Author's Note: For Livejournal's lilyjames_fest 2011 – Team Stag. Written after one failed attempt at another fic, I didn't have quite enough time to expand upon this AU as I would have liked. However, I think enough about the backstory is implied to keep things interesting! Thanks to L for the beta. Title taken from a Colbie Caillat song of the same name.
"Mr. Potter, so nice to see you."
From where he leans against a tall window, James turns to see who the owner of such a sultry voice is and what she wants from him. Immediately upon seeing the young woman's heavily painted face—too-red lips, gaudy green eye shadow, and tight, blonde curls—he feels his stomach roll. He thinks he remembers her—an intern from the Prophet who covered the advancement of Squib and werewolf rights legislation a few weeks back. While her name is unremarkable and completely lost on him, her article—slandering hisname and maligning the bill he worked so hard to get passed—is most assuredly not.
"Can't say the sentiments are returned," he mutters, taking a long drink of scotch.
"Oh, you can't possibly be fussed about that piece I wrote." She places a hand on his arm, smiling devilishly. "It was nothing personal, sweetheart."
James considers telling her exactly where she can shove that vile quill of hers but thinks better of it. The last thing he needs is to star in another column in the Prophet, especially when a significant minority of the Wizengamot would like to see him drawn and quartered for this last bit of legislation. Rather than fuel the fire, he offers the young lady a forced smile and nods his goodbye.
As he weaves his way through the couples dancing and clusters of people chatting, James has to wonder why he's here in the first place. Year after year he swears it's the last, and year after year he's putting on dressrobes and Apparating to the Ministry for this ruddy ball.
Maybe the wizarding world does have a reason to rejoice; five years ago this night, Voldemort disappeared without a trace in the Longbottom residence. However, James struggles to find a reason to be happy. Quite frankly, he can only see this ball as an excuse for people to dress up and get pissed. Oh, certainly, they have a memorial for the dead, but it is brief and the grief feels like a façade. At times, he wonders to himself how these people would behave if they truly knew what it was like—the fear, the missions, the sight of a friend collapsing into death. These people lived it, sure, yet so few of them experiencedit.
"James," a voice calls, and he recognizes it immediately as the Minister's.
He catches sight of the Minister waving him over to his small group of friends—people too old or too egotistical for James to want to be around. And the irony of thatlast thought is not lost to him.
The war changed him, though, changed him in ways he struggles to understand. Some mornings he wakes up, looks in the mirror, and hardly knows himself. Who is this man—a politician with gentle creases around his hazel eyes? Where is the boy—prankster, care-free, loving and open? Sometimes he asks the mirror. Sometimes it replies, You can hardly expect to be the same person you were eight years ago.
Somehow, James had.
"Back in a moment, sir," he says to the Minister without the intention of seeing it through.
His pace quickens, not wanting to be caught by any more of his colleagues. As the orchestra begins another piece, James is heading towards the loo—less out of necessity and more due to suffocation. The lighting changes considerably as he reaches the corridor—dimmer yet warmer now against the reddish-brown papering.
Hardly paying attention to where he's going as long as it's away, James accidently bumps into a witch coming from the ladies' room. He wouldn't have paid her any mind—simply apologized with barely a glance and carried on—if it hadn't been for the fact that he sees a familiar bracelet around her small wrist.
She looks down at the rectangular box in her palm, smooth with silver fabric, and hesitates only slightly before opening.
"Oh," she gasps, eyes lifting to meet his own. "James, you shouldn't have."
"But it's wizarding tradition to give a witch a bracelet on her eighteenth birthday."
He watches, proud as he possibly can be, as she lifts the thread-thin bracelet from where it lays in the box—gold shimmering in the candlelight of their joint common room. His gently trembling hands take the goblin-made bracelet from her, open it, and clasp it around her wrist.
James struggles with the idea of looking at the witch, fears what it may confirm. But the idea of notknowing grips him tighter, so he raises his eyes to meet shining, beautiful green.
His lips part in surprise that, in reality, shouldn't have seized him. His heart hammers against his rib cage, his breath slows considerably until he has to remember to breathe. In-out. In-out.
It's been seven years since he's looked upon her face, slightly fewer since he's heard from her. But, not a day has gone by that he hasn't thought about her, hasn't dreamed about her sweet smile or gentle touch. When he first sees her, he sees the girl from his memories—tall, nearly stick-thin with red hair to her shoulders. But, he soon realizes, she is no more her nineteen year old self than he is his.
She's put on healthy weight, developed a womanly roundness where there were almost angles before. Her hair has grown out, touching just below her shoulder blades, but still falls in the thick waves he remembers. She dresses slightly less conservatively, perhaps having finally found that self-confidence that he always knew was in her; to James, she's all the more beautiful for it.
"Lily," he says, and it's been so long since he has.
"James? My God."
The smile that slips onto her lips—stained petal pink—and the ecstatic little laugh that follows threatens to break through the dam he's built around his feelings for this girl—no, this woman. Ever since the invitation came by Owl years ago, he's tried to stop allowing himself to feel for Lily. Tried, and probably failed more often than he's succeeded.
"I never thought I'd run into you," she continues.
He finds himself ruffling the back of his hair, nervously. "Me either. I thought you lived in France."
"I did, actually, but I've recently moved back. Professor Slughorn invited me along to the ball."
"You're Sluggy's date?"
"No, not a date," she answers, horrified by the prospect. "I've just been out of touch with everyone for so long that I thought I might run into a few people here."
He thinks to tell her that she should have called him moment she Flooed in but resists. They're not that close anymore, and James can't force himself to pretend that things are the same as they once were. Nor can he push from his mind the fact that Lily—the one that got away—has given herself to another man. And it hurts, like a paper cut to the heart—lingering and incapable of the kindness of death.
As if sensing the sudden shift in the air between them—from excited surprise to pained awkwardness—Lily wrings the skirts of her dress in her hand, eyes directed away from him. James doesn't know what to say to her—though he knows it most certainly won't be about her husband or any children she may have—so they stand there in pregnant silence for several moments.
Finally, her green eyes find him. "You look good, James. Different than I imagined, but good."
"You too." And like a love-sick idiot, he adds, "Can still light up a room with that smile."
And as if to prove his point, her lips quirk upwards, involuntarily, and James remembers that Lily had always been embarrassed by compliments. However, it'd never stopped him from praising her all the same.
"Are you going to be around," she begins, hesitating, "or were you leaving?"
He had been leaving. He shouldbe leaving, still. James doesn't want to any longer, though. Yes, he's a fool for being drawn to her, knowing what he knows. No, nothing will come of it if he does stay. Yet, he's compelled to.
"I'll be here for a little while longer, I suspect."
"Good," she says, genuinely, her hand reaching for his to touch it briefly; his heart leaps to his throat. "I'll see you in a bit, then."
As James watches her leave, he's reminded of that last time he saw her on the outskirts of Leeds with an unauthorized Portkey, reminded of the sleepless nights that followed and complete loss of appetite. For ages, he'd played that night over in his head, thought that he should have done something to stop her. And that's a selfish thought because she'd needed to go. It hadn't been safe for her any longer in England. Not with the number of Muggle-born deaths, not with how the Death Eaters had been treating their female victims, not with how many close calls Lily had had. James, for all that he'd wanted to believe otherwise, knew that he couldn't protect her forever. So he'd let her walk away.
For some time, James sits alone at an empty table, quickly getting rid of anyone who approaches him with obvious disinterest in his tone. He sets his sight on Lily, watches as she talks animatedly with Minerva and Filius. Each time he feels a pang in his chest from her smile or laugh, he takes a drink of champagne to try to dispel the ache. Unfortunately, it's less effective than he'd like, so he quits altogether.
Soon, he catches Lily walking towards him, the billowy bottom of her tea-length dress swaying against her shapely calves. Once his moment of panic passes, James sits up a little straighter to prepare for her. It wouldn't do to seem too brooding or contemplative.
"Would you dance with me?" she asks, wasting no time, and it's almost as if she'd been working up courage for this moment.
And while he shouldn't, the prospect of having Lily in his arms again is too tempting to deny her request. He stands before taking a final sip of his drink.
"If you'll have me. I hope you remember what a rubbish dancer I am."
Her eyes light up. "Oh yes, as if I could ever forget."
As they walk to the dance floor, James recalls the first time—the onlytime—that he'd ever danced with Lily. It had happened just after they'd received word of Gideon's and Fabian's deaths very early on in the war. She'd come to his flat to talk about it and was so visibly torn up—having grown close to the Prewitt twins during her short stay in the Order—that she'd nearly lost all her sense.
"Dance with me?" he asks, spelling the volume of the wireless up in the middle of a Warbeck song.
Lily sniffles and looks up at him, eyes weary and uncertain. He offers her his hand then, and reluctantly she takes it. When he pulls her to her feet, James wraps his arms around her waist, and they half hug, half sway their way through that song and the next. He steps on her toes no less than three times, sending her into watery laughter over and over again.
His moves tonight are somewhat more graceful. He takes Lily by the hand and waist, distance respectful. However, James won't deny that his thoughts drift, that they aren't entirely pure. If they were two different people living two different lives, he would close the space between them, relish in the feeling of Lily's curves against his angles. But the fact of the matter is, they are James Potter and Mrs. LilySomebody, and therefore not allowed this fantasy.
"Minerva mentioned that you're working in the Wizengamot now."
"Yeah, a bit strange, isn't it?"
She nods. "I always imagined you as an Auror. What with your white-knight syndrome."
Oh, he'd thought about a job in Magical Law Enforcement, had one time dreamed about heading the Auror office. But after the war, he hadn't been able to stand the thought of more missions, of hunting down Dark Wizard after Dark Wizard, of losing anymore friends. Being an Auror is too much like being in the Order, and James had long ago decided that he had enough of playing the leading man.
"I can help people better this way," he explains, choosing the simplest reasoning. "I have the money and the name to make things happen."
"She said you're doing a lot for wizarding minority rights."
"Yeah, we managed to get a law passed a few years ago, for instance, that imposed regulations on treatment of werewolves in the RCMC containment facilities. It's not perfect, but we're trying to make it safe for them."
"I always knew that, if you'd managed to grow up somehow, James Potter, you would do remarkable things with that big heart."
He doesn't know what to say to such a compliment and is almost taken aback by how highly Lily once thought of him. While he knows he does some good, he's not quite sure that it will ever be enough, ever make a real difference. And just as he sees Lily open her mouth to add something, he accidently steps on her toes, eliciting from her a small yelp.
"I'm so sorry," he says in a rush, breaking the steps of their dance in an attempt to see if she's alright.
"I'm fine," she reassures him. "Really, I've come to expect it of you."
James thinks of forgetting the dance altogether and returning—tail between his legs—to his table, or better yet, home. However, Lily pushes them back into form, and he's slightly relieved for it.
"So," he begins, hesitantly, "what about you? What are you doing these days?"
"Relocating across countries for the most part."
"Has your husband found work in England?" he asks, hoping his question sounds more genuine than it is.
"There is no husband. Not anymore."
Startled by the news, James steps on Lily's toes again, which he follows with another round of quick apologies. His surprise can't be helped, really. One of the saddest days of his life was the day he'd received Lily's wedding invitation. Since then, he's spent an obscene amount of time wondering what her life is with this bloke—is she happy? does he treat her right? has he made her a mother?—but never has he envisioned a divorce.
She shakes her head. "Don't be. I'm not."
"I shouldn't pry but—"
"But you're James and that's what you do."
"Yeah," he responds sheepishly. "What happened?"
"We had a few disagreements about our future, saw things a little differently. I knew it was causing some strain between us, but I never thought… Well, I never thought he would really leave me over it."
"The bloke was obviously mental to let you go, Lily," he says before he can stop himself.
Rather than take offense to such a comment—as James might have anticipated—Lily grins weakly, cheeks growing pink. James' face feels hot, and it's ridiculous for him—a grown wizard of twenty-six—to be blushing over a girl. But, he supposes, this isn't just any girl; this isLily.
"I've come to expect that as well," she explains, voice tinged with hurt. "Men letting me go."
With the way her pretty eyes are almost seeing into him, James thinks that this is no longer about her divorce. Maybe if he was his younger self—so self-absorbed and proud—he would have never noticed to the subtle change of her voice or shift in topic. But somehow, now after all these years, he understands.
Understands, but he can't possibly have the conversation that ought to follow here.
And he doesn't know for what, exactly, only that he is in a thousand different ways. Sorry they never had a chance at love, that the closest thing that they ever came to it was one grief-drunken kiss in the middle of a war torn life. Sorry he couldn't put the ring on her finger that he so desperately wanted to, that he had sworn he would give her back when she'd thought nothing of him. Sorry that—eight years after the fact—she actually thought he simply let her go.
As if sensing his frustration, his pains, she slips her hand from his shoulder to the nape of his neck. Her fingers move there, soothingly, and James relishes the feel of them.
"I'd like to talk," Lily says, tone light yet serious.
James nods. "I think there are definitely some things that need to be said."
"Can we go somewhere?"
"Back to the Manor?" he suggests.
"That'd be great."
Lily pulls away from him, mid-dance, and James wonders how long she'd been waiting to talk to him. It certainly seems like she doesn't want to waste another minute, the way she walks briskly towards her table for her bag and wrap. What she wants to discuss, he's not entirely sure. And the thought of it frightens him just a little.
Before James knows it—and a part of him, the more he considers it, is truly dreading this—they are settled into one of the many sitting rooms in this house. The fire blazes in the grate to ward off the spring chill. Two wine glasses rest on the coffee table, and James pops the cork of an old bottle of wine—aged to near perfection—to fill them.
As he pours, his eyes drift to Lily sitting on the sofa next to him. She's discarded her green wrap, it but a memory in a pile next to her. She's also lost her shoes, legs tucked beneath her. For several moments after setting the wine bottle down, he gazes at her. The warmth of the fire highlights the deep red of her hair, turns her cheeks flush, her flesh slightly over-warm. She rests the side of her head against the sofa's back, returning his long look dazedly.
Compelled by opportunity—opportunity that, quite frankly, he never thought he'd possess—James sits back and reaches for her petite hand. She accepts it so easily that it almost startles him. Maybe it shouldn't, but it does all the same. Briefly, his eyes fall to her fingers, where he rubs his thumb against the tops, before meeting her own again.
"I never wanted to let you go," he explains, simply.
"And I never wanted to go."
"But the circumstances…"
"It was necessary."
"Yeah," he agrees, solemnly. "It was."
She shifts slightly on the couch, closing the distance between them. And this is so bloody difficult, laying his heart on the line. When Lily sidles up to him, rests her head against his shoulder, James thinks he might lose it altogether. He feels wetness gathering in his eyes—fueled by the drinking he's done tonight, by how he's longed for this girl—and lets out a shaky breath.
"When you sent me your wedding invitation, I…"
Lily looks up at him, head never leaving his shoulder. "I'd hoped you'd come and tell me I was making the biggest mistake of my life. You always had a way about you, James. I secretly admired how you would give such brash yet honest advice without blinking. I wanted you to talk some sense into me."
"You knew it was a mistake?" he asks, surprised.
"I tried to make it work, tried to want it. Maybe I didn't know why I sent the invitation at the time, but I realized it later."
He rests his cheek against her silky red locks. "How?"
"He wanted children, and I realized that I didn't." She sniffs back her emotions. "Because whenever I thought about it, I thought of a little baby with messy black hair."
James feels his stomach drop, as if he's just plummeted on his broomstick. Although he'd always known there was something between them, he never realized just how invested Lily was in the idea of them having a family together. Maybe he never realized before this moment just how similarly she felt.
Before Lily left, there had been something happening between them. Something that, honestly, had no place in a war, and they'd both known that. If they'd been a little less mature at the time, maybe they'd be in a different place now—married, parents, happy.
Lily lifts her head, hair slightly rumpled from resting it against him and the couch, and brings her fingertips to his cheek. There she turns his face to meet hers, noses almost touching. And James doesn't know what's going to happen, only that he sees the needy look in her inviting eyes.
"I won't lie. I came back to England with the intention of meeting up with you. I just hadn't realized it would be so soon after my arrival." She bites her bottom lip, and James has to resist wetting his own. "I thought we might try our luck at another chance."
"Another chance?" he asks, with a small laugh—perhaps due to the absurdity of finally getting what he's asked for all along. "I don't think a snog and shoddy dancing count as a first go around."
His amusement with himself passes almost instantly as he feels Lily's lips—lips that he hasn't felt for an eternity—brush up against his own. He furrows his brow at the contact, closes his eyes, and sinks into this feeling.
Her mouth is soft, lush. He stumbles along with her as they find a way to make their lips work together, as if all those girls that came between Lily-then and Lily-now taught him nothing about a kiss. And it's brilliant, this. Brilliant because, while not their first kiss, it's just as deliriously awkward and wonderful as their first had been. Their noses graze one another, James' glasses get caught in her long fringe. Their rocky rhythm breaks with a shared laugh, but James doesn't give her the opportunity to move far from him.
"Potter, will you go to Hogsmeade with me?" she asks, and he has the distinct impression that she's mocking all his failed, boyhood attempts at asking her out.
And his forehead bumps into hers, smile alighting on his lips. "As soon as you deflate that big head of yours, Evans, I'd be happy to."
She brings his hand to her lips, brushing a kiss along his knuckles. And James, beyond his sense from happiness, leans back on the sofa, pulling her down on top of him. Grinning, Lily rests her head against his chest, eyes trained on the dwindling fire.
They lie there in contented silence, James carding his hand through her wavy tresses and Lily sighing happily. He doesn't know what he's done to deserve this, to deserve her, but as his eyes grow heavy and Lily lies wrapped in his arms, James knows he'll never let her go again.