It's well past dusk and Lily's feet are wretchedly sore by the time she trudges back toward the common room, looking forward to a hot bath and her warm bed.
The sharp, steady clapclapclap of her Mary Janes echo down the deserted corridor in a forced rhythm that speaks of irritation. Being Head Girl was supposed to be a huge honor. Lily remembers being speechlessly overjoyed when her letter came and that badge fell into her hand, shiny and new. After all, with the way things are going right now, Muggle-borns will need every edge they can get in the magical world. Lily's not naïve enough to think a Hogwarts education alone is enough to win her a job over a pureblood these days.
But then she found out that Potter was to be Head Boy. It had started out all right actually, better than she'd expected. He'd taken it more seriously than she'd thought he would, but he was still Potter. So, when someone had used a sticking charm to adhere the Slytherins to their table at lunch and transfigured the pumpkin juice pitchers into jarveys, she hadn't been horribly surprised that he didn't show for their rounds that evening.
The boys hadn't exactly been subtle about their prank. Black had shouted over the din that if the Slytherins wanted to trash talk, they should take some lessons from their betters. Potter had smirked and given his friend a high-five before spotting her glaring at him angrily and ruffling his hair in a falsely demure fashion. Honestly! Boys. They've probably earned themselves at least a week's detention and she'll have to go about Head duties on her own.
It's got to be half-eleven by the time she wearily bids the fat lady hello and stumbles into the common room. It's well past curfew on a Thursday evening, so she doesn't expect anyone to be there. In fact, if the firelight hadn't reflected off his glasses just so she might not have ever seen him at all.
"Potter!" she says angrily. "What do you think you're doing? Too good for rounds are you?"
He jumps and turns in her direction, but looks right through her like she's some sort of apparition, only half-existing in the same space as him. He rubs at his red-rimmed eyes to bring the world into focus or surreptitiously wipe away tears or both. And he looks back at her with something like recognition written on his face, blinking owlishly a few times in quick succession.
"I'm sorry, Evans," he says in a quiet broken voice she's never heard trip forth from Potter's lips before. "Wasn't feeling so well. Won't happen again. Promise."
Lily stares at him dumbfounded a moment, because this isn't the James Potter she's known for six years and she's not quite sure what to do with that. Theirs have been a set course of interactions since the day they met. He pulled her pigtails on the train to Hogwarts the first time. He pulled his first prank on her by slipping sneezing potion into her pumpkin juice. He passed her notes in second year just to get them both in detention together. Third year, he "liberated" a broom from the storage shed to spy through her window. He's asked her to Hogsmeade dozens of times, each time in a more extravagant and humiliating way than the last. They've been the same, their interactions, for six years. He jokes and teases; she pulls away. So, even though he's not sticking to the script now, she almost, almost plays her usual part anyhow.
"Are you feeling better now, then?" she asks hesitantly, folding her arms across her chest defensively, as though this is all the start to a brilliant prank. "Do you need me to get Madame Pomfrey or anything?"
"It's nothing. Don't worry about it. I'm fine," he says, but the words fall from his lips like a string of pearls – lies, each of them, choked out in linear fashion.
He's turned back to the fire and the light plays off his glasses in rich hues of orange and yellow, flames licking his thick frames as though they mean to devour his sight completely. For the first time in six years, James Potter is in a room alone with Lily Evans and paying her no attention. There is no banter, no inept flirting or boyish pranks and Lily finds the moment broken because of it. Is this, perhaps, what it will always be like after Hogwarts – adult politeness with thin concern and half-sincere reassurances? It's a frightening thought to her, nearly as frightening as the thought that she'll miss this, miss him, after they're done with school.
So Lily, who does nothing on impulse and everything in orderly, logical fashion, breaks the norm. She bites her lip and tucks her hair behind one ear and stands next to him, both facing the fire in joined solitude.
"Are you going to tell me what's wrong, James?" she asks after a moment.
He looks at her suddenly, as if surprised she's still there, and his face is hard and somehow fragmented in a way she's never seen before.
"Lily?" he asks blearily, like he's not really sure what's going on.
"Yeah," she says grabbing his hand in jolting fashion and vowing silently that if this is some elaborate prank, he will pay dearly.
"They cast spells, you know," he says solemnly, "on the fire logs. One to eliminate smoke. One to keep it bright. One to keep sparks from flying off and starting a bigger fire."
Lily did, in fact, know this. As a muggleborn she'd been horrified to see that fires were left unattended virtually everywhere in the wizarding world. It had taken McGonagall a good fifteen minutes of explaining all the safety procedures before she'd allowed herself to sleep her first night at Hogwarts.
"It's a swish and flick," James said vacantly. "The one for the smoke, that is. Did you know, if you flick and swish instead, it's an entirely different spell? Incantation's the same."
Lily did not, in fact, know this. So she shook her head and waited ever-patiently for the point.
"Transfigures the wood to Ashendrake. It's poisonous when it burns. That's where Ashendrake Syndrome comes from, breaks down the organs from the inside out. Usually… it usually just takes a few hours. But Ashendrake doesn't look like regular wood, see. So, if someone in the factory does a flick swish instead of a swish flick, they catch it and transfigure it back," he tells her and suddenly his eyes are holding her gaze fiercely and his voice is steadily gaining in urgency.
"That's… very interesting, James," she replies, swallowing hard. She's unnerved by the look in his eyes, but senses this is important and she doesn't break his gaze.
"Only… only this guy in the factory, he did a flick swish but he only half hit the wood, so the inspectors, they didn't see it because it didn't look like Ashendrake. So, they say it wasn't really their fault… just a big mistake," James said solemnly, nodding his head so intensely she was sure his glasses would fall straight off.
Lily's breath catches in her throat as his words catch up with her and she begins to see the larger picture at hand.
"James," she says in a voice far calmer than she feels as she strokes the back of his hand supportively. "Who got the Ashendrake?"
"My parents," he says in a dead voice, looking back at the fireplace in front of them like some sort of answers might be hiding in the charred remains or smoldering embers or the fire itself. "And Kelsey, my dog… she's an English setter, you know. Good dog. Never chews on the furniture."
Lily's hand starts to shake but she grips his hand tighter and chokes back a sob as he rambles on aimlessly.
"Didn't take long, they said. Two hours maybe. Two hours for your lungs to disintegrate. That's the first to go, they said. Don't know how they know that. Doesn't sound fast, though, does it? They said it was fast. They also said it was no one's fault, just an accident. I don't think I believe that either," James says solidly, finally gripping her hand in return.
Lily stands there stunned for a moment before she tugs his hand firmly, leading him toward the settee and away from the fire, which is – she thinks – the last thing he should be looking at right now.
She doesn't say she's sorry or ask if there's anything she can do. She's already doing everything she can for him by being there with him and she knows that, knows it all too well. She can still see the Constables at the door when she was ten, their hats in their hands and a supportive hand on her dad's shoulder as she watched her father cry for the first time in her life. She still hears Petunia's shrill voice echoing in her ears last year as the machine hooked up to her father's body gave a flat steady hum instead of the rhythmic beat it was supposed to.
"What good is your bloody magic if you can't fix this?" Petunia had demanded. "What good is it if you can change the color of your dress and dally around on broomsticks but you can't even cure cancer?"
So Lily sits with him, side-by-side, and watches as she traces the veins on his hands over and over again. She tries to remember if in the six years of having known James Potter, she's ever touched him. She doesn't think she has. He's rather been a monster and a bully in her head for ages, but Lily wonders now if maybe that's not right because he cries like she did and his hands are rough and shaky and just as human as anyone else's.
"Where are your friends?" she says finally when the clock strikes midnight and he jolts, seemingly coherent.
"Sirius broke his foot. Bloody idiot kicked the wall and broke his foot. They were like parents to him, too, you know. Well, closest thing he ever had at any rate. He's in the hospital wing," James says suddenly aware of her hand still in his and staring at their joined fingers with something like awe.
"And Remus? Peter?" Lily asks.
"I assume Peter is trying to calm Sirius down and Remus is actually calming Sirius down, as he is apparently the only person in the world capable of doing so," James said dryly.
Lily smiles up at him. His friends have always made him seem almost inhuman, like he was just playing a part for her. For the first time, here and now, his friends make him seem all-too-human and she's instantly grateful to them for it.
"I'm surprised you stayed," he says suddenly. His gaze on her is a bit unnerving, but he's no longer staring at the fire so Lily considers that a good thing and stares back.
"You needed to tell someone, someone who could understand," Lily nods sympathetically. "I get that."
He sucks in a quick breath and his eyes dart back and forth quickly, searching her face with renewed intensity.
"Your dad," he questions in a voice that's really more of a statement. "Last year."
"And my mum when I was ten," she replies with barely watery eyes and a tiny sad smile.
James looks back toward the fire but is silent for a long moment. She gives him the space his mind needs and the comfort of another human presence as best she can, leaning into his solid form and drawing his arm around her.
"Does it ever get easier?" he asks finally, looking back at her.
"The pain dulls," Lily says after a moment of deliberation. "But, it never disappears. You'll always miss them and it will always hurt, but it won't always hurt like it does now."
"Good," he says quietly. "Good. I'm glad it doesn't go away."
And Lily knows exactly what he means.
She shifts slightly in her seat to get more comfortable and he tenses perceptibly, tightening his arm around her shoulder.
"Please don't leave, Lily," he says in a small voice she'd have never believed to belong to James Potter two hours ago.
She looks up at him and brushes his wild hair off his forehead and lends a sympathetic smile. And for the first time she sees the man that's hidden behind the little boy she's known all these years. He's not the child who pulled her pigtails or dropped a frog down the back of her shirt. He's not even the boy who transfigured a quill into a nightingale that sang "Please go with me to Hogsmeade, Lily!" last week. She's never seen this man before and she wonders if maybe they won't have an entirely different script to act out than the one with the boy she once knew.
"I'm not planning on going anywhere, James," she says.
And she doesn't.