Disclaimer: The characters and setting belong to JKR. I just play with her ideas.
Note: This was written for the Reviews Lounge Valentines Day Challenge. It'll be added to that collection in the morning, but for now, this will do. I hope you enjoy it, and I'd love to hear your thoughts! If you're taking the time to read this, I'd really appreciate it if you took a few more moments to offer some feedback!
For Rose, because she's wonderful, and knows just how to make me smile
"How would you feel if I ran away to Timbuktu?"
The Gryffindor Common room was quiet. Small groups of younger students worked at the study desks, and several circles of armchairs away, three fourth years were playing Gobstones.
She sat, alone, on a plush lounge before the fire, a hastily closed book in her lap. The flickering firelight made her flaming hair glow. The question was outrageous, but then, wasn't that the point?
More than anything else in the world at that moment, Lily Evans wanted to shock him. Shock him into displaying some sort of emotion that went beyond his happy-go-lucky, I'm-all-right-with-being-just-friends-with-you façade. She was tired of games, but didn't know how to stop them.
She wanted, for once, to see the real him.
James Potter stopped in his tracks, en route between the portrait hole and the Boys' staircase. His cheerful smile turned to one of puzzlement, but he didn't respond. Instead, he simply stood there in front of her, legs and feet lost to her sight behind the back of her lounge.
Something about the look in her eyes told him this was another game, and – a first in their long history of play - that this was one he wasn't quite sure of how to respond to.
James calculated everything, now. There'd been times when he hadn't, but the lesson had been learnt: spontaneity never won him the girl. Instead, he'd begun to unravel himself for her, showing her himself piece by piece but never as a whole, and all the while hoping desperately that she'd become snagged somewhere along the line.
Their courtship, like a game of chess.
What he hadn't let on, hidden behind the intelligent twinkle of his eyes, was that he knew she'd been snagged, months ago. What he didn't understand but refused to fight was his compulsion to continue his grand scheme. The one thing he knew was this: it'd all end with a kiss.
James was becoming increasingly tired of waiting for that endgame, that kiss, that absolute checkmate.
Lily set aside her book, watching him impatiently. Her eyes traveled from his strangely startled expression to the box he clutched in his hands.
"What's that?" she asked, voice forcefully casual, gesturing to it.
It was as though her previous question had never been asked, but that in itself told James exactly how to react. She was like a wild animal, sometimes – always watching him, eagerly, but when he came to close…
Lily sighed inwardly. Once upon a time, James could have been relied upon to immediately rattle off a list of Reasons She Should Stay. Now, however – apparently, the word indifferent would be putting it mildly. Instead, all he did was vault the lounge-back to sit beside her, and calmly offer a half-empty box of chocolates.
She selected a little chocolate heart, eyeing him questioningly, and he shrugged.
"Why would you want to go to Timbuktu?"
Lily bit the little heart in half, brutally, tasting its sweetness with satisfaction. Strawberry creams were her favourite. She put the other half into her hand, gazing at it ironically. A broken heart.
"Because I feel restless," she told him, then. "Because I wake up every morning and know exactly what to expect. Because I want to do something for myself. I want to learn new things, see new places. I want an adventure, James."
Her voice was a steady monotone, words measured carefully - although she was confident James didn't notice that. Apparently, he wasn't so observant. In fact, in Lily's opinion his studied obliviousness was becoming rather disconcerting.
It was even more disconcerting that he smiled at this, though, not meeting her eyes. Their shoulders bumped together companionably and even through two layers of woolen sweater (his and hers) Lily could feel the heat of his body. Unbidden, her eyes slid closed, and….
You're dwelling on a dream, she reminded herself unflinchingly.
More to distract herself than anything else, Lily found herself asking, "What are you smiling about?"
If she could guide the conversation, then at least he wasn't calling all the shots.
James dipped his hand into the chocolate box, ate one whole, chewing thoughtfully. This reminded Lily that her second piece of broken heart still sat in her hand – in fact, it seemed to be melting to her palm, a messy, sticky blob.
Broken hearts were never pleasant.
"I was just imagining," he responded, slowly, "you, swinging across the Nile on a green vine. I suppose there were crocodiles, too, snapping at your heels. That sort of thing."
He wasn't, really, but this seemed the thing to say. If James had one weakness, it was his addiction to making Lily smile. Just one smile and she'd make his day. He couldn't explain it either, but a fact was a fact, and James wasn't the sort of person to argue with the truth.
Denial could be poisonous. They were both learning that the hard way.
Lily rolled her eyes, then, and surrendered an ironic smile. As usual, James had apparently completely missed the point.
"Timbuktu is in a desert, idiot. Don't you pay attention in History of –? Oh, never mind. For your information, it's one of the oldest magical civilizations in the world. And it's not in Egypt."
She felt frustration welling up inside her then – frustration with him, frustration with her, frustration with old memories and lost opportunities. Frustration with pretending to be someone she wasn't.
Supposedly not aware of this, James nodded patiently.
"No, it isn't," he agreed. "But you still have to get there."
Strangely, his gentle sense of reason made her smile, sadly, ruefully.
"By swinging on a vine across crocodile-infested waters? In the desert? James, where's the vine coming from?"
He was the most impractical person she knew.
She didn't know that half of what she knew was a ruse. All she had were pieces of him, appearances, observations. He'd been testing her, drawing out her patience, intoxicating her with little bread-crumbs of information that she fed upon, craved.
What he craved was for her to see the full picture, though. The jigsaw complete, where appearances were dulled by the brilliance of reality. He was confident she'd prefer his reality, too.
He was right.
"It would be dangerous," James conceded solemnly. She could have sworn his eyes were twinkling, then. "Not to mention you'd get sunburn. You aren't really built for the desert, Lily. You're…. You're like chocolate. You melt too easily."
Melt for you, maybe.
Lily shook her head, startled. That was the last thought in the world she should be having - however much it made her want to grin like a giddy schoolgirl.
Even as she fought to hide it, deep down there was nothing Lily wanted more than to be normal. Which she was, to varying degrees, but nothing about James Potter was normal, and it was his extraordinariness that made her feel extraordinary sometimes, too. Normal wasn't enough for James, seemingly, but with all her heart she wished it was.
Not going to happen, she reminded herself, repeating the mantra over and over. Not going to happen.
James was staring at her hands – rather, at the messy, gooey, former broken-heart in her hand.
"You gonna eat that?"
He knew what she was thinking, then: the smudged, melted heart was hers. He was going to take that too, apparently, but then she didn't mind so much. If her heart had to break, at least it was shared in halves between them.
He swore he'd take better care of it.
Without waiting for a response, he picked it up, delicately, and popped it into his mouth, smiling crookedly, irresistibly, as the chocolate dissolved on his tongue.
"Anyway," he continued, licking his finger casually, "I don't think you'd really suit Timbuktu."
He wished she'd understand what he was really saying. He wished that she'd stop trying to analyse him, because some things were too complicated for analysis – some people were too complicated for analysis – and she was clearly concluding with an imperfect impression of him every time he tried.
Lily watched him lick the remains of her heart off his finger, frowning. She'd never been one for thinly veiled criticism.
"That's irrelevant!" she protested. "If I want to go, that should be enough."
If I want you, that should be enough.
He hadn't tried to talk her out of going, she realized dismally. He'd just… assessed the idea and arrived at a practical conclusion. No emotion, nothing… He didn't even care.
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, a dead giveaway she was agitated. He grimaced inwardly, dissatisfied. That'd teach her to play games with him.
That'd teach him, for allowing her to think he wanted things to be this way.
Sometimes he didn't mind particularly, because keeping the pretense allowed him to spend time with her, but when it inevitably ended with Lily forming another Wrong Impression, James had to restrain himself from hitting her over the head with his broomstick.
So it was lucky Lily was too distracted to notice that he too was miserable. Not that he liked to see her frown….
It seemed to Lily that James could sense her disappointment. He picked up her sticky hand, eyeing it critically, before wiping the residual chocolate onto his finger and eating that, too. When that failed to produce a smile, he frowned, too. Suddenly their little game didn't seem so fun anymore. To James, it made no sense. He wondered if it ever had.
"You didn't really want my opinion, did you?" he stated suddenly, eyes finally meeting hers. "You wanted me to ask you to stay."
Hazel eyes held green, widened in surprise. His gaze was merciless, and for the first time Lily understood that James saw right through her. He was calling her bluff.
More importantly, she hadn't seen it coming.
She averted her gaze hurriedly, disconcerted.
How was it, she wondered, that she always managed to underestimate James Potter? Every time she thought she'd had her epiphany – bam. It was gone, blasted to shards with his smile, his laughing looks. His eyes taunted her – she imagined him, his smile, his quiet taunting: you don't know me, you'll never know me.
Inwardly, James kicked himself, because the last thing he wanted was that look of devastation etched across her face. He'd let her think he was something he wasn't – again. How many times was he going to let her make that mistake?
Some people learn from their mistakes. Others don't (apparently).
If Lily wasn't going to learn herself, James would have to teach her.
How many times was he going to let her make that mistake?
The room fell into silence, and to keep herself busy, Lily helped herself to the last chocolate. James recognized the steely look of determination on her face instantly: denial. He bit back a smile, a rush of affection flooding his body. Everything was right with the world if Lily was in denial. It just proved what he'd always suspected: some people never change.
But he'd put her through enough tonight, and it seemed cruel to keep playing.
He was sick of playing games.
He was sick of allowing her to pretend he was someone he wasn't: of playing along to this game of charades. He was sick of waiting for her, the Queen, to checkmate him. He was tired allowing her misunderstandings of him to break her heart, bit by bit. Sirius had been right:
"You're not the vindictive sort, Prongs."
"Why did you have these, anyway?" she asked suddenly.
James stood with a sigh, looking down at her evenly, unflinchingly honest.
Because if he was completely honest, James was as sick of her denial as he was sick of their games, and sick of counting the near misses of understanding that had now become routine between them.
Perhaps, it was time for a clean slate, an empty board. A new game, but one they could both win.
"They were for you, for Valentines Day. I was rescuing what was left of them from Sirius, but…" he shrugged casually, gave a half-hearted smile. "It doesn't matter anymore. I guess I'll have to buy you roses, instead. I'm going to bed."
She was confused, now. He'd confused her again.
Perhaps she'd never truly know who James Potter was. But then, on the contrary, she could paint a portrait of him in her mind's eye, complete with his mischievous smile and the worldly understanding in his hazel eyes. Seeing this, she knew exactly who he was: someone too patient, too kind, too generous.
And she found him insatiable.
For once, unaware of Lily's private revelation, James wanted nothing more than to smack his head, repeatedly, against a nice, hard stone wall.
He nodded resolutely, hand reaching out unbidden to run a finger through her hair. It was soft, smooth, a wine-red coil entwined intimately around his finger.
This was the closest he'd ever come to kissing her.
"Good night, Lily," he murmured, a little sadly.
She nodded, still frowning, her eyes still searching his, always searching. Tonight they gleamed with something new, something she couldn't read. Was it too much – Was it too much to dare to hope? – that she'd finally found him?
Scarcely two days later, Lily woke to a room scented with…
She peeled open her eyes and surrendered to the infectious smile spreading across her lips, unbidden. They'd made a step forward – found a broken link in their chain of misunderstandings. In some ways, it was like starting again. In others, it was like she'd always known him, and simply that she'd been afraid to admit it. She'd created and projected onto him personalities and motives which James protested had never existed. He called this her beautiful denial, and he said that word, denial, so lovingly she didn't really mind.
James was the sort of person, she now knew, who was as good as his word. Every available surface in her bedroom – including her bed – was scattered with rose petals. She sat up, absentmindedly shaking them from her hair.
Perhaps James was right, and that people never changed in essentials. It was their perspectives that became altered, tailored, sculpted.
Lily was thriving on her new perspective.
He stood in the middle of the empty common room, grinning. As she appeared on the stairs, she was sure she saw him tuck something into his pocket…
"Happy Valentines Day, Lily," he greeted her cheerfully.
Lily came to stand before him, meeting his eyes evenly. Just one more riddle, for old-times sake. And he knew from that look that she wasn't really playing games. Not really.
"I've changed my mind about Timbuktu, James. I don't think it suits my plans anymore."
He nodded, pleased, and offered her a hand. It was good to relax, now. To smile at her freely and not worry about the hidden meanings she imagined for herself. To love her like he'd always wanted, but had been too cautious, too shy, to before.
"Good," he replied when she took it. "I'm glad you saw sense. I don't expect I'd have liked Timbuktu very much, either." He smiled suddenly - because she clearly seemed to understand that he would have followed her there, game or no game - and all she could see was relief. Full of impulsive affection, he leant forward to pluck a rose petal from her hair. "Miss Evans, since that's decided…. May I walk you to breakfast?"
Three young men hesitated by the portrait hole, lingering in the shadows in anticipation of James' need for his annual Valentines Day trip to the Hospital Wing. This year, however, it did not seem necessary. Sirius sighed, disappointed, and jerked his head toward the exit.
It was only after he was sure he'd heard the portrait hole close that James, still standing in the middle of the empty common room holding Lily's hand, bent down to kiss her.