Disclaimer: These characters, events and situations are the property of JK Rowling. No money is being made and no copyright infringement is intended.

AN: Thanks to Thren, beta extraordinaire! Please note that the following contains spoilers for all five Harry Potter books and 'Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them'.

~ Falling

It fell, slowly, hazily, noiselessly, through the air, twisting and twirling and floating and drifting in the gentle winter chill.

Against a backdrop of charcoal grey stone, thick glass and fairytale turrets, it came ever closer to the castle, whirling down through air tinged with frost toward the dark fortress, peppered with slivers of warm golden colour which oozed into the winter evening through lit windows.

But the nooks and crannies of the ancient walls whipped up a plethora of crosswinds to put it in jeopardy when in danced around the castles corners, assailing it by blasts of cold air from every direction, flinging it forth in an unforeseen flurry of swift storm and gale.

So the snowflake fell much faster than it had ever expected to now, spiralled down and down, looping quickly around gargoyles and columns, tumbling toward the edge of a peopled courtyard, until a rush of vivid red shot up to meet it; until it crashed amid an expanse of pale gentle warmth …

And she watched, mouth touched by a smile, as it melted to water in the palm of her hand.


Her red hair spun as she turned and glanced at the figure running to meet her, spraying a fine mist of melted snow and ice onto the sheltered wall at her side. Her gaze narrowed as she watched him approach, dodging errant snowballs from the over-enthusiastic whirl of black robes and projectiles making up an ongoing inter-house battle around the courtyard's central fountain.

She sighed and rolled her eyes. Pulling her cloak tight around her, she clasped her books to her chest and walked on.

"Lil'," breathed a voice at her side, out of breath from the crisp air, as ungainly feet fell into step with her.

"Potter," she offered a brisk nod, and kept walking.

"You're in an awful hurry," he said with maddening joviality. "Got someplace to be?"

She frowned and glanced sideways at him. "No, I'd just rather not be stuck outdoors in the middle of a snowstorm, you know?"

"Oh yeah," he said, twisting his neck to stare up at the sky as his steps faltered, and he closed his eyes, sticking out his tongue to catch the delicate flakes.

She cast her eyes toward the heavens once more and walked on, although she had only moved three paces before he was beside her again.

"So, Lily," he said, "Lily, Lily, Lily."

Here we go, she thought, as she pulled her scarf tighter around her throat and clutched her books closer, here come the innuendo-laden requests for snogs, hand-holding or Hogsmeade visits. Bloody Potter with his bloody insinuations and bloody stupid attempts to get her to fall for him like some dippy member of his girly third year fan club. She was too cold and too tired to be bothered with his games today. She just wanted to go to her dorm, get her book, and eat her dinner. Surely that wasn't too much to ask?

But a simple "What?" was the question she voiced instead, a wary edge in her tone as she kept her eyes fixed forward.

"How was Care of Magical Creatures?"

She blinked, taken aback by the innocuousness of his query, and feeling a warmth spread over her already pink-from-cold cheeks. "It was fine. Cold, I guess."

"Have you done unicorns yet?"

"We did unicorns in fourth year. Don't you remember?" she glanced up at him, taking in the look of confusion and continued. "One of them took offence when Peter didn't stand back and attempted to chat up Julie Marigold instead. Him being so close disrupted their –"

"Their 'pureness of character'," he butt in, "yeah, I remember that now. And he only spoke to her 'cause I told him to," was added with a laugh, as he raked a hand through already messy, damp black hair, and she tried not to sneer at the gesture.

"How did you know I was at Care anyway?" she asked, changing the subject before it could lead into one of his inevitable discussions of her own pureness of character.

He didn't reply, merely reached over and tapped his knuckles against the textbook held to her chest.

"Oh," she nodded, and looked down at the ground, carefully avoiding the footprints of others in order to step in fresh snow, as they drew nearer the small oak door leading into the castle, dimly lit from above in the fading daylight by a simple metal lantern.

"So what did you do then?" he asked, shoving hands deep into pockets. "With Kettleburn?"

"Nargles," she replied, stepping momentarily closer to him into fresher snow.

He frowned again as he tilted his body sideways to let her step into his path, lost amidst confusion, and she wondered how someone so utterly clueless could get such good grades.

"They're little sprites? Very difficult to see. Exist on a diet of fruit and dust, oddly enough. You find them a lot at this time of year. In mistletoe, holly, anything with berries, really."

"Do they hurt you?" he asked.

She grinned. "Well, they don't take too kindly to very loud noises. Sleepy little things, you see, they hate being woken up. It puts them in a dreadful mood and they whiz about the place like Cornish Pixies, but much smaller," she waved an exuberant hand in a zigzag motion through the crisp air to emphasise her point. "And the only spell which can halt them is Consituonunc, which we didn't learn until last month. You remember Potter," she added with a sly glance at his face, which was already turned toward her, "that day in Charms?"

It was his turn to briefly cast his gaze at the clouds, and he shook his head in feigned disgust at the jab.

"Ha, ha," he said tonelessly, hazel eyes soft with humour behind snow splattered frames. "I don't forget every class, Lily. Just the crappy ones like Care."

She sniffed and ignored him. "So that's why we don't study Nargles until seventh year. Because we don't learn how to control them until then." She made a sudden small noise to accompany a flash of memory, and, waving a careless hand in his direction, said "And speaking of learning, did you see Marie about the Transfiguration tutoring?"

"Yeah, she just needs help with the practise; her theory is fine." He paused. "Why? Has something else come up since I talked to her last?"

"No, no," she assured him, "just making sure you didn't forget to. What with Quidditch practise and –"

"I'm not going to forget, Lily," he said defensively. "I haven't so far this year."

"Yeah, but even you'd admit you're not reliable. Old habits die hard, Potter," she added in a frank, slightly accusatory tone.

He nodded carefully. "Do you really think so?"

She shrugged and concentrated on the crisp crunch of her feet on the ground, ignoring the dull silence and the unpleasant leaden feeling which settled in her stomach, until he opened his mouth again.

"I take it your silence means yes then, shall I?"

"No," she sighed, after a moment spent frowning at the dirty, trodden snow on the path. "If I say 'maybe' or 'I'll think about it' then that means yes. If I don't answer at all, it means I thought the question stupid."

There was another heavy silence before he cleared his throat and changed the subject. "So you're going back to the common room, then?"

"Yes," she replied shortly, then sighed again, supposing she should at least make the attempt to be as civil with him as he was being with her, particularly if he was planning to walk back to the Tower with her, else it would be a very long journey indeed.

Thus when he stood back to allow her through the courtyard's side door, she brushed past then paused to wait for him while he let a heavily dressed, very snug but slightly nervous looking Ravenclaw step through from inside to out; a girl who, she noticed, skirted the wooden frame leaning as far from him, and any hexes he might throw at her, as was possible in the narrow doorway. He merely nodded and held the door open wider to accommodate the girl in blue, who then beamed, giggled slightly and proceeded on her way, smiling over her shoulder all the while.

She frowned darkly, and found herself wishing the girl would trip and land in the fountain.

Folding her arms over her books, she waited impatiently for him to step through, and noted, with a surprising flash of smug gratification, that he did so without so much as a backward glance at the obviously unintelligent but rather pretty Ravenclaw.

"So," she said with sudden false-brightness, stamping her feet to remove snow when he stood alongside her once more, "what were you doing out? Don't you have class?"

"Nah, I was free. I went to help Hooch tidy the broomshed." He lowered his voice as he scuffed his shoes on the threadbare grey mat, "she told me, confidentially of course, that the Gryffindor-Hufflepuff match is provisionally scheduled for February 21st."

Raising his eyebrows, he fixed her with a look of infectious mirth, and she couldn't help but grin as she began to walk again.

"That's still a long way off. I wouldn't get too excited," she said over her shoulder, watching him take off his glasses and dry them on the edge of his robes as he followed her.

"Well, it's something to look forward to, isn't it?" was his shrugged reply.

"I don't know about that, Potter," she said, "I can think of plenty of things more interesting than watching you and your cronies fly around beating up the opposition."

"They're not my cronies, Lily," he replied with the air of someone greatly misunderstood, "they're my team and there's a difference. And we take as much of a beating as the opposition does. Unless they happen to be Slytherin," he added thoughtfully, as he pushed his specs up his nose again, "in which case we'll always be the ones doing the hammering."

She fought a smile.

"Besides," he said brightly, nudging her, "don't you try to tell me you're not a secret Quidditch buff."

At that, she threw her head back and let out a startled laugh of denial.

"Oh yeah," he grinned, raising his own voice, "I see you in stands, cheering like a madwoman. You don't fool me, Miss Evans."

"I most certainly do not cheer!" she said with righteous indignation. "Must be some other girl you have your eye on, Potter."

"And who says I have my eye on you, Lily?"

Her wide eyes shot to his, laughter dying on her lips; she felt her face burn as he raised an eyebrow, his head inclined to one side.

"I mean, obviously I do," he continued, with a casual apathy that should have enraged her, "I was just wondering who told you. After all, isn't the lady supposed to fall for her beloved in a gradual and innocent return of his attentions toward her?"

Her embarrassment began to diffuse as he grinned, and she tutted, resisted the urge to poke fun at his fake-gentry, and instead stared down the long corridor, filled with the hustle and bustle of students.

"You're unbelievable, Potter," she said quietly.

"Unbelievable in a good way?"

"I don't know yet," she replied truthfully, surprising herself. "I mean," she hastened to add upon seeing his sudden look of interest, "you're not being as annoying as you usually are."

"Ah," he said with a forthright nod of his head, "that's because I've changed tactics. I changed them quite a while ago, actually."

"Oh, did you now?" she said, her countenance lightening, face threatening to split into a grin again.

"Yeah," he answered nonchalantly, "but I can't tell you about them. The commander never shares his strategy with the enemy."

She paused, "… 'with the enemy'. I see," and resumed her walk with a slight shake of the head.

"What?" he asked as he paced beside her, and she thought she detected a note of caginess in his tone.

"Oh, nothing," she said.

"No, come on, Lily, what? I know that look. What did I say wrong?" She shook her head dismissively, and he sighed. "C'mon, I'll never learn these things unless you tell me. It's like last week in Transfiguration, y'remember? If McGonagall hadn't told Moony to stop being a stupid tosser then he never would have got the rabbit ears to –"

"Oh, for God's sake, fine! Anything but the bloody bunny story again."

She stopped and faced him. "It's just…" and she hesitated, searching for the right words, "I guess, maybe you shouldn't…" Trailing off, she looked up into inquisitive brown eyes, surrounded by gold frames. He really was okay-looking up close, she thought distractedly. Not jaw-droppingly so as Black was, but his looks were quietly charming; the sort you never realise are handsome until the day that fact bludgeons you 'round the head like a Red Cap.

She blinked in sudden surprise, blushed at her stray thoughts and lowered her eyes. When in God's name had she started thinking of him as looking any better than a toad?

"Treat people you like as though they're the Slytherin team at match time," she finished, shrugged and started to move again.

Once more, he fell into step alongside her. "Alright," he said, drawing the word out, apparently confused again.

She ignored that and studiously avoided catching his gaze, although she was painfully aware of his eyes roving over her face.

"What?" she said petulantly, after enduring a moment of inspection.

He jumped straight to the point. "Why are you giving me advice on girls?"

"Because I don't want you to be totally hopeless when you find someone stupid enough to love you, Potter, alright?" she snapped.

He didn't answer in words, choosing to stare some more instead; she could see the inquiring tilt of his head out of the corner of her eye.

Eventually, she could stand it no longer.

"Stop it."

"Stop what?"

"Stop staring at me."

His head faced front again.

"Certainly, Lily," he said cheerily, and despite herself she bit her lip to keep a smile at bay, eyes crinkling and softening.

What is it about this time of year, she wondered lightly, that made everything seem so much brighter? People who normally irritate you become almost funny, colours deepen in hue and songs are sung that little bit louder.

Though, if she were honest, Potter hadn't annoyed her lately like he used to anyway. She frowned slightly as she tried to remember when he'd stopped calling her by her surname alone – it must be over a year now, she thought. And, if she recalled correctly, that coincided with a sudden fall in hex-attacks from he and his merry men, though these days the whole school was quieter then usual, not just the Gryffindor seventh years.

Walking past an open window, lost in these thoughts, she reached out to pull on the pane handle, slamming it shut to keep out the cold. As her hand worked the jammed lever, she peered into the flurry of ice and snow that rained down on the school and her mind flittered briefly to the dangers outside those fortified walls. She shivered, perhaps from the chill in the air, perhaps from the thoughts of men in black cloaks that suddenly invaded her mind, of green beams and curses and people dying every day.

"Are you cold?" he said at her shoulder, reaching around to take the lever and pushing it down quickly with more strength than she could muster, locking out the chill, increasing the protection from the dangers of the world outside.

"I'm- yes, but I'm fine," she said.

"Are you sure?" he asked, eyes alight with concern as he reached up to fumble with the ornate silver clasp at his neck. "Here, do you want my cloak?"

"No," she replied hurriedly, flinging out an arm to stop him, "don't be silly, I'm fine."

Despite his look of mild scepticism he nodded, and she lowered her hand.

She frowned then, her forehead creasing at the sudden, curious awkwardness she detected in his stance, the way he shuffled his feet slightly on the stone floor and fiddled with the clasp. He must have noticed that her gaze was drawn to that burnished buckle, as he glanced there too then smiled ruefully at her.

"I know," he said, "bloody silver. 'Causes all sorts of problems for-," he stopped abruptly and coughed, "us. Like, for instance, well, silver is a Slytherin colour, isn't it? And we're Gryffindors." He tossed his head proudly like some sort of wild animal and she laughed.

"Oh, how typical, Potter! It's always something about house rivalry with you, isn't it? I'm beginning to think you might be jealous of them," she said with a teasing smirk. "What's the matter, harbouring a secret desire to be resorted?"

His face was a picture of horrified disbelief. "Into Slytherin?"

"Yeah," she said playfully. "I think it'd suit you."

"It bloody would not!"

She glanced up, surprised by his vehemence. "What?"

"You heard me," he said indignantly. "Slytherin?"

"Oh, get a grip," she looked away dismissively. "Can't you take a joke?"

"Who do you think I am," he continued to rant, "some Death Eater in training?"

She wondered briefly if he'd lost his marbles. "I said I was kidding. Calm down, would you?"

"Do you really think so little of me?"

She huffed out an irritated breath and stalked ahead. "I'm not saying this again, Potter. It was a joke. How was I supposed to know you can dole them out but can't take them?"

"Oh, that's right," he called after her, as though he'd been waiting all along for this to happen. "Walk away, as usual. You haven't even tried t' –"

She lengthened her stride without waiting for the end of that sentence, but he now seemed intent on racing her to the tower, sneaking irritable sideways glances that grew greater in frequency as they moved, until eventually he was openly staring at her profile. Feeling annoyed, her head snapped round to catch an initial half-smile upon his features, before they quickly rearranged to sombre when their eyes met. She gritted her teeth, not sure what to make of that, and looked away, taking a flight of stairs two at a time as their cloaks merged together in a breeze created by their haste.

This was all her own fault anyway, she realised, for trying to get along with him in the first place. Fat chance of that ever happening again.

But just as she was on the verge of telling him non-too-politely to stop bloody staring, he broke the strained silence in a small, wounded voice that surprised her enough to turn the tables, so that now she was staring at him while he studiously avoided her gaze.

"Do… d'you really think that, Lily? That I'd use Dark Arts like, like one of his followers?"

She blinked, unsure what to say or do as she watched him bite gently on his lip, his hand covering part of his face and his eyes averted from hers. She'd never seen his usual confidence evaporate into childlike uncertainty like this before, and a sudden surge of guilt swirled in her stomach.

"Of course not."

"You must hate me," he said dejectedly, eyes paradoxically alive with some curious sparkle that didn't quite match his tone.

She frowned. "Listen to me, would you? I've told you, I was only kidding. I don't hate you, I think you're… well," she paused, "well, I suppose you do have certain Slytherin-like traits."

He jerked, his face awash with horror as he looked back up at her; she reached forth her hand again and gripped his shoulder to prevent further outcries. "No, no, not like that," she said quickly, "good things. Like your resourcefulness and resilience. And Lord knows you're awfully persistent. And… well, good traits. Not everything in Slytherin is evil, you know."

She looked up to find him watching her before he lowered his head almost shiftily, looking lost once more.

"And, I think you're brave and very smart and," here she stumbled over her words, "and, you're Head Boy, and they don't choose just anyone, do they? And, and you're a good Gryffindor. You wouldn't fit in anywhere else. At least not now," she mumbled as an afterthought.

"Oh? Where did I fit in the past, then?"

"Oh, I don't know," she said as casually as she could, tilting her face to catch a glimpse of his. The slight smile she saw there stumped her momentarily, before she frowned, an unwelcome suspicion forming in her mind. He wouldn't dare....

"You did have a habit of hexing anything that moved …" she finished, watching him carefully.

"Oh," he said heavily, looking suddenly regretful as his eyes met hers again. "Yeah, I know."

And a silence fell between them, punctuated by the sounds of elevated breathing after their unplanned race and the distant clamour of classmates going to dinner.

It was only when she remembered to remove her hand from his shoulder that he seemed jolted out of his reverie.

"So, you think I'm brave?" he asked casually, and she narrowed her eyes, catching the small smirk on his face.

A flicker of certainty flooded her and she pursed her lips, fixing him with a wide-eyed disapproving stare and shaking her head deliberately. He looked as though he was struggling not to laugh, trying to persist with his façade of innocence but doing a very poor job of it.

"You little –"

He gave up his act and laughed. "Ah, the penny drops. I was beginning to think it never would."

Her mouth fell open slightly and she gazed at him in disbelief. "You have such a nerve."

"A nerve in a good way?"

Yes, flickered through her mind immediately. She had to admire his ingenuity at least. He had almost had her fooled, after all. But then her thoughts hitched, suddenly detecting this bizarre pro-Potter notion and stamping it out quickly. She had to be delusional to think him anything but underhanded and rude to manipulate her in such a way! It must be the Christmas cheer that made her unable to work up a temper. Or the lack of food since lunch. Either excuse would do, she wasn't fussy.

"Shut up, Potter," she breezed, choosing to side-step the issue entirely before he started to ask more difficult questions, such as how long she'd thought him brave, smart, good… She cringed inwardly and blushed. No wonder he looked smug – the day she paid him a compliment should be the day Satan ice-skates to work. "And if you ever try that again, I'll –"

"Try what again?" he asked innocently.

She mustered up a glare. "Do you have to persist in being an idiot all the time?"

He looked ridiculously affronted. "Me? An idiot? I'll have you know that many believe me to be brave *and* smart *and* resourceful."

She gave a small smile despite herself, then closed her eyes briefly and decided that it was high time to change the subject. "Is that so?" she murmured as she glanced at her watch. "Potter, if you're coming with me, then hurry up - there'll be hell to pay if I miss dinner because of you."

"Oh, don't worry about that," he said, still grinning. "I'd much rather talk about me. If push comes to shove, we can always go to the kitchens."

"As much as the thought of dining with you tempts me," she said, voice thick with sarcasm, "I'd rather eat in the Great Hall. House-elves creep me out."

He paused and shook his head, then offered her another grin. "Lily, you are the most unusual person I've ever met."

"What?" she said indignantly. "I am Muggleborn, you know. I'd never even seen one until I was staying at Marlene's in second year. Bloody odd-looking things. Creeping and mooching about the place."

"You and Sirius would have something to talk about," he grinned. "A hell of a weird little bugger lives in his old house – that was before he moved, of course. But our house-elf is great. Bakes these huge, gorgeous cakes," he said, pulling his hands from his pockets to emphasise their size. "With strawberry jam and tons of fresh cream and sometimes, if you're really lucky, she'll put chocolate sauce on the side of the plate –"

"Oh, stop it," she moaned. "You're making me even hungrier!"

He chuckled and quickened his pace. "We'd best get a move on then."

She nodded but made no effort to walk any faster, as she was feeling rather winded from that rapid walk through the corridors.

"So, do you stay at Marlene's often?" he asked after a moment.

"Yeah," she said, "I'm going there for Christmas, in fact. They have this ball every winter, and she hates being alone for it, with all the grown-ups, so the past few years her parents have let her invite a few friends to keep her company."

"Right, I remember Mum and Dad went a few years ago. But not last year, of course, since Mum, y'know…." She adopted an inquisitive expression, and he breathed deeply and looked away, his attention seemingly grabbed by the haggard grey stone of the wall, before elaborating.

"Since Dad died, August last year. There was a duel, you see. And he was an Auror, so he must've thought –" he stopped speaking only when she stepped closer and rested her hand on his forearm.

"I'm sorry," she said, her voice low, "I didn't know."

He shook his head and grimaced slightly. "It's alright. It was more an accident, than anything else. Nothing to do with, y'know, him."

She didn't know what to say, so she simply nodded and trailed her hand up to clasp his shoulder.

"Anyway," he said a moment later, patting her hand once so that she let it fall, "no point in dwelling on it. Enough to say, that's why Mum didn't go to the McKinnon's last year."

"That's understandable," she said as they resumed their walk. "I'm so sorry."

He shook his head again. "It's alright. We get by."

"It gets easier in time, I guess," she said hesitantly.

He frowned. "So they say."

She watched him furtively for the next few seconds as he picked at a loose thread on the arm of his robes, raised the same hand to rub at his forehead, thumb and middle finger moving over temple, then adjusted the sit of his glasses. His head tilted toward the ceiling and he chuffed out a breath, clapped his hands together suddenly, startling her, and asked, "So what do Muggles do for Christmas, anyway?"

"Same thing wizards do," she said plainly, looking at him with eyes wide and surprised at his change of topic. "Trees, baubles, crackers, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, all the usual stuff."

"You don't do anything different?" he asked.

She sniffed and pondered. "Well, I suppose we have nativity plays. You wouldn't, as you don't have primary schools." She glanced at him and, responding to the crease between his eyebrows, continued, "Little kids dress up in costumes and act out the nativity. It's traditional."

"I've never heard of that. Were you ever in one?"

"Yeah," she said. "I was sheep number 3."

His serious visage melted away before her eyes as he snorted with laughter.

"That was a very important role!" she huffed.

"A sheep?" He let out an incredulous laugh.

"Yes," she retorted, "I had to wear a little sheep mask and sing 'Away in a Manger' and that was a lot of responsibility for a six year old –"

She was interrupted by another loud laugh, and grinned.

"I'm sure it was," he snickered. "Well done, Bo Peep."

"I said I was a sheep not a shepherd, Potter. Pay attention." She smiled, sliding her hand along the wooden banister of the staircase they were ascending, their hard soled shoes echoing in the silence, other students long left behind. "And since when do wizards know Muggle rhymes, anyway?"

He started to reply, but his words were drowned out by a low rumble, which built to a deafening roar as the staircase became unstable and jolted sideways and upwards toward a different corridor, flinging them forth into to some area of the school she'd never been in. She gripped the railing easily as it moved, used to the quirks of the castle by now, and wondering if they should return to where they started, or continue onwards to an unforeseen destination.

Just as suddenly as it started, the walkway stopped moving, presenting them with a choice in the corridor directly ahead, in the form of a fork in the path.

"For the love of God," she said in monotone, breaking the sudden, eerie silence and peering over the oak railing to the corridor below, "we'll never get back now."

He laughed then, and she turned to face him, frowning in annoyance. "What's so funny? I'm bloody hungry!"

He began to say something, then seemed to change his mind and grinned somewhat triumphantly instead. "Oh, so it's hunger, is it? So the thought of spending a few more minutes with me doesn't bother you too much, eh? No," he said with apparent relish, "'cause you're more worried about your stomach."

"Oh, don't be an idiot," she responded offhandedly, folding her arms and marching off the staircase to stand at the fork in the corridor, unsure as to which path they should choose to return to the tower.

"I'm not the one being an idiot, Lily," he replied and followed, still sounding like the cat that got the cream.

"We're going to die here, aren't we?" she said, playfully morose as she stared down the passageways.

"Yes," he responded with quick flippancy. "We'll have to eat each other to survive."

"Oh, good. We'll start with your legs." She craned her neck to stare down the corridor on the right. "Because you're taller than me and all that Quidditch makes you stronger anyway. More meat on the bone. Plus maybe you'd last longer that way. You can live without a leg, after all."

He laughed and swaggered closer, hips swaying and head bouncing from side to side. "Ah, I see what this is," he said smugly. "This is an excuse to get your hands on my fine body, isn't it?"

Mirth bubbled up within her at the sight of his tongue-in-cheek antics and she snickered as he waggled a finger in her direction.

"You don't fool me, Lily dear," he said.

She turned away to peer at the junction again, shaking her head. "Oh please. Stop flattering yourself, Potter, and try to focus. I don't have the slightest clue where we are."

"It's alright," he said, sobering a little, "I do," causing her to glance back, an eyebrow raised in expectation.

"Well?" she said after a moment's pause in which he seemed to avoid her gaze by leaning over the edge of the railing.

"Well what?"

"Well, how do we get to the tower?" she asked evenly, carefully enunciating each word.

He looked up, pressed his lips together, smirked and glanced away.

And she knew it. She could practically sense its scent in the air, as potent as streeler venom, as smelly as the dragon manure in Greenhouse Five. Her heart sank; how could she have let herself forget the sort of person she was talking to?

For he was going to offer her a bargain.

He was going to demand that she admit that she found him to be 'handso-' ( no! her mind screamed, not handsome, but: ) 'bearable', or insist she go to The Three Broomsticks with him next weekend, or that she kiss him right there and then in that bloody forked corridor; or else, he'd say, or else she could find her own way to the Tower, get lost, have numerous search parties sent out for her while she succumbed to the emptiness in her belly, deep in the bowels of the castle, forgotten and alone forevermore.

Well, she thought, if he reckoned she'd agree to snog him rather than die of starvation, then he had another think coming.

She narrowed her eyes, her lip curling as apprehension fluttered in her stomach, as she watched a myriad of emotions flicker quickly over his face. But it wasn't long before his features relaxed, and his gaze moved back to her, then down at the floor, then over her shoulder to glance down the corridor on her left.

"That way," he said simply, and moved past her.

She blinked.

And then she whirled around to follow, almost skipping to catch up with his long strides. "What, that's it?"

"What did you expect?" he asked.

"Oh, I don't know," she said, surprise clear in her voice, "some sort of bribe, perhaps?

He tilted his head back to stare at the ceiling above them and spread his arms wide. "Why must she always assume the worst of me?" he asked the stone slabs.

"Because you've never given me any reason not to," she stepped in, when the roof offered no response.

"Haven't I?" he challenged, grinning and craning his neck sideways to view her.

"No," she replied stubbornly.

He continued to grin until she rolled her eyes and threw out a hand to slap his arm.

"Oh, alright," she grumbled, "you're not always so bad. But I've already told you that, so you needn't think I'm going to repeat it."

"Oh, don't worry, Lily, I can take care of that: I am brave, smart and –"

"Besides," she said loudly, "it's not as if you weren't thinking about bargaining, were you? I was watching, I could tell."

"Really? Watching me, were you?"

"Yes," she replied cautiously, hearing the smug lilt of his voice. And sure enough, there was another brief pause followed by an infectious snicker.

"What?" she asked, with a somewhat wary laugh.

"You fancy me," he said, bumping his shoulder against hers and sweeping a hand through his hair.

She gaped at him, as she would if he had morphed into a grindylow before her eyes, her emotions caught somewhere between aghast and amused, and he laughed again.

"Don't jump to conclusions," she said, settling for bemused. "Just because I'll admit you're all right sometimes, doesn't mean I'm going to admit I fancy you."

"Whether you admit it or not is irrelevant," he shrugged. "You do fancy me."

She uttered a choked laugh, cursing her own thoughtless choice of words. "I do not. Why would you even think that?"

"Do too."

"Do n – Ah, I am not going to do this!"

"Do what?"

"Sod off, you're driving me nuts!"

"Nuts in a good way?"

"Bad way!" she lied. "Why couldn't I have run into Remus or Peter or John or – no, better yet, *Marlene* on my way back from class instead of a self-obsessed twerp like you?"

He paused in an air of mock-contemplation. "So you fancy Marlene then?"

She let out a small scream of indignation and put her head in her hands, dropping her books in her haste, and he caught them with one hand, sniggering like a little boy plotting to steal biscuits when his mother wasn't looking.

"I do not fancy Marlene, nor do I fancy you, nor do I fancy anyone else," she said once she'd regained a semblance of composure, though her voice was still higher then usual and her cheeks retained their warmth.

"No one?" he asked earnestly. "Not even Padfoot?"

"Nope," she said, taking her books back.

"But everyone fancies Padfoot," he said, fixing her with a mildly surprised look.

She smirked. "Everyone?"

"Yea- No!"

"Impaled on your own sword, Potter!" she exclaimed with palpable glee, jumping ahead into his path and turning to briefly walk backwards, facing him. "Who'd of thought it? Wait 'till I tell him."

He shook his head, out-manoeuvred but grinning broadly. "No one will believe it, Lily! It's pretty obvious by now that I'm serious about you."

She reached a hand to her face under the pretext of pushing her hair out of her eyes, laughter fading, and spun around to move out of his way.

"You're not serious about me," she stated, with a frank shake of her head.

"Yeah, I am."

"No, you're –"

"You've got to stop second guessing me," he interrupted, pushing his glasses up his nose, "I don't say anything I don't mean." She raised a dubious eyebrow and he grinned. "Well alright. I don't say anything I don't mean, unless it's a joke. But you're no joke. And besides," he added seriously, "I'm not the same bloke who would have asked you to bargain two years ago."

She nodded at that, and retreated into thought as they turned a corner in comfortable silence, reaching Gryffindor corridor at last.

"See," he said genially, gesturing down the deserted passageway, "we're here about five minutes sooner than we would've been if the staircase hadn't moved."

She smiled and nodded again, then glanced out at the snow as they walked along, their footsteps synchronised against the cold stone floor, catching a glimpse of her own image in the window as she moved past.

Her face was pale, cheeks tinged faintly with a brisk rose born of frigid air in the glassy blurred likeness, but her eyes were still bright against the backdrop of cloud. And as she looked, her earlier momentary fear flared up again, the fear he had distracted her from without trying; she stared at the grey mass that hovered over the school through the reflected splash of emerald, her mind's eye recreating the picture of snake and skull that had been in Monday's Prophet.

"Don't you ever get scared, Potter?"

"What?" he asked, tilting his head toward her, confused by the sudden change of subject.

"You never seem scared," she clarified, her voice low and thoughtful.

"What's this got to do with –?"

"Oh, I don't know," she interrupted, anxiety creeping into her tone. "Nothing. Everything. Do you ever get scared?"

He paused before answering, a frown on his face as his pace slowed.

"Yes," he answered finally and resumed his speed, leaving her behind for a stupefied second.

"And?" she said expectantly, hastening to catch up.

"And what?" he asked, a thread of exasperation running through his words. "Of course I get scared. I was terrified when Dad died for one thing –"

"No, that's not what I mean…You-Know-Who, he's, you know, and…" she managed to stutter before her mind seemed to shut-down and she couldn't think of anything to do but wave her arm in a fluster.

He sighed, stopped walking, and turned toward her fully, his face more serious than she'd ever seen it.

"I see," he said softly, and reached one hand toward hers, the other resting on her shoulder. "Lily, everyone gets scared. But, the thing is, if we stay living in fear, if we let that fear get the better of us, then it'll never go away. We have to live each day, and be ready for the fact that it could be our last." His mouth twisted in a grim, sorrowful sort of smile. "Dad told me that last year, not long before he died. He knew about that stuff. 'Said if we're too scared to fight then he'll never go away. And I know it must be difficult for you, because of what you are," he squeezed her hand slightly, "but it'll be alright. I know it will."

"How?" she breathed, voice barely audible as she intuitively leaned toward him.

He looked out through the snow-speckled glass pane for a moment, and then stepped closer, meeting her fall into him and wrapping an arm around her, resting his head atop hers.

"Because we have better people. Look at Dumbledore. Voldemort is afraid of him. Dumbledore will keep us all safe, you wait and see. Dumbledore will defeat him and everything will be great, I promise."

She swallowed hard and breathed deeply into his robes, thick wool coarse against her cheek, idly watching the snow build up against the clear glass until that wave of suppressed panic dissipated.

"You're right," she said finally, "I'm being silly, aren't I?"

"Yeah, a bit," he replied, releasing his grip somewhat and smiling a tad indulgently at her, a shrewd look nevertheless in his eye. "You okay?"

"I'm fine," she said, tilting her head back to look up at him fully, his arms warm around her. She felt vaguely as if she could drift into sleep, and rested her head on his shoulder again, for the swathes of wool were comfortable, if prickly. Then she smiled a little, struck by the thought that the same could be said of him really.

"Oh dear," he murmured, interrupting her cerebral wanderings after a long moment, looking down at her so his breath moved the fuzzy-from-moisture hair at the edge of her brow.

"Hmm?" she replied, opening her eyes.

He jerked his head toward the ceiling, and her gaze followed the motion upward, toward the mistletoe hanging directly over their heads, and she was sure she must have turned an appropriate shade of Gryffindor scarlet, there, where she stood in the shadow of their portrait.

"Oh dear," he repeated, placing a finger against her lips and lowering his voice to a near-whisper, "we'd best be quiet. It might be swarming with Nargles." And with that he released her, winked and swept past.

She blinked, her eyes fixed upward, before snorting in a most unladylike manner as she whirled to face the portrait, her quiet laughter blending with his.

"Viscaria," he said, with a nod to the Fat Lady, who heeded them little and simply swung aside.

He stood back to let her through the hole, grinning and leaning casually against the wall, his arms folded, as she climbed through, and she found herself returning the smile and waiting until the last possible moment before she looked away from him.

"So, Lily," he said, when he too had climbed through into the empty, warm room, its usual inhabitants likely eating by now. "Lily, Lily, Lily."

She smiled as she moved to the fireplace, set her book on a small mahogany table and held her hands over the flames. "Potter."

He ambled over to join her, reaching out to take her hands. "When are you going to start calling me by my name?"

She hesitated, the smile dying on her face as she let him draw her near. "I think I can do that," she said.

"And come to the next Hogsmeade weekend with me? Do you think you could do that too?" he asked, and despite the confidence of his tone, his face betrayed his nervousness, his insecurity, his fear that she'd say no. And she saw anew the stupidity of her question to him outside, and she wondered if that fear had always been there, all those times he'd asked and she'd said no. Times when she'd belittled him, looked down on him and, she realised with a guilty flare, probably humiliated him in public. And yet… he continued to ask.

Something had changed, hadn't it? Something subtle, like a gentle flurry caught in crosswinds on a snow swept day, had upset the balance between them, sending her into freefall quicker than she would have thought possible. Or maybe, she mused, she had felt this way for a while, and had all this time been clinging resolutely to her familiar ideas about him. Old habits die hard after all.

Old habits…

The corners of her mouth flicked upward slightly and she knew what her answer would be.

"I can't," she whispered, eyes alight with a teasing merriment; his face crumpled, but she held her resolve.

"Why not?"

"Because I always said I'd date the squid before I'd go out with you and I really don't fancy donning swimwear and snorkel and diving into the murky depths for a quick snog and a fumble –"

He pulled her closer with a sigh and rested his forehead against hers. "Lily."

She took a deep breath, sobriety restored by his closeness, and uttered a strangled "Mmm?"


It was a terribly invasive move, she thought dimly, to rest his head against hers. Odd that she didn't seem to mind at all. Perhaps standing like this, and the whole journey which lead up to this moment, was nothing but a fanciful hallucination brought on by mince pies, Santa and carols. Or perhaps, she reflected, the commander was a greater strategist that she could ever have imagined, and it was time for the enemy to graciously wave the white flag to end this little skirmish.

But not the war, she mentally added with a small smirk. The war wasn't over yet. And, she was quite sure, Hogsmeade would make an excellent battleground.

And so she pulled away, and looked at him. His eyes were closed, dark lashes hiding hazel, the scar that ran along his cheek, a remnant of his hex-filled past, deliberately messy hair that was the colour of boot polish…. She absorbed it all, and noted absently that his nose was oddly long and his skin wasn't perfect and one side of his glasses was raised slightly higher than the other and –

And he opened his eyes and met her gaze. And then she saw that worry again, there in the constrict of his throat when he swallowed hard, in the tightening of his jaw when his eyes narrowed just slightly, in the red patch on his lip when his teeth pulled at it, in the way his hands held hers tightly.

She knew it was no act.

And she thought she'd melt from the unforeseen warmth that was there too, in his eyes, his face, his posture, his hands.

She released him and frowned slightly, raking him over with a somewhat exaggerated scrutiny.

"You could give it a try," he said tentatively. "We could call today our first date, after all."

"I guess we could," she agreed, then paused briefly, letting a silence hang in the air for a handful of heartbeats.

Then she gave a meaningful half-smile. "I'll think about it."

He frowned, blinked once and a slow grin spread over his face. She tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear, suddenly bashful, and, lifting her book, she turned away, her footsteps unaccompanied by his as her cloak swirled around armchairs and tables; her body feeling steadily colder as she moved away from him.


She stopped, carelessly skimming her hand along the burgundy leather backing of the nearest armchair. "Yeah?"

"I'll wait for you, shall I?"

She looked over her shoulder, to find he'd turned away from her to face the fire, silhouetted against the orange glow, and the irony of his question wasn't lost on her.

"Haven't you got to go to your dorm?"

He shook his head and half-turned to glance at her. "'Course not, Evans. Couldn't let you die of boredom walking here all by yourself, could I?"

"S'pose not," she responded.

"You'd best hurry then," he said jovially, and she turned away, almost missing his next mumbled words, "'cause I'm starving, y'know. Bet Padfoot's ate all the cottage pie again."

She grinned and glanced back at his face, half in shadow, half aglow. "Well, we could always go to the kitchens, James."

She thought she saw the corner of his mouth twitch before he wordlessly returned to the warmth of the fire, and she backed away, her own face touched by a smile, and quickly climbed the staircase to her room. Looking briefly through the scarlet draped window as she passed, her mind was too full to dwell on the glittering cloud of wind buffeted snowflakes that were captured in the eddies of the tower; delicate flakes that quickly twisted and twirled in their timeless dance, spiralling, tumbling, falling toward earth.

~ fin.