Disclaimer: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Summary: James tries to change his life; life doesn't wait for him. Light James/Lily.
Author's Note: This story was written for Remix Redux IV, and is based off "Comfort," by nekare. The original story can be found at nekare(dot)livejournal(dot)com/9756(dot)html.
Thanks to Lasair and Quetzle for beta-reading this. Any remaining canon goofs, grammar mistakes, continuity errors, implausible characterizations, boring passages, and Americanisms are my fault, not theirs.
Comfort (The Extremely Basic Remix)
James's father used to tell stories about his years at Hogwarts. He always started the same way: "When I was young and foolish--" he'd say, with a wide, sunny smile, and then he'd tell James about the time he nearly drowned trying to see if the Giant Squid in the lake was ticklish, or the absurd lengths he went to so that nobody would realize he was sending a Valentine's card to James's mother.
James thought that if he told Hogwarts stories to his son, he'd have to start by saying, "When I was an arrogant bastard--" He thought he'd been better sixth year -- he'd been trying since the stifling summer night when he woke in a tangle of sheets and sweat and realized that Sirius could have made Remus into a murderer, could have got Remus killed by the Ministry as a dangerous beast -- but it was so hard to change the habits of a lifetime. It was so hard, since Peter didn't even notice, Sirius didn't care, and all Remus did was give him long, considering looks when James did his best to rein in his impulses and not provoke Snape, or not show off and soak up the attention.
He wanted to change. He wanted to stop being a self-centered dickhead. He wanted to be someone who would do the right thing all the time, not just when it was life or death, the kind of person who didn't go after other people just because he was bored and thought it might be fun. But he couldn't help wanting people to see that he'd changed -- if nobody noticed, then how could he be sure the change was real?
Then his parents died.
They'd been in the wrong place at the wrong time, in a shop owned by a Muggle-born wizard, and had the courage to stand up against the Death Eaters' raid. His mother was nearly blind despite her glasses and repeated trips to St. Mungo's; she aimed her best anyway. His father always tried to see both sides of an issue and hated to fight; he turned his voice to spells instead of arguments.
"An example to us all," the Daily Prophet called them in its headline story the next day. "True Gryffindors," Professor McGonagall said when she called James out of dinner to give him the news. "A great loss," Dumbledore proclaimed to the school.
James nodded and accepted people's sympathy, and wondered why nothing felt real anymore. He was scraped hollow inside, nothing but skin stretched over bones like a human-shaped drum, and so dry he thought he might split open and crumble to dust if someone touched him the wrong way. But nobody touched him at all.
He was let out of classes to attend the funeral. There were hundreds of mourners, most of whom he'd never seen in his life, and whom he knew hadn't cared about his parents while they were alive -- they were only hanging around like ghouls, drinking in the aura of two people who really mattered, two people who were worth thousands of them. James listened to the eulogy, and walked forward to lay a wreath of lilies between their graves. He didn't speak to the crowd. He didn't trust himself.
Going back to Hogwarts was surreal. He slid back into lessons as if he'd never missed a beat, as if he'd never had parents or a life outside the castle walls. But that was just a shroud over something brittle and dark, like he was nothing but dust and air under his skin.
He couldn't talk to anyone. Sirius wouldn't understand; Sirius had liked James's parents, but he was so twisted up about his own family that anything he said to James came out tinny and sour. James hated shoving his problems onto Remus and asking him for help, since Remus had enough troubles of his own. And Peter... Peter hero-worshipped him, and James didn't want to break that, didn't want Peter to see how small he felt inside.
Four days after the funeral, he slipped away from the common room and wandered through the corridors until he found himself in the empty Charms classroom, tracing his fingers along the messages people had carved into the tables over the years. "Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, & Prongs," one desk said in his own shaky hand, and James wished he could go back in time to when he was happy, even if it meant staying a conceited arse and never noticing that anything was wrong. Maybe he really was the sort of person who didn't care about anyone but himself. Maybe he'd always been hollow. Maybe he couldn't change.
James jerked his head up and met Lily Evans's wide green eyes. "Evans," he mumbled, and turned away. He didn't want to face her like this, not Evans, who was a good person -- like his parents -- and who always saw through him to the rotten places he liked to pretend weren't there.
"Are you all right?" she asked, and James looked up again in surprise because she sounded like she really wanted to know, like she actually cared if he might be hurt.
"I'm fine," he tried to say, but it wouldn't come out. His throat swelled, his voice cracked, and with no warning at all, he was crying. He wasn't dust inside; he was stuffed full, and everything wanted to rush out all at once.
He pressed his hands flat on the desk, trying to stop the tears, trying not to break down in front of Evans. She wouldn't tell -- probably -- but he didn't want her to see him like that, see how lost he was.
Warm fingers touched the back of his hand, light and sweet, the way James's mother used to touch him when he thrashed awake from nightmares and wouldn't go back to sleep unless she sat beside him, and suddenly everything was too much.
Somehow, he wasn't quite sure, his arms went around Lily and he clutched her like he was drowning and she could pull him back to the surface, pull him back to someplace where the world made sense. Red hair tickled his fingers, and his glasses were knocked askew as he rested his head on hers, still crying. "Sorry," he said. "Sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry..." and he couldn't stop saying that, couldn't stop apologizing until the words slurred into meaningless noise.
One of her arms rose, under his, and she set her hand on his back and rubbed, gently, and James choked on his stream of "sorry" and jerked one arm free to rub his sleeve over his face so he wouldn't get snot in Lily's hair. "You don't have to--"
"It's all right," she said quietly. "It's no problem."
James pulled back and tried to smile; his face felt watery, and he didn't think he managed very well. "I'm sorry anyway," he said, and hunted through his pockets for a handkerchief. Fingers snapped in his face, and he looked up to see Lily offering him a white cloth. He took it and tried to blow his nose like a civilized person. Instead, he got a honk like a startled goose.
Lily giggled. James watched her face light up, and then fall as she remembered that this wasn't the best time to laugh at him, and he realized that he didn't just want her so he could brag to his friends, or because she was a looker. He wanted her because she could see through him and she cared anyway, and if Lily Evans could care about him, then maybe he could be more than a selfish, conceited arse. He wanted to spend the rest of his life trying to be worthy of her.
She was staring at him, and he managed a weak chuckle in response.
"Keep the handkerchief," she told him, "at least until you get it washed."
James tucked the cloth into his pocket and watched her leave the room. He traced the carved names in the desk one last time, and then bent down to carve something on the underside, where nobody could see. "LE + JP," he scratched into the soft wood, in the corner where the top met the sides and the front. Nobody would notice, but he'd know it was there, and he thought that maybe that was all that really mattered.
When he handed the handkerchief back to Lily in class the next day, he winked at her. Then he bowed and pretended to kiss her hand. The class went still in anticipation of her caustic tongue, but instead of taunting him, she smiled.
James could feel his heart again.
AN: Thanks for reading, and please review! I appreciate all comments, but I'm particularly interested in knowing what parts of the story worked for you, what parts didn't, and why.