Chapter 26

(A/N): Back from the great beyond at last, as you can see, and absotively ecstatic about HBP, yay!

I figured I should update this soon, before it came to be a year since I'd updated… I know, I'm absotively horrid with updating, but I swear, I'm not quitting! If you really are looking to get updates on this fic, my livejournal would be the place to go (see my homepage on my profile). I post snippets, progress, and just random things that strike me at the moment there, so please do check it out. It also has a post on my plans for the future of this fanfics, post-HBP, so… yeah.

Much love goes out to the ladies of TGB, Holly, Dede, Christy, Runi, Sarina, Jenna, Missy, and Erin, who squee with me over HBP and our Potterholicalism. Oh, and Kelly and Anna, of course, in all their sub-modliness glory are lovely as well, as they both have helped me cope with dreadful amounts of writer's block and anticipation of the next book. Much squeeage went on there.

The Bible (aka, the HP Lexicon) and Holly managed to save me from a rather horrid moment of writer's block, when I was trying to figure out food dishes… I 3 you both!

Disclaimer: I own nothing but the spaces between.

---

It was a common rule, as Lily had discovered, that once something good happened to you, it wasn't long before something equally bad happened as well.

A balance, equilibrium, always existed; never changed, and never wavered… something tipping the scales just a bit was always rectified before it could spark some catastrophic occurrence that was sure to happen. But what didn't seem fair was that whenever something bad happened- there wasn't a rule that something equally good happened. Life was unfair that way.

But so it was, and so it had been for an eternity or two, and until some unknown, unnamed power that was would change that, things were likely to stay this way.

"Doesn't seem fair, does it?" she muttered to the cat at her feet, rubbing affectionately against her legs. The cat purred in response. She had always had an odd affinity with cats- they just seemed so much more intelligent than other animals. Dogs, for example. While she hadn't seen many dogs in her seven years at Hogwarts, she had glimpsed a mangy stray around the Forbidden Forest once or twice, in the company of a stag and a rat, though she supposed she shouldn't pass judgment on the company a dog keeps. There were stranger things, after all. Such as Sirius Black having friends.

"What doesn't see fair?"

"Potter," she acknowledged him. "I was just… thinking."

"Obviously," he grinned as he jumped over an armchair and plopped down before her. "You're Lily Evans; therefore, you're always thinking. I just want to know if it was the usual twaddle, or something worth wasting breath over."

"Not really," she wrinkled her nose. "Just that things are going to be so very… different, without Leslie. She was a distraction from all the mess of things lately, and I just… needed that for a while. Now there's nothing between me and my… morbid thoughts." She gave him a small smile, shrugging. "But I suppose I had to cope with it on my own eventually."

"You do have me," he answered. "And, y'know, Sirius and Remus and Peter… and all your friends that I can't stand."

She laughed, tilting her head in that way he knew she did at least seventeen times a day. "I'll be fine, Potter. I was just… being tragic. I do that sometimes, you know," she murmured with a touch of irony.

She was quiet, then, and more to break the silence and awkwardness of moment than anything else, James spoke again.

"Evans…" He smiled, the side of his mouth tilting up slightly in that maddeningly infuriating way he seemed to do effortlessly, "Do you want to dance with me?"

"Excuse me?"

He sighed, as though speaking to a small child. "Dance. With me. It's all we ever do, isn't it?"

"But… why?" She had never understood him, never. And she doubted she ever would. The most random things would pop out of his mouth, yet come out sounding the most natural things in the world. He had a way with words, she supposed. That prat.

He gave her a floppy smile again. "Do you really need to question everything? I'm trying to be romantic."

"With me?"

"Not in that sense, you daft cow," he muttered. "You looked sad. I don't do well with crying girls. So…?"

Lily sniffed, muttering, "Cow? I happen to have a very delicate self image, I'll have you know… you may have just shattered it."

"Right, because you're such a delicate and fragile flower," he scoffed, as Lily winced at the pun. "Well, you can't argue with me there; you did nearly hex me into oblivion on more than one occasion, after all."

"Would you say it was undeserved?"

Wisely choosing to remain silent, he offered his hand.

---

He was being romantic.

That had been his reply, he replayed the moment in his mind, seeing the look of surprise on her face. As though he meant in the soppy, romance-novel, winged-cupid-having, fluttery heart, butterflies-in-stomach kind. Then it had registered to her that it would make no sense. And really, it didn't. That wasn't his place, after all, as one could hardly expect two people who hated each other to fall in love in a few weeks. But he had become her friend, he admitted, and maybe something deeper than friendship had formed, as could only happen between two people who knew each other so long.

He didn't like to think of her as a female version of Sirius (as the thought struck terror in the hearts of… everyone) though it was about the closest analogy he could think of. He cared for her, he admitted, for her well-being. He couldn't pinpoint the moment- and he never understood those people who could pinpoint their emotions. Humans weren't as simplistic as that, he didn't think; time gradually changed things, not in a moment, not in a second, not in a millisecond, not in… any measurable form of time.

"Dance with me," he had said, as though they were in that inevitable part of any romance novel, with the swelling music and the pouring rain and… whatever it was that characterized that moment. The only problem was they weren't in love… they weren't anything, really. And the moment was rather ruined by the fact that they lacked every other characteristic of that magic moment because of that detail. "It's all we ever do, isn't it?"

He realized there was probably a metaphor buried somewhere in there- but he didn't look to find it. Metaphors were useless crap for romantics, after all. He liked to consider himself a realist, sensible and… well, rational. But he could be romantic when he wanted to be… and he was. For her.

He had long since stopped trying to sort out his feelings for Lily Evans; they were impossible. He remembered in his fifth year he had devoted a great deal of time to the subject, when he had been completely, utterly, maddeningly besotted with her. He wasn't sure why, still… he supposed it had been a brief case of wanting what he couldn't get- as well as having hormones brimming out of his ears. She had rejected him, of course. He didn't blame her; he had been a bit of a jerk that year. That lifetime.

In a whirlwind of discovery, he and his friends had managed to become so taken with themselves for their accomplishments, believing they had been able to cure Remus in a way no one else ('…not even Dumbledore!' he remembered saying to Sirius at the time) had. And in the process, had become probably the biggest pricks known to Hogwarts. Then came the disaster with Snape that had deflated his head a bit, though it hadn't made him lose his swagger completely. It hadn't been until sixth year that he had emotionally matured notably, though he hadn't changed altogether too much. McGonagall had been pleased, though, to find that he had come back at the start of term sans the attitude. And then she had sighed disappointedly as she assigned him a detention for terrorizing the first years by transfiguring one's book into a frog.

Well, one couldn't be expected to work miracles.

He would be lying if he said he'd never considered Lily Evans in the romantic sense even after the fifth year incident. She was a very pretty girl- No, she's beautiful, he amended as he glanced down at the redhead stepping in time to a silent melody- and he had a weakness of being attracted to that kind of girl. But he was sure that wasn't the reason. Even if she had been the ugliest person he'd ever known (though it was rather difficult to imagine this… hang on, he recalled a time when he did think so… first year, was it?) he was sure he still would have been attracted to her… she sparkled.

And so little in his life did. What was that expression? 'All that glitters is not gold.'

"What?"

Oh. He'd said that out loud. "Nothing, just thinking to myself," he muttered apologetically. Apologetically for breaking the spell… she had smiled, accepting his unsatisfactory answer.

But there was so little sparkle in his life. His parents had been rather dull, in their pristine frames, the picture of matrimonial… success, he supposed it was called. A successful union. Not a memorable one, but they had cared for each other, in their own way. But they had always been so distant, it was difficult to imagine any sort of passion between the two (though he didn't try to imagine that sort of thing very often… shudder to think). Their world had been rather boring, to be frank, and meeting Lily Evans had been a blast of… sparkle.

She had been the picture of… well, color. Her hair a vibrant red ('how he had detested it!' his eleven year old self reminded him) and her eyes a sparkling green ('how very unnatural!' his eleven year old self interjected). The exact opposite of him; he had been dull, much like his parents. His hair black and messy, his eyes hazel and… non-descript. And then he had met his friends, somehow, and her. And suddenly, the world was in color. As though they were in a black-and-white movie picture and suddenly the world had shifted to color.

"Do you think she'll write?"

Startled, and jolted out of his reverie, James glanced down at the girl whom he had just registered to be saying something. "Who?" he had asked rather unintelligently.

"Leslie," she said, giving him a look of surprise. "Who else?"

He shrugged. Leslie seemed so far away, so removed from the moment. Considering his words carefully, he quoted, "Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company."

"What?" She was smiling, drawing her head back in surprise.

"I don't know. I'm no good with words when it comes to things like this, so I steal the words of other people… famous people," he admitted. She laughed. He decided he liked her laugh. Well- no, he didn't decide; one didn't just decide to like someone's laugh… he just… did.

"Well, an answer would be appropriate," she replied. "You don't need to always choose your words so carefully, y'know. Not with me, anyway. I think after seven years of knowing you, I'd be able to interpret whatever it is you say."

He bent his head in acknowledgement of this fact, noticing how awkward-looking their feet were from this angle. Feet were such strange things… small, flat, and yet able to hold up a towering figure of a person- oh… was she saying something again?

"James Potter," she smirked, "Please tell me you weren't just thinking about our feet... not when we were having a somewhat passably nice moment."

"What- how did you-"

"I know all," she answered superciliously.

How did she do that? But then, how did she do anything she did? She did it by being incredible at everything, he supposed. It was the way of the universe, after all, and he wasn't one to argue with the universe and its… erm, ways. He was getting redundant. She had that effect on him.

"What?" she smiled, looking up at him curiously. At his inquiring expression, she elaborated, "That… look you just had. You looked like you had just… never mind." She sighed, quickly retreating her gaze.

A gesture was required of him, he knew. He was supposed to say something sweet and funny that would erase the sudden bits of tension floating around in the air. He couldn't think of anything; she had him at a disadvantage here. She could always say what was on her mind; he had lost the ability to… blurt.

"You're amazing," he managed. She looked surprised at this statement that had come about forty-five seconds after her last words. Surprised, but pleased, nonetheless.

That'll do.

---

He was being romantic.

Not in that fluffy, pink-filled, saccharine way she had foolishly thought for the barest glimpse of seconds. In another way. And she had to agree… it was sweet, really. He was a bit of a mystery, really, when he was being nice to her. She had understood him so much better when they had hated each other. But then, she considered, perhaps she had never really known him at all… It was difficult to pinpoint the exact moment they became friends- she wasn't quite sure anyone could pinpoint emotions like that. But she supposed it had been somewhere in the muddle of things between fifth and seventh year, when suddenly things seemed… less important, somehow, in light of all the drama and tragedy around them.

"Dance with me," he had said. "Isn't that all we ever do?"

She wasn't daft; she had caught the metaphor there, but she didn't think of him as one to use a metaphor for this sort of thing. And thus, she took it to mean all those steps they had taken revolving around the Great Hall in the past few years, rather than the metaphorical version that was decidedly more appealing to her inner hopeless romantic.

How he had come to read her so well, she wasn't sure… she had always prided herself in being a bit of a mystery to others; who wanted to be read like a book, after all? But then, after a while, she had tired of that game… and it was nice to be understood once it a while. And he did. Understand, that is. She had been longing for something… a void, really, something to cling to, and he had managed to fill it, if temporarily. Maybe not in the romantic sense, but at least, with some form of love she'd been missing.

Love.

Such a small word; probably the worst four-letter word in the dictionary, she mused. And there were so many forms… She knew, in some small part of herself, she did love him, in some way or other. She just wasn't in love with him. A pity, really, as otherwise this might have been an incredibly romantic moment. Instead, it was just a moment between friends. Friends… was that what they were? It seemed strange to her that two people could go from hating each other to being even the slightest of friends. But that was the closest thing to it.

Maybe not exactly… she couldn't define it as friendship exactly, not in the way she was friends with Evelyn and Bella. It was more complicated than that… She could never see them becoming friends in every sense of the word, but this was the closest thing to it as they would ever get, she supposed.

She could feel him breathing.

It was a steady in and out. In.

Through the shirt she had been inhaling earlier, she could feel the slight rise and fall of his chest… warm. He was warm. He had been cold when he had walked in, smelling of the Forbidden Forest and something else she couldn't quite place. Then there had been a brief conversation, she remembered, and then there was… this. Whatever it was. She wasn't sure that this was something friends might do, but she was certain it was making her feel less… empty, which was something to file away under the friendship category.

They had made idle conversation while dancing, as they always did. A distraction, a diversion, anything to bring reality back. She couldn't quite remember the exact lines of their conversation, only recalled his last words, "You're amazing."

While flattery was always nice to hear, there had been something in the simplicity of his response to her silence that had made her smile and lean forward to kiss him on the cheek. He had stilled, she remembered, and she had whispered cheekily into his ear, "I know."

And then there had been more silence. Silence had always been awkward… but every once in a while, she found it comforting. It was a break from the mindless chatter of life, to keep her from constantly going through the motions half-heartedly. Instead, she had been able to think. She had sighed slightly, managing to somehow slip into a rhythm with him, a simple pattern of steps. She supposed this might look strange to any passing students who came through the portrait hole; the Head Boy and Girl dancing to a song it seemed only they could hear. But then, she no longer worried too much on what others thought of what she did; it was far too time consuming. She had resolved to just enjoy the moment while it lasted, before something inevitably broke the spell.

"Isn't it all we ever do?" he had asked. She should have answered no. They stopped, they always did.

At least, they'd have to eventually.

Out.

---

"You're my destiny."

"Go away, Sirius."

"Your cold and hostile retorts don't hurt me. They melt away with the burning passion in my heart."

"It's seven in the morning… how can anyone be this chipper at seven in the morning?"

"Yes, it's my curse… I have a thing for splotchy girls with tangled hair and morning breath, you see … erm, not that you're splotchy, or anything, Evans. No, you're quite lovely looking in the morning, I must say. And you're hair isn't all that tangled. Erm… what was it I was saying?"

"If I throw a stick, would you leave me alone?" Lily looked pained. And her hair really wasn't that tangled. She didn't think so, at least.

"No, he'll just keep coming back and slobber all over you," Remus replied, glancing up from his copy of the Daily Prophet. "Believe me, I've tried."

Lily sighed, and turned to the hyper-energetic boy next to her. Sirius was not the bad looking sort, she mused… actually, he was quite attractive, come to think of it. She wondered vaguely why she had never considered him in the romantic sense when so many other girls did. She supposed it had something to do with how he had always been something of a brother she'd never had and always wanted to replace Petunia with… though she dreaded the day anyone would have to live with Sirius.

"What do you want, Black?"

"A date to this coming Hogsmeade weekend."

She laughed. "After the way you mauled me last night? I think not. I've got severe emotional scarring from that experience, I'll have you know."

"Nothing to the mental scarring the rest of us suffered from witnessing it," Remus assured her.

"You know you want to…" Sirius wheedled persuasively still.

And she laughed again. "Please, Black, why on earth would you want me to go with you? Aren't there six tragically mislead Hufflepuffs hoping for an offer such as this one as we speak?"

Sirius nodded grimly. "Gertrude Wallace. Cornered me as I was sneaking back from a stroll to the kitchens last night… or this morning, if you're picky about it. Never met a scarier sight… All four hundred pounds of cold, lonely death awaited me as I turned the corner past a statue of Ulrich the Unpleasant, smelling faintly like shedding cats and… cabbage."

"So you, what, told her you were going with me?" Lily frowned. "That's not nice, Sirius… you could have at least-"

"Nice? She cornered me in an ambush attack… how is there anything nice about that? She's… pale. Translucent, really. And- and- she has lots of freckles. All over her face. I swear, if you connected the dots, you'd find a Monet painting… or possibly modern art, I've never been much of an art aficionado myself, you know. But… Lily… please…" he wheedled. "Her nose is off-center. Do you want me to be seen in the company of some random freckle face with an odd nose… surrounded by the smell of month old cabbage and rabid cats?"

"That's terribly shallow, Sirius. She could be a great person underneath all that," Lily muttered. "Love of your life, in fact. Haven't you grown as a person at all these last seven years?"

"Lily, dear, I love you like pancakes, but don't you know me at all?" Sirius blinked up at her.

Stupid puppy dog eyes.

---

And that was why, Lily supposed, she was stuck in the company of one Sirius Black when the weekend arrived, browsing the expensive and expansive gift shops of Hogsmeade in the search of a gift for his cousin's upcoming birthday. His cousin was, supposedly, an "evil little twit, even more cheeky and snotnosed than the rest of my family" in Sirius's own words… though after a moment's recollection he said rather affectionately, "He kind of reminds me of me when I was six… nowhere near as talented, of course, but still… duke of chaos just the same."

Lily supposed she didn't need to ask who the king of chaos was.

"How about this?" she picked up the closest item in a display marked as on sale, which happened to be a broom polishing kit.

Sirius gave her a look. "I think not. Think outside the box, here."

"I don't see your point here," she replied, chucking a miniature broom at him across the display.

"Well…. What would you get me if I were turning six years old?"

"A muzzle," came the tart reply.

Sirius cocked his head to the side, as if he found the conversation incredibly funny. "Very well," he laughed, "Find one and wrap it up."

Lily sighed, browsing through the collection of items before them. "Really, I think it's a no go here, Sirius. Perhaps we should just go and meet up with the others at the Three Broomsticks?"

"I could do with some food and nourishment," he admitted.

His stomach gave a growl that seconded the sentiment.

"Honestly, do you ever have more than two minutes of thought not interrupted by fantasies about food?" Lily muttered as they abandoned the store, walking the familiar route to the Three Broomsticks. After having been in Black's company for the entirety of the day, she had to admit, her stomach was beginning to growl as well. Much more pleasantly though, she thought. His stomach sounded like a dying animal. She liked to think of her own as just a quiet rumbling. "I mean, really – do you really have to see the world through your stomach?"

"'Course not," Sirius replied happily, brightened by the prospect of food, "I do it by choice."

Lily rolled her eyes in reply.

"C'mon, then," he tugged at her arm, "I heard Rosmerta's introducing a new dish today, and she always gives me free samples."

"If you insist," she agreed, laughing.

---

"Really, Rosmerta, you've out done yourself this time," Sirius mumbled through the food. Over the past four years, he had managed to perfect the art of speaking intelligibly with his mouth full. "Spectacular. I'm naming all my children after this dish. What's it called again?"

Rosmerta's lips twitched at the corners. "Sauce Béchamel on baked pasta," she said. "Or, perhaps, baked macaroni and cheese, is the more common term. I find that adding grated nutmeg to the sauce really helps the taste, though."

"You're a culinary genius," James said to her, having joined Sirius at their usual bar stools. "Nutmeg, eh?"

Rosmerta rolled her eyes, sharing a smirk with Lily. "Honestly, I've never met two boys so easily impressed by food," she laughed. "Though I do pity the poor woman who marries Mr. Black."

"Imagine," Lily shuddered seriously, "having to name your own child, Macaroniandcheese. It's really a rather horrid name, isn't it?"

Sirius shrugged. "Better than naming them after constellations," he muttered darkly. "Besides, I wouldn't name them that; I run out of breath just saying it. I'd name the first one Macaroni, the second one Cheese, and the third one Sauce Béchamel, because this sauce," he flicked his tongue out to capture some off the corner of his mouth at this point, "is worthy of a whole name in itself."

"Oh, really, Mr. Black?"

"Really, Madam Rosmerta," he said dramatically, having finished his plate. Staring at the now empty plate curiously, as though he had never seen an empty plate before, he looked up at her expectantly. "Well?"

"Well, what, Mr. Black?" she asked testily.

"The plates at our school never empty," he whined. "I need another plate of food, of course!"

"And you'll be paying for the next one, I presume?"

Sirius feigned offense. "Me? Not pay? Surely not!"

"You've been wheedling free lunches from me ever since I started working here!"

"But I pay for everything else! And this isn't even a lunch," he rationalized, "it's an afternoon meal. A nooner."

"Sirius Black! Never- ever- compare my cooking to… to…"

"It was a compliment! I didn't mean it that way…"

James caught Lily's eye and they both ducked out of the Three Broomsticks before bursting into laughter.

---

"So- where to now?"

Lily shrugged in reply, as they walked aimlessly about the Hogsmeade town. Glancing at her companion, she noted a smirk playing at his lips as he met her gaze. "What?" she asked self-consciously, reaching towards her hair. "Is something the matter with-"

"No," he replied nonchalantly. "I was just thinking of all those times in fifth year when I asked you out to Hogsmeade and you turned me down (rather spectacularly, by the way), and now, two years later…"

Lily colored. "Well," she replied rationally, "I said yes to Sirius. I'm only here with you now because he's in love with his food."

"Yes, well, that's your excuse." James ducked a glancing blow. He grinned in what he obviously thought was a very winning manner and said, "Admit it, Evans, you purposely sought out my company, just because you can't stand not to be around me for more than an hour."

Lily raised a brow. "I confess then," she said. "I can't stand not to be around you every hour of every day."

"Very good, Evans," he said. Then, at a pause, he said, "Tag, you're it."

Lily watched as he sped away. "What are we, five?" she muttered and raced after him.

They were already halfway back from the school at the top of a grassy hill when great, fat drops of rain had started to fall.

Having long since quit their impromptu game of tag (Lily had caught him after fifteen minutes), James sighed, glancing upwards and shielding his eyes from the drops of wetness pelting down. "Well, this is just fantastic," he muttered. "Just what I've always wanted- to be caught in the rain with no shelter in sight."

"Don't be such a stiff-necked git, James," Lily replied with the traces of a smile. She twirled around lightly, the rain catching on her hair and uniform. "The rain is something to enjoy… You know, let out the inner six year old."

"I thought that occasion happened in the event of snow?" he replied dryly.

"No, snow is the inner four year old," she answered as though everyone knew this. "The rain is a sign something good's going to happen, I know it."

"Really?" he said, watching her bemusedly. "It's usually a prophecy for gloom and doom, isn't it?"

She merely smiled and didn't reply.

"Evans, what are you doing?" he asked exasperatedly.

"I'm twirling," came the matter-of-fact answer. "It's quite a lot of fun- you should try it some time."

She tugged lightly on his sleeve as though to suggest he try it now. "C'mon, Potter. I know you; you can't be serious for more than five minutes. And Sirius would have your head for identity theft, anyway."

"Please tell me," James said, his mouth forming a slow smile, "that you did not just make a 'Sirius' pun?"

Lily shrugged, tilting her head back as the rain fell, sticking her clothes to her skin. "Twirl, Potter."

James lifted a brow at her, and, as she smiled encouragingly, he made a small twirl. "I feel like such a girl," he muttered.

"No, that's quite manly, you big strong man, you," she smirked.

James made a face.

"Oh, honestly- you need to let loose for a bit. Here- spin me for a bit, would you?"

He did.

"See? Not so difficult, is it?"

He noticed a few raindrops had caught on her eyelashes, which he thought was odd to notice, as the rain had pretty much soaked them through their clothing as it was. She didn't seem to notice, though, and was still twirling when he stopped spinning her. The world was spinning, spinning, spinning. She wondered what would happen if it stopped. Finally, she grew to dizzy and fell back on the hill.

Reaching up a hand, she pulled him down beside her, and the feeling of mushy, wet grass was on his back.

"I've been in this position far too many times now," he observed.

Lily made a face at him. "Don't talk to me about your ex-girlfriends when we're doing this," she grumbled. She didn't clarify what 'this' was, so he wisely chose to say nothing to that part of the comment.

"I was referring to Quidditch, actually," he laughed.

"Shut up, Potter."

He complied, and turned his head slightly to observe her. She was still looking skywards, blinking as raindrops hit her in the eye.

"I used to do this when I was younger, y'know."

"What, lie in muddy grass for no reason at all?"

"No, twirling," she said, turning to look at him as if he were daft. She turned her gaze back to the sky. "Petunia and I would twirl in the backyard in our best dresses, pretending we were fairy princesses, and take turns wearing the plastic tiara our father had won for us at a carnival."

James smiled slightly, feeling the wet grass on his cheek as he did so. This was important, somehow.

"We'd twirl and dance until we were too dizzy and collapsed, laughing all the way," Lily reminisced. Turning to face James, she said, "We don't do that, anymore."

"Well, I expect the two of you grew up."

"No, not twirling- but I suppose, come to think of it, we don't really do that, either," Lily said. "I meant laughing. My sister and I don't laugh anymore."

James wasn't quite sure what to say. He slid his hand into hers and laced her fingers with his. She glanced downwards at their hands and gave him a small smile. "You and I laugh, though, don't we?" she squeezed his hand lightly.

"We do," he agreed, squeezing back.

They were quiet, then, both contemplating, thinking. And then the moment passes, and they were reminded of how it wasn't safe to be this far from the castle without a crowd ('how boring,' her six year old self complained), of how the dinner feast had surely started ('just another five minutes, mum!' his six year old self called), and of how they had to go off and be grownups ('so serious,' her six year old self observed them severely).

But even as they had stood up and let go, they weren't thinking of these harsh realities that had no place in fairy tales.

Because for one, shining moment, they had been just Lily and James.

Just Lily and James.

---

James Potter was hungry.

He usually wasn't the sort to skip meals, really (he loved food, food was one of the highlights of his evenings), but as he and one Lily Evans had stumbled into the Great Hall with too-fresh clothes for the afternoon, and still-wet hair from the shower, they had found the Great Hall pretty much abandoned, save for a few stragglers playing wizard's chess or doing homework.

"I'm hungry," he said, as though she should do something about it.

Lily looked at him exasperatedly. "Didn't you just eat at the Three Broomsticks?"

"A sample plate of baked macaroni and cheese from an hour ago hardly constitutes as 'just ate', Evans," he said. "Besides, between all that walking and running and twirling, I must have drained myself of any energy I received from that meal."

Lily rolled her eyes. "You and Black were made for each other, I swear," she muttered. "The way the two of you prattle on about feeling feint when you haven't had food within the hour…. And you're supposed to be Gryffindor's star chaser, as well. A sorry lot our Quidditch team must be, when you don't have food during your longer games."

James's eye twinkled. "Are you done? Good. Come with me."

"Where are we going?"

"The kitchens, of course. And don't tell me you have any reserves about sneaking down there- I've seen you accepting strawberry shortcake from the house-elves."

Lily opened her mouth to retort, but James had already grabbed her hand and was steering them in the direction of food.

---

"A trip to Hogsmeade, a walk in the rain, and dinner," James said slowly. He smiled easily at her across the square table. "C'mon, Evans, you have to admit, it is a little funny. Bet you're reconsidering all those times you took up with the Giant Squid rather than me, eh?"

Lily raised a brow. "I don't know what you're talking about, Potter," she said, dabbing her mouth with a napkin. "And the Giant Squid was much better conversation than my present company."

James coughed loudly. "I'll have you know, I am a brilliant dinner talk conversationalist."

Lily smirked. "You barely said more than three sentences to me once the food arrived," she accused with a smile. "I thought it was quite a feat when you managed through the turkey leg, 'Pass me the butterbeer, would you?' Excellent conversationalist, indeed."

James shrugged as a few house elves cleared away the remnants of their dinner and bustled about with dessert.

"What time is it?"

"Erm… quarter to ten," James answered, glancing at his wrist. "Don't worry so much- I'm sure they wouldn't dream of expelling the Head Girl just for sneaking to the kitchens. Besides, if we get caught, just tell them we were patrolling the hallways."

"I'm sure you know which excuses would work," she grumbled good naturedly.

James glanced up, but chose not to reply as the house elves had carried back two bowls of ice cream, and a tray of toppings.

Lily finished her mint chocolate chip quickly, and began eating the wriggling gummy worms at the bottom of her bowl one by one.

James glared at her from across the table.

"What?" she asked, popping one wriggling, transparent worm into her mouth, feeling it slither down the back of her throat. Kind of ticklish, really, and she repressed a shudder as she ate a second one.

"You're eating it wrong," he said crossly, with the air of an eight year old being told his favorite television show had been cancelled.

"Oh? And how do I eat it right?"

"You're supposed to eat the toppings with the ice cream, not save the toppings for last. It defeats the purpose."

Lily glared back. She reached onto the toppings tray and ate a moving gummy worm directly.

"See- that's wrong," he said. "If you just eat the toppings directly, they're not toppings at all. You might as well skip the ice cream altogether and just get the candy."

"But I like the ice cream," Lily countered. "Besides, what else are we going to do with extra toppings?"

James continued to glower for a few more seconds, before conceding to her point and reaching for a gummy himself. He tied the worm into a knot, bit off both ends, and then popped the knot into his mouth. At the strange look Lily gave him, he asked, mouthful of gummy, "What?"

She looked amused. "I could say you're eating that wrong," she mused, "but I hold to the belief that there is no wrong way to eat candy. But I have to ask- why do you do that?"

James glanced at the second worm in his hands, which he was absentmindedly knotting as well.

"Oh- Remus and I found a bagful of them in a cupboard one day, when we were six. With our six year old logic, we decided to split the lot and see how many we could eat in one sitting. Naturally, all the sugar gets to you eventually, and we both had a terrible time being scolded for ruining our dinner appetites, and then throwing up… though the latter was infinitely worse," James grinned at the memory. "Two hundred and thirty-something little worms, slithering up my throat, looking to escape. Nasty, really. So now I knot them all just so that they don't move quite as much, and the knotted part has much more flavor anyway. You should try it sometime."

Lily glanced at the worm in her hand. "I don't think so; worms not moving takes the magic out of things."

"I twirled for you."

She frowned at the worm, then proceeded to knot it and eat it. She made a face. "Not that great, to be honest," she replied, grabbing a handful of mini-chocolate frogs and tadpoles and popping them into her mouth. She chewed on a few as they hopped frantically in her mouth. "At the very least, I've just solved James Potter Mystery #4361…"

James quirked a brow. "Any others you'd like answered?"

"Well," she said, licking off her fingers, "Why your hair never quite lies flat, why you're such an insufferable prat, and what it is you, Sirius, and Peter sneak off to do with Lupin ever full moon."

James glanced up at her, alarmed. "How d'you-"

It occurred to her that perhaps this was not the best thing to say, under the circumstances. "I was in the hospital wing once, back in fifth year. I saw the nurse smuggle him back into the hospital in the morning," she said. "And I remember the three of you sneaking in to visit him and telling him you'd managed something that would help, that he wouldn't have to be-"

"You can stop there, Evans."

Lily glanced up and noted traces of confusion, understanding, and anger flit across his features.

"How much did you hear?"

"Enough to know you've done something stupid, as usual," Lily replied. Somehow, they had gone from talking about the frivolous, irrelevant things- joking about candy, and the like- to something else. Something serious. "Whatever it was- I didn't tell anyone," she said, more to pacify him than anything. "Don't accuse me of things I didn't do."

"I wasn't going to," he answered flatly.

Lily glanced at him. "You don't have to tell me, James," she said. "It was a joke."

His jaw was clenching as he stared at her, contemplating. "I'd tell you, but…"

"But you don't trust me?" she prompted.

James made a noncommittal sound. "Maybe," he shrugged. "It's just not really mine to tell, so… how much I trust you doesn't exactly matter, does it?"

Lily sighed and gave him a weak smile. "It was a stupid joke. I… Let's just go, shall we? It's almost past curfew, I'm willing to bet."

James nodded, and they left the kitchens, both dissatisfied with the conclusion of their conversation.

---

It had been an awkward trip back to the common room, Lily reflected, somewhat a result of the topic that had been brought up. She supposed she had no reason to feel offended- it wasn't as though she and James were confidants, who told each other everything. Actually, come to think of it, that idea sounded rather absurd, really.

Still, it hadn't helped to try and rationalize away the small stab of hurt she'd felt at not being deemed deserving enough to be told the darker aspects of his life. Not being deemed important enough.

She had thought they were friends, having shared so much over the past year, but realized there were still limits to their friendship. Limits as to how far in he would let her go. It was such a contrast to the caring person he could be sometimes. It had felt, when he danced with her, when he twirled her around, when he slid his hand comfortingly in hers, as though there might be a possibility of a possibility of something there…. But perhaps she had just imagined it.

She glanced at him, striding long steps so that she had to double her pace in an effort to keep up.

He had been angry at her for asking, she realized. Not just because she had asked about a subject they pretended didn't exist- but because she had ruined their game. Their dance. One where they only asked the hard questions when they both wanted or needed to, where they could continue their banter as though nothing had changes, where they could keep pretending everything was a little bit more normal that it was now. It had been one started out of necessity, to distract from the depression or despair thinking about her parents or his mum or the brewing war, or anything else that might have made life just a little bit more unbearable, anything else that might have chipped away at the sanity they clung to so desperately.

She wondered, though, if they would ever stop this dance of theirs.

He stopped.

They had reached the portrait hole. "Wimblemimble," James said. Turning to her, he said slowly, "I don't know why my hair never lies flat… I think it's genetic. And I can't help being a useless prat sometimes; I think it's a character trait, sorry."

An olive branch had been offered. She could accept it, and they could continue on their way, pretend as if nothing had happened. They hadn't stopped their dance- they had only stumbled.

She smiled slowly. "I know you're a useless prat, James, honestly. You think I wouldn't have gathered this by living in the same house as you for the past seven years?" He seemed to breathe a sigh of relief at her words, however slight. "Now move it, Potter, you're blocking the portrait hole."

He grinned at her, and stepped through, stopping so abruptly she collided into his back. "Professor McGonagall," he said warily. "We were just out patrolling the hallways; sorry, if we're late, we just-"

"Nevermind that, Potter, Evans. You two come with me," the Headmistress directed them, beckoning at them to follow her swiftly out the portrait hole, despite the fact that they had both just walked in through it.

"What is it, Professor?" Lily asked. She didn't think McGonagall's stern and thin-lipped expression was one regarding a small matter of breaking curfew. "What's happened?"

"It is my unfortunate duty to inform the two of you," here she gave a pitying sigh, "of... the outcome of some unfortunate events. I'm sure the two of you have heard the rising of this new wizard who calls himself the Dark Lord?"

James frowned. "Yes… but I thought it was already declining. Hasn't the ministry said they've caught a few of his followers?"

"Perhaps, Potter, but there are still plenty out their willing to do his bidding," she sighed. "All this… pureblood mania, as of late, has been the cause of quite a few… disturbances, to say the least, on both sides. But I won't delve into the political aspects of this tonight…"

"What is it, Professor?" Lily repeated anxiously.

"It's your friend, Leslie. She's dead. They're all… dead."

Lily blinked. "What do you mean, dead? Not… dead. And who else…?" Her voice trailed off uncertainly, sounding weak to her own ears.

"The Knight Bus was intercepted," McGonagall said. "All the students on board were killed."

"In an accident, you mean," James said, brows furrowed.

McGonagall clucked her tongue sympathetically. "I'm afraid, Potter, that there is no doubt this was no accident. It was a message to your Headmaster, to your school. Our school. They have taken this as a ways of… declaring war, I'm afraid."

"But… it makes no sense," Lily countered. She couldn't bear to think past this point. Leslie was dead. Dead. But she already knew what that word meant, and she couldn't bear to think of it. Not now, not here. Later, perhaps, when things were… real, again, she would. "Why would they target a bus full of students?"

"To send a message, Miss Evans," the Headmistress sighed. "A message that anyone who is to help us will be shown the same mercy. It is a disgusting, weak thing to do, and I assure the both of you action will be taken. No doubt, the Headmaster will want to speak to the students about it, but… until then, it is left upon the two of you, as Head Boy and Girl, to inform your fellow Gryffindors and help them handle the… shock. Not just that a friend and peer has died- but that this is merely the start of something greater. I leave it upon the two of you to reassure them of their safety, and their convictions that we are on the right side of this… war."

Professor McGonagall drew herself up slightly at this. "Now… I must be off. Letters to write, things to sort out. Still, should anyone wish to speak to me or the Headmaster, you know where our offices are."

She hesitated slightly as she walked off, glancing back at them. "I'm truly sorry, to the both of you. I…"

She closed her mouth abruptly and left.

---

Lily stared after her, in disbelief. "Did I just imagine that? Did she just tell us…"

Beside her, James looked stricken. A petty argument of two minutes ago had vanished. "What do we do now?" he asked hoarsely. "What are we supposed to… How did she say…. I don't understand."

"I don't know," she answered his unfinished question.

"There's too much death," James whispered. "It was supposed to be over. It was over. I don't…. it doesn't make sense."

Lily glanced up at him and slid her hand into his as he had done only a few hours before. "I don't think it was ever over…. I think it's only the beginning."

"The beginning of what? The beginning of the end of the world," he scoffed angrily, letting out a short laugh. There was too much crowding their thoughts, too much to think about, too much they wouldn't allow themselves to think about. He jerked his head in the direction of the common room. "What do we tell them?"

"I don't know."

"And Leslie?"

"I don't know."

She wouldn't think about that. Her friend was dead. The echoing 'dead' would come, eventually, but right now, she couldn't let herself hear it.

It was the beginning of the end of the world, as James had said dryly. He had been joking. It wasn't a funny joke. ('She's dead now,' her six year old self said.) A war was starting. That would mean death would come in even greater numbers. How could they have missed this? How could they have not seen this? ('She shouldn't have died.') There were so many questions, but she couldn't grasp on the answers. All were held just out of reach. ('The world keeps spinning, spinning, spinning… but she's stopped.') She couldn't think of what was to come, yet. All she could focus on was the crushing despair of the moment. ('I wondered what would happen if it stopped.') What had happened? ('If the world stopped, do you think we'd notice?') She didn't know. (She didn't know.)

She felt a squeeze on her hand. Glancing down, she saw James was gripping her hand tightly, tightly enough to hurt. But she didn't pull away, didn't ask him to pull away. She needed to feel this. ('Have you stopped yet?')

"What are we going to do?" James asked desperately. ('We have to stop eventually.')

"I don't know," she whispered again. ('Useless, really, to keep on going.')

James stared at her, still grasping her fingers tightly. "Okay," he said softly. He glanced down at the hand in which he still had entangled with hers. "So we do this now."

It wasn't a question, but she had nodded.

"Yes. Together."

('We need to stop spinning now.')

James brushed a thumb over the back of her hand. "Thank you," he said.

('Aren't you getting dizzy?')

Her world had stopped spinning, for a moment, long enough for her to realize they had stopped. Stopped their dance.

('The world is still spinning, even if you've stopped.')

"You're welcome," she said with a sad sort of smile, even though she wanted to cry, to scream, to do anything but smile. To keep from breaking.

('Would you noticed if the world stopped spinning?')

The world was such an easy thing to shatter.

('It already has.')

Somehow, they would put the pieces back together.

Together.

---

(A/N): And there you have it. Sorry, if the last bit was a little confusing… It was necessary, though, to show a bit of their frame of mind.

I'll be updating more frequently, I promise, mostly because, I think, the time has come for me to finish this fic. I've kind of grown out of it- after all, I've been writing it for three years. But, all the same, I can't bring myself to abandon it, so… yeah. See details at my livejournal, which is linked at my profile.

Much love to all of you!

And now I'm off to go wait for HBP…

Love from,

Y. Kuang

To Come: The beginning of the end of the world, and putting the pieces back together.