Author's Notes: Talk about a long time coming. I just break records with these updates, eh? But it's finally here and that's what's important. I have to give all my thanks to all of you for being so wonderfully patient. I know I don't deserve it most of the time. Very big thanks go to Clara and Olivia for their almost un-human speed and skill at beta-ing. I am entirely grateful and will replay the favours in smut. You know, eventually.

Brief Recap: Lily and James are finally going on their date. Lily is excited, but is rather waiting for the world (or her bad karma) to come crashing down. Some of these precarious issues at hand include: James's many secrets, relayed in part to Lily by Sirius, all of which surround the mysteriously ominous events of James's 6th-year; Elisabeth Saunders, James's ex-girlfriend and a participant in these ominous events; and MJ Rosier, Lily's beloved tutoree who she is desperate to pull out of his reclusive shell but for whom James holds nothing but pure disdain.


"If I had a mine shaft, I don't think I would just abandon it. There's got to be a better way."

-Jack Handy


Chapter Twenty-Four:

October 28th: Getting to Know You


Tuesday, October 28th, 7th Year Girls' Dormitory
Observant Lily: Day 43
Total Observations: 289

From the Mad Mind of Lily Evans:
(A Dream Recorded Circa 5 a.m. After Finally Dozing Off for a Truly Pitiful Amount of Time)

James and I are browsing for mattresses, ambling through a large white shop filled with nothing but them. It's all a bit blinding, actually. I ask to leave, preferring my mattresses situated in a gloomier atmosphere. James laughs, then falls back on the mattress nearest us. He spreads his arms wide and says, "Come along." I forget why I wanted to leave. Before I can sit down, Professor Flitwick turns up. He asks me what I think about Growth Charms. Just as the debate begins to heat up, Mum appears. She's brought fudge and a fishing pole with her. "Hullo, darling!" she calls, but I'm rather certain she's speaking to Flitwick. She hands me the fishing pole, which I thank her profusely for. James asks Mum if she perchance has any spare quills. She shakes her head regretfully, but offers the fudge in compensation. Flitwick joins James and Mum on the mattress. They all sit munching on their fudge, discussing the politics of Bolivia. Left to my own devices, I begin to dance happily about the shop with my fishing pole.

Observation #289) I suppose one really shouldn't expect more than pure insanity when working on a half-hour's worth of sleep.

Observation #290) I really must learn to dance properly.


A Bit Later, Hospital Wing
Observant Lily: Day 43
Total Observations: 290

If there's one thing I've learned from my Uncle Davy, it's this—it's always better to be safe than sorry.

Wise words, don't you think? A bit clichéd perhaps, but nonetheless worthy. And even though he may have a tendency to offer this particular bit of advice only just before declaring it rude to refuse vodka from a Soviet and beginning to call himself Stalin, I reckon that shouldn't really be held against him. Davy just fancies red, is all—well, er, and vodka. But his point is still a fine one, slurring his words or not. It really is better to be safe than sorry. It really, truly is.

So that's what I'm doing now—being safe, I mean. It's the proper thing to do, after all, and I can't afford not to do the proper thing today. And honestly, isn't it much better to make certain that you are in prime shape before engaging in what will undoubtedly be an extremely emotionally trying day rather than being much sorrier when you, say, collapse in your fish and chips due to inclement health? Of course it is. So no one can fault me for this. No one at all.

And I am aware that had some opinionative personages been glancing in on my morning thus far, they might frown skeptically at this claim. They might say, "Er, Evans? Yeah, I'm all for safety and health and the like, but I'm relatively certain that that was a look of slight panic you arose with. And I'm relatively certain that that look hasn't much faded, regardless of the firm chat you had with yourself in the loo mirror just before (very clever of you, by the by, to remind yourself that you want to go on your date today. Looked like you needed it!). So I can't help but question the slight desperation with which you came to your recent decision to visit Madam Pomfrey. Are you quite certain you're just being cautious?"

And my answer?

Shove it, opinionated personages. You know nothing.

Because obviously they don't. They so don't. I mean, it was not a 'look of slight panic' I arose with, but a mildly alarming frown of bemusement over the fact that my dreams have reached such a fantastically ludicrous degree that they're almost diagnosable in their absurdity. And yes, maybe it took a bit longer than usual to be rid of that mild alarm, but what's a witch to do? It was a particularly alarming dream. And I haven't slept much.

Plus, that chat I was having in the loo mirror? Not at all what it seemed! Clearly my shower was just so fantastic that I'd momentarily forgotten I was even going on a date today. It was a happy reminder, an "Oh! Lucky me! Lunch!" not an, "Oh, bugger it. Lunch."

And in case anyone has forgotten, I am an acid burn victim. My health is perilous at best—usually worse. All one has to do is glance down at my still-ravaged wrist to realise that I have every right to be living in the Hospital Wing if I were so inclined. As it is, I only choose to visit from time to time, but no one should question my being there. And while some might claim that I left the dormitory in far too much of a frenzied and desperate rush to ever be casually regarded, that's just plain nonsense. I very calmly and with great poise and dignity walked down to see Madam Pomfrey. I might as well've been strutting down a catwalk, I was so cool and composed.

(Those one or two stumbles down the stairs obviously don't count. I mean, they're magical stairs. Hardly dependable.)

Madam Pomfrey understood my visit. The woman didn't even speak when I moseyed on through the door. She just turned her head, sighed in a way that I'm quite certain signified her discontent with the fact that the Fates of the World are cruel enough to perpetually injure a girl as fine as me, then pointed a finger towards the nearest cot.

I know, Poppy, I know. Such an unjust world, isn't it?

Tragic.

"I trust this morning's visit will prove less boisterous than your last?" is what she greeted me with, always the charmer. Clearly her sadness at the state of my unfortunate luck was affecting her bedside manner because she couldn't even muster a smile for me. Poor Pomfrey.

"We can only hope," I replied, giving her my most optimistic lip quirk. "Though you know what they say. Best laid plans and such."

Pomfrey hmph-ed something terse. She started towards me, all business. "Let's be done with this, then. Unwrap that wrist and we'll have a look. It should be nearly healed over by now—"

"Actually—" I whipped my arm immediately against my chest. Pomfrey's eyebrows lifted, her hand half-extended towards me. I gave her my biggest grin and casually cleared my throat. "Eh-hem. What I mean to say is...I was thinking it might be necessary for something a bit more thorough this morning."

Pomfrey stared at me as if I were speaking Mermish. "Pardon?"

"Isn't there some kind of full physical you could do?" I suggested, still holding my wrist hostage against my front. "You know, just to make sure everything's in order? Working properly? No malfunctions?"

"Are you feeling ill, Miss Evans?"

"Er..." Is insanity an illness? "Perhaps?"

That didn't seem to be the answer Pomfrey was looking for. Her face tightened rather dubiously as she eyed me with what I can only call suspicious irritation. Lack of sleep must have been affecting the potency of my amiable smile because it didn't seem to be softening her resolve any. That was all right, though. I reckoned this just might be a matter of quantity over quality. I kept my beaming at full force.

But I did have a plan B, just in case Pomfrey proved particularly crotchety about going along with my 'better safe than sorry' plot. If I couldn't sway her with potential illnesses, I was just going to have to utilise the ones I did have. Fortunately, there were always a few at hand.

It was quite easy to make hasty work of unravelling the stream of bandages still clamped tightly about my wrist. The long length was quickly pooled in a heap upon my lap and I lifted my wrist up for inspection, unleashing its full hideousness on Pomfrey in a surprise attack.

"Look!" I waved the carnage about victoriously. "Nearly healed over, you say? Ha! It's not even close. I think there's something wrong with my body, Madam Pomfrey. Really, I think there is. Perhaps I'm dying. In fact, I probably am. It's entirely possible. I'd like to have it checked out, please."

There was a moment of silence wherein Pomfrey didn't immediately burst into tears over the possibility of my potentially fatal ailments, but I suppose she was just locking it inside for the sake of professionalism. I'm sure she'll have herself a good cry about it later. In the meantime, she decided to show her concern by grabbing hold of my arm and pulling it closer to her face. She examined the red and still grossly charred skin with a narrowed gaze.

"What are you doing to this, girl?" she muttered, but I don't think she was really blaming me (she must know that it's not my fault that my body doesn't want to heal) because a second later, she pulled out her wand and began running it along my arm. A wispy set of diagrams materialised in the air between us. "Hm," was all she said at first, scanning through them quickly and then waving her arm through the results. They disappeared in a stream of smoky-looking particles. "Stay here," she ordered.

I bit back my grin.

Thank you, Unhealing Body!

"Yes, ma'am." I gave her my most sincere salute as she disappeared into the supplies closet.

She came back a few moments later with a whole slew of unfortunate-tasting potions for me to drink, then waved her wand a few more times and had diagrams sprouting up every which way. She jotted various things down on her Official Pomfrey Clipboard, frowning and humming and looking quite serious about the whole affair. While she waited for some of the results to appear, she took a few moments to rewrap my wrist and make certain no one else would have to deal with its ugliness. Now she's back in the supplies closet and I am perfectly aware that this can really only mean one thing:

I am obviously exceptionally ill.

Perhaps even fatally so.

I have little doubt that Pomfrey will come out here in a few moments, look at me with much helpless tragedy shining in her eyes, and say, "Miss Evans, I am so terribly sorry to inform you, but yes, that's right, you've somehow managed to catch a fatal plague. If you'd meant to do anything particularly taxing today—you know, run any marathons, defeat any dragons, set out on any important mealtime romantic adventures—I would strongly advise against proceeding. For your health."

There will be fuss, undoubtedly a few tears, but in the end, I will have no choice but to acquiesce. What are my other options, after all? It's for my health.

Though before the illness brutally strikes me down, it would probably be best to ask Pomfrey to jot down a quick note. James would appreciate that, I think.

Dear Mr Potter,

Please excuse Miss Evans from your date this afternoon. She's dying from a plague.

Yours,
P. Pomfrey

Yes, that'll do. That'll do quite nicely. And I think—

Oh, look, here she comes! That clipboard has spare parchment on it, doesn't it?


Later, Breakfast in the Great Hall
Observant Lily: Day 43
Total Observations: 290

"Miss Evans, have you been sleeping lately?"

All right, I'll admit it—I wasn't particularly stunned when Pomfrey didn't immediately emerge from her closet all wet-eyed and devastated over my quickly-approaching demise. Truth is, unless some berk has had the nerve to send a raging boy-boar rampaging through her precious Wing, the mediwitch has never seemed the sort for such dramatics. Perhaps that's why we're friends—opposites attract and everything. I'm sure she was desperately desolate on the inside, but outwardly, it was all professionalism for Poppy.

But even taking that bit of character development into consideration, I was rather shocked by how cavalierly the woman chose to go about introducing my deadly disease. I mean, truly? "Miss Evans, have you been sleeping lately?" That was it? No, "Miss Evans, I regret to inform you..." or a "Miss Evans, I fear you've only days before..." or even a, "Miss Evans, looking at your tests..."

Just: "Miss Evans, have you been sleeping lately?"

Pft.

She obviously doesn't do this often.

"Sleeping?" I echoed the word blankly, understandably thrown. REM cycles seemed a bit insignificant in light of the forthcoming medical apocalypse. I reckon it was my genuine befuddlement over this that prompted me to answer rather honestly, "I'm a seventeen-year-old witch dealing with endless trials and tribulations, Madam Pomfrey. Of course I'm not sleeping."

Pomfrey took that bit of information in with a decisive sort of nod, suddenly looking quite satisfied. What's that about? Was not sleeping a symptom of plague? Had I just confirmed her worst fears? Did I have months? Weeks? Days?

If that was the case, she certainly didn't seem to be taking it too hard—that, or she was just quite a bit more serious about this professionalism thing than previously expected. Because instead of her features dropping into a sob of utter depression and closing her arms around herself in a vain attempt to gain comfort in this time of great heartbreak, Pomfrey simply plopped her hands on her hips, stuck me with as stern a glower as I've ever seen and went, "Have you no care, Miss Evans? You are exhausting your body! You can't expect any sort of healing to be done when it has to work so hard merely to keep you standing upright! In all my days—treating yourself so poorly—"

Then she kept on with quite a number of thinly-veiled criticisms about my rotten actions and my complete disregard for my own health/happiness/etc, but I wasn't really listening.

So I didn't have a plague?

Not even a little?

"So I'm not ill?" My question broke through Pomfrey's tirade, cutting her off just as she'd really gotten started on bemoaning the audacity of Us Children Today. I was feeling a bit light-headed. My hands were sweaty. I fisted the cot sheets on either side of my lap. "Not ill at all?"

"Certainly not from lack of trying," Pomfrey retorted irritably, still all glowers. "If you don't take the time to give your body a decent amount of rest—immediately, Miss Evans!—I can't promise that will remain the case!"

"Immediately?" Well, that had potential. "So you're saying I should go straight to bed? Like, now? Forfeit all lessons and otherwise planned activities for the day? For my health? You're putting me on bed rest?"

"I am saying," Pomfrey replied slowly, her voice clipped and precise as if she were speaking to a small child, "that you should leave here and proceed to breakfast. Eat. Go to your lessons. Don't skip meals. And tonight, get to bed at a decent time. Sleep a full eight hours. Do this every day, and we shan't have a problem!"

"So...no bed rest?"

"No, Miss Evans. No bed rest."

Oh.

So…right.

No bed rest. No plague.

I expected tears—Pomfrey's, mine, it really didn't matter. I just expected them—but at that moment, the very moment when I'd just heard my non-diagnosis and assumed I would start my hyperventilating, keeling over in panic and despair, breathing sharp, heart pounding, causing Pomfrey to instantly reconsider her diagnosis of my mental and physical stability, something...well, something rather strange happened.

Slowly, my fingers released their death grip on the sheets.

My pulse pounded steady in my ears.

A long, winded breath escaped my lips.

But it wasn't a breath of dread or disappointment. And my heart, it wasn't beating in time with my shallow, panicked breaths. In fact, there were no shallow, panicked breaths. No despair. No hyperventilation. Not even a little angina. My body sank, drooped, sighed.

I was...relieved.

Relieved.

Double bloody effing hell, was I relieved! My whole body fairly quaked with it. The feeling filtered through me like a sudden gust of wind, refreshing but depleting. I sat there upon my cot, limbs made mush from the unexpected peace of mind, ignoring Pomfrey's suspicious stares in lieu of simply sagging there with a hand pressed against my still humming chest, attempting to understand my rather curious reaction to this recent clean bill of health.

Except...well, except there wasn't really much to understand, was there? Why shouldn't I be relieved? I wanted to go on my date with James. I knew that. Hadn't I spent the better part of the last weekend sorting that out? Hadn't that hippogriff been thoroughly beaten dead? What I'd said to James yesterday on the grounds...no, I hadn't entirely thought them through or had them perfectly planned out, but I'd still meant them. Every word. So why was I so surprised? Why should that have changed?

A voice in my head that sounded irritatingly like Sirius blathered on about flightiness and the fact that such things have certainly never stopped me from changing my mind before, but I squashed that (him) quickly. Because this wasn't before—I wasn't before. This wasn't Lily-of-the-mates-with-potential. This was Lily...Lily-of-the-potentially-considering-girlfriend. And while Lily-of-the-mates-with-potential might not have had a problem with abruptly changing her mind this morning, Lily-of-the-potentially-considering-girlfriend certainly did. Turns out, Lily-of-the-potentially-considering-girlfriend is not too keen on that. Really not too keen on it. It was most definitely not her thing.

But I was so used to...well, let's just call it a rather-perpetual-proclivity-towards-serious-sometimes-seemingly-flighty-esque discernment, that when I couldn't sleep last night and then had that mad dream this morning and then woke up with all those butterflies in my stomach...I just reacted the way I always had. I threw myself into a panic and didn't think to question the validity of it. But what I ought've realised then (and can sadly only recognise now, in retrospect) is that, those butterflies? Yeah, not the flighty sort. I mean, yes, they fly, but not in a let's-flutter-our-wings-until-we've-fluttered-to-Guam-and-oh-look-we're-here-what-fun-coconut-clothing-let's-have-a-holiday-for-a-few-decades-yeah? sort of way. It was more of a let's-flutter-our-wings-until-we're-drifting-somewhere-slightly-above-ground-and-proceed-to-float-along-that-way-in-a-blissful-oblivion-until-we're-in-Hogsmeade-yes sort of way.

They weren't panic butterflies. They were girlish jitter butterflies.

But how was I to know that? I mean, which one seems like the more Lily reaction?

Coconut clothing, that's always been the answer for me.

But apparently not anymore.

And sitting there in the Hospital Wing, not really paying much mind to Pomfrey but knowing that she was still staring me down like I was a complete and utter headcase (and not really blaming her, because I was pretty much thinking the same thing), all I could really do was blink rapidly, remind myself to breathe, and come to one, definitive conclusion:

I think it was time to go find James.

Yes.

Yes, definitely.

My hop off the cot was so abrupt, Pomfrey startled at the sudden movement. She recoiled slightly as I bent to grab my rucksack from the ground and snapped back upright, the happy grin practically splitting my face.

"Well." I beamed blindingly at her. "Better start down that road to recovery, hm? Breakfast, you say? Best make it a balanced one. Many thanks, Madam Pomfrey!"

"Miss Evans—"

"Cheers!"

I sidestepped the befuddled nurse as I waved erratically over my shoulder, bolting quickly for the door. I didn't want to dawdle in case she decided it might be a good idea to make certain my mental health was as tip-top as my physical, because Merlin knew I'd never be out of there then. Luckily, Pomfrey didn't seem so inclined. I could feel her suspicion practically radiating off my back, but she didn't stop me from popping out of the Wing and into the corridor. I closed the wooden door with a victorious snap. My floating feet were already aching to be on their way. Who was I to deny them? Breakfast was calling and I was only—

The loud and uncensored grumbling echoing from down the corridor put a slight delay on my plans.

"—do all his dirty work. 'You're the tactful one, Moony. You talk to her.' Pah. Next time, I'll watch James and he can—"

"Who's watching James?"

From his spot still a good ways down the corridor, Remus skidded to a halt, his shaggy head immediately snapping upright. I took him in with a clarity that can only come in blissful relief, noting his unusually dishevelled appearance—the slightly wrinkled uniform, the almost haggard expression—but the typically unflappable Remus recovered from his surprise admirably quickly. Our eyes met and I lifted a questioning eyebrow. The shock on his face hastily morphed into a close-lipped smile.

"You're out," he said, stepping closer. "See? I told him you'd be out."

"Er..." I hoped I wasn't supposed to understand any of that. "Told who? Out of where?"

Remus didn't answer immediately, just sighed rather loudly and continued towards me with unhurried steps. I followed his lead, meeting him halfway. His gaze fell casually down to my wrapped wrist.

"Arm all right, then?" he asked.

I lifted the mangled limb obligingly and gave a sweeping wave, thinking to prove its good health with a show of dexterity. "Hasn't been amputated yet. But the day is still young. You never know."

Remus smiled kindly, that easy, thin curve of his. He seemed to have lost most of his initial irritation, his face eased as it hadn't been before. It was really too bad that I suddenly wasn't feeling as breezy. That's what happened when your suspicious side becomes irrevocably piqued.

He had been muttering something about James before—something about someone watching James and doing 'his' dirty work—and it didn't take a genius to discern that something was afloat. What was this 'dirty work,' then? And what exactly was Remus about? I wasn't exactly displeased to see him, but it seemed increasingly unlikely that he had just been going for an early morning stroll about the first floor. He had come here with a purpose, an intention. His only surprise at running into me seemed to be about the timing of it, not the actual occurrence.

I had the distinct impression that the 'her' Remus was meant to be tactfully talking to was me. And I'm not quite certain I liked that.

"I've got to be honest—much as I'm always keen on a run-in with you, this one seems a bit pre-planned," I started, keeping my tone light, even as my eyes narrowed. "It's early. And you're obviously not here for a visit with Pomfrey. There's nothing else of interest around here, so what exactly is this 'dirty work' you've been sent to do and whose dirty work might it be? And what's it to do with me?"

Remus didn't seem particularly astounded by my blunt questions, nor by the fact that I'd obviously overheard his earlier mutterings. He didn't look overly pleased about it, mind you—in fact, he looked a bit put out again, the frown pulling at his recently lightened expression—but not thrown. Before answering, he jerked his head in the direction he'd just come.

"Heading to breakfast?" he asked. At my tentative nod, he turned. "Let's head that way, then. The rest of them should be down there already."

"The rest of who?" I asked, but dutifully followed along next to him. "And you haven't answered my questions!"

"James has had the lot of us up since the crack of dawn," Remus informed me, a telling if not direct answer. My face began to heat as he offhandedly continued, "The incoherent stream of blabber about Hogsmeade was only broken up by the half-hourly updates we were getting as to your whereabouts. And while we were all quite glad to hear that you were still in the country, I think you'll understand why we thought it best to confiscate the Map and lock him in the loo for a while. Best for everyone, really," he added conspiringly.

Oh, that twit. That stupid, sweet, adorable twit.

I burned red from the tips of my toes to the roots of my hair. "Um, sorry."

Remus gave a good-natured chuckle.

"Don't be," he said, waving off the apology. "Once the sleep deprivation fades, I'm sure it will all be quite amusing."

I hummed some kind of agreeing noise, but was still mostly just trying to gain some control over my rampant mortification. I mean, don't get me wrong, the idea of James acting the part of flustered wreck did whip my girlish jitters back into a happy frenzy. It was nice to know that I wasn't the only one who still had some remnant anxieties about this afternoon. James always seemed so steady and sure about all this relationship business. It was a bit of a relief to realise that he was equally as susceptible to the foibles of us struggling, potentially-considering-girlfriends.

I glanced up at Remus, eyeing him with slight curiosity as we rounded the first corner. The morning anecdote explained his tousled state, at least. He wasn't the sort to walk about all untidy, but I suppose being rudely awakened by your mate at regular intervals throughout the early morning might push neatness down the list of daily priorities. I wondered what sort of condition that left the others in. Peter seemed the type to find the humour in the situation more quickly, if only because it gave him a chance to revel in the usually cool and collected James's nerve-ridden downfall. Sirius, on the other hand, was probably happily plotting my assassination. All things considered, I had probably lucked out meeting Remus first.

Not that any of them were off the hook, of course. Remus's mutterings suddenly started making a bit more sense. A flash of exasperation finally quelled my embarrassment.

"So that's who sent you, then?" I asked, just barely holding back my scowl. "James? He saw me on the Map when you lot finally let him out of the loo and sent you off to make sure I wasn't trying to balk off with the help of Pomfrey? Oh, that prat. I'm injured, for Merlin's sake!"

"Er, wrong prat, actually." I glanced at Remus in surprise. He was wincing. "James never got the Map back. But...er, I suppose Peter and I made a bit of a mistake by letting Sirius keep hold of it instead. He really wasn't any better than James. He was the one who saw you head for the Wing and sounded the alarm. I tried to tell him that you were probably just going for your arm, but he just kept hollering some nonsense about you letting go of the cliff before the game had even begun—I suppose you've played that daft game with him?"

I nodded slowly, a bit of a lie, but it was better than confessing that I had actually unintentionally and unwillingly invented the bloody thing. I wanted to keep Remus's respect if I could.

"Reckoned as much," he said, nodding to himself. "Anyway, last I'd seen, James wasn't even aware you'd left your dormitory yet. It was decided"—and the way he said it, there was little question about who exactly was at the helm of this particular decision (his name rhymed with whack and I was going to do just that when I saw him)—"that Sirius would be the one to keep him distracted while I came to find you. Keep you from doing yourself in or otherwise sober you up, I think it was."

Oh, that stupid, paranoid, cynical wanker. But why was I the least bit shocked? We were talking about Sirius. How could I have expected anything less?

"You know, someone ought to give you a medal, Remus," I muttered grimly, seriously considering drudging up one for him myself. A shiny one. With extra snazz. "How have you put up with the lot of them for seven years? Or better yet, why? It must be blackmail. Extortion?"

"A little bit of both, I think," Remus replied drily, but I suppose it just goes to show how completely and maddeningly manipulating Sirius Black and James Potter are that even as he said it, Remus's words were laced with an underlying layer of affection. An affection that, to be perfectly honest, probably tainted my own words, as well.

It's disgusting, really. And degrading. And…other things. Other very, very bad things.

"I can't believe that prat actually sent you after me," I went on, shaking my head in bemusement. "Obstinate tosser. I've told him a hundred times that I'm not playing at this."

"He's testing you," Remus said. "He does that."

"Well, tell him to go test someone else! I've enough to deal with without Sirius stirring up trouble."

There was a slight, almost unnoticeable pause before Remus responded next. I might not have even noticed it if it weren't for what he said—the words and the deceptively light tone with which he delivered them.

"You know, if you hadn't fought so hard to sort the two of them out, you might not have had to deal with him," he murmured, slowly turning his head to glance at me. His eyes met mine. "Regretting it?"

"What?" I blurted out, skidding to a halt.

Remus stopped walking, as well. He gripped the stair railing with one hand and continued to scan my face with searching eyes. I realised then that this hadn't just been an offhand question, that he'd in fact been considering this for more than just that second.

Which was a bit jolting, actually. Really jolting.

"I don't mean that you shouldn't have done," he assured me quickly, shaking his head. "Just the opposite, actually. The pair of them needed to have their heads slapped together and Pete and I weren't making any impact. But I suppose I just wonder why you bothered. Your life would've been far less complicated without Sirius in it."

"Undoubtedly," I agreed immediately, because that was an unarguable fact—an unarguable but utterly moot fact. "But I'm not an idiot, Remus. And neither are you. You know as well as I do that a life without Sirius is a life without James. You don't get one without the other. Asking James to choose would have been suicide—and not something I'd even want in the first place."

"So you did it for him? For James?" Remus's brow puckered in confusion. "Oh. Just seemed to me that you were still trying to figure this thing with James out. I hadn't realised..."

Oh, for Merlin's—that one got my temper up.

"Why does everyone always assume that I'm so casual about this?" I fumed, so bloody sick of going through this same song-and-dance with every stranger I met on the street. "Merlin."

"So you're not?" Remus asked.

"No!"

I hadn't meant to sound so hostile about it. Perhaps that wasn't fair, but I knew where this was going. I was anticipating the continued bemusement at my vehement proclamation, some further, "Didn't seem like it," or even a simple, "Hmm. Really?" I wouldn't have been happy to receive either, of course, but regardless, that seemed the general path these kinds of conversations take. Merlin knows I've had enough of them over the past few weeks to know.

I suppose my surprise was understandable, then, when instead of continuing on with some rubbish along those lines, Remus merely gave a contented nod, smiled a bit wryly and went, "Right, then. Onward, shall we?"

Then he turned right around and went waltzing down the staircase.

Um...what?

I sputtered stupidly on my step.

"That's it?" I blurted, still frozen in place. "'Onward, shall we?' Seriously? That's the end?"

Remus didn't even bother turning around. "Yes."

I continued to stare at him in pure bafflement, mouth gaping like a fish out of water. My better logic screamed in protest. How could that be it? It couldn't. That was never it. He was supposed to keep going! He was supposed to pile the accusations atop my head until they buried me whole! He was supposed to question me until I screamed in frustration! That's what everyone else did. For Merlin's sake, it's even what I did. So why would he just...how could he just...

Unless...

Oh.

Oh.

Psh.

I almost laughed. Really, I was this close. As it was, I gave off this indelicate sounding half-snort before starting off quickly down the steps after him. When we were once again walking side-by-side, I glanced up, decidedly not shocked to see that Remus had a bit of a smirk about him.

Remus Lupin, the Tactful One.

"Seems Sirius isn't the only one who cares to test me, is he?" I mused.

"Who, me?" Remus played at being shocked to hear this, holding an offended hand to his chest. "Decidedly not. I've always been firmly pro-Lily."

"Yes, I think you have been, and I'm inordinately grateful for that. However"—I stuck him with a pointed stare—"I think you can be firmly pro-Lily and also be firmly pro-testing-Lily. Isn't that so?"

Remus hesitated, but only for a moment. We both knew the ruse was up.

"Well," he finally said, glancing down at me with a bit of contrition, "I suppose you might be on to something. I have always been keen on knowing the lay of the land. For informative purposes only, of course."

"Of course," I repeated with sham gravity.

"I reckoned you weren't, by the way," he added, looking quite sincere now. When I glanced at him questioningly, he clarified, "Casual about it. James, I mean. And it's not that you couldn't have sorted those two nodcocks out simply because you're the sort of girl to want to put things like that right, either. You are. It's just..." He paused for a moment, seemed to consider something, then shrugged. "Dunno. From the way James sometimes tells it, you're constantly on the verge of calling the whole thing off. So I just figured I'd ask. See if he was just being sensitive about the whole thing." His eyes flickered over mine in question. "Angry?"

I only took a second to think about it. I shook my head. "No."

And honestly, I wasn't even lying about that. I wasn't angry. Not really, anyway. I mean, part of me might have briefly contemplated exasperation, but mostly it was just an, "Oh. Right. Of course," state of mind. Because of course Remus would want to question me, get 'the lay of the land' as he called it. Of course he'd want to scope out a relationship that—yes, I admit it—at times might seem like a bit of a forthcoming train wreck for his best mate. What half-decent mate wouldn't? And Remus is far more than a half-decent mate. Truthfully, now that it'd happened, I wondered how we'd gone so long without having this conversation before. Sirius was undoubtedly the neediest of James's mates, but that didn't mean he was the only one. Remus and Peter were strapped right up there with the handful of people who came firmly tagging along on James Potter's back when he ambled on into your life, as well. With Sirius demanding most of the attention, I suppose I'd forgotten that.

But I certainly wouldn't be forgetting it again. And truly, I think I actually respected Remus more for prodding. Not even accounting for the kindred meddling instinct it spoke of, it simply showed that he cared. Probably less about me and decidedly more about James, but that was still a good thing. I couldn't possibly fault him for that.

I tell you, it's moments like this that cause one to reconsider the whole mate-rock thing. I mean, I don't imagine stonery would have the easiest of times properly meddling on your behalf, now would they?

I think Remus saw that I'd meant what I said, even if it might've seemed a bit strange. But just in case he was still questioning it, I decided to make certain he couldn't misconstrue my acceptance. I flashed him my very best grin.

"You know, that Sirius might be a rotten pill to swallow, but he's not stupid, is he?" I threaded an arm amicably through Remus's and kept my voice light and teasing. "You really are the tactful one."

Remus gave a sudden laugh, a pleasant chuckle that shook his shoulders. "Someone's got to do it."

"Especially in the lot you run with."

"Yes, especially with them."

The pair of us grinned foolishly at one another, the balance obviously restored. But as we finally made it to the top of the marble staircase, ambling downwards and into the Entrance Hall, I think Remus felt he needed to give some kind of further peace offering because abruptly he went (quite faux-casually, even), "James was awake past midnight yesterday looking up steaming spells in an attempt to iron his trousers properly. You might want to comment on their lack of wrinkles when you see them later."

Oh, Remus Lupin, I do adore you.

"And I suppose the lot of you just watched and laughed?" I asked.

"I laughed. Peter, too. I think Sirius may have cried a little."

The pair of us hooted and jabbered on like a couple of gossipy grandmothers as we quickly crossed through the doors and into the Great Hall. I forced myself not to immediately look away from Remus, overriding the powerful impulse to scan the Gryffindor table for a familiar mop of sooty hair. I mean, couldn't I manage some semblance of restraint? What am I, a witch or a puddle of hormonal mush? I should be able to keep up a normal conversation while still in the presence of my mate-with—no. With my potentially-considering-boyfriend.

Control. That's all I needed. A bit of self-control.

(It's really too bad that I don't have any.)

I actually made it quite far, all things considered. We moved closer—two tables away; one; just down the opposite end—and I made it all the way to the middle of the Gryffindor table before the urge became too strong and I inevitably succumbed. But it wasn't until we'd moved within hearing range and Remus went, "Look who I found," that he turned around.

Oh, hullo, girlish butterflies. So nice to have you back.

"You're here." James's grin was so wide and blinding, I rather considered squinting. "In the Hall. In the country."

Why was everyone so bloody surprised by that?

"In the Hall, in the country," I repeated flatly, rolling my eyes. It was getting a bit difficult to look at him—the girlish butterflies were having a ruddy rager down there—so I took a moment to greet the rest of our more-full-than-normal end of the table. "Morning, fellow country dwellers."

"Morning," Peter returned tiredly.

"Hello, there," Marley said, poking her head out from behind her Prophet. "Seems we're a few extra this morning."

"Nice work, Moony," was Sirius's addition, muttered just before he took a hefty sip from the steaming mug he was holding, followed by nothing further.

I'm not certain if James heard him—distracted as he was with grinning like a mad loon and setting me all aflame and such—but he did pause in his regularly scheduled hormone-wrangling to give Sirius a forceful shove in the side.

"Budge over," he ordered. "Let her sit."

Remus left my side to move around the table and take a seat next to Peter and Sirius did shuffle his bum along the bench far enough to open a patch of space large enough for me to wiggle my way into. But I didn't sit yet. Instead, I stared critically at the back of Sirius's stupid, shiny head, eyes narrowing.

'Nice work, Moony'?

Oh, I'd give him, 'Nice work, Moony'.

As everyone shuffled about, I let my gaze flicker from the back of Sirius's head over towards Marley, who had diligently returned to her reading. "Hey, Marls. Mind if I see your Prophet for a moment?"

"Er, sure." Her eyebrows furrowed, but Marley closed the paper and offered it over to me.

I smiled thankfully at her, taking the thick newspaper and gripping it briefly in my hands. As James placed a hand at my hip and nudged me forward with a light order to sit, I quickly rolled the newspaper into a tight scroll.

He never saw it coming.

"Oy!" The newspaper made a loud clapping sound as I swung it swiftly upside Sirius's head, taking great pleasure from his cry of protest and the sputtered hisses he made when some of whatever steaming liquid he was holding sloshed over the mug rim and onto his fingers. He dropped the mug onto the tabletop and swung his head around in outrage, grey eyes blazing. "Bloody fucking hell, Evans!"

From across the table, Remus snorted.

"Nice work, Lily," he called.

"Thank you," I replied.

James groaned loudly. "Buggering hell. What'd I miss?"

Sirius was still glowering, one hand rubbing idly at the back of his head, the other motioning furiously towards Remus. "Why doesn't he get hit? He went!"

"Just so you know," I told Sirius calmly, absently unrolling Marley's newspaper before promptly returning it back to her, "if you and Remus were both dangling off separate cliffs—slipping finger grips, feet swinging, yelling and carrying on, the whole dramatic debacle—and I was the only one about to help, I don't care if he has an ocean and you have a puddle, there's a typhoon approaching from the northwest or a rampaging elephant is heading full-speed straight in the direction of your quickly crumbling mountainside...I'm still saving him first."

There was a brief moment of silence after I'd finished my pronouncement as I casually began to climb over the table bench and slipped into my spot between James and Sirius. Then, almost immediately:

"Tactful," from Remus.

"Brownnoser," Sirius sneered at him.

"Rampaging elephant heading towards the quickly crumbling mountainside?" Peter repeated, intrigued. "That's a new one."

"Someone pass this girl a waffle," James ordered, tossing his arm about my shoulders. "Besting Sirius is famishing, isn't it?"

"Exceptionally," I agreed.

"I wasn't bested," Sirius grumbled.

"Oh, go whine about it," I returned.

He tried to hide it, but Sirius's lips quirked reluctantly upwards, impressed.

What can I say? I'm just a very impressive girl.

DATE UPDATE: 7:33 a.m. and still Hogsmeade bound.


Even Later, Still at Breakfast in the Great Hall
Observant Lily: Day 43
Total Observations: 290

Do you reckon James might let me borrow his mates for a time? I mean, not Sirius—he's not properly trained yet—but Remus and Peter? Just for a little while, until I find some better ones of my own. Because honestly, mine just aren't going to cut it anymore. And I truly don't think Remus or Peter would have ever showed up abruptly to breakfast, glanced at me quite curiously and gone:

"Oh. You're still here. Lovely." (Emma)

or

"I hear Guam is terribly overcrowded this time of year. Tourist season." (Grace)

Observation #290) One really shouldn't keep discounting the mate rocks.

DATE UPDATE: 8:07 a.m. and still Hogsmeade bound.


Later, Potions
Observant Lily: Day 43
Total Observations: 291

Even though we sat next to one another throughout the whole of breakfast, I didn't really get the chance to have any sort of proper conversation with James amidst all the usual tomfoolery taking place at the Gryffindor table—a fact that grew more and more irritating as breakfast dwindled on. Fortunately, when I stood up and announced my desire to leave early for Potions (not, as I'm sure can be discerned, out of any strong urge to get a jumpstart on brewing, but rather due to a particularly strong urge to get James alone), my quite bright potentially-considering-boyfriend caught on straightaway. Springing up from his seat, James grabbed his rucksack from the ground, hiked it up his shoulder and loudly declared that the same swottish urge had suddenly taken hold of him, as well. Fancy that.

Really, it's quite lovely having such a quick-witted male counterpart. Convenient.

Sirius was the only one who found it necessary to accompany our exit with some overly-loud groaning, though I think Grace may have copped on and added a bit of polite applause towards the end. In any case, I didn't intend on dawdling about to shoot them nasty looks. James and I left the Hall quickly, and though I certainly had no inclination of actually giving Abbott an early morning pop-in, when we'd moved into the Entrance Hall and it was time to pick a destination, I reckoned it still made the most sense to head down towards the dungeons, if only for convenience's sake. Before I could even think to start that way, though, James had already grabbed my hand and was leading us off in the complete opposite direction.

"Where are we going?" I asked, trailing along behind him as he headed for a wooden door tucked just to the right of the main staircase. James's only response was a quick glance over his shoulder and a flashing grin.

Right, then. A surprise, it is.

The door opened into a corridor that I believe runs parallel to the staff room, though I can't be certain. We strode quickly down the empty hallway, one of us more purposefully than the other (though seeing as one of us didn't know where we were going and the other did, I suppose that's to be expected). I was about to inquire again just where the bloody hell we were off to when James finally stopped. Startled by the abrupt halt, I collided into him from behind. The hand that he didn't have still tucked into mine lifted to steady me, but shifted rather quickly as he turned to face the large landscape painting that was hanging on the wall just to our left. That same steadying hand reached out and I watched in confusion as he carefully ran three fingers along the left side of the picture frame.

"Er, James? What are you—"

The landscape swung open with a loud creak.

Hm.

Sometimes I forget I've attached myself to a deviant.

"Oh." I tried to act as if I witnessed this sort of thing all the time. Random opening landscapes. Right. Obviously. "A door. Of course."

I didn't look at James as I quickly quit gawking and dutifully crossed into the small room, but I don't think it would be too presumptuous to say that he was grinning. I dropped his hand to wander further inside and he turned to close the painting behind us. The space was tiny, tight, not taking more than four or so steps to cross from entrance to back wall. It was dim inside as well, the only light coming from a rather modest and dirt-tinted window resting high up one wall. It looked like some kind of long-forgotten study space—the room's only furniture was a rickety-looking wooden desk and an accompanying desk chair, and there were empty wooden planks lining the walls that I reckon probably ought've been holding books.

But it had charm, in that dusty, secluded cupboard sort of way.

"Homey," I offered, ambling slowly about the cramped space. "How did you—ah!"

I can't be blamed for the initial shriek. I mean, I can, but wouldn't you? The surprised cry did fade rather quickly into laughter, though, once I realised that it was just James's arms snaking about my stomach and tugging me back against him. My feet skimmed off the floor and my hands instantly covered his as his mouth nipped playfully at the crook of my neck. I squirmed about in protest, but—shockingly—James didn't seem of a mind to let go. I did manage to fidget enough to twist around in his arms, but I think he might've just allowed that because it provided better positioning for what he had in mind. That became rather obvious when his face lowered just as soon as it was able.

Honestly, wasn't there enough milk at breakfast?

"James Potter, you fiend." I turned my head so that his lips caught my cheek instead of my mouth, but he didn't seem to mind that. "Did you lead me in here to take advantage?"

"Absolutely," he answered, but that's all he could manage with his exceptionally busy schedule of cheek-lavishing and such. Pah. Who has control enough for this?

Well, me, apparently, though it did take much willpower to prod his determined lips away from my person. And even then, he just turned his head and started scattering my fingers with kisses. I gave him a very stern look.

"A little self-control, if you please," I requested, ignoring the wolfish grin that was taking up most of his face. His glasses sat a bit crookedly atop his nose, obviously jostled amidst his nefarious activities. I set them straight, thinking that might serve symbolically as a reminder for him to set his hormones straight, but then I remembered that oftentimes these things are best not left as simply symbols, so I stated it frankly, as well. "I did not whisk you away to snog. I wanted to talk."

"About what?" James asked.

"Oh, I don't know. How about the fact that you seemed pretty damn surprised that I showed up this morning?" I stared pointedly at him. "We can start there."

"I wouldn't call it surprised," James replied slowly, carefully. "More...pleasantly reassured. World of a difference, that."

"'World of a difference', my arse." I shoved lightly at his shoulder, but all he seemed able to do was grin. Randy twit. "You don't think I meant any of it, do you? Yesterday. Outside. You didn't take me the least bit seriously. You still think I'm going to bolt."

It was something that had been grating on my mind since Remus had let it slip about James and his early morning half-hourly updates. Initially, I'd been merely girlishly flustered about his rather sweet excitement, but after mulling it over during breakfast...well, there was obviously something more than simple excitement prompting James's constant need to monitor my whereabouts. And while I was hardly looking to start an argument over it, I didn't want to brush by it, either. I hadn't said what I'd said lightly. And in my desperately-awaiting-something-to-go-terribly-wrong, pre-date state, I didn't want this to be what came back to somehow ruin everything.

Luckily, I think James sensed that I wasn't trying to make a big to-do about the whole thing. And thankfully, he was able to ignore his greater snog inclinations long enough to contemplate it somewhat seriously.

"I know that you meant it," he told me slowly, considering his words carefully. "But there was always the possibility that you might've...forgotten that you meant it. Just for a moment, of course. But a proper more-potential-than-mate considers these things. So I did. Just in case."

Well, that...that...

Shut up, James Potter. You don't know me.

"There might have been...slightly such a forgetful moment this morning," I felt it necessary to admit, comforted when James only laughed at this. I might have blushed a tad. Or more. "But it was a very quick moment and it really was for the best! Over and done with early on, see? Now no one has to worry about it!"

"And there's no possibility for a second moment?"

Of course there was, but I wasn't about to tell him that. I shook my head instead. "Terribly sorry, but no. I did warn you. You're stuck with me."

"Right devastating, that," James said, but rather ruined the effect of his sham gravity by grinning again. Then he really ruined it by snogging me.

Not very good at the whole 'playing-at-not-wanting-to-go-to-Hogsmeade-with-you' bit, is he?

Oh, well. We've all our faults.

Mine is clearly that I don't know how to refuse the dairy that is so consistently being thrust my way because even though I really hadn't intended our leave-early-for-lessons ploy to end in a quick calcium injection, that's the direction it went, anyway. But that's not really my fault. I mean, it was all James. He's an addict. An addict that drags other people down with him. 'Other people' meaning me. So really, this can all be blamed on him. I am merely a victim in this sick, twisted world of dairy, depravity, and dependence.

And I'm sure I would have been the one to quickly pull away if James hadn't felt the need to do so first. I do have self-control. I do.

(Or if I didn't then, I certainly would've after hearing what he said next.)

"Forget lunch."

I literally jolted. If James's hands hadn't still been cradling my face, I'm not certain that I wouldn't have jolted straight away from him and onto my bum. But cradling as they were, I merely jerked away slightly and croaked out a short, "What?"

"Forget lunch," he said again, but the way he was grinning at me so widely, even my quite-easily-led-to-jumping-to-conclusions brain had to question where exactly this was going.

"Once more," I prodded dubiously.

"You didn't eat much earlier, yeah?" he asked quickly, still not giving any answers. I didn't even have time to nod or shake my head before he was already ploughing on. "No. No, I don't think you did. So let's do it proper. Can't have you missing meals, can we? And who needs to wait for lunch? We can leave now. Rosmerta serves breakfast. We can be in Hogsmeade in fifteen minutes—less, even, if we hurry. Let's just—"

"Now? You want us to leave now?"

James's answer was a quick kiss and an even quicker, "Yes."

My head was still spinning when he abruptly pulled away and started backing up towards the painting. I think it was the movement that finally snapped me out of my shock. I dug my feet into the floor.

"Wait! No! No, we can't—no one goes to Hogsmeade for breakfast, for Merlin's sake! And lessons! We have lessons! Do you want to be murdered by Abbott? Or McGonagall? We can't! Transfiguration—"

"—will still be there tomorrow, Infallible," James finished, though at least he'd stopped trying to lug me off towards the exit. His voice had gone all patronising, which was irritating and unnecessary. "What's a few more missed classes? As if either of us would even be paying any attention. Come on. It'll be brill—"

"No. No. You can't just—no."

James quit looking condescending long enough to start looking suspicious.

"Second moment?" he asked flatly.

I could have hit him. Really, I could have done.

"No, it's not a second moment, you tosser. I just have a bit more consideration for plans than you do!" I gave him my most annoyed glare, but he really didn't seem to get it. I crossed my arms over my chest and stood my ground, hardly believing his mindless whimsy. James wasn't budging either, though. I decided to break him down with an angry tirade. "I know you really couldn't care less about skiving off lessons for weeks on end, but I do! We set this time specifically so we wouldn't miss anything important! And...and I had this all planned out and concrete in my head and you know I don't like abrupt changes so you can't just—especially when it's something so—Merlin—"

It wasn't a second moment. Really, it wasn't. But excited to go to Hogsmeade or not, I was still not even remotely keen on spontaneous shifts to my already set plans. I mean, I hadn't even had the chance to get into my date mindset! And I hadn't written my 'Sorry for abandoning you in class!' note to Robbo-Rhymo! Or had a mini-though-not-remotely-close-to-a-second-moment freak out with Grace and Emma! I couldn't just go. There were steps! Stages. And since when did anyone go on a breakfast date, anyway? That was the stupidest thing I'd ever heard. It wasn't a proper date. It was...it was a dake. A fake date. We were not going on a dake!

This is what I told James—loudly.

The part about the dake, I mean. Not everything else. He'd read too much into the rest, the wanker.

"That's not even a word," he complained, clearly put out at having been thwarted so thoroughly. He grappled for a suitable return. "Besides, you're looking at it the wrong way. It wouldn't be a dake. It would be a...a date-ra! A date with extra, see? Eh?"

Oh, brother.

He really has been spending too much time with me, hasn't he?

Poor sod.

I know I was supposed to be being all tough and firm and obstinate and everything, but...well, come on. I couldn't help it. Date-ra? Date-ra? The giggles were out before I could stop them. I tried to cover them with coughs, but I'm not certain that worked too well.

"Date-ra. Right. Got it," I hack-giggled the words out, trying to muffle them with my hand. My farce was revealed for the sham it was when James rolled his eyes, tried to look all put out and grumbled, "Shut it, you."

Which really just made things worse.

"No, no, I'm sure you're quite right! Date-ra. That's exactly what it'd be." I stepped closer so that I could pat at his arm all placatingly, still biting back my laughter. James shot me a look, but I could only smile. I strategically morphed my arm-pats into some artful arm-strokes. He eyed me suspiciously, but I wasn't stupid. I kept talking. "But be that as it may—whether dake or date-ra—I'd really still rather neither. I just want a plain, ordinary date. One that starts at a suitable time. And doesn't require me to go in my ugly school uniform."

"You could've changed," James grumbled, but I could see that he was easing off his date-ra plan, thank Merlin. I kept up the arm-stoking, though, just in case.

"Truth is, we've probably blotched it up enough already," I added offhand.

James lifted an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

I shrugged. "How unclassy is snogging someone before your date? Which was your fault, by the by. And half the fun of a date is always the anticipation beforehand. You know, the not-seeing-each-other-until-that-moment build-up? But we've blotched that up, as well. It's quite unfortunate. Though, actually..."

The idea came suddenly, but caught on quickly. I looked up at James, considering, then excited. I stopped my stroking and squeezed his arm instead. "That really shouldn't be sacrificed," I declared hurriedly, firmly. "The anticipation, I mean. What fun would that be? And we can still fix it. We just won't talk to one other before lunch! Or look at one another. Or anything-one-another. It'll be just like the real thing! Or close enough, anyway."

James looked entirely confused. "Not talk? What are you—and how exactly am I not supposed to look at you?"

"You just don't," I answered, not really understanding the objections here. The excitement was building. I can't believe I hadn't considered this earlier! Anticipation. "Keep off. Sit away. If we just continue on as normal, the whole magic of the date disappears! You'll be sick of me by the time lunch rolls around and then where will we be? Do you want to ruin it?"

"If I were going to get sick of you, I think I would have done by now, don't you?" James asked.

I scowled. "Are you willing to risk that?"

James didn't answer, but I really wasn't expecting one. And despite the fact that I think he was still of the mind that he was somehow getting out of this, I went ahead and proved him very wrong by grinning brightly and taking three deliberate steps backwards. My back brushed the landscape. James's eyes narrowed.

"What are you doing?"

"Leaving."

He did not seem to like that. Did not seem to like that at all. Probably mostly because he was expecting a bit more of a snogfest in here, the randy idiot, but still.

"Lily, this is the stupidest—"

"Do what you will, but I want the fun anticipation and the only way I'm going to get it is by pretending you're not constantly a stone's throw away from me. So"—I grasped slowly for the portrait frame—"I'm going. And I will not be speaking with you for the rest of the morning. Or looking at you. Or even remaining in your near vicinity. Not until lunch."

"But you'll still be thinking about me!" James declared victoriously, obviously counting this as some sort of win for his side. "You won't be able to just quit that!"

"Well, of course not," I scoffed, pulling a face. "Thinking about you is absolutely allowed. In fact, it's rather the point. It builds up the hype. You should think about me, as well—though only in the most flattering and romantic of lights, of course. I would be quite happy if you could make this a rose-coloured glasses sort of morning, all right?"

"You can't stop me from talking to you," James threatened, folding his arms over his chest in an obstinate sulk. "Or standing in your vicinity. Or looking at you. And I can make you look at me, too."

"You can try," I said, shrugging.

"You're being ridic—"

I spun, glad to find that there wasn't any secret password or bizarre voodoo song-and-dance necessary to get the landscape open from the inside—a nice, firm shove did the trick. Still not turning back around—this plan was beginning immediately—I waved blindly to James over my shoulder and called a farewell as I stepped into the corridor. "Ta!"

"Ta? Ta? Infallible—"

That's when—rather inelegantly, I admit—I slammed the landscape in his face.

Then I ran.

Very, very quickly.

The shouts rang out before I'd even made it halfway down the corridor.

"You'll be sorry, Lily Evans!"

Psh. That's what he thinks.

And as it turns out, I've managed to remain quite definitively unsorry thus far. I knew I couldn't risk going back to the Great Hall because James could have easily accosted me there, probably even expected me to head that way thinking I'd find safety in numbers. He didn't have the Map, but he might reclaim it from Sirius, so wherever I did go, I knew it needed to be a place where he couldn't come after me even if he wanted to. And there's only one place I know like that.

So that's why I spent the remainder of breakfast tucked away inside the girls' lavatory.

Not my finest moment, I admit, but a witch's got to do what a witch's got to do. And whether James sees the logic of it now or not, I know my plan has great merit. He'll be thanking me later when he realises just how brilliantly separation will serve us. It'll make our date all the better!

Clearly this realisation has yet to sink in, though, judging from the stunt he just attempted to pull. I bet he thought he was being so clever by switching seats like that. He knew I'd try to sneak in just before Potions began—I hadn't really another option if I wanted to keep him from dogging at my heels—and the blighter sought to use that to his advantage. Truth be told, I was a bit taken aback when I walked into the dungeon and realised that he had (probably quite easily) conned Gracie into switching seats with him so that she was now plopped down at the back of the class with Remus and James sat at my usual workstation with the only empty seat in the classroom next to him.

I did not look at him, but I knew the smarmy bastard was smirking.

Too bad I was too suave and determined to fall into his trap.

"Evans." Abbott stood at the front of the classroom, eyeing me with little amusement. "Would you kindly take your seat?"

I gave her a close-lipped smile. "Yes, Professor."

But instead of making my way to the front of the room and plopping myself all resigned down in the seat between James and Emma, I headed straight for my alternative option—the one I reckon James didn't even know I had.

Really, he should know me better by now.

Remus was already watching me when I sidled quickly up next to him. I think that maybe he was even expecting me to stop beside him.

"You owe me from this morning," I hissed, already dropping my things beside the desk. "And you can tell your mate that he's going to have to do a bit better than this to crack me."

Remus gave a long sigh, lifting his eyes towards the ceiling but dutifully grabbing his books off the desk. "How do I get myself in the middle of these things?"

"Evans. Lupin." Abbott was out and out glaring at us now. "Seats."

Remus openly trudged, but willingly or not, got to the front of the classroom. I slid quickly into the seat next to Grace.

"Why are we playing musical chairs?" she asked with a slightly worried tone, but Abbott wasn't playing about with her intentions to begin class, so I could only give her a, "Tell you later," look before Potions took over.

And now here we are. And despite the fact that James has attempted twice to pass me back notes saying Merlin-only-knows-what, I have soundly ignored them, instantly shoving them at Grace to do with as she pleases just as soon as Katie Frost passes them back to me.

I am getting my proper anticipation, even if it kills me.

And no one—not even my date himself—is going to stop me.

DATE UPDATE: 9:13 a.m. and still Hogsmeade bound (with added anticipation!).


Later Later, Charms
Observant Lily: Day 43
Total Observations: 291

All right. Someone had better explain to me why the bloody hell James Potter was just standing atop our desk in a desperate bid for attention I haven't seen since the dark days of fourth year. -GR

I think the better question is why Flitwick let him. He was up there for a good two minutes at least. -EV

And someone was sitting there with her nose buried in her book, going on as if his feet weren't trampling the pages!

The wanker got his stupid footprints all over the place. Pince is going to have a cow. -LE

Really, Evans? That's your issue right now? Pince?

Among other things.

Lily...

For goodness sake, will both of you quit giving me those looks? And I swear to Merlin, Grace Reynolds, if you pinch me one more time...

Well, if you would just ruddy answer the question!

I was going to! And it's not even remotely close to what you henwits are thinking, so stop fretting. I've simply found a way to make our date better that James has taken some exception to it. That's all.

What kind of way?

The kind of way that entails me ignoring him all morning. I'm trying to trick myself into a false sense of anticipation, see? I mean, everyone knows that half the fun of a date is the anticipation beforehand. And how am I supposed to achieve that if James is constantly about, hm? So we're having a bit of a separation period. That way, when our date does start, we won't be sick of one another.

Lily, that is the silliest

Brilliant. It's brilliant.

Gracie, my heart, your pinches are forgiven.

Since when is Grace's approval ever a positive sign?

Ow! That hurt, Grace!

Good. And really, Emmeline, someone as bright as you ought to be able to see the genius in this plan. It's positively inspired!

It's positively moronic. And not even working! He was standing on our desk, for Merlin's sake!

Yes, but I wasn't looking at him as he did it. Just his feet. And those could have been anyone's feet.

Exactly. Anyone's feet.

Are you even listening to yourselves?

Look, the way I see it, this is better than her packing up her meagre belongings and hightailing it off to the mountains, isn't it? And we're still not entirely out of the woods with that one yet.

Oh, come on.

Shut it, Evans. You know it's true. And actually, she's right, Em. How is she supposed to get her giddy-date feeling if she's been staring at James's highly fit form all morning? The fitness will wane. And then what's he got going for him?

A brain?

A tongue?

Cripes, McSlaggerson. Contain yourself.

I honestly don't know what to do with you two anymore.

Well, I like the plan. And for all his standing-atop-desks, James is obviously enjoying it, as well. You know these two. The flighting. It's foreplay.

Call it whatever you want, but this nonsense is still not getting my approval. James nearly crushed my inkwell!

There are casualties in any war, Emmeline. I'm sorry your inkwell got in the middle.

Speaking of.

Inkwells?

War?

No. Foreplay.

Of course.

It's really too early to be hearing about Chris Lynch and his skilled mouth, Gracie.

Firstly, it is never too early for discussions of skilled mouths. But that isn't what I meant. I was actually speaking of you. I realised this morning that we'd left out a vital factor in the Perfect Date Ensemble.

I've already remembered tights. Problem solved.

I was talking about under the tights, actually.

Sweet Merlin, Grace.

Under?

Do you still have that black lacy set we got at Madam Dumont's?

We got that set as a gag, Grace!

Yes. And I'm sure James will find it very funny.

Lily, please quit hitting her. Flitwick is starting to look over here!

This is a first date! A FIRST DATE! No one is getting anywhere near—as if I would

No one's asking you to take them off, Lil. I was just under the impression that they might...make an appearance. You know, from past button experiences.

That's not...I mean, just because...

Lil?

I'm fine. Fine.

Maybe you should put your head down or something...

It's just...first dates are supposed to be about little things. Small steps. Getting to know one another!

But not in the biblical sense.

Grace!

What? I said not!

Don't pay attention to her, Lily. You know James doesn't expect anything like that. He'll be happy simply to have you there.

Right. You're right. Of course, you're right.

Yes, I am.

Even though I lured him into a dusty study room and let him snog me a bit this morning. But that was mostly his fault. Actually, entirely his fault. And I put a stop to it. Sort of.

Exactly. See? No problems.

Right. No problems.

Um. But seriously. Madam Dumont's. You didn't return it, right?

All right. I suppose I deserved that.

Flitwick does not look happy.


Still Later, Still in Charms
Observant Lily: Day 43
Total Observations: 295

Observation #292) Regardless of how impressed he may be by the skill it takes to cast a Multicolour Charm on human skin, Professor Flitwick nonetheless cannot condone such disregard for school rules. He is willing to forgo detention when he sees how quickly and efficiently you can reverse it, though.

Observation #293) If there are certain spots of your victim's skin that haven't been changed back, but which are presently unnoticeable by the naked eye...well, no one's the wiser, are they? (Besides, Flitwick would probably be even more impressed.)

Observation #294) Grace Reynolds deserves every discoloured patch of skin she gets.

Observation #295) ...doesn't she?

DATE UPDATE: 10:44 a.m. and still Hogsmeade bound (now with completely and utterly inappropriate worries/expectations).


Later Later, Transfiguration
Observant Lily: Day 43
Total Observations: 295

I agreed to change Grace's unseen-with-a-shirt-present bits back to their natural hue in exchange for her agreement to run blockage for me against James as we left Charms. She was all-too-willing to agree, partially in vanity, partially because she was still firmly behind Plan Anticipation and gained much amusement from refusing to let James pass as Emma and I dashed off to Transfiguration. I'm not certain how she managed it, but judging from the way the pair of them strolled into the classroom without any ostentatious drama, she must have not only effectively detained him, but conned him into seeing the wisdom of my plan, as well.

Which is nice. Lovely, even. And quite a load off my mind.

And the thing is...I know I should be paying attention to McGonagall right now. The exam is officially in less than a week and I know about half-a-Knut more now than I did in September. There is not a moment of Transfiguration review to be spared.

Except...

Look, this isn't a second moment or anything, all right? I have no intention of hightailing it to Guam or up a mountain or into the nearest broom cupboard or anywhere that isn't Hogsmeade with James. And regardless of the slight, half-a-moment of panic that may or may not have flared up when Grace posed her mad, randy, utterly-inappropriate-and-not-even-remotely-her-business question...I'm not going to let that spoil things, either. Because when everything is said and done, I'm a slag, but I'm a slag who knows when and how to say no. And while James might also be a slag, he's a slag who listens. So there's no need to...well, to panic.

Right.

DATE UPDATE: 11:04 a.m. and still Hogsmeade bound (for now).


Later Later, Transfiguration
Observant Lily: Day 43
Total Observations: 295

But maybe I should consider...

No.

No.

DATE UPDATE: 11:06 a.m. and still Hogsmeade bound (without Madam Dumont's help!).


Later Later, Still Transfiguration
Observant Lily: Day 43
Total Observations: 295

DATE UPDATE: 11:15 a.m. and still Hogsmeade bound (...maybe with some help?).


Same, Same
Observant Lily: Day 43
Total Observations: 295

DATE UPDATE: 11:18 a.m. and still Hogsmeade bound (partially with some help?).


Same, Same
Observant Lily: Day 43
Total Observations: 295

DATE UPDATE: 11:21 a.m. and still Hogsmeade bound (in for a Knut, in for Galleon).


Same, Same
Etc.
Etc.

DATE UPDATE: 11:24 a.m. and still Hogsmeade bound (some things are...too expensive to contemplate, though).


Same, Same
Etc.
Etc.

DATE UPDATE: 11:29 a.m. and still Hogsmeade bound (oh, bloody hell).


Still Later, Still Transfiguration
Observant Lily: Day 43
Total Observations: 295

Dearest Rob,

I am truly sorry, my rhyming mate,
for abandoning you to this terrible fate
of working alone during class.

I would be there if I could,
Be cross—I know I would—
Cry, "What a rude and deplorable lass!"

In my absence, have a care
not to drive Freeman spare,
(we all know she loves you best)

I'll be back come next lesson,
(I know the prospect's depressin')
and look forward to our next rhyme-fest.

Lily

DATE UPDATE: 11:41 a.m. and still Hogsmeade bound (since awful poetry is strangely calming).


Etc, Etc Transfig.
Observant Lily: Day 43
Total Observations: 295

DATE UPDATE: 11:45 a.m. and still Hogsmeade bound (!).


Much Much Later, 7th-Year Girls' Dormitory
Observant Lily: Day 43
Total Observations: 296

Time: 6:28 p.m.
Emotional Barometer: Depleted.
Bodily Status: Dishevelled.
Feet Check-Up: Never the same again.
Mental State: As usual.

DATE UPDATE: Complete.


Much Later, Still 7th-Year Girls' Dormitory
Observant Lily: Day 43
Total Observations: 296

Ever since I was little, I've always had this tendency to...well, overdramatise.

It's not intentional. Honestly, it's not. An unfortunate consequence of a childhood so horrifically banal that even an entirely ordinary soul like myself couldn't stand the triviality of it all, it was undoubtedly an internal defence mechanism developed in my youth as a guard against the debilitating evils of dullness. By the time I got to Hogwarts and possibilities for actual excitement opened up, it was already too late. My penchant for flair was too ingrained.

So blame my parents. Or blame Surrey. Or even blame society in general, if you're so inclined. But whosever or whatever's burden this inevitably is to bear, the fact remains the same—I am physically/emotionally/spiritually/etc. unable to live my life without my very best mates, Drama and Hyperbole.

In the long run of things, I reckon I probably got off rather easily. I haven't a deadly disease or a devastating handicap, after all, just an occasionally inconveniencing character quirk. Before today, I honestly couldn't say that it's ever truly bothered me. I mean, with a life like mine, who wouldn't want to take comfort in their own extravagant delusions, right?

But right now—for this—I am going to try my damnedest to defy my poorer nature. Possibly for the first time, I don't want to overdramatise. I really, truly don't.

And maybe I'll be able to do this because the day doesn't need any dramatising. Or perhaps I'll be able to do it because it's been a few hours now and I've had time to process it all. Or perhaps I'll simply do it because where there's a will, there's a way, and right now, I feel as if I might have will enough to topple a mountain. But whatever the case, I am determined to go about retelling this as objectively as possible. That way, when I decide during some future afternoon that I want to go flipping back through my old journals—reliving the glory days and recapturing my misbegotten youth and such—and I go to revisit my very first date with James Potter, the record and the reality will be as closely linked as possible.

Because...well, because I reckon today is the sort of day a girl is going to want to revisit.

Perhaps with the grandchildren. Or the great-grandchildren.

Or, you know, the cats, as the case may end up being.

So here it goes. Objectively.

I don't think I'd even be starting off on the wrong Strictly Objective foot if I said that I can't remember a single Transfiguration class ever going more slowly—and that's saying something, considering my long and tumultuous relationship with Transfiguration. I never did get around to actually listening to McGonagall's lecture, but who could blame me? Only someone who's never had to sit through an entire lesson in the last hour before their very first date with their potentially-considering-boyfriend, I think. It was torture. Absolute and complete torture. And it certainly didn't help matters that I was too stubborn to renege upon my Anticipation Plan and just stare fixedly at the back of James's head as I might've done on other occasions to pass the time. How could I, so close to the finish line? Victory was within my grasp and I didn't want to toss in the towel on the last sprint. But I won't say it wasn't tempting. Especially when staring critically at the idiot might have also assisted with…er, other troubling issues.

Somehow, I'd always imagined that any sort of trouble Madam Dumont might get me into would be a bit more fun.

Stupid bloody hormones. Stupid bloody virtue. Who has time for these kinds of dilemmas?

What the bloody hell had I been thinking letting Grace talk me into buying the stupid set last summer, anyway? I mean, granted, we'd just run into Michael Davies and his posh new girlfriend and I may have been slightly more susceptible to such things than your average Saturday shopper, but that still doesn't justify it! I hadn't even wanted to go in, but Grace had been plotting some dirty weekend for Simon Langley's birthday and needed to pop by for underwire assistance, so we'd just meant to browse really quickly, but then she'd practically shoved me into the dressing room with the stupid things and…well...

But they were always meant to be a lark! No one was actually supposed to see them. Well, I mean, they were, but not today. Someday. Someday in the far future. Someday not in the first-date-far-future.

Except…

Well, James and I probably would...I mean, nothing mad or anything! But probably a bit of…er…

Oh, hell. That doesn't make me a complete harlot, does it? Because it's a first date and I was rather expecting…well, something? But not The Something. Good God, no. Certainly not. And James wasn't expecting that either, right? Because if he was, let me tell you, the boy was in for a rude awakening!

But I don't suppose Madam Dumont much screams 'rude awakening,' does she?

At least, not the kind of screaming and awakening I was talking about.

Shit.

Shit, shit, shit, shit.

What's a selectively moral slag to do?

I still hadn't really sorted it all out by the time McGonagall finally—finally!—ended class. That wasn't good. Not good at all. Because it was just this kind of indecision that could be the very catalyst to send me spiralling straight from Transfiguration's Barely-Half-a-Moment-Nervous-Contemplating into Full-Fledged-Second-Moment Panic Status. Because shockingly enough, even with The Great Harlot Debate up and running, I still hadn't managed to have a proper Second Moment. As the minutes plodded on, I was feeling a bit jitterier and certainly more anxious, but it was nothing Second Moment worthy. Not even close. Which was quite worrying, actually. Quite worrying, indeed.

Because I had to have some kind of Second Moment, didn't I? And possibly even a Third? At some point, the other proverbial shoe was going to drop and all hell would break loose. There was no way I could actually go on this date in a normal state of mind. Not with my karma.

But I suppose even Great Karmic Powers have to take a day off every now and again—and wouldn't you know it? Mine had apparently chosen today to start their hols! Heads would undoubtedly roll once they discovered what prime opportunities they'd missed to ruin my life, but there was nothing for it. When Transfiguration finally ended a hundred thousand eons after it had started, it did so without a single hint of a true Second Moment. I rose from my seat with Emma eyeing me curiously all the while, but all I could feel were those blasted giddy butterflies from this morning, fluttering up a frenzied girlish storm in my otherwise settled stomach.

Emma's hand fell hesitantly onto my arm.

"Lil?" Her tone was light, tentative. "All right?"

"I'm going on a date with James," I answered a bit breathlessly, a lifetime of emotions contained in the seven simple words. "I'm going on a date with James Potter, Emmeline. Right now."

"Well, yes. I suppose you are," she laughed, giving my arm a squeeze. "That all right?"

Apparently, it was.

Apparently, it really really was.

Hmph. Who knew?

I think I alarmed her a bit with the pure luminosity of my returning grin, but after a moment, she grinned back, all teeth and shine. We beamed foolishly at one another like a pair of right loons.

Then a third fool joined the bunch.

"What the bloody hell are the two of you ogling each other for? Move, move!" Grace clapped her hands in time with her orders, giving us each a forceful shove towards the door when we didn't budge quickly enough for her tastes. Ahh, something familiar! "The longest James would give us was twenty minutes—and even that took finagling. You have to meet him outside the portrait hole at quarter past."

"My date at quarter past," I garbled like a lovesick parrot, the nerves and giddiness melding together to make a rather sad state of me. I couldn't believe the rubbish spewing out of my mouth. If I weren't so out of control, I might have been embarrassed. "My date with James, Gracie."

Grace only glanced accusingly at Emma. "Really? Calming Draught? Again?"

I think now might be a good time to point out that even witches in anxious, scatter-brained pre-date states can still cast rather brilliant Multicolour Charms.

Oh, dear. Why looking so blue, Gracie?

Hardy, har, har.

But even though she is a bossy, blue, boisterous, underhanded bint...I suppose Grace still has her occasional uses. Like when she assisted (shoved) Emma and me up to the dormitory without letting any of us escape (Emma) or fall down a flight of steps because of our suddenly amazingly jelly-like limbs (me). Or when she properly finagled with James for twenty minutes to get ready rather than the three he was apparently originally willing to wait (Three? Was he mad?). Or like when she came to the rescue when my cosmetic spells kept rendering me more dockside barmaid than charming lunch partner. Or when I discovered my tights had a colossal run in them and she effectively filched a pair from Carrie Lloyd's plentiful stash.

Yes, I think I'll keep her.

You know, for now.

"Do you think she'll notice?" I fretted as the witch in question went plunging cavalierly through Carrie's trunk, tossing various pairs of brightly coloured tights aside in lieu of finding a suitable black. "I mean, I know she's more pairs than any one person ever really ought to, but that doesn't mean—and what if she finds out—"

"Then we tell her you found them on the floor and thought they were yours," Grace answered succinctly, still digging. "They're tights, Lil. Who can tell the difference?"

Which is another thing about Grace. When she's not playing the twit, she's actually quite logical.

"Are you certain about these, Lily?" From her place lounging on my bed, Emma lifted the Slag Boots—which had just been dutifully salvaged from their dark place in the very back of the closet once more—by the tips of fingers. She scrunched her nose in distaste. "You were so miserable after your date with Amos—"

"Well, don't blame the Slag Boots for that," Grace scoffed.

Emma rolled her eyes. "I'm not blaming—oh, never mind. All I'm saying is that I wonder if it's really worth it. You have to make it all the way to Hogsmeade and back, you know."

The lady had a point, even if it was a moot one. I sighed very loudly.

"Don't remind me." I took the boots from her, glancing sadly down at my uninjured feet for what would probably be the last time today. Or ever. Poor feet. Poor me. "It is a far, far better thing I do—"

"Ah-ha!" Grace's victory cry cut off the rest of my poignant soliloquy. She brandished a pair of black tights over her head in triumph. "Success!"

"Huzzah, hurrah, Gracie!" I held out the hand that wasn't still carrying the Slag Boots to reach for the hosiery. "Come on, then. I only have three minutes and it'll take at least that long to—"

"Ah! Not so fast!" Grace clutched the tights possessively against her chest, effectively moving them out of my reach. Her face suddenly took on a mulish expression. Oh, hell. That never boded well. "At the risk of compromising your so-far-dormant panic button," she began slowly, "I would like to inquire whether you might want to…ahem, change anything else before you tights-up?"

Her suggestive leers and wiggling eyebrows were enough to let me know exactly what Grace was implying I change.

Oh, for Merlin's sake.

"Grace," Emma warned.

"It's a legitimate question!" she cried.

"It's none of your business!" I returned, sticking her with a good glower.

Grace sagged with a frown. "But that's—"

I took advantage of her moment of weakness to swipe the tights from her greedy little hands, punctuating the theft with another pointed scowl. She went into an obvious sulk as I strode purposefully towards the loo with the tights and the Slag Boots and kicked the door shut behind me.

Because, honestly? It wasn't any of her business. Not even close to her business. What I did or ultimately did not decide to wear beneath my Date Day Ensemble was no one's concern but my own—well, and perhaps James's. But mostly mine. He should be so lucky.

But in the name of Objective Retelling and keeping this all as thorough and accurate as possible…

Well, let's just say that I decided to go more "slag" than "moral" for the day.

Oh, go on. Disapprove. Judge harshly. My scarlet letter is no doubt with the seamstresses as we speak. But I've never denied that I'm no better than a puddle of hormonal mush! What did anyone honestly expect?

I had no intention of informing the rest of them about this minor lapse in virtue and decency, however. As far as they were concerned, I was playing the prude part to the highest degree with dull grandmum knickers and matching girdle. In fact, as far as James was concerned, I was playing the prude part, as well! My last minute beneath-the-ensemble change was merely there as a safety net. You know, just in case I abruptly decided that I might as well get my money's worth of Madam Dumont's grossly overpriced merchandise. But nothing—and I mean nothing—was coming off. This was strictly For Viewing Pleasure Only. I hadn't completely ditched my selective morals. I still had some honour left. And though my potentially-considering-boyfriend often has a way of making me momentarily forget the scant honour I possess, there are some things that even James Potter and his deviant mouth can't talk me out of.

My virginity happens to be one of them.

(Er...at least, not on a first date.)

I actually felt much improved after I'd settled all that. I mean, I wouldn't claim I'd reached any sort of Zen state by the time I was putting the finishing touches on my strategically-untidy-side-plait in the loo mirror, but I certainly wasn't hyperventilating, which I called an all-around victory. The Slag Boots—charmed for comfort as much as they were ever going to be, Merlin help me—made short, clicking sounds against the dormitory floor as I finally stepped out of the toilets. Grace and Emma were much as I'd left them, sprawled out on my bed. They both glanced up as I stepped out.

"Well?" I gave them the perfunctory slow spin. "Not terribly unfortunate?"

"Lovely," Emma praised, putting down her magazine and giving me a pleased smile. Grace was naturally more skeptical, climbing off the bed in order to circle like a scavenger, giving me the close, methodical once-over. She fiddled with my fringe, gave my (her) jacket a neatening tug, then wiped some invisible (or I couldn't see it, anyway) lint off Emma's skirt. Finally, she straightened out and gave her nod of approval.

"You'll do," she said, but her grin was bright and her eyes were all a-twinkle, so I reckoned I'd do quite nicely.

I laughed a bit breathlessly.

My heart was starting to pound.

Holy hell. Holy hell.

"It's quarter past," Emma announced, sounding very casual about it, but even a blind man couldn't have missed the question and apprehension poorly hidden behind her token smile. She watched me like a hawk, and I really couldn't blame her.

"Should I be fashionably late?" I asked, only half-joking. "Make him sweat a bit?"

"I can't imagine he could be sweating any more than he is right now," Grace said, looking none-too-disappointed by the prospect. James's potential nerves clearly tickled her fancy. She sighed wistfully. "Merlin, what I wouldn't give to see his face when he spots you! It's almost enough to want to sneak down and spy."

"Grace, no!" I choked out instantly. "That isn't even funny! Do you know how mortifying—"

"I said almost," Grace crowed, but she was still looking far too pleased with the whole idea for my comfort. When I sent her an anxiously pleading look, she snorted. "Oh, for the love of…don't get your ugly and ordinary knickers in a twist! Emma will make sure I stay put. But I want a full report!" she ordered, holding up a stern finger. "Don't you forget even a modicum of the moment! I want to hear of every drip of drool and nervous blather! I will never forgive you otherwise!"

"Gr-ace," Emma complained.

"Sometimes I do worry about you," I murmured.

Grace's only reply was a, 'I'm-not-taking-the-mickey-here-you'd-better-not-botch-up-my-retelling' obstinate arm cross.

Really. What are my mates?

Before I could muster up enough concern to ponder just that, Emma consulted her watch again and dutifully reported, "12:17, Lily."

It was time to go.

Time to go on my date with James.

My date with James.

For the first time since the Hospital Wing scare this morning, I started to feel hot, compressed. I took a deep breath, moving slowly towards the doorway, trying valiantly to stop my heart from beating straight out of my chest. I stood frozen just before the closed portal, my brain apparently unable to send the proper message to my hand to get it lifting and opening. Perhaps sensing the need for some assistance, Emma came forward and opened the door for me. Her smile was warm and reassuring as she leaned against the door.

"Have fun," she said.

"Thanks," I croaked.

"Give James our hullos," Grace called. "You know, once he lets you up for air."

I snorted, but actually, I think it might have been Grace's customary snark—and the very real possibility that had I stuck around any longer, someone might have gone ahead and shoved me out the door—that finally unstuck my feet from the floor. I took my first heavy step out of the dormitory. Then another. Then another.

I had just barely cleared the threshold when the door slammed shut behind me.

Ah, mates. So supportive.

Unfortunately, there wasn't any time to begin the rock-mate debate again. This was it. I was actually doing it. I was going on a date with James—with James and hopefully without an accompanying heart attack, though judging by the way that particular appendage was painfully slamming against my chest, there was a distinct possibility that I might be getting a two-for-one Date Day deal.

All right. Breathe, Lily. Just breathe. I'd made it this far without calamity, hadn't I? There was no way I was faltering now. And I wanted to go—really wanted to go. That was always worth remembering, wasn't it? All I had to do was get down the stairs, cross the common room and climb out the portrait hole. How hard was that? I mean, I'd only trekked that same course about a hundred-thousand times. It was easy. So easy. And then I'd be done. I'd officially be on my date. My date with James.

Right.

Right.

So…anytime then, Feet. Whenever you're ready.

Um.

Yes, Feet. Would you mind terribly…? Ah. There you go! Yes, that's the way of it! Small, slow steps are still steps. Huzzah, hurrah! Keep calm and carry on! Yes! Nearly—

There was a pause—of course there was a pause—just in front of the portrait hole. Try as I might, I couldn't get my feet to take the final step, to just open the portrait and be done with it. And in the name of Objective Retelling, I suppose it's only fair to note that this is as close as I can come to adequately describing my feelings at that particular moment, just before I finally managed to unglue my feet from the floor and opened the portrait:

Yes Shit Fuck Oh God Merlin No But YES And Also NO Shit Double Bloody Fucking Shit Okay SHUT UP NOW AND GO And But How YES GO Shit Oh My God GO.

And in the name of Objective Retelling, I suppose it's important to note that this is as close as I can come to adequately describing my feelings at that particular moment, just after I finally managed to unglue my feet from the floor and opened the portrait:

Thank God.

Thank God.

Really. That's it. Thank God, thank Merlin, thank any and every spiritual and otherwise entity that one can feasibly thank and not get struck by lightning by the others for worshipping.

Because there he was. Standing just there. James.

And quite like that, everything was all right.

And look, I know—I know that sounds stupid and girlish and overdramatic and not even remotely Objective and how counterproductive is that to my valid recording…but it's also the truth. I saw him and...and everything was just all right. More than all right. I was…

Well, happy. That's the only word I can really think to call it. I was happy.

And that was before I even got a proper look at him, seeing as James was off to the side of the corridor, pacing restlessly and not giving me a direct gander. He looked…well, utterly brilliant, of course, and I don't want to hear a single untoward word against Plan Anticipation ever again because there was just no arguing for the fact that seeing him then—after determinedly not seeing him all morning—wasn't positively thrilling and that the girlish butterflies got a workout like no other simply from setting eyes on him. Not to mention the fact that I'm quite glad I had sense enough to refuse his date-ra madness this morning because then I probably wouldn't have gotten to see him in his Date Ensemble, which, though far simpler than mine (tan trousers, grey jumper, trainers, cloak threaded through the crook of his elbow), was still…well, fab. Really, really fab.

And even though there was none of his usual easiness about him—in fact, he looked decidedly uneasy, and was so lost in his pacing that he didn't even hear me come out into the corridor—I was still a goopy mess of hormonal mush.

But I was a goopy mess of hormonal mush who could fortunately speak, otherwise the pair of us might have been standing there forever.

"Hey, there." My voice seemed to echo in the quiet corridor. James jumped, jerking around with his fingers still threaded through his hair—and that's exactly how he froze: body twisted, expression surprised, hand partially hidden amidst dark tufts of hair, staring at me.

It wasn't quite drooling, but I imagine Grace would be pleased.

I was probably grinning like a right fool.

And blushing like a right fool, as well, but that's to be expected.

"Hi—uh, yes. That—hullo." The hand dropped slowly back down to his side. His expression didn't shift much, though. "You're...er, yes. It's...you look—"

"Wow," I laughed, shifting a step closer. "Perhaps you weren't so mad objecting to the Anticipation Plan. It might have rendered you mute."

"You render me mute," he said, finally recovering enough to quit gawking and start smiling—really smiling. The kind of smile that had me melting in my boots even before they'd done their damage. And it certainly didn't help matters when he finally got his mobility back and quickly closed the distance between us. "You look brilliant," he said.

I flushed furiously. Naturally.

"Is that what this is all about?" I joked lamely. "I thought you were just shocked I'd bothered to show up."

James didn't even blink. "Never even crossed my mind."

What a dishy little liar, he is.

A dishy little liar who I was now officially on a date with.

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

"But just in case it was crossing your mind," he said next, sweeping a quick hand down my arm, "perhaps we should be off? Push you past the point of no return?"

"Perhaps we should," I agreed. "But first..."

I shucked the cloak that I'd had hanging over my arm aside, revealing beneath it another significant article of outerwear. I think James was a little surprised to see me carrying his scarf and was certainly taken aback when rather than weaving it about my own neck, I tossed my very favourite snuggle mate over his shoulders instead.

"I've thought about it," I started succinctly, carefully securing the scarf about his neck, "and though it was quite the toss-up, I reckon you need the luck more than me. So now you have it." I gave the scarf a final, straightening tug, then yanked forcefully down so that his head was more level with mine. "You take it off," I mimicked, "and I can personally promise that I will disown you."

James's smile practically split his face.

"You know," he mused, "I can't help but feel as if I've heard that before."

"Huh. Fancy that."

James grabbed my hand. "Fancy that."

Well, I was certainly fancying something.

James dropped my hand only long enough to go digging in his trouser pocket. He pulled the Map out from its shallow depths and quickly relinquished the folded parchment over to me. "Here. You're on lookout," he said.

"But I don't know where we're going," I protested, but snatched up the Map gleefully nonetheless. Oh, the power. The knowledge. "It'll be decidedly difficult to keep watch for oncoming trouble when I haven't the faintest what our route is."

"Third floor," was all he'd tell me, and even that curtly. He was smirking, of course, undoubtedly basking in his air of mysteriousness. "We'll take the back staircase. Less crowded."

"You're the expert," I muttered, but despite the obvious issues, off we went.

The date, it seemed, had officially begun.

The back staircase was fortunately empty, though that probably wasn't very unusual. No one can ever really keep track of even half the staircases about this castle, so it's generally always safest to take the main one, even with the added difficulty of its tendency to rotate at the most inopportune moments. The corridors were rather clear, as well, but I suppose that wasn't unusual, either. Most people were in the Great Hall for lunch and the sporadic corridor wanderer wasn't anything an aptly altered walking pace couldn't solve. James and I didn't speak much as we made our way down to the third floor, but he kept his hand in mine.

"So what are we looking for exactly?" I prodded as we finally made it down into the Charms corridor. We had to dawdle in the stairwell while Flitwick ambled by. "Let me guess—another portrait? Or perhaps a tapestry? No, wait—it's like Diagon Alley, isn't it? Some magical stone pattern and then whoosh, gone goes the wall? So? Yes? Have I got it?"

"Not even close." James tugged on my hand and we started down the corridor again. He was not even trying to hide how much he was enjoying this.

"Well, at least tell me where the passage lets out," I complained. "I've heard there's one that comes out off the High Street. Is that it?"

James shook his head. "There is one there, but Filch knows it. He had it rigged for a while last term—probably still does. This one lets out just outside the gates."

Even with my glee at finally having some idea of where we were going taking precedence, that particular tidbit still struck some concern. My steps slowed.

"Wait. The gates?" I pulled at James's hand. "Won't people spot us leaving?"

For reasons I couldn't possibly have fathomed then, this only made him laugh.

"Trust me, Infallible," he said, turning his head to grin at me. "If there's one thing I can promise you, it's that you won't be spotted."

Oh, right. Because that wasn't vague or leading or anything.

"You're not telling me something," I accused.

"Patience," James replied.

You know, sometimes I forget how annoying he can be. Even on first dates.

But I sure as hell didn't forget it for the rest of our journey through the third floor considering James annoyingly refused to tell me anything more about where we were going or what we were doing or how I wasn't going to be spotted while we were doing it. It wasn't until he'd made a sharp turn towards the end of the corridor and we were practically there that he bothered sharing any more information—and even then it was only because I knew where the corridor led.

"You're kidding." I slowed my steps as he did, feeling quite stupid. "The Trophy Room? Really?"

James shook his head. "Not the Trophy Room. Other door."

Other door? In this corner? What was…

"The armoury?"

James grinned.

Hm. Interesting.

The last time I was in the armour gallery, I believe I was eleven and lost. Things hadn't changed much in there since then—same very daunting suits of armour, shields and weapons blazing the Hogwarts crest all over the place. It was a tight space, really, but James expertly weaved his way through the hunks of metal, heading straight for the back wall. There, four suits of armour, each representative of a different house, stood erect. As I not-so-subtly examined the group for some kind of lever or hidden button, James dropped my hand.

"You can put your cloak on," he told me, doing, I assumed, just that himself. Truth be told, I was still too busy trying to discover the secret of the suits of armour to look. When I finally turned back to James in defeat, the secret having eluded me, I saw that he had indeed donned his own cloak. But strangely enough, he still had another one thrown over his forearm.

"It can't possibly be that cold," I muttered, nodding towards the second cloak. "And even if it were, that thing doesn't look the least bit sturdy."

James laughed.

"It's more of a…decorative piece," he said, all smug amusement and no answers. But decorative or not, he didn't make any move to put it on.

"Well?" I tossed on my own cloak, waiting for him to give his outerwear its final "decorative" flourish. "Aren't you going to put it on?"

"Not exactly," he answered, but finally did lift the cloak. As it spread, the material seemed almost to shimmer. "Actually, we're both going to put it on."

Then he threw the thing about his shoulders, and disappeared.

Yes, that's right. Disappeared.

And no, I don't mean that as some sort of overdramatic exaggeration describing how fast he'd run off in a fit of better sense or anything like that. This is the Objective Retelling version. He had literally vanished from sight. Right into thin air. Standing before me one moment, gone the next.

He. Had. Disappeared.

Except, of course, I could still hear the bloody arsehole laughing, so he was there, just not…well, there.

I think it was a perfectly acceptable time to gawk. Or more than gawk. Whatever the word is for something decidedly more than gawking, I was undoubtedly doing that. And was still probably doing it as James took the cloak off and reappeared again.

"I told you you wouldn't be spotted," he grinned.

If I were able to speak at that point, I probably would've called him some kind of dirty name. The dirtiest name I could think of. As it was, all I could manage was, "Um. Er. You…that's…er…ah…"

Very articulate, Evans.

Go on. Dazzle him with your wits.

"It's an invisibility cloak," James offered, still grinning.

"Yes, I'd imagined as much, thanks," I returned breathlessly, finally regaining my verbal abilities. And along with those, some legitimate indignation. "Now can I ask where in the bloody hell you got an invisibility cloak from?"

"Family heirloom," James announced proudly, brandishing the cloak with far more expertise than was entirely comforting. "My dad gave it to me before I came to Hogwarts."

"You've had that since first-year?" Good God. My poor little Prefect's heart wept and stomped in outrage. "Merlin's beard. No wonder the lot of you get away with so much! You can see everyone with your stupid Map and they can't ever see you! Poor Mr Filch! He never even stood a chance!"

James rolled his eyes. "Filch can hold his own. Can we go now?"

"Go? No! I want to see this thing first."

There was a bit more eye rolling and plays of exasperation, but James handed the cloak over easily enough. I took it from him eagerly. It felt exactly as it looked—light and silky, almost water-like in its metallic glimmer. I was keen on the texture of it, and perhaps the possibilities. With the Map still in my hand, I got to feel like a proper troublemaker. I pulled the cloak over my head.

Hm. I didn't feel any different.

"Can you see me?" I asked.

James lifted his eyes towards the ceiling. "Well, as per its name, Infallible, I'm going to say you're probably invis—ow!"

I snickered, thinking this cloak might have more uses than originally believed—no one can see when you're aiming up to punch them.

Trusty.

James rubbed at his arm and scowled. "All right. Fun's over. Come on."

I danced playfully out of his reach. "Oh, no, I think I like this. Invisible. It has potential."

"Lily—"

"You can't swipe it back if you can't see what you're swiping at!"

"I can hear your shoes," James drawled, and I realised then that he was right. The Slag Boots were making clicking sounds against the stone floor as I moved, revealing my position. Traitors. "I like them, by the way," he added.

Of course he did.

"My boots?" I attempted to move a step closer as silently as possible. "Thanks. I like your trousers. They're pressed seamlessly."

For a moment, James looked delighted by the compliment. Then he seemed to realise how bizarre that actually was and the smile dropped quickly back into a scowl.

"Faithless wankers," he spat, glaring at a spot to my right. "Which one told you?"

I could only giggle in response, but that was a poor choice for several reasons, predominantly because the sound was enough to give away my position as close enough for him to attack and James lunged immediately. I shrieked as his arm swung blindly, first catching me around the stomach, then lifting to remove the cloak. As I was (presumably) brought back into sight, I could only laugh harder as James's arm caught my neck in a headlock. I convulsed with giggles.

"I really mean it! They're lovely! Finest pressed trousers I've ever seen!"

"You know, I'm really starting to rethink this 'letting you be mates with the lads' thing. Getting dangerous," he said.

"Tried to warn you," I wheezed, wiggling and squirming in a vain attempt to budge free. "I told you the master plan. You're the egomaniac who kept making it all about you—oh, let me go! You're ruining my hair!"

James laughed, pressing a quick kiss to my forehead before finally turning me loose. I gave him my angry look and went to elbow him, but the boy has very quick reflexes and managed to twist away. I was quite determined not to laugh because that would only make him think that he could get away with such nonsense, but it was a very difficult endeavour.

"You have some nerve," I sniffed, twiddling absently with my hair and fighting off a smile. "You're lucky I don't ditch you right now. And I'd take the cloak with me."

"Yeah, yeah." The way he was grinning, I knew that he knew that I wanted to be grinning, too. Pah. "Just lift Ravenclaw's visor, would you?"

"Lift Ravenclaw's…"

When I turned to look at him in confusion, James was pointing at the Ravenclaw suit of armour.

Oh.

Oh.

Hmm.

Not really certain what the hell I was doing, I rose gingerly to reach for Ravenclaw's helmet. Like the others, the blue eye visor was firmly shut, but unlike the others (or I'm assuming unlike the others), this one lifted rather easily. And when it lifted—when I lifted it—a loud creaking noise suddenly filled the room. James tugged me away from the suit of armour just as all four of them began to move.

They parted—two suits on either side—to reveal an underground staircase beneath.

I gawked.

You know, again.

"Come on. It only stays open for so long." James grabbed my hand and started down the staircase, lifting his wand and casting a quick Lumos to light up the dark and dreary stairwell.

Then it was just…dim and dreary.

A dim, dreary, never-ending stairwell.

Bloody hell, I am far too straight-laced for this rubbish.

"Um. So that was… interesting," I said, hearing the suits of armour creak back together above us, taking the only source of natural light with them. Oh, dear. "How'd you discover this one?"

"Detention, actually." James went ambling on down the stairs as if we weren't quickly descending into a dark pit of unknown. "Remus was being far too thorough with his scrubbing and lifted the visor—nearly fell down the stairs in the process, but it was actually one of our easier finds. We came back later that night to explore."

"And the rest is history?" I joked, trying to hide my unease. James's chuckle echoed.

"Yeah, I s'ppse."

Yeah, I s'ppse we're going to die.

But I suppose in the name of Objective Retelling, we can forgo the few moments of… uncertainty experienced as we continued to plunge down deeper into this lovely sinister dungeon where—Objectively Speaking—I'm thinking a few people may have died. And for a handful of long, overdramatic moments, I was strongly under the impression that I might end up being one of them. Because even though James seemed to know his way through the tunnels—managed to navigate them quite expertly, in fact, despite the dimness and dreariness—these sorts of things tend not to register when one is continually contemplating one's mortality.

And if there were ever a place to continually contemplate one's mortality, let me tell you, it was in the tunnel beneath the house armours.

But at the end of the day, we both made it out of the passageway with our mortality and our better sense restored. When we reached the end of the tunnel, James took the Map and gave it a look, scanning for potential passersby. There were a few on the grounds, but no one on the road to Hogsmeade. It was decided that it was still probably best to don the cloak until we'd made it over the first hill and out of sight of those loitering by the gates. That's when James instructed me on the finer points of the Invisibility Cloak Shuffle, a walking manoeuvre that he and his mates had had to perfect in light of the lot of them shooting up like weeds sometime around fourth-year and being unable to fit beneath the cloak without exposing some errant body part. The Shuffle consisted of much bumping and close proximity, both of which this Objective Reteller truly believes were highly exaggerated in order for James to be able to molest my person. But seeing as I don't really mind when James molests my person, I simply shot him a dubious look and let it be.

Still, by the time it was finally safe to take off the cloak, I had fended off about a hundred untoward advances and James wasn't even bothering to be subtle about them anymore.

"Excuse me, but I don't believe your hand belongs—James! For Merlin's sake, this is a first date!"

James laughed as I scurried out of his reach, finally able to do so now that we were over the hill and in the clear. At first, I didn't see him, only heard his disembodied chuckle in the otherwise empty landscape. Then he shucked off the cloak and the chuckle received an accompanying leer. Oh, brother.

"You're a fiend," I hissed.

"You like it," James shot back, pulling out his wand and shrinking the cloak into a tiny scrap. He bunched up the silky material and pushed it down his trouser pocket. "Keeps things interesting."

"You know, it's really sad how you've convinced yourself of that." I shook my head sadly as he moved closer to grab my hand again. "Delusions are awfully unhealthy."

"Do you know what else is awfully unhealthy? Lying."

"Well, perhaps you just don't do it properly."

We bickered about the pros and cons of such a phenomenon as we began our walk down the road to Hogsmeade. It was actually a surprisingly lovely day—not too bitterly cold and if perhaps not sunny, then at least pleasantly overcast. I didn't even miss the scarf I had so nobly sacrificed for James—though I hoped he knew that that was just a temporary loan. I wasn't about to give up my scarf, thank you very much. It was terribly rude to take advantage of someone's generosity.

"It's actually a bit strange, isn't it?" the scarf-wearer in question mused, filling the lull of silence our finished argument had left a few moments later. I glanced up at him curiously.

"My unhealthy fixation with lying?"

James snorted. "No—though that is quite unfortunate and you really should get it sorted. I was talking about this, actually," he said, motioning to the general atmosphere. "Us. Hogsmeade. A first date."

"What about it?"

He shrugged. "It's just rather bizarre. I mean, it doesn't feel much like a first date, does it? We haven't any of the usual nonsense—no inane blathering or awkward silences. We've come through all that already."

"We haven't even made it to Hogsmeade yet!" I objected, laughing at his rather fair estimation of usual first dates. "How would you know if there'll be any inane blathering or awkward silences? Personally, I intend to be exceptionally blathery and admirably awkwardly silent. But even if I'm not," I said, shooting him a pointed look, "that's not what makes something a first date."

"No?" James asked.

I shook my head. "Of course not. First dates are about...small talk. Compatibility. Getting to know one another."

"But we already know one another," he argued.

Honestly, did this boy know anything?

"We don't first date know one another," I scoffed, rolling my eyes. "Quit trying to deprive me of my first date, would you? I want all the stupid boring chatter and useless facts—and you should, as well! It's just like Anna says—don't you want to know if I'm precisely your cup of tea?"

"Anna?"

Oh, dear.

I hope he's joking.

"Yes, Anna." I tried not to look as scandalised as I felt. When James continued to simply stare, I went on. "Anna? 'Getting to Know You'? The King and I?" I hummed a few bars of the ever-familiar melody, but it was becoming increasingly obvious that the tune wasn't as ever-familiar as one might believe, at least judging by James's polite but entirely blank expression.

Pah. And he claimed to know me.

"It's a song?" he guessed after a moment, clearly not understanding the extent of his sad ignorance. "By a bird called Anna?"

"It's a film," I corrected, cut to my very core. "The character, Anna, sings "Getting to Know You" in the film, The King and I."

"I've seen a film!" James cried proudly, and though it's rather depressing to report, an Objective Reteller must confess that the poor thing looked quite pleased with himself when he announced, "Remus took Sirius and me once. It was about birds. Birds that just attacked people. It was fucking brilliant."

Oh, bloody hell.

"The Birds," I acknowledged flatly. "Hitchcock."

"That's the one!"

Of course it was.

"Yes, well, the film I'm talking about is decidedly less scarring," I said, thinking my shudder was enough to imply the several months I spent after seeing James's only experience with cinema dodging any flock of birds I happened across. Thank you, Alfred, you sadistic bastard. "The King and I is a musical. There's singing."

"There wasn't any singing in The Birds," James reported. "Just screaming."

"One of its many faults," I muttered dryly. James looked ready to argue with this (how could he argue with this?), but I waved off his protests. "Never mind. Look, I'm giving you your very first First Date Getting to Know You fact—I love film musicals," I announced, though James didn't seem to immediately digest the gravity of the moment. "My mum and I unabashedly park ourselves in front of the telly for hours whenever one comes on. We've seen The King and I a hundred-thousand times. And My Fair Lady. West Side Story, as well—oh, and Singing in the Rain! That's probably my favourite only to The Wizard of Oz—"

"A wizard?" James asked, instantly perking up.

I grinned and nodded, launching immediately into a brief retelling of the wondrous miracle that is The Wizard of Oz. James was disappointed at first that the film wasn't actually about the Wizarding World, but he seemed intrigued nonetheless. Though he kept getting caught up on the most asinine of details, like how good of a witch Glinda could've possibly been if she couldn't handle the Wicked Witch by herself or when exactly water became a tool of death.

"You're missing the point! And you're ruining the film for me!" I cried, laughing despite my better judgement as he continued to question how exactly the Wizard's floating head was any different from talking with someone over the Floo and how was that intimidating? "You just have to watch it, all right? I promise, you'll be so mystified, there won't be any time for stupid questions."

"Sounds a bit dodgy to me," he decided. "I think I like The Birds better."

I rolled my eyes. "Right. Why bother with a heartfelt musical when you can watch people being gorged by flying flesh-eaters?"

"Exactly!"

I jabbed him hard in the side, knowing the idiot was just enjoying riling me, but what sort of monster indulged in such things at the expense of classic musical films? A depraved, vicious one, that's who.

"Oh, just shut it," I grumbled as he continued to chuckle, entirely unaffected by my abuse. "I'm not letting you desecrate any more of my beloved films. And it's your turn, anyway. Tell me something I don't know about you. Preferably something I can desecrate, as well."

"So that's what all this 'Getting to Know You' business is about, then? Desecrating one another's interests?" When all he got was another side jab and a derisive stare for that one, James just laughed and then shrugged. "I don't know. What am I supposed to say? You know everything already."

"That is such a lie," I scoffed. "And since we know how you feel about such things, perhaps you should try a bit harder. It doesn't have to be something profound. Just a little thing, like... like I don't even know where you live!"

"Cardiff."

That surprised me. "Wales? Really?"

James smiled. "What's wrong with Wales?"

"Nothing," I returned instantly, though I suppose things could've been said—Glory to England, etc. "I suppose I just never pegged you for a Welshman, is all. You haven't an accent."

"Aw-righhh, somethings like this?" His exaggerated dialect made me laugh, but James just wiggled his eyebrows and took the abuse. "Suits me, doesn't it?" At my enthusiastic nod, he stuck his hands in his pockets and returned to his normal voice on a sigh. "Ah, well. My governess was this posh bit of goods from London, so that's probably something to do with it. Plus, most of my misbegotten youth was spent raising hell about Dover. The Potter seat is in Cardiff, but Mum was keener on spending time in France when I was younger and Apparating there from Cardiff is a bitch. Dover's only a hop away from Calais, so Dad bought a house there and had the Floo wired to the flat in Paris. It wasn't until just before Hogwarts that we stayed put in Card—why are you looking at me like that?"

It took me a moment to realise he'd asked me a question, probably due to the fact that the 'that' he was speaking of was a gaping sort of gobsmacked sputtering that I'm rather certain had me looking like a fish out of water. But probably the most dumbfounding thing about it all was that James truly hadn't the faintest idea why I was staring at him like that. His confused stare was entirely genuine.

Dear Merlin.

"Sorry," I finally managed, though if I was still a bit croaky and the look hadn't entirely faded, how could I really be blamed? "I've just never heard someone talk about their family's seat in serious conversation before. Or their governess. Or their two homes and Parisian flat—overlooking the river, I'm sure?"

"Wizarding Paris isn't on the river," James answered automatically, but his hand had lifted to clutch at his hair and I actually think the beginnings of a flush were starting to tint his cheeks. "Sorry," he said quickly. "I didn't...I wasn't trying to brag or anything. You just asked and—well, we do. And I did have...but that wasn't really...er—"

"You don't have to apologise," I assured him. "It's nothing to be sorry about. I suppose I'm just letting my Muggleborn show, hm?"

James didn't smile at my joke.

"Sometimes I forget that," he said, his voice suddenly low and somewhat serious. I glanced over at him, confused. "That you're Muggleborn, I mean. You're a better witch than most of the Purebloods I know."

"And that surprises you?"

He reeled back, almost insulted. "Of course not."

"I didn't mean—"

"It does make me wonder what sad state you would have rendered the rest of us in if you had grown up around magic," he said, and his slightly biting explanation made me feel a bit shamed-faced, even if I hadn't meant the question critically. After a moment's pause, he turned his head to look down at me. I could tell there was something more he wanted to say, but he seemed to be having an internal debate about saying it. I wasn't entirely surprised when he stopped walking. I stopped, as well.

"What is it?" I asked.

"Lily, you know that I would never...that I couldn't..." He struggled with the words, but cleared his throat and then got it right. "Your blood doesn't matter a whit to me," he said, rather forcefully. "I couldn't care less who your parents are or how far back your magic can be traced or that I'm…whatever I am and you're not. It's not important. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a narrow-minded arsehole. You know that, don't you?"

Er...

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised by the declaration considering the turn the conversation had somehow taken, but I was still a bit taken aback by both the words themselves and the vehemence with which he delivered them. No, I don't suppose we'd ever discussed it, but then again, I'd never imagined that we had a reason to. Even when I'd despised his very being and thought the feeling mutual, the idea that any of the animosity between us might stem from blood prejudices had never even crossed my mind. James Potter wasn't like that. Even Lily-of-5th-Year knew that.

But I suppose even these sorts of things occasionally need acknowledging. Honestly, I don't suppose I'd ever really extensively considered that James was a Pureblood and I was a Muggleborn and how that fit before—at least, not so concretely. It was so easy to forget about petty, disgusting politics when one was locked away in the relatively safe haven of Hogwarts, and while that might have been naive to cling to—foolish and irresponsible, even—it was a foolishness I wasn't willing to toss aside at the moment. I wasn't stupid. I knew that there was a war going on outside the Hogwarts bubble. But thus far, I had somehow managed to keep it from damaging my teenage years too permanently. I wasn't about to let it rear its ugly head just in time to ruin my first date.

But James needed some reassurance—was desperately seeking it, if his hard expression was anything to go by—and that was something I could give.

"Of course I know that," I told him, reaching for his hand and giving it a light squeeze. "Don't be stupid. Do you think I would really be here now if I didn't know that?" I waited for his features to ease, his stare to become less stony, his jaw to start to unclench, before trying to shift the conversation into lighter territory. I didn't want to dwell on this now. Joking seemed the best conversation turn. "And I promise not to hold your two houses, Parisian apartment, and sickeningly blue blood against you, either."

James's lips twitched and I could see in his eyes that he was grateful for the assurance and the reprieve. He gave my hand a light tug and we started walking again. It was with a lighter step and an utterly James smirk that he soon added, "Well, in the name of full disclosure, I suppose I should also mention the cottage in Godric's Hollow—but no one's used that in ages."

Oh, right. All those cottages we don't use. What a bother.

When I groaned, James laughed.

The rest of the walk down to the village was entirely pleasant and decidedly less serious, for which I think we were both grateful. I was quite happy to find that James soon threw himself wholeheartedly into the Getting to Know You plan with a relish even Deborah Kerr would have admired. Along with his plethora of real estate about Britain and the Continent, I also learned that he spoke a smattering of Welsh to go along with his fluent French ("What you should really hear is my parents row—Dad hollering in Welsh, Mum wailing in French. Most god-awful, garbled mess you've ever heard."), knew an actually impressive if utterly incorrect amount about Muggle music ("Quit giving me that scandalised look, would you? How can you even compare those warbling insects to the likes of The Stones? Zeppelin? Pink Floyd?"), as well as his favourite Quidditch team ("Caerphilly. Us Welshmen stick together, even if we don't sound exactly the same."), Hogwarts professor ("McGonagall. Though spastic Vector does hold a place in my heart."), and colour (with a smirk: "Green. Emerald green."). In return, I told him of my youthful ambitions to become the next Grace Kelly ("I walked about the house in a feathered boa and glittery sunglasses for weeks. When my mum caught me trying to dye my hair blonde, she finally put a stop to it."), my unparalleled skills at Gobstones ("We can only play if you're prepared to lose. I won't go easy on you just because I'd hope to snog you afterwards."), as well as my favourite book ("Is this Rebecca bird like Anna, then?" he asked), least favourite professor ("Freeman. The woman's a fraud.), and greatest pet peeve ("Empty, smarmy flattery about the colour of my eyes.")

By the time we'd made it to the edge of town, we were back to sparring about Quidditch, unsurprisingly James's favourite topic, though I'd known that already.

"One match," he wheedled, nudging me irritatingly in the side. I shook my head firmly, but he kept going. "Come on. We'll go during winter hols. It's off-season! You won't be swarmed in the stands! We'll make a fan of you yet!"

"It's more than just being swarmed," I argued, wrinkling my nose in distaste. "I've told you. There's too much going on and the rules make my head hurt. Can't we just agree to disagree?"

James shook his head vehemently. "No. No, not happening. No girlfriend of mine is going to go running her mouth against Quidditch. Can't do it."

The way he said it—threw it in there all casual-like and then went and gave his whole game away by flickering his eyes quickly over to mine to gauge a reaction—he really deserved nothing less than the pointed glower I stuck him with and the mutinous, "James."

"Just testing it," he said hastily, but his poorly hidden smirk told a very different story.

I was strongly considering testing my fist in his stomach and reckoned my expression must have told him as much because he mustered a hefty sigh and went, "Fine, fine. More-potential-than-mate, it is. I'm so pleased."

"Actually, that's not even your hyphenation anymore," I replied primly.

James's eyebrows lifted. "No? What's it now, then?"

I pursed my lips and shook my head. "Uh-uh. You don't get to know now. You don't deserve the knowledge after that stunt."

"Stubborn shrew," James grumbled, but I kept stubbornly mum. He sighed dramatically. "Fine. No matter, really. I'll just have to tempt it out of you with sweets. Honeydukes?"

I turned about at the teasing comment, surprised to find that we were indeed already on the High Street and the aforementioned sweet shop was just down the road.

Bloody hell. How had we gotten to town so quickly? Well, not quickly, I suppose, because we had been walking for quite some time, but...it somehow seemed to have gone by quite suddenly. Now that I was thinking about it actually, my feet were rather burning.

Oh, dear, stupid Slag Boots. Already?

Apparently 'Getting to Know You' was an effective anaesthetic as well as an efficient time-burner.

Or perhaps that was just James.

And in the name of Objective Retelling, I suppose it's only right to admit that such thoughts may have made me smile a bit—or, you know, a lot.

I glanced up at James, finding him grinning, too. I gave him a jaunty shrug. "You can try."

"I accept that challenge," he said, and then dragged me down the road.

I'd never been to Hogsmeade when it wasn't a school-regulated weekend and it was rather strange not to see the place flooded with students. I mean, refreshingly so of course, but strange all the same. There were still some people ambling about the streets, but they were all locals and had an ease about them that Hogwarts students certainly didn't share.

It was also the first time I'd approached Honeydukes and didn't have to battle through a mob of sugar-happy third-years merely to get to the door. It surprised me, then, when instead of making use of the clear shopfront and heading straight on in, James stopped just before the door. Our still clasped hands made it so I stopped, as well. I turned to him questioningly.

"What's wrong?" I asked.

He didn't immediately answer, but words weren't entirely necessary. His expression was an easy one to read—eyes bright, mouth thinned, brows lowered.

The James Potter Plotting Face.

Oh, dear.

"I have an idea," he muttered unsurprisingly. I drooped, waiting with a certain amount of dread for the insanity to follow. Sure enough: "I think...I think we should have a Getting to Know You Challenge."

Bloody hell. A what?

"A what?" I asked aloud.

The thinned lips stretched into a grin. "A Getting to Know You Challenge! To see who really knows the other best!"

"It's not a competition, James."

"Well, yes, not yet, it isn't." His eyes were twinkling a bit too much for my liking. "But it will be."

I didn't have the heart to tell him that that sounded like the worst idea I'd ever heard, especially not when he looked so pleased with himself. I couldn't have done even if I'd wanted to, though. He was already explaining the rules of the game, not the least bit interested in hearing my opinions on the matter.

"It's simple," he said quickly, eagerly. "We each go in while the other waits out here. The goal is to pick out the other's favourite sweet—it can be anything inside the shop. You buy it, and then we convene out here. Whoever comes closest to being right, wins. See? Challenge."

I have to admit, as much as I wanted to loudly scoff at the ludicrous idea, an equal part of me was already itching to jump right on the bandwagon. I could feel my competitive spirit beginning to stir.

"I'm not certain this is the best idea," my sensible side managed to get out before Competitive Lily took over. "Another Getting to Know You fact? We had to suspend Evans Family Game Night because I was too good at winning. You're setting yourself up for disaster here."

In the name of Objective Retelling, I suppose it's only fair to admit that that's not exactly how the demise of Evans Family Game Night came round. Truth is, both Dad and I were a bit too good at winning, and really quite liked it that way. But then Petunia started bringing Vernon-the-Biggest-Sore-Loser-Known-to-Man round and Mum said Dad and I really had to learn to throw a few games of charades if we ever wanted a Game Night to end in peace. I'm sure it's not too surprising to hear that Dad and I weren't too keen on the idea—in fact, we were both morally appalled by such reprehensible slander. So that's how Evans Family Game Night petered out into Evans Family Dinner—or Watch Vernon Eat, as Dad liked to call it.

But the abridged version would have to do for James.

"Afraid to lose, are you?" he asked, smiling.

Competitive Lily snarled. "That's not what I said!"

"No, no, you're quite right. We shouldn't start our date out with your defeat—"

Oh, the little goading wanker.

It was really out of my control after that. Competitive Lily had been taunted to her limit. She lunged instantly for the shop door, jerking it open with one rough swing. "Five minutes. Prepare to lose, Potter."

"Good luck!" James called as I stomped through the door.

And in the name of Objective Retelling, I suppose it's only proper to confess that I might have become a bit frenzied then.

But really, who could blame me? It was a challenge, for Merlin's sake. The entire point of it was to win. And I couldn't possibly do anything else now that James had been such a smug, taunting git about it. But Honeydukes had honestly never looked so massive than it did at that moment. Wandering about the aisles, I considered the possibilities. Off the top of my head, I could recall moments during which I'd seen James nibbling on most of the items in there—chocolate frogs, sugar quills, cauldron cakes, liquorice wands—but when I stopped in front of the counter displaying the fresh fudge, I reckoned I'd found the most likely winner. But what kind? Honeydukes had just about every flavour under the sun. I immediately eliminated the vanilla flavours—James did not seem the vanilla sort—and after a few more moments of consideration, the caramel and butterscotch flavours went, as well. I didn't think I was heading in the wrong direction to think chocolate, but that still left a good handful of derivatives. Plain chocolate? Chocolate with nuts? With fruit inside? Marbled with another flavour?

The choices were overwhelming, and for a while, I was set on just buying the classic chocolate and letting simplicity rule the day. But there was just something about the chocolate peppermint...

James was always such a hog when there was chocolate mint cake for dessert. We'd had it the other night and the idiot had had no fewer than three slices. Granted, he and Peter had seemed to be making a match of it, attempting to see which one of them would cast up their accounts first, but still. I'd seen him nursing on peppermint sugar quills as well, hadn't I? Or was I just imagining that?

In the end, Competitive Lily decided that you didn't get anywhere playing it safe. No guts, no glory, and all that. I called the clerk over and asked him to pack me up a portion of the chocolate peppermint fudge, hoping I hadn't just thrown it all away. And even though some might have called it slightly devious, as he was ringing up the purchase, I decided to exercise my first-to-go advantage.

"You're the only one working now, yes?" I asked the bloke, a rather young chap with wheat-coloured hair and an overly square jaw. I thought that was good. Young meant malleable.

He ducked the square jaw down in a nod. "Until half-past."

I grinned. Brilliant. "Excellent. So listen—this bloke is going to come in after me, right? Tall. Specs. Mop of really messy, dark hair—"

"James Potter?"

Oh, dear lord. Even store clerks knew him?

I resisted rolling my eyes. "Yes, that's the one. Anyway, when he comes up to ring his purchase, do a girl a favour, would you? Just stare really dubiously at whatever he's buying. Mutter things like, 'Really?' or 'Sure you want this?' Psych him out. Make him squirm."

"Er, why?"

"We're having a competition," I confided. "I need him off his game. Are you in?"

The only place he looked like he wanted to be 'in' was his backroom, far away from the madwoman customer and somewhere where he could safely contact the St Mungo's Psychiatric Ward for immediate pick-up. But in the end, he did actually shrug and agree.

I gave him my very best grin and thanked him profusely. I paid for the fudge, gave my new best mate one last smile, then made for the door where I could already see James absently pacing about with his hands in his trouser pockets. The bell above the door rang as I stepped outside, golden Honeydukes bag clutched tightly in one hand. The other held the door open for James. He eyed the gesture suspiciously.

"Good luck," I mocked, watching him brush past. "You're going to need it."

James smirked. "You know, I hear arrogance is a supremely unattractive trait, Evans. Might want to watch that."

I shut the door on his smug, cheeky behind.

As James got to work inside, I strolled aimlessly about the storefront, taking in the whole scene. I liked watching all the townspeople on their ways along the High Street, but my mind always inevitably wandered back to the goings-on inside. What was he up to? Which aisle might he be moseying down? The fellow competitor dearly hoped that he wasn't anywhere near the strawberry crème flavoured fudge (my decided favourite), but the potentially-considering-girlfriend reckoned such a stroke of fate might not be the most unfortunate occurrence.

I didn't have a watch to gauge the time, but I think James might have exceeded his allotted five minutes. I had every intention of calling him out on it, but seeing as he was waltzing out of the shop soon enough, I didn't get to holler tauntingly through the door like Competitive Lily really wanted to. I noticed immediately that he was holding his purchase rather peculiarly—whatever he'd bought was obviously in some kind of box, and he was balancing it carefully by the flat bottom, as if it couldn't be tipped.

Interesting.

"Methinks someone took a tad longer than five minutes," I sing-songed as the door swung shut behind him.

"Methinks you can't keep time," James replied, pushing his purchase at me. "Here. Hold it from the bottom. Don't tip it."

"Well, now I'm intrigued," I said, taking the box and holding it carefully as instructed. I passed my own un-fragile parcel over.

"Let's sit," James said, grabbing my selection with one hand and motioning towards a nearby bench with the other. I nodded and took off, setting James's pick carefully down on the bench between us before sitting down myself. James held mine on his lap.

"Are we opening them at the same time?" he asked.

I thought about it for a moment, then shook my head. "No. You go first."

James nodded, not finding reason to argue with that executive decision. He had an eager, boyish expression on his face as he dug into the bag almost immediately. In between compulsory eye-rolls, I waited with slightly halted breath as he reached in and pulled out the box. When he saw the package the fresh fudge comes in, his lips quirked.

"Well, you've the right section," he said, and I grinned in victory. The right section! Huzzah! He went for the lid. "Now let's see if you've managed to pick the right—"

He froze.

For a few moments, there was silence.

Um…

"It's chocolate peppermint," I offered lamely, just in case he couldn't tell. That probably wasn't the issue at hand, but it was all I could think to say. He was just sort of staring in the box. I hadn't the faintest what that meant. "Um. You know, it's not—"

"I know," he said suddenly, his voice coming out a bit raspy. He cleared his throat and finally looked up. "Chocolate peppermint, I know—but how the bloody hell did you know?"

I shrieked in delight. "Wait, that's right? I'm right? Ha! Yes! I'm right! I knew it! I win!"

James's smile was a bit mystified, his eyes narrowed. "It was a lucky guess. It had to be a lucky guess."

"No, it wasn't!" I cried, shooting him a triumphant look. "I mean, the fudge bit was rather obvious, but then I had to pick a flavour—and I remembered the chocolate mint cake the other night! And you've peppermint sugar quills as well, don't you? That's how I knew! Ha!"

I was awash in my victory, grinning from ear to ear with competitive glory. Yes! I knew it! Always worth the risk, that's what I say! And this was a double victory because even though my competitive side was in full party mode, the potentially-considering-girlfriend side wasn't feeling too miserable, either. I knew him! I really knew him and he didn't think I did! Ha! The only damper on the whole thing came from James himself, who wouldn't quit frowning and looking quite serious about it all. I stuck my tongue out at him.

"Not a sore loser, are you?" I goaded.

His lips quirked. "Not particularly," he answered slowly. Then, "I'm just feeling a bit egotistical again and aren't certain whether that will make you squirm."

Oh.

Oh.

"Um." The blush came—of course it came—but surprisingly enough, the squirms did not. Well, mostly didn't. There were a few thrown in with the girlish butterflies. "No. Um. That's...you can feel egotistical. I won't squirm. Er, I think."

James's grin strengthened. "Well, no use being in it alone." He pushed his Honeydukes bag at me. "Go on. Open it."

I glanced down at the James's selection, actually quite grateful for the distraction. The competitive spirit lessened the embarrassment. "You realise you can only tie now, right?" I asked, carefully lifting the bag onto my lap. "Either way, I win."

James rolled his eyes. "Just open it, Infallible."

"Fine, fine—but it is true."

I bit back my smile as James groaned and I bunched down the golden bag until a familiar box was revealed.

Honeydukes's Fresh Fudge.

"You've the right section," I mimicked, skimming my fingers around the box lid. "Though why I had to be so careful about it, I haven't—"

I opened the box.

And in the name of Objective Retelling...well, in the name of Objective Retelling...

Honestly? I'm not sure I can even Objectively Retell this bit. I'm not certain there is a way to Objectively describe the moment when you open up your box of fudge, only to discover that it's not, in fact, a box of fudge at all—or at least, it certainly doesn't look like fudge. Because in place of the small chunks of assorted goodness you're expecting to find, there is instead a bowl. Yes, that's right. A bowl. And inside that bowl, there are shards. Hundreds and hundreds of little, tiny shards. Fudge-coloured shards. And at first you're all, "The hell?" because that's nothing you've ever seen sold at Honeydukes. In fact, it's nothing you've ever seen sold at all and perhaps it's a mistake? But after staring blankly at it for a few moments, you begin to realise that it does actually bear a rather strong resemblance to something you're familiar with. Something...

And that's when you realise it.

You realise just what you're holding.

And really, how is it possible to Objectively Retell the moment when you realise that your potentially-considering-boyfriend has gone and made you a bowl of fudge rice? How?

So you know what? I'm not even going to bother.

Terribly sorry, Future Lily and assorted other listeners. You're just going to have to endure a bit of exaggeration right now. Skip over this bit if you must. It has to be done.

I died.

I just...died.

Or at the very least, my poor, little, suspicious heart did. First it flipped, then it flopped, then it did a little flailing dance and the girlish figure in my stomach joined right in and they twirled about together in this mess of giddy glory until there was no more dancing to be done and then I just...died. Right there on the bench outside Honeydukes in the middle of Hogsmeade. It was just too much. Too much.

Now I ask you—how can anyone not positively adore this idiot?

(All right. Non-Objective bit over. I promise.)

So remember that gawking thing from before? Yeah, I was doing some more of that. Quite a bit some more of that. It was really unavoidable.

"Lil?" James finally asked, sounding a bit cautious. "All right?"

"You win," I croaked, just barely getting the words out. I couldn't even look at him. I just kept staring at the fudge rice. My fudge rice. "You...you definitely win."

"Well, don't give in that easily," he laughed, and I imagine he was grinning. I wasn't about to actually look at him to check. "What happened to all that competitiveness? And you did get mine right. It's probably a tie—"

"You made me fudge rice," I choked, the words short, emphatic. Even though I knew it was probably too soon, I glanced up at him, anyway. Oh, hell. "I mean...that's...how did you even—"

"Slicing Spells. About a thousand of them. That's what took so long." He explained it so casually. Like he hadn't just made me fudge rice. "Feeling egotistical?" he asked.

It was more than that—so much more than that. More than I think I can properly explain without broaching territories that really have no place being broached during a first date. I tried to convey some semblance of this through my rather desperate look, but I'm not quite certain I managed it. At least, James didn't melt into the puddle I think he might have done had I actually articulated such thoughts. When I gave my jerky nod, all he did was just look quite pleased with himself.

"You know, I was all for the tie. But if you insist—"

"I do."

He was grinning now. Captivatingly so. Wonderfully so. Brilliantly so. "Well, come on, then." He shifted, pushing the lid closed on the fudge rice. "Now you know the sort of standards expected for the next challenge. Perhaps you'll come closer to besting me."

He was moving to stand, obviously ready to move on, but I remained where I was, not certain I was quite over my shock yet. But over it or not, what option did I have but to move? I mean, unless I was about to go diving into...certain conversationsthat I most definitely did not want to be diving into. Because despite the fact that a sporadic collection of words pertaining to such a conversation were pushing against my lips, it really isn't the sort of thing you can conduct with only a sporadic collection of words. You really need all of them. So what's a witch to do? I had to keep going. One day, all the words would probably be there. But today was not that day.

So that's what I did. Moved on, I mean. Placing a temporary Sticking Charm on the fudge rice bowl so that it wouldn't topple over during transport ("I should have thought of that," James muttered), I slowly rose from the bench. James held out his hand and I slipped mine into it, but not before I'd taken advantage of the new height boost the Slag Boots offered me to drop a quick kiss against the side of his mouth. James didn't object, of course, but he did shoot me a questioning look.

"That was practically cheating, but you still win," I said.

He snorted. "And this from the girl who tried to con the shop clerk into playing for her side? Et tu, Evans?"

We started up the road again, arguing about the finer semantics of engaging outside resources in Getting to Know You Challenges (I was a firm pro-advocate, but James kept bemoaning technicalities, blah blah cheater whine). It was finally decided that such interferences were heavily frowned upon, but such wasn't even an issue for the next Challenge—a mini, consolation challenge, James called it—which was composed of James and me standing in the middle of the road and him loudly proclaiming, "All right. How well do you know me? Where do I want to go next?"

I rolled my eyes and, resigned, took off towards Zonko's.

Really, give me a hard one, at least.

We left the joke shop predictably with more bags than we'd arrived with (some of us more loaded down than others, though James did succeed in talking me into buying a few Warbling Wands that I am rather positive will never leave the box), but I suppose that was to be expected. We balanced things out once we'd hit Scrivenshaft's and I got to indulge in my own shopping Achilles' heel—quills. Even though I'd just bought a load when I was trying to avoid Amos last Hogsmeade trip, a witch can never have toomany quills. James laughed as I carefully considered each one, testing the weight and sharpness of every feather and forcing him to test them out with me. It was only when he loudly threatened to buy out the entire shop if I didn't choose one soon (and honestly, I don't think he was entirely kidding) that I finally settled on two. There was a brief scuffle as he tried to grab the pair to pay for them, but I vehemently objected. He tried to rationalise it by claiming that his next Getting to Know You fact was that he didn't let witches pay for things on dates, but I reminded him that I am a young, independent woman of the 1970s and could pay for my own belongings, thank you very much.

Well, I'm a young, independent woman of the 1970s who eventually just let him pay for one just to shut him up, but there's a kind of power in submission, too. Obviously.

No Challenges were issued inside Dervish & Banges, though with the score now 1 to 1/2, it was considered. James couldn't think of anything that didn't strongly resemble the Honeydukes round, however, and declared himself morally opposed to such repetition. In the end, I suggested that perhaps his creative juices would flow better after a slight repast, and we finally took off for the Three Broomsticks.

Like Hogsmeade in general, it was entirely bizarre to see the old pub not packed wall-to-wall with rowdy students. When we walked inside, there were a few other people lounging about the tables and bar, but we basically had our pick of the litter in terms of seating locations. It was the first time I think I've ever seen the prime corner booth next to the windows open and I suppose I might have lunged for it as if the hordes of savage students were going to be closing in at any second.

Which, all right, was perhaps not the classiest of reactions—but I couldn't help it! It was instinct. The corner booth's free, you lunge! That's just what you do.

Besides, I was rather certain my feet were bleeding. The Slag Boots had finally staked their claim on my feet somewhere between Scrivenshaft's and Dervish & Banges and the end result was not pretty. People with bleeding feet cannot be held accountable for their actions. They just can't.

James did not seem to understand this, however.

(Which, in his defence, might have been because I didn't exactly tell him about my bleeding limbs. But still. He just should have known. You know, telepathically.)

"No one's racing you for it, Infallible," he chuckled, following along behind me at a much more leisurely pace. He seemed to prefer sliding into the booth rather than diving, which I think that really just means that he's dull and unadventurous.

"I've never sat here before," was the excuse I gave, trying not to show how much I wanted to sob in relief as the pressure eased off my toes. Poor, poor feet. Ow, ow, ow. "It's always taken."

"Easily pleased, are you?"

"I'm out with you, aren't I?"

"Well—"

"Drinks?"

My head snapped round at the interruption, rather shocked to find Madam Rosmerta standing at the end of our table, gazing down at us with a raised notepad and an inquiring stare.

Wait a second...she comes out from behind the bar?

"Butterbeer. Hot," James answered, obviously unfazed by this. He glanced casually over at me. "Lil?"

"Oh—er..." I was still a bit too startled to answer properly. Out from behind the bar? Truly? "Um. Yes. Butterbeer."

"Hot or cold?"

"Erm..." I thought about it for a moment, but why think about things when there was a much less stressful option available? My head snapped instantly to James. "Challenge," I shot at him.

"What?" Rosmerta asked.

James grinned. "Sneaky," he said like a compliment, obligingly putting on his Thinking Face and having a ponder about it. Then, slowly, "She'll have...hot, too?"

"Ha! Wrong! Cold, please," I told Rosmerta, who was staring at the pair of us like no one had told her it was Outing Day for the St. Mungo's patients and these things should really be made public knowledge. Her survival instincts undoubtedly kicked in and she dashed off quickly, but I was too busy grinning at James to toss her an apology. "Now we're tied!"

"What are you on about, 'tied'? You don't get points when the other person's wrong." James looked scandalised at the mere suggestion of such a thing. "And even if you did, that was hardly worth a half-point. Who drinks cold butterbeer in October, anyway?" he grumbled, his frown flirting the edge of a sneer. "Bloody sacrilege."

"People who want something cool and refreshing after jaunting about town," I replied primly, perhaps with a smirk, but I had every right to one and it was nice to be the person donning it for once. "Now quit whinging and pass me a menu. It's quite obvious you can't be depended upon to order."

You know, there are so few appreciators of fine wit these days.

Instead of applauding you for your clever brilliance, they threaten to maim you with dining utensils.

What is this world coming to, I ask? Shambles. Just shambles.

But apart from the brief altercation with the (to be fair) rather dull pub fork, lunch started off rather splendidly. After Rosmerta had returned with our drinks (I know. I was rather shocked she'd come back, as well. What dedication to craft) and we'd ordered our food, James announced that he'd grown quite fond of this Getting to Know You business and wanted to know something else. At first, I couldn't think of anything, but then he was all, "I thought you were the professional here, Lily?" and something about 'profession' had Abbott's Potions Division brochure popping back into my head. To be honest, I hadn't even flipped through the thing, much less seriously considered it, but it was still an interesting development. James probably knew a bit about it himself, Academy-bound as he was. So without telling him precisely how the handoff had come about (something told me he wouldn't be too keen on a Super Spy story just then), I relayed the rather surprising exchange.

And so things went, for…Merlin, I don't even know how long.

We talked. We drank. We ate. James told me about the time he and Remus got locked in Honeydukes's backroom for the night (there's a passageway that comes out of there, as well!), and I in turn confessed the truth about Evans Family Game Night, which James found utterly hilarious. He poked a bit about the Vernon issue, but I didn't really want to talk about Vernon because then I'd have to talk about Petunia and I wasn't quite ready to ruin the lunch with talk of Petunia, so I skirted around it and James let it be, launching instead into a tale about the time Sirius received a good smacking from Rosmerta for hiding behind the bar in an attempt to look up her skirts during the Marauders' first visit to Hogsmeade. Apparently they were all too afraid to come back into the pub for ages and had taken up sneaking illegally into the Hog's Head. I had never been tossed out of a pub, but I was there that time Uncle Davy was caught sampling the wine at Marks & Spencer and Aunt Mae had to have a long chat with the security guard to keep him away from the bobbies and Mae declared she'd never shop at M&S again (though of course she still does). James decided that he'd like to meet Davy, and I confessed that the two of them would undoubtedly get on splendidly. Which I'm not certain is a good thing.

It was…well, it was all quite brilliant, actually. Brilliant and lovely and not the least bit like I ever thought it was going to be. Or I suppose, not the least bit like I ever allowed myself to hope it would be.

Honestly, I felt a bit like a henwit. This is what I had been having so many conniptions about? This has been the bane of existence over the past several eons? Seriously? Seriously? It was a new level of pathetic, even for me. Though I suppose I can't be entirely blamed—the part of me that wasn't too busy calling myself ten times a fool was able to acknowledge that this had never really just been about a date. It was about a step, one I knew was going to be a bit of a turning point. But what I really should have realised was that James and I were already so far past that point of no return, it was almost comical. It was like James had said earlier—we'd already done all the first date baggage. Been there, angst-ed that. All that was left now was the fun bits.

Er...well, mostly the fun bits.

Because there was this…oh, I don't know what to call it. Incident? Encounter? Moment-that-lasted-several? Whatever it was, it was the part of the afternoon that I certainly wouldn't label as fun.

Oh, hell. That sounded ludicrously ominous, didn't it? It wasn't. Really. I mean, it was something, but nothing horrid happened—in case it wasn't perfectly evident from the cats/grandchildren introduction, this was not a horrid date—but it was still…unnerving. For James more than me, I think, because I didn't really realise there was anything to be acting all strange about at first. It wasn't until he started acting so oddly—and then I remembered the name from before, see—and I could practically feel all the tension in the air and I knew something was off, but how was I to know what and—

And I'm not explaining this at all well, am I?

Bugger. So let's…just from the beginning, then. Objectively.

Rosmerta had come back with our food ages before and I can't quite remember what exactly it was we were talking about…perhaps it was Dad's very poor attempt to teach me how to drive last summer? Or James's subsequent return about Sirius and (I kid you not) his motorbike? Or maybe it was—oh! No! Now I remember! It was my apology note to Robbie! James had thought I was kidding when I'd told him the other night that I was going to write one.

"Of course I was serious!" I cried, offended at even the implication otherwise. "I couldn't just ditch him. I'm his partner. He's only got one."

"Partner, my arse," James scoffed, and really, jealous much? No one forced him to take Muggle Studies. "Couldn't Grace just have told him you had a better offer, see him next lesson?"

I stuck him with a good frown. "That is so rude—you're so rude."

James shrugged, unaffected, and popped a crisp into his mouth—one of my crisps, to be exact, which just about made my point for me. He washed it down with a gulp of his own butterbeer thankfully, but I think the damage was already done. "Why haven't you ever written me a poem?" he whinged.

"It wasn't a poem, it was a rhyming note," I corrected, grabbing a chip off his plate in retaliation.

James waved off the amendment. "Same thing. I want one."

"I can't think of anything that rhymes with 'idiot'."

"If Rob bloody Harms gets one, then I think I should—"

BANG!

The sudden noise forced out my girlish yelp, but it was thankfully a soft one and didn't draw the entire pub's attention as a louder one might have done. But even James jumped, whipping his head around to look at the still clattering window behind our heads—the source of the sudden noise. The hand covering my still pounding heart dropped and the girlish yelp faded into girlish nervous giggles when our terrifying interruption started blowing fish faces at us from behind the other side of the windowpane.

"Oh, hell," I laughed breathlessly, watching the continued childish antics proceeding outside of the window.

Because, in the end, that's really all it was—childish antics conducted by a child-like head, attached to what I was presuming was a child-like body, though I couldn't absolutely confirm that as only the head was visible through the small windowpane. It was just a little boy gleefully plastered against our window, pulling various silly faces at us and obviously highly amused at having just slammed his hands against that very same window and successfully scaring James and me half out of our wits. He was young—couldn't have been more than six or seven—and I only got to take quick stock of him—pale, freckled face, matted brown curls plastered down by a beaten-up old cap—before the little hellion popped out of the frame and was gone.

I watched the boy go, turning back to James without really looking at him.

"Devilish little scamp," I muttered, though really, who could be cross at a little mischief? I reckoned the rest of my party certainly couldn't. "You two could be mates, actually. Same sense of humour."

James didn't answer.

It was those few seconds of unexpected silence following my mild gibe that had me really focusing in on him. Cocking my head to the side questioningly, I finally registered the rather strange expression marring James's face. He wasn't looking at me, but at some point just beyond my right shoulder and within the space of a single moment—in the time it took for the bell above the pub door to chime once—his entirely blank expression scrunched into a heavy grimace.

"James?" I asked worriedly.

"I'm sorry about this," he said.

Sorry? Sorry about what?

"What are you—"

And that's when he was attacked.

Yes, that's right. Attacked. And I'm retelling that quite Objectively. He was literally assaulted. Pummelled quite enthusiastically, in fact.

Though considering his assailant couldn't have been older than six or seven, was half his size and was flailing some rather scrawny limbs, I reckon the odds were stacked in James's favour.

I lurched back just as the scrawny limbs and boyish giggles began to fly.

"James! Hey, James! Hey—"

"Cal, don't—"

"Duck! Have you now—"

"I can't—Cal—"

The scamp from the window knew how to press his advantage, I'll give him that. He wasted no time in climbing up on James's side of the bench and launching himself straight at my still wincing potentially-considering-boyfriend. Small arms and dirty trainers flailed. It became obvious rather quickly—though at the time, I think I was still plastered against the back of the booth, eyes wide—that this was a friendly kind of attack, the sort of brawl adolescent males use to affectionately greet one another. The only trouble was, James wasn't playing along. Instead of giving a few playful jabs to the boy's side or catching him into a controlling headlock, James kept trying—quite poorly, I might add—to subdue the wild hellion.

There was a lot of grunting and a few more rough exclamations elicited from the fray.

"That's cheating—"

"Cal, I'm not—"

"—no fair—"

"—playing! Cal!" With an almost feral growl and some highly impressive manoeuvres, James finally got a good grip on the boy's—Cal's—wild arms. He had Cal clamped by each wrist and was holding the two as far out as they would go, successfully securing a moment's peace. Cal squirmed and shouted in protest.

"Hey!" the boy bellowed in outrage. "No fair!"

"Time!" James hollered back, giving Cal's arms another quelling jerk. "Time out, mate!"

"Time?" Cal repeated the word as any proper boy his age would—as if he'd never heard of such a concept. "Why?"

"Bit busy at the moment, mate," James gritted, and though Cal's squirming body blocked my view of his face, I imagine James was doing some kind of cocking business in my direction because Cal spared me a quick glance over his shoulder. The boy looked decidedly unimpressed by what he found.

No worries, Cal. I get it.

It didn't take a genius to discover that a comment along the lines of, "Seriously? You're quitting our manly melee for that?" would have undoubtedly followed, but with the same abruptness with which we had received our first lunch interloper, with a short, second tinkle of the pub bell, we suddenly came by our second.

"Calvin Carrington! How many times have I told you, no running off—"

The witch who strode into the pub with the shrilly cry and hurried footsteps looked as harried as she sounded. Bundled up in a thick ragged cloak with a black cap identical to Cal's pushing down her equally identical brown curls, she was red-faced and frowning. She was a bit older than I might have anticipated Cal's parent to be, but with an uncanny speed that would have marked her as a mother even if her entering tirade and matching features hadn't done, she took in and assessed the whole tableau with swift speed. Her quite transparent facial expressions very clearly displayed her subsequent thought process:

First, anger (oh, hell, my son's dashed off again); Horror (oh, hell, my son's dashed off again and attacked someone); Relief (oh, hell, my son's dashed off again and attacked someone, but at least it's someone I know); Mild alarm (this someone is not alone); Irritation (must get son off).

Really, I was inordinately impressed with the whole progression.

"Calvin." The witch strode determinedly towards us. "Get off James. Now."

"But, Mum—"

"Now."

There was a hint of rebellion in Cal's mulish expression, but he—intelligently, from my view of it—gave in without an overdrawn fight. He made certain to provide a big show of sighing and sulking, of course, untangling himself from James and grudgingly plopping down on the bench next to his combatant, but remained impressively silent. The boy's expression was antagonistic at best. I would have smiled at the brilliant display of petulance, but Cal's recent move gave me my first good look at James since our visitors had arrived and it suddenly became a bit difficult to smile.

Because instead of the amused-if-a-bit-exasperated-but-always-good-natured grin I expected to find flashing across James's face, I found instead that he looked...well, a bit sick, actually. It only lasted a moment—just a few brief seconds of an obviously dazed dread before he covered it up with a small, stilted smile—but it was long enough for me to catch it and certainly significant enough to shed a curious light on the whole scene.

What in the world...

"Hullo, James," Cal's mum greeted with a sigh, her smile rueful as she stepped closer to our table. She moved with a casualness that confirmed their acquaintance and an ease that proved she obviously didn't share any of the tension that was presently stiffening James's shoulders and turning his smile brittle. Then again, most of her attention was focused on Cal.

"We do not go running off attacking our friends, Calvin," she scolded sternly, for what I imagined was not the first time. "My goodness, you probably frightened this poor girl half to death!"

"No harm done," I assured her quickly. "The melee was kept on that side of the table. I was merely a bystander."

Cal's mum laughed, a warm chuckle. "Well, that's comforting."

"Corrine, this is Lily," James said finally, remembering his manners. His voice was a bit raspy. "Lil, Corinne Carrington—er, Cal's mum."

"Lovely to meet you, Lily," Corinne said, extending a hand.

"You, as well," I murmured, but if my handshake went a bit limp towards the end...well, that wasn't really my fault.

Corinne Carrington.

Carrington.

Carrington.

"This isn't about you! This is about James and his goddamn need to prove himself!...You, his parents, Dumbledore, the Carringtons..."

Holy hell.

Holy double fucking hell.

I hadn't the faintest how in the hell I had remembered the name. Really, it seemed almost kismet. How that tiny scrap of conversation between Sirius and me from all those days ago had stuck, popped in my head just then, I'll never know, but I was inordinately grateful for it. It was a marker, a point in a direction, if not the answer I was looking for. These were the Carringtons, whatever that meant. Here was another piece of the jagged, nonsensical puzzle that was James Potter—one that he was obviously not comfortable with me witnessing.

My gaze flickered automatically over to him.

His face was entirely devoid of expression.

"Calvin is very sorry for interrupting your lunch," Corinne said, drawing my gaze back to her as she dropped a hand on Cal's head, then snaked it around to give him a tug on the ear. He swatted her away and gave a yelp of exception, which Corrine deftly ignored. "Though I do wonder where my notice about the student day has gone." Her eyes twinkled as she looked towards James. "Must be lost in the post, hm? It couldn't be that the Head Boy would be sneaking into town, could it?"

James's head snapped back in surprise. "You know?"

Corinne looked confused for a moment—which made two of us, because I certainly didn't know what he meant—but her bemusement faded quickly as another, almost exasperated look crossed over her face.

"Know? About Head Boy?" She gave James's hair the same affectionate ruffle that she had Cal's. "Oh, silly boy. Of course I know! I imagine your mother wrote me the moment your letter arrived. She was so happy, James," Corinne attested softly, a fond smile lifting her lips. "And doing much better, from what I hear. That's lovely, too."

"Yeah, better," James mumbled, and if the whole scene wasn't already so unnerving, I might have actually gaped outright when he seemed to shy away from the comment, shrivelled up slightly, went a bit red in the cheeks and muttered, "Must have been a rather shocking letter from Mum. Bit of a joke, isn't it?"

Corrine gasped in outrage, giving James's ear a twist, too. "You mind that tongue, James Potter! It's not a joke in the least! We're all terribly proud, you know. I'm sure there isn't a better Head Boy to be found—don't you think, Lily?"

I was not the least bit prepared to be pulled back into the conversation—was far too involved with dissecting the fleeting clues drifting off both of their faces to bother (There was a bond there, an affection, wasn't there? Then why was James acting so strangely? Had I ever known that he had been dubious about his Head Boy appointment? What was going on?), but pulled back in I was nonetheless. The only person more surprised than I was at this was James, whose head swivelled around as if he'd entirely forgotten I was sitting there.

Which was really lovely, you know, on a date and everything.

"He passes par," I answered, hoping to ease something with the light teasing. Ease him. "Probably doesn't help that he's got a rubbish Head Girl."

"She's Head Girl," James informed Corrine flatly, at her lowered brow.

She laughed. "Well, you're quite the pair, aren't you?"

Oh, she had no idea.

"Mum, can James come to ours?" Cal asked loudly, obviously through with his pout and now seeking attention.

Corinne gave him a sorry smile. "James is having lunch with Lily, my love."

Cal spared me a second brief once-over. At first, I thought I proved as lacklustre as I had originally showed, but I suppose I must be an acquired taste or something because after a moment, I did get a grudging, "I s'ppse she can come, too."

Aw, thanks, Cal.

"Calvin." Corinne shook her head.

"But James hasn't been round in forever," Cal whinged with a flair of melodrama I could easily respect. When his mother still proved unhelpful, Cal twisted round to try to work James. You had to give him points for tenacity. "You haven't been round in forever. We can play Quidditch! My training broom goes real high now! Or we can work in the barn again—"

"Another time, mate," James said quickly, and I suppose his whining threshold must extend only for me because he sounded like he really wanted Cal to quit it, even through that falsely patient tone of his. "I'll come round at the weekend. Promise."

Cal was not placated by this compromise. "But—"

"Mr Zonko is going to close down for lunch if we don't hop to it, Calvin," Corinne chimed in, and you have to give it to the witch, she knows her kid. Cal instantly looked dismayed at the chance of missing his Zonko's fix. As far as I knew, Mr Zonko never closed for lunch, but this was obviously not the point. Corinne let out a hefty sigh. "But we can stay here with James and Lily if you'd like—"

"No! Let's go to Zonko's!" Cal burst out, grasping at his fleeting chance. He did make sure to turn on James with a suspicious stare, though. "You'll come round tomorrow?" he asked.

"Sunday," James said.

"How many days is that?"

James spread five fingers wide.

Cal didn't seem very satisfied with that—five was undoubtedly a terribly large number when you were just barely that age yourself—but the boy knew a dead end when he saw one. Plus, the cushion of Zonko's was surely a fair enough trade-off. There was a lighter spring in his step as he hopped off the bench. He didn't wait around to wave or say goodbye. With a hollered, "Don't close, Mr Zonko!" as if the man was going to hear him from there and immediately stop what he was doing, Cal took off for the door.

"Calvin!" Corinne's shouts were met on deaf ears, drowned out amidst the sounds of tinkling door bells and scurrying feet. She sighed. "Oh, dear."

I was beginning to see a trend with Calvin.

Tugging her cap lower on her ears, Corrine stared at the pub door in defeat. She looked resigned, prepared to rush back into battle—or motherhood, as I hear they sometimes call it.

"Better catch up before he begins a melee with Mr Zonko," she muttered, but managed to spare a moment to give James and me a parting smile. "It was very nice to meet you, Lily. And you"—she gave James's head one last affectionate swipe—"don't be a stranger, hear? I miss our morning teas."

James's smile was tight, but his nod was sincere. He lifted a hand in parting as Corinne finally turned about and took off purposefully after Cal.

And then they were gone.

And in the seconds that followed, all I could really do was sit there and wonder...who were they?

Because despite being introduced, having conversed, having watched the scene unfold...I still honestly hadn't the faintest who these Carringtons were and what they meant to James.

The urge to meddle was almost overwhelming. I had to bite down on my tongue and stare fixedly at James's expression—the one that had almost instantly dropped with relief as if he'd just dodged a speeding bullet—in order to swallow the words down. But I couldn't not do anything, either. It would have looked highly suspicious if I just let the whole encounter go without even the briefest of comments. And James unfortunately knew me and my meddling well enough to expect I'd be curious. The way he started to clam back up as his gaze finally flickered from the pub door over to mine proved as much. I had to plaster on my most reassuring smile and tread the precarious waters carefully. But how did one pretend to meddle without actually meddling?

"They're lovely," is how I decided to start it, and meant that honestly, even if the comment had ulterior motives. "Friends of yours?"

James's nod was quick. "Of the family—friends of the family." It was a tribute to how off-kilter he still was that his answer fell so clumsily off his tongue. "Sorry about that. Cal's only six, so he hasn't...he's an only child and there aren't that many kids in the village, so—"

What was that about awkward blathering?

"James, it's fine." I reached out to drop a hand over his. His fingers were stiff beneath mine. "Really. It was an entirely pleasant interlude. I liked them. Are you all right?""

No, I wanted him to say, because I knew it was true. No, I'm not all right and let me tell you why.

But of course he didn't say that. He didn't even come close. Instead, he gave an unsteady laugh, pulled his hand out from under mine to swipe it through his hair again and went, "'Course. Scamp just got a few good kicks in, s'all."

Sometimes I forget how easily he lies.

Unfortunately, that's not something I could much condemn him for. Yes, it stung—I wouldn't be Objectively Retelling it if I tried to claim otherwise—but I wasn't about to play the hypocrite and call him out on the fib. And perhaps more importantly, I suppose I sort of understood. James was not one to shake easily. Even if I knew nothing much about him, I think I'd still know that. The fact that he was unnerved by the Carringtons in the first place was startling, but being unnerved enough not to have immediately schooled his features into some facade of casualness was even more so. Sirius's inadvertent mention of them had me thinking the family might be somehow tangled in James's ever-complicated weave of last year, but there wasn't exactly an easy way to be all, "Hey, James? Those people? Another Big Secret of yours, yeah? Care to share?"

I may not be the sanest of sorts, but even I've got more tact than that.

The questions still grated, though. I was confused and concerned and more than a little curious, but I knew that if I gave in and meddled, I'd ruin everything. I knew how defensive James got when someone touched on his unfortunate, elusive soft spots and he wouldn't be able to shake that mood off as quickly as some others would. How could I risk it? Why would I risk it? Even a compulsive meddler like me can push aside her more urgent impulses in the name of self-preservation. This wasn't the time or the place and if I tried to turn it into that, I'd only be left disappointed. James had proven time and time again that he wasn't ready to confide in me about his less-than-stellar 6th-year, and even if the Carringtons weren't somehow involved in that, they still obviously held a similarly fragile place in his life.

As disheartening as it might be, I was going to have to be patient.

I mean, for Merlin's sake, the boy had given me fudge rice. Couldn't I give him a little more time to keep his secrets?

So I let it go. I didn't like it—I wanted to borrow some of Cal's prime petulance and stomp and kick until I finally got the answers that never seemed to come my way—but I apparently have more restraint than previously thought. Despite the urges to act otherwise, I managed to grin and bear it.

Well, grin-ish. There might have been a slight desperation in there. And if I wasn't allowed to press about our visitors, I could at least press about something our visitors had said, couldn't I? Because it would've been highly suspicious if I'd just left it at "They're lovely." Highly, highly suspicious. So I had to. For realism's sake.

(That's what I chose to tell myself, anyway.)

"You know, if both of us are going to be suffering from inferiority complexes, this is going to be a highly self-deprecating relationship," I commented lightly, attempting to hide the grin-ish situation by taking a seemingly-absent-but-in-actuality-highly-contrived sip of butterbeer. James's brow furrowed.

"What?" he asked.

"'Bit of a joke, though, isn't it?'" I mimicked, lifting a questioning eyebrow. "You don't have to try to make me feel better about my own inadequacy by claiming some of it yourself. Modesty rings very untrue with you."

"It wasn't modesty," James protested, though I'm not entirely certain I believed him. At least he was starting to look more like himself again. "Weren't you surprised I'd got Head Boy?"

"I was angry you got it, not surprised," I said, thinking back on that rather dramatic day with the hazy memory of a witch who had really been through far too much since then. But most of it came back. Unfortunately. "But that was just because I didn't like you. And then you went and lied to me about it, so you didn't really do yourself any favours."

"I didn't lie," James tried, but that was just another lie, the tosser. "You were actually being civil to me that day on the platform! I didn't want to ruin it. So I...evaded. Strategically."

"And I strategically dumped a pitcher of pumpkin juice over your head," I returned. "Seems fair."

James squinted thoughtfully, but his lips were twitching in the beginnings of a genuine smile that was more than a little bit relieving to see. "Was that for not telling you I was Head Boy?" he asked. "Or was that the goop? I think that might have been the goop."

"I think the fact that you can't remember which one of your many transgressions it was for doesn't bode well for either of us," I muttered. Then, with much dramatic thought, "What am I doing here again?"

James laughed—an actual laugh, not one of those unfortunate impersonations he'd been passing off as chuckles since the Carringtons had come and gone. It was nice to hear, but I wasn't about to give up on my original point just because I was glad to have my James back. Besides, judging by how comical he found the questioning of my presence on our date, his play at modesty was once again ringing false.

"You do realise that if you weren't Head Boy, our entire points system would have collapsed around our ears by now, don't you?" I asked, taking another small sip of butterbeer. "I would have unapologetically tossed the whole ledger out the nearest window the first week. Then I'd just have made things up until I was found out."

"You'd still have a partner. He could've done the ledgers."

I scoffed. "He, who? Amos? Phil Rook?"

"Rook can count."

"Yeah, to ten."

James smiled. "Well, the Slytherins don't usually need to go any higher than that, anyway."

I refused to laugh because that would have only pushed me off topic again and I wasn't about to let him get away with that. "You never told me you felt that way," I said, tilting my head slightly to the side. "About Head Boy, I mean. I didn't know...I mean, practically the first thing I said to you this year was that I thought I'd be getting impeached and yet you never said...not that you were required to commiserate, of course, but—"

"I wasn't a Prefect," James said, giving a jerky shrug. "And the rules and I have never been overtly fond of one another. You know that—better than most even, I reckon."

"But you're top of our class," I argued, regardless of how true his own points might have been. "Not to mention that you've been Quidditch captain for years. Everyone knew you were a contender last term, even if it seemed a bit farfetched."

That obviously surprised him. His eyes went wide. "What? Everyone who?"

"Er...everyone who cared, I suppose," I answered slowly, surprised myself, actually. He honestly hadn't known? But when I thought about it, it did make sense. "The Prefects, mostly. Jenny Kearns compiled this rather fierce ranking with all of these calculations that you were definitely on—not that that meant much, of course. Jenny was just mourning the end of her rule and wanted to watch people squirm one last time, but—"

"I was on a list?"

I nodded. "In fourth, if I remember correctly."

"Were you on it?"

I pulled a face. "In second. But that's only because Jenny hated all of Hufflepuff and a substantial amount of her own house and wouldn't have ranked Julie Little or Tammy Turner in the top tier if her life depended on it. So you can see the innate foibles of the list—"

"Who the hell could have possibly ranked above you?" James demanded, and really, it was sweet of him to look so outraged by the slight, but who are we kidding? Who couldn't rank above me?

"Charlene Blake," I answered, naming the Slytherin prefect in our year. Then, just because, "Liz Saunders was below me."

The snort James let out then probably shouldn't have been as comforting as it was, but I am clearly a weak, petty witch who likes her reassurance.

"Jenny Kearns is an idiot," he said, shaking his head. "For putting me on this list in the first place, but mostly for thinking that anyone in this damn school is better suited to be Head than you are."

"You've already got me on a date," I mumbled, pretty certain that even my toes were blushing. "You don't have to keep pulling out the false flattery."

"False flattery?" James rolled his eyes towards the ceiling, as if asking it for patience. When they flickered back down, there was a bit of an edge there. "Who are the fifth-year Ravenclaw prefects?" he asked abruptly.

"Rory Chambers and Lesli Hollis," I answered automatically, though I didn't know why.

"Are they any good?"

I narrowed my eyes at him. What was he doing? "Rory's a legacy, so he knows what he's about—both of his sisters were Heads, so I suppose he's got something to prove. Lesli's a bit spacey and doesn't like to punish her mates, but that's not exactly a rarity among our bunch, so it's not really worrying. Why are we talking about Ravenclaw prefects?"

James ignored my question. "Chambers. He's the one with the hawk nose? Mutters to himself during meetings?"

"No, that's Lucas. Lucas Mathers. He's a sixth-year."

"He rubbish?"

"No, he's fine—constantly skives out of doing rounds at the weekend, but I'm personally more impressed by that than anything else. Now why—"

"See, that!" James cried, jabbing a finger in my direction with such exuberance, I reeled back in my seat. "That's what I'm talking about! You just know all this rubbish. You don't even have to think about it! Do you think I know one brownnosing Ravenclaw from the next?" he asked, his tone providing his own negative answer. "I can't even remember their names, much less their family history and leniency tendencies. But you...you just know."

"But I've been a Prefect since the beginning," I protested, shaking my head. "I've known them longer—"

"Not the fifth-years."

"I know Clara, Rory's sister," I tried, squirming in my seat. "So, you know, by extension...ish—"

"Do you know what Charlene would have called Rory Chambers?" James asked, cutting me off before I could continue on with my inordinately compelling line of argument. "'You there'," he said, and accompanied the appellation with a vague wiggle of his finger that, I have to admit, I could see Charlene doing exactly. "Not necessarily because she doesn't know his name, just mostly because she could. And Lizzie?" I decided then and there that James's snort was perhaps one of my most very favourite sounds in the whole world. "She wouldn't even care, Lily. Honestly and truly. She wouldn't care."

Oh, bloody hell.

"That's not true," I denied hesitantly, every fibre of my being protesting against even vaguely sticking up for that cow, but it had to be done. "If nothing else, she'd care just to impress you."

"Except I wouldn't care."

I pulled a face. "Well, now that's definitely not true. You do so care."

"Only because you do," he said, giving a shrug. "You make people care—no, stop shaking your head, it's true. If I were partnered with anyone else, I wouldn't be feeling the least bit guilty over the fact that I haven't the faintest what the difference is between Lucas Mathers and Rory Chambers. But because you care, because you know, I feel like a prize arsehole for not knowing."

"You're not a prize arsehole," I muttered, and really, was he trying to kill me with embarrassment? For Merlin's sake, there were easier ways to end this date! "And I don't care what you say, you would care. If you were even half the villain you seemed determined to make yourself out to be, I wouldn't be here right now. So quit it."

For the first time since the Carringtons had left, James faded back into that unnervingly huddled version of himself. Resting his elbows atop the table, he ducked his head down and slipped an agitated hand through his hair.

"You don't...I've done some really fucked up things," he said, glancing up at me from beneath his tucked head. "You don't know the half of it."

I knew decidedly more than half, I amended silently, biting back a wince as guilt gnawed at my stomach. No, I didn't know the specifics, but what Sirius had lacked in detail he'd more than made up for in harsh overview. Not for the first time, I wished that he hadn't told me anything, or perhaps that James might have done. But what was done was done and there wasn't anything for it.

Still, it was obvious that whatever mistakes he'd made, James had more than repented for them. Unfortunately, the sodding martyr in him refused to see it that way.

If I was the one with the inferiority complex, then James was definitely suffering from a guilt complex. And watching him then, he didn't seem the least bit inclined to fight against it.

Which was just too damn bad, because I wasn't about to let him wallow.

"Quit that," I scolded, sticking him with a good frown when all he continued to do was stare at me with this disconcertingly stony look. "You are a perfectly decent Head Boy and if you keep saying otherwise, you're going to get me cross. And if you're trying to scare me off, you're doing a damn poor job of it. I don't care what you've done—I only care what you do. And with the exception of a few exceptionally poorly-timed animal transfigurations, you haven't managed to fuck up too spectacularly—I mean, obviously," I said, giving a gesture around us. "So shut it or else...or else I'm eating all your chips!"

James's expression kept for a moment, but it wasn't long before his head was raising and his lips were twitching upward at my strategically-ludicrious-but-hey-I-know-his-weaknesses-he's-a-sucker-for-a-stupid-joke-just-try-to-wallow-at-that threat, thank Merlin.

"Oh, no. Not the chips," he drawled, but completely counteracted the possessive claim by shoving his plate towards me. "You sure know how to hit a bloke hard."

I popped a chip in my mouth. "Damn right, I do. Now tell me something funny and maybe I'll be inclined to share your food with you."

James laughed (even though I'd said be funny, not prove I'm funny. I already know I'm funny), but tried his best to earn some sharing privileges back with a story explaining his next Getting to Know You fact, a little something entitled: Why I Hate Baby Ducks (No, Quit Gaping at Me Like That. You Heard Me. I Hate Baby Ducks).

Which, in the name of Objective Retelling, probably tells you how sadly besotted I am, considering my willingness to disregard his childhood demonstrations of sociopathic tendencies.

But really, what's one more psychological disorder? The others need friends.

Things stopped being so serious after that, which I suppose was for the best, even if I wasn't entirely certain how I felt about it all yet. I mean, yes, it was strange. And yes, I was dying to delve. And yes, I knew I couldn't, not if I didn't want James to clam up like a prize oyster and never un-clam again. Patience is not a virtue that has ever been keen on me, but it's one that I respect even in its general absence from my life. I know there's nothing stopping me from tracking down Sirius and demanding some answers that, to be perfectly honest, I feel like I can eventually wheedle out of him. Nothing except James and the fact that I'm not entirely certain knowing more things that I'm not supposed to know about him is really in anyone's best interest, anyway. I mean, it certainly hasn't served me overwhelmingly well so far. And even though such is a compulsive meddler's burden to bear, sometimes I can overcome my shortcomings in order to make a rational decision. Not continuing on this meddling track was most definitely the best, most rational way to go. And for once, I was able to take my independent mouth firmly in hand and not counteract that rationality.

Which was probably only because said mouth had an inkling of what was coming next and knew an Oyster James was no James it wanted to be dealing with, but still.

Is it bad when your mouth is tartier than you are?

"Where to next?" is what I asked, quite some time later, actually, because of course we'd had to finish our food and then James had wanted another butterbeer and I wasn't about to object when I was still in the process of trying to talk him out of his hatred for baby animals in between other Getting to Know You business, and the next thing I knew, we'd been sitting at the booth for ages and ages and poor Rosmerta was looking like she was quite sick of us. I pushed the pub door open and held it all gentlemen-like as James strolled out behind me. "Nefarious underage drinking at the Hog's Head? Haunted adventures at the Shrieking Shack? A second helping at Puddifoot's?"

Somewhere I can keep off my feet? I added silently, because if you thought several hours of lounging about in a booth would have helped the Slag-Boots-Bleeding-Feet situation, then you are highly underestimating the magnitude of the Slag Boots' destructive powers.

Bloody hell, why don't I have enough sense to just bin these stupid buggers?

"All worthy endeavours, but I have a different idea," James offered, oblivious to my pain as he tossed an arm about my shoulders.

I glanced up at him curiously. "Are there other places in Hogsmeade to go?"

James shook his head. "Not Hogsmeade. Back up at the castle."

"The castle? What's—oh," I said, catching sight of his sharp grin and suddenly knowing exactly what he was implying. My stomach danced in keen anticipation. "Ah. Intriguing. Very intriguing. Might you expand upon this idea for me?"

James bent his head obligingly, pressing his mouth against my ear and whispering a series of quick, yet surprisingly thorough suggestions.

And even in the name of Objective Retelling, I truly do not feel comfortable recording the kind of blatant depravity that that corrupt maniac relayed to me just then.

I mean, really, the children.

(Though one really has to give him points for creativity.)

Needless to say, I was an entirely new shade of red by the time James pulled back and stared at me with his inquisitively lecherous grin. I had to press my lips together and think of God and Country simply to control the rampant urge to either expire on the spot or say something entirely inappropriate ("The castle? Why bother? The bushes over there can do!"), but somehow, I managed.

"I'm not entirely certain that's particularly legal in several countries," I murmured, though the words were slow and not entirely scolding, "so I'm going to have to give that one a 'no'. But I admire your general path. And your ambition."

"I aim high," James replied, and if the way he immediately grabbed my hand and started tugging in the direction of Honeydukes was anything to go by, I'd say that he aimed high now. "Come on."

Ow, ow, ow, shite feet.

"Um, no rush, really—"

"Use those legs, Infallible!"

Psh. And I thought I was the slag.

I'm rather certain that the pair of us set records with our near-sprint from the center of town all the way back up to the 7th floor. I didn't even get to enjoy the experience of breaking into Honeydukes's back room (yes, I broke into someone's back room!) or Shuffling beneath the cloak, or the less-dreary-than-the-last-but-still-rather-unnerving-who-in-the-hell-built-these-vile-tunnels-anyway passageway that led us straight from the sweet shop right on up to the castle, where James checked the Map for passersby before helping me clamber out of the statue of the one-eyed witch.

Which, let me tell you, was an interesting sort of manoeuvre in debilitating Slag Boots and a precarious mini skirt, but no one has ever faulted me for my lack of dedication.

I don't know who was more thrilled when we finally reached the Room of Requirement—James, who practically hopped back and forth in his attempts to get the fickle door to appear immediately; or me, who might not have been exactly crying in pure and unadulterated misery, but it was really quite touch-and-go there. In any case, it was with emphatic eagerness that we both arrived at the door.

Or, you know, fell against the door, as some of us may or may not have done.

"All right?" James asked as I stumbled, because now that we were there and the door had appeared, he suddenly seemed capable of focusing on something other than getting us to the nearest semi-sturdy, private surface.

"Fine," I gritted, and maybe he still hadn't entirely shaken off his slag-haze because he didn't seem to notice that my smile was brittle and that I was seriously considering amputation, if I could only remember a proper slicing spell. "Thank you for walking me to my door."

"Should probably make sure you get in all right," he played along, inching a hand down to the doorknob and twisting. "Complete portrait to door service, you know."

With a grand flourish, he swung his arm out and the wooden door flew open. Cautiously, I peeked my head inside.

All things considered, the boy really didn't do too poor a job of it. Apparently no longer content with the wonders of a duplicated boys' dormitory, James had opted instead for a common-room-esque theme. The space was quaint, cozy and, as any proper Gryffindor would have it, bathed in shades of red and gold. There was a fire already roaring pleasantly in the large hearth and two plush scarlet loveseats flanking a low coffee table.

And in the corner, taking up a rather large portion of the room, a heavily draped canopy bed rested atop a slight dais.

Oh.

Um.

Er...

Moving quickly, I grabbed the doorknob from James's hand and slammed the door back shut. As I turned, my eyes flashed up to his. His eyebrows lifted inquiringly.

"Not your door?" he asked.

I shook my head and—really, the things this boy makes me do—made the familiar painful three-times trek in front of the door, which I'm sure had never seemed so unnecessary as it did just then.

I grabbed the door knob, pushed the portal open a crack and inspected my handiwork.

Ah, better. Much better.

James popped his head in, as well.

"Ah," he murmured, eyeing the spot where just moments before, his bed had stood where the new, large scarlet sofa now resided. His eyes flickered down to mine and he grinned. "A challenge?"

"It's not—"

But, you know, it's rather difficult to finish one's sentence when one's person is being mauled.

Oh, well. These things happen.

I didn't even notice the door slam shut as James all but shoved me into the room, lacking perhaps the sort of finesse one might expect from these sorts of things, but it was rather hard to care about that when the randy tosser was dragging me inside and very much molesting my mouth. The feel of his mouth was glorious, warm, wondrous, better in reality than it could ever be in my head. But no matter how brilliant James's kisses proved, there was really no stopping noticing the moment at which he obviously decided that there was far too much space between us (clever boy) and promptly lifted me off the ground, fitting my body more securely against his.

I very audibly—very embarrassingly—moaned into his mouth.

But not the kind of moan one really expects in these sorts of situations.

It had to mean something very sad and pathetic that even arrogant, cocky, lost-in-his-lust James didn't think I was moaning at his amazing snogging skills.

"Lil?" he laughed, breaking away at the sound and moving to put me down.

I very nearly shrieked.

"No! Keep me up! Keep me up!" I locked by arms about his neck and clutched at him as I might have clutched at the sole life buoy bouncing afloat in a tumultuous sea. Tucking my feet up off the floor, I buried my face in his neck and moaned again. "Oh, god, keep me up. Please. That's heaven."

"Call me suspicious," James started dryly, "but I'm beginning to think your gasps of pleasure have very little to do with me. What's with the dangling?"

I bit my lip and tried not to laugh, but it just felt so bloody good to be off my sodding feet that I couldn't entirely hold back the relieved giggles. They filtered out in a kind of desperate melody that sounded mad even to my ears.

"It's my feet," I confessed, too relieved to blush at the stupidity of it all, even though I knew any self-respecting witch with half-a-Knut of dignity probably would have done. "My stupid bloody shoes have ravished them. I think they were bleeding—three hours ago. I'm afraid to look now."

"Your shoes?" I felt James move against me, perhaps to glance down at the offending footwear though I knew what he'd find if he did. The damn tools of Satan had the devious ability to come off misleadingly innocent. "Then why the bleeding hell are you wearing them?"

I was not deigning to give that foolish question an answer.

At my silence, James grumbled something probably highly uncomplimentary, then bent down to scoop me up at the knees. I might have taken a moment to enjoy the very comfy, awfully chivalrous action if I wasn't already drowning in gratitude at simply being removed from the floor. As he hoisted me over towards the bed-turned-couch, I let out a slew of highly contented, highly would-have-been-thoroughly-embarrassed-by-if-I-weren't-so-thoroughly-relieved sounds that continued on until he gently placed me down on the plump couch cushions. James took the spot next to me.

"You're daft," he said, grabbing one of my mangled feet and lifting it onto his lap. "Absolutely barking."

"And this surprises you?" I very nearly snorted in his face. "Besides, it was necessary."

"Necessary to injure yourself? Oh, I can't wait to hear this one."

"Blokes like the boots," I explained, then stabbed an accusatory finger in his direction. "You liked them."

"Blokes also like their dates not to cripple themselves," he replied, fingers deftly untying the Slag Boots' somewhat complicated lacings. "We're a mighty funny lot that way."

As he tugged off the first boot, I let my hissing sound serve as an answer, expelling the pained breath as he tossed the shoe aside and carefully placed my foot back on his lap. Despite my many misgivings, I chanced a glance down at the throbbing limb. I took it as a good sign that there was no blood seeping onto James's lovely trousers, but there were a good number of runs in Carrie Lloyd's tights where the flimsy material had been rubbed raw by the Slag Boots' abrasive leather. All in all, it was a rather ugly display.

"Christ." Shaking his head in disbelief, James examined the tattered tights with careful fingers. "Well, you can bin these," he said, plucking at the nylon.

"They're Carrie's," I confessed as he hoisted my second foot onto his lap and started working on it like the first. "Grace filched them."

"Well, give Carrie the proper apologies because I don't think they're making it." He tugged at the remaining loosened shoe to reveal an equally tarnished second foot.

Ugh.

Sorry, Carrie.

Sorry, feet.

"They're actually not as bad as I thought," I observed after a thoughtful moment, going to wiggle my toes about and proving rather surprised when they not only complied, but only smarted slightly at the movement. Motion! Functionality! "Look, they work!"

"Can I toss these in the fire?" James asked, holding one of the Slag Boots aloft. I let out a dismayed yelp and lunged for it before he could use those blasted Quidditch skills to make good on the threat.

"No, you can't toss them in the fire!" I clutched the boot possessively against my chest. "Are you mad?"

James only stared. "You're cradling a boot to your chest as if it was a long lost child, and I'm the one who's mad?"

With a precision and dexterity that I'm rather certain I'll never be able to duplicate again, I twisted down and grabbed for James's leg, gripping his trainer in one hand and jerking the shoe off in one, swift motion.

Ha! A hostage.

"An eye for an eye," I threatened, swinging the trainer about by its laces (which had hung predictably loose, and was undoubtedly the only reason I'd been able to yank it off his foot so easily).

"They're old," James replied with a careless shrug, then had the gall to smirk as he lazily toed the second trainer off himself. "Can't say I've ever sacrificed skin for them, either. You clearly have a far closer relationship with your shoes than I've with mine."

"Are you mocking me?"

"Me? Mock? Never."

All right. I really did walk right into that one.

Sniffing disdainfully, I crossed my arms over my chest and raved my offense. "You know, if I weren't mostly crippled right now, I think I might very well abandon you."

"But seeing as you mostly are," James replied smoothly, cleverly twisting towards me, "I suppose you'll just have to hang about. Though I haven't the faintest how we ought to entertain ourselves—here, alone, with you crippled on this very large couch...any ideas?"

"A few," I offered and, really, every hostage-taker knows when the jig is up and it's time to talk negotiations, so it was actually with much thought and conniving strategy that I threw James's shoe over my shoulder, grabbed him hard by collar, then dragged him down on top of me.

I mean, it's always best to take advantage of your opponent's weaknesses.

And in the name of Objective Retelling...well, objectively...

Then we, er...Got to Know Each Other.

Metaphorically. Not biblically.

(Still, innocent personages of the children and feline variety might want to skim over this bit. It's not the kind of milk or cream you're thinking of, I promise.)

If I'd been worried that my slight slip into prudedom by abandoning James's bed dreams for the more demure couch option would have somehow hindered the goals of my own slaggish tendencies or his aforementioned quite high ambitions, I really shouldn't have bothered. The pitch might have been smaller, but James was still a professional player—completely undeterred by the new terrain and admirably versatile in adapting his tricks. Of course, the new terrain wasn't too shabby a replacement, if I do say so myself. We were no strangers to the Sofa Snog, James and I, but the Room of Requirement must have truly understood just what was to be required of it because when I gripped James's shirt and had him follow me down on the cushions below, the sofa proved large enough not only to keep any limbs from hanging precariously off the ends, but also to prevent bodies from rolling unceremoniously to the floor.

Which all things considered, was quite lovely.

Thanks terribly, Room. Owe you one.

James still tasted like butterbeer, a sweet surprise that I probably should have expected, but who could be bothered with thinking when there was so much feeling to be done? I admit, I might have been a bit impatient—fitting my mouth to his just as soon as my tugging had brought him close enough, lifting my torso until it meshed easily with his—but the boy was being deliberately goading from the start. I had barely got a few paltry proper kisses in there before he purposefully started toying with me. Every time I went to deepen a kiss, he'd carefully pull back, making it practically (pathetically) impossible not to be pushing up against him every time he lazily brushed his mouth against mine. These weren't the heady, quick snogs of this morning, or even the charged madness of the Trophy Room ledge—these were slow and painfully languid, a kind of careful silkiness that, yes, had me shivering from head to mutilated toes, but dear Merlin, I was about to die of frustration. What was he doing?

"Are you actually going to kiss me, or are you just going to play at it for awhile?" I inquired, pulling away only long enough to get the question out, then lunging back in to kiss him again with as much fervour as I could muster. But James only indulged my ardent advances for a few moments before pulling back again, chuckling gently against my mouth.

"I am kissing you," he said.

"I mean properly." I tilted my head to the side and aimed for his mouth at a better angle, but he still proved entirely uncompromising. I let out a frustrated groan. "James Potter, I swear—"

"So bossy," he murmured, but it clearly wasn't a particularly compelling type of bossy because instead of heeding my orders and finally snogging me the right way, the teasing arse just started pressing the same infuriatingly slow kisses across my jaw and down my neck.

Which, all right, might have managed to distract me for a moment or two—but it was only a moment or two! Soon we were back at the same infuriating stalemate. I swear, the boy was trying to kill me.

It was just too bad for him that I wasn't going down without a fight.

The hand that had started at his collar had long since abandoned that particular perch in lieu of curling up around his neck and threading somewhat clumsily through his hair, but I still had a firm enough grip to jerk his head away from my neck and bring us eye to eye. His face was flushed, but he still smirked down at me like the devil he is.

"I can make you snog me properly," I boasted, making certain that the claim came off as the threat it was. I swept my fingers along the nape of neck in a way I knew drove him spare. "You know I could."

He shuddered slightly beneath my fingertips, but one really had to give the boy credit for his stone cold resolve because he somehow managed to keep control of his baser impulses long enough to resist my clever manoeuvre. His eyes did go delightfully bright behind his glasses, though, even as he determinedly kept his game face on and, after a moment, cocked his head to the side.

"Is that a challenge?" he asked.

Oh, a challenge. I bit back a smile. "Well, we are presently tied."

"We are not tied."

"Well, we won't be once I win," I returned, and accompanied that very true statement with a very strategic body squirm.

James's jaw clenched tellingly.

Amateur.

"You're going to regret that," he gritted.

"Really?" Naturally, I did it again. "Hmm."

This time, he had to close his eyes.

Oh, hullo. Lily Evans, Slaggy Seducer Extraordinaire, here. Lovely to meet you.

When James's eyes opened, I rather started to understand why everyone was so intimidated by him on the Quidditch pitch.

Hm. He did look rather fierce, didn't he?

"Prepare to lose, Evans."

Then, before I could even rally a proper set down, he swooped right in.

In the name of Objective Retelling, I suppose it's only fair to concede now that however glamorous I may soon make this out to seem, what followed was probably not the innocently chirping birds and whispered sweet nothings of romantic films. Perhaps it ought to have been—you know, considering our first date status and everything—but this was first and foremost a competition, and I was most definitely not the only overly-competitive one lying on that couch. In the end, there was as much laughing as there was moaning, quite a bit of grappling, and more than a few overtly dirty tricks that put even my clever body squirms to shame. It probably wasn't particularly pretty, but holy hell, it was fun. And, you know, zing-y. Really, overall, I think the pair of us rose rather brilliantly to the challenge.

Some of us a bit more—ahemliterally than others. If you know what I mean.

(Oh, come on. I said the children shouldn't read this bit!)

Though I'd like to think I started out with the upper-hand, I admit, that probably wasn't the case. James's swooping proved rather more effective than my competitive side ever wanted to see...though the witch-beneath-him side wasn't too distraught over it. Lifting his hands to cup either side of my face, his fingertips skimmed into my hair and effectively trapped my lips just where he wanted them—under his and unable to jerk higher, harder, into the kiss. His mouth was warm and fleeting, the caresses bordering on painfully slow, but the soft strokes were deceptively thorough. I would have fought harder to thwart him—really, I would have done!—but maybe I had been a little hasty in disparaging this slow-and-steady-wins-the-race method. Frightfully impatient as it made me feel, it also was rather...well, fucking brilliant.

Or maybe that's just James. I don't know.

So maybe I got a little distracted in the beginning by James and his stupid, enticing teasing, but eventually I remembered that this was no time to be playing the pliant submissive and jumped back into the game. It was easier than I'd expected to turn the tides, though some might perhaps claim that it was Dirty Trick Number One to have shimmied my fingers down between us until I'd effectively reached the hem of James's jumper and instantly started tugging. Even in the midst of his competitive ministrations, James had to realise that divulging himself of a dreaded layer was never really going to be working against his favour. I was counting on that line of thinking, hoping he didn't immediately realise that by moving his hands away from my face in order to shuck out of the jumper, he was in actuality giving me the opening I'd been looking for.

The jumper had barely even touched the floor before I was the one swooping in.

(In case you hadn't caught on yet, there was a lot of swooping involved in this.)

"Sneaky—" he'd started to scold, but I'm nothing if not utterly thorough in my endeavours, and didn't give him much of a chance to speak after that.

I have to say, it was probably one of my tongue's proudest moments.

Huzzah, hurrah, tongue. Go on with your skilled self.

The aforementioned talented appendage was probably also to blame for the hasty loss of Grace's jacket, not to mention the ruination of my beloved side-plait, which James made rather quick work of some time after I'd swooped, scooped, grabbed, grappled, and snogged the poor boy into forgetting his own aims. But no matter how thoroughly I snogged him or how dangerously low I let my hands stray (YesAllRightIKnowI'mASlagYouDon'tHaveToSayIt), James still proved clever enough not to fall for the same trick twice. Every time I kindly attempted to help reunite his white t-shit with its mate, Mr Jumper, he somehow managed to deter me.

But soon I'd had enough. The damn thing needed to go.

"Off," I ordered harshly, breaking away only long enough to grab the hem of the shirt and start jerking it upwards with whatever highly-snog-reduced strength I had left. It predictably didn't move any higher than his ribs, but I thought I'd still made my point.

James dropped his forehead against mine and clumsily shook it.

"You first," he returned, and it was only then that I realised that not only had his hands somehow found their way to my shirt hem, but had in fact been happily hanging about under it. For quite some time now.

Dear Merlin. When had he managed that?

"Erm...you know..."

But James suddenly seemed to have acquired a new sub-mission—ridding me of my shirt as quickly as possible.

All bets were off after that. I was sneaky, but he was probably sneakier, not to mention entirely unscrupulous and not even mildly ashamed of proving it. I'm going to go ahead and blame that same complete lack of morals for my loss in the Shirt Challenge, though I was the one to get the last laugh when my New Favourite Witch Ever, Madam Dumont, gained me the few seconds of Distracted James I needed to win back the power with another much more deliberately aimed body roll and a strategically hooked foot (Really, you should have seen him. Gawking doesn't even begin to describe it. I suppose Grace gets a good birthday present this year).

But no matter what kind of body rolls or hooked limbs I deviously employed, James's slow-and-steady method still had one innate advantage over my frenzied-attack plot that I couldn't for the life of me overcome. Because while I was rather limited to devoting my ardent attentions mainly to his mouth—one couldn't really properly snog a neck or an absent patch of skin, after all—James had a lot more territory he could cover. Because the slow kisses? Well, he could (and did) spend all day lavishing them at my pulse points, or my shoulder or...um, lower.

(God. Not lower lower. Just...lower. Merlin. As if I would ever...)

Still, kissing was all well and good, but I'm not going to pretend that there wasn't an ample amount of pawing, as well. That's where I gained back some momentum. I am an expert paw-er.

Oh, hullo, zings. Welcome back.

So that's really how we went on—salaciously conducting our own little orchestra of moans, groans and zings, which is probably not the sort of music any type of civilised music tutor would ever teach their students, but maybe people might care a bit more about their lessons if they did.

Not that we...er, brought the zings into a zing crescendo, if you know what I mean. That would have been a bit much, even for Lily Evans, Slag Seducer Extraordinaire. Because Lily Evans, Slag Seducer Extraordinaire was still only on a first date. Even if said first date didn't feel like a first date. And even if said first date did not stop said Slag Seducer Extraordinaire from displaying half of her Madam Dumont merchandise for all the world (or James) to see. But you know, I really think that people put too much emphasis on zing crescendos, anyway. Like, they're not the only thing in the zing musical catalogue. And I know that Grace gets her Blissful Look at the mere thought of them and Emma dies of mortification if we even bring the topic up (as Grace often does, usually in the middle of History of Magic where she often insists things need "spicing up"), but that doesn't mean anything. I mean, I'm no professional on crescendos (I've crescendo-ed before. You know, once. I think), but it seems terribly rude to discount all the other lovely melodies one can make with zings without heading straight for that Big Rising Finale In The Sky. So I enjoyed my happy harmony of zings and ahhs while simultaneously retaining my dignity as A Girl Who Is In Fact Just On A First Date.

You know, mostly. I didn't start out with much dignity in the first place, so I suppose it's all splitting hairs at this point.

Quite (quite) some time later, the two of us lay on the couch in a tangle of heavy limbs and dishevelled clothing, lazily attempting to recover from duo fatal dosages of calcium. It was with surprising diplomacy (and perhaps the aid of the aforementioned calcium) that we both agreed to end the challenge in a tie.

"I'm too knackered to fight you for it," was the reason I gave to James after watching him cock a dubious eyebrow at my easy surrender. I snuggled closer against his chest—not too rotten a consolation prize, if I do say so myself. "Lunches are exhausting."

"Dates are exhausting," he corrected, giving my side an emphatic poke at the word choice. I squirmed in protest, but his hand just curved round my hip, keeping me in place. "You're new to this good date business, so I s'ppse it's understandable. We'll just have to build up your endurance. Do better next time."

"Sorry. Next what?"

"Quiet." His hand patted absently at my head. "You're tired. Don't know what you're saying."

"You can't just—"

"Shhh. Take a nap. You like those."

James closed his eyes and did some more of his patting business, an act that was almost irritating enough to warrant shoving him off the couch and laughing as he fell. I refrained from doing so mostly because there was a very high possibility that the blighter would take me down with him, but that didn't stop me from imagining it in all its retaliating glory.

Oh, all right. And I suppose in the name of Objective Retelling, I also might have resisted shoving him because...well...

"Hey." I gave him a little jostle. "James."

He kept his eyes stubbornly shut. "Hey, what?"

I nibbled softly at my lower lip. "I...I had fun. Today. I had a lot of fun today. I shouldn't have...I mean, I know—"

"You worry too much," James said, eyes finally lifting open. The bright irises had lost their hazy look, but they still made me want to shiver. "What did I tell you before, Infallible? Dates happen, the world spins. It's not quite the crisis situation you've been envisioning."

"It wasn't like that. I never thought it would be bad, I just..." I huffed irritably, wishing I knew how to explain it without sounding like a complete headcase. James was already staring at me like a puzzle he couldn't figure out. It was damn frustrating. "Never mind. I just...wanted to tell you that. That I had fun. And you did, as well, right?"

James hummed a vague agreement. "Eh. Beats Muggle Studies."

I jabbed an elbow into his ribs and enjoyed the breathy laugh that it expelled. "Arse. I'm trying to be nice and you have to be all sarcastic. Really, it's a wonder we even made it here at all. Don't you have a detention to get to or something?"

There was a brief but noticeable pause before James went, "You must be kidding. You are a thousand times more sarcastic than I could ever be—"

"Oh, bloody hell." I sprung upward, resting my hands on either side of James's torso and looming over him in disapproval. "You do have detention! What time? What time is it even now?"

James sighed. "I thought we were napping? What happened to the napping?"

Oh, for the love of...

I grabbed for James's wrist and jerked it upward, ignoring his blathering protests as I examined his watch with a dirty scowl. "What time's your detention?"

"What time is it now?" he evaded.

I stuck him with a dark look. "Don't make me knee you in the stomach."

Clearly weighing the probability that I was kidding about such a threat (am I ever kidding about violent threats?), James squinted at my face critically. I leaned harder on the limb in question. He grunted, then grudgingly answered, "Six. Tentatively."

"Six?" Dear Merlin, this boy was going to be the death of me. "James, it's five-thirty!"

"Excellent," he replied quickly, shaking my grip off his wrist and immediately using his newly freed limbs to jerk me back down on top of him. "Twenty-minute power nap. Go."

"You haven't time for a nap," I snapped, wriggling like mad in his vice grip. "You have to change. And get something to eat. And it's probably best to show up a few minutes early—"

James let out a strangled cry. "Early? For detention?"

"Get up. Now."

He bristled dramatically at the order, grumbling and complaining like a scolded child as he nonetheless heeded my dictates (and none-too-subtle prodding) and slowly began to unfurl himself from the couch.

"I'm such a shit Head Girl," he was mocking as he rose, using a voice I'm assuming was supposed to resemble me. "Anyone would be better than me. Pah! A bloody fucking dictator, is what you are. Prefect to the core—"

I opened my mouth to give him the proper set-down he deserved...but the words died in my throat as James stood up and moved into the firelight.

The gasp came instantly.

"James. Bloody hell—"

His head swung around. "What? You are."

"No, not that, you clodpole!" I leapt immediately to my feet, waving off his stupid insistences. "Your back, James. What the bloody hell did you do to your back?"

The moment I said the words, the body part in question went rigid as James's shoulders tensed and he instantly whipped around. The movement was too little too late, though. I'd already seen the damage—and honestly, that's all I can really think to call it. Damage. Like, wound damage. An honest-to-God, actual wound. Running in a thick, brutal brushstroke from just below his left shoulder down and across to his right, an angry, reddened welt pulled and distorted his skin. It looked like some sort of burn, though I'm not exactly a professional medic and it wasn't as if James gave me much time to examine it. Whatever it was, it looked painful. Painful and severe. But perhaps the strangest part about it was that just below it, running right alongside the bottom curve of the injury, a brief line of black, curvy words was inked into his skin.

En tout...something, something, something.

It was in French and he turned too quickly for me to catch any more.

I grabbed his arm and tried to jerk him back around. "When did you get that? How did you get that? And is that a tattoo?"

"Why do you always have to fling my clothes so far away?" he grumbled, completely ignoring my questions as he wrenched out of my grasp and strode to the other side of the room where his jumper and t-shirt lay in haphazard heaps. "I always leave yours in a nice little pile right there. Consideration, that's what—"

"James." I stalked after him instantly. "James—"

"I'm just saying, you could be a bit less enthusiastic in divesting my clothing. It's only polite." He grabbed the jumper and t-shirt off the floor, still refusing to meet my gaze. I stopped him before he could toss the layers back on, seizing the t-shirt from his hands and quickly pulling it over my own head. James finally glanced at me, but only to stare at my new ensemble. I didn't care. This was not the sort of conversation I wanted to be having in Madam Dumont's best and my shirt was too damn far away.

When he saw my expectant scowl, James's expression turned exasperated.

"Bloody hell. You're going to make a big deal about this, aren't you? It's just like a witch to fall to pieces over a little scrape."

"When did you do that?" I demanded, ignoring his stupid, sexist gibes and petty male belittling of his own vulnerabilities. He wasn't going to distract me. "What happened?"

His lips slipped into a frown. "Nothing. A stupid accident last year. It's not a big deal. You didn't notice it before?"

I really wanted to hit him.

"Oh, sure," I said, rolling my eyes. "Ages ago. I just thought this the opportune moment to bring it up!" I gave his arm a scolding whack. "Of course I didn't notice before, you berk! When last year? Is it a burn? It looks like a burn. Not like mine, but still...though perhaps it's a—"

"You're hurting my head," James complained, and lifted a hand to the body part in question to give his temples a quick rub. "I told you, it's nothing. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time and things got a bit hot. Besides, scars give you character. Stop insulting my character."

"I'm not insulting your character. I'm concerned. Isn't that what dates are supposed to be? Concerned? Aren't they supposed to care?"

"I think I've another injury sprouting up just here," James replied, tapping at the corner of his mouth. "Much more worthy of your concern. Care away."

I shot him a dirty look, but James just laughed, dropping his hand back down to his side and then lifting his jumper up with a questioning eyebrow. I grudgingly gave him a wave of permission, knowing that I wasn't going to be allowed to extensively examine the injury as the doctor's daughter in me wanted to anyway, so there was very little point (other than purely aesthetic, of course) in keeping him out of his clothes. As he threaded his arms through the sleeves and pulled the jumper over his head, I watched him carefully through narrowed eyes, baffled by the many mysteries that constantly seemed to surround the boy like a blasted aura. Disastrous 6th-years, horrid injuries, tattoos...what was next? A long lost sibling? Witness protection? A few unexplainable youthful murders?

"And the tattoo?" I asked once he was clothed again, thinking to solve at least one James Mystery before the blighter undoubtedly unleashed seven more on me. "It is a tattoo, isn't it? What does it say?"

Contrary to expectations, James actually did answer my question immediately. Of course, seeing as he answered in French, I don't suppose it was anything to throw a party over.

Useless, thy name is James Potter. No cake for you.

"Thank you," I deadpanned. "That was supremely helpful."

"It means, 'Lily Evans talks too much. And should also go out with me,'" he supplied, predictably with a smirk.

Oh, what a laugh he is. Please, hold me while I curl over in uncontrollable mirth.

"I bet it says, 'I am a giant arse with more smirks than sense. Bow down to me.'"

"Sounds a speck too long for my tastes," James answered, tossing in a grin. "Though that 'bow down' bit has potential."

I'd walked straight into that one, but knowing it didn't make me feel any better. Unfortunately, it became increasingly obvious that smarting over aptly-timed banter wasn't going to be the only slight James would be serving me as he simply continued to grin with no move to do or say anything further. I suddenly wished for entirely un-aesthetic reasons that I hadn't told him he could don his shirt again. It seemed I'd thrown away the only chance I'd had of getting even the smallest James Mystery solved.

I stared at him with an increasingly skeptical frown. "You're not going to tell me what it says, are you?"

He immediately shook his head. "Can't. I'm saving it."

"For what? A rainy day?"

"For date number two." Good lord, and there went that smirk again. "You know. Getting to Know You More. I've got to save some of my secrets, Evans."

I'm sorry...there were secrets he wasn't saving?

"You seem awfully confident about this second date thing," I muttered, trying to swallow down the angry calls of my slighted meddling pride with a subject change. I walked slowly towards the couch and gingerly took a seat. "You do know what they say about assuming, don't you?"

"That if someone doesn't assume the lead, you'll be walking round in circles forever," James replied pointedly. Which...oh, whatever. "Now where did you chuck my scarf?" he asked.

Hold on, there.

His, what?

"It's by the door with the shopping bags," I answered quickly, nodding towards the pile. "But don't touch it. It was just on loan to you. You can't keep it."

James stopped walking and shot me a look over his shoulder. "I'm sorry. Can't keep my scarf?"

Pah. Yours, mine...whatever happened to world peace?

"Yes. So leave it," I ordered, making certain to use a tone that left no room for argument. James only continued to stare as if I'd finally gone up the bend, but if he actually thought he was taking that scarf with him when he left, I was not the mad one here.

Honestly, some people have some nerve.

"Here," I said, bending down to grab one of his trainers, which I then proceeded to lob in his direction (well, his general direction, anyway. These things are mostly about vicinity, anyway). It landed a reasonable distance from his socked feet. "You can keep those."

I stretched for the second shoe and lobbed that one at him, as well. James not-so-subtly raised his eyes towards the ceiling and muttered some not-so-friendly things about kleptomania and the audacity of some people, but I wisely chose to ignore him. I watched silently as he shuffled towards the trainers and quickly slipped his toes in, not even bothering to do up the laces. They trailed behind him as he ambled back towards the couch and plopped himself down on the cushions next to me. He hadn't been sitting there for more than a few seconds when he abruptly bent down to swipe up the Slag Boots from the floor.

Uh-oh.

"James!" I yelped.

"Oh, cool your cauldron, would you?" He rolled his eyes again, but it certainly wasn't much of a comfort to be watching him refrain from using his slightly-more-accurate-than-mine lobbing skills to start a Boot Burning only to have him reaching into his back pocket to slip out his wand.

Oh, hell. He would know a burning spell. Probably even several of them.

But a moment later, the Slag Boots had not gone up in a fantastic display of mutinous flames. Instead, with one simple flick of his wand (show off), the devilish footwear was suddenly replaced by a pair of black, plush wonderful bed slippers.

Oh.

Ah.

Hm.

I slowly took the shoes from him.

"You still have to go to detention," I started firmly, bending down to place my new lovely slippers on the floor before leisurely sitting up again. "But I suppose I'm going to have to snog you a little more before you leave."

James couldn't even get the full chuckle out before I was already clambering all over him.

And truly? I am not ashamed. A witch needs to do what a witch needs to do.

In the end (you know, of the doing), I was all but shoving him out of the room as the clock struck 5:56 and James was bordering dangerously on Being Late territory. He had his t-shirt back, I had reclaimed his scarf, and no one was particularly unhappy—though the troublemaker in question did continue to take his sweet time in dragging his feet on his way to the door.

"Go," I ordered, jabbing him none-too-gently right where I imagine his stupid tattoo (which I still didn't understand) might reside, hoping it hurt. "James—no, stop that—go!"

"You're a rotten date," he grumbled, but the way he was still very much trying to grope me as I pushed at him seemed to suggest otherwise. "Look how nice that couch looks. Don't you want to go back on the couch?"

"No." Yes. "Move it!" Please don't try anything because I'm far more slaggy than I am responsible.

"Infallible—"

"No one is going to buy the cow if you give the milk for free, James."

And really, what more is there to say after that?

James obviously couldn't think of anything, but that might have simply been because he was too busy grinning to give it proper thought. He became easier to shove, in any case, so I took advantage of the moment of weakness to get him to the door, even if he still insisted on dawdling as I reached for the doorknob.

"You don't want me to go," he said, speaking the truth, even if I didn't want to hear it.

Somehow, I remained resolutely stubborn. "What I don't want is you in detention for another week. And you don't want that, either. So go."

I'm not sure if it was the reminder of the consequences of his skiving or the simple fact that I had already managed to shuffle him halfway out the door and there was little chance of shuffling back, but for whatever reason, he finally seemed willing to give in to the inevitable. It was pure dumb luck (or a slight return of bad karma) that at the very moment when he seemed willing to give in, I suddenly realised what was happening.

Our lunch was ending.

Our date was ending.

My very first date with James Potter was coming to a close.

I grabbed hold of his wrist before he could get any further out the door.

"Wait!" I cried, the word coming out more sharply than I'd intended. James's eyes narrowed in curiosity, but he immediately stopped where he stood. I cleared my throat, trying to dislodge the ball of panic that suddenly seemed to be stuck there. "Just...wait. For a second."

It was with quite a bit of relief that I watched James nod and then turn towards me, the scant remaining sensible side of my brain actually able to acknowledge that there wasn't really a chance that he'd have done anything but stay, though that hardly seemed to matter as I wasn't feeling particularly sensible just then. I hadn't the faintest why everything suddenly seemed to come rushing down on me just then—all of my stress from this morning, the relief afterwards, all the various ups-and-downs of the day—but there it was—there he was—and I suddenly found myself desperate for something. I just didn't know what that was.

Fortunately, I didn't need to have the answer.

It's times like these when I find myself reconsidering my desperate desire to trade in my traitor-of-a-mouth. Because on the rare occasion, the damn nuisance does somehow manage to get things right

"C'mere," is what it told James then, and even sent a useful message to my hand to tighten its hold on his wrist and gently start pulling him forward.

Recognition lit up James's eyes into a bright hazel just before his lips stretched into a slow grin.

"Go where?" he played along, though already he was breaking script by shuffling towards me—something I certainly hadn't done that night in the stairwell. "I'm standing right in front of—"

It was appallingly easy to jerk him forward and fit my mouth against his.

It was breaking-away part that proved a bit difficult

"All right. Now you really have to go." I wrenched my mouth from his and accompanied the desperate claim with a push that could only be described as lacklustre at best. Fortunately, I got more forceful the longer I blabbered. "But I had fun. And you had fun. And now we're both going—well, you're going. I'm staying here. But we're both separating—you know, literally, not metaphorically. I mean—Merlin, will you quit laughing at me? Go!"

Predictably, James did not quit laughing. In fact, I think he got louder.

Tosser.

"Oh, shut it, will you?" I scowled darkly, but at least his unremitting chuckling made him easier to shove. I was none-too-gentle in my manoeuvrings of his person. I had finally cleared him from the doorway and into the corridor. "You know what? I no longer care if you have detention for another week. It's no concern of mine."

"Liar," James shot back, grinning like the damn bloody prat he is. "You're aching for me to bring up date number two again. Go on. Just try to deny it."

Oh, the arrogant fool.

Well, we'd just see who had the last laugh, wouldn't we?

I took a small, but significant step backwards.

"Potentially-considering-boyfriend."

James immediately stopped laughing.

"Who—what?" His voice went noticeably lower.

I retreated another step, trying to hold back my smirk. "Your new hyphenation. That's what it is. Potentially-considering-boyfriend."

"That's—oh." He cleared his throat as his hand went straight for his hair. He began to look a bit jittery. His feet jostled, his eyes blinked incessantly, and he was acting quite as if someone had just replaced his blood with shots of espresso and he didn't quite know how to handle it. He stepped forward. I stepped back. His eyes never left mine, but I refused to squirm. "So...ah, how does one go about getting rid of the 'potentially-considering' bit, then?" he asked.

It took only a moment—and a quick grab for the side of the door—for me to answer.

"One quits being an arse and goes to detention."

Then I slammed the door in his face.

And that, dear felines and assorted progeny, is how my very first date with James Potter came to an end.

Yes, that's right. An end.

It was over.

It is over.

And in the name of Objective Retelling...well...

Well, what? Honestly. What is there to say? I mean, there are words—Relieved. Happy. Girlish. Calcium-overloaded. Anxious. Excited. Uncertain—but none of them even come close to describing the reality of it. I've tried to be as Objective as possible, but even that was more a simple feat of rhetoric than a tool in helping me process all of this. I'm not sure anything can. Not then, and not now. It's just all...well, a lot.

I just...I just feel like there's this balloon lodged in my chest or something, you know? Like it's there and it just keeps filling up and it's sort of fun but also sort of frightening and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger and I don't know what to do about it or how to stop it or even if I want to stop it...

But for the first time, I don't think the not-knowing frightens me. It honestly, Objectively doesn't.

Which, you know, is new.

Rather nice, too, actually.

Especially for a balloon expanding inside your chest and all.

Because James is...he's...

You know what? No. No, I'm not even going to try to put some kind of label on him right now. He's just James—my James—and that's all I'm going to leave it at.

And even though Grace has started throwing things against my closed bed curtains in a desperate attempt to get me out of my four-poster and into hers where she and Emma have been (im)patiently waiting for me to come along and share my tale since I finally arrived back in the dormitory an hour or so ago, I'm not going to appease her just yet. Because out there, reality's going to set in. Out there, Grace and Emma are going to coo and clap over my Getting to Know You game and my fudge rice and my new budding relationship with Madam Dumont...but they're also going to want to know about the Carringtons. And about James's mysterious injuries. And about why the bloody hell I just let these things go when I could've—perhaps should've—found out more. And maybe I can solve that by not telling them about any of these things (which, honestly, I might very well do), but that doesn't mean the problems just go away. Because also out there, Carrie Lloyd is still gazing curiously at the tattered tights I'd peeled off and left hanging haphazardly off my bed, wondering why they look so familiar. And out there, Saunders is probably still glaring at my bed curtains as fiercely as she was glaring at me when I'd first arrived back, because somehow (though I don't know how) she knows. I know she knows. And I don't want to think about how she knows or why she knows or even what it matters.

Because right now, I just sort of want to be the witch who's just come back from a brilliant date with a brilliant bloke and who gets to revel in that brilliance for as long as it bloody well lasts.

So that's what I'm going to do.

Sod it, karma. Pick your vacation days more wisely next time, because this witch is not giving in to your nonsense. In fact—

Oh, bloody hell.

How in the name of all that's magical did that mad cow get hold of my slippers?

Merlin, Gracie. I'm coming. I'm coming!


Latest, Still 7th-Year Girls' Dormitory
Observant Lily: Day 43
Total Observations: 297

L—

Was stuck in the greenhouses again tonight. Saw these, thought of you.
Clever of Sprout to be growing roses, isn't it? And red ones, as well.
I think this might be fate telling you something, Infallible.

See you in the morning. Feel free to ask me out again then.

Your potentially-considering-boyfriend,
J.

P.S – Try placing a finger over the 'potentially-considering' bit.
P.S.S – Looks good, doesn't it?


Wednesday, October 29th, 7th-Year Girls' Dormitory
Observant Lily: Day 44
Total Observations: 297

Ugh.

Ughhhh.

Damn you, karma. Damn you.


Later, Breakfast in the Great Hall
Observant Lily: Day 44
Total Observations: 298

Observation #298) What goes up, must come down...both karmically and medically.

So, just in general, I reckon gorging yourself on your fudge rice as you primp and preen your red roses in the new vase your sympathetic mate kindly transfigured for you (really must revise chapter three!) right before you go to bed is probably not the wisest of decisions. At least, not if you don't want to be hanging over your toilet for a good fifteen minutes quite early the next morning.

Bleh.

Ugh.

Seriously, karma? Seriously?

I suppose I was actually a bit fortunate (yes, there's a fortunate in here) in deciding to skip dinner last night in order to hole up inside of Grace's bed, whispering into the early morning hours all the relevant details of my date (though I had, as previously considered, left out any and all potentially nefarious encounters and/or discoveries in order to protect all parties involved). If I hadn't done, things might have been a bit uglier come toilet-hugging this morning. I suppose I should be grateful, but I'm sure it's not so shocking to hear that I'm, you know, not.

There was a brief moment in-between dry heaves wherein I considered going for yet another visit with my very best mate, Poppy Pomfrey...but something told me that the healer wouldn't have been too pleased about the whole skipping-meals-and-then-staying-up-late-to-chat-blokes-with-mates thing. You know, considering the last time I saw her, she told me to do the exact opposite of all that. So there really was no other option for me but to simply buck up that unwavering stubbornness that I'm sure landed me in Gryffindor in the first place, get dressed, pull it together, and make my way out of the dormitory feeling only slightly lightheaded, but determined not to show it.

And quite impressively, that's what I did.

Not so all-powerful now, are you, karma?

And if you can believe it, things really didn't get too much worse after that. With my body conquered and under control, I quickly made my way down to breakfast, wishing I could stop the frantic beating of my heart as easily as I had the overwhelming urge to faint. But try as I might, the beating continued, growing stronger and stronger the closer I got to the Great Hall. Shockingly enough, it wasn't even panicked beating that was pounding in my ears with every new step I took. I think I even surprised myself with how eager I was to get downstairs. How eager I was—

Well, you know. To see him.

I love mornings after brilliant first dates. Even toilet-hugging brilliant mornings. Everything looks so shiny.

I suppose it was fortunate that my mood and general outlook was still so naturally positive, because once I got downstairs, I really didn't have much time to prepare. I had just barely made it down the main staircase and into the Entrance Hall before I'd already spotted James leaning against the wall next to the Great Hall doors. My heart skipped a beat at the sight of him. I didn't even wonder what he was doing there. I just rushed ahead.

"Good morning," I called, indulging myself in a bit of a smirk as James watched my happy approach with obvious surprise. I was suddenly very thankful that I had spent a good ten minutes rinsing my mouth out with the strongest mouthwash in the cupboard because I really don't think I would have been able to resist the urge to press my mouth to his in a hasty kiss just as soon as he was close enough.

"Morning," he mumbled, and the poor thing really did look torn between grinning like a loon and eyeing me all skeptically. The end result was a peculiar narrow-eyed lip twitch, but one had to give him points for blending emotions.

"Were you waiting for me?" I asked.

"To accost you," James confessed, but the way he said it, I reckoned it wasn't the kind of accosting that I had on the mind.

I mirrored his narrow-eyed lip twitch. "A good accosting or a bad accosting?"

James hesitated for a moment, long enough to give me my answer. My eyebrows flew upwards and my determinedly jovial mood found its first crack as I watched his eyes silently flicker back and forth over my face. For a split second, I let myself traverse the usual Lily path—the burst of panic flaring up inside my chest as my mind raced through all the worst and most troubling possibilities. But I must be growing or maturing or perhaps my morning sprawled out in the loo had simply zapped me with a bit of short-term humbling sensibility, because even my uncontrollably overactive imagination couldn't quite swallow the idea that he may be here to chuck me or inform me of his disgust at my easy slaggish ways, or confess that in a fit of drunken abandon, he and Saunders had decided to rekindle their love and run off together to France or South America or perhaps just Cardiff.

(I said I didn't believe them, not that I didn't think them.)

I was just about to act on just such rare rational sensibilities, but James managed to move first. He didn't say anything, just grabbed me by the shoulders and proceeded to steer me round until I was standing in the middle of the doorway facing the Great Hall. My back was pressed up against his front and I could feel the heat of his body radiating onto mine.

"Look at the end of the Hufflepuff table," he said, his breath warm against my ear. "To the left."

The Hufflepuff table? What in the hell did the Hufflepuff—

Oh.

Oh.

Aw.

For once, I was quite glad not to be staring James in the face. If I had been, I'm not certain he would have been too appreciative of the way the smile crept automatically across my face and my cheeks flushed in victory at my first sight of the Hufflepuff table. Because, really, what else could I be doing when my gaze flashed over to the left side of the table and I feasted my eyes upon the group of third-years sitting there? How was I not supposed to grin with foolish pride as I spotted my beloved Thomas Dunn standing atop the bench, spoon-sword fighting with a gangly-looking Ravenclaw with a wicked wrist flick? And how was my heart not supposed to sing with happy delight when I eventually zoned in on MJ—my darling, taciturn, strange little MJ—sitting a bit to the right of the sparring partners, quietly watching the ongoing duel as he occasionally chatted with the same blonde boy I'd seen him with the other day? How, I ask you? How?

So no, I don't think James would have liked my reaction at all. But that didn't stop me from doing it.

It was really just bloody sodding annoying that James had to go and try to ruin it all by squeezing my shoulders with obvious censure before turning me round to face him again.

"What," he asked crisply, "have you been doing, Lily?"

It was such a stupid question—stupid, firstly, because of its entirely rhetorical nature. He knew what I'd done—but mostly stupid in the pure idiocy of James's outrage over the whole thing. I can't say I was much surprised by it (actually, I was rather surprised he wasn't being more hostile about it, honestly), but that didn't make it any better. And in the harsh morning light, when the haze and glory of the brilliant first date had slightly worn off and I could look back on yesterday with a bit more clarity...well, let's just say I was getting mighty sick of James and his bloody secrets. I reckon he might have taken my tensing shoulders as a sign of my impending panic over being caught at my game, but the sensation suddenly pulling my limbs tight was nothing more than pure, restrained temper.

I wanted to hit him. Really, I did. I wanted to borrow one of Darling Thomas's sparring spoons and start thwacking until there wasn't anything left to thwack. But unfortunately, the lingering remnants of my post-date high and the toilet-hugging rationality wouldn't much allow that kind of abuse. They wanted me to talk to him, the swotty buggers.

I took a deep breath, relaxed my shoulders, and stuck James with the lightest frown I could muster.

"I thought you were through making him your charity case," he said.

MJ wasn't a charity case!

"Don't talk about him like that. And it was you who said I should leave off, not me. I never made any such claim and you've never given me any kind of proper reasoning as to why I should! But can we not"—I shoved him back into the shadows of the doorway, pressing another quick kiss against his downturned mouth before he could argue—"row about this again, please? You and Marley are constantly ditching me for Quidditch and I have to talk to someone while I eat my breakfast. Random third-years are practically the only option. I happened to introduce two of them. What's the big to-do? The apocalypse is not drawing near."

James's scowl was mutinous. "That's not the point—"

Merlin's beard, whatever happened to snogging someone into submission?

"Please, stop," I begged, curling my fingers around the collar of his shirt front and using it to pull his lips down to mine again. "Can't we go one day without arguing? I'm happy right now—blissfully, ignorantly happy. Thank you for the roses last night. They were lovely—now can you just let me cling to my happy for a little while longer? Please?"

For the second time that morning, James looked decidedly torn. I know his better instincts were shouting at him to argue on, to try to get me to submit to his faulty views without the least bit of rational reasoning relayed, but equal parts of him seemed generally unwilling to see me unhappy—which was a good thing, I suppose.

In the end, that was the side that won out, but when he pushed his lips back against mine, it was a bit more firmly than I'd been expecting.

"I'm glad you're happy," he told me, leaning his forehead against mine. "But please—please, Lil—quit meddling. All right?"

Hmph.

Didn't he realise I could just as soon quit breathing?

"I'll try," was the concession I offered. And I would try. I just didn't know how successful I'd be.

James features sighed in relief. The brush of his mouth became warmer, softer.

"Thank you," he said.

I nodded jerkily, trying to ignore the slight flare of guilt in my stomach.

But as we finally made our way inside to join Marley at our usual spot...I mean, should I really be feeling guilty about this? How could I just quit when my meddling garnered such brilliant results? Why should I? I mean, just look at MJ! Even now, he's looking almost entirely like a normal young wizard, sitting with his mates at breakfast. I reckon he's really bonded with that blonde one. They keep ducking their heads together all conspiringly. Can you imagine it? A real friend! An actual, real friend!

Oh, the possibilities!

I reckon that James thinks I keep gazing over there with much troubling conscience, wondering how I could ever be so foolish as to go against his wise dictates—at least, that's what his lack of barbs and slightly sympathetic looks seem to be telling me. But he'll see it all my way eventually. I know he will.

And in the meantime...well, sometimes a girl has got to be glad to have milk on the table, doesn't she?


Later Later, Still at Breakfast
Observant Lily: Day 44
Total Observations: 298

Please, can anyone tell me—why haven't I killed Grace Reynolds yet?

"Lily can do it," the should-be victim herself just announced to the table, which, yes, sounds harmless enough taken out of context, but that's one of Grace's greatest powers—spouting things off out of context and having it be too late once you realise what she's actually talking about. And seeing as I was too busy trying to con Emma into taking an extra Charms lesson with Flitwick with me to be listening to the general hubbub going on around us, I easily fell into the trap.

"Lily can do what?" I asked, thinking to hear something along the lines of, "a stellar backhanded Disarming Spell" or perhaps even, "an uncannily good impression of Binns discussing the Elvin Rebellion of 1399."

But no, it wasn't either of those things. Of course it wasn't.

"Keep time for speed trials tomorrow," was the answer I did get, which made absolutely no sense to me until Grace turned back to the rest of the motley crew, took a casual sip of her pumpkin juice and went, "She's coming to practice tomorrow."

Say what?

"I'm what?"

"She's what?" James echoed.

Grace just kept sipping at her drink as she turned her eyes on me and made it seem as if I was the mad one. "You said you were coming," she blatantly lied, and only I could see the evil glint in her eyes that gave her whole game away. "The other morning in History. Don't you remember?"

Dead.

She's dead.

"I did not!" I cried shrilly at the exact same moment that James grabbed my arm in a tight grip and went, "You're coming to practice?"

Oh, buggering hell. He looked so ecstatic.

"I can't," I said quickly, desperately. "I'm a spy for Ravenclaw. I'll leak all of your top secret information!"

"Does she even know enough to leak information?" Sirius asked.

"She's done it before, actually," James defended. "Planted false information to Hufflepuff."

It was the first time I was not pleased to have impressed Sirius.

Damn, damn, damn, damn.

"I am not going to practice," I tried again, with more authority this time.

No one listened.

"I think Sophie's boyfriend's coming, as well," Marley said. "He can help, too."

"The pitch gets a bit nippy in the morning," was James's addendum. "You can wear my robes."

"We're not getting anything done tomorrow," Chris Lynch sighed.

And that's how it went, on and on for the next ten minutes.

And the thing is, I tried to tell them I wasn't going—tried to tell them thirty times—but it was like talking to a bunch of mannequins, for all that my insistences got through. They just kept going on and on—James offering me more of his Quidditch gear, Marley saying that she could introduce me to Sophie Cleese's boyfriend, Sirius pondering quite loudly about whatever happened to the 'no spectators' rule James had been trying so hard to institute?

And all the while, Grace just sat there, basking smugly in her victory.

How long in Azkaban do you get for murder, again?

Whatever. It'd be worth it.


Later, Herbology
Observant Lily: Day 44
Total Observations: 298

Emma says it's just not right to keep changing Grace's skin puke-coloured, but I say that's just what she is. Vomit-flavoured. Like a Bertie Botts.


Bit Later, Still Herbology
Observant Lily: Day 44
Total Observations: 298

Though now that I'm thinking on it...that colour really isn't doing much for my already ailing constitution.

Ugh.

Purple will have to do.


Later Even, Charms
Observant Lily: Day 44
Total Observations: 299

Honestly, I have lost all respect for that girl. What a bloody tattletale.

Though was she honestly expecting Flitwick to do anything more than say, "Miss Evans, your Charming talents might best be utilised on targets other than your fellow students, if you'd be so inclined"? As if she could ever break Filius and me up. We're like this.

And so what if she still has entirely purple breasts? I'd like to see how she goes about proving that to anyone. Just go on. Try.


Later, History
Observant Lily: Day 44
Total Observations: 299

Speaking of people who deserve purple breasts...

Seriously, Saunders? Seriously?

Doesn't she have anything better to do than just glare at me contemptuously all the time? I mean, for Merlin's sake, James barely had his arm around me. It was there for like a second. It's not as if we were bloody standing there pawing each other in front of her—though even if we were, that would be entirely our issue, not hers. What's it to her? He's my potentially-considering-boyfriend, thank you very much, not hers. I can hang off him or have him hanging off me any which way we please!

Psh. I bet this isn't even about today. This is about yesterday. I know she knows where we went yesterday. I know she knows what we were doing. I bet she had her sodding ears straining to hear every bloody word I said to Grace and Emma last night, even if we put up a Silencing Charm solely for just such reasons. I bet it just kills her to know that James and I have an actual relationship, not some sad, sick attachment born out of mutual misery and drowned away by gallons of scotch and firewhiskey. But that's just too damn bad for her.

As a matter of fact, she can get—

Wait a second.

Did she just...

Oh, she has really got to be kidding me.


Seconds, Still History
Observant Lily: Day 44
Total Observations: 299

Pay attention. –LE

Sorry? – JP

Quit passing notes and pay attention. For Merlin's sake, James, you're Head Boy. And this is history. There's something inordinately vital about learning from other people's mistakes—or even your own. History is important.

Are you kidding?

Does it sound as if I'm kidding?

Lily.

What?

You're passing me notes.

Yes, but I'm going to stop once you stop.

Look, Infallible—the jealousy thing? Totally keen on it. Really, I am. Very encouraging. But also very unnecessary. And you know that.

If you think I'm asking you out again, you're mad.

Pay attention, Lily. History's important.


Later, History
Observant Lily: Day 44
Total Observations: 299

Dear Mum,

Thank you for the generally unhelpful information regarding your fishing woes. You are clearly a very loving and devoted wife. I have heard the tales of Hettie Clark and Bitsy Simon and understand your pain. Please do not let Dad con you into inviting them round for dinner over winter hols again. There are more humane ways of torturing your daughter.

Speaking of Dad, I really think it would be best if you left the diagnosing to him. Your medical knowledge is clearly a bit rusty. Send my love to the true doctor, if you please.

Things here are well. I woke up feeling a bit off this morning, but I reckon that'll sort itself out. Have a Prefect's meeting to organise for tomorrow and a huge exam Monday that I'm not nearly prepared enough for, but I'm sure they'll be all right, too. Or I can hope, anyway.

Went to lunch with James yesterday. It was rather lovely. Do you remember the day Tunie brought Vernon home for tea for the first time? He wouldn't quit talking about drills and you'd got that clotted cream from Harrod's and Vernon lapped it all up and we both thought Dad was going to cry? Well, James knows about things other than oil machinery. And while I'm sure he could devour an entire jar of clotted cream if he put his mind to it, I reckon he's more inclined to share. Just so you know.

Love you and miss you,
Lily

P.S. – Dad never had any irritating ex-girlfriends hanging about, did he?


Later Later, Transfiguration
Observant Lily: Day 44
Total Observations: 300

Shit.

Shit, shit, shit, shit.

What the bleeding hell is wrong with me? Honestly, what is it? What the sodding fucking hell did I think I was going to gain here? Have I ever been happy knowing things that he doesn't want me to know? Is eavesdropping ever the best option? You'd think I'd bloody well learn from my mistakes instead of being stupid enough to repeat them time and time again. I swear to Merlin, every time I think I'm miraculously maturing, that I'm finally amazingly catching on to this whole 'young adult' bit, I go and do something like this and the whole bloody thing's a ruddy cock-up.

Why, karma? Honestly, why?

Hell. Double bloody fucking hell. What am I supposed to do now? How can I just...how can I even...

I shouldn't have stayed.

I really, really shouldn't have stayed.

Better yet, I shouldn't have even gone up to the Owlery in the first place. Why the bleeding hell did I go up?

Well, I mean, I know why I went up—I needed to post my letter to Mum, and when I dashed up to the dorm before lunch to send Winnie off, my darling pet's cage was noticeably empty. I knew that meant she must be making her occasional visit to the Owlery to reaffirm her social status as Best Owl Ever, proving once more to the other birds that she is the savviest of them all, but her social schedule was a touch inconvenient for me. I reckon I could have waited until after lessons in the hope that Winnie might've finished flaunting her superiority by then, but a quick trip to the Owlery actually didn't seem like such a heinous option. The walk might do me some good.

Because the thing is... look, I know it's stupid, all right? I know that I shouldn't let it get to me and that to do so only gives her power and that after yesterday, I should be feeling highly confident in my position as potentially-considering-girlfriend...but I can't help it. It's as if she just knows how to drive me absolutely spare. And truthfully, I don't know that all my worrying is unnecessary. I don't know it and I don't like it and I like it even less when James insists on telling me that I should know it because if I did actually have something to worry about, would I really be trusting him to warn me off?

I mean, not that I think he would...well, not really, anyway. But is it honestly so outrageous for me not to be enthralled with the fact that he's still unfailingly loyal to his ex-girlfriend, who—oh yes, that's right—probably wouldn't have too much of a qualm about drowning me in the Great Lake?

And it's not as if I feel like I have any right to dictate who his mates are or how he handles his past relationships or anything like that. Actually, his loyalty to everyone he cares about is probably one of the things I like best about him, and Merlin knows he's never denied such things from me. But how am I supposed to resign myself to the fact that Elisabeth Saunders is here to stay? I hate it. I hate her. I hate it, I hate her, and I don't imagine any of that has ever been made as clear as it has been now.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I have to tell this right. I only hated her mildly as I was walking to the Owlery. It wasn't until later that everything...well, you'll see.

Truthfully, I was probably right about the trip up. It gave me a few moments to be alone, away from the fact that despite my really-not-as-facetious-as-he-obviously-took-them-to-be wishes, James still continued to pass notes with Saunders throughout most of History. Not to mention Grace's well-meaning but really not-helping-as-much-as-she-thought-they-were, "We can push her down the stairs and make it look like an accident, Lil. Really, we could" threats. Because the truth of it was, I was still feeling a bit like utter shite, I didn't know what I was supposed to do about Saunders, and the more I thought about it, the more shite I felt like—physically and emotionally. It was a rather colossal mess.

My head was cleared slightly by the time I'd reached the Owlery, though. I spotted Winnie almost immediately, holding court high up on one of the rafters. I didn't really have any answers, but I had a plan—one that included taking all of the Transfiguration books and notes I'd gathered in my dorm and heading straight to the library after lessons, determined to bury myself in some much-needed revisions as an attempt to control some wayward part of my life—and that was comforting. I didn't think it significant that while I had stowed away all of the aforementioned Transfiguration materials in my bag, Keep Your Guard was the book I chose to carry in-hand.

I mean, there was still lunch to get through, wasn't there? No one said I couldn't have a bit of fun before the Transfiguration Trials begun.

I made sure to put Mr George Abbott's book in as clean a spot as the Owlery offered on one of the window ledges before signalling Winnie down from her fawning session. She fortunately didn't look too displeased by this (she undoubtedly thought it only beneficial to her high rank that her owner had to come fetch her, not the other way around) and put up no fight as I handed over my note to Mum and requested that she please deliver it to Surrey as soon as her schedule allowed. Winnie gave a dignified flounce, a little, "Hm. I suppose I could fit you in between my morning chat session and my afternoon treat," then gave the whole Owlery a bit of a show before soaring out the high windows and away from sight.

Hmph. How someone with an inferiority complex ended up with a pet with such a superiority complex is beyond me. I really ought to take a few cues from my owl.

With nothing left to keep me, I promptly left the Owlery and was still seriously considering this dilemma (and how one might impersonate Winnie's haughty-but-still-highly -relatable beak lift) when I realised halfway down to the Great Hall that I had accidentally left Mr Abbott on his window perch back upstairs.

Shit.

(Er, literally. Ack.)

The Owlery was so far...but I couldn't just leave him there. It was Mr Abbott. We were kindred. And I needed something to read during lunch.

So even though it was a damn pain in the arse and I was already missing lunch and my stomach was grumbling and Pomfrey was going to have my head because I couldn't seem to follow even her simplest of dictates for creating a more healthy lifestyle, I turned about and went off to save Mr Abbott from becoming the next impromptu target for Owl Droppings Bonanza '77. It really was the only option.

Thinking on it now, I really haven't the faintest why I didn't just go barging straight back in there like a woman on a mission. I mean, I was a woman on a mission. So why was I dawdling? Why had my ears perked up and my feet slowed as I reached the door? I truly, honestly don't know. And in retrospect, I'm not certain I'm grateful for it, either. But what happened, happened, and all I know is that as I slowly approached the entrance to the Owlery, thinking only to save Mr Abbott from his unfortunate peril, the sudden sound of voices filtering through the small crack left from the only partially closed Owlery door caused me to stop before I entered.

"—completely ridiculous. I can't believe you went with her. I can't."

"We've talked this conversation dead already, Lizzie. I'm not doing it again."

Lizzie.

Lizzie.

Oh, dear God.

"That was our thing, James," Saunders was saying, and though I couldn't see her through the pathetic crack between the door and the doorframe, I knew she was in an angry sulk. The petulance rang out in her voice. "It is our thing."

"You can't claim lunch, Liz," came James's dry reply. "You're being ridiculous."

While I still couldn't see Saunders, James had moved to lean against a window ledge as he shot back his reply—the single window ledge visible with my limited vantage point and, ironically enough, the very same window ledge that Keep Your Guard lay innocently atop. As James's hip practically touched the side of the book, I stifled my gasp and lunged back into the shadow of the doorway.

Shit.

Shit.

WhatdoIdowhatdoIdowhatdoIdo?

"How long after she found out we went to lunch did she demand you do the same with her?" Saunders demanded next. "Three seconds? Four?"

"Does it matter?" James sounded tired, like he'd heard this a thousand times. I was starting to realise that he probably had done. My stomach tightened unpleasantly, but my body remained frozen. "I told you in the Broomsticks what was going on, Lizzie. Quit acting as if I blindsided you with it. It's not—"

"But her, James? Why does it have to be her?"

The thought was so close to my own feelings on the topic, so similar to the things I had just moments ago been thinking, I almost recoiled from the slap of it. It was also the slap I needed to pull me out of my daze and snap me back into reality. I shouldn't be here. I so shouldn't be here. I shouldn't be listening to this and I knew that. Even then, standing plastered against the stone wall, too afraid to even peek through the crack again in the off chance that I'd be found out, I knew I should have left. This was not a conversation I was supposed to be hearing. This was not my business. But my damn feet refused to move and even worse, my ears strained to hear the rest of the conversation. My better sense was screaming to turn around and walk away right now, but the conniving part of me I couldn't deny was sick of meeting brick walls where I wanted open paths and saw the potential shortcut being dangled like the proverbial apple.

And stupid, stupid me, I took it.

"This was never going to be easy, Lizzie," James said next, his voice quiet, but still echoing in the hollow tower. "Do you think I was keen on seeing you hanging off Graham Vaughn last term? Of course not. But we decided last March that we wouldn't let that keep us from being friends. This is the way these things happen."

Saunders's scoff was loathing. "Oh, come off it, James. That thing with Graham was nothing. You weren't the least bit bothered and you know it. This is...it's..."

"Different. I know." The words should have been comforting, but unsurprisingly weren't. My heart thudded painfully as James let out a long sigh. "But Liz...look, I've told you before...we're not...I can't..."

"I know what you said!" Saunders's voice was sharp as a whiplash. She sounded furious and I had to bite back a wince of my own. If I hadn't been me, I might have almost felt bad for her. "I'm sorry I'm finding it a bit more difficult to just disregard my feelings for you as easily and entirely as you've yours for me. I'm sorry I actually care."

"That's not—"

"Isn't it?"

I couldn't decide who was feeling more awkward at that moment when silence suddenly filled the Owlery—James, who couldn't seem to find an answer; Saunders, whose furious breathing could be heard even through the small crack in the door; or me, who shouldn't have been hearing all of this, but was. I suppose I could be taken out of the running considering most of me might have felt a bit like cheering. I don't like admitting it, but despite James's many assurances otherwise, I suppose part of me had always thought that he wasn't exactly being entirely truthfully when he said that he told Saunders there was nothing left between them. But there he was, more or less telling her that very thing. My heart would have sunk in relief if it wasn't already too busy pounding its way out of my chest.

When James responded nearly as sharply has Saunders had done, it pounded even harder.

"If I didn't care, do you really think I'd be here right now, Liz? Don't you think it'd be a damn sight easier to just tell you to shove off and be done with it? But I haven't done. And I don't intend to. But for fuck's sake, don't make me choose."

"Why? Because you'd choose her?"

Oh God Please Say Yes Please Say Yes Please Say Yes.

I couldn't help it then—I had to peek inside. It wasn't even an option anymore. I held my breath and leaned into the doorway ever-so-slightly, spotting James almost immediately standing just where he had been originally with Keep Your Guard still resting at his back. His hand was in his hair, though, and he looked like he couldn't decide whether to be snapping back at her again or hanging his head in defeat. When he did finally glance up, his mouth pressed into a grim line. I hadn't seen him look so affected since our meeting with the Carringtons.

"I'm not picking anyone, Liz. But this has got to stop." His face grew sterner, tenser. "I can't force the two of you to get on, but you have to quit going after her—no, don't shake your head at me. Do you think I'm stupid? I know Lily and I know you. That girl doesn't have an antagonistic bone in her body—she's all defensive attacks. I'm not saying they can't be lethal, but are you honestly telling me that she starts most of it? I thought not," he added after a moment, at what I'm assuming was Saunders's continued seditious silence. I didn't know whether to feel pleased or a little bit offended. I have antagonistic bones! I do! But I didn't have too much time to consider it before James was already speaking again.

"I've told you...I'm not playing at this, Liz." I had to move closer and strain my ears to hear him. Even then, the words were faint. "I want...fuck, I don't know what I want. But whatever comes of it, I'd really appreciate you not making it more difficult than it already is."

"But that's just it, isn't it?" Saunders replied stiffly, defensively. "These things shouldn't be that difficult, James. You're letting her run you in circles, and for what? It shouldn't be that hard. Was it ever that hard with us?"

James let out a light snort, but the question had him cracking his first smile. "I think things were too easy with us, Liz. That was part of the problem."

Silence filled the Owlery then, and as I watched James casually tuck his hands into his trouser pockets and assiduously gaze down at the tips of his school shoes, I realised that this could be it—I could leave now. Already the things I was hearing were causing my stomach to roll distastefully, threatening a return to my early morning loo activities, and nothing particularly awful had even been said. I didn't know if the conversation was over or if they'd stay cooped up in there for ages more talking about all the ways their relationship went wrong or didn't go wrong or what-have-you, but I knew that I couldn't take much more. I needed to cut my losses and get out of there before they found me out or—possibly worse—didn't, and I was stuck hearing something I didn't want to. A meddler does what a meddler does, but that doesn't mean she can't use a bit of common sense when the occasion calls for it. Mr Abbott was going to have to survive the afternoon alone. I needed to leave. Immediately.

And honestly, if James hadn't gone and said what he did just then, I truly think I might have done.

"We saw the Carringtons in Hogsmeade yesterday."

I froze.

Bloody fucking hell.

"You what?" I couldn't decide then what precisely had caused my feet to immediately glue to my spot—James's initial question or the utter panic that suddenly filled Saunders's voice when she replied. "You what?"

"Corrine and Cal found us in the Broomsticks—Lily and me," James explained, though I don't think that had ever been in question. He absently scuffed his shoes against the straw floor, leaving a moment's pause in the conversation before glancing up again and assuring her, "Don't worry. She doesn't know anything about it. Corinne didn't mention it and I haven't told her, either. I promised you I wouldn't."

"Merlin, James," Saunders breathed, and her voice was practically cracking with relief. "Couldn't you have started with that? Fucking hell, my heart...and Evans didn't suspect a thing?"

"I didn't say that," James replied grimly, lifting his eyes again from where they'd been diligently fastened on his shoes once more. He shook his head. "She'd've had to be blind not to. I wasn't expecting them to come along and Cal sort of accosted us. I reckon I didn't hide my surprise too well. She knew something was off, but she didn't press it—haven't the faintest why because that's not like her at all, but she didn't."

"What did you tell her?" Liz's voice meshed with her footsteps against the Owlery's straw floor and for the first time, she came into my view. It was only her back, but I could see the tension pulling her limbs as tight as a bow string. "You must have told her something. She must have asked something."

"I told her that they were friends of the family—which I suppose they are, now." James shrugged. "That was it. But then later, she was asking about my back—"

"Why did she see your back?"

"Liz."

"What? I'm just asking! Please tell me that you didn't just tell her about it."

"Of course not!"

"So does she know?"

"Didn't I just say she doesn't?"

They were talking too fast and my head was spinning too much to process it all. Wait a second...so Saunders knew about the Carringtons? And it wasn't all in my head that he was acting utterly strange around them (though truthfully, that had only been my wishful thinking backing up that theory)? And what did his back have to do with any of it? Did that mean they were all somehow connected? But how? Why? And what the bloody fucking hell did Elisabeth Saunders have to do with it? Why could she know, but I couldn't?

Any thought of leaving had so far come and gone that it was a foregone conclusion that I was going to be staying exactly where I was until I got some answers. I might have been content or even resigned to ambling on down the Two Way Street with James...but that was before I knew that another vehicle was ambling on down his side of the road with him. An Elisabeth Saunders-themed vehicle. One who he obviously didn't put up the same roadblocks for that he did me.

I was suddenly furious. Furious.

"Lizzie." James's voice was tired, but if he thought he was getting any sympathy from me, he was out of his bleeding mind. "I know I promised you I wouldn't...but I'm going to have to tell her eventually. We've been bloody fucking touched by the luck of Merlin that it hasn't come out in some way by now in the first place. Even most of the lads don't know all the details—"

"No." Saunders strode towards James, her tone livid. "No."

"What do you think she's going to do, Liz? She's not—"

"If you think," Saunders interrupted shrilly, "that I'm about to give that cow yet another step up on her damn bloody high horse, then you're out of your fucking mind, James Potter! Honestly, you are!"

"She's not like that," James retorted, and I suppose he got a nano-speck of a point for defending me. "She wouldn't do that. She's not—"

"Oh, really?" Even from the back-view, I heard the taunt in Saunders's voice and saw the sneering tilt of her chin. James didn't cow under it as I usually did, but it still had to be intimidating. "If you really believe that, then why haven't you already told her? Sounds like you had two rather perfect opportunities. So why haven't you done?"

James glared. "What are you talking about, Liz? You said—"

"Oh, bullshit," Saunders scoffed, and the bitter swear rang loud in the high tower. "Don't you dare go acting as if I was the real reason you haven't told her. When have you ever let anyone stop you from doing what you truly wanted? If it was really that important to you—if you actually wanted her to know—you would have done it and then found some way to charm me out of caring. I know you just as well as you know me, James Potter! You're not fooling anyone!"

"Liz—"

"Admit it!" She was moving closer to him now, but her voice was getting louder, ringing in my ears. "The reason you haven't told her is because you know she'll look at you differently. People like Lily Evans have their moral compasses shoved so far up their arses that they couldn't possibly acknowledge a mistake for what it is—a mistake. She'd judge you. She'd see these cracks that you're so bloody ashamed of and call it her last straw. She'd do it without a blink of an eye and you know it!"

"That's not—"

But Saunders was already on a roll. She wouldn't be stopped.

"I swear to Merlin, James, sometimes I don't even recognise you anymore." She shook her head, her angry voice taking on a maudlin edge. "You let her run you round in circles—and for what? A relationship that's not even a relationship? One that hangs so precariously on her sodding puppet strings that you can't even be yourself? You're happy to let her lead you around by the nose. You don't even care that you have to hide things from her—hide yourself from her. What sort of future do you see in that? What sort of satisfaction do you get from it? I hope to fucking hell you've managed to pry the bloody prude's legs apart, because that's the only—"

Oh. My. God.

"I'm leaving." James's voice was so deadly furious, I thought he might very well hex her. But he only shoved roughly past her and stomped for the door.

Fuck.

Fuck!

"No! James, stop!" I had already plunged myself back into the shadows of the doorway, relatively certain that that wouldn't have helped had James decided to come stomping out of the Owlery, but I figured it was better than being caught literally at the peek hole. Saunders must have grabbed his arm or something, though, because he didn't come flying out of the doorway in a fit of heated outrage. Her voice started up again, quick and frantic. "I'm sorry, all right? I'm—I shouldn't have said that. It was out of line. I'm just...Merlin, James, don't you see it? Why do you let her do it? How is it possibly worth it?"

Her questions were quiet, but I could hear them clearly, perfectly, painfully. I had never felt so close to casting up my accounts as I did then and I knew that if I hung about much longer, the pair of them would eventually walk out of the Owlery to an interesting sort of surprise waiting on the doorstep—me, a heap of sick, or possibly both. And for the first time, I no longer had any desire to be listening. James's prolonged silence was answer enough for the most prominent questions that were already pounding in my head. There were more questions—there were always more questions—but I honestly, truthfully, in the highest of degree of reality, did not think I could handle any more.

So before James could answer—if he could even answer. I had my doubts—I forgot about Mr Abbott, lifted my no longer glued feet from the ground and hurried as quickly and as silently as I could away from the Owlery. And I didn't look back. Not even once.

I know you might not believe this, but you're worth it.

That's what he'd said to me, that first night in the Room of Requirement.

Now I'm wondering which one of us is more worried that he didn't mean it.

Shit.

Shit.

I just...can't. I just can't.

Observation #300) Never discount karma. Eventually, it always makes up for lost time.


Later, Still in Transfiguration
Observant Lily: Day 44
Total Observations: 300

"Merlin, Lil, you're white. What's wrong? Why weren't you at lunch? Lil? Lily?"

Stop talking to me.

Everyone, please, just stop talking to me.

My head.

My head.


Later, Library
Observant Lily: Day 44
Total Observations: 300

I wonder what the penalty for vomiting on library books is.

Torture? Azkaban? Death?

At the very least, a large step down from your high horse, surely.

I suppose it's a good thing I've found this stupid armchair hidden behind the Herbology section. At least I'll be alone in my shame.


Still Later, Still in the Library
Observant Lily: Day 44
Total Observations: 301

She's right, you know. She's so right.

Things shouldn't be this difficult. Relationships shouldn't be this difficult. And while James is no free crumpet at the tea party, I'm self-aware enough to know that he's not really the one making this so complicated. That's me. That's all me. Maybe if I were half so inclined to actually make this official as he is, he wouldn't feel like he has to hide things. I do run him round in circles. I do pull at strings that I haven't any right to be touching, much less controlling. It doesn't matter what my intentions behind doing so are. I still do it.

And at the end of the day, I'm probably not worth it. James was always the one insisting that I was, but I'm beginning to think that that boy has bigger issues than any true sense of rationality is strong enough to overcome. And regardless of any of the feelings between us—or even the feelings between them—maybe sometimes that's just not enough. I don't know. My head hurts thinking about it. Other parts of me, too, but I think we'll stick with the head for now.

I reckon I've finally figured out the mystery behind the colliding big secrets, though, for all that's worth. Honestly, I feel like a bit of a henwit for not seeing it before. Because there was only one thing that Sirius didn't really explain to me that night in detention, claiming (though now that I think about it, perhaps not entirely truthfully) that he didn't know the details himself. There was only one thing that has remained the biggest mystery among a sea of already murky waters. Only one.

James and Saunders's big stunt.

The one that got them suspended.

The one that brought everything to a head.

The one that took place in Hogsmeade.

The Carringtons live in Hogsmeade.

The exacts of it all are still a bit hazy, of course. I haven't any idea whether the Carringtons were simply witnesses or somehow enmeshed in the whole affair or what. I don't know whether James's injury stemmed from all of it, either, though Saunders obviously associates the two. I don't know a lot of things, but I know enough. And for the first time in a long time, I haven't any desire to figure out the rest. I really, truly haven't.

Because...well, because what if she's really right? About all of it, I mean. Everything.

What if...what if when I find out, I do judge him? Whatever it is. What if it is the last straw? I mean, even though I'm not entirely certain he's ever really even pulled the second or third straw? What then?

Merlin. I'm not that awful, am I?

I'd like to think I'm not. Even sitting here thinking on it now—angry, confused, bitter—there isn't anything I can imagine James doing that I wouldn't, in time, be able to forgive him for. Because even if it's the worst—and with my imagination, you know my mind roves through the worst—I can't conceive of James doing anything horrific in anything other than extremely extenuating circumstances. And even then, it was undoubtedly accidental and most certainly worse in his head than it ever was for the people around him. And the Carringtons have obviously forgiven him. Corrine was entirely affectionate with him, almost motherly. Unless they don't know the extent of it, either? But then why would James feel so strange around them? And why would Sirius say that James felt like he needed to prove himself to them?

One mystery down, forty to go. It's like plucking hairs—nip one, twelve more appear. At this rate, I'll be growing a beard by December.

I just...wish it wasn't this hard. These things shouldn't be this hard.

Bugger.


Still Still Later, Still Still in the Library
Observant Lily: Day 44
Total Observations: 302

Is it just me, or is getting rather hot in here?

Ugh.

Ugh.


Still Still Still Later, Still Still Still in the Library
Observant Lily: Day 44
Total Observations: 302

My whole body...Merlin, I'm dizzy.

Maybe I oug


Later (?), Library
Observant Lily: Day 44
Total Observations: 302

Great.

Great.

Just bloody effing great.

Did I honestly just faint? Is that really what just happened? I was awake one moment, then the next...Merlin, I don't even know. But no one just falls asleep that rapidly, do they? Unless they're like, narcoleptic. Or Sleeping Beauty. I think I'm more likely to be the first than the second. So that's lovely. Narcolepsy. Yet another disorder to add to the ever-growing list.

Fabulous. Just fabulous.

And now I feel even more like rubbish. I might as well be dead. Someone put a call into the funeral home. It will undoubtedly not be long.

I have to get out of here. This place is not healthy.


Much Later, 7th-Year Girls' Dormitory
Observant Lily: Day 44
Total Observations: 302

I didn't know where else to go except back to Gryffindor Tower, even though I didn't really want to run the risk of meeting Saunders in the dormitory—or actually anyone in the dormitory save maybe Winnie, though she was probably still with Mum in Surrey. I considered briefly taking a nice walk about the castle, but that hadn't exactly worked out too well for me the last time and besides, I wasn't certain my woozy body would even make it back up to the Tower, much less through a jaunt about the castle. The Room of Requirement was also an option, but I didn't want to taint the memories of yesterday with my vile, nasty mood, and so that was nicked off the list, as well. In the end, I trudged back to the Tower feeling like there was cement weighing down my feet and a whole mariachi band playing willy-nilly inside my head. By the time I reached the Fat Lady, there was nothing I wanted to do more than just drop into bed and forget this day had ever happened.

That was, of course, only the plan, though. The reality...

My eyes were growing bleary and the bag hanging off my shoulder was beginning to feel like it was filled with stones when I took my first steps into the common room and did a cautionary first sweep. I wanted to be prepared, to know who I was going to have to barge through on my way to my dormitory, damn the consequences. And though the results that that first sweep yielded weren't the worst they could possibly be...well, at first they didn't seem quite far from it, either.

Because of course—of course—whose familiar head of hair would I immediately spot poking up from under the arm of nearest couch where he was lying sprawled atop the long sofa reading a book, but James's.

Naturally.

Naturally.

But the thing is...I could have got away if I'd wanted to. Honestly, I really could have done. If I'd used my last spurt of energy to hightail it from the portrait hole to the girls' staircase, I'd've been gone too quickly for him to do anything about it. Even if he spotted me and called out, I could have pretended not to hear him and rushed for my room. It could have worked. It would have worked. I would have got away.

But these things—these "could've, would've, should've"s—are mighty peculiar. Because even though I had more or less just spent the past several hours wishing that I might avoid James Potter for the next twenty or thirty years...apparently, that wasn't as concrete a desire as I'd imagined. Because as soon as I saw him lying there, all innocently reading with no idea what was going on or what I'd recently heard or even that I was standing there behind him...there was no stopping my feet. Almost without thinking—actually, really without thinking, because the whole bloody common room was packed with people and I didn't even care that they were probably all watching me and whispering into ears and behind their hands—I wobbled straight for the couch, dropped my heavy bag unceremoniously to the floor, toed off my shoes, and more or less just plopped myself right down there on top of him.

Yes, that's right. Just curled myself there against him like a needy cat looking for a stroke. And I didn't even care. I really, truly didn't.

And James—oh, my James—went right along with it.

"Hey," he said, shifting his book over to make room for my head and immediately lifting a hand to my hair. "I was sitting there, you know."

"I think I'm dying," I told him pitifully, burying my face in his neck. "Dying."

"Transfiguration can't kill you, Lily," was the response he gave—less than satisfactory, but the sympathetic kiss atop my forehead was a pleasant consolation.

Suddenly, I felt a bit like crying.

"Firstly, that's never actually been proven." I squeezed my eyes shut and just breathed him in. "Studies should be conducted. But that's not even what I meant. I'm literally dying. I just collapsed in the library."

James's entire body jerked. "You just what?"

Objectively, Lily. Objectively.

"Oh, all right. I suppose it wasn't as dramatic as that." I felt him almost instantly ease. "I was sitting in an armchair. And I just sort of slumped. But I was functioning one moment and it was all black the next and then it suddenly wasn't again. Dy-ing."

Regardless of my obviously exceptionally sorry state, my hasty re-explanation found James chuckling instead of sobbing. Perhaps he'd already decided that I was so obviously not worth it and wouldn't even mourn my death. Possibly he was even looking forward to it. He'd finally be free.

"So let me get this straight." His hand skimmed gently down my back. "You...fell asleep in the library. Fatally."

Sometimes I really hate him.

"I fainted in the library. Terribly. Horrifically. Without rhyme or reason."

"Grace told me you were feeling poorly all day. That's not a reason?"

"Quit talking to Grace about me," I muttered. "She knows too much."

James laughed, but who was joking? I was too exhausted to tell him so, but I let my dissatisfied hmph speak for itself. I know I shouldn't have been doing what I was doing for so many reasons, but I honestly couldn't help it. Perhaps that's why I kept making things difficult and pulling strings and running him round in circles, even when I knew I was doing it. Because no matter what he does or how livid I am or how much I know I'm not worth it...James Potter is just one of those people who you can't let go of. And when you're around him, you don't want to.

I'd barely been lying there two minutes, just barely let him start making me forget all about my wretched afternoon, when already I could feel my eyelids drooping again.

Damn it. Damn it.

"Wake me up before seven," I whispered, surprisingly on top of things regardless of my poor state. "Tutoring. Seven. 'Kay?"

"Our tutoring is at eight. But I told you this afternoon, I have detention. We'll do it tomorrow."

"Prefect's meeting tomorrow," I muttered. "And you didn't tell me that. When did you tell me that?"

"After Transfiguration." He didn't sound the least bit surprised by my confused denial. "I knew you weren't listening to me. All you kept saying was, 'I'm going to the library. I'm going to the library.'"

I didn't even remember that. "I did go to the library."

"You should be going to Pomfrey," James said, and though I couldn't possibly open my eyes to look at him, I could practically hear the censured look he was sticking me with. "Nap in the library or not, you do look pale. Go to the Hospital Wing, Infallible."

"I can't. Pomfrey's going to yell at me." Even the mere possibility of it was too exhausting to contemplate. "I'm exhausting my body. You're exhausted my body. And I don't eat or sleep properly and I talk to my mates too much and everything's going to hell in a handbasket and Poppy is mean. Even though we're mates. She's a mean mate."

"I'm sorry I'm exhausting your body," was all James got out of that garbled mess. Naturally. "Sort of."

Idiot.

Or maybe that's me. Maybe I'm the idiot.

"Seven," I ordered with the last bit of authority I could muster. "Wake me."

"I just told you—"

"MJ at seven. Not you. Wake me. Promise?"

"Lil—"

"Promise?"

Even my entirely hazy brain was able to register that James was not happy with such a dictate. But I suppose my whinging or my patheticness or the fact that I was so obviously not worth it so he had to give me something wore him down, because despite his obvious misgivings, he eventually conceded.

"Yeah, all right," he sighed, the displeasure cutting his words short. "I'll wake you."

I murmured some kind of thanks—or at least, I think I did. Snuggling closer against James's chest, the slip from consciousness into unconsciousness came almost immediately. He'd only just barely muttered out his agreement when the whole world went pleasantly black.

Until, of course, it wasn't anymore.

At first, I didn't really notice that anything was off. I reckon that might've just been due to those awkward hazy moments after you've just woken up and you've got to regain all your bearings because you don't know where you are or what's going on or if that most recent dream was actually a dream, but all the same, it was a few moments of peace. I hadn't any mad dreams to grapple with, but one part of my mind was all, "Hmm. Couch. Common room. Snuggly," while the other was all, "Guh. Head. Stomach. Ugh." I fought off the urge to open my eyes for as long as was physically possible—I was too comfortable, too knackered, too...everything to bother with something as silly as waking up. I might very well have just given in to my impulses and drifted all unawares back off to sleep, but even in my hazy-sleep stupor, something...there was something...

James.

Where was James?

My eyes snapped open.

Grace sat on the loveseat across from me, her feet propped up on the coffee table between us, flipping through the latest issue of Quidditch Weekly. After a moment, her eyes met mine over the magazine pages.

"Morning, poppet," she grinned.

"Time s'it?" I slurred, only then realising that there was a pillow beneath my head and a quilt draped over my lower-half. They shifted as I did. "James?"

Grace lifted her nose into the air and played at her outrage with a heavy hand. "I'm the one sitting vigil at your bedside, and yet all you ask for is a bloody watch and your detention-rat-of-a-boytoy? I am wounded, Lily Evans. Positively devastated by this slight."

"I love you, Gracie," I replied dutifully, but there were bigger issues at hand. "Where'd he go?"

Grace gave a contented hmph, but proved decidedly unhelpful when she answered, "Dunno. Dashed off a bit ago and told me to make sure you didn't die in the meantime. I think you gave him a fright with your mad illness talk."

"It's not mad illness talk. I am ill." It was comforting to know that at least someone was finally taking my ailments seriously. No thanks, Gracie. "And you haven't any idea the sort of day I've had."

"I know you've been wallowing in a Classic Lily Pit of Despair since lunch," Grace replied, and I knew she actually meant business when she folded up her magazine and dropped it on her lap. Her eyes searched my face. "What gives, Melancholy Marie? And don't give me any of this ill rubbish. You've enough stubbornness to build yourself an iron constitution if you wanted. What's up?"

I wanted to tell her. Honestly, at that moment, with my nap having loosened my tongue and the afternoon spent stressing having done nothing but made things inordinately worse, I couldn't imagine anything better than curling up on the couch with Grace and bitching and bitching about what a vile shrew Elisabeth Saunders was and how the world would be a better place without her and then just sobbing until I couldn't sob any more. I knew I couldn't tell Grace all of it—to do so would have risked divulging far more than I was presently willing to hazard, even in my depleted state—but I could confess enough to keep both of us content. I might even be able to con her into fetching Emma. Or a bowl of rice. Or both.

But there was a time and a place for such things. I had the latter—a couch—but the former...

"All right. But first, I actually do need the time. I have tutoring with MJ at seven. James was supposed to wake me. How long do we have?"

Grace's eyebrows drifted slowly upwards. "Er...seven?"

"Yes, seven." My heart jumped a beat. "Why? Grace? Why? What time is it?"

I saw the answer in her face before she even said the words.

Fuck.

Fuck.

"Er...you know, only seven past seven, so really—"

"Oh, buggering—what the sodding hell is wrong with him?" I screeched, and was off the couch in an instant. I grappled furiously with the quilt that had suddenly become more hindrance than comfort as it caught around my ankles and threatened to take me down. I fought through it with blind rage. "He was supposed to—Merlin—I can't believe him—"

"Lil, calm down—"

"No, I'm not going to calm down! I swear, I'm going to—"

But I couldn't even finish the sentence, I was so livid.

How could he...I mean, he promised!

I don't even remember slipping on my shoes or straightening out my clothes or most of my enraged trip from Gryffindor Tower down to the library. All I could see was red, just this burning overwhelming anger that James had chosen now—now, of all times!—to revert back to Arsehole MJ Defamer and decided to take matters into his own hands that did not belong in his bloody hands! I didn't care what his reasons were or weren't, or even if he cared to share them with me or not. He did not have the right to lie to me. I was so sick of him lying to me. And maybe this was something little and what I was really concerned with was something so much bigger, but at that point, they all just blended together in one big mess of ugly. And that's all I could focus on, that big, ugly mess.

It must have been the adrenaline that kept me on my feet and stomping so furiously through the doors of the library, drawing the attention of most of the people residing within (though honestly, now that I think about it, I'm not certain whether that was due to the stomping or the fact that I undoubtedly looked like death walking). I ignored the attention, didn't even really register it until it was too late and the damage was done and I was too livid to care. The only thing that jolted me for a moment was seeing that MJ was still seated at our usual table, waiting despite my growing lateness.

And standing right there next to him with his back towards me, was James.

Maybe I lost it a little then.

"Get. Out. Of. Here," I hissed furiously, because even incensed as I was, only an idiot shouts while in Pince's domain and I was no idiot. I resigned myself to letting my murderous look do the yelling. "We'll talk later. Go. Now."

"What are you doing?" James had the audacity to ask, and when he placed a hand on my arm, I immediately jerked away. His eyes narrowed. "Lily—"

"Go," I gritted, and because I knew that if I kept staring at him—at his familiar face, so shocked and outraged and acting as if I was the one in the wrong when all that today had proven was that he was the one who was wrong about so many things—I was going to lose it. I was going to say things I shouldn't—couldn't—say and even in my boiling temper, I knew that was not something I wanted. So I tore my eyes away from his and focused instead on MJ, who I'd never seen looking more like he wouldn't mind the ground opening up and swallowing him whole. I deliberately softened my taut features, trying to fix whatever damage that James had done. "I'm so sorry, MJ," I apologised quickly, taking a step closer. "I've been feeling wretched all day and fell asleep—"

"Which is what I was just telling him," James interrupted, grabbing hold of my arm again. "You shouldn't be here, Lily. Go back to your dorm. Sleep. You haven't—"

"I asked you to go," I snapped and damn it, it was pure torture to keep my voice low. I tried to jerk off his hand again, but James was holding fast. That just riled me more. I stuck him with my worst glare. "I know it's exceptionally difficult for you to actually listen to the things I say, to actually care about what the things you say mean or how they affect other people or that I might not actually fit into your every horrid expectation because I'm not—"

Oh, bugger it.

"What the hell are you on about?" James was looking baffled. I couldn't even blame him for it.

"Erm..." Bugger, bugger, bugger. I grappled for an answer—any answer—and am not entirely proud to admit that I fell back on the sorriest out available to me. I immediately lifted a hand to my forehead and put on my most pathetic of expressions. "I can't deal with right now, all right? I feel like shite, I have to help MJ, and I don't want to fight with you. So you can you just leave? Please?"

Yeah, all right

So I exploited my illness.

I know. I deserve every morning of toilet-hugging I get.

James looked torn. "Lil...look, I'm sorry for not waking you, but you've even said it yourself! You're feeling rubbish! And I came here to tell Rosier. I didn't just leave him sitting here! I could have done! I thought about it!"

I glanced briefly at the clock hanging over Pince's desk—quarter past. "Well, you either took your sweet time in getting here or this was the longest 'She's feeling unwell' on record." I glanced quickly down at MJ, who was still staring determinedly down at the tabletop. "What did he say to you, MJ?"

The third year's shaggy head popped up, those blue eyes of his blinking wide and owlishly at me. "Er...say...that's...what he said. He said what he said he did. That you were ill. When you sneeze, all of your bodily functions stop," he added, reverting back to something more comfortable. "Even your heart stops. Did you know that?"

"What?" James asked.

"Fascinating," I murmured.

MJ just nodded, then shot his gaze back down to the table.

Hell.

Hell, hell, hell.

"I'm really hoping that you weren't in here terrorizing him," I told James softly, keeping my temper in check because some part of me—some strangely rational, niggling sensible part of me—was able to look down at the situation from above and realise that this was not about James's failure in waking me or even about his possible conversation with MJ. I didn't want to think about what it was about because I wasn't about to let myself fall back into that Classic Lily Pit of Despair if I could help it, but that didn't change the fact that it wasn't fair to crucify him for one thing in replacement of another. That wasn't helping anyone.

Because the truth of it was, I hated—hated —Elisabeth Saunders. I hate what she does, I hate what she says, and I hate the fact that I'm never quite certain whether I'm hating her and those things because she's right and they're true or because she's wrong and they're not.

One day—perhaps even one day very soon—I needed to have a proper conversation with her. And I really needed to have a proper conversation with James. But right then was not the time for either. Right then, I couldn't just vent out my frustrations with Saunders on MJ and James simply because they were there and I wanted to make myself feel better. In the end, I was the only one who was going to end up suffering, and with my body still refusing to cooperate with the better sides of a healthy disposition, I was already suffering enough. I didn't need more of it. I really, truly didn't

I was still cross—I couldn't possibly get rid of it all—but I felt enough of the fire fade out of me that I was able to turn to James and stick him with a serious enough look that I knew he had to listen to me. He seemed worried, his face lined and his eyes narrowed critically as he carefully scanned my face for a sign of something, though I haven't the faintest what. I let out a short breath, but was determined to shake off the remnants of my afternoon bitterness so that I didn't really botch this up.

"Please, just go," I told him quietly, my whole body feeling tense. "I'm going to spend the hour with MJ, then I'm going straight upstairs, all right? I can't...we can't do this right now. Just...go. Please."

He didn't like hearing that. "Lily, I didn't—"

"James. Please."

I think it was the final 'please' that did it. He didn't look happy about it, but he gripped a frustrated hand through his hair, set his lips into a grim line and gave a curt nod. I had to hold back my sigh of relief because honestly, I'm not certain what I might have done had he put up a fight. All of my emotions were far too close to the surface for my comfort and with my traitor-of-a-mouth, I had no guarantees that those emotions wouldn't abruptly pop out at the most inopportune moment. It was both a relief and a reprieve that he actually listened.

"Fine. Fine," he said, and dropped his hand back down to his side in defeat. "We'll talk later—we'll talk later?"

Um, no. "Yeah, we'll talk later," I lied.

James gave another curt nod, then shot me one last searching look before turning on his heel and striding straight for the library doors. I was grateful that he didn't bother looking back.

Hell. When did everything become so bloody complicated again?

"I am so sorry about all that," I told MJ, and it was more than a slight relief to be able to get off my feet and collapse into the chair across from him, even when I knew there were still strenuous conversations to be had. MJ was still staring resolutely at the tabletop. "All right, MJ? Look, whatever he said—what did he really say?"

"Nothing," MJ answered quickly, barely lifting his head. Too quickly. "There are more chickens than people in the world. Did you know that?"

Great. So now everyone was lying to me?

"MJ, please. I really want to know." It might have been a bit underhanded, but I stuck him with my most pleading and desperate of looks. "What did he say to you?"

"That you were ill," came the quiet reply, and if I weren't in such dire straights, I might have stopped him at the sad, stricken look that came over his face then. But I'm an awful person so I didn't and he kept going. "And then he asked about Thom. And Jonah."

Oh, god.

More people I don't know?

"Er...and that's...?"

MJ looked confused. "Thom Dunn. And Jonah Riess. The Hufflepuffs? You know, from the other morning—"

"Oh!" Well, that was a relief. At least, sort of. I'd entirely forgotten about James's fit from this morning. That seemed ages ago. "Right. We saw you at breakfast this morning. Jonah's the blonde one, then? The boy you were sitting next to?"

MJ nodded. "He likes Damien: Dragon-Dueler, as well. Plus, he's not so keen on Charms. So, er..."

"You're mates," I finished, and I'll be damned, found my first smile of quite some time. I wanted to hug him or kiss him or just...pinch his cheeks. Victory! Friendship! Huzzah! "That's brilliant, MJ. Really, really brilliant. I'm so glad."

"They're nice," MJ offered, and perhaps the hair twiddling is a family trait, because he stuck a hand in his hair just as James does and gave it a quick scruff. He glanced at me tentatively. "I reckon...I reckon you were right. About not giving them a chance. Maybe."

"It can be hard, trusting people," I answered quietly, after a moment. "But sometimes...sometimes it's worth it. Even if it's scary. Even if things aren't perfect all the time. You know?"

MJ nodded again.

I wringed my hands in my lap, staring at my fretful fingers and feeling the first turnings of guilt building in my stomach.

I wasn't a hypocrite. I knew that what I was saying to MJ...eventually, I had to take my own advice. It wasn't as easy as that, but was anything in my life easy? Why should this thing with James be any different? Especially when it was so...so...

Well, you know.

So big.

So there.

So...worth it.

I tried to focus on MJ after that, tried to shake off my fatigue, my rubbish health condition and my James troubles long enough to help MJ with his Expanding Charms, but it wasn't easy. We were barely ten minutes into the tutoring before I had to stop speaking to rest my eyes for a moment, hoping the ache in my head might go away. With all my anger and adrenaline gone, there was nothing to fall back upon to keep my body from focusing on how much it didn't want to be doing...well, anything. Except sleeping. And more sleeping. And perhaps with a touch of sleeping.

Ugh. Bloody hell.

"People can take cat naps with their eyes open," MJ said after I'd finally pried my eyes open, much to every fibre of my being's ultimate displeasure. "Sometimes they don't even know it. Did you know that?"

Hmmm. Cat nap.

"My exam isn't for another few weeks." He was already gathering up his books. "We don't need to—"

"No, no, don't. It's not—"

"James might've been right," MJ said, and the fact that he'd brought up James again at all was a sure sign that my state was obviously a cause for concern. MJ looked distinctly anxious. "Perhaps the Hospital Wing—"

"Oh, no. It's not that bad. Really. Promise." But even as I shook my head and spouted out my denials, I knew this wasn't working. My pride fizzled, but I reckon James had been right. My vision seemed to be spotting and my stomach was protesting vehemently and I could barely concentrate on breathing, much less Expanding Charms. It was pitiful, but it was the reality of the situation. I felt awful—both personally and for dragging MJ into it, as well.

"I'm so sorry, MJ. We'll reschedule. Sometime soon. I just...my whole body aches and—"

"S'all right." MJ even mustered up a slight smile. "I'll keep practicing."

He was being so wonderfully nice about the whole thing and I honestly would have loved to sit there and fawn over him a bit more, but there was no way my body was going to allow that. I did manage to get a few more thanks and accolades in there, but mostly I was just stumbling to my feet and hoping they kept me up. I must have made a wonderful show of control because MJ only offered to help me up to the Tower three or four times before he let me go off on my own...where I then proceeded to bumble and stumble up the stairs to the seventh-floor. Getting into the dorm is actually just one big blur and if I didn't want to get all of this down, I'd undoubtedly be sleeping right now. But I do want to get it down and I can't just be sleeping all the time, so I suppose a few more minutes won't kill anyone.

So basically, the whole day's just been a bloody mess.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. What was I expecting, after a day like yesterday? The fates of the world are not that kind. They take their jobs very seriously and if there's a debt to be repaid, they're going to repay it. I figure I've at least three more similarly horrific days to make up for my not-so-horrific yesterday. If I make it out alive, it may actually be worth it.

Hm. Worth it.

Funny little turn of phrase, isn't it? One that can be surprisingly damaging.

Because, you know, maybe I'm not worth it. And maybe, actually, James isn't worth it, either. But together...

Well, maybe we can be worth it together. As a unit. Two damaged goods making one worthy showing. You never know. It could happen.

I just—

Oh, bloody hell.

If this is a letter from Mum, that woman has the most awful timing.


Latest, 7th-Year Girls' Dormitory
Observant Lily: Day 44
Total Observations: 303

Lil—

I don't know if you're still cross with me (you're probably still cross with me), but it's barely quarter to and you're already back in your dorm. I'm worried. Just tell me you're all right, yeah? Even if you're still cross. Just a 'fine' will do—I mean, more than that would be nice, but I'll take the 'fine'.

I'm sorry for not waking you. And I'm sorry for talking with Rosier. Mostly I'm sorry for ticking you off again. I never mean to, but it always seems to happen, anyway. I reckon I might have some bad karma, as well. Perhaps it's rubbing off?

J.


James,

Fine. Left tutoring early. Tired. Feeling rubbish.

Karma doesn't rub off.

L


L—

Well, that was a dozen more words than I was expecting.

Still cross?

J.


J,

I don't know. Part of me wants to be—reckons I ought to be—but I suppose you're lucky my head's all in shambles. It's too much effort to sort it all out.

It's just hard to understand you sometimes. That's not to say that I'm some open book or anything, so I suppose I haven't any right to nag about it, but...oh, I don't know. I'm not even making sense. Have I mentioned my head hurts? Actually, not just my head. My whole person. Ignore me. I'm talking nonsense.

I just miss yesterday. Things seemed much simpler yesterday, didn't they? Don't you miss yesterday?

L


Maybe yesterday doesn't have to be lost just yet.

Have attached package. Open it.

J.


Is that...James Potter, please tell me that you did not just slice up your peppermint fudge into fudge rice!


Do you like it?


That isn't the point! That was yours!

I do like my rose, though. I've put it with my others. They're all on my bedside table.


Yours, mine...this from the witch who's taken my lucky scarf hostage?

Also, I have a cat. Not here—he lives the high life in Cardiff. Wouldn't leave even if you bribed him with cream—but if we're still Getting to Know one another, I reckoned it's something to know.


Those are two totally different things. I'm buying you more. I know how to sneak into Hogsmeade now, you know. Quite the deviant, I am.

I like cats.

Not that a deviant such as myself would care about such things...but don't you have detention?


Shit.

What are the chances McGonagall doesn't kill me?


Slim to none. But for what it's worth, I don't think I'm cross with you any more.

Am off to bed. Have fun in detention. Try not to let McGonagall kill you. Decent potentially-considering-boyfriends are so hard to come by.

Sorry I'm a mess. But you're a bit of a mess, too, so I think it'll be all right.

Night.