J.K. Rowling owns this popsicle stand. I'm just playing in her sandbox.
"Calm down, Prongs. She'll be here soon."
In the dim light of the Leaky Cauldron, James rocked back and forth on his heels, the ring finger of his left hand shoved in his mouth as he gnawed on his cuticle.
"Yeah, but what if she—"
The door opened and a blast of cold air blew into the pub, and James held his breath as a scrum of people pushed forward. He scanned their faces, visibly deflating when Lily wasn't among them.
"She's fine. You'd have heard otherwise by now if something happened."
"Something did happen, Padfoot. Or have you forgotten about the git who broke into her house, cursed her mum, and threatened her life?"
"Bit melodramatic today, are we?" But James didn't miss the dark glower in his best friend's eyes. They had been coming up with ways to protect Lily's home ever since he had received her letter, but had yet to come up with more than a few charms that they were sure Lily would have thought of already.
"Sirius, I just— She's..."
"Yeah," Sirius said, grimacing again. "I know, mate."
Then the door opened again and this time, a lone redhead pushed through the door. She squinted around at the post-holiday crowds, and James took the opportunity to really stare. Her eyes looked tired, but that wasn't necessarily new or different. She was always tired. But a new crease had appeared around her mouth, and there was a sadness lurking in every feature. Then her eyes landed on his face, and they lit up in a way that was at once indescribable and foreign and as familiar and comfortable as his favorite armchair in the Gryffindor common room.
She rushed toward him, arms outstretched, and he caught her, clutching her to his chest. Her perfume tickled his nose, and the top of her head fit just so under his chin. It was a transformative moment for James, and one he didn't think he could ever forget. It was the moment that Lily Evans broke through the final barrier and took up residence inside his heart. She sat down and made herself comfortable. She hung pictures and lit a fire. She belonged there.
As for Lily, the feeling of James' arms wrapped securely around her was an awakening. She smiled into his scarf, inhaling deeply.
"James," she murmured. "Happy Christmas."
Sirius gave an affected little cough, and she pulled away, blushing.
"Is Marlene here yet?" she asked, clearly embarrassed.
James rolled his eyes at his friend. "Not yet, but she can't make it until later. Something came up, I guess. We were planning on grabbing a butterbeer and some chips before heading out into Diagon Alley."
"That sounds fantastic," Lily said, flashing him a grateful smile. "I'm famished."
"I'll just go put our order in, shall I?" Sirius winked at Lily and grinned at James before disappearing into the crowd near the bar.
James sighed heavily and shook his head. "Ignore him. Seriously."
"I find it hard to believe that anyone can ignore him for too long."
"Fair enough," James said with a laugh. "But enough about my prat of a best mate. Tell me what happened with Snivelous."
She flinched at the familiar nickname, but otherwise let it pass without comment. Slowly, she told him about the events of the previous day, trying not to leave anything out. By the time she finished, Sirius had returned with three butterbeers.
"He's right obsessed with you, inni?"
"I don't know." Lily gathered her hair in her hands and twisted it anxiously. "Sometimes it doesn't feel like it's about me at all."
"I don't see him breaking into anyone else's house," James said.
She twisted her hair more frantically. "I've been thinking about that."
"Five words that never lead to anything good," Sirius said.
"Thanks so much." Lily rolled her eyes. "I just meant that there are a lot of Muggleborn witches and wizards, and they're just as likely to be targeted in all this pureblood mania. What about them?"
"We haven't even solved your problem, yet, now you want us taking on a whole country of Muggle families? You think big, Evans." James smiled, but his light tone was strained.
"Not us necessarily, but don't you think someone ought to? Hundreds of people, James."
They stared at each other for a long moment, and something seemed to pass between them. Then Sirius cleared his throat, and James jumped guiltily.
"One large order of chips?" Tom the barman dropped a battered basket full to overflowing with greasy chips on the table.
"I'm only saying." She stuffed a handful of chips into her mouth and washed it down with a swig of butterbeer.
"Honestly, Evans, your table manners are appalling. Some etiquette classes would not go amiss." Sirius watched her in disbelief.
She picked up another handful of chips and deliberately stuffed them into her mouth one at a time, chewing loudly. His lip curled in disgust, but his eyes sparkled with laughter.
"As I was saying," she continued, swallowing her food, "we may be able to do something about my family, but there are so many others. I think we need to put some serious thought into this."
"We will," James said firmly. "But right now let's focus on you."
"Only right now?" Sirius said quietly.
"Shut up, Sirius."
"Something is different about you." Marlene licked ice cream off her spoon and gave Lily a penetrating stare. "What is it?"
"Nothing's different, Mar, stop picking at me." Lily stared resolutely out the window, determined to not let her eyes stray down the street toward Quality Quidditch Supplies, where James and Sirius had gone to check out the new line of Clean Sweeps.
"Sirius told me about what happened with Snape. Were you scared? What did you do?"
"It all happened so fast, I don't think I really thought about being scared until he was gone. I was worried about my mum, and trying to figure out what I would do if he attacked us. I wasn't thinking about anything past what was going to happen in the next five minutes."
"Sirius said he cursed your mum. Is she okay?"
"It wasn't that bad actually." When Marlene gave her a disbelieving stare, she shook her head vigorously. "No, really. He confunded her and cast a really minor memory charm. I had the whole thing reversed in pretty short order."
"Well, thank Merlin for badly executed magic."
"That's just it, Mar," Lily said thoughtfully. "I think it was actually really well executed magic. It was like he did the least intrusive thing he could manage while still getting what he wanted. And he made it so easy to fix. He didn't have to do that. He's certainly capable of much worse."
"Don't sound so impressed. He attacked your mum and periodically threatens your life, remember?"
"I'm not impressed," she protested. "Just a little, I don't know, grateful? Odd as that sounds."
"Grateful." Marlene blinked, then shook her head. "You have a very weird way of looking at the world, Lily."
"Don't I know it," James said, coming in from the street and swiping Lily's cup of chocolate swirl out of her hand. Before she could do much more than grunt in protest, he had thrust an overflowing spoonful into his mouth.
"You disgusting little berk! Give that back." But Lily couldn't hide her smile, and James took his time licking the spoon clean before he handed it over.
"Share and share alike, I always say," Sirius put in, leaning over Marlene's shoulder and biting off the top of her ice cream cone. He shivered, and smacked his lips. "Ooh, 's cold."
Marlene yanked the cone away, smearing a wide streak of chocolate on Sirius' face. A scuffle ensued, and Lily rolled her eyes, turning back to James.
"Did you buy a new broom?"
"Nah, I like mine just fine. I did pick up a new pair of gloves, though. My pointer finger's wiggling through the tip of my old pair." He wiggled his left hand at her face, and she laughed.
"We can't have that! Not when you've got the Cup to win us."
"Since when are you so keen on winning the Cup?"
Lily sniffed, not quite able to quell her smile. "I'm a Gryffindor, aren't I? I'm just as proud of our team as the next person!"
"If you say so." James chuckled. "Does that mean you'll cover for me when we go into our end of the season practice spree?"
"How is that any different from your beginning of the season practice spree?"
"Evans, Evans, Evans." James shook his head sadly. "It's like you've been ignoring me for the last six years."
"It isn't like that, Potter," she said drily. "I have actually been ignoring you."
"Or at least giving it her all," Marlene put in. Lily rolled her eyes.
"I suppose I could help you out," she said, ignoring her friend. "You covered for me last term when I got swamped with homework."
"Not to mention all those late night study sessions trying to knock some shockingly rudimentary level Transfiguration into your thick skull." James smiled and leaned closer, and it occurred to Lily that he was flirting...and she rather liked it. She grinned and quirked an eyebrow.
"Now, now, Potter, let's call those study sessions what they really were."
"And what would that be?"
"You shamelessly exploiting my knowledge of Charms and my general braininess so that you wouldn't fail out of half your classes."
"Your braininess? That's a laugh." James let his eyes rove over her face, lingering on her lips. "Why don't you just admit that you've been copying off my papers for years? It's beginning to get embarrassing."
"I agree." Lily's voice had gone breathy, and she was so busy staring up into James' hazel eyes that she didn't notice Marlene and Sirius quietly retreating to the other side of the ice cream shop. "It's embarrassing that you never mastered first year Potions principles, too, but we don't have to get into all of that."
A family of four loudly entered the shop, and Lily and James pulled away from each other abruptly at the sound of it. Sirius cursed under his breath.
"Almost got the better end of my bet with Wormy. I've given him excellent odds on any time before your party."
Marlene laughed lightly and shook her head. "He's such a mooncalf sometimes. Why do you love taking his money so much? You've got a whole bank vault and he barely gets pocket money when he scrapes good marks."
"When you put it that way it makes me sound cruel." Sirius frowned. "I'm just doing my best to teach my friend Peter about that old Muggle adage. You know, a fool and his gold are soon parted?"
"Now I've heard everything," Lily said, throwing an arm around Marlene's shoulders. "Sirius Black quoting Muggle proverbs? I must be dreaming."
"You and Prongs aren't the only seventh years pulling good marks," he sniffed. "I'll have you know I'm quite brainy when I have a mind to be."
"For example," interrupted Marlene, "he's absolutely brilliant at finding ways to smuggle firewhiskey past parents and professors."
"Speaking of firewhiskey...you're coming to the party, aren't you, Lily?" James turned to her with big, pleading eyes.
"I cleared a slumber party with Marlene for New Year's Eve if that's what you mean." Lily grinned triumphantly and Sirius burst out laughing.
"You know what, Evans? I may have written you off too quickly. You appear to have some faint, untapped potential for mischief."
She grinned playfully. "Careful, Sirius. That sounded a little too much like a compliment."
"Lily? Marlene! Over here!"
Alice and Frank emerged from Flourish and Blott's with their arms full of bags, Frank valiantly struggling under the greater weight. He took Alice's one, small bag and she shot off like a rocket, jumping into the arms of her two roommates with a delighted giggle.
"I didn't expect to see you girls before the party!" She suddenly seemed to notice James and Sirius, standing just behind the girls and nodding hello to Frank. Her voice dropped. "I'm not interrupting something, am I?"
"Course not," Lily said immediately. "We just finished our ice cream and we were about to go for a stroll. Join us?"
"Alice," Frank whispered, his eyes fixed on a point just behind Lily's right shoulder. "Tea?"
"Drat," she sighed. "Can't. Sorry, its just that Frank's mum wants to meet me and..." She lifted her shoulders in a helpless sort of shrug.
"Meeting the parents already, Alice?" Marlene's tone was shocked but she smiled knowingly. Then she cleared her throat.
"Actually, that reminds me. Weren't we going to do that...you know, that thing?" She gave Sirius a meaningful look and lifted her eyebrows.
"What thing?" Sirius stared at her.
"You know...at the place. With the thing."
"Wha—oh! Oh. That thing. Yes. Sorry, chaps, we're...uh, we're late, aren't we, Marlene?"
"'Fraid so." She kissed Lily on the cheek and squeezed Alice in a brief embrace. "See you all at my party!"
Then Sirius took her hand and they jogged off in the direction of the Leaky Cauldron. Alice and Frank followed shortly afterward with apologetic goodbyes.
"And then there were two," Lily said, bemused. She looked back at James, who had the oddest expression on his face—a mixture of irritation, delight, and hope.
"Well, I don't want to go home just yet, do you?" He smiled at her, and she stopped wondering where Marlene had rushed off to in such a hurry.
"No. I don't."
She lost track of time, quite literally. One minute they were strolling down the street, window shopping and chatting about their holiday, and the next he was suggesting a quick drink at the pub. One drink turned into three, and the next thing she knew...
"When did the sun set?" Startled, she glanced up at the clock that hung behind the bar at the Leaky Cauldron. "Bugger! Mum's going to kill me. I said I'd be home hours ago."
James, who had been telling a funny story about a garden gnome attacking Peter the previous summer, sighed and smiled wistfully. "I was hoping you weren't going to notice."
"You are far too distracting," she said, standing up and dropping a couple of sickles on the table.
"That's what you should tell your mum. You were simply unable to pull yourself away from my charming stories and quick wit." James picked up the sickles and put them back in her hand. "Your money's no good here, Evans. Put those away."
"It was a couple of butterbeers, James, it won't break the bank."
"Now I know you're trying to get me in trouble with my mum. She'd murder me in my bed if she knew I made a lady pay for her drink."
"Doesn't that kind of logic only extend to dates?"
The words were out of her mouth before she had fully thought them through, and she wished she could take them back immediately. James didn't miss a beat.
"Any outing with a young lady is an opportunity to demonstrate gentility."
Lily stared at him, open-mouthed, and then a very unladylike snort escaped her. "I think I'd like to meet your mother, Potter. She sounds like a real scream."
"You have no idea."
"It's just that you're home for so little." Mrs. Evans sighed, watching as her youngest daughter packed an overnight bag. "And once you're done with school who knows where you'll be off to."
"Who knows, indeed?" Lily retorted sarcastically. "Not me. Maybe I'll just come home and live here. Tuny will be married and gone, you'll have loads of extra space."
"Now, Lily, no need to get snippy. You're Head Girl, your professors love you. You're going to figure it out."
Lily sat down with a grunt on her bed, bouncing a little as her mother sat down next to her. "Why haven't I already figured it out, though?"
Her mother smiled fondly and patted her knee. "Because sometimes the really important things take us longer to understand. We have to take the time to really think about them before we know what the right path is."
James' smile as he paid for her drinks flashed into her mind.
"But why? Why can't we just know? Everything is always so complicated. How do you know when you're making the right choice and when you're just making the choice you wish could be the right one?"
Mrs. Evans laughed quietly and kissed her daughter's forehead before standing and walking toward the door. "Sweetheart, if it wasn't so hard, it wouldn't be nearly as wonderful when it all worked out."
She walked out into the hallway, paused, and turned back. "He's a nice young man, Lily. I know you've had your differences, and you haven't always liked him. But I remember what it was like to be young and in love, and I know what I saw when you looked at each other. Give him a chance. Marlene's parents will be home?"
"Yes. And I'll be home by noon tomorrow. We can spend every minute together until I get back on the Hogwarts Express sitting around and eating biscuits and gossiping about boys."
"Marvelous. Don't drink too much. And keep your knees together after the boys get there."
"I'm not completely square you know. I was seventeen once, too."
"Have a good time. I love you."
Lily gave up with a little laugh. "Love you, too, Mum."
Five minutes later, she kissed her dad goodbye, took a deep breath, and apparated into Marlene's living room. A cheer went up as she popped into sight, and she laughed as she was pulled three different directions at once. As Alice poured her a drink and James leaned in to tell her the latest gossip on Peter and some Hufflepuff girl, she smiled contentedly. She was at home here, with these people, and the rest was sure to sort itself out. It had to.
A/N: Finally...the big New Year's Eve party! You've waited so patiently. Thanks for sticking with me!