Author's Notes: This was written very belatedly in honor of Clara's birthday. Happy birthday, Clara, and I hope you all enjoy.
A Matter of Technique
"One, two, three. One, two—oh, bugger fuck!"
James saw the fall in his mind's eye a split second before he felt it, watching without any control as his left leg skidded clumsily into his right, catching the toe of his trainer, which of course didn't know it'd been caught until it tried to move another wobbling step, only to find a sudden resistance. It all happened rather quickly after that—his twisted feet causing flailing arms, his flailing arms meeting only air, that only air rushing past him as he dropped to the floor in a sudden heap. For the second time in only forty-five minutes, James Potter found both his bum and dignity battered.
Merlin, this was getting bloody ridiculous.
Untwisting his useless feet with an angry glare at the worthless limbs, James lied back on the floor of the Heads' common room, letting out a heavy sigh. He couldn't remember a time when he'd felt so belittled. It wasn't his way to let things that were difficult for him be—change it, move around it, bribe it, beat it into submission... he found a way to make it work. But this was one thing that James couldn't con or talk himself out of. Trying not to give in to the temptation to cry defeat, he attempted to remind himself of that old saying about falling off broomsticks, but was relatively certain that whatever ponce had fallen off his broom and then gotten back on it hadn't meant for his little motivating epiphany to apply to James and his rubbish attempts at dancing.
Bloody hell. The things he gets himself into.
Sighing again (or it might have been a groan. The pair of sounds was starting to sound remarkably similar all of a sudden), James brushed off his trousers and his fallen dignity as he slowly pushed himself off the floor, rubbing gently at his aching bum. This was bloody stupid—he knew it was—but somehow, he was still doing it, anyway. He mentally cursed the day that his procrastination and casual attitude had allowed him to put it off for so long. He really couldn't believe the whole thing had come down to this. Shaking his head, James strode the few steps towards the fireplace, resisting the urge to glare petulantly at the open book that he'd propped up upon the mantelpiece at the beginning of all this madness. The page seemed to mock him.
James read the two words with a scowl. When he'd snatched the book—Madam Marthe's Marvelous Dance Manuel—out of the library, he hadn't much been thinking about the torture it might bring with it. Truth be told, the only thing that had really been concerning James at the time was how to get out of the library without anyone seeing that he was taking the damned thing with him. Now in comparison, his former task seemed easy, trivial. There was no way he could have anticipated the horrors Madam Marthe had had waiting in store.
Suddenly feeling incredibly cross over the fact that some prig with a name like Madame Marthe was defeating him, James set his jaw in a determined fashion and regarded the open page critically. He felt like he had read these same instructions so many times, they might very well be permanently ingrained in his head. But what his brain practically knew by heart, his feet were struggling to even vaguely recollect. It was a battle that his clumsy feet were winning.
"All right," James muttered bitterly, narrowing his eyes on the page. "Let's go over this one more time, Madam Misery. Simple. It's simple."
James repeated the steps over and over inside of his head until they were firmly branded there once more. With a determined nod, he took a few steps back until he reached the space he'd cleared in the common room by pushing the coffee table and couch over towards the portrait hole. Lifting his left hand high in the air and his right awkwardly bent by his torso, James straightened his back and took the stiff position the book instructed of him. Saying one last prayer to anyone who might care to listen, James took a deep breath, and began to move.
"One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two, three. One, two—fuck!"
James caught himself this time as his feet once again refused to work properly, swearing loudly as he stumbled, but managing to remain on his feet, a fact which he was eternally grateful for. He was still muttering dirty words under his breath and forcing himself back into the uncomfortable starting stance when a sudden familiar snickering went off behind him.
Bloody fucking hell, please, no.
It was like something straight out of a nightmare, those few moments in which James could hardly blink, much less move himself out of his stupid starting stance. Closing his eyes as the soft laughter sounded again behind him, James forced his body to begin working again as he opened his eyes and slowly turned his head, facing what he already knew was there.
Leaning casually against the open door jamb, her rucksack hanging lightly from her shoulder, her high-socked legs crossed at the ankles, Lily Evans stood staring at him with one of the brightest smiles James could ever remember her directing his way, looking quite like the cat that had just caught the canary.
"You're supposed to be in class," he muttered, his voice bordering precariously on whining. "Why aren't you in class?"
"Cancelled," Lily answered lightly, her face shining with delight as she took a few steps into the room, kicking the portrait door closed behind her. She snickered again. "You know, I don't think I've ever been quite this happy about that happening."
James could feel a blush start to creep up his neck, the heat already pooling red in his cheeks, but he had more than trained himself to control that sort of reaction when in Lily's presence, so it was with slightly more effort than usual that he crushed the embarrassing impulse. Forcing the color away, he shook off his mortification and turned his face back towards the fire, making his stance—he really didn't know why he hadn't dropped it yet—even more rigid than before.
"I'm in the middle of something, Evans," he drawled, relieved to find his voice calm and jaunty once more. "Can you come back to try to seduce me later? Rain check, all right?"
Lily's light laughter rang again from behind him, but James refused to turn his head and acknowledge it. He heard her footsteps sound against the carpet, moving closer.
"In the middle of something, indeed," she snickered, the amusement still heavy in her voice. "What exactly are you doing? Practicing raising your hand?"
James finally dropped his stiff stance as he turned back around to face her, sticking her with an annoyed glare. He found her leaning against the arm of the couch he'd moved, her rucksack finding a place on the adjacent cushions, her arms crossed casually over her chest. In response to his dirty look, Lily only grinned.
"By all means," she said, waving a careless hand. "Do go on. I think it's lovely you've suddenly become so devoted to class habits. Shall I call on you when it's your turn to speak?"
"So clever, aren't you?" James bit off, starting to feel that blush rise up his neck again. He snapped his head back around. "For your information, I'm waltzing."
"Oh, waltzing!" Lily cried, slapping herself in the forehead and shaking her head as if she was quite shocked such a thing had never occurred to her. "Of course. Now, why didn't I think of that?"
James might have grown even more cross at her teasing comments, his ego already battered to tiny shreds, but he was surprised to find that this time, even though her tone was decidedly mocking, that the laughter that followed after was louder, more genuine. Good-natured, even. Startled, he tentatively turned his head back towards her.
"Well, at least that explains the counting," she said, grinning at him. A real grin. A playful grin. "Though I'm not too sure about that interesting half-falling maneuver you just pulled. A new interpretation, perhaps?"
"It's not as easy as it looks," James replied, trying to sound surly, but not quite able to muster the desired annoyance when Lily was smiling at him like that. He tried to snap himself out of his sudden trance by turning towards the still open instructional book. If anything could distract him from that smile, he figured it was Madam Marthe. "Take a look," he said, nodding towards it.
Lily's smile dimmed only slightly as she pushed off the couch arm and began to make her way towards him. As she silently walked past, James caught a whiff of her familiar perfume, a scent he had come to know rather well after living with the girl for the past three months. It seemed that everything she touched held traces of the smell, a flowery sort of sweetness that never failed to get James a bit dizzy. Then again, it wasn't as if most things about Lily Evans didn't manage to leave him off-balance. Though this afternoon did seem to be causing extra problems.
Shaking off that slight haziness—and between the scent and the smile, James was quite amazed he could do it—James watched as Lily reached for the book, taking it down off the mantle and glancing at the open page for a few moments. She closed one side so that she could see the cover.
"Madam Marthe's Marvelous Dance Manuel," she read dutifully, her voice dry. She looked up. "You are aware that this thing was written in the 18th century, right?"
"So?" James scratched idly at the back of his neck. Lily's eyebrows lifted. "What's the matter with that?"
"Don't you think things have changed a bit?" she asked.
Alarm bells started going off inside of James's head. "How the bloody hell should I know?" he asked, half in panic. "Isn't a waltz, a waltz?"
Lily's only response to that was a small smile and a silent shake of her head. James felt like he'd just been punched in the gut. He watched with a sinking stomach as Lily flipped back to the dog-eared page, regarding it quietly with that small smile still pulling at her lips. "Merlin, no wonder you're tripping all over yourself," she muttered. "How can you even understand this?"
"You mean it's wrong?" James asked stupidly, a part of him still desperately hoping that this was Lily taking the mickey out of him and that the last brutal forty-five minutes of his life hadn't been spent in vain. He wasn't even mildly surprised when Lily nodded.
"Sorry," she said with a wince. "Madam Marthe's waltzing is as antiquated as her name, I'm afraid."
James let out a groan that he knew was a groan and not a sigh as the fact that Madam Misery had found yet another unsuspecting way to torture him registered. The wrong waltz? The wrong waltz? How could he have been doing the wrong waltz for all this time and never noticed? Merlin, it was madness! He must be the biggest ponce in all of Hogwarts. And damn it, it all would happen in front of Lily—as if he weren't already a big enough prat around her.
Wilting dejectedly, James went the few steps it took in order to reach the moved couch and bitterly dropped down upon it. Leaning his head against the couch back, James stared at the ceiling and hoped Lily would just take her playful laughter, endearing smiles and intoxicating scent with her up to her room, leaving him in peace. He didn't need her to be hanging about as he basked miserably in his shame. It just seemed cruel for her to do so.
"So what exactly is all this?" he heard her ask, dashing all his hopes that she might leave him be. "Decided to turn in your broomstick for the ballroom?"
James snorted loudly. "Not on your life," he muttered. He closed his eyes and lifted a hand to his forehead, massaging his aching temples. "My mad cousin Cordelia's decided she's having some cotillion over hols. I'm expected to dance."
"And you don't know how?"
"Did it look like I knew how?"
He could practically hear the smile in Lily's voice. "I suppose not. And she just sprung this on you now? Holidays are only a few weeks away."
James opened his mouth to answer, then thought better of it when he realised that Lily may not find his confession regarding when Cordelia—mad for her bloody party even during summer—had sent Sirius and him to some dance studio near her house for lessons in late August. Unfortunately, he and Sirius had decided that the pub next door to the dance studio was more their thing, and paid two unsuspecting fools to go learn how to waltz in their stead while they indulged in some rather spiffing ale.
"Just yesterday," James lied through his teeth. "Damn inconvenient of her."
Lily hummed a light sound of acknowledgement, but didn't say anything else. James wondered if she knew that he was lying. Sirius said his voice went lower when he lied. However, as much as he wished otherwise, James highly doubted that Lily paid any particular attention to the natural or unnatural timbre of his voice. Besides, Sirius was a git. What did he know about voices?
Things were silent for a few moments after that, moments in which James ignored Lily and started trying to figure out what exactly he was going to do now. Madam Marthe was clearly a bust, but what other options were left to him? Should he go make another dash to the library to see if they had any more recent and less sadistic instructional books in stock? Should he see if there was a spell of some sort? Should he write a particularly-worded note to Cordie letting her know that no, actually, he would not be dancing at her stupid cotillion and there was nothing she could do about it?
The first option had merit. The second seemed dangerous. The third was positively suicidal, but it made him feel better to consider it. A wizard could dream, after all.
He was still in the midst of contemplating all of this when he realised that Lily hadn't spoken in quite some time. He wondered—all right, rather prayed—that she had had enough of teasing him and had made her way up to her room, but when James finally managed to lift his head from the couch, it was only to find Lily standing exactly where he'd left her, feet planted just before the fire. Except she looked different—well, not different per say, but she wasn't smiling at him anymore. She was looking rather...thoughtful was the only word that came to mind. She looked extremely thoughtful and that thoughtfulness was directed solely towards James. He wondered if he should be worried.
"What?" he asked uncomfortably.
Lily pressed her lips together, still regarding him with that critical edge. Then, suddenly, "Get up."
"Excuse me?" James asked. Lily was already moving towards him.
"Get up," she ordered again, standing right in front of him now. When all James could manage to do was stare at her, Lily rolled her eyes and grabbed for his hand, attempting to pull him to his feet. "Come on!"
James let her pull him off the couch, mostly because he was so confused over what the bloody hell she was doing that his mind couldn't possibly do anything but comply with her wishes. He let her drag him back towards the cleared space before the fire and watched as she turned to face him, a strange sort of green gleam in her eyes. He finally managed to find his voice. "What are you doing?"
"I can't take this," she answered. "I'm a soft touch for the sad and pathetic."
"Stand up. Straight. Now."
"Why?" James barely got the question out before Lily was already prodding him into her desired position, her hands pressing on his lower spine until he was once again in that ever-familiar stiff stance. His eyes darted down to Lily's in confusion. She was gazing up at him with what James could only describe as decided amusement.
"I'm going to teach you to waltz," she said.
Oh, bloody hell.
"You're...teach me to waltz?" James sputtered, with you're going to let me touch you? on the tip of his tongue. As if hearing his unspoken question, Lily shot him a pointed look before deliberately grabbing for his right hand. Without any qualm whatsoever, she placed it firmly on her upper back. His left hand she took in her own, lifting their clasped hands until they were extended somewhere near the height of his shoulders.
James swallowed hard.
"Yes," she finally answered, looking him straight in the eye. "I am."
As Lily continued altering their positions slightly, James stared at her, hardly believing his luck. Lily had never so much as let him brush past her without shooting him a pointed sort of glare, much less let him hold her against him for any extended amount of time. It almost seemed like a joke, that at any moment she might pull away with a derisive, "You didn't honestly think that was happening, did you?", and James would be left floundering in his disappointment. Then again, he and Lily hadn't had that sort of dynamic for quite some time now. He didn't know what exactly he'd done to change her opinion of him, but he knew she didn't despise him as she once claimed to. Still, they were nowhere near where he would like them to be. Lily seemed about as likely to go out with him as he was likely to stop hoping she would.
But this had to be progress, right?
"Relax," Lily said quietly, the hand she'd had lying on his shoulder dropping slowly to run down his back in a way that James supposed was meant to make him less stiff. Her drifting fingers managed quite the opposite. He tried to focus on something other than the feeling of her hands on him. "This isn't dandies dancing at Almack's," she said when he remained rigid. "You can keep your stance without a rod in your back. You're not dancing with Madam Marthe—you're dancing with me."
James couldn't hold back a snort. "Trust me, I'm aware."
Lily smiled instead of glared, which James might have taken more delight out of had he been able to register anything other than the sensation of Lily's hand drifting slowly back up to his shoulder. Only when her hand had stopped its movements did he finally start breathing properly again. Their eyes met, and Lily gave him a nod.
"Good," she said. "That's good. Are you ready?"
"I don't know," James answered. "Am I?"
Lily laughed, her smile even brighter this close up. James tried to remember if he'd ever been this close to her, but if there was a time, he couldn't recall it.
"We'll see, I suppose," she said, still smiling at him. Her voice took on a slightly more authoritative edge as she went on. "All right, here's what's going to happen. Normally as the male, you'd be the one leading, but since you'd likely lead us straight to the floor, let me guide you for now, all right?"
"Let you lead," James agreed instantly. "The woman's in charge. Got it. I like it."
Lily threw him a look. "James," she said warningly. He grinned at her.
"What?" he asked innocently. "I do."
She ignored his quips, though he was pretty sure she was fighting back a grin, which was the first boost his ego had gotten in quite some time. Grinning even wider, he listened intently as Lily continued to explain.
"Dancing..." she started, then paused for a second, seeming to think about it. Inspiration must have struck suddenly, because she looked at him abruptly, then said, "Dancing is like snogging."
James nearly choked on his own spit.
"Excuse me?" he sputtered.
"It's like snogging," Lily repeated, appearing to take some amusement out of his surprise. She smiled at him. "You do know what that is, right?"
James threw her a look, then muttered, "Yes, I think I'm familiar with it."
"Good to know." He narrowed his eyes on her, but she ignored him and continued on. "Dancing is just like snogging," she declared again, nodding authoritatively. "If you don't know how to do it, you can be absolutely rubbish and cause endless pain for your partner. But once you learn...well, it's not that difficult at all. You just have to...find the proper techniques."
"The proper techniques?" James repeated dubiously. Lily nodded. James gave her a look. "Who exactly have you been snogging, Evans?"
"Wouldn't you like to know?" she shot back. James rolled his eyes and sighed dramatically.
"Honestly, Evans, I haven't the time to hear about your imaginary conquests. Can't you see I'm trying to learn proper dancing techniques here?"
Lily sniffed haughtily. "Just because you'd like them to be imaginary doesn't mean they are."
"They might as well be."
"Why is that?"
"Well, they obviously didn't have technique enough to keep around, did they?"
Lily opened her mouth to retort, then paused. Her mouth closed. Then she laughed.
"You know," she muttered softly, a small smile settling on her lips. She looked up at him. "You're right."
James lifted an eyebrow, instantly suspicious of her unexpected answer. He was used to these sorts of conversations ending in either Lily's glaring looks or a dismissive, "Something you can only dream about, Potter," type comment, but an agreement as to the worthlessness of her past boyfriends seemed like something that might actually be one of his dreams—especially when said with that strange sort of look Lily was now sending his way. What was she on about, anyway? If James didn't know better, he would think that Lily was flirting with him, but he did know better and he wasn't getting his hopes up.
Staring at her critically now (because regardless of what his brain was saying, the pathetic ponce in him couldn't help but hope), James narrowed his eyes on the girl in front of him, taking in the features that had over time become as familiar to him as his own. If he was being honest, he supposed that she wasn't looking particularly different. With her face up this close, her hair pushed back and hanging in fiery waves against her shoulders, James had every opportunity to see any anomalies in her manner or expression. But if Lily was feeling anything even slightly affectionate towards him, she wasn't showing it. The only hope he had were her words and perhaps that slightly strange sort of light she was getting in her eyes, but neither was much to go on.
Holding back a bitter sigh and cursing himself for even bothering to get his hopes up, James forced himself to stop looking at Lily as if she were something to be dissected and examined or—worse—devoured.
Dancing may be like snogging, but James was relatively certain that he wouldn't be getting anywhere thinking like that.
"Let's do this," he heard himself say, hating the fact that there was a bitter edge tainting his voice now. He cleared his throat, desperate to shake those sorts of feelings off. He gave Lily a slightly-more-forced-than-usual grin. "I know you're relishing putting your hands all over my person, Evans, but I reckon there's another time and place, yeah?"
Lily looked a bit surprised at that response, but what she was expecting instead, James couldn't be sure. It might be the easy way out, reverting back to his smarmy comments, but it was something he could depend on, so he did it. If Lily wanted something else...well, she'd have to say so. That was that.
"Are you ready?" he asked her, taking her question from before and sending it right back. Lily stared at him for a moment, then nodded.
"Yeah," she said softly, almost hesitatingly. "Yeah, I'm ready. Straighten out."
James straightened accordingly, telling himself he shouldn't be worried or feeling badly that Lily seemed to be looking at him with slightly less regard than she had been before. He had probably just been imagining that, anyway. He really couldn't be bothered.
"The most basic waltz step is the box," Lily started, taking a slight step back so that they could both look down and see their feet. "Start with your feet together—no, not...yes, like that. On the first count, you're going to move your left foot forward while my right foot moves back. Then your right foot is going to move about a shoulder's width to the right of your left. I'm doing the same with my left foot. Do you have that?"
"Left forward, right right," James repeated dutifully. "Got it."
"All right, try it."
James waited for her quiet, "One, two, three," count before jumping right into it. Within the first second, he had already trampled on her foot. He swore quietly as Lily let out a laugh, pulling her squished foot out from underneath his. James tried not to feel relief at the good-natured giggle.
"First problem," she said, dropping their stance for the first time. She sent him a grin as he tried not to mourn the absence of her hands. "Slow down. This is dancing, not a marathon. Move with the counting."
"I was," James insisted bitterly, trying to contain an embarrassed flush. He ran a hand agitatedly through his hair as Lily shook her head.
"You weren't," she insisted, though not harshly. She sent him a sympathetic look. "Stop calculating the steps. You're too detached from it. Feel the rhythm. Count in your head—or aloud if that helps. Do you think that will help?"
James shrugged. Lily made a thoughtful humming noise and moved towards him. Her hands settled back on his shoulder and in his palm respectively. When they were both in their proper place again, Lily lifted her head, catching his eye and holding it.
"Listen to me," she said softly. Her eyes bore into his. Her voice was gentle, smooth. "Slow. Steady. Move with my voice. Flow. One, two, three...one, two, three...one, two, three..."
James listened to the soft sound of her voice, the even rhythm setting an internal pulse inside his head. One, two, three...one, two, three...one, two, three...
His feet began to move automatically, first forward, then to the right. Without Lily even having to explain it to him, James moved his left foot to his right, the pair coming together for a brief rest. Following Lily's next soft instructions, he moved his right foot backwards, then his left foot left, then back together again. When the box was complete, he stopped, looking up at her in delight.
"I did it!" he cried. "I did without hurting you! Or falling!"
"Congratulations," Lily said with a smile, then pushed on his shoulder. "Now keep going."
James nodded, repeating the same simple steps again. He could hardly believe that he was doing it. After all his countless failures, all the effort and frustration, all it had taken to conquer waltzing was some dance steps from this century and a proper teacher. Listening to Lily's continuous quiet counting, James kept moving, completing the box step several more times without mishap. It only took a few moments after Lily stopped her counting, however, for him to miss a step. His foot caught against Lily's and he stumbled into her.
"Bugger," he swore under his breath, frowning as he and Lily separated. "Sorry. I had it there for awhile."
"It's all right," she said, waving off his misstep with a casual flick of her hand. She gave him a small smile. "You just have to get the counting down, is all. You were doing well. You picked it up rather quickly, actually."
"It's easier when you count," James told her, getting back into position. "You're really good at this."
"Thanks," Lily said, and they began to move.
Getting into the rhythm again wasn't as difficult as James expected. Absorbing Lily's counting once more, James tried to match her flowing tempo with an internal count of his own. After a few more steps with Lily's counting, she stopped and James was on his own again. He glanced down at her, still keeping the slow count in his head. She was staring rather fixedly at his shoulder, moving automatically. He marveled at her natural flow.
"Where'd you learn to do this so well?" he asked.
"My sister got married last summer," she answered quietly, glancing up at him and simultaneously pushing back on his shoulder, a silent dictate to straighten his back. James straightened obligingly. "She made the whole lot of us go to lessons for weeks. It was...well, I was paired with her husband's cousin, Ernest. Compared to him, you're looking rather wondrous."
James tilted his head quizzically.
"Was that a backhanded compliment, Evans?" he asked, sending her a grin. "I'll take it."
Lily's only response was a twitch of her lips, then she was staring down at his shoulder again.
For the next forty minutes, Lily kept up her quiet instructions and James followed accordingly. With her help, James was soon counting on his own, box stepping like a master, guiding them both as they danced and turned, acting as if he'd been dancing for weeks instead of merely hours. He still missed the occasional step, but Lily had gotten rather good at anticipating his mistakes, always pulling her feet away in the nick of time and avoiding any permanent damage. It had taken awhile for her to drop her strange sudden distance, but James teased and prodded her until she was loosened up again. She laughed as he let slip the true story of Cordie's dance lessons and the drunkenly smashing time he and Sirius had had at the pub. He laughed as she told him about dancing with Ernest's less-than-appealing girth, and how he was nothing compared to her sister's fiancé, who apparently had all the grace of a clumsy elephant. She held his hand in a careful grip, skimmed her fingers along his shoulder blade. He pulled her closer, his hand drifting lower on her back.
She didn't object. He tried not to hope.
"No, not like that!" Lily shouted with a giggle, laughing as they collided together—again—after he forgot once more not to turn after lifting his left hand for Lily to twirl under. He let out a laugh of his own as he caught her against him, stuttering an apology as Lily continued to giggle.
"I swear I had it that time," he said, dropping his right hand from her back, but leaving his left firmly intertwined with hers. "I was close."
"You were not close," Lily scolded playfully, socking him in the arm with her left hand. She didn't remove her right from his. "I'm beginning to think you're doing it on purpose."
"Me?" James asked in mock offense, looking insulted. "Now why in Merlin's name would I do a thing like that?"
Lily grinned, shooting him a look. "Because it's easier than letting your hand slip slowly down towards my bum and wondering if I'm going to call you on it?"
James reeled back a bit, his smile faltering only slightly. "Noticed that, did you?"
Lily shrugged, her eyes twinkling at him. "Maybe," she said.
James laughed, trying to ignore the slight swoop that rolled through his stomach. Even as Lily pulled her hand from his, moving towards the couch and tiredly dropping herself down upon the plush cushions, the thoughts in his head were flying by a mile a minute.
This wasn't in his head—he knew this wasn't in his head—but he didn't want to push it. Whatever had suddenly sprung up between them, he was cautious enough to think it tenuous, and wouldn't dare to disturb the balance. He could only keep her dancing with him for so long...what then? What should he say? What should he do? He didn't want to blotch this up, but he didn't know what was right and what was wrong. He wished she would give him some clue as to what she wanted, but other than a slightly encouraging smile directed his way, she wasn't revealing anything.
Merlin, she was killing him.
"Are you giving up on me already?" he asked then, sticking his hands in his trouser pockets, watching as she closed her eyes and rested her head against the couch back. "A few collisions and you're running scared? Afraid for your safety?"
"Hm-hm," Lily hummed. She didn't move from her relaxed position on the couch. "You're dangerous."
"All right, so your feet get a few bruises. Pain builds character."
"It's not my feet I'm worried about, James."
James's head snapped to her face, his heart doing a double take in his chest.
What was that supposed to mean?
Before he had a chance to ask, Lily suddenly moved, opening her eyes and swinging her arm up until her wrist hung just above her face. She rotated the watch on her wrist until she could see the face, then swore.
"Bugger." She hopped quickly to her feet. "It's ten past. I have to meet my group for tutoring in five minutes."
"Tutoring?" James asked, watching her move with a sudden sense of panic filling his every pore. Everything they'd just secured seemed to be quickly slipping through his fingers. He watched her grab her rucksack off the couch and swing it over her shoulder. "Wait!" he cried, moving towards her. "What—what about my waltzing? I'm still rubbish! I still step all over your feet! And what about my...my underarm twirl thing? I still blotch that all up!"
"You're fine," Lily insisted, shooting a quick smile over her shoulder at him. "You know all the steps now. Practice on your own."
"On my own?" he repeated, already shaking his head frantically. "No. No, that won't work. I need you."
"You don't need me," Lily said. She was nearly at the portrait hole now. "And even if you did," she added, "you'd better get used to it not being me. I mean, I won't be at your cousin's cotillion with you."
"You might have to be!" James cried before he thought better of it. The words wouldn't stop. "You might have to come. You know, to help me."
Lily paused with one foot outside the portrait hole. She turned back to look at him, her face expressionless. James resisted the urge to kick himself hard in whichever body part he could reach and merely watched her dumbly. He was about to blurt out some sort of retraction for his stupid exclamation when Lily finally spoke.
"Yeah, maybe," she said.
Then the portrait hole closed behind her.
Yeah, maybe? Yeah, maybe?
He was out the portrait hole in under three seconds.
"Hey!" He dashed out into the corridor, not surprised in the least to see Lily already a long way down the stone hallway. He chased after her, shouting another, "Hey! Wait a second!"
Lily turned and waited for him to catch up, staring blankly at him as he skidded to a halt in front of her. Slightly out of breath—though from exertion or shock, he wasn't sure—he skipped all formalities and instantly blurted out, "Was that a yes?"
Lily shifted a bit on her feet, pulling the strap of her rucksack further up her shoulder. She stared at him with an unreadable expression. "Was it even an invitation?" she asked.
"If it's a yes," James said, "then hell yes, it's an invitation."
"And if it's a no?" Lily asked.
James narrowed his eyes. "Then...well, then I suppose it's an invitation, anyway." He paused for a moment, still watching Lily's inscrutable expression. "So was it a yes?" he asked.
"No," Lily answered, and James's heart sank. "No, it wasn't a yes."
James let out a breath he hadn't been aware he'd been holding, feeling his shoulders slump on their own accord. He tried to tell himself that this was no different than the hundreds of other times Lily had rejected him, that he shouldn't be feeling any worse off than usual, but...it was different. It was. They had been different. She had been…well, she wasn't confessing her undying love or anything, but James was not thick enough to misconstrue when a witch was responding to him. And Lily had been, in an undeniable way. Why would she have said no, then? What sort of game was she playing?
Hurt and confused though he tried to make it otherwise, James ducked his head down as he scratched self-consciously at the back of his neck, muttering bitterly, "So it's a no, then."
"No," Lily instantly corrected. "I didn't say it was a no. It's not a no."
James's head snapped up.
"I'm sorry?" he sputtered.
"It's not a no," Lily said again, and for the first time, James saw the twinkle come back into her eyes. Her lips twitched tellingly. "It's not a yes, but it's not a no. It's a maybe. Didn't I say maybe?"
"Maybe?" James repeated dumbly, hardly believing his ears. His heart skipped a few important beats. "It's...maybe?"
"Yeah," Lily said, smiling truly at him now. "Maybe. Have a problem with that?"
"No!" James cried quickly, shaking his head frantically. "No, maybe's brill. Perfect. Wonderful. I'll take maybe."
"Good," Lily said, then turned away from him, already taking a few steps down the corridor. It took a few moments for James to snap out of his utter astonishment in order to stop her.
"Wait!" he called, lunging for her. He caught her hand in his, effectively stopping her from moving any farther. He pulled her closer to him and Lily cocked an eyebrow, but James ignored it. "How exactly does one go about changing a 'maybe' to a 'yes'?" he asked. "Without blotching things up, I mean?"
Lily stared for a moment, then broke out laughing at his question, shaking her head at him as her smile widened. James only waited patiently for an answer, staring at her imploringly and knowing that it had been the right thing to ask. Listening to her as she still laughed lightly, James's heart began beating decidedly more quickly in his chest as Lily took yet another step closer to him, bringing their bodies flush against each other. His eyes flickered straight to hers.
"Well," she drawled quietly, lifting the hand that wasn't still intertwined with his up to his chest. Her fingers drifted slowly along the collar of his shirt. "My suggestion," she said, grinning, "would be to work...very hard...on your technique."
James tried not to gulp, his breath catching in his throat as he asked warily, "What technique are we talking about here?"
Lily laughed again, dropping her hand from his chest and taking a small step away. She still didn't drop her hand from his, however.
"Figure it out," she grinned, her eyes shining brightly at him. Her hand slipped away from his. "I have to go," she said.
James nodded, fighting off the urge to let out a loud whoop! with some sort of celebratory jig as his heart began doing some rather impressive acrobatics inside his chest. He watched as Lily shot him one last smile before starting to walk down the corridor again, her soft footsteps loud in the otherwise silent hall. He watched her quietly for a moment, still trying to process it all, when something suddenly came to him.
"Hey, Lily?" he called.
She stopped and turned. "What?"
He shoved his hands into his trouser pockets and leaned back on his heels. "I'll need your help, you know," he said simply. "With my technique, I mean."
Even from a distance, James could see Lily's eyes narrow.
"With which technique?" she asked suspiciously.
James grinned broadly.
"Figure it out," he said.