Author's note: Well, well well. Seems like something or someone was listening when I hoped out loud that this chapter wouldn't take as long as the last one. Enjoy!
On Saturday, Lily found the library after an hour of wandering the halls, listening to the quiet patter of the rain against the castle's thick walls. On Sunday, she ran into Severus there, lounging around a table with his friends.
"Be nice to him, Thomas," Evan said to her, as Severus lurched to his feet. "I'm sure he's very sorry." The curious, expectant looks Evan and the others were giving Lily made her wonder if they still thought she and Severus were on the outs.
"Yeah," Avery added, his tone not quite serious. "We'd like him back unslapped, please."
"Shut it," Severus said, glaring back at his friends. Lily blushed, rather wishing that she hadn't ended yet another scene with Potter with a slap. People tended to remember that sort of thing, and be unpleasant about it. "Ignore them," Severus said, once he was close enough. "They're being idiots."
"Are they really?" Lily asked, halfway serious. "I feel like I wasted your letter," she said. "All I got to do was slap Potter. Again."
"What happened, anyway? All I saw was how they mobbed you when you tried to walk away."
"I was going to give it over," Lily said, quietly. "Potter was too close— and then Georgie gave him my mum's letter, and I just thought, what if he keeps both of them?"
"And you walked, and they were on you," Severus said, thoughtfully. "You were probably right about them thinking of keeping it."
"Definitely, yeah. I mean, if they were okay with taking it from you like that..." Severus shrugged. "You did your best."
Lily sighed. "I didn't think," she couldn't help but add, because she had thought of it eventually, thought of how things might have gone if she hadn't been so eager to use his letter. "If I'd just thought about it, and waited till it was just me and the girls—"
"You wouldn't have gotten to slap Potter, and make Black look a giant prat," Severus pointed out. When she shrugged, he cleared his throat. "If you want," he said, carefully, "I could write another one."
"What for?" Lily stared at him. "They'd never believe me, trying to do that exchange again—"
"No," Severus said easily, cutting her off. "They'd believe me, though, wouldn't they?"
Lily did not let herself say what she was thinking, a mixture of yes and you idiot and are you mad? She opened her mouth, and found that she couldn't make a tart comment about what sort of treatment he'd get from them, compared to her. She could just see it, just see the scene that would unfold after they took the letter from him— Potter saying something about how Slytherins couldn't be trusted, no doubt.
"It wouldn't work," Lily said, finally. "Or, at least, it would work as well as it did when I tried it. Which is not very well."
"It wouldn't necessarily be the same sort of letter," Severus argued. "It could at least look real at first."
"There are spells for that sort of thing, all right? I could look them up."
"But you've never done them before," Lily pointed out, "and they might not work, and so we'd be left with a really funny fake letter, or a really embarrassing one that everyone in the entire school will think is real." She couldn't bring herself to say the sort of things Potter had, because it was awful enough to remember them, to imagine everyone speculating like that even though she and Severus were only eleven. "Look, I appreciate the offer—"
"Do you?" Severus had gone a little pink in the face, and the expression he wore was somehow scrunched and suspicious. "You don't sound it."
Lily glared at him outright, unable to help herself. "Is that a joke?" she hissed. "Is that a sodding joke?" She rather enjoyed the way the skewed suspicion on Severus' face became alarm so quickly, despite the fact that she could feel his friends' eyes on her now, watching. "Of course I do, you idiot! I'm saying no because I sodding well know what it's like, when everyone else is talking about you, and I'd rather not risk that for a letter from my mum."
Severus was rather red, now, and wouldn't quite look her in the eye. "I know that," he said, defensively, as if he hadn't just been going on like he did not. "I just..." he looked at her then, sheepishly. "It feels like letting them win."
Lily eyed him, not quite certain what to believe. Grumbling about having to give up or retreat was Severus all over, that was true. Grumbling about her not being grateful for him offering to play at being in love with her to get back Mum's letter, when everything about that scheme might go horribly wrong... "You would never live it down," she said, shaking her head. "It wouldn't be remotely worth it, and you know it."
Severus frowned at her. "All right," he said, holding up his hands. "I hear you. Not remotely worth it."
"For you," Lily added, hoping he would get the point, "you great pillock." When she saw his frown ease a little, she decided to go on. "One brilliant letter was enough, all right?"
He rolled his eyes at her, but not very thoroughly. "I still think I could do more," he insisted. "We could definitely do more."
"If you say that one more time, I will slap you," Lily said, sternly. "Really, Severus."
"In front of my friends?"
"Why not?" Lily waved in their general direction. "Look at them; they've all been expecting it."
Severus actually did look at them over his shoulder, scowling their way. "I told them we'd just been faking being angry at each other," he said, his tone perplexed. "They said they believed me, but they keep making these stupid little jokes." He shook his head, turning back to her. "One minute, they're all going on about how we'll be married, and the other, they're all making jokes about me being slapped."
"Like I said," Lily said, again, "not worth it. It's always one or the other, when people think you're too close to someone." She shrugged, careful to keep her expression neutral. "So long as it's just the Gryffindors, and your friends—"
"And the Slytherin girls and their friends," Severus pointed out. "That lot are always talking."
"So long as you don't go trying to convince them like your friends, all they know to talk about is the slap," Lily said, confidently. "Right?"
"Right," Severus said, nodding. "And I suppose you're all right with them talking about the slap?"
"Oh, yeah," Lily said, nodding back. "Anyone that hears about it from them and wants to know what really happened will probably end up talking to me. The boys might not, but the girls definitely will. Whatever they ask, I'll do my best to make Potter look even more of an idiot."
"Fine by me," was the approving answer. "Good luck."
Lily smiled at Severus as he turned away, already thinking of the sort of things she would say to people looking to find out what had really happened. She doubted she would need any luck, for those conversations.
Two days later, Lily was halfway through writing her letters for Mum and Petunia, and not even started with any of the conversations with girls from other houses. Despite the ceaseless rain that kept everyone in, she rarely found the other girls in her year in the library or the empty classes all over the castle, and when she did find anyone, they were on their way somewhere, with only time for a quiet 'hi' and a nod.
Lily began to wonder if she'd misjudged things, if she'd been too confident that anyone would care about the incident with Potter and Black. She began to stop wandering the halls with an eye out for other first year girls, began to wander around with an eye to a quiet spot to read, to finish her essays.
That was easy enough, once she gave up on the library. It was warm in there, and you could always hear the bells or see people leaving when it was time for lunch, but it was also where the Gryffindor boys went. Lily didn't spend a moment in there after seeing Black strolling through the Transfiguration section— as soon as she saw him, she jammed her books in her schoolbag and made her way out, glancing over her shoulder to make sure he hadn't seen her.
He and Potter been horrible to her since the slap, every time they saw her. If she said anything back, she was a harpy; if she stayed silent, she was a coward; if she left, she was being oversensitive, and didn't she know they were only making fun? Lily couldn't do anything about the lessons they shared together, since that was every single one. All she could do was try to eat alone as much as she could, whether by being early to meals or by carrying them off on her own.
She grew resentful of some teachers, the ones that looked askance at her as she left the Hall. Professor Sprout was one of them, a short, squat woman that still fairly towered over Lily when she found her reading by her office door just after lunch.
"Thomas, isn't it?" she said, not waiting for an answer. "No call to be here this early, you know. The greenhouses aren't going anywhere."
"I had a reading to finish, miss," Lily lied, glad that she'd had her Charms textbook open to pass the time. "I just thought I'd wait here while I did it."
"Hmph," was all Sprout said, as she waved her door open. "Come in, then— might as well."
Lily picked up her bag, suppressing the unholy urge to roll her eyes while following the professor into her crowded little office. How teachers like Sprout cared enough to notice the way she slipped out of meals without noticing why— then Lily saw the glass door at the other end of the narrow, plant-filled office, and couldn't help but stare.
"State charms," Professor Sprout said shortly, when she saw what Lily was looking at. "The longest and dreariest things to set up, I'll have you know."
Lily flushed, but couldn't look away from the sheer impossibility of what she was seeing. It was as if the greenhouse was right next door, and if she went a little closer to the door, she could hear the way the rain sounded distant only from there. "State charms?"
Sprout was rifling through a drawer in her desk, and did not look up to answer. "Most of the spell," she said, her voice slightly muffled, "involves convincing an object to be in two places at once. It takes a month and a half, and a lot of shuffling a heavy door back and forth, and some sort of poking about at dimensional fabric." Sprout finally came up with the heavy leather book she'd read their names from in the first class, and the look she gave Lily was rather stern. "Students are not allowed to meddle with the castle's geography without permission, so I do hope you'll be sensible enough not to try."
"No, miss," Lily said, easily, though she couldn't imagine how on earth Sprout thought she would go about doing such a thing. Levitating a feather was one thing; making a door be in two places at once was quite another. As she followed Sprout through the glass door, Lily thought her way through the professor's muddled explanation, and couldn't help but wonder how it had all been managed.
"Gloves on," Sprout said, pointedly. "Or actually, you'll only need one. What's your wand hand?"
"The hand you hold your wand in when you cast," was the impatient answer. "Put your glove on that one, understood?"
Lily did as she was told, flushing again, wondering what on earth was wrong with calling it your main or writing hand, like normal people. Professor Sprout set her to washing a bunch of wriggling little plants in a wide bowl in the center of the room, then putting them into a dirt-filled pan by the side.
"Separate them with your ungloved hand," Sprout had said, brusquely. "Only dip them into the solution with your gloved hand one at a time, then transfer them over." Lily could see why— the plants were wound together so tightly that she had to pry the plants apart with her fingernails, and the dipping solution hissed and reeked around her glove. It was a complicated little dance, and Lily had only just got the hang of doing it at a reasonable pace when the other students began streaming into the greenhouse.
You could tell, as they came in, who was muggleborn among them. None of the Gryffindors gave the door more than a second glance, not even Jemima. But four of the Hufflepuffs let their gazes linger on it as it shut behind them, two of the boys and two of the girls. Lily recognized one of the girls right away— the McDonald girl from Diagon Alley. She didn't quite remember who the second girl was until she went by, looking over her shoulder at the door in a way that Lily suddenly recognized.
It was the timid girl from the boats, the lake ride at the very start of term. Lily now recalled the way the girl had kept looking over at Hagrid, like a nervous bird keeping an eye on a hawk. She was looking back at the door just as carefully, as if she were afraid to be caught.
Lily caught her eye and smiled, feeling silly, wondering if the girl had remembered her as well. She was surprised to get a hesitant smile back, and even more surprised to see the girl change direction, drifting over toward the table nearest to Lily. The Hufflepuff girls tagged along with her without a thought, the two purebloods deep in whispered conversation, the McDonald girl nodding along with them.
They seemed very much a unit, settling into place near that table, making room for each other's bags and getting out their gloves. Lily watched them with growing envy, noting how the Hufflepuff boys settled in a couple of tables down without causing a fuss and laughing loudly like Potter and the others were.
"I'm ever so sorry, Professor," Black was saying now, about the tray of plants he'd knocked over. "I didn't mean—"
"Quiet," Professor Sprout said, sternly. "And put on your gloves, for goodness' sake— those shrivelfigs have been dipped, they could burn off your fingers."
"Professor," Potter said, innocently, "I don't mean to be a bother, but Thomas only has one on." That sent everyone— everyone— looking in Lily's direction, everyone except the professor, who rolled her eyes. "If it's not safe for Sirius—"
"One glove for the people who didn't knock anything over," Sprout said, firmly, "and do not need to pick anything up. I'm quite aware of how Miss Thomas is wearing her gloves, thank you." She turned away from Potter, her eye on Mary and the other girls. "Wand hand, McKinnon, that's the one."
Lily fidgeted beneath the Hufflepuffs' scrutiny, now regretting how the girls had sat nearby. They were near enough for her to hear them whispering about her, and only catch a word or two of what they said. She didn't know whether to be glad that the girl from the boat was whispering along with them, if very quietly.
"Thomas," Sprout said, from the other end of the greenhouse, "are you finished with your first pan?"
"Not quite, professor," Lily said, pausing her struggle with the current plant so she could look around. "Should I—"
"No, keep going. Once you finish that one, you can just move on to another at any of the other tables." Sprout began to make her way down the middle of the greenhouse, peering closely at how each student was getting on. "You had a head start, so I expect you to be able to finish off a pan and a half. Everyone else, you are required to finish the pan in front of you, and do it properly. Understood?"
"Yes, professor," the others said, shooting looks in Lily's direction. The ones from the Gryffindors were not very sympathetic, and the ones from the Hufflepuffs were more curious than anything. As she worked, Lily couldn't help counting the pans on the tables on either side of her, and sighing when she saw that the only unattended one was right by Georgie.
"Be patient, for goodness' sake," Sprout said, to Pettigrew. "You don't want it torn in half."
By then, Lily was on her last shrivelfig. Once it was done, she took her time picking out an empty pan or pot, something to keep her glove from dripping everywhere while she made the dreaded switch to a new pan. As Lily positioned her chosen pot, she almost didn't feel the careful little tug on her sleeve.
It was the girl from the boat. "There's a free pan over here if you want," she said, gesturing in the Hufflepuff boys' direction with her head. "Down by Fiona."
"Laura," McDonald whispered, warning her, just as Professor Sprout swept by.
"Eyes on your work, Miss Drake," was all the professor said. "You can't be properly careful if you're not looking at your work." Then, when Lily tried to go around her, "Where are you going?"
"Moving to a new pan, miss," Lily said, careful to keep her dripping glove over the empty plant pot she'd borrowed for the purpose. "The pot's closed at the bottom, I made sure to check."
"Hmph." Sprout tilted the pot with a light touch, to check for herself. "Very well." Lily threaded her way round to the promised free pan, which was right smack between the last Hufflepuff girl and the first Hufflepuff boy. "Don't forget your bag at the end of the class, mind."
Lily nodded to that, pretending not to see how measuring the professor's expression was, how obviously the Gryffindors were staring. She simply started on the next shrivelfig, patiently unfurling it from it's neighbor and transferring it to her gloved hand.
"You're good at that," said the girl next to Lily, in a careful little whisper. "Thomas, is it?"
"Lily," Lily said, firmly, determined to get started on the right foot. "And it's only the head start. It really does take going through a pan of these to get used to it."
"I suppose," was the amicable answer. "I'm Fiona, by the way. I hate to ask, but you're not any relation to Selwyn Thomas, are you?"
Lily blinked, nonplussed. That was hardly what she'd been expecting Fiona to ask, after starting with the oh-so-polite I hate to ask. "Not at all," she whispered back. "Why do you ask?"
Fiona went silent for a moment, waiting for Professor Sprout to pass them by. "Do you know Petra Warrington, in Slytherin?"
"Sort of, yeah," Lily whispered back, hoping she didn't sound too eager. She had an idea where this might be going, now, but wasn't completely sure—
"She's been saying things," Fiona said, quietly. "Some rot about Potter stealing your letter..." She gave Lily a quick, apologetic smile. "I thought she was trying to start something, maybe get him in trouble with Selwyn? But you said you're not related, so I suppose that's out."
Lily kept her eyes on her bowl of solution, dipping another plant very carefully. She wasn't sure what to say to that, and she knew she couldn't just come out with what she wanted to, what she was aching to say. I have to be careful, she told herself. I have to do this exactly right. So she gave Fiona a guarded little glance, and said nothing at all.
"I don't suppose you know Petra that well," Fiona went on. "She's never liked James, so I suppose she wouldn't shrink at lying about that sort of thing—"
"Oh?" Lily began on another shrivelfig, working at it slowly. "You're right— I definitely don't know her that well. That said," she looked over her shoulder, to confirm that Sprout was still hovering by Black and Lupin, "well. Potter did take my letter."
Fiona looked at her. "Did he." She shot a look at Sprout as well, then leaned in a bit. "Did he not give it back?"
Lily shrugged. "Last I saw of it was when he tossed it to Black," she said, tiredly. "I couldn't tell you whether he's still got it or not."
"Less chatter, more work," Sprout said, sharply. "Thomas, I'm looking at you."
"Sorry, miss." And Lily didn't say a word after that, though she could hear Fiona fidgeting and sighing on her right. She didn't want to get in trouble for talking in class, and rather thought the gossip would be more interesting to Fiona and her friends if they heard it in small, snatched doses.
The last thing she wanted was to look like the one who wouldn't shut up about it, the one who wouldn't let it go. Never mind that that was the truth; it looked desperate, and Lily knew how damning that could be. Better to keep her mouth shut, and work away, and only answer questions when she was directly asked.
In the end, Lily dipped nearly all of her shrivelfigs, working at the pace she'd fallen into. Whispers went on around her, muffled by the pounding rain, mostly a bunch of half-intelligible complaints about the dreary task. Though Fiona did turn to the other Hufflepuff girls, Lily found it hard to hear what they said without leaning in, and so was forced to be content with nervous silence.
A bell rang softly, almost drowned out by the loud patter of the rain. Sprout stirred from the spot she'd taken by the door, muttering to herself. A ghosty set of numbers appeared before her— three pm. "All right," she said, loudly. "You'll want to leave your used glove on the rim of the bowl. Use the clean one to help you take it off, and be careful." She began to pace the length of the greenhouse again, assisting here and there. "Don't worry about the leftover plants. Potter and I can certainly finish them off tonight."
"You've been careless all lesson," Sprout said, cutting in over his feeble protest. "Pretending to splash someone can go wrong extremely quickly, and you know it." She gave Black and the others a long, narrowed look. "I will not tolerate nonsense going on behind my back, understood?"
And suddenly Lily did understand— this wasn't just about the way Potter and Black had been ribbing each other all lesson. Someone had to have told the professor who had been behind the switched up trays from last lesson, or perhaps she'd been watching them closely, and made a good guess.
"Detention will be at eight," Sprout said firmly, into the awkward hush. "Dismissed, everyone."
Lily went over to the center of the greenhouse to pick up her bag, having stripped off her used glove. Loath as she was to just leave the expensive things there, she remembered how all her potions things had turned up at the foot of her bed after class, though they'd been left in the dungeons. They obviously had a system of returning used things to students, here, and asking after her things would make her look like she didn't know what it was.
"Wait up," Fiona called, after her. "Do you mind if I ask another question?"
"Not at all," Lily said, smiling back at her. "Though you will have to hurry. We've got Charms next, and I don't want to be late." She savored the wary look Georgie gave her as she went back through the glass door, not quite arm-in-arm with Fiona, but close enough. "What do you want to know?"
"Why he took it, for a start," the girl behind them said, hurrying to catch up. "I'm Geraldine, by the way, and that's Winnie, and I think you know Laura already, don't you?"
"Yeah," Lily said, feeling a touch overwhelmed. "It's sort of a long story, and I feel a bit silly about some of it—"
"You shouldn't," Fiona said. "That's the thing about James, honestly. He's all right, but he can be ever so silly."
"And annoying, and thick," Geraldine added, winking at Lily. "Was it really a letter from your mum? Because that's what Elouise said Petra said, and I thought that couldn't be true."
Lily flushed. "It was a letter from my mum," she said, oddly embarrassed to admit it. "I should say this first— he wasn't the one that actually took it from me at first. Georgie—"
"Georgie Hooper?" Fiona asked, giving Geraldine a meaningful look. "Oh dear."
Lily bit her lip. "I'm really giving you the wrong idea," she said, feeling helpless. "She didn't just take it for no reason—"
Geraldine shook her head, cutting her off. "What reason could have made up for that?" But she was already giving Lily a sort of eager, measuring look: "You didn't slap her, did you?"
"Hush," Fiona said firmly, to her friend. She gave Lily an encouraging sort of nudge, as if she had no interest in such wild theories at all. "Ignore her," Fiona said, pointedly. "Go on, you were about to say what made her do it."
Lily wanted nothing so much as to extricate herself from the tight little group, to peel away and make her excuses. She didn't know why she had thought it would be easy to explain anything, not when they all already saw her as some sort of touchy, violent thing. "A friend of mine said something mean to one of the girls after the flying lesson last week," she made herself say, as calmly as possible. "He's a Slytherin, and Georgie wanted me to give her the note he sent me earlier on, so they could read it and, I don't know, be embarrassing."
"And then she took your mum's letter, when you wouldn't?" Geraldine shook her head, open disapproval on her face. "Then she gave it to James?"
"Something like that," Lily muttered, torn between wanting to correct the other girl's assumption and wanting to leave her and the Hufflepuffs with the best impression of how things had gone. "And my friend had to know why I was upset, and then he had to do something about it, and it all got a bit, well, out of control."
"And that was the whole thing," Fiona said, nodding, ignoring the triumphant look Geraldine was giving her. "I see." Lily flushed, well aware of what the other girl had to be thinking— Petra would certainly not have left anything out about the slap or the row.
"How awful," Laura was murmuring, now. "Not the nicest way to end the week."
Lily gave a sharp little shrug. "I'd apologize," she said, "if I thought it would fix anything. Frankly, I doubt they'd be satisfied with anything but me helping them teach him a lesson, and I won't do that." The girls were all nodding a bit now, enough that Lily felt confident enough to add, "Not to a friend."
"Yeah," Geraldine said. Fiona muttered something like, "Exactly." Lily nodded back at them, and found herself fiercely glad she had broken through with the Hufflepuffs, with people who could so obviously understand how hard it was to break with a friend.
Envy bit at her, reminding her that she could have been one of them had the Sorting Hat thought her loyal enough. Lily brushed that thought aside, forcing herself to think of here and now and the immediate future, where she could possibly grow to count on these girls for a place to sit when they shared a lesson or two. "I'd better be off," she said now, backing off, "or I will be late for Charms."
"Good luck," was Geraldine's amiable reply. And, just as Lily turned away, she heard Fiona call out after her— "D'you know the way?"
Lily turned round to reply. "Yes, thanks," was all she had to say, because the boys were well ahead of her and she really had to hurry, but she couldn't help but smile as she did it.
She really had missed having someone who cared if she knew where she was going. It was lovely having that again.
Author's note: And again, as before, let me know what you think. Hoping the next chapter will be half as smooth a journey as this one, but you never know.