Chapter Nine—Bonded

9.1

Dawn was just breaking over the silent neighborhood when I crept into my home, careful not to wake my parents or Petunia as I shrugged out of my winter coat and kicked off my boots at the door before heading into the kitchen. I stared blankly for a moment at the sterile beige countertops, everything put nearly into its place during one of Petunia's nervous cleaning frenzies, before sighing and pulling open the refrigerator to survey the breakfast options. Perhaps making my family a good meal would dispel any irritation they might carry over my unintentional all-night-out. Hell, I chuckled weakly to myself. Petunia will probably care more than mum and dad do…

I felt slightly groggy, still only half-believing the events that had taken place the day before, but knew that if I laid back down in my own bed, I would not find sleep. I forced my sluggishness away, intending to focus all of my attention on making sure that nothing untoward happened during my sister's wedding. Gritting my teeth, I resolved to be nothing but pleasant to Petunia today—no matter how much she irked me. And irk me I knew she would—the more unbearable she behaved toward me, the happier she would be.

After a quick glance out of the window to make sure no one was watching, I flicked my wand at the tea kettle, levitating it over to the sink to fill with water before setting it gently down upon the stovetop to boil. I magicked eggs and bacon out of the refrigerator as well, let them set themselves up in two frying pans as I began making toast. Normally I didn't use magic at home if I didn't have to—I told myself it was an effort to stave off laziness—but I was too tired this morning to reprimand myself.

As breakfast cooked itself, I leaned idly against the countertop and peered out of the window. The bronze light cutting through the purple pre-dawn and reflecting off of the snow anchored me to the spot, trying to impress upon me the gravity of the day. Petunia was getting married, moving out of the house, starting the rest of her life. It should have impressed me more, and yet… a domestic Muggle life seemed tame compared to what towered over me every day of late. I cringed at the comparison, but it remained all the same. Besides, it wasn't as though I didn't want to get married myself one day…

"Finally home, I see." My father's disapproving voice jerked me from my thoughts, and I spun to face him, chagrined, quickly tucking my wand into my back pocket. His voice dipped into mock-sternness. "What are you learning at that school of yours besides staying up all night?"

I grinned, knowing that he, at least, had forgiven me. "Sorry dad," I said sweetly, offering him a cup of tea before pouring one for myself. "We got held up later than expected, and Mr. Potter thought it would be better for me to stay there in case the stress caused a relapse. But I'm fine," I added hastily, noticing the concerned look in my father's eyes. I fervently stirred sugar into my cup to keep from looking at him—I didn't feel completely back to normal, yet, and I didn't want him to know it. "The Healers said I was as healthy as could be expected. Mr. Potter is just overly cautious…"

"That's good to know." He sighed as he took a sip of his tea. "I've got one daughter leaving me today, don't you go, too."

"Nobody's leaving." I bent to hug him around the neck, comforted as usual by the familiar minty smell of his after-shave. "Don't worry, dad. Try to relax today, alright?"

He nodded and I backed away from him, escaping up the stairs with my cup of tea before he could see the unbidden tears in my eyes.

9.2

I showered quickly, resisting the urge to linger and recall how wonderful the experience with James had been the night before, and how peaceful I had felt this morning when he had awoken me by sleepily taking my hand and kissing the back of my neck. Yet thoughts down that avenue tended to turn heady, especially as I visualized his arousal in my mind, and fantasizing about shagging James was the last thing I needed to be thinking about—especially because we would be surrounded by my family all day.

Yet any remaining daydreams were dashed the second I stepped into my bedroom to find Petunia—her face slathered in a green facial mask, her blonde hair in rollers, and still clad in her dressing gown—elbow-deep in my school trunk, rifling through my things. Instantly on my guard, I closed my bedroom door a hair short of slamming it; Petunia jumped at the noise, whirling to face me.

I crossed my arms and gave her a hard stare, my voice purposefully nonchalant as I attempted to keep our dialog pleasant. "If you were looking for something, you could have just asked me where it was…"

Her lips narrowed into a thin line at my unexpectedly calm reaction, and she placed her hands on her hips, signaling that she would be on the attack. "Why am I not surprised," she began hotly, "to discover that mum and dad aren't punishing you for staying out all—"

"Oh grow up," I interrupted, instantly annoyed. "Something important came up—"

"Something important?" she sneered, breathing heavily. "Staying out all night to fuck some freak the night before my wedding somehow qualifies as something important? Oh, please, this ought to be good!"

I froze, not knowing how to react to this statement. I wanted to slap her, to hex her—and yet tiny bits of me just wanted to cry over the fractured relationship with my own sister. I settled on taking a deep breath, trying to cool my boiling anger.

"Tell me what you were digging around for, or leave," I said stiffly, trying to pretend as though her statement hadn't riled me; it was the surest way to get a rise out of her. I dropped my pile of clothes and hidden wand to the floor and tightened the towel around my torso. "Yvonne, Marge, and the other bridesmaids will be here soon; I need to get ready."

"So you don't deny it!" Petunia announced viciously, grinning now. But Petunia was a gossip, and I refused to let her pump me for information. I was used to playing her games, and simply stepped over to my bureau, dropped my towel, and began getting dressed in what I would wear to get my hair and nails done, my anger transitioning into pity at her shallowness as I did so. I resisted the strong urge to make a snide retort—especially one about her husband-to-be—and Petunia questioned me non-stop as I dressed, not minding that I gave no answers. She simply wanted to see me squirm and bite my tongue. However, when I tucked my wand into the waist of my pants, hiding the top under the hem of my shirt, Petunia's voice trailed away. Her eyes were locked onto my back, as though she could see the wand resting there.

"My wand?" I asked suspiciously after a moment. "Is that what you were looking for?"

She licked her lips nervously. "I want you to leave it here," she said quietly, almost pleading with me. Her joy from verbally pouncing on me a moment before faded away. "I don't want you acting like a freak on my wedding day."

"Petunia, I suddenly won't revert to a Muggle if I don't have my wand on me," I snapped, failing at trying to be patient with her insecurities. Her old jealously of my magic had turned into animosity years ago, and it was pathetic how hard she worked to pretend my world didn't exist. "I'm a Witch no matter what you do, just accept it."

She frowned, her large front teeth poking through her lips as she pouted. "I made an exception and let you invite that ruffian as your guest. Just leave your wands here for the day—it's my wedding day, you have to do what I want."

"It's not that simple, Petunia." I crossed my arms, and tried to keep the disgust off of my face. I lowered my voice, whispering fervently, "You know the Wizarding world is in a war, James and I just want to make sure that nothing—"

"Oh spare me." She rolled her eyes. "If making up some nonsense about a war makes you feel self-important, guess what: I'm not buying it. As if normal, decent people have to worry about people like… you!"

My hand jerked toward my belt as I fought the urge to prove to her that magic did exist, even if she didn't want to believe it. But I just sighed and forced my clenched fingers apart. "Look, I'll do my best to act normal today—but you keep away from James, I don't want you tormenting him."

Petunia snorted, stalking toward the door. "You keep him away from my guests—"

"What, afraid people will like him more than they like Vernon?" I shot, knowing the jib was childish and ridiculous—but so was the entire argument. She froze, a vein pulsing in her long neck, and I couldn't stifle the disbelieving bark of a laugh that ripped from my throat as I realized that the remark had actually gotten under her skin. I was opening my mouth to apologize for it when the doorbell rang, and the booming voice of Vernon's sister Marge called up the stairs, accompanied by the shrill voice of Petunia's best friend, Yvonne.

"Pet? Petty darling, are you ready to go?"

With one last scathing look at me, Petunia hurried from the room, slamming the door behind her.

9.3

To my relief, the ceremony and reception went without a hitch. Petunia did her best to ignore me, and I was able to strap my wand to my left calf in order to have it on me—unfortunately, that was the only place I could hide my wand under the sleek folds of my bridesmaids dress. While Petunia was getting ready at the church, James had been able to set wards around the large reception tent in our back yard—barring Snape suddenly showing up for a duel, it looked as though we were home free for the evening. As everyone drank and danced, I actually found myself having a good time—after the obligatory photo session, of course. Though Mum, in her persistent quest to keep both of her daughters happy, and perhaps sensing that I wasn't having the best time with Petunia and her friends, had convinced the photographer to take one of just James and me, and I looked forward to framing it for my desk.

Once the toasts had been made at the reception, I escaped the bridal party table in favor for a table at the back of the tent near a portable heater, where several cousins my age had congregated. We chatted over a bottle of wine, our visiting interspersed with bouts of dancing. James was popular among my female cousins, especially the ones several years younger than myself, who looked up at him in attracted awe but were too intimidated to ask him to dance. The older cousins, who I was closer to, laughingly invited him to dance with them and teased me if I acted jealous.

But I didn't mind simply watching him—he was smiling, having a good time, and—somehow—the wary shadow behind his eyes had softened. Perhaps it was because we were the only wizards present, and he didn't have to constantly suspect those around us for fear they might be Dark. In any case, he primarily seemed concerned with not being outdanced; he exerted himself so much that he left his black suit coat on the back of my chair, and rolled up the sleeves of his maroon button-up shirt. My head was a swirl of lights, music, joy, and wine as I took James' hand to dance to an upbeat number.

"So, what do you think about Muggle weddings?" I asked as we two-stepped in a wide circle with several other couples, Petunia and Vernon included. Luckily, she was so engrossed with her new husband that she forgot to send us dirty looks. My head was resting against James' collar bone, and I spoke quietly enough that only he could hear me above the volume of the record player.

"Well, overall it's pretty similar to a magical wedding. The ceremony is a bit different, though. We bind with magic, not just words." He spun me in a quick circle, grinning as he changed his step on me and I sought to keep up. "What type do you want to have one day?"

"Don't know, I've never seen a magical one before," I said nonchalantly as we negotiated carefully around the other couples; the last thing I wanted to do was step on Petunia's wedding dress. "Probably a Muggle wedding, so my family could actually be there." I laughed, quirked an eyebrow at him. "Of course, maybe I'll marry a Muggle or Muggleborn, and it'll be a moot point."

He snorted, his eyes gleaming with humor as he pulled me in, letting the wine go to his senses for a moment as he held me too close. "Don't kid yourself." The words were intense, ambiguous, but the look in his eyes made it clear what he was hinting about.

I danced on tip-toe long enough to whisper into his ear, knowing that the feel of my warm breath on his neck would send shivers down his spine. My words were teasing rather than sensual, not what he was expecting at all. I desired him, surely—but that didn't mean I would fall blindly to his charms, offering no resistance whatever. Weeks before, I had sworn to myself that I would never simply give in to him, that we both deserved something more meaningful than that. And so instead of re-iterating my love for him, I grinned mischievously. "Don't flatter yourself, Potter."

And with that, I turned away from him and made my way back to my cousins, smiling to myself. Perhaps the wine had gone to my head as well, but I could feel his amused, determined glance on my back even after one of my cousins had stepped up to take my place on the dance floor.

9.4

We ushered in 1978 quietly, just mum and dad and me. We stayed at home to watch old movies on the telly and play board games while sipping champagne. Mum even surprised me with a chocolate cake to celebrate my upcoming eighteenth birthday. Spending time with my parents was pleasant, but before long, I was definitely ready to get back to school to see how my friends had fared over the break.

Upon stepping onto the ever-crowded platform at King's Cross, I immediately felt the presence of the Ministry, and for good reason. The Aurors weren't even trying to blend in with the crowd; after the public outrage that the train had been attacked before, the Ministry wanted to send a sign that they wouldn't allow an attack to happen again. Squads of Aurors were riding the train to Hogwarts with us, and they even had patrols along the rail line. Yet somehow, I doubted that the Death Eaters would try anything with the train—on this journey, at least.

My patrol ended halfway through the journey. Unfortunately I hadn't seen James but for a moment since my sister's wedding; he was patrolling the cabins near the caboose of the train while I had been patrolling near the engine, and the only interaction we'd had was a shared smile. I was eager to meet up with him, and to relax with my friends over butterbeer and few chocolate frogs for the remainder of the ride.

I was walking quickly down the metal walkway, hand raised to keep bits of snow from whirling into my eyes, when I spotted two familiar Aurors lounging against the railing mid-way down the train. They were dressed in dark work robes, and were bundled up against the cold, but I could still recognize their tall frames even if I couldn't make out the features of their faces.

"Frank! Fabian!" I cried happily, dashing over to throw my arms around Frank. My voice hardly carried over the sound of the winter storm and the racketing wheels of the train, but both turned to regard me with pleased surprise. They looked slightly more well-rested than when I had seen them before, the circles under their eyes less dark than usual, and I hoped that they had gotten some time off over the holidays.

"Lily, how've you been?" asked Frank, giving me a quick squeeze. "You certainly look better than the last time we saw you."

"Managed to stay out of trouble since we saw you last?" shot Fabian, grinning as he crossed his arms in mock severity. The wind was blowing strands of his long red hair across his face, but he ignored the bother. Behind him, the white-washed countryside streaked by, partially concealed by flurries of snow and steam from the train's engine.

I rolled my eyes at the pair of them. "I'm doing well—I'm ready to get this term over with, though. You know, get out into the real world." I leaned back against the railing beside Fabian, facing Frank. Through the compartment window beside him, I noticed Emmeline and Alice sitting with the Marauders, playing cards. I smiled to myself; no wonder Frank had chosen to stand guard outside this particular compartment.

Frank frowned a little, growing serious. "Have you settled on a career, yet?"

I fiddled with the Gryffindor scarf around my neck, grabbing the ends so that the cold wind couldn't blow them streaming out behind me they way it was blowing my hair, streaking through the long locks too quickly to truly tangle them.

"Still considering," I finally answered, "though the Aurors are top choice right now…" I bit my lower lip, trailing off uncertainly.

"But?" Frank prompted, tilting his head at me.

"Well," I shrugged. "I want to get married eventually, I want to have a family… Auror training doesn't seem to lend itself to that very well."

Fabian snorted. "No, it doesn't. I'm several years older than my sister and she's already pregnant for the third time—with twins—while I'm just a lonely bachelor!" He shot Frank an amused look. "I don't know how he's managed his relationship so well."

I grinned at Frank as he blushed, half-glanced into the window next to him. "I'm just lucky, I suppose."

"Yeah, well…" I tried to keep my thoughts off of James, knowing that he surely would try for the Aurors. What would happen when we got out of school? I'd rather be by his side than waiting nervously every night for him to come home. I sighed. "Perhaps I should be less selfish. The Ministry does need more Aurors…" I shrugged before stepping forward to open the compartment door. "At least I've still got a few more months to decide."

"That, you do." Frank smiled encouragingly. "I'm sure it'll settle itself out."

"And you're certainly up to the challenge," Fabien concluded, giving me a confident nod of his head. I grinned back at the pair of them, bolstered by the exchange—and yet vaguely feeling more confused than ever about the future.

I slipped inside the compartment, grateful to be out of the cold. The Mauraders and Emmeline glanced up from their game long enough to greet me, but Alice pat the empty seat next to her, gesturing for me to take a seat and offering me a bottle of butterbeer.

"Thanks, Alice," I said warmly as I collapsed beside her, screwing the top off of my drink and taking a long swig. "Why aren't you out there visiting with Frank?"

She sighed and tucked a piece of her short brown hair behind her ear. "He wants to be professional. I mean, he is on duty…"

"So you two are stuck staring longingly at each other through a pane of glass? Sounds miserable."

Alice shrugged and pulled her boxed wizard chess set from the bag at her feet. "At least he's here, I can see him." She tossed him another look for good measure, but he didn't see it; he and Fabian were now both leaning against the railing and staring out into the turbulent snow, wands in hand and as they kept watch for any sign of the Death Eaters. "That's something."

"True…" I watched in silence as she set up the pieces and made her first move, moving her queen's knight forward. That's how James and I would need to be, I decided. In order to command any respect, we'd have to remain professional in public. I nodded to myself, firming my resolve as I pondered what move to make on the chess board.

As though on cue, I saw James appear by Frank's side. He hadn't noticed me through the window, and I took a moment to admire the strong lines of his jaw and the planes of his face, his confident posture, and the ease in which he interacted with Frank and Fabian. He idly twirled his wand in his fingers, an unconscious gesture of his ease, and I imagined those same fingers running down my bare spine.

"So, Lily…" said Alice slowly, grinning knowingly at me as she cut into my reverie. "How was your sister's wedding? Did James hold up alright?"

At James' name, Sirius' eyes flashed up, watching us over his hand of cards. I laughed softly, trying not to blush. Clearly, Alice saw right through me, could identify my feelings for James without a problem, having experienced such for Frank herself. I found myself trying not to glance curiously at Sirius, wondering just how much James had told him of our relationship. Clearing my throat, I got myself under control.

"Well, that was an interesting day…"

9.5

It felt good to be back at the castle, and I wondered why I had missed it so much after only a few weeks away. Perhaps it was because I knew that this was my last term, and I was determined to enjoy it the best I could.

Classes made enjoying anything difficult, though. Now that we were on this side of the Holidays, the professors were truly gearing up for N.E.W.T.s, setting us more in-depth essays and requiring us to practice wand work more often outside of class. I gave up trying to study in the library—it felt too crowded of late, even though the term had just begun. Instead I spent hours with Emmeline and Alice before the fire in my room, waiting for the day when the snows turned to rain and it would grow warm enough for us to study outside. Admittedly, we only studied for part of the time, spending a lot of our attention on Alice's wedding plans, but it was good to spend quality time with them nonetheless.

We refused to study the evening of January 30th, my birthday. Luckily, it was a Friday night and we had just finished a bout of mid-term exams, so when I walked into the Common Room to find it decorated and overflowing with goodies from Hogsmeade, I was more than happy to take a break. A broad Happy Birthday, Lily banner hung over the door to the female dormitories, and a grin split my face as Emmeline produced a very large cake, topped with eighteen candles.

"This is really great," I beamed from a squashy armchair before the fire later in the evening, shuffling the new pack of Exploding Snap cards that Emmeline had given me. It was growing quite late, and many students had gone up to bed. Alice had long since gone to her dormitory, complaining of a stomach ache, and Remus, looking pale, had gone to bed shortly after her. In the far back corner of my mind, I took note that the full moon was approaching—I couldn't banish my guilty discomfort at the thought, even though I knew that the werewolf who would soon be roaming free over the grounds was a friend of mine.

Emmeline, who was sprawled on the floor before the fire, looked up from the letter she was writing to her boyfriend Broderick Helm, and grinned at me. "We all needed a break—we'll have to do this again for my birthday next month, I expect. Just to stay sane, you know."

"Sounds good," I laughed. "Well, it's a Hogsmeade day tomorrow. When do you want to meet up to go? Or are you meeting Broderick?"

She actually blushed—an uncommon trait for Emmeline—and turned back to her letter. "Yeah, I think I am meeting him. You can come with us if you'd like."

"No, it's okay. I'll go with Alice if she's feeling better." I had insisted that James spend the day with his friends, lest they begin to think I was hogging him.

I tossed a quick look at James, who was sitting in a dark corner of the Common Room, prodding figures around a miniature Quidditch pitch in an attempt to devise new strategies. Peter looked on eagerly, every now and then tapping his wand against the miniature Chasers to suggest a move. Now that the Quidditch season was halfway over, James had increased team practices to four nights a week, plus a weekend afternoon—it was a good thing he could function well with only a few hours of sleep a night, enabling him to get through all his homework and Head Boy duties.

I sighed, content and slightly sleepy, idly surveying the Common Room. Sirius had sidled up to a pretty sixth year named Deborah, trying to get her attention. She was smiling at him, but I couldn't tell whether he had captured her interest, or if she was simply amused at his efforts. A group of second years had constructed a very impressive Exploding Snap castle, and several other students were in the midst of another Gobstones tournament. The rest of the students in sight seemed to be calming down for bed as the sugar high from my birthday cake wore off. I felt a sudden wash of warmth for the Common Room and my fellow Gryffindors flood through me at the sight, followed by a dizzying bout of nostalgia.

"I'm going to miss this place," I sighed suddenly as I stood and stretched. "It really feels like home."

Emmeline nodded in agreement as she signed her name with a flourish at the bottom of the letter. "No matter how hard the classes are, life is easy here compared to the real world," she said quietly, beginning to re-read the letter. "I'm trying not to take any of it for granted."

"You're right," I said slowly, still stretching with my arms over my head. I tossed a meaningful look at James, hoping he'd call it a night soon. Though it was obvious to our friends, we hadn't officially told anyone that we were together, and I enjoyed our secret rendezvous. The others seemed amused at our attempts to be subtle, but didn't comment on the subterfuge. If anything, they seemed relieved that the tension between us had finally dissipated.

James caught my eye, gave me a slight smile before waving his wand at the miniature Quidditch players, causing them to freeze and fall to the table top. "I'm calling it a night," he announced to Peter with a devilish glint in his eye, crossing his arms in satisfaction. "Looking forward to practicing a few of these moves on Sunday, though."

I grinned at Peter's enthusiastic acknowledgement, and turned away just as he peered in to study the pitch, as though visualizing the many players and balls soaring through intricate formations. I bade everyone a goodnight, and headed slowly up the dormitory stairs. The fire in my room had burned low, but I didn't bother to stoke the flames. As I stared at the glowing orange coals, my heart began to race, and Emmeline's voice played over and over in my mind: Don't take it for granted.

My hands began to shake as I made up my mind. I rushed into the bathroom to brush my teeth and wash my face, feeling too nervous to stand still. I caught my reflection in the mirror as I toweled my face dry. My cheeks were flushed, eyes were sparkling with excitement, and an embarrassed, anticipatory grin split my face for a split second before nerves took over once again. Distractedly, I ran a brush through my hair, letting it fall wildly around my shoulders, and tore at the red and gold tie around my beck, pulling it off and leaving it in a crumpled pile on the countertop. Finally, I rummaged through my drawer of toiletries, at last pulling a small vial of a red potion out of my drawer of toiletries. I stared at it for a moment before uncorking it and chugging the potion without further thought.

I extinguished the candles in the bathroom and slipped into James' room, thankful that he hadn't locked his door. His fire had burned low as well, and its light was barely enough to dimly illuminate the room. Through his room's windows, I could see the shadowy movement of a thick, swift snowfall. Before I could step over to the bed, I heard James' footsteps hurrying up the stairs. I pressed myself against the wall behind his door, staying out of sight as he entered his room and kicked the door closed behind him.

James sighed as he stepped across the room, pulling off his tie and throwing his shirt onto the foot of his bed. With a lazy flick of his wand, the flames grew in the fireplace; he placed his wand on a shelf over the hearth before reaching for his dressing robe, which was hanging on a peg near the fire to keep warm. He changed his mind halfway through the motion, and instead decided to lean with both hands on the hearth, as though trying to absorb as much warmth from the fire as possible. He looked slender in the darkness, the firelight illuminating his face and chest in bronze, but unable to distinguish the rest of his body from shadow.

He half-turned his face towards the door as I stepped out of the shadows, but didn't get a chance to say anything before I kissed him, smoothing the mild surprise on his face into contentment. I paused only to place my wand beside his on the shelf before grabbing his hands and pushing him backwards until the back of his knees caught on the foot of the bed. He lost his balance, and with a laugh, pulled me down onto the bed beside him, slipping his hands under the hem of my shirt to hold me around my waist.

"What's gotten into you, love?" he asked quietly. His adam's apple vibrated against my lips as I kissed his throat, and I pushed on his hands, urging him to slide my shirt over my head.

I felt a nervous sweat break out over my skin as he followed my lead, throwing my shirt to land next to his own. I could feel myself blushing as I curled up against him, listening to his rapid-fire heartbeat and excited breathing, satisfied that I could cause his body to react so. "Well, to be honest, I thought I would see how good I am at seducing you."

"Bloody hell, Lily!" He laughed almost bitterly, pressing a kiss into my hair and propping one leg up on the mattress. "You can't tease a bloke like this."

"I'm serious," I whispered, sliding my hand across his chest in a hopefully-sensuous manner. I looked up to meet his eyes, peered at the dark smear of hazel through the lenses of his glasses before shifting my weight so that I was lying on top of him, straddling his waist. My free hand rose to twirl fingers through his hair. "Why wait any longer?"

James tilted his head at me, eyes never leaving mine. "Lily Evans, are you propositioning me?" he asked, his face bright with amusement, though his halfway disbelieving voice was threaded with desire. I grinned at him and nodded, my face burning. "Are you sure?" I nodded again, my heart beginning to race once more. He stared at me for a moment and took a long, deep breath before abruptly rolling me onto my back with a smile. His tone was light as he said, "I just wanted to be certain."

"I took a potion," I said breathlessly after a moment of staring into one another's eyes, unmoving; neither of us really knew what move to make next. "So… we don't have to worry about anything."

"Good thinking," James sighed as he reached behind my back to unhook my bra. Abruptly, he untangled his limbs from mine and rolled off of the bed. "I'll be right back, just going to brush my teeth."

I rolled my eyes, slightly taken aback at his departure. I suddenly felt very vulnerable, and didn't want the momentum of my actions to slow lest I suddenly change my mind. "Take your time."

He snorted, and ran a hand through his hair as he walked toward the bathroom. One hand on the door frame, he turned to face me. "Lily, you're lying half-naked in my bed, and you've just asked me to shag you. Trust me, I won't be any longer than basic hygiene permits."

He shut the door behind himself. As the tap ran, I decided to make myself more comfortable. I kicked off my remaining clothes and burrowed under his coverlet. Hugging a pillow to my chest, breathing in the comforting scent of James' hair on the pillow case, I stared at the falling snow as I awaited his return. My mind was abuzz. Was I sure that now was the right time? I thought of Alice and Frank, of all the time they were forced to be apart. They didn't waste any of their time together, and in this uncertain present, I was determined not to, either.

I didn't turn to watch James re-enter the room. After a moment, I heard the whisper of clothes falling to the floor and felt the bed stir as James climbed in beside me. His touch on my skin was light, a slight pressure insisting that I turn to face him. When I did so, he met me with a slow kiss. As his hands explored my body, the kiss gradually grew more passionate, our grinding more desperate. At long last, I pressed myself tightly against him, aroused and eager for the next step.

"James…" Feeling bold, I reached down to help James position himself. He was trembling slightly, but moved with his usual confidence; with a small gasp, he obliged my request, bracing himself with one hand on the wall behind my head, the other on the bed next to me. The muscles on his arms were tensed with effort, and suddenly I was overcome with how physically weak I was compared to him, appreciated how easily he could have forced me to do this at any time, had he wanted to.

Remembering my cousins' admonitions to communicate with my partner, I forced myself not to freeze up in uncertainty and instead reached up to stroke his face with one hand while the other steadied his waist, attempting to control his speed. I gasped in turn as pain shot through me. "Go slowly," I whispered, staring up at his right ear. I felt unable to meet his eyes; they were blazing with intensity, and I felt ashamed at the thin tears now streaking from my own.

We were clumsy, but the pain soon faded, replaced by a strange pleasure. I tried to relax, rocking my hips in time to James' careful thrusts, but the added motion was too much for him. Half-laughing, half-panting, he shuddered over me, eyes closed as he rested his forehead on my collar bone in ecstasy. I felt a rush of fire thrill through me as I watched—and felt—him completely lose himself to the pleasure I had given him.

"I'm sorry that was so fast," he groaned after he collected himself, looking dismayed at my tears. Shifting his weight, he kissed my eyelids before muttering, "And that I hurt you."

I took a shuddering breath, fighting the absurd urge to cry. "Don't be sorry. It was painful… yet brilliant." I grinned and reached up to wipe away my tears, comforted by his weight pressing down on my body and the cocoon of warmth created by the covers. "James?"

"Hm?" He rolled off of me before pulling me into an embrace, my back pressing into his chest. He wrapped his arms around me and began idly running his fingers from my stomach to my breasts. To my amusement, he was beginning to fall asleep.

"I hope you're not nodding off…" I stretched languorously under his fingertips before twisting to straddle him again, leaning forward so that my hair fell in a curtain around his face. "Because I think I want to try it again."

9.6

Alice and I both decided to forgo Hogsmeade the next day, deciding instead to take a walk around the ice-rimmed lake. It was a strange morning; a fresh layer of snow lay thickly on the ground and draped the trees of the forest, but the sky was a clear, endless blue. Perhaps it felt so odd, as though the calm weather was a façade, blanketing the frenzied intricacies of the world, because every day there were people dying and being kidnapped by Dark Wizards, the entire society of Muggles threatened, and at Hogwarts I lived in a bubble emanating a false sense of security. Or perhaps I felt odd simply because I did feel so incredibly calm inside, despite everything.

I never would have expected this, but I felt no different, no older or wiser, after losing my virginity to James. I just felt satisfied, proud—and a little sore. My connection with James had deepened tenfold; I couldn't help but smile when I thought of how intimate and uninhibited I could forever be with him. It truly was a great feeling. It burned within me, and I almost blurted it out to Alice upon seeing her—surely she would understand—but at the same time I felt these feelings were too raw to try containing them into words just yet. A blush tinged my cheeks as I imagined being with him again and again, for the rest of our lives.

To the other students, it was a long awaited day, the excited current of a Hogsmeade trip amplified by eagerness for the important Quidditch game between Ravenclaw and Slytherin that night. But Alice and I walked in silence, each lost to our own thoughts as we sipped on hot chocolate and nibbled on pieces of toast.

"They've increased Auror patrols around the perimeter of the grounds for the Hogsmeade weekend," Alice said suddenly as we rounded the far side of the lake, carefully walking on the iced-over pebbles of the beach to avoid entering the Forbidden forest. The forest was silent now, and I cast a long look into its depths, wondering if Centaurs might be watching us, our actions interpreted by them according to the portents of the sky.

Setting my empty mug along the shore, I carefully made my way out onto the ice. Sliding a little, I peered down into the frozen, murky depths of the lake, trying to make out any sign of frozen fish or the merpeople that were rumored to live there. "Do you think Frank might be among them? Want to go to Hogsmeade and ask the Aurors patrolling there?" I asked, spinning on the ice to face her in imitation of a figure skater. As I tried to avoid falling, I noticed a strange look cross Alice's face. My smile fading, I carefully made my way back to the beach.

When I was within ten feet of her, I realized she was crying. "What's wrong?"

Abruptly, Alice reached up to grab fistfuls of her fair, a desperate sob escaping her lips as she sunk, forlorn, onto the beach. She looked completely beside herself, and I rushed over to her side, feeling as though all my happiness was being sucked into a dark void.

"Alice?" I asked tentatively, kneeling onto the ground behind her. I had never seen Alice so upset, and didn't know quite how to react. As I reached out to hug her, she turned to lean into me, her sobs muffled against my cloak. I didn't say anything else, figuring that she would open up to me when she was able. I simply stroked her hair and rocked her slightly, trying to comfort her. After a few minutes, she pulled away from me, rubbing vigorously at her eyes with gloved hands.

"I'm sorry," she said quietly, unable to meet my eyes. "I just… I don't…" she trailed off as she fought more tears, momentarily burying her face in her hands. "I couldn't repress it any longer."

"You can talk to me," I said soothingly, reaching over to tuck a lock of her disarrayed hair behind her ear. "If it will make you feel better."

She took a deep breath, glanced up into the deep blue of the sky as though gathering courage. "You know how last night I wasn't feeling well?" she asked, biting her lip as she turned her attention back to me. I nodded, frowning a little as I listened, an unexplainable nervous feeling beginning to stir in the pit of my stomach.

"I started feeling worse in the middle of the night. Got up to use the bathroom, and saw…" she trailed off, deciding to spare me the vivid details. When she spoke again, her voice was stronger, and I knew she was finally able to collect herself as she got the weight off of her chest. "Well, I went to Madame Pomphrey. Apparently it was a miscarriage, less than six weeks along." Her voice broke, and she looked down at the ground. "I didn't even know…"

Tears welled up in my eyes as I watched my friend fight against her emotions again. I could barely begin to comprehend what she must be feeling, finding out that she had been a mother, realizing the gravity of her situation, in the same instant that it was snatched away from her. Suddenly, she stood, walked over to where I had left my mug on the beach, and stooped to pick it up. I followed her lead, shakily getting to my feet. An icy wind picked up, blasting away the last vestiges of my contentment, as we began heading briskly back towards the castle.

"I'm so sorry, Alice." I ventured after a moment. "I can't imagine…"

"The really fucked up part," she said, her voice matter-of-fact, "is that I can't decide whether or not to be grateful about it." She stopped to pry several pebbles out of the encasing ice before flinging them one by one out onto the lake. "I mean, Frank and I want children eventually, but raising them now, with everything that's going on…? Plus, how am I supposed to go through Auror training while worrying about a child?"

I nodded gravely. "…perhaps it was for the better." I shot an intense look at her, taking in the set of her chin, and determined look in her eyes. Alice was strong, perhaps stronger than me. Her shock would fade in time, and she'd rebound with more vitality and confidence than she'd had before yesterday, I could feel it.

She sighed. "I can't face Frank right now. I—I don't think I'm going to tell him." She messaged her temple as though trying to rid herself of a headache. "I think it's too much for him to handle right now. He's already worn too thin."

I reached over to squeeze her hand. "I'll keep your secret, I promise."

She smiled at me and nodded her thanks, but didn't say anything more on the subject. We were climbing the steep, rocky path leading up from the lake to the greenhouses, and a steady stream of students was taking the same path to down Hogsmeade. It was hard to feel miserable when presented with the beaming smiles of passing students, listening to them banter and joke, planning what they were going to buy and Honeydukes or Zonko's.

"You know what?" asked Alice, slowing to a stop and staring eagerly down the lane to Hogsmeade with a small smile. Apparently the students' infectious joy had affected her as well. "Mind over matter. I refuse to sulk about—I've got too many things to be thankful for."

I paused, her abrupt shift in tone throwing me off a little bit. Yet it was also heartening, somehow inspiring. It made me realize once again that if we were ever to have any hope for the future, we would have to face the present head on.

Forcing myself to shove aside any negative thoughts, and pretending—like her—that nothing was wrong, I grinned mischievously at her as I jangled the spending money in my pocket. "If you feel like walking down to Hogsmeade after all, I think I could do with some chocolate right about now."

9.7

February brought increasingly more reports of kidnappings, disappearances, attacks, the news headlines blaring that Dark Magic was being seen more frequently outside of Britain. I continued to take a subscription of the Daily Prophet if only to keep track of the scant Ministry victories as well as to scan the Obituaries for familiar names and keep a mental note of where attacks seemed to be happening most in the Muggle world. The problem was that there were no trends, and no real victories; violence happened at random, everywhere, and for every Death Eater or Dark supporter that the Ministry put away, three seemed to spring out of the bedrock. I couldn't help but wonder how many of those new supporters actually believed in Voldemort's policies, and how many were just trying to stay out of his way.

"This is getting out of control," I muttered over my copy of the Prophet, feeling too sick to finish my coffee and oatmeal after scanning the headlines. I swatted in irritation at the pink and white heart-shaped confetti raining down from the ceiling of the Great Hall; I had no patience with Valentine's Day this year, the superficiality of it when there were truly important things to focus on. "Clearly," I whispered gravely, setting aside the paper and glancing at my friends, "the Ministry simply isn't able to stop it."

Emmeline shook her head, agreeing with me but not liking it. "I wish we could do more than study for our N.E.W.T.s and wait to graduate—they need more willing, capable witches and wizards now, not five months from now."

Alice bit her lip and glanced towards the High Table, where Dumbledore and McGonnagal were locked in conversation, heads bent for privacy. "It's true that they need every hand they can get…"

I sighed, picking up my spoon to play with my now-unappetizing oatmeal. "I should stop reading the news; it makes me feel so useless."

"I've stopped reading it and I still feel useless," laughed Emmeline, shoving aside my bowl and planting an apple down on the table in front of me. I quirked an eyebrow at her, silently making fun of her for mothering me, and she rolled her eyes.

"Man, can't wait for classes to be over today," said Sirius brightly, dropping down into the seat next to me. He gave the oatmeal a quick sniff before picking up the spoon and beginning to devour my leftovers.

Alice's lip curled as she watched him. "You're disgusting," she told him matter-of-factly as Remus and Peter slid into the bench opposite Sirius. I wasn't surprised that James wasn't with them; of course he was on the Quidditch pitch, preparing for their last all-important match against Slytherin.

Sirius glanced up at Alice, a wolfish grin fixed on his face, and, with a light shake of his head, shook his shaggy hair out of his eyes. I grinned to myself; somehow, even while bolting down oatmeal, he still managed to look attractive.

"Waste not, want not," he quoted, turning his attention back to his meal. He leaned a little, bumping his shoulder against mine in friendly acknowledgement. "Besides, she hardly touched it. I can smell it."

"You mongrel," Emmeline scolded sarcastically, trying not to join in our laughter as she firmly pushed her own empty plate away. She stood, grabbing her school bag and turning towards the Ravenclaw table. "Excuse me while I go sit with someone a little more refined."

I waved a goodbye to her, and then turned my attention back to Sirius. "So what are you lot up to tonight?"

Sirius shrugged, finally dropping the spoon with a loud clank. "I dunno what these wankers are up to," he said, gesturing towards Peter and Remus, "but I've got a hot date in one of the unused classrooms."

Alice snorted, a small grin on her face as she continued to tease him. "I doubt her definition of a hot date is to snog in a classroom, Sirius. At least buy her chocolates."

"Snog, and maybe more…" he suggested wickedly, an amused glint in his eyes. "Plus, don't forget, it's me."

I groaned, casting Remus a pained look. "How can you stand to talk to him for more than five minutes?"

Remus grinned, opened his mouth to respond, but before he was able to, I felt a tap on my shoulder.

"Er, Lily?"

I turned to find Bertram Aubrey looking down at me, his leather school bag hanging from a shoulder. His eyes flicked from Alice to the Marauders, lingering for a second on Sirius as his brow furrowed in dislike, before finally returning to me. He seemed to be holding himself stiffly, as though he were on the defensive, and I wondered briefly if he were so uncomfortable because he remembered how Sirius and James used to hex him in the hallways, years ago.

I tried to alleviate any potential discomfort with a small smile. "Yes, Bertram?"

He cleared his throat. "Will you, ah—" he shot another look at Sirius. "Will you walk with me to Potions?"

"Umm, sure," I said slowly, turning back to the table for a moment to grab my bag. As I stood, I shot Emmeline a surreptitious panicked look, fearing that Bertram was going to ask me out again. I didn't want to have to reject him on Valentine's Day…

We walked awkwardly down the Great Hall and out into the Entrance Hall. I took a breath, preparing to make idle conversation, but he beat me to it. He stopped just inside the narrow stone staircase leading down to the dungeons, out of sight of the Great Hall, and turned to face me.

"Look, Lily," he said gruffly, leaning back against the stone wall. He ran a hand through his brown hair nervously, before forcing his hands to his sides. "I know I've been a berk these last few weeks, and I just want to apologize. You've helped me out a lot in Potions, and you shouldn't have to put up with me mouthing off to you."

"I… thanks, Bertram." I leaned back against the opposite wall, hugging myself uncomfortably. It was true, he'd been on my case ever since he heard tell of me snogging James at the end of the previous semester. I'd given him the benefit of the doubt and attributed his unpleasantness to a case of slight jealousy and lingering dislike of James, even though his tone was off-putting. "Apology accepted."

He pulled a slightly wilted pink rose out of his bag and gingerly offered it to me. My mouth dropped slightly at the unexpected gesture, and he grinned bashfully. "Anyway," he continued. "I just wanted to say that I still really like you, and… Happy Valentine's Day."

Before I could begin to think of a reply, he leaned down a stole a kiss, pressing his lips into mine for just a moment, one hand on my waist. I felt jolted—not with the electricity I felt when kissing James, but with sock. When my body didn't respond to his, he frowned, backed away.

"I'm sorry, I guess I was wrong," he said quietly, before turning and rushing down the steps. Empathetic heat rushed to my face as his bag tangled in his feet and he stumbled a few steps.

I watched him disappear down the passageway before sighing and stepping out into the Entrance Hall. There was still a half-hour until Potions began, but I would have given anything to be excused. Bertram was the last person I wanted to sit next to for an hour, especially with the inevitable questioning looks my friends would send my way. I groaned, preparing to just head back into the Great Hall, with my Valentine's gift, and take whatever teasing the Marauders might offer.

I met Dumbledore just outside the entrance to the Great Hall. I pulled up short, gesturing for my Headmaster to pass through the doorway before me, but instead he stopped and beamed at me.

"Ah, Lily!" he exclaimed, his half-moon spectacles twinkling at me. "Just the person I was looking for."

"Me, Sir?" I cast about in my mind for any Head duty that James or I might have forgotten to do, and came up blank. I peered up at Dumbledore curiously, tucking a loose strand of hair behind my ear. "What can I help you with?"

He placed a hand on my shoulder, steered me toward the Great Staircase. "If you have a moment, there's something I'd like to discuss with you in my office."

I went willingly with him, my spirits brightening. "I do have Potions shortly, but I'm sure Professor Slughorn won't mind if I'm a little late."

"Ah, yes. He tells me you're quite gifted in Potions," agreed Dumbledore, waving at a few of the portraits we were passing by. He stopped at the landing, waiting for the proper staircase to come to rest before us. I glanced out of the nearest window as the next staircase slowly one slid into place; I certainly didn't mind drawing out this detour to class.

Dumbledore made small talk with me until we reached the Griffins standing guard outside his office, asking me how Head duties were going and how I was preparing for my N.E.W.T.s. However, once we had reached his office proper and he had locked the door behind us, he turned to face me, his manner shocking in its intensity.

"Now," he said lightly, gesturing towards the seat opposite his desk, "we can speak privately."