Friday, 17 December 1976
Something is definitely wrong in Gryffindor tower. The sixth year students – in both dormitories – have been acting oddly. The boys, usually so energetic and close knit, are barely speaking. Laughs have trickled to a bare minimum of politeness. The girls, on the other hand, seem to have announced an all-out war following an impossibly loud argument between Lily Evans and Margie Lufkin that drew the attention of even Professor McGonagall. Hostilities have never been more pronounced.
Perhaps the oddest puzzle, however, is happening right now, on Friday, the last day before students leave Hogwarts for the Christmas holiday. Lily Evans has just chucked her bag onto the bearskin rug and plopped down onto the red sofa – right next to James Potter.
She's there now, having drawn her tiny, grey toad out of her pocket and perched him on her knee. He croaks happily and she massages the top of his warty head with her index finger. She's been sitting there for a few minutes, but hasn't said a word – just played with her toad and chewed on her lip – with James staring at her in surprise.
"You've been avoiding me all week" she says, not taking her eyes off of the toad.
James blinks, scratches his scalp, sits up a little straighter. "Er…are you talking to me, or to that toad?"
"I've wanted to talk to you, but you've been hard to find." Lily looks up at James at last.
James knew he'd made himself scarce. It was hard enough dealing with his ruptured friendship with Sirius. He just couldn't handle that horrible feeling of total inadequacy that engulfed him whenever he looked at Lily. She'd seen right through him all along, after all, and she was right. He was a depraved jerk with no compassion towards others. He took advantage of people that were weaker than him. For all the way he'd acted his whole life, he might as well have been right there with Sirius, leading Snape to Remus. Lily hated him for it. He hated himself for it. And he certainly didn't deserve her. He'd never been so ashamed, and as a result, because he just didn't know what else to do… "I've been hiding from you."
"From me?" Lily's eyes popped with surprise. "Is it because of what I said to you last weekend? Because that's one of the things I was trying to talk to you about," she hastened to explain. "I wanted to apologise for being so mean."
"You weren't mean. Just honest." And right.
"I didn't want to hurt your feelings." Lily's eyes were glued back to her toad. "Are you mad at me?" she whispered.
"I'm not mad at you." James scratched his hair and looked away as well. "I've just had a lot on my mind this week."
She nodded. "Sirius told me."
It felt like a Bludger slammed into James' stomach. Things had been ugly between them, sure, but Sirius wouldn't have started going around telling what happened – about Moony and Prongs and the Whomping Willow – would he? "He told you?"
"He said he did something that hurt you. That he didn't know how to make things right. You're letting him try, aren't you?"
James breathed an inward sigh of relief. "We're working on it. It's hard." Harder than anything.
"I've been worried about you."
James frowned and rubbed his ear. He couldn't have heard that right.
Lily grinned a little at his obvious surprise, but fought it back with a serious expression. "I can just tell that you've been unhappy," she explained.
Had Lily Evans really been paying that much attention to him? James had been so wrapped up in his problems that he'd made every effort to ignore her all week. And what had she done? She'd turned around and worried about him. And now all he could do was stare at her like a complete moron.
At least Lily wasn't at a loss for words. "I'm not trying to make you talk about it or anything. It's obviously some big secret and I don't want to pry. I just wanted you to know that I um…cared and that if you… you know, wanted to talk about it with somebody that wasn't as close to the fire, so to speak, then I'm around. That's all."
"Thanks," James told her. And he meant it, too. "I appreciate that." He was over the moon about it, to be more accurate, but James was desperate to retain his cool. "I think everyone just needs to simmer down and clear their head. The holiday should be a good break."
It was thrilling to have such an intimate moment with Lily – she actually cared about him! James wanted to laugh and run around in circles and give her a great big hug all at once. He settled for smiling shyly at her, and then smiled even more when she grinned back.
He was happier than he'd been all week, but the ensuing silence was uncomfortable. It was times like this that made James appreciate girls' talent for small talk.
"You've met my toad, haven't you?" Lily asked.
James peered down at the toad. Of course he knew that Lily owned a toad, which he found distinctly amusing, but he'd never really taken a good look at it before. It was tiny enough to fit in the palm of Lily's small hand, but it also had to be one of the ugliest toads he'd ever seen, all grey with lumpy warts all over and great bulging eyes.
"I've seen him around," James told her, "but I don't think we've been officially introduced."
"How rude of me!" she said. "James, this is Mr. Ribbits. Mr. Ribbits, meet James Potter."
Mr. Ribbits grunted and eyed James, who got the distinct impression that the toad would like to tell him to bug off.
"I think Mr. Ribbits likes you," Lily added in a hushed voice.
James wanted to laugh, but settled for a broad smile. "Toads aren't the kind of pets that girls usually go for, are they?" he asked.
"Who ever said I was usual?"
"Not me." He was sure about that. "Have you had that toad a long time?" he asked.
"Since I was eleven." She stroked Mr. Ribbits' warty back much like she would a soft kitten. "When I left for Hogwarts, Mum and Dad forced my sister to pick out a going away gift for me. She saw that toads were on the list of what kinds of pets were allowed, and so she got this one for me. She expected I would think he was nasty."
"But you didn't?"
"Not at all. He's been a really good pet. Very magical. Not real cuddly, of course, but he's tidier than a cat and quite smart."
"How do you tell if a toad is smart?" James expected this to be good.
"He won't go near Margie, for one." Lily smirked and patted Mr. Ribbits on the head. "But it's more than that. He understands what's going on. He's useful too. He'll retrieve small objects from under the bed for me."
"Watch," she said. "Mr. Ribbits, if you'll get my quill out of my bag, I'll take you down to the greenhouses for a romp in the water lilies after dinner tonight."
Mr. Ribbits gave a friendly croak and hopped from Lily's lap to the bearskin rug, and then right into her open bag on the floor. A moment later he hopped back out and onto her knee, feathery quill held firmly in his tight mouth. With another croak, he dropped it onto her skirt."
James was undeniably impressed.
"He's just as smart as any owl," Lily added. "I've even convinced him to pass notes to people in class for me."
"Convince him? You mean you've got to talk him into it?"
"He doesn't like to feel undervalued or taken advantage of."
"I, um…I don't blame him."
Lily sighed. "I wish I could know what he was thinking sometimes."
"Ah, yes." James wriggled his eyebrows and leaned in towards her. "The mysterious workings of a toad's mind. They're almost as mysterious as girls. Who knows what dark and dangerous secrets they hide behind those innocent eyes?"
"Oh please." Lily rolled her eyes and pushed him away. "Like Mr. Ribbits would have any secrets to hide."
"You never know. He might be a blood-sucking vampire toad."
"A vampire? Are you making fun of me over what I told you about Snape?"
"Yep." Sometimes he just couldn't resist.
"Then you'll have to try something else," Lily said, "because that's an idea I've already considered, and Mr. Ribbits is, in fact, not a vampire." She crossed her arms matter-of-factly.
"You've actually spent time thinking about the possibility that your pet toad could be a vampire?"
"Why not? At a magical place like Hogwarts, anything is possible."
"But still… A vampire toad?"
"Can you honestly tell me you've never considered an idea that other people would find preposterous?"
The tone in Lily's voice told James that it was time to change directions on the double. "Most people would say that I do more than consider them," he said. "That's why I end up in so many detentions." Lily giggled, and James' grin got even broader. "Besides," he added, "I like the way you think up all kinds of unusual ideas. It's cute."
Her eyes zeroed back in on Mr. Ribbits. "I'm not trying to be cute."
"You just can't help it." James shifted himself a little closer to her so that he was sitting sideways, his elbow propped up on the back of the sofa by her shoulder, and his hand buried in his hair. If this wasn't the time to turn on the charm, then call James Potter a Billywig – or at least an over-encouraged teenager. "You know, Lily," he said, "we've had sort of a little tradition going for the last few years."
"Well, at the end of every term, it's been pretty standard for me to ask you out – a parting effort, if you will."
Lily glanced up at him and her cheeks started to turn pink. "Are you sure this is a tradition that you want to keep on with?" she asked.
"No. I definitely don't want to keep it up," James told her. "But I will for as long as I need to."
"You don't need to."
"Sure I do." He leaned in near her ear, as though he was about to share a secret. His hormones took off like wildfire at the smell of her hair. "If I didn't screw up my nerve to tell you how you're the prettiest girl I know, how I think about you all the time, and ask 'would you please go out with me?', only to get my heart trampled into the mud, then I wouldn't be able to sulk properly through the holidays and my parents would never recognise me. They'd refuse to let me in the house."
"I'll send you home with a letter of certification." She didn't push him away.
"I'd rather you send me home with a 'yes'. I'd be a very happy wizard."
"If I did that, then your parents still wouldn't recognise you, and you'd spend your holiday on the street. As it's winter, you'd probably freeze to death."
James backed his head up a little and grinned at her. "I wouldn't mind. I'd die happy. Would you cry at my funeral?"
"You're such a dork." She was fighting a smile, and James' sprits flew even higher.
"That's a good thing, right? I mean, you've got a smile on your face, so it's got to be a good thing." James decided to go for it – what could it hurt? "Does that mean you'll consider being my girlfriend?"
The joy started fizzing out of his inflated spirit. Why did he even ask?
"But," Lily added, "I wouldn't mind if you wanted to try writing to me again. I promise I wouldn't ignore you this time."
It took about five seconds for her statement to sink into his thick brain, before James suddenly filled up with so much exhilaration that he felt like he was coming apart at the seams. "My owl could wait around for you if you wanted to send anything back," he said. "You'd just have to tell him whether or not you wanted him to stay, or if he should come back in a few days or something. He's really smart." James clamped his mouth shut to stifle his rambling delight.
He watched her for a few moments, not speaking, just enjoying the tremendous sensation of knowing that Lily, of her own free will, had invited him to contact her over the Christmas holiday. She had been worried about his well being and wanted to be in touch with him. He could just grab her and kiss her right there – but he decided not to press his luck.
Lily, who still hadn't looked up at him, was petting her toad and appeared completely calm, save the pinkness of her cheeks. "Bet your owl's not as smart as Mr. Ribbits," she told him.
"You're right. Mr. Ribbits is an absolute genius. He's got you completely enamoured with him, and he's even lined up a date in the greenhouses for tonight." James sighed, relishing Lily's amused expression. "I wish I knew how he's managed it," he added. "I could use some pointers."
Lily rolled her eyes and grinned, her ear turning pink as well. "Do you really think you'll ever convince me to go out with you?" she asked.
James shrugged and leaned back to look at her, propping an ankle over his knee. "You never know," he told her. "This is Hogwarts, after all. If toads could be vampires…well then… anything is possible."
Author's Note: I hope you enjoyed this little story. I certainly had a lot of fun writing it. Please let me know what you think.