James offered a perfunctory knock on the door to Sirius's sitting room before he threw it open. Heaved it open, more like—it was a damned heavy door. At least it slammed shut behind him with a satisfying thud.
Less satisfying: his traitorous ex-best mate lounging in an overstuffed armchair next to the fire, a glass of something amber in hand. The bastard didn't have the decency to look up from his crossword.
James folded his arms. "Where in the bloody fuck have you been?"
In a tucked away corner of the same castle, Lily ignored the persistent knocks at her own door. She retreated beneath the water, where no shrill sisters or mad suitors could grieve her.
She'd have stayed submerged indefinitely, with only her dull thudding heartbeat and the slow rising of bubbles for company, but there were her lungs to think of. When she could endure it no longer and emerged, panting, a heart-faced brunette was standing over her.
"Mary!" Lily cried. "I was afraid you were her. Where on earth have you been?"
"Here," Sirius said, deigning a glance in James's direction. He waved a hand to indicate the room at large. "Obviously."
"Gathering reinforcements." Mary grinned, patting the bottle-shaped bulge in her dress pocket.
Bless her, she always knew precisely what Lily needed. She didn't even mind playing the role of dress-maker and sometimes servant—mostly—though they both abhorred the pretense.
"You are my favorite. Did you know?"
"I did," Mary said, settling herself onto the small stool beside Lily's bath, "and you're mine, which is why I forbid you to drown yourself."
Lily, undeterred, began, "And yet, the argument remains—"
Then Mary gave the bath stopper the tiniest of tugs with her pinky, and Lily promptly shut her mouth.
"Why didn't you come to dinner?"
"Why would I, when my presence wasn't required?"
James fired the sharpest glare in his arsenal at his shit best mate. "You could have shown a modicum of support, Padf—"
"Don't 'modicum' me, Prongs," said Sirius. "Moan about tonight, but not at me for skiving. I'm tired, and my arse is still numb from riding all day." He sipped from his glass, then grimaced. "This brandy is shit."
James opened his mouth to object, but Sirius continued, "I've endured more evenings filled with dull conversation, and cards,"—his lip curled—"and you making an arse of yourself than I care to count. You'd have passed, too, were you in my position."
Mary tapped on the glass perched on the bath's rim, held in place by Lily's wrinkled fingers. "Have you started sulking without me?"
"Can you blame me?"
"That depends. Are the rumors true?"
Lily worried her lip—what garbled version had Mary heard third-hand from the scullery maid? Did it matter? No. Whatever the version, it couldn't have been any worse than the truth. She nodded.
"Go on, then," Mary encouraged, patting her hand. "Might as well tell me."
After taking a deep, steadying breath, Lily described the shambles that had been her evening.
"Well, there was plenty of that!" James slammed his gloves—tattered and stained, thanks to her—on the small side table, nearly upsetting the half-drained liquor bottle. He commenced pacing the length of carpet that stretched between the chairs and the fireplace.
"Cards?" Sirius asked.
"Cards, forced conversation, the whole bit," he said, shrugging his jacket off mid-stride and tossing it onto the unoccupied chair. "And she—she was maddening, mate. I come to these things. Well, you know… Mum asks… a bloody jellyfish…"
Right, he was muttering. James slammed his fist on the hearth.
"Damn it to hell if supper wasn't awful, Sirius. Worse than all the others!"
"Catastrophe is the word you're searching for, dear," Mary said, tucking a stray curl of Lily's sopping hair behind her ear.
"I was considering fiasco, actually, though that works just as well."
"Worse than the brunette from Wales?" Sirius asked.
"Yeah. And the blonde from Lincolnshire—remember her? With the goats? Worse than the pair of them combined."
His mate gave a low whistle.
Mary rested her chin on her palm and contemplated Lily's declaration.
"The absolute worst?" she asked. "Even than that poor gentleman from Hampstead?"
Lily snorted. Until this evening, Aubrey had been the worst of her suitors, and had been neither poor nor a gentleman. A pompous, forward, presumptive arse, he'd deserved every farthing of his comeuppance. He'd been the worst of them, yes, and even he couldn't hold a match to Peters.
Lily sank back under the water; several bubbles pooled dramatically at the surface.
"A fucking fiasco, 's what it was." James tugged at his hair, and encountered something gelatinous. Repulsive, yet unsurprising. He wiped his hands on his already ruined trousers. "She stormed out, actually—Evans—before I could apologize for the draperies, or her piano, or—"
"To Potter? You want to apologize?"
"I never said I did, only that I was considering it." Lily's fury had begun to wane, leaving a dull, aching guilt in its wake. The bit about the crocodilehad been over the top, even for her. She cocked her head at Mary. "Potter? You're sure that's his name?"
"I'll have you know," Lily said, "that Potter is an arrogant, smarmy git. Acted like I ought to have been swooning all over him! Kept on and on about his horse and his fencing accomplishments. He was horrid. Insufferable, really."
Mary looked unconvinced, which did nothing to assuage Lily's burgeoning guilt.
Lily eyed the stained, scorched, crumpled heap of silk in the corner and shifted tactics: "He ruined my gown…"
Mary had the audacity to laugh. "You ruined two hours of my afternoon complaining about that gown, Lily, not to mention—"
"Oh, I don't give a damn about the gown, Mare." Lily pushed a wave of bubbles over the rim so they fell onto Mary's knees. "Good riddance to it—no offense to you."
Because Mary had made the frilly thing—at Petunia's bidding, of course. Lily had never made her distaste for it, or for any of them, a secret.Petunia. Lily tried another approach. "I didn't care about the gown, as I said. My sister, on the other hand,"—she leveled a delicious smirk at Mary—"was positively furious…"
"—and her sister's a right fucking piece of work, let me tell you—" James paused his frenetic pacing to face Sirius. "Everything we've heard about them—the Dursleys—is true."
Lily rolled her eyes. "Only her shrill voice could carry through these thick walls."
"Forgive me for heading in the opposite direction?"
Forgive her? Lily was, if anything, relieved that Mary hadn't eavesdropped, and hadn't heard those awful things her sister had shouted. However, she tapped her glass against the rim of her bath and said, "As recompense, you could reinforce my empty glass."
Mary shook her head. "Not until you've gotten out of this tub and into a nightgown."
"It's going to be freezing," Lily whined. Petunia still refused to repair the fireplace.
"You're freezing now," Mary pointed out. When Lily made no effort to move, she unstopped the tub and the water started to drain. And though Lily made a face, she took Mary's proffered hand all the same.
"I asked Minerva to bake a tray of your favorites."
"And that, Mare, is why you're my favorite."
"...that's hardly the point." James resumed laps in front of the fireplace, loosening his ruined cravat in one pass, tossing it in the flames during the next. "The point, mate, is Mum and Dad pulled me aside, tortured me with the usual lecture. Duty. Responsibility." He cringed at the foul words. "Family pride."
"At least the whole affair is finished." Lily slipped the cozy nightgown over her head and thick wool stockings over her feet. "They'd be mad if they stayed past first light, wouldn't they?"
"I'm going to indulge in this bottle tonight and a long lie in tomorrow. This day cannot get worse."
"Erm, actually—" A discomfiting crease had settled in Mary's brow, and she picked at the hem of her dress sleeve. "On my way to the kitchens, I happened by the Potters' quarters and overheard—"
"Overheard?" Lily snickered. "Eavesdropped, more like." She cozied herself in her chair and nursed her drink, relishing the warmth that spread from her chest.
"Well, yes," Mary admitted, "I was, but his mother was lecturing him so soundly I couldn't resist…"
"I ignored every word, of course."
"As a decent son ought," Sirius said, finally making a solid contribution.
"Exactly. You'd have been proud at how little I was paying attention."
Lily's mouth twitched. "Did they take his pony away? His matches?" She leaned toward Mary. "Did he cry?"
A smile half-formed on James's lips; he quickly scowled it away. "Then they told me what they'd gone and done."
"Who did what?"
"They—our bloody, traitorous parents. And it."
"In front of you?" Sirius smirked. "Was it worse than when we happened upon them in the greenhouse?"
"Didn't we make a blood oath never to mention that?" James rubbed his eyes with the heels of his hands, upsetting his glasses; they landed lopsided on the bridge of his nose. "No, Padfoot. They married me off—to her."
Lily jumped to her feet, and several drops of whisky dribbled down her dressing gown. "They what?"
"They married you," Mary said, delivering it in that same awful voice she'd used when her parents had died, "to Potter."
Sirius's smugness vanished. "Shit."
"Shit." She slammed her glass down onto the outdated table, which quivered under the assault. "You're certain?"
"Yes," he moaned, "I'm sure." Then he crumpled into the vacant chair and buried his face in his hands.
"Is that legal?"
James's muffled voice recited, "Provision seven-hundred and twelve, paragraph four—"
"—line three point two," Mary confirmed, "and a half."
Lily recoiled. "That's impossible."
"I'm sorry, Lil."
Lily couldn't believe it, refused to believe it. "How—how could they know? After I doctored those law books?" Her fingers clenched, remembering the dozens of tiny paper cuts they'd earned slicing page after page from the library's legal volumes.
"The Potters must have."
As her legs threatened to buckle, Lily perched herself on the chair's arm. "Petunia married me off to a complete stranger?" Her voice sounded foreign, hollow.
"It's been their threat all along," Mary said gently.
"Idle threats, Padfoot—like the sheep."
"The sheep that turned out not to be an idle threat?" Sirius arched a questioning eyebrow. "I thought we made an oath never to discuss that."
James retreated into silence, distracting himself with fastening and unfastening the damned cufflinks his mum had made him wear.
This was it, then. Married. At last. To a woman he'd just thoroughly pissed off. She loathed him, and had said as much. That had been his plan, after all.
In his defense, it had been his best sabotage yet, loud and viscous and just a bit pyrotechnic. The furious look on Petunia Dursley's long, horsey face had been phenomenal. Sonnet-worthy, if he were at all poetically inclined.
Sirius cocked his head. "But is she fit?"
"Who?" Lily said. "Peterson?"
She'd do well to learn his name, hadn't she? "His hair is awful," Lily lamented. "I'm married to a bloke with terrible hair."
"I saw the hair, Lily. I found it quite dashing."
True, his hair had been rather wonderful. She'd rather drown than admit it to Mary, so she shook her head vehemently. Mary, however, rested her elbows on the table and leaned forward, a knowing grin on her face.
"Besides the hair?"
Handsome, devastatingly so. Lily had nearly cancelled her sabotages, all of them, before he'd opened his mouth and thoroughly ruined the illusion. Yet she couldn't lie, not to Mary, so she heaved a sigh and slid sideways off the armrest to sit more securely in her chair.
"Yes." Incredibly, unfairly, intoxicatingly fit, though he needn't spur Sirius on. "That is decidedly not the point."
"Bit of a consolation though, isn't it?" Sirius asked, casting him a knowing grin anyway. "She could have been a complete troll. Or an actual troll, if the gossips are right about Dursley's sister…"
Lily gawked at Mary. "How is that a consolation? We're married! And he was a complete bloody toerag at dinner."
"So were you, dear," Mary said. "And you were going to apologize."
Lily fixed Mary with a glare that she hoped conveyed the many and complex ways she was imagining killing her.
"Married, Padfoot!" James pounded his fist on the arm of his chair. "They fucking married me off to a nasty, vindictive, redheaded shrew who informed me not an hour ago that being eaten alive by a family of ravenous crocodiles was too decent a death for a 'bleeding, big-headed, arrogant bastard such as myself!'"
"Completely un-buggering-believable," Lily seethed.
Mary shoved a macaron in her mouth.
"That statute sounds made up," Sirius said. Casually, as if they were discussing the bloody crossword rather than James's mortal doom. "Are you sure they aren't just—"
"Quite. Prick. I was preparing my challenge, but they had the reference ready."
Sirius shifted in his chair, pondering the matter. "Did you—?"
"And had they—?"
Sirius tapped his chin. "And the thing with—?"
James leaned back, closed his eyes, and willed the chair to open up and swallow him whole. Sirius shrugged and drained his glass in one gulp.
"Double damn," Mary agreed as she refilled Lily's glass.
Lily rested her head on her palm, ignoring the way the room's chill sapped away any feeling in her fingers. "I wonder how much they paid Petunia."
"Or she paid them."
Lily's stomach curled. The idea was ludicrous. Or it would have been for any other sister. If Petunia had shelled out, Lily hoped that it had been a hefty sum of money. Dursley was a notorious miser, especially when it came to Lily, but the only thing he disliked more than parting with his money was Lily.
It was all so pointless.
"Mary, I'm going to run away."
"And go where?" Sirius asked. "I'm the runaway. We can't both be disinherited. Who'd support our extravagant lifestyle?"
James rose to his feet, then aimed a half-hearted kick at the ottoman.
"Do you want me to pack the usual bags?" Mary asked.
Lily sunk back down, defeated, wanting nothing more than to disappear into the chair. No one would marry a shabby old chair off to a bloke with a rat's nest that passed for hair.
"This is shit," Lily said.
Mary refilled her glass.
"This is shit," James declared. "This is shit and you're sitting there secretly looking at your crossword."
"Am not," Sirius said, eyes darting up from his crossword.
"Why aren't you panicking about this? I'm your best mate, and I'm married, and—"
"Sit down, Prongs, and have a drink." He slid a half-full tumbler across the table, then began ticking off his fingers. "One. It's funny as hell. Two. It's not me. Three. Your face, right now? Portrait worthy. Mostly, I'm not panicking, mate,"—he tapped his knuckles on the table—"because this was inevitable. They couldn't let you stay a bachelor forever."
"Forever?" James yelped. "I'm nineteen! I'm not the sodding prince or anything."
He sipped his drink. It was shit brandy, though not as shit as Sirius was for a mate. Nor as shit as his life had just become. He sipped again.
"You're a count," Sirius said. "I'm the favorite, of course, Prongs, but you are the Potter heir."
"And that's enough?"
Sirius nodded gravely.
James drained the glass in one long gulp before slamming it down. "Dreadful."
"Another?" Sirius refilled the glass without waiting for an answer: double the normal amount, then triple. He looked to James, who shook his head imperceptibly, and poured until it was in danger of spilling over. Satisfied, he raised own in mock salute.
"Well, brother," Sirius said, "you are completely fucked. Never heard a better occasion to get piss drunk."
James picked up his own glass, sloshing quite a bit during the process, and toasted back.
Lily rummaged through her corner cabinet until she retrieved a dusty glass. She ran the hem of her nightdress around the inside before pouring Mary a generous measure.
"Unfortunately, the room hasn't yet had a chance to chill it," Lily said, setting down the bottle, "but it's something."
Mary held up her glass. "To your marital happiness?" she tried.
"As Potter is just as keen me on as I am him,"—Lily eyed her glass—"we're better off toasting to whisky."
"To mediocre brandy," James said, "my true love. Perhaps the only thing that will see me through this sham of a marriage."