Author's Notes: Modification of my own prompt for Jily Royalty Fest: "Modern era. Prince James and Princess Lily are shipped hardcore by the internet. They've never met. The strength of the internet fandom brings them together." I realized how hard it was for both of them to be royalty in the modern era without having met, so I've made Lily royalty of a different kind.
If you want to know more about Jily Royalty Fest, I've got a post about it on my tumblr (I'm fetchalgernon). Check out the tumblr tag "jily royalty fest" for other awesome pieces. I've also got a masterlist of fest works on my tumblr.
Thank you, Karaline and Nikki, for your fabulous beta work on this! I love you guys. :) Thank you for your reassurances when I convince myself I'm not funny at all.
For Todd and Lindsey: thanks for putting up with my whining about my other royalty fest piece. Someday I'll figure out how to fix that one enough to post it.
Lily banged at her flat's door with her foot, her arms stretched around two bags of shopping. It wasn't good for the door or for her new, stupidly expensive splurge shoes, but there was no concierge past the main entrance to let her in.
"Who's there?" came Mary's voice.
"The pizza delivery man who's got a big sausage," Lily called. "Who d'you think? Hurry up, I'm about to drop your favorite biscuits."
Through the door Lily could hear the muffled thudding of socked feet on their wood floor growing nearer, ending with the door flying open in front of her.
Mary propped the door open with her hip, holding a mug of steaming water in one hand. While Lily had found her skin appeared jaundiced in the gold light that flooded their flats in the morning, Mary's brown skin seemed to revel in it, looking smooth and faintly gilded, like she belonged on a model shoot despite her threadbare dressing gown.
"Don't joke about my biscuits," Mary said, craning her neck to peer into the plastic bags. "Joke about pornography all you like, but you leave my biscuits out of it."
Lily hurried inside, one of the bags starting to slip from her fingers, and barely managed to make it to the kitchen table in time. She set the bags down next to Mary's laptop and crumb-dusted breakfast plate. Mary had burned her toast again, if the smell was anything to go by.
"I can't believe I let you stay behind," Lily said, "after you gave me that massive list."
"It's because you love me." Mary mopped up a few spilled water drops with her sock on her way back to the narrow strip of kitchen. "Also because I kept Michael Bay from getting his claws into you."
"It couldn't have been that bad, could it? At least I could've had a stunt woman and not had to carry heavy groceries." Lily began unloading vegetables onto the table while Mary brushed by on her way to the box of tea bags sitting on the counter. "Honestly, though, I know you've missed England, but this is—what's this?"
Still holding a bundle of broccoli in one hand, Lily reached out to tilt Mary's laptop screen back—was that her face on a website?—but she barely got a glance in before Mary whirled around to slam the screen shut.
"Nothing!" Mary said, her voice an octave higher than usual.
"Is it a bad review?" Lily asked. "You know I can take it—"
"No, it's, a, er, dating site. I'm dating again."
"A dating website. That has my face on it."
Mary's mouth opened to reply, but she hesitated, and then said, "Erm…."
Lily took the baguette poking out of one of the grocery bags and jabbed it at Mary's stomach. "Is this awful enough that I really don't want to see?"
"Wellll," said Mary, bending around Lily's makeshift sword and placing her mug of water on the table.
"Mary," Lily warned.
"It's creepy." Mary snatched the baguette out of Lily's hand and broke off the end. "I prefer to keep you innocent of the creepiness of the internet."
"I am also capable of going online, you know. Can it be any worse than when people Photoshop my head onto things like oranges?"
Mary munched on her piece of bread and pondered this. "I need butter," she said.
"That's the most inelegant subject change you've ever attempted."
Mary shook her head and turned back to the sideboard, where she'd left out her toast-making materials. "Not changing the subject – I really do need butter. That toast was rubbish."
Lily swung open the fridge door and started transferring groceries inside. "I told you five was a high enough setting on the toaster."
"I don't know why your two days of experience with the toaster is any more trustworthy than mine," Mary said, slathering on a thick layer of butter. "I swear that seven was perfect yesterday."
"Mary. The point. Get to it?"
Bread in hand, Mary leaned back against the worktop, her ankles crossed in front of her. "It's like this. You know shippers?"
"Unfortunately." Lily bent over to organize the top shelf of the fridge. "What've they done now?"
"They—usually they stick to fictional characters, right? Well. Sometimes they, er, branch out."
"Sometimes they ship, ah, real people, you see."
Lily stood up straight, holding the milk bottle she'd been rearranging. "They're shipping me," she said, pointing the bottle toward herself. "Lily Evans, not Elaine or whatever."
Lily took an absent step backwards to sink into one of the kitchen chairs, setting the milk on the table. She stared at Mary's closed laptop, the orange battery light blinking in the corner.
"That's…peculiar," Lily said.
"I know. I thought you'd be creeped out."
Lily absently scratched at the side of the milk bottle with her fingernail. She'd encountered all sorts of fanworks in the past couple of years. Most of the time it was in person, though – it wasn't uncommon for a fan to bring a piece of art they'd made to one of her appearances. Lily would fawn over it—sometimes half-heartedly because not everyone was cut out to be an artist—sign the piece, and the fan would move on.
Even if she hadn't been warned about fanfiction by Mary and her other friends, the talk and radio show hosts made sure she saw the worst of it. That sort of attention was simply part of the job.
But this…this was new. People shipping her roles had always been a bit beyond comprehension for Lily, but at least she could understand the general idea of it: liking something enough that you wanted to keep it going, or to see things turn out differently.
This was about her life, and the men that strangers wanted her to end up with.
Then again, it wasn't like she was beyond fantasies of her own life. Although she wasn't sure it would be better or worse if the fantasies of strangers lined up with her own.
"Well…who are they shipping me with?" she said. "Anyone good?"
"There's not a lot of it going on, to be honest." Mary picked up the milk. "A bit of a side-branch of fandom. But there's one popular option."
"It's a bit ridiculous, really," Mary said, sliding the milk back into the fridge. "They ship you with Prince James."
Lily's mouth hung open for a moment until she could get her thoughts in order. "Prince James? Motorbike-racing Prince James?"
"I know, you'd think they'd ship themselves with him, if anything…."
Lily flipped the laptop open, despite Mary's protesting noise, to see a picture of herself kissing the Prince.
Well, technically it was a Photoshopped picture of herself in Tarantino's latest film, with her on-screen paramour replaced by a picture of the Prince. But still, it was unnervingly well done. If Lily hadn't known for a fact that the kiss had never happened, she might've believed it was a legitimate photo.
"What the fuck," she said.
Mary pulled up one of the other chairs and scooched in close to Lily. "This website's been up for about a year now."
Lily scrolled down the page. The whole site was remarkably polished-looking, with a minimalist color scheme and neatly organized links. Fanfiction, fan edits, fan art—
"Is this all from one person?" Lily asked, a bit in awe.
"No, there's at least a thousand people using the site, I think."
"A thousand people think I, Lily Evans, should get together with Prince James."
Another Photoshopped image of the Prince with his arm around her waist was plastered across the top of every page, with two words beneath them.
"Key Limes," Lily said. "Why is this website named after a fruit? Because they've all got the intelligence of one?"
"Your names," Mary said sheepishly. "Mash them together and you've got Limes."
Lily blanched and went back to scrolling around on the page. "Limes," she muttered. "Honestly, people need—wait, fanfiction." She turned to Mary. "Fanfiction. Of me? And him? Wait. Mary." Lily's fingers had frozen in place over the keyboard. "Please tell me that there isn't fan pornography of me and the Prince."
Mary nodded too quickly. "There is absolutely none of that on the site. Scout's honor. But, er, you should definitely not click on the fanfiction link anyway. Because reasons."
"Oh my God."
Lily shoved her chair away from the table and stood up to start pacing. There was plenty of space at the moment – their living room furniture wouldn't arrive until that afternoon. She heard the snick of the laptop closing, and spun back toward Mary, her body casting a long shadow across the polished wood floor.
"Do they know that I've never even met him?" Lily said.
"Then what—how? Him?"
"I know," Mary said sympathetically. "Would you like some toast to cheer you up?"
Lily blinked. "Why would I want toast?"
"I wanted to try another setting on the toaster, but I could make you tea, too."
"Tea. Yes," Lily said numbly. "This is ridiculous. I hate Prince James."
Mary sent her a confused look as she got up and picked up the kettle.
"I mean, not hate," Lily said. "I haven't met him. But Sev…."
Even though she hadn't seen him in several years, her chest still twinged when she mentioned him. She'd briefly considered reaching out to him now that she was back in England, but that had been a wine-induced idea that had been properly dismissed once examined in the full light of day.
"What does he have to do with anything?" Mary asked.
"He went to Gordonstoun with the Prince. Sev was a scholarship pupil, and he hated that, but not as much as he hated James."
"Can't imagine they ran in the same circles."
"They didn't, not at all, but he and James—they seemed to always be getting into fights, from what Sev used to tell me. They'd do the most absurd things to one another. One time James had a snare trap set up—with a real rope —and Sev got caught in it. It pulled him upside down by his ankle, like he was an animal."
"Well," said Mary, dropping teabags into their mugs, "that sounds really fucked up."
"I didn't think that sort of thing happened in real life before them."
Lily pointedly didn't say that she only had Sev's word for it. She'd never doubted him at the time, but once she'd learned the truth about him—about how much he was willing to lie to conceal what he really believed—everything he'd said been cast in a haze of distrust.
"There's nothing about stuff like that on the website." Mary set the mugs on the table and beckoned Lily over.
Most of the groceries still sat in the bags, but Lily couldn't be arsed to deal with them at the moment. She dropped down and studied her tea. "This is weird."
"Very," said Mary.
"I'm going to pretend I never found out about this."
Mary reached out and rubbed her forearm. "That's probably best. I was only looking to make sure there was nothing legitimately concerning on it."
"Pornography of me with someone I've never met doesn't qualify as concerning?"
"I meant like posting your address."
Lily grimaced. "I know what you meant. Urgh." She lifted her tea to Mary in a toast. "To never talking about Prince James again."
Mary clanked her cup against Lily's and smiled. "Here here."
Between costume fittings and memorizing lines and catching up with old friends, Lily managed to forget about the horror of the internet for an entire week.
Then she made the very stupid mistake of attending Natalie's party.
That was the thing about living in the UK again. After two years in Los Angeles, Lily had forgotten how few celebrities her home country had. Natalie was young and gorgeous—Lily was pretty, but Natalie was basically a goddess incarnate—and she seemed much too nice to hang around with off-putting men.
And even if she had seemed the type, Lily simply hadn't expected it. Lily hadn't lived in England since Through a Jagged Window had been released; the parties in her pre-America life had been limited to the raucous post-show affairs during her college theater days. It had never occurred to her that royalty might show up to celebrity parties.
"You're much prettier in person," said a man behind Lily.
She turned from her place in the queue for the toilet, and felt the ground seem to drop away beneath her.
Naturally the first thing that popped into her head was that damned image of her kissing him.
The second thing was how ridiculously tall he was. He stood less than a foot away from her, close enough that she had to crane her neck a bit to look up at him – although standing was perhaps stretching it. One of his forearms was pressed against the wall, his whole body sagging against it, as though he'd collapse the moment he stepped away. His wire-frame glasses sat crooked on his nose, resting above two very pink cheeks.
"Er," she said, staring up at his disheveled hair. Some other men she knew spent hours on their hair, but his just-stepped-out-of-a-hurricane disarray was too chaotic to be a deliberate look, as unintentional and yet naturally balanced as a fractal.
He frowned in a slow, deliberate way. "No. Hold on. That came out wrong. I mean." A crease appeared on his forehead. "You're pretty here."
"Since we've never met before," she said coolly, "I find it hard to believe you know what I'd look like anywhere else. Not to mention you think I'm particularly pretty here, in a mostly unlit corridor. Thanks for that, you're very charming."
"Yeah, but, come on, you know who I am," he said.
She tucked her arms together across her chest and spun back to face the door to the toilet, the floor reverberating in time with the music from the living room below. God, but Mary needed to come out soon. This was a nightmare.
Also Lily had had five glasses of wine and was on the verge of crossing her thighs to hold it in.
The Photoshopped image kept hurling itself at the forefront of her mind. It was the wine talking, but Lily suddenly hoped that he couldn't read thoughts, lest she have to explain why she was thinking about kissing him.
"No, look," he said.
A hand settled on her shoulder. She brushed it off immediately.
"I know who you are," he said.
She couldn't resist turning back. "You and a billion other people."
She found herself transfixed by his full lips, and the barest shadow of stubble on his face—but that was only because of the picture, she told herself, and for no other reason at all.
Dammit. Sev had never mentioned how fit the prince was in person. Why were the worst men always the most attractive?
His eyes widened behind his glasses in earnest. "Do you really know a billion people?"
"Tell me, are you high as well as pissed?"
"God, I wish." He leaned even closer toward her, the smell of alcohol lingering around him like aftershave. "D'you have any weed?"
Lily did not have time to do more than twist her mouth in annoyance when they were blissfully interrupted by the door opening.
"Now," Mary said, stepping out into the corridor and wiping her hands on her jeans, "before we go, I'd love to make out with Zac—oh. Hello."
James raised his finger in a wobbly point toward Lily. "Did you know this is Lily Evans?" he asked. "She's very fit."
"No, really?" Mary said, one of her hands reaching out to shove Lily into the loo.
"You two just catch up," Lily said, dashing inside and sending Mary a thankful grin. "I'll be here. All night, probably. Bye!"
Mary had managed to escort the Prince elsewhere by the time Lily made her escape from the toilet. Lily apologized to the two new people in the queue and snuck out of the party as soon as possible.
Normally she didn't run from these sorts of things, but it was late, and he was drunk, and she could not for the life of her get that bloody picture out of her head.
Him. With her. Was everyone on the internet high?
All right, they probably were, but even so. Marijuana wasn't potent enough to make him and her make sense together. Those people had to be on harder drugs.
She texted Mary to meet her outside Natalie's building, shivering a bit in the cool summer night, and they grabbed a cab back to their flat, where Mary passed out face-down on their new sofa. Lily found no such reprieve. Her blood still raced through her veins, and even though she still had to think consciously about each step, she felt as though she could go for a long run.
But running was too much work. And it was raining. She'd have to settle for something else.
She ducked into her room to dig her laptop out from under a pile of potential scripts, and settled in with it on her bed. When it had booted up—an agonizingly slow wait, she really should have invested in a new machine ages ago—she pulled up that horrid website and clicked on the forum link.
What was wrong with these people? She started clicking on different message threads, but their logic still eluded her. Some twat under the insipid handle jonesingforjily had written:
no but like think about their perfect children. his hair with her eyes and their sass. their children would be the sassiest royals on record. the literal kings and queens of sass.
Another user, theprincesnurse, had replied:
omfg don't even get me started. have you read greeneyedginger's one small step? protip: don't read it on the bus because it will induce all the feels. baby prince charles is basically canon for me now
These lunatics had been imagining her not only fornicating with the Prince, but raising children with him?
She changed to another thread before she was tempted to dump a bottle of wine on her computer, settling on a post titled: repost but i will never be over his blush in the norton interview
The only thing in the original post was an embedded video. Lily clicked play, and the Prince appeared on screen, talking to Graham Norton. Lily frowned. Since when did royals go on Graham Norton?
The video began with the audience applauding something, and James chuckling. He lounged casually on the infamous red sofa, resting a forearm along the short back. Norton's mouth drew back in a devious grin, and the camera cut to a publicity still of Elaine, the nurse Lily had played in Through a Jagged Window.
The crowd hollered.
"Now," Norton said, "I've been told by a little birdie that you've seen this movie approximately fifty times."
The camera cut back to James, his face now covered by his hands. "I think I know who told you that and I am going to murder him."
"Is it legal for you to commit homicide?" Norton asked, leaning forward in his seat. "Is there some sort of royal loophole, and if so, may I give you a list right now of some things I'd like taken care of?"
James dropped his hands to his side, revealing a beet red face. "I imagine we've got some overlap on that list, actually, so tell me after the show. I'd say email me but that'll probably end up in Edward Snowden's hands, won't it?"
"He's probably backstage right now." Norton threw a dramatic, paranoid glance offstage. "Probably tucked up under the make-up table or something." The audience laughed, and Norton raised a cocky eyebrow at them before turning back to James. "But you're not getting off the hook that easily. Is it the best script in a century that makes this film so special, or is it the lovely Lily Evans who does it for you?"
Lily's face was only inches from her screen now, mesmerized by the two tiny men in front of her.
"I mean, yeah, she's bloody gorgeous, but it's not just her," James said. "The whole film—well, you've seen it. You know."
"I do know. I've only seen it twice because it leaves me on the floor surrounded by a pile of used tissues, convincing myself that I shouldn't call my mum at three in the morning to tell her I love her."
The video kept playing, but Lily couldn't hear what they said over the sound of her own bubbling laughter.
That was it? He'd blushed when someone had shown him a picture of her, and these people thought that made them an ideal pair?
So what if he thought she was attractive, of if he liked her film. That was nothing special, nothing that should have made people start naming their hypothetical children. Of course he'd liked the film – only an idiot wouldn't have. It had won five Oscars for a reason, and that reason was it was bloody amazing.
It hit her, as it hadn't before, that the bloody Prince had talked to her tonight. The Prince, whom she'd always known more about than she really cared to, but only because hearing about him was unavoidable. The Prince, who'd been in the tabloids countless times over ridiculous stunts. The Prince, whose new status in the military had been plastered over magazine covers for weeks.
It was just…ridiculous.
She'd thought her life had been unbelievable when she'd been nominated for an Oscar, and even more so when she'd won it, but somehow this was the most ludicrous thing that had ever happened in her life.
Suddenly inspired, she scrolled up to the top of the page and clicked Register.
Two minutes later, under the handle NoGlassSlippersForMe, she started a new thread entitled, "you're all mad." The wine still fogging up her head made typing more challenging than usual, but she managed a message she was proud of:
this is the msot ridiculous website I have ever seen in MY LIEF! you might as well want lily evans to snog a giant fucking squid he's a drunk prick who needs his head deflated
There, she thought as she tucked her laptop away and curled up in bed. That would show them.
James heaved into the toilet once more, bile burning as it traveled through his throat, coating the inside of his mouth.
When he'd finished, he sat back on his heels and leaned forward to rest his forehead on the cool, porcelain toilet seat.
"Never again," he groaned, one arm clutching his stomach.
Something solid nudged the side of his head.
"Here," Sirius said, holding out a glass of water. "Now stop moaning. You're giving me a headache."
"If you're going to have one, take some of mine, there's a lad." James forced himself upright and accepted the glass. He swished some water around in his mouth, spat it into the toilet, and flushed.
It had helped, but his mouth still tasted like shit.
Sirius leaned against the marble bathroom counter, looking far too awake considering he'd had nearly as much to drink as James. "You're getting old."
"I'm only two months older than you."
"But I'm not the one senile enough to put my face on the place where people piss."
James swallowed a large mouthful of water and scowled. "It was cold. It was convenient. Fuck off."
"Remus rang to tell me to tell you something about the thing today, but I was mostly asleep so I forgot what it was."
"Cheers." James struggled to his feet, blinking against the unforgiving lights above the mirror. "Shove over, yeah?"
Sirius stepped aside to allow James access to the sink, and disappeared out into James's room.
James stared blearily at his reflection as he brushed his teeth. Morning had come and he was still the sodding Prince. Still not allowed to go into combat thanks to some lunatic threats. Drinking always seemed like it would help, but it never did, really.
He rinsed his mouth a final time and returned to his bedroom. A spitefully bright strip of light wedged its way through a gap in the curtains, but otherwise Sirius had fortunately left the room in darkness.
James fell backward onto the sofa, while Sirius had kicked up his feet to sit sideways in an armchair. If McGonagall had been in the room, both of them would have sat properly with their feet on the ground, but she and James had long since agreed that she would never enter his room before half ten in the morning. It was best for all involved parties.
"So, anything I should be aware of about last night?" James asked. He had a muddled memory about Natalie stroking his hair, but that might've been a dream. Realistically, it was, but he could pretend.
"Besides the fact that you're a complete lightweight?" Sirius said.
"We knew that. New news, I mean. It's a bit, er, dark, what happened."
"Well, you did meet your idol."
James's torso rocketed forward until he was sitting upright. "The Doctor?"
"No, and you're pathetic." Sirius sent him a cool, even smile. "Lily Evans, of course."
"Oh." James could feel the blood vanish from his face. "Oh, no."
"Oh, yes," Sirius said with relish.
James flopped back onto the sofa and smashed a pillow over his face, groaning.
Lily Evans. Oh, God, but she was fit. And a fucking brilliant actress. He'd seen all of her films—not that there were hundreds, or even tens, but enough—and he may or may not have been able to recite her character's infamous monologue in Tarantino's High Terrain.
"How bad was it?" James asked, his words muffled by the pillow.
"Well," Sirius said, appearing to consider the matter, "you know how you're normally complete shit at pulling?"
James wished he could have feigned innocence, but his charm had never brought the ladies to his yard. It was always his title. And the money. And his good looks. They'd stay for the charm, sure, but he'd yet to talk to a girl he fancied without saying at least three cringe-inducing things.
"Familiar with that, yeah," James said bitterly. The upholstery needed a wash based on the smell. Or he needed to brush his teeth more thoroughly. Probably the latter – his staff were very good.
"You're approximately forty-three times worse when you've had tequila."
James flung the pillow aside and glared at Sirius. "You saw me trying to pull Lily fucking Evans and you didn't stop me? That's it, you're fired."
"You can't fire me from the Roll of the Peerage."
"I could probably get my hands on it and burn it, and then who'd remember what was on it?"
"Damn." James's hands clenched into fists. "I'll have to burn that down, too."
"It doesn't matter because sadly I did not get to bear witness to what I'm sure was a crowning moment of your life."
James sent him a flat look. "You're hysterical."
Sirius ignored him. "You only told me about it. At length."
"What did I tell you, exactly?"
"That you tried to tell her she was fit but it came out wrong."
"And that's it." Sirius shrugged. "That's all you told me. Only you communicated it a myriad of ways, interspersed by moaning and shaking my shoulder."
James lay back to stare at the intricate pattern on the ceiling. He had absolutely no memory of talking to Lily Evans, but Sirius's description sounded spot on in terms of stupid things James might do.
It could have been worse, really. Drunkenly telling a girl she was fit had to be one of the least offensive things he'd done, all things considered.
It was only that it was Lily fucking Evans. He'd respected the hell out of her since he'd seen her shoot down some sexist question in an interview, and now she probably thought he was a drunk moron.
"Just brilliant," James muttered. At least he wasn't likely to run into Evans again anytime soon, and this would become just another one of those stories Sirius recounted whenever he felt like giving James shit. "So, what did McGonagall put on my agenda for today…."
Lily's alarm blared too early that morning, and she dragged herself out of bed and across town with bruise-purple smudges under her eyes. She would've attempted to do something about them herself, but make-up was Marlene's job. She could do things with a basic foundation that Lily couldn't dream of.
Lily slipped seamlessly into the anthill-like activity on set all morning, powered through by the magic of caffeine. There was such a thrill at the start of a new project (even if the director was a bit of a prick) that she found intoxicating.
The extent of her late-night internet usage lay forgotten in the back of her mind until she checked her spam email account over lunch.
"Oh my God," Lily whispered, one hand covering her mouth while the other held up her mobile in front of her. She discreetly poked her head around to make sure no one in the café could see her screen. She was getting a few interested looks, but everyone in the café who'd had it in them to approach her had already done it.
She gave herself a bit of credit for remembering to use her spam account, at least, but that credit was washed out by the onslaught of horror when she realized she'd posted on one of her own fan websites.
The worst fan website. The only one she knew of that was named after a fucking fruit.
Now she had fifty new emails, each one filled with outraged replies shouting at her for trying to bring them down. All the capital letters the users disregarded in their usual posts had somehow found their way into her inbox, like they'd been saving them just for her.
She blamed the wine for this. Also Mary for not more effectively hiding Key Limes from her. Lily had found out it existed, and look where that had got her: leaving misspelled messages on her own bloody fan sites. Pathetic.
She quickly deleted all the replies and logged back into the site with the intention of deleting her account, but then she caught sight of the time and cursed. She threw her phone back in her purse and rushed back to work, making time for a quick autograph and selfie with a fan along the way, and snuck onto set with seconds to spare.
She paused inside the door to tuck her sunglasses into their case, and only then looked up to find the entirety of the cast and crew on site that day in the room, all milling about excitedly.
Marlene dashed up to grab Lily's forearm, beaming. "You'll never guess who's visiting the set today."
James struggled to stay awake all morning, which was not aided by the less than thrilling stop McGonagall had planned for him at a local charity. He plastered on a grin—he was very good at it, after years of practice—while he helped organize food donations in front of a few journalists.
Afterwards he collapsed into the back of the car next to McGonagall and let his head loll against the seat.
"Shouldn't we, I dunno, make sure people don't need to rely on charity for food?" he said, passing a weary hand over his face.
McGonagall made an indistinct noise. "Policy decisions are reserved for the politicians."
"Yeah, yeah." James drew in a deep breath but it turned into a yawn. "What's next?"
"You are aware that I prepare an agenda for you in the morning precisely to avoid these types of questions."
"Yes, but why read when I can listen to your dulcet voice?" James sent her a winning smile.
The driver opened James's door and handed him a take-away coffee cup.
"That," McGonagall said, nodding toward the coffee, "is next, and then an event to support British arts."
"Brilliant," James muttered.
He sipped his coffee and smiled in relief. McGonagall had had it prepared just as he liked it, of course. As much as she could overpack his schedule and harangue him for misbehaving, she had to secretly care for him. Coffee and tea orders were where you learned which of your staff members really cared for you.
The corners of her lips twitched. "You might at least attempt to muster up some enthusiasm."
"My mustering well has run dry, I'm afraid. Did you know tequila is the actual worst?"
"You've clearly never tried absinthe," she said, glancing out her window.
James nearly choked on his coffee. "Are you speaking from experience?"
"If you're to learn anything from me, Mr. Wales, learn that particular lesson."
It was a nonsense title. He'd made her promise never to call him by any of his actual titles in private, and she, of course, had still found a way to formalize things. Given how often he followed the letters of her instructions but flagrantly disregarded the spirit, he couldn't exactly argue with her methods.
James napped for most of the trip across the city, moving only to imbibe more coffee, but it wasn't enough to cure his hangover. When the car stopped in front of a nondescript building, he hauled himself out, reluctantly leaving his drink behind.
"Keep in mind," McGonagall said, ushering him inside past most of his security detail, "that this is a reward for behaving yourself lately."
Sometimes it made him feel about five that she had an actual whiteboard that read "X days since misbehavior," but he also got to earn rewards after a certain number of days. Which also made him feel about five, but the high from a reward was ageless.
He followed McGonagall up a narrow spiral staircase and past a set of double doors into someone's living room. Or rather, someone's living room with only three walls and a couple of strategically-placed cameras.
A small crowd of people stood on the opposite side of the set, all eyeing him in that awkward, trying-not-to-gawk way while they whispered to one other.
The coffee in his stomach seemed to curdle. He was going to be ill again.
He could easily guess which film was shooting in town. Which actress was in it. And just which meeting McGonagall would consider a suitable reward for his good behavior.
If only he'd had the nerve to tell McGonagall the full story of last night. She might've restarted the whiteboard count, but starting from scratch would've been better than locking mutually horrified eyes with Lily Evans from across the room.
He was a champion smile-forcer, and she was an Oscar-winning actress, but for one brief, ghastly moment, neither succeeded at showing anything but their true selves.
Or at least, he guessed that that was what was happening to her. It was definitely happening to him.
He recovered after a moment, and so did she. In fact, as he shook hands with the director (who mostly seemed annoyed that James had disrupted his work), Lily tried to escape out a back entrance.
It didn't open. Of course it didn't, he realized with a deranged giggle that he hid in a cough, because he was the Prince and all doors were on lockdown for the time being.
They were trapped.
Lily lingered in the back of the crowd while James charmed everyone else, his mouth running on autopilot while his brain had the equivalent of one of those mad riots that sometimes happened when football teams lost.
Finally there was no one left to meet but her. At the director's muttered nudging, everyone else had moved back onto the set, leaving James and Lily a wide perimeter.
He stuck out his hand, as he'd done with everyone else. "Hello."
"Hi," she said, in a higher-pitched voice than he remembered from her films.
"I'm, er, really glad to meet you at last," he said, because he was a fucking idiot who was apparently going to pretend last night hadn't happened.
"Am I looking fit today?" she said, quietly enough that no one else heard, and still smiling as though she were very eager to meet the Prince himself.
James, meanwhile, fought down the urge to curl up in a ball.
"Look," he said, "I don't remember much from last night—"
"Amazing, really, the amnesiac effects of alcohol—"
"But I'm sorry. All right?" He was still holding her hand. Idiot. She hadn't pulled away, likely because she wasn't crass, and he quickly let go.
"So sorry that you had to swing by my set?"
It was remarkable how easily she was able to disconnect her verbal inflection from her facial expression.
"Oh, no, this isn't—I swear I'm not stalking—" And there he'd brought up stalking, and of course she thought that. This was a disaster. It would've gone slightly better, perhaps, if the lighting hadn't been properly tailored for her, if she hadn't been wearing a shirt with a plunging neckline, if she hadn't been made-up to draw extra attention to her already phenomenal eyes. "This was just as much of a surprise to me as it was to you—"
"Of course, just a coincidence that you'd show up today of all days—"
"No, look—here." James pulled out a crumpled half-sheet of paper from his pocket and held it out to her. "See? Here's my agenda for today."
She snorted but took it from him. "You have an agenda?"
"Yes. I mean, I haven't read it, but—"
It occurred to him that the paper might prove him a liar. McGonagall might've put the movie set visit on there, knowing full well he wouldn't look at it. He had to still his hand to keep it from grabbing the paper back while Lily smoothed it out.
Her eyes skimmed over the text. "Support the arts," she said with a frown. "Why's there a gold star next to it?"
James snatched the paper away. "Oh, er, no reason. But see? I didn't know. Honest. I'm not that thick. I mean, a bit, sometimes, but not that thick."
"All right. I will let you off the hook," Lily said, tilting her face up to look at him, "if you tell me what the gold star is for."
"Off the hook for today, or for last night, or both?"
"Today," she said firmly.
"That's not exactly fair, is it? I didn't even know you'd be here until I walked in the room."
"And yet I'm the one inconvenienced by it."
He could have refused. If he tried, he really could avoid her forever after this. But that tug at the corner of her mouth, that hint of amusement, sent his defenses crumbling.
He glanced around before leaning in. "I got a star because I've been a good boy," he said, and then realized he should have phrased it literally any other way.
Lily's hand shot up to muffle the laugh he'd startled out of her. "Oh my God," she said.
"Shut up, shut up. Don't tell anyone or I'll, er—"
"Have me taken care of?" she supplied between laughs.
"I dunno, have someone chop off your hair, what do I know. I've always been rubbish at threats."
This only sent her off into new peals of laughter. James realized that everyone on set was staring at them, and he rubbed the back of his neck. Brilliant. A bunch of people were witnessing him make a fool of himself in front of his favorite actress.
"Consider that deal done," Lily said when she could breathe again. "You're off the hook for today."
He found himself grinning, and ruffled up his hair with one hand. She'd laughed at him, yeah, but that was loads better than many of the other things she could've done, like slap him.
"And how can I make up for last night?" he asked.
She stepped back, eyeing him from head to toe. He became all too aware of the small coffee stain on his trousers, the unmanageable mess of his hair, and no doubt the hangover written all over his face.
"Well," she finally said. "Damehood should do it, I think."
James threw his head back in a laugh. "I'll work on it."
A hand touched his arm – sadly, not Lily's. McGonagall's.
"I apologize for interrupting," she said, "but I believe your director will file a formal complaint if we don't allow you to return to work, Miss Evans."
"Oh, right." Lily's eyes flickered over to where her colleagues stood, some of them outright staring now. She cleared her throat and squared her shoulders. "Thank you for coming by to support the arts."
McGonagall coughed discreetly.
James waved a hand at her. "It's fine," he said. To Lily, he added, "It's a title thing, I don't even care."
"Oh. Of course." Lily's cheeks reddened. "Your Royal Highness."
"No, er, really, it's James." He ran a hand through his hair, not quite managing to look at her. "You know. If we by some miracle meet again," he said, his voice rising slightly at the end.
"It's possible," she said, fighting back a smile and mostly losing. "Maybe next time you'll even have two gold stars."
"Oi, that's a royal secret. None of that now."
Lily mock saluted him. "I'll keep it in mind. Now get out of here, I actually have work to do."
He saluted her back, but his hand nudged his glasses, pushing them up against his face. He straightened them up while Lily laughed at him. Again.
Still. She was laughing. And if this was the last time he saw her – well, better to look clumsy than an arse.
He could live with that.
He waved farewell to the cast and crew one more time—the director noticeably turned the other way—and followed McGonagall back down to the street.
"I take it you enjoyed your reward," McGonagall said as they ducked into the car.
"Yeah." James found himself beaming as he buckled up. "Yeah, I really did. That was…really nice."
"She seemed taken with you."
James perked up. "Did she?"
"Not, I imagine, that you mind one way or the other," she said, with a pointed look.
"Oh, well—" James had never told McGonagall to shut it, and he never would. "You know, I'm not—she's just. She's a very talented actress."
McGonagall hummed in agreement as the car pulled away from the curb, her hands folded in her lap.
"And she's—she's very funny," James added. "Did you know that?"
"I'm not familiar with her, but I did notice you laughing with her."
"Yeah," he said, still smiling. "I did, didn't I?"
"Perhaps you'd like to continue supporting the British arts for your next reward."
"I think they'd kill me. The director, anyway. But…." James couldn't admit out loud that of course he'd bloody love to see Lily again, least of all to McGonagall.
McGonagall made another knowing noise, and James liked that about her. She knew what he meant, and she wouldn't make him say it.
Meeting Lily—or rather meeting her again—had gone ten times better than he could have expected.
Maybe he wouldn't even mess up a third meeting.
He could hope.
Lily hummed under her breath as she entered her flat that evening, dropping her keys into the bowl by the side of the door.
"Oh, it's the pizza man!" Mary said, glancing up from where she'd sprawled out on the sofa, her laptop on her stomach. The evening sun fell in slats across her through the half-closed blinds.
Lily lowered her voice an octave and kicked the door shut. "Is this whole pizza just for you? You're not home…alone, are you?"
Mary cackled and closed her computer screen. "We should order a pizza only so we can see the delivery bloke's face when you answer the door."
"Definitely yes I am interested in that game, but another night. I barely managed to make it home without falling asleep in the cab."
"On a scale of one to football announcer, how much did Kingsley shout today?"
"Brazilian goal level." Lily fell backwards onto the matching loveseat, letting her purse slide off her shoulder and onto the floor. The room was crowded with both a sofa and a loveseat, but she and Mary had both wanted to be able to lie down at the same time, and Lily didn't mind – she liked the way it made the flat seem cozier. "But that was only because we were stalled for an hour by the Prince's appearance."
"No," Mary breathed.
Lily let out a sharp laugh. "You'd think, right? With last night? But no, he showed up. He didn't realize until he walked in the room that I'd be there. His face."
"Please tell me he tried to compliment you some more."
"He was embarrassed, actually," Lily mused. "He apologized."
"I had such high hopes," Mary said. "Can't believe he let me down."
Lily recounted her conversation with James in awkward, painful detail, sending Mary into hysterics when Lily told her about the gold star.
"Our prince," Mary wheezed, doubled over sideways on the sofa, "has a gold star system."
"It's times like these I wish I could write about this sort of thing without losing all of my business."
Mary's mum had been a long-time industry insider, and somehow Mary had picked up where she'd left off, finding roles for her famous friends without ever appearing to have to work for it, thanks to her inherited connections.
"Can you imagine that website," Mary continued, "the one that ships you two, if they found out about this?"
"Oh, shite." Lily reached down and rummaged through her purse to find her phone. "Do you know what I did last night?"
"You mean after running away from the drunk prince who has a gold star system?"
"Yeah, after that, when we got home." Lily tapped open her spam email inbox to find another twenty new messages from the forum, and stretched across the coffee table to hand it to Mary.
After a few moments Mary's eyes went wide. "You trolled them?"
"I don't know what that means, but probably yes. Can we use a different word? Troll makes me seem so nefarious."
Maybe showing Mary had been a mistake. They were best mates, but taunting her fans was just pathetic. If Lily had done it sober, she definitely wouldn't have told Mary about it out of shame. Then again, she never would have done it sober.
"This one's called you a soggy cunt!" Mary held up the phone for Lily to see. "That's just uncalled for. And I'm confused. Are they calling you an aroused cunt?"
Lily lay down and closed her eyes, snuggling into the loveseat, while Mary flipped through the different messages. Every now and then Mary would read one out in an overdramatic voice, making sure to point out the spelling errors and odd capitalization.
Then for a while Mary didn't say anything, and Lily started drifting off to sleep to the sounds of London traffic coming in through the open window.
Lily bolted upright, her hand gripping the back of the loveseat. She inhaled deeply. "What?" she asked.
Mary stood up and shoved the phone back to Lily, who peered forward.
Lily seized the phone and read the post Mary had pulled up: CONFIRMED: PRINCE JAMES MEETS OSCAR-WINNING ACTRESS LILY EVANS [WITH PICS!] YOU GUYS IT FINALLY HAPPENED I THINK IM GOING TO SPONTANEOUSLY COMBUST
And there were indeed pictures. Nice ones, too, from a professional camera. Had there been a reporter there? Lily had been too preoccupied to notice if there had been. It would have made sense if his staff had brought one – someone always seemed to be tailing royalty to take pictures of them. Not to mention it would have been good press for the film.
Wonderful. Her own posting last night had been so swift, so sure, and here she was not a day later giving the forum users plenty of new fodder to work with.
"At least it's a good picture of me," she observed. "That costume is going to work brilliantly on camera."
"You look like you're flirting," Mary said, her arms crossed.
"I do not." Lily scrolled down and showed her one of the other pictures. "See? I'm just laughing."
Marlene glanced at it and shook her head. "That's no ahahaha good point laugh. That right there is a fuck me on the set when everyone's gone laugh."
Lily's face radiated heat. "It was not a fuck me laugh."
Mary leaned down toward her, examining her face. "Oh my God, d'you fancy the gold star prince?"
"No, absolutely not. He was—he was ridiculous. And not at all prince-ish."
"Since when do you care about that?"
"I don't—I'm not—he's fit, I'll give you that, in an awkward giraffe sort of way." At Mary's strange look, Lily added, "Shut it, he's stupidly tall and skinny."
"Mhmm," said Mary, raising her eyebrows.
"And he was so weird last night and also he was cruel to Sev."
Mary grabbed the phone, changed to another picture, and showed it to Lily.
The photo she'd pulled up was a close-up of Lily and James, taken from the side. It had to have been the moment when he'd told her what the gold star was for – he'd leaned in to tell her, and she apparently had leaned toward him to hear better. She was wearing a subtle but distinctly pleased smile, her eyes fixed entirely on him.
It was a nice photo. Her tits looked fucking amazing.
"I'm not flirting," she said. She couldn't seem to stop her face from getting redder, though. "He didn't want people to overhear about the gold star thing."
"He fancies you."
"He thinks I'm pretty," Lily corrected. "And a good actress. Both of which are true, mind you."
"Mhmm. You thought he was hilarious today."
"I laughed at him, not with him."
"That's not what the girls on Key Limes will say."
"I don't care what they think," Lily said. She eyed the phone. "Is that what they said?"
"You don't care, you just said."
"That doesn't mean I don't want to know." Lily settled back into the loveseat, sighing. "Oh, who am I kidding, of course they think we're flirting."
"They think he passed you a love note."
Lily laughed, her hand pressing against her chest. "His agenda – oh my God of course they think it's a love note."
"They're speculating that he snuck back onto set to snog you."
"Kingsley would've had a hissy fit."
People on the internet could speculate all they liked, but it didn't matter. The Prince had simply been trying to recover after an incident they didn't even know about.
But oh, no, what if the cast and crew thought she'd been flirting? They had all been gawking, but she'd chalked that up to James's appearance, not their interaction. She had laughed a fair amount during their brief conversation, which was—surprising. To say the least. And the photos showed her smiling a lot, and between the note and the leaning – it would be no wonder if they had drawn conclusions.
Mary scrolled through some more photos. "Your tits do look amazing in that shirt."
"D'you know what we should do?" Mary asked seriously. "I should do some more dramatic readings for you of the speculations of internet fangirls."
Lily gestured for Mary to continue, and kicked her feet up on the loveseat. Whatever it took to get Mary to shut up about Lily fancying the Prince.
"But like look at the way she's looking at him," Mary began, lifting her chin. "Why yes that is unbridled lust in her eyes—unbridled misspelled unbriddled—and who can blame her…."
Lily stretched out and smiled.
When Mary had had her fill of dramatic readings, she tried to coax Lily out of the flat to a bar, but Lily begged off. With the light drizzle pattering against the window, it seemed like a perfect night to curl up with a good book.
Mary dolled herself up and headed out while Lily changed into her pajamas and made herself a cup of tea.
Alone in the flat for the first time since they'd moved in, Lily nestled onto the sofa that ran under the window, her book in hand.
She looked at the book.
She looked at the door.
She looked back at the book and frowned.
She did want to read it. She'd bought it before the move but hadn't had time to even start it until now.
But Mary was gone, and Lily was curious.
She fetched her laptop from her room—she was not going to risk using Mary's for this—and opened Wikipedia.
It was only fair. He could Google her just as easily. He probably already had.
And she had to know. The person she'd met today was loads better than the drunk one she'd met the night before, which admittedly wasn't too unexpected. But he didn't seem at all like the person Severus had described in the few years they'd been at school together.
Sadly James's Wikipedia page only yielded a few new interesting pieces of information, like when he'd stolen a guard's sword at age eleven and run amok around the palace, and the fact that if you squinted it looked like the lion on his personal coat of arms was flipping a rude gesture.
Not to mention the fact that he had a personal coat of arms.
The page otherwise recapped the vague information she'd already known about him simply from growing up in England. She'd never scoured newspapers and magazines for information about James, not like some of the girls her age, but she recalled as well as everyone else when he raced his friend on motorbikes through London, and the time he tossed his sandwich wrapper at some tourist. He'd later claimed he hadn't seen the tourist, but had cocked a smug grin while saying it, setting off a new flurry of media attention.
He hadn't been that way at all today, instead fumbling and embarrassed. He'd admitted to having a gold star system, for Christ's sake.
That side of him she could see the internet liking.
She glanced at the door again, and pulled up Key Limes.
She didn't need to see the pictures from today again, or the hyperbolic reactions of the users. Instead she went digging, more deliberately than last time, in search of justifications for their opinions.
Two pages of threads into the forum, she'd found nothing. Everyone took for granted that everyone on the site agreed that she and James were meant to be. No one seemed to say why.
On the fourth page she found a more promising lead under the post WARNING HEAVY META AHEAD. She clicked on the link and scanned over the introductory text.
Perfect. Someone had laid out in detail why she should be with James.
Well, not perfect. Still weird as fuck, but that wasn't the point at the moment.
Thirty minutes later she sat back from the essay—very well written, with citations and everything—and crossed her arms. Her tea sat forgotten on the table.
The author had addressed several of Lily's concerns. She'd laid out James's progression over the past couple of years, had even made a graph of his negative tabloid mentions, and compared the language in his interviews over time.
He'd definitely matured, if that graph was anything to go by. That, or he was much better at hiding his indiscretions. Although given how easily he ceded his gold star secret to her, he couldn't be very good at subterfuge.
The author had even inserted images throughout the post to illustrate her points. Scrolling down was like watching James grow in fast forward, morphing from a gangly, cocky bastard to a…well, a lanky, confident man. His jaw grew stronger, his glasses adjusted for trends, but his eyes remained the same: alight, amused, and sure of his place in the world.
Sev's name didn't appear anywhere in the article, not that Lily really would have expected it to. There was only one paragraph on James's time at Gordonstoun covering the progression of James's marks and his captaincy of the football team. The photo there seemed to be a candid, non-professional one of him in his football uniform, with one cleat on a football, smiling faintly.
Lily had always liked a man in uniform. And oh, did James have uniforms, according to this post. Thank God for the military tradition among princes.
She forced herself to scroll back up, past those photos because she was on a mission, and anyway those photos would live on the internet forever, she could come back whenever she liked. The quotes from James gave some idea of who he was, but she had to see him deliver the lines for herself. She clicked on one of the interview citation links.
The video showed James several months ago on his twentieth birthday, talking about his favorite charity that served immigrant children. No doubt it had been heavily researched before royal staff members selected it for him, but he did seem to show at least some enthusiasm for it.
This was the James the girls on the forum saw, the ones they shipped with Lily. Bantering with the interviewer, all wicked smiles and sly remarks, constantly searching for a chance to make the interviewer laugh.
When the video ended, she went back to the forum post and clicked another video link. James appeared with a dark-haired friend in this one, apparently one Sirius Black. With Sirius at his side, James's wit became even more pronounced, the two of them building off of each other elegantly.
That certainly wasn't the James she'd seen today. Which probably meant…well, the obvious.
With anyone else, she might've chalked up his behavior to her celebrity, but he actually had more than she did. Which was, the post author had pointed out, just what Lily needed, someone not impressed by her celebrity.
If only the author had seen how incompetent James was at talking to girls, she wouldn't have paired him with Lily.
Or perhaps not. Lily didn't like when men came on strongly, or obviously. James had…an endearing charm. It was sweet, really. All the charisma and power he'd been born with, and he couldn't talk to girls he fancied.
She paused her thoughts, rewound them, and played them again.
She wasn't going to be swayed by the internet. She was not going to get together with James. If she did, and if it worked out, she'd have to become a princess, and would she even be allowed to keep working? The post's author hadn't covered any of those practical concerns – she'd only focused on why Lily and James were a good match.
Lily wasn't going to trust some stranger with her love life. The author's analysis of Lily, while generally accurate, overestimated Lily's hatred of the spotlight. Her description made Lily sound more prudish than Lily considered herself to be, and had blown one offhand remark Lily had made about glasses into some sort of fetish.
The post's accuracy aside, Lily would not get together with James. That was ridiculous. She'd probably never even see him again, and this was all moot.
Her phone pinged. Given the time, it was probably Mary drunk texting Lily how much she loved her.
Lily picked up the phone, unlocked the screen, and then considered chucking it across the room.
A text from an unknown number.
hi. it's gold star boy
Lily rubbed her palms over her eyes. Shit. He had that lopsided grin she'd seen in the videos, and he was willing to poke fun at himself? A killer combination for her, she knew from experience.
She could ignore the text. That would be the easiest thing to do, really. Leave things as they'd been on set – amicable but just friendly.
That was what she would do. She would not let the internet influence her any further. She was going to put down her phone, close her laptop, and open up her book.
She managed the first two, but then she wanted tea.
She made herself a new cup.
She sat back down.
The book refused to open, and Lily couldn't stop staring at her phone.
He was probably anxiously awaiting her reply. He seemed the type. Maybe he was sitting there wondering when she'd reply, paranoid that he had the wrong number, unable to focus on anything else.
She felt bad for him, really. It wasn't his fault. If Lily hadn't read that essay, maybe she would've texted him back. She was making him suffer because of something she'd done.
She'd just text him and say it was the wrong number. Then he could rest easy.
She picked up the phone to key in that message. But somehow it came out: How did you get my number?
She frowned at her disobedient thumbs.
Curse that website. What would she have done if she'd never known people wanted her to get together with James?
She might've texted him back. She wouldn't have assumed he was really all that interested in her. Or would she have?
She clicked send before she could change her mind again, and then picked up her book.
She managed to read all of two sentences before her mobile pinged again.
a friend. i wanted to say sorry again
Lily squeezed her eyes shut. Maybe Key Limes was overinflating her ego. Maybe he wasn't interested in her that way.
She had to go for a neutral attitude. She couldn't assume anything.
She wrote: You shouldn't drink so much
This time she didn't even pick up her book again, just held her phone in her hands while she waited for a response.
oh, and i imagine you were completely sober
Lily smirked and wrote: I'd had a few glasses of wine but I didn't harass people in the queue for the toilet
Her smirk dropped when she realized instead she'd harassed the internet. She wasn't sure which act was worse.
Her phone pinged.
is that where it happened? i really have no memory of it. are you sure it was me?
The only way I could be surer is if you'd been wearing a gold star.
har har i never should have told you that
Don't regret it. It's my leverage to getting Damehood.
She was smiling far too broadly. Oh, this wasn't good at all. She should've told him he'd texted the wrong number for sure.
about that. asked mum. she said she'd think about it.
At that point, Lily had to put the phone down and take a deep, stabilizing breath.
Right. Right. He was the bloody Prince. It was so hard to reconcile the pomp of the position with his uncapitalized texts.
He'd talked to his mum about her. His mum the Queen.
Lily glanced at her tea and stood up. This called for something a little stronger.
When she'd properly doctored up her tea with whisky, she replied: That's all I ask. Unless it'll lose you a star.
she doesn't give me the stars. she does not know about the stars and i ask you to keep it that way. the stars are from my…i don't know what you'd call her. handler might be the best word ha
Lily let out a sharp, short laugh. Like she'd just drop that information in all her daily teas with the Queen.
I wish you the best of luck in earning your next reward. Maybe try rescuing a cat from a tree or something.
i've always wanted a cat. i think i'll get one soon. thanks
She blinked at her phone. Was he serious? It was so hard to tell in texts.
There was no obvious way to reply to his message, either. Should she tell him he was welcome? Offer more ideas?
She settled for not replying at all. She'd relieved the burden of replying to his initial text. And that was…sufficient. For now.
Her book still couldn't draw her in, but she brought her feet up onto the sofa and sipped her tea, watching traffic pass by on the road below, their lights blurred through her rain-streaked window.
He hadn't texted again. He was probably waiting for a reply. Or maybe that was it, maybe that was the end of their conversation for good. He'd got her number to say sorry. He had. That was it. Key Limes had got it all wrong.
When she'd finished half of her tea, her phone pinged again. Lily told herself it was probably Mary, and mentally scolded her stomach at its reaction to seeing it was from James.
are you eating lunch tomorrow
Even via text he was hopeless. Was she eating lunch, honestly.
Still, her stomach fluttered. It was only because getting asked out was flattering, she told herself. Especially when it involved actual royalty.
That was all it was.
I'm not in the habit of starving myself, despite what the media report.
She quickly followed up, before she could think it through, But I don't have to eat on set.
As soon as her phone said sent, she cringed. Oh, God, what if she'd misread his meaning. What if he had something else in mind, was going to offer the cast or crew something, or—
i know a place
Another peal of laughter burst out of her. He was so hopelessly, adorably pathetic. He really couldn't say it.
Well done. I also know many places. Some of them will even give me goods in exchange for paper and metal bits. Sometimes even plastic.
A few seconds ticked by with no reply. He was probably just texting, but what if he was put off now, thought she didn't want to…she texted again.
Are you asking me to lunch?
She tried to calmly sip her tea, but her hands felt all tingly. She found herself almost giggling.
She was just as pathetic as he was.
only if you take me to one of these marvelous places where they give you goods for paper. that sounds like a system i can get behind. i'll be sure to mention this invention to the chancellor of the exchequer at my earliest convenience
Lily relented and did a small, frantic, mostly-arms dance in her seat.
I'm fairly confident the place you know will follow this system. We can go there.
all right if you're going to be so pushy about it i reckon i could come have lunch with you. i'll send a car for you
Lily set her phone and teacup on the table, stood up, and then sat back down.
There had been several points of sheer disbelief in her life. Getting her first role in the school play, getting her first Hollywood role, getting nominated for an Oscar, meeting Julie Walters, and winning an Oscar.
This moment didn't beat the Oscar moments because she had won an Oscar and still forgot about it sometimes. But it was still up there.
She had a date with Prince James.
Prince James, who would one day become King James. King of the bloody United Kingdom.
A future king who couldn't be bothered to include capital letters in his texts.
If she went on the date and liked him and they kept dating and got married….
But that was all ridiculous. It was one date. They were both twenty. This didn't mean everything, and she wasn't going to get all worked up about what might happen if she found herself paired off with him eventually.
For now, she'd simply celebrate that she had a date with a boy who'd made her laugh.
The photos from the set had showed her having fun with James, and the truth was she had enjoyed talking to him, much more than any bloke she'd talked to in months. Whatever issues James had had with Sev, he seemed to have grown out of those behaviors, and with her…he was funny. Fit. Well-intentioned. Couldn't hold his alcohol but he wasn't unique on that front.
He seemed to fancy her a bit. She…didn't fancy him. Wanted to know more. That was the right phrase.
Terminology aside, it was just a date.
James awoke with the sun that morning, which was far too early, but his stomach had got all tied up in knots and couldn't seem to untwist itself. After an hour of trying to fall back asleep, he gave up and threw on his dressing gown.
He put on the recording of yesterday's Tottenham match in an attempt to distract himself, but his legs couldn't keep still, and his eyes kept flickering to his phone, waiting for Lily to cancel on him.
He had a date in a few hours. He had no plan. No clothes picked out. And yet he sat there paralyzed by indecision, stewing in his panic.
Sometime after nine, Sirius swaggered in without knocking, his leather jacket held over his shoulder with one finger, and kicked the door shut behind him.
James snatched up the remote and muted the telly. "Where the hell have you been?"
"Met up for drinks with some woman last night," Sirius said, flopping onto the sofa next to James, his jacket folded over his lap. "And by drinks I mean had copious amounts of sex with her."
"That's great anyway is that where you got the number?" James said, his words tumbling over each other.
"Lily's number." James turned to him on the sofa. "I mean, not that I don't appreciate it, but she probably thinks I had her looked up somehow, in some creepy way, and I want to be able to tell her—"
"I have no idea what the fuck you're talking about."
James grabbed his phone from the coffee table and flipped through his texts. Oh, God, what if he'd dreamed the whole conversation with Lily—
But no, there was Sirius's text telling him Lily's number. James held out the phone for Sirius to see.
Sirius blanched. "Oh, fuck."
James's heart missed a beat. "What? Is this not her number? Oh my God, who was I talking to?"
"No, no, it—it might be," Sirius said, pulling out his own phone. "It's, ah, the girl I was with last night. She must've sent it when I went to the toilet or something."
"Oh my God," James breathed. "Who do I even have a date with, what if it's the girl you were with and she's mad and a stalker and—"
"It's probably the real number, you paranoid twat." Sirius found the text she'd sent on his phone and nodded to himself. "She's Lily Evans's agent. We met at Natalie's."
James sank back in his seat. "Oh, thank Christ." Then he sat up again. "Wait. Why did she do that?"
"How the fuck should I know?"
It didn't matter too much, really. Maybe Lily knew her agent had been meeting Sirius and had asked her to pass it on. Or maybe the agent had given him someone else's number—but that made no sense. No one else would've known about the gold stars.
"Oh my God," James said numbly. "I really have a date with Lily Evans today."
Sirius narrowed his eyes. "You didn't blackmail her into it, did you?"
"First of all, I am so thoroughly insulted—"
"Shut up, it was one time and I was eleven."
"Were you drunk?"
"No." James folded his arms. "I was just a bit tipsy, is all, and anyway, who cares, I have a date in a few hours."
Sirius lifted one shoulder in a shrug. "Well, congratulations, I suppose. Don't fuck it up."
He reached for the remote, but James knocked it out of his hand.
"No. Right," James said. "Of course I won't fuck it up. I am smooth as fucking—well, silk is a bit cliché, isn't it? What else is smooth?"
"No, you definitely won't fuck this up," Sirius commented. "Not with that attitude."
"I hope you're aware you are only making things worse." James pulled his legs up and sat on his knees. "By the way, where should I take her for lunch?"
"Can we just assume I don't have any answers to the stupid questions you're asking?"
"But you go out with girls all the time." James prodded him in the shoulder. "Where do you go? Where do they like to eat?"
Sirius leaned away from James and his poking finger. "I have sex with girls. Sometimes we get drinks beforehand, but that's it. I'm not sitting through fucking dinner with someone I don't know."
"But I told her I knew a place, by which I meant you would know a place."
"Well, then you fucking lied, didn't you?"
"You are the worst best mate in the history of all best mates and, I reiterate, you are fired."
"Yeah, yeah, the worst best mate who inadvertently got you Lily Evans's number."
"Shut your traitorous mouth." James climbed to his feet and looked frantically around his room. "You're fired so I need Remus. Where's Remus?"
"At uni." Sirius had kicked his feet up on the coffee table now, leaning back with his hands linked behind his head, looking far too amused about the whole situation.
"Well, ring him, then."
"He's got class on Tuesday mornings."
"Fuck." James picked up the remote, realized he had no idea why, and set it back down. "Well, I'm not asking Peter."
Sirius's mouth slid into a wry smile. "Peter has class with him anyway."
"Irrelevant! Who else can I ask?"
James glowered at him. "This is no time for jokes, Sirius. I am panicking and you are laughing at me."
"Yes. I am," said Sirius, and gave a loud, forced ha.
"Well, desperate times." James sighed and looked to the door. "Where's McGonagall?"
Whatever anxieties Lily had upon waking that morning, she set them aside to do her job. She was a professional, thank you, and no one ever won an award by having a fit over a bloke.
Even if that bloke was the Prince of England.
Work actually served as an excellent distraction. She lost herself in the lines, in hitting her mark, in picking up on her co-star's cues. By the time they called the lunch break, Lily had entirely forgotten that she had something worth being anxious over.
Of course, as soon as she remembered she had lunch plans, a swarm of butterflies returned to her stomach en masse. She ducked into the toilet to tone down her make-up, and changed into the spare set of clothes she'd brought.
When she emerged from the building – looking damned fine if she said so herself – she found an unremarkable man with a chauffeur's hat on waiting by a black cab.
"Miss Evans?" he asked.
She nodded, checked for paparazzi—none, thankfully—and climbed in.
He didn't drive her more than a mile before pulling over on a quiet side street. It would have been nice if it had been a longer journey so she could have composed herself a bit more, but maybe that was a losing battle.
The cabbie opened the door for her in front of a café tucked between two much taller buildings, its window shades down and the lights off. The tables outside had been pulled against the wall, linked together by a long chain, the chairs likewise stacked and tied next to them.
Only about a quarter of her brain suddenly wondered if she'd got in a random psychopath's cab, and whether he'd brought her here to murder her.
She'd seen too many movies.
Usually that wasn't a problem, though.
She climbed out, then poked her head back into the car. "Sorry, do I owe you—"
He gave her a kind smile. "It's been taken care of."
She thanked him and stepped up to the door, checking for paparazzi again and tucking her bra strap back under her dress. Now that she'd approached the building, she could see a faint glow of light in the gap between the window and the shades. Probably not a random murderer inside, then, because everyone knew murdering psychopaths only worked in pitch darkness – Christ, but her thoughts were a mess right now. She had to be cooler than this. She was cooler than this.
She took a deep breath and raised her hand to knock, but just then the door opened to reveal a waiter dressed in a crisp white shirt.
"Please, come in," he said.
He was young, just about in one of Lily's core marketing demographic groups, but he didn't gawk or bother her at all, just led her inside. She could respect a professional when she saw one.
It wasn't nearly as dark inside as it had seemed from the outside. Only the lights nearest the front door were off, while the ones at the rear shone golden light over a few set tables.
It was just the sort of place she'd have gone to herself. Slightly overpacked with tables and chairs, with worn brick walls, and fairy lights strung among the exposed wooden rafters overhead.
"Er, hi." James stepped forward from the side of the room.
Lily had spoken to some of the most handsome men alive, thanks to her work, and strictly speaking James did not rank among them. He didn't have the archetypal Prince Charming look, with his thin face, long nose, and unkempt hair. And yet none of those other men had ever made Lily's mouth go suddenly dry.
"Hi," she said, her voice coming out a bit hoarse. She cleared her throat and smiled weakly.
He made a broad motion toward the empty café. "Take a seat wherever you like. I figured discretion might be good. You know. With us being…us."
And wasn't that a pleasant change, someone who was just as invested in hiding from the media as she was.
The few lamps overhead painted long shadows beneath them as Lily guided them toward a table.
"Do you want me to pull your chair out?" he asked.
"Sorry?" Lily said, coming to a halt near her table of choice.
"Only some girls do," he said, one hand nestled in his hair, his eyes on the floor, "and some don't, and I can't decide if it's polite or sexist, so…your choice."
She stared at him for a moment. "Sorry, only no one's—no one's ever asked before."
"Shite, sorry, I don't go out much—"
"Neither do I, same reason I expect—"
"But if you could pretend like I didn't ask—"
"No, no, I—I like that you asked." Lily gave a firm nod, and hooked her purse on the corner of her chair. "I can pull out my own chair, thanks."
"Right. Good. I'll just take care of my own chair, then."
While Lily seated herself, he walked around to the other side of the small table and made a show of slowly pulling back his chair. Then he gestured toward the chair, said, "For me? You're too kind," and lowered himself down.
Lily's laugh came out somewhere between genuine amusement and disbelief. He was so—different.
Not in a bad way.
As they both shook out the elegantly folded napkins, Lily found herself transfixed by the faint shadow in the hollow of his throat, framed by the collar of his button-up shirt.
She wrenched her eyes away as the waiter strode up to their table with a bottle of wine in hand.
"I hope you don't mind," James told her as the waiter poured, "I let someone I trust pick the menu."
"No," Lily said, nodding at the waiter in thanks, "it's a relief not to have to pretend I know anything about wine."
"They tried to teach me about it—thanks," James said, and the waiter went back to the kitchen, "but I have a black hole in my head for information I don't want to learn, and everything like that just gets sucked away, even if I don't want it to, and—sorry, I'm rambling."
He toyed with the base of his wine glass. He hadn't looked directly at her since she'd come in, always just off to the side, or near her.
"You don't need to be so nervous," she said. "I'm here, aren't I?"
"Your presence is why I'm nervous. I'm a champion of mucking things up. If we had an Olympics for it, I'd get gold. Or would that be bronze? Or no medal?"
"James." She reached across the table and stilled his hand on his wine glass, which made his face jerk up to look at hers. He was like a scared deer, the poor thing. "Hi there," she said softly.
"Hullo," he said, nearly smiling. "Have I told you that you're really pretty?"
She sat back, laughing, and James's eyes followed her hand as it left his. "That was the first thing you said to me when we met," she said.
His ears turned a bright shade of red. "Was it?"
"You said I was much prettier in person."
"Oh. Well, you are." He squeezed his eyes shut and laughed. "I am sorry. Did I mention I was sorry? Because I think I might not have and I really can't emphasize enough—what if I hired a skywriter—"
"James." She caught his eye again. "It's fine."
"I haven't made you a Dame yet."
"No, forget that. It's fine." When he still looked skeptical, she added, "Really."
And it was fine. He couldn't have made it any clearer how much he regretted that night, and she couldn't ask anything more of him, not even in jest.
He gave a shallow nod and took a sip of wine, but at least he was still looking at her. "This is weird, right?"
"What, you mean the fact that I'm on a date with the Prince and you're on a date with a famous actress?"
"Yes, that thing. Minor, really. But, you know. A thing."
"It's…a bit mind-boggling, if you think about it abstractly, but here we are."
"It sounds weirder than it is to actually live it, though." He leaned back in his seat, one arm wrapping around the chair. "I mean, yeah, it's utterly nerve-wracking to be here with you, of all people—"
"Like it's any easier from my perspective, Your Royal Highness—"
"No, not—I meant that you're just fit as all fuck and clever to boot."
"Oh, please." Lily waved a hand. "Have you ever seen that crooked smile you do? I know you must have, it's plastered over the papers all the time."
He pulled that smile out for her now, loose and easy and good-natured. "What, this one?"
"Yes, that one." She raised her wine glass to her lips. "God, I hate you for that."
"Don't go around implying I'm a hypocrite, when I basically can't look at you because I just keep thinking Christ but her eyes are green."
Lily leaned forward, opened her eyes as wide as they'd go, and crossed them at him. "There. Now look at me, you prick."
She uncrossed her eyes to gauge his reaction, and caught him cocking his head at her.
"Lily," he said, "are we really arguing over who's fitter?"
"It could be worse. We could discuss football teams."
His eyes narrowed, but his mouth curved up at one end. "You don't support…."
"We're not discussing it, remember?" she said lightly.
"A good idea, really. I mean, these are the sorts of things that you have to discuss eventually in a relationship—right up there with what religion to raise your children in, or which Doctor was the best—but they're clearly not first-date conversations."
"Absolutely not." She shook her head, and risked another glance down at the hollow of his throat. God, but she just wanted to lick it. "This is the strangest date I've been on by far," she said, but only because that was a more normal thing to say than do you know the scientific term for the hollow of your throat because this is highly relevant, key information that I need to know right away.
"Oh." His smile vanished. "I'm sorry—"
"No, no, not in a bad way. It's only—well, I've never felt like I could tell someone how fit they were before without sounding a bit mad. Then again I never usually talk about the date as it's happening, which I'm doing now, aren't I?"
She paused as the waiter came out of the kitchen with two salads and set them in front of them.
"I know what you mean," James said, picking up his fork. "It's almost taboo to discuss how things are going on a date, which is ridiculous. Even if you're miserable, you feel like you have to play it through. You can't just tell them, 'I think you're duller than one of the rocks at Stonehenge, fuck off.' You've got to finish the date or, you know, come up with some excuse like needing to go practice the harpsichord with your cat."
"Exactly. Because we're so afraid to admit that maybe the point of a date is to check compatibility and the fact is that we're not all compatible."
He was too busy chewing to answer, but he nodded enthusiastically.
"In the interest of honesty, then," she said, "how are you feeling right now? I mean, besides lost in my eyes."
James had to cover his mouth lest he lose some of his salad while laughing. When he'd swallowed, he said, "Shut up or I'll bring out the smile."
Lily spluttered into her wine. "You know, that's the first time I've heard that as a threat, and I have to say, not terrifying at all."
"It'd be the least exciting villain superpower."
"It would, though, unless maybe you were a dentist…."
The waiter remained in the back unless he was serving, and it was such a refreshing change to not have to worry about someone overhearing something she said and spinning it into something awful to sell to the tabloids. It was such a refreshing change to meet with someone who understood that threat, who would never feel inferior because she was successful, who was impressed by her attributes but not her fame.
She could only imagine what it had been like for him, growing up in the spotlight. At least she'd had a good eighteen years of complete obscurity, which she liked to think had made her relatively normal, grounded enough to manage her celebrity without letting it go to her head.
And James…he was normal. Mostly. More normal than she'd expected, really, from the Prince of England. He had a posh accent, yeah, but he didn't speak formally, not unless he was doing it for entertainment value. He had well-tailored clothes that might have been custom made, the way they hugged perfectly around his (firm, broad, utterly bite-able) shoulders. Yeah, he'd drop the name of someone like the Prime Minister every now and then, but as a part of a story, not to impress her. And she did the same with celebrities, so it wouldn't be fair to judge him on that.
He'd started off shy, but now….
Now she was closer to seeing the James she'd seen on YouTube. Yes, he was cocky. Didn't hide his intelligence or his humor or anything he should've been proud of. But she found she didn't mind at all.
While he told some story about sneaking out of one of their homes using an elaborate series of rigs and pulleys, she stared at his lips, which were always ready for a smile or a laugh. She needed to know what they tasted like.
Well, no, that was stupid. They tasted like the pasta sauce they'd just eaten, no doubt. But still.
The waiter brought out two ramekins of chocolate mousse, and Lily may have made a bit of a show with the spoon while eating it because fuck, if she was going to be distracted by his lips, he could have something to mull over, too.
He lost his train of thought mid-sentence and suddenly stared at his dessert.
"You minx," he said. "That's as unintentional as Hitler's invasion of Poland."
And there was his honesty, his bluntness, too, to consider. Welcomed. So, so welcomed.
She made an innocent, inquiring noise while licking her spoon clean. "What, eating? I find eating intentionally the most satisfying way to do it, actually. Are you saying I eat like a Nazi? If so, I'd love to hear your thoughts on their eating habits."
"I assume they ate with snives, the bastard, unwanted cousin of the spork, because they hated everything decent in the world." He looked at his mousse mournfully. "It's not fair. It's a lot harder for me to do anything meaningful that way with a spoon. The best I could do is lick the inside of the ramekin, and somehow I get the feeling that would send off the wrong signal."
She winked at him and took another spoonful.
Everything had gone fine so far, and they could even talk about that fact if they'd wanted to, and that was good.
It was all good, in fact.
There was nothing of Sev's James in him that she could see. The arrogance sometimes, yes, but he seemed to have outgrown the worst of it.
What if Sev had made it all up?
"James," she said, "I have to ask…."
"Yes, it's my real hair color," he said solemnly. "Don't believe the lies."
"No, I—" She took a controlled breath. "Severus Snape."
James was no Oscar winner. The mild contortion that flickered over his face could only have been described as disgust. "Snape? What about him?"
"He's—we were best mate growing up."
"Oh. Oh." James's eyes widened, and he pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "I'm awfully sorry to hear that. How devastating for you."
"No, not—not sorry, he was my friend, but now—I just need to know. If what he told me was true."
He reached for his wine, snorting. "Did he tell you he's an enormous yet poorly endowed prick? Because part of that is definitely true. I can't actually confirm the endowed bit—"
James set his wine back down. "What?"
"Don't insult him. I'm not friends with him anymore, but that's not…acceptable. All right?"
He watched her for a few moments, assessing. Finally, he said, not looking at her as he spoke, "Duly noted."
Lily pushed around some of her mousse in its ramekin. She shouldn't have brought it up. This was not first date material, but she…she really had needed to know. And already she'd gleaned something of what she needed to hear.
Well, in for a penny.
"He told me about some of things you did to him," she said.
"Oh, that's rich. Did he tell you what he did to me?"
"Some," she admitted. "Probably not all of it, but the worst was…well, he said you'd set up some sort of snare trap."
"Oh, that," James said, pouring himself some more wine. "Yeah, what about it?"
She was an actress, true, but even her honed skills couldn't keep the revulsion off her face. He was just admitting to it? No lies, no dancing around – just yes, what about it?
"It's true?" she said. "You caught him and hung him upside down?"
James shrugged and leaned back in his chair. "Had someone else do it. I was always shit at knots."
That cavalier admission, that blasé shrug – there was Sev's James. Buried, but there. Definitely there.
Lily's blood zipped through her veins, her fingers curling tighter around her spoon. "And that's all you have to say about it, is it?"
"What do you want me to say? We did all sorts of things to each other. He nearly got my friend expelled by framing him for a plagiarism ring, you know."
"And that justifies it, does it?"
"I don't know, I just know I wasn't going to take his shit lying down—"
"Right." Lily realized at some point she'd stood up. "If that's how you feel about it."
"Lay off, all right?" James shoved back in his chair and got up. "That was years ago. I haven't seen him since. What does it matter?"
"It matters," she said, although she could not articulate why, her thoughts too flurried and disparate. But it did matter, it mattered so much that he didn't give one fuck about that behavior—
"Look, what do you want me to say?" He took a step toward her, his hand outstretched. "We were having a nice time, and the cab won't be here for another ten minutes—"
"I'll take my own," she said, taking a sharp step away from him and grabbing her purse. "Or walk."
She spun back toward him. "Since we're being upfront about how the date's going: I think you're a prick, fuck off."
"What, seriously?" he said, his hands tearing through his hair.
She whirled toward the door and stalked out, throwing the door open wide. She blinked against the bright noon sun and raised a hand to block it out.
A lone, old-fashioned Beetle crept down the street. She'd have to find a bigger road to hail a cab, and took off in a random direction.
The door banged shut behind her, and then she heard it fling open again.
"Did you want me to lie to you?" James called after her, sounding frustrated.
She leaned forward and walked quicker, pulling out her phone to look at a map. She could walk the whole way back if needed, but her feet would pay dearly for it in these heels. There had to be a busier road nearby.
She didn't glance back until she'd reached the end of the block, by which time James had disappeared back into the café.
Good riddance, she thought, and walked off.
She hadn't calmed down at all by the time she stepped back onto the set. She'd found a cab after a few blocks, which was a relief for her feet and for her splurge heels, but the short ride meant she'd only had minutes to hash over the conversation.
"Arrogant prick," she muttered, and then forced herself to shut up, both mentally and verbally. She had a job to do now, and she was going to fucking do it, and fucking do it well.
After they'd wrapped for the day, she disappeared into the toilet, where she sank down on the seat and buried her head in her hands.
She'd fooled herself into thinking Sev was a complete liar. Yes, he had lied to her repeatedly about where he'd been or what he really believed, but the parts about James – he'd had no reason to insult the Prince, not when Lily had never met or expressed any interest in him. She should have trusted Sev on this one last thing.
What sort of a person set up snare traps for people? If not horrible, cruel ones that she couldn't be friends with, much less date, then who?
But then again who framed someone else for plagiarism? James probably hadn't lied about that, that was just Sev's style, and Sev….
All right, so they were both pricks. She wasn't friends with Sev anymore, and she'd finish with James just as neatly.
She wiped off her film make-up and left the toilet, where she ran directly into Marlene.
"Oh, sorry," Lily said, stepping to the side, "it's free now—"
Marlene grabbed Lily's forearms. "You slag, can't believe you didn't tell me—"
"Prince James, I mean, honestly, you'd think something like that would come up in the hours we spend together every day, just a mention would've sufficed—"
Lily seemed to exist outside of her body, taking in Marlene's excited grin, and the mix of casual and blatant stares from everyone else lingering on the set.
Oh, no. Oh, shit.
"Who told you that?" Lily said, with a weak, forced laugh. "Prince James, I'd never—"
"Terry in lighting, he thinks I'm dead gorgeous, and I am so that's all right, but he showed me these pictures he saw online—"
"Pictures?" Lily said, her voice low. "Of what, exactly?"
Had someone snuck into the café with them? Unless they were just the pictures from him on set, but why would that surprise Marlene—
"Him chasing after you on the street, outside some café."
Lily's thoughts sputtered to a halt. She blinked at Marlene, her mouth open a fraction, and then she pulled her shoulders back, lifting her chin.
"That was a misunderstanding," she said, which was as vague as she felt she could get without admitting that they'd been on a date. "Excuse me."
She rushed across the stage, shoving her hand around in her purse in search of her phone, and flew down to the street, her heels clicking on the metal steps.
She had to call Dorcas. Dorcas would know what to do.
"Hiya," Lily said when Dorcas answered, holding her phone in one hand while hailing a cab with the other. "Bit of an update for you."
"You know, Lily," came Dorcas's sly voice, "you pay me to do a specific job for you, and if you don't keep me apprised, I can't do that job effectively. It hurts me, Lily. It hurts me when you do this thing to me. It's like a knife. A knife in my eye. And a knife in my eye hurts."
"I'm sorry." Lily flung open the door of the cab that stopped in front of her and slid inside. "But it only happened a few hours ago, and I was on set, and I just found out—"
"I've already got a call from his publicist, and not one peep from you—"
"I said I was sorry, now fix it!" She covered the phone with one hand to give her address to the cabbie.
"Well, were you on a date with him?"
"Does it matter? Tell them I wasn't!"
"He's not touching the issue. Or rather, his publicist isn't. They're saying it was a business meeting about British arts. Something about a gold star initiative?"
Lily laughed desperately into the phone. "Oh my God, that idiot, what is he even—it doesn't matter, that's fine, say whatever he said."
"I will, but no one's buying it."
"Then force it into their shopping trolleys and push them out the door." Lily rubbed her palm against her forehead. "I've got to go."
She hung up on Dorcas before Dorcas could ask any more questions, and sank into the slightly sticky, slightly odorous leather seat.
This was not good. Not good at all.
The stupidest part of James's reaction to his lunchtime debacle was the insistent fear that McGonagall would set him back to zero on the whiteboard. The other parts of his reaction at least made sense – confusion over how he'd apparently insulted Lily, humiliation over having been ditched mid-date, and shame over looking like a fool in the press again by shouting at a woman on the street.
At least, he assumed the last part was imminent when he caught sight of a paparazzo gleefully fleeing the scene with his camera in hand. Damn it. He hadn't used that cab company before, but he certainly wouldn't ring them again now. He'd have sent one of his own cars if it wouldn't have been so conspicuous.
McGonagall didn't ask how the date went. Apparently the despondency on his face had been enough to ward her off. And wasn't that just fucking depressing. He thanked her for setting up the café, warned her about the press, and left it at that.
She hadn't even been annoyed that morning when he'd asked her to cancel his plans for the day. She'd smiled in that mild, pleased-but-not-giddy way she favored, and taken care of his appointments and lunch without complaint.
He felt, inexplicably, like he'd let her down.
Which was just what he needed, to feel guilty on top of everything else.
When he got home, he grabbed his favorite football and headed out to the gardens. He practiced every move he knew over and over again, until sweat plastered his hair to his forehead, anything rather than let his brain go over the same conversation ad nauseam.
He didn't retreat inside until his legs ached.
None of this would have happened if he'd been allowed to go to Afghanistan with the rest of his unit. He never would've got drunk over it and gone to that stupid party, never would have made a fool of himself in front of Lily Evans—never made a fool of himself twice. Or three times, really. He shouldn't have run after her.
After a quick shower, he crashed onto his bed and turned on the telly to something mindless.
He was just considering the merits of getting up in search of food—food was delicious but required standing up, and his legs didn't like the thought of that at all—when someone opened his bedroom door and clacked in on high heels.
"Hi, Mum," he said into his pillow. No one else would have come in without knocking.
"I can't believe you didn't tell me you'd got a date with Lily Evans," she said as he turned off the telly. Her clacking heels approached his bed, and he felt the end of his mattress sink under her weight. "Thoroughly rude, keeping your mother uniformed. Is that why you asked about making her a Dame? I thought I'd made clear my position on bribing people into dates."
"No, that was—related but not part of the date thing." James sighed. "I didn't tell anyone because I was hoping to cover it up if it went badly, but you can see how well that turned out."
"You're twenty. Surely that's too old to have a fit over something of this scale."
"'m not having a fit," James said. "I'm having a curl-up-in-a-ball."
"Dignity was never your strong suit."
He glanced up at her and gave her a half-hearted smile. "I love you, too, Mum."
She sat perched on the end of his bed with picture-perfect posture, as always, her hands resting on the lap of her rose-colored dress. The lines around her eyes had got so prominent lately. James didn't find they detracted from her appearance in any way, but their presence did always remind him that someday he'd have to deal with losing her, and that that day was only drawing nearer.
Her gray hair looked so pale just then, almost luminescent in the fading streaks of twilight filtering through his windows.
She tilted her head at him, endeared yet expectant. "Minerva refuses to share any details with me."
James cheered inside, but said to his mum, "Basically I said something that somehow made her angry but I don't know why and she left and I am an idiot."
"You don't know why it made her angry?"
"No, I dunno, she—she got angry and left."
"Well, maybe it was a misunderstanding."
"I should get a cat," James declared. "I'd like a cat."
"Oh, James, don't think that's the end of the conversation."
"It is, though. Look. I'm talking about cats now, can't talk about that date. What d'you think of the name Elvendork? The great thing about it is that it's unisex—"
"James." His mum fixed him with a flat look. "Hand me your phone."
"What? Why? Are you going to call to order me a cat?"
"No." She held out a hand, palm-up. "Give it here."
If he didn't hand it over, she'd take it from him by force. It was so unfair. He couldn't hit his own mum, and only partially because she was the Queen of bloody England.
He drew it out from his trouser pocket and slid it across the duvet toward her.
She picked it up and started typing something into it.
"What are you writing?" he asked warily.
"I'm asking Lily Evans why she was angry."
James's body was lunging for her before he was even aware he was going to do it, his arm reaching for his phone. His mum's age hadn't made her any less dexterous, and she primly stood up out of reach and took a few loud steps away from the bed.
He'd have to get out of the bed now. That devil.
"Mum," he warned, "don't you dare."
"Well, it's the only way this'll get resolved. It's called direct communication. I learned it from the Germans."
She meant she'd learned that from her German lover in her twenties, whom she often spoke of fondly, which was weird and gross and James resisted the urge to cover his ears.
"I will abdicate if you send that text," he said.
"You didn't abdicate when we took away your blankie, or when we sent you to boarding school, or when you didn't get the new Xbox. At some point that threat gets a bit old, dear."
"I stole Peter's Xbox, so there," James muttered. He sat on the edge of his bed and folded his arms. "Mum, please."
His mum held the phone aloft in her palm, her thumb poised over the screen. "I won't send this message if—"
"I don't like where this is going—"
"—you go talk to her in person."
"You are the worst diplomat in existence, I can't go talk to her—"
"Yes," she said dryly, "talking has always been the least effective diplomatic technique."
James glowered. "What does the text say?"
"Oh, a bit of this, a bit of that, something about baring your soul and begging for eternal forgiveness—"
"I hate you." James stood up. "I loathe you and also where is the car."
His mum beamed. "I thought you'd come around." She tossed him the phone, which he caught handily. "The car's waiting for you out back."
There was Mary to deal with when Lily got home from the movie set, and another call from Dorcas, and about twenty texts from her friends and other people in her network, and an email from her great-aunt (which was in all capital letters but only because she didn't know how to turn off caps lock).
While Mary cackled herself silly over it all, Lily simply turned around and disappeared into her room, locking the door behind her.
She flopped onto her bed and tugged the quilt her mum had made over herself, pulling it over her head. When she breathed deeply, she sometimes thought she could smell traces of her mum's perfume.
The whole country knew she'd gone out with Prince James. Arrogant, motorbike-riding Prince James. Boarding school menace Prince James.
It wasn't the end of the world. It wasn't the worst she'd ever felt – that special moment was reserved for learning about her parents' car crash. This was nowhere near that.
Still, it burned. She'd made such a poor judgment of character. She never should've gone to that asinine website and let them convince her he was a decent person—
That bloody website.
She threw off the quilt and rummaged around on the floor until she found her laptop under a pile of washed pants.
Limes her arse. Lily and James were not meant to be together, and honestly, what a ridiculous trend, smashing names together into fruit. What was wrong with people, mucking about in her personal life—
What was wrong with her, even thinking about listening to them, when he was a drunk, entitled prick.
The forum had had fewer than two thousand users the last time she'd visited, but now that number had more than quadrupled. Every time she clicked on a different thread, the Active Shippers number on the sidebar jumped even higher.
What had she done, she'd encouraged them, and now what would they think—
She couldn't bring herself to open any of the threads purporting to show pictures of James outside the café. From the thread titles, someone had heard James shout about not lying to her, and all the users were in a tizzy trying to interpret his meaning.
Lily let out a jagged laugh. They'd never guess the right meaning, and drive themselves mad over it in the process. Served them right.
Her computer had remembered her login and password for the forum, and she typed up a scathing message in one of the threads.
Yes, it was exceptionally juvenile, but she needed to do something, and the people reading her messages needed to stop, needed to recognize reality when it was punching them in the face.
She could really go for punching someone in the face right now.
She'd have to settle for—what was the word? Gnoming? Dwarfing? Might as well be unicorning for all she cared about the terminology. Whatever it was, she was doing it.
But then she reread her message, let out a slow stream of breath, and couldn't manage to click post.
It wasn't their fault she'd agreed to go out with James. It wasn't their fault that he didn't seem to care about the awful things he'd done.
And that was perhaps the most maddening thing about it. Up until she'd mentioned Sev, she'd liked James. She'd fooled herself into thinking maybe that side of him didn't really exist.
A tentative knock came at her bedroom door.
"I'm busy. If it'll keep you out, I'm naked. Also the door is locked."
"I hope you're not naked because you need to step outside the flat."
"Why's that? To make a bigger fool of myself?"
Mary waited a beat, then said, "Severus is outside."
A wild laugh burst out of Lily. Of course Severus was there. Of course.
"Well," she said, feeling deadly calm about something at last, "tell him to fuck right off, please."
"I tried, I even tried to grab him but he's much taller than me, enough that I could probably do chin-ups on his arm. If he could lift me, I mean – he looks awfully scrawny. Anyway. He says he's not going until you go talk to him. He says he'll sleep out there if he has to."
What a complete prick. There could be no mistake about the timing of his visit, and he knew perfectly well she wouldn't ring the police about him. Their former friendship aside, she couldn't take any more publicity about men chasing her down.
She shoved her laptop aside and climbed off her bed.
A quick check in the mirror, a brush through her hair, and she was yanking open the flat door.
He stood there, vaguely hunched over like a wilting weed, his skin sickly in the awful fluorescent lighting of the corridor.
"Go away," she said.
"Lily." His eyes were riveted onto her face, like a man who'd gone days without seeing the sun.
It was awful.
"Yes, that's still my name," she said, hand still clutching the doorknob in case he tried to force his way in. "Still not interested in talking to you. Go away."
He tore his gaze away from her and stared at the tile floor, his hands clenching into fists. "I came to warn you."
"I'm not interested in any warnings. Only in getting you to leave. Go away."
"He's—everyone thinks he's so bloody clever, and wonderful, and he's not, you've got to see through him—"
Oh, how she could have torn him down on that point by explaining that she'd ditched James. But that wasn't any of his fucking business. No matter how much it stung to see him again, to remember that she once would have told him everything…she had never truly regretted cutting him out of her life, and she wouldn't cave on that position now.
"I see him perfectly fine. Still no glasses, see?" she said, pointing up at her eyes. "Now go away."
He took a jerking step toward her. "Lily…."
"Don't. I don't want to hear anything you have to say. I'm just working class scum, aren't I?"
"No, you're—you're exactly what our party is for, hard work and personal responsibility and—"
"And saying sorry, rotten luck, eh to everyone who ever faced any sort of barrier, yes, I remember exactly why we stopped talking, Severus. No need to remind me."
"Surely you've seen Riddle on television—heard him explain things—"
"Every time he shows up on the telly, I change the channel on principle. I don't listen to elitist, racist drivel, especially if it's from an MP."
"You don't understand—"
"No, you don't understand." Lily's hand ached with how tightly she clung to the doorknob. "You've chosen your way, and I've chosen mine. Good-bye, Severus."
She started to close the door, and he reached forward, as though to stop her—
"Can't tell when you're not wanted, as usual," came James's voice, echoing down the corridor.
Lily slammed the door shut.
She stared at it, heart pounding. Oh, this was just what Perez Hilton would kill for, a spat between two blokes outside of her flat—
She had to do something. She couldn't let them row in her corridor. But she wasn't bringing Sev inside, he'd probably camp out or something. She could let James in, but then Severus would have a fit.
"Lily," said Mary from the kitchen. "Is that…."
"Yes. I know. What do I do?"
Lily could hear Severus still speaking through the door.
"Come to shove your entitled nose into other people's affairs? Did you get bored of letting the other men in your unit risk their lives in Afghanistan while you sit at home?"
Then Severus grunted.
Lily opened the door again to find a man in a dark suit twisting Severus's arm against his back and pressing him face-first into the corridor wall. She didn't know the man, but his earpiece, his ox-like shoulders, and his arrival with James said enough.
"Er, hi," said James, standing on the other side of Lily's doorway from Severus. "I thought I'd sneak by and say hello, but if you like, first I could have this man removed from your building."
Severus had turned his face sideways, his ear against the wall. "You've no right to handle me in this fashion," he said, grimacing. "I've committed no crime. Always strutting about, forcing others to do as you command—"
Lily didn't need anything from James. She could handle her own affairs perfectly well.
But getting rid of Severus, swiftly and professionally…Dorcas would strangle her in her sleep if Lily let that opportunity slip by.
"Take him outside however he came in," Lily said quietly. "Don't let anyone see."
"Lily," Severus said.
Lily took a bracing breath and nodded to the security man. Her neighbors had probably already heard too much. She'd been assured that this building had very discrete inhabitants, but she'd find out whether that was true soon enough.
"Sir," the man said, casting a glance at James, "you need to come with me back down to the car."
"Oh." James's shoulders hunched. "I was hoping I could…I mean, if you'd let me," he said to Lily. "I wanted to say, erm, some things."
Severus bucked against the guard, but to no avail. "Don't listen to him, Lily."
Lily surveyed the scene in front of her: Severus, pressed against the wall; the security man, his gaze cool and assessing; and James, one hand grasping the back of his neck, unable to look straight at her again.
She could have said no, could have sent them both away and been done with it. But James, unlike Severus, had no doubt exerted considerable effort to get to her flat without being noticed by the media. And maybe…maybe he'd tell her what she wanted to hear, now.
"He can stay in my flat while you handle Severus," Lily told the security man.
"I'll be fine." James waved him away. "I'll be safe as houses in here. I mean, safe as flats. Whichever one you think is safer, I'll be that one."
Lily stepped aside to let James inside, while Severus threw her a betrayed glower as the guard hauled him away.
She swallowed hard, and closed the door behind James.
After a quick, awkward round of introductions—"Send Sirius my thanks," Mary said, which made no sense to Lily and she would ask about that later, and James went red in the face—Lily pulled James into her room. Mary didn't need to hear what they were going to say.
Of course, Mary would probably still hear through the door, but at least this way they had the illusion of privacy.
Only upon tripping over a pair of jeans did Lily remember that she'd only half unpacked from the move, and that inviting the Prince inside her room might've been a short-sighted idea. A few boxes sat stacked at the foot of her bed, with her only lamp balanced precariously on top of them, coating her room in soft light.
Her clothes covered at least half of the floor, in different piles for hanging, folding, and donation. That large pile of pants still lay in a heap near her bed, among other things she'd never worried the Prince might see. At least she'd drawn the blinds first thing when she'd got home in case any paparazzo got daring. This special moment of mild embarrassment was reserved just for them.
James lingered just inside the doorway while she shoved aside clothes to make space for them on the floor. She'd had male friends on her bed before, but inviting James there seemed too much like forgiveness, like she regretted leaving him earlier.
"Thanks for letting me wait here," he said.
She tucked her legs under her and beckoned him forward. "Thank you for taking care of Severus."
James gave a noncommittal shrug and sat down next to her, with his knees propped up in front of him and his back resting against her unmade bed. "I wanted…I wanted to tell you that I'm sorry about lunch."
She tugged at a frayed thread on her sun-yellow rug. "All right," she said, because she could not tell him it was fine.
"I don't…." He gave a short, awkward laugh. "I'm not sure what you wanted me to say earlier."
"It's not a matter of wanting you to say anything."
"Then what is it?" he said, his hand ruffling up his hair. "I don't—why did you leave?"
"You should—" She sat back and folded her arms, her eyes tracing the weave of her rug rather than look at him. "I shouldn't have to explain it."
"Yeah, well, you do, all right? I've no idea what you want me to—not say. To do? I just don't understand what happened earlier, and I don't want you to hate me, and…yeah."
Lily quelled the smart remark that popped up in her mouth. She didn't owe it to him to answer, but he'd come to her flat. Hadn't even tried to call her, had just showed up to ask her to clarify. Not even to ask for forgiveness. And the media avoidance issue aside, that couldn't have been nothing for him – he had people who set agendas for him, and he'd presumably blown something off to come see her.
He ducked his head, his glasses sliding down his nose a bit. He'd placed himself between her and the lamp, his profile now limned by light. One day that profile would be on stamps.
"You should feel something about what you did to Severus," she said. "Something that's not nostalgia."
"Is that what you think?" he said, tilting his face back up toward her. "That I'm nostalgic for those days?"
"No, I don't know, but you didn't—you didn't seem to regret it."
"Christ, Lily…." He took a deep breath. "I can't make myself feel something, and at the time—it's like—look. You know I'm not always great at controlling my impulses. You'd have to have been raised in a dirt hut not to know that."
"That, too, but my point—it was years ago. I'm not the person I was then. It's hard to show remorse when at the time it made perfect sense, and now—I wouldn't do those things now. I don't want you to think that I don't realize the things I did were stupid and juvenile and—"
"Whatever adjectives you want, I don't care. I'm not going to lie to you and pretend that I like Snape in any sense. I'm not going to try to brush off the things that happened between us. I told you they'd happened. I don't do that sort of thing anymore. What else do you need me to say?"
Lily tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear, and stretched out one leg in front of her.
She wanted him to say that it was completely reprehensible. She wanted him to say that he couldn't stand to think about the things that he'd done, and that he was going to try to turn over a new leaf.
Except he had turned over a new leaf. Just not about Snape. Or at least, he hadn't done it exactly the way she'd wanted him to.
Which was…she didn't want to say okay.
But he really couldn't make himself feel the way she wanted him to feel. He'd acknowledged that they'd both done some stupid things. He wouldn't do them again – and he hadn't, given the chance. He'd made an unnecessary comment in the corridor to Severus, but Severus had done the same, and then…James had sent him off. Hadn't had Severus beat up or imprisoned or anything.
And besides…he wasn't the only one who'd done something awful.
"It's almost unfair, you know," James said quietly, nudging at the edge of the rug with his polished shoe. "You know so much about me, everyone knows so much about me, and I can't—most people aren't held accountable for the things they did at school. I don't even know where you went to school."
"Nowhere famous, just the one down the street from where I grew up," she said. "And we've all…we've all done stupid things."
He turned to her, lifting his eyebrows. "Oh, don't tell me. One time you looked at your neighbor's answer on an exam, but were so ashamed that you turned yourself in and took the detention."
"What? No. I never needed to – I always did very well on exams."
"Then what? What stupid thing did you do?"
She'd judged James for not looking straight at her earlier, but she couldn't seem to force herself to meet his gaze now, not when she was exposing herself.
It was only fair…and having heard him confess nearly exactly how she felt….
"I lied," she told the floor. "To get into the casting call for Through a Jagged Window."
She'd never told anyone before, not even Mary. She'd always assumed if she told someone, they'd be thoroughly repulsed. But when she glanced up to catch James's reaction, she found his face had lit up.
"You did what?" he said, grinning.
Seeing him smile like that soothed a raw nerve in Lily. He wasn't saying it was morally acceptable—because it wasn't, she knew that—but he hadn't bolted from the room or anything at her admission.
Not like she'd done to him.
"Without getting into detail…." Lily could stand to look at him now, and did so, watching the amused curve of his lips. "Some other girl was supposed to audition but I stole her slot. It was—it was so bad. I should feel awful about it. In a way I do, but I can't—I can't regret it because being in that film was one of the best experiences of my life."
"Does she know you did it? The other girl?"
"No. And I've followed her progress since…she's still struggling in Los Angeles."
James gave a low whistle. "That could've been her big break."
"It could've been. I like to think if we'd both auditioned, I still would've got the part."
"But you'll never know for certain."
"No. I won't," she said, her voice hollow. "But at the time, I was still, erm…not entirely well. My parents had just died—"
"And your mum was a nurse," James said softly. "Sorry, I have seen a few interviews with you before."
"It's only fair, and yes, I was—I needed to get that part." She clenched at the rug on either side of her, a ragged bit of her fingernail catching on the fabric. "It was mine and I knew it."
"It was yours. I don't even know who this other girl is, but it was yours."
She'd told herself the same thing hundreds of times, but to hear someone else confirm it….
Lily offered him a small smile, feeling as though she could breathe again after a long dive into the ocean. "Thanks."
James brought down his legs so they stuck out straight in front of him. "So…are we all right, then?"
"Yes," she said. "We are. I'm—I can't make you feel differently. And you're—it's not like you see him at all."
"One of the perks of security guards, not seeing people like him." James smiled – not the one they'd discussed on their date, but a thin, barely there but oh so adorable one. "So, then. Uh. Would you like to go out again sometime?"
Lily reached over to swat at his knee, grinning at him. "You said it! In one sentence and everything."
"Shut up, I had to practice in the car ride over."
"You're so pathetic."
"If you don't shut it right now, I'll just send an email off to the Daily Mail about your stolen audition—" He pretended to reach for her laptop, still sitting on the bed behind her, and then froze. "What the hell is that?"
Horror swept over Lily in a cold, dark wave.
"Ohmygod, I can explain!" she said, flipping over onto her knees and trying to pull the laptop up the bed and out of James's reach.
But his arm was longer than hers, and now he was half on top of her, crushing the back of her leg with his knee, his chest flush against part of her back, stretching for the laptop. It didn't matter whether he had it in his hands, though, because he'd seen the Key Limes banner at the top of the screen.
"It's a shipping website!" she said as James's fingers scrabbled at the edge of the keyboard. "Mary showed it to me, it's utter rot—"
He stilled, and then she felt some of his weight shift off of her.
"What are you even talking about boats for—"
"No, no, it's—these people on the internet," Lily said, taking the opportunity to slam her screen shut, "they think that, ah, you and I should, erm—"
"Fuck?" he squawked.
He flailed backwards to get off of her, knocking his head against the wooden frame of her footboard in the process.
"NO!" She twisted sideways to look at him, her eyes wide. "I mean, probably? I don't know! I don't understand it—"
"Then why are you on that site—"
"Because I was angry with you!"
At least the screen was closed. There was that. And beyond that there was the sheer humiliation of having been caught by James on that fucking site, which sent her blood flooding to her cheeks, and made her consider the benefits of sicking up right then and there, both as a reprieve from the tension and as a distraction for James.
"Let me understand this," James said, propped up on one elbow while his other hand rubbed his head. He winced, possibly both at his head injury and at the depravity of the internet. "There is a website for people who want us to fuck."
"They want—they want us to be together." Lily sat down on the backs of her heels. "Romantically. Also probably for us to fuck."
"That's—that's really fucking creepy."
"I know," Lily said.
"They've got a whole site? But we only just met!"
"They've been running for a year, Mary said."
"Oh. Wow." James blinked owlishly. "That's—why?"
Lily's hands shoved her hair off of her forehead, and slid down to rest on either side of her neck. "I honestly have no idea!"
James sat still for a few moments, staring off at nothing but with his mouth poised in a thoughtful slant, his body casting a thin shadow along her rug.
All things considered, he was not having the worst possible reaction. Or so Lily told herself.
"I want to see it," James said.
"You don't, though," Lily told him. "It's so creepy."
"No, come on, show me!" He shifted around to sit on his knees and gestured toward the laptop. "I have to know now. If you don't show me, I'll just go out to my car and look it up on my phone."
There was no arguing with that, and it would be better if she could explain why she'd been on there. They'd just reached an accord – she wouldn't let this fucking website ruin that.
"Fine," she said, reaching up toward her bed.
She opened up her screen again, and had just managed to delete her message when James lurched forward, yanking her computer out of her hands. He settled against her bed again, placing the laptop on his thighs.
"No changing things around, I want to see it all," he said, hunched over to examine the screen. "Who made that picture at the top? It looks real, almost."
Lily slid over to sit next to him, her knees tucked up by her chest with her arms wrapped around them. "Some user, I don't know. I don't spend loads of time on this site."
He frowned at her. "But you were here because you were angry with me?"
"Er," said Lily.
"What were you doing?"
"Oh, you know, er, shouting at the screen."
"No," James said slowly. "We're on a post new message page, and you just deleted something—what were you writing?"
Lily let her forehead drop on top of her knees. There was no dodging around it, really. "Mean things, all right? I wrote mean things about you but couldn't go through with posting because I'm not twelve. Most of the time."
"You came to vent on this site about our date? Oh my God, do they know about our date, what did you tell them?"
"Nothing!" Lily lifted her head, her eyes wild. "I swear, I didn't—I was just ranting without specifics, they don't know who I am—"
"This is mad. This is mad," James said, his eyes back on the screen as he clicked the Fan Art link.
Lily closed her eyes and waited for the inevitable.
"Oh my God," he said, "is that us fucking? Someone drew us fucking?"
She waited for him to slam the laptop shut and storm out, where he'd tell everyone not only that she'd stolen that audition, but that she was an obsessed pervert.
But after a moment, he remarked, "That's quite good, actually."
Lily lifted her head to gawk at him. "Take that again?"
"The linework, the lighting—that's really a nice drawing." He traced a finger over part of the drawing. "They spent a lot of time on it. Of course, they gave me tattoos, which I don't understand at all."
"The tattoos are the part you don't understand?"
James clicked another link. "Look, here's us as pirates!"
Lily shoved her shoulder up against James's to get a better view of the screen. "Oh, of course. Pirates. Why not draw us as pirates, I mean that's basically as fundamental as drawing us as dinosaurs."
"Why not is right," he said. "Pirates are fantastic."
She leaned away to punch him in the shoulder before resuming her former position tucked against his side. "You are loving this. You pervert."
"I'm not the one who was on the site earlier."
"Ranting!" she said, a familiar flush springing to her cheeks. "Not—not peeping."
"It's not peeping. They obviously want people to see this stuff or they wouldn't post it on the internet, bastion of things never deleted."
Lily watched as he clicked on another drawing, and if she happened to press more of herself against him ostensibly to see better, that was just a bonus. A nice, firm bonus.
"Oh, wow," she said. "That one's quite bad, isn't it?"
James cocked his head sideways, studying it. "Is that even physically possible?"
"How many fingers do I have there? Can my wrist even go that direction?"
"No, wait, okay, so if I had my hand here—" James moved the laptop onto the floor in front of him, and wrapped an arm around Lily's shoulder, his fingers gripping her tightly. He pushed down her propped-up knees until they were flat against the floor, and threw a leg over her to straddle her thighs, drawing a sharp intake of breath out of her.
"See," he said, "my arm can't possibly bend that way around your shoulder if I'm like this…."
Lily couldn't quite keep track of what he was saying, not with his body pinning hers down so thoroughly, his arm warm through the thin cotton of her t-shirt. His half-shadowed face hovered only inches from hers as he rambled on to himself about ligaments and bones, and she sat hypnotized, watching the light from her lamp play across his lips without hearing what was coming out of them.
Suddenly he stilled, one of his hands still clutching her shoulder blade.
"Oh," he said, sounding confused. "I'm on top of you."
The slight crease that appeared on his forehead did Lily in, and she kissed him.
He made a small, pleased noise, which sent a jolt through Lily's belly, and she captured his lips again, one of her hands cupping the side of his face, fingertips brushing over faint stubble.
He tried to say something into her mouth, but she parted from his lips just long enough to say, "Shut. Up," and went back to kissing him soundly.
Her hands had migrated up to his hair, while his held her waist in place, a firm force keeping her from going anywhere. Not that she wanted to be anywhere else at the moment.
"Lily?" came Mary's voice from outside the room.
Lily muffled a curse against James's lips, kissed him one more time for good measure, and pulled back. "Yes?" she said, her voice coming out breathy.
"The security guard is back."
"Grand, thanks!" Lily said, her voice lilting oddly on the end because James was rubbing his thumbs in delicate circles on her sides.
The moment Mary's footsteps quieted in the distance, James bent down to press his smile over Lily's.
"No, hold on," she said, but only just barely. "He's outside my flat."
"He can wait," James said, and then kissed her again. "That's his job."
Any confidence he'd lacked in the first part of their date had not at all represented his kissing style, which she might've described, if asked, as all-consuming.
Lily had no objection to the security guard standing watch in her corridor for a bit longer. That was his job, after all.
But eventually she remembered they couldn't sit here too much longer because James's fingers had started wandering under the hem of her shirt, and while the security guard was outside the flat, Mary was only one thin door away.
"You're so fucking gorgeous," James told her after she'd gently pushed him away.
She'd been told that plenty of times in her life, but from him it felt genuine, a gift given without ulterior motive, filling her chest with warmth.
"We already had that argument," she said. "Are you sure you want to get into it again?"
"I might. I think I could win this time, having now seen you like this."
"And that's this?" she asked, one corner of her mouth tugging upward.
"Tousled," he said firmly. "I'd say beautifully tousled."
She tilted her head back and laughed, savoring the way her hair fell in disarray along her shoulders, and the way his eyes tracked the movement. "You get a gold star for that in my book."
"What, the comment and not the kissing?"
"I don't want you to get too cocky," she said, climbing to her feet. "What's the fun if there's no room for improvement?"
He tugged down his shirt to straighten it out, then sent her a sly look as he moved toward the door. "You didn't answer me earlier," he said. "Fancy going out with me again?"
"Well, since you asked so succinctly." Lily stepped forward to trail her fingers along the hollow in his throat—which, Christ, was just as perfectly formed as she'd imagined—and brushed her lips against his. "Yes."
"Your Royal Highness," he corrected.
She shoved him back against the door, where his head connected with a dull, harmless thud, and kissed him solidly. "I thought you didn't like that," she said.
"I don't," he said, grinning at her, "but I thought I might get that response."
She laughed, but she still reached behind him to push the handle. His weight pushed the door open behind him, and he fell backwards a step until he caught his balance, never once losing that stupid, cocky grin.
"Get out of here," she said, wearing one of her own smiles, one whose existence she would never admit to Mary, but was totally her fuck me smile.
He took a couple more steps backwards, his thumbs hitched on his pockets. "Aye aye, Captain."
Mary made an inquiring noise from the sofa, but Lily only had eyes for James at the moment. The pirate reference had given her all sorts of distracting thoughts to deal with, most of which involved tackling James right then and there.
"See you later?" he said once he'd reached the flat door.
"Yeah," she said, leaning against her bedroom doorframe, unable to wipe the smile from her face. "You definitely will."
He threw her one final, blissful look before disappearing out the door. As soon as it banged shut, Mary was on her feet rushing at Lily.
"Oh my God." Mary grabbed Lily's shoulders and stared at the flat door. "Did you just—I could definitely hear, erm…."
But Lily couldn't do more than smile in response. Her mouth seemed to have got stuck that way at some point in the past five minutes. Not that she could complain.
She left Mary begging for details and wandered back into her room, as though in a daze.
She grabbed the laptop from where James had left it, settled in on her bed, and clicked on the forum link.
After a bit of poking around, she found the page with her account details. Not that they had much – just her email and username. But there, at the bottom of the page, sat the link for Delete Account.
She clicked it to find a confirmation page.
Are you sure you want to delete your account? This action cannot be undone.
This site was entertaining, in a fashion. But its users…they could never know they'd led to their first kiss, lest the internet get the wrong idea about its own power.
The temptation was too great to return, to mock, to tease, to celebrate.
She didn't need anyone else to tell her what they thought of James. If she wanted to keep going out with him, that would be her choice. If she wanted to stop seeing him, that would be her choice. And she couldn't let anyone else, no matter how well informed they were, weigh in on those opinions.
She clicked Yes, delete my account.
She'd make her own judgments from now on. And if she found James wanting….
She smiled. If tonight was anything to go by…she didn't think she would.