Author's Note: I know, I know, finally an update! I just want to say thank you to all my faithful reviewers. You keep me writing! I had a bit of trouble with this chapter which explains a bit why it has taken so long. I made it especially long, though! There is an explanation of what I changed and why I changed it at the end of the story (I didn't want to scare you all with a long AN at the beginning. Ha-ha!). The last few chapters have been short and uneventful, I know, but I will try (as I did for this one) to make them long. I can't really guarantee that they will be very eventful because this story isn't really just a story, but a look into James' thoughts, including a lot of his own commentary and recollections of past events and whatnot. Anyway, I will let you all get on with the reading. I hope you enjoy it!
LIFE IN THE BREAKDOWN
No one wanted to take Ancient Runes, let alone the advanced class. The question of its use came up often. Then there were the dictator-like teaching methods of the professor. The high intensity level of coursework was also an issue. Above all, though, was the question of its use because everyone knew (myself included) was practically worthless.
I ended up taking it my sixth year.
It worked out this way. Mum adored the subject and urged me to take the advanced class. Anything to keep a mother happy, I supposed. I whined a bit first, though. I told her it was horrid. And dull. And that I thought it would be more interesting watching flobberworms digest. And that there would probably only be a load of overachieving snots or the very small minority of those who actually enjoyed it. She told me I shouldn't base my own decisions upon those around me. I told her I abhorred the thought of being stuck with pansies all year and apparently, this offended her. She had taken it the very moment it was offered back when she was at Hogwarts.
In the end, she brought out the tricky statement (I called it blackmail) that boys without manners should not be given new, advanced brooms. So I owled McGonagall and asked her to tweak my schedule. Anything for Mum, of course.
I still hated the thought of having such terrible company for such a long time each week. I thought I could convince the others to tag along. They knew otherwise. Remus felt it better to invest his time in a subject of interest and he hated Ancient Runes. Sirius never even considered it, owing mostly to the nasty rumors of cruel coursework and deathly examinations. Peter was sure he had no place in the class and didn't want to disappoint his parents with a nasty old Troll (even he had never scored that low before, he was convinced Runes would be the place for it). It seemed as if most sixth years thought along those lines.
So Professor Doyle was left with a tiny class of about ten. It was interesting how, once again, Fate had placed me in the same room with Lily Evans. The look on her face when she realized that our sixth year course schedules were nearly identical was priceless. Braving the pains of such horrors as Ancient Runes and History of Magic was nearly worth that face.
"I've scored your latest examinations. Take a look and mull. Then, we'll talk." The Professor announced curtly as the last student scurried into his seat. The tone he took as he uttered the word "talk" was enough to ensure silence throughout the class.
When he declared that we would be having a class discussion, everyone knew we were in for the worst. It was not a "talking" sort of class. It was the intent listening, avid note-taking, self-educating, limited conversation sort. Any mention of talking was a red flag in Ancient Runes. He clomped around in his heavy shoes in a stanch military march and dropped doom upon our desks. Dead silence fell as each receiver cringed.
"Alright, Evans?" I whispered near her ear, leaning across my desk to nudge her back gently.
She slowly pivoted, her no-nonsense face scaring the hell out of me. I returned to normal seating position. Wiggling the paper in her left hand, she raised her eyebrows and sent me an eerie fake smile. It was actually rather creepy.
"You ask me that quite a bit, always with the worst timing."
I just stared blankly at her. What did she want me to say? I figured that silence was better. She seemed upset and I don't think it would've been wise to make a joke or tease her. When Lily Evans wanted, she could be vicious. I, in all my manliness, was entirely comfortable in admitting that, when livid and worked up, Evans could be too terrifying even for me to provoke. Thankfully, she took my silence well and continued speaking vigorously about her exam.
"Of course I'm not alright. I lost a lot of sleep studying for this bloody exam. I'll even admit it. I felt relatively confident going into it, at least compared to the rest of the class. But then there were those tricks and odd twists. I just started forgetting." She groaned, banging her head softly against my desk. "No, I really don't think I'm alright. This class will be the death of me."
At the time, I had no idea what to do. Here was Lily Evans, for once, not angry at me. She seemed to be almost angry with herself, though I didn't know why. The night before, I told the Marauders about a sort of experiment I was doing, one involving Lily Evans. Though I had been slightly dizzy from the Fizzing Wizbees we picked up on our last Honeyduke's run, I think it had something to do with attempting to be civil—something along those lines. So, when Lily Evans began knocking her head on the flat of my desk like one of those toy drinking birds, I chose to put my theory into application.
"It might be the cause of all of our deaths, I think. It really was tough, wasn't it?" I nodded, scanning my parchment for corrections and such. "I'm sure you did decently, though."
I consoled her. All part of my sensitive James routine. It seemed to be working nicely. The female population was in awe of this "great transformation" that they claimed had come over me. Sirius was disgusted because it was ultimately his idea that inspired my new experimentation. I suppose I must admit that was true—partially, at least.
"Think again, Potter." She muttered, motioning for me to take her exam. "Let me see yours—trade."
She snatched my paper from my hands (rather rudely), tossed hers into my lap, and immediately frowned, following my messy scrawls with the point of her finger. I glanced at her test. It wasn't bad. It probably wasn't one of her better scores, but weighing in the facts,her score was still above average.
"This isn't that terrible of a score. You did better than most people. Look around! Emma over there looks as if she's ready to bawl. John's got that look of desire for vandalism and destruction in his eyes. You can just tell that everyone is disappointed. Doyle must be curving it if that's the case. Don't worry so much. I think everyone did poorly."
"I did worse than you so don't you dare tell me not to worry, James Potter." She pouted. "You didn't do poorly."
It just so happened that I did fairly well judging from the current morale of my classmates. I studied long enough for it. A few years ago (even just one year before), I wouldn't have bothered. I breezed through O.W.Ls in fifth year with a cool ease. I opted for nonchalant slackness, rather than strictly hard work and diligence. That way was easier—less stressful, as well.
When it came to fifth year examinations, everyone else spent their hours pouring over lecture notes and textbooks. I challenged Sirius to a tournament of Exploding Snap. Peter wanted to join us, but I think he felt he needed more assurance. He felt he needed to study. Remus, though brilliant in most aspects of life and schoolwork, did as well. Frankly, I couldn't care less. Sirius was the same.
I suppose it was wrong of me to be so careless about something so important. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew I should've been more concerned. Whenever Sirius and I were wasting time, something nicked at my brain to pick up my copy of One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi and start memorizing It wasn't until the summer before my sixth year and sixth year itself that I decided I needed to grow up—just a little bit.
Naturally, I passed all my fifth year O.W.L.S. Mostly "outstanding," with the occasional "exceeds expectations" in History of Magic and Astronomy. Not to mention the "acceptable" in Care of Magical Creatures (I forgot that certain creatures were potentially dangerous if stepped on and accidentally dropped one right in the path of a particularly grotty Slytherin). Fair. Not terrible. Enough to rank me as one of Hogwarts' better students. Certainly enough to consider pursuing a career as an Auror—enough, but not really up to my standard.
The truth was, I expected more of myself. I could do more.
Sirius wasn't exactly ecstatic about his marks, either. He scored a few more "exceeds expectations" and "acceptable" marks because he dozed off during the written exam or wasn't paying attention. They were stupid reasons; he knew it. He was second worst only next to Peter, but that position wasn't good enough for such a staunch competitor. Remus, having scoredbetter than I, chuckled as we sulked. Over the summer, I considered slipping itching powder into his trousers when he came to visit for the weekend.
Still, Dad was pleased. He boasted at the Ministry of his fantastic son who would undoubtedly become one of the best Ministry leaders of the century. Oh, the pressure. Mum was different, though. She was glad I earned acceptable scores, but I knew she knew Sirius and I too well. We were given a solemn lecture about application and the difficulties from that point on. We believed it too.
So, sixth year had to be different. Mum was always right, after all.
"How did you do so well? I don't understand it." Lily moped, biting her lip and glaring at my paper. She was trying to burn it with her eyes. I could feel the heat.
"I suppose I'm just a natural genius."
She rolled her eyes and muttered something that sounded remarkably like the word "typical" and then whipped around to face the front of the class once again.
I was smug, (I realized that much) but a very well deserved smug. It was the first time I was ever truly happy about a mark. It wasn't even an outstanding mark, just a good one. Even so, it was the best one I'd ever gotten.I had never applied myself in anything (besides Quidditch and what Mum referred to as "no good mischief-making"). Being pleased with the benefits that accompanied hard work was an entirely foreign concept to me. It was thrilling to be able to say—securely and confidently—that I deserved it.
"I hope I've given you all sufficient time to look over your examinations. I have to admit, I'm disappointed. You are supposed to be N.E.W.T students, the brightest, the elite. This was not quality work. I expect more." He pursed his lips. His face said it all. Words only added to the sting. We writhed with guilt. "Perhaps I am not teaching you all you need to know. Or maybe it is all too difficult to be self-sufficient in such a challenging class. I've thought this over and decided on holding weekly mandatory study group sessions, some with my supervision, others without it. I have the times and dates set up for the first meeting, but the rest will be organized by your own groups according to your schedules. All that's left is splitting the class into groups. I'd say two groups of four, one group of three."
Everyone quickly looked around the room, silently planning the makings of a group. Lily's head spun faster than anyone else. I knew she was deducing and analyzing: which classmates would be most advantageous to be with in a group? She glanced back at me. I gave her a funny look because she rarely looked back at me. She greeted me with an equally perplexed face and then spun around before I could open my mouth to speak. Odd girl.
Meanwhile, Doyle rummaged around and pulled out a clipboard. "First group: Potter, Ackerley, Baddock, and . . ." he paused and scrunched up his face. "O'Leary."
Lily Evans straightened up just a bit. Then, (quite to my surprise) she flung her arm into the air and wiggled her knee impatiently. Strange one, that Evans. The professor motioned for her to speak, probably wondering what she could possibly be questioning. I did not pay much attention to it because she asked many questions and raised her hand often.
"Excuse me for interrupting, Professor, but don't you think it would be best for the House members to be in the same group, if possible? I don't mean to question your system, but I think it would be easier for us to coordinate schedules and communicate if we had other group members in our House," She proposed promptly. "For academic support and whatnot."
If possible, my jaw would have fallen to the floor the moment she made her suggestion.
"Yes, that makes sense. Fine then, the first group will consist of Potter, Gregory, and Evans. Next will be..."
My hearing left me for a moment after that. I didn't even hear the other group assignments, not that they meant anything to me. The bottom of all bottom lines was that Lily Evans wanted me in her group. The same Lily Evans who swore at the prospect of being enrolled in my classes, sat as far away as she could manage in the dining hall, and, despite civil appearances, often fought the urge to turn me into a toad. I checked my vitals just to be sure that neither blood nor oxygen had been cut off from my brain.
For years I raised my voice just a little louder when she was near with the hope that she would catch a bit of our conversation and be intrigued by its contents. I glanced in her direction just seconds before scoring a particularly difficult goal in Quidditch, thinking that it might impress her. I publicly displayed how well-versed I was in transfiguration to show her that I was not just a nuisance, that I was a brilliant wizard and one she should acknowledge. She was one of the few people who were simply and plainly unimpressed by anything I did and, furthermore, simply and plainly unimpressed by who I was.
Years of parading around like a twat and this entire time, all I had to do was score better than her on one bloody exam. Go figure.
Because of the effort I had invested into showing off for Lily Evans in the past, I naturally intended to keep the attention once I received it. After that first Ancient Runes test, my scores continued to float at the higher end of Doyle's grading spectrum and much of it due to the proud satisfaction I received from my elevated view from the top. I had a theory that attaining success in any form was the greatest method of gaining even more success. Once I got a truly good glimpse of triumph, there was little anyone I do to stop myself from wanting more and little anyone else could do to stop you me from getting it. At least, that is how it has always worked out.
Either way, my achievements in the classroom surprised many, including Lily Evans and because of this surprise, she continued to speak to me in an almost friendly manner. I had impressed her and she could not understand how I had managed such to do so. Each time we spoke of our scores, she showed (and attempted to mask) a great sense of distress, either because her marks did not suit her or because mine happened to suit her more.
All this eventually bore consequential results. Things had never been better between Evans and I, save for the time before we ever met. We were cordial, civil, and some would even say, on occasion, friendly. For once she thought I was adequately responsible, relatively ambitious, and somewhat decent. Was it wrong for me not to want to disappoint her?
Before I knew it, I became more conscious of my actions and much of that consciousness stemmed from her recent tolerance of me. I did not want to confirm her past accusations about my lack of good character nor did I want to lose whatever respect I managed to earn in such short amount of time. I had no obligation to prove myself, but for some reason, I still wanted to.
The Marauders, of course, noticed the change in my actions and swore it was initiated by a renewed attraction to Lily Evans. That, however, was not the case. She was one of those few people; she had a natural air about her. People wanted to impress her. They wanted her recognition. We needed her respect. I was not exempt from any of it.
It wasn't an attraction. It was just something about Evans. Once I gained her respect, it was simply personal pride and that indefinable quality about her that made me eager to keep it.
The first time I realized that I needed to keep her respect, we were well into the academic year. Our group had met several times for Ancient Runes and I had also managed to miss several times. She tolerated my absences, but I could tell (for I was accustomed to identifying irritation in her voice) that any more would end in argument. Attendance was imperative. That was where my problem began.
Because I had missed the previous meetings, the location and time of our next meeting were important facts that I needed to remember and also ended up being important facts that I always seemed to forget. She reminded me once in the Great Hall at lunch. I remembered it well, though not nearly well enough to know the details she had given me.
We had spotted each other in between the moving herd of students and sometime in the brief moment we passed each other, she shouted out, "Potter! We're meeting at eig—" before both she and her voice were swept away by the crowd.
I do not count that specific instance as my fault. I could not confidently say the same about the other two times Lily tried to remind me.
The second time, I barely remembered. It was right before class and I had slept less than any normal boy deserves to sleep which boiled down to a few restless hours. Lily Evans came up to me and I remember her speaking, though my eyes were drooping mid-sentence and my ears did not seem to be cooperating well with the rest of my body. I nodded to indicate understanding, though her instructions had not even registered in my head. I think, in reality, I nodded because the weight of my head was a tremendous burden for my neck to hold and I was too tired to care.
The third time she told me was the one I remembered most vividly either because I nearly got beheaded by a bludger while speaking to her or because I sent her away knowing that I had not and would not remember the location of our next meeting—mistake.
I tightened the grip on the handle of my broom, my eyes darting back and forth as the leather Quaffle passed from chaser to chaser. What broke my concentration, however, was a quick tap on the shoulder from Lawrence Day as he flew past me and pointed to a figure standing still on the field. I flew closer, stopping to hover above her and still manage to monitor the players.
"Evans, you realize I am in the middle of Quidditch practice, don't you?"
"I can see that, yes." She rolled her eyes as if to say that information was not relatively significant to her. Lily Evans regarded herself above trivialities such as Quidditch practice. I stared back blankly before returning my attention at the scrimmage which had not stopped simply because Lily Evans appeared.
"And you realize that I have quaffles flying past me and bludgers shooting at me, don't you?"
"I assume you would, considering you are playing Quidditch."
"So why then would you choose this time of all times to chat?" She paused and scowled at my comment, clearly absorbing it as a jab at her sanity.
"Well, you're always so preoccupied with everything else that I was worried you would forget about studying tonight and we can't keep pretending as if you're showing up and contributing when you're really not. Plus, I'm going to be in a Prefects meeting until then and I wanted to remind you in case you forgot."
"Well, thank you but I am perfectly capable of remembering a silly time and place."
"I'll wait until you show up tonight to assume that. So, eight o'clock in—"
It was at this moment that Chester Banning, one of our cheeky and slightly annoying beaters, sent the bludger straight at me, giving only a brief holler as warning—"Pay attention, Potter!" Instinctually, I pushed the handle of the broom sharply downwards to avoid any broken body parts or unnecessary trips to the Hospital Wing.
"Are you trying to kill me before our match, Banning? You're a Gryffindor, last time I checked."
"Are you here to play Quidditch or flirt about with your silly little girlfriend? Save it for the broom closets, won't you?"
I may have blushed at this point. If I did, I must have brushed it off as heat exhaustion or overexertion, certainly not embarrassment.
"Sorry about that, Potter." And she did look partially guilty, though I suspected the other part was entertained by my close shave with an angry bludger. "You heard me, though, didn't you?"
"Yes, yes, yes, don't worry. Anyway, I'm sure you have better things to do than nag me all day and I certainly have better things to do than get lectured for talking to you. See you then."
And just like that, I sent her away. It was my fault and thus, it was up to me to fix it. The thought of fighting with Lily Evans over my lack of responsibility after getting along for a record-breaking period of time was not appealing.
I went to the Marauders in hopes of discovering some unforeseen solution and, without knowing at the time, lit the spark of imagination that would eventually manifest into what I considered one of the greatest Marauder accomplishments ever.
"I have a gap of about eight minutes to cut the target off. It isn't a very large window of opportunity. So, the question is, how do I do it?" I proposed in a rather military fashion. "How do I calculate when and where the target will be without giving away position?"
Peter forced down a chuckle and responded, "I don't know . . . Sir." He must've added that for cheek. Fixing his slumped posture, he straightened his back and stomped his feet together, then raising a right hand to his head in a mock salute before sitting down at the dinner table. Cheeky.
"Can we not refer to Lily as 'the target,' please?" Remus sighed, setting down his plate next to mine. "It makes me think that we're on some sort of secret mission to trick her."
"In a way we are. Once again, James has stupidly forgotten an important piece of information drilled into his skull by Evans and must fix the problems caused by his lack of responsibility in order to appease her." Sirius grinned, pouring pumpkin juice into his flask. "It's simple and underhanded, yes, but isn't interaction with the female species always a bit rudimentary for dear ol' Prongs?"
"Oh piss off. If I recall correctly, Sirius Black, you are far cruder and more manipulative than any human being I have ever met."
"You're right. I'm such a dog." This he said with an attitude that became him. Sirius was one of the few people I knew who could parade around with the grandest displays of arrogance and have nearly every person around charmed. He could win over anyone with a single conversation, a power he felt no shame in flaunting.
"Why don't you just ask Gregory where you're meeting? Shouldn't he know?" Peter pointed out as he paused from buttering a roll.
"Merlin, Peter, don't you think I've thought of that already? Evans has Gregory drooling at her feet and he would snitch on me in an instant to gain favor. Potter forgot where we were meeting…again. I don't understand how anyone can be so irresponsible. I can just hear the snobbish voice of his selling me out. He just wants to shag her, you know."
"If I recall, you should be quite familiar with that feeling." Remus could be awfully cruel in his mockery.
"Let's not dwell on the gruesome details of my tasteless, irrational youth. Can we just get back to the task at hand?"
"No, not yet. I would like to delve further into this subject. Are you seriously saying that you have completely rid yourself of any attraction to Evans, even though she has gotten prettier over the years and even though you are on decent terms with her?"
"That is exactly what I am saying. It has never been this normal between us and, frankly, I am enjoying not having to bicker with her all the time. But I've already missed the past two group meetings and she already reminded me three times in the past week. If I don't show up or if I get there late or if I admit that I forgot what room we were meeting in, Lily Evans will possibly throw me off the North Tower and the rest of my sixth year will be just as unbearable between us as the beginning of it."
"Point well taken. So, for the sake of us all, how can we possibly arrange a coincidental meeting between Lily and James before eight o'clock this evening?"
"You can't. Girls are unpredictable. It is both scientifically and magically impossible to calculate how long a girl will take to get ready or where she intends to go when she is. They are never consistent and never predictable. It's what makes them so damn complicated." Sirius stated rather regretfully. "It seems like you're out of luck, mate. You and the rest of us, you and the rest of us."
"Bugger. If I positioned you all at key spots and you all sort of followed her, that might work, right?"
"You're stretching it, Prongs. She'd notice us lurking about the hallways, hiding in broom closets and around corners. It's not as if we have Invisibility Cloaks or hours of time to spare. I read about a tracking spell once, but it's complicated and I don't know enough about it to tell you anything specific, let alone perform it." Remus added, his brows furrowing in focused thought.
"Tracking spells are difficult, though. You actually have to physically track them and follow them wherever they decide to go. The ideal would be to monitor a person from a distance. On paper or through one of those crystal balls they keep in the storerooms. I've only heard of pinpointing a person on paper, not actually observing their movements." Mumbled Sirius, as concentrated on the subject as the rest of us. I assume the subject had caught his interest for Sirius Black rarely put effort into anything if he wasn't interested.
"Yeah. It would be nice to mix the two though, huh?" Peter piped in, snapping us out of our intense, separate flows of thought. "You would think with all this magic, there was bound to be a way to combine spells."
It was quiet for a moment. We just stared at each other, the mind-gears whirling about and our range of senses extending no further than the area between the four of us. We were in the zone and nothing could distract us. This usually happened when we were on the verge of a genius idea and those sorts of things don't come along too often, so distractions were not options.
"Well, why don't we?" I blurted out, this time refocusing individual thought to collective group thought. We worked better that way. Four cunning minds were undoubtedly more useful than one brilliant one. "Peter said it—there is bound to be a way. We live in a magical world. Nothing is impossible."
"I'm almost certain it defies a whole lot of magical rules and conventions, but theoretically there should be something on combinatory magic. It's not common, but I'm sure it exists. The only problem is that the whole field is quite shaky and there is no telling how long the research would take. Do we really need such a difficult task in our sixth year, on top of N.E.W.T classes?"
"Sure. We've done more absurd things before, if you can recall. Why stop now?"
"It would certainly be useful to know where meddlesome Prefects are lurking about or where grimy Professors are waiting to catch wandering students."
"Like an extreme map of the school and Hogsmeade. It would certainly open doors to exploration and adventure."
"The Marauder way—I like it."
"It's decided then. I have a good feeling about this. It's in the gut and that's when you know it's a good idea. It's in the gut, my friends. The gut!"
And amidst the brainstorming and outpouring of creative activity, I forgot about my scheme to follow Lily Evans to our Ancient Runes group meeting. I would figure something out, even if it meant subjecting myself to her scrutiny. I would survive.
After all, I always did.
Author's Note (continued):
The previous version had James once again considering pursuit of Lily, which worked out decently, but I don't think it made much sense. He has not asked her out since fifth year (currently sixth) and they are finally moving towards being on decent terms. While I think James does have a lingering (and denied) attraction, I don't imagine him to be the kind of person to just regress and go back to how things were. More than that, I think a lot of his actions in regards to Lily are fueled by a few things: attraction (obviously), curiosity, challenge, and a desire to be acknowledged. She was not and is not the kind of girl who is impressed by ridiculous antics or bigheadedness, so for him to finally gain some favor with her is paramount. Why would he ruin that by trying to woo her in a way that has never produced favorable results? On top of that, after he stopped asking her out and such, why would he all of the sudden go back? Though James can be somewhat shallow, he is clearly someone who values friendship and would do what he could to maintain a civil relationship with Lily because he does, in fact, think highly of her (even just platonically). Of course, he still wants to impress her, but perhaps this time for more noble reasons than simply romance. This is basically the thought process I went through while trying to rewrite this chapter and still make things work as I want them to. It might not necessarily make sense to you guys, but hopefully the story will.
Oh, and in response to Shoelia: The first lesson is the one in which James tells Lily that they should be friends. The whole portrait thing happens after, though still at the beginning of the year (probably within the first week or so). I had it differently in the older versions, so if you read those maybe you remember from there. Or, maybe I slipped up. Oops! Of course, in this latest chapter, James goes back to address his experiences in Ancient Runes from the beginning of the year. The narration jumps around a lot, so it's easy to get confused with the years and time periods and such. Hopefully I can clarify things enough!
So, if you got through this—bravo! Even if you didn't, please review! I could really use all the feedback and encouragement! Thanks so much!