Disclaimer: We hereby disclaim this document. Well, most of it.
Under the Stars
By the time Lily and James located the Knockturn Police Station, night had fallen and the town had taken on, if possible, an eerier feel than before. The streetlights here were sparse, and the one under which they pulled up was flickering incessantly; in the shadows, every doorstep looked like a black hole. Rain clobbered down on the truck as they readied themselves for the next leg of the expedition.
"I can't believe we're doing this," Lily said, tapping her fingers anxiously against the steering wheel. "We can't get in trouble for asking questions, can we?"
"Nah." James shook out his wig, arranging the strands as he shoved it onto his head. "I reckon we should just act really dumb. They won't be suspicious if we seem like the types of idiots who might actually go to a police station to do research for school."
"Right." Lily swallowed hard. "And what happens if they tell us it's classified? Do we just walk away, or...?"
"Honestly, I dunno," James admitted, making a face. "Maybe we just play it by ear, do you think?"
Lily bit her lip and gazed out the window. Going in there without a plan was the last thing she wanted to do, but idling here with their lights on was risky. Somebody might get suspicious, or the station might close for the night, or worse yet, Lily might lose her nerve. She could feel it in her fluttering heart and her tense muscles. It's only a few questions, she reminded herself, but when she looked out at the peeling shingles and drizzling eaves, she couldn't imagine this encounter would be any less chilling than the last.
"Alright," she finally said, yanking the key out of the ignition. "Who is Tom Riddle, and what exactly happened the night of the fire. Anything else we should remember?"
"Mmm... I think that about covers it." James flipped down the passenger mirror to examine his face. "I should probably lose the gold tooth this time, hey?"
He nodded, turning away from the mirror. "And you're sure I don't look too much like myself?"
There was something oddly breathless about that moment. Lily's eyes slid over his face, both of them completely silent in their proximity as water continued to pour down the windscreen outside. His skin was flickering with the shadows of raindrops in yellow streetlights, and truth be told, with the wig and hat lost to the surrounding darkness, he did look like James. Up close, he was all boyish good looks and bright eyes and so very familiar that Lily felt a strange affection creep up like a shiver.
When the words finally came, they were delayed and awkward. "No," she said. "No, you look... sufficiently stupid." As her field of vision zoomed out to encompass the shaggy ginger wig, her statement was confirmed.
With that, they opened their doors (James' with some difficulty) and stepped out into the glow of the streetlight. The downpour was quieter outside on the dirt, but Lily had to hunch her shoulders and blink furiously as it fell in fat drops on her face. James stuck close to her side as they hurried toward the entrance, and for that she was decidedly grateful.
There was little time to hesitate when they reached the door, for the roof provided minimal overhang. They only glanced at each other briefly before Lily reached for the door handle and led the way through the entrance.
By this point, the rundown interior was barely a surprise. It was more of a shabby office space than a police station, with a single unoccupied desk, a filing cabinet, and a stained ceiling that drooped under the weight of a fluorescent light. Apart from the empty coffee mug beside the computer monitor, the space was completely devoid of life signs.
Lily glanced down the darkened hallway that branched out to the right. "Do you reckon they're closed or something?"
"Shouldn't be." James frowned. "And we were able to get in, so..."
She took a few cautious steps forward, calling politely, "Hello, is anyone there?"
The only response was the relentless slap of rain against the low roof.
"Maybe we should wait," James suggested, gesturing to the plastic chairs lining the nearest wall.
"I suppose so." As they sat down, Lily looked around once more with mounting unease. The whole thing reminded her of visiting the teachers' room as a little girl; she had the distinct impression that she shouldn't be here even though she was—in certain cases, at least—perfectly allowed.
James started tapping a tune on the brown linoleum.
Ten minutes passed with no sign of anybody. Lily wondered if they should take a wander down the hallway in case whoever was working down there simply hadn't heard them. She expressed this concern to James, and he responded with a shout of "ANYBODY THERE?" that made her heart jump. Anyone within a ten metre radius of the building would have had to hear it, but there was no answer.
"Do you suppose they're closed then?" Lily said in a whisper, though it was obviously unnecessary. "And they left the door unlocked by mistake?"
"They'd have to be pretty free of crime for the police station to close at eight," he replied, keeping his voice hushed as well. "I reckon they've gone out for a smoke or something."
Lily was doubtful; however, they kept on waiting. She watched the clock, thinking about Petunia at home with the other Marauders. Were they enjoying themselves any more than she and James were? Surely, Petunia and Sirius would be battling it out right this moment in their seventy-something'th DDR rematch, with Peter cheering them on and Remus shaking his head in the background. Strange as it was, the mental image filled her with warmth. She would trade anything to be there instead of here in this hard, plastic chair in this gloomy, rotten town, but at least James was next to her.
She might have laughed at herself for even having those thoughts.
Another ten minutes went by, and then twenty and thirty, and before they knew it they'd been waiting an hour in those plastic chairs. It wasn't that the time got away from them exactly, but in all those minutes they hadn't devised an alternative plan, and so they silently agreed that waiting was their best option. Finally, at the hour mark, James got to his feet.
"What is it?" said Lily, wondering if he'd seen something she hadn't.
"This is ridiculous," said James. "How are we even supposed to ask questions if the bloody police station is deserted?"
"I dunno, but—" Lily glanced uncertainly out the window to her left "—maybe we should just go. It— it doesn't feel right, being here alone."
James sighed, but there was no defeat in his eyes. Instead, they were cast toward the filing cabinet on the opposite wall.
"What?" asked Lily suspiciously.
"Well, I was just thinking maybe we could..."
"Break into the cabinet?" she said incredulously. "No. No, we can't. James, we could get in serious trouble for looking at that stuff."
"Lily, look at this place." He gestured at the desolate space, the stacks of paper on the floor. "Who's going to get us in trouble?"
Security cameras was Lily's foremost thought, but the one in the corner was dangling from frayed wires and facing the wall at that. Still, the thought of snooping through police documentation, godforsaken as this place might be...
James started across the room.
"James, wait, please," said Lily, launching out of her chair so quickly that it skidded into the wall. She looked around, paranoid, at the the door and the window and the hallway, all her senses on high alert. It would be just their luck for somebody to walk in at this very moment.
But James was on a mission, it seemed, and barely glanced back at her before opening the top drawer of the cabinet. He began to flick hastily through its contents, no doubt leaving fingerprints all over the folders. Lily inched closer, curious but determined to act as a lookout.
"It's all blank paperwork in here," James muttered as he slammed the drawer shut. He tried the bottom one, but it yielded equally dismal results.
"Damn it," he said. "They've got to have a file on Riddle, haven't they? Or at least on the cult?"
Lily shrugged helplessly. "I don't know. James... maybe we should come back in the morning."
"What, and be sent away with the same 'we don't talk about it' shit the librarian gave us?" He laughed darkly, but when he saw how tense Lily was, his face took on a softer expression. "Sorry, it's just—this could be our chance, you know? To actually find something that—something we could use."
It was hard then not to be swayed by the desperation in his eyes; hard not to be reminded just how serious his situation was. Lily bit her lip. "So what do you think we should do?"
His eyes drifted toward the darkened hallway.
Lily sighed, already envisioning a reunion with her parents where iron bars stood between them. "You're mad," she told James. "If we get caught, I'm telling them you held me hostage."
James cracked a smile at that. "Feel free," he said.
"Should I stay here and keep an eye out?" Lily offered, but she was relieved when James shook his head.
"Nah, I reckon it's best if we stick together," he said. Lily didn't relish the thought of being alone in this room anyway.
"Alright," she said. "Lead the way, and be careful."
"Don't break anything, I know," said James. His back was turned to her, but she could hear the smirk in his words.
At the end of the hall, there was a half-open door. James, as though he was treading over a minefield, nudged it gently while Lily squirmed and fidgeted behind him. The creak as it fell open was quiet, but in the silence of the deserted station, it sounded like an atomic bomb detonating. Lily's heart leapt into her throat. She and James stood in silence for a few moments in the aftershock, barely daring to breathe, James' arm still angled out and poised against an invisible door in front of him.
Finally, as the rain continued to scatter like machine gun pellets against the roof above, they flickered back to life, and Lily followed James into a cramped, messy space that was lined with the silhouettes of shelves and filing units.
"You check that one," James whispered, his breath hot in her ear as he pointed towards the nearest cabinet.
Lily could only nod, ashen-faced, as he set off in front of her and removed his phone from his pocket. She slid the thin metal drawer open, wincing at the squeak of the sliders, and extracted her own phone so that the blue glow from the screen shone down into the recesses of paper.
Everything was silent as they searched. Lily's fingers hovered over the files with hesitance, barely brushing against them for fear of leaving some sort of incriminating evidence behind. The more she thought about what they were doing, the more she realized that it was completely, utterly, one hundred percent mental. So, in the interest of preserving her sanity, she tried not to think at all.
There came an intake of breath from James' corner of the room.
"I don't believe it."
"What?" Lily whispered urgently.
James spun his head, blinking in disbelief. "I've found it. It's here."
"Already?" Lily crossed the space between them quickly, leaning in so that they were shoulder to shoulder. Her heartbeat was galloping in double time to her rapid breathing.
In his hands was a folder marked "Riddle, Thomas." It was yellowed and faded, and it inexplicably made Lily's skin crawl. James made a move to flip it open, but struggled to do so with one hand already occupied by his phone. Lily relieved him of the device, their fingers fumbling briefly, and held it up to illuminate the papers in his stead.
As they held their collective breath, the folder fell open to a mug shot. The man in the photo was lean and stoic, dressed in a faded black henley and a hemp necklace, with long, dreadlocked hair and eyes that were dark like tar spits. The angles of his face were oddly familiar.
"No..." James' hand slackened on the folder. He was staring at the image as though he'd seen the face of a ghost.
"What is it?"
James turned to her, shaking his head incredulously. "Lily," he breathed. "He's... That's Val."
Eyes widening, Lily craned over to examine it again. "Holy shit," she said. She hadn't seen it at first, but now she couldn't unsee it. The shape of the jaw, the slope of the nose, the hollow eyes... It was undeniable. They were looking at the face of a dreadlocked, twenty-something-year-old Valentino DeMort.
Lily wanted to say something, but she found no words. Instead, she leaned closer to the photo, eyes squinted, brow wrinkled, and mouth ajar, because nothing made sense. It was like opening a packet of crisps only to find that the entire bag was filled with marbles.
Before she could muddle through her initial shock, however, there was a sound of a door opening elsewhere in the building. Lily shot up as though she'd been electrocuted. James slammed the folder shut, fumbling when several pages fell out. He bent frantically to retrieve them.
Footsteps began clacking down the hallway, the low tones of a male voice filtering through the rain. "...Alright mate, heading back in now, I'll talk to you later... See you at Fitzy's pub night, yeah?"
Suddenly, Lily felt as though she was trapped in a nightmare. She looked helplessly at James, who had finally managed to stuff the pages back into the file and was clutching it to his chest with white knuckles. On some reflex, he shot for the door, pushing it closed and twisting the lock into place. Lily wasn't sure what he was hoping to accomplish with this, but she supposed any diversion tactic was better than nothing.
The voice was very close now. "Alright mate, I'll see you then—hold on, me door's locked. That's odd. Nah, sorry, just talking to myself. Cheers, then." There was a jingling sound as he presumably fished around for keys.
This was it. Lily saw her life flash before her eyes. She was going to be sent to prison at the ripe old age of seventeen. Could James use his fortune to sway a judge or something? Didn't celebrities get some sort of get-out-of-jail-free card with their fame? Could she get in on that? She felt like she might throw up.
James' hand clamped around her wrist suddenly, and in her state of anguish, she nearly screamed. He was motioning frenetically to the window set into the far wall. Meanwhile, there was a faint curse as the jingling stopped outside the door and the footsteps retreated back down the hallway.
"C'mon, c'mon," James whispered, steering her by the shoulders. He flung the panel open, and as little drops of rain smacked against Lily's skin, she felt herself come to her senses. At James' insistence, she hoisted herself onto the ledge and twisted through the small opening legs-first to drop down to the ground. She landed painfully in a pile of bushes so overgrown they essentially ate her alive. James, in a panic, plopped down beside her, and branches cracked and snapped all around them. He reached back up to drag the window shut.
For a second, they crouched together there, soaked to the bone and scared out of their minds, blinking away the ruthless assault of rain.
Then, suddenly, a crack of thunder and lightning fractured the sky.
Both Lily and James bolted forward in a white haze of adrenaline and terror. While James vaulted over the snares of the garden in a movement that was almost stag-esque, Lily realized too late that her ankles were caught in the branches, and she stumbled forward, sprawling into the mud and hysterically trying to free herself as another stroke of thunder shook the earth.
James' name was on the tip of her tongue, but he had already snapped his head around. Without hesitating, he was backtracking and dropping down beside her, yanking roots and leaves away with such force that he actually ripped an entire bush out of the ground and chucked it aside. He had a stripe of mud on his cheek and rain streaking down his glasses.
At last, he was helping Lily up and they were sprinting full-throttle towards the truck, security cameras and incompetent policemen be damned. After fumbling with the keys for a good ten seconds, Lily managed to pry the doors open and they slumped down, panting, staring forward blankly, and dripping mud and rain all over the scuffed leather seats.
"I can't," Lily croaked, "actually believe," she took a breath, "we just did that."
James, whose wig was so skewed that he was sporting a stringy ginger mullet, glanced down at his lap. He did a double take. "Fuck. I've accidentally stolen the file."
Lily swivelled her head. "James!"
"I panicked! I'm sorry! Shit."
"We have to put it back!" said Lily, recoiling from the file as though it were a rabid animal they'd picked up.
"You mean go back in there?"
"No. Yes. I— We can't just steal things!"
Just then, the window from which they'd expelled themselves glowed a sickly yellow. Its glare was interrupted by a large, ambling shadow.
"Never mind, yes we can!" Lily jabbed at the ignition. There was a flurry of sound as the tires spun in the mud and the windshield wipers sprang into action; the truck reversed into a tangle of shrubs, Lily executed an impossibly sharp U-turn; and they were a kilometre down the road before they'd even had time to process.
That kilometre turned into five, and ten, and finally twenty, with nothing in mind except to put as much distance as possible between themselves and the dreadful town of Knockturn. Lily made spontaneous turns at every occasion and obsessively checked her rear-view mirror for fear that somebody might be tailing them. Meanwhile, James stared straight ahead and gripped the stolen file with ice-white fingers.
"Do you, erm, know where we're going?" he finally asked her.
"Not a clue," Lily exhaled.
"Brilliant; I've always wanted to join the circus."
Lily let out an involuntary snort and, having noticed the stop sign before her just a touch too late, slammed on her brakes. As they lurched against their seatbelts, it was as though the anxiety came bubbling out of them and suddenly they were laughing, laughing, with no possibility of stopping. Without the threat of pursuit, they noticed for the first time James' mangled disguise and Lily's mud-bathed attire, which only made them laugh louder.
"We're criminals," said Lily, tapping her fingers on the steering wheel. "We're real, hardened, cold-blooded criminals."
"Hardened?" said James sceptically. "You look quite soggy to me."
"Right," said Lily. "I suppose I should change."
"And we should probably get petrol."
"Maybe you should go through the intersection first?"
"Don't tell me what to do." Lily stepped on the gas, then pulled onto the shoulder once they were safely through.
The rain was beginning to ease up on the roof of the truck. Lily wriggled around her seat back, attempting to retrieve her bag of clothes, but only succeeded in coating the console with mud. "Screw it," she finally said, and climbed through to the back seat.
"You know, I was joking about joining the circus," said James. "You don't have to flaunt your acrobatics like that."
"I'll flaunt what I like," Lily said absently as she dug through her pack and extracted a crumpled heap of denim. She stilled when the situational meaning hit her. "Except, like, not right now. You should probably get out."
"What?" James gaped at their dark, damp surroundings. "It's minging out there. Can't I just close my eyes?"
"It's barely even drizzling!"
"Yeah, but there might werewolves and things."
Lily snorted. "You are such an idiot. Fine, but keep them closed."
"Blindfold is on," James said, slipping his Vernon hat down over his eyes and sinking forward to rest his elbows and head against the dashboard.
Shooting a cursory glance around for any passing vehicles, Lily flicked the interior light off for good measure and unzipped her mud-crusted jumper. Little particles of dried dirt rained down onto the floor.
She hesitated before proceeding. James' hunched silhouette was a bit too close for comfort in the passenger seat, and in the silence every slight movement had the seat creaking beneath her, the sound bouncing awkwardly around the cabin.
"This is weird," she said, hesitating to pull off her trousers.
There was a muffled leathery noise as James readjusted his head against his arms. "I take it you have little experience with quick costume changes?"
"Well, I don't make a habit of touring Britain. So no." Biting the bullet, she started to wriggle out of her muddy things. Nobody spoke for a minute or so while she tossed everything in a sopping heap on the floor.
Eventually, James cleared his throat. "It's pretty much an art. You get used to it though."
"Yeah," said Lily, bracing her foot against the window to pull on fresh jeans, "but I'm sure your dressing rooms are lovely and spacious compared to this."
"Dressing rooms?" James laughed. "No, we have to do it in like, broad daylight. Me and the backstage crew have no barriers anymore."
"That's weird." Lily pulled her head through a sweater and bonked it on the ceiling. "Ow."
"Fine," she growled, jamming her arms through the sleeves. She climbed back over the console, elbowing James as she fumbled into her seat. "Sorry," she breathed.
"Christ, you have bony elbows." James rubbed the side of his ribcage with a grimace.
"Well, seeing as they are bones."
James chuckled quietly, and Lily turned to find him regarding her with an expression that might almost have qualified as fond. The hat was gone, and his fringe was a feathered mess across his forehead, damp strands plastered to the frames of his glasses. He looked like a rockstar who'd just finished a gig and dumped a bottle of water over himself.
Lily quickly banished that thought from her mind because… nope.
Still, though, there was no denying the swoop in her stomach when she met his eyes. Lily wondered momentarily what would happen if she were to kiss him. Bad things, probably. She pictured a homicidal Petunia chucking the entire television set out the window, DDR mat included, and tearing down all of the posters on her walls with such violence that the plaster came off under her hot pink fingernails.
She really needed to eat.
"So, petrol and then food?" she suggested.
"Reckon we won't be going anywhere 'til we get both," said James.
Lily revived the truck and they followed signs to a place called Little Hangleton. It was a one-stoplight town but featured the traveler's essentials, including a petrol station and a selection of fast food restaurants.
After filling the tank, Lily locked James in the car despite his insistence that the wig was "as convincing as ever, don't you think?" and went inside to pay. On her way out, she looked at a road map to glean where their harebrained detour had taken them.
"Bad news," she told James as she started the truck. "I've driven us farther north."
"Fancy a trip to Edinburgh Castle?"
Lily looked at the clock; it was a quarter past eight. "We should probably chug coffee and trade off driving shifts."
James gave a tired smirk. "Ah, so now you trust me behind the wheel."
"I don't trust either of us, actually, to be honest." Lily rubbed at her eyes with the back of her hand. "But what choice do we have?"
"Yeah, dunno," James said vaguely. He yawned. "Sorry, I think my brain may be eating itself."
"Okay, food first," Lily said. She pulled out of the petrol station and made a beeline for the nearest drive-thru-a deserted joint flickering beneath a massive neon burger. Lily was immediately pleased with the slapdash decision when her mouth began to water; "I've been deprived too long," she said.
Five minutes and several handfuls of pooled change later, they were speeding away with a warm bag of deep fried heaven between them and a pair of extra large milkshakes wedged into the cup holders.
They spent the next short while looking for a place to pull over and eat.
"How about in there?" James inclined his body forward, staring out through the windscreen and gesturing vaguely to the heath that was rolling past on their left.
Lily shot it a quick glance and chewed on her lip. "Could work. Probably private property, though, don't you think?"
"To be honest," James sounded exhausted, "I really don't give a shit at this point."
And Lily realized then that she really, really didn't, either. So she nudged the brakes and turned the wheel, and then the truck was carving an arc of flattened grass into the edge of the field. The rain had ceased entirely, and through the windows, the surrounding pasture almost seemed to glimmer under the suddenly-clear sky. Something about the moonlit calm and the smell of burgers caused a swell of emotion to rise in Lily's chest.
"Food," she said, zombie-like as she jerked the handbrake up and went straight for the bag on the console between them.
James, it seemed, had beaten her to the punch; he stuck a fat, paper-wrapped cheeseburger into her hand and asked: "D'you reckon we could eat outside?"
Lily glanced out out through the dried rain streaks on the window. "What, on the grass? I don't fancy getting my bum soaked again."
"On the truck bed, maybe? Sorry, my back's just killing me."
Lily shrugged. "Alright."
Two door slams rang dully across the empty field. The grass was damp and overgrown around Lily's ankles, soaking into the bottoms of her jeans as she fiddled with the latch on the tailgate. James set the take-away bag on the ledge and then leaped up, using his hands to swivel around and scoot backwards. On a stroke of genius, Lily unearthed some musty blankets and the two of them made themselves comfortable against the curve of the rear windscreen.
"So," said James as they began to peel back wrappers, "your first burger in how long?"
"Two years," said Lily.
"Blimey. I reckon we should make some sort of ceremony out of- Or not."
Lily had wasted no time in sinking her teeth into the long-forbidden delicacy and was already savouring the first bite in a most unladylike fashion. It was a moment before she noticed James looking at her with a curious half-smile.
"Wha'?" she said with her mouth full.
"Nothing," said James. "Just… you've got ketchup."
With James chuckling at her, Lily had the strangest vision of that hackneyed, "boy wipes girl's face" Hollywood scenario. Cringing internally at the thought, she rummaged for napkins and swiped at the ketchup. "Are you going to eat yours or what?" she asked.
James was still watching her with the corners of his mouth turned up. Rather than responding, he lifted his burger and tore off nearly half of it with his teeth, bits of lettuce falling out of his mouth as he attempted to chew.
Lily let out an indignant hum when a couple of them fell onto her jeans along with a glob of ketchup. Her mouth was still occupied, so she settled for flinging a chip at the side of his face.
"Li-leh!" James looked outraged as he followed its path from his bulging cheek to the dusty folds of the blanket. He swallowed. "That was a blatant waste of food."
"Nope," she said, picking it up and sticking it into her mouth.
James snorted in delight. "You're something else, you know?"
Lily just shrugged, and they continued to make short work of the take-away. By the time James took the last slurp of his milkshake, the moon was high in the sky and the air was pleasantly muggy against their skin.
"Ugh," said Lily, lazily leaning back. "I have never felt so guiltily satisfied in my life."
"Guilt?" said James. "What the hell are you guilty for?"
"Well, there was that minor thievery incident…"
James' hand met his forehead. "Don't remind me."
"Sorry. Here, let's make a deal that we don't talk about it until we get home."
She raised one hand in a "solemnly swear" gesture. James, misinterpreting, reached up and clasped it in a salutary high-five, saying "deal." His hand firmly enveloped hers; it was larger and warmer, and his fingers were rough with calluses. Lily held her breath unconsciously, thrown off guard by the sudden contact.
And then they pulled apart, James inhaling sharply beside her. He was very close beside her, she realized now; less than a foot separated their shoulders and thighs. Lily inched her knees closer to her chin and looked intently at the sky, which was slowly being filled with stars. Had it been this warm out here all along? Why did all that food suddenly feel uncomfortable in her stomach?
"I've, er, been meaning to ask," said James; Lily's chest spasmed at the words as if she knew precisely what was to come. "That- er, night with the concert. And the quidditch. We were all pretty sloshed but - do you remember anything… from later on?"
Well. There it was, then. After all the evasiveness and subtle attempts at gauging one another's reactions, it was weird to hear it so bluntly. Lily took a deep breath, not meeting James' eyes as she tore her burger wrapper into small strips. "Er, yeah, actually. Kind of."
"Oh. Okay." James fidgeted uncomfortably against the blankets.
"Guessing you do too."
"Yeah. I'm sorry. I'm-Well, I'm a bit of a sappy drunk. Tend to get these grandiose ideas that seem brilliant at the time but are generally just embarrassing."
Lily finally turned to look at him, and her skin prickled at how stupidly handsome and pink-cheeked he looked. "It was a pretty song," she said. "I'd heard you practising it in the basement before."
"I wrote it for you," James said in a moment of heart-stopping honesty. The words hung in the air for a spell. "Was going to save it for… something, I dunno, but my twatish drunk self thought it'd be a great idea to barge into your room in the middle of the night."
Lily bit back a laugh. "Well… My twatish drunk self was actually quite impressed."
"Really." James was unconvinced.
"Really." He blinked, shifting to stare incredulously into her eyes.
"Yes. Jeez. It was a nice song, alright?"
James settled back, looking pleased. "A nice song," he repeated. "Coming from you, I'll take it."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Just." James shrugged. "You know. You're not exactly the easiest girl to impress."
Lily was silent for a minute. In the moonlight, James' skin was still faintly flushed. His profile was edged in silver. "Nothing wrong with having high standards," she said quietly.
"In fact, it's probably better, because it means more when, you know, you finally..."
James swallowed. "Yeah, probably."
The pasture was deadly silent, barely even a breeze floating by, and Lily was about to do something very stupid. Catastrophic, maybe. She reached out a hand to splay over the front of James' jacket, feeling his breath catch under her palm.
And then she was kissing him.
The whole day disappeared. The library, the asylum, the stolen file—the whole week, even, that Lily had spent fretting over rockstars in the kitchen and evil tycoons and Petunia being a nutjob. Like a deep and satisfying breath, the meeting of their lips seemed to fill every crevice of her body, first with an electrical shiver and then, as James' mouth relaxed from the initial surprise, with a pleasant, all-consuming warmth. She pulled back momentarily, tucking a piece of hair behind her ear. "Er," she said. "Er, that was—" He met her eye and smiled that stupid half-grin of his, muttering "No, it wasn't" as he leaned in once again. His arms laced around her back to press her closer, and her hands went to his hair, and the scent of rain-kissed earth was all over. A clap of thunder echoed, far away.
Out of the thunder came the sound of wheels on gravel, and they turned in alarm to see a green sedan coming up the road. James' cloak-and-dagger instincts seemed to kick in and he shouted "Everybody down!" leaning over Lily to conceal them both from sight. She was practically crushed under his chest, laughing uncontrollably as the car sped by. "Geroff me," she complained into his shoulder.
"Coast is clear," he said at last, hoisting himself into a sitting position. Lily sat up too, and saw that he couldn't keep the grin off his face. She straightened her shirt and tried to un-muss her hair—a hopeless cause, more to avoid being the first to speak, acknowledging what had just happened. However, James continued to look at her with a dopier expression than any rockstar had the right to wear.
"What?" she finally said.
"Nothing. Just… that was like three weeks' worth of wish fulfillment in thirty seconds."
"That's a little weird, considering you've known me ten days."
"Ten days? That all?" James was genuinely perplexed.
"Mm-hmm," said Lily. It often seemed like the Marauders had been around much longer. Even Lily wouldn't have any conception of time except that she'd been meticulously tracking her parents' absence, praying to avoid an unexpected return.
Perhaps it was the thought of her parents that pitched Lily back into the reality of their situation. Those ten days suddenly seemed far too much time for what little progress they had made, and her thoughts shifted to the mud-encrusted file in the glove compartment.
"Do you think DeMort's still trying to find you?" she asked, looking at the stars instead of James' face; they were so bright that the constellations started burning into her retinas. "Actively, I mean?"
James tensed up in her peripheral vision, and when she looked over, he was picking at his thumbnail. "Yes." It was spoken without question. He glanced up with a weird, sardonic glint in his eyes. "I imagine he's got his army of darkness combing all of England as we speak."
"Comforting." Lily's spine prickled as her gaze swept around the shadowy heath. "Why, though? Like, I get that he's angry, but what's with the mafia tactics?"
"You don't piss off Valentino DeMort without expecting serious consequences."
"So I gather," Lily said faintly. "But you're just a bunch of teenagers."
"Teenagers who made a deal with the devil."
"Not to be dramatic about it," Lily snorted.
James was silent for a second, and Lily could hear the breath whoosh out of his chest. "It's easier this way."
"What do you mean?"
"Turning it into a joke, I s'pose. It's easier than admitting how fucking scared we are."
The sudden gravity made Lily shift uncomfortably in the silence. She got the impression that, as much as the Marauders had told her about the dangerous Val DeMort, there was more to their fear of him that she had yet to understand.
"How serious are these consequences, exactly?" she asked. "I mean, he wouldn't—surely he wouldn't have you killed or anything, just for walking out on a concert?"
James' voice was as dark as his eyes when he replied. "We don't know that. We cost him a lot of money doing what we did. He had the whole summer tour planned and paid for and we just let it go to shit. Not to mention, the whole Val-Mart thing's probably a bust at this point—like, picture the most famous band in the country openly turning their backs on a company. Nobody's going to shop there after that, are they?"
Lily didn't know what to say. Instead, she shifted a few inches closer on the blanket.
"We basically put a huge black mark on his empire if you think about it," he went on. "Not that we realized—I mean, we just didn't want to do the concert, end of story. I guess we didn't think beyond that point, to the fact that we were ruining everything else as well. Because we're bloody idiots is what it boils down to. Bloody idiots who should've got the picture the last time this happened."
"There was a last time?"
"Yeah. Well, no, not the same thing. But there was this bloke—I can't for the life of me remember his name. Greasy git about our age—we saw him a few times. Wouldn't have trusted him with anything. Anyway, he was one of Val's dealers."
"No, fluffy kittens," said James, and laughed. "Yeah, believe it or not, Val's got quite a presence on the drug market. This bloke, he was obviously really important—he kept turning up when Val had us in for meetings and stuff. Only one day, he just stopped turning up."
Lily pondered this. "Well, he could have been fired, right?"
"Yes. Except we overheard this phone call with one of Val's secretaries, Thelma Nagini. People always called her "the Snake." Anyway, he was really angry, saying things like "he must be punished for his crimes" and "he's decided to take a cut for himself… we'll show him a cut, heh?" It was really disturbing. We weren't stupid enough to ask questions, obviously, but we always suspected…" He trailed off, staring vacantly down the road.
"Christ," said Lily. His words, so raw and honest, had instilled fear in her too—a lump of dread in the pit of her stomach. She hated to see the darkness on his features. She hated that these four boys, guilty only of standing up for their values—and having rather large heads at times—had to live under such a shadow. She reached out gently and put her arms around his torso, hoping it would help in some measure.
"And now we've gone and dragged you into it, too," sighed James.
"I don't mind so much," Lily said honestly. "As long as I'm only the getaway driver."
"Brilliant. We've always needed one of- one of-" James couldn't fight off a massive yawn. "God, I'm tired."
"Me, too." Lily pulled away. "Hold on, move over for a second." She tugged one of the blankets out from under their legs, and they shared it between them for warmth. Using their rucksacks for pillows, they arranged themselves in the closest thing to a comfortable position.
"'Night, Lily," mumbled James as they settled into silence.
"'Night," she responded, and gazed up at the stars until she fell asleep.
The next morning, Lily woke up with the sun. She opened her eyes to shining mist and a still-dark sky, rays of gold just starting to peek up over the horizon. Everything was covered in dew, including the blankets. James was breathing evenly next to her, his glasses all fogged up and his lips moist with the damp air.
While Lily stared at him, he blinked awake as though by instinct.
"Mornin'," James said, swiping hisglasses off and rubbing his eyes as he sat up. His hair was severely suffering from the humidity and scratchy blankets; it was sticking up like mad at all angles. Lily fought the urge to reach over and flatten it down.
"Morning," she said, suddenly self-conscious about her own appearance. For a second, things were tentative as they took in their proximity and recalled the previous night.
Then, James' mouth quirked up at the sides and he leaned onto his hands to press a small kiss to her lips.
"Mm-no," Lily said, pulling back, and James looked momentarily crestfallen. "I haven't brushed my teeth, is all."
James laughed. "Don't care, believe me." He kissed her again, longer this time, and Lily felt something stirring in her abdomen.
It took a minute for her to push him away. "Well, neither have you," she reminded him. "And I sort of do care, so." She flicked his arm, smiling. "Enough."
James let out a long-suffering sigh. "Fine, fine." He stretched out, raising his arms to the sky and cracking his elbows as he yawned. His teeth began worrying his bottom lip as he turned to look at Lily. "Erm, listen…You are okay with this, yeah?"
She contemplated brushing him off, but only for about a millisecond. Lying was exhausting, and as bone-tired as she was right now, it seemed like an unnecessary energy expenditure. "Surprisingly… yes."
"Good, because I've been going mad," James said on a faint breath of laughter.
Unfortunately, Lily couldn't bring herself to mirror his joy, because there was someone who would definitely not be okay with this.
James sensed her hesitance. "What?"
"Petunia," Lily said at length.
"Ah. Yeah… going to be slightly awkward, innit?"
"Awkward?" Lily looked dully at him. "James, she still has your face pasted into the wedding planner she bought at Marks & Spencer four years ago. I think she's genuinely written her vows and everything."
James was silent for a moment. "To be fair, we do get marriage proposals literally every day," he half-joked. "I mean, Sirius is already engaged to about half of the world's female population. Probably a fair few lads too, come to think of it. It doesn't mean anything."
Lily sighed, collecting her knees between her elbows and settling her chin on top. "It means something to her," she said. "Listen, I know it's stupid, but this is the closest I've been to Petunia in years…"
James nodded, letting out a breath. "And you don't want to ruin it."
"Right. That's not all, though," Lily admitted, feeling the unpleasant memories resurfacing. "I sort of.. promised her that nothing would happen between us."
James was quick to conceal the hurt on his face, but Lily didn't miss it.
"Look, it's not that I didn't want anything to— well, I didn't expect…" She groaned, putting her head in her hands. "It's just so bloody complicated."
"It's not though," said James, suddenly adamant. In a move of unexpected boldness, he tugged one hand away from her forehead and held it in his. Lily blinked. "It's not as though she has dibs or anything. Hell, if she really wanted me to like her, she'd try not to be such an insufferable pest."
He retracted his hand. "Sorry," he said. "Sorry, that was a really crap thing to say. It's just. Frustrating."
Lily could see the frustration in the tense line of his jaw, but also the genuine apology written between the slant of his brows. Her own brain was a warzone of conflicting emotions.
"Sorry," James said again. "Forget it, I understand where you're coming from. I can respect if you don't want to go there."
She did want to go there, though, and that was the problem. "I think…" she said haltingly. "I think that maybe we should take things very slowly."
James' eyes flickered with cautious optimism.
"Like, very slowly," Lily said. "And you should probably start picking your nose or something every time you see Petunia."
"I'll use Dudley without washing my hands," he suggested, a grin creeping up the side of his face. "That ought to do the trick."
"Well, we don't want you getting kicked out either."
"Force feed her steak and chips?"
"Fair enough," said James. "On that note, should we head out soon? Not that I haven't thoroughly enjoyed this scenery." He gestured at the single cow on the hill beside them.
"I reckon so," said Lily. She stretched out her back and arms, stiff from the truck's uneven bed.
"Are you alright to drive?"
"Why, because of this?" She cracked her neck. "We common folk can survive one night without our feather pillows, Potter."
For once, the journey home felt longer than the initial drive. Possibly because they stopped once for breakfast sandwiches, once for crisps and soft drinks, and once for a "proper lunch" (burgers, round two). But it was more likely that they were propelled by a longing for the comforts of home, and the more they willed the drive to pass, the more the road stretched out in front of them. Yes, as strange as it was, there was something rather homey about the four boys in the basement and Petunia flitting madly about the house. When the two of them pulled into the Evanses' driveway, they wordlessly grabbed their rucksacks and trudged up to the door.
It opened before either of them made a move to knock.
"Jesus," Sirius said, his eyes roving over them as his arm dropped from the door handle. "You both look like actual shit. OI, THEY'RE HOME!" he yelled over his shoulder. Peter and Petunia filtered into the hall as James replied, "Lovely, thanks mate," and shoved him aside to cross the threshold.
"James!" Petunia said, beaming from overtop of a steaming platter and floral oven mitts. "You must be exhausted! I've baked shortbread. Do you want tea? I can put the kettle on." The words raced one another out of her mouth, tripping and stumbling and full of unbridled joy; Lily could practically see the hearts oozing out of her eyes. It made her skin itch with guilt.
"How'd you go?" Remus asked, poking his head in to join them.
"Yeah, good," James said, sliding a biscuit off of Petunia's plate and stuffing it into his mouth while he fished around in his pack for the file. Several crumbs fell onto the tiles. "Fwound this," he added, producing the document with a flourish. "Reckon it migh' be usefuh."
Remus wrinkled his brow. "What is it?"
"Technical stuff later," Sirius said, swatting it away. "I've been bored out of my mind for two days straight; I want to hear about your adventures."
"There's really not much to tell," Lily said.
Sirius smirked. "Really?" he goaded. "No fun stories? No cozy details from last night?"
It wouldn't have been awkward, except that Lily and James' floundering silence went on for just a millisecond too long.
"You're delusional," Lily scoffed, hoping to all that was good that Petunia hadn't noticed anything off about the interaction. "And I need a shower before I can even think about anything else, so if you'll excuse me.." She turned to make for the staircase, but a frantic jingling sound cut her of. Lily stuck her arms out just in time to catch the ball of black fur that had propelled itself up and into her chest. Harry's claws latched onto the front of her jumper, his head bumping into the crook of her neck as his throat rumbled loudly.
"Blimey," Lily said, taking a step back in shock and turning around with the cat clinging to her. "Did you miss me, then?" She scratched his chin, missing the looks of utter darkness that had crossed the faces of Petunia, Remus, Sirius and Peter.
"You have no idea, Lulu," Sirius said, scratching at the red stripes on his arm. "No. Bloody. Idea."
A/N: It is what it is. (That's our new motto). Thanks for sticking with us. You guys are cooler than cool and we don't deserve you.
(Dang it, ffnet, why won't you accept our display of love? Sigh. We have been forced to invent this mangled version of the less-than-three heart. Hopefully the sentiment is still there).
Liz and Sam