It was a while before Lily was back on speaking terms with the Gryffindor girls— real speaking, not just small talk to prove them decent, and prove her forgiving. In that time, Lily learned a lot of things.
She learned, for instance, when to pack it in and pretend to forget an insult, when to let everyone tell her it had just been a misunderstanding.
"She didn't mean it," Fiona would often say, for whichever of the Hufflepuffs that needed it. When it was Fiona's turn, all of her friends would say it at once, or nearly so, while she stood back, looking stricken. Lily came to hate those moments, especially when she knew her faults would not be covered in that way, with someone else making her own amends.
It was the one thing Lily liked about Mary and Georgie and Jemima; when push came to shove, they apologized on their own, poorly or no. Lily felt equal among them, not like one of Fiona's little projects. Sometimes, she could almost forget that the former might not have happened without the latter, and that was always nice.
Today was one of those days, a mishmash of a morning that would see Lily at home in the evening, if everything went all right. She was arm-in-arm with Jemima, hustling them both upstairs in search of a magazine Georgie had left behind in their dorm. The common room was packed with people rushing around like them, trying to snatch up or squeeze in one last thing that they had forgotten, as if they were all going away for more than a week or two.
"Calm yourself, Dillon," Frank Longbottom was saying firmly, just behind them. "I'm sure we'll find your toad, he can't have gone far—"
"Ugh," Jemima said, as they waited for the chance to edge around someone's open trunk. "Hope he has lost it."
"Hope it gets squashed," Lily said, chancing a look back in Dillon's direction. He looked red-faced and uncomfortable, the opposite of how he always did when he lay in wait with the other fourth-year boys outside the girls' showers, listening for the pandemonium caused by his annoyingly lively toad. "Strike that, I hope it turns up in his trunk, twice the usual size."
Jemima let out a longing little sigh. "We wish." That was another thing Lily had learned about the way things were at Hogwarts: practical jokes against the upper years were simply Not Done, not even in retaliation. The only girls allowed to respond to Dillon's irritating pranks were in fourth year and above, and they weren't always in the showers when the lower years were.
"Git," Lily murmured, as they finally got onto the stairs. "Won't be missing his lot this Christmas." Even as she said it, she couldn't help but think of the other set of Gryffindor boys she would not miss; Potter and Black and Pettigrew too, and that sodding Lupin. "Won't be missing any of them."
"Yeah," Jemima said, pulling ahead of her. "Be nice to take a shower without looking out for toads." She didn't say anything in particular, but Lily thought she had to be thinking about the boys as well, their lot of boys, as much as they could be called that. They spread their own brand of misery around fairly equally these days, and Jem had got the brunt of it today down at breakfast.
"Buck up," Potter had said, after calling Jem a hag, and making out the rest of the girls to be a set of horsefaced pigs. "I'm only making fun."
He'd looked around at Lily, too, including her in the usual cover-up with an ease that jarred her. Back near the start of term, she had not had the luxury of them pretending they didn't mean the things they'd said about why she was talking with the Hufflepuffs.
Eventually, she'd given up on waiting for them to be embarrassed enough to return her letter, given up and finished her reply, and worked up the courage to try and send it. Black had met her in the Owlery, and proceeded to make fun of her on her way back, laughing at her every move.
Lily simply didn't speak to them now, not unless she needed to, not unless a teacher was there and looking on. At first, it had felt like she had lost, like all her defiance had been for nothing. Then Potter or Black would say something really horrible, and try to pass it off as a joke, and she'd catch the resentful expression on Mary's face, before she hid it away. Or, instead, Jemima would look her way, would send her a rueful little glance that said, I know.
"Fudge," Jemima was muttering now, tugging at the handle of the door to their dormitory. "Almost like it's locked."
"It's never locked," Lily said, shaking off the memory of that morning, that heartening little look. "Well, maybe over the holidays, but it's not like they've really begun." Lily took out her wand, flicking out an impatient Tempus. "Carriages won't be going out just yet."
"They'd better not," Jemima said, frowning at the dorm door. "Sod Georgie," she said, tugging at the handle again. "If this makes us miss the train, I swear..."
Lily watched her at it for a moment, wondering if a quick Alohomora was what was needed. She didn't know how things went here on the holidays, and had just begun to feel silly for insisting the door was unlocked when a hard twist on Jemima's part forced it open. "There," Lily murmured. "I was starting to wonder."
Jemima went in, heading straight for the cupboard by Georgie's bed. "I'll just be a minute," she said, unnecessarily, flicking back the curtains around the bed. "She said it was— there." She fished out a folded magazine from under a pillow, sighing in relief. "Got it."
"Good," Lily said, leaning back against the door. It was oddly drafty in that spot, enough that she began to edge in the direction of the low-burning fire in the hearth nearby. "Is it the right one?"
"Think so, yeah," Jemima said, paging through it as she came back toward the door. "Almost wish it wasn't, so I could tell her off."
Lily shrugged, not agreeing, but not quite disagreeing either. Georgie was the only one of them that really seemed to believe Potter when he said he was only making fun, and it could be quite tiresome having to deal with that. "Oh well," Lily said, giving the dorm one last look. "We'd better go."
The envelope didn't quite catch her eye until Jemima looked down, frowning at the dirty scrap on Mary's bedside cupboard. "What's this?" Jemima said, pausing and blocking her view of the dirty envelope without meaning to. "Hey, it's got your name on—"
"Let me see," Lily said, half suspecting that she knew what it was, half embarrassed for suspecting anything at all. She took the envelope without a fuss— Jem yielded it easily, not one for holding tight to anything that filthy.
"Not even your last name," she was saying now, scanning the largely blank back of the envelope over Lily's shoulder. "Well?"
"You're not going to open it?" Jemima backed off a step, leaning back against Lily's bed. "Not that you have to open anything that unsanitary."
Lily didn't want to open the envelope, didn't want to look inside and see the letter she'd worked and worked to get back, sitting in there like it had always been there after all. She made herself do it anyway, slitting open the rich parchment envelope and peeking inside. "Oh."
Jemima, bless her, wasn't craning her neck at quite the right angle that would let her see the ragged Muggle paper, the easy slant of Mum's handwriting. "Nothing," Lily said, closing the envelope. She set it back on top of the cupboard, thinking furiously, wondering exactly how it had gotten there. "Nothing that can't wait."
"Really?" Jemima said, her tone broadly skeptical. "Is it..." She faltered, then recovered her voice. "Is it not from Severus?"
"What?" It took Lily a moment to parse the question, to firmly shake her head. "No, it's not, it couldn't be—" and then she saw the way Jemima was already masking her disbelief, and found that she wanted to convince her. "Jem, he can't get in here. And if he sent it by owl—"
"It would have found you," Jemima finished for her, getting up from her awkward perch on Mary's bed. "I know."
Lily could not help glaring down at the envelope, wishing that the person that had brought it was here to hand, well within the reach of a hot, hard slap. What did they mean by returning it so late, so obscenely long after she'd given up on it?
Jemima was heading for the dormitory door, as if the question of the envelope was sorted, was solved. Lily remembered how irked she'd been when the other girl had seemed to take the apology for Severus' mean comment in stride. She hadn't really understood Jemima then, had thought her a poor shadow of Lupin, another bystander who would rather look away than get involved.
"Coming?" Jemima didn't look back as she opened the door, even though she'd paused with her hand on the knob, and was obviously waiting for Lily's reply.
Lily stood there, unable to do anything but think of how Jemima had apologized as well, even though she hadn't been the one to say or do the worst things. She'd probably apologize for this if Lily gave her a chance, if she ever brought it up again.
"Lily?" Jem was worried, now, enough to risk an anxious look back. "Are you coming?"
Lily went to Mary's bed, and sat down. "In a bit," she mumbled, feeling disjointed and wrong, jittery with anticipation. "The letter's from my mum," she added, quickly, trying to get the admission over with. "Not from Severus."
It took Jemima a second or two to put two and two together. "That letter?"
Lily nodded. She was angry now, quite furious, because Jem looked guilty and concerned and Lily didn't want it to have been any of the girls that had returned it.
"You probably won't believe me," Jem said, bravely, letting go of the doorknob, "but I know it wasn't Georgie. I know it."
"Do you?" Lily glared at her, a necessary exchange for keeping her tone polite. "Don't you think you should clear yourself first, before haring off after Georgie?"
Jemima ignored her. "She can be stupid sometimes," she admitted. "I mean, my magazine..." she trailed off, wincing at the look Lily gave her. "But not that stupid, I swear." Jemima inched her way closer, to the foot of Mary's bed. "She tried to get the boys to give it back, all right? James told her that they'd lost it."
Lily did not like how those words were taking hold, how they were filling her with unwonted relief. "A likely sodding story," she made herself mutter. "Did they really say that?"
Jemima wound her hand in one of the curtains, a rueful smile on her face. "Why'd you think she got so nice, all of a sudden?" Jemima shrugged gently, her smile diminishing. "She knew you wouldn't believe that."
"As if anyone that knew them would," Lily said, bitterly. "Lost it, indeed! Did you know," and here, she couldn't help but turn toward Jemima, "do you remember when I went to the Owlery that first time, alone? Black was there, and he made fun of me."
"That's awful," was the apologetic answer, "and no, I didn't know. But I can definitely imagine it. He's very..."
"Cruel," Lily supplied. "I'd probably have believed you lot about Slytherins, if he had been one of them."
"Even with Severus there?"
"Probably," Lily said, a bit reluctantly. "He might have had a harder time, with Black there in the thick of things, teasing about everything." She wasn't positive, but had an inkling that he might be having a hard time now, even with how closely knit the Slytherin boys seemed. "I really don't know what Potter sees in him."
"Or what Georgie sees in Potter," Jemima mused, giving her a thoughtful look. "Well, I don't know about Potter's end, but Georgie's easy."
"Is she?" Then Lily thought of how Georgie was always the one teasing her about her supposed relationship with Severus, and made a startling new connection. "You don't...you don't think she fancies him?"
"I do," Jemima said, ruefully. "I think she likes that you can sort of win him, if he's in the right mood. If, you know, you're funny enough."
As much as Lily wanted to scoff at the idea of that, she had already seen it in play, at Halloween, when everyone had gotten masks on their plates at dinner. In the common room, there'd been an impromptu game of charades, one that had descended into people trotting out their best impressions of the teachers, or of the other students.
Black had been the center of that, in the lower years' corner. He'd had the third year girls shrieking at his pitch-perfect, well-accented send-up of Madame Lissane, and yet the only laugh that made him grin was Potter's. The fact that Potter would and often did laugh at all sorts of things did not seem to lessen Black's need to entertain him, or Pettigrew's, or Lupin's. Lily did not like it, but she could picture Georgie as having fallen prey to that.
"Even though he's an idiot," she said now, looking at the envelope, "and sometimes a right bully."
It startled her when Jemima smiled, and the look in her eyes took on a certain edge. "Couldn't you say the same sort of thing about Severus?"
"Jem," Lily said, flushing, unable to say no. "That's different, you know how he is." Jemima nodded, slowly, but Lily felt compelled to go on. "He's nothing like Potter," she said, stoutly. "Hardly got a following or anything, has he?" She regretted that last even as she said it; Severus hadn't needed a following to ridicule Jemima, hadn't needed anything but timing and the correct expression. "I don't fancy him," Lily ended up insisting, since that was the only truthful thing she could say. "I really, really don't."
"I know," Jemima said, calmly, in a way that made Lily wonder if hanging on his better insults was worse. "We'd better be off."
"Yeah," Lily said, getting up. "Yeah." She'd felt guilty back then, for wanting to laugh, and felt guilty now, thinking of the way she liked to send him the insults she couldn't quite carry off. He had a way of speaking that made even an innocent question a weapon, and there was nothing like hearing him at it on the days that she really wanted to see Potter hurt.
She wondered how it must have felt, to be on the other end of that. To stop herself from wondering, Lily picked up the envelope. "I suppose you're right," she said, to Jemima. "I suppose it wasn't Georgie."
"Do I have to clear Mary as well? Or clear me?" Lily rolled her eyes at that, and was satisfied to see Jemima smile. "Only if you're sure."
Lily let out an exaggerated sigh. "I'm sure," she said, sarcastically, to Jemima's back. "I'm positive."
"It does make me wonder," Jem said, as she opened the door. "You know, who did leave the letter, since we know Georgie didn't."
"Yeah, well," Lily said, carefully, "I think it might have been Potter, but I don't rightly know how he would have managed it."
"Oh?" Jemima gave her an encouraging look. "Does anyone else?"
Lily found herself flushing again, and gave herself a little shake. You don't actually fancy him, she told herself, fiercely. That's just what she thinks. "Severus would say he did it with a broom, and maybe an invisibility charm, or cloak. I think that's a bit much, really— a broom, well, he could borrow that, but an invisibility charm? At eleven?"
"Or a cloak," Jemima said, thoughtfully. When Lily gave her an incredulous look, she shook her head. "He's a Potter," she said, in much the same way Severus had. "You'd be surprised at the sort of thing rich wizards give as gifts."
"Oh," Lily said, oddly struck by how close Jemima's opinion was to what Severus had gone on to say. He'd had a bit more of a rant, substituting 'rich idiots' instead of 'rich wizards', but it had been much the same. "That's rather terrifying."
Jemima let out a rueful little laugh. "It is, isn't it?" She bumped Lily's arm with hers, and when they'd climbed out of the portrait, she did it again. "Do share," she said, quietly, "if you ever find a way of blocking him out."
Lily nodded, feeling almost dazed, and wondered what Severus would say in the garden, when she finally told him about this. He would be jealous— he hadn't hidden it well, when she'd taken up with the Hufflepuffs— but she knew he would come round to being glad for her, and glad to have another ally in the war against Potter.
He would be glad, eventually, that she had made another friend. And Lily would have all of Christmas break to make sure of it, hours and hours of time to talk about everything that had happened. She'd been looking forward to that, to time away from school, to time with Petunia and time with her parents.
Now, looking at Jemima, Lily rather thought she could look forward to coming back.