You don't get to choose when or who you meet. However, you do get to choose who you hold on to.
- The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Toki o kakeru shôjo) (2006)
Notes: As a reminder, I don't have an updating schedule, but I manage about one 20-page chapter per story per month, which explains the length between updates as I rotate between my stories. I am still doing this in between writing my Ph.D. dissertation. So obviously, despite my supervisor aware of my writing of fanfiction, my doctoral work comes first.
"DERANGED WIZARDS ATTACK YULE SHOPPERS IN DIAGON ALLEY," the headline screamed on the following days' Daily Prophet.
James couldn't stop staring at it, couldn't stop staring at the accompanying image that was blown up to cover the entire front fold. Despite being in black and white, James would wince at the beginning of each playback loop, from the final explosion of debris being catapulted through the air, the focus on the mad, cackling female form and the hooded men being blown back, and the single emphasis of the puddle of blood, darkly stark against the white snowbank.
He could feel the lingering anxiety and adrenaline from the event rush through his veins and lungs, and James clenched his hands tightly into fists as he sat at the breakfast table, eyes fixated on his father's paper despite the older man rustling it and clearing his throat, ignoring his toast in favour of whatever section he was reading.
How can you be so calm about this? thought James, lifting his eyes from the headline to look at his father, seeing only his hazel eyes as they swept back and forth across the text he was reading, and his more salt-than-pepper hair. Sitting at his father's right, Dorea was focused on stirring her honey into her tea with poise.
Both his parents seemed remarkably calm that morning. Swallowing thickly, James looked down at his clenched hands and slowly unfurl them, watching as they shook with minor trembles. They had been so close to the Avada Kedavra - they could've died if it weren't for Hermione - James nearly died watching her leap out of the blasted window - her duel with the other woman, getting flung back -
"James, darling, pass the butter please."
James' head shot up to stare at his mother.
Dorea's grey eyes focused on her son, waiting for his acknowledgment, and when it failed, she said again, a bit stronger, "James. The butter, please."
With a shaking hand, James reached out and slid the butter tray toward his mother, who watched him with a carefully neutral expression on her face. Her son kept his face down, facing the table. Clearing her throat, she caught her husband's attention, causing Charlus to lower the paper briefly and catch his wife's eyes.
She then flicked hers toward their son, and Charlus gave a small, inaudible sigh as he folded the paper and placed it to the side.
James' head snapped up, and Charlus briefly winced at the look in his son's eyes. His heart ached for the raw pain that was etched on James' face - from a sleepless night, if the bruises under his glasses were any indication - but also by the lowered pull to his mouth in worry.
Charlus reached forward and placed his hand on James' shoulder. "Son, it's alright to be scared. But it's over now. This is the drain from everything. You'll be fine in a few days."
James looked down at his lap, clenching his hands in his lap. "You're right, I'm sure you're right - but I - I can't help but remember - see it all in my mind every time I close my eyes-"
"Darling," breathed Dorea, leaning across the table toward her son, her eyes shining. "We're here. We're fine."
"But you weren't!" protested James, the words bursting from him quickly. He blinked rapidly, glancing away. He whispered, "I saw the spell, too. I saw it."
Dorea and Charlus exchanged another glance. "Spell?" asked Charlus carefully, his hand a warm, comforting weight on James.
"The Killing Curse," breathed James, his voice so low and quiet both adults had to strain to hear him, even in the silence of their dining room. "If it weren't for Hermione - if she hadn't thrown up the table to protect you-"
Both his parents were silent as they waited for James to process and work through his own emotions of the skirmish the other day.
"Hermione - I always knew she was powerful. She did things this past year that I couldn't ignore. But… but seeing her fight like that?" he shook his head. "I - I used to think that battles would be something glorious to be involved in. That being an Auror would be the best, hunting down and fighting Dark Wizards."
"Oh, James," sighed Charlus, the hand spasming a bit on his shoulder. "I would've told you the truth if you had asked about the Aurors. But it isn't like that. It never was, and I doubt it ever will be."
"But you talk about your time with them with… with all these fond memories," argued James, peeking over the edge of the rim of his glasses at his father.
Charlus snorted. "To entertain a seven-year-old wizard who dreams of being a Gryffindor and saving the day. They were stories, James. Reality is never like what we imagine it to be."
"I fear we're straying from the point now," interrupted Dorea, her voice low. "The truth is, you're right to be scared, James. We were seconds away from dying when Miss Evan's transfiguration saved us."
I don't think that was transfiguration, thought James, his mental voice small and worrisome in his mind. What I do is transfiguration, and that dome remained in form even after the spells hit. It was permanent.
"We owe her a Life Debt," continued Charlus, and James squished his lips together to keep a hysterical laugh in. Hermione was just racking up the Life Debts now, especially after the Shrieking Shack incident last year. Between her and James, they would have a direct debt of help from both elder Potters and Snape to save their lives, and aid from Crouch.
"I would like to know more about her, James," continued Dorea, her voice a touch on the imperious side. "You never mentioned her before, when… when speaking about your fellow Gryffindors. That such a remarkable girl is the sister of one - well! You'd think she would stand out more at Hogwarts."
"She hates the attention," muttered James. "It's why she's only friends with Crouch and Regulus. I think most of her house dislikes her, actually. I've never seen anyone - from any year - really interact with her other than Crouch."
Charlus frowned. "They don't bully her, do they?"
"Not that I saw," he replied quickly, thinking back but his memories of Hermione sadly only began when Professor Pythas cornered him and told him to attend tutoring sessions to improve his grades for his OWL.
Why did I only notice her now? he wondered, his mouth pulling further down. Hermione was - not fun, she was a bit too bossy and intimidating for that, but she was wicked smart, and sharp, and dangerous in a way that made James' breath quicken and his palms sweaty and his heartbeat thunder in his chest. It was like all his senses were heightened and when she walked into a room he was in, he could pinpoint her like he had a permanent tracking charm on her, attuned only to him.
"She wasn't scared," said James, breaking into the silence that fell after he last spoke; his parents were still wrapped in their own thoughts regarding the young Ravenclaw. "Hermione. She was on the window ledge and then out on the street, fighting against - against that witch-"
"Yes. Her," Dorea's mouth pinched into a tight, unpleasant line, and James found himself wondering if his mother knew who the cloaked woman was, just like Hermione. But with Hermione, the fight had seemed personal.
"She was very impressive," said Charlus, slowly, causing James to look at him. "She could certainly hold her own, and she moved like she had fought before."
"Was that why you were asking if she was bullied? You think she's had to defend herself before?" asked James, horrified.
Charlus did not reply, but James found himself thinking that was likely, and resolved to keep an eye on Hermione when he returned to Hogwarts in January. Perhaps his pranks should've been aimed at the Ravenclaws as well, and not just the Slytherins…
"But, darling," interrupted Dorea, pulling James' attention to her next. "You do realize that it's not your job to fight, do you?"
"James. We're your parents. We protect you. Not the other way around," his mother added, firmly. Her Black eyes - the same grey-silver that she shared with her family - bore into James. "I didn't want you going out there to fight. I didn't want Miss Evans to go out there and fight. You're children."
"But - but I did go out. With Dad," stuttered James, looking between his parents with wide eyes.
"You did, James," agreed Charlus readily, nodding. "And we did well together. But it would've been just as fine had you stayed safe in the cafe. It would be one less thing for me to think or worry about when fighting."
Heat filled James; but he was unsure if it was from anger or shame. He fought well! He helped defend Diagon Alley! But then, he'd remember how frightened he was, at how loud everything had been and the smell of ozone as the amount of magic during Hermione's attack on the witch and wizard had made the show around her melt, wavering in the air…
"I - I think - I've lost my appetite," mumbled James, his stomach rolling at the memory. "May I please be excused?"
"Of course, darling," murmured Dorea in reply.
James did not look at his parents as he pushed back his chair and stood, quickly walking from the room until he was outside. He leaned against the cool wall and let his head tilt back until it rested against the panel, breathing deeply through his nose.
The door to the dining room had been left open a crack - he hadn't closed it fully when he left - and his parents' soft voices filtered through to him.
"-I'll contact a few friends I still have in the Aurors," Charlus was saying. "I'll ask them to discreetly forget that an underaged girl was fighting in the Alley yesterday. To protect her."
"A good idea. She doesn't need the attention, nor do I think she'd like it," agreed Dorea, just as quietly. Thoughtfully. "And - well, if I know my niece, I do not think she would do that alone. She likes chaos, but this was still too organized for her."
Charlus sighed. "This won't stop any rumours. There were too many eyewitnesses, of course, but we can contain this somewhat and keep her safe."
"Yes, for now."
There was some silence, and James held his breath, tilting his head just slightly toward the door as his ears strained to hear more.
"I think we should learn more about her," his mother finally said, very quietly - so quietly James barely heard her.
"I agree," replied Charlus, his own voice a low rumble. "She's ridiculously powerful for a fifteen-year-old witch."
"And intelligent. Too intelligent," agreed Dorea.
"She seems nice, though," sighed Charlus, with a rustling noise that James assumed was his paper as he picked it up again.
Dorea's voice was grim when she spoke. "So did Tom."
Tom? Who is that? wondered James, frowning. But he moved away from the door, quietly, taking all his stealth lessons from pranking at Hogwarts until he was in his own bedroom, lying on his bed and staring at his ceiling.
"She's not a threat," he muttered, arms crossed and his palms cupping the back of his head as he relaxed. "She's not. I trust her."
But that doesn't mean I'm not going to keep a better eye on her this term, he promised himself.
"Everyone's talking about it," muttered Sirius, his grey eyes flickering back and forth as he walked with James. King's Cross station - the magical side - was filled was families as they said goodbye to their children and friends, but there was an undercurrent of tension in some people that felt off; some were far more aware of what occurred in Diagon Alley, while others just enjoyed the gossip.
The eldest Black had met up with James the moment Dorea Apparated him to the station, saying a quick goodbye and leaving James to get on the train with Sirius. Although Sirius was supposed to stay with them over the holidays, the attack on Diagon Alley meant he stayed with Regulus until it was over and then took him back home to Grimmauld Place; from there, he didn't have an opportunity to leave for the rest of the holiday period, and it was apparent with his slightly manic personality and the rough edginess in his behaviour and gestures.
"Not everyone," muttered James, glancing at a giggling pair of Gryffindors who were eyeing him and then giggled to one another, whispering from behind their hands.
"Forget them," muttered Sirius, wrapping an arm around his friend's shoulders and bumping against him. He shot the girls a look and then directed James away, toward the train. "'Sides, I thought you were interested in the wee Evans?"
James glanced around. "You know I am."
"Then why would it bother you if other girls are looking at you? You never strayed when you were interested in Lily," commented Sirius, raising his eyebrows as they both climbed the steps to the train compartment. "Given how you feel, I doubt you'd even have the tiniest inkling of a thought for someone else when you're actively pursuing Evans."
"I'm not… exactly pursuing her," winced James, running a hand through his hair as he sighed, feet automatically taking him to his usual compartment. He opened the door, sliding it to reveal Remus and Peter already seated.
Remus glanced between James and Sirius, blinking, while Peter asked, "Pursuing who? Surely not Lily, anymore?"
James sighed, again. "No, not Lily. I think it's safe to say that that spell has been cast."
"Oh, so this is about her sister?" continued Peter, as James sat heavily in the seat opposite him, next to Remus while Sirius sat next to Peter, sprawling and taking up as much space as he could. He tossed one leg over Peter's, causing the other teen to shoot him a nasty glare.
"Have you elevated Hermione to Lily's old position then?" asked a wry Remus, propping an elbow on the compartment window's lip, and using that to lean his cheek against his hand. "Should we expect some creative spell work from the Ravenclaw after you've enchanted her dishware to serenade her? Will she scream and shout at you when you prank Crouch or Black?"
James slunk in his seat as Remus threw his previous methodology in getting Lily's attention in his face. His shoulders curled in and he muttered, "No."
"Will you chase her down between classes and try to give her flowers?" asked Peter, a teasing glint in his eyes as he leaned forward and continued Remus' line of questioning. "You can't sit next to her in class or dazzle her as a defense partner since you're in different years."
"I - no, I won't do that-" protested James weakly. Suddenly hearing what he used to do to win Lily's attention was embarrassing.
Sirius nodded, wisely saying, "So you're going to just stare at her from the Gryffindor table with a dopey, lovesick look on your face and sigh whenever she does something fetching?"
"I-" James looked around the compartment and the amused looks on his friends' faces and felt the blood rush to his cheeks. "Can you change the subject, please?"
Remus, the most sympathetic, gallantly did so. "Were you in Diagon Alley the day of the attack? I remember you mentioned plans during one of our letters…"
James groaned, slouching further in his seat.
Bewildered, Remus and Peter exchanged glances as Sirius snickered. Peter asked, "What's Prongs' problem?"
"Oh, we were both there when the attack happened," replied Sirius, shooting a bit of a smirk at James, who slipped further down the seat until he was nearly horizontal, his butt hanging off the edge. "He's just pissed 'cause those nutters interrupted his date-"
"Padfoot," whined James, closing his eyes and wishing the floor would swallow him. Maybe I can dig out my invisibility cloak? The idea sounded well, and James decided to shelve it for future embarrassments.
"What date was this?" asked Remus, leaning forward so that he was looking down at James, hovering above him. "Did you go on a date with Hermione?"
"It wasn't exactly like that," muttered James.
"It kind of was exactly like that," rejoined Sirius, a wicked glint in his eyes.
Peter's head bounced between Sirius and James when he asked, eagerly, "Well? What happened? Did you get together?"
James sat up, forcing Remus back and scowled at his friends, all of who were watching him. "Since when do you lot care so much for my love life, huh? Why aren't we asking Padfoot about his dates? Or you, Moony? Wormtail?"
"I'm not interested in anyone right now," shrugged Peter.
Remus took his free hand and pointed it at himself, saying in a self-deprecating voice, "Werewolf."
And Sirius just shrugged.
"Ugh," replied James, crossing his arms.
"Anyway," continued Sirius, "Jimmy and the wee Evans ended up together after Reg and I went for lunch."
"The two of you were together when the attack happened?" asked an alarmed Remus. "Where were you? Were you alright?"
"First of all," began James, annoyed, "It wasn't a date. We went shopping for Yule presents, talked about her sister-" at the others' looks, James elaborated, "the muggle one, Petunia. And then we met with my parents and were having lunch-"
"She met your parents?" squeaked Peter, eyes wide.
James stuttered, "I - what? Yes?"
"Merlin," breathed Peter, exhaling loudly and sitting back in the cushions. He shook his head. "On the first date, too."
"It wasn't a date!" protested James. "And besides, nothing happened before the window blew in-"
"The window blew in?" repeated Remus, mouth dropping open. "You didn't say that in your letters!"
Even Sirius was frowning, staring hard at James as the Potter began to squirm in his seat. "Well, I…"
"What happened, Prongs?"
"Yeah Prongs," added Sirius, something tight in his voice as his eyes bore into his best friend. "What happened?"
"Nothing," said James after a moment. He looked at his friends equally and emphatically added, "Nothing. The window blew in, some people were attacking the Alley, and my parents stepped in and Apparated us to Hermione's house to get her home."
Remus and Peter seemed to have bought the explanation, but Sirius's narrowed eyes made James mentally wince - for a moment, he forgot that Hermione was friends with his little brother, who he was beginning to mend fences with.
In the meantime, Remus brought up their final semester course material for NEWT prep, drawing Peter into a conversation, which James did his best to add to. The Hogwarts Express began to move, and soon the Marauders ended up speaking about their final project: the Marauder's Map and its completion.
The trip back to Hogwarts passed uneventfully, and James forgot all about Sirius's earlier attitude until they stepped off the train and walked toward the horseless carriages.
Remus and Peter were ahead, Remus shuffling the younger students where they needed to as Prefect; it was then that Sirius drew James away from much of the crowd, toward the back of the line for the carriages until they were at the end of the train station platform, surrounded by piles of luggage being unloaded by sightless house elves.
"Sirius?" asked James, blinking at his friend.
Sirius himself stood still, a frown on his handsome face as he surveyed his best friend - his brother - for a few long moments. Then, he spoke.
"You lied," said Sirius, his voice low.
Sirius's grey eyes were more steel as they darkened. "More happened at Diagon Alley. You lied to us. To Moony, Wormtail. To me."
James swallowed thickly. "How - how did you know?"
Sirius rolled his eyes. "Evans sent Reggie a letter. Mentioned she got hurt in the attack and your mum was nice enough to heal her."
James was instantly thrown back to the moment of the attack: of Hermione being hit and sent skidding back, tumbling to the cobblestones before rolling swiftly to her feet and flinging a spell back-
Sirius had his hands on James' shoulders and was shaking him. As things came back into focus, James kept his eyes on his friend, taking in Sirius's worried look.
"I'm okay," he replied automatically. "Sorry."
"You scared me," muttered Sirius, eyes flicking searchingly all over James' face. "Where did you go? What happened that day?"
James glanced away. "Hermione did get hurt. It - it wasn't terrible, but it wasn't… it wasn't anything good, either. She fought, and I helped her. So did mum and dad, until the wizards and witch left. Then the Aurors appeared, but dad Apparated us away. That's… that's all, Padfoot."
Sirius was still searching James for any more lies, but slowly, he nodded, accepting the excuse and explanation the Potter gave. Just as slowly, he said, "Alright. Alright, then."
They climbed into one of the last carriages before it meandered down the line to stragglers, but the ride was silent.
James, still caught up in what he witnessed and participated in over the holidays, found himself reliving those horrible memories and still felt as inadequate as he had when he tried to help Hermione; whatever his father said, yes, he handled himself well but compared to her? And what if those wizards and witch came back? Tried to attack again, or - Merlin forbid - realized who Hermione was and attacked her?
The thoughts lingered with James all throughout the returning feast for January, and even for the following weeks as he began to pile more homework and readings in preparation for his NEWTs. He continued to meet Hermione in the library - in their corner in the Arithmancy section - every Friday.
But something had changed within him. There was a bit of a paler quality to his skin, and he threw himself into his schoolwork with a gusto he only had previously done for pranks. Remus was deliriously happy, and Sirius was deliriously annoyed. Peter oscillated between both, as he benefited from James' tutelage and Sirius' attention when James was busy.
The only time the four came together in the evenings was to continue to work on their map, applying the finishing touches and spell work.
"Just think of all the pranks we will be able to accomplish with this!" whispered an excited Sirius one evening near the end of January, a pleased glint in his light eyes.
"Just think of all the books I can take out and continue to read," countered Remus.
Peter added, "Or all the snacks we can sneak back from the kitchen!"
Waiting for James to add his two knuts, the three looked at him, but he only looked back, a bit like a startled stag in the face of a car's bright headlights.
"Prongs?" prompted Sirius, an intense look on his face.
"Just think of all the hiding spots we can find and use!" he finally said, though his tone was forced.
The other three were not convinced but said nothing. All turned back to the parchment as Remus cast the final spell and watched as inky black lines spilled forced and crisscrossed and zigzagged their way all over the large parchment, turning empty spaces into boxy squares or large rectangles, or even angular corners. Then, fading into view, were footmarks with a tiny banner indicating that person's name.
"Merlin!" breathed Sirius, excitedly. "We can see where everyone is!"
"Is that Dumbledore, pacing in his office?" asked an excited Peter, pointing at one corner of the parchment.
"It is!" replied Remus, mouth open and delight in his face.
But James skimmed over and over until reaching the Ravenclaw tower and easily picked out Hermione's name hovering in a single spot - probably her room. And, in the privacy of his mind, he added what he wanted to say but dared not in front of his friends: Just think of how I can now keep an eye on Hermione Evans.
Like he promised to himself, James kept an eye on Hermione. There was something different about her like she was carrying a heavy weight. He noticed, and he was sure that both Crouch and Regulus knew it too, with the way they watched her sometimes (but not the way he did).
When he used to watch Lily, he would do whatever he could to draw her attention. To make her look at him, to see he was more than a braggart and snob. He knew that Lily sometimes found it creepy, that he would borderline stalk her - but he didn't with Hermione.
Instead, when in the Great Hall for breakfast or lunch, he made sure he was facing the Ravenclaw table (which meant changing seats with Pete) and sitting next to Remus for the first week of school, which put Sirius out. But it gave him the opportunity to watch her without making it too obvious.
(That kind of failed - all his friend knew who he was looking at, but politely didn't say anything since his attraction and crush on Hermione was incredibly different from what he previously did with Lily.)
But he was able to learn more about her, which was what he wanted to do from the beginning - even when they had still been in the "friends" category. And each little thing he learned, he put in a mental box labelled 'Hermione,' ready to pull that information out at any time, if it was necessary.
In February, as he walked by them in the hallway outside the Great Hall, he overheard them making Hogsmeade plans. When Hermione demurred, saying she wasn't going, both boys immediately agreed to stay with her, despite Crouch having just been moaning about a lack of chocolate and Regulus mentioning plans to meet up with a girl he was interested in. James noted it: Crouch and Regulus deferred to Hermione.
In March, a Gryffindor Quidditch practice was scheduled for late Friday evening, running a bare thirty minutes after James and Hermione normally finished their tutoring session. Of course, James took advantage of their time together and often remained with her in the library for a few hours after, but this time, Sirius, Remus, and Peter arrived to drag him out - he was captain after all!
James had turned to Hermione, asking, "Are you going to watch the practice?"
Hermione had frowned, shaking her head. "I - I don't go to matches."
"Why not?" Peter had asked.
"No reason," the Ravenclaw had replied, but there had been something cagey in her tone that James had heard. She had also turned away from his friends, keeping her eyes downward and shoulders curled in, facing James despite Peter speaking.
Instead of pressuring her (which he would've done with Lily), James had reached out and touched her shoulder. "That's fine," he had said instead, smiling winningly at her, flashing bright teeth. "Why don't we walk you out, though? And halfway back to the Ravenclaw tower?"
She had seemed to not know what to say to stop them, so she had gathered her books. James had kept in step with her, but as soon as they were out of the slightly busy library, into the empty halls, Hermione had moved so that she was on the outside of the group, on James' side. James had been puzzled until he realized: she was actively avoiding being near Peter and Remus. She had kept her eyes forward or away from the side they were on (on Sirius's other side, who was nearly attached at James' hip), and although she had answered questions Remus asked of her, Hermione had kept her replies short and pointed.
In April, he noticed that something happened between her and Regulus. Crouch seemed ambivalent to whatever was going on (or, rather, he knew what Hermione was up to while Regulus didn't, and didn't care, which James thought was more likely), but whatever happened between Regulus and Hermione seemed to have spooked the Slytherin, because he appeared at breakfast on Monday morning paler than usual, and less put together than normal; enough so that Sirius made a tiny noise upon seeing him.
And, in May, from his seat at the Gryffindor table one afternoon, he watched with morbid fascination as Hermione had reached the doors to the Great Hall to leave at the same time that Lily arrived. The two sisters paused where they stood: Lily with her friends from Gryffindor on the outside of the hall, with Hermione on the inside and with Crouch at her elbow.
Both had remained silent for a long moment before Marlene had muttered something and Lily was forced to move. But James watched as Hermione strode forward, purposefully with Crouch, with Lily mimicking her… until the very last moment when the redhead Gryffindor turned back and craned her neck to watch Hermione disappear. And when Lily had sat down at her usual spot at the table, James could see that she seemed despondent, despite the animated expressions and laughter of her friends around her.
As if she had sensed him, Lily had looked up and caught James' eyes. Marlene had also noticed, and called loudly, "Alright, Potter?" at him. In response, he had slid his hazel eyes toward Marlene, nodding at both her and then Lily before excusing himself and leaving the Great Hall as well.
(And, as much as he could, he tried to ignore what he overheard as he left: Marlene asking Lily, "What's going on with him? I thought he fancied you," and Lily's reply, a bit short and terse, "No, not anymore - thank Merlin.")
It wasn't until the end of the semester, in June, when one evening after the others in his dormitory went to sleep, that James snuck the Marauder's Map from Sirius' bag and crept back into his bed, drawing the curtains around for privacy.
With his wand in one hand and the map in the other, he whispered, "I solemnly swear I'm up to no good."
Inky lines grew from the center of the folded paper, and with bated breath, James' eyes began to search for Hermione's name on the map, beginning with the Ravenclaw tower.
She wasn't there.
James blinked in surprise and then frowned. Where is she?
He began to flip through the numerous edges and folds of the map, growing more frantic as he did so, unable to locate Hermione. Suddenly, his heart clenched in fear. Hogwarts is supposed to be one of the safest places in the wizarding world - but what if those dark wizards managed to get in? What if they figured out who Hermione was that day?
Sucking in a harried breath, James' flipping took on sudden haste, to the point that he tore a tiny edge of the new map, wincing as he did so.
And then he spotted her, on the fourth floor, along with Crouch. They were moving somewhere, toward the stairs and then up another flight. With a frown, he watched as their feet - representing them on the map - moved down the hallway and toward a different wing than where they began, and toward another set of stairs closer to the Gryffindor tower.
I know she doesn't fancy Crouch, thought James, tucking his wand between his teeth as he reached for a discarded sweater in Gryffindor red and his invisibility cloak.
Stealthily, he slipped between his curtains, glancing at Remus and Peter's closed ones and Sirius's drawn curtains; no movement came from Remus's bedside - he was a heavy sleeper - and Peter was snoring loudly. Sirius was curled tight into a ball in the middle of his bed with the covers pulled over his head and not moving.
James tiptoes past Sirius's bed, toward the door, and inched it open, flickering light from a single wall sconce spilling into the dark boy's dormitory and lighting on James' empty bed. He held his breath, but no one stirred, so he slipped through the gap and soundlessly closed the door behind him.
The Common Room was empty as well, with a slight orange tinge to it from the fading embers of a dying fire in the fireplace. There was a stillness to the room, an air of anticipation, and James ate it up as he slipped the invisibility cloak over his head and pushed the frame open.
The portrait snorted, blinking awake blearily as the Fat Lady demanded, "W-What? W-Who's there?" only to mumble a bit more and then fall back to sleep, snoring lightly as her double chins rested on her ample bosom.
No one stopped James as he meandered down the hallways, sticking close to the shadows despite having his invisibility cloak on. He kept one eye on the Map as he watched where Hermione and Crouch were going, and one eye on his surroundings in case there were any patrols.
Hermione and Crouch didn't seem to care that they were out after curfew. In fact, they had all the appearance of taking a Sunday stroll by the time James caught up with them on the seventh floor. Both were walking in the middle of the hall, side by side, not bothering to lower their voices or disillusion themselves from the portraits.
"-aren't we using our usual room?" asked Crouch, a tiny whine in his voice as he shoved his hands deep into his trouser pockets. He was still wearing his day clothes but went sans robe.
"I wanted to show you something different," replied Hermione evenly, glancing up at her friend.
James was careful to stay downwind of Crouch, closer to Hermione's side than his as he inched up behind them until he was only a few meters away.
"Different?" Crouch seemed to perk up at the word.
"Do you trust me?" Hermione asked in response, stopping by a blank space of wall opposite a portrait of dancing trolls. Her eyes were wide and imploring as she peered up at her friend who towered over her by a good foot and a half.
Crouch solemnly stared down at Hermione for a long moment, before a corner of his mouth twitched. "More than I think even you know."
Hermione's brows furrowed in puzzlement, but she took the cryptic words in stride. "Don't move," she instructed, and then began walking back and forth in front of the blank wall, three times.
What is she- James' thought cut off and he froze, squashing the desire to gasp as a door appeared on the blank wall; at the same time, Crouch let out a tiny yelp of surprise, stumbling a bit back.
"Well, don't just stand there like a numpty," chided Hermione with a grin. "Come on in!"
Crouch didn't hesitate, launching himself forward just as Hermione yanked open the door. They two stepped through and James hurried after them, slipping in not a moment too soon as the door shut behind him.
Crouch whistled long and loud, his hands on his hips and his head tilted back as he took in the space. "What is this place?"
James had the same question. He had never heard of a room with an appearing door, and he and his friends had mapped the entire school.
The room itself was large and grand, like a dueling room. The floor was slick marble and the walls the same kind of stone that made up Hogwarts, but there were towering, thick columns in grey that spiralled up into a high, receding ceiling and wooden cross beams cutting between the columns and along the sides of the room. There were no windows, and the angled ceiling created a Cathedral-like feeling of silence and awe.
James hesitated to move, sure that his steps would be heard; instead, he waited until the two were speaking again and mutter silencio on his shoes - which belatedly, he realized he should've done earlier - and then settled himself against one of the columns to watch.
"Welcome to the Room of Requirements," began Hermione, grandly gesturing with one hand.
"Room of Requirements? Does that mean - anything I require, it will provide?" asked Crouch curiously.
Hermione nodded. "For the most part. The limit really is your imagination in here."
"How did you find - never mind." Crouch quickly changed topics, shaking his head. "So what are we doing in here then?"
"We're going to practice your spell casting," said Hermione, walking further away from where James stood, more toward the center of the large rectangular room. She left Crouch standing where he was, arms crossed.
Crouch scowled. "We could've done that in our usual practice room!"
"But this time you're going on the offensive, Barty!" called Hermione, a wide grin on her face. "You've been doing great with your nonverbal casting - but let's put it to the test!"
"Why?" he groaned, but gamely did as Hermione instructed and withdrew his wand. He settled into a slightly flourished dueler's position. "D'you want to conjure some practice dummies for me, or what?"
Hermione shook her head, turning her body sideways as she spoke. "You're going to fight me."
Crouch immediately dropped the position, standing up straight and staring hard at his best friend, while James found himself inching forward, his wand in his own hand.
"Hermione, no. If there is one person in this Merlin-forsaken place that I won't ever fight, it's you." There was something hard and dark in Crouch's eyes as James drew level with him, but still far enough away that hopefully, the partially infected wizard wouldn't notice him.
Something softened in Hermione as she stared back. "You need to learn this, Barty."
"I do not!" the reply was snapped back quickly, an underlying quiver in Crouch's tone as he spoke.
Hermione took a deep breath. "I'm sorry to say that you do. Things are changing-"
"Is this about Diagon Alley?" he broke in, a heavy frown on his face. "The Aurors will take care of them, you know, the wizards and witch that attacked-"
"It doesn't really-" Hermione stopped and bit her lip, looking skyward for a moment. "Okay, so it does have something to do with that. But you should also know how to use your magic defensively-"
"I don't want to know how to use my magic defensively, and certainly not against my best friend-"
Hermione stomped her foot and a wordless noise of frustration emerged from her at the same - as did a small tremble in the marble flooring as it cracked where her stomped foot came down, creating a small pocket of dented stone. A few webbed lines split from the circle toward Crouch.
James' mouth dropped open.
Crouch was staring at her. "Did you just-?"
Hermione was staring at the floor as well, where her left foot was significantly lower than the right. "I think I did."
"Have you lost control like that before?" he asked, and James swivelled his head toward the tall, brown-haired Ravenclaw.
Lost control? Before? Hermione's done accidental magic like this? But - she's so in control, he thought in confusion.
"During the attack," the witch replied softly, nodding slowly, "In Diagon Alley. My magic responded with me realizing it when I saved-"
Saved my parents, James finished the words in his head, even though Hermione clamped her mouth shut tight.
"You're sure you didn't say a spell?" pressed Crouch, moving a few steps closer. There was worry in her tone and it was all over his face as he stared at his friend. "You didn't cast anything, it was just - the transmutation?"
James' brows furrowed. Transmutation? Like… alchemy?
Hermione was staring down at her hands. "Even since I cracked it, it's getting easier to wield. Instinctual. It's getting harder to remember to cast a spell with my wand when - when things are just…"
Crouch made a noise, low in his throat. "Hermione-"
She looked up then, something hard in her eyes. "That's why I want you to fight me, Barty. Yeah, you need to practice anyway, but I also need to be able to use my wand to fight back. I can't trust transmutation. Not yet."
Crouch was silent for a long, long time before he sighed, long and deep. "Okay. Alright."
The smile Hermione sent Crouch made James' breath hitch.
"Come at me," teased Crouch, falling into a traditional dueler's position, facing sideways with one arm extended behind for balance and his wand hand elevated above his head.
Hermione stared for a long moment and then went, "No, no, you're doing it wrong," moving forward and readjusting Crouch's form, nudging his arm and body with firm hands.
It was enough that James felt jealousy begin to settle low in his stomach as he watched the girl he liked manipulate her best friend's body until Crouch was standing in a completely different form.
"Sideways is good, presents a smaller target, but why in God's name would you have your wand out like that? A well-aimed expelliarmus would leave you wandless!"
Crouch smiled down at his friend in fondness until he asked, "Is this better?"
Hermione nodded firmly. "Yes. Okay. Now, remember, nonverbal casting only! I'll block and be on the defense."
Crouch nodded and James watched as they kept a good twenty meters from one another in the large room, both watching the other for long, terse moments-
James startled when Crouch flew into a flurry of multi-coloured spells, each aimed at his friend. The riotous colours of red, green, blue and even white made James' breath catch and his hand gripped his wand tightly in response, wanting to leap forward and cast a shield - Hermione still hadn't moved -
Hermione! He shouted in his mind.
And then she twisted her ankle, just so, pivoting in her spot. Below her pivoted toe, something gold appeared, and James squinted, trying to focus on it -
A circle blew outward from her foot, several connected circles and lines between the transmutation equation. The glowing golden lines sparked and hissed as electricity raced along the markings within the circles and then shot up in a semicircle around Hermione, creating a glowing, golden shield of pure light.
Crouch's spells bounced harmlessly off it, pinging loudly and then ricocheting to different directions. The red spell hit one of the columns and tore a chunk of heavy rock from it.
Crouch lowered his wand. "That wasn't a protego."
"That was what I meant by instinctual," sighed Hermione in response, bringing a hand up to rub at her collarbone. "I'm barely moving, barely thinking of what I need and then - bam! My knowledge of transmutation takes over and I'm manipulating everything around me.
"What did you do?" asked Crouch.
Hermione frowned. "I - I think I transmuted the air."
"I'm sorry," said Crouch, his incredulous tone matching James's own feelings. "Did you just say that you think you transmuted the air?"
Holy Merlin, thought James, staring at Hermione in a new light. She didn't need his help in a fight; she had already shown she could handle herself, but now knowing just far advanced her magic was…!
He frowned, feeling slightly inadequate, only to then shame himself. It wasn't a competition of who was magically stronger - after all, Crouch and Regulus clearly were not in the same league as Hermione, either - but after what happened in Diagon Alley, James never wanted to feel as outclassed as he did, with Hermione handling much of the fight. His rock troll only distracted the wizards until his father's magic added to it, stabilizing his transfiguration.
I need to improve, thought James, slowly inching away as the two continued to speak about Hermione's thoughts on her abilities. She clearly thinks that it is necessary for her friends to learn how to fight. Then… she must have a good reason for it. But if she fights again, it won't be alone. I want to help, too.
So, he settled in, leaning against the column as he sank to his knees and then rear, sitting comfortably under his invisibility cloak as he watched Crouch and Hermione engage in a mock battle for several hours, cataloging and watching the Ravenclaw witch with careful eyes.
On one of the first days of summer vacation, James - still on Hogwarts time - arrived at the breakfast table with his perpetually messy hair, smothering a yawn as he mumbled, "mornin'," only to stop and stare.
"You'd best get a joke in now, son," rumbled an amused Charlus Potter as he stared at his son from over the rim of his glasses, his thin lips turning up in a smirk.
"I - you're -" James stopped and took in a breath. "Dad, why're you in muggle clothes?"
Next to her husband at the table, Dorea delicately stirred her teaspoon into her drink and answered for him. "Charlus was invited to spend time in Cokeworth today, darling-"
"Cokeworth?" repeated James, dumbstruck.
"-yes, Cokeworth, James," there was a slight hint of ire in Dorea's voice as she looked at her son. "Do pay attention. He's been invited to a party-"
"A party?" the young Gryffindor choked out.
"Goodness, James," said Charlus, bewildered and vaguely hurt. "Is this so difficult to believe that your old man can go out and cut a rug?"
James stopped, turning to face his father. "No, Dad, that's not it - erm…" He took a deep breath. "Sorry, let's start again. Why were you invited to a party in Cokeworth of all places? The only family we know there is the Evans'…" James' eyes went wide as he trailed off.
Charlus gave his son a knowing look. "I kept in contact with Leonard Evans, after that horrible event in Diagon Alley, when the youngest Miss Evans hurt herself."
James sat heavily in his usual seat, looking between his parents. "So, now, you're… what? Friends with Mr. Evans?"
Charlus chuckled. "Of a sort, I suppose. Although the invitation for today was more that he was going to be one of only two men surrounded by women for his daughter's birthday."
"Birthday?" James frowned. "But Hermione's birthday is in September and I know Lily celebrates hers at Hogwarts."
"His eldest, James," sighed Dorea, "Do keep up."
"So, you're going as what, moral support?" James's voice held all the skepticism he could muster. "You and some other… man…"
The potential for jealousy rose in James but he ruthlessly squashed it down. He instead eyed his father while absently reaching for a slice of toast to butter.
"Yes," agreed Charlus, eyeing his son with something like amusement, "Leonard said Miss Petunia Evans' suitor would be there. Leonard's brother and parents were unable to attend, so it was to be a strict family affair until he realized that with all three of his daughters and wife, he and Mr. Bowes would be outnumbered."
"I see," mumbled James, looking down at his hand which clenched his toast. "When do you leave?"
"Around noonish," replied his father, still eyeing him.
Dorea, opposite James, sighed loudly. "Darling, with Mr. Evans, Mr. Bowes, and your father attending, the women still outnumber the men. At any formal event, this is hardly acceptable to have an uneven number of male and female guests. Why don't you attend as well to even everything out?"
James's head popped up. "Are you sure, mum?" Then, thinking he sounded too eager, he muttered, "I was thinking of doing some flying around the pitch…"
"James. Please," said Dorea, "Just go."
So, at noon, James found himself casually dressed in nice slacks and a button-up shirt with a sweater over it - in what his mother thought was fashionable "nice" Mugglewear - as his father side-along Apparated him to Cokeworth.
They landed near the quarry again, with Charlus flicking his wand to remove any dust or stains that appeared when they landed in the dirt. The walk to the Evans' house was quiet, James tense with nerves at seeing Hermione again and speaking to her, especially only a few weeks after he had snuck into the Room of Requirement to see her practice her magic with Crouch.
Charlus seemed to take no notice of his surly son, and soon he was knocking on the last house of a street, which opened to reveal Leonard Evans, who grinned widely at seeing the two wizards.
"Charlus! Thank you so much for coming," he greeted, stepping back. As he did so, he glanced back into the hall and dropped his voice. "No, seriously, thank you. There's been so much lace and frills-"
Charlus chuckled. "Glad to oblige. I hope you don't mind that I brought my son, James, along?"
"Not at all," replied Leonard, glancing curiously at the black-haired teenager who was the bane of Lily's Hogwarts years (from his teasing and pranks), while being Hermione's friend, tutoree, and, slightly more worrisome, skirmish partner. "It's nice to finally meet you, James. I'm afraid to say that you've been a rather popular topic in our household for many years."
James cringed, blushing a furious red. "Mr. Evans - I am so sorry - I must apologize regarding my previous behaviour toward your daughter-"
"Which one?" the man asked, raising his eyebrows.
"Uh…" James froze.
Leonard and Charlus exchanged a look between them, and then Leonard was shaking his head. "Come on, join me in the living room for a bit. Sean's in there too - Rose's going a bit frantic in her planning. We're going to the carvery in town, that alright?"
"Uh, yes sir," stuttered James, glancing at his father for directions.
The three men entered the living room through a side door. The television was on, but muted, and was showing a football match. There was a couch and then two armchairs, and two seats of the couch were occupied by a burly young man - whom James thought had all the presence of a Quidditch beater - and a tall, thin young woman with blonde hair, whom he had seen before during his last visit to the house.
"Pet, Sean," began Leonard, gesturing, "This is Charlus Potter and his son. James attends school with Lily and Hermione," Charlus finished, turning to speak to Sean directly.
"Hey mate," the other man in the room said, standing to greet them. It meant withdrawing his arm from behind Petunia's shoulders, and she sighed, standing as well.
Charlus shook his hand, and then James did, although he was much more nervous than he thought in officially meeting Petunia and her boyfriend compared to when he saw her at Yule, scrubbing dirt from Hermione's cheek.
"Hey," greeted James, swallowing thickly. He turned to Petunia. "And, um, happy birthday."
"Thank you," replied Petunia.
The three stood awkwardly for a moment. Charlus and Leonard were in the armchairs, loudly discussing the match that they unmuted. James reached up to run his hand through his hair, and then realized what he was doing and cringed again when he saw Petunia eyeing him.
The door to the living room creaked open and Lily stepped in, looking down and fiddling with her blouse as she tucked it into her skirt. "Why couldn't we have gone to the pub instead, Tuney? Then I wouldn't've had to dress up-"
She froze upon seeing James. "Potter! What are you going here?"
"Erm, well," began James, flicking his eyes everywhere.
"I invited him," interrupted Petunia, narrowing her eyes on her younger sister. James's head swiveled to stare at her in surprise since he was certain that she had not invited him. "Since he's good friends with Hermione."
Lily frowned. "So why don't I have a friend coming as well? I can-" she bit her lip and cut a glance at Sean before speaking again "-contact Marlene or Alice-"
"No," retorted Petunia quickly.
James and Sean exchanged nervous glances as the air between the two sisters began to chill.
Petunia continued coolly, "It's my birthday, Lily. I say who comes."
The two sisters glared at each other, leaving James and Sean awkwardly standing at Petunia's side; Charlus and Leonard seemed to be completely engrossed in what they were doing and missed the exchange completely.
Another woman, smartly dressed in soft sage green and white that complimented her auburn locks entered the room next, stopping with a surprised, "oh!" as she caught sight of James. She then turned to her husband. "Leo! You didn't tell me we had guests arrive!"
As James watched Mrs. Evans greet Charlus, Petunia nudged his side. James started, blinking at her while Sean hid a snicker. "Huh?"
"We're going to leave soon. You should go get Hermione," instructed Petunia, with something of an encouraging nod at him.
Lily immediately scowled. "I can go get Hermy-"
"James can go get Hermione," repeated Petunia firmly, and then latched onto Lily's arm and said loudly, catching their mother's attention, "Mum! Lily's having trouble hearing things at the moment - I'm worried her ears are blocked with wax! Do you think we have some fish oil that we can use to clean them out?"
"Oh, oh, Lily dear," fussed Mrs. Evan.
Petunia took an opportunity to turn and glance at James over her shoulder, with a smirk on her face that wasn't unlike those James had seen on Slytherin's when they were plotting something - or, for that matter, Sirius's face.
"Upstairs, second door," she hissed.
This time, Sean didn't try hiding his huff of laughter.
James took the hint and edged from the room until he was back in the tiny hall and then walking upstairs. It was an odd feeling; he had never been in a purely Muggle home before and the lack of movement on the family pictures hanging from the wall was plain strange - and he had certainly never been explicitly told to go into a girl's room before.
There weren't many doors on the second landing: one was wide open to a bathroom; one was partially closed but a peek instead showed a very neat and organized "adult" room. There were two other doors - both 'second' and opposite of one another - and only one of them would be Hermione's room. But did she share with Petunia, or with Lily?
As James pondered, caught in his thoughts as he tried to deduce which Hermione would be in, strains of music caught his attention. There was a heavy guitar riff, followed by a pause and then the rift again. A muffled man's voice singing accompanied the music.
Clearing his throat, James knocked on the door. The music didn't stop, nor did anyone shout for him to enter. He knocked again, louder - but still, nothing.
With nothing for it, he summoned his Gryffindor bravery and turned the knob, entering the room slowly in case he needed to make a quick retreat. Instead, after opening the door, he froze at the sight that greeted him.
And slowly, a smile began to split across his face.
Hermione stood in the middle of the room, separated by two single beds and a large wardrobe overflowing with her muggle wear. A suitcase, open with neatly organized clothes, lay on the other bed, and there were faint, lighter marks on the wallpaper that indicated where posters or pictures rested but had now been removed. That side was Petunia's, while Hermione's was a mess, and, as James grinned, so was Hermione.
A record player rest on a side table next to Hermione's bed and was in the process of moving through its song. Hermione was enjoying it, bent at the waist and letting her long, red-tinged brown hair swish back and forth as she headbanged.
"So I took a big chance at the high school dance / With a missy who was ready to play / Was it me she was foolin'? / 'Cause she knew what she was doin' / Told me how to walk this way / She told me to-"
Hermione tossed her head back and pretended to strum an imaginary guitar, eyes closed and a frown of concentration on her face.
James was caught between stifling a laugh and swallowing thickly; laughing at her antics, and having trouble swallowing as his eyes roamed down her curly hair to her bare shoulders. She wore only a black bra to cover her top, and then his eyes roved down her toned stomach to the black capris that hugged her hips and long legs, and then caught on the brightly painted blue toenails.
As Steve Tyler sang, "walk this way," Hermione turned to face James and opened her eyes.
She shrieked, leaping backward and bumping her hip into the side table, causing the needle to skip over the record and off the turntable.
He waved sheepishly. "Hello."
"Jesus Christ," she snapped, turning and hastily snatching up a short-sleeve blouse that was on her bed. She clutched it to her chest. "What the fuck, James?!"
"Sorry," he apologized sheepishly, turning to present his back to her as she shrugged the blouse on. He couldn't stop grinning.
"You don't sound it," she grumbled. "Anyway, what are you doing here?"
"Your dad invited mine to your sister's birthday lunch," explained James, resisting the urge to turn and face her when speaking. "And my mother noted that there would be an uneven number of men and women, so suggested I join."
Hermione snorted and touched James's shoulder. He turned to face her, quickly wiping the smile from his face but his cheeks were still flushed, and his hazel eyes were bright.
She scowled, pointing at him. "Don't!"
"Wasn't gonna," he cheerfully replied.
"Hermione! James! We're heading out now," called Leonard from downstairs. "Come down!"
James followed a grumbling Hermione as she stomped down the stairs, fighting the urge to whistle. But he quickly schooled his face upon seeing Hermione's parents and his father, as well as a glowering Lily.
Petunia, however, sent him a wink then left him reeling. What the hell? Did she set that up?
The large group walked into town, to the carvery. The Evans' were careful when speaking to James, trying to keep from revealing information about magic in front of Sean, but were able to keep to generic topics such as the weather and politics until they were sat at their table.
The adults seemed to cluster at one end, leaving Petunia as the birthday girl at the opposite head, with Sean on her right and Hermione on her left; James quickly sat next to Hermione while Lily sat opposite him, with her mother next to her and Charlus next to James. Leonard Evans took the other head, and soon they had ordered their drinks and got up to the buffet.
It was only once they began eating did James's nerves return, s Sean turned to him and asked, "So, James. You attend the same school as Lily and Hermione. How do you know them?"
James fiddled with his fork and moved his food around but answered, "Lily and I are in the same house. Hermione was actually tutoring me for the past two years."
"Really? In what?" Sean glanced at Hermione. "I knew you were a genius, Hermione-"
"Maths," she answered, bored. "James is terrible at it."
"I am not!" James automatically protested.
Hermione cut her eyes at the teenager sitting beside her and smirked.
"Well," he amended, "Not anymore, at least."
"Does that mean you did well in your exam?" asked Sean curiously, leaning a bit forward.
James nodded. "Yeah, I got an Exceeds-"
Opposite him, Lily scowled deeply and shifted in her seat, at the same time sending her foot out and kicking James in the shin.
"Yeoooww-!" James stopped and looked at Petunia's terrified face and Hermione's raised eyebrows before quickly altering, "an exceedingly high mark."
"James isn't that interested in academics," Lily quickly inserted, with the tiniest frown on her face as she tossed her hair back, glancing at Sean sitting beside her. "He's much more interested in being a bully and pranking people." Hermione snorted into her broccoli, causing Lily to glare at her. "Do you disagree, Herms?"
Glancing up from under her brows, Hermione asked, "When did you last see James play a prank, Lils?"
Lily opened her mouth to retort, but then thought about the question and stopped. James watched her as her mind whirled through the past months at Hogwarts, and even he could admit it had been months since he had engaged in a prank at the same level that he used to do.
Feeling a bit more confident with himself, James leaned back, stretching and placed his arm behind Hermione's chair, resting it along the back. Hermione tensed but then loosened immediately afterward, turning back to her vegetables as Lily gapped, open-mouthed at James.
"I take my studies very seriously," he said, turning back to Sean, who had been watching the three carefully. "A lot of the pranks I did in the past did have an element of research to them-"
"Like what?" asked Sean, interested, and leaning forward.
James, feeling pleased with the question and the interest the other teenager showed, leaned forward as well, brushing into Hermione's personal space as he spoke across the table. From the corner of his eye, he could see Lily, utterly bewildered at how easily he got along with the muggle. After a bit longer, she just blinked, shaking her head, and turned to her mother to join her in conversation.
For the next hour or so, over the rest of lunch and dessert, James enjoyed himself as he learned about Sean - who was also an athlete - and even Petunia. He knew he had won points when he asked about her university career and mentioned her Christmas present that Hermione got for her, and the blonde had beamed back, enthusing about how much she loved the variety pack.
And throughout it all, at his side, Hermione never once shifted away from him. She didn't turn and ask him to remove his arm, nor did she shy away from his body.
Risking things a bit more, as the group began to stand and stretch, ready to walk back to the house, James found himself at the back of the group with Hermione at his side. In front of them, Petunia and Sean walked arm-in-arm, while Lily walked with her parents and Charlus.
Hermione's hand brushed against his as they walked, and after a few moments, at the next brush, his hand turned slightly and caught hers.
Keeping his face forward, swallowing nervously, James shifted so his hand gripped hers. He did his best to ignore that his palm was a bit sweaty, and his pulse was fluttering rapidly against his wrist in those brief moments it took for Hermione to react.
But then she shifted her grip and curled her fingers against his.
James exhaled loudly, glancing at her and saw her smirk despite looking forward as well. With his free hand, he ran it through his hair and gave a breathless laugh. "I really did do well on my Arithmancy exam. I'm sure it was an Exceeds Expectations, at least."
Hermione turned to face him. "I'm really happy for you. You've worked hard over the years to improve your grade."
"It was all you," he replied with a grin.
She shook her head. "No, it was your hard work. 'Sides, now you don't need me anymore."
The thought of no longer seeing her on Friday nights made his heart clench in his chest and his hand spasmed, gripping her tightly for a moment as it did so.
The two of them slowed down in their walk until they stopped, the rest of the group leaving them behind as the two stood on the side of the street, looking at one another. James took a step closer to her, keeping their hands linked as he peered down at Hermione.
"I think," he said, very quietly, "I'm always going to need you in my life."
Hermione blinked up at him in surprise, her mouth parting into a tiny 'o' as her breath hitched. "James…?"
With his free hand, he brushed some hair off Hermione's forehead. "Just because you don't need to tutor me in Arithmancy, doesn't mean we don't have to spend time together, right?"
"Right…" Hermione nodded slowly, eyes darting all over his face, searching for something.
James took another step closer. They were almost chest to chest. "In fact," he began, his voice dropping lower, "I'd… I'd really like it, if… if…"
Hermione's own reply was a bit breathless. "Yes…?"
"If we spent more time together," said James, rushing the words out, and taking a step back. "Like… Friday nights. But without Arithmancy. And - And - Hogsmeade trips - and sitting together-"
"James," there was amusement in Hermione's voice now. "Are you asking me out?"
"I - yes," he stuttered, nodding once, firmly.
Hermione's mouth twisted up into a pleased smile. "Okay."
James blinked. "What - okay?" he squeaked.
"Okay," she repeated, turning to begin walking again.
James felt his lips stretch into a lopsided smile, allowing Hermione to lead him as he was a bit dazed. She… she said yes!
But he definitely noticed when she shifted her grip from holding his hand to lacing their fingers together - and he denied it to his father later when they were home, but he was unable to stop smiling for the rest of the day because Hermione Evans had said yes to dating him.
Regulus closed his eyes as he stopped his brisk walk. He felt his form tense, for the briefest moment, and then he deliberately relaxed his shoulders and opened his eyes in time for his cousin to appear around him from behind, wearing traditional witches' robes in black - a bit of a bold choice for her sister's wedding.
"Bella," said Regulus, carefully modulating his voice. Hermione had made it clear that she had fought Bellatrix in Diagon Alley (not that Bella knew who she was fighting), but also that she was a follower of the Dark Lord.
She probably knows about the horcruxes, he thought, keeping the disgust from his face as he nodded politely.
"Do you have a minute, little coz?" the older witch, nearly thirty, asked. Her eyes went wide, and her lips, painted bloodred, stretched into a wide smile.
"I suppose," replied Regulus, despite not wanting to. "But not too much time; mother has me scheduled to make a toast to Narcissa and Lucius in about twenty."
"Oh, this won't take that long," replied Bellatrix, still with that large, fixed smile on her face. With her wide eyes, it made her look wild and a bit addled like she was doped up on Felix Felicis. "Let's then; 'Dolph is coming, too."
Regulus sighed, turning as Bellatrix did and noticing for the first time that her husband was waiting for them at the end of the hall, the opposite direction Regulus had originally been heading in. The tall, thin wizard with dark brown hair kept his face blank but had his arms crossed and was leaning against the wall in between two portraits that kept eyeing him and tilting their pointy Malfoy chins up in disapproval.
With Rudolphus and Bellatrix bookending him, Regulus sighed and asked in disinterest, hoping it hid the furious pounding of his heart, "And where are we doing?"
"Just to the study, little coz," replied Bellatrix. "I wanted to introduce you to some of the guests Lucius invited but you didn't yet meet."
Regulus's brow furrowed minutely. "I thought I met everyone…"
"Not everyone," chortled Rudolphus, a surprisingly warm sound for a man that was coming across as cold in demeanour.
They approached a nondescript door at the far end of the hall, well away from where the wedding reception was taking place in the ballroom and the other guests. The hallway itself was silent, with their footsteps echoing against the wooden floor and panelled walls.
Rudolphus reached the door first and paused with his hand on the knob. He turned back to face Regulus and said, quietly, "Be polite. Be proud. Be a Black."
Bewildered, Regulus blinked, just as Rudolphus knocked with his other hand and hen turned the knob, swiftly entering the room.
Bellatrix urged him inside, and Regulus stepped in.
It was one of the many guest receiving rooms, this one a bit more masculine and probably a smoking room from an era passed, given the heavy dark furniture and the thick curtains that hung from only two windows overlooking the front of the property. Through one, Regulus could see peacocks grazing; the other was blocked by the silhouette of a man - a tall, thin man in tailored wizard's robes - blocking much of the light from the setting sun.
There were a few other wizards in the room - no other women other than Bellatrix, who quickly moved to the chair nearest the standing wizard and perching herself on the arm, crossing her legs - and only a few that Regulus recognized by face, mainly for their fierce, untamed or haughty Pureblood looks. Some were business associates of his father, and the others were known as criminals by the Aurors.
Regulus found himself pausing just a few steps inside the dark room and swallowed thickly as his eyes drew back to the figure by the window, who had very pale hands clasped behind his back.
Slowly, the wizard turned, revealing thinning black hair swept back off his forehead; narrow, piercing green eyes; a long straight nose, and very thin lips. His face was pale, and angular in a way that wasn't quite right. As the man continued to turn, Regulus felt his mouth drying up - the wizard was cloaking himself with his magic, and it thrummed, ready to be unleashed in the barest moment.
His thin lips turned up at the sight of Regulus, and Regulus' legs began to tremble, luckily hidden by the outer folds of his wizard robes.
Then the wizard opened his mouth, and Lord Voldemort purred, "Ah, young Mister Black. I've been looking forward to meeting you for some time, now…"