welcome back, listeners, you’re tuned in to The Thorpe Hour,” said a deep, velvet-soft voice. “I’m Marcel Thorpe. It’s been a big day at the Ministry, what with Crouch’s DMLE promotion. I’ve already wrapped up my thoughts on the matter, but for a quick summary the Daily Prophet has my quote. I want to get at the planned topic of the day and take your calls.

“For first-time listeners, I mentioned last week that I wanted to touch on an often-overlooked issue when considering the problem of Muggleborns—”

Lily let out an involuntary hiss, though she resisted saying anything. She wasn’t sure there was a good way to end that sentence, but she didn’t want to miss what Thorpe said next.

“If you’re unsure how to feel about the presence of Muggleborns in wizarding society, you have only to consider Hogwarts,” Thorpe was saying. “Now, unless you’ve been schooled in magic at home or you were never told this while at school yourself, you'll know that Hogwarts does not charge its admits a flat fee. It has operated this way since it was founded, so as to allow disadvantaged students a fair shot at magical education.”

They all flinched at his derisive pronouncement of the word “disadvantaged.” Sirius swore softly under his breath.

“The Ministry of Magic endows the school, of course. But Hogwarts is pay-what-you-can. I know, folks — pay what you can! The cream of the crop of wizarding Britain educates their children at Hogwarts, and of course donates generously to the school. For less well-off families, well, the Hogwarts name still means something — it’s still where Grandfather and Grandmother were taught, you know, and it’s a point of pride for such families to pay for their children’s education. 

“My family has been educated at Hogwarts for generations. I sent my daughter to Hogwarts, a decade or so ago, and I bloody well paid! I didn’t have to, see, but I did. It’s about shared responsibility. Now, do you think Muggles — completely non-magical folk, who have no idea how our world works — are going to pay to send their children to Hogwarts? Do you think they do?

“I hate to say this, but they do not. They don’t know a Knut from a rat dropping! I don’t mean to be crude, but it’s a fact! That’s right, they are benefitting from magical education that we are paying for — that our Ministry pays for — and all the while their children are simply not as talented as ours. That’s a fact, studies have been done on the subject.

Thorpe’s voice had mostly remained steady so far, but it rose in passion now. “Think about that again for a moment. They are stealing — look, I have the greatest respect for professors at Hogwarts, the utmost respect for Albus Dumbledore no matter how much I disagree with him. But those extremely well-connected, qualified professors are being drawn away from your children, who deserve their attention, in order to help struggling, barely-magical Muggleborns who don’t pay a—”

“Turn that off,” said Germaine loudly. The others looked at her, surprised by the force in her voice. Two bright spots of colour had appeared in her cheeks. James obeyed without argument, and the common room was silent again.

“He’s a liar,” Germaine went on. 

Mary sat up slowly. “We know, love. We all know that—”

“No, listen! Mum and Dad have never...have never had a lot, and I know that. If they’d had to pay tuition for Abigail and me they wouldn’t have been able to. We’d have learned magic from Mum. I know they don’t pay at all now, and it makes them feel so awful. All that bullshit about what a point of pride it is for people to pay Hogwarts — my parents don’t pay, and they’re both magical! Mum’s pure-blooded! It’s just — bullshit and people are lapping it up — all to excuse their prejudice—”

“Oh, come here,” Lily said, and Germaine sagged into her arms. Feeling terribly cold despite the heat of her friend’s body, Lily smoothed a hand over Germaine’s hair in comfort. “People know better than to follow his twisted logic.” She hoped she sounded convincing enough. The truth was, Lily was hardly sure what people believed; she met Mary’s gaze and saw her grim feelings reflected there.

“Yeah, he sounds like a nutter,” said Mary, giving Germaine a quick, reassuring smile. 

“I’m going to listen every fucking week and call in,” Doe said furiously. “And when I’m through arguing with him he’ll be sorry he ever started a stupid radio show.”

I’m sorry you had to sit here listening to this trash,” said James, his voice oddly hoarse. His Adam’s apple bobbed visibly as he swallowed; his jaw was clenched. Lily looked at him, surprised. She had never seen him so serious — angry, yes, but not quite so outraged. He glanced from Lily to Mary and shook his head. “If I ever caught sight of this prick, well. I don’t know what I’d do.”

I know what you’d do, Lily thought suddenly, the memory flitting into her mind’s eye. “Apologise to Evans!” he’d shouted, the tip of his wand pointed right at Severus. But to go down that road was to invite pain… Lily blinked the thought away and inhaled shakily. 

“Well, we have a pretty good idea of how he might be related to Professor Thorpe,” Mary said. “He said his daughter went to Hogwarts around a decade ago; that fits with her career. God, I wonder what their family dinners must be like.”

Sirius snorted. “I never thought I’d have this much in common with a professor.”

 

 

Chapter Text

i. Letters

From Lily Evans to Petunia Evans, discarded drafts:

Dear Petunia,

No, that’s too rude, isn’t it?

 

Dear Petunia,

How are you doing? I’m well. School is fine. We’re learning such interesting things now that we’re in the sixth year. For instance, we’re preparing to brew the Draught of Living Death in Potions, which is supposed to be extremely challenging. Professor Slughorn says he has faith in me, which isn’t as reassuring as he’d like it to sound. 

Severus and I were paired up in Charms, and he’s really good at nonverbal spells all of a sudden. I asked him if he’d been practising. He told me not to ask him questions, since we’re not friends anymore. I’m so tired.

But of course, you don’t care about any of this, do you? I’ll start over.

 

Dear Petunia,

I hope you and Vernon are doing well. How is work? I hope you are working on something interesting. I hope Mum is doing well too. She looked a bit tired towards the end of the summer. I hope she’s okay.

Oh, hell.

 

From Mary Macdonald to Ruolan Li Macdonald and Clyde Macdonald:

Dear Mum and Dad,

Kisses, I hope everything’s all right! Thank you so much for the flowers. We’ve put them in a vase in the dorm, they brighten things up beautifully. You weren’t kidding when you said the garden is coming along well. (Dad, make sure Mum isn’t working too hard.) Honestly, I couldn’t have grown better ones myself, even with magic. 

Classes are all fine. I know all the details go over your heads, but our lectures have become fairly advanced now. I’m keeping up, though. And the girls are all doing well too. They send their love.

Say hi to waipo and waigong for me. Take care!

Love,

Mary

 

From Mary Macdonald to Andrew Macdonald:

Hi Andrew,

Mum says you’re saving up for the new Queen record. PLEASE get me one too. I will love you forever and ever and ever. And I’ll get you something from the wizard joke shop near school, so long as you promise not to show anyone. PLEASE.

Love,

Your favourite big sister

 

From James Potter to Euphemia and Fleamont Potter:

Dear Mum and Dad,

As you know, everything is absolutely fine here. I am extremely well-behaved and continue to impress the pants off all my professors. Well, at least part of that’s true. Quidditch starts up again soon, and we play Slytherin first. They tried to get it postponed — some tosh about two of their players being injured, which is convenient — but they were shut down. Accidents are part of the Quidditch season, Hooch told them. I wish I’d photographed their faces.

I hope all’s well with you. How about Crouch at the DMLE, eh? Not that I’m ever interested in your society hobnobbing, but if there’s a dinner he’s going to be at over the winter hols, I will maybe be all right with coming along. No promises. But I’m curious.

Take care, you crazy animals.

James 

 

From James Potter to Mélanie Deschamps-Gill, discarded drafts:

Dear Mel,

Dear? Is that too much?

 

Hi Mel,

How are you? Have you and Shruti started on your round-the-world trip yet? 

Fuck, what else do I even say?

 

From Alphard Black to Sirius Black:

Dear Sirius,

I am glad to hear that you had a good summer and are back at Hogwarts. Perhaps it’s for the best that you kept away from home as much as possible. I do think you are far more grounded when you are with your friends rather than Walburga and Orion. Although I know “grounded” isn’t a flattering description to a boy like you!

In any case, I must be the bearer of bad news. Though I’ve had a relatively good few months, my illness has taken a turn for the worse. By the time you get this letter I will have already been to St. Mungo’s for another evaluation. I will write to you again with an update. But considering how much convincing it took for them to allow me to convalesce at home this summer, I expect I will be shifted to the hospital shortly.

I know hearing this will distress you, but I want to reassure you again: I am a very old man and I have lived a long, fulfilling life. My only wish is that you can do the same. Even though you consider your differences with your parents to be irreconcilable — a feeling I respect and agree with — I urge you to reach out to Regulus once more. He hasn’t written me in a while, and I worry about your mother’s influence on him. More than anything, Sirius, I see in him what I saw in you: the potential for real good despite years of hurt and loneliness. You have your friends to help you stay in the light. Please, try to be that help for your brother. Indulge an old man his fancies.

Sending you my very best,

Alphard

 

From Germaine King to Abigail King, discarded drafts:

Dear Abigail,

What the fuck? Why didn’t you tell me sooner? And don’t give me your excuses, I know they told you first

 

Abigail,

I AM ANGRY

 

Dear Abigail,

Congratulations on the promotion, which I found out about from the Daily Prophet! Funny how you don’t tell me things. It’s become a pattern of late. And I DON’T LIKE IT

 


ii. Speaking in Tongues

“Every week,” Dorcas said, shaking her head as she put away her notes. “Every week I walk into this classroom and think, ‘You know, today’s the day Anderberg lets us off without ridiculous amounts of homework.’”

“Yeah, well,” said the boy next to her, mirroring her despondence. “Repeating the same mistake over and over and expecting a different result is supposed to be the first sign of madness.”

Doe laughed, shoving him gently. “And who are you calling mad, Michael Meadowes? The cheek of you.”

Michael grinned back at her. “Then I take it back, Dorcas Walker. Will you let me make it up to you by walk ing you out of class?”

“For that joke, I should say no and never speak to you again.”

Rolling her eyes at him, Doe made for the door, with Michael at her heels. 

“Oh, I don’t think I can work on the essay this afternoon,” he said. 

“But you promised!” Doe groaned.

He sighed. “I know I did, and I feel awful about it. But I’ve put off Transfiguration homework for far too long, and then there’s Charms too…”

They had not moved from the corridor right outside the Ancient Runes classroom. The other students had all trickled out; the hallway was quiet now, and Professor Anderberg, muttering under his breath, peered at them suspiciously before slamming the classroom door shut.

“I can help you with Transfiguration,” Doe said.

Michael gave her a look. “You said you finished that over the weekend.”

She coughed, embarrassed and pleased at once. “Well, I did…”

“I don’t want to hold you back, Dorcas. You’ve probably got loads of other stuff to work on.”

“Well, I suppose I do.”

“How about after Charms tomorrow?” Michael said, flipping through his notes to produce his schedule. “I think we’re both free then. We’ve got until next Tuesday to do this essay after all.”

Dorcas laughed. “You carry your schedule around?”

Michael blinked at her. “Obviously. Don’t you?”

“I’ve probably lost mine. The information’s all up here.” She tapped her forehead, grinning.

Michael rolled his eyes. “All right, go ahead, brag about that big brain of yours. Some of us have to try hard, you know.”

“No, you just enjoy being a swot.”

“Team swot pride, that’s me.”

Doe joined in his laughter. “I think after Charms works, though. Library?”

“Always. It’s a plan.”

Dorcas spotted a familiar figure making her way up the corridor, looking rather lost. “Mary?” she called. “What are you doing here?”

Icon of a quill drawing a line

Infinitely relieved, Mary hurried to Doe’s side. “Looking for you, in fact. This classroom is in the middle of nowhere.” 

She peered at the Ravenclaw standing by her friend. He was a little above average height, with a mop of dusty brown curls and a smattering of freckles. Cute, she decided.

“Who’s this?” she asked.

“Oh! Gosh, how rude of me — Mary, this is Michael Meadowes. He takes Ancient Runes too.” Doe gave the boy a sly smile. “Ever since Germaine dropped it, I’ve had to make do with his company.”

Michael shook his head, feigning offence. “And to think that just minutes ago, you were pleading with me to work on our essays together. Fie.”

“Hush. Michael, Mary is my roommate and most chaotic best friend.”

“Such high praise,” Mary said, elbowing Doe. 

She appraised Michael once more — yes, he really was cute. Mary was as a rule sceptical of boys who supposedly grew on you, but she could believe such a thing about him. 

“I’ll let you two catch up,” said Michael. “Dorcas, see you tomorrow after Charms?”

“Yes, bye, Michael!”

As he retreated down the corridor, Mary linked her arm with Doe’s. 

“Dork-ass, that boy’s quite dishy. Where have you been hiding him?”

Doe looked genuinely surprised. “What? Michael? You really think so?”

“Yes, of course. How long have you been friends? You need to make your move, darling.”

“I don’t think we’re friends, Mare.” Doe was frowning slightly. “I mean, we’re friendly. But we only ever hang out in class or in the library.”

“Well, that’s how friendship starts,” Mary pointed out. 

Doe seemed unconvinced. “I guess so…”

With unspoken agreement, they began to walk towards Gryffindor Tower.

Mary said, “How come I’ve never seen him around?” 

This was one of the reasons Mary was intrigued by this Michael. If she hadn’t seen him around, she definitely hadn’t snogged him before. She probably hadn’t seen him at an unsavoury social event. Ergo, he was more likely to be a nice boy. All promising signs.

“You definitely have,” said Doe. “He’s the Quidditch commentator.”

“Oh, is he? Yes, that makes sense. He has very pleasing enunciation.”

Doe burst into laughter. “Never change, Mare.”

The castle had grown noticeably more chill, announcing October’s arrival. The grounds were studded with reddening trees, Mary’s favourite schooltime sight. Not long now until the entire Forbidden Forest was a blaze of orange-red hues… 

“So, this whole nice boy scheme,” Doe said suddenly as they took the stairs to the seventh-floor corridor. 

This subject was not an awkward one to Mary, but something in her friend’s voice made her pause before she responded. 

“Yes?” she said, a touch cautious.

“What’s really behind it?”

Mary tried for a laugh. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Doe held her gaze. “I’m not dense, Mary. We’ve been friends since our first year. Yeah, you like boys, but this is excessive even for you. What’s going on?”

Mary stifled a sigh. Of course Dorcas’s bullshit meter had caught on to her. But she couldn’t have gone to Germaine, who only knew annoying Quidditch-playing boys, and she couldn’t have gone to Lily, who was, well, Lily. 

She decided to make one last attempt at innocence. “I don’t know—”

Mary. Are you thinking of one, specific boy?”

They were now in the Fat Lady’s corridor, which was remarkably empty for this time of day. Yes, everyone would be at lunch… But Mary would quite literally have died than have this conversation in the Great Hall. As it was her appetite was fading fast. 

She had hesitated too long; no doubt her real reaction was written all over her face. “Doe… just don’t tell anyone, all right?”

Doe’s eyes were round as saucers. “You know I won’t. But now you have to tell me more. No one will be in the reading room, c’mon. Gossamer,” she said to the Fat Lady.

Mary held her tongue as they made their way to the little library area. A lone seventh-year was studying by the door, her head bent over a book. Perhaps they could go to the dorm instead — but no, what if the others came in?

Doe noticed her uncertainty. “Just follow me.” 

Where?”

But Doe held a finger to her lips and beckoned Mary over to the far wall. Aside from a bookshelf and a portrait of an imperious-looking witch on some kind of Arctic expedition, Mary couldn’t see anything of interest here. Then Doe bent her head to the portrait and whispered, “Aventine.”

The witch, who had until then been standing quite still, straightened and smiled. Her portrait swung open.

“Oh my god,” Mary whispered. “What the hell?”

“Shh, just go in!” Doe had one eye on the studying seventh-year, who hadn’t yet looked up.

Making a face, Mary bunched up her robes and squeezed into the crawlspace. It was a mercifully short passage; by the time Dorcas slid in and the portrait swung shut behind her, Mary was already standing up in the room it led to. It had clearly been a bathroom some years back. Thick spiderwebs covered the higher sconces, but the immediate surroundings were fairly clean. 

“How on earth did you know how to get in here?” Her voice echoed through the space. It was quite drafty; Mary took out her wand and cast a simple heating spell.

Doe hopped onto the counter, looking very pleased with herself. “I saw Peter going in here sometime last year, and I cornered him when he came out. I made him show me the room. In exchange for me not telling anyone he keeps me updated on the passwords.”

“You’ve told me now.”

“Valeria Myriadd, she’s the witch in the portrait — I reckon she likes me a lot more than Peter. She was grinning while I was getting the information out of him. She’d tell me the password even if he doesn’t.” Doe patted the space on the counter next to her. “Don’t think I’ve forgotten what you have to tell me. Who’s the boy?”

“He’s nothing to write home about,” Mary mumbled, suddenly shy. She was not in the habit of having these conversations. Heartbreaks were for the brief reminder that life was short and love was hard, and then she moved on. And this wasn’t quite heartbreak…not yet.

“I’m sure that’s not true. You have high standards,” said Doe with a laugh.

Mary felt a lump in her throat. “Well it doesn’t matter because I’m not his type and he’d never go for me so all I can do is make him jealous but it doesn’t make me feel any better!”

Doe’s smile had faded at her tone. She took Mary’s hand. 

“Tell me about it, love.”

Mary shook her head. “I don’t want to tell you who he is. It’s...embarrassing.”

“Well, tell me the rest of it, then.”

“All right… I’ve always known who he is but we really met at Evan Wronecki’s holiday party last year…”

 


iii. I Think We’re Alone Now

Mary had come alone to Evan’s party, but she hadn’t thought that would be a problem. Now, standing in his cavernous house surrounded by seventh-years she didn’t know, she was beginning to regret that decision. Lily and Germaine were spending Christmas at Hogwarts, but she could have convinced Dorcas to come with her. Well, it was too late now.

Evan, a sixth-year Gryffindor, had greeted her warmly and introduced her to the friends of his she hadn’t already met. She’d said hi to Sara, thinking she could hang around with her roommate, but Sara was chatting with Amelia bloody Bones, and Mary didn’t want to go there

So she had spent some time wandering from room to room. And of course things got worse: that awful Alec Rosier was there, and he gave Mary the shivers. He was in Ravenclaw, and was probably friends with a lot of Evan’s friends. Perhaps he was an all right bloke himself. But he was always hanging around Mary’s least favourite Slytherins, like Mulciber. And then she thought of Mulciber, and she was really on edge. She’d broached the subject with Evan, who assured her he hadn’t invited Rosier, but he didn’t want to make a scene and throw him out just yet.

Butterbeer in hand, Mary looked around for something to distract her. There was a wireless in a corner of the sitting room — perking up at the sight, she wove towards it through the crowd. There was no music playing, which seemed like terrible party planning to her. Mary flipped it on and tuned into the Witching Hour, the WWN’s music channel. Immediately she made a face; they were running some kind of jazz hour, and jazz was fine but simply not the right mood.

“I suppose I couldn’t hope for A Night at the Opera, but at least Sheer Heart Attack !” she grumbled.

“Who’s having a heart attack?”

She looked up, startled. The boy who’d spoken was leaning against the wall a few feet behind her, hands in his pocket. She had met him before, though she couldn’t remember where. He’d been wandering around the party too, looking bored as hell. Mary had noticed him and hoped she wasn’t quite so obvious. 

“No one,” she said. “It’s a Muggle record. I don’t suppose you’ve heard of Queen?”

The boy shook his head.

Mary sighed. “Just as well. Then we’d both be wishing we were listening to Queen right now.”

He scooted closer to her. “Why don’t you describe it to me?”

“What? Why on earth would you want me to do that?”

He shrugged. “Clearly you think it’s cool. I want to know more now.”

“Oh…” Mary wondered if this was some complicated kind of foreplay. The boy was definitely handsome; she’d always thought so. She supposed she would go for him, if that was what he was getting at. But it was all very unclear… 

Talking about Queen was easy enough, though. If he really meant to hear her out, she was happy to get started. “Are you certain? I could go and on.”

He gestured at the party around them. “I’d rather talk about this than pay attention to anything else going on right now.”

Mary arched an eyebrow. “Well, since I’m the best of a bad lot… Sheer Heart Attack is this band Queen’s album from a year ago. They’ve had another one since then, but it only just came out, so I haven’t had a good listen yet.”

“Does it take you a whole year to have a good listen?” 

“Of course.”

The boy grinned. “Of course. Carry on. Tell me about your favourite song.”

Mary did not have to pause to think. “Definitely “Killer Queen.” It’s incredible.”

“Sounds like a riot. Wait — let me get us drinks, and then you can tell me what the song sounds like,” the boy said.

“It’s nothing like listening to it,” Mary warned. 

“It’s the best I can get now, though, isn’t it?”

This bloke was so odd.

She waited in the corner as he headed in the direction of the kitchen, tapping her fingers absentmindedly on her thigh. After a moment she realised she was tapping along to “Killer Queen” — and she was running through the song in her mind, as if to prepare for this conversation. 

She had certainly listened to it enough times to summon up the music, and many a holiday morning her brother would pound on the bathroom door as she sang it in the shower, telling her to shut up. She had been humming with her eyes closed for a good few minutes when she sensed someone next to her. The boy was back, a cup in each hand.

“Sorry, you seemed like you were having a moment. I didn’t want to interrupt,” he said, the sincerity of his words lightened by his smile.

Mary blushed a little and took the drink from him. “It’s all a part of the process.”

He gave her a mock-serious nod. “Walk me through it.”

“Well, it begins with this snapping. Like, just snapping, one two three four, for six beats before the vocals come in. And then Freddie Mercury goes, ‘She keeps her Moet et Chandon—’ that’s, er, a kind of alcohol—”

“Wait, wait, wait,” the boy said, holding up a hand. “The singer’s name is Freddie Mercury? Is he a wizard?”

“As far as I know he’s a Muggle.” Mary imagined a magical Freddie Mercury for a moment, infinitely amused at the thought. “It’s a stage name, obviously. Keep up. Now the piano’s in the background too, and they do the verse with just Freddie, the piano, and the drums. But then you get to the chorus—” Mary waved her arms, trying to capture how the song seemed to open up. “—And his voice becomes this whole layered harmony, and he’s singing about the woman in the song. She’s a high-class escort, apparently, so she has all these expensive habits—”

To Mary’s pleasant surprise, the boy was nodding along, his face scrunched up in thought. He really is listening

“Okay, why don’t you sing it?” 

“I just told you, it’s a whole chorus of voices,” said Mary with a half-laugh. She was a good singer, a former church choir girl, and she enjoyed picking out Freddie Mercury’s highest harmonies in her clear soprano. But she wasn’t used to doing so on command — and certainly not for boys.

“You don’t have to do all the voices at once,” the boy said. “Just do the main melody. Look, aren’t you supposed to be fearless or something? Mary Macdonald, she who dares to go where no witch has gone before?”

Mary had heard this last part before, but she thought the person who’d said it to her meant it as an innuendo. No need to mention that… There was something flattering about hearing it from this particular boy, whose smirk was itself a challenge, who wasn’t the type to ever give her the time of day but had just listened to her ramble about her favourite band.

“Fine, I will,” she said. 

Another person might have sung in a low voice. Not Mary, who after all dared to go where no witch had gone before. She straightened her spine, looked the boy right in the eye, and began to sing. This was a song that required sassiness and a hint of scandal. After a while performing no longer took effort; Mary simply hit every ooh and every teasing note as if she couldn’t have sung it any other way. Some of the other partygoers had given her strange looks, but no one else approached, and no one told her to stop.

“...and then it goes off into a short guitar solo bit, and fades out,” Mary finished, a little breathless both from excitement and exertion.

The boy raised his eyebrows. “To be honest, I didn’t think you’d actually start singing it. Or that you’d sing all the way through.”

Mary laughed. “You challenged me! What was I going to do, say no?”

“Well, you’ve got a great voice. I don’t know what I’d have done if you’d done three minutes of that, but terribly.”

Mary’s jaw dropped. “You’d bloody well have listened and clapped at the end!”

The boy laughed and put his hands together in supplication, cup sandwiched between his palms. “Forgive my insolence! But now that I know how it goes, you can describe the rest of the song too, can’t you?”

Was this some sort of joke?

“I can,” Mary said dubiously. “If you want me to.”

“It sounds like a good song. Besides, I reckon you’d actually do the guitar solos, and I really want to hear that.”

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Eventually she had gone over every minute detail of “Killer Queen” — or at least she thought she had, because she had also been drinking. Her mind was pleasantly fuddled. Very possibly she had been talking in circles for the past few minutes.

But the boy looked pleasantly fuddled too, and he was still listening. If this had been a prelude to getting in her pants, he was making no move to speed things up — and Mary found she was all right with that. Many boys were immediately, obviously shallow, and whatever mystery they held was easily solved. This boy was unlike any puzzle she’d handled before. 

“You know,” the boy said, when Mary’s explanation lapsed into silence, “I definitely haven’t understood anything you said in the past five minutes. I swear I’m listening, but alcohol makes me stupid, apparently.”

Mary giggled — a tipsy tendency of hers that she normally hated. “That’s all right. You didn’t tell me to shut up at any point, so that’s more than I was expecting.”

He snorted. “Are your standards for conversation that low?”

“If I didn’t lower my standards, I’d never speak to anyone,” she replied airily. “Look, I kept the conversation going for ages. Now you tell me something you’re unhealthily obsessed with.”

The boy rolled his eyes but thought for a moment. “I don’t know about unhealthy obsessions. All that’s coming to mind is that I brewed what we’re drinking.”

“You did?” Mary eyed her cup with new suspicion. It was only her second drink, though she found the taste more pleasant than most alcohols. It was sweet and earthy at the same time — and not too dry. “Do I want to know what it’s made of?”

“Mainly fermented barley, so that’s nothing to be worried about,” said the boy. “The bit I’m proud of is just a minor ingredient. A cousin of mine got me some Chortle extract, which is supposed to have euphoric properties. That’s what they say, anyway. I had to test it on myself at first, which meant I spent an unfortunate number of days literally lying on the floor laughing at the shape of my fingers.”

Mary snorted. “I would never have pegged you for an experimental moonshine brewer, you know.”

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“Wait,” Dorcas interrupted. “Was that a clue?”

“Was that a — what d’you mean?”

“Were you trying to give me a clue, so I can figure out who the guy is without you telling me directly?”

“This isn’t twenty bloody questions, Doe! And no, that was not a clue! How would that have helped, anyway? Oh, now you know to search for a bloke who doesn’t seem like the type to brew his own alcohol?”

“...Shit.”

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“Hey, we’ve all got our hidden depths.”

“Hmm. Yours are making me wonder if I should worry about Chortle extract.”

When he smiled, the corners of his eyes wrinkled in mirth. She was close enough to notice this about him. It was a funny thing to take in, because she could probably count on one hand the number of times she had seen him smile — not simply level a cool, superior stare at whoever dared to speak to him — outside of this room. 

“I don’t know, should you?” the boy said. “Do you feel euphoric?”

His eyes were such a nice, cloudy grey. 

Mary heard herself say, “Are we going to kiss?”

He shrugged. “Why not?” 

And his voice was blasé but then he smiled, and slid his arms around her waist. Mary met him halfway, her own hands tangling in his hair. For all of his apparent lack of interest in flirting with her, he kissed like he meant it. She could taste the notes of his weird barley drink on his tongue; she wanted to pull him even closer. Do you feel euphoric? Honestly, in that long, toe-curling moment, she did. When they came up for air, their faces were still inches apart.

“Well,” Mary said, grinning, “that was rather worth the wait.”

But of course, it was at that very moment that Evan called out to the boy. The boy released Mary. Evan came over — apparently too agitated to notice what he’d interrupted — and said Rosier was having an argument with someone in the kitchen, and it was getting heated, and would he come help? The boy and Mary both realised it must be serious. She had never known Evan to back away from a fight, in true Gryffindor fashion. The boy agreed to go help. He told Mary he would find her again. 

She waited for fifteen, then twenty, then thirty minutes. The fight was surely over. Evan had returned to the sitting room. But the boy was nowhere to be seen. Feeling miserable, she made a beeline for the front door, summoned the Knight Bus, and went home.

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“One kiss?” Doe said, once Mary had finished speaking. “One kiss and you’ve been mad for this guy since January?” The whole story was so unlike Mary, she was tempted to ask if her friend was pulling her leg. 

But her expression was genuinely sombre.

“Who’s the sceptic now, Doe?” said Mary unhappily. “I’m just telling you what happened.”

“Well, didn’t you talk to him when we got back to school?”

“I tried to on the train! But he brushed me off.” She looked away. “I really thought he wanted to get to know me. That he wasn’t just going for me because...I’m me. I’m more than legs and tits, you know.”

“I know, love. I just can’t wrap my head around it.”

Doe resolved to consider all the information Mary had given her later. Evan Wronecki’s friend...presumably a now-seventh year… There weren’t quite so many boys at Hogwarts that she couldn’t figure out who the mysterious boy was. But what would she even do with that information? For whatever reason, Mary seemed unwilling to approach him again.

“It must be because I kiss like a slag,” said Mary.

“What?”

“I must kiss like a slag, and it turns people off!”

“Don’t be stupid, Mare. There’s no such thing as slaggy kissing — and you’ve every right to kiss how many ever boys you like — and why don’t you just talk to him again?” Doe tried to meet her friend’s eyes. “It doesn’t seem fair to see someone else when you’re obviously torn up over him.”

Mary huffed out a breath. “I just want a proper rebound. Then I won’t feel so pathetic.”

This seemed terribly misguided to Doe. But Mary did as Mary wished…

“Okay,” she said finally. “Okay, I’ll help you. You’ll get over him, no problem.”

 


iv. More Letters

From Lily Evans to Doris Evans:

Dear Mum,

I hope you and Petunia are doing okay. Classes are in full swing, and I’m so enjoying the advanced-level stuff we’re covering now. We’re preparing to brew the Draught of Living Death in Potions — it’s only a sleeping draught, don’t panic — and it’s really tough going. Slughorn expects me to do well, so I have to give it my best. All my other classes are great too. Lots of nonverbal magic. At Easter I can show you how that works, since I’ll be of age by then!

The girls say hi and send you hugs. And remember the boy I told you about over the summer? I’ve been seeing him, he’s such a sweetheart — and a laugh too. His name is Dex. I know you’ll be dying for more information now, but a girl has to have her secrets. (I’ll tell you at Christmas.)

Please take care of yourself. And Petunia, I suppose, though she’s less important.

Only joking!

Much love,

Lily

 

From James Potter to Shruti Machado:

Dear Shruti,

All’s well at Hogwarts. I hope our crazy family hasn’t driven you up the wall yet — that’s my job. Have you and Mélanie left Mangalore yet? I swear I’ll only know when your owl takes six months to get back to me and you say you’ve been in Siberia or something.

Say hi to Mel for me. And no, I don’t want to talk about it.

Yours,

James

 

From Germaine King to William King:

Dear Dad,

Thanks so much for the watch, I love it. Don’t have much time to write. Things are busy here. Doing fine. Love you.

Germaine

 

From Dorcas Walker to Joseph and Ruth Walker:

Dear Mum and Dad,

Please stay safe. I’m always reading the news and thinking of you. Hope the shop’s doing well — have you added any security like you said you were thinking of doing? Write back soon.

Love,

Dorcas

 

To Sirius Black, sender unknown:

BLACK:

YOUR LAST CHANCE

BLOOD

 


v. Golden Slumbers

Lily couldn’t sleep. 

This was par for the course for her, really. It was the reason why her mornings were so painful, and why she spent so much bloody money on concealer. She had been plagued by night terrors for months after the death of her father, when she was thirteen. Though the terrors had eventually faded, they had been replaced by insomnia — a change Lily was grateful for on most days. Until she found herself lying in bed and unable to do anything but toss and turn, even though she could feel the exhaustion heavy in her bones. This was one of those nights. 

She sighed and sat up, figuring she might as well send the letter she’d written that morning to her mother with her owl, Peppermint. The Owlery was not that far from the Fat Lady’s portrait. Lily knew that Filch did not usually poke around the West Tower — guessing, perhaps, that the school’s chief troublemakers had better places to be — and, well, if anyone did come across her she could always point out that she was a prefect, and make up some important-sounding business she had to attend to. 

Shucking off the covers, Lily slipped on a dressing robe and slippers, and put the letter in her pocket. Her roommates were all asleep; when she cracked open the door, only Germaine stirred slightly and mumbled something. Lily squeezed her way to the staircase and bounded down to the common room. 

It was quite cold in the corridor. She paused for a moment to draw her robe tight around herself, and shivered a little.

“And why are you out and about at this hour?” the Fat Lady said. 

Lily tried to look pious and innocent. “Just some prefect stuff. I can’t sleep, so I might as well help keep the peace in the corridors…”

The Fat Lady looked deeply suspicious. But Lily had already begged for her forgiveness after she’d been so curt with her, and she knew the woman was fond of her. Fond enough to prefer sleep to questioning her, at least.

“Well, all right, if it won’t take long.”

Allowing herself a small grin, Lily took off towards the West Tower. 

She was greeted at the Owlery by a chorus of soft hooting. Peppermint, a small screech owl, nipped at her finger affectionately when she let him out of his cage. 

“Hello, dear,” she said, rubbing his head. “Take this to Mum, won’t you?” 

He stuck out his little leg for her to tie the letter to; with that job done, Peppermint happily took flight. Lily watched him until he was no longer distinguishable from the night sky. The moon was a nearly-full orb above her, bathing the Owlery in a silvery glow. She leaned into the gentle breeze and watched the moonlight shimmer on the lake’s surface, her mind blissfully empty. Soon the autumn would properly give way to the winter, and the moonlight would bounce flatly off the frozen lake.

At last she straightened and headed for the corridor. As much as she wanted to stay and watch the moon, it was simply too chilly to stand there for any longer. But Lily was now wide awake. She was certain that she would not be able to fall asleep if she went back to her dorm. Oh, I’m back where I started!  

The Fat Lady was asleep in her portrait, her small mouth hanging open slightly. Without thinking, Lily tiptoed past the portrait, going further down the corridor. The reading room where she’d baked with Dex was in the next hallway — if she could make it there without running into anyone, she was certain she would be able to sleep amidst its cozy pillows. And with the fire crackling in the background too… 

Lily felt a little thrill at the prospect — and at the feeling of being out and about Hogwarts at night. She was not normally one to sneak around past curfew, of course. But she was beginning to understand the appeal. The stone corridors were all the more majestic in the silent torchlight, making her feel as if she were queen of the whole castle. 

Probably that was the sleep deprivation talking.

Didn’t Dex say you had to concentrate really hard for the room to show itself? Lily conjured up thoughts of the space as she rounded the corner, moving with purpose. But she rounded the corner to find that she was not the only one in the hallway. 

“Miss Evans,” said Professor Thorpe, rather wearily, “what are you doing out of bed too?”

“Er — prefect business,” Lily blurted out.

Thorpe just looked at her, dressing robe and all. “Right. Of course. Were you headed back to bed?”

Lily recognised an opening when she was offered one. “Y-yes…”

“Perfect. I can walk you to Gryffindor Tower.” Thorpe gestured for her to lead the way.

Shit. Lily didn’t bother making excuses; she reckoned she was lucky enough to have escaped losing points, or worse, detention. Thorpe had been standing right opposite the tapestry too, where the door to the reading room had appeared… What if the professor had been trying to summon it too? If only she’d made her way inside first. But if Thorpe had found her inside the room there would be no room for even her transparent white lies.

“Having trouble sleeping?” said Thorpe.

Lily jumped a bit at the sound of her voice. “Yes, professor.”

Thorpe nodded. “I know what that’s like. Have you tried counting Hippogriffs?”

She struggled to not roll her eyes before glancing at Thorpe and realising the witch was joking. Her mouth was tipped in a half-smile that softened her sharp features.

“No,” Thorpe sighed, “there’s nothing to do but close your eyes and hope for the best.”

Lily snorted. “I’ll try that, professor.”

They were in front of the still-sleeping Fat Lady now; Thorpe cleared her throat, and she startled awake, scowling.

“Oh, it’s you,” the Fat Lady said irritably. “Times really never change.”

For a moment Lily thought the Fat Lady meant her, and she was very confused.

But it was Thorpe who responded, smiling slightly. “It’s lovely to see you again. Miss Evans, go ahead.”

Gossamer,” said Lily, wishing she could stay and hear whatever the Fat Lady and Thorpe were about to say to each other. Did this mean Thorpe had been a Gryffindor? But she had been nosy enough for one night…

Stepping through the portrait hole, Lily thought she might sit by the fire in the common room for a bit. Perhaps she could listen to the radio, and head upstairs when she actually felt tired. Or, hell, maybe she could count Hippogriffs on the sofa. But all thoughts of rest and solitude screeched to a halt when she registered who was already sitting in her favourite squashy armchair, staring at nothing.

The first thing that came out of Lily’s mouth was, “Oh, it’s you.”

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Lest we forget, this is still a love story — even with disappearances on the rise, and Death Eaters at large, and Hogwarts growing ever more shadowed. Lily and James fell in love in 1978. They were married the same year. But it was a long, winding journey to that point from October, 1976, longer than two-and-change years should be. That was their way, of course. Because before they were married they were frequent foes, then reluctant allies, then friends, of a sort. Before they began dating, they argued with each other and cried to each other — and they kissed, just once. (They argued some more too, before, after, and during.)

You see, Lily was not a romantic. She was just a sixteen-year-old girl. She believed in love only in the vague way all girls like her did — girls who were clever and knew it, and were raised to focus on the right thing, instead of fooling around and wasting your smarts. It was only natural that Lily saw love as a far-off prospect, the stuff of novels, something that would make its way to her in time after she'd embarked on a high-flying career.

That’s not to suggest that Lily was too practical for romance. She did think she was destined for true love, after all. Witch or not, she had still been raised on stories of Prince Charmings and star-crossed lovers and the moment the slipper fits. But she thought herself too young to seek it out — what did she know about love, really? She was content with it being a mystery for the future, one she would unravel eventually. 

It was closer to her present than she knew, of course, but when it did hit her she would wonder how she hadn’t seen it coming all along.

James had a more immediate belief in romantic love. This was because James never did things by halves, and so he was intimately familiar with the overwhelming, all-consuming rush that warned of love. Love was like Quidditch. Love was like running through the Hogwarts grounds until your breath grew ragged and your sides burned but you felt alive at every painful step. 

But that was only one facet of love, and James did not quite grasp the rest of it. He had grown up with an example — his elderly parents were quietly, comfortably in love, in the way of couples who had spent decades together and memorised each other’s every gesture. That was also love, that warm knowing. James didn’t know that yet, and so he viewed the riotous love he knew he was in as something to be cured of.

He knew that love was real — he felt it. But he was a sixteen-year-old boy, and his faith in such embarrassing concepts was easily tested. How could this be true love when it seemed impossible, frustrating, so bloody difficult? Perhaps love simply wasn’t for him, and he would need to accept it. James thought his near future would be filled with unlearning how to love. Instead he would discover a whole new vocabulary of love, as if he’d picked up a book in a foreign language one day and realised, all of a sudden, that he could read it. 

When it happened, he would look back on all the times he had doubted — had cursed at walls; had stared at ceilings, unable to sleep — and know he never would again.

It’s difficult to say when James and Lily took the first steps to love. Perhaps it was in April, 1977, shaken by tragedy. Perhaps it was all the way in September, 1971, when they met on a train. Perhaps they had always been walking this road, unaware of the person they were walking towards until the mist cleared. They would fall in love eventually — but we would be remiss in ignoring the hiccups along the way.

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“Oh, it’s you,” she said, and wished she had thought of something more clever.

James Potter, leaning back in the armchair and staring at the wall, arched his eyebrows and met her gaze. “So it is.”

Lily would almost have rather run out into the corridor and begged Thorpe for detention, right away, than try to navigate this conversation. They hadn’t spoken since the pie incident, not really — save for when they had all listened to that awful Marcel Thorpe on the wireless, which had been a moment of unspoken truce. 

She’d found that her anger had cooled since then. She had jumped to conclusions, no matter the evidence. And… well, she had spoken in anger, and regardless of what he thought of her, she did not like the version of her that had said what she’d said. Be a big girl, Lily.

So she took a step closer to him, and tried for cheerfulness. Hadn’t Thorpe asked her why she, too, was out of bed? 

“Did Thorpe catch you in the corridor too and walk you back?”

James gave her a sardonic smile. “If I were out of bed and caught by a professor, I would get detention, not an escort.”

Lily supposed that was true. She didn’t like the undercurrent of criticism in his voice — how could she help that she had a better reputation than him? — but given her quest of magnanimity, it was best she didn’t press the subject. He saved her having to think of a response, though, by speaking again.

“No, I just couldn’t sleep.” He leaned back, drumming his fingers on the chair’s armrests.

“Me neither. What kept you up?” Lily crossed towards the fire, moved by an impulse she couldn’t name. She plopped onto the sofa nearest him, turning so they faced each other.

James half-laughed. “To be honest… I’m starving. There was fish for dinner today.” He made a face.

“Do you not eat fish?”

“Not at Hogwarts, on principle. It’s so bland. Mum makes the best fish curry. It’s ruined all other kinds of fish for me.”

Lily laughed. “Poor you.”

“Poor me, indeed. Why are you awake — and more importantly, roaming around past curfew?” 

There was only a light note of mirth in his voice, no real criticism. Lily allowed herself to relax.

“I sleep terribly,” she admitted. “I honestly can’t remember the last time I slept well.”

James looked genuinely shocked at this. He seemed to be struggling to formulate a response; the effect was a series of comical facial expressions that made Lily snort with laughter.

“Is that so hard for you to process?” she said.

Yes. How can you just not sleep?” He shook his head. “I sleep like a fucking log. It’s the best thing about me, and there are a lot of great things about me.”

“It’s that big empty head of yours. No worries to keep you up at night.” She snuck a glance at him, suddenly afraid her joke wouldn’t land. Oh, why did you have to say that?

But he nodded solemnly. “You’ve guessed it. Honestly, I’m not even thinking right now. I just open my mouth and say whatever I fancy.”

Lily snorted again, which made him grin.

“You know, Lily Evans, you’re a snorter,” he said.

“Excuse me!”

“It’s just a fact. My condolences.”

The very phrase — and the gravity of his expression — made her laugh again, which of course made her snort again. “What is that supposed to mean?”

James shrugged. “You snort when you laugh. It’s ridiculous and absolutely graceless, which is what—” He cut himself off, looking sheepish. “Sorry. That’s the hunger talking.”

“Huh,” Lily said. She found that she didn’t mind the beginning of that sentence — but she was suddenly curious as to how he’d meant to end it. Don’t push your luck, she thought. She uncrossed her legs and slid off the sofa. “Look, I have all the ingredients for hot chocolate in my trunk. It’s not food, but it’ll fill you up a little, at least.”

James perked up at that. “Seriously?”

“Yeah, seriously. I’ll go get it right now, if you like.”

He took his time thinking about this. “Yeah, that’d be nice. Thanks.” 

Lily ran up to her dorm and quickly fetched the supplies, along with the mugs she kept for such occasions. Levitating her supplies in front of her, she made her way back to the fire.

“When you said all the ingredients, I had no idea we were growing the cacao and milking the cow ourselves,” James said dryly.

“Oh, hush. It’s only good if it’s done right.”

She’d brought with her a slab of dark chocolate, a slab of milk chocolate, a grater, a saucepan, a carton of whole milk, and a carton of cream, along with a little pot of brown sugar stirred together with ground cinnamon. This, she considered the very basic chocolate recipe. She handed him the grater and the dark chocolate and told him to make himself useful. Shaking his head, James joined her on the carpet and began to grate.

“You know, you could just do this with magic,” he said.

She shook her head. “I already preserve the milk with magic — and I replace it whenever we go to Hogsmeade. But the actual preparation needs to be by hand wherever possible. You’ll value your hot chocolate when you’ve worked for it, Potter.”

“All right, fearless leader.”

They worked in silence, Lily heating and stirring the milk in the pan with her wand while James grated chocolate into it. Once all the lumps in it had disappeared, she added more milk and a dollop of cream, then a light sprinkling of sugar. She stuck in a fingertip to taste it — and realised James was staring at her.

“What?” she said.

“Nothing,” he said, smiling. “’Cept, you bloody heathen, you dunked your finger right into it.”

“My finger is clean!”

“That’s what they all say…”

“Shut up, I’m giving you hot chocolate. Take it or leave it.”

She poured them each a mug and then pushed the supplies aside. Blowing on the drink, she crossed her legs and leaned back against the sofa, a smile already beginning to push at the corners of her mouth. Lily just knew the hot chocolate would be perfect. 

She watched James as he took a tentative sip. He blinked, then hummed in appreciation.

“All right,” he said, “I think I have to concede.”

She grinned. “I know my chocolate.”

“I should’ve known the moment you brought out half the Hogwarts kitchen supplies.”

Stop it.” Her smile faded a little. “My dad always loved hot chocolate.”

She could see him process the past tense. But he said nothing, perhaps sensing — correctly — that she had more to say.

“He always made it for my sister and me before bed. God, it was way too much sugar — no wonder I was a demon of a child. Of course, that stopped when he...died. He left us the recipe, though. I try to drink it on nights I can’t sleep — like, really can’t sleep.”

James nodded. “And then… does it makes sleeping easier?”

“I wish. Sleeping’s just as hard. But at least I have hot chocolate.” She smiled. 

“Damn good hot chocolate, at that.”

How strange, to sit there and talk with him about her father and her insomnia like — like he was Dorcas or Remus. But no, that wasn’t an accurate comparison. No matter how friendly they behaved around each other, they were still James and Lily. There was always something between them, like a lump in her throat she couldn’t quite swallow past.

So, despite the part of her that wanted to carry on talking about anything but them, Lily said, “I’m trying to be the bigger person.”

Something in him shifted, as if he too registered that the conversation was about to take a turn. 

“It rarely ends well when you have to announce it,” he said.

She ignored that. “Well, I’m trying to do it. And that’s why I want to say sorry for what I said to you the other day. I don’t know the — details of your prank, and I shouldn’t have assumed it was because… you know…” She could feel her cheeks reddening. If there was a way to apologise without actually acknowledging what she had said, and what he had said by the lake, she was going to find it. She didn’t care if it made her a coward.

“Thank you for your apology.”

She waited a beat before saying, “Now it’s your turn.”

“You have an interesting understanding of what being the bigger person means.”

“You dropped a pie on me.” They were locked in a staring contest for a few moments, neither looking away. Lily finally relented, curiosity overpowering her stubbornness. “Honestly, though. Was it Dex you were trying to get, or me? You owe me that much.”

James sighed. “All right. I’ll tell you. When we decided to target specific people, we thought we ought to throw in some random victims so the targets wouldn’t be certain we were coming for them. We wrote down a bunch of names we could think of — all you girls were on there too.”

“Thanks a lot,” said Lily sarcastically.

“It wasn’t you, though. It was Fortescue. Sirius was throwing darts at the list and one landed in between him and ‘that second-year with the weird haircut,’ and dropping food on a second-year just seemed cruel. So.” James shrugged.

Icon of a quill drawing a line

James wasn’t quite sure why he’d told her the truth. True, it made him look a little less of a villain. But it had felt wrong to lie, especially after she’d said all that about her dad. God, having a conscience was the fucking worst. He watched her closely for any reaction. She was chewing on the inside of her cheek, but she did not look angry — yet. James just waited and drank his hot chocolate.

“Okay,” she said at last. “Thank you for telling me. I suppose that’s better than any of the alternatives…” She trailed off, looking away. 

It amused him — in a dark, self-flagellating sort of way — how she avoided the issue of his feelings for her, so plainly embarrassed at the very thought. This is where you say something rude, a voice in his head prodded, and keep your bloody distance.

He opened his mouth to follow this impulse.

“I’m glad we’re having a mature conversation, for once,” Lily said, cutting him off. “Like normal people.”

Taken aback, he searched for an appropriate answer. “Er — yeah, I suppose.”

She was tracing the pattern in the rug: little prancing lions, the medieval sort, which looked more like the unholy imaginings of a twisted toddler than the actual big cats. James followed the sure movements of her finger with his gaze. They were both silent until her hand stilled, and she looked up.

“I don’t think we can be friends, you know,” said Lily.

Now she’d done it. Again James thought of something cutting to say and it sat on the very tip of his tongue. Again she forestalled him.

“I know you’re about to say something shitty, so at least hear me out first,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I think we’re too used to being — Lily Evans and James Potter around each other. We’re too used to arguing or being snippy or what have you, and at just the sight of the other—” She snapped her fingers. “—we fall into those roles. But… I do think roles can be unlearned.”

James did not trust himself to speak. Wisely, he kept silent.

“Over time, that is. And… we have so many friends in common, and we’re constantly around each other, and it’s exhausting to be at each other’s throats.” She was beginning to talk faster, as if she wanted to get it all out before she thought better of it.

“What are you getting at?” he said, guarded still.

“I’m asking for a truce. We don’t have to be friends. We don’t have to — get along, even.” She laughed a little. “I just hate fighting. We didn’t always fight. Can’t we go back?”

He knew what he thought of that. “You can’t go back, Evans.”

Her smile turned sad. “No. No, I thought you’d say that.”

Two impulses warred within James. It would be very easy to now say the terrible things he had held off on saying, and watch her sad little smile turn sour. He could also say something genuine, and tactful… But what was the point? What was the point in expecting Lily Evans to have expectations of him?

“Just consider it,” said Lily. “A truce.” When he said nothing, she said, more urgently, “We only have a year and a half left at Hogwarts. I don’t want to spend it worrying about what I said to set you off, or saying something to set you off, or telling myself I was right to say it to you.”

“So are you bringing this up because you believe we can be vaguely decent to each other, or because it’ll make you sleep better at night?” James said wryly.

“Does it matter?”

Instead of answering her question, he said, “I’ll try.”

She was watching him so intently. “You’ll try — to think about it?”

“No, I’ll try out the truce.” 

Happy now? he almost added, before reining himself in. He supposed he should’ve felt something like relief — he didn’t like arguing with her either. But a part of him couldn’t believe this was happening now, of all times, after he had sworn off her completely. The universe must really have it in for him.

He would be polite, he decided, but nothing more. No more bloody hot chocolate at midnight. This was a truce, not an alliance. 

Icon of a quill drawing a line

James rose to his feet and stretched. “I’m off to bed.”

Lily smoothed away a frown. “Oh. Okay.” 

Standing above her now, he might as well have been miles away. He had been so attentive, so genuinely interested, when she had told him about her dad, explained how she made her hot chocolate. Now he was unreadable, unreachable. If she understood him better, she thought morosely, she might not have felt the urge to fight him — or throttle him — so often.

“Thanks for the hot chocolate. Night.” With a little salute, he walked away. 

He always walked the same way, she noticed: hands in his pockets, head tipped back. As if he didn’t need to look where he was going. Tripping was for other people.

Lily cleaned the mugs and the saucepan with a spell. Truthfully, his abrupt exit had left her off-kilter. Why couldn’t she have let well enough alone? But no, despite his less-than-enthusiastic reaction, she was glad she’d brought it up. It had to be done, at least for her peace of mind.

There was still a strange lump between them, but she thought it had lessened just a little. It no longer hurt her quite so much.

 

 

Chapter Text

i. A Few Suitable Boys

“Why are we doing this in the library?” Mary complained.

Doe hushed her. “Because this section is really quiet, and because it’s a non-suspicious place to meet boys. Except, you will ruin it all if you’re constantly talking.”

Mary perked up a little. “We’re meeting boys? How? Why?” 

Doe steepled her fingers. She had spent the past few days racking her brain, pulling together a list of every age-appropriate, personality-appropriate boy she could think of for Mary. She didn’t tell her friend this, of course, but she was looking exclusively for short-term rebounds. Whatever Mary thought, Doe had a feeling she needed to pursue her mystery boy. If she needed to play at eliminating other possibilities beforehand, well, Doe would smooth out that process for the both of them.

“Well, I’ve got a list,” Doe said. “And I gave them appointment slots.”

Mary raised her brows. “And...they agreed to this?”

“Surprisingly, most of them did. You’re a hot commodity.”

Mary grinned. “Thanks, love. You know, this is how my grandparents tried to set my mum up with a husband.”

Doe leaned back in her chair. “And? Did it work?”

“Well — no. She ran off with Dad, so they were not very happy. They got over it, though.”

Doe made a tsk sound, though she was pleased at this story. The same could happen to Mary. She could just see it. Although, maybe they weren’t looking at marriage quite yet…

She consulted her wristwatch. “The first one should be here in a few minutes.”

Mary nodded, growing serious. “Is my hair okay?”

“It’s gorgeous.”

“And are you going to be sitting right there? The whole time?”

Mary and Doe were at the same half of a circular table; one chair was pulled up to the other side. Doe looked from the empty chair to Mary.

“Of course. I’m here to evaluate too.”

Mary considered this for a moment. “All right. I trust you.”

 


ii. End of the Road

Sirius, James, and Peter had been at Remus’s bedside for a good twenty minutes before he opened his eyes. 

“Hello,” he managed weakly.

“Morning,” they chorused. Peter handed him a potion that Madam Pomfrey had left on the bedside table; James, having drawn the short straw, hefted up a bucket with a grimace. Remus sighed, threw back the potion, and…threw up noisily into the bucket. 

“I’ve had this job too many months in a row,” James said. “You lot are rigging it.”

“Not at all,” Sirius said cheerfully. “I have to go all the way to breakfast. Don’t tell me you want to physically move.”

James considered this for a moment. “I suppose you have a point. This comes a close second, though.” Waving his wand, he emptied the bucket. “And let’s not think about where that went.”

Remus coughed, the sound rattling awfully in his chest. The other three tensed, turning to him again.

“Round two?” said James, wincing.

Remus pushed himself upright with some difficulty. “No — no. I think I can eat now. How was last night?”

Sirius clapped him on the shoulder. “Smooth sailing, mate. No cause for worry.”

Remus made a face. “Smooth sailing for you, maybe.”

“Aw, come on.” Sirius hopped to his feet. “All right, same as usual for everyone?”

There was a chorus of yeses. Sirius sauntered out of the Hospital Wing, heading for the Entrance Hall. Though he complained, he wasn’t opposed to breakfast duty, really. Peter and James never pushed for the really good stuff. He knew for a fact that Peter, at least, only went to the Great Hall and filled up plates from there. 

Sirius could not stand for that kind of half-assery — especially not after a night out, when all four Marauders had roamed the grounds and fallen into their beds absolutely exhausted, waking up famished. No, there would be fresh, steaming-hot food in the kitchens, and that was where he was going. 

He slipped into the basement, loitering in the hallway there so a gaggle of young Hufflepuffs could hurry up the stairs past him. When the coast was clear he tickled the pear, and stepped into the kitchens. 

Only one house-elf really understood Sirius’s breakfast preferences. The stately elf spotted him through the morning bustle and swanned over to him then.

“Top o’ the morning, Mr Davenport,” Sirius said, grinning.

“Mr Black,” said Davenport with a sniff. “Come, the newest batch of foodstuff is right this way…”

And how could Sirius not be endlessly amused by Davenport calling eggs and sausage — which was, upstairs, being wolfed down by disgusting eleven-year-olds — foodstuff? Sirius bowed, not without sincerity, and made his way to the table in question. Only eggs and fruit for Remus, who grew a conscience on mornings after his transformation and didn’t need to be reminded of meat’s general existence. Generous helpings of just about everything for himself, James, and Peter. He portioned these into Davenport’s proffered old Prophet copies, which had been folded into roomy pockets. 

In the middle of this task, Pansy, who had been skulking nearby, came right up to Sirius and prodded him in the thigh.

“Oh, hello, Pansy.”

“We’re watching you!” she said, which would not have been threatening coming from someone of her size if not for the way she said it.

“Yeah, enjoy the view,” he replied. She scowled, and marched away. What had Peter said to her anyway at the Start-of-Term Feast? She had been even more disagreeable than usual lately. Never mind, Sirius thought, he could worry about that later.

He tied up the parcels with string, thanked Davenport, and went into the Great Hall now. There were letters for all of them — the other three had mail from their parents, and Sirius had a letter written by an unfamiliar hand. He picked up three copies of the Prophet too — which was silly, honestly, why did three of them get the Prophet when they could all share? Pete had the right idea… 

Not all the girls were at breakfast. Lily and Sara sat opposite each other, both reading the Prophet, but the former having just returned from social calls at the other tables. 

“Morning,” Sirius said. 

“Hello, Sirius,” said Sara.

Lily did not reply immediately. Then: “Oh, hi,” she said, morose.

“That is not a weekend voice, Evans.”

She sighed. “It’s Marcel bloody Thorpe again. You know the Muggle-born Mediwizard they found attacked in an alleyway? He’s saying something about it being Muggle thugs… Honestly, as though St. Mungo’s can’t identify spell damage.”

Sirius put down all the parcels. “Yeah, I reckon he’d find a way to spin anything to fit his thinking. You Know Who could be in the Ministry of Magic doing a naked tango with a centaur while shouting blood purist propaganda and he’d say… I dunno…” He cleared his throat, affecting the elder Thorpe’s baritone. “Why shouldn’t the man be able to provide his own music as he dances, unusual though it may be?

Lily snorted. “Your imitation of him is startlingly good.”

“I know his type, unfortunately.”

Sirius found he was enjoying this conversation, on the whole. Of course, that might just have been because he was always in a good mood after their nights out. But he had, overall, a rather tepid opinion of Lily Evans, having assumed the role of the cynical, protective friend. 

Whatever her flaws, she was all right to talk to. He admitted this to himself reluctantly. If James had gone ahead and decided to really get over her, then Sirius was free to think positively of her. He just wasn’t sure he could count on that yet.

“What’re all the newspaper bundles?” said Sara, peering at his parcels with interest.

“Foodstuff.” The girls looked perplexed. “Er, Moony’s ill, so I’m taking him breakfast.”

Sara made a moue of sympathy. “Poor thing. I keep hoping this is the term he’ll be able to stay out of the infirmary, you know.”

“I’m sure he does too,” Sirius said, managing to keep a straight face.

“My parents sent me a massive box of sweets. You should take him some too!”

Lily nodded. “They’re so good.”

Sirius brightened. “Yeah, Moony would love that.” And so, more importantly, would I. “Hand ’em over.”

“Oh — Lily and I had our fill, so I dropped it off at the Ravenclaw table. But don’t worry, there’s so much, they definitely haven’t eaten it all yet.” She rose to her feet. “I’ll come with you.”

There was no better escort. Sara wove easily through the crowd, and when they had arrived at the Ravenclaw table she snapped her fingers and said, “Go on, get your grubby hands off the box, Black wants some.”

Producing the box took some time. It appeared to have moved beyond Sara’s — admittedly wide — friend circle of fifth-, sixth-, and seventh-years, and someone thought they had seen it at the Hufflepuff table. Sara only rolled her eyes, told Sirius to stay put, and headed in that direction. 

He exchanged smiles and nods with the Ravenclaws around him, some of whom had sweets in hand.

“Which ones should I pick, then?”

“The one with the pistachios on top, definitely,” said a perky blonde he could not immediately place, waving a pale blobby sweet crowned with a green sliver of the nut. 

“If you’re going to eat the little brown ones, you should know they’ve got liquid inside them,” the girl next to her said darkly. “It exploded all over my hands.” Her, Sirius knew; Emmeline Vance, also a sixth-year, played Seeker for Ravenclaw. She was too proper for him to consider her actually likeable, but she came under his mental “all right” column. 

Marissa Beasley laughed. “Emmeline, Sara literally warned you about the liquid. You just put off eating it for so long that you forgot.” Turning to Sirius, she said, “Ignore her. Get that one too — and it’s even better if you don’t tell whoever’s eating it that it’s liquid inside, hey?”

“Cheers,” said Sirius, returning her grin. Beasley was certainly likeable — she was Head Girl, which ought to have lost her some points, but she had successfully branded herself the fun Head. Given that Crollins was the other one, actually, it wasn’t that difficult a task. 

“Get the diamond-shaped one,” a dark-haired boy — Caradoc Dearborn — suggested. He waved the silver-topped diamond wedge at Sirius. “It’s fucking incredible.”

Sirius took this in kind as well. Anything that drove the bloody prince of smart-arses to such high praise was worth a consideration too.

“Sorry, sorry, I’m back!” Sara said, appearing at Sirius’s shoulder. She was slightly out of breath, but she clutched an enormous box in her hands. “I had to literally pry it away from Crollins, the prat.”

“The prat ,” all the Ravenclaws and Sirius agreed aloud, nodding.

Sirius borrowed a goblet from the table and dropped his sweet selections into it, thanking Sara. Juggling all this, he strolled out of the Great Hall and back towards the Hospital Wing. After a while he got tired of actually holding everything, so instead he levitated it all. And then he made them do a little dance around him just because he could. All this still did not take up all of his concentration. So Sirius pulled his own letter from the prancing collection of things and tore it open, humming off-key to himself.

There were, in fact, two notes enclosed. He unfolded one and scanned its first few words: Dear Mr Black, I am so sorry to inform you that—

Four parcels, three letters, and the goblet of sweets all tumbled to the stone floor.

 


iii. A Few More Suitable Boys

It was nearing lunchtime, and Doe and Mary were still exactly where they had been in the morning: at the table in the library, huddled together.

“That last one was weird,” Mary was saying.

Doe rolled her eyes. “Okay, Henry is perfectly all right.”

Mary shook her head. “He’s all right as a person. But as a bloke...he’s a little odd, Doe.”

“I don’t even know what that means.”

“It means he can’t be my rebound, obviously!”

Doe had struggled to control her annoyance all morning, but she could not keep it out of her voice entirely now. “There are only so many boys at Hogwarts, Mary, so unless you want to be disgusting and hit on children you’ll just have to settle!”

Mary glared at her. “Don’t snap at me!”

Deep breaths, Doe told herself. Mary was only being so frustrating because she was hurt. She didn’t mean to be infuriating. 

“We should take a break,” she said finally. “Neither of us has eaten all morning, and the next guy only comes in after lunch. We’ll drive ourselves mad if we keep talking and thinking about this.”

Mary made a face, but she nodded. “Let’s go, then.”

“You go ahead. I’ll be there in a minute — have to find this Ancient Runes book.”

It wasn’t a bluff, not exactly — Doe did need the book. But she also needed a minute of breathing room, just a brief moment away from Mary. Her friend gave her a look as if to say she wasn’t fooling anyone. But Mary headed out of the library without argument, leaving Doe alone at the table.

Pushing her chair back with a sigh, Doe stretched and made her way to the Ancient Runes section.

“Look who it is,” a voice said.

Doe turned around. “Oh! Michael!”

His hair was sticking up, as though he’d only just left his bed. Doe thought a more likely story was that he hadn’t properly looked in a mirror all morning; she smothered a smile. Boys

“I saw you with your friend,” Michael said. “You’ve been here for hours. Knocking out homework before the professors even assign it, eh?”

Doe laughed. “I wish. It’s ridiculous to explain, actually, but — Mary is trying to get over someone, and she wants a rebound. So we’re interviewing candidates.”

His eyebrows rose. “That’s… dedicated.”

“It’s hilarious, but yeah, it does take more effort than you’d think.”

Michael grinned. “Look at you, being such a good friend.”

“That’s me,” said Doe, doing a curtsy.

He shook his head. “You know, I’d have thought a girl like Mary could get any bloke she wanted.”

Oh, how to explain this without explaining too much? But when Mary said not to tell anyone, surely she’d meant Lily and Germaine and her friends, not Michael Meadowes.

“Yes, she’s trying something new,” Doe said. At Michael’s curious expression, she clarified, “Nice boys.”

Michael burst into laughter — then, with a glance backwards in the vague direction of Madam Pince’s desk, he tried to turn it into a cough. “I hope that works out for her.”

“Your sort are very novel to her, so we’ll see,” said Doe dryly.

My sort? I don’t think I’m a nice boy, really. I can be quite a prick sometimes — though I’m working on it.”

Doe squinted at him. “You? A prick? I’ve yet to see any evidence of that.”

He winked. “Let’s hope you don’t have to.”

 



iv. All Your Loving

The mysterious reading room on the seventh floor was refusing to show itself.

Dex had paced up and down the corridor about a dozen times, with Lily watching and wishing she could do some thing to help. She was beginning to think the best thing she could possibly do was suggest they go somewhere else.

“This has never happened before,” Dex said finally, his voice tight with frustration.

“It’s all right,” said Lily, snaking an arm around him. “We can work in the library… or in our common rooms. Really, there’s a lot of options.”

Dex sighed. “They aren’t very private.”

Lily arched an eyebrow. “What do they need to be private for?”

He met her gaze. “You know, just in case we want a study break.” Dex cut her off mid-laugh, pressing his mouth to hers. Lily hummed appreciatively, tugging him closer.

“Three feet apart in the corridors, lovebirds,” a voice called. 

Lily jumped, recognising its owner immediately. Dex did not; he turned around in search of the speaker. Lily saw his expression grow dark and grimaced. This was not going to be a fun conversation.

“Potter,” said Dex.

“Good afternoon,” James said, looking between the two of them. “Young love, eh?”

“What do you want? Are you going to be dropping another stale pie on us?” 

“No, it’s fresh this time.”

“James, stop messing,” said Lily, sighing. 

As if he had just noticed her presence, James sobered. “Right. See you around, Evans.” And without another word — or even so much as a glance at either of them — he strode past them and round the corner.

Why was he so hot and cold? She recalled his reluctance at their truce. Had she misjudged him, projected her own desire for peace between them onto him? She forced herself to put it out of her mind. Whatever argument he was having with himself, she gained nothing trying to parse it from his cryptic clues.

“I’m sorry,” said Lily, squeezing her eyes shut a moment. “For him, I mean. He’s — he and I are in a strange phase of pre-friendship and I don’t think either of us is handling it well.” That was being generous, she thought, but considering the look on Dex’s face Lily thought she ought to head off any conflict right away.

“Okay,” said Dex finally, taking her hand. “You’re right. Let’s just go to a common room. Yours or mine?”

Lily considered this. There was the problem of the girls’ staircase, if it so happened that they wanted to go somewhere more private… She flushed at the very thought.

“Yours.”

 


v. Last Chance

 

Dear Mr Black,

I am so sorry to inform you that your uncle Alphard passed away here at St. Mungo’s late on Friday night. I meant to notify you sooner, but Alphard had a note that he wanted delivered along with this notice. It is enclosed here. You will be comforted, I hope, to know that your uncle did not suffer at all in the end, but passed away in his sleep. 

My deepest condolences,

Devan O’Leary

Healer

 

Dear Sirius,

This letter will be hurried, unfortunately. I should have written it sooner — but even someone like me doesn’t enjoy thinking of the pain my passing will cause others. I will keep this brief: you have only my best wishes, and I will be leaving you a small amount that I hope will be of use to you once you leave Hogwarts. 

Once again, I ask that you get in touch with your brother. I have received a letter from him since I wrote you last, but I am still worried about the company he keeps. 

Take care,

All my love,

Alphard

 

Sirius put the letters down and cleared his throat. “And that’s it.”

He, James, and Peter were in their dormitory, a tableau of sobriety that Sirius would otherwise have found quite comical. Peter looked rather uncomfortable, tugging at a loose thread in his covers. James was watching Sirius with an intent that the latter did not like.

“You should’ve told us he was worse,” James said.

Sirius threw his arms in the air. “It would hardly have made a difference!”

“But still—”

“And of course the last thing he writes me is about that insufferable git Regulus—”

Peter was wide-eyed. “You aren’t going to do it, then?”

“Do what?” said Sirius.

“I dunno… talk to him?”

Sirius scoffed. “Regulus doesn’t respond to a stern talking-to from anyone but our bloody mother. It won’t do any good.”

As if sensing he was approaching dangerous territory, Peter said timidly, “But it was the last thing Alphard wanted you to do.”

Sirius glared at him. “So what? Why do we put so much stock in — in last wishes anyway? What’s it to Alphard now? It’s not like he can see.”

Peter flinched. James looked away. Feeling as spent as if he’d played a gruelling, hours-long Quidditch match, Sirius sat down on his bed, hard. 

He had known this was coming, of course. But he had convinced himself that it would not be so soon — despite what Alphard had said about his grim evaluations at the hospital. Fuck, no matter how old or how ill his uncle had been, Sirius had childishly thought he would hang on. Maybe that was why he hadn’t told any of his friends about the latest tests. The questions that topic would inevitably prompt would force him to accept that things were indeed bad. That they had become worse. 

And now there would be a funeral. One that he would have to attend. With his fucking family. And only Sirius would know how many of them Alphard held in contempt, because the old man had never fully broken away from the Black clan. They would sprout some family pride bullshit that his uncle would’ve hated, and he, Sirius, would have to sit there and listen. 

He sprang to his feet. “The pin—” 

“The what?” said James.

“The — the pin… the bloody brooch thing he sent me last year, d’you remember?”

It was a clunky, worn silver brooch, wrought in the shape of a bramble bush. The significance of it was indecipherable, but Alphard had said it was a family heirloom. One of the few unconnected to snake symbols or blood, he’d written, and so perhaps it was something Sirius could see himself keeping. Honestly, his feelings about his family weren’t far off from that twisted knot of bramble. There were the good ones, like Alphard, and his cousin Andromeda, the few unchipped jewelled flowers; the rest, well. Some things were better not spoken of.

Sirius strode over to his dresser and began haphazardly pulling out the drawers. “It has to be here somewhere — I should wear it to the funeral, that’ll stick it to everyone—”

A hand touched him on the shoulder; he jumped.

“Padfoot, don’t worry,” Peter said. “We’ll help you look.”

Sirius was dimly aware that he probably looked manic, and frantic, and in general fucking bonkers. His friends wore matching expressions of cautious concern.

“Oh,” he said faintly.

“Yeah, mate,” James said with a smile. “And, I mean, why not just try — Accio Black family brooch!”

Nothing stirred.

James sighed. “Worth a shot.”

“Yeah, you did all right,” Sirius said.

The three of them stared at Sirius’s dresser, which had clothes bundled into it with no eye for order. A faint smell, like rotting fruit, was coming from somewhere inside it.

“I’ll take the trunk,” said Peter quickly.

Icon of a quill drawing a line

Half an hour later, the three had made significant discoveries about Sirius’s general cleanliness and hygiene, but the brooch was nowhere to be found. Poor Peter had gingerly pushed aside Dungbombs to sift through the debris at the bottom of his trunk.

“Maybe you left it at your parents’ house,” James said. He had gone back to his bed, since Sirius’s dresser was a lost cause.

Sirius screwed his face up in thought. “I might have. I don’t think I did…” He sighed. “Well, if it gets back to them in the end it’ll all have been for nothing.”

“It was a pretty ugly brooch anyway,” Peter offered.

Sirius considered this. “Yeah, it was,” he admitted.

“What’s this?” Peter fished out a crumpled-up scrap of parchment, holding it up to squint at it. “Black, your last chance. Blood. What the hell? That’s all it says.”

“Let me see.” James slid off his bed and snatched the parchment from him. “Oh, you weren’t joking. That is all it says.” 

Peter scowled at him. “Thanks, Prongs.”

“Oh, that,” said Sirius. “I thought it was rubbish. Someone slipped it into my Potions notes.”

“It’s literally addressed to you,” Peter pointed out.

“It says BLACK. They could mean the colour. How should I know?”

James rocked back on his heels. “It was in your Potions notes? We have Potions with Slytherin…”

Sirius met his gaze, frowning. “You don’t think one of them put this in there?”

“Who else would be capable of this demented shit?” said James with a shrug.

“You’re not curious?” Peter said. “I think it must have a password.”

Sirius gave him an incredulous look. “This isn’t a cozy little boys’ mystery novel, Wormtail. And besides, if it is meant for me, and it is supposed to have a password—” he raised his eyebrows meaningfully, underlining his scepticism “—then how would I be expected to know it? I have no bloody idea about any of this.”

“The clue is obviously blood,” Peter said, ignoring Sirius’s eye-roll. “So, er…” He waved his wand over the parchment and said, “Pure-blood!”

Nothing happened.

Peter deflated a little. “You could help by thinking in that vein,” he told the other two.

Sirius let out a long-suffering sigh, though the distraction this was posing came as a definite relief. He waved his own wand over the paper, saying, “Toujours pur.”

The words had the effect of a pebble dropped into a pond; the ink on the parchment rippled and then rearranged itself into new shapes, until the message now read: BLACK. YOUR LAST CHANCE. DADA DUNGEON, OCT 5.

Peter looked very smug indeed. “Merlin, it feels great to be right.”

“Yeah, it’s a novel feeling for you, isn’t it?” said Sirius, giving him a doleful look. “What the hell is happening in the Defence dungeon?”

“What the hell happened, more like. You’re a few days too late to find out,” James said regretfully. “Unless…”

Sirius recognised the expression he wore. “Oh, spit it out.”

“You can ask Regulus about it. That way you’re doing what Alphard wanted, and you can figure out what the note is supposed to mean.”

Triumph was evident in James’s voice, though Sirius did not think he had solved much.

“And why would he know anything about it?”

James shrugged. “Maybe he will, maybe he won’t. It’s probably good news if he doesn’t, eh? I can’t think of a good reason someone would send you that note.”

Sirius gave a noncommittal grunt. “Don’t look so fucking thrilled, you two. I know you’re only interested in this because you think you can talk me into talking to Reg—”

“All right, Padfoot,” said James. “We’ll leave it alone.”

When Sirius turned his back, he exchanged a knowing glance with Peter.

 


vi. None of the Last Dozen Boys Were Suitable At All!

However Doe had expected this day to end, it was not like this. The last boy had left, and rather than turn on Doe in anger once more, Mary — Mary Macdonald! — had begun to cry.

“None of them liked me,” Mary said, sniffling.

Doe was nothing short of amazed. “They didn’t like you? You had criticisms of all of them! Plural!” 

Mary blew her nose loudly. “This is so fucking unfair. None of them liked me!”

Doe sighed and took Mary’s hand. “That is not true. All of them liked you. Because they’d be mad not to!”

“Maybe they all liked this.” She gestured at her body. “But — none of them wanted to ask me things.”

She wasn’t wrong, but how could a first awkward meeting rule out all of these boys? 

“Ask you things like how you’d describe your favourite Queen song?” said Doe dryly.

Mary frowned. “That’s not funny.”

As if there were a timer going off her head, Doe felt herself reach her breaking point — and, snap!  

“No, what’s funny is that I’m investing time and energy in the project of your rebound relationship and you’re spending all of it complaining about how guys like you for the wrong reasons!” Doe hated the whiny note she heard in her voice, but once she’d started speaking she could not stop. “At least you know they like you!” 

Mary scoffed. “Please. You’d know they like you if you only asked.”

“Sometimes it’s nice to be asked first, all right?” said Doe hotly. “Only you wouldn’t know, because that’s your default.”

Mary opened her mouth to respond, but the glaring face of Madam Pince suddenly appeared between them, making both girls start and scream.

“Lower your voices,” Pince hissed. Mary and Doe stammered out apologies. Finally she slunk away, leaving the girls alone once more.

They locked gazes.

“I’m sorry,” Mary said with a sigh. “I know I’m being the worst friend right now.”

Doe mirrored her sigh. “You are, a little bit. I know you’re upset, Mare. But I really don’t think this is going to help.”

Mary pouted; Doe’s heart softened. She looked so uncertain — an expression that Mary wore like an ill-fitting shirt. 

“Forget about me,” said Mary. “I’m sorry I haven’t… asked about you. The reason I don’t ask you if you want a boyfriend is, well, you seem like you want something real . Not a quick snog in a broom closet — or something just for fun — you really want love. And that’s… something I don’t know much about. But I’ll help you, if that’s what you want.”

Doe wasn’t sure how to respond to this. She had nothing against quick snogs in broom closets — but Mary’s words brought something else to mind. What if she was casually seeing someone, and then she really fell for him? No, better to wait until someone as all-in as she’d be came along. She could hear the problem in her thinking, and she knew Mary would point it out to her if she vocalised it.

So instead she smiled and patted her friend on the shoulder. “I’ll let you know. And then you can be my wingwoman.”

“I’d be so damn good at it. I’ve been practising for years, you know.”

 

 

Chapter Text

i. Middle Ground

Whatever fickle hand dealt the Head Boy and Girl assignments — well, Lily supposed it was Dumbledore’s fickle hand, actually — surely had it out for all the prefects this year. There was simply no other explanation. Crollins and Marissa Beasley simply could not fathom how to work together. Their meetings were moved around constantly, their approaches to discipline were polar opposites… But the worst part about prefect meetings wasn’t even wincing through a Crollins and Marissa sparring match. No, that Lily might have stomached with some grimacing.

The worst part was that it was plain and obvious to all of them that another prefect had expected to be Head Boy, and the actual Head Boy knew that this prefect had expected to be Head Boy, and so he always thought his authority was being threatened. And the prefect never made things better. And then the Head Girl would take that prefect’s side—

“I don’t think Dumbledore could’ve made a stranger choice,” Lily whispered to Remus. The meeting had only just begun, but already Crollins and Caradoc Dearborn — the aforementioned prefect — were giving each other cold looks. Any minute now, Lily thought, and Crollins will erupt at something.

Remus chuckled. “Sometimes I wonder if he ever just picks a random, vaguely well-behaved pair of students just to see what they’ll do to each other, let alone everyone else.”

“Then this has to be one of those times.”

“Let’s start off with reports,” said Marissa briskly, putting an end to the low chatter that filled the room. “Have patrols been going all right, everyone?”

The low murmur of assent was interrupted by a lone raised voice.

“Actually, Annie and I have heard some odd noises lately,” Doc said. Annie, a seventh-year Hufflepuff, nodded in confirmation. “They quiet down when we try to take a closer look, but it’s strange stuff. Bangs, sometimes even flashes of light, stuff like that.”

“Probably just Peeves,” said Crollins, his gaze fixed on the wall across from him.

“Here we go,” Remus muttered.

Doc gave him an icy smile. “Since when does Peeves need to hide? Look, I’m not saying we can do anything about it — hell, we don’t know what it is. I’m just saying, you all ought to know—” this, he said to the whole group “—in case you hear it too.”

“Thanks for the public service announcement, Dearborn,” Crollins said nastily. “If any of you is seeing or hearing things and you’re certain you don’t belong in the Hospital Wing, we can discuss it next meeting.”

Marissa looked like she was working very hard on swallowing a scream. “Just keep your eyes and ears open, I suppose,” she said through clenched teeth. 

Doc rolled his eyes. Lily and Remus exchanged a look. Poor Marissa, she thought.

“Poor Marissa,” someone whispered behind her, making Lily jump. 

She peered over her shoulder to see Amelia Bones, her head bent conspiratorially towards Emmeline Vance. Emmeline caught Lily staring and narrowed her eyes. Clearing her throat, Lily turned around quickly.

They went over the next month’s patrol schedule next. As the Hufflepuff prefects went back and forth over dates, Lily and Remus did not have to discuss things at all. It was simple, figuring out prefect business with him. Lily allowed herself to imagine them as Heads together. It was not outside the realm of possibility, and it was preferable to lots of other options. Severus, for one — he was sitting not far from them, looking away from her pointedly. Remus did always have the same conflicts, though, which reminded her…

“How are you feeling, by the way?” she said to Remus, pitching her voice low. 

Remus frowned a little. “You mean my mum? She’s well.”

“No, I mean you,” replied Lily, confused now. “Sirius said you were in the Hospital Wing this weekend — and he and James and Peter were there all morning…”

“Oh, that. Yes, I’m doing much better, thanks.” He shifted in his seat. “Sorry to abandon you for patrols.”

“That’s all right. You can make up for it this week.”

He smiled at her. “Oh — can we, er, avoid Thursday? I think Singh said they were flexible on Friday, so maybe we could swap?”

How odd. “You’re not doing a very good job of making up for anything,” Lily said, frowning again.

Remus coloured. “Look, I’ll just ask.”

“But — why?”

“Just...trust me, all right?”

Lily couldn’t contain a sigh, but she did not protest when he stood to go speak to the sixth-year Ravenclaw prefects, who had drifted towards Marissa and Crollins. She wasn’t the only one watching Remus, she realised; Severus’s gaze was fixed on his back. Unease pricked her. Sev was so hung up on Remus’s mysterious illness, and she wouldn’t have put eavesdropping below him. But perhaps she could divert his train of thought. 

“Do you know what that’s about?” she said to Severus.

His dark eyes flashed. “What?”

“The nighttime noises. You know, what Doc said.”

“Are we friends or not?” Severus said snappily. “Because some days you won’t speak to me, and on others you’ll pretend everything’s fine.”

Lily opened her mouth, struggling to come up with a response. He was right, she realised. She was bloody awful at being angry at him. And she did care for him — she had, and she couldn’t just ignore that — but she couldn’t ignore that memory either— All this must have been clear on her face, because Severus’s expression darkened.

“Thought so. Figure it out yourself. Maybe James and Sirius can help.”

He stood and walked away before Lily could say anything. There was no middle ground, she thought, and that was her problem. The middle ground was straightforward to live in. She had lived in it for some time now. But now — that day, by the lake, she had been jostled horribly out of her middle-ground existence. Was there a way to go back? Did she want to go back? 

But she didn’t like fighting, with anyone. It took so much energy to maintain a fight — she knew that, from James. What would it mean to extend a truce to Severus, just the same as she had for the other boy? He would agree, she knew he would. He had rebuffed her and sulked at her for weeks now but he certainly still missed her. Perhaps then the space where he’d been would feel less like a fresh wound and more like a passing bruise. But — Lily still had her pride, and her memory of that day.

Consider it, said the part of her that missed the comfort of his friendship.

Perhaps she would. The decision ought to have been satisfying, but all Lily felt was that sense of unsettledness, that same kick-to-the-ribs reminder that had left her breathless since June. 

 



ii. Family Business, that morning

Against all his instincts, Sirius cornered his brother after breakfast. 

“I need to talk to you,” he said, concentrating on keeping his gaze away from Rowle. If he looked at that twit, he would say something stupid; he just knew he would. 

Regulus glanced from his friend to Sirius, uncertainty written in his expression. “About what?”

Sirius resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “Look, it won’t take long. You,” he said to Rowle, “buzz off for a second.”

Rowle glared at him. “Who d’you think—”

“You don’t have to be a prick,” said Regulus, remarkably calm given the circumstances. “I’ll talk to you.”

The brothers moved away from the crowd, to a corner of the Entrance Hall. Sirius could see that Rowle had stopped by the stairs, presumably to wait for Regulus. Of all the lackeys to pick, he thought. Alphard would’ve said that Regulus wasn’t exactly spoiled for choice. But then, Alphard would’ve said a lot of things. Sirius knew that was what he should begin with: their uncle’s death, and their fucked-up family, and how did ickle Reg feel? That was how Alphard would’ve done it, anyway.

Instead, he said, “Do you know anything about this note?” He fished out the piece of parchment from a pocket, and handed it to Regulus.

Sirius found himself hoping his brother would say no. It was a strange feeling — he’d thought he had long since given up on expecting things of anyone he was related to. But hell, he wanted Regulus to look at the note and tell Sirius he had no idea what any of this was.

But when Regulus met Sirius’s gaze again, he knew. He fucking knew. 

“You...figured out the password?” Regulus said.

“Yeah, I did, but only after the date. What’s it about?” If he wanted to know more, Sirius knew, he’d have to play along. 

“You really want to know?” Something like hope sparked in Regulus’s eyes. “I told them — well, they thought you wouldn’t be interested—”

“I’m here because I want to know, aren’t I?” He didn’t have to feign impatience. 

“All right, look—” Regulus glanced about to make sure no one was listening in on them. “There’s another one on Thursday night. The first-floor Transfiguration classroom. Come alone.”

Sirius frowned. “But what is it?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“Oh, come off it—”

“No, I can’t! But you can see for yourself. As long as you don’t bring your friends.”

Sirius was silent for a moment. His friends were, no doubt, watching the map at this very moment to make sure he was actually speaking to Regulus.

“All right,” he said finally. 

All right? So you’ll come?”

He shrugged, and walked away. 

 


iii. Be Alone

It wasn’t even late October yet. It was still early days. There was no need to panic already — she’d be panicking all the way until May. She didn’t need to start early. 

These were all things that Germaine was telling herself as she walked to the Quidditch pitch, broom in hand. It was drizzling, the sort of rain that didn’t so much fall as hang like a curtain of mist in the air. 

Germaine didn’t mind that, though. Quidditch — time and space and herself, alone in the air — had been all hers since her childhood. Her sister didn’t obsess over the game, though they had both listened to matches on the wireless as children. The day that difference became apparent was when their mother — having saved up a great deal beforehand — had bought them tickets to a Harpies match, saying she wanted her daughters to have female role models. Her father had responded that role models like the Harpies would certainly teach Germaine and Abigail how to beat up anyone — especially boys — who even looked at them funny. She still wasn’t sure if that had been a joke. 

The sisters had gone to the match, though, escorted by their Muggle-born father, who preferred footy to Quidditch. Abigail had spent the day wandering around the packed stands and saying hello to strangers. Germaine had spent the day watching, and possibly had her mouth open for the entire duration of the game. 

Imagine her disappointment when it became increasingly clear that she physically would not be handing out any Harpies-style beatdowns. When the neighbourhood boys played Quidditch on their banged-up training brooms, she was always the last one picked to a team. Until, that is, someone had nicked a Snitch. It wasn’t the same as real Quidditch, since the worn little thing had already been touched by someone, but the Snitch still flew quite far and fast. Of all the children, no one could weave through trees and spot its golden sheen like Germaine. 

Suddenly she was a hot commodity. In the house Germaine was quiet, though not necessarily meek, and her parents had worried that bossy Abigail would get her way too often. But after Quidditch, she was content — still not loud, but satisfied with herself and unwilling to be pushed around. On the puttering family broom, Germaine was cheerful and competitive and at peace. 

Around the time that she had started at Hogwarts, though, the boys had stopped wanting to play with her — for different reasons than before. Germaine couldn’t give less of a damn about girls and boys playing together. But she’d recovered from this expulsion fairly quickly. Why did she need them, anyway? She had friends at school now, ones who would write her over the summer and did not forget her over the holidays. 

So she practised flying all by herself, in the woods near her little country village. This had nearly the same effect as Quidditch, she found. She would duck under branches and around surprised woodland creatures, feel the dappled sunlight on her skin, and know she was centred. This was where she belonged; this was where she was at peace. And if she fell once or twice, or came home with scratches all over her arms, well, her mother would only shake her head and get out her healing supplies. 

It would be more accurate to say that flying calmed Germaine; Quidditch, by contrast, excited her and stressed her and drove her mad. She was the sort of sports fan who had pre-game jitters when her favourite team played. And so on weeks when she found James Potter’s drills played on a loop in her brain, and she was thinking too much about the next game, she would go out to the pitch and just fly. 

Given that the season was coming up soon it was difficult to find a convenient time to be alone at the stadium. Often her greatest obstacle was none other than the Gryffindor Quidditch team, led through one gruelling practice after another by a characteristically fanatical James. But now — now she could…

Of course, no sooner had she thought that treacherous thought than she realised someone had beaten her to the pitch. Again. The same someone, in fact, as last time. 

Since her run-in with the girl on her birthday, Germaine had figured out who she was. They were in so many classes together, after all, and she had played against her before. Well, lost to her before, but that was not something Germaine wanted to remember just then. They weren’t friends, nor were they friendly. Emmeline Vance was not the friendly type. 

Germaine watched her run the same drills as last time, feeling a prickle of frustration. The whole point of solitude was not having to think about other bloody people. Being able to pretend you were the only one in the world, just for an hour or two. She could fly with Emmeline again but she would be so aware, the whole time, of the words she couldn’t bring herself to say to anyone. Well, she could try and yell my parents are splitting up at Emmeline. She didn’t think that would go down so well. 

She noticed Emmeline noticing her: the other girl stilled in the air, mid-drill. Without thinking Germaine waved at her. For a moment Emmeline did not respond. Germaine felt incredibly foolish. She ought to just leave. But then Emmeline waved back for a split second, before tumbling into her drill once more. 

Why couldn’t they just share the pitch? There was plenty of space, and Germaine wasn’t going to run any drills herself. If Emmeline didn’t like that, she thought, she could keep away easily. 

Icon of a quill drawing a line

Keeping distance was easier than Germaine had thought it would be. She’d flown towards one end of the pitch while Emmeline was at the other, and without any sort of conversation they had each stayed in their own halves. It felt a little like playing truant to fly aimlessly while Emmeline was clearly practising. But Germaine wasn’t sure she wanted to run drills with the other girl right there. She would think too much about whether she was looking and what she thought of Germaine’s form. Germaine would prefer that Emmeline — or anyone she didn’t know well, really — had no thoughts of her at all. 

But she had started copying Emmeline’s drills without realising it. It was a profoundly embarrassing realisation. What if Emmeline thought she was staring at her, or worse, spying? God, Germaine would die. She slowed her pace, swinging her feet up to her broom handle. She’d done this lots as a kid, but she wasn’t certain she could still manage it — which should have given her pause, honestly, but Germaine was so concentrated on seeming nonchalant that she didn’t even consider it. She put the soles of her shoes against the handle, counted down, and pulled herself upright. 

As she’d expected, the broom bucked at the sudden shift in weight. She put her out her hands for balance, unable to swallow a shriek. Stupid, stupid, this was such a stupid thing to do— But her broom stopped bobbing and there she was, standing.

“I thought I was going to have to catch you,” said a flat voice. Emmeline had indeed flown over. Did she have any expressions, Germaine thought, other than unimpressed?

“No need,” Germaine said, her glib tone somewhat belied by the wobble she gave.

“Why would you even try that? It’s not like you’d get the chance to use it in a Quidditch match.”

Germaine shrugged. “For fun?”

Emmeline arched an eyebrow. “If your thrills come from near-death experiences, I suppose.”

It wasn’t like she’d have actually died. Death was far-off. Death was for people who weren’t seventeen and antsy. Her broom was even still moving, at a leisurely pace. Germaine angled her body to the left and her broom followed. Pointedly, she met Emmeline’s gaze. See? I’m in control.

“Besides,” Emmeline said, “you definitely shouldn’t be trying that on a — what is that, a Cleansweep Five?”

Germaine frowned. “We can’t all ride the latest models,” she retorted, a chill seeping into her voice.

Emmeline’s brows pinched together. “That’s not what I meant. It’s just not safe.”

“Well, don’t worry. You don’t have to catch me.”

Germaine sat down more carelessly than she otherwise would have, just to see how Emmeline would react. She flinched, only a little. There was not much else to say. They hadn’t really said hello. Germaine flew away without saying goodbye.

 


iv. Mischief Managed

Not for the first time, James was glad there were no other Gryffindor boys in their year. It would have been bloody inconvenient. The Marauders were all in their dormitory; it was Thursday night, curfew was in place, and they had things to investigate. Of course, they didn’t all agree on how to do it.

“You don’t have to come,” Sirius was saying. 

James sighed. “Mate, what the fuck makes you think we wouldn’t come? It’s Slytherins doing something weird. We want to know too.”

“It’s not just any Slytherins.” Sirius’s eyes flashed. The others exchanged glances. They had come to understand their friend’s complicated relationship with his family and their sort — but nothing was quite so tangled and confusing as Sirius where his brother was concerned. 

“If it makes you feel any better, I won’t be coming,” said Remus.

Peter looked up at that. “What? Why not?”

“I tried to switch patrols, but it didn’t work. I couldn’t press it too much — Lily was getting all suspicious.”

Moony,” said James, exasperated.

“What? What did you want me to do, explain that we wanted to sneak out to spy on Regulus and his friends?” Remus shot back. “She would not take that lying down.”

“Oh, all right.”

“But I want to take one of the mirrors.”

Sirius frowned. “What for?”

Because, when you three need my help you’ll need a way to contact me. And unless you want me to have the map so I can find you, I’ll need a mirror.”

James couldn’t fault this logic. It was best that the three of them kept the map, because they’d need to know who they were going up against. If they were going up against anyone, and this wasn’t just all a big joke.

“All right, take a mirror,” James said. “D’you have to go now?”

Remus looked at his watch. “Yeah, I should be off.” He took the mirror Sirius held out to him.

“Keep Evans away,” James said as Remus opened the door. All three of his friends looked at him; he cursed himself for speaking at all. “I mean — she’d get in the way, you know she would. Especially if Snivellus is there.” 

Remus nodded slowly. “I will.”

When he left, silence fell over the other three. It was an uneasy sort of quiet — unusual, for the Marauders. Their nightly excursions were characterised by excitement, not this...tension. James had to wonder how much of Sirius’s impatience had to do with his uncle’s death. But of course they couldn’t talk about that, not unless they wanted Sirius to up and run right away.

“We should go too,” said Sirius, springing to his feet.

“Not yet. What’s the plan?” Peter said. “We don’t know what we’re walking into.”

Sirius rolled his eyes. “It’s obviously Dark magic. We need to go get proof.”

“We do need proof,” James said. Whatever happened, whatever they found, their word wasn’t enough.

“We don’t even know that anything’s happening,” said Peter, exasperated.

“Right, because they’re having fucking tea in the Transfiguration classroom right now,” snapped Sirius. “They’re up to something, Wormtail. That’s bloody obvious.”

James looked between them. Sirius was pacing now, his jaw clenched. Peter was on the carpet, knees drawn to his chest. For fuck’s sake. James was going to have to play the mediator. That was Remus’s job; James was not a middle ground sort of person. He drew in a breath.

“We should probably figure out how we’ll approach it beforehand,” he said at last.

Sirius scoffed. “I can’t believe you, Prongs. They’re obviously — they’re obviously doing something, and we don’t have the balls to go—”

Peter’s desperation showed on his face. “But — well, do we even know how many of them there are? Just, think for a second, Padfoot—”

“We have the map, don’t we? Wasn’t that the whole point?” Sirius shoved his hands into his pockets. 

James opened his mouth to argue, to talk him down somehow. But before he could think what to say, Sirius threw his hands up and stalked out of the door.

“Is he really going?” said Peter, his voice small.

“’Course not. He’ll take a walk and cool off,” James said. He got to his feet. They might as well get ready for whenever Sirius came back. He tucked the Cloak under one arm, rummaging through his unmade bed for the map. Maybe this was why his mother was always telling him to make it. But the parchment was nowhere to be found. James sighed. 

“Pete, help me find the map.”

But Peter’s eyes grew huge and round. “He’s got it.”

“What—” James understood all of a sudden. “Padfoot. He has the map.”

He wasn’t taking a walk at all.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” James muttered. “C’mon, we’ve got to go.” He threw the Cloak over himself; after a beat, Peter joined him.

“We should take the—”

“—sixth-floor passage, I know.”

If they couldn’t head Sirius off, they could at least arrive before he had caused too much havoc. Stifling a swear, James led the way.

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Remus was usually quiet on patrol; Lily was used to that. What she wasn’t used to was this...odd sort of jumpiness. It was starting to get at her as well. 

“Are you sure,” she said, not for the first time that night, “that you’re all right?”

Remus nodded. “Yes. Absolutely. I’m fine. It’s just been — a long day.”

Lily felt a touch of guilt at that. Poor Remus always had to bear the brunt of her curiosity. 

“Sorry about that,” she said.

“It’s fine.” But he did not elaborate; when they arrived at the stairs, he started downwards rather than continuing along the corridor.

Lily couldn’t help herself. “We’ve already been down there. I thought we were going back to the East Wing.”

Remus shrugged. “I thought I heard something.”

“You didn’t say.”

He met her gaze, a pleading look coming over him. 

“All right,” she said. “Lead the way.” 

As they walked, Lily racked her brain for something innocent to discuss. What was it with everyone’s bloody moods lately? Germaine was so closed-off. And Remus was never short with her, not even when he looked so plainly ill. 

“The food prank,” said Lily. “How does it work?”

Remus cocked his head, though he looked just as relieved as she felt about the change in topic. “How d’you mean?”

She gestured at the ceiling. “Well, you don’t see food floating around, so it obviously isn’t enchanted to move. But James said there are specific targets. If the food isn’t following its target, then it must have some way of knowing when a target is nearby… But I can’t figure out how.”

Remus smiled. “I didn’t think anyone paid that much attention to what we do, save for Filch.”

Lily smiled back. “You know you lot drive me batty. Well? What’s the secret?”

“It would hardly be a secret if I told you, would it?”

“I can’t believe it,” said Lily, laughing. He looked so pleased at this line of questioning. “You’re really like the others.”

“You’ve lost me again, Lily.”

“I mean — you’re really like the other Marauders. You like being a troublemaker.” At his sheepish grin, Lily laughed again. “Remus John Lupin, you devil. You’ve got everyone fooled.”

“Hardly,” he said. “Not as long as you’re keeping watch, at least. I’m sure you’ll figure out how the food prank works. By the end of the school year, probably.”

Lily made a face. “Only about eight more months. You must think so highly of me.”

“Lily Evans works hard, but the devil works harder,” said Remus with a modest smile.

The words were so strange coming from him, Lily burst into laughter again.

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If James had it his way, there would have been a plan. All three of them would have gone to the Transfiguration classroom at the same time. Peter would’ve transformed into a rat and snuck in to see what was going on. Then he’d report to the other two. Armed with this information and the map, they would have the proper element of surprise. If they needed to call Remus, they would. He would ditch Lily — in James’s mind, anything from literally running away from her to casting a Stunning Spell was an acceptable method — and come find them. 

But they weren’t together, and James didn’t have the map, and Lily would probably not allow herself to be ditched. And Sirius was being a fucking idiot, which, evidently, James hadn’t prepared for. 

He had spent the entire hurried journey to the first floor fuming — so he stopped short, surprised, when he spotted Sirius outside the classroom, apparently waiting. James looked up and down the corridor to confirm that it was, indeed, empty, and pulled the Cloak off himself and Peter.

Sirius didn’t look surprised to see them. “What if it’s a trap?” he said.

James laughed, incredulous. “Now you’re thinking of the possibilities, are you?” 

“What was I supposed to do? They’re mini Death Eaters, the lot of them, and we’re stuck just watching them—”

“Exist?” James offered. But he took the map when Sirius extended it to him. Sebastian Selwyn, James reckoned that was a fifth-year. Regulus. Mulciber, Avery, Thalia Greengrass… No Snape, James realised. He registered a touch of disappointment.

“We can take them,” said Sirius, looking over James’s shoulder.

“Can we try to listen in on them first?” said Peter, glancing nervously at the door.

The corridor was silent. James reckoned they had cast some kind of muffling spell. “Finite Incantatem,” he whispered. Nothing happened. “Well, make yourselves useful,” he told the other two.

They cast the counter-spell together — and suddenly, they could hear the murmur of conversation. There was a soft thud, which made Peter flinch. Silence descended again...until there was a bang that made them all jump. Sirius swore. Inside the room, someone was laughing — a girl’s voice, pitched in a whine, was saying something — and James could hear a horrible whimpering. Another bang — and an inhuman shriek—

James scrambled for the mirror. “Remus. Now.” 

Then they went for the door.

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Was having flexible morals bad? Lily wasn’t sure. She slowed automatically when they approached McGonagall’s office. The door was ajar; McGonagall’s familiar voice was audible from the corridor. 

“What?” Remus said. He had gone a few steps ahead of her.

Lily hushed him, and inched closer to the office. “Wait, she said something about—”

“It’s a done deal,” McGonagall was saying. “Albus can hardly say no to Crouch.”

Remus went still. Lily raised her eyebrows meaningfully.

“A few trainees, did you say?” The other voice was also a woman’s — Sprout, Lily realised.

“Trainees, with someone to lead them, I expect,” said McGonagall.

“It doesn’t sit right with me,” Sprout said grimly.

“Nor me. But — Crouch.”

“Oh, I know.” Sprout sighed. Then, with a touch of humour in her voice, she said, “This means we’ll be seeing a lot of your old students in the corridors again, hmm?”

McGonagall snorted. “Yes, when you put it that way, it does sound like a recipe for chaos.”

Former students? Trainees? Lily had a hunch she knew what they were discussing — but she couldn’t be sure. She just had to listen a little longer…

But her chance was foiled by the strangest thing. The corridor was empty — she knew it was — but out of nowhere, James’s disembodied voice said, “Remus. Now.”

“What the hell?” Lily hissed. Remus was frantically searching his robes. “Remus — what the hell was that?”

“What,” McGonagall said, “is going on?”

Lily straightened. Both professors had come out into the corridor, their expressions stern. She didn’t even think Sprout could look so serious. She hoped to God it wasn’t obvious that they’d been eavesdropping.

“Sorry, professors,” said Remus. “Lily and I are on patrol.”

“I can see that,” McGonagall replied, eyeing them. “I thought I heard Potter.”

“Well, he’s not here,” said Lily, trying for a smile. “I imagine he’s in bed, Professor.”

McGonagall narrowed her eyes. “We should all hope. Carry on, then.”

Lily let out her breath and started along the corridor again — but this time Remus had stopped. She turned around, gesturing impatiently for him to follow. He was looking not at her, but at Sprout and McGonagall; his uncertainty was hardening into resolve.

“Professors, I think… I think you should come with us,” he said.

“Come with you? Whatever for?” said Sprout, clearly taken aback.

McGonagall, however, looked resigned. “Where to, Lupin?”

“Er — the Transfiguration classroom.”

“But — why?” Sprout said.

“Well — I think someone’s in trouble.”

Lily watched this exchange with a sinking feeling. Of course — his reluctance to go near the East Wing all night, his strange behaviour, and then James’s odd message… She ought to have known. No, she had known, but she had thought she shouldn’t press it. What on earth were they up to now?

“Then lead the way,” McGonagall said.

Icon of a quill drawing a line

Whatever concealment charm the Slytherins had cast on the classroom was broken when they burst through the door, casting Finite Incantatem again together. But James could see shimmers of its evidence all along the wide windows that overlooked the courtyard. They were gutsy, using a first-floor classroom that was so conspicuous — but of course, Filch could not cast the counter-spell necessary to hear what they were up to. And Filch would not have known they were here at all…

The Slytherins were in two groups, each surrounding a creature that looked like a small squirrel, or possibly a ferret. Selwyn’s wand was pointed at one; it was trembling, shrinking away from him. James’s stomach twisted when he saw the other — it was dead, clearly, its limbs splayed out horribly. 

They all looked up in unison at the Marauders’ entrance.

You,” Mulciber snarled, and James thought Levicorpus! With a shout, Mulciber was hoisted up by his ankles, his wand clattering to the floor. 

Beside him, Sirius cast the Full-Body Bind on Avery, who snapped comically to the ground.

“Oh, for goodness’s sake!” Greengrass shouted, flicking her wand. James only just managed to keep hold of his own wand — she had tried to disarm him. Surprising: he thought she would have freed either of her friends before making a move of her own.

Selwyn threw a jinx at Sirius, who deflected it and moved towards the fifth-year — and his brother. James knew he ought to do something, stop him — although, what was he going to do anyway? — but Greengrass cast a hex at him and Peter just then, distracting him. And Avery had wormed his way towards the dead animal, and he was angling his wand towards it—

“Stop it!” Regulus was shouting. “Stop it — you said you were going to come alone—”

“Well, I fucking lied, you should know what that’s like—”

And then a powerful force was pushing them all apart. James could barely keep his balance as he was shoved to the wall. McGonagall and Sprout stormed into the room, wands aloft. Remus and Lily scurried behind them.

“Wands down, all of you!” McGonagall barked. “And Potter, put Mulciber down. Now!”

Reluctantly, James cast the counter-jinx. Mulciber fell to the floor and came up glaring at him. McGonagall waved her wand and Avery struggled to his feet as well. 

“Which of you can explain to me what in Merlin’s name is going on?”

James straightened. “Professor, they—”

“—were doing Dark magic—” Sirius was yelling.

“They walked in and attacked us!” Thalia Greengrass said. “I tried to stop them—”

“Bullshit,” Sirius said furiously. “Bullshit. They were practising Dark magic, and we found them—”

“Did you see any Dark magic?” said McGonagall, dangerously calm.

“No,” Sirius said, deflating. “But—”

“But we saw an animal,” said Peter all of a sudden. “It was... dead.”

At that, some of the anger on McGonagall’s face faded. She looked around the empty classroom. “Where is it?” she asked the Slytherins.

But James had noticed what Peter hadn’t. The flagstone floor was clear of any small animals. At some point during their scuffle, one of them had Vanished the dead creature.

“It’s gone,” said James, knowing exactly how this looked. “They got rid of it.”

McGonagall sniffed. “Did they.”

“I have no idea what he’s talking about, Professor,” Greengrass said primly.

James rolled his eyes. Sprout and McGonagall exchanged a glance. Sensing, perhaps, that the students would spend more time arguing with each other than answering their questions, Sprout gathered the Slytherins while McGonagall faced her own Gryffindors. 

“You can’t really believe them over us, Professor!” James said the moment she’d turned to them.

“I want to believe that you aren’t inventing a dead animal to fit your story, Potter,” she replied. “But it’s your word against theirs. And I’m afraid hearsay isn’t enough when you are accusing a fellow student of using Dark magic.” She looked from him to Sirius to Peter. “I will see all of you in detention next week. Ten points each from Gryffindor.”

Immediately they all began to protest.

“You were out of bed,” said McGonagall, her voice now thick with fury, “and you were duelling. This is fair punishment.”

Sirius scoffed. “Are you even going to ask them what they were doing here?”

“Leave my job to me, Black. I’ll thank you to behave as a student should." She grew even colder. "Please remember that you have exhausted your second chances. I cannot show you lenience after tonight." Sirius shut up promptly; McGonagall turned to Lily and Remus. “You two, escort these boys to the common room. And all of you can stay in Gryffindor Tower for the rest of the night.”

Lily blinked. “But, Professor, our patrol—”

“Professor Sprout and I are very much awake and can see to the castle, thank you. Go on.”

In short order they slouched out of the classroom. 

“Really, Moony,” James muttered. “You brought McGonagall?”

“Do not start on me for being the only reasonable one here,” said Remus, but he too looked disappointed at the night’s results. “Did you really not see them doing anything...else?”

“I’m certain they were up to something with those squirrels,” Sirius said, his expression tight. “The sounds they were making—”

“’Cept, we won’t know,” said Peter. “And how can we know, after tonight?”

James snorted. “What, d’you think they’re going to get detention and then decide not to mess around with whatever they’re doing anymore? Not a chance. They’ll lie low for a few weeks, then they’ll be at it again. And we’ll know.”

“And how will you know?” Lily burst out. “Come to think of it, how did you know? And — how did you speak to Remus?” She threw her hands up in frustration. “What in Merlin’s name just happened?”

The Marauders exchanged glances. This, James thought, was exactly why he hadn’t wanted her around. She asked so many bloody questions, and he didn’t want to have to deflect all of them.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Sirius.

She glared daggers at him. “Given that I allowed Remus to drag me around the West Wing all night and pretended not to notice something was going on, I think I’m owed some sort of explanation!”

James sighed. It was better to give her something, or she’d never let up. “They left Sirius a note,” he said, “inviting him to join. We knew they weren’t exactly operating above board, so we looked into it.”

“And how could you have known that?”

“What would they be doing in an empty classroom in the middle of the night?” said Sirius, exasperated at having to repeat this line of reasoning.

“Also, the password that revealed the message was the Black family motto,” said James. “Toujours pur. As in—”

“‘Always pure,’ I know my French,” said Lily, but her expression had softened into thoughtfulness.

“Yes, as in some bunk about blood purity. So.” 

Lily shook her head. “But — why would they be doing this...whatever they’re doing, outside of the Slytherin dungeon? That seems the simplest meeting place.”

“Apparently they’re dense enough to think I believe the same crap as them, but they know not to let me into their common room,” Sirius said. “They’re notoriously secretive about it.”

James thought about this for a moment. “But they didn’t know you’d be coming. When you asked for the location, Regulus said the classroom.” 

Sirius scowled at the mention of his brother. Before he could speak, though, Remus said, “Does that mean they’ve got other non-Slytherins? There were none tonight.”

James nodded, smiling a little. Here was something to solve. Something to do. Sirius was right. Those bigoted pricks couldn’t carry on however they pleased. If there were non-Slytherins at their meetings, then there would be others, in places the Marauders could get to as well. And he did like a puzzle. 

“They will try again,” James said, realising something new. “They’ve done it for weeks now. Remember Rowle and Davies?”

Sirius let out a low whistle. “They were injured. They tried to push back Quidditch—”

“—only Hooch wouldn’t let them. Talkalot never would say what happened to them.”

“Christ.”

James put his hands into his pockets as they entered the Fat Lady’s corridor. Yes, there was the familiar crinkle of the map, and the soft fabric of the Cloak, which he’d shrunk. All the tools he needed. 

“We’ll get them,” he said cheerfully. “Hullo, Gossamer.”

Icon of a quill drawing a line

It made sense. It really made sense. This was all Lily could think of as they stepped through the portrait hole. Whatever they’d been practising… well, Lily did think the Marauders had their biases, but she wouldn’t have put it past them. Awful, creepy Mulciber — and Avery too, that git. And any sort of duelling practice would explain Avery’s odd nonverbal prowess. How long had they been at it? Avery had jinxed Severus in the very first Defence class. 

That stopped her short. Severus. How snippy he’d been with her when she’d asked about his nonverbal spellcasting. 

“You all right, Evans?” James was at the bottom of the boys’ staircase, the Marauders trooping up ahead of him. 

Lily realised she had been frozen in place. “Fine,” she said. “Only thinking about...everything.” Chewing on her lip, she looked up at him. “What do you think they’re practising for?”

Some of the serenity fell away from him at that. Grimly, he said, “If we don’t stop them, I expect we’ll find out.”

How matter-of-factly he’d said it too. 

“Surely you don’t plan on following them around every night?” Lily said. 

He shrugged. “If you want to do it any faster, here’s an idea. Ask your friend Snape.”

Lily flinched. “He’s not my friend. And he’s — he wasn’t even there tonight.” 

Why was she defending him, she wondered, when she herself had considered his culpability already? It was like an instinct she couldn’t suppress. Muscle memory. 

James gave her a derisive look. “Isn’t he your friend? You defend him like he is.”

“Against unfounded accusations,” she replied. “I’d defend anyone on that front.”

“You can’t have it both ways when it comes to him, Evans. If you don’t get that through your head, you’ll find out, and it won’t be pretty.”

“And why can’t I have it both ways?” She was angry now, really angry. “Who are you to decide?”

“I’m not blind,” he retorted. “He tried to have it both ways with you — you, and his twisted blood-purist friends. Look how that turned out.”

She half-stumbled backwards, as if she’d been slapped. “I don’t need you to remind me,” she hissed. To her embarrassment, tears of frustration sprang to her eyes. But if she’d thought that would make him back off, she was wrong. 

“Yeah, except you do need the reminder,” said James. “Because you don’t get it yet. He chose them. Not you.”

Lily was shaking. “I believe in second chances,” she said, fighting to keep her voice level. “But you really, really test my faith, James.” And without waiting for him to answer, she stormed up the girls’ staircase, wiping at her cheeks. 

 

 

Chapter Text

i. One Track Mind

Dorcas Walker knew she wanted to be an Auror when she was a little girl. She could remember the exact moment she’d decided it, too. Her parents had taken her to a Squib Rights demonstration in London; she had clung to her parents’ hands and stared, wide-eyed, at the crowds of cheering people that filled Diagon Alley. They’d had shimmering signs and magnified voices, and it had felt more magical and powerful than any trick Dorcas could imagine. Far more magical even than when her dad caught the tea kettle before it began whistling, or when her mum found her missing sock, always. 

That feeling had stayed with her until they’d gone home and the Walkers had filtered into the kitchen, turning on the radio while they cooked dinner.

“—Reports of violence at a Squib Rights demonstration in Birmingham just coming in,” a grave voice said, interrupting a weird WWN special about haircare potions. “The death toll is unconfirmed so far, but estimates say that five have lost their lives… Many more lie wounded… Minister for Magic Eugenia Jenkins strongly condemns what she calls a pure-blood riot… Stay tuned for comment from Squib Rights organiser Idris Oakby—”

Her mother had dropped a spoon with a clatter and hurried to the wireless. Her father pulled Dorcas close.

Dark magic is said to have been used on the crowds — Aurors are now pursuing those involved—

“Dark magic?” Doe had repeated.

A shadow crossed her father’s face. “It’s the worst kind of magic. It’s pure evil, Dorcas — you stay away from anyone who says otherwise.”

She’d nodded. “What’s an Auror s’posed to do?”

“Stop people who use it.”

A simplistic answer, perhaps, but one that more than satisfied young Dorcas — and one that fuelled her ambitions for years. She was less naive about the role Aurors played now, and wasn’t so silly to believe that all of them were perfect. But Doe believed she could reform the less savoury parts of the department, if she could get there first. 

Some of her classmates had been surprised when she’d expressed this desire aloud, finally, after Careers Advice in their fifth year. Doe supposed she saw the — misguided — logic in this. She was rather even-tempered and preferred to avoid conflict when she could. But of course, Aurors couldn’t be hotheads just because it was an intense job. That was ridiculous. Aurors ought to be sensible, have their heads on right — they ought to believe in justice, but they needed compassion as well, lest they grow far too unyielding. 

She’d launched into this explanation the moment she’d sat down for her meeting with McGonagall, who had listened to the whole thing without interrupting.

“—and that’s why I think I could be a good Auror, basically,” she’d finished, a little out of breath.

McGonagall had smiled a little. “I didn’t need convincing, Miss Walker. You have the marks for it, after all. I only wanted to warn you, it’s not the easiest profession. It’s difficult even to enter it.”

Dorcas had nodded eagerly. “I know! Frank Longbottom is in training right now — I owled him at the start of the year to ask him what he thought I should do.”

“And what did he say?”

“Well, to study hard. And that he’d tell me how his training was going. At least, whatever parts he was allowed to tell me.” She made a face.

McGonagall had nodded slowly. “You seem to be thinking the right way. I am happy you’ve found your direction. Do remember, though, that you needn’t stick to something only because you’ve always wanted to do it.”

Dorcas had frowned. “But—”

“I’m not trying to dissuade you,” said McGonagall quickly. “I don’t think I could if I had any desire to. Keep it in mind.”

That hadn’t felt very auspicious, but Doe really did try to tell herself McGonagall was right. She didn’t want to commit too much to one career path. What if she did fail Auror training? And, well, she enjoyed learning other things too. That was why she was still taking Ancient Runes. 

The memory of that meeting swam back to Doe as she sat in the library opposite Michael Meadowes. His head was bent over his parchment; he hadn’t looked up since they’d sat down and started working. But Doe’s mind had wandered far too frequently. She didn’t want to disturb him, but—

“Why can’t we do something fun?” she said, her voice pitched low for fear of Madam Pince.

Michael looked up, frowning. “Well, we get to go to Hogsmeade soon.”

“No, that’s not nearly soon enough… I mean, something fun, indoors, now.” She sat back, trying to find words for what she felt. “Do you know, I’ve just about given up everything I used to do for fun.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Like what?”

“Like… Ghoul Studies! I took it only because it sounded funny and I wanted to know more about it. And, I used to do Art as well. But who’s got time for that, now that we need to worry about N.E.W.T.s? We’re too old, so we’re supposed to be focused on the right things.”

“I know what you mean,” said Michael, sighing. “If Quidditch commentary required anything more than being at the matches, I would’ve stopped that too.”

It occurred to Doe just then that Michael — hardworking, clever, dedicated Michael — probably had ambitions as fervent as hers. She had never thought to ask him. 

Flushing a little, she said, “What… what are you studying so hard for? What d’you want to do after Hogwarts, I mean?”

“Research, I reckon — historical spell construction and linguistics. There’s tons of different traditions all around the world.” A small smile had snuck onto his face; Doe wasn’t sure he even noticed. “I’d love the travel, too.”

She coughed a little, looking away from him. She’d been staring.

“Hence the Ancient Runes,” she said.

“Yeah, hence the Ancient Runes. I wouldn’t deal with Anderberg unless i had to. You’re brave.” He grinned, and she rolled her eyes.

The conversation faded to comfortable silence. Michael looked deep in thought, though he hadn’t picked up his quill once more. Doe turned back to her essay, unable to hold in a small sigh. She’d stopped mid-sentence, and now she had no idea what she was trying to say. The wormwood infusion then— then what? Oh, bother.

“We should go paint,” said Michael suddenly.

Dorcas blinked. “Paint? What d’you mean?”

“It’s Saturday,” he said, as if that made things obvious. “The classrooms will all be empty. We can go do — Muggle Art, or magical Art?”

“You’re serious,” Dorcas said, taking in the manic grin he now wore. “Oh, Merlin, this is a ridiculous idea and we should be working…”

“You haven’t figured out what the — wormwood infusion does in the past twenty minutes,” he said, squinting at her parchment. “I think you need to give your brain a break.”

“The cheek of you,” she muttered, but she began packing her things. “All right, let’s go. Magical Art, though, because I want moving photographs of whatever shite you produce.”

 


ii. En Garde

The end of October always put the Hogwarts population in the grip of great paranoia. You see, Sirius Black’s birthday was November the third, and he was turning seventeen this year. The third was a Wednesday, but owing to the Quidditch match on Saturday — or, more accurately, the full moon that weekend — all partying had been postponed to the next weekend, after the Hogsmeade trip. With the safety valve set to release so far after Sirius’s actual birthday, the other students spent their days worrying about what awful prank the Marauders had thought up to celebrate the occasion.

Because there was always an awful prank.

The food had finally found all its targets, and the boys had — rather graciously, they thought — got rid of the last few items, since they had grown so badly mouldy. In between trying to trace the Slytherins’ nightly activities, the Marauders had indeed managed to plan something new. So everyone was right, really, to be anxious.

On Saturday morning, the four boys arrived in the Great Hall together, well after the start of breakfast. The moment they sat down, a spectacularly flashy fireworks display went off, red and gold sunbursts filling the enormous hall. All the students could do was hunker down and cover their ears until it had passed. 

“That’s all?” someone said in the seconds of deafening silence that followed.

It was not all.

A horde of disembodied voices suddenly began to harmonise, like an unholy angelic choir, and launched into a song about Sirius’s noble deeds. Three minutes later, after he had been lauded for slaying a rogue dragon, inventing wands, and winning the Quidditch World Cup for England, the voices finally subsided. He hopped onto a bench and bowed. Some younger students did, in fact, clap.

“Are you pleased with yourselves?” Mary said to the snickering Marauders, rolling her eyes.

“Rather,” said James brightly. 

“Well, I’m glad I was here for the show. Now I can go about without wondering what you have in store.” She turned back to her breakfast. The Marauders burst into laughter again.

What Mary did not know — but would soon find out — was that there was still more to this birthday trick. The fireworks and the choir magically followed Sirius around all day, sounding without warning whenever he walked into a new room. And of course, he made sure to roam the halls far more than he otherwise would have. Surely it would end before classes began again on Monday… but there was no such thing as surely when it came to the Marauders. Hogwarts resigned itself to a very noisy weekend indeed.

Icon of a quill drawing a line

In the Art classroom, Doe and Michael peered at the canvas they had been working on.

“It’s supposed to be modern, sort of,” said Doe, frowning. 

They had tried to artistically splatter the surface, using their wands to conjure up colour. But the magical paint worked rather like normal paint, and the reds and greens and blues were beginning to muddy together to become a flat brown.

“Modern shite, that’s for certain,” Michael said.

Dorcas laughed. “No, look, we can try and salvage it — you get that corner with green, and I’ll add some yellow here—” They raised their wands to the canvas once more.

They’d been at it for the better part of an hour, and Doe found she was quite enjoying it. Michael was a great study partner, but he was...fun to talk to about things other than Ancient Runes and how much homework they had. They might qualify as friends now. 

She concentrated on the blotchy shape she was drawing. It had really been a while since she’d done this — anything from footsteps in the hall to Michael’s gaze on her threw off her focus. Damn, there she went again.

“Sadly, I think our vision has exceeded our talents,” Doe said, leaving another, smaller splotch by the first one. “It’s honestly the biggest—”

And then a sudden cascade of bangs and crackles filled the room.

Doe whirled around — colour still flowing from her wand — to confront whatever had appeared. Michael cursed, following suit.

“Where—”

But it was...fireworks? And then a choir sang, “Sirius Orion Black! Sirius Orion Black he is seventeeeeeeeeen—

“Oh my God,” Dorcas said. “Oh my God, I’m going to kill those boys.”

Michael was laughing — rather hysterically. 

“What is it?” Doe turned towards him. But she saw it too — in reacting to the noises, they had turned their wands on each other, leaving strange discoloured patches on one another’s clothes. Michael’s blue shirt now had an enormous yellow streak across it, running over the side of his neck and his ear as well. Doe pressed a hand to her mouth.

“Oh, Merlin, I’m so sorry—”

“It’s all right, I got you too.”

There was indeed a series of green splotches on her blouse, Michael’s hand being more unsteady than hers. 

“Well,” Doe said with a sigh, “I did want to take funny moving photos.” 

With a sly smile, she flicked her wand and left a blue splatter across his cheek.

His jaw dropped. “Okay, you’ll regret that—” 

Icon of a quill drawing a line

That evening, students filtered down to the Great Hall for the Halloween Feast, chattering excitedly. They had mostly recovered from the horrors of random singing and firecrackers and were ready for the night’s entertainment now. Rumour had it that Dumbledore had contracted an operatic banshee to perform at the feast, which was both a fascinating and horrifying thought.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Germaine was saying as the girls came down the stairs to the Entrance Hall. “Banshees’ cries are supposed to kill you. That’s the whole point.”

Mary was shaking her head already. “Sure, and every vampire has an unquenchable thirst for human blood.”

“Again, that’s the whole point, Mare—”

“I’m saying, they still live in human society, don’t they? I’m sure they’ve figured out a way—”

“Don’t banshees perform with Celestina Warbeck?” said Dorcas thoughtfully. She had spent the late afternoon magically removing the paint from her clothes — a task that shouldn’t have been so hard, she thought, only since it was magical paint it had mixed itself up in all sorts of weird ways. The pink flowers on her blouse were stained slightly green.

“There you go,” Mary said triumphantly. “If they perform, then obviously they know how to do it without killing people.”

Germaine frowned. “Well, I don’t exactly want to find out…”

“Who’s that with McGonagall?” said Lily, her gaze fixed on the group of people by the enormous castle doors.

Their damp and windswept appearance clearly indicated they had just come in. Most of them were young, Lily thought, or they looked to be not much older than students themselves. One was Edgar Bones, she realised. The wizard was grinning as he spoke to McGonagall, gesticulating wildly. And there were other familiar faces as well. 

“That’s Frank Longbottom,” said Doe, her face brightening. “And — Edgar Bones! Wait…”

Lily nodded slowly. “I think…they’re all Aurors. Or Aurors in training.” Belatedly she remembered the conversation between Sprout and McGonagall that she and Remus had overheard. So her guess had been right. “I think they’re here for us.”

“Us?” Mary repeated.

“Not us us,” said Doe. “Us as in Hogwarts. Right, Lily? They’re here to guard the school.”

Germaine’s eyes were wide. “No bloody way.”

“Well, what other explanation is there?”

Lily inched closer to the Aurors. Yes, Doe was right, there was Frank Longbottom, and his girlfriend Alice St. Martin… and Marlene McKinnon, a Gryffindor who’d been a year above Frank. Three other relatively young Aurors stood by the trainees she knew, along with a morose-looking wizard with an exceedingly pale face and a shock of fair hair. He was sniffing repeatedly, like he had a cold, or was just very unhappy with whatever McGonagall was saying to them. Lily thought he looked like the tragedy mask next to Edgar Bones’s cheerful face.

Standing a little to the side was a grizzled wizard some years older than Bones; his sharp gaze travelled over every inch of the Entrance Hall. He had a wooden leg, Lily realised; the base of it was just visible below the hem of his cloak.

Dorcas gave a little gasp and clutched Lily’s elbow. “That’s Alastor Moody!”

The name sounded familiar… “Who?” Lily said.

“He’s an Auror — he’s supposed to be one of the best. His whole family were Aurors before him. I can’t believe he’s here!”

Doe’s voice had risen a little above the murmur of conversation; others, too, seemed to recognise Moody and the other Aurors. The steady flow of bodies into the Great Hall had slowed until the students were quite blatantly gawking at the newcomers. 

McGonagall, of course, picked up on this immediately. “Stop staring, all of you,” she said brusquely. “Go on into the Great Hall. Our guests will be introduced to you shortly.”

“Oh, I won’t be staying, Minerva,” said Moody gruffly. “The others will head to the feast. I’ve words for Dumbledore.” He started towards the stairs; the press of students parted for him.

“Well,” McGonagall said, pitching her voice even louder, “go on! Let Mr. Moody through — Potter, Black, close your mouths, for goodness’s sake—”

But just as Alastor Moody reached the top of the staircase, and just as the students had begun to move into the dining hall again, and just as conversation had resumed, there was the now-familiar cacophony of fireworks.

“Oh, hell,” Germaine groaned. “Cover your ears and keep moving, come on—”

Except the sound was far from familiar to the Aurors. Shouts of alarm came from their group; Lily could see that several of them had drawn their wands and were looking about for the source of the sound.

The loudest reaction of all, though, came from Moody himself. With his wand out at the top of the stairs, he looked like he was the star of a dramatic stageplay.

“What the devil is that noise!” he roared, his voice audible even over the fireworks. “Show yourself, villain! Well?

Dorcas was muffling her shocked laughter with her fist. “Oh, Merlin…”

James and Sirius pushed past the girls, frantically making their way into the Great Hall. “Sorry, we really need to be inside right now, move, move—”

 


iii. Family Business, revisited

“Preemptive protection again?” Lily asked, leaning over Dorcas’s shoulder to peek at the Prophet.

“Oh, yeah,” said Sirius from across the table, his mouth full of toast. “Trust me, now that he’s got a slogan that’s alliterative, you’ll never hear the end of it.”

The slogan in question was Barty Crouch’s doing; it had been splashed across the papers every day now since the Aurors’ dramatic Halloween arrival at Hogwarts. Doe had expressed surprise at the fact that they had Aurors to spare — even trainees, who made up the bulk of the guard. But in Crouch’s very publicly-expressed view, the sacrifice of personnel was well worth it. He did not want to wait for something to happen at Hogwarts before students were, well, protected. Hence the name. 

The average student didn’t feel the impact of this change, really, though it had only been a handful of days. The trainees were all two or fewer years out of Hogwarts, and even the most uptight of them did not seem like adults. Well, other than the man who, along with Bones, was in charge of the group. The unhappy wizard Lily had noticed that first night was Ethelbert Fawley, nephew of the man who was head of the Auror Office.

“Cushy posting, that,” Mary had commented, when the Gryffindors had gathered in the common room to discuss the new faces.

“Not if you’re an Auror,” Sirius pointed out, “and you want to be in the thick of things, but your uncle doesn’t want you to die so he sticks you with the babysitting job.” Mary had rolled her eyes. “And you’ve got a name like Ethelbert. Bless him.”

Now, Sirius looked up at the faculty table, where professors’ empty seats were filled by Fawley and a trainee he didn’t recognise. At least two Aurors were always in the Great Hall at mealtimes. The rest, he supposed, patrolled the hallways, though he couldn’t fathom how that was an efficient rotation. Hogwarts was a bloody big castle. They were bound to miss something. Hell, the Marauders had missed details on the map before.

He wasn’t sure how they would manage their usual nighttime activities now that there were more authorities to watch out for. True, they had the map, but they did not all fit under the Cloak anymore — even if Peter transformed, the other three of them had trouble being both quiet and unseen under it. Sirius reckoned they could take their chances running into Longbottom — and perhaps McKinnon too — but this was another obstacle to their nightly freedom they’d have to work around. Obstacles made him bloody impatient.

In any case, they would find out how it went that weekend. The full moon was coming up, and they’d need a way to sneak out after Remus. 

Sirius took another enormous bite of toast. With one crumb-covered hand, he fished out the letters he’d received that morning — quite a chunk. The handwriting on the very first one stopped him short. Andromeda. He knew his cousin would have written about Alphard. Probably she would be on the same bloody talking point as his uncle — have you spoken to your brother, he never writes me, I’m worried… 

He scowled and shoved the letters into his pocket. Regulus had his own notions of how the world worked. Sirius was certain, now, that he could do little to alter them — every time he thought of his brother, he remembered the godawful squealing noises they’d heard from outside the classroom, and he felt a little bit ill. Well, mostly he felt angry.

“Move,” a tight voice said at his shoulder; he turned around to see Mary Macdonald standing there, her expression stormy. “Well?” she snapped. “I said budge up, I’d like to eat my breakfast!”

Sirius did as she’d asked, his own thoughts momentarily on hold. “Merlin, what’s got you in such a mood?” Lily and Dorcas were also watching Mary with undisguised concern.

“Don’t — want — to talk about it!” Mary said, punctuating her words by stabbing a knife into a grapefruit. 

“Are you sure?” said Doe.

“Bloody positive.”

Sirius decided not to say anything else; he sat by her in silence as she hacked at her fruit and muttered under her breath about fucking men who are worthless and Ravenclaws are s’posed to be smart

“What have you done?” said a male voice from behind him.

Sirius sighed. “Mate, she’s as angry as a Hippogriff right now, so I wouldn’t press the point if I were you—” But when he turned around, he realised the boy wasn’t there to talk to Mary at all.

It was Regulus, two spots of colour high in his cheeks. A letter was clutched tightly in one fist; he was breathing heavily.

“You didn’t have to run all the way,” Sirius said mildly.

“Don’t turn this into a joke!” Regulus shook the crumped-up parchment at him.

Sirius put his hands up in surrender. “I honestly have no idea what you’re on about. Oh, unless — this isn’t about your little duelling club, is it?”

“What’s going on?” James was right behind Regulus, his brow furrowed; Remus was behind him.

“Glad your posse is here for this,” spat Regulus.

“Fan club,” corrected James, dropping to the bench beside Sirius. “That’s the term we prefer.”

Regulus ignored him, looking back at Sirius. “Didn’t you read your post?”

“Not yet.” They were starting to attract an audience, Sirius realised; it was fairly early in the breakfast hour, and students hadn’t yet started to trickle out towards their classes.

Regulus’s laugh was a single, sharp ha. “She blasted you off the tree.”

This statement was rather opaque to the hushed Great Hall. But the magnitude of Regulus’s words was made clear by the immediate reaction on James and Remus’s faces. There was no doubt, in their minds, who she was.

For his part, Sirius still looked perfectly calm.

“Did she?” He picked up another piece of toast and began to butter it too.

It was clear that his nonchalance was making an already-frantic Regulus furious.

“Yeah, she fucking did!” 

If the Great Hall had been quiet before, it fell utterly silent at Regulus’s shout.

“Hmm,” Sirius said. “Interesting. Did she say why? So I can pass on the advice to future generations of Blacks that might be worth a damn.”

Something dangerous flashed in Regulus’s eyes; James, watching carefully, prepared to jump to his feet and keep the boy away from his friend.

Read your letters,” was all Regulus said.

Sirius shrugged and pulled out the stash of letters he’d tucked away. He could look at Andromeda’s later, he didn’t suppose that was why Regulus was so worked up. The next was an unfamiliar, blocky script, stamped with a Ministry logo. That seems important.

He tore it open, still working at his own leisurely pace. He intended to read the entire thing, very slowly — perhaps aloud, dramatically — but as he skimmed it he went still. ...reading of your uncle Alphard’s will...the entire contents of his Gringotts vault...to you alone… Wordlessly Sirius handed the letter to James and Remus.

“Merlin,” Remus mumbled; James swore.

“She knows,” Regulus said, “she knows you’re going to take the money and run — she knows — she said he’s got heirlooms in there, and — and things that ought to belong to the family — she blasted him off the tree too — but this was what you wanted all along, wasn’t it! You asked Alphard to give you enough to break away. Finally.”

Sirius met his brother’s gaze. “You give me too much credit. I never asked him for anything. He told me he’d leave me some money — certainly not this much.” Then he let himself smile. “I wish I’d thought of this sooner. I could’ve asked Alphard to give me a few Galleons and made a big song and dance about running away, and she’d have let me leave long ago.”

Sirius raised his glass of water towards his friends. “Cheers, I’m an orphan now.”

James snorted. “Don’t be thick. You’re just as much of an orphan as I am. C’mon, if you don’t live with us, Mum and Dad will disown me.”

“Well, thanks to Alphard I’ve got enough to live on.”

“Don’t. Be. Thick.” James rolled his eyes. “You’re coming home for Christmas.”

And Sirius grinned. He was really, really fucking done with them all. It felt — incredible. 

“Aren’t you — aren’t you upset?” Regulus burst out.

Sirius started; he had forgotten his brother was still standing there. 

“Christ, why would I be?” he said, chuckling. “You said it yourself. This is what I’ve always wanted.”

Regulus’s shock hardened into cold rage. “Fuck you,” he said, very quietly, and he swept out of the Great Hall.

 

 

Chapter Text

i. Clean Sweep

The morning of Gryffindor’s first Quidditch match dawned bright and blue. It was the sort of November day one dreamed of — clear skies, the sun just warm enough to make sitting in the stands bearable, and only the lightest breeze wafting off the Great Lake. The girls, sans Germaine, were at breakfast, appropriately sporting their red-and-gold scarves. 

“I ought to start paying attention to Quidditch,” Mary said, spearing her eggs with a precise stab of her fork. “I could really get into it. Pick a team and read up on it, and all that.”

Sirius, who was sitting nearby sporting a Gryffindor-red scarf, made a loud choking sound at this. 

“You? Quidditch?” he repeated, incredulous. 

Mary turned her cool gaze upon him. “Yes. I already know a lot about music and footy and it unnerves blokes.” She arched her eyebrows. “So, it’s funny seeing how they react.”

“Does it work if you’re still learning about Quidditch for guys?” said Dorcas thoughtfully. “Even if it’s to spite them?”

Lily shrugged. “If it gives you joy, Mare. Just make sure you’re a Harpies fan. I don’t want to hear you and Germaine argue about Quidditch, of all things.” 

Despite the censure, Lily was grinning as she ate her breakfast. She and Dorcas and Mary had roughly the same level of interest in Quidditch: they reckoned it was a fun game and liked to watch it, and that was the end of the matter.

For Lily, the draw was really how much house spirit was on display. Too often Hogwarts took house rivalries far too seriously. But Quidditch — that was a genial sort of enmity that she could get behind. Well, even if it was quite a dangerous sport. Most Quidditch injuries could be quickly fixed with magic...couldn’t they?

The morning of a match was never a good time to ponder this, Lily decided. But her mind found a worse topic instead: James, who at that moment strode into the Great Hall in his Quidditch robes, grabbed a slice of toast, and began chatting with Sirius. Lily didn’t know if they were supposed to be in a fight. Or did their truce still stand?

She regretted their earlier argument, of course — but why was she the one who had to keep apologising and smoothing things over and making certain they were on good terms? Let him try to get along with me, for once, she thought, as he swept out of the hall again. 

She was still staring after him when the Aurors-in-training came jogging into the Great Hall. Marlene McKinnon and Frank Longbottom were dressed no different from any Gryffindor student. Marlene even had her face painted, half-red, half-gold; as she walked the length of the table, she held out her hand and high-fived several younger students. 

If Lily was amused, Doe was positively glowing at the sight. Whenever the Aurors were near, Doe looked so obviously excited to see them that Lily couldn’t help but grin at her friend. 

“Morning,” Frank said, coming to stand by the sixth- and seventh-years. “Ready for a win, eh?” This he directed at the seventh-year players. Only James and Germaine were already at the pitch at this hour. 

“Obviously,” said Isobel Park, raising her goblet. 

“Glad we got the stadium shift,” Marlene said. “I mean, we’re working and all.” She gave the students a meaningful look. “But I’d hate to be inside the castle when almost everyone’s out there.”

“I still don’t get how you do your shifts,” said Doe, clearly hoping for an explanation. 

But Marlene only winked. “Secrets of the trade, young one.”

Frank shook his head, smiling. “Poor Alice and Edgar have the indoor shift.”

“Oh, Merlin, that means—” Mary began. Lily elbowed her before she could finish speaking, guessing where that sentence was going just as Ethelbert Fawley strode into the Great Hall, looking characteristically morose.

“McKinnon, Longbottom,” Fawley said, his gaze sweeping over the Gryffindor table. “Ready for the match?”

Marlene’s expression had grown just as sombre as his. “I am ready to discharge my duty. The match is incidental.” Frank Longbottom stifled a snort. “I should go keep an eye on the pitch. Merlin knows some students will head on early.” Before Fawley could come up with a protest, Marlene had hurried out of the hall.

“Right,” said Fawley faintly. “Breakfast, Longbottom?” And the two Aurors proceeded up the length of the hall for the teachers’ table. 

“Do you think he’s actually a good Auror?” said Doe, watching them go. “Or is it a nepotism thing?”

“Let’s hope we don’t have to find out,” Mary said.

That line of thinking hadn’t occurred to Lily at all. A chill passed over her. Shaking it off, she smiled at her friends and said, “Why don’t we go to the stadium? I’ve had enough of sitting around.”

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Germaine’s dad had once taught her breathing exercises. Some sort of complicated inhale-exhale pattern was supposed to settle your nerves — only she kept mucking it up, and her thoughts wouldn’t go away, and suddenly she would find herself wondering if she’d be sick on her broom the moment they called her name.

It was stupid to be so worried. She knew that. Even James, who was more serious about Quidditch than anything, was relatively relaxed at the thought of playing Slytherin. Word was that the team had really struggled with its drills because of the students who’d injured themselves. Germaine couldn’t imagine what kind of injury would have required missing much practice.

But the Slytherin captain had been in a rage about it for weeks. So, really, in the grand scheme of things, this game wasn’t such a big deal.

Except that it was. And it would be. And she’d be awful if she didn’t get her head on straight, now.

She squeezed her eyes shut and dropped to the floor. She tried to forget the slightly stale smell of the changing rooms, tried to replace it with the crisp earthiness of the Quidditch pitch. Her regular flying practice had stopped being so lonely of late — she and Emmeline flew together more often than not. They rarely spoke, but that was how Germaine liked it.

It was peaceful instead of intrusive, and she’d have been lying if she said it didn’t flatter her when Emmeline, obviously a skilled flier herself, doled out the occasional compliment. It was as though she’d found the woods again, and those long summers of ducking around branches and listening only to the wind had been transposed to Hogwarts, a little pocket of tranquility. 

If only she could recapture that calm for the game.

The empty changing rooms were suddenly full of sound as the rest of the team traipsed in. “We win or we die trying!” Evan Wronecki was shouting; Quentin Kravitz, who'd been a second-string Chaser last year, hooted in response. The Beaters, Isobel Park and Bert Mallory, had the new Keeper sandwiched between them. The three of them moved to a corner and began stretching, keeping up a constant stream of chatter that Percy occasionally chimed into. Germaine chewed her lip in silence. 

James brought up the rear, having shepherded the others to the changing room. Germaine half-hoped he would go join in the stretching, but he made a beeline for her instead, handing her an apple and a goblet of pumpkin juice.

“No flying on an empty stomach,” he said, gently but firmly.

Germaine took both from him, but made no move to eat or drink. “I think I’m going to be sick,” she said, her voice faint.

James smiled, unperturbed. “You’ve said that every single game. It hasn’t ever happened.”

“There’s a first time for everything.” But some of the fluttering in her stomach settled; Germaine swallowed some of the juice. 

“If you insist on getting a pep talk from me, fine. You’re here because you’re a great Seeker. If you weren’t, I’d have played someone else. So.” He shrugged, as if this ought to put a rest to all her worries. Germaine raised her brows. James sighed, adding, “Regulus Black’s going to be distracted. You can take advantage of that.”

Before she’d had a chance to respond, James turned to the rest of the room. “Enough chatter!” The others fell silent, moving closer to where Germaine and James stood. 

“We all know Slytherin’s a bit of a mess today.”

“Too right,” Evan said.

“But that doesn’t mean we play to their weaknesses. We are always playing to our strengths. I want to see every one of us doing our fucking jobs out there, all right? Practice is nothing like game time.” This he directed at Percy, whose smile had faded. “We don’t see another house after this for a long while — Hufflepuff in March. So make sure you’re focused every damn minute. Or we’ll have extra daggers tomorrow.”

It was a testament to how seriously the team took this moment that none of them groaned.

“If we win,” said James, “we’ll only have the usual number.” At last he grinned. “Let’s put on a clinic.”

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In the Gryffindor section of the stands, students huddled together for warmth and booed energetically as Michael Meadowes called out the Slytherin players. Lily and Mary and Dorcas had their arms linked, staggering to their feet unevenly as the Gryffindors flew onto the pitch. “I hope Germaine isn’t too nervous,” Dorcas murmured as they clapped. 

On the ground, Germaine had her eyes shut when her name echoed through the stadium. With a deep breath, she mounted her broom and shot off into the sky.

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“Talkalot,” James said cheerfully, shaking the Slytherin captain’s hand.

“Potter,” she replied, her eyes narrowed. “See you on the other side.”

“I expect you’ll be seeing a lot of me during the game as well.”

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“And — Gryffindor with the Quaffle to start,” Michael Meadowes was saying. “Potter, to Kravitz — starting the season for the first time as Chaser, is Quentin Kravitz. Back to Wronecki — well, Talkalot will swallow that one up easily.”

James retreated as Lucinda hurled the Quaffle to one of her Chasers. It was good to test the Keeper early, but risky to test her too much, lest she settle into the match early and grow used to turning every attempt of theirs aside. The next one needed to be an actually challenging throw. Rowle had the Quaffle now, but Isobel sent a Bludger whizzing his way. The Slytherin saw it early enough to execute a clumsy Sloth Grip Roll, losing the Quaffle in the process.

James allowed himself a moment to scoff — that was what being injured at a stupid amateur duelling club would get you — then pivoted in time to receive a pass from Quentin, who’d swooped down to grab the loose Quaffle.

“With you!” came a voice half-swallowed by the wind; without looking, James tossed the Quaffle to Evan. The two of them bore down on Lucinda, who stayed square to the shooter until, at the very last moment, Evan passed back to James, who batted the Quaffle into a hoop.

“First blood for Gryffindor!” Michael Meadowes said, and the crowd erupted.

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Several Gryffindor goals and failed Slytherin Sloth Grip Rolls later, Percy Egwu missed a goal attempt, giving Slytherin its first ten points of the match. The fourth-year was so visibly miserable as he started play again, James was almost tempted to tell him it was all right. There was plenty of time left on the clock, of course, but they had a healthy buffer of points between them.

Still, if Percy had wanted a clean sheet, James couldn’t blame him. Slytherin was nothing short of sloppy in its offensive drives — the Chasers had clearly not practiced together enough. Talkalot was a fan of fancy formations, but any strategy was moot if your players hadn’t got the hang of it before a match started. 

“That,” Evan said, after another Slytherin fumble had led to a Gryffindor goal, “would’ve worked if they had four Chasers.”

James was inclined to agree. Even when the other team had settled into the match a little more, throwing some genuinely threatening attempts at Percy, the Gryffindors answered. When the Gryffindor Chasers combined for their eighteenth goal of the game, James braced himself for the commentary that was bound to come.

“Don’t fucking say it,” he muttered.

But of course, Michael did. “That’s a 150-point margin for red-and-gold. For the Quidditch-averse, that means if Gryffindor can score another goal and maintain that margin until the Snitch is caught, nothing Slytherin does will matter. They won’t even need to catch it to win.”

If he’d been in the stands watching two other teams play, James might have laughed at how poetic it was. Because just then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Regulus burst into motion, Germaine a few beats behind him.

“They’ve spotted the Snitch! And — Slytherin with the headstart!”

“What are we supposed to be aiming at?” Bert Mallory said, pulling up short by James.

The two Seekers were moving too fast; if the Beaters aimed for Regulus and hit Germaine instead…

“Let King do her job,” James said. “You two, stop Slytherin from scoring.”

As the Beater flew away, James pulled back, waiting for Talkalot to pass on the Quaffle. But instead of tossing it to one of her Chasers, the captain flew forward herself, Quaffle tucked under her arm. Merlin’s tadger, James thought, not without admiration.

“Looks like Talkalot is going to try a Hail Mary!” Michael Meadowes said.

“What’s a Hail Mary?” said Evan Wronecki.

“Eyes on the Quaffle,” was James’s only reply.

With one extra ‘Chaser’ in Lucinda, the Gryffindors were outnumbered. Still, James liked their chances — Rowle was a shaky flier, and Davies, the other injured player, had been missing Bludgers all morning. 

“Get ready to run Butterfingers,” he told Quentin and Evan. 

“What about defending?” Quentin said.

“Trust me. She’s going to turn it over.”

Without waiting for a response, James flew into Lucinda Talkalot’s way, moving backwards as she inched forward. There were no other players in his sight: just the Keeper, her mouth in a firm line, and her own goalposts far behind her. Of course Lucinda wasn’t a Chaser, but she ran a team. She had to know Chasers’ drills, had to have taken part in them over the years. It would be stupid to underestimate her. 

James chanced a look over his shoulder. The three Slytherin Chasers, unencumbered by Gryffindor’s defence, were in a triangular formation behind him, rotating positions every minute or so. He was too close to Lucinda for her to risk passing left or right, he judged; it would take him a simple enough dive to stop that. So where would she go? 

“Bludger!” Lucinda yelled all of a sudden.

Bludger? But why— James’s body understood before his brain; just a split second after Lucinda, he tumbled into a Sloth Grip Roll, dodging the Bludger intended for him. She launched the Quaffle forward as she hung, upside-down, but James was just agile enough to grab it.

His broom leaped forward, jerking him the right way up, and he shot towards the unguarded Slytherin goalposts, the blood pounding in his head. He couldn’t have missed the hoops even from this far out, and he had Evan and Quentin on either side of him — but then he caught sight of Germaine and Regulus. A string of curses ran through his mind.

“Don’t miss,” James said, handing off to Evan before streaking towards the Seekers.

He could hear Michael Meadowes above the roaring in his ears: “Wronecki gets another for Gryffindor! But, Merlin, what’s King up to? Don’t try that at home—”

Everything happened at once, and then there was silence.

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When Germaine opened her eyes, Sirius Black was peering at her face, far too close for comfort. 

“Oh, good, you’re alive,” he said. “You’re fucking crazy.”

“What happened?” she croaked. Her friends were crowded around her, as was the Quidditch team. They were in the Hospital Wing, she realised. 

“What happened is, you stole my spotlight.” James was in the bed next to her, looking incredibly pleased despite the circumstances.

Slowly, the last sequence of the match was returning to her. Germaine’s eyes widened. “I tried to—”

She was shorter than Regulus Black, a problem that had not seemed like a problem until she’d realised the Snitch was within his reach and not hers. But if she stood on her broom, and jumped for it — she’d thought that would be possible. Ridiculous, but possible. And it was such a long fall to the ground; surely Hooch or someone would find a way to slow her down before then. What was a few broken bones? 

“Tried to jump off your moving broom? Yes,” said Mary, shaking her head. “If that’s what you’re practising when you’re off by yourself at the pitch, I’m coming down to keep an eye on you.”

Germaine thought of Emmeline’s censure — you’ll never get to do this during a game — and flushed. “Well, did I catch it?”

“No,” said James. “Good effort, though.” To the rest of the team, he said, “See, that’s what I mean when I say you’ve got to be one hundred and ten per cent committed.”

“Fuck,” said Germaine, sighing. “Hooch caught me, then?”

At that, James finally looked affronted. “Hooch? No, you bloody ingrate, I flew across half the fucking pitch to make sure you weren’t leaping to your death. Why d’you think I’m here?” He was holding a bottle of Skele-Gro, she realised; he shook it at her angrily. 

“That explains it. Thanks, I suppose.”

“I couldn’t have replaced a Seeker in the middle of a season, so.”

“Shut up, James,” said Dorcas.

“I don’t know whether to hug you or scold you,” Lily said, giving Germaine a careful pat on the shoulder.

“Try scolding,” said James. “That’s what you did to me before she woke up.”

“Why is there a circus around my patients?” Pomfrey called, hustling over to them with a furious expression on her face. “Out, all of you. Out! I’ve let you stay this long, haven’t I? And you!” She turned her gaze on Germaine, who shrank back. “That was absolutely barbaric. This is school Quidditch, for heaven's sake!”

“Would it be better if it were the World Cup?” asked James. “Just out of curiosity.”

The matron gave him a baleful look. “Not a word from you, Potter. Not a single word.”

“S’all right. Now that I know you were watching, I can rest easy.”

Germaine smothered a laugh at Pomfrey’s eye-roll. “I really am sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”

“Madness, is what it is. This whole school’s got it. I’ve given you something for the pain, but you’ve taken your Skele-Gro so you should be right as rain. But rest.”

With a command like that, there was nothing Germaine could do but obey.

 


ii. Dates

“This,” Lily said, shaking her copy of the Prophet, “is the worst bloody news I’ve ever woken up to.”

Dorcas was grimly nodding at her shoulder. “Not an exaggeration, honestly.”

They were standing in the Entrance Hall, waiting to depart for Hogsmeade. Doe had lost track of Germaine and Mary, so she had hovered awkwardly by Lily and Dex, searching for any familiar face so that she might make an escape.

But given the topic of conversation, Doe didn’t feel like a third wheel at all. In fact, Dex was the one looking vaguely uncomfortable as Lily and Dorcas complained to each other. The WWN had picked up a new radio show for the winter season: Marcel Thorpe, a name the girls were beginning to hear far too often for their own liking. 

“An hour of airtime!” said Lily, not for the first time that morning. “A whole bloody hour! It’s ridiculous!”

In the briefest pause before Doe could jump in to agree with her, Dex said, “Well, it’s not just him. He’s got a co-host now, doesn’t he? The WWN bloke can debate him, push back against his bullshit. Besides, the man’s got a right to express his fears, no matter how misguided.”

Dorcas and Lily were both taken aback by this interjection. Even more than before, Doe wanted to vanish into the crowd; she could feel Lily stiffen beside her.

“He isn’t entitled to time on wizarding Britain’s biggest radio show, no,” said Lily, fighting to keep her tone even. “It just gives him more of a chance to grow his fanbase.”

Dex shrugged. “Maybe I’m naive, but I don’t think shutting down dialogue is the answer.” 

Discomfited, Lily said, “We should probably just agree to disagree on this.”

“Oh, there’s Mary!” said Doe, a touch too enthusiastically. “I’ll be off, then — see you if I see you, have a nice day!”

Relieved to have found an excuse, Dorcas snagged Mary by the elbow and pulled her away from Dex and Lily. “Have you seen Germaine? We were supposed to go down together.”

“No, I suppose she’s in the loo.”

“Weak bladder,” Dorcas and Mary said at the same time, shaking their heads.

“In any case,” Mary continued, “I was looking for you. I’m going with Michael, to Hogsmeade.”

Doe took a moment to consider this. “Michael…?”

“Meadowes,” said Mary impatiently. “Don’t worry, just as friends. But I wanted to tell you.”

“Why would I worry? Why would you want to tell me?”

Mary rolled her eyes. “He’s your friend, Dork-ass. Don’t get so defensive.”

“There you are!” Germaine emerged from the crowd, a little breathless. “Sorry I lost you, I was in—”

“The loo, we know,” said Dorcas, for which Germaine elbowed her in the side. Doe turned back to Mary. “I’m serious, Mare, it’s fine if you want to date him.” What was her claim to him, that she’d seen him first? Doe didn’t think she liked Michael that way.

“Well, I don’t, and he doesn’t want to date me. What I’ve been trying to say to you is, if you want to join us at the Three Broomsticks, feel free.”

“Big assumption you’re making there, Mary,” said Germaine. “What if we had plans?”

Sceptically, Mary glanced between Germaine and Doe. “What plans? Twiddling your thumbs?”

Dorcas jumped in before Germaine could argue. “I wanted to do a bit of shopping—” Germaine shuddered “—but we can join after, yeah?”

“It’s a plan. I’m going to go find Michael, then.” And then Mary was gone again, leaving only a trace of her floral perfume. 

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By the time they’d boarded the carriages, the whiff of awkwardness brought about by their conversation had faded. Lily supposed there were worse stances for Dex to take — that Thorpe Sr.’s perspective was valid, for instance, and wizardkind really did have to fear and hate Muggleborns. Although, it would have taken quite a bit of mental gymnastics if Dex thought that and was still dating her. In any case, she tried to put it out of her mind; for his part, Dex seemed to do the same.

“It’s a teashop,” he was saying, “and they’ve got the best damn pastries. Last time I was there, I tried to get the owner to give me the recipe, but she refused.”

“Even with your most charming smile?” Lily teased.

Dex grinned. “Shocking, isn’t it? But I’ll take any chance I get to go there now. The only shot I have at recreating them is tasting them, right?”

“I’m not opposed at all.” Lily looped her arm through his. It was an overcast morning, the chill reminding them all that it truly was November. Her scarf was quite enough to keep her warm — but there was no harm in standing a little closer, was there?

“It’s right down this road—” As they turned the corner, Dex came to a sudden, sharp halt. 

Lily fought to keep her balance. “What’s wrong?” She followed his line of sight to the closest building: indeed a little teashop, one that Lily vaguely recognised. But its storefront was now painted a bright pink, its lace curtains blindingly white.

“Did it always look like that?” said Lily, her voice hushed.

“No,” said Dex, sounding aghast.

“Was it always called Madam Puddifoot’s?”

“Yes, she’s the owner, but — maybe a new Puddifoot took over?”

Lily might have laughed at the look on his face if not for how genuinely distressed Dex seemed. “I’m sure the pastry recipes are the same. Why don’t we go inside anyway — we can laugh at the funny decor, if the outside’s any indication.”

“Why not,” Dex agreed, smiling a bit. 

As it turns out, they did not get much chance to laugh. Lily had managed to hide her snickering at the doilies and shocking-pink furniture, but the menu’s sickly-sweet tone was more than her self-control could manage. Somewhere between True Love’s Tea and aphrodisiac biscuits, she was in stitches; not long after, Puddifoot herself emerged to angrily demand that they leave. 

Wiping away tears, Lily leaned against the storefront, trying very hard not to start laughing again. “I’m so sorry,” she gasped. “You wanted the pastries—” 

“It’s okay,” Dex said, grinning. “As long as you enjoyed what you got out of it.”

“I really, really did.” Lily sucked in a deep breath, putting a hand on her chest. “Let’s just go to Honeydukes.”

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Doe and Michael had exchanged pleasantries, saving a table as Mary and Germaine went off through the crowded pub to fetch them Butterbeers. After the requisite polite questions, though, their conversation had lapsed. Doe wondered if he felt odd around her, after last weekend’s paint fight. She’d thought it had broken any lingering ice between them.

Or was she imagining the awkwardness? She felt a spike of resentment as her friends returned. If Mary would stop implying things about Michael, Doe would stop thinking them.

As if on cue, Mary slid Michael his Butterbeer and said, “So, Meadowes, have you got an eye on any birds around here?”

Michael grinned, making an exaggerated show of glancing around the pub. But then his smile slipped a little. “Not really. I had a pretty bad breakup this summer.”

The girls expressed their sympathy; Michael thanked them.

“You don’t have to talk about it, if it’s difficult,” said Germaine, trying to sound nonchalant and not curious.

Michael shook his head. “It’s not as bad as that. A few months have gone by, after all. Her name’s Katie, she lives near me. She’s a Muggle — that was sort of the problem. We’d been dating for nearly two years, and I was trying to keep the whole wizard thing a secret. I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t have.” He took a sip of his drink; the girls said nothing.

“Anyway, she thought I was batty, so she said she needed time and space. Only it turns out she needed time and space with someone else.” He pulled a face.

“Ah, Michael!” Mary said, horrified. “Fuck Katie, all right? Look—” Glancing around surreptitiously, she pulled a flask from under her sweater. 

Where did you put that?” Germaine said.

“Why did you feel the need to hide it on your person?” said Dorcas. “You could’ve put it in a purse.”

Mary gave Michael a look, as if to say do you hear these two? “Obviously, my tits needed to keep it warm. Christ.” She unscrewed the flask, pouring a splash into each of their Butterbeers. “You’re welcome.”

“Thanks,” Michael said, chuckling. Doe noticed the look of admiration he was giving Mary: the classic look, she thought, except Mary wasn’t looking back.

“Anti-cheers time,” said Germaine. “Katie, what’s her last name?”

“Sorry — anti-cheers?”

“Just play along, Michael!”

“Halliday. Her name’s Katie Halliday.”

Germaine nodded seriously, raising her mug. “Katie fucking Halliday.”

Grinning, Mary and Dorcas echoed her words, lifting their own mugs. Michael was a beat late following, laughing instead of speaking. 

“Katie motherfucking Halliday, you give love a bad name,” said Dorcas.

“Katie goddamn Halliday, how could you?” Germaine crowed.

“Katie bleedin’ Halliday, you’ll be sorry someday!” Mary said. 

“I’ll drink to that,” said Germaine, clinking her mugs to the others’ and taking a big gulp. “This tastes quite good, I’ll give you that, Mare.”

“Thanks,” said Mary. “It’s nail varnish remover.”

Michael choked. Doe sighed, patting him on the back. “You should know better around her by now.”

As conversation turned to other, less serious things, several unfamiliar students asked to share tables; Mary turned away each of them. 

“We should be nicer and just share,” Dorcas said.

“We don’t know any of them,” said Germaine. “It’d be weird.”

“They’re third-years. Of course we don’t know them.”

“But what if they asked to share our alcohol?” said Michael. “We’d be in a pickle then.”

“If it’s someone I like, there’s no reason for me to say no,” Mary said.

“Those fifth-years are scoping us out,” Doe said.

“Ugh, not them—”

“Hi, sorry to interrupt!”

The voice was cheerful, familiar. The four at the table looked up to see Marissa Beasley and Doc Dearborn, Firewhiskys in hand.

“Do you have any room at this table?” Marissa went on. “Doc and I would love seats — but of course, it’s so bloody full—”

Doc rolled his eyes at her, but he was smiling. “You’re the one who wanted to wear heeled boots today.”

Marissa sighed. “Forgive a girl for trying to look good! Right, Mary?”

Mary laughed along, a beat too late. “God, we’ve love to, Marissa, but Lily and her boyfriend are coming, and so’re Peter and Remus. We’re full up ourselves.” She shrugged. “Best of luck finding a seat.”

“Oh!” Marissa’s face fell; she clearly hadn’t been expecting this response. “Thanks anyway. See you back at the castle, then.”

“Bye!” said Mary.

The other three exchanged glances as Mary watched the two Ravenclaws go.

“Okay,” Germaine said slowly, “what was that about?”

Dorcas gasped. “Merlin. Is that—”

She didn’t finish her sentence; Mary faced them again, her expression stormy. She put down her Butterbeer with a thunk.

“He turned me down to go with Marissa Beasley?” said Mary, her voice dangerously low. 

“Marissa’s quite nice,” Germaine said.

“She fancies a bloke back home,” Mary snapped. 

“Wait — how do you know that?” said Michael. Doe and Germaine shushed him.

How could this have happened?” Mary’s voice gained pitch and volume as the sentence went on, until she was nearly wailing. “Fuck him!”

“Does that mean—” Doe began.

“Yes, it does!” Mary said, putting her head in her hands. “Yes, I have feelings for Doc Dearborn, and he thinks I’m stupid and vapid and idiotic and he’s with Marissa Beasley!

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Didn’t anyone who shopped here ever crave ordinary chocolate? Dissatisfied, Lily moved from aisle to aisle at Honeydukes. Dex was looking for more things to incorporate into his baking; they had agreed to meet up at the cashier instead of chasing each other around the shop. Which was a good thing, thought Lily as she circled the rows of chocolate for the third time. That kind fizzed in the mouth, that sort had a filling… 

“I’d kill for some bloody Cadbury,” she muttered.

“Bloody Cadbury would taste pretty shit,” said a voice on the other side of the shelf was peering at.

“Hello, James.”

“Evans.” Now that he’d spoken, she recognised his shock of messy hair just visible above the top of the shelf.

“How do you even know what Cadbury tastes like?”

“I do live in the same country as you,” he said drily, coming around to stand next to her. “If you’re looking for a substitute, I think Gormley’s makes regular chocolate.” James skirted around her, squinting at the offerings. “Ah, shit.”

“What?” Lily stepped closer to him. 

“They’re out of the regular kind.”

She sighed, rocking back on her heels. “I suppose I’m just destined to eat funky chocolate, then.”

James laughed. “Are you restocking your hot chocolate supplies?”

Lily shook her head. “Mum sends me what I need. There aren’t really any convenient supermarkets around Hogwarts.”

“Ah, fair.”

“No, this is just to snack on.” She sighed. “I’ll do without, then. It’ll probably be better for me.”

James opened his mouth and closed it again. “Pity,” he said finally.

“What?” Lily was certain that wasn’t all he’d been going to say.

“Nothing. They’ve got pretty good dark chocolate, though, if you do want to experiment for your cocoa.” James pointed out a shelf to their right. “Maybe even some funky ones.”

Lily hated that her instinctive response to his helpfulness was suspicion; that, she thought, was something she needed to unlearn. Why couldn’t she just take her wins at face value?

“Thanks,” she said. “Are you here with someone?”

It was intended as an innocuous question, but Lily flushed when James arched his brow in response.

“Do I need a date to shop at Honeydukes?” he said.

“No,” said Lily quickly. “I was just asking.”

“Well, the answer’s no. Enjoy Fortescue’s company.” 

He was just this side of curt. With a backward glance, he wove through the aisles until Lily couldn’t see him anymore.

 


iii. Airwaves

“Underrated aspect of the Three Broomsticks,” Sirius said, without anyone having asked him to, “is the people-watching.”

He, Remus, and Peter had indeed found the Gryffindor girls and Michael, crowding around their table — and vindicating Mary’s rejection of Marissa and Doc, in her eyes at least. More splashes from Mary’s flask had gone around, until all seven of them were pleasantly buzzed and had fallen into a warm silence.

“There’s too many people,” said Germaine. “Who’m I supposed to be watching?”

“Easy. Look, Professor Thorpe is arguing with Marius Rosier.”

“Who?” said Doe, Michael, and Mary at once.

Sirius rolled his eyes, struggling to sit up straighter. “Professor — Aprylline Thorpe, who teaches Defence Against—”

“Very funny,” said Doe. “Who’s Marius Rosier?”

“That fuckwit,” supplied Peter, pointing him out helpfully.

A tall, gaunt wizard was indeed engaged in heated conversation with Thorpe. His features were immediately familiar to them.

“Is he Alec’s brother?” said Mary, frowning.

“That’s the one,” Sirius said. “He’s a proper Death Eater wannabe.” He paused for a moment. “Unless he’s gone from wannabe to just... be, which is a possibility.”

A hush fell over the table. Thorpe, seeming to tire of the argument, threw up her hands and stalked away. Rosier slunk in the opposite direction, pushing out of the door.

“Shit, that reminds me. I’m missing Thorpe’s show,” Doe said, sighing.

Michael looked alarmed. “I didn’t...know you were into that,” he said.

“I’m not,” Doe assured him. “I rage-listen to it. And then I call him and argue with him. It keeps me on top of his stupid talking points — so if I hear anyone using them, I know it’s because they listen to him and his sort.” She shuddered, taking a sip of her Butterbeer. “And now he’s on the WWN.”

“Well, you know you can just walk over and tell them what you think, right?” Michael said, looking immensely relieved at Doe’s clarification.

“What?”

Remus seemed to catch on first. “The WWN office is right here in Hogsmeade,” he said slowly.

“Holy shit — let’s go,” Doe said. “Right now.”

Sirius held up a finger. “Vandalism is a form of protest.”

“One step at a time,” Germaine told him.

“She didn’t say no,” Sirius stage-whispered.

Doe jumped to her feet. “I’ll go spread the word. I can tell—” She searched the horde of students in the pub. “Amelia Bones!”

Mary groaned. “Not her, please.”

“Oh, stop it, Mary. She cares about what’s going on and she has friends who do too.” Animated by purpose, Dorcas nearly charged off to find Amelia before another thought occurred to her. “We have to find Lily, though.”

“She’ll be with Dex,” Germaine said, frowning. “I have no idea where they planned to go.”

“Relax,” Sirius cut in. “We’ll ask James to find her.”

Remus and Peter exchanged glances, but did not argue with this course of action.

“It’s settled, then,” said Dorcas. “Tell everyone you know!”

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“No,” James said into the mirror. “Absolutely not.”

Sirius sighed. “Mate, c’mon. Dorcas wants her there, it’s not like it was my idea.”

Peter and Remus exchanged a look once more.

“She’s with her boyfriend! How am I supposed to get her without looking like the biggest prat in the world?”

“Tell her the truth,” said Peter. “She’ll want to come.”

“But if you don’t know where she is,” began Remus.

James deflated a little. “I do know. We’re in Honeydukes right now.”

The we made the three other Marauders blink.

“She and the boyfriend are here, and I am too,” said James, rolling his eyes. “Fine, I’ll fetch her. Christ.”

“See you there,” said Sirius.

Tucking the mirror away, James looked around the sweet shop. Lily and Fortescue had lingered for awfully long, but the seventh-year had finally gone up to pay for his things. Lily hovered by the door. James steeled himself, and strode towards her.

“Sirius just sent word; Dorcas wants you,” he said. 

Lily frowned. “She — what?”

“They’re going to go to the WWN office, and tell them what they think of Thorpe.”

James hadn’t needed to worry about how Lily would take this after all; she brightened as soon as he explained the plan. 

“We should’ve thought of that sooner! If we’d planned it before this weekend—”

“We didn’t know about him until this morning,” James pointed out.

She waved a hand dismissively. “If we had. Anyway, yes, I’ll come right away.”

James reached for the door, and Lily seemed ready to follow. Later he would wonder — while cursing himself for wondering — what might have happened if Dex Fortescue hadn’t caught up to them just then. The other wizard looked none too happy to see James, which, he supposed, was not entirely unwarranted. 

“Where’s the fire?” Dex said, looking from Lily to James.

“My friends are going to the WWN office, about Thorpe,” Lily said. James noticed that she smoothly skipped over the fact that she’d nearly left without her boyfriend. “I think I’m going to join. But I understand if you don’t want to — it’s been a long day.”

Something passed between Lily and Fortescue; James was about to say something snide, but held himself back just in time. 

Dex nodded. “Yeah, I’ll see you around, then.” He pulled her in for a kiss; James glanced away, coughing a little. Finally, Dex walked off in the direction of the Three Broomsticks. Lily watched him go, and James watched her watch him, until he cleared his throat to snap both of them out of this trance.

“We should go,” James said. 

“Oh! Yes.” 

They began walking down High Street. James wondered if he ought to say something, but couldn’t come up with a safe enough subject. He tucked his hands into his pockets and let Lily lead the way.

The WWN office was bigger than he’d expected — though of course, he reasoned, they had to broadcast out of it, so it shouldn’t have been such a surprise. Some two dozen students were crowded in the lobby, mostly talking quietly amongst themselves; at the head of the group, leaning on the reception desk, was Dorcas, with a stern-looking Amelia Bones beside her.

“Can you just give us the name of someone who’s in charge here?” Doe was saying. “Someone who had a hand in the decision to pick up Marcel Thorpe’s show?”

The flustered receptionist said, “I really can’t — I don’t—”

“I know you probably had nothing to do with it. We just want to ask about it. Isn’t that allowed? We’re your audience.”

Murmurs of assent filled the lobby.

“I don’t think — the office will close soon, since it’s a weekend—”

“We’re not here to hurt anyone,” said Amelia Bones, “we’re students. We’d like to speak with an executive.”

A man emerged from the hallway beyond the desk, arms crossed over his chest. “Look here, whatever’s going on—”

“Can we ask you about why WWN picked up Thorpe’s show?” Doe said, turning to him.

The man looked flabbergasted. “That’s — what you’re here for?”

“Young people have opinions, you know,” Amelia said, her tone icy. Lily and James exchanged grins.

“Certainly, Miss—”

“Bones,” she supplied, clearly conscious of the effect her surname would have. Mrs. Bones was a senior executive at the Ministry.

The man registered the name with wide eyes. “Look, Miss Bones, WWN values a diversity of opinions.”

Doe, not one to be outdone, said, “What he says isn’t an opinion. It’s thinly-veiled anti-Muggleborn sentiment. It’s downright bigoted! Some of the brightest students here—” she gestured at the assembly “—are Muggleborn. We’re right up the road at Hogwarts, and we have to listen to him on your show, talking about how our classmates don’t deserve to be there.”

“Yes, well—” the man began, reddening under the force of her stare.

Someone in the crowd shouted, “We’ll be outside your office every Hogsmeade weekend until you take him off the air!” 

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The students sat in the lobby for several hours, keeping generally quiet. (Dorcas and Amelia shut down Sirius’s suggestion of Exploding Snap with glares.) Finally, the office closed in the afternoon, and the still-nervous receptionist brought in a security witch to escort the students out of the building. They filed out, dispersing into clumps and moving back towards the castle, huddled against the wintry cold. 

“Well! That was rather haphazard organising,” said Doe, a little out of breath from the excitement. “But I think it got people thinking — and made a point to the WWN folks.”

“I thought I heard some students saying they were going to take the story to the Prophet,” said Germaine. “That’d be interesting.”

As the Gryffindors started for the castle, Dorcas caught up with Michael. “Thanks for the idea,” she said. “You’re bloody brilliant.”

“Me?” Michael laughed. “That was all you.” He bumped her shoulder with his, and suddenly the November chill didn’t seem quite so bad.

 

 

Chapter Text

i. Sixteen Going on Seventeen

November had just about flown by in a chilly daze. The days started to take on the repetitive quality they always did in the middle of term: classes began to blur together, and the not quite winter made Lily antsy for Christmas. That, at least, she could enjoy. In the meantime, though, the one shining spot in the gloomy month was Dex. Which was why, one morning in their dorm, Lily conspired to be alone with Mary.

“Mare,” she said, her tone perfectly casual.

Mary was fiddling with a brand-new wireless; one of her many admirers had assured her it would tune into Muggle stations, despite whatever interference Hogwarts caused. So far the thing had not proved effective. Lily didn’t think the boy had a chance anyway, but she felt sorry for him nevertheless. Mary looked up at the sound of her name. 

“Yeah?”

“How did you know you were ready to have sex? The first time?”

Lily hadn’t expected to be able to get the words out right away; she blinked at her friend in just as much surprise as Mary did at her.

“Well,” Mary said cautiously, as though she recognised that a dramatic reaction would spook Lily, “I wanted to get it over with. I think when you have that feeling about it, you’re probably ready. But that’s not the only sign of readiness.”

“I don’t think I have that feeling.”

“No, you wouldn’t.”

Lily chewed on her bottom lip. She was sitting on the rug, leaning against her bed. “Hmm.” She could feel herself flushing. Was it too late to take it back? “I don’t mean to—” 

Mary cut her off. “Do you want to? That’s sort of the first step.”

Did she? “I — don’t know,” Lily said honestly. She felt ambivalent about...waiting for love or for marriage, or what have you. She couldn’t just do it with whoever, of course. But her boyfriend wasn’t just anyone. And they’d been — well, it wasn’t sex, but things had been a little hotter and heavier than usual, so to speak. She knew she was growing redder by the moment. 

“You don’t have to worry about it until you do know,” said Mary decisively. “Unless he’s pressuring you into anything?” A dangerous calm came over her. 

“No! No, nothing like that. I was only wondering…” Lily realised she’d been seeking some sort of reassurance from Mary, but she wasn’t at all certain what sort. She didn’t know if Mary could give it, either. 

“Look, Lily. Sex is whatever you want it to be. It can be — meaningful and special that first time, or it can be just for fun. I mean, ideally it’s fun either way. But, point being, you have your whole life to have it, and your whole life to have different kinds of it. Don’t overthink it. Do what feels right.” At the end of this speech Mary smiled, and said, “Okay?”

“Okay,” said Lily, a touch hesitant. She knew Mary was trying to be helpful. But her friend’s words swimming around her head only made her more confused. 

Mary’s smile had dropped at the look on Lily’s face. “It seems like you’re waiting for something.”

Lily’s hands fluttered into a helpless half-shrug. “Maybe? I think I’m waiting for the right moment. It seems wrong to plan it.”

“Wrong, or embarrassing?”

No, Lily had been wrong. This interrogation was far, far worse than a confusing little speech. “I don’t know,” she said again, putting her face in her hands. “I just wish there was a guidebook for what to do and when. But I also wish things could just be spontaneous.”

Mary laughed, prying Lily’s hands away from her face. “Things are only as spontaneous as you make them, Lily. Besides, Fortescue isn’t keeling over anytime soon. You don’t need to have all the answers.”

Lily squeezed Mary’s hands. “You know that’s easier said than done for me.” She rose to her feet. “I think I’m going to take a walk.”

“You’re not upset, are you?”

“I promise, I’m not. I need to get out of my head, is all.” 

Mary did not look like she entirely believed this excuse, but did not argue. With one last reassuring smile, Lily twisted a scarf around her neck and made her way out of Gryffindor Tower. Hufflepuff were playing Ravenclaw that morning, which explained where Germaine was. Scoping out the enemy on James’s instructions, no doubt. Lily thought she heard the crowd erupt into a roar; she remembered all the stupid stunts Gryffindor’s match had involved, and hoped to God nothing of the sort was happening again.

She avoided the pitch, starting towards the Lake instead. It was decidedly not the right weather for lakeshore socialising, and the front of the castle was devoid of any clumps of students despite the fact that it was the weekend. How perfectly depressing, Lily thought. She could’ve been the only student in the school. Sighing to herself, she groped for the crumpled pack of cigarettes stowed away in her pocket. 

“So much for kicking the habit,” she said to herself aloud, lighting one with the tip of her wand and settling onto a nice patch of dried-up grass. Well — as nice as could be, for November. 

“Shame,” said a voice behind her.

Lily jumped about a foot into the air, nearly dropping the cigarette. It was only James, hands tucked into his pockets, an innocent smile on his face. 

“Merlin, never sneak up on me again,” she said, laughing a little. “What are you doing here?”

James quirked an eyebrow. “I was taking a walk, thinking about how no one would be here, and I wouldn’t have any probing questions to answer.” He grinned, taking the edge from his words.

Lily rolled her eyes. “I meant why aren’t you at the pitch, is all.”

James grimaced, sitting down next to her. “The game’s over.”

Lily frowned. “Over? But — I thought it would’ve only just started—”

“Ravenclaw are really quite good,” James said sadly. “Maybe it’s a good thing I stumbled upon you after all. Less time to think about playing them.” He eyed her cigarette. “I didn’t think you smoked.”

Lily sighed, lifting it to her mouth. “I wish I didn’t. I try not to at school, but it’s been a weird morning.” She saw the curiosity in his eyes, and realised she needed to change the subject right away. Even thinking of explaining the details of her conversation with Mary to James was wreaking havoc on her blood pressure. “One for you?” She held out her pack to him.

His expression shifted into sternness. “My body is a temple, Evans. Why would I get that gunk in my system?” And then he took a cigarette and lit it. 

Lily snorted; she thought she saw him smile. They smoked together in silence for a few minutes, watching the Lake’s still surface. Of course the combination of this company and this location made Lily think of last year after their Defense Against the Dark Arts O.W.L.

The requisite twinge of shame, of hurt, struck her. It was hard to reconcile this...comfortable vision of James beside her, lounging on the grass perfectly happy being silent, with perhaps her worst recent memory. She worried, all of a sudden, that she was on the verge of saying something that would spoil this tranquil moment. 

So she said, instead, “The Aurors are thinking of starting a Duelling Club.”

The slightest crease appeared between James’s eyebrows, although whether this was in response to the actual subject at hand or simply the suddenness of her speech, Lily could not be sure. 

“What for?” James said.

“Teaching protective magic. That’s what they said to the prefects, at least. And as an outlet for students interested in… combative spells.” She gave him a meaningful look.

His frown deepened. “That doesn’t actually solve the problem of the Death Eater wannabes. They don’t want protection against Dark magic. They want to practice it. And teaching them the spellwork people use against it only makes them more likely to figure out how to get around them.”

“By that logic we ought to make Defense Against the Dark Arts opt-in,” Lily pointed out. “You’re probably right about Mulciber and Avery and that bunch. But isn’t it a good idea to prepare everyone else?”

He was quiet for a moment, blowing out a stream of smoke. “You really think they’ll need to be prepared — for something. Some kind of attack.”

Lily glanced at him, surprised. He hadn’t asked this as a question, not really, but— “You don’t? I mean,” she added hastily, “not that I think we’re about to be hurt tomorrow. But...what with the way things are going, I don’t think we can be ready soon enough. Especially if you’re right about what Mulciber and them were doing the other night.” 

She braced herself for a defensive comment, but all James said was, “I think I do too.”

Lily nodded. “You’ll join, won’t you?”

“Yeah.” A hint of confusion entered his voice. “Are you asking because you think I should?”

“Well, yes,” Lily admitted with a small laugh. “Not because I think you can’t protect yourself.”

James smiled. “Kind of you to worry for my safety so much.”

She rolled her eyes. “I mean, if you and your friends join then — other students probably will too. It won’t be a boring extracurricular that’s being forced on us. It’ll be...if not fun, then cool.”

At this James properly laughed, a full-belly laugh with his head thrown back. Lily puffed at her cigarette, waiting for him to collect himself. An explanation would be forthcoming; he did not laugh at her without letting her know why.

No, that was an unfair thought. It would be more accurate to say he was open about what he felt — though so much of him seemed to exist behind a locked door she didn’t think she would ever pass through, James had an easy way about him. Call it confidence, or arrogance; Lily supposed she would have leaned towards the latter in years past. 

“What is it?” she said when his laughter had subsided to chuckling.

“You think I’m cool,” he said, grinning.

Lily pulled a face. “Really? That was your takeaway?” At her exasperation, he began to laugh again. Lily huffed. “I don’t think you’re cool. I mean that the Hogwarts population at large thinks you’re cool. What does it mean to be cool anyway?”

“I see through you, Evans.”

“No, you don’t,” she said automatically, rolling her eyes. “Look, about our truce,” she started, before she could stop herself.

The mirth did not entirely fade from his expression, but he grew visibly wary. “Has anyone ever told you you have a bad habit of picking at things best left alone?”

“Not in so many words, but yes,” Lily said wryly. “I just wanted to say—” She shifted so she was facing him, the better to read his expression. “I do think the truce has become a safety net of sorts. More like a catch-all apology than a real truce, d’you know what I mean?”

He sighed. “No.”

“We’re still shitty to each other. Except now we argue and then let it simmer, on account of our truce. But that’s not what a truce means. It isn’t — firing at each other during a stalemate, but that’s what we’ve been doing.”

James was avoiding her gaze now, picking at the yellowed blades of grass between them. “Your metaphor’s got legs,” he observed mildly.

Lily did not let herself react to this. It was in his nature, she realised, to push back when a conversation veered towards discomfort; it was in her nature to push back when he did. Thus they careened towards arguments, time after time. Lily came to this conclusion in a calm, detached sort of way, impressed at her own thinking. Perhaps it was the cigarette. God bless Pall Mall, she thought.

“The point is, I’m sorry. I know we’ve already pulled a tabula rasa, but I want a proper one now. And — one in which we actually try not to be horrid.” This was more honesty than Lily had expected even from herself; she winced inwardly, wondering what his response would be.

James looked up at her, smiling a slanted sort of smile. “You’re right.”

“I’m what?” said Lily.

“You’re right. C’mon, you’re a smart bird, you know what that means.”

Lily scoffed, but she was smiling, altogether relieved.

“We can be nicer,” James continued. “I’m open to saying sorry once in a while. I thought I would only tolerate you, but you’re all right.”

She opened her mouth to protest, and he started to laugh again. “It was a joke!”

Lily relaxed. Of course it was, and maybe she did still feel a touch of stiff-backed affront when he said it’s a joke, lighten up, Evans, but she could bite her tongue if he did the same. 

“We get along, when we try,” Lily said, pleased, as she took a drag of her cigarette.

“We always knew that.”

This took her by surprise; James said it with such simple assertiveness that she wasn’t sure what to think. Lily considered the fact that she and James could get along to be a recent revelation. Had he always thought they could? Why had he spent a good chunk of their school years aggravating her, then? Nothing made sense, but the crisp calm that smoking brought her allowed this confusion to simply exist. She could poke and prod at it later.

“If we’re being honest,” Lily said, with the cautious confidence of someone approaching a wild animal for the second time, “why’re you always so insistent about my not forgiving Severus? Do you really just dislike him that much?”

James lay down on his back, resting his head on a hand. “Picking at things, Evans.”

She said nothing, only looked at him.

“Let me put it this way. If Sni — if Snape were Mary’s friend and he’d said that to her, wouldn’t you tell Mary she ought to never speak to him again?”

Lily shifted uneasily. “Well, sure, but I’ve known him since—”

“—you were children, whatever. Say Mary did too. Would that change anything for her?” He raised his eyebrows at her meaningfully, as if he’d won his case already.

Lily sighed, looking back at the Lake. it would’ve been easier, far easier, if James had called Severus names and made snide remarks about his appearance. 

“So you’re me, in this situation? Telling Mary what’s best for her?”

“Don’t project, Evans. Your…” He hesitated. “The people around you can sometimes see you clearer than you can see yourself. You can’t fix everyone.”

“Me?” She met his gaze, frowning. “I don’t try to fix people.”

“Sure you do.” James half-sat up, counting off on his fingers. “You befriended Remus in third year, because he obviously needed it. You stuck around Snape longer than you should’ve, despite the company he keeps — no, let me finish. Isn’t that what this whole truce thing is about?”

Lily’s mouth fell open; she struggled for a moment to find words. “Surely you didn’t agree to get along with me if you thought I was making you my — latest project!

“That’s not what I said either,” said James, seemingly unaffected by her shock. “Remus is your friend, not your project. I think you go around trying to extend redeeming offers. But redemption is internal, at the end of the day. You can’t force Snape into it, the same way you can’t force me.”

“I’m not forcing you.”

“No,” he agreed. “That’s what I tried to establish at the beginning of this conversation. You aren’t forcing me.”

Lily shook her head. “No — that’s — none of that makes sense.”

She was faced, again, with the part of him that was shut off. It was as if she’d been walking the halls of a house with perfect freedom, only to come across an entire locked-up wing. Only, why was she so intent on knowing him, anyway? Why did she always want to throw herself bodily at the door and force her way in?

“It really doesn’t make sense,” James said, nodding. Then he rose to his feet. “Last week’s Potions essay is calling my name, sadly.”

Last week’s?” Lily repeated, latching onto something she could at last understand.

“Sure. If I want to go to Duelling Club, I’ll have to stay out of detention, won’t I?”

“You’re incorrigible.” She had to squint looking up at him; the sun, apparently, was brighter than the overcast sky made it seem. James was a blurry backlit impression of a person in her vision.

“As long as you don’t force it,” said James cheerfully. “Thanks for the cig.”

Lily watched him go, somehow feeling unsettled and realigned at the same time.

 


ii. Two Minutes and Seventeen Seconds

The Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff tables were buzzing at breakfast; it was their big Quidditch rivalry match, after all. Dorcas, spooning jam onto her toast at the relatively quiet Gryffindor table, wondered as she always did why these two games began the season rather than finishing it off.

In any case, it worked out all right this season. If Ravenclaw lived up to the hype, the final match of the year — Gryffindor versus Ravenclaw — would decide who took home the cup.

These thoughts swirled around her head because Quidditch was necessarily on the mind. Turning to Germaine, Doe said, “You’re not doing anything this morning, are you? Want to watch the game with me?”

“You’re going?” Germaine said. “Whatever for? I thought you wanted to work on your Ancient Runes essay.”

“No point in working on my Ancient Runes essay when my Ancient Runes study partner is the commentator, is there?”

Germaine only hmmed in response; Doe wasn’t certain what to make of this, so she continued speaking. “Anyway, Michael was the one who asked me to watch. But I think I’d like some company, so you ought to come sit with us.”

Dorcas had thought this a perfectly innocuous invitation. By the look on Germaine’s face, she’d clearly thought wrong.

“Wait, wait—” Germaine noisily set down her goblet of pumpkin juice, shaking her head. “A boy asked you to a Quidditch match, and you’re asking me to be your chaperone?”

Doe laughed. “It’s hardly like that.”

“Well, it is. Why d’you need me? That’s what Michael is for!”

“If you really don’t want to sit with me, you don’t have to,” Doe teased. “It’s not like he can speak to me, can he? Not unless we want one half of the conversation to be broadcast across the pitch. I thought you’d be excited to watch.”

Germaine started, looking almost...trapped. “Me? Why would you say that?” she said, a little too quickly.

Doe blinked. “Because...you play Quidditch? Because you want to scope out the competition? Because there’s nothing more pressing for you to be doing on a weekend, which I know for a fact is true?” Was she reading into Germaine’s odd behaviour? Whatever this was, she could get it out of her.

“Oh. Well. That’s all true, I suppose. I’ll come with you — but I will leave if I start feeling like a third wheel,” she warned.

“You won’t,” Doe said, rolling her eyes. “You sound just like Mary.”

Icon of a quill drawing a line

Germaine and Doe huddled together in the stands, feeling rather out of place in the sea of blue around them. It was cold; Dorcas was glad she’d invited her friend along. She could hardly have sat this close to Michael. Although — funnily enough, his voice wasn’t deafening, even though they were right beside him. The acoustic effect from his magical megaphone was such that he sounded as if he were across the stadium, his voice a pleasant boom.

Once the teams were called out and the captains met for the toss, Michael lowered his voice and said, “I’m glad you both came. None of my friends sit by me when I do this — the last time we tried, their cheering made me cheer, and then McGonagall was not pleased.” The professor in question looked over at the sound of her name, eyes narrowed; Michael gave her an innocent smile.

“No chance of us cheering, luckily,” Doe said. “Germaine and I will be booing no matter what happens. Right?” She nudged her friend, who was staring with a worrying intensity at the pitch.

Germaine started. “What? Yeah. No cheering.” She was preoccupied with her own thoughts. This was the first time she’d watched Emmeline play since they’d started flying together. Would that give her some sort of insight into the way the Ravenclaw thought the game? Germaine had only ever practised with Gryffindors; knowing their style of play was sort of the point. And then she thought, why am I thinking myself in circles instead of just watching?

She ought to have found her teammates. At least James and Isobel and Evan would be constantly talking, the better for her to focus on something outside her strange nervousness. It was nearly as bad as if she were playing the match herself.

Perhaps it was because she wasn’t certain where she and Emmeline stood. They were friendlyish. The last time they’d practised, the two girls had actually spoken — briefly, but it counted for something after weeks of silence. Germaine was not an extrovert, but she considered herself well able to make friends. It seemed as though Emmeline was the unfriendly one. Then again, she was friends with Amelia Bones, so clearly she could make friends, so what was the—

“And we’re off! Hufflepuff with the Quaffle to start, which will probably be the last time they get their hands on— ahem, Johnston’s got the Quaffle, that is, oh! Not anymore.”

Doe and Germaine both hissed; a Ravenclaw Beater had aimed the Bludger right at the Hufflepuff Chaser, who was unhurt but startled enough that she dropped the Quaffle. Stephen Fawcett, the Ravenclaw captain, swooped after it and shot off towards the Hufflepuff hoops.

“He’s scoring here,” said Germaine.

“How d’you know?” Doe said.

“Trust me.”

Fawcett feinted right; Chris Townes lunged too far, and the Ravenclaw easily tossed the Quaffle through the middle hoop. The Ravenclaws around them erupted into cheers; Fawcett flew past them, egging them on. 

“You’d think he just won them the game,” Dorcas said, amused.

“It won’t get any better,” replied Germaine, scowling. “Emmeline better catch the Snitch soon. I don’t want to hear about Fawcett all bloody week.”

“Emmeline who?”

But Michael answered that question for her. “Is — that — the Snitch? Merlin’s shining — sorry, Professor McGonagall. That is the Snitch, and Emmeline Vance has got it. That’s the game for Ravenclaw, by a score of one hundred and sixty to zero!

“Christ Almighty,” said Dorcas. “How much time was that?”

Michael was grinning. “For those of you in the audience who weren’t keeping time, that was two minutes and seventeen seconds of game play. One for the record books, eh?”

Doe rolled her eyes and elbowed him in the side before turning to her friend. “We’ll have a real game against them, won’t we? Germaine? Won’t we?”

But Germaine was only watching Ravenclaw’s victory lap, looking vaguely queasy. 

 

 

Chapter Text

i. Double Trouble

Double Potions, James thought, had to be an instrument of torture. They’d learned about the Geneva Convention in Muggle Studies — certainly if Muggles knew about magic, and Hogwarts, and the concept of Slughorn’s Potions class, they would have thought to include double Potions in their agreements.

That was not to say that James was bad at Potions; quite the contrary. For someone so blasé about schoolwork in general, he did well enough in Slughorn’s subject — better than he had in, say, History of Magic, a class that he and Sirius had spent five years in learning more about how to tick off Binns than actual history. 

But he did not have the patience and diligence required to make a great potioneer. James knew this because he recognised those qualities in his own father, though Fleamont’s days of regular potion-brewing were long gone. Part of this was the habitual restlessness of any sixteen-year-old wizard who cared more about Quidditch than the stirring involved in a Hiccoughing Potion. 

This upset no one more than Horace Slughorn himself, whose obvious adoration of Snape and Lily seemed to only slightly outweigh his distaste for the Marauders’ antics. James continued to receive invitations to the annual Slug Club Christmas party, and continued to dutifully not attend, though Slughorn always seemed worried that James would one year show his face at the event. James liked to keep up this pretense. Double Potions was so long and dreary that by the end one could not be picky with where and how one found entertainment.

One mercy Slughorn did grant them, however, was a mid-class break. “Stretch your legs, go on,” he’d boom in the manner of a genteel overlord allowing his serfs to take a sip of water on a hot summer’s day — or so thought James, the gloom of the dungeon having pushed him to melodrama.

When Slughorn did give this command, James sprang up at once, making for the door with Sirius hot on his heels. Talk turned, as it had of late, to their Christmas prank. The mechanics of the prank were more complicated than they ordinarily would have been. James and Sirius were both going home to the Potters’ for Christmas, and Peter was going to his parents', so all the preparations had to be even more careful than usual. There could be no last-minute screw-ups, or Remus would need to spend his holiday fixing them all on his own before Filch could trace the prank back to the four of them. 

“We’ve still got to figure out what kind of cups we’re using,” James said. “We can’t use glass. They’ll break and that’s too dangerous.”

Sirius, who seemed even more fidgety than double Potions warranted, rolled his eyes. “All right, Remus John Lupin. We won’t use glass. Transfiguring plastic will be a bitch, but we can do it.”

James frowned. “That’ll be a lot of plastic.” It was not a complaint, but merely a comment. He was already considering the space and time required for this sort of spellwork, excited at the challenge.

But for the first time in a long time, his friend misunderstood him. “Yeah, well, it’s an involved prank,” Sirius snapped. 

James looked at him, taken aback. Surprise flickered briefly across Sirius’s face, before being replaced by a familiar defensiveness. As they rounded a corner, James was considering how to talk him down — probing for what had Sirius in a bad mood was not a good idea, especially given they were due back in the Potions classroom in about two minutes.

He was spared having to speak, however, when they came face to face with two other wizards. So instantaneous was James’s reaction to Mulciber and Rosier that he had his wand out before he’d even realised it; beside him, Sirius had done the same, his own temper forgotten. Mulciber scowled, his hand in his pocket. But Rosier hadn’t so much as twitched.

“Relax,” he said, his eyes flicking heavenward. “I have no desire to duel either of you in the corridor.” Taking the hint, Mulciber gave up on retrieving his wand, crossing his arms over his chest.

“No, your duelling’s only at nighttime, in empty classrooms. Isn’t it?” Sirius said sourly. Neither of the Gryffindors had put away their own wands.

Rosier’s expression was perfectly bored. “I do nothing of the sort.”

“You haven’t been caught,” James corrected.

Rosier shrugged, as if to say, what’s the difference?

“Wands away,” a familiar voice called; James closed his eyes just briefly before turning to face Lily. His gaze slid off her, landing instead on the figure by her side: a characteristically disheveled Severus Snape. James fought to keep the distaste from his face.

“What’re you doing with her?” said Mulciber, apparently caught by the same thing as James. He and Rosier looked less at ease, somehow, than before. Mulciber’s scowl had turned even nastier; Rosier had gone cold as stone. James had lowered his wand at the sound of Lily’s voice, but he gripped it tight nevertheless. 

Snape looked more dour than ever at this question. For her part, Lily appeared unruffled.

“Wands away,” she repeated, looking pointedly at James and Sirius. “And get back to class, or I’ll take points.”

Sirius and James exchanged glances, stowing their wands away and starting back in the direction they’d come. Lily joined them. For a long minute all three walked in total silence; James glanced surreptitiously from Sirius to Lily, trying to read their expressions. Finally he looked at the latter, his mouth moving before his brain had time to catch up. If it had been Remus or Peter with them, he wouldn’t have had to speak first — but Sirius would not be making any friendly overtures, certainly not in this mood.

“Snape and you, you’re chummy again?” he said.

Lily blew out a long breath, looking impossibly weary. James was not one to overthink his actions, but he regretted saying anything at all in that moment.

“Just drop it, James,” she ground out. She began to walk faster, as if to try and escape his questions. James felt a helpless sort of frustration, like he’d stuck out a hand to someone trapped in quicksand only to have his assistance refused. 

“Fine,” he said, and they all fell silent again. James was almost relieved to see the doorway to the Potions classroom.

 


ii. Devil’s Advocate

In September of 1971, Lily Evans had fervently hoped she and Severus would be partners in their Potions class. All facets of magic excited her, of course, but Potions held a special sort of interest — unlike Charms and Transfiguration and Defence Against the Dark Arts, Potions seemed more mundane.

It was like following a recipe, Lily thought. Other witches or wizards might have found this a drawback, but not she. It was all the more fascinating that a few strange ingredients and some wand-waving were all that separated useless sludge from Forgetfulness Potion. 

Gryffindors had Potions with the Slytherins, and so Lily’s ideal partnership was certainly a possibility — but to her great dismay, Professor Slughorn consistently paired her with that James Potter. The distinction between herself and those who had been raised with magic was quickly made apparent: Slughorn seemed to have an eye on several students, because of their mothers or great-uncles or last names, and Lily found herself working twice as hard for his attention. 

It succeeded, of course, because by Christmastime Slughorn liked her a good deal more than Potter, who seemed hell-bent on causing explosions in class. It took until their second year for Slughorn to give up on trying to separate Potter and his friends, and Lily had begun her long tenure as Severus’s Potions partner, whenever Slughorn called for them to work in pairs. The professor was occasionally struck by fancies and split them up, but he seemed unwilling to punish his more talented students — at worst Lily found herself with Mary or Remus. 

At the beginning of their sixth year, she’d worried, briefly, about Slughorn trying to stick the two of them together as he always did. But their N.E.W.T.-level class had shrunk, of course, and Slughorn had genially told them all to sit wherever they pleased on the first day. He’d merely blinked in surprise when Lily had hurried to Mary’s side; Severus slunk by Avery, glowering. 

Today, however, was one of Slughorn’s little competitions. They’d been charged with brewing a minor love potion, an invention of Laverne de Montmorency’s — “Nothing too strong, of course,” Slughorn had told them, beaming. “Philiatonic inspires a friendly devotion. It’s nowhere near as powerful as Amortentia, but it’s quite finicky, like all love potions. You will need to be very attentive. Let me scramble up your pairs, too—” His gaze had fallen on Lily first, and she’d known, with a sinking feeling, that he would assign her to partner with Severus.

It was quiet, hard work, though, and Lily was grateful for that much. They were both more focused on the potion than one another. Certainly she felt awkward around him, but her conversation with James had nudged her from a resentful anger to something softer — something more like resignation.

It was true that she would have counselled Mary against ever taking back a friend who’d called her a slur like that. And whatever Severus said about it having been in the heat of the moment… Well, a word like that didn’t occur to you in anger if it wasn’t in your head otherwise. No, she could not forgive him, but she felt impossibly sorry for him still — sorry because they were firmly on diverging paths, and she hadn’t noticed until it was too late. 

As if he’d read her train of thought, Severus looked up at her and said, quietly, “You’re never going to forgive me, are you?”

Lily started, guilty despite herself. Instead of answering him, she focused on her stirring. “Do you know anything about the midnight duelling that Avery and Mulciber and the others got in trouble for?” she said, her tone measured and flat. 

The more legal sort of duelling was on her mind — Duelling Club signups had gone up that weekend, and the prefects had been told the club would begin in earnest after the Christmas holidays. But perhaps James’s doggedness had infected her too. Loath as she was to admit it, Severus did probably know a thing or two about what his friends had been up to.

Abruptly, Severus’s expression became closed-off. “Am I being bribed?” he said coldly. “Information for your forgiveness?”

“Maybe,” Lily replied. What else could his defensiveness be but a sign that he did know?

He only scoffed, falling silent again. That suited her fine. Pressing her lips together, she turned back to her cauldron. At the halfway mark, Slughorn allowed them the usual five-minute break, but as their classmates began to filter out of class, the Potions professor cleared his throat and asked Lily and Severus to wait a moment.

“Excellent work, as usual,” Slughorn said, peering into their cauldron. “Just — phenomenal, as always.”

Lily smothered a smile and murmured her thanks. In any other life, she thought — in nine lives out of ten — she wouldn’t have been able to stand old Slughorn, but in this life she had a fondness for him not unrelated to how much he complimented her. She was allowed a bit of vanity, wasn’t she? By her side, Severus shifted, uncomfortable with praise as always. 

“I hope I’ll see you both at my little Christmas get-together? Plenty of fascinating people I’d love for you to meet.” Slughorn beamed at both of them. 

Lily opened her mouth to make an excuse; her friends were rarely, if at all, invited to Slughorn’s little get-togethers, and she didn’t think she’d be in the mood for his hobnobbing pals on her own. 

But the professor continued on. “I know you’ll never tell me what your plans are for after Hogwarts, Lily—” a genial headshake, and a chuckle “—but the Aurors will be there in a properly social capacity — Ambrosius Flume too, if you care for some entertaining potion-making, Lavinia Clearwater, if you’d like to speak to the Prophet’s editor-in-chief, Madam Zainab Shafiq of the Wizengamot—”

This piqued her interest. Lily thought of the protest, and the awful news in the Prophet each day, and the possibility of speaking to people who could make a difference. Her expression must have been easy to read, because Slughorn straightened and looked quite pleased.

“I insist, Miss Evans, I insist,” he boomed. 

Lily smiled and nodded. “I’ll be there, Professor. Thank you for the invitation.”

“And you, Severus?” Slughorn turned to face him, and Lily found herself following suit. Severus did not seem particularly eager, but the Potions professor had a name to sweeten the deal, it appeared, just as he had with Lily. “Oh, a particularly talented former student of mine will be in attendance. Marius Rosier, just returned from a trip to Bulgaria, and I really must ask him what he’s doing these days—”

If the name rang vaguely familiar to Lily, it had a much more powerful effect on Severus, whose eyebrows rose before he could smooth his expression back to blankness. She frowned to herself. Marius had to be some relation to Alec, the seventh-year Ravenclaw, but she could not for the life of her imagine why this would matter at all to Severus. 

She’d always thought of his other friends — Mulciber, and Avery, and Greengrass, and the like — as friends of convenience, really. People that Severus only interacted with because of their house, people who were only placeholders for when he wasn’t with Lily herself.

But, no, that couldn’t have been true, because Alec Rosier wasn’t a Slytherin. And one wasn’t familiar with the older brother of a casual acquaintance. Something in her sank like a stone, a belated realisation that was almost worse than having to endure James’s horrible logic when it came to forgiving Severus. 

Slughorn was still speaking. “Are you at all in touch with the older lot of them? Wilkes, I mean, and Evan Rosier too. Do promise me, Severus,” he said, chortling, “that when you leave the castle behind you will not forget your old Potions master.”

The conversation was rather one-sided, though Severus seemed to be growing more and more tense with every name Slughorn mentioned. Lily was itching with curiosity, the instinct to ask questions warring with her resolve to just leave her former friend alone.

Slughorn was clearly finished speaking with her, and so she had no cause to linger. Even now the other Gryffindors were probably wondering where she was, and time was ticking down on their precious break. But she hovered awkwardly, knowing that even if Severus didn’t tell her anything — likely — Slughorn might drop some interesting bit of information.

But Severus, who was a tad flushed, seemed to sense Lily’s intent. He glanced at her, then swallowed. “I’ll be there,” he said, effectively cutting off Slughorn’s diatribe. 

“Excellent! Oh, I’ve kept you — go on, take what’s left of your break.” Slughorn waved them off, and Lily made quickly for the door, sensing a sour comment on the way from Severus.

True to form, they’d only just made it out to the corridor when he said, “Don’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong, Lily.”

She whirled round to face him. “I won’t,” she said hotly. “You needn’t worry, because my nose won’t be anywhere near your business — ever.” With this said, she marched away, pumping her legs faster at the sound of his footsteps behind her.

“Wait! Stay away from the seventh-floor corridor.”

Lily halted again, her mind whirling. What on earth was in the seventh-floor corridor? It was empty, save for the odd tapestry and— the secret room that Dex had taken her to. 

“What are you talking about?”

“Just stay away,” Severus said, the desperation audible in his voice. “You’re always — asking questions, but you could really get hurt.”

“There’s nothing there,” said Lily, her tone perfectly cool now.

So much for his pretending that he had nothing to do with the other students’ duelling — because, she was certain, what else would they have been using the secret space for? What else could possibly pose a risk to her? It was awfully incongruous, the thought of that warm little nook inhabited by Mulciber and his nasty grin. She felt as though a perfect part of the castle had been taken from her. 

“No, there isn’t,” said Severus, the words tumbling out of him in a rush. “But — Rosier knows something about— look, it doesn’t matter. Can you just stay away?”

Lily didn’t plan on investigating it herself. She was not stupid, nor reckless — she wasn’t James or Sirius. But he did not need to know that.

“I’ll mind my own business when you tell McGonagall what they’re up to.”

He looked stricken for an instant, then angry. Lily judged that the conversation was well over, and continued down the corridor. It was terribly chilly in the dungeons, but she knew Germaine would have begged for fresh air, and her friends would probably be in one of the courtyards. To her dismay, though, the first people she ran into were not her mates, but James and Sirius and Rosier and Mulciber, engaged in some sort of standoff.

Just my luck, she thought darkly; she could feel Severus just a few paces behind her. 

“Wands away,” said Lily. They would have to be back in the dungeons soon enough — there was no time to duel, on top of all the hundreds of other reasons why it was a ridiculous idea. Mulciber was awful, yes, but she was more wary of Rosier, whose iciness seemed to mask something worse.

She’d hoped they would listen at her first command, but that was wishful thinking. Rosier looked bored; the other three were gawping at her and Severus as though the sight of the two of them together was as rare as a blue moon. Silly, considering they’d spent five years as friends — but Lily supposed that James had good cause to be surprised. She wondered, uneasy, what Severus had told his crowd about her. She didn’t much care what they thought of her, but she’d rather not have been a subject of their conversation at all.

“What’re you doing with her?” Mulciber said to Severus, scowling at Lily. 

She crossed her arms over her chest, not flinching from his gaze. Severus seemed disinclined to answer this question — a good thing, she was beginning to realise. 

“Wands away,” she said again. If anyone listened, it’d be her housemates; Lily shot James and Sirius a look. “And get back to class, or I’ll take points.”

To her relief, this seemed to do the trick. When James and Sirius had put away their wands, Lily turned on her heel and started back for the Potions classroom, not waiting to see who would follow her. She’d done her job and stopped a fight, but she felt suddenly tired. She’d have to go right back to working on the Philiatonic with Severus, stewing in her frustration. Why was she incapable of a clean break? Or, no, this wasn’t her fault. It was him, and the company he kept, and it was not her fault

James’s voice broke through this frenzied spiral into anger. “Snape and you, you’re chummy again?” 

Lily squeezed her eyes shut briefly, sighing. All at once she was exhausted once more. It was a good thing she’d agreed to go to Slughorn’s party, she thought. She needed something to take all this nonsense off her mind.

“Just drop it, James,” she said aloud, not meeting his gaze.

It was silly to feel defensive, or even embarrassed — she hadn’t been getting chummy with Severus at all. But she was sick of being lectured, of being told what to do, even when she knew it was well-intentioned. She was a girl used to trusting her own judgment, and it stung to have her faults pointed out so much and so often. That was her pride speaking, she knew, but the knowledge did not make any of this easier. 

With a twist in her gut, she realised she wanted to go home. Christmas was just around the corner, and she would be back with her mother and her sister soon, but — God, I haven’t been homesick at Hogwarts in ages, Lily thought, stunned. But a break was very much in order, and she squared her shoulders and lengthened her stride, as James muttered a vague response behind her. 

 


iii. Behind Enemy Lines

Germaine set her broom down as she caught her breath, scraping her sweat-dampened hair out of her face. It was only just long enough to tie back — a relief, she thought, for she hated the way it hung after a good flying session, somehow wind-whipped and lank at once. She was not vain, really, but she didn’t want to look stupid. This was a desire that was increasingly at the forefront of her mind, often catching her by surprise. It was a side effect of being around Emmeline, probably. The Ravenclaw girl was, if not perfectly put together, the sort of person who moved around with an air of nonchalance that Germaine envied. 

She squinted at Emmeline now as the other witch touched down onto the grass as well. Emmeline crumpled to the ground, a motion she somehow made look graceful, and pulled a cigarette from a pocket, lighting it. Germaine watched, intrigued. She was not a big smoker herself, and had no particular opinion on the habit, but she hadn’t taken Emmeline for one. 

“I thought the point of being a Prefect was enforcing the rules and following them,” Germaine said, moving closer to her.

Emmeline looked up at her. “It’s only a little smoke break.” She exhaled a cloud of smoke.

Germaine’s eyes grew huge and round. “That’s not a cigarette.” It was too earthy a smell, and though she wasn’t really certain what weed smelled like she was fairly certain that this was the thing. Emmeline, of all people! Germaine was nearly giddy with surprise.

Emmeline laughed at her expression. “Don’t look so shocked.” She held the joint out for Germaine, who took it with the barest beat of hesitation.

“I just didn’t think you’d be the type.” 

“What’s the type?”

Many words came to mind, none of which, Germaine thought, would be particularly flattering to Emmeline. She only shrugged. “I can’t think where you’d get it from.” She peered at the slim joint in her fingers, at its little burning-red end.

Emmeline laughed again. Germaine didn’t think she’d seen her this delighted ever, and it didn’t seem to be the drugs. “I have my source, but I won’t rat them out.”

“I suppose not.” Germaine didn’t have anything else to say, so she put the joint to her lips and inhaled. It had been a while since she’d smoked anything, and she’d overestimated her capacity; she tried, unsuccessfully, to stifle her coughing as she handed it back.

“First time?” Emmeline said, arching one dark brow. 

“No,” wheezed Germaine. To her immense relief Emmeline only smiled and did not press her. While Emmeline was taking a drag of her own, Germaine, having recovered from her coughing fit, said, “Er, I don’t think I got to tell you, but you were really good. In the last Quidditch match, I mean.”

Emmeline looked at her curiously. “Oh, were you watching?”

Of course she was watching! She watched every Quidditch match, and this was perfectly ordinary behaviour! Germaine coughed weakly. “Yeah, I was. I mean, not that I could watch much, since it ended so quickly.” Emmeline grew pensive. Germaine added, “Anyway, it was cool.”

“I definitely have told you this, but your stunt was incredibly stupid.”

Germaine laughed. “Why, thank you.”

“Gryffindors and their bad decisions,” said Emmeline, rolling her eyes. Her smile hadn’t faded.

“Technically speaking, this—” Germaine pointed at the joint, and then at herself “—is probably a bad decision, so you should be happy I’m here.”

Emmeline met her gaze, still looking thoughtful. “Maybe I’d prefer to be alone.” She said this without any real sting or heat, as if it had just occurred to her, or as if she were discussing the weather. Her grey eyes glinted in the pale December light. 

Germaine did not look away. “No, I don’t think that’s true.”

Emmeline smiled a little, picking at the grass. Neither of them spoke; Germaine watched the clouds move slowly overhead, and the winter sun inch its way through the sky. At last the Ravenclaw stubbed out her joint — by then much shortened — and stood up, brushing down her uniform and picking up her broom. With a wave, she was gone, leaving Germaine to her thoughts. 

What Germaine was thinking, most concretely through the happy haze of an afternoon well spent, was that she needed to get rid of the smell before heading to Care of Magical Creatures. She wasn’t sure how strongly she smelled of weed, but something surely lingered—

She checked her watch. Yes, she would need to get up and go any moment now, but she wanted to stay just a little longer, basking in the privacy before she returned to real life and class and everyone else she knew. 

Real life, however, found her first. Germaine spotted James Potter’s familiar, bespectacled figure; he was headed her way, his gait more urgent than usual. She wasn’t late for class yet, so what on earth could this be about? She opened her mouth to call out a greeting, but snapped it shut at his thunderous expression.

“What’s wrong?” she said.

“I’ll tell you what’s wrong,” said James, his voice cold with fury. “You’ve been flying with Vance. Merlin, Germaine, do you want Ravenclaw to know all our secrets?”

Germaine blinked at him, utterly in shock. “Logically, James, if she knows our secrets I’ll know hers.”

She rose shakily to her feet, feeling very small on the ground next to his height. Of course, she was still a good foot shorter than him, but she felt better for being able to look him in the eye. Whatever this was, it couldn’t be because of Quidditch, surely. James was a fair captain, at the end of it all.

But he was scowling. “Can you take this a little seriously? Ravenclaw is really good and your precious Vance is part of why, and if we want a shot at the cup this year—”

His tone had her properly irked. Your precious Vance. Germaine glared at him. “Not everything is about the stupid Quidditch Cup!”

“It is to her,” James shot back. “For all you know she’s hanging around you so you let something slip.”

Germaine scoffed, though the idea felt as cold and awful as ice. “You’re a prick, Potter. It’s a game, not fucking espionage.”

James did not respond to this, peering at her closely and sniffing the air. “Are you high?”

“What are you going to do? Write me a detention? Sit me for the next match?” She shook her head, incredulous.

“I just might.”

“Whatever Lily said to you that’s put you in such a foul mood—” Germaine started.

“Don’t fucking start,” said James, walking away before she could go on.

Germaine rocked back on her heels, blowing out a frustrated breath. The perfect illusion of her afternoon had been shattered. She grabbed her broom and her bag, stomping to class. But she wasn’t one to hold a grudge; as she walked, she wished she had not snapped at him, not when he’d so clearly been thinking about something else.

But oh, it was too late for regrets now that the argument was done. With her anger fading, Germaine was left with something worse — the sting of blows well placed, only she did not want to think about what James had said and why it bothered her as much as it did.

 


iv. A Slug By Any Other Name

“Gosh, thank you for bringing me,” Dorcas was saying, smoothing down the front of her deep purple dress robes. 

Lily laughed, knocking her shoulder into her friend’s. “Of course, Doe. Although, I’m not entirely sure what you hope to achieve.” They were on the way to Slughorn’s office, the improbable site of the party, though Lily suspected the professors engaged in some kind of spellwork to enlarge the space. “Do you think you can shout at Lavinia Clearwater over dinner?”

Dorcas shrugged expressively. “I’m not saying that was my plan...but I’m not not saying that. I can hobnob with the Aurors anytime, but I can’t always talk to Prophet editors about their decisions, can I? It’s a pity Slughorn hasn’t invited someone from the WWN.”

“That we know of,” Lily pointed out, grinning.

Dorcas brightened. “You’re so very right.”

The girls breezed into the lavishly decorated office, which was already crowded with well-dressed students and guests alike. A string quartet played in a corner, the melody a tinkling undertone to the murmur of conversation. Lily caught herself scanning the faces around her; she frowned to herself. There was no one to look for, after all.

Doe squeezed her arm. “I’m going to do a sweep of the room. Old Sluggy will point me to Clearwater, won’t he?”

“Oh — I’m sure he will,” said Lily, feeling quite dazed. She didn’t know where to begin, but she didn’t want to aimlessly tag along with Dorcas. Slughorn’s wry little comment from Potions class swam through her mind. What did she want to do after Hogwarts? Here was a room full of people who had exciting answers to her uncertainty. 

Slughorn himself came to her rescue, swooping down on her like an avuncular bat and steering her towards two wizards. One was stooped and pale, looking like he was doing as well as one of the Hogwarts ghosts, health-wise; the other was stout and broad-shouldered, peering down at Lily curiously from under his bushy eyebrows.

“Gentlemen,” Slughorn pronounced, “one of my brightest students, Lily Evans.” 

Lily rather felt as though she ought to curtsey at this introduction; she smiled and nodded at both of the adults. The younger man, Fergus MacDougal, was a potioneer, it turned out. “A student of Hesper Starkey, you know,” Slughorn said to Lily, who had just nodded more forcefully at this while she scrambled to remember who, exactly, Hesper Starkey was. The older man, Cadmus Bulstrode, had previously held some Ministry position. He seemed unwilling to say what, but Lily gleaned from his pompous demeanour that he was important, somehow — or he thought he was.

With a ferocity rivalled only by Lily’s O.W.L. examiners, Bulstrode and MacDougal began to quiz her on her coursework, apparently interested in the most minute details of N.E.W.T.-level Potions. Lily fought to keep her panic from her face. She was beginning to think she would need to physically escape in order to end the conversation, when who but James should appear by her elbow, a little out of breath.

“Oh, hello, Professor Slughorn,” he said cheerfully.

The professor, clearly surprised that he’d come, blanched a little at the sight of him. “So good to see you, Mr. Potter,” Slughorn managed.

Bulstrode perked up at this. “Potter?” he said gruffly, tottering closer as if to seize and examine James.

James casually leaned backwards. Lily stifled a smile.

“Yes, how rude of me.” Slughorn seemed to regain his spirit with the simple task of introducing someone. “James Potter, Cadmus Bulstrode and Fergus MacDougal.”

The two wizards eyed James with the same frightening attention they’d given Lily earlier. She was glad to be spared their beady-eyed gazes; the faint alarm that had stolen over James only made this whole situation better.

Fleamont Potter’s son?” said MacDougal, his brows rising ever higher up his craggy forehead.

“That’s me,” said James.

Bulstrode hummed, now squinting at James in a manner that even Lily thought was borderline rude. “You look nothing like Fleamont.”

James stiffened for the barest moment. “I take after my mother,” he said blandly. Lily wondered if there was some significance to this statement — she hadn’t seen Mr. and Mrs. Potter at Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, not for years. 

But her confusion soon vanished, replaced by a tight sort of rage. She was certain the flush of it was clear on her face. Bulstrode gave James another appraising stare and said, “Hm, and where is your mother from? Not English, is she?” His tone was thick with meaning; though Slughorn did not seem to grasp it, MacDougal looked rather embarrassed. 

Lily realised she’d come to recognise the signs of anger in James. His jaw had tightened; his hazel eyes flashed. He was always the picture of ease, but he did not look at home in fury — stillness was like an ill-fitting suit on him. 

Before she knew what she was doing, she patted James on the arm and said to the older wizards, “I’m so sorry to steal him away from you, but I was promised an introduction to…” Words failed her; she gave him a meaningful look.

Thankfully, James caught on. “Madam Shafiq,” he supplied, giving Bulstrode and MacDougal a cold smile. “Nice to meet you both.”

Flashing them all a wide grin she hoped was not too strained, Lily backed away and led them deeper into the crowd.

“Madam Shafiq’s that way,” said James, redirecting them.

“Oh — you don’t actually have to introduce me,” Lily said. She realised she was still gripping his arm; she dropped her hand hurriedly.

James gave her a lopsided smile, a shadow of the real thing. It soon faded. “She’s Sara’s aunt, and she’s a treasure. I need to speak to someone I have an ounce of respect for after that.”

“I’m sorry,” said Lily, her brows furrowed. 

You didn’t do anything wrong.”

“No, I’m sorry I didn’t tell him off! He was so old and horrible.” She shuddered.

James barked out a laugh, some of the tension fading from his shoulders. “Touching of you to defend my honour.”

She was relieved to see that his mood hadn’t been entirely spoiled. “Your mother’s, not yours.”

“Touché.” James shook his head. “It’s all right. If I got into arguments with everyone who said something like that to me, I’d be wasting my breath.”

“Still,” said Lily hotly. “Still!”

James laughed again, properly this time. “And to think I came over there trying to rescue you.”

“Did you?”

“Oh, yes,” James said. “You ought to have seen the look on your face. It was as though you actually regretted five and a half years of impressing Slughorn.”

Lily snorted. “I almost did.”

In the brief silence that followed, Lily said, "Look, I asked Severus about Mulciber and Avery and Greengrass the other day."

James's brows rose. "Oh. What did he say?"

"Not much." She didn't know what propelled her to keep the seventh-floor corridor detail to herself — an instinct that James would probably go investigate and get himself in trouble again. She sighed, adding, "You were right. He knows something, but he's not going to tell me, I'm afraid."

"Oh," James said again. "Well — worth a try, I think."

Lily nodded, unsure why she'd brought it up at all. Perhaps the prickling homesickness she'd felt earlier had faded; perhaps it had taken her some time to process what Severus's words to her had really meant. Either way, she didn't want to leave for the hols before making sure she and James were on the same page. 

They found Madam Shafiq, a superbly stylish witch with the same long nose and thick, dark hair as Sara, engaged in conversation with Doe. The latter looked serious and professional; later, Dorcas told Lily that she’d had a friendly sort of argument with the Wizengamot member about politics.

Disagreements aside, Madam Shafiq seemed like much better company than the wizards Lily and James had left behind. They had a perfectly polite conversation, during which Sara’s aunt told Lily and Doe both that they ought to look into Ministry summer programs, before Madam Shafiq spotted someone in the crowd she simply had to speak to.

“A delight, girls, a delight,” she said, giving them broad smiles. She patted James on the shoulder, saying, “Give Mum and Dad my love,” and then she was gone with a swirl of her embroidered robes.

“I see why Sara’s the way she is,” said Dorcas with a laugh, impressed despite herself. “Can’t chat, you two, Clearwater’s finally on her own—” And she darted off in pursuit of the Daily Prophet editor, leaving Lily and James alone with each other once more.

“You know an awful lot of people here,” said Lily.

James shrugged, running a hand through his hair. “I wouldn’t say I know them. Mum and Dad do, some of them. Or they know of Mum and Dad.”

Lily marvelled at this. “Magical society is a lot smaller than I thought, then.”

James went a little red. “Well, my grandfather was in the Wizengamot. Not that anyone alive here would’ve known my granddad—”

“But you’ve never been to Slughorn’s parties before.”

“Remus and Peter are never invited. In fact, Sirius wasn’t invited this year either.”

Lily blinked. “You don’t think it’s because—”

“He was disowned?” finished James. “Well, he’s no more or less talented at Potions than he was last year, so draw your own conclusions.”

“God,” was all Lily could say. The glitter and pomp of the evening seemed a little less dazzling. Frowning, she looked back at James. “So you’re invited because of your grandfather?”

“No, I’m invited because of my natural charm and incredible good looks.”

Lily gave him a look.

“Dad’s a potioneer,” said James at last. “He didn’t pass on the skill, though.”

“I know,” said Lily. “I’ve only been in Potions with you for five and a half years.”

Hey,” James said, snagging a goblet from a tray floating past. “Mead?” He held it out to her.

“Oh — thank you.” Lily sipped at the goblet. “Have we read about your dad in any of our textbooks?” She already knew the answer was no; she would have remembered, she was quite certain.

“No-oo-oo.” James drew out the one word to about six syllables. 

Lily could not for the life of her guess why he was suddenly so sheepish. “Well, surely he’s brewed something I’ve heard of, since everyone here seems to know him by name.” She couldn’t have said where this curiosity was coming from, but she could not drop the issue now.

James coughed, and made a sound that sounded like speakeasy.

“What?”

“Sleekeazy’s. The, er, hair potion.”

Lily’s eyes widened. “You’re not serious! But — Mary and Sara use it.” The bottles were a familiar sight to Lily, though she’d never screwed up the courage to use hair potion herself.

James laughed, his discomfort vanishing in an instant. “Yeah, the point is that people use it, Evans.”

“But—” She fell silent, staring at him. Surely he was rich, then, if his father had invented a popular hair potion.

Part of being Muggleborn was that Lily had little scope or understanding of socioeconomic status in the wizarding world — that is, she was aware, as only a girl who had grown up decidedly lower middle class could be, that several of her fellow students were quite wealthy, but had never really faced this fact. She didn’t know what sort of houses they lived in, after all, and she didn’t know what sort of clothes they wore outside of Hogsmeade visits. Fancy brooms and pampered airs did not necessarily reveal the extent of money people had, James included.

“You’re giving me a very Bulstrode look,” said James, grinning.

“Oh, stop it.” Lily could feel herself flushing. “I’m just surprised, is all. How have I never known?”

James rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s not as if I’ve kept it a big secret.”

“No, but it’s not as if you talk about it either.”

“There’s so many interesting things about me. My dad’s potion is far enough down the list that it doesn’t come up,” he said lightly.

Lily gave him a knowing look, though she stayed silent. It seemed there were surprising limits to his arrogance. If she’d heard about his father last year, or the year before, it would have been another piece in his frustrating, boastful image. But as it was, perspective changed everything, and she was in a place to realise the fact that James hadn’t really discussed his money — not even when he’d been a staggeringly obnoxious eleven-year-old — did say something about him. He was not so bad, Lily thought.

“As pleasant as this has been,” James said, “I’ve got to duck out soon.”

Lily was startled, both by the suddenness of this proclamation and by her own disappointment. She’d been enjoying his company.

“So early?” she said. “Or have you been here long?”

He grew rather shifty. “Well, my mates are all waiting…” Lily frowned, puzzled. James sighed. “All right, I’ll let you in on it. Come on, come on.” He seized her arm and began pulling her towards the door. 

“Hold on, let me in on what?”

But Lily could guess. He’d said earlier that he did not like to attend Slughorn’s get-togethers because his friends were not invited — and this year wasn’t an exception to that. So something must have brought James here, and she had a sinking feeling that she and all the party guests were about to discover what it was.

James did not answer her question until they were safely outside Slughorn’s office. 

“No one’s going to be hurt,” he said quickly. “It’s even more harmless than the food prank.”

“The food prank wasn’t without its victims,” Lily pointed out.

He made a face. “A victimless prank is boring.”

“James—”

“Are you actually going to stop me, or just try and talk me out of it?”

Lily considered this. She didn’t particularly want to do either, if she were being honest with herself. “Oh, just get on with it,” she said finally.

He gave her a self-satisfied smirk that had her on the verge of changing her mind. But then James flicked his wand, and the party lights went out. The music screeched to an abrupt halt, shouts of alarm filling the office.

But the darkness didn’t even last long enough for the guests to light their own wands. The lights blinked on once more. Conversation did not resume, however; there were more confused voices, and Slughorn could be heard above it all, saying, “What in heaven’s name—”

Lily peered around the doorframe. The floor was covered in fine crystal goblets, lined up neatly around each person in the room. The sight was absurd: every inch of floor space not already occupied by someone’s feet had a goblet in it, and each goblet was full to the brim. They were stubbornly resisting Slughorn’s vanishing spells at present.

“Is that glass?” said Lily, astonished.

“’Course not. Plastic,” said James cheerfully. “Glass is too dangerous. They won’t know until they try stepping on it, though.”

But the genteel company did not seem the sort to smash their way through the hundreds of goblets; everyone was frozen in place, making for a ridiculous tableau. Most of the guests looked just as shocked as the Potions professor, but several were taking this with good humour. Madam Shafiq had bent down to examine the goblets, smiling. The students had quickly realised who were to blame for the mishap. Amelia Bones had gone white with fury; next to her, Doe was barely holding in laughter. 

“What’s in the goblets?” Lily said, smothering a smile of her own.

“Eggnog, obviously. Here, d’you think Slughorn will tell them it’s performance art?” James looked as though this was his dearest wish in all the world. 

“Surely you’re not going to stick around to find out. The moment they get out of there Slughorn will come looking for you.”

“Not a chance. He’ll have to reassure all his esteemed guests first.” James straightened. “Well, I have to report this success to the others. You headed back to Gryffindor Tower?”

Lily shook her head. “I should wait for Doe.”

“It won’t be a short wait,” James warned.

“I’ll be fine.” Lily smiled at him. “Go enjoy your success.”

James looked as though he was about to say something else, but he finally nodded and backed away. “Night, Evans.”

“Goodnight, James.”

 

 

Chapter Text

i. Bad News

“You had the telephone all morning yesterday,” Petunia said, her eyes narrowed to slits. “You shouldn’t be allowed to rack up the bill!”

Lily held back a sigh. This was becoming a near-daily argument in the Evans household, it seemed. The girls and Doris Evans would wake up and eat breakfast, Lily would cast the most casual of glances at the telephone, and Petunia would be off to the races. 

“Mary and I like to talk about the news,” she said, fighting to keep an even tone. She held up the Daily Prophet, waving it in Petunia’s face. Her sister made a sound of annoyance and tried to bat it away. “As it happens, there’s new news every day. And there’s important news today, so I’d like to speak to her!”

Petunia gave a prim shake of her head. Her long blonde tresses hung unbound around her face: she needed to let them breathe, apparently, first thing in the morning. “Yvonne and I need to discuss—”

“You and Yvonne can dissect your date with Vernon after I talk to Mary.”

Doris set down her cup of tea with a quiet but pointed clink. “Really, girls. There’s so many waking hours — can’t one of you have nightly phone calls with your friends?”

Lily glanced at her mother, cowed. “Mum, I’m only here half the year,” she began.

Petunia scoffed, throwing her hands up in the air. “Oh, not this again. As if you’re being sent to — to reform school!” She stormed away; Lily heard the creaky bathroom door slam shut, and the shower hissed to life.

Doris sighed. “There goes our hot water, I expect.”

“I’m sorry,” said Lily, knowing from the look on her mother’s face that this was what was expected of her. “I really am, I shouldn’t have let my temper—”

Her mother’s expression softened. “No, you shouldn’t have. But I’m not the one you should be apologising to.”

Lily groaned. “She’s in the shower anyway — I’ll speak to her once I’ve called Mary.” Before Doris could give her any other reproachful looks, she hurried to the sitting room and dialled her friend. 

Though her sister’s ability to get on her nerves was unparalleled, Lily was on a short fuse that morning for unrelated reasons. Her copy of the Prophet had arrived on time, and she’d scanned the headlines as usual before poring over each page. This was her routine over the hols — reading every bit of the paper, and finally settling down to do the crossword, which would sometimes reshuffle itself if you dwelled too long on one clue.

That day she hadn’t got that far. She turned to the opinion page, sipping her own tea and humming absentmindedly to herself. There really was nothing like her mother’s tea: just the right splash of milk, and just the right amount of sugar. Lily had the teacup in midair when her gaze landed on the first column on the opinions page. The erasure of pureblood heritage, read the headline, and beneath it, the author’s name: Marcel Thorpe

Lily swore and sloshed half her tea onto the Prophet.

“Language,” Doris called.

She muttered a halfhearted apology, trying to blot out the tea with her palm. A small headshot of Marcel Thorpe accompanied the column. His severe features and dark hair were remarkably like Professor Thorpe’s; there could be no doubt, thought Lily, that the two were related. The column was exactly the sort of drivel she’d expected from Thorpe, but it still made her blood boil — a reaction exacerbated by the words in small print beneath his byline.

Not contributing writer, but staff columnist. Lily’s heart was somewhere in the back of her throat. Or perhaps that was her gag reflex kicking in. The very bottom of the column confirmed it: Marcel Thorpe is the host of the popular radio show, The Thorpe Hour. His column appears every other Tuesday.

“Popular radio show!” Lily had repeated, half horrified and half disgusted. Rolling up the paper, she’d gone right for the telephone — and Petunia had pounced.

“Pick up, pick up, pick up,” Lily murmured into the receiver now, curling up in the saggy armchair by the phone and drumming her fingers on her knee. 

“Yes, hello?” said a polite, wavering voice at the other end.

“Oh, Andrew, hi. It’s Lily.”

A long silence. 

Lily suppressed an impatient sigh. “Mary’s friend. Could I speak to her, please?”

A cough. “Right. Sure. I’ll get her—” A muffled sound, then Andrew shouting, “Phone for you, Mare!”

This too was par for the course on holiday mornings. Lily had been phoning Mary quite regularly since their fifth year, but Mary’s little brother Andrew seemed determined not to remember who she was. Lily was convinced Andrew did not like her for some reason. Mary assured her that Andrew was like any other thirteen-year-old boy, and did not enjoy surprise interactions with girls.

Finally Mary appeared at the other end, sounding slightly breathless. “You read it too, then?”

Lily felt her shoulders slump. “Just now. I can’t believe —”

“I can,” said Mary tersely. “But I thought Doe said Lavinia Clearwater seemed…sensible!”

Indeed, Dorcas had returned from her Slug Club conversation with the Daily Prophet editor-in-chief frustrated, but not entirely without hope. The woman had been elusive, but overall well-intentioned. (This was even after the dinner’s interruption by the Marauders; Doe said that Clearwater had taken the prank rather well, all things considered.)

“Maybe she’s good at putting on a front,” suggested Lily. “Or — she’s not in charge of opinion content, somehow? Gosh, I wish I knew more about how the Prophet functions.”

“Yeah, well, you’ll have to hang onto your questions until we get back to school. I’m sure Sara knows someone who knows someone who works there.”

“I’m almost glad magical folk don’t have the telly. Or we’d need to deal with this on there too.”

They made identical sounds of frustration, then lapsed into silence. Now that the initial burst of annoyance had faded, Lily regretted diving right into the issue of the day. It had put something of a damper on the conversation. 

“Anyway,” she said, “how have your holidays been so far?”

“Oh, same as always. Visiting my grandparents, shopping with Mum…” Mary trailed off. “Yours?”

“Same as always,” Lily echoed. She looked around the familiar sitting room: the faded photographs on the mantel, her father’s face smiling out of them. Herself and Petunia as children, laughing in another one. The wobbly stack of faded paperbacks that the telephone rested on. One of Petunia’s magazines strewn carelessly across the coffee table. 

Yes, everything was as it should have been, and it ought to have lent Lily the exact sense of comfort that she had sought in the past month of term. But the nagging unease had only followed her from Hogwarts. Everything was still uncertain and strange, and leaving the wizarding world momentarily had not changed that. It made her want to shut herself up in her bedroom with a nice book and a mug of hot cocoa.

“Lily? You there?”

She was jerked back to reality by the sound of Mary’s voice. “Oh, yes, sorry. Daydreaming.”

“Look — how much have you told your mum about...well, magical politics?” 

There was an uncharacteristic uncertainty in the other witch’s voice that took her by surprise. Even Mary did not want to return to small talk, apparently. Lily wished she’d refilled her tea so she’d have something to hold onto while she spoke.

“Not much,” Lily admitted. “The bare minimum, really. I don’t want to—” She glanced up. Through the sitting room door she could see her mother at the dining table, still drinking her tea. Doris did not look as though she were listening, but Lily didn’t want to take the chance. 

She lowered her voice, and continued, “I don’t want to worry her.”

“Not even what people say about Muggleborns?”

“Especially not that.”

Lily only offhandedly mentioned bits of magical news to her mother: she had told her about Harold Minchum’s election as Minister for Magic last year, for instance, and would occasionally read her funny things out of the Prophet. She didn’t think she had ever consciously made the decision to keep anti-Muggleborn sentiment from her family. She’d simply continued to do it on instinct, until it was far too late to casually bring up without years of omission also coming to light.

What could her parents have done about it, after all? They’d barely understood how the wizarding world worked — and Lily couldn’t blame them. It would be hard for anyone to fathom from the outside. No, to them Lily might as well have been their personal miracle, the only magical girl in the world. The bureaucracy and history of magical politics were too far beyond what they’d seen. 

The closest she’d come to it, in fact, had been last summer. Petunia had been quick to notice the change in her, and when Lily had explained she did not want to see Severus again, her sister had, miraculously, refrained from making any snide comments. 

Did you two have a row? Petunia’d asked instead, her nose scrunching up. Something like that, Lily had replied. He called me — well, he said something really awful to me. Just the thought of it had brought tears to her eyes again. Petunia had hurriedly changed the subject, but not before taking Lily’s hand in her own perfectly manicured ones, squeezing tight.

“Why do you ask?” Lily said into the telephone.

“I don’t know if I should. It’s — a rather large part of the life I’m going to be living, after I leave Hogwarts. The life I’m living now, too.”

With a start, Lily realised that if Mary’s parents did not know anything about prejudice in the magical world, they wouldn’t have known why Mulciber and Avery had hexed her in their fifth year. A lump rose in her throat. She remembered seeing Mary in the Hospital Wing afterwards, how small and defeated and un-Mary-like she’d looked. How awful to think Mary had never explained the details of it to her parents. How cruel, how horrid of those bastards to have put her in that position, Lily thought, momentarily carried away by her fury.

She’d been silent for too long. Mary said, “Hel-lo, Lily?”

“Here, sorry,” Lily said quickly. “To be honest, I’ve never thought about it. Maybe after we’re done with Hogwarts…” She checked the door again. “We’re as safe as we can be at school, at least.”

Belatedly, Lily realised this must have sounded rich, considering Mary had been attacked.

But her friend only hummed. “I suppose. In any case I don’t know how to go about telling them, so I won’t anytime soon.”

Lily nodded to herself. “Me neither, I don’t think.” The conversation at last turned to happier things, but her discomfort stayed with her long after she’d hung up the phone.

 


ii. The Potters

“Feet down, James, and don’t make me tell you twice,” Euphemia Potter called as she bustled past the dining table.

James, who’d had his feet propped up on the chair opposite his, sat up straight and rolled his eyes, even though his mother could not see. 

“I thought the tablecloth hid my feet,” he said to Sirius, who was busy wolfing down his own breakfast as if he’d never seen food before.

“Your mum’s got a sixth sense,” Sirius said, his mouth full. “I don’t even live here and I know that.”

Euphemia had vanished from sight, but she shouted, “You do live here!” from down the hall. James and Sirius exchanged amused looks.

“Sixth sense,” said Sirius again.

“Wait until the honeymoon period’s over,” James said, stabbing his fork into a sausage. “Once Mum and Dad start treating you like their son, and not a visiting dignitary, you’ll be sorry.” 

“Mate, you’re the most spoiled fucker I know,” Sirius replied, grinning. “If they start treating me like their son, the worst that could happen is my head finally getting as big as yours.”

In response James kicked him under the table.

Euphemia reappeared almost out of thin air. “No kicking at the breakfast table, boys.” This comment was directed at James, not Sirius, whom Euphemia patted absentmindedly on the back as she walked past. James gave her an affronted look.

“Why are you pacing the length of the house, anyway? It’s making me dizzy,” he said.

“I’m reacquainting myself with the dimensions of the hallway and the dining room. Karen comes in at noon and we’ll go over the menu then, so I can’t waste her time thinking about decorations. I’ll have to do them this morning — or perhaps after she leaves.” Euphemia frowned thoughtfully. “Yes, why not, the party’s at night anyway…”

James sighed. Not for the first time did he wish his mother actually had the temperament of an elderly woman. His father was, at this very moment, having a lie-in, which amounted to doing the Prophet crossword in bed because he felt he deserved the extra rest with a social engagement around the corner. The social engagement in question was Euphemia’s Christmas party, which she threw not every year but “when I feel like it.” As far as James could tell, she felt like it on Christmases when James and Fleamont were particularly lazy. 

The party always turned out splendidly, though it was an effort of merely two minds and wands: Euphemia’s, and Karen the housekeeper’s. Both viewed James’s infrequent offers to help with deep suspicion, and instead charged Fleamont with completing any complex tasks they could not manage themselves. Only the most menial of jobs would be given to James — and, he supposed, Sirius now. James comforted himself with the knowledge that Karen, a plump, middle-aged witch who’d kept the Potters’ house since he was a boy, would fawn over him as she always did, and he could then tell off his mother for being rude to him. 

“James? Sirius?”

The disembodied voice — for once, not Euphemia’s — made both boys startle. 

“Christ, I forgot I had it on me.” James pulled the two-way mirror from the pocket of his robe, gesturing for Sirius to come closer so he too could see. Remus appeared in it, frowning and squinting like Fleamont attempting to read without his spectacles. “You all right, or has the castle burned down?”

Remus rolled his eyes. “With you three away, the castle’s breathing a sigh of relief.”

Sirius snorted. “Yes, a good Christmas Eve to you too, Moony.”

“Is that Remus? And Peter?” Euphemia said. 

“Just Remus,” said James. “Peter’s with his parents.” 

The Marauders preferred to split two and two for Christmas and Easter if not all of them could go home for the holiday. The full moon came early enough in January that Remus had opted to stay; Peter would have stayed with him, but his mother had insisted, and Euphemia had insisted too. 

In the end Remus had told them he’d be fine on his own — and, privately, had added to James that it might be best for Sirius to settle in at the Potters soon after his very public disowning. The compromise had been leaving Remus with Sirius’s mirror. Peter had a habit of being sequestered at home over Christmas and Easter, so James did not expect to see much of him, but they would at least be going to Evan Wronecki’s New Year bash. 

Euphemia beamed, gently but firmly pushing James out of the way so she could peer at the mirror. “Next year, all four of you boys are coming here for Christmas,” she said, the invitation sounding remarkably like a threat.

Remus flushed beet-red. “That’s really kind of you, Mrs. Potter.”

“Nah, Mum, we’re staying at Hogwarts next year. Last one, after all,” said James with the utmost confidence. 

Euphemia looked so disappointed, James almost regretted it. He reminded himself that his mother had a lifetime of pampering his friends and teasing him ahead of her. 

“Well,” she said with a sigh, “the one after that, then.” And she was off again, striding down the hallway and eyeing the ceiling critically. 

Belatedly, Remus called, “We’ll be there!”

“She’s gone,” said James, laughing. “So, who is at Hogwarts for the holidays?”

“None of the other Gryffindor sixth years. In fact, not many of the sixth years at all.” Remus grew thoughtful. “I expect many of them are thinking like you, Prongs, and agreed to go back this Christmas so they can stay next year.”

“Sounds boring,” said Sirius. “Please tell me you aren’t shut up in Gryffindor Tower doing homework.”

Remus smiled. “Give me a little more credit than that. We’ve had a great load of snow — Lottie Fenwick and Gaurav Singh and I had a snowball fight last night.”

“Who?” said Sirius.

“Last night?” repeated James.

“Ravenclaws, both of them. And yes, at night — more fun than during the day, isn’t it?”

James’s eyebrows rose. “I hope you didn’t give away all our secrets to a couple of Ravenclaws.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it. I did enchant a permanently-frozen snowball to follow Bertram Aubrey around, though,” Remus said, the picture of innocence. James guffawed with laughter.

Sirius was still frowning. “Singh, I know. Who’s Lottie Fenwick? Is she the brunette, with the—” He mimed something that James identified, at last, as plaits.

“No, you’re thinking of the Duckling,” supplied James.

“Oh, don’t call her that,” Remus said, frowning. 

“So Lottie Fenwick isn’t the Duckling?” said Sirius.

Don’t call her that! Who came up with that nickname, anyway?”

“Lottie’s blonde,” James said, ignoring Remus. “She’s got, what d’you call ’em, ringlets? She’s very energetic.”

Sirius sniggered. “That sounds rude.”

James rolled his eyes. “Not in the sack. I wouldn’t know what Lottie Fenwick’s like in the sack.”

“You’re both awful,” Remus declared. “Lottie’s really quite nice, and so is the Duckling.”

James and Sirius exchanged gleeful glances. Then they burst into laughter.

“You called her—” Sirius half-gasped.

“—the Duckling—” choked out James.

“I’m going away now!” said Remus loudly. “I hope your gifts get lost in the post.”

“Ah, Remus, don’t be like that—”

They were both still chuckling when Remus vanished from view. Euphemia swanned back into the dining room, giving Sirius and James a look that did not bode well.

“Whatever you want us to do—” James began.

“The city will be terribly crowded, it’s true, but I still think you two ought to go to Diagon Alley. Sirius needs more clothes than he’s brought back! Well?” Euphemia looked at James, who just shrugged.

His best mate had left the vast majority of his things in his childhood home, where, Sirius had informed him with a dark sort of humour, they were probably even now being burned in a fireplace. 

“If she can get the posters off the walls, that is,” Sirius had added. "She'd set fire to the cat if she could. I was the only one who took care of her anyway."

“It can wait until after Christmas, I think,” said James now, glancing at Sirius. The other wizard was pointedly looking at his empty plate. 

Euphemia wisely let the subject drop, but gave James a meaningful look that suggested the two of them would be discussing this at a later point. 

“Well, Sirius, we’ll alter some of James’s dress robes to fit you, then. Shouldn’t be an issue.”

“Dress robes?” James repeated. “Oh, Mum, do we really need to—”

“Did you think you could stop by in your pajamas, say hello, grab a tray of food, and leave?” said Euphemia.

“Well, I was hoping.”

Please, James. You know, I’m getting old—”

“Here it comes,” James said to Sirius.

Raising her voice as if James had not spoken at all, Euphemia carried on. “—and the least you can do for your aging mother is speak to her friends at a Christmas party—”

“You won’t like half the people there.”

“Not true!”

“You complained about Alfred Fawcett for a whole day after the last party,” said James.

Euphemia gave a long sigh. “One person who was being quite rude isn’t half the people at the party, James. Don’t be unreasonable. Besides, I was sticking up for you!”

“Me!” James cast Sirius a bewildered look. For his part, Sirius seemed to have emerged from his momentary awkwardness, and was watching the proceedings with unconcealed delight.

“Yes, you! Alfred was going on and on about his perfect grandson’s perfect marks and perfect Quidditch matches — pah!

James grinned at last, shaking his head. “Ah, Mum, you’re getting soft.”

“Don’t be silly,” said Euphemia lightly. “Didn’t you say you wanted to meet Barty Crouch? He ought to be coming.”

James sat up straight at that. “Oh, really? Good, there’s at least one adult I’ll say hi to without yawning — only joking, don’t give me that look—”

Sirius made a face. “That means we’ll need to avoid his son, though.”

This had not occurred to James; he shuddered. “You should’ve seen his face at the Slug Club party. He looked more upset than Slughorn.”

Euphemia sighed. “The boy’s fourteen, James. At least he’s polite and well-behaved.”

“And I wasn’t, at fourteen?”

She gave him a look. “Now, I know it’s a holiday, but please get dressed sometime before the afternoon, or Karen and I will waste precious time talking about our good-for-nothing children.” She flapped a hand at them.

“We’re not finished eating!” James protested.

“Sirius is! Hurry up, don’t keep him waiting.” She left the dining room abruptly once more.

James once again rolled his eyes, not without fondness. “Can you believe her?”

“Ridiculous,” said Sirius, shaking his head. He was smiling. 

 


iii. Christmas Correspondence

From Dorcas Walker to Michael Meadowes:

Dear Michael,

As promised, I am writing you! Happy Christmas in advance. Your present is our Ancient Runes homework.

Joking. Mum reads for fun a lot more than I do, so I asked for her advice in picking this out. She says Cymbeline O’Shaughnessy is nearly as good as Agatha Christie. I don’t know about that, but I do want to hear what you think about magical mysteries and if they’re as good as Muggle ones. I quite like the inventive ways the detectives solve them, but considering what I want to do after Hogwarts, that’s not as high a recommendation as it could be.

I hope you and your family are doing well. Tell them I say hello. Well, they don’t know who I am, but tell them I say hello anyway.

Sincerely,

Dorcas 

P.S. I do actually want to ask about the Ancient Runes essay, but I’ll refrain until after Christmas Day.

 

From Michael Meadowes to Dorcas Walker:

Dear Dorcas,

How did you manage to send me a Christmas present and use the phrase ‘Ancient Runes’ twice in your letter? In any case, thank you for being so punctual with your gifts. I was worried I’d have to send you yours and then a different letter replying to yours, and then you’d send me a different letter replying to mine — you get the point. 

I promise I was going to send you something normal, like a novel, but my dad waylaid me before I could. Something about the best gifts being personal, and all that. (No offence to you and your gift-giving practices, of course.) So here’s the Agatha Christie I promised you along with a jar of our honey. Yes, Dad keeps bees. Yes, I’ve been stung before. Yes, it’s annoying every single time. 

Dad says hello and wants me to point you out to him when we’re at King's Cross next week. Mum says hello and wants you to know your name is pretty. Gosh, that was more information than I thought this letter would contain.

As for Ancient Runes, I declare that subject to be taboo. You and I both know we’re going to do fine on our holiday homework, so there’s no reason to discuss it at all. Tell me what you’re doing for fun instead.

I will preemptively give you my news. I mentioned my ex-girlfriend, Katie, to you and your friends earlier. Her mum throws a yearly Christmas party, which my family will be attending. Mum and Dad insist that it’d be rude not to. So...wish me luck.

Sincerely,

Michael

 

From Mélanie Deschamps-Gill to James Potter:

Cher James,

Joyeux Noël from Marrakesh, Morocco! I wasn’t convinced when Shruti said we should spend December in a warm country, but I’m glad I listened. I’m sending you a photograph of us in the carpet souk (that’s like a bazaar). Shruti dared me to try and ride one. It was a Muggle carpet, as it turned out, and we both looked very foolish. Proper presents for you and your mother will follow.

I was waiting for you to write in September, but I know how to take a hint. No hard feelings. Just don’t be weird, all right? Some unsolicited advice: talk to the girl you fancy. You gain far more by being straightforward about your feelings.

Grosses bises,

Mel

 

From Mary Macdonald, sent to Germaine King, Dorcas Walker, and Lily Evans:

Girls,

I will not accept no for an answer: we are going to Evan Wronecki’s. I really had a blast last year, and I want to share it with you! Happy Christmas, by the way. I hope you all like your presents.

Mary xx

 

From Dex Fortescue to Lily Evans:

Dear Lily,

I’m so glad to hear your mum liked the treats. I want to send you more creative things than just Galleon biscuits, if you’ll only let me! Sorry to hear you’ve been arguing with your sister. Is her boyfriend still as bad as ever? 

I should have been more proactive finding a time for us to meet, I’m sorry. The Christmas holidays really go by so quickly. But I hope I’ll see you at Evan’s? I realise I never asked if parties are your thing, but even if they aren’t, it’s a big house, and I’m pretty good company.

Yours,

Dex

 

From James Potter to Mélanie Deschamps-Gill:

Dear Mel,

Happy Christmas. Marrakesh looks unbelievable. I’m going to need a running list of all the places you’ve been. I hope you didn’t steal the carpet before you realised it wasn’t magic? Thank you for the spices — Mum was positively glowing when we got them.

I’m sorry I didn’t write earlier. I know I’m a git. You know I’m a git. It’s a fact of life. I’m sorry. And I won’t be weird. My mother raised me to be absolutely shameless. On the subject of the girl, I don’t think I will be telling her. Before you get all outraged, we’ve been getting along all right this past term. I don’t want to fuck it up, not when I’m getting over her. Thanks anyway.

James

P.S. I had to ask Sirius — the best mate I told you about — what “grosses bises” meant. I thought it was something rude. 

 

From Lily Evans to Dex Fortescue:

Dear Dex,

I would like to try things other than Galleon biscuits, yes, but they’re just so good. Why fix what isn’t broken? Never mind my sister and her silly boyfriend. I’m being a brat. At the end of the day I’m glad to be home.

Really, you don’t have to apologise. It’s a busy time of year, and I know your family must want you to themselves. As for Evan’s, Mary Macdonald has talked my mum into letting me go, so I think you’ll be seeing me there after all. Parties are my thing, I’d say, but I will withhold judgment about this particular party until I'm there. The stories range from daunting to outlandish.  

Love,

Lily

 

From Sara Shafiq to LIly Evans:

Dear Lily,

How are the holidays treating you? I'm in London staying with my aunt for a few days, only she's constantly glued to her desk — a side-effect of not celebrating Christmas, unfortunately. (I'm still making her go shopping with me.) Anyway, I thought I'd send you some tea, since I know how much you love it. My aunt also said to let you know that she was serious about the Ministry summer programs, and that she and her coworkers are always happen to take on promising young aides! How exciting, you and Doe really do seem to have impressed her. You simply must tell me all about your conversation with her.

I'm seeing you at Evan Wronecki's, aren't I? Mary says she's going to make you lot come.

Love and kisses,

Sara

 

From Dorcas Walker to Michael Meadowes:

Dear Michael,

The honey is wonderful. My parents have been finding ways to use it in everything, but we’re far from sick of it. We would like some more personalised gifts! Also, how kind of your mum. I’d love to say hi. 

As for what I’m doing for fun, hm — my family tends to have boring holiday traditions. On Christmas we visited my grandparents and ate our way through Nan’s rock-hard fruitcake, and I tried really hard to be nice to some of my less bearable cousins. The fun really starts on New Year’s Eve, when Dad’ll get mad drunk and sing “Auld Lang Syne” non-stop.

But look, don’t keep me hanging. What happened with Katie? WRITE BACK.

Dorcas

 

From Michael Meadowes to Dorcas Walker:

Dear Dorcas,

I’m glad you liked the honey. I’m going to conveniently forget to tell my parents, or they’ll come to King's Cross with a cartload for you.

Less bearable cousins? I’m shocked to hear you don’t actually have infinite patience. Or, I suppose they must be pretty bad if you have more patience for the rock-hard fruitcake. 

What happened with Katie was...a load of nothing. Which is what I’d prefer, I think. She did make a pass at me, but I hadn’t snuck enough of the wine to make that mistake again. It just seems silly to slide back into all that.

Was that juicy and detailed enough for you?

Michael

P.S. Do you also get mad drunk and sing “Auld Lang Syne”?

 

From Dorcas Walker to Michael Meadowes:

Dear Michael,

I could do with a cartload of honey!

Didn’t you once tell me you seem like a nice bloke but aren’t, actually? I seem like a very nice girl, but even I have my limits.

That was not detailed enough, though certainly interesting. Look at you, standing strong despite the festive spirit and the wine and your tempting ex. I’ll have to ask you for more information in person, then. Mary’s been trying to get us all to go to Evan Wronecki’s holiday party, which should be...an experience?

Dorcas

P.S. Some secrets are mine to keep.

 

From Michael Meadowes to Dorcas Walker:

Dear Dorcas,

I’ve yet to see these limits, so I remain sceptical.

You’ll just have to ask in person, yes. And blimey, Wronecki’s party — don’t come back with alcohol poisoning.

Michael

P.S. How rude.

 

From Sirius Black to Regulus Black:

Regulus,

Bring Heathcliff with you to King's Cross. I'll keep her with me from now on.

Sirius

 


iv. The Potters, Again

The long marble halls of the Potters’ Virginia Water estate were, for a change, full of people and conversation. They’d had a white Christmas — the snow was still falling in little tufts outside, which delighted Euphemia to no end. The lights and silvery decorations looked even brighter against the snowy scene through the windows, and several well-placed charms kept the chill away.

Euphemia had deliberated longest over the music, partly because Sirius and James had nagged at her all day to leave them in charge of it. She’d protested, saying her guests would keel over listening to the noise they preferred. In the end they’d won out, and Sirius had chosen Lesley Gore to be funny. James was certain that sort of cheek would have earned him a powerful glare, but he’d caught his mother wiggling her shoulders along to “It’s My Party” — honestly!

Every now and then they slipped out of the hall and into the kitchen instead, restless. Karen was bustling around there, sending enchanted platters off through the crowd every minute or so. Still, she found the time and energy to shoo James and Sirius away anytime they tried to hide inside. The hiding was because the less interesting guests had arrived first — less interesting in James’s estimation, at least. 

“We need to get Gerald Pucey roaring drunk,” he told Sirius as they skulked in a corner of the hall. “Then we can have him tell us weird stories all evening, and Mum can’t fault us for not socialising.”

Sirius looked as though he would have preferred to stay right in this corner. “She wouldn’t fault me,” he pointed out.

“No,” agreed James, “but you still suffer if she spends all of tomorrow scolding me.” 

“Fair point,” Sirius said glumly.

Any other occasion of this kind would have had the pair plotting a disruption. But such plans had been set aside for Euphemia’s sake — and the price they knew they would pay for the rest of the holiday if they tried anything funny. Squabbling and dramatics aside, James wouldn’t have dreamed of getting in his mother’s way. Euphemia had a youthful brightness in her eyes as she flitted from guest to guest; even James and Sirius, teenage boys though they were, watched this with affection.

“Frank Longbottom,” said Sirius suddenly.

James arched an eyebrow. “Are we naming random people? Mine’s Bertie Bott.”

“Fuck off. I mean Frank Longbottom’s over there, and we ought to go talk to him.”

Indeed, Frank was standing by his imposing-looking mother, looking just as helplessly bored as James and Sirius felt.

“Thank God,” said James fervently, and they started off towards him.

Frank looked just as relieved to see them as they had him. "Oh, good, I didn't know if you lot were home for the hols."

"We didn't know you'd be," said Sirius. "Who's guarding Hogwarts in your absence, eh?"

Frank sighed. "Some of us drew the short straw — Alice, unfortunately—" Mrs. Longbottom sniffed "—it helps that the castle's all but empty anyway."

"I'll bet. I can't believe they gave you a day off but not your dad," said James.

"Alistair has urgent paperwork," said Mrs. Longbottom. "I did tell Euphemia, having a party the day after Christmas means Ministry personnel are back at their desks already—"

James resisted the urge to point out that many of the guests were Ministry personnel who seemed unbothered by the date of the party, and that paperwork didn't sound particularly urgent.

"—in any case, Frank, why haven't you introduced me to this young man?" Mrs. Longbottom's steely gaze fell upon Sirius. "The elder Black boy, if I'm not mistaken?"

Frank flushed and introduced Sirius to his mother, who seemed altogether unimpressed by his existence, and the wizards then set off in search of appetisers.

“Karen will let us sneak the best stuff before the old men get their grubby hands on it,” James assured them. 

Unfortunately for him, Euphemia had walked past at that very moment; her eyes went wide with horror, and before they could protest or even process what was going on, she’d saddled them with a vaguely familiar older wizard who seemed intent on consuming all the Potters’ brandy. There was nothing to it — they found themselves answering questions about Hogwarts and coursework. James could only look longingly in the direction of the kitchen. 

Euphemia had not introduced the man to them; she’d called him Mick and pushed James at him, saying, “My son!” before disappearing once more. James had mentally started calling him Mick Jagger, though he sounded a great deal more Scottish. He almost reminded him of—

“And Longbottom, how’s the Auror program?” Mick Jagger asked.

This took James by surprise. He’d told Mick his name, and Sirius’s — Mick had squinted at this and said “Hum!” — but Frank hadn’t introduced himself, had he? James sniffed at his own drink, wondering if he’d been accidentally drinking brandy too.

“Gruelling,” Frank admitted with a laugh. “But it’ll be worth it in the end.”

Mick let out a big belly laugh of his own. “Oh, yes! I nearly failed Hit Wizard training, back in the day. Twice.” He chortled. “Couldn’t get rid of me, though.”

Sirius stared at him, wide-eyed. “You’re a Hit Wizard?”

“Retired,” said Mick, sighing. “Never have an opinionated daughter, boys. She’ll keep you at home for your own safety, and all sorts of nonsense like that.”

All of a sudden Mick was shoved to the side, hard enough that he sloshed his brandy. 

“Jesus, save us!” he shouted.

“It’s Christmas, Da. You’re supposed to keep the Lord’s name out of your mouth,” Marlene McKinnon said piously. “Oh, is that brandy?”

“Marlene!” James blinked at this sudden appearance — and the revelation that followed. “Wait—” The senior McKinnon appeared even less frequently than Alistair Longbottom at James's parents’ get-togethers — a side-effect of the man’s career. “Mr. McKinnon, I didn’t even recognise you.”

“I’m not that old yet, Potter. And my first name isn’t Mister,” said Mick.

“It isn’t Mick either,” said Marlene, rolling her eyes. “Hello Frank, Sirius. Da hasn’t been telling you anything stupid, has he?”

“Only not to have opinionated daughters,” Sirius said, grinning.

Marlene scoffed. “Please never reproduce at all, Black.”

“But Frank and I can reproduce?” James wanted to know.

“Don’t push your luck.”

Mick boomed another laugh, slapping his daughter on the back. James preemptively winced, but Marlene did not twitch in the slightest.

“Sit down, you old drunk,” Marlene said. “I don’t want to have to Apparate you home.”

Mick pressed his hands together in a gesture of supplication. “I’m going, Marly, I’m going.”

As he retreated, Frank said, grinning, “Marly?”

“Don’t you dare, Longbuttocks,” Marlene sniped back. “What were you all doing, socialising without me?”

“I didn’t know you’d be here,” said James honestly. “I definitely didn’t think Old Mick would be here. Since when is he retired?”

“He isn’t that old, is he?” Sirius was watching Mick go; he was bulldozing his way through the crowd, really, his impressive height and build easy to spot even from a distance. 

“He didn’t stop going to work because he’s old. Don’t let the bluster fool you.” Her expression softened. “He’s taken his fair share of spell damage — more than his fair share. Technically it isn’t a full retirement. He does administrative work. He just claims that doesn’t count.”

Sirius shook his head. “Now that I’ve met your parents—” this directed at James “—your mum—” this to Frank “—and your dad, Marlene, I understand you three a lot better.”

“I’m taking that as a compliment,” said James.

“You know what, yeah, that’s not fair to Fleamont or Euphemia. I rescind it.”

James rolled his eyes; as he did, he caught sight of a pale, fair-haired figure some distance away, and ducked on instinct.

“Who are we hiding from?” Frank said, amusement colouring his voice.

“I thought I saw Crouch Junior,” said James, peering around Marlene. “I’d rather not speak with him. Weirdo.”

“Barty Crouch’s son?” Marlene turned and craned her neck, ignoring James’s attempts to shush her. “What’s wrong with him?”

“Ostensibly, nothing,” began James.

“He’s — intense,” said Sirius, squinting in the direction James thought he’d seen him in.

“Well, as the Crouches aren’t coming, it’s definitely not him,” said Frank.

James straightened. “What d’you mean, the Crouches aren’t coming? Mum said—”

“No, when Mum and I arrived and said hello to yours, my mum asked about them. Apparently Crouch sent a last-minute owl saying something had come up.” Frank shrugged.

“Something had come up? Those were Mum’s words?”

Frank held his hands up in surrender. “I’m paraphrasing, I don’t know. Point is, they won’t be here.”

James put his hands in his pockets, frowning. “Damn, I wanted to talk to him.”

“Cheer up,” said Sirius, “at least this way we know we’ll avoid Junior.”

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It was nearing nine o’clock, and James, Sirius, Frank, and Marlene had finally sat down, claiming one little table for their own and giving blank-eyed stares to any adult who attempted to come closer. (The exception to this was Euphemia, who’d stopped by early on to ask if Frank and Marlene wanted anything. She’d called it the kiddie table, to James’s absolute mortification.) 

“Do you think they’d notice if we started playing Exploding Snap?” said Sirius.

“Mum would notice,” James said darkly. 

The others did not argue this point. Euphemia did seem to have eyes in the back of her head.

“We should go outside,” said Marlene, peering out a nearby window. 

“Outside!” repeated Frank. “It’s cold!”

“Are you or are you not a wizard?”

“I don’t want to move,” Sirius announced.

“Fresh air would be nice,” James said thoughtfully.

“Yes, it would be!” said Marlene.

“All right, you don’t have to knock on the window like a toddler,” Frank said, sounding a touch cranky.

“I’m not knocking on the window.”

At once they all turned to said window. A huge, handsome eagle owl was rapping insistently at the glass.

“Jesus, all right,” said James, getting to his feet to undo the latch. “Any harder and you’ll break the bloody thing—”

The owl breezed right past him and into the crowd, followed by a chilly gust of night air. Marlene shivered; Frank muttered something that sounded like I told you so

“If the owl leaves any droppings in the hall, I’m finished,” James said, trying to spot who the bird was headed for.

Sirius was waving frantically at him. “Oh, Merlin’s tit, shut the window!”

“What—”

James turned back to the open window, but it was too late. A barrage of owls flew straight through; the sound of beating wings was nearly as loud as the voices and the music. As the guests realised something was happening, the owls’ rustling became the only noise in the hall. James’s stomach turned to lead. The guests were important people — Ministry officials, influential wizarding families. Owls pouring in at this rate could not mean anything good.

The others had come to the same conclusion. Grim-faced, Marlene jumped out of her chair and vanished into the crowd; she returned moments later with parchment clutched in her fist.

“Da got one,” she explained. “He’s Apparated off. I expect Frank and I will get them too, but—” The letter had already been opened; she unfolded it, and the other three read over her shoulder.

From the Office of the Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement

 

DMLE NOTICE: URGENT

DATE AND TIME: 26 December, 1976, 8:17 p.m.

 

Dark Mark above Hogsmeade. Two dead. Aurors report to J. Fawley. All personnel stand by. Await further instructions.

 

Bartemius Crouch

Head of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement

 

James swallowed. His throat was very, very dry.

“Dark Mark— Hogsmeade? What the fuck?” said Sirius hoarsely.

Two dead. Two dead. The words were swimming before his eyes. 

“Mum,” James said, “I have to find her — Everyone needs to get back to their own homes—”

“Are there wards around the house, James?” Marlene said, seizing him by the shoulder before he could run off.

“What? I — yes, there are, but—”

“No Anti-Apparition,” Frank said, latching the window shut once more. He and Marlene had become suddenly businesslike; if James had had the capacity, he’d have marvelled at this change.

“There’s probably at least one other Auror here,” said Marlene. “C’mon, Longbottom. James, go find your mother.”

He didn’t need telling twice. With Sirius on his heels, James pushed through the crowd. Euphemia, true to form, was at the very centre of it, Fleamont at her elbow. He relaxed a little at the sight of them — they would know what to do. He could almost hear his mother telling the crowd to settle down, not to worry… But then he caught sight of her expression. She looked — distraught was the word that came to mind, and the one that followed was tired. Old. It wasn’t right. Euphemia Potter never flagged. James suddenly felt very, very young.

As though he’d sensed this train of thought, Sirius forced James past the last few guests standing between them and the Potters. His friend was visibly angry, James saw, and resolute. He drew in a breath, shaking off his fear, and then he was taking his mother’s hand.

“It’ll be all right,” was the first thing he said. The words tasted strange in his mouth — no, strange to say it to her, his mother. “Dad, can you get people into the library? People can Floo home. I think Frank and Marlene said something about the Anti-Apparition Jinx—” 

It dawned on James why, exactly, they’d thought of it. They were worried that someone — Death Eaters? — would come here

His father startled into action at his words. “Yes,” Fleamont said, straightening his spectacles. “Yes, quite right, good thinking—” Raising his voice, he called for guests to follow him. Already the hall was full of the cracking sound of Apparition — tight-faced Ministry workers vanished, though their families remained. 

Mere minutes passed before Frank Longbottom told the remaining guests that they’d cut off Apparition, but he could take anyone who didn’t have a Floo connection to the main road and Side-Along if need be. A clump of people followed him out the front door; Euphemia drifted close to watch them go, still looking shocked. 

In the middle of murmured farewells, she started and said, “Karen— She won’t have heard, she ought to go home too—”

“I’ll go tell her,” Sirius said promptly, jogging towards the kitchen.

Euphemia squeezed James’s hand, still clasped in hers. “I didn’t think…”

“No one could have,” he assured her. “The Aurors will sort it out.”

“They will,” she said, though she did not sound as though she fully believed it. 

James felt a hard burst of anger — not at her, but at the faceless figures in his mind he associated with the Dark Mark, with You-Know-Who. 

“You should go lie down,” he said. “Dad and I will see the last of the guests off.”

Karen, looking pale and frightened, hurried towards them before James could press the issue. Euphemia embraced her briefly. 

“I’ll walk you to where it’s safe to Apparate from,” said Sirius, ushering her out the door. Karen did not even pause to coo over this chivalry. They continued into the snowy night.

“Mum,” James said again, this time more forcefully, “go lie down.”

“I can’t.” Some of the iron had returned to her voice; relief filled James at the sound of it. “Your father’s had too much Firewhisky—”

Fleamont had looked quite sober, James thought, but his mother had a point. “Then Sirius and I will do it.”

“The lights — the food, the decorations—”

He put his hands on her shoulders and looked her in the eye. “Mum, just go. We know how to clean up.”

Euphemia pressed her lips together, and nodded. “Send your father up, please, he shouldn’t overexert himself—”

“Yeah, got it—” James had started towards the library already.

“James,” said Euphemia suddenly.

“What?” He swivelled around, almost expecting to see a new host of owls swarming through the door. Parliament, he thought dimly, it’s a parliament of owls.

But there was nothing. Just his mother, looking at him with an unreadable expression on her face. She pressed a hand to his cheek and kissed his forehead. “Go on, darling.”

James waited for her to disappear up the stairs before heading off to fetch his father; it took far less convincing to dispatch Fleamont. Not long after, the front door thudded shut, and Sirius appeared in the library doorway as the last guest had vanished in a blaze of green fire.

“Frank and Marlene are gone,” Sirius said, panting. “Fawley’s summoned them all, trainees included — but they said it’d probably be safer to keep the Anti-Apparition Jinx overnight anyway.”

James nodded, momentarily numb. Hogsmeade. What if they delayed the start of the next term? What if the — two dead were people they knew? Faces flickered through his mind: the young, chirpy assistant in Zonko’s, the bored-looking woman who worked in the post office, Madam Rosmerta. 

“You all right?” said Sirius quietly.

“I will be,” James said after a moment. It couldn’t have been later than ten, but it felt like the dead of night. “C’mon. Let’s put all the food away.” They trooped back into the dining room; with a grimace, Sirius lifted the needle off the Lesley Gore record, and slipped it back into its sleeve. 

 


v. Worse News

Lily had woken early on the morning of the 27th, not by choice. But once awake she could not fall asleep again; annoyed, she wandered into the kitchen, where her mother had already put the teakettle on. Doris kissed her good morning.

“Would you mind watching the kettle, love? I slept so poorly.” Doris lowered herself into a chair at the dining table with a wince.

“Yeah, ’course,” said Lily, brow furrowing in concern. She looked at her mother, really looked at her. Her blonde hair, once long and buttery like Petunia’s, was in a bob now, and had lost some of its lustre. Doris was a bad sleeper, just as Lily had become. There were always faint indentations under her eyes; today they were a little more purple than usual. “You should rest this afternoon.” 

Doris smiled. “I will. Get me my first cuppa, and I’m sure it’ll fade.”

“Or...you could rest this afternoon.”

Her mother only smiled wider, putting on her reading glasses and turning to the dog-eared book she’d left on the table: Mansfield Park

“Of all the Austen to reread,” said Lily, laughing.

Doris gave her a stern look. “You’re the one who keeps stealing away my Pride and Prejudice! What am I supposed to do?”

“Read Emma, obviously. And, pardon, your Pride and Prejudice? Dad bought them for us both, if I recall correctly—”

Lily pulled out a battered biscuit tin and poured the tea — just enough milk, just enough sugar, just as her mother had taught her — into two cups. She was setting them down when she heard a familiar tap at the window. 

“That’ll be the Prophet,” she said, straightening. “Good, I’ve been dying to check my crossword answers—” 

She thanked the owl with a biscuit, unrolling the paper as she walked back to the table. As she always did, Lily shook out the Prophet and turned her attention to the front page headlines — and then she froze. Her body seemed to react even if her brain could not process it; she let out a soft cry, a hand going automatically to her mouth.

“What? What’s wrong?” Doris appeared at Lily’s shoulder, her expression anxious. “Lily?”

She lowered the paper and drew in a shaky breath. Her mother prised it from her hand, frowning.

“Oh, heavens, the poor things,” said Doris, putting her arm around Lily and giving her a comforting squeeze. “The — Dark Mark? What’s that?”

The question, so innocently asked, made Lily want to cry. She had been foolish, she realised, thinking she and Mary could have avoided this conversation for another year and a half. Not with things as they stood. 

She cleared her throat, avoiding her mother’s gaze. “Sit down, the tea’s going to get cold.”

“Lily Jane, don’t be evasive with me.”

“I’m not. Please, Mum, sit down and I’ll explain.” 

Doris was still watching her with worry, but she returned to her chair. Lily sat down beside her, staring into her own teacup. How to begin? 

She took a deep breath. “I might have mentioned, at some point, that there are some magical people who — don’t like people like me.”

Doris blinked. “People like...you?”

“People with non-magical parents.”

“Muggleborns?” Her mother stumbled slightly over the word. Lily smiled a little, touched that she had tried to remember the terminology.

“Exactly. People who have only magical families, they’re purebloods. They feel threatened by us, and the Dark Mark is…the symbol of a particular group of people who’re vocal in that belief.” Lily’s voice was steady through this explanation; it felt strangely impersonal, as though she were reciting from a history book. She took a sip of her tea.

“How long has this been going on?” Doris was shaking her head, looking stunned. “How long have there been— What are they—”

“They call themselves Death Eaters.”

In hindsight, this was not a very reassuring thing to say.

Death Eaters?” Doris repeated, her voice rising in both volume and pitch. “How long have they been around?”

“Not long — as long as I’ve been alive, maybe. But their beliefs are...really old, Mum.”

Her mother’s fear was being replaced by something else — anger, Lily realised.

“They bring you into their world, and then they tell you don’t belong?” Doris gave an incredulous laugh. “It’s preposterous — it’s heinous!”

“It’s my world too,” said Lily softly. “Flaws and all, it’s my world.”

Doris jabbed a finger at the Prophet. “The people who died, were they like you?”

Lily scanned the article once more, though she’d read enough earlier to know the answer. “One of them, yes.” The other had been from a well-known blood traitor family, apparently, though not one that rang a bell for her. Explaining this was more than her mother needed at present, she judged.

Her mother was peering at the paper. “And this — this place is near your school, isn’t it? Hogsmeade? That’s the village you visit.”

Lily felt sick all of a sudden. The words could not come out fast enough. “Yes, but there’s no safer place to be than Hogwarts. It’s, it’s so heavily warded, Mum, there’s a whole book about it and I can lend it to you if you’d like to read— Our professors are incredibly powerful witches and wizards, and they wouldn’t let anyone hurt us, and Dumbledore is the greatest wizard of his generation, and maybe the generations before and after too, and we’ve got the Aurors—” Abruptly she cut herself off.

Doris watched her with narrowed eyes. The word meant nothing to her, of course, but she latched onto it with the focus of an angry, worried parent. “What is an Auror?”

She had walked right into that one. “A… Someone who works in law enforcement. They’re stationed at the school for our protection.”

“Your school needs police protection?”

“No,” Lily said desperately, “it’s a precaution that the Ministry’s taking, that’s all—”

“Do Mary’s parents know about this?” Doris demanded.

“No! No, and please don’t tell them, Mary wanted to speak to them herself—”

“I’ve half a mind to telephone right now.” Her mother had her hands braced against the tabletop, as if to stand.

“Mum!”

“Don’t you Mum me. This is serious, Lily. Do you appreciate that?” 

“Of course I do!” cried Lily. She had never seen her mother so angry: not when her accidental magic had caused mishap after mishap, not when she’d had a physical altercation with a girl in her primary school, not when she and Petunia fought. Lily had always thought her mother did not have an angry sort of voice. She did not tend to shout; her scoldings were tinged more with exasperation than anything else. But the fact that she did not, Lily realised, didn’t mean she could not. 

Doris’s cheeks were bright-red, her face pale. She looked nearly feverish with fury. “I don’t think you do! How could you keep this from me — and from your father?”

Those words were more powerful than any spell; at once the anger seemed to fade from both women. Tears rose to Lily’s eyes. She could not fathom how things had gone so wrong. The injured look her mother wore was too much to bear.

“I’m sorry,” she said, her voice barely above a croak. “I didn’t want to worry you, that’s all.”

Doris pursed her lips. “I’m worried anyway.”

“I’m sorry,” said Lily again. “I won’t keep anything else from you, honest.” She tried to take her mother’s hand, but Doris withdrew it.

“Please, Lily. I’m tired. Let’s just — continue this conversation later.”

“No, wait—”

Doris rose, clutching Mansfield Park to her chest. “I think I’ll go lie down. Can you and Petunia manage breakfast by yourselves?”

The conversation was over. Lily sniffed and nodded miserably, fighting to keep her voice steady. “Do you want us to bring you something? Eggs, or toast?”

“No, I’ll be all right.” And her mother was gone, leaving her mostly-full teacup on the table.

Lily’s vision blurred until she could no longer read the letters on the Prophet. She had no idea how long she sat there for, tears dripping into her own tea. Finally the stairs gave their telltale squeal; wiping her eyes, she looked up, ready to beg for her mother’s forgiveness if she had to.

But it wasn’t Doris. It was Petunia, her pink robe drawn tight around herself, curiosity written all over her face.

“Is everything all right?”

Lily finished drying her tears and slurped some of her cold tea. “Fine.” She snatched the Prophet from the table before her sister could read the headline too; the last thing she wanted was to have to explain everything again.

Petunia was frowning, but she did not press the issue. “Where’s Mum?”

“She said she slept badly. She went back to bed.”

“Oh, well.” Petunia sighed and made for the kitchen. “Two slices for you?”

Lily had lost her appetite entirely, but she muttered a vague yes. Collecting the teacups, she followed her sister into the kitchen and hovered by the sink.

“Mum looks a bit ill,” she said, rinsing out the cups. “We should take her to a doctor — or if we can’t before I go back to school, you should take her to a doctor.”

Petunia hadn’t looked up from the eggs she was cracking, but her spine had stiffened. She took her sweet time responding. The eggs were sizzling in the frying pan before she turned around to face Lily, her expression blank and unreadable.

“What are you going to do when I get married?” 

Lily blinked at her. “When you — what?” For a panicked moment she wondered if her sister had been engaged without her knowing. But no, she was speaking of a more distant future than that.

“When I get married,” Petunia repeated with exaggerated patience, “are you going to live here? Or will Mum have to manage on her own?”

She was sure she was gaping foolishly, searching for an answer that eluded her. At last Lily said, “I thought...I’d be working in London, maybe, and Mum could come stay with me. Maybe, during the week, at least.”

Petunia smiled without a trace of humour. “Maybe?”

Fresh tears threatened to take over — tears of frustration. Lily wanted to scream. She was all of sixteen, and she had over a year of school left. Why did her sister have to act as though she would be graduating tomorrow, with no plans at all?

“I’m not going to decide everything myself, am I? I have to talk to Mum about it.” Lily set the cups down in the sink with a too-hard clunk.

“So you’re going to — work with your sort of people, is it?”

“You can say magic,” Lily snapped. “Of course I’ll work with my sort of people, Petunia. It’s what I’m going to school for. I can’t go to university — I can’t even take a typist course!” 

The phrasing of this clearly rubbed Petunia — who’d done a typist course herself after school — the wrong way. “So you’re going to involve Mum in this nonsense!” she spluttered.

“She’s already involved. By virtue of being my mother!” Even as she said it, Lily wondered if this was true. Did having a witch in the family put her mother at the same amount of risk she’d be in if she lived with Lily in, say, a magical part of London? 

“I can’t believe you,” Petunia was saying. “You’ve always been so selfish—”

She scoffed. “I’m selfish! You’re the one acting as if getting married to a ghoulish man like Vernon Dursley means you’ll never be around to take care of Mum!”

“Don’t bring Vernon into this.” Petunia’s cheeks were hot with anger.

“I will,” said Lily obstinately. She clenched her hands into fists. “When are you going to tell him about your freak sister? Or do I have to do that myself too?”

That silenced Petunia. Very softly she said, “Was that a threat?”

Lily could not stand to be there a moment longer. With a little scream of frustration, she turned on her heel and marched out of the kitchen. She stomped up the stairs and into her little bedroom, dropping the needle on the record in her old player without checking to see what it was. “—still my guitar gently weeps,” George Harrison warbled; Lily choked out a laugh. She turned the volume up, dropped onto her bed, and squeezed her eyes shut.

 

 

Chapter Text

i. Auld Lang Syne

January first, 1977, was a mild but overcast day. Lily Evans, who put great stock in beginnings but would have scoffed if you called her superstitious, frowned at the clouds when she woke. She slipped out of bed and padded to the kitchen, the first Evans to arise that morning. She planned to make her mother and her sister a nice breakfast in bed — penance of sorts, but also an attempt at an auspicious start to the new year.

Her resolution came to her as she stifled the whistling teakettle, cursing under her breath and praying she hadn’t woken Doris. This year she’d be more honest and communicative with her mother, she decided. It was the least she could do.

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Dorcas Walker was the second to wake in her house. She yawned as she put on a fresh pot of coffee, giving her mother a kiss. “Dad’s still in bed?” she said, wryly. Ruth and Doe had been treated to Joe Walker’s “Auld Lang Syne” late into the previous night. Her mother rolled her eyes and nodded.

Laughing to herself, Doe flipped on the wireless and waited for the coffee to brew. She thought new year’s resolutions were rather silly: why did you need a special date to push yourself into being better? Any resolve on her family’s part had come on the morning of the 27th, when they had nervously listened to the WWN report about the Hogsmeade attack. Today, by contrast, was not a serious day.

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Remus Lupin ate his breakfast alone on the morning of the first. Well — alone unless you counted Nearly Headless Nick, which Remus did. The ghost sat with him in companionable silence as he buttered his toast. Three days from now, while his friends boarded the Hogwarts Express and the castle filled once more with voices and laughter, he’d go to the Hospital Wing to prepare for the first full moon of the year. But for now, he took comfort in the quiet Great Hall.

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Peter Pettigrew was roused — unceremoniously, he thought — by his mother Nancy midway through the morning. There was work to be done. Peter shrugged on a jacket, grimacing at the light rain, and went to feed the clucking chickens in the backyard.

“Bring in the eggs, sweetheart!” Nancy shouted, as she always did. Peter went red, as he always did. Why did his mum think he’d forget to bring in eggs when he fed the chickens? He wasn’t stupid. His father, Robbie, was already gone that morning. There was always work to be done, even on New Year’s Day. 

As the chickens — Lucy, Farrah, Annette, Georgiana, and Barbara, that diva — pecked at his shoes, Peter cast his mind ahead to Evan Wronecki’s party, which was taking place that night. It improved his mood almost instantly, the thought of seeing James and Sirius. He wondered how the latter had adjusted to living at the Potters’. Very well, probably, since Sirius was resilient and the Potters were great.

Peter wished he could move in with Euphemia and Fleamont. But not without James, of course, and Sirius too. James’s parents had the same air of effortless confidence as he did, and it always made Peter both envious and awkward. All that aside, he resolved to take a moment at the party to find out how Sirius was doing — not obviously, because that would be profoundly uncool. But Peter could be subtle when he wanted to be.

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Mary Macdonald also spent the morning at work. She and her brother Andrew had been charged with weeding their mother’s garden, a task that they set to with unusual cheer. This was because Andrew rather liked spending time with his sister, though he would never have told her.

And Mary was collecting goodwill so that she could go to Evan’s party. She’d secured permission several days before, but that had been before the attack — not that she’d told her parents about it, but she worried they could sense it, somehow. Her copy of the Prophet was squirrelled away in her bedroom; her morning phone calls with Lily were held in undertones. The day before, she’d wondered to Lily if it was a good idea to go at all.

“What if it’s not...safe?” 

“What? Mary!” Lily had said, shocked. “You were the one who cajoled my mum into letting me go!”

Mary resented her use of the word cajoled, though it was an accurate description. She had phoned earlier than usual on the day after Christmas so that she could catch Doris, and had charmed her thoroughly before mentioning the party ever so casually. Mary was sure Lily’s mum saw through this ploy, but in any case she let it happen.

“I know I did,” said Mary, “but didn’t you row with your mother?” Lily hadn’t outright said this, but Mary had gathered it, from her friend’s odd mood.

“Yes, but — I need to take my mind off everything, Mare. I’d like to pretend everything’s normal, before we go back to Hogwarts and it’s all…” Lily had trailed off. They did not know how it would be. All they’d seen was Dumbledore’s statement in a Prophet article, asserting that the school would indeed remain open, and the utmost precaution would be taken with regards to the safety and wellbeing of students. In short, nothing they couldn’t have guessed themselves.

“If you’re certain,” Mary said.

“I am. Didn’t you say Evan lived in one of those posh wizarding neighbourhoods?”

“Well, yes—”

“And that Alec Rosier isn’t invited this year?”

“Well, yes—”

“Then we’re going,” Lily had said. “I’ll write to Germaine, and she and Abigail can pick me up at eight.”

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Germaine King woke to a quiet house. Her sister Abigail had visited for Christmas but had not stayed to ring in the new year. As Crouch’s secretary, she was busier than ever. Germaine felt caught between her parents, who were clearly — and poorly — trying to get along for her sake. She did not want another tense breakfast. So she bundled up, crept to the shed in their yard, and retrieved her broomstick, soaring off without telling a soul. The hushed, snow-covered forest eased her troubled mind. She wondered if Emmeline Vance was going to be at Evan Wronecki’s that night.

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Sirius Black and James Potter blearily stumbled out of their bedrooms at noon. 

“Dad’s got hangover potion,” James croaked. 

Sirius moaned in response. “Please. Don’t — don’t make any loud noises.”

They inched downstairs, shielding their eyes. Fleamont’s study was their target, the same room they’d pilfered some very potent scotch from the previous night. Some of the festive mood had returned to the Potter household since the disrupted Christmas party. The extra rest had done Euphemia and Fleamont good, and James and Sirius had followed the former’s missives for five whole days, dutifully visiting Diagon Alley to replace the latter’s missing things. The shopping street had been a depressing sight in the wake of the attack, sombre and cold in more ways than the weather.

That did not stop the pair from restocking on essentials such as Dungbombs. Sirius had insisted on a brief diversion to a building full of rickety old flats for rent. “Mum won’t let you move out,” James had said, but he’d accompanied him anyway, both of them grimacing at the mould on the walls and the suspicious looks the neighbours gave them.

They were at the door to the study when Euphemia trilled out a greeting. Starting guiltily, Sirius and James turned to see the knowing look in her eyes.

She was smiling, though she was clearly trying to look stern. “Happy New Year to you both. Your father’s got the potion waiting on the table.”

“What potion?” said James weakly, knowing there was no chance he sounded innocent but striving for it anyway.

Please, James,” Euphemia said.

The boys slunk towards the dining room, exchanging meaningful glances. Fleamont was, mercifully, not inside to watch them guzzle down the potion.

“I can’t believe we’re going to be drinking again tonight,” Sirius said.

“Yes, you can,” said James. “We’ll enjoy it too.”

Sirius considered this. “Yeah, you’re right. I can.”

 


ii. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

“Now that I think about it, it’s so counterintuitive to have us meet at my house and then go to Evan’s,” Mary said, fluffing her hair and staring at her reflection. “You’ve travelled basically the length of Britain, and back again.”

“It’s not counterintuitive at all,” said Doe. “You’ve got the best makeup.”

Mary beamed. Her bedroom was a terrific mess at that moment, with clothes and hairpins and various accessories strewn across the bed and the floor. She’d have to tidy up before they left, but she was already wondering if she could somehow talk Germaine’s sister Abigail into doing it for her magically. Abigail was currently in the Macdonalds’ sitting room, talking to Mary’s mother about gardening.

Thank goodness they had a common interest, Mary thought, or the many, many occasions on which the girls made Abigail Apparate them around would have become very tiresome indeed. As it happened Abigail’s presence reassured Ruolan Macdonald a great deal, even though Germaine’s sister was only dropping them off at Evan’s door and no further.

“Will there be drinking, do you think?” Ruolan had asked, her eyes narrowed.

Abigail had smiled ruefully. “A little, Mrs. Macdonald — we come of age at seventeen, you see, so some of the girls’ friends are already allowed to drink.”

This had been a better answer than any baldfaced lie. Ruolan nodded. “A little is only to be expected. I know my Mary’s no saint, but she’s got her head on right.”

Wisely, Abigail did not respond to this.

Upstairs, the girls were putting the finishing touches on their outfits. Germaine had borrowed a pair of Mary’s boots and stood two inches taller than usual. Doe was humming to herself as she applied her lip gloss. Mary was squinting in the mirror, wondering if something was missing or if she was finally ready. Lily, restless, was studying the rows of bottles and brushes on Mary’s dresser; she brushed a familiar one with a finger.

“Is this any good?” she asked, holding up the Sleekeazy’s.

“What?” Mary gave her a cursory look before turning back to her reflection. “Oh, yes. My mum’s got a fiendishly strict haircare routine, but even she admits the potion doesn’t mess with my hair. You shouldn’t use too much, Lily, or it’ll weigh you down, I think.” 

Lily hurriedly replaced the bottle. Perhaps she was more old-fashioned about magic than she’d thought — she was more wary of hair potions than a newfangled shampoo at the chemist’s. 

“Another time,” she said, mostly to herself.

“Are we ready?” said Germaine. “My feet hurt.”

“You’re the one who wanted to wear them,” Mary retorted.

“Well, let’s leave before I regret it.”

The four of them trooped downstairs in a cloud of perfume. Abigail rose to her feet, studying their bare shoulders and bellbottoms with a critical eye; Ruolan, on the other hand, smiled widely at them all.

“Aren’t you going to be cold?” Abigail said. Germaine opened her mouth, but before she could argue, Mary’s mother was gathering them all into a crowded hug. 

“What beautiful young ladies you’ve grown into,” she pronounced, releasing them. “Go on, go on, you don’t want to be late.”

Glowing at her praise, they stepped into the cool January night, Abigail in tow. 

“Two at a time,” she told them, taking Doe and Germaine by the hands and vanishing with a loud crack!

Left in the garden, Lily tried to peer at the flowerbeds. Mary was clutching a stack of records, having learned from last time. She paused in rifling through them, glancing at her friend. 

“Dreamboat Dex is going to be there, isn’t he?”

Lily looked up, laughing. “Don’t call him that. And yes, he is.”

“Did he say anything about tonight?” 

Mary was avoiding Lily’s gaze, which made her suspicious. She squinted at her friend. “Say what about tonight?”

“Oh, never mind.”

Lily wanted to quiz her further, but Abigail reappeared at that very moment, extending a hand to each of the girls. 

“I can’t wait until I learn how to Apparate,” Lily said, sighing.

“And be constantly nauseated? No, thanks,” snorted Mary.

“Ready when you are,” Abigail said pointedly, and the other two shut up.

Once the dizziness of Apparition had faded, Lily opened her eyes. They were standing outside a large manor house. Colourful lights streamed through the ground level, and music and voices could be heard through the open windows. Germaine and Doe were waiting on the doorstep.

“I think I ought to come inside. Just have a look around,” said Abigail, arms crossed over her chest.

“Absolutely not!” Germaine said, indignant. “You know where we are, don’t you? And I thought you said you knew Mr. Wronecki from the Ministry. You’ve got plenty of emergency contacts — that you won’t need to use, of course, because we’re going to be perfectly fine.”

This was as close as any of them wanted to get to the Hogsmeade attack. They had arrived at an unspoken agreement to try and enjoy themselves, as Lily had said they ought to. Besides, the Daily Prophet had reported that Aurors already had leads on who had cast the Dark Mark that night. And what good was it to sit at home and worry about things they could not change? 

Abigail had pursed her lips, but apparently thought better than to argue. 

“Go on, have fun, then. And as for getting home—”

“I already told you,” said Germaine, “Marissa Beasley is Apparating people to her house, and we can Floo from there.”

“I still don’t see why you can’t Floo from here—”

“Evan said his fireplace isn’t working.” Germaine was now speaking through gritted teeth. “Although I wish it were, because then you wouldn’t have had to drop us off!”

Abigail shot her a glare. “A little gratitude would be nice, Germaine.” But she stepped away, and disappeared once more.

“For God’s sake.” Germaine reached for the handle on the front door, but Doe batted her hand away.

“Not yet. We need to be in pairs all night, got it?”

Mary made a face. “Whatever for? I can’t snog anyone if I’m holding your hand, Dork-ass.”

“Shut up, Mary. It’s so we can look out for each other, and make sure no one does anything stupid and everyone’s doing all right. We don’t have to be attached at the hip,” she added, seeing Mary’s expression. “We can check in on each other every once in a while. That’s all.”

“I think it’s a good idea,” said Lily, which earned her a smile.

“You would,” Mary said. “But I don’t want to catch you and Dreamboat Dex getting hot and heavy.”

“What are the pairs?” Germaine cut in. She was looking at Mary with apprehension.

Doe thought for a moment. “Nose goes.” She pressed a finger to her nose, and Germaine immediately followed suit.

“What?” said Lily belatedly, touching her own nose. “What was that for?”

“You lose,” Germaine informed her. “You’re Mary’s pair.”

Mary scoffed. “That’s just rude, you two—”

Her complaints were immediately drowned out by the noise of the party; Germaine had lost patience and pushed open the door. It was in full swing, it seemed. The girls followed the sounds through the hall into a large sitting room of sorts. Furniture had been pushed to the walls to make a dance floor, and people were, in fact, dancing (to Mary’s great relief). The four of them hung in the doorway for just a moment — and then each went her own way, the promise of an exciting night blotting out everything else for now.

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James tossed Sirius a can of beer. “Wizard staff,” he said by way of explanation. 

Sirius groaned. “Beer fucking sucks.” But he would not say no to a challenge, and so he cracked the can open and began to drink.

Belatedly, James realised the problem with this game when it was played outside of Hogwarts. Evan was seventeen, so underage magic in his house shouldn’t draw notice. But what if everyone thought like him, and there was simply too much magic use for the Ministry to ignore? Or...surely the Ministry had bigger things to worry about at present.

Wait, why was he thinking about this, anyway?

“You all right?” Sirius said, squinting at him.

“Oh, yeah.” James took a swig of his beer. “Wondering if I should spell my cans together in order to beat you.”

Sirius rolled his eyes. “You’re not going to beat me. And maybe you can use Spellotape.”

“Spellotape?” James spluttered. “What the— Who just carries around Spellotape?”

“Don’t take that tone with your elders, James,” said Sirius sagely. 

James proceeded to try and knock his can from his hand. He had begun to lose interest in this pursuit when Peter appeared, looking out of breath and extremely nervous.

“I’ve really done it now,” he said.

James exchanged a look with Sirius, grabbing his second can of beer and very pointedly fastening it to the first with a muttered charm. 

“What’ve you done, Pete?” 

Peter groaned. “Well, I was with Florence Quaille—”

With?” repeated Sirius gleefully. 

“Snogging Florence Quaille,” said Peter, going red.

“Mate, I thought that didn’t go so well last time,” James said, chuckling. “When was that, fourth year?”

He hadn’t thought it possible for Peter to get any redder, but he did. 

“Yes — well — never mind that! I left her and walked right into the Duckling, and she was sort of making eyes at me, but then Florence got all angry and flounced past, and I’ve got no bloody idea what happened!”

James and Sirius roared with laughter.

Peter scowled. “Yeah, yeah, laugh all you like. I was only snogging her, wasn’t I? I didn’t think that was a binding sort of commitment, and I hadn’t even done anything with the Duckling—”

“Here, who came up with that nickname?” James broke in, remembering Remus’s chastisement.

“Oh — me,” said Peter, looking a bit taken aback.

For a moment the boys stopped laughing, searching the crowd for the girl in question.

“Is it because she’s sort of...pouty?” Sirius said, frowning. “Duckling’s a stretch, I think. She’s fit.”

Peter was blinking hard at the crowd. “God, you’re right, yeah, I didn’t even see the pout. No — it’s because she and Florence are friends. You know, Cecily Sprucklin, Florence Quaille… Quail, duckling.”

Perhaps it was the colourful lights, but James could not spot her amidst the dancing students no matter how hard he tried. This explanation was enough to divert him from his search; he stared at Peter, eyebrows rising.

“That’s funny, actually,” James said. “Quail and duckling. Well — she probably doesn’t think so.”

Peter looked immensely pleased. “Yeah? I mean, she likely hates it, true. But it’s like you said, Padfoot. She is pretty. It’s obviously not a crack about her looks.”

Sirius snorted. “Whatever you say, mate.”

But this was apparently enough to reassure Peter, whose nervousness slipped away. He looked from James to Sirius, finally noticing the beer can towers they’d begun to build.

“Are you playing wizard staff? Can I join?”

“If you want to start two cans behind, sure.” Sirius handed him an unopened beer. “If the Duckling comes to try and snog you again, though, you might want to put it down and forfeit.”

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There really were a lot of sixth and seventh years at this party, thought Lily as she moved through the room. Marissa Beasley smiled and waved at her; Chris Townes was dancing with one girl and locking eyes with another; Stephen Fawcett’s loud voice could almost be heard over the music as he regaled a small crowd with some dramatic story. Some fifth years too; she recognised Quentin Kravitz, Gryffindor’s second-string Chaser, who gave her a lopsided grin. The Slytherin presence overall was noticeably low. Lily did not like to generalise about a whole house, but she could not deny the fact that this was reassuring. 

She stood scanning the partygoers, feeling rather foolish but unsure how else to look for Dex. Of course, he found her first, appearing at her side and scaring her half out of her wits by laying a hand on her shoulder.

“Oh, sorry to startle you,” he said, grinning. “Fancy a drink?”

“Yes,” said Lily, “but first—” She leaned into him and gave him a long, lingering kiss. His arms encircled her, and she really, truly forgot, for a moment, that they were in a crowded room full of people they both knew. 

“Well,” Dex said, pulling away and laughing a little. His cheeks were pink, Lily noticed, which made her smile. “Happy New Year, I suppose.”

“I’m just starting us off right. Lead me to the drinks.”

He took her hand and they wound their way through the crowd. Lily thought her heart was going at an alarming rate. It thudded in time to the music, squeezing in a sort of panicked, excited way when Dex glanced over his shoulder at her — which was often. Finally they paused at a table in the corner of the room that was functioning as a bar of sorts. Dex was telling her that he was staying the night in one of Evan’s guest bedrooms — multiple guest bedrooms, she marvelled, delighted by the idea. At least that explained the use of all this space. Some of it was for visitors. 

“Firewhisky?” Dex said.

Lily hesitated briefly. She’d only snuck sips of the drink at Quidditch afterparties and the like; other than the odd glass of cheap wine her mother sometimes induced her to share, she was inexperienced in the realm of alcohol. Dex noticed her uncertainty and reached for Butterbeer instead.

“Just a little,” Lily blurted out, forestalling him. 

“You sure?”

“Yes. I’m not even a month off seventeen, anyway.” This was hardly the reason for her worry, but she kept that to herself. 

Dex poured her the barest thimbleful of Firewhisky, which made her laugh. He served himself a measure only slightly larger than hers — “I prefer to be high on life,” he said, with a self-deprecating grin — and they bumped their cups together before drinking. Lily had been prepared for the Firewhisky to burn on the way down, but she winced nevertheless at the taste. Once the heat of the alcohol had given way to pleasant spice, she gave Dex a wide, happy smile. 

“How do you feel about being high on dancing?” she said.

He grinned. “Positively.”

Setting down her empty cup, Lily laced her fingers with his and pulled him towards the dance floor.

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Doe did not think she was an introvert and nights like this reminded her why. A bit of quiet was nice, but to see the shining, laughing faces of her classmates was even nicer. The energy of it all had thoroughly dimmed the cloud that had hung over her since reading about the Hogsmeade attack. It was a little like her dad singing “Auld Lang Syne,” she thought: innocent, despite the distinct smell of alcohol. It was a bit of earnest fun. 

She herself was one and a half cups of Firewhisky in and happily mellow. She’d had shouted conversations with Amelia Bones, who, it turned out, did know how to loosen up, and Peter Pettigrew, who was ruddy-cheeked and more at ease than she’d ever seen him before. She supposed it was time to hunt down Germaine and make sure her pair for the night was doing all right, but every time she excused herself from a clump of people she was distracted by someone else again.

Catching sight of Germaine’s light hair, she swerved to her right without looking, and walked right into—

“Michael!” she exclaimed, with more enthusiasm than she’d ever greeted him before.

He’d grabbed her shoulder to steady her; he was laughing, probably because her voice had risen about three octaves over the two syllables of his name.

“Good to see you, Doe.” He gave her a quick, tight hug; when he’d released her, she spotted the boy he’d been talking to.

“Oh, hello, Chris. You look unhappy.” This was the kind of thing, verging on tactless, that she never would have said sober, but Doe did not think twice about the remark at present.

Chris Townes lifted his cup in her direction, but the corners of his mouth were firmly turned downwards.

“You don’t want me to retell my sob story,” he said, in a manner that suggested he would really like to retell it.

Dorcas thought that his appeal dissipated when he was in a sulk, but Michael seemed to have been hearing him out. She decided she ought to be magnanimous as well.

“No, that’s all right, I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“I was just telling Mike about Cecily Sprucklin,” Chris said morosely.

Doe was momentarily distracted by Mike, and the grimacing reaction that the nickname prompted in Michael. She was stifling laughter as she said, “Sorry, who?”

Chris sighed. “The Duckling.”

“Don’t call her that,” Doe and Michael said at the same time, then looked at each other, startled.

“You were the one who asked!” protested Chris.

Doe frowned. “I asked because I didn’t hear you, not because I wanted you to call her names.”

He only rolled his eyes in response. Yes, he really was unattractive when he was in a bad mood, thought Dorcas.

“I came with Florence — Quaille,” he added, with a look that suggested he was clarifying for Doe’s benefit. “I mean, not like that, she and I have been friends for ages…” 

Dorcas nodded; this much she knew, even having consumed a bit of Firewhisky. Chris and Florence were both sixth-year Hufflepuffs. Via Mary, Doe was aware that Chris and Amelia Bones had gone together back in fourth year, but she hadn’t heard of Chris getting involved with Cecily — also a Hufflepuff — or Florence. 

“So, you came with Florence,” she prompted. “Go on.”

“Yeah, ’cept she and Cecily have some weird, I don’t even know what it is. A competition?” Chris shook his head, exasperated. “I don’t want to get in the middle of that.”

Michael still looked amused. “Aren’t Cecily and Florence mates, though?”

Both boys turned to Doe, who laughed and put her hands up. “Don’t look at me. I haven’t the faintest idea if they are or aren’t. I’m not Mary.”

Chris made a disgruntled sound. “Yeah, well. I’m going to go talk to some non-Hufflepuff girls.” With that, he stalked off, leaving Michael and Doe alone.

She watched him go, a touch offended. “What am I, a non-Hufflepuff tree?”

Michael spluttered with laughter. “I don’t think he meant talking, Dorcas.”

An intriguing possibility. Doe tapped her chin. “You think so? Am I not worth ‘talking’ to, then?” She nearly smacked Michael in the face with her air-quotes. 

He could hardly speak for laughing now. “How much, exactly, have you had to drink?”

“Not that much,” she protested, giving him a gentle shove. “Stop laughing at me!”

“You’ve got terrible tolerance,” said Michael, shoving her back.

“Not true!”

“Really?” He leaned close; Dorcas frowned, trying to hear him properly, and then he said, “For auld lang syne, my dear—”

Doe squawked, laughing, and pushed him away. “It’s not a siren call, Mike, I’m not going to burst into song just because I’ve had a little Firewhisky—”

He groaned. “Please don’t call me Mike. Chris keeps forgetting every time I tell him—”

“I’ll drop the Mike thing if you tell me about Katie.” Doe gave him a meaningful look. “Well? What happened?”

Michael’s grin faded a little. Doe wondered if she shouldn’t have brought it up — but it was all part of getting over her, wasn’t it? And he himself had written to her about it.

“Nothing, she cornered me after dessert and said something about how she’d missed me.” He rolled his eyes. “More like the other bloke dropped her.”

“Did he!” 

“Not that I know for certain, but that’s what I think, yeah.”

Doe scrunched up her face in sympathy. “God, I’m sorry. Jokes aside, she just sounds…” She grappled for a word that felt adequately disparaging but also not too rude, considering Michael had dated her and been hung up on her afterwards. “She just sounds not nice.”

Michael laughed. “She isn’t, yeah. I mean, took me until this to realise, but…”

“Better late than never,” Doe pronounced. “That’s why you should find a rebound. A proper one, not Mary.”

He laughed again at this, though she couldn’t fathom why. “Yeah, you’re right.”

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Mary held a teetering stack of empty cups in her hand, balancing it as she spoke. 

“So, we’ve got to fill a bunch of these with as disgusting a combination of alcohol as we can find,” she said to the rapt group of seventh years — chiefly boys — around her. “Just a splash of everything, mind. One cup, the very last one, is the one we fill to the brim. Come on, step to it.” She began unstacking the cups, setting them at the centre of a long table Evan had approved for this purpose.

She was pleased to note that the boys immediately went to work, sloppily pouring various mud-coloured liquors into the cups she’d laid out. Then, still holding the two cups she’d saved, she began to search for something she could Transfigure into balls. After a brief hunt, Mary produced two crushed beer cans with the triumph of a woman who’d struck gold. The cans soon became makeshift table tennis balls. She tested their bounce until she was satisfied, then returned to the table.

“Where’s the bitch cup!” she shouted. The cup in question — the one right in the middle, the cup that ought to have been the worst concoction — was only halfway full. “Come on, Evan, don’t you have something else to put in it? Something awful and undrinkable?”

Evan laughed. “I don’t know, do we, Dearborn?”

Doc seemed to appear right out of thin air, his smile thin and crooked and enough to make Mary’s heart stutter. She told herself to stop being stupid. 

“As requested,” Doc said, producing a jug of mysterious liquid that must have been his own brew. He filled the bitch cup to the brim. “Is that up to your exacting standards?”

With a start, Mary realised he was speaking to her. “Oh — yeah, that’ll do.” 

He disappeared once more; thrown, she forgot for a moment that people were still waiting for her to explain the rest of the rules. 

“So, what do we do with the balls?” Marissa Beasley said, her eyes bright with excitement.

Mary did not like the sour twist in her stomach at the sight of the other girl. She did not need to take out her problems on Marissa, she reminded herself. If she was going to be upset at anyone, it ought to be Doc himself. 

“It works like this—” Mary set one cup down in front of herself, then put the other before Marissa, who was on her left. “You’ve got to bounce the ball into the cup.” She demonstrated, landing it in one. Then she pushed the cup over to her right. “Isobel, now you go, and you pass it on. Marissa, once you get it you pass to me. And if I get it before Isobel does, I stack her—” Mary dropped Marissa’s cup into Isobel’s. “She passes on both those cups now, and she has to drink one of the punishment cups. Oh, and if you get the ball into the cup on your first go, you can move it anywhere around the table. So be ready at all times!”

Isobel was rubbing her hands together with glee. “Merlin, where’d you learn this?”

Mary beamed. “I’ve got a cousin who goes to Muggle university in Glasgow. He’s probably learned more drinking games than anything else, but it’s more useful to me than his engineering degree, so I’m not complaining.”

A sizeable group had clustered around the table over the course of her instructions; she glanced around at them with satisfaction, although — a twinge — Doc had not come back. 

“All right, if everyone’s ready—” Mary broke off, frowning. “Hang on, is that the White Album?”

“The what album?” said Evan.

A grin was spreading across Mary’s face. She hadn’t brought it, and she certainly hadn’t put it on, which meant someone else here had exceptional taste. And it was definitely the White Album: that was the telltale riff, so it was either “Birthday” or— “I’m back in the U.S.S.R.,” Paul McCartney sang, his rich, blustering voice audible over the party chatter. She was swaying to the beat automatically, the game all but forgotten.

“I’m so glad you invested in some good music, Evan,” said Mary blissfully. 

He laughed, though he looked rather confused. Mary was about to press the point when the ball was snatched right out of her hand. 

“How about we make things a touch more complicated?” It was Sirius, with what looked like a tower of beer cans tucked under an arm. “Give the other one here, Park.” He set both balls down on the table and, after a moment of intense thought, waved his wand over them. 

“What did you do?” Mary said, her eyes narrowed.

“A fun little modification,” said Sirius innocently. “Get us started, why don’t you?”

Still watching him suspiciously, Mary gave Marissa her cup back and took Isobel’s. The ball felt cool and normal in her fist. 

“On the count of three—” 

She counted down, then bounced her ball perfectly into her cup once more. Satisfied, Mary passed the cup to Isobel and waited for Marissa to finish. The rest of the table was hooting and jeering.

“It’s harder than it looks, honest,” said Marissa, her tongue stuck out in concentration as she aimed. 

All of a sudden, Isobel shrieked. She’d tried to bounce her ball into the cup, but in the process it had turned into a flopping goldfish, gasping for breath on the table’s surface. Sirius was howling with laughter.

“I think that counts as animal abuse,” Isobel said, glaring at him. The goldfish abruptly changed back into a ball, though, and she seized it just as Marissa passed her cup to Mary. 

“If mine turns into a fish too, Black, I’ll strangle you,” Mary warned.

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“Dear Prudence” came on, startling Lily at the transition. Silly; she’d listened to it hundreds of times in her room — but then again, she’d never danced to “Back in the U.S.S.R.” with a boy’s hands on her hips. Her boyfriend’s, no less. She thought she was far too sober for a slow song, so she begged a rest, and Dex acquiesced. 

“Now’s a good time to tell you,” said Dex, “I got you a New Year’s present.”

Lily laughed, surprised. “My birthday’s weeks away.”

“I said New Year’s present—”

“No, I know what you said. I just meant, you’re going to have to give me another present soon anyway.”

Dex rolled his eyes. “Maybe I like giving you presents.”

This, funnily enough, made her blush. “Where’s the present?”

“Upstairs, in the guest bedroom.”

“Is that a line?” Lily said, giggling.

Dex blushed just as she had. “Not unless you want it to be one.”

She took his hand, her few mouthfuls of Firewhisky still sparking little fires in her chest. “I want my gift.”

The music and laughter from the party echoed through the empty hallway and even up the wide, sweeping double staircase, but it was eerily quiet otherwise. As though they’d gone off to visit the neighbours, thought Lily, and the party was, in fact, taking place next door. Dex led her up the stairs and down another corridor. The walls were actually lined with paintings, big framed ones like something out of a museum. 

“Gosh, I didn’t know Evan’s parents collected art,” she said, her eyes wide as she took it all in.

Dex blinked, first at her and then at the walls. “Oh — you know, you come here enough, you almost forget it’s there.”

She didn’t think she could possibly forget. Most of the painting’s inhabitants were asleep, though some muttered and dozed fitfully as she and Dex passed by. In one, a beautiful pastoral scene, a squat little pony looked up at them, blinking sleepily. Lily realised she was grinning; she probably looked demented, but she was too awed to care. 

At last they arrived at the guest bedroom that was Dex’s for the night. It was dark, but she could still make out the fine, embroidered bedspread, the flowers in a little vase on the nightstand, the cushioned window seat. It looked like a fancy hotel room, like something she’d see on the telly. Dex’s trunk leaned against one wall, just about the only sign that the room was occupied.

“You’re terribly neat,” Lily observed.

Dex laughed sheepishly. “The Wroneckis’ house-elves insist on cleaning up after us. It’s hard to get used to — more so than the paintings.”

House-elves. Lily had never been to a place with house-elves, other than Hogwarts. She frowned momentarily. But her eyes snagged on his trunk once more.

“You’re staying until we leave for Hogwarts?”

“Yeah, since it’s our last Christmas hols and all that some of us blokes are here for a few days.” His smile faded, giving way to thoughtfulness. “Strange to think about, honestly. I’m jealous of you, Lily, since you’ve got another year still.”

Lily curled up on the window seat. Not a trace of the outside chill seeped through the window; it must have been magic. She pressed a hand to the glass, considering his words. 

“Yes,” she said after a moment, “I’m glad I have another year too. Although,” she added hurriedly, “I’ll be sad to see you go.” 

This was the most they’d ever really talked about — the future. What would happen when Dex left Hogwarts, possibly for culinary school in France? Before Lily could dwell on this point too much, Dex was reaching for something on the desk in the corner. He handed it to her, sitting down next to her.

It was a little plate, and a little silver spoon, and on the plate sat a small round cake. Lily could see it well enough by the moonlight filtering through the window. Its top was dusted with powdered sugar, but by some clever trick the sugar silhouetted the distinct shape of a flower.

“It’s a lily,” she said, awed.

“It is.” Dex’s smile was tinged with nervousness. “Go on, try it.”

Lily cut into the cake with the spoon. Aside from the sugar, there was no decoration of any kind on it — no icing, and the inside looked to be plain vanilla sponge. But there was a tense anticipation on Dex’s face. Surely this wasn’t just some kind of taste test for the perfect vanilla sponge? Not that there was anything wrong with vanilla, it was just... vanilla. The safe choice. She hoped she would not have to feign enthusiasm. 

Careful not to spill any crumbs, she put the first spoonful into her mouth.

“Oh!” Lily blinked at him. “But it looks like — it looks like vanilla!”

Dex was grinning now. “D’you like it?”

She did: appearance aside, it tasted like buttery chocolate, rich and smooth, with a hint of peppermint underneath. Lily nodded, scooping herself a second bite. 

“That’s really brilliant. To have it look one way and taste another—” She paused to eat the next spoonful. Her eyes widened once more. 

“Merlin, the look on your face,” Dex said, laughing. “I’m so relieved. Honestly, I thought it wasn’t going to work.”

Lily swallowed — this mouthful had been a light earl grey, as if it had been spiced with tea leaves. 

“Relieved! You should be ecstatic! It’s like Every Flavour Beans in a cake, it’s—” Lily set the plate down between them so she did not knock it over in her enthusiasm. “How did you do it? Are the flavours baked in the cake somehow, or is it some sort of spell that just mimics the taste in my brain?” Her mind whirled at the possibility. 

“A baker never tells,” said Dex, leaning back with a look of smug satisfaction.

Lily swatted him on the arm, then picked the plate up again. “I’ll get it out of you eventually.”

“You can try.”

“I will.”

For a moment she was quietly eating her cake, just looking at him. And he was looking at her, the silvery moonlight softening his smile. Lily’s heart began to thud dramatically once more. 

Then Dex pointed out the window. “You know what that constellation’s called?”

Lily peered at the stars he was pointing at, trying desperately to remember O.W.L.-level Astronomy. “Orion’s Belt?”

He gave her a bemused look. “What shape do you think a belt is, exactly?”

“Oh, stop it. You tell me what that constellation is, if you know.”

“Of course I know.” Dex squinted at the glass. “It’s...the…”

“The?” Lily prompted.

“The...satyr’s...lute?”

Lily snorted a laugh. “Stick to baking, Fortescue.”

“I will,” he said, closing the distance between them and pressing his lips to hers.

 


iii. Long Legged Girl (With the Short Dress On)

Everyone around the table was watching. Germaine gave a dismissive wave of her hand. 

“Winning. Losing. It’s all a matter of perspective.”

“Bollocks,” said Sirius. He was still holding the cup out for her. “That had better not be how you go into the next Quidditch match.”

“Just drink the bitch cup,” Evan said. “We know you’re stalling, King.”

“I am not stalling,” Germaine began.

“Drink it,” Bert Mallory said, and soon the entire table was chanting drink it, drink it!

“I’m doing it, I’m doing it!” Germaine groaned, taking the cup from Sirius to widespread cheers. She grimaced at the cup’s contents, which, to be fair, did look rather like most alcoholic drinks. All she had to do was pretend it was whiskey, or something. Wasn’t whiskey what classy old men drank? Or port. Yes, she could pretend she were Professor Dumbledore, swilling some port on a Saturday evening. With one last deep breath, Germaine put the cup to her mouth.

She did not set it down until she’d drunk it all, which made everyone cheer louder than ever. Germaine coughed, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, and groaned once more.

“Honestly, I respect that,” Sirius said, patting her shoulder. “I respect that and I salute you.”

“Means a lot,” croaked Germaine. “I need some water.”

Mary was at her side in an instant. “Are you sure you’re all right?”

“Perfectly fine. I just drank the most disgusting thing known to mankind, but I’m fine.” She pulled a face, which did seem to help. It was like swearing when you stubbed a toe.

“I’ll come with you,” Mary said.

But Germaine waved her off. “Really, I’ll be all right. Isn’t this your record?”

“Well, er—” Mary glanced at the player, from which “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy” was currently playing. A guilty, torn look came over her.

“Enjoy the song, Mare. I’ll walk it off.”

Germaine wobbled her way to the drinks table, groping for the big jug of water. To her dismay, it was empty. Still clutching the bitch cup in her hand, she wandered out of the sitting room. The kitchen had to be somewhere nearby — she’d seen Evan and his mates flit in and out of the room with fresh bottles. She put one hand to the wall, not because she was unsteady on her feet, no, not at all — but just in case she needed it. Evan’s house was bloody big, though. What if she was wandering around for half the night?

She needn’t have worried; Amelia Bones was striding up the hallway, two unopened bottles of Firewhisky pressed incongruously to her chest.

“Are you coming from the kitchen?” Germaine said.

“There’s two,” said Amelia, which did not answer the question at all. In fact, it made things more complicated.

The way forward was to uncomplicate things, Germaine thought, and was very proud of herself for this thought. “I just need water.”

Amelia nodded, understanding seeming to dawn on her. “You don’t need the one with the house elves, then. Down the hall, second door on the left.”

Relieved, Germaine trotted off in that direction, not thinking much of what the other girl had said. The bitch cup wasn’t the only punishment cup she’d drunk out of that night, and the horrible malty combination of whatever weird beers Evan had scrounged up for the game left a scratchy aftertaste in her throat. Germaine loved Mary dearly, but she wished her friend would suggest less burdensome games. She was a Seeker, after all; Germaine was used to catching small balls, not throwing them, and certainly not bouncing them into cups. 

Not to mention her size! She’d been the smallest person playing by far; Stephen Fawcett and Colin Rollins were nearly a foot taller than her, and Bert Mallory often bragged about bench-pressing a number Germaine guessed was her own weight. It was all stacked against her. She would ask Abigail for some wizard drinking games, she resolved, and make sure they were the sort she could win at. Although… one wondered what sort of drinking games her sister knew.

She was about to duck into the door Amelia had pointed out when she heard voices coming from it — no, she realised, horrorstruck, not just any voices. They were those flirty sorts of giggles that could sometimes be heard emanating from broom cupboards at school, and they never boded well. Germaine crouched there by the kitchen doorway in a brief fit of indecision. 

“I didn’t know you could be fun,” a boy said, his tone light and teasing.

Germaine relaxed a little. That was Chris Townes, and she didn’t much care what he thought of her. And he was always going around with a new girl, wasn’t he? The only thing that gave her pause — that stopped her from walking right in without a care — was that this girl might be Mary, and, her own feelings about Chris aside, Germaine did not want to get in her friend’s way. Poor Mary, what if she were upset about Doc and trying to ignore her crush by snogging Chris? A terrible choice, but Germaine couldn’t fault her for it. She hung back a moment longer—

“That’s not a very nice thing to say,” came the reply, and the voice was familiar, but it was not Mary’s. It was more singsong than Germaine had ever heard it, but it was unmistakably Emmeline Vance’s. 

Germaine peered around the doorframe, her stomach sinking. Emmeline and Chris were standing uncomfortably close, alone in the kitchen. Suddenly Germaine did not want to get water; she wanted to get out

Turning on her heel, she hurried back to the party. Her stomach was in knots. The dryness in the back of her mouth had nothing to do with the bitch cup. The walk to the sitting room felt like the longest thirty seconds of Germaine’s life — because she knew, finally, why she liked spending time with Emmeline so much, and why she was so worried what the other girl thought of her. But it didn’t matter, did it? It didn’t matter that Germaine fancied her...sort of friend. Because Emmeline was too busy flirting with Chris Townes, of all people. 

Miraculously, Dorcas was right by the door, talking to Michael Meadowes. Germaine grabbed her by the elbow, not caring that she was interrupting their conversation. 

“Ouch, Germaine—” Doe took one look at her expression, and her annoyance softened to worry. “Is everything all right?”

“Everything’s fine,” said Germaine. “I want to go home.”

Doe frowned, glancing at Michael, and then steered her away from him. 

“Did you have too much to drink? Do you feel sick?”

Germaine shook her head forcefully — although, that did make her feel a bit sick. “I just — want to go home.”

“Okay — okay, don’t worry—” Dorcas turned back to Michael, who looked similarly concerned. “I’m going to take Germaine home. Could you tell Mary we’ve gone?”

Michael nodded. “Of course. Do you need me to come with you?”

Germaine felt a pang of guilt. “Please don’t worry. Actually—” She looked at Doe. “You stay too. I can take the Knight Bus.”

Doe was already shaking her head. “Don’t be ridiculous, Germaine, you shouldn’t go alone. Right, Michael?”

“Definitely not,” Michael said. 

“I don’t want to ruin your night—”

“You’re not ruining anything!” Dorcas squeezed her fingers. 

But Germaine pulled her hand away and tried on a smile. “I’ll ask Marissa to let me use her fireplace. I can just Floo home, and that way no one has to go on the Knight Bus.”

“Germaine—”

She was already backing away. “I’ll owl you tomorrow, first thing in the morning. Promise! Have fun, and don’t worry about me.” And with that, she pushed through the crowd, looking for Marissa Beasley and trying very hard not to think of Emmeline and Chris.

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“You lost!” James crowed, pointing his staff — seven beer cans long at this point — at the table.

“What?” Sirius frowned, looking around. He groaned when he caught sight of his own staff, abandoned not five minutes ago on the table. “Oh, come the fuck on. I had it on me the whole bloody game of — bounce the ball into the cup or whatever it’s called, and I put it down for five seconds to give King the bitch cup—”

James was shaking his head throughout this little speech. “All I’m hearing is that you lost, mate.”

Sirius picked up his staff with a forlorn sigh. “Peter can still beat you.”

James gave him a look of disbelief.

“All right, not likely. Fine. Fine!” Sirius threw his hands up. “You win, then. I’m going to take a smoke break. Coming?”

James grinned, resting his staff against his shoulder like a Buckingham Palace guard. “Nah, I don’t smoke.”

“Fine. I’ll go chat up—” Sirius scanned the crowd “—Annie Markham.”

“Be my guest,” James said. He did not mind the solitude. He leaned back against a wall, searching the dancers for Peter. His friend danced like a possessed cat, and so should not have been difficult to spot. But he wasn’t trying particularly hard. All those beers had turned James’s brain to a sea of happy numbness. He wasn’t much bothered by anything. 

“So,” said a voice at his shoulder. “You won your game?”

Surprised, James moved his wizard staff out of the way to peer at the girl who was leaning against the wall beside him. She had a fringe, and long wavy dark hair — and her mouth was pursed into a little pout. Cecily Sprucklin, he realised; he had almost not recognised her with her hair free of its signature plaits. 

“Oh, hello, Cecily,” said James, privately very pleased that he hadn’t accidentally called her the Duckling to her face. “I did win, yeah.”

“Good,” she said, with a brisk nod. “I only snog winners.”

Cecily was pretty, sure, but that was a funny sort of come-on. James spluttered out an incredulous laugh. She looked at him, apparently dead serious. 

He managed to pull himself together. “We can go somewhere quieter.” 

She smiled, a toothy, sweet expression that made him grin back instinctively. This, James thought, worked far better on him than the clinical appraisal she’d been giving him before. Not that he’d planned on saying no to that, either. 

“Come on,” Cecily said, and he followed her away from the music.

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Someone had put Celestina Warbeck on. Mary paced the room restlessly, wondering how soon was too soon to go and change it. She held a half-full cup of Butterbeer in one hand, and was sipping from it as she walked — she’d had enough to drink, she judged, but switching to water felt like a cop-out, even though it was nearing midnight. Some of the partygoers had already left; the ones who remained were mostly Gryffindors and seventh years, people who knew Evan well enough that the late hour did not bother them.

Mary’s thoughts turned to Germaine, who’d apparently bolted some time back. Marissa Beasley had said she’d safely seen her home. Mary could only hope it hadn’t been because of the bitch cup. 

Part of her wondered if she ought to demand Marissa take her to a fireplace she could Floo from. But she had no idea what she had to say to get herself to Germaine’s house — she had very little experience Flooing at all. Whatever it was that had happened, Mary could find out tomorrow, when she was sober and therefore far better equipped to wring the truth from her friend. Sometimes Germaine got like this — quiet, melancholy, even. The others knew when they had to just let her alone. Perhaps tonight was simply one of those nights, and Germaine would be right as rain the next morning.

Mary spun to face the record player. She’d had enough Warbeck.

But someone else was already changing the record. A voice that was unmistakably Elvis Presley replaced Celestina Warbeck, and that was unmistakably Doc Dearborn by the player, gazing at it with a look of profound satisfaction. 

“Dearborn!” Mary stalked up to him, perching on the arm of a nearby chair. He looked down at her, eyebrows raised. “Did you go and research Muggle music?”

“Yeah,” he said, sounding a touch defensive. “I had a whole year to look into it, didn’t I? I didn’t want the party to go without music again.”

Mary pointed at the stack of records she’d hidden out of sight. “I brought those. For the same exact reason.”

Doc’s lips twitched into a smile. “How thoughtful of you.”

“It was really very selfish. I didn’t want to have to sing again.” 

She met his gaze, thinking of last year — and he was thinking of it too, she was certain. In return he gave her a knowing look, as if they shared a secret. The very idea made her smile; she fought to hide it. 

“That’s a lie if I’ve ever heard one,” Doc said. “You’d love to sing again.”

Mary scoffed, but then erupted into giggles. “You chose well. The White Album was you too, wasn’t it?”

“It’s pretty damn good. This, too.” He looked down at Almost in Love

“Pretty good!” Mary repeated, delighted. “I’m going to count this as the first success of my shop.”

“Your shop?” Doc frowned. “You have a shop?”

“Not yet,” said Mary. “My future shop. That’s the plan, anyway. It’ll be in Diagon Alley—”

“Expensive real estate,” he cut in.

“Shh, don’t interrupt.” Her voice took on a breathless excitement that it only did when she was very drunk, or discussing her grand plans — this was a little bit of both. “It’ll be on Diagon Alley, and it’ll sell Muggle and magical records. Maybe other entertainment things too, I don’t know; comics? I have to ask my brother about that. Anyway, part of the problem is that wizards don’t know anything about what Muggles do. Not just regular Muggle life — but Muggle dreams, and what Muggles stay up at night thinking of, and what Muggles can create. Don’t you see? It’s art, obviously.”

“Obviously,” Doc echoed. He looked a bit stunned, Mary thought, as if she’d socked him in the face. This was an expression she was used to seeing on boys, only it was usually once she’d taken her top off.

“Plenty of magical people would love the Beatles, or Elvis. It’s a matter of changing your perspective. It’s all about— Why are you staring at me?”

Because he was. Staring at her, that is. The record player was between them, but other than that, Mary realised, they were standing quite close together. Doc seemed to come to this realisation at the very same time. They moved towards each other simultaneously, without saying a word; Mary bumped her knee against the corner of the record player hard enough to bring tears to her eyes. Doc swore, steadying her by her waist. She inched around the player; he opened his mouth to speak. Before he could do something silly and unnecessary, like ask if her stupid knee needed tending to, Mary kissed him. 

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The next morning, three of the girls woke up in their own beds. All four were groggy, hoarse, a little bit hungover. The day after a party — even and especially an enjoyable one — was always dreary, a dull return to normalcy. It was a bit like Cinderella on the morning after the ball, Lily thought. They groped for water, stumbled to brush their teeth, and sighed at their reflections in the mirror. Two more days, and they’d be together again, headed back to Hogwarts, about to learn just how much things had changed.

 

 

Chapter Text

i. Departure

“For a magic school, they really do make things inconvenient,” Clyde Macdonald said.

The four Macdonalds were in the Leaky Cauldron’s dining room, having just polished off a hearty breakfast. The six-hour drive from Glasgow to London had been completed in stages over the course of the previous two days, much to Mary’s dismay and Andrew’s tremendous joy. But even her anxious parents could not dampen her spirits — not on the morning she was returning to Hogwarts.

“Aren’t you going to learn to, what’s it called, Apparate? This summer you can get us all to King’s Cross like that.” Ruolan snapped her fingers. 

“Sure, I expect I can take the test after my birthday.” Mary was not looking forward to the prospect of Apparition lessons or testing, but took comfort in the fact that she would only come of age in July, and so the examination was a long way off.

“But I want to visit Diagon Alley,” Andrew protested.

Mary laughed; her brother’s eagerness more than made up for her parents’ nerves. In the end she hadn’t been able to keep the Hogsmeade attack from them, although she had left out the part about the Dark Mark and made it sound more like a random incident...which it might turn out to be after all. Right? The Aurors would figure it all out, she told herself.

“Aw, Andrew, I can bring you with me any time.” Mary thought she would probably regret making this offer come July. Andrew was not likely to forget it. But it pacified him for now, and made her mother happy too.

“You’re in a good mood,” Ruolan said. “Is it a boy?”

Mary scoffed; Andrew and Clyde both coughed and pretended not to hear this.

“What gave you that impression? Maybe I’m just excited to go back to school.”

Ruolan’s smile gave way to shrewdness. “Your mother’s no eejit, Mary Macdonald. You’ve got perfume on, and that potion in your hair.” Andrew and Clyde coughed again.

Mary rolled her eyes. “I wish I’d never told you about Sleekeazy’s.”

“Don’t tell me, then,” said Ruolan with a sniff. “I’m sure I’ll see him at the station anyway.”

Mary resolved not to speak to Doc at Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, no matter what message it might send. Her mother was too much of a wild card to be allowed near any of the boys she’d fancied. So what if she was wearing a bit of perfume? She always looked her best. It had nothing to do with kissing him at Evan’s. But — it was good to know that this...whatever it was, wasn’t a one-off. Mary had no clue if Doc fancied her, but at the very least he liked kissing her. Maybe that was her problem. She tried to speed things up. So why not take this slow?

“All right, we’re going to be late, everyone up—” Ruolan bounced to her feet, waving a hand at the rest of her family.

“Mum, it’s ten o’clock,” said Mary, amused. “The train isn’t going to leave for a whole hour.”

“We aren’t aiming to get there in time for the train to leave,” Ruolan retorted. “I need to say hello to your friends’ parents, after all — is dear Doris Evans going to be there, do you think?”

“I expect—”

“—and what if there’s a rush at Charing Cross? Andrew, put your coat on.”

Mary paused rifling through her purse, a clump of Sickles in her fist. “Whatever are we going to Charing Cross for?”

“The Tube, love,” Clyde said.

“Well, what was the point in bringing the car from Glasgow if we’re not going to drive to King’s Cross?” 

“Andrew wants to take the Tube, and since we’re all the way here—”

Mary scowled at her brother, who avoided meeting her gaze. “Andrew can look at trains some other day, Mum. I’ve got an owl and a cat and a trunk, and you want to wrestle them all into the Underground?”

“Don’t take that tone with me—”

“We’ll manage, Mare, don’t you worry,” said Clyde, shooting his wife a pleading look. “We’re on time anyway, we can be extra careful.”

In response Mary thrust her owl’s cage at Andrew, and then her cat’s carrier. “Make yourself useful.”

This was hardly punishment for him; Andrew’s eyes grew wide with delight as the owl, Helga, bit his finger. Mary stifled a groan and slipped on her coat. The Macdonalds were still bickering lightly as they stepped out into the damp January morning.

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“Don’t be suspicious,” Louisa King said, for about the tenth time this morning. 

Her husband William gave her a long-suffering look. “Louisa, why would I be suspicious? It’s not like this is the first time we’re going to Platform Nine and—”

Louisa hissed. “Don’t say it where anyone can hear you!”

“Come off it, you enjoy baiting me—”

“Oh, yes, I’m always pushing you into doing things, you’re never at fault—”

Germaine sighed, though neither of them heard her. Her mother had Apparated them near the station, Germaine’s battered old trunk between them, and all three of them were moving at a glacial pace through King’s Cross. Germaine wanted nothing more than to be on Platform Nine and Three-Quarters already, so that she could be with her friends and her parents could just go home and ignore each other, as they obviously would prefer to do.

She recalled her first year at Hogwarts, when it had been four of them going to the station; she’d been before, of course, to drop off Abigail, but that year had been special, and different. Dad, she’d said, it’s called King’s Cross, but we’re the Kings. And William had grinned and ruffled her hair, telling her she could be king of the world.

The arguing still hadn’t let up. Germaine was brought back to reality.

“You’re calling more attention to us with your shouting than anything,” she said, and finally her parents stopped short, looking at her guiltily. This was more than she’d said to her parents about the...split all holidays. They did not look surprised at her tone, nor her words. That only annoyed Germaine more; if they expected her to be upset, why hadn’t they done anything about it?

“While I’m at it,” she said, “you shouldn’t have kept it from me. I know you told Abigail first. It’s funny, you treat me like a baby but you still owled me about it on my birthday. Did either of you realise that?”

“Darling,” said Louisa, her voice softening, “we know you must be upset, but you didn’t want to talk all holiday—”

Germaine scowled. “Yeah, well, not talking seems to be what we’re good at.” 

Before either of her parents could stop her, she marched right towards the barrier between platforms Nine and Ten, charging through it and leaving them behind.

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“Coffee on the way back?” Ruth Walker said to her husband, her hand absently running over her daughter’s hair.

“Mum, please stop stroking my hair, I feel about five years old,” said Dorcas; Ruth smiled at her and dropped her hand to Doe’s shoulder.

Joe stifled a yawn, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Count me in. The nice cafe, by the—”

“Florist’s, of course,” finished Ruth.

“Drat, I want to go to the cafe,” Doe said.

Joe gave an exaggerated sigh. “Poor you, you only have to go to Hogwarts instead.”

“All right, all right, point taken…”

Ruth laughed. “You don’t have to keep us company, you know. I’m sure you’ve got loads of people to say hello to.”

“Well, I saw most of them two days ago, basically.” But Doe didn’t mind her dismissal; her parents, she knew, got quite misty-eyed about their own school days, and they were best left alone at times like this. She gave them both pecks on the cheek and, trunk in hand, started towards the Hogwarts Express.

The girls liked to sit in the same compartment if they could help it, or the same carriage at the very least — near the front of the train. Since Lily had been named prefect, this worked out very nicely; she could divide her time between the prefects’ carriage and her friends. Doe moved automatically in that direction, but it wasn’t long before she was waylaid by familiar faces.

“Dorcas, darling!” Sara waved her over, hugging her as if they hadn’t just been at the same party. “My aunt loved hearing from you, by the way — this girl,” she said, whirling them both around so that she could address the two students she’d been conversing with, “is going to be a very important person at the Ministry very soon, mark my words.”

Dorcas laughed, extricating herself from Sara’s grip. “I don’t know about that. Your aunt’s really nice, but her work isn’t really in line with Auror stuff, is it?”

Sara’s eyes went wide. “On the contrary! The program is really selective, you know, and any little edge you have could be the difference between acceptance and rejection. Wouldn’t you say an Auror applicant with knowledge of the Wizengamot would be invaluable?”

This question was directed at Chris Townes and Cecily Sprucklin, who looked as though they did not want to be dragged into this conversation. 

“Maybe,” Cecily said, “yeah. I mean, if Sara’s aunt thinks you’re good.”

“Oh, I’m sure all I’d be doing is making her tea and filing her least interesting papers,” said Dorcas, smiling. “They can’t share top-secret Wizengamot business with seventeen-year-olds.”

“I haven’t a clue what they can and can’t share, but if you don’t apply you won’t know either,” Sara said. 

Doe shook her head, laughing. “I think you want it for me even more than I do. Anyway, I should go save a compartment—”

“The usual one?” said Sara.

“If I can get it.”

“I’ll find you and the girls later. Bye, Doe!”

Still smiling, Dorcas continued towards the carriage, stopping once more to chat with James and Peter, the latter of whom was watching Cecily with an expression of great confusion. More than once Doe caught herself scanning the chattering crowd of students. Where were her friends?

Luckily, Germaine appeared just then, her expression thunderous. Doe hurried over to her, alarmed. They had not talked much about her abrupt departure from Evan Wronecki’s party in all the hubbub of packing for school again. Doe had intended to quiz Germaine on the train, and not a second too soon, she thought. 

“Want to sit? Where are your parents?” Dorcas peered over Germaine’s shoulder, as if her minuscule frame could possibly have been hiding Mr. and Mrs. King.

“Hell if I know,” Germaine said. “Have you seen Lily and Mary already?”

“No, I was just looking— Look, let’s just go get our compartment, they’ll find us later.”

Germaine’s scowl eased, just a little. “Okay.”

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James put his hands in his pockets, shaking his head. “It’s typical, it really is.”

Peter tore his gaze from Cecily Sprucklin, frowning. “What is?”

“That rosy post-party mood.” He jerked his chin in the direction of a clump of sixth and seventh years. “Everyone doing things they wouldn’t normally do with people they wouldn’t normally do them with.”

“You’re going to have to spell it out for me, mate.”

“It’s like this.” James pointed discreetly at Chris Townes and Cecily Sprucklin. “Chris and Cecily? Hooked up at Evan’s, obviously. That’s why they’re hovering around each other. But it’s not going to last.”

Peter’s frown deepened. “It isn’t?”

“Nah. Because Florence Quaille has been in love with Chris for ages, and as soon as Cecily hears she’ll make sure to distance herself from him. A bit weird that she never told her friend about it, but...birds, you know.”

Most of this was news to Peter, save for that last part. At least now that he know there was something up with Florence and Cecily, he’d steer clear of them both. It was nice when a girl paid him attention, but it wasn’t worth all that.

“Where’s Padfoot?” Peter looked up and down the platform, but there was no sign of their friend. “Didn’t you come with him?”

“Relax, Wormtail, it’s not like he can get lost here. No, he’s getting us a compartment. Wizard stack loser’s got to suffer somehow.”

Peter looked down at his own trunk. “Hang on, did I win wizard staff?”

“Did you? I have no idea when I put mine down. Do you remember how many beers you had?”

“Eight,” said Peter decisively.

James’s eyebrows rose. “Jesus. I had seven, so that’s you, then.”

Peter grinned. He was about to tell James to put his trunk away when the other boy spoke once more.

“Are you actually interested in Cecily?” James sounded serious all of a sudden — more serious, Peter thought, than the topic actually warranted. “You keep looking at her.”

Peter had to stop himself from looking at her once more. “Nah, not really. I mean, would I have snogged her? Yeah. But.” He shrugged. “Not like I’m in love with her.” 

This was quite sincere. He’d shot up last summer and was now only a little shorter than his friends, but he was aware that Cecily Sprucklin was rather pretty. She was out of his league, and he didn’t mind.

“Oh, all right.” James looked relieved. “We kissed, at Evan’s.”

Peter’s cheer faded a little. “You and Cecily?”

“Yeah.” James was growing more and more sheepish; Peter was surprised that anyone, least of all him, could have that sort of effect on his friend. “Just a kiss.”

“Don’t worry about it, mate. Like I said, it’s not like I’m—”

A hand clapped on his shoulder. “Are we talking about Prongs and his nighttime activities?” Sirius said.

“No,” Peter said, giving him a smile, “just how he snogged Ce—”

“Oh, why didn’t you come back until the next morning, then?”

James rolled his eyes. “I wasn’t shagging Cecily Sprucklin. Look at her, she’s all cosy with Chris Townes.”

Sirius peered in their direction. He seemed unusually energetic, Peter noticed; jittery, like he’d had too much coffee. There was a manic sort of glint in his eye. 

“So she is,” said Sirius finally. “That rosy post-party thing, eh?”

“Exactly,” James grinned, looking at Peter as if to say see? He knows

“Then I’ll go take advantage of it.” Like a shot Sirius was gone again.

James and Peter exchanged a look, their earlier awkwardness forgotten. 

“Has he been acting strange all holiday?” said Peter, nervousness stealing over him. He’d meant to ask Sirius how he was managing at Evan’s party, but of course what with Florence...and Cecily… Well, he’d had a lot on his mind.

“No,” James said slowly. “We’ll find out what it is soon, I expect. C’mon, let’s go get a good compartment.”

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Despite her earlier complaints, Mary was quite proud, as always, to show her family Platform Nine and Three-Quarters. They were Muggles, of course, and so they did not often get a look at a proper wizarding place; not like Mr. and Mrs. Walker, who often talked about their days at Hogwarts, nor like Mr. and Mrs. King, who were both magical and occasionally went to Quidditch matches. The platform was not as impressive as Diagon Alley, but it had a special sort of magic nevertheless.

“The Tube doesn’t hold a candle to this,” Mary said to Andrew, whose eyes were wide. He had been left with their grandparents in September, much to his sorrow, and so it had been a full year since he’d seen the Hogwarts Express.

“I’ll say,” Andrew breathed. “Can you introduce us to your friends? Some really magical ones?”

She stifled a laugh, and resisted the urge to remind him that they were all really magical. “I’ll do you one better — my friends’ parents are fully-grown witches and wizards.”

But she could not find Mr. and Mrs. Walker, nor Mr. and Mrs. King… Perhaps they hadn’t arrived yet. The Macdonalds had indeed been painfully punctual, even with all the strange looks Mary’s owl and cat had earned them on the Tube. Mary was growing impatient; if she wanted to find Doc, she’d have to do it away from her mum’s keen eye, and to rid herself of her parents she’d have to saddle them with another family.

“Oh!” She waved at Doris Evans, feeling a wave of relief. “There’s Lily, come on—”

The Macdonalds dutifully trudged after her. Andrew looked disappointed at the prospect of meeting more Muggles; that quickly changed to extreme embarrassment when he recognised Lily.

There was much hugging and kissing between them all — aside from Lily’s sister Petunia, who simply sniffed and shook their hands instead. Mary tried not to scowl. Though Lily spoke fondly of her sister as much as she complained about her, she didn’t care for the snooty expression with which Petunia gazed at the platform. 

“—so good to see you, Ruolan,” Mrs. Evans was saying, wearing a tired sort of smile. Mary guessed she’d been refereeing some kind of conflict between Lily and Petunia, who were pointedly not looking at each other.

Ruolan smiled in return, practised enough that she did not wince at Doris’s mispronunciation of her name, though Mary caught Lily’s grimace. “Lily gets more beautiful every day,” she said, beaming.

Both Mrs. Evans and Lily flushed at this. 

“You’re too kind—”

Petunia was frowning. Mary tried not to roll her eyes. 

“Lily,” she said, taking her friend’s arm, “let’s go put our trunks away. They’ll spend ages on how are yous and how was your Christmases.”

Lily herself was looking a bit under the weather, Mary thought, pale, like she hadn’t been sleeping. First Germaine, now this. There would be plenty of time to catch up on the train anyway, and she planned on making the most of it. Classes would start again tomorrow, and then they would be caught in the whirl of everyday activity once more… 

“You go ahead,” said Lily, cutting through Mary’s reverie. “I wanted to say bye properly and go find Dex...”

“Oh, all right. Tell Dreamboat I say hello. Dad and I can put your trunk away, if you like.”

“You don’t have to—”

Clyde, hearing the tail end of this conversation, gave Lily a wide smile. “It’s really no trouble.”

Lily accepted defeat, giving Mary a quick hug. “I’ll see you. The usual compartment, right?”

Andrew continued to cling to the two animal carriers he’d been put in charge of; Mary told the families she would back to say goodbye and collect her owl and her cat, and she and her father hauled the girls’ trunks after them towards the front of the train. As it was, Clyde and Mary bustled away too quickly to notice what Doris and Ruolan had turned to discussing.

“Thank you for having Lily over the other night,” said Doris. “She took that frightful bus back, she said.”

Ruolan gave no hint of her true reaction, though her mind whirled at this. She certainly hadn’t had Lily over, because she had not served Lily a big breakfast, and she could not have abided one of her children’s friends leaving without eating breakfast first. But it was certainly possible that Lily had left quietly, and early in the morning...not that she seemed like the sort of girl to dash off without so much as a thank you.

All she said out loud was, “Yes, the bus, it sounds so dangerous—”

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“Point out your friends to me, would you?” Clyde said.

Mary beamed, only too happy to accommodate this request. Her father was a soft-spoken giant of a man, not at all stooped in his old age. The Macdonalds had a successful little dairy farm outside of Glasgow — yes, like in the nursery rhyme, Mary had grown used to saying, and had been thrilled to bits when so few people at Hogwarts understood that reference — and Clyde had made enough money for an early retirement. Mary and Andrew were rather used to a life of leisure, both for themselves and for their parents.

But while Ruolan had a dozen or so hobbies to keep her busy, Clyde’s chief sources of delight were the lives of his daughter and son. It was a good thing, too, that Mary was so sociable and gregarious; she had plenty of stories to regale her father with.

“That’s Chris,” she said, waving at Chris Townes as she pointed him out, “and that’s Cecily with him, they’re Hufflepuffs. Sixth years like me. Those are the seventh years over there, Evan—” Mercifully alone, she thought. “—He’s the one whose party we went to the other day.”

“The girl over there? She’s a prefect, isn’t she?” Clyde said, squinting a little at the badge.

Mary grimaced. “She’s not my friend.” As if sensing she was being discussed, Amelia Bones looked up and frowned at her.

Clyde chuckled. “Play nice, Mare.”

“I always do!” she protested. “There’s Sirius — blimey, he looks angry…”

He was scowling like he’d had a bad run-in with the Slytherins. Mary looked around to make sure none of them were visible. She often had to remind her dad of the names of her acquaintances, but she had a feeling his memory was crystal-clear where Mulciber and Avery were concerned.

“That’s Florence, by the carriage door,” Mary said, spotting the girl’s familiar blonde ponytail. “And that’s— Michael.”

She blinked, unsure what, exactly, she was bearing witness to. Florence was holding Michael’s hand — and then she was kissing him on the cheek, and giving him a very meaningful look indeed. It was only on the cheek, but—

Clyde had noticed the sudden halt in Mary’s running commentary.

“Something wrong?” His gaze fell on Florence and Michael. “That’s not the, erm, boy your mother was talking about?”

“Gosh, no, Dad!”

Clyde’s frown remained. “Good. Looks a bit sleekit, if you ask me.”

On any other day she would have defended Michael Meadowes from her father’s judgment. Mary didn’t think he was untrustworthy, but she couldn’t be certain anymore.

“Here’s the carriage,” she said, her good humour replaced by something more businesslike. “Would you mind asking Andrew to pass me Helga and Olive through the window? I’ve really got to speak to Doe.”

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He wasn’t anywhere on the platform. But he’d definitely gone home for Christmas — so he had to be on the train. Scowling, Sirius stepped in through one of the doors and began the long way down the corridor, peering into compartments as he went and ignoring their occupants’ complaints.

“You’re supposed to sit down when the train’s moving—” One of the Auror trainees, vaguely familiar from last term, tried to block his way. He wasn’t Frank, or Marlene, or Frank’s girlfriend; the other one, Sirius had mentally called him.

“Well, it’s not moving yet, is it?” Sirius snapped. The man didn’t seem to want to argue with that; he pushed past before the trainee could change his mind.

It didn’t take him long after that. Regulus had always been a swot, and so he was right in front by the prefects’ carriage. Sirius could hear that git Rowle through the compartment door, going on about whatever stupid thing his precious father had given him for Christmas, and, faintly, Regulus’s more measured replies. He yanked the door open.

“Get out, this one’s full—” Rowle began, then did a double take at the sight of him. “You—”

“Shut the fuck up, Rowle, I’m not here for you.” Sirius sat opposite his brother, who met his gaze unflinchingly. “Why didn’t you bring the cat?” he said. “I saw you, earlier. You didn’t have a carrier.”

Regulus’s calm gave way to slight panic. Sirius noted this with some satisfaction — he hoped he was scared.

“I — couldn’t bring her,” Regulus said.

“Couldn’t? Or wouldn’t?” Sirius shook his head. He ought to have known. 

“Well, Mum wouldn’t—”

He barked a laugh. “Stupid of me to think you’d do even the smallest thing that goes against her commands. Stupid of me to expect you to think for yourself for about half a—”

“I don’t owe you anything!” Regulus burst out. “Why should I help you?” He chanced a look at Rowle; Sirius glanced at the other boy too. He was, rather wisely, staring at the compartment door and pretending not to listen.

When Regulus spoke again, his voice was lower. “She’s been in a terrible mood because of you—”

“Since November?” Sirius scoffed. “Oh, come on. She’s in a mood because she’s fucking awful, and she wants to be fucking awful.”

“Try and think like her for a second. One of her sons—”

“Spare me, Regulus. All I wanted was my fucking cat.”

Regulus clenched his jaw. “She was my cat too, you know!”

“Please, I was the one who suffered Mum’s wrath any time she knocked something over or scratched her precious armchairs or—” He stopped short, frowning. “What do you mean she was your cat? What the fuck’s that supposed to mean?”

Sirius was certain he wasn’t imagining it this time. His brother had gone pale. He didn’t want to consider what that meant— no, it’s not, I won’t, she can’t have. He should have taken Heathcliff with him to start the school year — he should’ve left Heathcliff at the Potters’ years ago — but Walburga had been happy to have something with which to control her son’s behaviour. She would not have let the cat go so easily... Desperation clawed its way up his throat.

“Regulus. What the fuck did she do?”

Regulus looked sick. “She — she killed her.”

Sirius sat back, the words hitting him like a physical blow. “This is a joke,” he said faintly. “This is a sick joke she put you up to, isn’t it?” He turned to Rowle, who was watching with openmouthed horror.

“It isn’t,” Regulus said. “I’m — I’m sorry, I tried to—”

He should have taken Heathcliff with him… No, he should never have brought the stray kitten into his family’s house, not with his drunk of a father and hellish bitch of a mother— He should never have had anything at all, and then Walburga wouldn’t have had anything to hurt— because of him.

“No,” Sirius said, quite calmly. “No, you tried fuck-all. Like you always do, toeing the damn line.”

“I tried to stop her!” 

Regulus’s voice broke in the middle of his sentence, but Sirius barely noticed. He was standing now, looming over his brother; now he had him by the collar, now he was hauling him up out of his seat.

“No, you didn’t, because you’re just as bad as she is!”

He realised he was shouting. He so badly wanted Regulus to shout back at him — but his brother only flinched. Sirius felt sick all of a sudden, sicker than any part of the conversation had made him so far. He let Regulus go and staggered away, out of the compartment. He needed to forget everything he’d just heard.

“Is something wrong?”

Sirius blinked, expecting to see another Auror trainee — but it was Annie Markham, already wearing her Hogwarts uniform with its shiny prefect’s badge pinned to her chest. In a way it was a relief. He couldn’t let an acquaintance see him fall to bits. He tried a smile, and probably only got halfway there.

“It’s stupid,” he said. “I just need a distraction.”

“Tell me about it. Look, the train’s about to leave, but if we hurry we can get to the prefects’ carriage.”

Sirius frowned. “What’s happening in the prefects’ carriage?”

Annie smiled. “Meetings have been cancelled, so the compartments should be far emptier than usual. Come on.” She took his hand, and he let her tug him away.

 


ii. The Name of the Game

“Go on, Lily, the train’s going to leave without you,” Doris said.

Lily chanced a glance at her watch; it was five to eleven, she realised. She’d stationed her family right at the barrier, hoping to catch Dex when he came through, but she hadn’t spotted him anywhere. Well, never mind, she could look for him on the train... She gave her mother a hurried kiss; after a tense moment, she pulled Petunia into a hug.

“I’ll miss you,” Lily said, and suddenly she was bowled over by emotion. She squeezed her sister tight.

“All right, all right, you’ve made your point—” Petunia was saying. When Lily released her, she was pink in the face.

“Write to me, please.” Struck by a burst of inspiration, she pushed Peppermint’s cage into her sister’s hands. “Keep my owl, that way you can send me a letter whenever you like.”

Doris had gone a bit misty-eyed herself. “Don’t you need him?”

“I’ll use one of the school ones, it’s no trouble.” In an undertone, she told Petunia, “Thank you. For taking such good care of Mum, I mean. I don’t say it enough.”

Petunia, who had bristled when Lily foisted the owl upon her, softened at this. 

“Don’t make me teary,” she said with a thin smile. “I’ve got mascara on.”

With another quick hug and a wave, Lily rushed onto the train. She could make her way to the front from the inside, she reasoned. And she could find Dex as she went. She was so satisfied with this plan that she nearly collided with someone moving down the corridor.

“Sorry!” Michael Meadowes said. “Sorry, I should’ve looked where I was—”

“No, no,” said Lily. The train had begun to pull away from the station; she could feel the hum of the engine growing louder. “I’m all right, I wasn’t paying attention either.”

“Well, I hope you’ve had a nice holiday.”

“Yes, very — I hope you have too.”

He nodded. They lapsed into a brief silence, each wanting to edge around the other but uncertain how to do it.

“Have you seen—” they said at the same time, then laughed.

“You first,” said Michael.

“Have you seen Dex Fortescue, by any chance? Seventh year, Hufflepuff.”

He shook his head. “No, sorry. I was going to ask, have you seen Dorcas?”

“Not all morning, no,” Lily said. “I expect she’ll be at the front of the train, though. That’s where we usually sit. I’m headed there, if you’d like to come along—?”

“Oh, thanks, but it’s not that urgent. I just wanted to say hi, return a book…” Michael shrugged.

Lily resisted the urge to arch a brow. “I’ll tell her to find you at dinner, then.”

“Thanks. If you need somewhere to sit, there’s a bunch of sixth years just over here.” He jerked his thumb at a nearby compartment.

“That’s all right, my trunk’s with the girls,” said Lily. 

Feeling that the conversation had definitely run its course, she said goodbye to Michael and continued her way up the train. She had just opened the door to the next carriage when another figure stepped into her path — but this one, she realised with shock, was an adult. 

The wizard was definitely not the Honeydukes employee who came round with the trolley — not unless they had replaced Brenda Gamp with a very different character. This man would have scared the first years to bits, Lily thought. He was intimidatingly tall, his white-blonde hair slicked off his forehead to reveal every plane of his grim expression. His lips thinned into an even finer line at the sight of her. For her part, Lily was frowning, trying to figure out why he looked familiar.

“You should be sitting down,” the man said.

“I was just going to,” Lily said. Her movements on the train had never been questioned before; she did not know how to react, nor how to ask the wizard who he was. “I’m going up to the front.”

But the man was shaking his head. “Please, just take a seat in the nearest compartment.”

“I’m a prefect,” She pointed to the badge. I need to be in the front — I need to patrol—”

“No prefect meetings today, I’m afraid,” the man said. “You’re to have a seat, Miss—?”

“Evans. But you must be mistaken. Both the heads should be on the train back, and we haven’t gone over weekly schedules—”

The man gave an impatient sigh. “Evans, the Head Boy and the Head Girl are with Aurors, so they are most certainly not meeting with you. As it happens, Aurors are patrolling the corridors too, so you needn’t worry yourself about it.”

With Aurors? Lily felt as though she’d been doused with cold water. She’d worried about what new security measures would be in place at school, and she’d come face to face with them earlier than she’d expected to. 

“You’re an Auror,” she said. “You’re Patrick Podmore, you’re one of the people investigating the Hogsmeade murders.” The newest, in fact; the lead investigator on the case was a witch named Hartwick, but Lily had just read the names of the rest of the team in that morning’s Prophet.

Podmore looked neither pleased nor annoyed at being recognised. “Read the paper, do you? Then you’ll know you should do as I say.”

The man’s patronising tone made Lily want to argue, against her better instincts. “All right, I’m going,” she said, turning on her heel. Michael had said he and a bunch of sixth years were at this end of the train—

“Stop!” 

Lily froze, sighing. “What?”

“I don’t want you wandering around,” said Podmore. He slid open the door to a random compartment, and gestured for her to enter. It was empty.

Lily bit back her protest. She had a bookbag with her, at least, carrying some of her homework and a novel. If Patrick Podmore wanted to spoil her train ride, he could do a lot worse than sticking her in an empty compartment. With a false smile at the Auror, she stepped into the compartment and sat down. He shut the door with finality after her.

She shouldn’t have let her mother guilt-trip her into leaving Pride and Prejudice at home, Lily thought sadly. She had swapped the well-worn thing for a far less perused copy of Sense and Sensibility, since Doris had insisted she ought to have Emma and Pride and Prejudice both for one term. I’ll be taking them right back at Easter, Lily told herself. Removing her bookmark, she settled into a more comfortable position and began to read. 

Almost at once, she felt herself wincing. She’d stopped at an awful part; the Dashwood sisters had just gone to London, and Marianne was in the process of writing her flowery, sentimental letters to Willoughby. Lily found herself quite angry at Marianne, a feeling she’d never had before. But if only she wasn’t such a ridiculous romantic, if only she’d talked to even-keeled, dutiful Elinor, who’d have steered her right… It was impossible to read how she fawned over Willoughby, knowing what came next. If only Marianne had less sensibility and more sense!

Lily sniffed and realised, to her utter horror, that she was crying. Only very little, but she was definitely crying. It was unfair, really, to compare her own situation to Marianne’s. Why, it wasn’t the 1800s, and she hadn’t lost anything. And Dex was no Willoughby — all he’d done was forget to write her back, which was something she’d done to him too over the holidays. He was studying for his N.E.W.T.s, wasn’t he? There was nothing to gain by overanalysing the timing of his forgetfulness, which was to say, the fact that he had forgotten to write her back after she’d slept with him.

But it wasn’t something to cry about. Surely if Mary were here right now, she’d be telling Lily not to cry about it. She took a moment to curse Patrick Podmore for not letting her find her friends; she even felt a little resentful of Dumbledore, who must have let the Aurors come on the train and ruin everything... 

The sex itself had been fine, if a bit awkward (but that was normal too, wasn’t it?), but the problem had really begun the next day. It was strange, waking up with somebody. It had taken Lily ages to fall asleep, unused as she was to the feeling of someone else in bed with her. And as she was wont to do, she did not wake up until the sun had properly risen, blinking in confusion at the unfamiliar room around her.

She’d dressed and slipped out, standing in the beautiful artwork-lined hallway for a few long minutes. Which way was the stairs, again? She had been saved the worry, because Dex had emerged from what looked like a bathroom, his hair damp. He’d grinned at the sight of her, giving her a kiss; Lily had spent the duration of the kiss worrying about what her breath smelled like. Dex smelled like pine needles and mint. On the other hand, she probably looked as dreadful as she smelled.

“Breakfast?” said Dex, interrupting her frantic train of thought. “The blokes are downstairs putting the sitting room back in order, but the house elves can get you something.”

“Oh.” Lily hadn’t contended with the blokes, but of course some of Evan’s other friends had stayed the night too. She was quite sure she was scarlet. “Let me just — wash up—”

He’d given way, and told her to meet him downstairs. Lily had cleaned off the previous night’s makeup hastily, and, for lack of anything to brush her teeth with, rinsed her mouth with a bottle of Dentifricium Mouthwash by the sink. Oh, if only she had a different set of clothes…

All things considered, it should not have been so strange, being seen by her boyfriend’s friends the morning after a party. But Lily felt altogether unprepared. Would they wonder— No, they all had better things to do than speculate about her sex life, didn’t they, and Evan was nice, and Dex wouldn’t let them say anything, and did boys even talk about things like this? She wished there was someone she could have asked, but Remus, bless him, would probably have wriggled right out of answering that question. 

There was nothing to it; she had to swan out there unbothered as you please. Brushing at an invisible speck on her jeans, Lily stepped out of the bathroom and made her way downstairs. The house looked less intimidating in the daylight — airier, certainly, but in a welcoming sort of way. It was easy to follow the boys’ voices to the sitting room, the sight of the previous night’s debauchery.

Spellwork had done most of the cleaning, she guessed. The sitting room smelled like air freshener and the furniture had been moved back into place. Evan was attacking a spot on the carpet with some kind of magical stain-remover. Doc Dearborn was levitating a stack of books back to a coffee table, while Stephen Fawcett and Dex were mending a leg on the high, spindly table that had been the bar. 

“Lily!” Dex sprang up at the sight of her.

Lily gave a tame little wave. “Morning.”

They chorused a greeting at her.

“Can I get you something?” Evan said. “Breakfast, a bit of tea? We’ve got eggs going.”

She thought we must mean the house elves. “Oh, don’t worry about me.” Lily felt she was hovering awkwardly, and they’d all been doing well without her there. “Is there something I can help with?”

“We’re nearly done, don’t worry,” said Doc. “Marissa was supposed to come back and do her share — so much for that.” He rolled his eyes.

Lily tried to imagine Marissa Beasley in her situation, but she could not picture the Head Girl as anything but jovial and at ease. Maybe it would have been less awkward with Marissa there — or maybe it would have been worse, and Lily would only have felt like more of an outsider amidst the seventh years. She was suddenly sure that if she stayed for breakfast things would only get more awkward, and she couldn’t bear it.

“I should go, then,” she blurted out. “My mum will be expecting me.”

“I can Apparate you,” said Dex. “If you give me an address—”

“No, that’s okay, I don’t want to—”

“C’mon, Lily, my mum would be furious if I let you go without you eating something,” said Evan. 

“As it is we’re looking for any way to postpone our studying,” Stephen said. “Awful lot of N.E.W.T. homework, you know.”

“Exactly — just stay until Marissa gets here, she can take you to hers and then you can Floo back.”

Lily could feel her face heating up. “I can’t Floo, I’m not— I’m Muggle-born.”

Evan blinked. “Oh, right. Sorry, I forgot.”

The boys all looked embarrassed now; Lily recalled that Dex had been by the lake during exams last June, when Severus had called her... well… How many of his friends had been there too? Were they all remembering that day right now?

“I’ll just take the Knight Bus,” said Lily hurriedly. “I’ve done it before, it’s no problem.”

“If you’re sure,” Dex said, his expression uncertain.

Lily had assured them all that yes, she was certain, and then she’d scurried off, feeling very foolish indeed. It was a lucky thing that Evan lived somewhere in the Midlands too; the ride on the bus was brief, and then she’d been home, smiling brightly and telling Doris she’d spent the night at Mary’s. 

She had always been under the impression that when she did have sex, her mother would be able to tell. She’d sense it somehow, in the way that mothers sniffed everything out. Lily was no idiot, and did not think having sex constituted becoming a woman, or some rubbish like that, but years of sporadic Sunday school had left its mark. Surely she had some mark of...carnal knowledge? But Doris hadn’t suspected a thing. 

That was almost worse. All she could do was think. Lily had spent the last two days of the holidays alternating between worrying about the ever so casual letter she’d written to Dex and mindlessly flicking through the wireless at a rate that drove Petunia up the wall. Were all songs secretly about sex?

The 60s station, normally her faithful companion, was no longer safe. First Lily had choked on her tea at “I Can’t Control Myself,” and then her eyes had gone wide at “I Think We’re Alone Now” — and even the Stones! She didn’t think she could ever listen to “Satisfaction” again. At that point Petunia had snidely asked her if she was having some sort of fit, and Lily had turned the wireless off with a huff. 

Sure, it had only been two days, and Dex had probably spent those two days with his friends or cramming ahead of term. But Lily had expected him to say something. Wasn’t that the thing to do, when you slept with your girlfriend for the first time? She wasn’t asking for much, was she? Lily knew she ought to tell her friends — but telling the whole story again seemed nearly as embarrassing as living it.

Pull yourself together, she told herself, straightening her shoulders. What the hell was she doing, crying on the Hogwarts Express while reading Sense and Sensibility? Lily would find Dex and make her feelings known. And then everything would be cleared up, and she’d have nothing more to worry about. Satisfied with this decision-making, she shoved the book back into her bag, leaned back, and closed her eyes. 

The moment she had, though, voices rose outside the door. Lily sighed. If the Aurors were arguing with a student again, she ought to go mediate. Smoothing her skirt down, she slid the door open.

“Is everything all right?” she said in her most authoritative voice.

“Oh, you again,” said Patrick Podmore, sounding impossibly weary. “I assure you, Evers, I can sort out a train full of students fine enough without an underage witch’s help—”

“Evans,” Lily corrected. She glanced at Podmore’s adversary. “Oh, hi, James.”

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When the trolley witch’s familiar voice floated down the corridor, Germaine leapt to her feet.

“I’ll get the snacks. What does everyone want?”

“Grab me a Licorice Wand, would you?” Sara barely looked up from the novel she was reading, handing Germaine a clump of coins that was certainly more than the cost of one Licorice Wand.

“This is way too much,” said Germaine.

“Is it?” Sara glanced up then. “Oh, well, everyone’s sweets can be on me.”

“Groo-vy,” Dorcas said. “Get me a Cauldron Cake, Germaine. Actually, two.”

“Got it. Mary?”

“Just a sandwich. The nice sort, please.”

Germaine rolled her eyes. “What on earth is—”

“You know!” Mary gestured vaguely. “The egg one, with the—”

“Egg and cress,” Dorcas said, aiming a kick at Mary.

“Right, how silly of me not to realise.” 

Rolling her eyes again, Germaine slid the compartment door open and walked the few feet to where the trolley woman, a plump, friendly witch named Brenda Gamp, was doling out pasties to a group of third years.

“Morning, Brenda. Had a good Christmas?”

The witch gave her a wavering smile. “All right, all things...considered…”

Germaine wanted to smack herself on the forehead. Of course, Brenda lived in Hogsmeade, and was probably more frightened than anyone by the murders.

“Right, stupid of me,” Germaine said hurriedly. “I hope your family is safe, and everything—” She suddenly could not remember the names of the two murder victims. Oh, Merlin, what if Brenda was related to one of them?

But to her relief, Brenda only said, “Everyone’s okay for now, thanks. Aurors all over the place, of course, but that’s to be expected.” She glanced nervously down the train corridor, as if an Auror was about to jump up and question her. 

A nearby compartment door slid open. “Hello, are you finished yet? Oh, Germaine, hi.”

Germaine started. It was Emmeline, because of course it was. Had she ever said her first name before? Germaine didn’t think so. She noticed that Emmeline’s dark, straight hair was held away from her face with a pair of matching blue barrettes. How odd. She’d never seen her wear any sort of hair ornamentation before. And then Germaine remembered she was trying to distance herself from Emmeline.

“Hi,” she said in return, rather stiffly.

“I didn’t want to interrupt.” Emmeline offered Brenda a polite smile. “I gather you’re not done, then.”

Germaine was torn between standing her ground, and lying and running back to her mates. In the end she said, “No, not done yet, sorry.” She turned back to Brenda, expecting Emmeline to wait in her compartment, but to her dismay the Ravenclaw only moved further out of her compartment and shut the door behind her.

“You girls will want to stick close by if you’re stretching your legs,” said Brenda amiably. “Aurors have been telling off students in the corridor all morning.”

“Aurors?” Germaine repeated.

“They’re patrolling,” said Emmeline.

This made Germaine annoyed, for reasons even she knew were unfair. But of course Emmeline knew this, because Emmeline knew everything, except, apparently, that Chris Townes was a prat.

“That’s nice,” she said, for lack of anything better to say. 

Both Brenda and Emmeline were giving her funny looks.

“I should head back,” said Germaine.

“But I haven’t even got you your food!” Brenda said. “Go on, tell me what you’d like.”

Feeling more awkward than ever, Germaine rattled off her friends’ requests and dumped Sara’s coins into Brenda’s hand. She’d just put her change into her pocket, juggling all the packages she was now holding, when Emmeline cleared her throat. Germaine looked at her, wary. The slightest pinch of a frown had appeared between Emmeline’s brows.

“Are you angry with me?”

Germaine wasn’t good at faking it. She wasn’t like Mary, who could hide everything underneath a cool exterior, nor like Doe, who could be unfailingly polite. She could feel the last vestiges of her patience slipping away. She didn’t have to stand here and make small talk with someone who was — too enigmatic and probably didn’t want to be around her anyway. And how could she begin to explain why things had changed?

“I’m just trying to get back to my friends,” Germaine said, in a clipped sort of way that suggested she was angry with her.

Emmeline’s expression changed almost imperceptibly: a brief narrowing of the eyes, a tightness around her mouth.

“Fine, then.”

Germaine beat a hasty retreat, slipping inside her compartment and shutting the door hard enough to make the window rattle. Her friends did not pause in their conversation. Germaine dropped Sara’s change onto the seat beside her and withdrew a Pumpkin Pasty from the bag for herself, trying to calm her racing heart, 

“All I think is,” Dorcas was saying, “you shouldn’t have to prove yourself to him. You’re smart. You don’t need to look for ways to appear smarter.”

“You should go to Amelia Bones’s book club.” Sara was still hidden behind her novel, a new-looking, squat paperback with a swooning woman on the cover. These, Germaine knew, were Sara’s favourite sort of books, some long, never-ending series of romances by Mandersby and Blake.

Mary wrinkled her nose at this comment, but managed to stop short of expressing her distaste aloud. “Why— What’s that?”

“It’s the perfect way to look smart without actually doing anything,” said Sara. “It’s like a gossip circle, really. The whole book part is a pretense.”

“What’s the book you’re reading right now?”

“You know, I’ve forgotten entirely.” Sara jumped to her feet. “But I can go find out right now.”

Mary looked taken aback by this suggestion. “Well, you don’t have to right away—”

This was just the opening Germaine needed; she wanted to talk to Doe and Mary, but she didn’t feel up to doing it in front of Sara. 

“But it’ll be a pain for you to search through the library for it, Mare,” Germaine said. “What if you need to order one by owl? You should get the title right away.”

“I do need to stretch my legs,” Sara added. Without waiting to hear any argument from Mary, Sara had flounced out of the compartment. Germaine felt a trickle of guilt; there were Aurors on the train, after all, making sure that no one was out of place… But Sara wasn’t doing anything wrong, and if anyone could talk her way out of a sticky spot, it was her.

“She’s off,” Mary said, sighing. “I suppose it’s safe to tell you now, Doe — I saw Michael Meadowes kissing Florence Quaille on the platform.”

Doe’s eyebrows rose. “Kissing?”

“Not exactly. She kissed him. On the cheek. Point being! I don’t think he deserves you.”

Dorcas laughed. “Mary, I was the one who told him to get a rebound, at the party. It sounds like he did.”

Mary looked aghast at this news, and opened her mouth to argue. Before she could, though, Germaine found herself saying, “Can we stop talking about boys for five bloody seconds?”

The compartment went totally silent. Mary and Dorcas were looking at her, eyes wide.

“My parents are splitting up,” said Germaine.

Immediately her friends were giving her twin expressions of sympathy. Doe let out a sigh, taking Germaine’s hand. “I’m sorry, Germaine. I really am.”

“And they told you over the holidays? Blessed Jesus,” said Mary, shaking her head. “That’s a way to start the new year.”

Germaine swallowed. “They told me in September, actually.”

“Oh,” said Mary weakly.

“Why didn’t you tell us sooner?” Dorcas said; her voice was gentle, but the shock in her expression wasn’t difficult to read. “We could’ve—”

“Well, didn’t you notice something was wrong?” Germaine snapped. “Didn’t you notice I was constantly going off to be on my own?”

The other two exchanged a sheepish look.

“I thought you just...wanted to be alone sometimes,” Mary said.

“Not all the time,” Germaine said. 

Tears sprang to her eyes, and the other two smothered her in hugs.

“We’re sorry for not noticing,” said Doe. “We’ll be more attentive, promise.”

Germaine sucked in a shaky breath, clinging onto them as she cried. They stayed like that for a long few minutes until they were all quite aware of how uncomfortable it was to try and comfort a friend in a train compartment — Mary was stretched across the aisle, Doe was half-kneeling on the seat, and Germaine couldn’t really breathe.

“Where on earth is Lily?” she said, her voice muffled by her friends’ arms.

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“I think something’s up with him,” Peter said, for just about the millionth time. “What if something’s happened?”

James had spent the morning trying to reassure his friend, but could only manage so much patience. He too felt restless, uneasy — feelings brought on by the shadows that moved up and down the corridor, visible through the glass of their compartment door. Where was Sirius?

“Nothing’s happened,” he said, a moment too late. “Come off it, we’re on the train. It’s not like criminal elements hide on the Hogwarts Express and jump out at unsuspecting students.”

Peter gave him a dour look. “Do the Slytherins count?”

“Sirius wouldn’t do something stupid all on his own.”

“Right. Paragon of good sense, our Padfoot.”

At last James stood up. If he stayed any longer and listened to Peter’s nagging, he’d only start a row. “I’ll go look for him.”

“What?” Peter blinked at him. “Oh — I’ll come with you—”

“Don’t bother, it’ll be easier to slip past the Aurors if there’s just one of us.” He picked up the satchel he’d stuffed the Invisibility Cloak into; it might come in handy, but he did not want to try and manoeuvre around Aurors in the narrow train corridor.

“It’ll be easier to slip past the Aurors as a rat,” Peter pointed out.

James could not deny the logic of this. “Okay, you go up to the front. I’ll start with the back. Just don’t let some bird catch you creeping up the corridor, all right?”

Both of them grinned momentarily, imagining students shrieking at the sight of a rat on the train. 

“Yeah, I’ve no desire to face an exterminator,” said Peter dryly, and in a moment he had vanished, replaced by his Animagus form.

James obligingly slid the compartment door open so that Peter could get through, and looked up and down the corridor. It was empty — for now, at least. With a grimace, he started down to his right, hands in his pockets. He was under no illusions: if Sirius did not want to be found, he would not be. He did not think, like Peter feared, that their friend was off duelling the Slytherins. There was a certain degree of recklessness that Sirius kept away from — had kept away from, at least, since the incident at the Shrieking Shack last year.

No, Sirius was an adult, and they didn’t need to baby him. James would take a stroll down the length of the train, perhaps knock on a few compartment doors if he recognised a voice, but he was really only doing this so Peter would lay off.

In the end, he didn’t get very far.

“Please,” said an incredibly weary voice, “get inside a compartment. You’re not to wander the train.”

James blinked at the wizard. “Oh, you’re Podmore.” 

He was investigating the Hogsmeade murders, he recalled, and his parents were friends of the Potters’. James didn’t think that would really work as a line of argument in what would no doubt be an excruciating conflict. He’d argued with an Auror trainee earlier — the one who wasn’t Alice or Frank or Marlene. He wasn’t sure how keeping them cooped up in their compartments was supposed to protect them, but that hadn’t worked as a line of argument either.

The Auror looked like he was trying not to roll his eyes. “Astute of you. Now take a seat.”

“Yeah, I will,” James said, without a hint of concern. “Just looking for a friend.”

“You’re on a train, going to the same place. You can find your friend at Hogwarts.” Some of Podmore’s patience, worn thin already, seemed to be evaporating.

“I don’t think the world will end if I walk down the corridor.”

“What you think is irrelevant. So when I tell you do something—”

A compartment door slid open. “Is everything all right?”

James opened his mouth to tell this new arrival that it was best just to stay out of it, but he snapped it shut at the sight of familiar red hair. She hadn’t noticed him yet; she was looking at Podmore. There was a polite sort of determination on her face. If James hadn’t known better, he’d have thought Lily was ready to pick a fight.

“Oh, you again,” sighed Podmore. “I assure you, Evers, I can sort out a train full of students fine enough without an underage witch’s help—”

“Evans,” Lily said. Then she turned to him. “Oh, hi, James.”

“Oh, hi,” he said, aware that he was repeating to her what she’d said to him and sounded a bit stupid.

“Found your friend, have you? Good. Get in the compartment.” Podmore looked about ready to bodily haul James through the door himself.

“No, I—” James began and cut himself off, frowning. Lily was making a series of strange expressions at him, possibly trying to get his attention and convey some secret message.

He couldn’t for the life of him figure it out.

Lily huffed, marched towards him, and grabbed him by the arm, hauling him into her compartment. He was surprised enough that he didn’t bother resisting. The compartment was empty, and her things occupied only a corner of one seat. It was very impersonal, but he felt as though he were trespassing. For lack of anything else to do, James sat. Lily shut the door and sat opposite him.

“I was doing fine out there,” he said.

“You can thank me for the rescue,” said Lily.

“I wouldn’t call it a rescue—”

Honestly—”

“Thanks for the rescue,” said James quickly, grinning. “I was afraid he’d toss me into any old compartment, and there are more bad possibilities than good. Bertram Aubrey, the Lisas, the Slytherins—”

“The Lisas?”

“Yeah, fifth years, you know the Lisas — they’re not bad, they’re just…” He trailed off. 

He’d only just looked at her, properly looked at her. He had assumed her slight flush had come from confronting Podmore, or perhaps from dragging James into her compartment — rather un-Lily-like behaviour overall — but up close he could see that didn’t seem to be it.

Her eyes were red-rimmed, the tip of her nose pink. Something in him constricted. Like most teenage boys, James was mortally frightened of crying girls, because he felt spectacularly at a loss for what to say to them. But he had to say something, didn’t he?

James cleared his throat. “Evans, are you all right?”

Lily had been staring at some vague point over his shoulder; she started at his question. “What? Me?”

“Seeing as how you’re the only other person in this compartment and the only Evans I know, yeah…”

She smiled a little, which was a relief. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be that serious. But James realised he hadn’t seen Lily alone in a while — not since the days when Snape had been her only friend. It was an unnerving sight, like a tree in full bloom had lost its leaves in the middle of spring.

“So?” James prodded. “Are you? All right, I mean.”

She sighed. “Fine. It’s just been a strange sort of Christmas.”

“In the current events sense? Or the…”

She’d been looking down; she met his gaze, half-shrugged. “Both? I wish—” Lily’s smile was a sudden, wry thing. “I wish the world would wait to have crises until my interpersonal tensions resolved themselves.”

“Well, if that’s all you’re wishing for,” said James dryly. 

This too was strange and unusual. He didn’t think Lily was the most practical person in the world, but with him — compared to him — she always seemed to be. Wistful, quixotic: these weren’t words he would have used to describe her. Lily was never...absent, or distracted. She was often an undefinable in-between, but James thought he had an instinct for when something was off.

“No, not asking for much, am I.” Her gaze turned appraising. “You’re an only child, aren’t you?”

He frowned. “Yeah.” 

Lily was nodding thoughtfully, but seemed disinclined to break her silence. He took it upon himself to continue the conversation.

“So it’s your sister, then?” said James.

“How d’you know I have a sister?” Lily said. A little crease had appeared in her forehead.

James laughed. “I don’t know, I’ve gone to school with you for five and a half years?”

“That’ll do it, I suppose.” The tension hadn’t cleared from Lily’s expression.

James’s mirth faded. “Look, if you don’t want to talk about it, I’m the last person who’s going to push. Here.” He tossed the Cloak at her; she caught the bundle, looking very puzzled indeed. “Take a nap, use it as a pillow. I bet your bag’s stuffed full of homework anyway.”

At that, Lily rolled her eyes, looking much more like her usual self. 

“It is not,” she said. “Are you sure I can use your…” She was squinting at the Cloak now, and James suddenly wished he had thought his actions through. “What are these, your mum’s drapes?”

“How rude, Evans. Don’t talk about my mum’s drapes,” James said, his cheer masking his relief. She was asking the wrong questions, for once.

Lily went pink. “No — James, for God’s sake—” She dropped the bundle to the seat and put her head down. “This is comfortable. Thank you. I mean, I probably won’t sleep anyway.”

“Right. Your insomnia. Well, Remus can do without one, I suppose…” He rummaged in his satchel.

“One what?” Lily was giving him a very suspicious look.

James grinned. “Honestly, it’s like you don’t trust me.” Pulling out the box at the bottom of the bag, he tossed it at her. “Catch.”

She yelped and threw her hands up in front of her face; the box landed safely in her lap.

“They’re not going to eat you.” James leaned back in his seat, feeling very satisfied indeed. “Go on, open it. But just one, right? They’re supposed to be for Remus.”

Still frowning, Lily worked the box open. “Oh...chocolates?”

James nodded. “Dad laced them with a really mild sleeping draught for Remus — for when he’s feeling unwell.”

The full moon was nearly upon them; James had been looking forward to presenting them to Remus in the Hospital Wing the morning after his transformation. All Fleamont knew was that Remus was an insomniac, and rather sickly — which were not lies, really, but vague enough that James hadn’t revealed anything of his friend’s actual condition.

“You want me to eat a spiked chocolate,” said Lily slowly.

“Well, when you put it like that…”

“Oh, I’m desperate enough.” And before he could say anything else, Lily popped a square of chocolate into her mouth. “If there’s any side effects, I’ll kill you.” She tipped her head back, staring up at the ceiling. Then she half-sat up once more, twisting her hair out of the way.

 James was suddenly uncomfortable at the thought of her lying there, and him sitting here — awkwardly watching? If she fell asleep, he would definitely feel like he was spying. But if she stayed awake, would they sit in comfortable silence instead? Neither possibility gave him confidence.

“What am I supposed to do while you sleep?” he said.

“You could also sleep.”

“Pass.”

Lily rolled her eyes, sat up again, and pulled a book from her bag. “Catch.”

James was ready; he snatched it out of the air and peered at its cover. “Sense and Sensibility?”

“You could do with a little sense and a little sensibility,” said Lily, now sounding decidedly amused. 

She turned on her side to face him, and James was suddenly very interested in what this Jane Austen had to say. 

“You’re supposed to close your eyes, you know,” he said over the top of the novel.

“Ha ha.” 

But she did, and he lifted the book again. The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex… He could think of it as an exercise in Muggle Studies, he told himself. An exercise in...inattention, carelessness, thoughtlessness, all things James had at one time or another been accused of (unfairly, he thought).

Now he was going to be very inattentive of Lily, and he would not care about the fact that she was in this compartment with him, and he would not think about what she looked like, perfectly at peace. Instead he would be very attentive, careful, and thoughtful to the...the story of the Dashwoods. 

He checked the book’s jacket and frowned. Was he going to need to get through a whole family saga before Elinor and Marianne appeared? In the process he caught a glimpse of Lily, hand under her cheek, eyes shut, mouth still slightly pinched in worry.

James let out an embarrassed cough and angled himself away from her. At his cough she stirred; he was reassured, somehow, to know she hadn’t fallen asleep already, and so he hadn’t been watching her sleep — although he had sort of looked at her and she’d had her eyes closed, so was it functionally the same thing?

“Are you reading?” said Lily. 

James shot her a panicked look, but she still had her eyes closed. “Shh, this Elinor bird’s just come in, and I’m told she has an excellent heart.”

Lily gave a derisive snort, but said nothing else. James turned towards the window, putting his feet up on the seat, and continued to read.

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Lily woke with a start; it was dark outside the window of her train compartment. 

“I was just going to wake you up,” James said. “We’re pulling into Hogsmeade.”

“Right,” Lily said faintly.

Wincing, she stood up and stretched. She’d slept more soundly than she had expected to. It was a good thing she’d come wearing her uniform, she realised, or she would have been in some trouble. She had forgotten all about finding her friends, and Mary had her trunk. Oh, well, she thought, it'll make its way up to the castle one way or another.

“Did the chocolate help?” 

Her attention snapped back to James. “Oh. Yes, thank you.” She didn’t think she could have slept at all without it, in fact. It had been a sweet gesture: chocolate, and sleep, just like her hot cocoa that night last term… 

She folded up the odd blanket sort of thing he’d given her, marvelling at it for a moment. It was so silky, and light — like water, almost. She couldn’t imagine it keeping anyone warm. James cleared his throat. Embarrassed, Lily realised she’d been staring at it, and hurriedly returned it to him.

He gave her a crooked smile. “You can have this back, too.” He handed her Sense and Sensibility. “If you ask me, Marianne is a bit of a headcase, and Edward Ferrars felt too noble to be real. But it was a good way to pass the time.”

Lily returned his smile, a touch incredulous. “You finished it?”

“I can read, you know.” He slid the compartment door open, shaking his head. “You give me so little credit.”

She laughed, grabbing her bookbag. “Maybe I do. It’s a shame my mum has the superior Austen novels right now, or I’d lend those to you. Or, wait — I do have Persuasion at school, I think—” She’d sadly neglected that one in favour of Pride and Prejudice; Lily could barely remember its events.

James had stepped into the corridor; at this, he peered back at her. “Persuasion? Sounds kinky.”

“James!” Lily said, her outraged tone of voice completely countered by her laughter. 

She followed him out of the carriage and into the frigid night, still grinning despite herself. They had both paused by the carriage door instead of moving with the flood of students towards the castle. 

“Thanks for the company,” Lily said, finding she meant it quite sincerely.

James had been busy looking very pleased with his crack about Persuasion; he arched a brow. “You were asleep for most of it.”

“Yes, well…”

“Don’t mention it, Evans. Anyway, your bloke’s waiting for you.”

“My—” Lily turned around. To her surprise, a familiar figure was standing on the platform, squinting at the train.

“Lily,” Dex called. “I tried looking for you — you weren’t with your friends on the train, and those Aurors—”

Relief nearly bowled her over. The tense stretch at the end of the holidays felt like a bad dream now, with his grinning face in sight and his hand held out to her. 

“See you in the common room,” she said over her shoulder — but James had melted away into the crowd. Lily frowned a little at the sudden disappearance, but shook it off. If anything, she ought to start taking James at face value; no more reading into what he said or what he did around her. And then Dex was by her side.

Lily gave him a kiss, looping her arm through his. She had simply been alone for too long, and Petunia had been getting to her. That was all. She was an overthinker. But she had to be sure—

“We’re all right, aren’t we?” said Lily.

Dex gave her a quizzical smile. “’Course we are. Why wouldn’t we be?”

There it was. It was just a silly misunderstanding.

“No reason, I’m being ridiculous. Come on, I fell asleep on the train and I’m starving—” 

In the distance, the castle’s bright lights winked at them. Everything she’d been apprehensive about would turn out not that bad. Lily was sure of it now.



 

Chapter Text

i. Like A Rolling Stone

“I think Pomfrey knows about the chocolates,” James said, manoeuvring his way to the Gryffindor table in the Great Hall.

It was a frosty January morning; the school’s populace had not yet adjusted to classes after the Christmas holiday, and the hall was full of bleary, sleep-drawn faces. He and Sirius were nothing short of perky — the sort of wired that came from a night of running around the grounds in their Animagus forms, and would lead to an early crash that evening. 

“Nah, how could she?” Sirius said as he snagged a slice of toast from a platter. 

“I don’t know, maybe because Moony slept better than he ever has—” James paused, lowered his voice, and adjusted course. “Better than he ever has when he’s ill.”

Remus was, in fact, still asleep. That was why the boys had left only Peter to keep him company; the profoundly important job of retrieving breakfast was a task for two, they’d agreed. It helped too that James could keep an eye on Sirius this way. He thought Peter’s worries were by and large unfounded — Sirius was in a great mood right now, after all.

But the last time their friend had kept things to himself, Snape had ended up at the Whomping Willow. James did not anticipate a repeat occurrence, but he supposed sticking close to his best mate wasn’t much of an imposition anyway.

“What’s it matter?” Sirius shrugged. “It’s not like it hurts him.”

“Try telling her that.” Never mind that there was no treatment for Remus’s condition; Pomfrey insisted on monitoring just about everything he did in the days preceding and succeeding the full moon. Technically speaking, Remus was supposed to be eating some horrible gruel for breakfast. James would rather not raise her suspicions.

“I will if she asks,” Sirius said, grinning.

The sixth-year girls were all at breakfast save for Lily. Mary waved at the boys, and they waved back. The post had not yet arrived. James straddled the bench and got a slice of toast himself. Dumbledore wasn’t at breakfast, he noted, and neither were the Aurors on the Hogsmeade case.

There were three, as it turned out — Hartwick, the lead investigator, a stout, short woman with a sun-weathered face and close-cropped silver hair, Podmore, and Shacklebolt, a trainee. James vaguely remembered him as he had been at Hogwarts, a tall, reedy Ravenclaw. Auror training had turned him broad-shouldered, but he still had a good-humoured look about him. James had mentally filed him away as a safe Auror to get in trouble around, along with Frank and Marlene and perhaps Alice. But there was no sign of him.

Edgar Bones was eating at the teachers’ table, deep in conversation with Sprout; Alice was walking up and down the hall, her gaze flicking over the students. James locked eyes with her and waved his toast. She smiled, ever so slightly, in return.

“Finally!” Sirius stood up as the Great Hall was filled with the rustling and hooting of arriving owls. His cheer soon faded; an envelope dropped onto the table in front of him. James could read the return address, scrawled with obvious impatience. It was from Walburga Black.

To his surprise, Sirius pushed the letter his way. “Would you open it?” He looked impassive on the surface, but James could see the rigid tension in his shoulders. He was relieved Sirius had asked; he wouldn’t have thought to offer it, but right away it seemed like the obvious, correct thing to do.

James tore open the envelope. The only thing inside was a photograph; it took him a moment to process what he was seeing. It was moving, a magical photograph of a cat, hanging by its tail. He flinched and dropped the photo as he realised the cat was dead. 

“What?” Sirius snatched up the fallen photo before James could stop him. There was a note on the back, but James did not get a close enough look at it. Sirius flipped the photo over. James heard his sharp inhale. The perfectly blank expression he wore cracked at last; he was moving a heartbeat later, making for the doors. 

James caught him by the shoulder. “What’s going on?” he asked, his voice an undertone.

Sirius shook him off. “Forget it. I need to talk to Regulus.”

James arched an eyebrow. He didn’t think the brothers would end up talking, but he decided not to say so. Remus or Peter might have tried to stop their friend; not James. Instead he dropped his half-finished toast onto a plate and dusted crumbs off his hands. “Come on, then. I’ll come with you.”

“I need to do this alone.”

There were a hundred things James could say. For one, it was always good to have backup. For another, if Sirius was caught doing anything to his brother, he risked expulsion. But his friend seemed quite beyond logic.

“No, you don’t,” James said simply. “We can drop off breakfast and go find him before Defence.”

“There’s no time,” Sirius ground out. 

“We’ll make time.” He reached in his pocket for the Marauder’s Map, only to come up short. He realised where it was at the same time Sirius’s hand went to his own pocket. “Padfoot—”

“Don’t come after me,” he said, and he was off like a shot. 

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They were just two dots on a map. Two branches on a tapestry. Sirius watched himself get closer and closer to Regulus Black, on the third floor corridor, and felt as though someone else was in his body. Someone else was pushing Regulus up against a wall, holding the photo up to his face; someone else felt the hot curl of anger and disgust and grief when Regulus closed his eyes, cringing away from the picture as if it physically hurt him. 

“Look at it!” Sirius barked. “You saw it happen, didn’t you? Enjoyed yourself?”

Regulus pushed him off. “Don’t be thick—”

“You can’t fake it like you always do. Pretending to be innocent, not as fucked up as your Dark magic loving friends—” The words on the back of the picture made him feel just as sick as the image itself. Your brother helped

As a rule Sirius did not trust his mother. She lied, she manipulated, she taunted; she could do anything to evoke the right reaction. But this had the ring of truth. He could see it in the sick resignation currently warring with defiance in his brother’s expression. 

No. Not his brother, just like she was not his mother. They were nothing to him anymore, and he to them. 

“You never could think for yourself,” Sirius went on. “You always were her lackey—”

The moment Regulus snapped was clear as day; the very air seemed to change. His shuttered, sickened expression gave way to fury. 

“I am her son!” Regulus spat. “You never were. I don’t owe you a damn thing. You’ll be sorry, sucking up to blood traitors and Mudbloods and nobodies — your precious Potter — The company you keep is disgusting. Evans, Macdonald — she deserved what Mulciber and Avery did to her—”

Sirius thought he’d never been so angry in his life. His blood hummed with it. Regulus was a coward after all; he always had been. Sirius realised this in the same breath as he vowed never to be like him. He could never sit back, take the path of least resistance. He had to fight.

“Shut your mouth,” he said. “You’re a worthless sack of shit, Regulus. Lily Evans could duel you in her sleep.”

And Regulus was reaching for his pocket, withdrawing his wand. Pointing it right at him. Given free choice, what would he do? If they hadn’t been at school, if there would be no consequences whatsoever for his actions? Sirius wondered, for a brief moment, if he was going to die. The thought was gone in an instant. 

Sectum—”

Before Regulus could get the rest of the spell out, Sirius had punched him square in the jaw. His wand clattered to the floor. He pressed a hand to his face, eyes wide.

“Learned some new tricks in your little club, did you?” Sirius advanced on him once more. “Do you even know what it does, or do you just do whatever Rosier tells you with your eyes shut?”

Regulus stiffened. “I know what it does! It’s a curse, Sectumsempra, and it’s—”

“Pick up your wand and do it then!” Sirius roared, snatching it up himself and shoving it into Regulus’s hand. He jabbed the tip into his own throat, hard enough to make his eyes water. Regulus offered no resistance, but held the wand steady. “Go on! Make your Death Eater buddies proud, if you’ve got the balls—”

Sirius cut himself off, seeing something harden in Regulus’s gaze. He knew at once that he had gone too far. Wouldn’t it be funny, if Regulus proved himself strong enough to stand up for something by killing him, right there and then? His pulse was pounding in his ears. He was going to die. He was going to die. He was going to—

Suddenly they were pushed apart by an invisible force. Sirius’s back slammed into the opposite wall. He was so surprised that he did not immediately look around for the source of the spell; he merely stood there, winded, still staring at Regulus, whose surprised expression mirrored his. It was James, he thought, it had to be. Map or not, his friend had followed him after all. 

“Don’t you have class to get to?”

It was not James. It was Professor Thorpe, and she had directed this question at Regulus, who scowled in response. He mumbled a vague answer.

“Then you’d best get to it.”

He didn’t need to be told twice; Regulus scurried off. Sirius pushed off from the wall, hands in his pockets. 

“I’m not late to your class yet,” he said.

Thorpe trained her steely gaze upon him, lips thinning into a grim line. “Not yet,” she agreed. 

“Then I should be on my way.” 

Sirius didn’t need a telling-off. His throat was still tight with anger; he didn’t trust himself not to argue, and the last thing he ought to do was argue with a teacher. In fact, the first thing he ought to do was apologise. But he couldn’t. He spun around and began walking away.

“Just a moment.”

Sirius froze but did not turn.

“No detentions for you since last February.” Her tone was perfectly flat, stating a fact and nothing more. “That’s got to be a personal record.”

“Just give me my punishment, Professor.” He ignored the queasy feeling in his stomach, both at the memory of last February and at the threat of detention.

“You’re on your last chance.” She was standing next to him, not looking at him. “That’s no secret among the teachers, Black. Brawling in the corridors seems a good deal more serious than starting a food fight.”

Sirius said nothing. He found he was braced for her next words, ready for the blow to fall.

Thorpe rocked back on her heels and sighed. “We understand each other. Let’s not call it detention. But I expect to see you at Duelling Club, setting a good example for your peers.”

“It’s already mandatory,” Sirius said, breaking his own resolve to stay silent. “I read the notice.”

“I didn’t see the setting a good example part on the notice,” Thorpe said dryly. She shook her sleeve away from her wrist, checked her watch, and nodded to herself. “Well. Get to class before I do.”

“I — yeah.” Was some sort of thanks in order? Sirius wondered how many last chances one person deserved. One person, who wasn’t perfect — wasn’t even particularly good, most of the time. “Yeah, I won’t be late.”

They started in opposite directions, then paused again.

“The classroom’s this way,” said Thorpe, tilting her head.

Sirius coughed, racking his brain for an explanation that didn’t involve the secret staircase he was most definitely headed for. “Forgot something in Gryffindor Tower,” he said.

“Huh,” was all Thorpe said in response. She knelt to pick something up — the photo, Sirius realised, and his stomach turned once more. “This yours?”

“No. I don’t — you can get rid of it.”

She had her wand out in an instant, and the photo was on fire the next moment. There was no ash left behind. It could as well have been a figment of his imagination.

“I’m not a pity case,” Sirius said, finding his voice after a long silence.

Thorpe gave an aggrieved sigh. “You now have six minutes to get to my class, Black.” And then she was striding off. Sirius left too, without a backward glance. He arrived at the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom four minutes later, sliding into the empty seat beside James.

Peter passed him his bookbag. “You’re welcome,” he said in an undertone. Sirius gave him a faint smile just as Thorpe strode in, calling out instructions.

As the class’s murmured conversation faded to the rustle of quills and parchment, Sirius could feel James’s gaze on him.

“What?” he whispered.

James shook his head. “Nothing.”

He understood that James had not come after him — had listened to him — and he also understood the subtext of it. Fine, but this is the last time

He knew how to make chances count. 

 


ii. A Brief Spin of the Hogwarts Rumour Mill, earlier that morning

“They made Duelling Club mandatory?”

Mary, Germaine, and Dorcas stood in the Entrance Hall, squinting at a notice pinned there. This outburst, coming from Mary, drew the stares of several onlookers.

“Well, not mandatory for everyone,” said Germaine, frowning. “Sixth and seventh years only.”

Mary gave her a look. “Seeing as how we’re sixth years, Germaine, that’s the bit I care about. It’s basically an extra class now! They’re testing us on it in Charms and Defence Against the Dark Arts, see? Oh, I hate practical magic.”

Doe was none too pleased at this prospect either, but she seized both her friends by the elbows and hauled them into breakfast. “I wonder if it’s because of the murders — it has to be, right?” She cast a glance at the teachers’ table; Dumbledore was gone, and so were the Hogsmeade investigators.

“Can they do that? Make us do self-defence?” Germaine poured herself pumpkin juice and slurped a mouthful. “I’d imagine some parents aren’t too pleased. Like, the sort of parents who know an awful lot about the Dark Mark.” She looked pointedly at the Slytherin table.

“Maybe Crouch will take credit. Preventative protection, isn’t it?” 

“Why aren’t you over the moon? You spent all September complaining about people too thick to realise the importance of Defence class,” observed Mary.

“I do think it’s important!” Dorcas said. “But this way I have to compete with everyone for the Aurors’ attention.” She sighed, her shoulders slumping at the very thought. “How am I supposed to impress them?”

“You’ll impress them just fine.” Germaine squeezed her shoulder. “You impress everyone. I mean, you’re top of our Defence class anyway—”

“But not Charms, and there’ll be duelling material in Charms class too—” 

Doe rubbed at her temples. She could not give herself a headache this early in the morning, not when Defence was their first class of the day. If only the Aurors could have come to give out career advice! She felt terribly childish and selfish for even thinking it. Of course everything would be better if two people hadn’t died and she could pick Frank Longbottom’s brain all day. 

“Change the subject, quick, before she spirals,” Mary said.

“Be nice,” Germaine shot back. “But really, we do have to talk about the elephant in the room. Or, the elephant not in the room.” At her friends’ confused expressions, she made a noise of impatience. “The Lily not in the room?”

Doe frowned, sitting up once more. “She told me to let her sleep in.”

“Big mistake,” Mary said. “Now she’ll be tripping over herself trying to get ready on time.”

“She looked so tired!” Doe protested. “Honestly, it’s like she didn’t rest at all over the holiday — do you think everything’s all right with her?”

“I can’t think what wouldn’t be all right,” Germaine began. “But then again, some problems are easily hidden.”

Doe felt another burst of remorse. She still couldn’t quite believe they’d gone so long unaware of Germaine’s troubles at home. She’d always done her best to be a shoulder to cry on, a helping hand and a welcoming embrace. Was she falling short of that, somehow, with her closest friends? But it had taken a spat with Mary for her to explain something as minor as her romantic frustrations. Maybe they could all do better. She only hoped it wouldn’t take something big and painful again for them to realise it.

“We should ask her,” Doe said. “Point-blank, I mean.”

“Dreamboat Dex isn’t at breakfast either,” Mary said. She was squinting over at the Hufflepuff table; Germaine and Doe followed suit.

“I think you’re right,” Germaine said, after a few minutes of squinting.

“You don’t think they’re together, like, in bed?” Dorcas said, her voice a squeak on the last word.

Mary gave her a surprised look. “Well, I didn’t earlier, but now I’m considering it.”

“Yeah, right. If Lily’s getting ten extra minutes of sleep in the morning, she’s spending it sleeping.” Germaine turned back to her breakfast, having dismissed this possibility out of hand.

“Well, maybe,” said Mary, looking unconvinced.

Doe sighed. “Don’t say something awkward to her, Mare.”

“What’s that supposed to mean!”

“Oh, you know what I mean!” She searched the Hufflepuff table for something new to talk about, and was quite quickly rewarded. “How about Cecily and Chris, right?”

Mary snorted. “Yeah, that’s not going to last.”

“Why not?” said Germaine.

“Because Florence is in love with him, obviously. I don’t know how Cecily doesn’t know yet.” 

“Didn’t you say Florence was kissing Michael Meadowes at King’s Cross?” 

Doe had fallen silent, watching this exchange with amusement. 

“Well—” Mary’s eyes went wide. “Florence is using Michael to make Chris jealous!” She said this in the manner of someone making a great discovery. 

“Oh, don’t speculate,” Doe said, laughing at Mary’s stunned expression. 

“You brought it up! You should tell your friend, he should know he’s being used.”

Dorcas rolled her eyes at the special weight Mary gave the word friend. Before she could reply, though, Germaine said sourly, “Yeah, no one likes being used.”

“What’s that about?” Mary said, snapping to attention.

Doe turned to Germaine too, searching her expression for the root of her bitterness. But there was none — none that she could identify. If she wants to tell us she will, Doe reminded herself.

“Nothing,” Germaine said, true to form. She had gone back to looking at the other tables; Doe thought she was looking for something else to talk about too. “I don’t think Doc and Marissa are going together, Mare.”

Mary hushed her loudly just as Sara sat down.

“Marissa?” Sara repeated, looking from Mary to Germaine. Her eyes were alight with excitement. “I heard she took a bloke home from Evan’s.”

“She took half the crowd home from Evan’s, technically speaking,” said Germaine.

Sara ignored this. “Well, it can’t have been Doc Dearborn, if that’s what you were thinking.”

“How do you figure that?” said Doe, her eyebrows arched in what she hoped was polite interest.

It was Mary who answered. “Because Doc is Evan’s friend, and he stayed at his place for the night.”

“Oh,” Doe said mildly.

“Oh!” said Germaine, as gleefully as if she fancied Doc herself. 

Sara looked between them, confusion colouring her smile. “I’m missing something, aren’t I?”

“Nothing,” Mary assured her. “Besides, we shouldn’t speculate. Oh, morning, James, Sirius.”

 


iii. For Enemies

Severus Snape far preferred silence when in company. There were few exceptions to this rule. Well, there was one exception to this rule. 

Had been. There had been one exception to this rule, and she was no longer the exception. That was how it was going to be, from now on. Anyway, she wouldn’t have wanted to talk to him, if it were just them, walking through the castle corridors like they used to.

Or, no, that wasn’t true. She would be interrogating him about something or the other. That was the new state of things, wasn’t it? He gritted his teeth, and pushed the thought away. Luckily Mulciber was prattling on about something or the other — the latest in a long list of gripes.

Usually Mulciber had easy solutions to his own problems, and to others’: magic, preferably violent. A chatty first year in the way? Hex. Filch’s bloody cat snooping where she shouldn’t be? Hex. He didn’t always carry out these solutions, but Severus thought it was only a matter of time before he did so routinely. 

Once, when he and Lily had argued over some stupid thing, in fifth year — long before the day by the Lake — Severus had returned to the Slytherin common room in a foul mood. 

“Why are you so grim?” Thalia had asked, scowling at him like his temper offended her.

“His Mudblood friend,” Avery said offhandedly. “Why else? She angry at you again, Snape?”

Severus glowered at him, making no response. He supposed that was an accurate description of how things had ended. But Lily would cool off and apologise. She always did. 

“If you ask me, you ought to get around to dumping her.” Thalia’s eyes glittered with malice.

“If you ask me, you can just make it so she’s not angry at you anymore,” said Mulciber, rolling his eyes as if the very suggestion bored him.

That had stopped Severus short. “Make — how?”

Mulciber had exchanged a glance with Avery and laughed. “Don’t be thick, Snape. You know how.”

“I’d be expelled,” Severus pointed out.

Another laugh. “Not if you don’t get caught,” Avery said. 

He hadn’t, of course. Tried to compel Lily to do anything. But he knew they thought less of him for it. They had all practised at least one of the Unforgivables already — Rosier, Mulciber, and Avery, that was; Thalia called them inelegant.

Severus was inclined to agree. But she had the family pedigree to render her opinion on the matter irrelevant. Her elder brother had already joined up. He, Severus, was the one being tested, constantly.

He was pulled out of the memory by Mulciber’s rising voice.

“—coming to Ravenclaw Tower on his summons, like he gives us orders—”

Severus realised he’d been silent too long. Any longer and Mulciber would be shouting, unchecked, and then half of Hogwarts would hear what they got up to. 

“Rosier gets the owls. If you have an issue, you can take it up with him directly,” Severus said in an undertone.

Mulciber gave him a poisonous look. “The owls don’t come from him.”

“The owls do come from Rosier’s brother.”

“Just because Marius is—”

“He said this one is important,” Severus interrupted. “A proper one. So we’ll only know the truth if we go find out.”

They had arrived at the eagle door knocker that led to the Ravenclaw common room. Mulciber groaned at the sight of it.

“I fucking hate this. Rosier gets off on it, putting us through a test just so we can hear what his brother’s saying—”

“Rosier gets off on it just as much as Helena Ravenclaw, I imagine.” 

Severus knocked, and the eagle said, “If every part of a ship is replaced, does it remain the same ship?”

Fuck,” Mulciber said, aiming a kick at the wall. “Merlin. Who cares about ships?”

“Shut up and let me think how to phrase this,” Severus said, finally snapping. He frowned at the knocker, and had just opened his mouth to respond when—

“I’m just as much myself for all the cells I’ve lost and regrown,” said a voice from behind them.

The witch who’d spoken was short and curly-haired, obviously young. She seemed oblivious to the glower on Mulciber’s face. The door swung open at her answer. Severus felt, despite himself, faintly impressed. The two Slytherins followed the girl inside.

“What’s a cell?” hissed Mulciber, eyeing the girl with suspicion.

“It’s a Muggle thing,” said Severus, distracted. He was searching the common room for Rosier; it took him a moment to realise Mulciber had his wand out. “What’s wrong with you? Are you going to hex her in front of a horde of Ravenclaws?”

“She won’t know if she’s been Imperiused.”

Severus felt cold. Had Mulciber been thinking of the same conversation, from a year ago? No, that was unlikely. Odds were the other boy just had his mind on the Imperius Curse, like always. 

“And what exactly are you going to make her do?”

Mulciber stowed his wand away, but his smirk remained. “You’re spineless, Snape.” 

He said this so casually that Severus’s blood boiled. What did Mulciber know? He was a curse-happy sociopath. He didn’t know anything about subtlety or caution or patience. He kept silent, though, following Mulciber to where Rosier sat in the corner of the room. Avery and Sebastian Selwyn were in chairs beside him, each looking almost comically serious. 

“Finally,” Rosier drawled. 

Mulciber flopped into a seat. “No Rowle and Black?”

Rosier twitched; he did not like to be questioned. “They’re young.”

“Selwyn’s young,” Severus pointed out. 

Rosier’s lips thinned. “If you’ll let me get on with it.”

Severus sat down and said no more. 

Rosier leaned forward, a letter clutched in his fist. There was a cold fire in his gaze, a fire Severus was normally unimpressed by but now found himself oddly drawn to. 

“They have a job for us. A real one. They need people inside the castle.”

“To do what?” Severus said.

Rosier cracked a humourless smile. “You don’t back out after this. Any of you.”

Selwyn was already nodding. Mulciber was rolling his eyes like the statement didn’t merit an answer. After a beat of hesitation, Avery was murmuring acknowledgment too. All four of them looked at Severus. He himself did not feel any climactic moment of choice. His answer was as obvious as the others’.

“Tell us what they want us to do,” said Severus.

Icon of a quill drawing a line

Peter, James, and Sirius had a free period first thing in the afternoon. As they trooped back to the Hospital Wing, where Remus still was, the inane chatter of lunch gave way to silence. It was their first opportunity to discuss what had happened after breakfast.

James had filled in Peter and Remus on Walburga’s horrible owl, but Sirius had carefully avoided mentioning his confrontation with Regulus — or how Thorpe had been lenient with him. He’d thought his foul mood was fading, but perhaps that had simply been because of the distraction classes provided. Now, alone with his thoughts, the memory of the photo swam before his mind’s eye.

No. Not alone. When they reached the Hospital Wing Remus was sitting upright, wearing a wan smile.

“Snuck more of the chocolate?” James said in an undertone, a grin spreading across his face.

“Only a little. I don’t want Pomfrey to worry.”

The matron was nowhere in sight; the boys clustered around Remus’s bed, occupying their usual positions without discussion. Uncharacteristic silence fell.

“What did Regulus say?” Remus said finally. His voice was still hoarse from the night before; Sirius almost winced to hear it.

“A load of shit,” muttered Sirius. Then he remembered that he did have interesting news — news he was more comfortable discussing. “He let slip one of the spells his little Dark Arts study group have been using, though.” 

Remus and Peter frowned; James sat up straighter. “You didn’t say. Did he—”

“He didn’t get to use it. So I’ve got no idea what it does.”

“Oh.”

Something white and soft came flying at him, hitting him in the face. “What the—” Sirius just managed to bat the pillow away. “What the fuck?”

“Sorry,” said Peter, flushing a bright red. “I thought you’d catch it — you can try it on the pillow.”

Sirius rolled his eyes. “What if it doesn’t work? What if it needs to be cast on a living thing?” He thought of the night they had found the Slytherins casting spells on little animals; the memory of their shrill cries twisted his mouth into a grimace.

“Then we’ll know that, at least,” Remus said.

“You don’t have to,” said James, the distaste clear on his face. “It doesn’t bloody matter what they do — it’s not like we’re going to use their spells against them.” 

Sirius saw his point, but he thought he had to know. He had to be able to properly face what Regulus could do, what any of them could do. He stood and set the pillow down on the bed opposite Remus’s, across the aisle — a safe distance, he hoped. He glanced at Pomfrey’s office last of all.

“She’s out,” Remus said. “Don’t worry.”

“Right.” Sirius cleared his throat and faced the pillow. He could feel his friends staring at him. He raised his wand, mimicking what little he could remember of the slashing movement Regulus had used, and said, “Sectumsempra.”

The pillow ripped right in half; the sound of it was deafening in the silent infirmary. A few feathers floated to the floor. Sirius’s heart was stuck somewhere in his throat. He remembered the pressure of Regulus’s wand against his neck. He had not wanted to die; he did not want to die. How close had he really been to being rent open, just like the pillow?

“Well,” said Remus with a lightness that was not at all reflected in his wary expression, “I suppose we know what it does.”

A rustle, footsteps in the corridor outside; James had sprung to his feet. With a gesture he Vanished the pillow entirely, down to the scattered feathers. He was tight-lipped with fury, Sirius saw, so angry that his wand arm shook as he lowered it. 

“They’re fucking crazy,” James muttered. “They’re— Christ.”

“Pomfrey will notice the missing pillow,” Peter said, his voice high with fear.

Somehow this very ordinary concern brought Sirius back to reality. He reclaimed his seat, giving Peter a quelling look.

“Relax. It’s just a pillow. She won’t notice, and even if she does, it’s not like we could’ve done something terrible with a pillow.”

After a long moment, James sat down again too. “It’s not a spell any of you have heard before, is it?”

“I’m not really familiar with this sort of spell,” said Remus dryly.

James adjusted his spectacles, leaning forward as he spoke. “What I mean is — if one of them created it, it has to have been Snape.”

“Come off it.” Peter was looking more worried by the moment. “Snape’s— He’s a slimeball, but he’s not—”

“He’s done it before, hasn’t he? Levicorpus, Muffliato,” James said.

“But...this is different.”

“Exactly,” Sirius said grimly. He expected no better of Snivellus. “Dark curses are just his sort of thing. And if dear Reg’s learned it, you can expect that all their posse knows it too.”

Remus’s frown had turned meditative. “I would guess a Shield Charm still works against it — Protego Maxima, at the very least—”

But Sirius wasn’t listening. Something had clicked into place at last: the bloody gash in the photo he’d been trying so hard not to think about, the way Regulus had turned to this specific curse when confronted with the photo…

“He used it on the cat,” Sirius said, not realising he’d spoken aloud until his friends all turned to look at him. “Sectumsempra. He used it on the cat, on Heathcliff, that was how—” He broke off, sucking in a deep breath, and pressed a hand to his forehead.

The others exchanged glances. 

“Yeah, about the cat,” Peter began, looking more surprised than anyone to have spoken first.

Sirius looked up. His expression was one of such misery that his friends thought, all at once, he was going to cry. They’d never seen it, not properly — not unless you counted the time in third year when Sirius had taken a nasty Bludger to the arm, and had howled when Pomfrey reset the bone. (He himself claimed for years afterwards that his eyes had been involuntarily watering.) 

But this wasn’t like that. This was real, even realer than the loss of an uncle Sirius had expected, deep down, to have to bid goodbye to soon. This was sudden and sharp, like a knife between the ribs, made even worse by the hands that had done it.

But Sirius blinked, and whatever wetness there might have been in his eyes was gone.

“Yeah,” he said hoarsely, “the cat.”

“I still can’t believe you named a female cat Heathcliff,” said Remus, not quite smiling at his own jibe.

Sirius appreciated the attempt nonetheless, and summoned a half-hearted smile of his own. “I named her before I knew, and it’d already stuck. Besides, what mattered was that it was a Muggle character.”

All the better to infuriate Walburga. Sirius felt another sting of regret. If he’d tried to tick her off less, might she have let the cat alone? But there was no point wondering anymore. 

James coughed. “We should have a wake.”

“A — a what?”

“You know. A service, for the cat. Something to remember her by.” He looked terribly awkward for a moment — rare, for James.

Sirius blinked. It was an absurd idea, but it was oddly appealing. Why should his last image of the cat be one that Walburga had conjured up? The more he thought about it the more he liked it.

“Yeah. Yeah, why not?”

They smiled at one another, quiet for just one more moment.

“What did I miss in class all morning?” said Remus at last, settling back against the pillows.

“You want to know the interesting stuff, or what homework we have?” James said.

“Why can’t I have both?”

“Yeah, right, be honest, Moony—”

 

 

Chapter Text

i. The Amelia Bones Book Club

Mary stared down at the book in her hands with a grim resolve. “It’s a good day to face your nemesis.”

Dorcas and Germaine exchanged glances. The two of them had no real opinion on Amelia Bones, but they had spent the better part of two years hearing Mary’s. Never mind that in Doe’s mind Amelia had sort of had the moral high ground to start in this feud. At this point the bad blood was so complicated that neither was blameless.

It had begun in fourth year, when Amelia had been seeing Chris Townes — until Mary kissed him. Amelia had never forgotten the grudge, even though she didn’t even like Chris that much. Mary grumbled that it wasn’t her business to keep track of other people’s relationship statuses, and in any case, it was awfully convenient that Amelia had forgiven Chris, who’d actually made a commitment to her. And the rest was history.

Germaine said, “Nose goes.”

Doe’s jaw dropped. “You’re not allowed to nose goes this!” Turning to Mary, she said, “Sara’s going to be there. Do we have to come?”

“Sara actually likes Amelia. Come on, just back me up for one afternoon.”

Germaine was shaking her head fervently. “No, no, I really can’t be there. Really, really, really.” Emmeline Vance was Amelia’s closest friend, after all. Germaine knew she was not ready to face her — not so soon after her embarrassing blow-up on the train.

“Three reallys,” Doe groaned. “You know I can’t say no to an invocation of three reallys.” But keeping the peace between Mary and Amelia was too big a job for just her. “I’ll come, but I need backup.” She glanced around the common room.

Lily, who had not looked up all this time from her Potions essay, did so now. “I wish I could be your backup, really, but—”

“But Dex.” Doe gave her a pat on the arm. “I understand. I will eventually find it in my heart to forgive you.”

Lily pursed her lips. “Are you certain? I can tell him we’ll meet after Duelling Club instead—”

“No, honestly, don’t cancel on my account—” Mary said.

She gets a choice?” Doe protested.

“Oh, no, if you’re not meeting Dex we are doing homework together,” Germaine cut in. “Get in line, Mare.”

“Lily is meeting her boyfriend,” said Mary with an air of finality.

Though the details of what had happened hadn’t yet been discussed, the girls were not blind to the strange mood Lily had been in of late. If it took a conversation with Dex — Mary used a phrase more choice than conversation, and was shushed by Germaine and Doe at once — to return things to normal, her friends would make sure it happened.

Lily looked between them, frowning. “If you’re sure.”

“Sure as eggs,” said Mary cheerfully. “Come on, Doe, the clock’s ticking.”

Dorcas sighed — then brightened. “I’ve got my backup.” She bounced to her feet and wove through the common room to where Remus Lupin sat in an armchair, nose buried in a textbook. “All right, Remus?”

In her estimation he looked tired, but when did Remus not look tired? He offered her a faint smile. “Right as can be. Did you need something?”

Oh, dear, was she that transparent? 

“I have an exciting offer for you, actually,” said Doe. 

From the next chair over, Sirius straightened and peered at her. “What’s the offer?”

“It’s not for you, Black, so stop eavesdropping.”

“That only makes me more likely to eavesdrop.”

“Ignore him,” said Remus, rolling his eyes. “What’s the offer?”

“You get entertainment for one afternoon, and all you have to do is come with me and Mary!” Doe held out her arms, as if to say ta da!  

Remus frowned. “That’s a very vague offer.”

Doe let her hands drop. “All right, Mary wants to go to some ridiculous book club Amelia Bones does, and she wants me to go along as referee, but I can’t do it alone. You’re very diplomatic. So…”

“What’s in it for Moony?” Sirius interrupted.

“Sirius!” 

“Really, what’s in it for me?” said Remus, smiling wider now. Sirius whooped.

“Entertainment?” Doe said again helplessly. “Oh, that isn’t good enough, is it? You get — er—”

Remus snapped his book shut, laughing. “Only messing. I could use an interesting afternoon.”

“That’s offensive,” said Sirius.

Dorcas rocked back on her heels, immensely relieved. “Thank Merlin. You’re the best. Come on, we can’t be late — although, we can’t be early either, because Mary does not need the extra time to stare Amelia down—”

Icon of a quill drawing a line

There was no need to be nervous. None whatsoever. Hadn’t Dex said things were fine between them? She ought to take him at face value. But Lily Evans was a worrier. She’d had about five minutes of peace, she thought — the length of their journey back up to school from Hogsmeade Station, when she’d been able to convince herself that something had been irreversibly changed when they’d slept together.

Or, that was a lie. She’d felt surprisingly at peace on the train too, talking to James of all people. And the chocolate had been a help. Standing outside the Hufflepuff common room, wand poised over the right barrel, Lily wished she could have gone back to the train compartment. Things had been by no means simple — but resolving her problems had been a task for future Lily. 

Of course, today she was that future Lily.

Well, there was nothing to do but plunge ahead. She tapped her wand to the barrel and pushed through the door. 

Dex was sitting at a table, barely visible over stacks of books. Lily slid into the seat opposite him, pulling out her own essay. It was a solid minute before he looked up and noticed her; red splotches of embarrassment blossomed in his cheeks.

“Lily. Sorry, Merlin, I honestly didn’t see you.”

She smiled, though a small, bitter part of her added this insult to everything else. It did seem like he honestly didn’t see her, of late. 

“It’s all right. There are worse things to come second to than—” She leaned forward, reading what he was working on. “—Golpalott’s Laws. I’m guessing the N.E.W.T. homework hasn’t let up, yet?”

Dex set aside his parchment and ran a hand over his face. “No, and I don’t think it will until we actually sit the bloody exams. I underestimated the pressure.”

She rested her chin in one hand, studying him. “You’ll do well. You’re working so hard.”

“I wouldn’t care half as much if not for—”

“—culinary school. I know.” Lily put a hand over his and squeezed. “There’s no point worrying about it constantly. You’ll do what has to be done.” What sage advice, she thought, and she couldn’t even take it herself.

Dex returned her smile. “Sorry, I’ve started us off on such a bad note.”

“It is a study date. Complaining about studying is always on the agenda.” Lily found she could keep her tone light. She could feel her anxiety ebbing away, as it so often did in his presence. She was overthinking after all. Conjuring problems where there weren’t any. 

“Well, I’m about to make it worse.” Dex made an apologetic grimace. 

Lily sat up straighter. “Don’t leave me hanging.” The lightness was definitely forced this time.

Still grimacing, he said, “Sprout’s giving us a test and a load of assignments to turn in for the first week of February.”

“The first week of… Oh.” She tried not to sound disappointed, but there was no hiding the flatness in her voice. 

“I want to be around for your birthday, I really do,” Dex went on, in a hurry now. “Believe me when I say the last thing I’d rather be doing that weekend is studying. But I can make it up to you? After?”

Lily forced herself to smile and nod. “I’m already looking forward to it.” 

She thought, suddenly, of how he’d asked her to be his girlfriend, at the start of the school year. We don’t have to be around each other all the time and kiss goodnight… Hadn’t she been relieved, and excited, to have something fun and low-commitment? They’d grown more serious since then, but maybe it was all happening too fast. Maybe that night at Evan’s had underscored that fact for him just as it had for her.

Dex shouldn’t feel obligated to do things with her, or rearrange his life for her. She liked spending time with him. Surely that didn’t entitle her to make demands of him. Where did they stand? She hadn’t the faintest idea what she wanted — and it felt as though the moment to ask what he wanted had passed.

The worry in his expression smoothed away, and he pressed a kiss to her mouth, startling her out of her reverie. “Enjoy your N.E.W.T.-free life while you can,” he said, rolling his eyes.

She laughed a little. “I will.” She picked up her quill and touched its tip to her parchment — then stopped. “I can’t for the life of me figure out how to get into that secret room on the seventh floor.”

Dex cocked his head thoughtfully. “No, it’s been difficult for me too lately. Maybe it moves — or maybe someone else is in it?”

Someone else? Lily thought back to Severus’s warning. Between the Christmas holidays and her own relationship, she'd entirely forgotten it. Stay away from the seventh-floor corridor. It was them — it had to be. And she had the sinking feeling the Slytherins weren’t baking Galleon biscuits.

But even if she knew when and where they were meeting, what use was it to anyone? If they couldn’t get the door open, she’d never know what they were up to. And Severus was never going to tell her. 

“Lily? Are you all right?” Dex was watching her with furrowed brows.

“Just thinking. Do you know how to get inside, if it’s locked?”

He shook his head slowly. “I’ve only ever gone by myself — I mean, I’ve never gone inside and found someone else in there before me. I think only one group of people can enter at a time. That’s the only explanation, isn’t it? Otherwise someone else would’ve found me in there, at some point or another.”

Lily let out a soft huh. Whether or not Dex’s theory was true would require information neither of them had. But his words made her think of something else. Or, more precisely, someone else — because odds were that if Alec Rosier had found the room, someone else had too. And she had four classmates who seemed to know the castle better than Dumbledore himself.

“You might be right. I’ll ask James Potter about it.”

Dex made a face. Lily knew he hadn’t quite forgiven the Marauders for the pie incident, and she regretted even mentioning James. But it was too late to take it back, of course.

“What makes you think he’d know?”

Lily shrugged. “He and his friends know plenty, once you get past the general...hooliganism.” She stifled a smile, picturing exactly how James would react to being called a hooligan.

“I didn’t think you got on.” 

“We have our moments, but we get on well enough for me to ask him a casual question.” Lily cringed inwardly at this; it felt like an unfair rendering of the circumstances, given how friendly James had been on the Hogwarts Express. What was it about him that made her so thoughtless?

Dex didn’t seem to know what to say to that. He shrugged too. “Well, hopefully we’ll be able to get into the room again.”

“Hopefully,” Lily echoed, and turned back to her essay before she could say something else she might regret.

Icon of a quill drawing a line

The book club met in an empty classroom in the Charms corridor. Remus and Dorcas trooped in after Mary, who had the air of a general walking onto the battlefield.

“It’s still unclear to me why we’re here at all if Mary doesn’t like Amelia,” Remus whispered.

Doe gave him a sympathetic smile. “Please don’t try applying logic to anything about this situation, or those two girls.”

The classroom had been transformed into a cosy sitting room. Desks and chairs were pushed aside to make way for armchairs, and the round table in the centre of the ring bore an elaborate tea set. Doe was reminded of the little plastic set she’d played with as a child, a fantastically detailed forty-piece set her mother had complained about for months. Dorcas had lost half the pieces within weeks.

More interesting than the setup were the girls — for they were all girls — seated at the table. Amelia Bones sat in the biggest armchair, a teacup and saucer in her hands. Her brows rose at their entrance.

“Mary. Dorcas,” she said, her voice cool and even.

“Amelia,” Mary replied, equally frosty.

Dear God, Doe thought.

But the girl sitting next to Amelia saved them all. Sara clapped her hands together in glee and crowed, “Mary! I’m so glad you could come. Sit, sit, all of you — and Remus, what a lovely surprise.” 

Amelia looked a touch disgruntled at Sara greeting her guests. She conjured two more armchairs, putting them at the opposite end of the circle from her where another empty chair sat. Doe and Remus exchanged a glance and sat down; Mary took the third spot.

Doe scanned the faces around her: Lottie Fenwick, she knew, and the two Gryffindor fifth years both named Lisa. Then there was a bored-looking Emmeline Vance, a decidedly unhappy Florence Quaille, and Cecily Sprucklin, stirring sugar into her tea. Last of all Doe’s gaze landed on the girl she was sitting next to — and she nearly leapt out of her seat at the sight of Thalia Greengrass. The Slytherin rolled her eyes at Doe’s surprise, but said nothing.

When Amelia began to talk about the book she and Remus had not read, Dorcas took the opportunity to lean towards him and whisper, “What’s Thalia doing here?”

Remus had been wearing an expression of faint confusion since the moment they’d walked through the door. 

“You’re asking the wrong person for gossip. I don’t know the first thing about her.” He paused. “Well, I know that she’s a Slytherin. And a sixth year. And a prefect. I don’t know the fourth thing about her.”

“I’d rather not know the fourth thing about her.” 

Doe didn’t fancy making enemies the way Mary so relished it — but Thalia Greengrass figured high on the short list of people at Hogwarts she actually took issue with. But a more generous part of her wondered if she ought to give Thalia the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the crowd she ran with wasn’t a reflection of who she was. After all, Lily had been friends with that Severus Snape. 

Doe bent her head towards Remus again and said, “Was that a rude assessment?”

“I don’t think so. Although...anyone can disprove expectations?” he offered.

“Maybe,” Doe said, unconvinced. 

When Thalia opened her mouth to speak, Doe was certain she’d overheard them somehow, and was about to respond directly to their speculation. What the girl did say, though, was, “He’s my friend, so it’s weird to say, but the dishiest seventh year is Alec Rosier.”

Wait, what?

“Weren’t they talking about the book thirty seconds ago?” said Dorcas.

“I thought so,” replied Remus.

“Dark horse,” said Cecily Sprucklin, “Cassius Mulciber.”

They couldn’t be serious. This was going from bad to worse. Doe was certain she’d misheard. Her gaze flicked to Mary, who was staring into her teacup, uncharacteristically quiet.

She couldn’t have said when she made the decision to speak, but suddenly she had made it, leaning forward to stare directly at Cecily. “Do you not know, or are you just that dense?”

The circle fell silent. Amelia set down her cup with a clink. Cecily blinked owlishly.

“Not know what?”

Doe didn’t want to call attention to the fact that her best friend had been attacked by the wizard in question — not when she knew Mary hated being seen as an object of pity. Instead she said, “That he’s a disgusting blood purist, obviously. Haven’t you noticed the way he talks about Muggle-born students?”

Sara’s face was pinched with worry, but she said, “She’s not wrong, Cecily. You don’t have to know him to know that about him.” 

Doe shot her a grateful smile, and knew they were both thinking of the same thing: those nights the previous year that Mary had spent in the Hospital Wing, and then the weeks afterward she’d tossed and turned for. 

“Watch those accusations.” This came from Thalia, whose relaxed posture had changed into something still and alert.

Dorcas fought to keep her temper under control. “I didn’t say anything untrue — and you know that just as well as we all do. I don’t have the time or the energy to argue with you, or anyone, about people like him. Come on, Mary, Remus. Let’s go.” She set down her tea, and, after a moment’s hesitation, grabbed a biscuit. 

“No need,” said Thalia coldly. “I can see I’m not wanted.” She slid out of her chair and strode for the door; its click was audible in the silence that had descended in her wake.

Doe was still standing, biscuit in hand. She gestured impatiently for Mary and Remus to follow; the latter looked entirely out of his depth, and the former was frozen in place, her expression far away. Slowly, as if a spell were breaking, they both straightened and rose to their feet.

“I’m sorry,” said Amelia suddenly. “She was only here because she’s my cousin.”

Mary blew out a breath. “Thanks. For the apology. It’s — really all right.”

Doe was about to say that no, it was not all right, but Amelia said, “Mulciber and Avery are awful. I’ve written them up for some horrible things — hexes, curses — and I’ve even asked my mum to speak to Dumbledore about them. But it’s above his paygrade, she says—”

“Because Avery’s mother’s on the Hogwarts Board of Governors,” Mary supplied. “I know.”

Doe frowned. At no point after last year’s attack had Mary shared this information. How had she even found that out in the first place? 

Amelia sighed. “Yes. Well. I really am sorry.”

“We really are leaving,” said Doe, skirting around the chairs.

Remus followed her, still wide-eyed; after a long moment, so did Mary. When they were in the corridor, a safe distance from the classroom, Doe slipped her hand into Mary’s, who squeezed her fingers in silent thanks. She wanted to ask about the Board of Governors, but now was not the time — not when Mary was still subdued, gnawing her lip and staring at the flagstone floor.

On Mary’s other side, Remus put a hand to her shoulder, briefly. “I have a better way to spend this afternoon. Have either of you been to the kitchens before?”

“No,” said Mary, after glancing at Doe. 

“You have to swear not to spill the beans to everyone at school.”

Mary cracked a smile. “Remus Lupin, are you calling me a gossip?”

Doe laughed, her heart suddenly full of gratitude. She felt no remorse about standing up for Mary, but anger was exhausting sometimes. Far better to fight for moments like this: quiet, warm, bright.

 


ii. Surely Not Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting

As students gathered in the courtyard, huddled together for warmth, Lily wondered if Hogwarts was even more magical than it seemed at first glance. The school’s quirks were necessarily on her mind — she’d not yet managed to pull James aside and ask him about the room on the seventh floor. She wasn’t certain how to lead up to it, anyway.

If she brought up Dex, would he say something sardonic about young love, as he’d done in September? She hoped things were more comfortable between them now. But thinking of Dex and James in the same moment reminded her of the pie, and what she’d said to him, and what he’d said to her… Drat, Lily thought, rubbing her gloved hands together. 

On the other hand, if she told him she thought the Slytherins were practising Dark magic there, it would no doubt prompt a very foolhardy expedition. She had only to think of the first time the Marauders had caught them at it. James, Peter, and Sirius had tried to take on five Slytherins at once, and he’d actually protested Remus’s coming along with Sprout and McGonagall. And that wasn’t even counting Alec Rosier, whom Lily feared a good deal more than Regulus Black. And — well, who knew how many others had joined since? 

There had been no Severus, last time.

She shook off the gloom and nerves this line of thinking brought on. It was just Potter. Just James Potter, whom she’d spent five and a half years speaking to without much care for how he’d react. (Strictly speaking, that was not true. Lily’s problem was that she did care, consistently, and much of her frustration with James had come from the fact that he never seemed to care what she thought of him. Wouldn’t it be nice to have that sort of self-assurance?) No, she would speak to him after Duelling Club.

She scanned the crowd for him and his friends, and her gaze landed on him just as he turned in her direction. Some faint amusement crossed his face; he quirked an eyebrow at her, as if to say, well? What are you staring at?

Lily coughed and looked away. Just her luck. Now she would probably have to take even more cheek from him. All in a day’s work — she would endure it if it meant figuring out if Rosier and the others really were using the hidden room.

What had she been thinking of? Her worry about James had derailed the quiet excitement of the morning. Yes — the courtyard, full of sixth and seventh years, was surely bigger than it normally was. Lily didn’t think that was her imagination. It seemed to have grown to accommodate them all, and then some.

The students were joined by the four Auror trainees and Professors Flitwick and Thorpe. The professors were engaged in what looked like a very serious conversation, but there was definite anticipation in the Aurors’ expressions. 

“I can’t believe I had to cancel Quidditch for this,” grumbled a voice some distance away — Lucinda Talkalot, Lily realised; the group of students around her looked none too pleased at spending a weekend morning on mandatory schoolwork. Lucinda’s voice carried; across the courtyard, Thorpe looked up, her eyes narrowed.

“This will be a learning experience, and you will be tested on what you learn — but duelling can be fun, if you do it the right way.”

“She’s not wrong. That demonstration at the start of the year was better than Quidditch,” Doe murmured.

“Swot,” Germaine whispered back.

“I know you’ve all had a demonstration in class,” Thorpe went on, “but maybe another one’s in order.” She glanced at the Auror trainees, who all straightened and smiled.

“Professor Flitwick, you ought to show us,” Marissa Beasley called, grinning at her head of house.

Flitwick went beet-red. “Oh, Miss Beasley, it’s been years — I’m sure my style is terribly outdated.” But his feeble protest only garnered more agreement, particularly from the Ravenclaws.

“I’d duel you, Professor — I’d be more than happy to.” The Auror trainee who’d spoken was freckled, fair-haired Alice St. Martin; she stepped forward and beamed at Flitwick. The students around them began to back up, freeing a sizeable circle of space for the duel.

Definitely magic, thought Lily.

Flitwick chortled. “I can’t say no to a former student. Very well, Miss St. Martin, take your place.”

They stood several paces apart, facing each other. The crowd buzzed with anticipation; from among the Slytherins, Anthony Avery shouted, “How does it work, Professor? First to draw blood?” His friends sniggered at this, clearly sceptical of the Charms professor’s ability to wound anyone.

Flitwick took this in stride. With a dry smile, he said, “In my day we went to the death, Avery, but we’ll do best of three. Why don’t you give the students some advice, Alice, before we begin? I’ll need every moment I can get to prepare.”

Alice St. Martin laughed. “Please, Professor, you sell yourself short.” Turning to address the students, she said, “Duelling is like a very elegant fistfight — though I hope none of you have been in one of those either.” A few students chuckled at this. “We’re learning defensive stuff only, of course, but the point is that the best duellists aren’t necessarily the most knowledgeable, or the best at magic. They think on their feet. They’re the ones who use every advantage they can get. Does that sound right, Professor?”

In response Flitwick smiled and flicked his wand; at once Alice threw up a Shield Charm, but another wand wave from the professor and the shield shattered. Alice was knocked off balance by his jinx. As she fell, though, a rope shot from her wand and looped around Flitwick’s wrist. A sharp tug, and Flitwick tumbled to the floor, his wand falling from his hand. The professor stood up once more, laughing to himself.

“Strike one,” said Alice. Lily noted the happy flush in her cheeks; the witch was clearly in her element. 

“That was quick, wasn’t it?” whispered Doe. “Do you think he let her win?”

But the next round proved that theory entirely false. Flitwick moved so quickly that Lily had hardly registered the start of the duel before Alice’s wand sailed into his grip. She regained her advantage, however, in the round afterwards, throwing a rapid combination of hexes that broke through Flitwick’s shield. 

To start the fourth volley, Alice spun a ring of fire towards Flitwick, who tutted even as students leapt backwards. 

“Flashy, flashy, you ought to know better—”

And lightning filled the sky all of a sudden: a single raincloud blossomed over the duellists, dousing Alice’s flames at once. Alice shrugged, grinning, and dismissed the rain with a wave. Light crackled between them, the heat of their spellwork turning the winter morning suddenly warm. Lily forgot to worry about James. She was too busy watching. When Flitwick’s shield disappeared in a haze of smoke and Alice gave a happy whoop, some students broke out into applause.

“That’s the match for me,” she said.

Flitwick looked at his wandless hands, still smiling. “Didn’t you say duellists use every advantage?”

And he raised his arms, making a gesture utterly foreign to the magic system Lily had learned. Alice was thrown backwards. Both her wand and Flitwick’s reappeared in his outstretched hands.

“That’s the match for me,” Flitwick said amidst gasps. “Now, don’t try that yourselves, students — and let me have a seat, my heart isn’t what it used to be—”

Alice looked positively thrilled to have been bowled over. She clapped as she stood. “You really do undersell yourself, Professor. Let’s have half the students watching and half paired up to duel, Professor Thorpe?”

At Thorpe’s acquiescence the Aurors began to divide the crowd into onlookers and duellists. Lily realised this was her chance — if she made sure she was paired with James, or, better still, if she and James both sat out the first round, then she could find a way to innocuously bring up the room. 

“I hope I’m paired with someone good,” Dorcas said, bouncing on her toes. 

“I hope they sit me out and then forget about me,” said Mary.

“Yes,” said Lily, “I’ll be right back.”

“Where are you going?”

But Lily didn’t answer; she began pushing her way towards the Marauders. Before she’d made it even halfway across the courtyard, Thorpe appeared in her path.

“Oh, good, Evans. You’re sensible enough to duel first, I think. Or at least I can trust you not to take someone’s head off. You can go with—” Lily saw her turn to the Marauders, hoping her plan would succeed against all odds. “—Black.” Thorpe waved Sirius over.

He eyed Lily with what she thought was unnecessary wariness. “Yeah, Professor?”

“You’ll duel Evans. Tell the rest of your friends to have a seat.” She frowned at him. “Exemplary behaviour.”

Sirius sighed. “Right. Professor.” 

Lily had no idea what to make of this exchange, but she hadn’t the time to consider it. Sirius was already walking towards an emptier part of the courtyard; she hurried after him.

Icon of a quill drawing a line

The Duelling Club let up only at lunchtime, but by then even the students who had been complaining about the time suck had mellowed out. Practical magic, Lily thought, appealed to everyone on some level. Or, at least, most people.

“Great. I can’t wait to be reminded every two weeks, in addition to classes, that I don’t have the head for spellwork,” Mary grumbled. 

“You’ve got the head for it. You’ve just decided already that you’re bad at it,” said Doe.

“Ha. Head,” said Germaine, which earned groans all around.

“Lily, are you going to tell us why you’re a hundred miles away and staring at James like you want to burn a hole in him with your eyes?”

Lily jumped. “Huh?”

“Yes, pay attention to us,” Mary said. “I thought the days of complaining about him were safely past.”

“No, it’s nothing like that. I have to ask him something.” 

Lily was still trying to think of an angle. She had considered asking Sirius, while they’d been practising, but it turned out that he was a sharp duellist when he put in the effort. Lily had been wholly engrossed in besting him. If only she’d asked him after all — it would have been strange and out of the blue, but at least she wouldn’t have needed to anticipate his every reaction.

“Ask him what?” said Germaine.

“About—”

Too late, Lily registered that she had a similar problem with her friends. Telling them her suspicions about the room might not lead them to break in and investigate, but they would have plenty of questions. And plenty of opinions too.

She didn’t yet know what she wanted to do with the information, if her hunch was proven correct. The smart thing to do would be to tell a professor, but she did not want to waste McGonagall’s time.

“Nice work, you lot,” Alice St. Martin called as she passed by.

There was an idea. Maybe she could tell one of the Aurors — Edgar Bones seemed approachable, and he was technically there to guard against any threat to the castle. Yes, Lily resolved, she would certainly escalate things if the situation demanded it.

“About what?” Dorcas was asking her, her dark eyes round with concern.

“About Dex,” she said absentmindedly.

Mary snorted with laughter — until she realised Lily was being serious. “You’re asking James Potter about your boyfriend? Do they even know each other?”

“What? No — look, I’ll see you at lunch.”

Lily lengthened her stride to catch up to the Marauders. The four boys were walking with their heads down, engrossed in quiet conversation. If they were speaking in undertones, they were planning something — but for once Lily truly did not care to figure out what, exactly, it was.

“James, can I have a word?” she said, stopping all four of them in their tracks. Honestly, it was a bit unnerving, how in sync they were.

James detached himself from his friends, hands in his pockets. “Er, sure. What about?”

Lily could feel the heat rising in her cheeks. “It’s a long story. Walk with me to the Great Hall?”

Peter, Remus, and Sirius exchanged a look of some significance.

“Don’t forget,” said Sirius, “we have the—” He raised his eyebrows, apparently unwilling to say more in front of Lily.

“See you at lunch,” Remus said, seeming to making a decision for all four of them. The other boys trooped off.

James still hadn’t moved; he was looking down at her, brows slightly furrowed. “This is all very serious.”

“Oh, no, it’s much less dramatic than it seems.” She let out an awkward laugh and started towards the Great Hall. 

He fell into step beside her. After a few paces of walking in silence, Lily realised she was pumping her legs faster than usual to keep up with him. James seemed to realise this at the very same instant, slowing his walk.

“So?” he prompted.

Lily reached into her bag and pulled out a slim hardcover. Her copy of Persuasion was crisp and unworn, a far sight from her Pride and Prejudice, but it was still Austen, and therefore a cut above any other offering she could give. Wordlessly she held the book out to him.

James glanced at it but did not reach for it. “Are we doing a gift exchange? Christmas is over, Evans.”

Lily gave him a pointed look. “Out of the goodness of my own heart, I’m lending it to you and not expecting a gift in return.”

“Out of the goodness of your heart, you’re forcing your taste in books on me, for reasons I haven’t yet figured out but are certainly in service of some ulterior motive.”

She scoffed and waved the book at him. “Fine, then—”

“Only joking. Give it here. With a title like that, I can't help but be curious.”

Lily smiled, gratified, as he tucked the book under an arm.

“Now, get to the real reason you’re slowing me down for lunch.”

“The — slowing you down!” she repeated, laughing. 

“Yeah, you’ve got—” James waved a hand “—short legs.”

“I’m not short.”

James gave her a look of immense disbelief. “You can’t be a smidge taller than five-foot-four. On a good day.”

“I am not short. You’re just overgrown,” Lily shot back.

“Overgrown.”

“Yes. You know when an animal or a plant is unusually small, they call it a pygmy? You’re the opposite of that.”

James stared at her in openmouthed silence. Lily was very pleased to have gotten in a dig that he could not respond to.

Then he laughed so hard his glasses slid off his nose.

“God, James,” Lily said, but despite her exasperation she was smiling. She didn’t quite know what she was smiling at. She bent down to pick up his glasses, inspecting them to ensure they were undamaged, and handed them back to him.

He’d stopped laughing quite abruptly, though traces of amusement still lingered in his expression. Lily didn’t think she’d seen him with his glasses off — or at least, she’d never looked closely at him with his glasses off. He could be so unreadable, she thought, but James Potter really did have a face for laughter.

James took his glasses back and slipped them on. “You still haven’t told me what you’re here for. Any minute we’ll be in the Great Hall and then you’ll spend all day fretting about whatever you didn’t get to say to me.”

“I don’t fret—” Lily began.

“Christ, Evans, get to the point.”

Lily sighed. She couldn’t delay any longer. “Don’t say something embarrassing, please.”

“Embarrassing to you, or to me? I have a very high shame threshold.”

“That explains so much about you.”

Ouch. So the novel was a bribe after all.”

She flapped a hand to shush him. “The seventh-floor corridor with the funny tapestry — you know it?”

James frowned. “Am I familiar with Barnabas the Barmy? Obviously. Were you going to ask a challenging question?”

She resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “There’s a place — a, a room opposite the tapestry.” Was she blushing? She definitely was. God, give me strength, she thought fervently.

“Yeeeeah,” James said, still confused. “It only appears sometimes, though.”

Relief eased some of her nervousness. So he did know of the room.

“That’s the one, exactly.”

He did not share her enthusiasm, apparently. “I don’t know if I’d call it a room.”

“No, it’s definitely a room.” Lily frowned too. This was a complication she hadn’t foreseen.

James opened his mouth to say something, then appeared to think better of it. “Never mind, go on. What about the room?”

“Well, Dex was the one who showed it to me, but neither of us has been able to get in for some time. So I thought, if anyone knew how it worked, it’d be you and your… James? Why are you making that face?”

He looked as though she had just handed him gold he did not want to use: torn, a little bit sheepish. “I — sorry, it’s nothing. I didn’t think you were the sort. But, er, no judgment. Free love.”

“Now I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about.” Had he read some kind of sinister, scandalous intent into the question? She burned at the thought — not that she would let herself be shamed, not by him or anyone, but how embarrassing that anyone had made that assumption so close upon the heels of the actual sex she’d had. 

But James, for his supposedly high shame threshold, looked just as embarrassed as Lily felt.

“It’s a broom cupboard. That’s what you’re talking about — the broom cupboard opposite the Barnabas the Barmy tapestry, yeah?”

Oh. “No, no, it’s not a broom cupboard — it’s a common room, it’s got an oven and a bookshelf—” LIly stammered. 

James’s obvious scepticism did not help her regain her confidence.

“No, that’s a broom cupboard, all right. It’s the Betty Braithwaite cupboard.”

“The—” Lily mouthed Betty Braithwaite cupboard soundlessly, trying to decide if she wanted to ask more questions or not. “The—”

James scoffed. “Rich of you to take that tone with me when you and Fortescue have obviously been putting the cupboard to good use since Betty left Hog—”

She needed to nip this in the bud. “James, for God’s sake, shut up. It did not look like a broom cupboard when we met there, and we weren’t — we didn’t — there was no—” Lily coughed and stopped speaking to collect herself. Realisation struck. “The room must change size. Like — like the courtyard today!” It felt as though a puzzle piece had slid satisfyingly into place. 

Thankfully James took this as an excuse to move on from the question of what Dex and Lily had done in the room. “Well, that’s not the only unusual thing about it,” he said, growing thoughtful. “It — doesn’t appear on maps of the school.”

“What maps?” Lily frowned at him, but he would not meet her gaze. “I’ve read Hogwarts: A History, and there’s no maps that I could remember.”

“Not in Hogwarts: A History. Er, my point is, it’s hard to find. Hard to summon, conjure, whatever it is. Although, Betty was decent at it.”

“James.”

“Decent at summoning the cupboard, Evans. I don’t kiss and tell.”

Lily smothered her instinctive laugh, doing her best to look stern. “So, the room — you don’t know how to get in?”

“I didn’t say that,” James said immediately. “I only said it was hard. I could figure it out.” A dramatic sigh. “If you really want me to, for your romantic getaways.”

“Oh, would you drop it?”

“Since I’m doing you this favour, I should get something in return. Like getting to poke at you about said romantic getaways.”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “Friends don’t quid pro quo, Potter.”

James held up his hands in surrender. “Friends? Slow it down, Evans. Take me to dinner first.”

She was saved from responding by the Head Girl, who was passing by them in the corridor.

“Hiya, James,” Marissa said. “Lily, could I have a word? The bloody patrol schedule — everyone and their mothers wants to swap this month— Oh, sorry, was I interrupting?” She looked between James and Lily, her bright blue eyes wide in apology.

Lily wasn’t certain the issue was resolved, but before she could think of what to say, James cut her off.

“No, we’re done. Mar, have at her. Evans—” he pointed Persuasion at her as he backed away “—sit tight on the cupboard.”

“Thank you,” Lily said, rolling her eyes. To Marissa she said, “Sorry, he unlearns his manners within days of leaving home. Something about the patrols, was it?”

Marissa laughed; the mirth remained in her expression even after she’d pulled out a notepad and quill. Lily smiled back automatically. She hadn’t let herself consider the position of Head Girl next year, and how very badly she wanted it to be hers, but she did so now as Marissa paged through patrol schedules. She wanted to be approachable and fun, as the older girl was.

The sensible part of Lily knew she had a less laid-back leadership style than Marissa and shouldn’t mould herself to be someone she wasn’t — but she wished for it nevertheless. Marissa always seemed unflappable, like a girl out of a classic boarding school novel: shiny blonde ponytail swinging behind her, cool enough to joke with the popular students but responsible enough to be trusted by their teachers. 

“Lily? Are you listening?”

“What? Oh. Yes. Very much.”

Marissa gave her a knowing smile. “I was saying, Singh and Vance are on for the last week of January, but Vance doesn’t want to patrol the weekend Ravenclaw plays Quidditch.” She rolled her eyes good-naturedly. “Any chance you and Lupin could do it? It’s Filch that week too, unfortunately, but at least the two of you haven’t outright fought with the man.”

Lily didn’t need to ask Remus to know there would be an issue. “Well — that Sunday’s my birthday, but if you—”

“Oh! You’re off the hook.” Marissa waved a hand to dismiss any more protests. “I’ll just get...yes, Greengrass and Snape can take it.”

She did not want to sacrifice the week of her birthday, but Lily felt as though she should press the case just a little.

“I mean, if you really need someone to fill in—”

“Lily,” Marissa said, firm but not unkind, “don’t be ridiculous. The Slytherins will do it, and if they don’t Colin and I will.”

“Okay, if you’re—”

Marissa squeezed her shoulder. “Positive. Sorry, I’ve delayed your lunch, haven’t I? We’ll catch up later.” And the Head Girl sailed away.

Lily let out a sigh at this abrupt departure, starting towards the Great Hall once more. When she arrived at lunch the other Gryffindor sixth years were already seated: her friends at one end, talking loudly and enthusiastically about something or the other, and the Marauders much further down. Her gaze fell upon James’s dark, messy hair. Sit tight, she thought, dropping onto the bench.

It was quite nice of him to have agreed to help her when there was really nothing in it for him. No, nothing at all... For once she was looking forward to seeing what James Potter would come up with.

“Oh, she’s back,” Mary said. “So? You were asking Potter about Dex?”

Normally Lily admired her friend’s tenacity. Today was not one of those days.

“It’s complicated,” she said after a long, expectant silence.

Dorcas laughed. “With you and him, of course it is.”

Lily sighed once more, though not entirely unhappily. “I’m not going to touch that.” With an air of finality she reached for the roast potatoes, and the conversation turned to something far simpler.

Icon of a quill drawing a line

Several seats closer to the teachers’ table, James was facing the reverse of this interrogation.

“You’re helping Lily Evans get to the Betty Braithwaite cupboard, for use with her boyfriend?” Sirius said, looking at his friend as if he’d lost his mind.

“Yeah, so? It’s what...acquaintances do for each other.” James felt he was being honest, but in the face of his mates’ scepticism even he began to question himself. He shook off this train of thought. Doubt was for other people.

“I think it’s nice of you,” said Remus. (Sirius groaned.) “What? If you want to move on, that’s how you do it.”

“That’s not moving on,” Peter pointed out. “That’s when you like a bird so much you’ll help her with other blokes, just ’cause you want her to be happy.”

“Been at the Mills and Boon, have you?” Sirius said drily. 

“You’re the one who hasn’t shut up about Mills and Boon since you read Dragon Bay—”

“Yeah, because it was a hilarious yet telling example of Muggle culture, for which Atkinson gave me a big fat O, if you’ll recall—”

“Maybe I just wanted to solve a castle mystery,” James interrupted. “And Evans doesn’t factor into it. I mean, don’t you want to know where the cupboard gets off to?”

“I still think you’re lying about it,” Peter said. “That corridor’s empty. Maybe you were imagining it. Maybe it was a group hallucination.”

“Betty was diverting, Wormtail, but not that diverting.”

“Honestly, Prongs,” said Remus.

Anyway,” James said, “if you see the cupboard, do me a favour and let me know, yeah?”

Sirius assumed his sceptical expression once more. “Do you a favour and let you know so you can tell Lily so she can—”

“All right, you’ve made your point,” Remus said. “Merlin. We have other things to deal with, don’t we?”

“That we do.” Sirius shot a regretful glance at the Slytherin table. “Give them my love.” The sarcastic comment was far from out of character for him, but his friends registered the extra bite to it, and how his gaze landed on — and then bounced away from — his brother. (No, not his brother. They weren’t brothers anymore.)

“I’m sure they’re waiting with bated breath for that,” Remus said.

James followed his gaze. When Cassius Mulciber and Anthony Avery realised they were being watched, both scowled. James lifted a hand in a friendly wave.

“Do you think they’ll take the bait yet?” Peter whispered.

The pair were muttering to one another now. 

“Not...yet,” said Remus in an undertone.

They were now getting up from the Slytherin table, meals unfinished. The students around them inched away from their plates.

“Oh, do they think we put something in their food?” said Peter, positively gleeful.

James had his wand out; he was idly twirling it in one hand. “There’s something to be said for the straightforward approach.”

Still looking mournful, Sirius pushed away from the table too. “How sad that I had nothing to do with this idea. I mean, how awful of you three to hurt dear Mulciber and Avery.” He said this loudly enough for the students seated around the Marauders to hear.

“How awful,” Remus agreed, something unusually steely in his voice. 

As Sirius sauntered away, Mulciber and Avery approached.

“Whatever stupid trick you’re planning—” Avery started.

“Trick? Oh, no. This is simple stuff.”

James waved his wand, and at once the Slytherins’ hands sandwiched together, palms first, so that both boys looked as though they were praying. 

Mulciber let out a frustrated yell, trying to wrench his hands apart. “What the fuck — you’ll pay for this, Potter, I swear—”

“If you ever get unstuck,” said Peter.

Avery, meanwhile, was doing a funny sort of hop as he shook his folded hands. “Ow — don’t move, it hurts if you move too much—”

The Marauders stood from their seats and started for the exit, as though nothing had happened at all. Avery and Mulciber watched them go, glaring, their matching gestures of supplication comically at odds with their thunderous expressions.

“Try begging for forgiveness sometimes,” said Remus coldly, and with that, the boys headed back to Gryffindor Tower to await their detention summons.

 

 

Chapter Text

i. Same Old Worries

“I’m so sick and tired,” Germaine announced at breakfast, “of seeing this prat in the papers.” She jabbed a finger at Marcel Thorpe’s latest column. 

“If only the Prophet had offices in Hogsmeade,” Lily said, moodily stabbing at a sausage. “Doe was listening to his horrible show last week, and I overheard him saying that though he doesn’t condone violence, he isn’t surprised that some purebloods feel the need to respond to Muggleborns’ encroaching on their space. Can you believe it? I mean, if you have to say it with that many euphemisms, you can’t really think you aren’t condoning violence.”

“I hope that Clearwater bird reads Doe’s owls eventually.”

The sixth year girls had seen Dorcas furiously scribble letters to the Prophet’s editor every other day in their free periods. Doe had yet to receive a response, but she did not seem deterred by the result.  

“I wouldn’t count on it,” Lily said, dropping her fork. She’d planned on finishing her breakfast as quickly as possible so she could take her sweet time reading her mother’s latest letter, but as usual she’d been slow to rise. She stuffed the note in her pocket, deciding she could look at it on the way to Potions.

“Going already?” Germaine folded up the Prophet and made to stand with her.

“Oh, take your time. My mum’s written me, so I thought I’d take a long walk to the dungeons.”

With a last wave at her friend, Lily slipped out of the Great Hall and withdrew the note from her mother. All is well… Tuney's driving up to take me to the doctor's, how kind of her... Are you excited for your birthday… present headed your way by Sunday… Lily smiled, tracing Doris’s curling script with a finger. She hadn’t yet decided how she wanted to spend her birthday. In years past she’d had quiet days in with Severus — the memories stung — and once, a Hogsmeade outing with her friends. 

She supposed she’d become a more social creature now. She wouldn’t have minded a party, but was utterly at a loss for whom to ask about the things that went into one. For instance, who would she have invited? Lily was not friendless, but if she thought about it, she was friendly with more people than she was friends with. And the next Hogsmeade visit was two weeks away, so she certainly did not have any Butterbeer or treats to share.

No, it would be a quiet birthday, but she didn’t mind that thought much. The point was, she’d need to spend it with people, lest she consider who was missing from the celebrations. Like Severus...and Dex, who was indeed mired in N.E.W.T. homework. And her father, who would not have been here at Hogwarts in person anyway but whose death anniversary was just two weeks off.

Lily remembered, for a brief moment, the homesickness that had washed over her in December. It had been unlike her then and it was unlike her now to wish she were home instead of in the castle. But home, despite Petunia’s frustrating behaviour and horrid boyfriend, was so uncomplicated. Petunia did not live at home anymore, and if Lily were with her mother she’d only have to deal with her sister on weekends. She could do that. They’d parted on good terms at the start of the month anyway.

She shook off this daydream. It wasn’t as though she could go home — and she didn’t want to, not really. This fugue could not, would not spoil her seventeenth birthday.

Aloud, she said, “I mean, this is the birthday they write songs about.”

“Planning on going full ‘Dancing Queen?’” a quiet voice, suffused with mirth, said from behind her.

Lily started, but gave Remus Lupin a warm smile. “Don’t tell anyone I’m talking to myself in the corridor.”

He smiled in return. “I’ll keep your secrets. And I’ll walk you to Potions, so you can talk to yourself and pretend you’re speaking to me.”

“Have I ever mentioned you’re my most thoughtful friend?”

Remus laughed. “I’ll be sure to keep that secret too. Doe would have my head.”

Her morning blues faded a little with company. See, Lily? You don’t want to be at home after all. She glanced at her friend, trying to think of the last time she’d properly talked to him and coming up short. That gave her a stab of guilt. She had been so preoccupied with her own problems, she’d near forgotten to check in with the mates she didn’t live with.

“Are you all right? I feel as though I haven’t seen you all month. I’d hate to think we only talk when we patrol together,” she said.

“Never mind me,” said Remus, the warmth in his eyes tacit forgiveness. “I’m not the one with a big day coming up. Do you know how you want to celebrate?”

Lily opened her mouth to vocalise all the meandering half-made plans she’d just been thinking up, but stopped short.

“Did they send you to ask? Doe and the others?”

Remus looked mildly indignant. “Can’t I enquire after a friend? Or do we only talk when we patrol together?”

“No, I didn’t mean that,” said Lily hastily. “God, I’m insensitive, that’s not what I meant at all—”

To her relief, he chuckled. “You caught me. I did have ulterior motives, but I’m honestly curious.”

Lily relaxed and shrugged. “I’m not sure yet. And I’m not sure I have the means to carry out anything I decide.”

At that, he arched an eyebrow. “Lily, you know who my mates are. We always have the means.”

She laughed. “So if I told you I wanted a house-wide Exploding Snap tournament, you’d organise one?”

“I’d wonder at your choices, considering you’re rubbish at it — don’t give me that look, we both know it’s true — but I would see what we can do.”

Her mother’s words flashed before her eyes: do enjoy yourself, dear, I hate to think how hard you must be working… if anyone deserves a day off it’s you. Lily trusted just about everything Doris said. And there was a small voice in her head that sounded like her father, reminding her she would sleep easier after an evening with the people she loved, that good company was like hot chocolate.

“Exploding Snap it is,” she said, smiling.

Remus gave her an incredulous look. “You’re not serious.”

“I am, though I’m sure I’ll regret it. Who knows, maybe I’ll learn and end up the winner.”

“Peter’s brilliant at Exploding Snap,” said Remus. “No offence, Lily, he’s fond of you, but he likes winning loads more.”

They were at the dungeons; students were filtering into the classroom. The pair had to wait in the corridor a moment before they could enter.

“I’ll just have to remind Peter it’s my birthday weekend, and that a little leniency is owed to the birthday girl…” Lily batted her lashes innocently.

Remus laughed. “Yeah, good luck with that.”

“You can give me tips on how best to flatter him.” She sat down in her usual spot in the first row, and, on impulse, patted the empty seat beside her. “C’mon, we haven’t sat together in ages.”

“You want Mary to kill me too, don’t you?”

“Ah, she’ll find someone else to sit with — maybe it’ll be a nice boy, and she’ll get to flirt with him. She’ll forget about little old me in no time.”

Remus snorted. “Flirt with who, a Slytherin?” But he took the spot beside her and began unpacking his things, dropping his battered Advanced Potion Making next to her own. “At least you’re making your motives clear at the start.”

Lily grinned. “I have ulterior motives, but I’m honestly curious.”

Icon of a quill drawing a line

Three words, strung together, struck fear into Dorcas Walker’s heart. She did not think them often, but instead of that being a reassurance, they were all the more daunting to consider. Indeed, she couldn’t even remember the last time she’d thought those words… She wasn’t even thinking of them now, not really. She was sort of passively wondering about them. In only the most distant of senses. And simply because their Ancient Runes homework was impossible.

“Michael,” she whispered. 

Anderberg hated them. There was simply no other explanation. There was no plausible reason for these translations being so utterly incomprehensible… And yet Michael’s quill was skating smoothly across his parchment.

Michael,” Doe said, more insistently this time.

He looked up, his brow furrowed. “Yeah?”

She meant to ask about rehwa, and if there was a conjugation she wasn’t considering in the twelfth line of the passage they were working on. What came out instead was quite different.

“Are you seeing Florence Quaille?”

Michael blinked at her. She blinked back, almost equally surprised. Seeming to realise the question had been asked in earnest, he said, “No?”

“Right,” said Doe. “Because, you know, she’s—”

“—in love with Chris Townes,” Michael finished. “I did know.”

“Okay. Well, Mar— someone saw her kiss you at King’s Cross, so, I just thought she was your rebound…” She was glad that she could keep a straight face through this.

He laughed. “She’s definitely not my rebound. I’ve been her shoulder to cry on, figuratively speaking, about Chris. Really it’s funny that she hasn’t—”

“—told Cecily yet, right.” Doe frowned. This was quite the neat little resolution to what had happened at Evan’s. “You’re not seeing Cecily, are you?”

At this Michael looked truly flummoxed. “No? She’s seeing Chris?”

“Right, good, because she thinks Cassius Mulciber is...dishy, except Mulciber is a bigot, and what with you being Muggle-born it would be a bad idea to go with anyone who thought that was a forgivable offence.”

Some of his confusion gave way; he smiled. “Nice of you to be so concerned for me.”

“Right. A concerned citizen, that’s me.” She twirled her quill in her fingers. Another thought niggled at her. Common sense dictated she hold it in, but she’d asked two embarrassing questions already. What was a third?

Just as Michael had returned to his homework, Doe blurted out, “And, you’re not seeing Marissa Beasley, are you?”

He laughed and set his quill down. “I wasn’t expecting the Spanish Inquisition.”

She mumbled, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.”

“You would, actually,” he said, sounding almost apologetic. “They gave thirty days’ notice.”

“Oh.” Doe was momentarily blindsided. “I didn’t know that.”

“Blame it on Monty Python. I spoiled the joke, didn’t I?”

She smiled, glad despite herself for the conversational detour. “You did, a bit. But I forgive you.”

“Well, if you want updates on who’s seeing whom…” Michael tapped his chin with a finger, assuming a thoughtful expression. “Steve Fawcett’s taking Amelia to Hogsmeade next month, Lottie Fenwick’s seeing this Hufflepuff — it’s very sweet, she talks about him in the common room non-stop — and I actually reckon Marissa’s seeing—”

Doe laughed, reaching across the table to shove him. “Stop it, you know that’s not what I care about.”

“Then can I know why you’re really asking?”

There was something there, in the answer to that question — something Doe wasn’t ready to say to herself just yet, let alone to him. 

“It’s a long, stupid story. Mary’s — well, I shouldn’t say—” this after she remembered Mary didn’t want people knowing about her and Doc just yet “—but, anyway, I guess you could say Mary’s been trying to piece together who slept with whom after Evan Wronecki’s party.”

Michael’s curious smile turned into a wide grin. “That’s how it is, eh? Tell Mary Macdonald that if she wants to see me she ought to ask me out. She doesn’t have to pretend we’re going to Hogsmeade as friends.”

Was he joking? Doe was quite certain he was joking. But one could never be sure, not where Mary was concerned. Some of her confusion must have shown on her face, because he burst into laughter.

“Your face, Dorcas. I’m having you on.”

“Oh.” She resurrected her smile. “That’s rude of you. Mary’s a catch, Michael Meadowes. You’d be lucky to have her.”

He clasped his hands together in apology. “You’re absolutely right. Don’t say a word.”

Doe giggled at his pout and waved her homework at him. “What I really wanted to ask was, look at this rune here—” 

And though the afternoon returned to its designated course, her thoughts did not. Because there had been a telltale swoop in her stomach when Michael had laughed at her…and Dorcas thought those three words, those three awful words. Was Mary right?

Icon of a quill drawing a line

That weekend the student population headed down to the Quidditch stadium once more. Germaine King lingered on at breakfast, staring at her porridge. Ravenclaw versus Slytherin had been moved forward, much to the two teams’ dismay — and Gryffindor’s delight, of course. She’d spent the morning overhearing her teammates eagerly discuss how this could cost Ravenclaw, their biggest competitors.

“The bottom line is,” James was saying, “whether or not they’ve had less time to practice than they normally would after the holidays, they’re still good. And no matter who wins our job is still the same. We’ve had our schedules messed with too.”

But even he could not deliver this lecture sternly; there was a wide grin on his face. It did make a difference, because if Ravenclaw lost — Germaine automatically knocked on wood at this thought — then Gryffindor would have an easier path to the Quidditch Cup. They could lose a match and still win. But James would have killed her if she’d pointed this out. 

“Sure, sure,” Isobel Park said. “I just want to know who I should thank for this. I’d like to send them flowers.”

“Apparently it was Lawrence,” said Evan Wronecki.

“Lawrence?” Germaine glanced up at the professors’ table, where the wizened Divination teacher was tucking into her eggs. The woman had a healthy appetite, but somehow always looked to be on the brink of death. “I didn’t know Lawrence cared this way or that about Quidditch.”

James was rolling his eyes. “She told her sixth year class that a flier would have a terrible accident in the castle at the end of February, and Vance and Fawcett persuaded Flitwick to have the match moved. If they really think some half-baked prophecy is worth less practice, that’s their prerogative.”

The Gryffindors exchanged glances, knowing full well that had this vision concerned their team, James would probably have told them to make sure the terrible accident did actually happen — to their rivals, on the pitch. 

Germaine alone did not share in their bemused looks. The name Vance stung still. She’d come down to breakfast late on purpose so that she did not have to see the other witch. The choice had paid off — the Ravenclaw team had already headed down to the stadium — but it had been silly, in retrospect, to think she could have escaped hearing about her.

Her teammates rose but Germaine stayed sitting. As they ambled for the exit, a shadow hung over her. She looked up to see James, hands in pockets, still waiting.

“You’re not watching?” he asked, like he already knew the answer.

She shrugged. “I don’t really feel up to it.”

“Well...whatever your reasons…” 

He looked at his feet. Germaine thought he was remembering the afternoon, weeks ago, when they’d argued on the pitch about Emmeline. She didn’t quite feel like apologising yet. 

James seemed to feel the same way, because he continued, “Percy takes notes, and they’re ridiculously detailed. You can always read what you missed.”

She liked this better than an awkward apology. Better to move on, she thought, than to pretend things could be different.

“You were probably right about her,” she mumbled.

He winced. “Then…I wish I wasn’t.”

With that he left too. Germaine sighed and dunked her spoon into her congealing porridge once more.

Icon of a quill drawing a line

After dinner on Saturday the mood in the Gryffindor common room was surprisingly festive. You might be forgiven for thinking it was them, and not Slytherin, who’d won a Quidditch match that day. Granted, some of the excitement was for the same reason the Quidditch team had watched the morning’s game in high spirits.

Ravenclaw had lost after all, and Gryffindor had breathing room now in its quest for the cup. But the more immediate occasion was an impromptu Exploding Snap tournament, scheduled to start at eight that evening.

Well, impromptu to most of the house. Someone had prepared by putting up posters that morning, as if it were a surprise circus arrival. Lisa Kelly, a fifth year, practically vibrated with delight as she read off the poster for about the tenth time in the space of an hour. 

“It’s the Marauders’ doing,” she said. “It has to be.”

Lisa Kelsoe, her best friend and fellow fifth year, nodded. “You’re probably right. But there’s no point getting excited when it’s in honour of another girl.”

This too had been discussed at length.

Lisa Kelly sighed. “Sure, he doesn’t still fancy her. It’s just a coincidence that it’s her birthday tomorrow.”

“Right, just how it’s a coincidence that her name’s on the poster?”

They glanced at it in unison. It was the inaugural Lily Evans Gryffindor House Exploding Snap tournament. Or so the poster said. 

“Yes. Exactly like that coincidence.”

Lisa Kelsoe laughed. “You’re my best mate, but you can be so thick sometimes.”

At that very moment, Sirius Black appeared behind them. “Bets on the tournament, Lisa? Lisa?”

“Sacred Circe,” Lisa Kelsoe breathed, once she’d recovered from the surprise. “Don’t sneak up on me.”

Sirius did not apologise; he only grinned. This had the desired effect of charming both girls.

“I don’t think I’m going to play,” said Lisa Kelly. “I’m not very good.”

Sirius waved a dismissive hand. “You shouldn’t play if you’re betting, strictly speaking.” He held out a drawstring pouch, already half-full with clinking coins.

Lisa Kelly was caught between the desire to impress an older, good-looking student — and one of the Marauders, no less — and the desire to save her gold for Hogsmeade. Lisa Kelsoe noticed her indecision, and, rolling her eyes, dropped three Sickles into Sirius’s bag.

“It’s her money,” she said. “I owe Lisa a new hairbrush anyhow. Put it on Peter Petti—”

“Put it on James Potter,” Lisa Kelly said firmly.

The Lisas exchanged meaningful looks. Sirius shrugged, backing away. Birds so often spoke without speaking. His mind was more on the betting than on figuring this out.

Upstairs in the Marauders’ dormitory, only Peter and James remained. The former, as reigning Exploding Snap champion, was giving himself a pep talk in the mirror. If he went down too soon, he was certain, he’d be thrown off his game. James was pacing the carpet behind him while pretending to not pace the carpet — that is, by stopping whenever Peter frowned at him and feigning casualness.

He had never given Lily Evans a birthday present before. They had never really been on those terms. He supposed to some extent the tournament was his present to her, along with her friends and his. But it wasn’t a proper gift, not in the way a one-to-one present would be. Not the sort of present her boyfriend would be giving her, certainly. 

Comparing himself to Fortescue was dangerous territory. James backed out of it at once. 

But thinking of Dex Fortescue made James remember the Betty Braithwaite cupboard, and his — possibly misguided — promise to Lily. He had made the occasional nightly excursion these past few weeks (to think, he’d told himself) that had ended in front of the tapestry and the blank wall. But no door had shown itself. He couldn’t at all figure out how it had in the first place.

It made him wonder if they were going about this all wrong — if, perhaps, the cupboard-slash-room moved around, and that was why they hadn’t been able to map it. But they only had the information they had, and so the seventh-floor corridor was all he had to go on. Besides, the Trophy Room was alternately on the third and sixth floors of the castle, and that still showed up on the map just fine.

The corridor in question was empty, as the map showed. Dissatisfied, James searched the parchment for any other points of interest. Most Slytherins were in the dungeon, probably celebrating… Some seventh years were ensconced in the library still — cutting it quite close to eight o’clock, when Pince would unceremoniously toss them out… James noted the dot labelled Dexter Fortescue among them with some satisfaction. 

Right outside the library doors was Lily Evans, probably having just said hello to her boyfriend. James checked his watch. It wasn’t like her to run late, but if she didn’t literally sprint to Gryffindor Tower, she would probably be late for the tournament’s start. Then he noticed the dot some way along the corridor from her, getting closer. Severus Snape. He waited for Lily to walk away. But Snape got closer, and closer, until they were obviously in conversation. 

James felt a hot spike of annoyance, and wished he didn’t. 

“Is Lily here yet?” Peter had turned away from the mirror at last, watching his friend with some concern.

“I think she’ll be late,” James said grimly, and tossed the map onto his unmade bed. “C’mon, let’s go.”

The two boys trooped down to the common room in silence.

Icon of a quill drawing a line

Lily stopped outside the library to catch her breath. Pince often left the circulation desk ten minutes before the library closed in order to throw out lingering students, and she had only just made it in time to return the book she’d borrowed to the sour-faced librarian.

“This,” Pince had said, “is due tonight.”

“Yes,” Lily said hurriedly. “That’s why I’m here, returning it to you.”

Pince scowled. “Don’t you give me cheek, young lady.” But she’d taken the slim volume, a reference Lily had needed for a History of Magic essay. “You’d best be out of the library in...six minutes. I won’t go looking for you.”

“Right! Of course not—”

But Dex was in the library, and she wanted to say hello before her birthday...even as a part of her complained that he ought to seek her out before her birthday, and then another part of her protested at this whining. Acting on impulse, Lily hurried further into the library, deciding she would take three minutes to search him out.

He had been nowhere to be found, though, and she’d beat a hasty retreat just in time to avoid Pince. If she waited until eight she might run into him on his way out — but her better sense did win out this time, because she was already going to be late for Exploding Snap, after all the trouble her friends had gone to for her last-minute whims… Thirty more seconds, she promised herself, and then I’ll run to the common room.

As it turned out, her aspirations ran ahead of her reality. 

“Lily.”

How could she not know that voice? It was a voice that made her feel nine years old again, full with the delight and novelty of magic. But all the years of good memories had been layered over with the new and ugly ones...suspicions, fears, resignation.

For once, when Lily Evans turned to look at Severus Snape, she did so thinking of the latter first and then the former. Maybe that was what it felt like to move on, to really say goodbye to a broken friendship.

His mouth quirked into a half-smile before returning to a thin line, as though his instinctive reaction to her was still joy.

“Severus,” she replied, nothing more than polite. 

He noticed the change, of course; his expression grew shadowed. “Thrilling birthday plans? I hear your new best mates have been hard at work.” As if she hadn’t guessed who he meant, Severus added, “Potter and company, that is.”

Lily made a sound that was half-laugh, half-sigh. So much had changed this year, but she was still caught in this pattern — this circular conversation she’d been having for years. Except, perspective fundamentally altered how she approached it.

She pressed a hand to her forehead. “You really are obsessed with them, God.”

Severus’s face hardened even more. “I didn’t expect you of all people to fall under their spell—”

I’m not the one under anyone’s spell.” The words were more tired than heated. “I’m going to go now. I have somewhere to be, and you have patrol tonight.” 

She’d only taken a few steps before she stopped once more. Half-turning, Lily looked at her former best friend again. He hadn’t moved an inch. She’d always thought she would come of age with him. 

“I’m going to find out what’s going on in the seventh-floor corridor,” she said. She meant it as a promise, and she knew he knew what her promises sounded like. “And you can’t stop me.”

For a moment — just a moment — he looked afraid. But then Severus was cold once more.

“On your own head be it,” he said softly, and left the way he’d come.

 


ii. The Inaugural Lily Evans Gryffindor House Exploding Snap Tournament

It was precisely nine minutes after eight. A horde of Gryffindors — from lanky, grinning seventh years to thrilled second years — were gathered in the common room, where a fire blazed in the hearth. They stared, rapt and attentive, at Remus Lupin, who stood in the centre of their circle.

“Any questions? Remember, we’re playing Bavarian rules.”

“The superior rule system,” Peter cut in.

A third year raised her hand. “Yes, um, I didn’t pay the tournament fee? Can I still play?”

Remus looked taken aback. “There...isn’t a tournament fee.”

“Sirius Black said there was.”

Remus gave Sirius a look of chastisement. “He’ll give your money back. And anyone else who paid a tournament fee.”

“It wasn’t an entrance fee. It was a bet, as you know full well, Polly,” Sirius said, not looking ashamed in the slightest.

“Any other questions?” said Remus pointedly.

The portrait swung open at that moment, revealing a panting Lily Evans. 

“It’s not too late to join, is it?” she said.

James Potter did not want to look up at her from where he sat, in an armchair at prime distance from the fire, but he found himself doing it anyway. 

“No, not at all,” Remus said, beaming at her. 

“Sorry, sorry—” She pushed her way through the assembled students, plopping down on the carpet beside Mary not far from where James sat. “I was returning that blasted book Binns made us use and Pince was awful as usual—” James heard her say.

“Bitch,” Mary said, rolling her eyes.

Mary.”

“What? Pince is a bitch. My feminist card doesn’t get revoked by my saying so.”

“Round one brackets are—” Remus called “—group A, Isobel Park, Dorcas Walker, Andrew Stevens, and Peter Pettigrew—” 

Peter bowed; Doe narrowed her eyes at him in warning. “You haven’t won yet!” she called, to much hooting.

“—and group H, whom I’m obligated as a friend to tell should play to lose so Lily Evans can advance—” Remus was saying, grinning in Lily’s direction “—Eddie McKinnon, Lisa Kelsoe, Lily herself, and James Potter.”

His friends had made these brackets, so James supposed this shouldn’t have surprised him. It was a multipurpose choice, and part of him appreciated the efficiency of it. If he really was getting over her, then this would be another way to test himself. He saw this logic in the challenging arch of Sirius’s brows. If he wasn’t over her...then this would help him face the facts. Peter wasn’t bothering to hide his small, satisfied smile. 

But James was nothing if not stubborn. If his mates wanted to promote — introspection, or whatever the fuck, he would determinedly avoid it. They exchanged glances, all four of them, and he saw them all clock his decision at once. Come on, Peter mouthed. James took the deck of cards from Remus with a pointed look and joined his group. 

“I hope you’re all ready to lose,” Lily was telling Eddie and Lisa, rubbing her hands together gleefully.

Jamea was definitely not charmed.

“You’re the one who’s shit at Exploding Snap,” he said, sitting down.

Lily gave him an affronted look.

“What? Remus told me so.”

Lily gave Remus an affronted look.

Several onlookers clustered around their circle. A very giggly Lisa Kelly said  “Good luck, everyone!” and gave her best mate a wide, meaningful smile. 

“Thanks, Lisa,” James said, and she dissolved into still more giggles. Across from him, Lily coughed but did not quite succeed in hiding her own laughter.

Grinning despite himself, James fished out his wand as the cards began to shuffle themselves. He was all right at Exploding Snap, thanks to Quidditch reflexes and years of playing against a shockingly good Peter. But it was clear that of their group Lisa Kelsoe was bound to win — her wand shot out seconds before James’s time and time again. A smug smile had begun to creep across her face. 

Remus had not been lying; Lily was honestly abysmal, muttering to herself like a batty old woman as she played and fumbling for points after they’d passed with a soft “Drat!” As the deck dwindled, James was careful to target Lisa’s points so as to close the gap between them.

He thought he’d have a decent chance at it too — until, with a massive, game-winning set waiting to be collected, Lily hovered her wand hand over the cards and hummed to herself for a solid twenty seconds. James thought, I should just push her arm away, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. The same indecision was written all over Lisa’s face, though, if James were being honest, it was probably not for the same reason. 

“Hurry it up,” Lisa said through clenched teeth.

“What? Oh!” Lily withdrew her hand, and James and Lisa pounced.

The cards exploded.

“Jesus sodding Christ,” James gasped — first at the heat, which had surely singed his eyebrows, and then at the jet of water Lily shot his way.

“Oh, sorry, I was trying to help,” said Lily, sounding unduly pleased. James scowled at her, taking off his glasses to wipe them.

“Match, here!” one of their audience members called, and Remus came over to confirm that the cards had indeed all been used up.

“Group H, Lily wins,” said Remus.

“What?” said James and Lisa Kelsoe.

Lily grinned at them both. “Well, you forfeited points equivalent to the ones you set off — which was quite a lot, by the way — and I was beating Eddie already. So I win.”

In the silence that followed, Lisa said, “Bloody Bavarian rules.”

James looked down at the cards, gobsmacked. “You planned it,” he said, pushing his glasses back up his nose.

“Me?” Lily rose to her feet, dusting the residual ash from her jumper. “But I couldn’t have. I’m shit at Exploding Snap.” With a final smile she stepped out of their circle.

He followed; of course he did. (He missed the crestfallen expressions of both Lisas — the one having taken in the look James had given Lily, the other realising her three Sickles were lost along with her hopes of winning the tournament.) 

“Enjoying yourself, now that you’re going to cheat your way to victory?” James said.

She was smiling; her green eyes shone. He wished he could look at something else, but his gaze was drawn to her, again and again. 

“I didn’t cheat. It was a bit of gamesmanship, I’ll admit, but you’re no stranger to that.”

“I win fair and square, every time I win. Which is a lot of the time.”

“Somehow your bragging feels hollow after you just lost.”

“I’m reminding you of the way things stand, normally. Tonight’s an exception.”

She leaned closer to him. He registered the freckles on the bridge of her nose.

“Why’s that?” she said.

With effort, James leaned away and remained impassive. “I was told to let the birthday girl win, and I’m a gentleman.”

Lily snorted a laugh, then covered her mouth. “Which one is it? Did I cheat, or did you throw the game?”

He shrugged. “Maybe a little bit of both.”

An arm was thrown around his shoulders — Sirius, his drawstring pouch clutched in one hand. “Care for a bet, now that you’ve been knocked out?”

“Let the pain fade before you come over trying to extort me,” James said, rolling his eyes.

“Never,” said Sirius with cheer. “Now that I’m no longer wealthy—”

“Your uncle left you a small fortune.”

“—now that I’m no longer wealthy, I need the profit margin.”

Remus appeared out of nowhere, grabbing the pouch. “The profit margin is the prize money, Sirius.”

“The fuck? What do I get for calculating odds all evening?”

“It’s all right, James,” Lily cut in. “You can bet on me, and you’re sure to win. Who knows, maybe I’ll spare a bit of the prize money for you as thanks.”

“There’s no prize money,” said Sirius pointedly. “The prize is a trophy.”

“A trophy? Oh, can I see it?”

“No,” said James. “And you’re very confident for someone whose strategy was to be in third place for most of that game.”

“You’re a sore loser, aren’t you?” Lily laughed. 

She patted him on the arm and joined the group A onlookers. James did not watch her go.

“Christ, you needed rescuing,” said Sirius, rolling his eyes.

He had watched her go, a little. 

Try and stick to your friends resolution, yeah? Everyone can see you making eyes at her.”

“I’m not making eyes at her,” James said.

“All right, James,” said Remus.

In her absence, he tried to remind himself of the frustration he’d felt not so long ago upon seeing her and Snape on the map. Maybe her sunny mood had come from patching things up with him.

But it was so difficult staying angry with her. Tonight was a prime Lily Evans night: her red hair shone in the firelight, mirth gave her face a glow. The word James was carefully avoiding was beautiful. It was terrible to know that befriending her hadn’t changed that — had made it worse, somehow. 

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It was half past ten when Mary, Doe, and Germaine cornered Peter.

Well, maybe cornered was putting it strongly. The crowd had stuck around to watch the final match of the tournament; someone had broken out bottles of Butterbeer, which were now being passed around before the game began. The girls hovered pointedly around Peter, Butterbeers in hand.

“You’re here to tell me to throw the match,” said Peter.

“No!” Doe said.

“Not at all,” Germaine said.

“On the contrary,” said Mary. “Lily needs to win the honest way, although I can’t for the life of me understand why.”

“You wouldn’t understand honour if it bit you in the arse, Mare,” Germaine said fondly. 

“What we mean to say is,” Doe went on, “make sure you put up a good fight.”

Peter glanced between them, indignant. “Of course I will! I don’t plan on losing. I haven’t lost a game of Exploding Snap since I was eight.”

“Famous last words,” Lily called.

She and Peter joined Bert Mallory, one of the Gryffindor Beaters, and a fourth year named Evelyn Waspwing in the final circle. A round of cheers went around the audience. Looking at her grinning housemates, Lily wondered that she had felt homesick at all just the day before. Even when school was difficult — and Merlin, it so often found new ways to be difficult — it was still Hogwarts. It was magical, it was welcoming, it was home away from home.

“No elbowing, no spitting, and certainly no non-verbal hexing,” Remus told the players. He held up the deck of cards and it floated towards them, shuffling itself as it went. Lily gripped her wand tight in her clammy hand, and tried not to look at Peter’s serene expression.

The cards flipped face up. Lily’s hand shot out almost of its own accord, nabbing a pair of Hebridean Blacks. 

“First blood,” muttered Peter. Evelyn shushed him and took the second point.

For all the friendly ribbing the previous matches had contained, this one was played in deathly silence — on their part, at least. The audience cheered at every point, yelled and ducked when Bert Mallory’s cards exploded, and quieted as the deck wound down. It was a terribly close game but—

“That’s...the match for Lily,” said Remus into the hush. (“Sacred Circe,” whispered Lisa Kelly.)

Lily leapt to her feet and whooped. The sound of it was almost enough to obscure Peter’s moaning. She seized the first person at hand — Dorcas, thankfully — and hugged her. 

“I won!” she crowed. She detached herself from Doe and pointed at Peter, who was watching her glumly. “I beat you, and you actually wanted to win!”

“Why are you so shocked?” said Peter with profound bitterness. “You strategised your way to the final round anyway.”

“Oh, it was a fluke, really. I’m awful at Exploding Snap. I just did what I could and hoped for the best.”

His jaw dropped. Lily burst into laughter, hauling Mary and Germaine into her arms as well.

“It was so lovely of you to do this. It’s really taken my mind off — everything.”

Germaine, whose arms were wrapped around her waist, gave her a squeeze. “Of course, silly. Now, our gifts are ready to be opened tomorrow morning, but by request this one is supposed to get to you early.”

“What?”

Mary tugged her to a quieter corner of the room. They squeezed onto a sofa, and she pulled a little velvet box and a letter from her pocket. At first Lily looked at the box and thought Dex? But it didn’t look like a jewellery case, and she’d have been quite mortified if he’d spent real money on her. She took the box, anticipation rising in her chest, and worked it open.

Inside was a slim gold wristwatch, with a pearlescent face and a clasp that made it look more like a bracelet than a watch. It was delightfully impractical — Lily didn’t think she could wear it for fear of breaking it — but it was gorgeous. The hands were set to midnight, frozen and waiting for her to start them.

“Oh,” Lily breathed, “it’s beautiful. It’s — who sent it?” If her friends had cobbled together the gold for it, she would cry at once. She wouldn’t have been able to accept it.

Mary laughed as if she were being dense on purpose. “Your mum, stupid. Here, the letter goes with it.”

She took the letter in shaking fingers, uncomprehending. But it couldn’t be — hadn’t her mum said to expect her present on Sunday? And the watch was clearly too expensive… The letter, though, was in her mother’s familiar hand. 

 

Dear Lily,

Happy, happy birthday. I know you’ll expect to hear from me only on Sunday, but I thought you deserved a surprise. Petunia reminded me that the traditional magical gift when you turn seventeen is a watch, and when I saw this one I knew it was perfect. Don’t you worry about the how of it — that’s your mother’s concern. I am so proud of the lively, intelligent, caring young woman you’ve grown into. As much credit as I want to take for it, most of it is your due. I couldn’t be happier to call you my daughter. 

I think of you every day. I think of how proud your father would be to see you now — how proud he is, wherever he’s watching us from. Wear this watch and start it at midnight, so it can keep you company as you walk into adulthood.

All my love,

Mum

 

“Oh,” Lily said again, and found she was crying.

“Don’t cry,” Doe said, swiping away her tears with a thumb.

Lily gave a shaky laugh, drying her cheeks. How had Petunia even known about watches? She couldn’t remember mentioning it. But she must have. And her sister had remembered. For all that Severus reminded her of her childhood, she had someone else from back then too. And Petunia was complicated too, of course she was, but she was her sister, and this was proof that things between them weren’t altogether irreparable.

She took off the worn watch she had on already and fumbled with the new one, trying to do the catch one-handed before Germaine leaned over and put it on for her. 

“Doris really has taste,” Mary said admiringly, making all four of them laugh.

“She does,” said Lily, unable to contribute anything more meaningful to the conversation just yet. For this shining moment, everything was good.

The girls sat in silence for some time, the festivities continuing around them. Finally Lily stood, needing something to do — and it was almost eleven, the youngest students ought to be ushered to bed soon… She collected her friends’ empty Butterbeer bottles, ignoring their protests, and moved through the crowd to dispose of them. 

“Cleaning up before the party’s even over?” James said, appearing beside her.

Lily gave him a small smile. Now that the adrenaline of the tournament had worn off, she was the slightest bit embarrassed by how she’d acted around him. Somehow the gusto and cheek of her summer self had come over her — or the energy of a far younger, left-behind Lily. It was probably too much. Too annoying, or laughable, or downright bizarre.

Instead of answering his question, she asked one of her own. “Are you going to show me the trophy yet?” 

“I don’t have it. But you should stop by the Trophy Room tomorrow.”

“The Trophy Room?”

Yes, the Trophy Room. Stop fishing.” He handed her a pouch — the very same one that Sirius had been toting around all afternoon. “Your winnings. Remus and I had to wrestle them away from Sirius, so I’d steer clear of him for a while.”

Lily laughed, taking the pouch. She saw that the posters around the common room — previously announcing the start time of the tournament — now read Congratulations, Lily Evans, winner of the inaugural Lily Evans Gryffindor House Exploding Snap Tournament in Doe’s flowing script.

Her friends had done this...for her. She had been distracted and secretive and distant and they had still done this for her. And Remus was certainly her friend, and Peter was a sweetheart, but Sirius was Sirius and James was James. If you had told her in September that the latter would have a hand, at all, in making her seventeenth birthday special, Lily would have been shocked.

“Thank you,” she said, fiddling with the pouch’s strings as she looked up at James. “You didn’t have to do all this. I mean, it was very good of you.” Not nice, or kind, or sweet, Lily thought, but good. Wholly well-intentioned and reflective of an innate something. 

James sighed, rocking back on his heels as if her words were a burden to bear — though his smile didn’t entirely fade. “I didn’t do much.”

“It isn’t like you to deflect praise.”

“It isn’t like you to be late, but you were late earlier tonight.”

Lily frowned. Had she said something wrong? “It isn’t like you to keep tabs on me.”

He rolled his eyes. “It’s really like you to argue.”

“Are we arguing? Because I don’t know why.” Wrongness was puncturing her good mood, like a needle to a balloon.

“We’re not arguing,” James said after a moment. “Sorry. Happy birthday. I’d better go see what that’s about.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, where a seventh year was arguing with Sirius and Peter. 

Lily wasn’t sure what to say — thank you? I’m sorry? She didn’t know what she felt like apologising for. But the easy way they’d had while playing Exploding Snap had vanished. Things were simple with him until they weren’t.

“Right. Thanks,” she said once she’d found her voice. 

He gave her a wave and sauntered off. Lily turned around just so she would not watch him go, and so she was in the perfect spot to see the portrait swing open to reveal a flustered, breathless Colin Rollins.

“Prefects!” he shouted.

At first, people did not hear him. Lily moved towards him automatically, guiltily — it was late, and they were probably being noisy, and her name was plastered all over the common room walls. Perhaps that didn’t account for the Head Boy’s frazzled look, but Colin had his peculiarities. Maybe he couldn’t stand the idea of the Gryffindors having this much fun. 

“I’m sorry, we’ll send the younger students to bed,” she said.

He gave her a grim nod, but raised his voice once more. “Everyone! Get to your dorms, right now. Professor McGonagall will be by to ensure the common room is empty. And it’s past curfew, but let me remind you that no one is to leave the tower. No one.”

Only then did Lily wonder if this panic had an entirely different cause.

“Colin, is everything all right?”

His gaze snapped to hers; he swallowed. He was afraid, she realised. A chill crept into her veins.

“Yes. No. I mean— Look, I don’t want students going off to investigate, so I’d rather not talk. Merlin knows everyone will find out by tomorrow anyway.”

She didn’t understand any of it. “Find out what? Is… Has someone been hurt?”

Colin looked away. This was enough confirmation for Lily, who felt a weight drop like a stone in her stomach.

“Don’t worry, we’ll get everyone in bed. I’m sure the prefects can wake up every now and then to make sure…”

She glanced over her shoulder; the other prefects had realised this was serious, and were shepherding students up the staircases. Her friends were waiting by the foot of the girls’ staircase wearing identical worried expressions. Lily gave them a smile and a thumbs up, but her heart was not in it. It seemed as though the evening’s merriment had been just an illusion, shattered by the real world.

“Right. As long as things are under control, I should head back.” Colin gave her a terse nod. “Thanks, Evans.”

He was gone before she could say no problem. Lily burned with the need to know what had happened — but she was no idiot. Leaving was a very silly idea, given how worried Colin had looked. The last few stragglers were headed up to their dorms, but Peter and James still hovered nearby. She did not want to scold them, but she couldn’t in good conscience go off to sleep and pretend she didn’t know what they were thinking of doing…

“You should both be in bed,” she called as she walked in their direction.

They exchanged glances. 

“You should be in bed, now that you’ve done your job,” James said. He was holding a piece of parchment in his hands; he angled it away from her.

“Colin said someone was hurt. Whoever hurt them could still be—”

“—around, with all the Aurors and professors out of bed?” James shook his head. “Just go, Evans. We’re not planning anything.”

Lily bit her lip, wondering if she ought to call him out on such a baldfaced lie. But he had that mulish look on his face, the one she knew would not budge for anything. Given how tenuous their friendship had felt just minutes ago, she was afraid that pushing now would lead to a break. 

So she shrugged and walked up the stairs, knowing she would lie awake for hours. Moving on autopilot, she took off the new watch and set it on her bedside table before sliding under the covers. She would not remember to start it, as her mother had told her to, until past noon the next day, the twelve nervous, restless hours in between like a waking dream. So this, she would think as she fiddled with the knob and set the watch to match Doe’s, is adulthood.

 


iii. The Way Things Stand

It took eight minutes for James Potter, Sirius Black, and Peter Pettigrew to disobey Lily’s directive.

Sirius could not be caught out of bed, and at first a whispered argument had ensued on the subject. Finally Remus had conceded (thrown up his hands and said, “Oh, do you what you want!”) and James and Sirius had ducked under the Cloak and slipped out of the portrait hole. Peter followed in his rat form. The excitement of a nighttime excursion was muted; the boys were alert, as close as they could be to worried, as they studied the map. 

The point of disturbance was in the armour gallery, it seemed. They had never seen so many professors’ dots clustered in one place before, save perhaps the Start-of-Term Feast. All four heads of house were present, as were Professor Thorpe, Edgar Bones and Ethelbert Fawley, Marissa Beasley and Crollins, and Filch and Mrs. Norris. Pomfrey was bustling around the Hospital Wing, though more than one student was in the infirmary for the night and it was unclear who exactly had been hurt. Most significant of all, though, was the dot labelled Albus Dumbledore in the Hospital Wing. if the headmaster himself had been roused from bed, things were really serious.

James searched the map, as he so often did when confronted with a mishap at Hogwarts, for Snape. He and Thalia Greengrass were moving towards the dungeons; only one other student was out of bed ahead of them, one Olivia Nott. He frowned, distracted enough that he nearly tripped over the hem of the Cloak.

“Christ, watch out,” Sirius muttered.

James mumbled an apology as they entered the Trophy Room. The Protean Charm placed on the trophies there earlier had already taken effect; the shields and plaques read Lily J. Evans, Winner, Inaugural Lily Evans Gryffindor House Exploding Snap Tournament (1977). The idea had been Germaine’s — since the trophies would celebrate Lily regardless of who won — and James had executed it. What a laugh it had seemed before; now the trophies looked too cheerful by far. 

“Here, squeaky squeaky!” a voice crooned in the darkness; Peeves, hanging from the chandelier, swooped down upon Peter, who did indeed squeal and dash out of sight. Sirius swore quietly. The boys finally slipped through to the armour gallery — and stopped short. 

It was always amusing to see professors in their dressing gowns at nighttime — McGonagall in tartan, Sprout in paisley, Flitwick in chintz, and Slughorn in stripes — but it seemed like a unique horror now. Like laughing at a broken bone, because it seemed too wrong to be real. Splashed across the wall in bold black letters was the phrase BLOOD WILL FIGHT BACK. Flitwick and Thorpe were waving their wands at the message, but it did not budge.

“We’ll have to get it off the old-fashioned way, I expect,” said Edgar Bones grimly.

“I’ll sort it out,” said Flitwick, his face set in determination. “I’ll sort it out if it takes me all night.”

“Filius—” McGonagall began, but the Charms professor shook his head.

“Impervious or not, there is a way around it…”

Turning to Marissa and Crollins, McGonagall said, “The prefects have been gone too long. Would you—”

“Go after them?” Marissa finished. “Yes, Professor. We’ll bring them right back.”

“I should come with you,” Slughorn said, though he looked incredibly reluctant. “They’re all my students, after all… Oh, terrible, terrible…”

His students? James’s frown deepened. Maybe Snape was involved, the great prat… 

“I don’t understand,” Sprout said as Slughorn, Marissa, and Crollins disappeared in the direction of the dungeons. “I simply don’t understand how, with all the people patrolling tonight, this could have escaped our notice.” She looked askance at Filch — not exactly accusatory, but certainly questioning.

“Having spoken to Peeves—” McGonagall looked incredibly weary at the thought of the poltergeist “—I think some of the blame can be placed on the itinerant Trophy Room. It may have bounced between the sixth floor and the third tonight—”

"I told you, Professor McGonagall, I told you it was the Trophy Room — the poor things, with that blasted poltergeist spoiling them—" Filch cut in.

McGonagall gave him a quelling look. "I am sure you're expressing sympathy for the victim, Filch, and not inanimate objects."

The caretaker looked cowed. "I only meant — I was on the sixth floor, Professor, and heard a ruckus in the room, came rushing right back to investigate it only the room was gone — had to walk down three floors—"

"If Mr. McIlhenny had wound up on the wrong floor having gone through the Trophy Room," McGonagall began thoughtfully.

“He could have been ambushed,” Thorpe said, nodding. “Although, Minerva, it would take a stroke of good fortune to be waiting on the third floor just as the Trophy Room moved.”

“Are you suggesting that there were — multiple conspirators involved?” said Flitwick, turning his attention away from the wall.

Thorpe shrugged. “One on each floor, ready to catch him wherever he landed up. Honestly, having taught Nott, she’d need the help. I can’t imagine her taking McIlhenny down very easily.”

Sprout scoffed. “But why would Olivia Nott want to attack him so badly? Why would she know where he was going?”

“I expect we’ll have more answers when Poppy revives him,” said McGonagall, putting an end to the speculation.

James exchanged a glance with Sirius, who mouthed revive?  

“We can go over curse shields at the next Duelling Club,” Fawley said; Bones nodded agreement.

Thorpe sighed. “I’ll give everyone a short lesson in my classes next week. Merlin knows I shouldn’t have to teach that to first and second years…”

James felt a pressure on his foot; he looked down to see Peter, still in rat form, standing on his toes pointedly. What? he tried to convey with his gaze. The rat pointed along the corridor. Mrs. Norris had gone very still, save for her twitching tail, and was staring in their direction. That was their cue.

For a moment James wanted to suggest they visit the Hospital Wing and find out what had happened to McIlhenny, but getting around Dumbledore was too much risk. He jerked his head towards the Trophy Room — which seemed stable for now — and the three boys scuttled back to Gryffindor Tower, none but Mrs. Norris the wiser.

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Colin Rollins was wrong about most things, but he had correctly estimated the pace and zeal of the Hogwarts rumour mill. By breakfast the next morning everyone did know what had happened. Gerry McIlhenny, a burly fifth year Muggle-born student in Hufflepuff, had been hit with a curse and left in the armour gallery on the third floor.

Any worse and he’d have had to be sent to St. Mungo’s, apparently, but the prefects on patrol had found him in time, and he was recovering in the Hospital Wing. They’d even caught the culprit, who hadn’t been able to get back to her bed in time. 

The Great Hall was abuzz with discussion. Sprout, Slughorn, and Dumbledore were absent from breakfast, but McGonagall gazed down at the students sternly, seemingly caught between hushing them and staying silent.

The Aurors walking up and down the aisles looked worn and sleep-tousled. Kingsley Shacklebolt was shaking his head as he paced — recalled temporarily from the Hogsmeade investigation, or so rumour claimed — and across the hall, Marlene McKinnon muttered, “Oh, seven hells,” as she gave a weeping Ravenclaw a handkerchief.

“No way was it Olivia Nott,” said James as he took a swig of pumpkin juice. “I’d bet my bloody broom on it.”

“Well, betting your broom won’t save her,” Remus said, sighing. “Supposedly her wand cast the curse. They’re suspending her — I saw her parents in the Entrance Hall earlier.”

Undeterred, James jabbed a fork in the air. “That’s proof of nothing. Anyone could’ve taken her wand and cast the spell. Anyone could’ve — Confunded her, even—”

“She remembers doing it,” Peter said in an undertone. “Least, that’s what I heard.”

“Imperiused, then!” 

“Come off it, Prongs…”

“You heard Thorpe last night.” James’s voice dropped to a whisper. “She taught Nott Defence Against the Dark Arts. If she thinks she couldn’t have cast that curse, well…”

“Thorpe also said she might’ve had help,” Sirius pointed out. “And, really, mate, it’s not like Olivia Nott is this shining paragon who deserves your defence. She’s Avery’s first cousin, and she holds her nose when she walks past Muggleborns in the corridors.”

“Who she’s related to is hardly an indication of her guilt,” James said, but he sensed he was fighting a losing battle. “I just think something isn’t right. I mean, Snape and Greengrass—”

“—found him.” This came from Lily, a short distance down the table.

James met her gaze coolly. “Oh, yeah? Is that what he’s saying?”

A crease appeared between her brows. “I don’t talk to him, so I wouldn’t know what he’s saying. But he and Thalia were the prefects on duty. Prefects found Gerard McIlhenny. It’s a simple two-and-two.”

He relaxed, despite himself, upon hearing I don’t talk to him. Stupid, stupid. More importantly, he did not think Snape discovering the victim saved him from suspicion at all. If anything it put him in the right place at the right time...

“Anyway,” Lily sighed, “I’m sure the additional Aurors will figure out if Olivia Nott had help, and who helped her.” There was a drawn paleness in her face; James regretted snapping at her. He too would not have wanted to wake up to this news on his birthday.

“The additional Aurors are supposed to be solving a murder,” Sirius grumbled. “No offence to McIlhenny, because whoever cursed him should get fucked, but — seems as though the bigger concern is the Dark Mark someone cast over Hogsmeade just a month ago.”

Had it already been a month? Lily turned away at those words, wishing she could block out the conversation. But everyone around her was talking about what had happened. Several more sleepless nights were in her purview, it seemed. 

It did not help that she and her friends had seen the message on the wall on their way to breakfast. Mary had suggested they go through the Trophy Room so Lily could be cheered up, even a little, by her name on all the shields in it. All four of them had sensed that once they arrived in the Great Hall and heard the details of the previous night, they would not be in the mood to enjoy anything.

And Lily had laughed a bit, until they came through to the armour gallery and saw Filch scrubbing at letters on the stone wall. He was only halfway through, but the meaning was quite clear: BLOOD WILL FIGH, it read. 

“That slogan sounded a bit Thorpe to me,” Doe said. “Marcel Thorpe, I mean. Lily, Mare, I don’t think you two should walk around the castle alone anymore. Someone should go with you to the common room on Monday mornings while we’re in Herbology, Mary, maybe a seventh year has a free period—”

Lily groaned — but not because she disagreed. Her friends looked at her, frowning.

“What’s the matter?” said Germaine. “Well, what specifically is the matter, I mean.”

Everything. There’s so many little things to worry about, constantly, and now I have to be on my guard against curses in the corridors?” Danger was getting closer and closer, it seemed. First Hogsmeade, now the castle itself… 

“Lily, love,” Dorcas began.

“It’s — it’s all right, I’m all right.” Lily sucked in a deep breath. “Dex and I are...in a funny spot right now, and having that on top of life and death concerns is frustrating.”

“Well, we’ve...noticed,” said Mary delicately. “We saw he wasn’t at the tournament yesterday. Do you want to talk about it?”

“Oh, how stupid to talk about boys and not—” She waved a hand at the Great Hall.

“We’ve talked the message to death. At this point the conversation isn’t reassuring,” said Doe.

Germaine added, “You have to tell us things if you want us to help, you know.”

Lily looked at each of them in turn. The secret room, the duelling Slytherins, Severus, James, Dex… The duelling Slytherins, James, the secret room, Severus, Dex… James, Severus, I slept with my boyfriend, the secret room, the—

“I don’t think you can help,” she said. “It’s just something I have to...consider and sort out.” This was something of a fib, but Lily did not want to spend what was left of her seventeenth birthday crying to her friends. 

“When you’re ready to talk about it, you let us know,” said Germaine, smiling hopefully.

Lily nodded, not trusting herself to speak. Mary, with her preternatural ability to sense when a change of subject was in order, straightened in her seat.

“In the interest of discussing trivial things,” she said, “Doc is going with Marissa to Hogsmeade next month. For Valentine’s Day. So I suppose that’s that.”

“Did you speak to him after Evan’s?” Doe frowned. “I thought you said he didn’t sleep with her.” 

“Well, no, I didn’t,” Mary confessed. “I was hoping he’d speak to me.”

“Oh, Mare—”

“He and Marissa do have history,” Germaine said, shrugging.

The three other girls looked at her, astonished.

“They don’t,” Mary said, eyes wide. “Do they?”

Germaine was herself stunned to know something they didn’t. “I thought so. I mean, I saw them at Hogsmeade last year, I think, and they were holding hands… I mean, maybe they were friends who hold hands. I dunno.”

“How did I not know?”

“He strikes me as being rather quiet about relationships,” Doe said. Her eyes were full of worry.

Lily chimed in, grateful to have something to add. “And they’ve been friends for a long time, so people might not have noticed when things changed.”

“What month, last year?” said Mary urgently.

Germaine frowned. “It was cold, I remember that. February, maybe?”

Lily and Germaine did not know the significance of the timing, but Doe and Mary exchanged a glance. If Doc had been seeing Marissa in January too… if he had kissed Mary while he’d been dating her… Well, that explained why he’d been so cold with her afterwards. But surely Marissa didn’t know, because they were still friends.

Mary thought of Amelia Bones and Chris Townes. She’d learned her lesson since fourth year. Getting in the middle of other people’s relationships was a dreadful idea. To have done so unintentionally… She felt a bit cheated herself. To think he might have used her that way, and she’d been chasing a cheater for a year… 

“I’m sorry,” Germaine said, noticing but misreading her concern. “I just assumed you knew — I mean, when we saw them together last term… I didn’t think it was worth mentioning.”

Mary breathed out through her nostrils, trying to steady herself. “I suppose it’s in the unexpected details.”

And though they had tried to divert the conversation to easier subjects, the girls fell once more into worried silence. Outside the Great Hall's enormous windows, snow began to fall.

 

 

Chapter Text

i. Twist and Shout

“Remember, children, the three Ds!” trilled the Apparition instructor, one Araminta Belby, a shockingly small witch whose shockingly large glasses made her look like a pygmy owl. 

“I’ve forgotten them already,” Peter muttered, staring morosely at the wooden hoop in front of him.

One spot over, Remus gave a sympathetic sigh. “Think of it as Transfiguration — Vanishing yourself, sort of, then bringing yourself back — it’s not as if you haven’t done advanced magic on yourself before—”

“That’s different.” Peter glanced at James and Sirius. More accurately, that was something he’d done with them, but it wasn’t as though his mates could help him Apparate. And worst of all, as the only one of the Marauders born after the first Apparition test date, he really would be on his own when he was trying to get a license… 

“Quiet, Pettigrew,” Professor McGonagall said, striding past him.

On Remus’s other side, Sirius was concentrating on something a touch further than his hoop.

“Why’s Mulciber here?” he whispered.

Remus followed his gaze to the seventh year Slytherin, frowning slightly. “Maybe he failed so badly last year, he has to take the classes again.” Sirius barked out a laugh, looking to see if James was laughing along.

As it turned out, James had not heard. This was because by an odd stroke of luck (or bad luck, however you looked at it) he was standing in front of Lily Evans, who was next to Germaine King. James didn’t want to eavesdrop — in fact, he had been scrupulously trying not to — but the girls were bad at keeping their voices down. He had half a mind to tell them he could hear, or suggest they cast Muffliato, but the nature of the conversation was such that he desperately did not want them to know he’d heard anything at all.

“I hate to give you the same advice,” Germaine was saying, “but you do have to talk to him.”

“But I’ve left it a whole month. It’ll seem like I’ve been stewing,” said Lily.

“You have been stewing.”

“Well, I don’t want him to know I’ve been stewing!”

Lily.”

“What if I talk to him and—” Lily dropped her voice, but sadly, James could still hear her. “—and it turns out I really am bad in bed?”

James coughed very loudly. A few rows over, Professor Sprout gave him a warning look, as though she worried his coughing was some indication of mischief. What were the three Ds again? Araminta Belby sailed past him, and, with a sense of profound relief, James flagged her down by waving a hand at her. Belby didn’t look pleased to be hailed this way, rather like a taxi, but she did stop.

“Yes?” she said.

“Er,” said James, who was at a loss for what to ask her now that he’d succeeded in drawing her attention. Anything, anything, to get Lily and Germaine to stay quiet. “What’s the second D?”

Dee-termination,” Araminta Belby pronounced imperiously, as though this were the word of God. All too soon she glided away, and the girls’ conversation resumed. 

James was not by nature a patient person, and he thought he was about five seconds away from Splinching himself on purpose. Or maybe he’d have managed it by accident anyway. Every ounce of concentration he had was currently engaged in not thinking about Lily and her boyfriend having sex. To be precise: Lily and her boyfriend having sex, and him treating her poorly after it. He wasn’t under any illusions about where he figured in Lily Evans’s life, but for the first time in a while James felt a real, unpleasant resentment towards Dex Fortescue. For all that he seemed like a friendly bloke (and even James admitted that he did) it seemed the seventh year had at best been thoughtless, and Lily didn’t deserve thoughtlessness. 

That is, no bird deserved thoughtlessness. Lily, as a bird, fell into that category.

Jesus fucking Christ, James thought. His internal monologue was mired in self-delusion. He would never have admitted it to Sirius, but he was beginning to begrudgingly accept that his best mate had a point concerning...well, not concerning any lingering feelings, but concerning how exactly he ought to recover from past feelings. Hadn’t he said an in-person alternative was best back in September when James had brought up Mel? 

“—unfair to expect him to guess what’s on your mind, and you’re very honest in all your relationships. I really don’t think there’s another way to fix it,” Germaine was saying.

“I just wish—” Lily began.

But James was spared from hearing what she just wished, because Araminta Belby called, “We will try all together now, children…”

Sirius scoffed.

“Focus on your destination — harness your determination, will yourself to transcend yourself — and twist on the spot — now!”

Peter tripped, falling backwards in a comical flailing of limbs that took out Mary Macdonald behind him. She shrieked, “Peter, get off!” Dorcas was letting out a quiet string of modified profanity — “hell crud socks twigs mother...flower” — which earned what sounded like a chuckle from a passing McGonagall. “I think I’m missing some hair,” Germaine said, “can you Splinch hair?” James didn’t think Sirius had even tried; he was doubled-over laughing at Gaurav Singh in front of him, who’d hopped into his hoop and was trying to pass it off as a success. 

Araminta Belby waved her arms. “Once more, children…” 

Icon of a quill drawing a line

“—five feet of space around you if you please—” 

Lily waited patiently for the students around her to move, then grabbed Germaine by the elbow. 

“Stand next to me, will you?” she said under her breath.

Germaine shook her off. “All right, all right, you don’t have to claw me… What’s so important that you’re not paying close attention to the instructor?”

She didn’t fancy failing a course that she’d paid for, especially given that it was the easiest form of transportation open to her — flying was far too unsteady, and Flooing was out of the question for now, at least. But for once there were more important things than learning.

“I can’t keep this inside me anymore,” Lily whispered. “I’m — it’s stupid, but—” Then, all in a rush, “Dex and I had sex and he’s been oddly distant and I think I’m bad at it and now things are all wrong but I don’t know what to do.”

To her credit, Germaine kept any shock she felt perfectly hidden.

“Oh, so that’s what it was,” she said, poking a toe at the hoop that had appeared before her. “How come you’re telling me, and not Mary?” This was born not of any insecurity or resentment. All four girls knew that Mary was the sexpert among them — although, the bar was low, considering she was the only one with any experience.

Not anymore, Lily reminded herself. But it wasn’t as though her experience counted for anything. All it had done was drive off her boyfriend, clearly.

“Well, I know you’d listen. And I spoke to her about it last term, and she was lovely, but—” She could feel herself going red. “Oh, I’m embarrassed, and I don’t want her to think I’m a fool.”

Germaine sighed patiently. “She wouldn’t. But all right, you’ve told me, and I’m here to advise you. Are you positive it was the sex?”

Seeing as how she hadn’t talked to him about it, Lily couldn’t be positive. She frowned as she mulled this over, fixing her gaze on the dark hair of the boy in front of her. 

“I think so. If only because he’s pretending like it didn’t happen!”

You’re pretending it didn’t happen.”

She hated it when her friends were right.

“I’m only pretending it didn’t happen because he is.”

“Do you want me to be blunt, Lily?”

Germaine was looking at her with a soft sort of sympathy.

“Yes?” said Lily, uncertain.

“Well, he’s been distracted, distant, and downright daft — three Ds plus a bonus — and I honestly thought he might be...cheating on you.” Once the words were out, she hurried to soothe whatever sting they might have caused. “Not that he would — you know I love you, and no one should cheat on you, ever ever ever, or I’d tear them limb from limb. But...those were the signs, to me.”

Truth be told, this really had not occurred to Lily at all. She supposed Germaine had a point, but she couldn’t see it. And she didn’t think that was because she didn’t want to see it — although, of course she didn’t, it was such a distressing thing to consider…

“No, he wouldn’t,” said Lily. “I really don’t think he would. Even if he doesn’t like me as much anymore, or — or something like that, he’s not a bad person.”

“I don’t think everyone who cheats is a villain.”

“You know what I mean.”

Germaine sighed. “All right, I do know what you mean. I hate to give you the same advice, but you do have to talk to him.”

Lily knew this was coming. It was the advice she would have given in her friend’s place. But childishly, she didn’t want to consider it. Talking to him about big things felt so impossible, because every time she sat down with him to do it, she managed to tell herself she’d imagined the issues. Besides, why ruin the time they spent together with her worries?

It wasn’t a sustainable strategy. Vacillation was a weak character trait, she reminded herself. She knew she ought to make a choice and stick to it.

“But I’ve left it a whole month. It’ll seem like I’ve been stewing,” she protested nevertheless. 

“You have been stewing,” Germaine pointed out.

“Well, I don’t want him to know I’ve been stewing!” She knew how petulant she sounded — and yet!

Germaine was shaking her head. “Lily.”

What on earth would that conversation even look like? She wished fervently that she had Mary’s candour or Doe’s tact or Germaine’s blunt honesty. She wished she had James Potter’s high shame threshold.

“What if I talk to him and — and it turns out I really am bad in bed?” she whispered.

Someone coughed, and both girls jumped. They’d forgotten to concentrate on their hoops entirely. They returned to the task at hand — or, at least, they pretended to return to the task at hand. Lily stared at the stone encircled by her hoop with immense focus. If only she knew how to communicate telepathically, and could beam her thoughts and worries directly into Dex’s brain… Oh, hadn’t she wanted things to be honest? Where, along the way, had she wandered off the simple path?

“What’s the second D?” the boy in front of her was asking Araminta Belby. Lily realised it was James — how distracted had she been, if she hadn’t even recognised him? 

“Determination,” Belby replied with a sniff.

She didn’t think James would have any trouble with that. But she, Lily, did… So much for being a bold, daring Gryffindor. So much for honesty, and simplicity, and goodness. Belatedly she heard Germaine still speaking to her.

“You’re very honest in all your relationships,” her friend was saying. “I really don’t think there’s another way to fix it.”

But was she honest? She had gone weeks without telling her friends about Dex. She was currently not telling Dex himself her anxieties. She wanted to be able to solve her problems herself. If she managed that then she wouldn’t have to tell anyone anything at all — the issues would all be moot.

She opened her mouth to vocalise this. “I just wish—”

“We will try all together now, children!” Araminta Belby said.

Lily’s stomach swooped. She hadn’t tried to get into her hoop at all. Now she was behind on Apparition, of all things. Luckily, when Belby counted them down, not a single person around her managed the feat. She felt guilty for her relief, but only a little.

Icon of a quill drawing a line

The sixth years trickled out of the Great Hall after a relatively uneventful lesson. Germaine had expected to be underwhelmed by the whole job of Apparition, having been ferried around Side-Along by her sister for several years now. But it was even worse than she’d thought. All that tosh about envisioning yourself in your destination and letting yourself be transported… It reminded her distinctly of Professor Lawrence’s Divination classes, which she’d been only too happy to drop after performing abysmally in her O.W.L. The poor grade had been a relief.

But thinking of Lawrence reminded Germaine of her absurd prophecy and the moved Quidditch matches, which in turn reminded her of Emmeline Vance. Hadn’t Emmeline been the one to take Lawrence’s vision to Flitwick? How out of character that seemed. Germaine wouldn’t have pegged her for a N.E.W.T.-level Divination student. But then again, she supposed she’d never really known the other witch at all. What did a few flying sessions do? Well, they made her the idiot twit who’d fancy someone she barely knew…

Perhaps thoughts could conjure people. Emmeline was suddenly beside her, walking perfectly in step with her.

“I hope someone will Apparate eventually at these things,” she said.

It would be easy to slide into casual conversation as if they’d not argued on the Hogwarts Express at all. Germaine felt almost annoyed that Emmeline was granting her this clemency.

“That girl Splinching herself wasn’t entertainment enough?” Germaine replied nastily.

Emmeline’s expression grew closed-off and hard. “Poking fun at Lottie now of all times is really unfair.”

Germaine said nothing. She had no idea who the girl who’d Splinched herself was, nor why laughing at her was in poor taste. But she wanted to keep Emmeline at arm’s length. Preferably further than that.

“You’re properly angry at me. You haven’t come to the pitch since we got back in January,” Emmeline went on.

“I’m not angry at you,” said Germaine, unconvincing even to her own ears.

“And you’re not going to tell me what I did, I suppose.”

She stayed silent. There was no way she could explain, after all.

“All right,” Emmeline sighed. “Worth a try, anyway.” She hoisted her bag higher on her shoulder and made as if to walk away.

“Wait!”

The word slipped out before Germaine could stop it. Emmeline stopped, eyebrows raised. A curl had come loose from her French plait; she tucked it behind one ear. Germaine followed the gesture with her gaze before staring at the flagstone floor instead.

“I’m sorry. Things have been — things were strange at home, with my parents, and I suppose I was in a bad mood on the train.”

Emmeline nodded slowly. “It’s all right.”

Germaine thought she’d overexplained, and the other girl would be put off by it after all. Or maybe she’d underexplained — what a vague sort of reason she’d given. But Emmeline offered her a small smile.

“Do you want to practice this afternoon?”

The question brought an answering grin to her face. “In the snow?”

“You never know what conditions you’ll face in a game, after all. Besides, I’d like to hear what you thought about the match against Slytherin.” Emmeline grimaced as she mentioned the loss.

“Oh.” Germaine hadn’t watched it after all, but she couldn’t say that — not when she knew Emmeline was the reason she’d stayed away. “Er, this afternoon, then.” She would just have to find Percy Egwu and beg for his notes.

As Emmeline disappeared around the corner, another shadow appeared behind her.

“Nice to see you’ve patched things up,” said James.

Germaine half-turned towards him, prepared for another argument. “Nice? Is that the word you’d use to describe it?”

He did not take this bait, tantalising though it was. 

“Just — be careful.”

She let out a long-suffering sigh. “So I don’t reveal all our Quidditch secrets. I know, I know. For the millionth time—”

James was frowning. “That isn’t what I meant. Be careful or you’ll get hurt.”

Germaine blinked at him. Sure, they were friendly as teammates were — friends, even — but she didn’t think she’d ever heard James express concern for her, properly, in a matter unrelated to Quidditch. It was rather nice of him. She was so surprised that she could not come up with a clever retort, or anything very reassuring.

“I will,” Germaine said finally. 

James looked away, jaw clenched; he seemed to be deliberating whether or not to say something more. But in the end he only nodded and waved at her as he sauntered away.

 


ii. Puzzle Pieces

Snow persisted at Hogwarts the next weekend. Already the term seemed to have lasted an eternity — or maybe that was just to Doe, sitting in the Gryffindor stands under an Impervius Charm. On one side of her, Mary kept flicking gathering snowflakes from her shoulder; the charm had evidently not covered her well enough. On her other side, Lily stifled a yawn. It was early evening, but the match showed no sign of letting up. McGonagall had already illuminated the pitch with great white orbs so the game could continue.

“Potter fumbles right by the goalposts,” Michael Meadowes said, a sigh audible in his voice. “Hufflepuff’s Callahan with the Quaffle now — if you’re too bored to keep score, we are still at ninety-seventy to Hufflepuff, and the Gryffindor captain is still goalless.”

Even the booing from the Gryffindors in defence of their captain was subdued.

“Germaine needs to catch the bloody Snitch already,” Mary said, bouncing her knee impatiently.

Through the snowfall, Doe could see a vague shape that must have been Germaine arguing with a vague shape that must have been James.

“I think that’s what Potter’s saying to her right now,” she said.

“Well, he could stand to score a few goals himself.”

“I think he knows.”

All three girls sighed. Doe felt nervous enough to bounce her own knee. She couldn’t help but think of what had happened on the night of the last Quidditch match. What if whoever had hurt Gerard McIlhenny struck again? And tomorrow would be the first Hogsmeade visit since the murders in late December. Dorcas didn’t want to consider how the village might have changed. Would it be worse to see it swarming with Aurors and Magical Law Enforcement officers? Or would it be the same idyllic village, a vision that forced her to imagine the Dark Mark above it? 

That morning’s Prophet had contained news of a break in the case: a relief, probably, to the ever-anxious Aurors at Hogwarts. The victims — Hogsmeade residents, the one an assistant at the Magic Neep, the other a part-timer at Dervish and Banges — had apparently been exposed to some old Dark magic, a compulsion spell, but that had not been what’d killed them. No, they’d been hit with the good old Killing Curse. 

Doe realised she was drumming her fingers on her knees. At once she stood.

“I think I’m going to go back to the castle. I feel a cold coming on.”

Lily half-rose. “Oh, dear, do you want me to come with you? I can make you some tea—”

She very nearly said yes — but then she remembered Gerard McIlhenny, and how Lily and Mary were safer in big crowds, and if they didn’t think they needed to be careful she bloody well did.

“Don’t worry, I can manage,” Doe said, gently but firmly pushing Lily back into her seat. “Just don’t tell Germaine I left.”

Icon of a quill drawing a line

You see, Dorcas Walker was sweet and generous and perhaps too forgiving for her own good. But she was a problem-solver, what her mother jokingly called a puzzle-outer. She picked and picked and picked at her friends’ worries, her own, the world’s. She was an idealist, but she was the sort of idealist with the drive to make the world an ideal one. 

So the problem with her problems, at present, was they could not be picked at. She was one girl. She could not solve the murders of Grace Hopkins, the Muggle-born Dervish and Banges assistant, and Lewis Ross, who bagged groceries at the Magic Neep. She could not dismantle blood purity. But Merlin, she would try. She would write letters and argue with radio show hosts, and she would protect her family and friends. She would ask questions. She would be kind.

When Dorcas Walker entered the Gryffindor common room and saw Sirius Black pacing the carpet, and raking a hand through his hair, she did both.

“Oh, I thought you’d be at the match,” Doe said. Then, taking him in properly, she added, “Are you all right, Sirius?”

He had a piece of parchment clutched in his hands. At the sound of her voice he started, shoving it into a pocket.

“Fine,” he said roughly.

She thought he was very clearly not fine, but wasn’t sure how to phrase this in a sensitive manner. Some of her scepticism must have shown on her face, because Sirius sighed. 

“Just need to ask Regulus some questions about what happened last week.”

Doe frowned ever so slightly. “Questions — about McIlhenny?” she guessed. 

He seemed unwilling to confirm anything, which only made her more certain of her guess. 

“I thought they caught the girl who did it and suspended her. A fourth year or something?”

“Well, she couldn’t have done it on her own.”

“And you think your brother knows who helped?”

Sirius looked away. “I think he — knows the spell they used.”

Dorcas considered what little she knew of Regulus Black. He had always felt very peripheral to her Hogwarts experience — he played Quidditch against Germaine once a year, and he was Sirius’s brother. But until the events of that November, when Regulus had shouted at his brother in the Great Hall, Doe had barely given him a second thought. He seemed quiet, thoughtful where some of his fellow Slytherins were brash and violent. 

Of course, that Severus Snape was quiet too. 

“I’ll come with you,” she said. 

He scowled. “It’s none of your business.”

This standoffishness didn’t put her off much. 

“If he’s hurting Muggleborns, it’s everyone’s business,” said Doe crisply. “Besides, you look as though your strategy is to hex him into confessing. Maybe he’ll be more forthright if it isn’t just you.”

Sirius snorted. “That’s likely.” But he seemed to relax. “Fine. They’re in the library — he and Marcus Rowle.”

They walked there in silence, ducking past Pince (“She hates me,” Sirius said, “she can’t see us going in.”) and wandering through desks. On any Saturday afternoon the library would have been empty, snow or not, but it was obvious that several others had left the Quidditch match too for boredom. Guilty Gryffindors in red-and-gold scarves avoided catching Doe and Sirius’s notice. 

“Christ, if this many people ditched the game for the library it must be really bad,” he said. 

Doe was surprised. “Did you not go at all?”

He shook his head. “I was — waiting for Regulus to come back to the castle.” A flash of bitter longing crossed his face. Privately, she thought he might also have simply missed being on the team today, and had stayed away to avoid thinking about his dismissal from it. 

“There,” Sirius said, pointing at the two fifth years bent over a textbook. 

Regulus looked up at their approach, eyes narrowed. His handsome face was eerily reminiscent of his brother’s; the two regarded each other with cold distaste. 

“You only speak to me when you need something from me,” said Regulus. “So what is it?”

“Don’t sit down,” added Rowle, scowling. 

In response Sirius dragged over two chairs and sat. Doe repressed a sigh and took the seat beside him. 

“Tell me you two gits had nothing to do with the Hufflepuff who got attacked,” Sirius said. 

Rowle rolled his eyes. “It was Oliv—”

“Shut up, Rowle.” Sirius was staring right at Regulus. “It wasn’t that cute little curse they taught you, was it? Sectumsempra?”

Regulus stilled. Doe wasn’t sure if he looked guilty, exactly, but he was wary all of a sudden. She wanted to pull Sirius aside and ask what curse he was talking about.

“I wouldn’t know,” said Regulus stiffly. And then— “Is that really what happened? To McIlhenny?”

“Maybe. Is that what your pals say happened? Mulciber and Avery and Greengrass and the lot of them?”

“Sirius—” Doe began.

But something in his tone, or perhaps the invocation of the other Slytherins, shuttered Regulus away entirely. He sniffed, turning back to the book he’d been reading.

“You’ve got enough theories that it doesn’t sound like you need my help. Besides, we’d just won Quidditch. I was in the bloody common room, as were Mulciber and Avery, and Rowle too. The armour gallery is, what, five floors up? It’s a miracle Nott even got as far as she did.”

Dorcas tempered her voice and said, “You sound like you’ve given it some thought. How it happened, I mean.” She meant to sound encouraging, friendly, even — like she believed he was as concerned as the two of them.

Regulus seemed to take this as an accusation. “It’s a good thing I have. Apparently nosy Gryffindors are convinced I have to prove my innocence.” He gave her a cold once-over. “Who are you, again?”

She drew back, sensing where this was going both by the look on his face and Sirius’s sharp inhale.

“Dorcas. Walker,” she replied, emphasising her perfectly mundane surname. “Before you ask, no, you don’t know any Walkers. My parents are Muggle-born.”

His gaze darted to Sirius, then fell back upon his book. “Yeah. Thought so. If we’re done here, I have homework that needs doing.”

Sirius opened his mouth to say something else — something probably incendiary — but Doe grabbed his wrist. With a meaningful look, she hauled him out of his chair and towards the library doors.

“He’s not going to tell you anything,” she said under her breath, “if he even knows something worth telling.”

“He knows something,” Sirius insisted, but did not resist. Doe released him once they were out in the corridor. By unspoken agreement they started back to Gryffindor Tower.

Presently, she said, “Do you know what curse they hit McIlhenny with?”

“I’ve got a guess.”

Silence. She arched an eyebrow at him. “How, exactly?”

He sighed. “Moony was — ill this week, and he was in the Hospital Wing the same time as McIlhenny. He said he didn’t remember much, but there was...lots of blood. And Pomfrey said something about sealing the wound… The spell I’m thinking of could do that, I reckon.”

Sectumsempra?” Doe said hesitantly. “I’ve never heard of that.”

“Don’t try it,” he said quickly.

She put her hands up in a gesture of surrender. “I wouldn’t have tried a random curse your brother mentioned, Sirius.”

His expression grew stormy; he gave no reply. Belatedly she wondered if she shouldn’t have called Regulus his brother.

“You know… Everyone knows what your family are like. I mean, the entire Great Hall found out you were disowned at breakfast.”

Do they,” Sirius all but snarled, striding ahead of her. “Is that what the gossip’s about these days? My dear old mum?”

Realising she’d misstepped again, Doe shook her head. “That’s not — let me finish. I’m saying, everyone knows what your family are like, but we don’t judge you for it. You’re not them. And that’s pretty obvious to — well, everyone with an ounce of sense.”

He slowed ever so slightly, but the angry set to his shoulders remained.

“I know you lot hexed Mulciber and Avery because of Mary,” Doe added quietly. “None of you is best mates with her, but you did it for her. And it might not be the way I’d have handled things, but — it’s obvious which side you’re on.”

She could have said more, could have pointed out his need to prove what side he was on and the methods by which he did it would get him in deep trouble with their teachers. But she didn’t think Sirius needed that much coddling. And in any case, it was the old wizarding families’ prerogative, showing that they were forward-thinking and inclusive. Silence was tacit approval. She couldn’t fault him for being vocal.

Their silence seemed more comfortable after that; Sirius slowed to let her catch up once more. The Fat Lady’s corridor was full of whooping Gryffindors, damp from the snow and streaming into the common room.

“Germaine must have caught the Snitch after all,” Dorcas said, brightening. 

Ardently,” Sirius said to the Fat Lady, who had apparently been so charmed by the Valentine’s Day mood that she’d become quite the romantic.

The noise only grew louder when they’d stepped through the portrait hole. “Thank God,” Isobel Park was saying to all who would listen, Butterbeer in hand. “Thank God and Germaine King, I thought we’d be there all bloody night—”

Germaine swooped down upon Doe and Sirius, her grin wide. “Where were you?”

“Sorry, I came back to the castle because I felt a bit ill,” said Doe easily, recalling the fib she’d told Lily and Mary. 

“Well, if anyone tells you about my heroics, don’t contradict them.” Leaning closer, she whispered, “I fell asleep on my broom and the Snitch bumped into me. Potter can never know.”

As if the mention of James had called her attention to Sirius’s presence, Germaine rounded on him next. “What are you doing here? Have you already been to the Hospital Wing, then?”

“Hospital Wing?” Sirius said, frowning.

Germaine clicked her tongue. “Christ, I thought you four were telepathically connected or something. Potter’s in there. It’s nothing too bad!” she added. “Just a broken wrist. I suppose Chris Townes throws harder than expected.” She frowned a little. “He had a bad day, James did. He could probably use some cheering up.”

Sirius nodded. “Right, I’ll head. But, er, Dorcas, thanks for the—” He stopped, glancing at Germaine. “Herbology homework.”

She smiled. “Those Venomous Tentacula can be really frustrating.”

Once Sirius had departed, Germaine shot Doe a curious look. “What was that?”

Doe laughed. “Seriously, Germaine. You sound like Mary. We talked about Herbology.” Throwing an arm around her friend’s shoulders, she pulled her deeper into the crowd. “Come on, I want to hear what elaborate story you’re going to tell instead of how you really caught the Snitch.”

 


iii. Love’s Such An Old-Fashioned Word

Everyone had bad games.

This was something James had very often said to his teammates. He made a mental note to say it less, because it turned out it was bloody infuriating to hear.

When he returned to the common room, wrist thoroughly bandaged (“I don’t trust you to be careful with it if it’s not in a cast,” Pomfrey had said sternly), the party was in full swing. To his mind the celebration had an air of immense relief to it, a nervous sort of thank-fuck-we-snatched-victory-from-the-jaws-of-defeat attitude. Well, since that was a fairly accurate description of what had happened, James couldn’t blame them. 

He couldn’t say why the game had gone so poorly. Maybe it had been the awful visibility, which even well-placed Impervius Charms couldn’t help with. Sometimes you had it — chemistry, energy, whatever name you fancied — and sometimes you didn’t. The Chasers had been horribly out of sync, and James hadn’t been able to steady them. Everyone had bad games, but James Potter didn’t think he was allowed to.

You see, James Potter was not ambitious. Of his housemates, he was one of the least likely to have been Sorted into Slytherin instead — leaving aside the fact that he had spent the eleven-and-change years of his life prior to the first of September, 1971, knowing that Gryffindor was the house for him. Unlike Dorcas Walker, he did not plan on changing the world. Perhaps this was born of a comfortable childhood. Fleamont Potter had achieved so his son did not have to, and the Potters were more interested in their mischievous son’s personal growth than his professional success.

Whatever James decides to do, Fleamont could often be heard telling his friends, I’m sure he’ll enjoy it. Not I’m sure he’ll be good at it, because that was implicit — James would never do something he wasn’t good at and didn’t enjoy. He had his fair share of principles, a pronounced dislike of the Dark Arts being one of them, but he did not already envision a goal those principles would help him get to. He lived his life with the assumption that the goal would come to him.

James Potter was easygoing, but he was restless and energetic all the same, and in the manner of children who’d grown up just good at things without having to try, he’d come to expect things of himself. It was a nasty business, holding yourself to standards. He hated it. And he’d always held himself to a high standard when it came to certain things. Quidditch. Mischief-making. Loyalty. Regrettably on the list, Transfiguration and Charms class, if only to piss off all the people who tried twice as hard. 

This frustrating contradiction was at the forefront of his mind as he roamed the party, Butterbeer in hand. (Well, maybe not the forefront. We will allow for a certain teenage lack of self-awareness.) James, like Dorcas earlier that day, was looking for the cause of a problem. Trying to diagnose an illness by its symptoms. Perhaps he had been distracted. He’d always managed to focus for Quidditch, but the McIlhenny incident and nights of staring at the (empty) seventh floor corridor on the Marauder’s Map might have taken up some of that focus of late. He considered the former now. If only someone bloody listened to him about Olivia Nott — accomplices or no, he was certain she’d had nothing to do with it, and the answer lay somehow with Snape… If Snape wouldn’t talk maybe Greengrass would… 

As soon as this idea occurred to him the gauntlet that was the Gryffindor common room presented him with the most daunting challenge of all. There was Lily, feet tucked underneath her in an armchair, all alone save for the bottle in her hand. She was in a secluded little corner, away from the post-Quidditch chatter.

James could simply turn around and walk away. He knew this, intellectually. He had just steeled himself to do it when she noticed him and waved him over.

“How’s your wrist?” she asked, eyeing it.

He glanced at it as if he hadn’t noticed he’d hurt it at all. “Oh, perfect form. Go on, give it a punch.” He dropped into the seat next to her and held out his arm.

Lily gave him a look that was part horror, part outrage. “I’m not going to punch the wrist you just broke.”

“You think Pomfrey would let me leave without fixing it first? Come off it, Evans.”

She was still frowning, but she gave his bandage a light two-fingered tap. Then she withdrew her hand as if afraid his skin would burn her. He rolled his eyes.

“I think about being a Healer, sometimes,” Lily said. She reached out once more and took his wrist between her index finger and her thumb. James pretended not to be affected by this.

“You’re brilliant at Potions,” he offered. Immediately he wished he’d given some other form of encouragement. Any old tosser could have told her that. Hell, she knew that already.

But she smiled faintly. “Nice of you to say so. I don’t know that I have...the temperament.”

James gave her an incredulous look. “Why would you say that?”

“Sometimes I feel so in my own head. So — consumed by my own worries, you know? Even unselfish worries. But it’s not very kind or observant, which I think a good Healer should be.”

“That’s rubbish,” he said without thinking.

She drew back slightly, dropping his hand, but there was still some dry humour in her gaze. “Please tell me you plan on following that up with something.”

“I mean—” James ran a hand through his hair, searching for the right words. “Being caught up in — the shit politics of our moment doesn’t make you unkind. What the fuck? Why would you think that?”

“Why do you assume it’s politics?”

Belatedly he remembered the conversation he’d overheard, and he felt trapped. He knew, but she did not know he knew. She would probably be mortified if she knew he knew. 

“Just a guess,” he mumbled. A pause. “You know I think you want to help people. I’ve said as much. And — you’re good at it. But you don’t need me to tell you that either.”

She looked up at him and he held her gaze. Her eyes were so very green.

“Then what do I need you to tell me?” she said. There was no humour in her voice, but there was no belligerence there either. Just open curiosity.

James thought of a hundred wrong answers. “You’re drinking Firewhisky,” he said instead.

Lily laughed, covering her mouth. “You don’t say.” She held up the bottle in a toast of sorts. “I am of age now. I thought I’d give it a try.”

He squinted at the bottle. She was only a few sips in. This was reassuring — she hadn’t started this conversation out of some odd drunken instinct. Or...maybe that made it worse.

“And you’re not wearing the watch your mum gave you,” James went on.

She was rubbing at the worn green leather band of her old wristwatch. She looked down at her hands and smiled.

“Observant. Maybe you ought to be the Healer.”

He let out a snort. “Didn’t you say kind and observant?”

She frowned. “I think you’re kind. You can be, I mean. When you try.”

He grinned. “Ah, but those qualifiers.”

“You don’t need me to tell you you’re kind, James.” Lily rolled her eyes.

When he’d sat down, he’d had no idea where the conversation would lead. But maybe he’d always known he would end up here, beside this girl, horribly distracted by how she looked when she said his name.

But James Potter was rather a good actor.

“Then what do I need you to tell me?”

“I’m not wearing the watch my mum gave me,” she said with a sigh, “because it’s expensive and it’s going to get damaged.”

He grew incredulous. “Right, that's proper rubbish. Are you or are you not a witch? You can fix whatever you think you’ll do to it.”

She straightened, getting that look on her face that told him she was gearing up for an argument. “Not everything can be fixed by magic. Some part of it has to end up — changed. It’s all molecular, isn’t it? There can’t be no consequence to spells… Magic has to leave a trace of some sort.”

In response James held up his bandaged wrist, settling back into his chair. 

Lily scoffed. “That’s proof of nothing. You, by the way, are full of magic already. You cast it on others and you’ve had it cast on you, and you—” she started to laugh “—you do it to yourself when you will yourself to move outside yourself or whatever it was, at Apparition lessons.”

He could not hold back his own laughter at her Araminta Belby impression. If only she knew to what degree his molecular structure had been altered by magic.

“But that’s why Healing is so...foreign to me, I suppose. Maybe because my family are Muggles and all I know is Muggle medicine.” She was shaking her head forcefully. “Some things can’t be fixed. Isn’t that true?”

“Maybe,” James allowed. “There’s curses that can’t be undone easily.” He thought of Gerard McIlhenny. “There’s spells that are irreversible and diseases that haven’t been cured. Same as with Muggles, yeah?”

She nodded slowly. Then, as if they’d finally arrived at the heart of the matter, she said, “My dad died in a car accident.”

James blinked. Suddenly all his confident claims about how magic could fix everything seemed so foolish. “Evans, I—”

Her smile was wry. It was the real thing — or a very good fake one. 

“You don’t have to apologise. You didn’t know, of course, and you…” She blew out a breath. “He— It was four years ago today.”

He withheld his apology, and said instead, "Our second year, wasn't it? I remember that, sort of."

She nodded. "It was awfully bad weather, so he'd taken the car to the shops. Mum told him not to go, but...obviously, he did anyway." She looked at the carpet, then back up at him. "I'd written him that morning, asking for more chocolate. And he went to get it."

James cleared his throat. "You don't really think that you — caused it."

Lily shrugged. "Most days, no. Some days, a little."

He opened his mouth to apologise once more, but she seized his arm. “Really, don’t say you’re sorry.”

So he didn’t. Instead he pointed with his free hand at his bandaged wrist, currently in her grip. “Ouch,” he said, deadpan.

“Oh, fiddlesticks.” She dropped his arm. “It really didn’t hurt?”

James laughed at the look on her face. “It didn’t. Honest.” 

“You’re awful.”

“I’m kind and observant.”

Awful.” She was laughing.

He hated to return to the heaviest point of their conversation, but… “Don’t your friends know? I mean, you’re not with them.”

Lily’s smile faded. “They know.”

“Does your boyfriend know?” (An idle question. James picked at a loose thread on the armrest cover of his chair.)

She bit her lip, avoided his gaze. “No. It’s a bit heavy, isn’t it? Point is, I just need to be distracted from it. Merlin knows I’ll spend all of tonight lying in bed thinking about him.”

“You were sitting here alone,” he said.

“And now I’m not.”

He did not want to consider what it meant, that she’d beckoned to him so that she might be a little less alone. He squeezed his eyes shut briefly and thought, with the manner of someone poking at a scab, of the Lake last year.

“James?” 

When he opened his eyes she was staring at him.

“Are you all right?”

“Very,” he managed. “I think — I might have been lying, about my wrist not hurting.”

As far as fibs went, it was not so bad. If James pretended hard enough he could claim a vague phantom pang in his right hand.

“Oh! James, you should’ve said—” She glanced around as if searching for a solution, then handed him her half-finished bottle of Firewhisky. He had his fingers curled around the bottle’s neck before he could think about it.

“I couldn’t,” he said drily.

“I’m giving it to you.”

“I’m not seventeen.”

She gave him a severe look. “Don’t be difficult.”

He grinned, relieved to have returned to safer conversational ground, and took a sip of the drink. “Difficult was always what I wanted to be when I grew up.”

Lily rolled her eyes. “What do you really want to be? When you grow up?”

James resisted the urge to poke fun at her choice of words. “I suppose I’ll find out. I’d want to give Quidditch a go, I think.”

Her eyebrows rose. “Professionally?”

“No, Evans, in the local village league.”

“Very funny.”

“I know I am.” He could see Mary across the room, coming their way. He was both relieved and regretful. This moment of solitude would be over soon. If only he could say something candid and thoughtful to cap it off. 

He was struck by the crazed impulse to tell her he had nothing else to do that night, and if she wanted to drink hot chocolate with someone he would be there… But this urge was in and of itself proof. He needed to find new plans tonight. He’d half-risen without realising it.

“Thanks, James. For the conversation,” Lily said, perhaps sensing too that something had passed.

He’d have to be stupid, or blind, or both, to misinterpret the rush of feeling the sight of her gave him. He could only pretend so long. He held the bottle of Firewhisky out to her. 

“I don’t break the law,” he said, just to make her laugh.

She did. 

Because he could not let things lie, he added, “You should wear the watch. You can’t live your whole life worrying about what you’ll break, yeah?”

Lily looked as though she was about to respond, but she only nodded. And Mary sat down on the sofa next to her chair. James took that to be his cue. He could still go find Thalia Greengrass, still do something that didn’t leave him thinking of her.

It was just shy of nine, but curfew was no obstacle. He headed up the staircase and grabbed the Cloak and the map. But before he could slip out of the common room, he was distracted by the sight of Germaine, having been accosted by third years, talking about the match. She met his gaze and smiled.

“It was all a strategy, obviously,” she told them. “Lull Hufflepuff into a false sense of security.”

He knew that no one older than thirteen would believe that for a second, but he appreciated her saying so all the same. Which meant James had another thing to do before he set off to find answers. Being the bigger person and righting your wrongs: two other things he considered a nasty business. James sighed to himself and beckoned Germaine towards him.

“Important Quidditch talk,” he said to the third years, who looked awed and vanished.

“It was fine, you know,” Germaine said before James could say anything. “There’s plenty of matches when Quentin scores only one goal.”

Those matches were ones in which he and Evan made up the difference, James thought, and Quentin still did his job by setting up goals. But that was neither here nor there.

“That’s not what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to apologise.”

Her eyebrows shot up. “Whatever for?”

“The day I was a prat about Emmeline Vance. I don’t think I ever apologised.”

“You didn’t,” Germaine agreed.

James ran a hand through his hair. “Yeah, well. It was a bad day, and I shouldn’t have taken it out on you.”

“No, you shouldn’t have. But it’s all forgotten now.” 

He nodded. “She’s been loitering outside the portrait.”

Germaine frowned, glancing at the portrait hole as if she could see through it. “Is she? How do you know?”

James waved a hand. “Never mind how I know. Seeing as how she’s never been a big Gryffindor Quidditch fan, I’d say she’s here to speak with you. So if you want to head out, I’m leaving too.”

She considered this, and him, for a long moment. “Okay. Sure.”

Icon of a quill drawing a line

Germaine didn’t think James would have lied to her about something so specific, but she was surprised anyway by the sight of Emmeline in the corridor, a few feet from the Fat Lady and eyeing the portrait nervously. James gave Germaine a meaningful look — or, at least, she thought he meant something by it, since she couldn’t decipher it — and walked off, whistling something she vaguely recognised as “Twist and Shout.”

You know you look so good… You know you got me goin’ now, baby, Germaine’s traitorous brain thought. Emmeline’s hair was down, which was new. She straightened when she caught sight of Germaine, waving awkwardly.

“Congratulations. I was trying to get her—” thumb jerked in the Fat Lady’s direction “—to let me in, but I thought I’d have to break in by how well it was going.”

Was she nervous? Germaine didn’t think she’d heard Emmeline speak so quickly before.

“I’m honour-bound not to give out the password,” said Germaine. “But you’re welcome to follow me back in so long as you close your ears while I say it.”

She laughed, and Germaine beamed stupidly at the sound of it. “It’s all right, the corridor is quite nice too. I don’t wait around here much. The portraits are a funny bunch.”

Germaine handed her a bottle of Butterbeer and leaned against the wall beside her. “They’ve got great stories. That one over there, Alvina the lady-knight? She’s in love with the giant princess one floor down, and sometimes the satyrs in the next painting over get her in her cups and she won’t shut up about it.” Almost as soon as she’d said it Germaine wished she could take the words back. Her cheeks burned.

But Emmeline laughed again. “Why won’t she just go tell the princess?”

“From what I’ve heard? Honesty isn’t actually the problem. Alvina has to go on a very complicated quest to earn her favour.”

“Poor Alvina. You have to tell me when she talks about her quest — I want to hear it straight from her.”

“Ha, yeah. Sure,” Germaine said. Her mind was whirling. They hadn’t been the sort of friends who’d said hi in the corridors between classes. They were the sort of friends who just nodded at one another. Was she to believe they were now suddenly on tell-me-when-the-portrait-is-drunk terms?

She stewed in silence as Emmeline drank her Butterbeer. She had half a mind to say they ought to go inside the common room, if only so that it wouldn’t be so bloody quiet, but Germaine didn’t know if Emmeline was the partying sort. She’d been at Evan’s, but not really in the thick of things… She hadn’t played Mary’s drinking game, and she’d gone into the kitchen with Chris Townes…

But Chris Townes felt very, very far away, that night in the corridor — irrelevant, dare she say. Germaine didn’t think she was that badly misreading the way Emmeline was standing, close enough to brush against her side every now and then. Besides, Chris was seeing Cecily, so there wasn’t anything there… 

“What you said earlier,” Emmeline said all of a sudden, “about your parents.”

Germaine’s heightened awareness of their touching elbows faded a little at this remark. “Yeah?”

Emmeline inhaled deeply; when she spoke, her words were measured but quiet. “My dad left in the summer. He only comes back every now and then when he needs to get something from the house. Amelia keeps trying to make me talk about it with her, but — there isn’t much to say.”

Germaine let out a long breath. “I know what you mean.” As annoyed as she’d been that her friends hadn’t realised something was wrong, she hadn’t really wanted to discuss it either. Because there wasn’t much to say at all. Her parents had been in love, and they were no longer in love. 

She looked up at Emmeline. The other girl was taller than her, but not by much. Germaine could see the three little creases between her dark brows, the cloudy grey of her eyes. No, she didn’t know much about Emmeline Vance at all, but she thought she’d like to know more.

Emmeline was looking back at her now. Germaine was quite certain she was looking at her mouth specifically. Oh. What? said her brain, most eloquently. Germaine had never been kissed, because when the girls she knew began their still-running obsession with boys she’d realised she was quite uninterested in boys on the whole. She hadn’t considered that this lack of interest might correspond with an interest in girls, not really. Or if she had, it’d been matter of fact. There was no big realisation, no sun coming out from behind the clouds. She hadn’t had to interrogate it, not before Emmeline Vance.

But in that moment Germaine felt very much like Mary Macdonald claimed to feel. There was a nervous flutter in her stomach. Her heart was racing. She was worried suddenly that her palms were going to start sweating.

Before she could discreetly wipe them on her trousers, though, they were kissing. Emmeline’s fingers were in her hair, and Germaine’s hands were on Emmeline’s waist, and she couldn’t have said who had started it. She was so soft, too, for someone so aloof and untouchable. She tasted like Butterbeer.

And then suddenly they were four feet apart.

“What—” Germaine began.

Emmeline’s hand went up to her mouth. “I have to go. It’s nine — curfew—”

Oh, no. Curfew seemed like a very tame excuse, given the horror in her expression. 

“Look, it’s okay — I mean, you don’t have to—” Didn’t mates snog all the time and regret it afterwards and just stay mates?

But Emmeline was quite literally running for the stairs. That was not a good sign. At all.

“Wait!” Germaine shouted desperately, starting after her. But if she’d made a mistake, if Emmeline needed to be away, she couldn’t push things. 

They’d only just made up. And she might have spoiled things for good.

“I’m sorry,” she said to the empty corridor.

The Fat Lady sighed. “You should go inside before you’re caught breaking curfew, you know.”

Across the corridor, a woman in a suit of armour startled awake in her painting. “Oh, I will have to apologise so profusely to my lady when she sees how I have faaaaaailed —”

“Shut up,” Germaine said to Alvina the knight, because being cross felt far easier than giving into the tears pricking at her eyes just then.

Icon of a quill drawing a line

For no particular reason, James passed by the tapestry after leaving Germaine with Emmeline Vance. He stared at the blank wall, willing the cupboard to show itself. If he just solved the mystery of where it went then he could tell Lily and be done with it all. Then he thought he ought to stop being stupid and get a move on. He threw the Cloak around himself and fished out the map, but barely processed what he was looking at. Because some facts had made themselves apparent to him. 

They were: Lily Evans was being a distraction. This was not new — she had been distracting him for quite some time. Only, he’d convinced himself she’d stopped, but she hadn’t. Here she was, making him think about secret rooms instead of Quidditch. 

The next fact was: she was being a distraction specifically because he was not over her. He hadn’t been over her when he’d argued with her about the pie prank, or when she’d given him hot chocolate, or when he’d tried to rescue her at Slughorn’s party only to be rescued by her. He hadn’t been over her when he’d seen her disappear down a hallway at Evan Wronecki’s house hand in hand with her boyfriend, and he hadn’t been over her at her birthday. He certainly hadn’t been over her when she’d been talking about said boyfriend and their troubles. He was full of shit, though he would never have admitted it to his mates.

The third fact was: he loved her, and he could do nothing about it. James Potter was restless and energetic, and God, he hated feeling like his hands were tied. He noticed the name he was headed towards on the map, though he pretended not to. Before he rounded the corner, he took off the Cloak and bundled it under one arm, and stuffed the map into a pocket. By the time he came face to face with her, he had a crooked grin on her face and a hand running through his hair.

“I ought to give you detention for being out of bed.”

James gave her a knowing look. They both knew it was an empty threat.

“Not celebrating?” Marissa Beasley said, walking towards him. There was a smile playing at her lips, as though she was already prepared to laugh at what he would say in response.

“Seems stupid to celebrate when they won in spite of me, and not because of me.”

Marissa cocked her head. “Self-pity isn’t a very good look on you.”

That was a fair point. “No, it isn’t.”

“We can change that, if you’d like.”

She held out a hand. James did not ask if she was on patrol; nor did he say no. But he did not say yes either.

What he did say was, “Go with me to Hogsmeade tomorrow?”

At that she did laugh. “I didn’t know that’s what this was.”

James shrugged, smiling. “It is whatever we want it to be, Mar.”

She considered the question only for a moment. “Sure.” He took her hand. “To Ravenclaw Tower?”

“Why not?”

 

 

Chapter Text

i. A Token of My Love

“For Merlin’s sake,” Rosier said, “don’t fuck it up.”

Mulciber and Avery rolled their eyes together; it would have been comical if Severus hadn’t already been on edge. It had been two whole weeks since McIlhenny. Rosier had been tense too at first, but the fortnight was enough to convince him they’d got away with it. Severus wished he could be so cavalier.

Even now he thought someone would read his mind… McGonagall, maybe, eyeing the lot of them as they waited in the Entrance Hall to board the carriages to Hogsmeade. 

What if she did know Legilimency by chance? Could she see, right then, how he, Severus, had Stunned the Hufflepuff, Rosier’s chosen target? How they had together Confunded Thalia Greengrass so she would not know what had happened? Her brother may be one of ours, Rosier had said, but we shouldn’t leave any loose ends. Not when she hasn’t committed herself to the cause.

How gratifying to be part of that we that excluded a Greengrass… He had made a commitment even Thalia, with her pure blood, had not. Rosier had Imperiused Nott, so Severus had yet to cross that line. But the older boy had decided to use his spell on McIlhenny. That was as close as it would get to approval. It had turned his stomach at first to watch, but Severus had made himself look — to look away was to show weakness.

As much as Severus feared being caught, he feared something else more. Mulciber and Avery were supposed to pick a target today, when most older students would trudge through the snow to Hogsmeade. Most of the Aurors were going with them, since the still-at-large Hogsmeade killer posed more of a risk, apparently, than whoever was in the castle. (A surge of disdain, at this. They didn’t even know, the idiots.)

The easy thing to do — the smart thing to do — would be to choose someone small and random, someone easy to overpower. They did not have the patience or commitment to plan a confusing attack as Rosier and Severus had done. No, it was best if they perplexed the authorities further by making the incidents seem utterly unlike each other.

But Mulciber and Avery were wild cards, and Selwyn would do whatever they decided. And Severus did not think they were pleased with him of late — jealous, maybe, of the fact that Rosier had chosen him as a partner? They might try to get back at him.

And at present, Lily Evans was hovering by the staircase and watching carriages come and go. She was dressed for a day out, bundled up in a bright Gryffindor-red scarf, but there was obvious worry in her expression. Severus was close enough to hear her wonder aloud to her friends if she should even go. He felt vaguely ill.

He thought Lily’s Hufflepuff boyfriend was quite worthless — not a real concern, however, because she obviously did not care for him that much — but he wished now that the boy would appear to whisk her away. 

Lily could not stay in the castle. She could not.

But if he tried to warn her, Mulciber and Avery would realise he still cared for her. That made her a bigger target to them. No, Severus would simply have to wait and hope… Whatever force of luck that had saved him from being caught two weeks ago would need to prevail again. He could not bear to imagine a different course of events.

Icon of a quill drawing a line

“Maybe I shouldn’t go at all,” Lily said, shifting from one foot to the other and fiddling with the end of her scarf. 

“Don’t be stupid,” Germaine said immediately. “Mary’s already not going because of a boy. Why on earth do you want to let him spoil your day?”

“He hasn’t spoiled it,” Lily felt compelled to say. 

Dex had spent another study date with her since the first Apparition lesson, and he’d given her a huge batch of Galleon biscuits and a pretty little necklace. This sort of attention had mollified her to the point that she’d thought she didn’t have to discuss her concerns with him after all — but then he hadn’t asked her to Hogsmeade, and she’d been left wondering what on earth to think. Maybe he was really cheating on her. 

“He hasn’t spoiled it and he won’t, because you won’t let him,” Doe said. "You love days like this."

That was true. Lily loved the snow, and it had piled up beautifully over the week. It would be nice to spend time with her friends, to ignore her silly anxieties for a little while longer… But then, out of nowhere, someone gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze.

“Ready to go?” Dex said, his wide smile firmly in place.

Lily’s instinct was to frown; she managed to suppress it. The butterflies that had led her to fall for him so spectacularly in the first place — they seemed to have been replaced by angry little moths. They swarmed around her stomach in confusion.

But what came out of her mouth was “Oh! Oh — all right.” 

He did not seem to notice the frostiness in her voice. Doe gave her a thumbs up; Germaine mouthed talk to him! Lily gulped. But oh, Germaine was right. She couldn’t ignore this feeling any longer.

Icon of a quill drawing a line

“You’re quiet today,” Doe observed as she and Germaine strolled down the Hogsmeade High Street.

Snow had blanketed everything, muffling the conversation of students around them. The village took on quite a festive air, even though it was already February — or, at least, it would have if not for the vague aura of fear that seemed to hold its residents. Oh, the students were cheerful enough. Doe had been nervous for weeks but even she had to admit it was difficult to hold on to that apprehension now that the horrible Prophet headline from Christmas seemed so far away.

Some shops were decked out for Valentine’s Day anyway. But others were sad, almost. The Magic Neep, the greengrocers, had a help wanted sign in the window beside a large moving photograph of Lewis Ross, the man who’d been murdered. Worse still was Dervish and Banges, which bore a large CLOSED sign on its door. As the two girls passed by its windows, Doe could make out the distinct pale blonde head of Patrick Podmore inside. 

“Just thinking,” Germaine mumbled. “I wonder how many Aurors stayed in the castle.”

“I think Edgar Bones did, and Marlene McKinnon, but all of the others I saw supervising the carriages.” Doe was about to say that she wished Mary had not stayed; she bit back her words. She hated to seem a nag.

It was a good thing too, because her friend had an entirely different topic of conversation on her mind.

“I’m in — a fight, I think, with Emmeline Vance.”

“Amelia Bones’s friend?” Dorcas frowned. “I didn’t realise you knew her.”

Germaine was looking determinedly at the snow-covered ground. “I’d been flying with her.”

“Oh,” said Doe, though her frown remained. “What do you mean, you think you’re in a fight with her?”

“I kissed her,” Germaine admitted. “Or she kissed me — I dunno, there was kissing.”

Oh.”

“And then she ran away.”

Dorcas struggled to keep a blank face. “Oh, dear.”

“Yeah, oh, dear is bloody right.” Germaine’s expression twisted into misery.

Doe wrapped an arm around her. “Have you tried speaking to—”

“I don’t think she wants to speak to me.”

“Germaine, goodness, when did this happen?”

“Only last night. So my embarrassment is fresh as daisies.” Germaine let out a breath. “I don’t want to dwell on it. Can we just — do something fun?”

Doe looked around the morose shopfronts. The boring, easy thing to do would be to visit Zonko’s, but she didn’t think Germaine would be thrilled to be surrounded by overenthusiastic thirteen-year-olds. 

“Let’s go into Gladrags, and try on the most awful robes we can find,” Doe suggested.

Germaine pulled a face. “Shopping?”

“Does your shopping process entail trying on awful robes?”

“When my sister’s involved, yeah.”

“There’s some hilariously bad stuff in there.”

A smile had finally taken shape on Germaine’s lips. “Okay. Let’s do it, then.”

Icon of a quill drawing a line

They were walking in absolute silence. Lily was not a petty person — or so she told herself. But she was still thinking, he has to ask first. We’re both obviously in moods, but he can ask first! What was it she’d said to James about being kind and observant, though?

She opened her mouth, only for Dex to beat her to it.

“You’re wearing the necklace,” he said, his lips very nearly twitching into a smile.

She looked down at the pendant nestled in her scarf. It was a little green teardrop on a gold chain. When she’d shown her friends, Mary had held it up to her face clinically and told her it wasn’t quite a match for her eyes. But that was such an unkind thought.

“Yes, I am. It’s pretty,” she said, which was a very bland thing to say even if you meant it.

Dex turned back to the shops. Leana Hartwick, the Hogsmeade investigator, strode past with Kingsley Shacklebolt in tow. Lily watched them go, remembering what she’d read about the compulsion spell they’d discovered. She wondered what traces that sort of thing left on people...how exactly this mattered to the case...what Hartwick was doing just then, going into Dervish and Banges…

All things you shouldn’t really wonder, walking hand in hand with your boyfriend.

Enough is enough, she thought. Germaine was right. She needed to say something. She ran a thumb over her wristwatch, expecting to feel familiar leather, and startled a little at the cold metal she touched instead. Her mother’s gift. Doris would tell her to be honest, as would Mary, and Doe. As would her father. What had James said the previous night? She couldn’t go her whole life worrying about what she might break. She couldn’t stay quiet just because she was afraid speaking up would be difficult.

“What’s wrong?” Lily said.

Dex jumped. He’d been as lost in thought as she had, apparently. 

“Nothing,” he said, his tone unconvincing. She gave him a look. “I really don’t want to get into it.”

Her better instincts were screaming at her to just drop it, but Lily was tired of that approach.

“Well, if you don’t want to get into it I don’t want to spend a miserable morning strolling around Hogsmeade in silence.” She didn’t sound cross, not exactly. She was matter-of-fact and determined. She let go of his hand.

Dex looked taken aback. He drew in a shaky breath. “I — all right. Mum and Dad don’t think I should go to culinary school.”

“What?” Immediately Lily felt a wave of pity. “Why not?”

“My cousin’s taking over the ice cream shop, and he’ll need help at first.” He was avoiding meeting her gaze, arms crossed over his chest. “That’s what they said when I wrote them about it, anyway. My uncle Florean’s ill, so it’s all hands on deck.”

“Oh, Dex. What do you think you’ll do?” She thought she knew what he would say, but she had to ask anyway.

“There’s not much I can do, is there?” Dex huffed out a bitter laugh. “I thought if I showed them how good my marks are in Potions and Herbology and Charms, how badly I want it… But there’s no point in trying so hard if they won’t even let me go.”

She gave his elbow a sympathetic squeeze. “Maybe you can take some time off, help in the shop, and then try again next year? Surely working in an ice cream parlour would be relevant experience. They might like you even more.”

Dex sighed. “I suppose. I was just — so certain it’d happen for me.”

It was a reason she was willing to accept, which was almost relieving. At least he was not cheating on her, as Germaine had thought. But then Lily felt guilty for her relief. 

She shook her head. “Your uncle’s ill, you’ve rowed with your parents — why didn’t you say something? Instead of just...stewing?” She was aware of her own hypocrisy, but she needed to know the answer.

He grew sheepish. “I didn’t think we were...like that, I don’t know.”

That stopped her short. “Like — what?”

“Serious.”

She detached her hands from his arm once more. Serious. This was the question she’d been asking herself since the New Year, of course. But it sounded so much worse now, spoken into the cold February morning.

She realised it hurt to know he’d been just as confused as she — which made no sense, but there it was. She’d been so worried about coming across a prude, clinging onto him after she’d had sex with him, that she had been too scared to ask where they stood. What was his excuse? Lily hoped he had one.

“Is that why you never talked about it?” she said quietly.

“Talked about what?” It was Dex’s turn to frown.

Irrational anger spiked through her. She had been kind, and observant, and she had asked him about himself instead of bringing up her own worries first. She did not mind practising kindness or attentiveness but all she asked was that it be returned to her.

“Go on, then,” Lily said. “Ask me.”

“Ask you what?” At last he sounded frustrated.

They had come to a standstill in the street, right in front of Tomes and Scrolls. Lily could see herself in the glass behind him, a smudgy watercolour of red cheeks and stiff annoyance.

“Ask me why I’ve been upset for six weeks. If you’ve noticed at all.”

Perhaps that was too spiteful a way to phrase it. But she couldn’t take it back. And Dex was caught — he could not complain about her not having told him, not after she’d just had to talk him into admitting what was bothering him.

“The thing is,” Lily went on, “either you noticed and you didn’t care, or you didn’t notice because you didn’t care.”

All at once she felt like the same wrung-out girl she’d been boarding the Hogwarts Express after the winter holidays. The hurt of his inattention was new and huge again. 

“So tell me, then,” he said, somewhere between a statement and a plea.

“You never said a word to me, after we had sex. You didn’t — didn’t take me home yourself, you didn’t ask how I felt, you all but ignored me. And I spent so much time thinking I’d done something wrong.” She hadn’t wanted to cry, but the tears spilled over anyway. She brushed them away with impatience. “Did I?”

Dex looked nothing short of horrified. “No! No, of course not — Lily—” he lowered his voice, took her hands in his “—was that...the first time?”

She wanted to laugh. What came out was a wet sort of sob instead. 

“You didn’t say.” He sounded positively bewildered. “You didn’t — I wouldn’t have—”

Lily believed him. She didn’t think he was a bad person, not at all. She knew she ought to have said something, but she also thought he ought to have asked. She’d been sixteen and he was her first boyfriend and though it was true that you ought never to make assumptions she thought most people who knew her would have guessed she was a virgin. Dex’s crime was carelessness — not a capital sin. But one that she found hard to get around, at present. 

Besides, how could she have explained to him just then, standing in the snow outside Tomes and Scrolls, that she’d worried what he would think and how she’d seem? She realised, now and all too late, that it had been a mistake to think she could be casual in her affections. That keeping things light and breezy hadn’t worked, because she wanted to fall harder than that.

“I should have been honest with you earlier. I know that, and I’m sorry — and I’m sorry about your parents, but I — I’m going to try to make up for it by being honest with you now.” She sniffed and wiped away her residual tears. “I do care about you, and I think you care about me. I do want to keep seeing you. But I want us to actually talk to each other. And not just about silly everyday things. I want us to try being serious about each other.”

He nodded, swallowed hard. “But?"

She gave him a watery smile. “I need some time to think, first. Given all that, do you still want to see me?”

Dex pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Of course I do. And I never meant to hurt you — not for an instant—”

“I know. It’s all right.” She stepped away from him. “Go find your friends, Dex. I’ll see you around.”

“You’re — you’re sure?”

She patted the pendant around her neck. “Positive.” 

With a last smile at him, Lily turned around and set off in the direction of the Three Broomsticks. She felt good, about what she’d said. But she felt like she could sleep for weeks too. She could try to find Germaine and Doe — but if she couldn’t find her friends, she would simply head back to the castle. Not that a boy had spoiled her day, but she thought she could use the solitude. It was perfect hot chocolate weather, after all.

Lily Evans believed in second chances. She only hoped this would have the same success as the previous one.

Icon of a quill drawing a line

Doe stepped out of the changing room in a bright red, fur-collared robe about four inches too long for her five-foot-six frame. She looked like a child who’d broken into her mother’s closet. There was no way Germaine could keep a straight face at this

But the Gladrags aisle she found herself in was empty. 

“Germaine?” she called hopefully.

Dorcas?

That was not Germaine’s voice.

Doe nearly shouted don’t come back here! But it was too late. Michael Meadowes skirted around a rack of ugly jumpers and came face to face with her. For a moment both of them stood in perfect silence. She took in his blue jumper, which fit his shoulders quite snugly. Then she remembered what she was wearing, which was probably the reason why he was looking at her with his mouth wide open.

“I can explain,” Doe began.

He seemed to be trying very hard to hold back his laughter, which she appreciated. “Whatever do you need to explain? Looks like a brilliant getup to me.”

She laughed, hoping her embarrassment wasn’t obvious. “I look like Santa Claus.”

“No,” Michael corrected, reaching for something at her shoulder, “you look like Santa Claus with a gambling problem.”

Doe nearly jumped at his touch. But all he was doing was holding up the horrifying tassels attached to the robe’s padded shoulders: five red-beaded strings, from which dangled five bright red dice.

“Oh!” Now she really couldn’t suppress her giggles. “Oh, I didn’t even notice.”

He gave her a mock-outraged look. “Didn’t even notice? It’s only the best feature. Here, do you have a set on the other shoulder?”

She turned around so he could see her other side. “Do I?”

Michael burst into laughter. “You don’t. Did they forget to add it to this shoulder, or is asymmetry the fashion?”

“Oh — stop, the shop assistant saw Germaine and me laughing at a set of robes, and gave us the nastiest look,” Doe whispered. “It’s really — don’t laugh, it’s really practical.”

“Oh? Why’s that?”

“Because, er, when I’m elderly and want to shout at the children on my street, I can threaten to chuck my dice at them.”

Michael’s eyes went wide. And then he was doubled over laughing, and she was too, holding onto his arm for support. When they’d just about recovered, a new, ill-advised idea occurred to Doe. 

“Wait—” She stepped away from him, still grinning, and shimmied her shoulders. “It’s rolling the dice for me, look—”

“Spectacular. Do it again, would you?”

Doe did, but it seemed the tassels weren’t as securely attached as she’d hoped. On this round of shimmying three of the dice broke off and scattered beads all over the shop floor. She let out a little gasp and Michael swore, and both of them immediately crouched down to chase after them.

“You get the beads, I’ll reattach them,” Michael said, one hand protectively cupped over the remaining tassels.

Doe suppressed another bout of laughter and summoned the beads in a whisper, scrabbling after the dice. She pressed them into his hands and waited as he fished out his wand. He had such an adorable expression of concentration, she thought. She’d seen him wear it many times before, when they’d studied together, but never in such close quarters. There were faint freckles on the bridge of his nose. He was so focused his tongue was sticking out, just a little.

“I didn’t know you knew any, um, domestic spells,” she said.

For he was adding neat knots to the tassels after he’d strung them with beads. “I learned, mostly because I knew my parents would tell me to put myself to good use after I turn seventeen.” He grinned, fixing one die back into place. 

“Oh, that’s sweet of you.”

“I expect I’ll lose patience the moment Dad asks why there isn’t a beekeeping spell, or something like that.” Michael rolled his eyes. “It’s odd, explaining it to them.”

Doe smiled. “My grandparents — my mum’s parents, that is — they don’t really get it, even though Mum’s lived with it for years now. I don’t think it ever gets easy. But of all the complicated things to have to explain to your family, magic has to be the most exciting.”

Michael laughed. “You’re not wrong, I suppose. That’ll teach me for being an ingrate.”

“I’m sure you’re not—” She broke off, hearing footsteps. “Oh, Merlin if it’s the shop assistant she’s going to make me pay for this hideous robe—”

“Oh no, she won’t.” He hauled her to her feet and pressed his shoulder to hers. The tassels were hidden from view. Doe was very aware of the warmth of him. Oh, no, she thought.

“Here, this is the funniest pair of socks I could find—” It was Germaine; she broke off at the sight of Michael and Doe, who sprang apart.

She glanced between them, frowning. “Are you two all right?”

“Oh, perfectly,” said Michael before Doe could answer. He pushed something into her hand — the last little red die. “I should be off, actually — I’ve got to tutor this fourth year—”

“On a Hogsmeade weekend?” Doe said, incredulous.

“Well, he wanted to do it yesterday, but Quidditch ran awfully long — sorry, Germaine,” he added in her direction. “Besides, since Mary didn’t ask me out I had no plans this weekend at all.” Michael gave Doe a big wink, waved at Germaine, and hurried for the door.

Belatedly, Dorcas let out a hollow laugh.

Germaine sighed. “You aren’t the first to fancy a Ravenclaw you thought you were mates with. Just don’t go snogging him before you think things through.” Then she did a double take, finally processing what Doe was wearing. “What the fuck is that monstrosity?”

The shop assistant had just rounded the corner; her expression grew thunderous at Germaine’s words.

“Out!” she ordered. “Both of you!”

 


ii. A Brief History of James Potter and Marissa Beasley

Most things concerning James Potter came with a story. This held true of his relationship (though both would balk slightly at the word) with one Marissa Beasley. That history was certainly not the long and storied one he shared with Lily Evans, which is our chief concern here. But that's a good thing — we can allow ourselves a brief divergence into one of the shorter threads in the vast tapestry of Hogwarts connections.

In September, 1971, James Potter did not know who Marissa Beasley was. Marissa Beasley did not know who James Potter was.

Marissa came from a moderately well-off family. Her mother held an administrative position in the Wizengamot. Her father was a Muggle, and had been a decorated RAF officer in World War II. The Beasleys enjoyed a quiet life in London. Their daughter, a cheerful, curious girl, had spent four-odd years at a Muggle primary school before Hogwarts, though her parents knew, of course, that she was a witch. But they hadn't the time to homeschool her, and Marissa's cleverness needed tending.

Even as a child, she'd had impressive control over accidental magic — she was rarely provoked into a temper, and so rarely lashed out. She played hockey, grew to a beanstalk height for an eleven-year-old, and had a smashing first year at Hogwarts. It was like Enid Blyton, only with magic. 

The pair came into contact only once in Marissa's second year. James and Sirius had chosen the library to be the site of their little inkpot war — so named because they were levitating pots of ink at each other — much to Madam Pince's displeasure. Marissa was in the Charms section, where James was peering through the gaps in the books, trying to spot his target.

"Oi," Marissa whispered, "could you budge over? I need a book."

James looked at her. Ravenclaw, he thought dismissively. "Yeah, all right."

She took her book and left.

By September, 1974, James Potter did know who Marissa Beasley was. Marissa Beasley also knew who James Potter was.

A newfound appreciation for girls had taught James that not all Ravenclaws were smarmy and boring. And the castle was more than just a battleground, or a site for their mischief — the boys were beginning to make use of the fact that Hogwarts was full of people, with their own quirks and idiosyncrasies and broom cupboard trysts. The Marauders, as purveyors of mischief, were often well-positioned to hear school gossip, and so they began to gather it. Never let someone tell you girls gossip more than boys.

So James knew of Marissa Beasley, who fancied sixth year Frank Longbottom like mad. (Or so school gossip said.) Personally, James thought that was a doomed pursuit, so long as Frank Longbottom went out of his way to be around Alice St. Martin. But, anyway. 

Marissa was a newly-minted prefect that year, and was warned of the nuisance that Potter and Black would no doubt be causing. She thought they were funny.

In September, 1975, James was on the run from Filch. He had just poured hot water and tea leaves into the caretaker's file cabinet — a story for another day — and was fleeing his office. He had underestimated how nearby Filch was, however, and found himself caught between him and the prefects on patrol. James had the Cloak, and so he could have simply stood in the corridor and hoped for the best, but he could hear Filch talking to his awful cat, and he worried Mrs. Norris would sniff him out.

He stuffed himself into a nearby cupboard, nearly knocking over a bucket of cleaning solution, and crouched in a corner, pulling the Cloak off so he could breathe a little better.

"I'll check the cupboard," a girl's voice said, "but I'm sure no one's here, Mr. Filch."

Mr. Filch! James was momentarily distracted by that. He was so busy trying not to laugh that he had no time to put the Cloak over himself once more. And then the cupboard door was swinging open, letting in moonlight and Marissa Beasley. In the silver light, there was a slight crease between her brows and a businesslike purse to her lips. James was already besotted with a different girl, but he thought Marissa Beasley looked very pretty. 

She spotted him at once, eyes widening. He held up a finger to his lips, then clasped his hands together in prayer. Please, he mouthed. She smiled, fighting back laughter.

"Nothing here," she called over her shoulder.

"You sure?" Filch growled.

"Positive."

She shut the cupboard firmly, and he let out a sigh of relief. When Filch's muttering had faded, James considered going out to find Marissa and say thank you. She was pretty, and she seemed like a sport. But, well, he had a Mandrake leaf under his tongue at present, and it was probably not a good idea trying to carry on a conversation with a pretty girl like that. So he did not follow her.

In March, 1976, James was annoyed at Lily Evans. It was his and Remus's joint birthday party, and she had informed him that Firewhisky oughtn't be left in the common room where any old first year could drink it. In fact, he shouldn't be drinking it either, seeing as how he was sixteen. James informed her she was a prig who had her nose permanently in a book. He drank a bit of the illicit Firewhisky, and he kissed Marissa Beasley.

In January, 1977, Marissa wasn't having a good start to the year. She had resolved the previous September to leave her feelings for Caradoc Dearborn firmly in the past, seeing as how he was one of her best mates. They'd broken up by mutual agreement the previous April, deciding they were better off as friends. In June, Marissa told Doc she fancied her neighbour, which might or might not have been true. She snogged him to be sure, and then decided it wasn't true. And in January, she still had feelings for her best mate. 

She hadn't had too much to drink at Evan Wronecki's party, since she was Apparating people back to her house, which had a working Floo connection. (Evan's was, at that moment, being repaired.) She played Mary Macdonald's drinking game and only had to drink one punishment cup. She danced with Annie Markham, but then Annie took a smoke break with Sirius Black. Doc was fiddling with Evan's record player.

Marissa hated pining. She knew her way around Evan's house and stepped into the empty hall for a bit of air. She sat down there, on the bottom step of the marble staircase, and listened to the distant strains of the party, thinking of nothing in particular.

James was snogging Cecily Sprucklin, until she broke off to complain to him about Chris Townes. This, he had not signed up for.

"Sounds like you ought to go snog Chris Townes, Cecily," he said, matter-of-fact.

Cecily blinked. "Oh. Maybe I will."

He was so weary he'd forgotten that Cecily's best friend fancied Chris — you could forgive him for the slip-up, in that moment. Cecily flounced off, and James inadvertently set a landmine that would blow up that spring. But it's not time for that story yet. 

Marissa ferried the last of the underage crowd to her home, James and Sirius included. Sirius stepped into the fireplace first, said, "The Potters', Virginia Water," and was gone. James was about to follow, but he noticed the empty look on Marissa's face. He leaned against the wall by the still-burning fireplace.

"Doc?" he guessed.

She gave him a look that was part admiration, part exasperation. "Do you know everything about everyone?"

James shook his head. "Most things, though." He shoved his hands in his pockets and stepped closer to her. "D'you want to talk about it?" He was thinking of that night over a year ago, her smile as she'd shut the cupboard and fibbed to Filch. She hadn't needed to do that. 

She shrugged. "There's not much to say. I ought to be over it by now."

Oh, he knew how that felt. "Can't help that you're with him so much."

"He's my best mate."

James supposed that was a good enough reason. Lily wasn't even his best mate, but he couldn't seem to keep away from her. 

Marissa huffed, hands on her hips. "He was snogging Mary Macdonald."

He didn't know what to say to that, caught as he was between sympathising with Marissa and defending Mary, whom he liked. He chose silence; it seemed as though Marissa wasn't done speaking yet.

"It wasn't even a — an it's-midnight-kiss-the-first-person-you-see sort of thing," she went on. "I mean, it's a day late for that." She laughed, shaking her head. "Listen to me." Her smile was wry, self-deprecating; it made James feel it was safe to joke.

"Self-pity isn't a very good look on you," he said, grinning. She scoffed, rolled her eyes — but she was smiling still. "'Sides, anyone can give you a day-late New Year's kiss."

"Anyone?" Marissa repeated. 

"Absolutely anyone," James confirmed, and he kissed her in the empty sitting room.

 


iii. Chance Encounters

The Three Broomsticks was packed full of students trying to escape the cold. Lily didn’t miss the Auror hovering in the back — Gareth Greer, she thought, the fourth trainee who’d come up to guard the castle. Right in front of him was a table of Slytherins: Severus, Thalia Greengrass, other vaguely familiar faces she did not recognise. Alec Rosier too, staring into a bottle, and a paler, taller version of him that must have been his elder brother. Lily looked away.

The centre of the inn’s noise was, of course, the Marauders, though she could only spot three of them. She suppressed a sigh.

There was Amelia Bones, and there was Emmeline Vance, a crying blonde girl sandwiched between them. Stephen Fawcett, the Ravenclaw Quidditch captain, sat on Amelia's other side, looking extremely put out that she wasn't giving him the time of day.

Germaine and Doe were nowhere to be seen. Well, she’d tried. She had a special spiced chocolate she’d been saving for a rainy day, and Lily thought she deserved it just then.

She turned around without paying attention to her surroundings in the slightest, and promptly walked into something solid.

“Oh!” Lily staggered backwards, rather winded.

“Lucky for you I just set these down,” James drawled, jerking a thumb towards the mugs of Butterbeer on the bar behind him. “Or we’d both have been in a very sticky situation.”

She rolled her eyes, straightening her scarf. “Sorry.”

He waved away her apology. “Going so soon?” At her nod, he said, “Ah, Evans, you’ve got to see Peter dance a jig with the leprechauns.”

She found, suddenly, that she didn’t want to exchange cheerful jabs with James. Not at present — not with the conversation she’d just had lingering in her head. Part of her was still surprised by what she’d done the night before, telling him about her dad and possibly being a Healer — a conversation she hadn’t had with anyone since Careers Advice with McGonagall the previous year.

But he had taken it quite well… He’d even given her advice… It had been almost uncomfortable, sitting there faced with his sincerity, hesitant and halting though it was. You know I think you want to help people… But you don’t need me to tell you that. She’d asked anyway, despite the frank, unnerving look he wore: what do I need you to tell me?  

What, indeed? The world was upside-down. Lily’s relationship was no longer a bright spot, and her birthday had gone horribly, and Hogwarts was unsafe, and James Potter gave good advice. James Potter gave good advice and — and — and James Potter had her copy of Persuasion, which left her with no fresh Austen to enjoy with her cup of hot chocolate.

Seeing as she had lent it to him, she could hardly fault him for having her book. But she wanted to anyway.

“I’m not in the mood, James,” she sighed, though her gaze flitted towards the table at which Peter was stretching alongside three jabbering leprechauns.

If she’d hoped this would get him to leave her alone, she was sorely mistaken. James leaned against the bar, arms folded across his chest, and arched his brows at her.

“Did you sleep all right?”

His words were heavy with meaning — she took this to be his way of asking is it about your dad? Drat, she didn’t want him to be considerate. She didn’t want him there at all.

“Fine,” she said, “or as fine as I could. It’s not that.”

He relaxed, ever so slightly, and adjusted his glasses. She felt as though she were being scrutinised.

“Then—” Lowering his voice, James leaned a little closer and said, “Trouble in paradise?”

She scowled. “I said I’m not in the mood, didn’t I?”

He put his hands up in surrender. “Sorry, sorry.” At her defiant look, his smile dropped. “Listen, about the broom cupboard—”

Lily huffed. “You know it’s not a broom cupboard, Potter, so stop harping on—”

“The room, whatever, Jesus, let me finish—”

No, I will not let you finish!” Her voice rose at the end of this sentence; glancing around to make sure no one had heard, Lily tried to regain her composure. “Anyway, you don’t have to search for it just now. It’s not that important.” 

She knew at once that she would regret saying so — there were two reasons she wanted to understand the secret room, after all. But every moment spent apart from her hot chocolate was a moment she felt herself growing crankier.

“Ah. So that’s how it is,” James said. "Can I ask—"

"Probably not."

"—why you were seeing him in the first place?"

Lily frowned. "I don't see why it's any of your business. And I still am seeing him."

He shrugged. "Only curious. He doesn't at all seem your type."

"Maybe I'm playing against type, then."

He arched an eyebrow. "Dating someone just to be contrary? That's not very you either."

She shook her head, exasperated. "You seem to have a very well-defined idea of me in your head. What's not to like about Dex? He's funny, he's sweet, he's great company—"

"At the risk of sounding like someone's mum, those aren't very forever love traits. I'm all for having fun in your youth, but..." He shrugged once more.

Lily was quietly fuming. He did look like he was having fun — fun poking at her, that is. A smile had made its way to his lips. It came with a faint almost-dimple, she noticed, in each cheek. It only served to infuriate her more.

"And why do you think I'm interested in forever love at seventeen? Is it because you think I'm a prig who's got her nose permanently in a book, and I can't loosen up and enjoy myself, because I'm highly strung and have a stick up my arse?"

James let out a low whistle. "That all sounds like very specific things you think about yourself, Evans. Don't bring me into this."

She scoffed. "They're all things you have said to me, Potter, over the course of our school years."

To his credit, he winced. "Not all at once, surely. And never the bit about forever love. And — you gave back as good as you got."

She was going to strangle him. "Is there something about annoying me that gives you extra pleasure? Some kind of Satanic mandate you're following?"

"Satanism's boring, Evans. I'd pick a cooler cult. To address the part of your question that wasn't bait..." He drew in a breath, rumpled his hair with one hand. "I do think you're the forever love sort. I'm reading that book of yours, aren't I?"

This relatively inoffensive response deflated Lily's anger. As mortifying as it was for James Potter of all people to already know something she'd just started to realise about herself, she realised she was working herself up for no good reason.

Earlier she'd have said James did not deserve her time and energy. Now she reminded herself that they were mates, and he did not deserve her bad moods if they wanted to stay that way. If she was truly dedicated to turning over a new leaf, she had to make an effort not to snap at him just as he ought not to provoke her.

He seemed to take her silence as invitation to continue speaking.

“Anyway, what I was going to say before you cut me off, jokes about the cupboard aside—” she frowned at him, a warning “—jokes aside, you know you shouldn’t, erm, you don’t have to do anything a bloke tells you? If someone’s pressuring you to mess around, especially your boyfriend, it makes him a prick. It’s obvious and you know it, obviously. But sometimes it can be good to hear— Why are you looking at me like that?”

Her annoyance hadn’t faded, but she was more surprised than ticked off with him. In a moment she would remember to be embarrassed, but not just yet.

“Are you explaining how sex works to me?” she said.

He rolled his eyes. “Okay, Evans. I’m sure Macdonald got to you first. What’s her encyclopaedic knowledge for, if not to spread to her mates?”

Lily flushed, partly because Mary had got to her — had given her sex advice right before she and James had agreed to be friends. But mostly she flushed because the embarrassment had at last hit. Deflect, deflect, deflect.

“Is this your way of telling me you’ve slept with Mary?” She wasn’t sure why she’d said it, given that her friend would definitely have told her if such a thing had happened.

James looked aghast. “Why would I have slept with Mary? I mean, no offence to her, she’s smart and a bit terrifying and a looker—”

“All right.”

He raised his eyebrows at her. “Why are you so interested in my love life?”

“You’re the one interested in mine.”

“You’re the one who asked me to be interested in yours.”

“James!”

“What?”

She huffed again, more insistently this time. “I’m now telling you not to be. The cupboard doesn’t matter.”

He tipped his head back, grinning. “First, you called it the cupboard. Second — what, you don’t want to find out what Rosier et al are up to?”

Lily opened her mouth to protest, but his expression was all too knowing. She deflated.

“Am I that transparent?”

He shrugged, looking terribly smug. “No, I’m just cleverer than you think. Well — mostly I thought there was no way you’d tell me about you and your man unless the alternative was worse. While I admire your desire to protect me, Evans—” she made a noise of protest “—I’m a big boy.”

“Could’ve fooled me,” she mumbled. 

He ignored that. “Anyway, no luck thus far, they seem to be keeping away. If it’s what they use at all. But we’ll find out.”

She started at his use of we. James seemed just as taken aback by his own word choice. 

“Right,” she said slowly. That was one too many embarrassments in this conversation. She was itching to head up to the castle. “Right, well, I should—”

“At this rate you’ll miss the jig,” a voice said, its owner pushing through the crowd to stand beside them: Marissa Beasley, in sunflower-yellow corduroy trousers that Lily envied at once. She must have been wearing heeled boots. The Head Girl was nearly as tall as James.

“Peter wouldn’t start without me,” replied James easily. He handed her one of his Butterbeer mugs.

“Cheers,” said Marissa, smiling at Lily and then giving James a peck on the cheek. Then she melted back into the throng of students.

Lily was so taken aback she forgot to hide her reaction entirely. “You — you and Marissa!”

“Yes,” James said drily, “stop the presses.”

Her mind whirled. “But — she was going to Hogsmeade with Caradoc Dearborn.”

He laughed a little. “And then she didn’t?”

“Are you — how long have you been seeing her for?” Lily was trying to do the maths in her head. Had she seen the two of them together? Had there been any signs — anything that she could have used to reassure Mary?

Now James’s amusement gave way to confusion. “In the interest of not kissing and telling, I’ll just say it’s one date, Evans. What’s got you so worked up?”

“Nothing!” She was breathless, more determined than ever to go back to the castle. Typical, that everyone around her should be able to manage easy and breezy while she could not. Well, at least she could go give her friend the good news. “Just, Mary will be thrilled to know it.”

His confusion remained. “Will she?”

Belatedly Lily remembered she was not supposed to tell. “Er, don’t spread that around. Please.”

“Seeing as how I don’t even know what I’m spreading…”

She flapped a hand at him; the conversation seemed to end there, and Lily drew up the energy to walk out of the inn. But something held her there still. James had not moved either, to follow his date or to rejoin his friends.

“Anyway,” he said, and she knew he would say bye next. “Are you certain you want to turn down the chance to watch Peter dance? He really gets going when he’s got enough drink in him.”

So certain had she been of an impending dismissal that Lily didn’t know how to respond for several long moments. “I — Peter’s underage,” she said finally.

“You, Sirius, and Marissa aren’t, so you’ll be passing him Firewhisky, obviously. You got a good bit of practice in, slipping me some last night.”

To stay or to go? Lily thought again of hot chocolate, of the window seat in her dorm...of thinking and rethinking what she’d said to Dex. 

James waved a hand in her face then in the direction of the other Marauders. “Well? I’m not giving you time to do the Evans thing.”

“I won’t give you the satisfaction of asking what Evans thing,” she replied, crossing her arms. 

“Then I’ll just tell you. The Evans thing, where you go off to be introspective at a time when you really want to be with your mates.” She scoffed. “I seem to recall someone sitting alone in an armchair last night…”

She narrowed her eyes, thinking it was unfair of him to bring that up at all. But, all right, Lily wanted a distraction. And James seemed ready to provide it. And perhaps a funny part of her was still dwelling on the fact that he had observed things about her. Wasn't it the sort of kindness only friends offered, an attentiveness and a sensitivity to how you thought and how you saw the world?

“I can’t force you—” he began, picking up his Butterbeer.

“Oh, I’m coming. But I’m not slipping Peter anything,” Lily warned. James grinned as if he’d won something anyway.

Icon of a quill drawing a line

The castle was eerily quiet, and Mary was beginning to regret both not going to Hogsmeade and not staying in Gryffindor Tower. She’d promised Doe she’d stay behind the Fat Lady’s portrait until students returned from the village, but that ambition had died a quick death. She’d tried to put a record on and just sing to herself, but Mary was an extrovert by nature and did not want to spend the day cooped up in the tower with a bunch of twelve- and eleven-year-olds. Which had then compelled her to go take a walk.

She’d stick to the fifth floor, she told herself. She took the west stairs down and started towards the east end of the castle, but God, it really was empty. Did so many people actually leave to go to Hogsmeade? Her niggling anxiety was beginning to make her annoyed. 

You see, Mary Macdonald did not like being scared. She wore an armoured suit of bravado that had nearly fused to her skin. She had crafted the myth of herself to be big and untouchable, and so the reality of herself needed to have a certain swagger to live up to it. She’d arrived at Hogwarts ready to be her own creator, after years of being the funny Chinese girl who caused odd accidents. If she had it her way, no one at the school, safe for her closest friends, would know a different sort of Mary. 

A chance encounter in her fifth year made that impossible.

It was not that a mere jinx or a hex would have permanently damaged Mary’s pride and confidence. Memorably, Amelia Bones had hit her with an eyebrow-growing jinx after she’d heard Mary had kissed Chris Townes, back in fourth year. (Mary still maintained her innocence in the whole debacle.)

Weeks afterward Amelia told anyone who’d listen how Mary Macdonald had had caterpillars for brows...except Mary’d gone to Madam Pomfrey so quickly that all evidence of the spell had vanished, unseen by anyone except Amelia herself. Mary wore her best makeup for the rest of the week, along with her bitchiest expressions. What chance did a story of her at her ugliest have, in the face of her formidable present state?

But the myth of Mary Macdonald had its limits. For weeks after her run-in with Avery and Mulciber Mary would tell herself she must have said something to draw their attention, must have provoked them more directly… That was not the truth of the matter.

The truth, which she knew in the back of her mind, was that her being Muggle-born and existing in their periphery was provocation enough. She hadn’t cussed at them (though she probably had) or rolled her eyes at them (though she probably had) or talked loudly about how they had shit for brains (that one, she remembered doing) — the point was that she hadn’t done anything to deserve what they did to her.

She almost wished she had. Because then it would make sense, a clean logical coldness to the worst day of her life. 

Mary knew that the enemy of fear was rationality. But rationality paled, sometimes, in the face of bitter prejudice, of the cruelty of young men. Still, what could she do? Some students whispered about what happened to her, in the months that followed. And then they moved on. Mary simply pretended she’d moved on with them.

Some days the pretence of it was convincing enough to feel real. Today, the castle seemed more shadowed than ever. Fear prickled at her shoulders. Had Mulciber and Avery gone down to Hogsmeade? What if they were here?

What if they were following her?

Mary’s mind conjured up a gruesome image: herself, slumped like a rag doll underneath a black-lettered message. She couldn’t think what it would say. The more immediate concern was that version of her. How had Gerard McIlhenny been hurt? Would she be hurt the same way? Was it self-centred, to feel as though they were coming after her next?

She sped up, mind whirling. The Aurors were in the castle, weren’t they? She could go find one of them, keep them company as they patrolled. She’d even make nice with that Edgar Bones if she had to. She’d tell him how nice his little sister was. A nervous laugh escaped her lips, echoing down the empty corridor.

Were those footsteps, behind her?

They were definitely footsteps, and they were getting closer.

Her hand went to her pocket, fingers wrapping tightly around her wand. Oh, why couldn’t she have been better at duelling? But she could still use the element of surprise… Mary ducked around the next corner and pressed herself against the wall. The footsteps grew louder still. Stay calm, she told herself, though that didn’t stop her heart racing. She realised she’d shut her eyes, on instinct, and forced them open once more. It sounded like only one person, but she would have to be ready for two...just in case, just in case those shadows from her nightmares had returned…

And then she could see a shadow across the stone floor, and she was pointing her wand at a figure thinking the first spell that came to mind: Levicorpus!

She wished Flitwick had been there to see it. Mary had struggled the past few months with non-verbal spells, but apparently she performed very well when afraid for her life.

Her target let out a half-strangled yell, jerked into the air by his ankle. His arms pinwheeled for purchase, his face growing red with the effort. 

“Jesus Christ, lemme down—” Chris Townes gasped.

Mary unfroze and cast the counter-jinx, her blood pounding in her ears. “Are you out of your mind?” she shrieked. “Why were you following me? Didn’t you think it might, I don’t know, scare me out of my wits?”

Chris tumbled to the ground but managed to land in a position of careless grace, hand propping up his head as he looked at her. 

“You seem to have your wits about you fine enough,” he said, rolling his eyes. 

“Ha ha. Don’t make me jinx you again, Townes.”

“If you must know—” He stood, brushing off his shirt and his hair. Mary noted that his shirt was emblazoned with a Hexettes logo. The Hexettes were so dull. It was just Chris to have no taste in music. “—I saw you walking around alone and thought it wasn’t very safe.”

She rolled her eyes. “So you thought you’d come remind me how unsafe it is? Blessed Jesus and Mary. You’ve done that, so now you can — push off, or whatever.”

“Why don’t I walk you back to Gryffindor Tower?”

The words were innocuous enough but Mary recognised the little hint in the question. It was not just a walk Chris had in mind. 

She frowned. “You’re seeing the Duckling.”

Chris shrugged. “She snogged a seventh year. She and Flo have a weird — never mind. I think that gives me a snog plus tax. That’s equivalent exchange, isn’t it, from Alchemy class?”

Mary scoffed. “You’re disgusting and incorrigible.” 

“I don’t know what that second one means, but I like the sound of it. You should corrige me, Mac.”

She made a gagging sound.

Mary Macdonald knew that making the same mistake twice was for idiots. Chris Townes was seeing Cecily Sprucklin, who might not be as handy with eyebrow-growing jinxes as Amelia Bones but was probably still capable of some hellion-level woman-scorned rage. Also, Florence Quaille was in love with Chris.

But then again, if Florence was in love with Chris and Cecily was her best mate, then it was in Florence’s best interest for Chris and Cecily to break up. Cecily’s, too, because her best mate ought to come before a bloke.

And why was she, Mary, sitting around pining after a boy who clearly thought she was a yearly snog at a party? Maybe good guys were overrated, and Mary’s long-held queendom of broom cupboards and secret trysts should remain hers a little longer. Maybe she hadn't learned her lesson from fourth year and Amelia Bones after all.

Making the same mistake twice was for idiots, but better the mistake you know than the one you don’t. Or something like that.

Chris hadn’t moved while she’d deliberated, a horrible knowing smile on his face. Mary evaluated him clinically: hair a pale blonde and a little too long, dimples (his best feature), a face that hadn’t yet lost all its baby fat. Chris Townes was a boy, and he was definitely not Doc Dearborn.

“You are so lucky, getting this twice,” she grumbled, closing the distance between them.

As a rule Mary gave some boys passes for their generally terrible personalities. Colin Rollins, for one. Chris Townes was another — maybe even the first. He’d been a cute thirteen year old, which meant that he’d been awfully aware of his appeal throughout his adolescence thus far. If life were fair, Chris Townes would have had an awkward phase. At least he was a good kisser, and, as Mary was currently discovering, he had even improved.

“Come on, we are not standing here snogging in the corridor,” Mary said, and so they made their way to the west end of the castle, taking breaks when she deemed it appropriate and not when he glanced hopefully at broom cupboards. 

By the time they were at the staircase, she had to admit that Chris was fun. The ordeal that was fancying Doc was dramatic and exhausting, but there were easier things to be had. She was sixteen, not an old maid. Bless Doe, but she had been wrong about pursuing Doc properly. The only thing to it was to snag a rebound. 

“Trick stair on this one,” she warned, detaching herself from him. She was halfway up the flight of stairs when she heard a howl.

“Oh — would someone come help — anybody!” The voice had an odd, thick accent; it was deep and unfamiliar.

Mary immediately broke into a sprint. Up the staircase, round the corner — and there was the painting of the giant princess, the figure inside it sobbing and pointing. Slumped against the wall opposite her was a body. MUDBLOOD SCUM was scrawled across the wall; her vision blurred. Mary’s heart thudded painfully against her ribs. Had she conjured this up by imagining it? But it was someone else. Not her. Dark hair, patrician nose, face blanched white—

“Michael?” she whispered. She hardly heard herself over the painting’s wails.

Chris had come up behind her; he paled as he took in the scene. “Mike? Merlin—”

Moving without realising it, Mary sank to her knees beside him and pressed a hand to his neck. Was he dead? He couldn’t be dead, he couldn’t be— Beneath her fingers was a faint, fluttering heartbeat.

“Get a teacher,” Mary snapped at Chris. “Now!”

“The— The blood,” Chris said, apparently rooted to the spot.

“Chris! Go get—” But it was clear he was not going to be of much help. “Listen to me, stay — stay with him and, er, press down on the wound—” Her mind was a panicked cycle of fuck shit fuck shit fuck— “Can you do that? He needs — he needs Pomfrey right away—”

“I don’t know! I don’t know if I—”

“You fucking have to!” Mary shouted, then reminded herself he would not be useful if he went into shock. “For Michael’s sake, all right?”

She began backing away — saw but barely took in the letters scrawled over Michael’s head — but suddenly they were not alone in the corridor. Questions washed over her: when how long ago how what who who who and then Professor McGonagall was there, steering her away from the message. 

“—something for the shock,” she was saying, brisk and businesslike, her accent the rolling lilt of Mary’s home—

“I’m not in shock,” Mary said. Her ears were ringing; the corridor swam before her vision. “I’m not—”

The professor’s grip tightened on her elbow. “—all right, Macdonald — you got to him quick enough — put one foot in front of the other—”

She did, but she was not there. She was very far away.

 


iv. Not So Nice

Michael Meadowes hated secrets and lies. Of course, the world has a peculiar way of pitting us against things we hate, so when he was seven, secrets and lies became a regular part of his life. Little Michael caused accidents, and his parents had to cover up said accidents with elaborate fibs. And soon the accidents — falling vases, burning toast — happened too frequently for him to attend school.

The Meadowes were perfectly happy people, you see, and it is easy to conceal lies with your perfect happiness. Brian Meadowes had just taken up beekeeping. Michael helped his father with the bees and was stung quite often. Jacqueline Meadowes worked at a country club, tending to the horses. Michael learned to ride. He learned his sums and practised his alphabets, and he had very few friends. 

When he began attending Hogwarts, there were still more lies to be told — his parents came up with a pretend boarding school, so they all stuck to the same story when speaking to extended family. Michael did not like practical magic, because all his life he had been expected to hide it. While his classmates caused minor explosions in Charms class, Michael practised incantations under his breath, mastered wand movements, and had to be gently prodded into trying by his professors.

But he did love learning. He was curious, and a lonely childhood had cultivated his bookishness. There was a wealth of secret, magical knowledge out there for him to unlock, and he vowed to do it.

How, though, could he stomach balancing truth-seeking at school with the fabulously-embellished lies he told at home? He had control of his magic now, and spent his summers and winters in the little town he'd grown up in — but properly in town, not just helping his father with the bees or his mother with the horses. He could not be a secret.

Christmas of his fourth year, visiting an aunt and uncle, Michael's aunt Sarah had seen him holding hands with the neighbours' son. She'd nervously referred to them as friends thereafter. 

He was sick of lies.

That same winter, at the cheery diner in town where Michael read when he wanted to get out of the house, he noticed the young, chipper waitress was lingering at his table. As in, trying to see what he was reading. As in, asking him with extra enthusiasm if he wanted eggnog, "Mum's secret recipe, but I've made some fixes and I could use a taste tester." As in, saying, "It's funny, I'm always calling you table four, can I just put your name on your order?" in a transparent attempt to get his name. He obliged.

She was pretty; she had dark hair which she wore in a blunt bob, a pert, upturned nose, and a wintry rosiness in her cheeks. He went from saying "thanks" when she brought him his order to saying "Thanks, Katie."

Katie Halliday kissed him the day before he left for school again. 

He wrote her via his parents — the excuse here was that boarding school was very strict, and Michael was only allowed to write to his family. She wrote him back, and Jacqueline Meadowes did not open her letters before forwarding them to Michael. He told her about his father's bees, the boy who lived next door to Aunt Sarah, and his pet cat. Katie told him about her mother, who ran the diner, and her father, who'd run off when Katie was a little girl, and how Mrs. Halliday constantly said she ought to marry a boy who'd keep her safe. It felt very wrong, slipping in lies about how boring boarding school was into these very honest letters.

Still, Michael did it, because he didn't want Katie to think he was crazy. In the summer he showed her the bees and taught her to ride on the club's most docile mare, and they kissed some more. Katie Halliday was fifteen, almost a year older than Michael, and her tinkling laugh drove him crazy, and he was in love.

By the end of the summer Brian and Jacqueline doted on Katie. Mrs. Halliday was a little less enthusiastic, because she, unlike her daughter, remembered the funny Meadowes boy who broke things when he got in a temper and had to be homeschooled. Granted, he had been young, and he seemed reformed. But how could she in good conscience encourage her daughter to pursue a boy who might have had anger problems?

In any case, it quickly became clear to Katie that her boyfriend — attentive and funny and kind as he was — was hiding something. He didn't seem to have sat his O Levels; apparently his fancy boarding school used some other syllabus. Only, he never talked about his subjects. And where did Brian and Jacqueline, who did not struggle for money but certainly were not well-off, get the funds to put their son through a school like that? Katie didn't think Michael was secretly at correctional school — one of Mrs. Halliday's worst theories — but suspicion had set in. 

Lies bred lies, which Michael knew well. That summer he sensed something was different, and so in July he told her about magic. Well, part of the problem was that he couldn't do it to show her, because he was underage. But he did show her his textbooks, a copy of the Daily Prophet, a Hexettes record.

He tried to put himself in her shoes, to predict what he would do, as a Muggle, if faced with the suggestion that magic was real. He offered to have his parents tell her about Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, and Hogwarts, and the wizard who'd come to tell them Michael was like him. Katie had gone very pale and very quiet, and told him she needed space. 

Michael went to the diner to read anyway, resolving not to change his holiday routine on her account. They were, after all, still dating. No dramatic arguments had occurred. (Even if Mrs. Halliday, when she saw him in the diner, made oblique references to tall tales. This, in retrospect, was a very bad sign.) 

It seemed that Katie had sought solace elsewhere, that is, in the arms of a boy visiting Cornwall with his parents. Michael couldn't fathom why she'd thought two lies would somehow cancel out. But that had been the end of that. Michael Meadowes continued to hate secrets and lies. He stopped going to the diner. 

Icon of a quill drawing a line

“You,” Madam Pomfrey said when Michael woke on Monday afternoon, “need to rest.”

On Tuesday morning when he was deemed well enough to accept visitors, he told Pomfrey not to let anyone in.

“I’m tired,” he said. He wasn't, not physically. But he was certain he did not have the energy to face his mates, who would ask what had happened, and if it hurt, and he would need to tell them it was all right, and things weren't all that bad. 

You see, no matter how much Michael Meadowes hated secrets and lies, he still reverted to them when hurt.

“Tired?” Pomfrey repeated, alarmed. “Do you feel any pain around the wound? No? There, sit up slowly, and we’ll see if anything’s changed—”

On Wednesday morning, the Meadowes met with Professor Flitwick. A lengthy discussion ended the professor’s way — curse wounds of this sort could not be treated by any Muggle physician, and so Michael absolutely needed Madam Pomfrey’s attention. And the culprit would be caught, of course. (Good, Jacqueline Meadowes had informed him, because they would pull their son from school if that did not happen.)

They visited Michael, who had been debating whether or not to pretend to sleep before deciding being awake would convince them he was well enough to stay on. He hadn’t heard their conversation with Flitwick, of course, but he’d guessed what would be said. He still had not seen any of his friends.

On Thursday morning, Michael ate porridge and apples from the Great Hall — he could tell because it tasted better than the other infirmary food. He was in a good mood. So when Pomfrey told him he had a visitor he said he would see them, assuming it was Gaurav or Lottie or Chris or Florence. It was not Gaurav or Lottie or Chris or Florence. It was Dorcas Walker.

“How are you feeling?” she whispered, as if a louder voice would break him.

Michael had not expected this at all. He felt as though he’d been knocked off-balance. 

“All right,” he said finally, deciding that was closest to the truth.

She sat down in a chair next to his bed and crossed her ankles. She seemed to find something about her own ankles quite fascinating. Michael looked at her, because she was not looking at him. Her hair, long and curly, was usually let loose around her shoulders, held back by an Alice band. Today it was in a thick plait. She fiddled with the end of it. 

“Do they know who did it? Was there an Olivia Nott, I mean,” Michael said. 

Her eyes grew wide. “Oh! I thought you’d have a better idea than any of us… They didn’t find anyone running off, that is. At least, that’s what Mary says. She and Chris—”

“Found me, I know.”

Another silence.

“Oi, don’t we have Defence?” said Michael.

“We do. I’ve got time.”

“It’s your favourite subject.”

Doe rolled her eyes. “My favourite subject doesn’t take precedence over my hurt friend, Michael.”

“I’m no longer hurt,” he pointed out. “I’m just resting.”

“Well, technicalities.”

He didn’t want her to tell him the technicalities here. 

“I feel so stupid,” she said suddenly. He got the impression that this, whatever came next, was why she’d really come. “I feel so stupid, because I let you go back to the castle on Sunday—”

“Please, don’t.” Now he did feel physically tired. “Please don’t.”

“—or I should’ve gone with you, or something, I shouldn’t have let it happen—” She broke off.

“Right,” said Michael. “Because I let it happen.”

She looked up, met his gaze. “No. You know that’s not what I meant.”

He sighed. “I know you didn’t.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, very quietly.

“I know.”

“I just hate feeling powerless,” he confessed, which was more than he’d said on the subject to most people he knew. But he thought Dorcas — who argued with radio show hosts, who wrote letters to the Prophet, who stormed WWN offices — would understand. Would also hate feeling powerless.

“I know,” she said.

“Yeah.”

“They’re going to find out who did it.” Her voice was still soft, but her eyes were bright. This was, after all, the girl who argued with radio show hosts and wrote letters to the Prophet and stormed WWN offices.

Michael stiffened. “Just promise you’re not going to try and get involved.”

“What?” she drew back, looking bewildered. “I’m — well — I mean, I asked around a—”

Don’t do it,” he said sharply.

Her lips parted but she made no reply. He felt justified, a little, in having said what he’d said — clearly she would not look so caught if she hadn’t been considering it. 

“Right,” she said, her voice faint. “I’ll. Okay.”

“You ought to hurry, before you’re late for class.”

She nodded and said goodbye, and gave him a packet of Jelly Slugs. He thanked her for visiting. He rolled onto his other side, and slept through the rest of Thursday.

 

 

Chapter Text

i. Endgame

A bone-grinding burst of pain. James Potter was suddenly very certain he was about to die.

Death was a far-off thing for boys like him. James hardly ever looked two feet in front of himself. But this horrible, burning pain could only end in darkness. What could come after it? 

It — slowed but did not fade, all of a sudden. That is, it no longer felt like being set on fire, but it still hurt, like his body was being weighed down— down— down… Someone was shouting, and the echoing noise of it made his head throb. Someone else was kneeling beside him, the feather-light ends of her hair tickling his face. He really didn’t want to die. He closed his eyes.

Dorcas Walker cast a spell. Lily Evans realised it was her fault. Severus Snape wished it had been him, on two separate counts.

Icon of a quill drawing a line

Nearly ten hours earlier, Dorcas Walker and Lily Evans were walking back from the greenhouses after the morning’s Herbology lesson. As usual, Lily had been late to breakfast, and so had missed the proper morning routine. Her stomach growled in protest as they trudged through the snow. Doe had a folded-up copy of the Prophet, from which she was currently reading to her friend.

“They’ve got another break in the Hogsmeade murders,” said Doe, frowning at the newspaper. “The compulsion spell, it might be tied to magical objects—”

“The compulsion spell that didn’t kill either of the victims?” 

“That one, yes.”

“I wonder what that has to do with anything.” Lily stripped off her mittens when they entered the heated castle, sighing in relief. “The Death Eaters...compelled them to do something, then killed them?”

Doe shrugged. “I’d imagine so. They wouldn’t report it if it wasn’t important, right?”

They sat at the Gryffindor table, where the Marauders were already tucking into lunch. Lily frowned; she was certain she and Doe had left before them. 

“Or,” Sirius suggested, overhearing them, “they’re reporting it because the Aurors need to show they’ve found something out.” 

“I really don’t think—” Doe began.

“Just wait. They’ll cancel the next Hogsmeade weekend or something, because of objects.”

“Considering what happened during the last Hogsmeade weekend, maybe people should be more worried!” said Doe hotly.

Lily put a hand on her arm, hoping to draw her attention from the boys. When she did at last turn to her, Lily whispered, “Was Michael all right?”

Doe shrugged. “He seemed...irritable, I don’t know. He was tired, probably. Maybe I shouldn’t have seen him, maybe he wanted a proper friend—”

“Doe, darling, please. You’re a proper friend. I’m sure he appreciated having you there.” 

She only shook her head, setting aside the Prophet and ladling herself some soup. “It’s so bloody awful, Lily. I—” She shook her head once more. “I just feel like I have to do something. Only, I don’t know what I can do, short of shaking the truth out of Olivia Nott.”

Lily bit her lip. She did not disagree...except that she had been trying to do something for weeks now, via James, and she wasn’t certain it had done any good either. For a moment she considered telling Doe her suspicions about the secret room. But there was no point in having another person frustrated by their helplessness, was there? No, when she or James knew what was going on then she would tell Dorcas, and maybe that would take the teachers one step closer to knowing who’d done it all.

In any case it couldn’t have been Olivia Nott this time. The girl had been sent packing to serve her suspension only days after Gerard McIlhenny’s attack. Lily wondered if the school would walk back her suspension, or if the assumption was that this was a copycat — or a companion — at work.

“The teachers must have some idea,” she said lamely.

Doe ignored this halfhearted comment. “Anyway, I heard Michael’s Ravenclaw mates went to visit him over the weekend, so he had that, at least. But I can’t imagine being Lottie right now.”

Lily’s mind had drifted back to the room and how to enter it; this remark jerked her back to the present.

“Lottie? As in, Fenwick?”

Doe nodded. “Our year, Ravenclaw. She and McIlhenny started going out only last month, and then he got attacked. Michael said she was so excited about it too, wouldn’t stop talking about him. He was going back after seeing her that night. That’s why she’s been so cut up about it all—”

There was something there. Lily frowned, trying to puzzle it out in her head. But she could not find a neat little hole to fit it in… This detail would simply have to sit in the back of her mind until she knew why it struck her as relevant. She murmured something in sympathy, and turned back to buttering her roll. Maybe if she sat down and wrote everything out… Severus and Thalia Greengrass patrolling, Gerard McIlhenny on his way back from Ravenclaw Tower, someone waiting for him… The moment she thought she had it, though, it slipped out of reach.

Lily looked up, searching for the Marauders. Perhaps James knew something. But they were gone, all four of them, as if they’d never been there at all. She frowned. If they were planning a prank, it seemed like poor timing. The whole castle was on edge. Then again, maybe people needed something to laugh about. She’d certainly been happy to laugh at Peter doing a jig with leprechauns last weekend. All while Michael Meadowes was being cursed in the corridor. Who was next? They had only hurt older students thus far, but how long until some poor eleven-year-old caught the attacker’s attention? Just the thought made Lily queasy. She set down her uneaten roll.

“Are you all right?” Doe said.

“Fine — I think. Not very hungry.” But she had missed breakfast, and so she couldn’t skip lunch. Lily picked up the roll again.

Doe’s expression twisted into sympathy. “Oh, I’m sorry, did I stress you out? I shouldn’t have gone on, I — I did it with Mary too, and—”

Lily shook her head quickly. Her friend was on the verge of tears.

“No, no, it’s not you. And you know…” She lowered her voice. “It wasn’t you with Mary either. I mean, she found Michael. Of course she’s frightened. And she knows you’re worried for her. That’s all.”

Doe nodded, apparently mollified by this. 

“I don’t fancy sitting here anymore,” Lily confessed. “I feel as though everyone’s talking about what happened.”

“Common room?”

“I should go fill out some point deductions, actually — but you can come with me if you like?”

This was a mutually beneficial suggestion: Lily did not want Doe to dwell on what had happened to Michael, and Doe did not want Lily wandering the castle on her own. The girls bundled rolls into napkins and left the Great Hall. The nearest prefect office was, in fact, the Head Office; Lily couldn’t fill out any forms there unless Colin or Marissa was inside. But on impulse she went that direction anyway, biting into one of her rolls.

“So,” Doe said slowly, “Dex.”

Lily sighed. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

“You’ve been saying that for weeks, Lily.”

She had, of course she had — although, she’d confided in Germaine, hadn’t she? In the days that had passed she’d felt quite confident in her decision. Dex had respected her space, but they smiled at each other in the corridors and had on one occasion held a lengthy conversation in the library aisle about magical water plants. It was mundane, yes, but it was friendly. It was normal. It seemed now that the pressure was off, they could get along just fine. Lily wasn’t certain what that boded for her proposition — being serious about each other — but she thought she remained willing to try. 

There was something about firsts, Mary had once informed them, in the context of her first snog (a boy from home, who was still in love with her), her first shag (a different boy from home, who was still in love with her), and her first I-love-you (well, the first time it’d been said to her, by a third boy from home, who was...you get the idea). Lily hadn’t been sure if she ought to put stock in that, but at least while she was in her first she thought Mary might have known a thing or two after all. She wasn’t yet ready to let go of the summery happiness Dex brought her. And, well, dramatic as the consequences had been, she didn’t think having sex with him had been a wholly bad decision either. Perhaps a choice made too soon. But...not a bad decision, all things considered. 

“I suppose this makes another week when I’ll say it,” Lily said, not entirely without humour. “I’m sorry, Doe, I’m just — talked out, I suppose.”

Doe arched an eyebrow. “I can’t see how, since you never seem to want to discuss what’s going on. But — all right, I trust you’re talking to someone.”

Lily swallowed and smiled. Suddenly it seemed as though the teetering reality of her life had only been momentarily steadied. Another little mishap and it would all come tumbling down… She shook that away, surprised by the bout of pessimism. It wasn’t like her to expect the worst.

The door to the Head Office was ajar; Lily was glad for her gamble. She knocked, and both Colin and Marissa called, “Come in!”

Dorcas whispered “Oooh” as they entered, and Lily smothered a laugh.

The two offices the prefects used — one at either end of the castle — were rather mundane. They didn’t look much different from unused classrooms. But the Head Office was well-lit and cosy, with rows of perfectly organised shelves and files and records kept by previous head students, apparently going back years. Her heart stuttered when she entered it still, as it had since she’d been a newly-minted prefect at fifteen. Colin and Marissa were seated at the round table, poring over what looked like a report.

“Sorry, just got deduction forms to—” Lily began.

“Don’t worry about it,” Marissa said, smiling at them both.

Some of Lily’s enthusiasm must have been clear on her face, because Doe was grinning.

“Can’t wait until this office is yours, can you?” she said, voice low.

Lily flushed. “There’s no — I mean, it’s not certainly going to be mine. Emmeline Vance, Amelia Bones.” She shrugged. “Either of them would make a good Head Girl.” She meant it. They were both talented students, of course, and Emmeline played Quidditch, and Amelia had a sort of inherent authority that only rude people called bossiness. She’d have been happy to lose the post to either of them.

Doe was rolling her eyes now. “Yeah, okay. I’m only surprised your false modesty bit didn’t include Thalia Greengrass as well.”

Lily suppressed a laugh. “Had to keep it believable.”

“The only question is, who’ll be your Crollins?” Doe whispered.

Lily’s eyes went wide, but the Head Boy hadn’t seemed to have heard. She busied herself with the point deduction form for a while, while Doe suppressed laughter behind a book. 

“Bertram Aubrey?” Doe said.

Lily made a face. “He would be my Cro—” She coughed before she could finish the sentence, glancing nervously at the Heads. Dorcas was very poorly swallowing her laughter.

“—have the Hufflepuff fifth years with Filch four weeks from now?” Colin was saying in an undertone to Marissa.

“No, Filch is tonight, remember, so it’s three from now—” 

Lily gave Doe a warning look. “It isn’t worth speculating about, because I don’t know that it’s going to happen.”

“All right, I’ll back off. But I’m going to have this conversation with you again in August, I’ll have you know.”

She forced herself to put the thought entirely out of her mind. She shouldn’t get her hopes up already — and as for the worrying question of who her partner would be, well. That was a problem for a future Lily. 

 


ii. Smoke and Mirrors

“Polishing with no magic.” James held up the rag the prefect had given him. “What a classic punishment.”

“Sorry,” Annie Markham said, sounding like she really meant it. “Filch’s been in a terrible mood lately. I swear he’s more bothered by the vandalism part of these attacks than anything.”

He snorted, mostly to himself. “If he’s this off his game no wonder he hasn’t caught the attacker.” 

That is to say, James didn’t think he deserved this detention, on a technicality. There were certain times of the year when Filch gained an anti-Marauder sense, if you will: late October, late February, mid-May, just before the boys’ birthdays. Now, he had a sense, not a keen one. The caretaker hoped to pinpoint the Marauders’ mischief before it happened. This would have been difficult for even a more skilled adversary than Filch, and if one was to keep score — as both he and the Marauders did — one would know he was on the losing end of the war.

But whether or not all this was fair was irrelevant. On that February day, James Potter — and Peter Pettigrew — were going to learn a great deal about cause and distant effect, action and consequence. Or, as James would think of it later, the cool shit you did that came back to bite you in the arse

Because if the Marauders didn’t believe in loyalty, then they would not have decided, at the end of their fourth year, to become Animagi and help Remus Lupin through his...health condition. If the Marauders hadn’t failed spectacularly at the Animagus process over the summer hols, they wouldn’t have had to try again during the school term. If they hadn’t been trying to avoid McGonagall’s notice — because if anyone would catch them at it, it would be their eagle-eyed head of house, already suspicious by how quiet and secretive they were being — then they would not have had to think up a distraction prank. The distraction in question concerned Filch’s filing cabinet, in which he meticulously stored his reports on students’ wrongdoings. 

Inspired by a Transfiguration lesson gone wrong, the boys performed an incomplete spell on the cabinet to, in effect, convince the thing that it was actually a teakettle. When Filch least expected it, James would slip hot water and tea leaves into the cabinet from under the Cloak’s cover, and watch it screech and jabber. A simple charm gave the cabinet motion, and so it shrieked up and down the castle corridors, on one occasion getting all the way to the fifth floor before Filch recaptured it.

Now, one could argue that this distraction did not need to be as elaborate and detailed as it was. But the Marauders did have a flair for dramatics. Besides, they had to convincingly suggest that the cabinet was the only trick they were playing, so that McGonagall did not realise their oddly thick speech was the result of carrying Mandrake leaves in their mouths. Why did they custom-order Delphine Delacroix’s Sinful Aphrodisiac Tea Leaves for the Amorously-Minded Diviner by owl, you ask?

Well, Filch hated tea. And the dried tea leaves made rude shapes sometimes.

It was partly the detail and dedication of this prank that persuaded Filch to (quite correctly) assume the Marauders were behind it. But he could never find proof. These were the days before the Marauder’s Map, when the boys had memorised patrol schedules and hoped for the best. On several nights James only narrowly escaped the caretaker, which he counted as more successful for how thrilling they were. On one of these nights, he was locked in a broom cupboard and avoided Filch’s wrath only by the grace of a certain sixth year Ravenclaw prefect. But you already know that story.

In any case, Filch could not bring anything but vague suspicion to McGonagall, and so the Marauders got away with it. His files smelled vaguely of tea for months thereafter. And once the boys completed the Animagus process, the cabinet mysteriously stopped screaming. They eventually forgot what they’d done. They forgot, even, to undo the spell. Filch did not forget, and was so in a sulk with the deputy headmistress that he was too prideful to ask that she fix his cabinet for him.

He received a potent reminder in the week after Michael Meadowes was attacked. One James Potter had crept into his office, guessing that Filch might have written up a report about both attacks. Perhaps the second one would connect Severus Snape to the crime too… never mind that James recalled seeing Snape in the Three Broomsticks on the day of the second attack. He found no evidence of that sort; the report was unfinished, and Filch had spent more time speculating on the nature of the vandalism than the spells involved in the attack.

But he did learn Filch had been patrolling in the vicinity of Ravenclaw Tower on the night Gerard McIlhenny was attacked. And on the day Michael Meadowes was hurt, Filch had been the one guarding the west wing’s sixth floor. The culprits depended, then, on Filch’s relative incompetence. And they knew to strike when and where he was around. That indicated a certain knowledge that might implicate a prefect. It wasn’t the smoking wand he’d hoped for, but it was something.

With satisfaction, James had replaced the file and made to leave the office. But he noticed, then, that one specific filing cabinet bore a little sign that read no hot water. The effect the sign had on him was profound and immediate. It was a bit of a character flaw, really, one of the few James would openly admit to. Requests like do not touch, no entry, and authorised personnel only evoked in him the powerful urge to disobey. (A particular favourite was trespassers will be prosecuted. It warmed his heart.) So of course, when he saw the sign that said no hot water, he opened a drawer, muttered a spell, and filled it with hot water. 

No sooner had he slammed the drawer shut than the cabinet let out an ear-splitting whistle. “Fuck,” James whispered, stifling laughter and legging it right out of the office. Armed now with the map, he was able to evade all patrollers and safely return to Gryffindor Tower, where he reminded the boys of the teakettle cabinet to much laughter.

Filch was most displeased to see the return of his cabinet’s screeching tendencies. He remembered now how his complaints had been unfairly dismissed — how those pesky boys had got away with their mischief — how his files smelled like tea, and still did with the application of hot water, even though they were bespelled to be impervious to water damage. He renewed his investigation into the prank, and finally, he achieved a breakthrough.

Because the boys had made the mistake of leaving the label to Delphine Delacroix’s Sinful Aphrodisiac Tea Leaves for the Amorously-Minded Diviner in Filch’s office a year before, so that the caretaker would know what sort of tea they were using. (“In case he wants to order some himself,” Sirius had said, laughing.) And though the mail order service had been terribly slow to answer Filch’s inquiry, he learned in November of 1976 that the deliveries had been made to the Hogsmeade post office, a box owned by one Humbert Northrop Anglesby. Certainly an alias, he thought. A dead end, perhaps, and so he had let the matter rest for some months. 

But just then, in February of 1977, having just quieted down his rogue filing cabinet again, Filch was motivated to unmask Humbert Northrop Anglesby. Copious combing through his (tea-scented) files revealed a Dungbomb order, confiscated in April 1974, from the possession of James Potter but addressed to Humbert Northrop Anglesby. It was no wonder Filch hadn’t put the facts together earlier. James’s file was the size of a hefty reference book.

But here it was: the connection. James Potter was Humbert Northrop Anglesby, therefore James Potter had ordered the tea left in his teakettle cabinet, therefore James Potter knew, at the very least, that Filch’s cabinet had been badly Transfigured, therefore! James Potter could plausibly be accused of organising the whole thing. The caretaker had happily slapped James with a detention for that Monday evening, forcing him to reschedule Quidditch practice so that he might polish shields — some of which still bore Lily’s name — in the trophy room.

You might think that this was a fair ending, then, to the whole story of Filch and the teakettle cabinet. James would disagree. He considered that battle closed and won — by the Marauders. Filch coming back and giving him detention for a year-old prank seemed like a violation of the rules of engagement. Actions had consequences, but James didn’t like this one, not one bit. 

Of course, if Filch hadn’t solved the mystery and given him a detention, then that night would have gone very differently indeed. That, however, is getting ahead of ourselves.

“If he’s this off his game no wonder he hasn’t caught the attacker,” James said presently, swiping at a dusty award for services to the school. Considering how often Filch doled out this particular punishment, the trophies really ought to be cleaner.

Annie Markham, the seventh year Hufflepuff prefect, made a noncommittal sound. She too was examining a trophy.

“Was this you lot?” She pointed at a plaque, which congratulated Lily on her Exploding Snap victory.

James grinned. The Protean Charm persisted, it seemed. Whoever had undid it had done a half-arsed job. Very possibly Flitwick had left a few there out of respect for them.

“It was,” he said. “If we’d had it my way, it’d be my name up there, but someone cheated at Exploding Snap, so—” He shrugged.

“You don’t still fancy her, do you?” There was an uncharacteristic suspicion in Annie’s expression. 

James did not know her well, but he hadn’t expected this. “No,” he said, casually and not too quickly.

“Okay. Because Marissa’s my friend, you know.”

He resisted the urge to roll his eyes. “You don’t have to do the protective mates thing. Marissa’s a big girl, and it’s not as though we’re getting married tomorrow.” 

In retrospect, that was a bit Sirius of him to say. He did like Marissa Beasley, and did not want to hurt her. But he also knew this was a fun sort of thing for them both. That it was rather like being caught in a broom cupboard with Filch round the corner, and putting your finger to your lips, and having the pretty girl who’d caught you smile back and keep your secret, again and again. 

Annie frowned at him, apparently not appeased. “All right.”

Silence fell, and James turned his attention to a huge trophy awarded to some bird who’d led the Slytherin Quidditch team in 1892. Annie wasn’t watching him very closely. James fished out his wand, executed another Protean Charm, and changed the trophy to read for avant-garde clownery on broomsticks. Then he amused himself for a minute imagining what that would look like. Then he realised he was wasting a valuable source of information in Annie Markham, who was a prefect and also a—

“Hufflepuff,” James said aloud. Annie frowned. “You’re a Hufflepuff.”

She laughed a little. “Well spotted, Potter.”

He pushed the altered trophy out of sight so that she would not deduct points from him. “I mean, you’re a Hufflepuff, so you must know Gerry McIlhenny.”

Her smile faded. “I do, yeah. Nice bloke, Gerry. Not too chatty — to be honest, I didn’t even know he was Muggle-born. I don't think many students in his year knew either.”

That took James by surprise. The Muggleborns he knew well — Lily and Mary — seemed quite public with their blood status. Or perhaps that was because both had been targets of vitriol from blood purists, so it would be impossible not to know… Which had come first? No, Lily often spoke of her non-magical family, and Mary had explained some Muggle nursery rhyme to him — it had gone way over his head, but he didn’t tell her that…

Even Michael Meadowes, he’d known was Muggle-born, because the Ravenclaw had begun explaining the rules of football during one impossibly boring Quidditch match in their fifth year — a Hufflepuff versus Slytherin snoozefest, that one, McGonagall hadn’t even stopped him. 

So if Gerard McIlhenny wasn’t so open about his blood status, how had the attackers known to target him?

“You don’t say,” James said, watching Annie closely. “It seemed pretty planned, though. What happened to him.”

She shrugged. “Maybe. I suppose that Nott girl had to have had help.”

“Oh, yeah?” He wanted to hear her theories on the matter, and see where they fit into the picture he’d half-assembled. If Sirius was right and the curse they’d used was Snape’s curse — well, they’d guessed it was Snape’s curse, which was a lot of guessing… 

“Yeah. He was Stunned first, but the stunner didn’t come from her wand.”

James wheeled around to face her. “Did they check the prefects’ wands?” he said urgently.

Annie blinked, taken aback by the shift in tone. “Did they — who?”

“The prefects who found him. Snape and Greengrass, d’you know if they checked their wands?” He couldn’t remember what Filch’s stupid report had said on the subject — which meant that the caretaker had probably not noted this detail at all.

“I don’t imagine why they would? They were the ones who saved him, after all. Any longer and he might’ve bled out.”

James sighed, defeated once more. Of course playing the heroes would have put Snape and Greengrass above suspicion, never mind that they’d been at the right place at the right time to carry out the attack themselves. 

“Was Michael Meadowes Stunned, do you know?” 

Annie shrugged. “I don’t know the details. If you’re so curious, you should ask Marissa. I think she said she and Crollins wrote a report about both attacks for Dumbledore…”

He felt very foolish indeed. He had been on a date with the Head Girl, and had a few happy broom cupboard excursions with her in the past few weeks, and had not once thought to ask her what she knew about the attacks. Those two parts of his life had felt separate: the one trying to ignore Lily Evans, the other trying to piece together what was going on at Hogwarts. Of course, given that Lily Evans was trying to piece together what was going on at Hogwarts, this had always been a doomed quest.

He turned away from Annie and fished out the Marauder’s Map. It was after dinner but not yet near curfew, and Marissa Beasley was in Ravenclaw Tower. There were seventeen minutes left in his detention. 

James suffered through another row of trophies, charming some of the names into innuendoes just because he could. Finally, Annie let him go; they strode out of the Trophy Room only to find that they were now on the third floor. Annie brightened. “Shortens my walk back.”

She started down the staircase. James went up. If one was headed to the Hufflepuff common room from a higher floor, the room’s movement would have indeed constituted a shortcut. Except the room was unpredictable, and the only reason they knew it had moved at all on the day McIlhenny was attacked was because of Peeves. But presumably Peeves hadn’t seen McIlhenny or his attackers…

He stopped short. Why did the Trophy Room matter anyway? What the fuck would McIlhenny want with rows of dusty shit on a Saturday evening? It all seemed useless… You wouldn’t need to keep watch on either side of the Trophy Room if you just knew where McIlhenny was coming from and followed him. The armour gallery presented many hiding places for an ambush.

No, the only one who cared about the Trophy Room was...Filch, who’d been patrolling this part of the castle, and had been so insistent that the attackers had come through there — because he’d been caught by the moving room as it bounced between floors, and was too embarrassed to admit that it had delayed his finding McIlhenny. Just as he’d been too embarrassed to get McGonagall to fix his cabinet, or Flitwick to change back all the trophies. 

James continued walking, still frowning to himself. It was a piece, but it was still conjecture, and it was still not the most important detail. If he considered the Trophy Room irrelevant, then he’d only need to know where McIlhenny had come from to know who’d followed him. He climbed the spiral staircase to the Ravenclaw common room and came face to face with the eagle door-knocker.

“What makes a man?” it said when he’d knocked.

Ah, fuck. “His parents?” James said hopefully. It was the first glib thought that came to mind.

The door swung open. He thanked every higher power he could think of that the door had a sense of humour.

Marissa was hunched over a desk, her classmates around her, poring over an essay. James approached, feeling quite awkward. He hadn’t thought through how it would like, him barging in to see her. But there was no use overthinking it now.

“Er, hi, Marissa,” he said.

She jumped a little, sitting up. “James? What are you doing here?” One of her friends tittered.

“I had a quick question—” He pulled up an empty chair and sat down, lowering his voice. “D’you know if Michael Meadowes was Stunned before he was cursed?”

She blinked, then smiled. “Save the preamble, why don’t you?” But she set her quill down. “I shouldn’t be telling you this—”

“But you will.”

A brief smile. “He wasn’t. The Aurors said it was quite sloppy, really… They’d been only a few corridors away. Mind you, they didn’t see anyone running off, but they could have caught them.” Marissa gave an unhappy sigh. “I wish the attacker had been a bit more careless.”

James nodded