A/N: Thanks again to my beta, ObsidianEmbrace, who pretty much provided the plot outline for this part. You are fabulous. :)
Lily had waited a good many years for the world to come crashing down on James Potter's head. Collapse was inevitable: his ego was inflated to such a degree that a puncture was merely a matter of when and where. While Lily doubted any lasting damage had been done to that infamous ego tonight, she couldn't say the same about the Head Boy beneath, and hence was entirely unable to enjoy the overwhelming irony of the night's events.
Trust Potter to spoil poetic justice.
He'd be fine, of course. He was always springing back from adversity with a smirk on his face and battle-scars on display for the world. Lily knew James too well to expect anything else, even if a tunnel had taken up temporary residence on his legs. This is what she told herself as she sat perched on the edge of a bed in the Hospital Wing, Madam Pomfrey fussing loudly over the state of her arm.
It didn't work.
Try as she might to summon up memories of the strutting, smirking git-of-the-past, her brain persisted in adding unwelcome details: a limp, a debilitating wound, a pair of broken spectacles. Lily's insides were twisted, caught somewhere between fuming and fretting.
Where was he? What could be taking so long? If anyone could de-collapse a passageway, it was Dumbledore – but what if the wand flicked instead of swished, and the whole thing caved in mid-rescue?
What if somebody sneezed?
Lily jumped as something cold and wet slopped onto her skin.
"It's just one thing after another in this school," the matron said brusquely, ointment oozing onto Lily's arm from the tip of her wand. "Exploded cauldrons, Quidditch matches, collapsing castles – for goodness sake! If I had it my way, you'd all be strapped up and bound in protective cushions. Would save me a nice bit of work, I'll have you know…"
Lily nodded numbly along, mind already creeping back to the East Wing corridor. The questions quickly tumbled back into place, piling up like bricks in a wall, higher and higher until she couldn't stand it any longer.
"Where's James?" she burst out, the name still tasting foreign on her lips. "He should be here by now. What if they couldn't get him out?"
Madam Pomfrey shook her head, taking Lily's arm in a firmer, steadier grasp. "That's not for you to worry about. He'll be along. You need to sit here calmly and wait for the salve to take effect."
Muttering in undertone about the dire effects of stress on the students, Madam Pomfrey fixed Lily with an admonishing look before bustling off to the next bed along. As Lily watched her throw back the blankets, she was forcibly struck by the urge to flee, and flee now, before that bed was occupied.
A hot, panicky feeling nipped sharply at her nerves; it was all she could do not to bolt for the door. It wasn't that she didn't want to see James – quite the opposite, in fact. She was desperate to make sure he'd managed to survive the rescue effort. It was just – it was just that…
Lily fidgeted with her blankets until Madam Pomfrey threatened to confiscate them.
Thing was – thing was, she didn't know what she was going to say to James when she saw him. He was the one who'd been flinging about the idea of defending his dignity, but it was she who had broken down and hung onto his hand back there. If any dignity remained between them, it certainly wasn't weighted to Lily's side.
But it was more than a matter of pride. Unlike James, Lily hadn't much of an ego to puncture, and she was hardly the sort to skip out of a situation to avoid embarrassment. The heart of the issue was a much simpler matter. Face to face in a non-fatal setting, Lily was afraid they'd fall right back into the bickering of the past six and something years.
Gaze fixing on the empty bed beside hers, Lily exhaled shakily.
Stupid. She was being stupid. If she could banter with James through a rubble-filled wall, they should be able to do the same here. It shouldn't make any difference. It shouldn't.
Her eyes caught on the salve glistening on her arm, the one she'd shoved through boulders to reach for the Head Boy, just because it had seemed the thing to do at the time. What was that ridiculous thing James had said? Something about Gryffindors and –
She made a face. "I am not a guineapig."
"That's the spirit, dear," Madam Pomfrey said absently from the next bed over, adjusting the pillows with aplomb.
Lily flushed; still, she stuck by the sentiment. Lily Evans did not retreat. She was better than that, braver than that. And really, when it came down to it, she knew that she'd have to face up to James at some point. Better in the relative privacy of the Hospital Wing than the Gryffindor common room.
But what on earth was she going to say?
"Fancy meeting you here, Evans."
Lily's head snapped about at the sound of that voice, the usual premonitions of chaos, disorder and general disaster flashing immediately to mind. Her nerves sharpened exponentially. Expecting James, Lily blinked at the sight of McGonagall, following the path of the witch's outstretched wand arm to the horizontal body suspended above.
"No hysterics, please," said McGonagall as she strode through the Hospital Wing, dressing gown flapping irritably behind her. "If Potter can talk, I daresay he'll live." She did not sound especially pleased by the prospect.
Exchanging a dark look with Madam Pomfrey, McGonagall lowered James onto the bed next to Lily's. Mobility flooded back through his body the moment he touched the mattress, but a pale flash of a smile was all Lily saw before the witches whipped the curtains closed around his bed.
"Whatever you do for him, Poppy, I advise you knock him out. This boy requires nothing less than Skelegro."
"Lost bones, has he?"
"Haven't a clue. I wasn't thinking of his health."
Madam Pomfrey huffed her agreement. This was followed by a disconcerted rustling of the sheets, James adding his piece to the conversation.
"You know, this isn't quite the bedside manner I was expecting…"
Lily stared at the closed set of curtains, arm flopping forgotten by her side. Madam Pomfrey's diagnosis was clearly audible through the thin cotton divide: a broken ankle and severe bruising from thigh to mid-calf – and no, she would not stop touching Potter there, she was doing her job, and would he kindly lie still or would Filch's shackles be required?
It sounded like James would survive the injury – if not the matron's wrath.
Lily slumped back against the pillows with a muffled sigh. Relief pressed painfully against her ribs. She had no doubt James deserved more than a broken ankle and some bruising for the supreme idiocy of tramping up and down forbidden tunnels, but an ankle it was, and thank Merlin for that. The thought of Potter injured was… something more than painful. She didn't like to think why.
"Your salve will have taken effect by now, dear," said Pomfrey from behind the curtain, and it took a moment for Lily to realise that she was being addressed. She started, eyes darting down to her arm. The skin was smooth and barely marked, a far cry from the torn and jagged mess that the ointment had been applied to.
"Thank you," she called softly, perhaps too softly to carry through the curtains. Lily wasn't entirely sure she wanted Madam Pomfrey to hear her. If she did, she would surely order Lily back to her dormitory, and McGonagall would do more than echo the sentiment. But she couldn't leave yet. She had to talk to James, make her own diagnosis, and break a few more ankles if necessary.
Next moment, McGonagall thrust her way out of the curtains and stopped sharply at the sight of Lily.
"Dormitory, Evans. If Poppy says your arm is healed, there's no point dallying about here. I'll accompany you back to the Tower. I do believe it's high time that the victory party was put to rest."
Lily shook her head, thinking quickly. "I'm not feeling a hundred percent, Professor. Dizzy. If it's all right – if you don't mind, I'd like to lie here for a minute."
McGonagall examined her closely, and when she spoke, Lily was startled by the kindness in her voice. "Of course. It's the shock of the thing. You stay there until you are recovered – and mind you don't let Potter disturb your rest."
With a final nod, the Head of House strode for the door, leaving Lily to breathe a silent sigh of relief. She settled back into bed and listened to Madam Pomfrey muttering something about idiotic schoolboys who thought they were invincible until a boulder knocked some sense into them.
It was some time before the matron stepped out from behind the curtains, but when she did, she stopped and fixed Lily with a pointed look. "Still here, are we?"
"Professor McGonagall gave her permission," Lily explained, trying her best to look as wan and weary as she felt inside.
"Did she? Well, Minerva knows best… Perhaps some chocolate…"
Lily accepted the slab of chocolate with good grace and sat there gnawing at it until Madam Pomfrey left satisfied. It took barely a second for James to take advantage of their privacy.
Lily stopped gnawing at once. She cleared her throat once, then twice, finding it suddenly difficult to swallow. "Yes?" she managed at last.
"Well, come over here then! Open the curtains or something, sit on the bed, whatever you like. I'd come to you, only my ankle's busted and I'm reasonably certain Pomfrey's attached a bell to my big toe."
The chocolate was melting all over her fingers. Appetite waning, Lily placed what remained on the table beside her bed. The warmth that had enveloped her with the first few mouthfuls of the stuff was already seeping away.
"Shut up, she'll hear you," Lily hissed, making no move to rise and comply with James' orders. It wasn't that anything had changed, exactly – she still wanted to check he was all right, that his limbs were still attached as they should be, that his pillows were fluffed and his cheeks less pale – but it was precisely this urge to protect that was holding her back. She shouldn't feel this way. She never had before, no matter how much her insides had fluttered at the sound of James' voice.
Her hands shook slightly as she wiped them on the sheets.
"Come over, won't you? May as well chat while we're both here."
When Lily offered no immediate response, James exhaled loudly, his frustration obvious. "Merlin, Evans. What, you can't even pull back the curtain and take a gander at the invalid? Come off it. I want to see you."
Lily bit her lip. "Why?"
"Because. That's how a normal conversation works between two consenting adults. And I want to, you know… make sure you're all right."
"I'm fine," said Lily, hoping her voice didn't betray any of the tightness she felt in her chest. He wanted to check she was all right? Nonsense. Why should he?
"Fine, are you? Pomfrey said there's something wrong with your arm. And you told McGonagall you felt dizzy."
"Studying to be a Healer?"
"Enough, all right? Feels like I'm still trapped in that sodding tunnel with you on the outside."
Lily stiffened, the phrase affecting her more than she would have liked. There was a distinct undertone of pleading in her terse reply. "I'm still here, aren't I?"
"Yes, you are," came James' response, and he sounded almost surprised about it, like he hadn't really considered that aspect of the situation. There was a warmth in his voice that spoke of his pleasure in the fact, a warmth that Lily recognised and then immediately resolved to ignore.
James Potter's was a dangerous voice; it wouldn't do to forget this.
"I felt dizzy," she said once somewhat recovered, and her tone was defensive. She didn't want James to get it into his head that she'd stayed in the Hospital Wing for him – especially as it was, after all, the truth.
"But you feel fine now."
"I ate some chocolate."
"Nobody offered me chocolate. I suppose a broken ankle doesn't merit any. I should have put on a fainting spell instead."
"I didn't put it on, Potter."
"I suppose the sight of me sent you swooning, then."
James snorted. "I know you, Evans. You don't go all faint at the drop of a wand, and you certainly didn't sound dizzy back in the East Wing. Either you stayed here for the sake of some chocolate, a move which I would applaud and admire, or you wanted to talk to me."
"Haven't heard that one in a few years. I thought I'd been upgraded to 'conceited twit' as per the epitaph."
"How times change."
It was incredible how swiftly Lily's irritation had grown, undoubtedly honed by years of practice. She shifted uncomfortably on the bed, more annoyed at herself than the berk behind the curtain. She was being entirely unreasonable and prickly to a fault. It wasn't like her. She didn't want to act like this.
This was exactly what she'd been afraid of: that they wouldn't be able to speak in a civil sort of manner once the crisis had ended. And it wasn't James' fault, not at all. He was being nothing more or less than himself – and he was being nice.
She flinched as he began to apologise, obviously eager to avoid another argument – but Lily wouldn't stand for it.
"No, don't," she interrupted tightly. "Don't apologise. I'm the one being stupid. And I'm sorry. I am."
"Nevertheless, I shouldn't have kept pushing it. So I'll stop. And we'll just talk. Like you wanted."
"Like I wanted," Lily repeated slowly, admitting it aloud. It was true, of course, but that didn't help her think of anything further to add to the conversation.
The whole thing might have collapsed into an awkward, expectant silence if James hadn't saved the day and started up about the Gryffindor party. He'd always loved to play the hero.
"…and Sirius will break my other ankle when he finds I haven't got the butterbeer. Of course, he'll probably be in detention for a few weeks after McGonagall shows up and slaps on the manacles. He won't have a chance to do it before the Slytherin match, which is all that really matters. We're going to plough them into the ground; we've had a strategy going for months. Can't wait to see Stebbins' face… "
Lily, who had started listening with every intention of being perfectly agreeable, couldn't take it any longer. It was with an explosive "James!" that she neatly derailed his monologue.
"Is that all you can talk about? Quidditch?"
There was a taken aback sort of silence, then – "Sorry?"
Lily glared at the folds of curtain before her. "How can you sit there and talk about team sports after everything we've just been through? You almost – I thought – you could have died, Potter!"
"Well, what else should we talk about?"
Grappling for words, Lily spluttered out the first thing that came to mind. "I don't know – well, yes, I do! Life. There is more to life than Quidditch, James!"
"Of course there is. There's all the dull parts as well, but I don't want to talk about them. Quidditch is like… it's the flying, Lily, the sense of being alive. When I get off my broomstick, everything feels more or less like I'm buried under rocks in a very dark, very painful place." He cleared his throat uncomfortably. "Well, not everything. Some things are different… but that's neither here nor there."
Lily didn't know how to respond to this. It was nothing like what she had expected, but after everything else that had happened that night, she supposed she really shouldn't have bothered expecting at all. She stared at her hands, fully aware that James was on the other side of that curtain waiting for a reply.
She was being ridiculous; that much was obvious. And James was being – and there was no other word for it – honest. Nice and honest all at once. The world had tipped upside down.
Lily's every expectation was collapsing in around her, and she had no idea how to act, what to say, what to do.
Overwhelmed, she grappled again and finally fixed on the easy way out. "I'm sorry this conversation is so very dark and painful for you."
James' disappointment rang loud through the dividing curtain. "You've got the wrong end of the broomstick, Lily. Yet again. And I really hate it when you treat me like a first-class prat, particularly when I'm not even acting it." He drew a deep breath and finished with a lightness in his voice that Lily knew she didn't deserve. "I can only assume that this is the first of the seventeen shades of pain you promised."
What could Lily say to that? She could only apologise, and she did so for what seemed like the twentieth time that night.
James sighed heavily. "All is forgiven if you toss me some chocolate."
"You could just summon it, you know."
"Wouldn't be Lily if she didn't make me work for it," James muttered to himself, but there was a smile in his voice that Lily found herself reluctantly responding to.
"When did you stop being an arrogant toerag?"
The question was out of her mouth before she knew what she was saying.
They suffered a long, uncomfortable pause before James cleared his throat. "Never stopped. Just took it down a notch."
Lily shifted her gaze to the filigrees coiling gracefully about the ceiling. "I don't believe that."
"In that case, I suppose I stopped being one when you stopped thinking me one, Evans. Doesn't seem like I have much control over it."
Lily thought about this. Maybe James was right – maybe he wasn't in control of it. But she wasn't either, no matter what he thought. She had no control whatsoever, or she wouldn't be lying here staring at the ceiling, too scared to talk face to face with someone she saw and sparred with everyday.
Then James sneezed, and the situation seemed even more ridiculous. He was just a boy, a silly boy she'd known for years, and probably still coated in dust from the collapsing passageway.
"Er, bless you too?"
"It's a Muggle thing," Lily explained, lips edging into a smile. "Don't ask me. At least you won't be starting any avalanches up here."
"I wouldn't be so sure. I don't trust this castle at all. It betrayed me back there in that tunnel, and who's to say it won't do it again?"
"Sense and logic."
"Since when have I listened to them?"
"There is that."
"If it does fall in, you just send out another of those life-saving Patronuses, won't you? Or do you need to be holding my hand for that?"
Lily stiffened at once. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Oh, why can't you just admit it?" The frustration in his voice was tangible. "It's really not that hard. You couldn't cast that Patronus back there until you'd squeezed my hand and – and got a moment of bloody clarity. You liked it. You did."
Lily's stomach clenched with the ineffable truth of it, but the fear bit harder, and she was halfway off her mattress and determined to leave when James stuck a hand through his curtains.
"Get back in bed," she snapped, horrified at the thought of James further harming his ankle. "Do you want to heal or not?"
"Not if you don't stay here."
Lily wavered but the sight of that waiting hand proved too much. "See if I care," she said shortly, turning on her heel. Next moment, the rattling sound of curtains being swept aside forced Lily to swing back around, and she gasped as James pushed himself to his feet. "Don't you dare!"
"Come – here and – talk – to me," he panted, face gaining a greenish tinge as he took a tottering step forward.
Cursing Potter's name and his every living relation, Lily rushed forward and propelled him back to bed by the shoulders. His body crumbled before his resolve, and he was back on the mattress before Lily had been forced to make good on her threat to call for Madam Pomfrey.
"Are you out of your mind?" she snarled, heaving his legs onto the mattress when he proved unequal to the task. They were heavier than she expected, and it took some effort to lift them, let alone support the broken ankle. When she was finally done and somewhat recovered, Lily glanced furiously at James' face. The intense look she found there – half triumph, half determination – made her heart leap into her throat.
"What?" she asked sharply, tugging the blankets over James with a growing sense of self-consciousness. He was there, right there, warm and solid under her hands, and he looked every bit as angry as she felt. She met his gaze steadily, furiously, and it was only seconds before the irritation slid clear off his face.
"My turn to apologise," he said simply. "I pushed again. Sorry."
"Yes, you bloody pushed," said Lily with a sigh, ripping her eyes away. She sank down on the edge of his bed, smacking his hand away when it drifted closer to hers. It was strange how she could sense him trying to catch her eye when she was so deliberately avoiding his. Thing was, if she looked again, if she let him take her hand, Lily had an odd feeling that he wouldn't even need to push.
The thought was terrifying.
"Lily, I – I don't know how to say this, but… a doe, Lily! A doe Patronus, and you have no idea what I'm even on about."
She didn't. She just sat there and listened to the stilted, awkward press of his words.
"I just – I just have to keep trying, all right? Because I'm set on this, on us, and I know you're caving. You feel something too. And I'm going to kick my foot through that wall of yours if it's the last thing I do."
Lily cringed at the memory of that final collapse behind the statue of Gregory the Smarmy. "That was an accident," she whispered, afraid to speak louder in case her voice cracked. "You have – you've no idea how scared I was, James."
"How scared you were, or how scared you are, Lily?"
"I'm no guineapig."
"Gryffindors are brave, not stupid. And honestly, honestly Lily – I've survived worse, much worse than some bloody structural collapse."
"But you could. I know you could. You're brilliant, remember? And sometimes you need to cave in a bit, or how can you ever be happy? Sometimes you just need to push off from the dark places. You have to learn that sooner or later."
Lily offered a weak smile at the palm lying open on the blankets. "Before, behind the wall, you told me that you're a terrible student when you don't want to learn something. Do you remember that? Well, I'm the same."
"So let me push you."
Lily finally looked at James, saw the open, honest plea scrawled across his face, saw the determined set of his jaw and the compassion in his eyes, and above all, she heard his voice: that dangerous, commanding Head Boy voice.
"Shall you sneeze or shall I?" she murmured, finally letting him snatch her hand.
"On the count of three?"
Lily took a deep breath. "One… two…"
And then he sat up and kissed her, and the world came crashing down on Lily's head.
No passageways were harmed in the making of this story. James Potter was not so lucky, but his every wound was kissed better by a most dedicated Head Girl. Unbeknownst to the pair, Dumbledore had orchestrated the whole event. Popcorn was involved.