a/n: for Ella (matt-smiths) for her birthday which is today!
Lella, happy birthday! Thank you so much for being such a wonderful friend to me and to everybody else. You're so special and I'm so grateful to have you as my friend, as I know everybody else is. This was going to be a James/Sansa for you, but something went wrong (I still haven't worked out what yet) and it turned into something completely different, for which I'm very sorry. It was also supposed to be a one-shot but a) it got way too long, and b) I haven't finished it yet and I wanted to give you something on your actual birthday so I figured I'd upload the first half and get the other half up at a later date. I hope you like it anyway! I love you loads my Daenerys and I hope you have a simply marvellous day.
WARNING: for everybody, not just Ella—this story contains mental illness, possible triggers for sexual abuse, self-harm, and attempted suicide; as well as allusions to incest, mentions of drug and alcohol abuse and a sexual relationship between a teacher and a student. Please don't read if any of the above may be offensive or triggering for you.
skies fall down
don't get too close/ it's dark inside/ it's where my demons hide. —demons, imagine dragons
At the age of twenty, James Potter is officially given up on by his family. He finds this out when four wizards turn up on his doorstep informing him that his mother has submitted his name to their rehabilitation centre and that he can come quietly or messily, whichever he prefers. James, at this point, has drowned his blood in alcohol and scrawled an eternity of poetry on his bare legs, so naturally he picks messily.
"You don't understand," he babbles, blood running over his lips from his broken nose as they hustle him into the back of their fancy Muggle car, "You don't understand, I'm not mad—it's the poetry, the words. They have to get out and out and out and if they don't my head burns. Please, just—give me a pen. If nothing else the pen."
They ignore him and James sits for four hours in the back of a car with his head on fire and a million words blazing behind his eyes.
"You're mad," one of the men next to him says calmly, when they are pulling into the bland white centre, "Surrender to it, Mr Potter. Surrender to it and we can fix it."
"I'm not mad," James says firmly, letting them manhandle him out of the car, "I'm not mad. I'm not fine but I'm not mad either. It's just—I have all these words inside my head and I have to get them out and onto paper or they torture me."
"You're mad," the man repeats as they take him inside, "Accept it, Mr Potter. Accept it and we can help you."
"I don't need your help," James protests as they push him into a bland white room, "Just paper. Give me paper and a pen and I'll be okay, I promise."
They give him neither, and James sinks onto the pristine white bed in the centre of the room and presses the heels of his hands into his eyes until he sees fireworks there and tries not to let the words destroy him.
He lasts an hour before they consume him and he begins to scrabble madly at his clothes. They stripped him of his wand and he has no doubt that his clothes will be replaced by standard madplace issue before long, but until then he has the inside pockets on his jacket and one of them must—yes, yes it does. James is triumphant as he withdraws a thick black marker, and shedding his jacket and his shoes he leaps up onto the empty white desk on the opposite side of the room and, uncapping the pen, takes a deep breath to centre himself before the words flood out of him; unstoppable, unshakeable, uncontainable.
By the time they come to check on him again in half an hour he has covered that section of wall, rhymes tripping gaily over the whiteness, stark and dark against the brightness.
"Bloody hell," the nurse checking in breathes before she shuts the spy window and hurries to fetch security. James, sitting replete against the wall, ink smudges on his face, breathes out and relaxes.
As expected, more men arrive and strip him and he is taken into the showers. The ink runs off him in black rivulets of water and he watches in regret as the couplets trickle off his legs. The catharsis of the words he wrote on the walls of his cell will last him an hour or two now, he thinks, and he intends to enjoy the time he has free. He submits calmly when his handlers return, dressing without complaint in the horrific madplace pyjamas in the bright white which matches all the walls. They seem to expect him to run or to fight, watching him with wary eyes as they escort him to a new cell, but he does neither. In his calmness, now, he finds it easy to understand that he needs the help they offer. His mother tried, he knows she did, but there is only so much you can do for a guy with this strange disease of his.
"The words," he tries to tell the doctor who comes to see him, "The words burn me. I have to get them out—do you understand? I have eons of stanzas in my head and I have to get them out or I can't bear it."
The doctor nods and notes something on a clipboard and James wonders what level of insane they're classing him as. High, probably, since his nose is still throbbing despite the healing spell cast on it and he can feel rhymes beginning to scrape at the sides of his psyche again.
He spends the next two days curled into a ball at one end of his bed with his head clutched in both hands and words blazing inside his skull. The agony of it is hot and white and James doesn't think he can bear much longer of this.
"A pen," he implores every person who comes into his room, "A pen, please, I'm begging you. Please."
They all just shake their heads and James guesses in one of his more lucid moments that they're probably trying to drain him of it like you do with alcoholics, doing the mad poet's version of cold turkey, and James cannot bear it. Every stray thought is a dagger, every second a needle that he cannot shy away from. He thinks maybe this is what it feels like to be possessed, to have a mad crazed creature clawing at your mind.
His third morning finds him curled into the foetal position against the wall in the far left corner of the room, sleepless and senseless, repeating the second canto of Nabokov's Pale Fire over and over like a mantra of protection.
"There was a time in my demented youth/ When somehow I suspected that the truth/ About—"
"Mr Potter!" A nurse. No matter.
"Survival after death was known/ To every human being: I alone/ Knew nothing—"
"Mr Potter!" Louder now. Let them come.
"And a great conspiracy/ Of books and people kept the truth from me./ There was the day when I began to doubt—"
He stops. That voice is different, familiar, achingly familiar…
"Lily," he breathes, breaking Nabokov apart, and he raises his head from the blank white space of the wall. He turns slowly, rhymes trying to tear his mind in two, and focuses on the slim shape of his sister against the white door.
James stares at her for a short time before a query presents itself on his tongue, "The nurse?"
"I told her to go," Lily says, detaching herself from the door and making her way across the room towards him, "I told her she was an idiot for even thinking you were dangerous to me. To anyone, really, apart from yourself."
"You have to get them to give me a pen," he tells her even as she is kneeling down in front of him and placing her hands on his bowed shoulders, studying his face critically, "Please, Lily. Please. A pen, or I think I'll die."
"A pen, a pen, my kingdom for a pen," she teases lightly, and James astonishingly feels the sides of his mouth curling up into a smile. Lily may be small and annoying and Slytherin but she's the only other person in this whole mad world who knows how it feels inside his head and he cannot help but adore her for it.
"Will you?" he asks, and she gives him this sneaky little smile and, pressing one delicate finger to her lips, quietly pulls a biro from down the front of her dress and slips it into his hands.
"I couldn't get paper in," she warns even as he's uncapping the pen and clutching it between his fingers like the world's most precious diamond, "They searched me. I had that down my bra else they'd have found it too."
"What—" James begins, but Lily just smiles that little smile again and shrugs off her jacket, and James is slightly taken aback as she turns away from him and presents him with her back.
"Use me," she commands in a tone that James has not yet learnt to disobey, "Unzip my dress and just write. I know it's not the best but it will make things better for a bit and the weirdos here will never find out the way they would other things."
"I don't know," James replies, unconvinced, a little weirded out—there are sibling boundaries, he's pretty sure, but then he's been closer to Lily than anybody else his whole life and he's not sure he knows where to draw the lines between them anymore. Besides, his fingers are already travelling towards her zip of their own accord, and she's sweeping her hair around over her shoulder and smiling in profile as he parts her dress, exposing the smooth pale canvas of her back. His fingers hesitate at the catch of her bra and she turns her head a little so he can see the small sly smile on her face. He knows that smile as well as he knows his own, the challenge thrown down, and so with his first hint of humour in a long time he arches both brows and flicks her bra open with an easy professionalism, wondering how many boundaries he's crossed and if boundaries ever really applied to the Potter kids at all. One of Lily's eyebrows raises, the smile shifts into something a little impressed and a little delighted, and then with her arms anchored to her front to hold her dress up there she leans forwards and presses her chin onto her knees and waits.
James can barely resist for five seconds, and then he's pressing the nib of the pen into the top of her back, desperate and desiring. She lets out a soft sigh of pain but does not otherwise complain. James wouldn't hear anyway. He's lost in the way it feels to finally let the words out, better than any other feeling he thinks he's ever experienced, and as Lily sits and hums to herself James weaves waves of beauty across her shoulders and tries not to lose himself too completely in his poem.
Forty minutes later a handler comes to take Lily out again and finds the siblings resting replete on James' bed, leaning against the headboard, having an idle conversation about their brother's new girlfriend. The man shoots a suspicious look at the biro scrawls peeking out the end of Lily's sleeves but says nothing other than to tell her that her time is up and she needs to leave. Lily frowns but does as bidden, which surprises James since he's used to a sister who argues every tiny little point just because she can.
"I'm trying this new behaving thing," she explains, pausing by the door, "Al bet me I couldn't go a month without getting in trouble and obviously I have to win, so."
James grins and finds himself missing his siblings suddenly and painfully. But he doesn't want Lily worrying because a worried Lily is a dangerous Lily and so he just rolls his eyes and grins and waves her out, the top line of his poem just peeking above the back of her dress before she slides her jacket back on and leaves. James taps his fingers against his knee and leans his head back against the wall to enjoy the rare peace inside his head.
Lily comes back every day for two weeks until she is forced to leave for Hogwarts, and James finds himself nervous for her even when he should be worrying about himself and how he's going to cope now his only outlet for the words in his mind is gone. Contrary to all appearances, James isn't always turned in on his own insanity and lately he's been noticing more signs in his siblings. Signs that have been there their whole lives, he thinks, but now Al is out of school and in the pictures in magazines he's looking a little more harried and Lily has had monsters in the corners of her eyes for longer than James can remember and he knows, he knows how hard their parents fought to protect them but when your classmates can make fifty galleons just by telling a reporter from one of any number of magazines (when James was young there was just Accio!, editor Rita Skeeter, but now there are more than he can remember the names of and they all pay well for gossip about the children of the Boy Who Lived) about who they've slept with recently, who they've been spotted with, what they're wearing… James is astonished they've not all been institutionalised, to be honest.
He gets three days before the words begin to burn unbearably and he is reduced to near-inertia by the weight of them. He spends this time worrying about Lily and worrying about Albus and wondering if they are redeemable the way he is. The problem is that Lily has told him what Albus gets up to and Albus has told him what Lily gets up to and he thinks that maybe in the long run neither of them can be saved at all. Ironic, considering he's the one in the mental asylum, but there it is.
Five days of thinking and agony and words words words later, the doctors watching over him evidently make a decision and James wakes up from a disturbed, restless sleep to find ten sheets of paper and two pens on his table. He doesn't even bother to change out of the madplace pyjamas into the shirt and trousers he's been allowed to wear lately, just rolls out of bed and practically crawls across the floor until he is seated at the desk. It is almost painful, the bliss that rolls through him as he picks up the pen, and he is half-convinced that he's crying as the first word bleeds onto the paper.
A bare three hours later and the sheets are saturated with poetry, words crawling up the sides, crammed into every space available, a veritable feast of blue lettering. James, leaning back in his white chair, breathes out and feels peace, peace at last.
His regular nurse comes in not long afterwards and James watches her with a detached kind of interest as she crosses the room towards him, wearing that special calm smile they obviously train them to wear at all times.
"Good morning, Mr Potter," she says in a tone of the most incredible patronisation. James is too used to this tone to be irritated by it at this stage, so he just returns her greeting politely and waits expectantly for whatever news she has come to deliver.
"We thought you might like to get out of this room," she informs him at last, bustling around and tidying his already-tidy room, straightening his bedsheets, wiping imaginary dust off the sink in the corner, "Dr Forwyth thinks a change of scene might do you some good."
James cannot imagine so unless the change of scene involves one or both of his siblings, but he agrees despite this fact because he's tired of the blank white walls. Besides, it might be fun to maybe see the other loonies banged up in here.
The nurse leaves for a moment so that he can dress in the plain white shirt and grey trousers that have been laid out for him, and then she leads him down an empty corridor. A couple of the big tough handlers are lurking, no doubt worried that he's going to get dangerous—but Lily was right, that time. He's never been a danger to anybody but himself.
Ignoring the men, James follows meekly as the nurse leads him into a big communal space. The sudden amount of colour almost hurts his eyes after weeks of so much white, and James has to blink several times as he gazes around. There are blue and red sofas, a green pool table, even a television on the wall.
"Wow," he finds himself saying to nobody in particular, moving towards the centre of the room without being conscious of it. The nurse closes the door behind herself and James is left alone, suddenly at a loss—he has gone so long with nothing to do that suddenly being presented with multiple options is too much to handle. Eventually, in slight stupefaction, he throws himself down onto a red sofa and flicks the television on with the remote, and loses himself in news of the world, wizarding and Muggle.
Little has changed since his incarceration—there is a new president for the Muggle Americans, a new Head of the Department of Mysteries in Britain, fires here and murders there and all in all the world is spinning miserably on the way it has James' whole life.
He perks up marginally when the "celebrity watch" section pops up, blazing in garish neons and making his eyes water slightly. He learns that some Muggle actor has a new baby and that his cousin Hugo's band sold out their arena tour in a record-breaking twelve minutes before a familiar redhead flashes up, holding her middle finger determinedly up at the crowding cameras as beefy men try to push the hysterical paparazzi away.
"Jesus, Lily," James breathes to the empty room as he watches his sister get into a car, head ducked firmly down, middle finger persistently upright until the car door slams shut and a list of her offences is reeled off by a smug-looking presenter. James just about gets the gist of it—possession of illegal drugs, an affair with her Charms professor, drunk at almost all hours of the day and night, suspension and probable expulsion from Hogwarts—the only thing that is keeping her from a jail sentence is her famous last name.
James, sat on the sofa in a mental institution hundreds of miles from his sister, feels a hurt around his heart that only she or Albus has ever been able to produce. He's still watching in slightly numb disbelief as the smug reporter effortlessly segues into rumour-mongering, explaining how nutcase James Potter (James starts at the sound of his name) hasn't been seen for months and is thought to be locked up somewhere, or maybe dead; how lonesome Albus Potter is said to have fucked his way through twenty women and a couple of boys in one weekend and then turned up at a Ministry of Magic dinner party, high as a kite, and proceeded to get off with Lily to wind up the press and the stuffy Ministry officials.
James, his head in his hands, listens to the litany of offences and tries not to cry. He honestly couldn't tell you where they started to go wrong, the three Potter kids. All he knows is that they did and they have and he's not sure where it's going to end.
By the time the nurse returns for him, James is sitting quietly on the opposite side of the room, staring out of the window, silent and despairing. The nurse makes no comment about the tearstains on his cheeks nor the shattered remote on the floor in front of the television, just leads him gently back to his room and leaves him there with twenty fresh sheets of paper and enough pens to sink a battleship.
Come morning, James has crammed all twenty sheets with his agony and spread onto the wall above his desk, writing messy and smudged and full of anger and embarrassment and loathing. The nurse chides him like a child for writing on the walls, but James says nothing until she is gone and he can begin again, channelling his whirling churning emotions into pretty rhymes and rhythmic couplets.
It takes him another fourteen hours and the whole of the west wall to burn himself out, and then he throws himself face down onto his bed and cries himself to sleep.
Lily and Albus come to see him a fortnight later and have the grace to look somewhat abashed as they are shepherded in by a handler who can barely disguise the distaste in his expression.
"You two," James says to them firmly from where he is sat on the floor against the opposite wall, "Had better start explaining yourselves really quickly."
His siblings exchange a glance and James tries not to notice the way Albus' arm detaches from Lily's waist, the way Lily tears the desirous haze out of her eyes as easy as breathing, the way she rubs a small hand against the lovebites on her pale neck.
"It's just a bit of fun," Albus says, still looking ashamed of himself, "To wind the cameras up, you know? They're probably saying we all fuck each other anyway, might as well fan the flames."
"You're a cunt," James tells his brother in no uncertain terms, and as Lily and Albus perch themselves on various items of furniture it doesn't occur to any of the three of them how ironic it is that the one in the loony bin is the one preaching sensibility, "You're brother and sister! It's absolutely fucking disgusting."
"Merlin's beard, James," Lily exclaims, scowling at him, "It's not like we're even sleeping together, fuck, it's just kissing and that's no big—"
"If you dare say that it's 'no big deal', Lily Luna, I am going to strangle you with my bare hands," James threatens darkly, and there's obviously enough fury in his face that Lily, for the first time he remembers, subsides.
For a short while the three sit and stare at each other and James doubts that he's the only one getting flashes of what their lives used to be like, back when they were little, before the gossip magazines first started, when they could run around their back garden buck naked being chased by their harassed mother, back on Al's first day at school when they were still innocent and untainted and hurling themselves at life like they were going to live forever.
And then halfway through Al's first year some bright spark had the idea of making television for wizards since it was such a success with the Muggles and the cameras followed the television and the paparazzi followed the cameras and it didn't take people long to work out that one photo of a Potter kid could earn you more than a fortnight's hard work in some shitty café and so James, Albus and Lily's worlds crashed down and took their sanity along with them.
Lily proves that she's thinking that too when she pipes up, suddenly, breaking the silence between them all, in a tone three parts humour and one part bitterness, "You guys remember the headline on Accio! when I went into Slytherin?"
"Daughter of Boy Who Lived Picks the Dark Path," Albus recites from where he's collapsed backwards onto James' bed, his eyes staring straight up at the blank white ceiling, "Subheading: Every Family Needs a Black Sheep, Right?"
There is another brief pause before James snorts with sudden laughter and before long Lily and Albus join in too, and before James has recovered from his laughing fit the two are rising and coming to sit down next to him, Lily pressed up against his side and Albus pressed up against Lily. Lily's fingers hook into his and her head drops down onto his shoulder, and James sighs and lets his head droop onto hers.
"I just feel sorry for Mum and Dad," she says in the quietest voice imaginable, "They tried so hard and we're all still fuck-ups anyway."
"At least you two aren't in a madhouse like me," James points out, and Al chuckles from his spot beyond Lily and makes a noise that indicates he thinks this is an oversight on their parents' part.
"How did Rose and Hugo turn out so… well, normal?" Al wonders out loud, and James shrugs even as Lily finds the answer without seeming to have to try.
"They're not explosive like us. We're not even siblings, not really—we're a chemical mixture, like a chain reaction. The minute one of us went, we all did."
There is another pause, more comfortable this time, until James murmurs, "I'm sorry it was me."
"Bollocks," Al butts in instantly, and when James turns to look at him his brother is giving him the scariest glare James has ever seen him wear, "It wasn't you at all. Sure, you 'retreated into your poetry' and went all obsessive over it but that was still kind of a creative outlet, you know? It was me. You both know it was. It was me and I'm sorry, I am, I'm so glad I didn't actually manage to—"
"Don't talk about it," Lily interrupts, implores, her face turned up towards Al, "Please, Al. I don't even like to think about it."
"I'm just saying," Al continues stubbornly, despite Lily's protests, "I'm glad it didn't work. I didn't want to die, not really. I just… I just didn't really want to go on living this life anymore."
"So you surrendered," James replies bleakly, leaning his head back against the wall. "You surrendered and I surrendered and so did you, Lil. I'm sorry we were such shitty brothers for you."
Lily squeezes his hand and shifts her weight to bump gently against Al and says, "Well, between us three, I actually think you're the best brothers ever."
James exchanges a grin with Albus over the top of her head and then they just sit in silence and enjoy having each other close again. The silence is easy, it's so easy, and James wishes more than he's ever wished anything that they could just stay like this forever.
Of course they can't, and it feels like a bare five minutes later when some handlers are pitching up to remove Lily and Al, and James catches at their hands as they rise to leave.
"You're going to stop it, yeah?" he demands, glaring up at them feverishly, "Yeah?"
Before he realises it Lily is donning that wicked smile that has forever spelt mischief and Al is shrugging and using his most innocent tone to say, "Maybe," and James is left to watch in a mixture of irritation and disappointment as Lily's eyes infuse themselves with that lazy hazy desire he's only ever seen trained on good-looking Muggle actors and Al's arm is winding around her waist and his lips pressing soft and sure against her cheek.
"I'm sorry, James," Lily whispers over her shoulder to him, "It's just too much fun."
James glares at their retreating backs and carries on glaring even as the door slams shut behind them. He sits there in anger for longer than he'd care to admit, and then he gets up and crosses to his desk and begins to transmute his emotions to words and the words to paper, losing himself in the play of the rhythm and trying to distract himself from the tiny nagging corner of his conscience that says he enjoys what Lily and Al are doing, that wishes he was out of this place and less a slave to his compulsive, corrosive genius so that he could join in too.
That part is easy to ignore so long as he writes. So he writes, and writes, and writes.
A few days later he finally meets some of his fellow inmates. He's back out in the big communal space, watching the news to learn that Lily has been allowed back to Hogwarts to take her NEWTs (which everybody seems to be ninety-five per cent certain she's going to fail spectacularly) when there's a sudden commotion on the other side of the room and James turns around to find a group of four or five other people wearing the same standard-issue shirt and trousers as him being shepherded into the room.
They all stop dead at the sight of him, and James stares back warily as they bunch up automatically. There is a long, awkward silence that James doesn't really dare break as they size him up, until it is pierced by a tall girl with a long black braid plaited over her shoulder.
"It's true, then," she says, stepping away from the huge bald man next to her, "James Potter really has been banged up in here with the rest of us."
"I've been here a while," James ventures in return, rising from the sofa, assuming a slightly defensive stance without realising it. The girl eyes him up and James is full of tension waiting for her to say something else—to insult his father, perhaps, or more likely his brother and/or sister—and then she completely takes him by surprise by shrugging and, as casually as you like, starting to rack up the pool balls for a game.
This is evidently a signal for the rest of the pack since the huge man joins the girl at the pool table and the other three distribute themselves around the room, one collapsing on a sofa across from James and the other two settling down with books elsewhere on chairs. Nervously, James stands and watches and wishes he had never lost the confident young boy he had been in the years before the media began to tear at him and the poetry took root in his mind.
"So what are you in for?" the girl asks, and James' eyes snap towards her. She is looking at him with very mild interest, most of her attention focused on her game of pool, and James gets the feeling she's only asking to be polite.
"Uh," he begins eloquently, not really sure how to describe his odd condition. "I don't really—"
"There's no shame here," another girl pipes up from a chair by the window, looking up from her dog-eared copy of Salinger's Franny and Zooey, "We're all quite clinically mad, so don't be coy. Chances are there's somebody here with your whatever already."
"Well, I, uh," James replies, stuttering, his ears flushing red the way his mother's and uncles' always do, "I kind of… have poetry in my head. And it sort of burns me if I don't get it out."
There is a short pause and then the girl with the black braid remarks, "Interesting. Never actually heard that one before." She seems aware that James is feeling uncomfortable, like he's ventured too much, because she adds, "Me, I'm here 'cause I tried to off myself. Four times."
She pulls up the sleeves of her slightly baggy shirt and shows James the thin patterned ropes of scars across her wrists, a small smile edging onto her lips as she watches him take them in. James, who has seen similar scars decorating his brother's forearms, doesn't have to ask why she keeps them when a simple charm could remove them. Her answer would be the same as Al's, he supposes. To remember, to prove that she was low and that she got through it. To thrill, every now and again, at the fact that she's still breathing and not six feet under in her funeral best.
James, even though he doesn't know her, says to her what he would like to say to Al if their relationship ever allowed for such sincerity, "I'm glad that you're alive."
Her smile stretches out, a little startled, and James finds himself smiling back automatically. She has a smile like his sister's—the sort that smacks of sunshine and happy memories, the sort that you can't help returning. A little unnerved by the amount she reminds him of his siblings, James inquires her name.
"Laura," she replies, and she seems to be reassembling her cool as she tips him a lazy wink and says, "Remember the name, handsome."
James finds himself still smiling as the rest of the group perk up and introduce themselves. The huge man is currently David (a schizophrenic who flickers between four personalities—Jeremy, Alfin, Shannon, and the present David—all, according to Laura, perfectly harmless but for Alfin); then the girl reading Salinger is Julie, the middle-aged woman to her left Karen, and the guy on the sofa near James turns out to be Tom Wood, who James vaguely remembers as being five years above him at Hogwarts.
"What's your story, mate?" James asks a while later once they're settled down in front of a film about superheroes, studying in surprise the short hair which he distinctly remembers as being long and forever artfully ruffled, the sunken eyes and vaguely distracted air.
"Got a bit twitchy," Tom explains without taking his eyes off the TV screen, "Apparently I thought I was being hunted down by some weird organisation. I don't remember any of it to be honest but they say I'm not cured, so I'm in here indefinitely."
James makes a noise to indicate that he's understood, but doesn't bother with any further conversation since Tom clearly isn't interested. As the click of pool balls sounds behind them and the heroes on the screen begin beating up the bad guys, James finds himself wondering if he's ever going to get out of here. He's not entirely sure that there's a cure for his particular brand of insanity.
A couple of hours go by and James drifts to talk to pale Julie by the window. She sets down her book and converses with remarkable eloquence, certainly putting James to shame, and although she never ventures her diagnosis she is very kind about his, pointing out all the silver linings and asking to read some of his poetry.
"Visit my cell some time," James jokes, and she giggles loudly. James feels that familiar exhilarating flutter that he hasn't experienced in a long time, of making somebody laugh, and he decides then and there that he likes Julie.
"We're supposed to call them 'rooms'," she chides him gently, but James just rolls his eyes and she giggles again and, just like that, James makes his first new friend in three years.
Before long Laura comes over and muscles in on the discussion, teasing Julie about her plans to dip-dye the tips of her blonde hair blue and fiddling with the end of her plait and pummelling James for information about his famous cousin Hugo.
"I haven't spoken to him in months," James protests at one point, but Laura just sighs in exaggerated annoyance and informs him that he's rubbish and then she gets distracted by Julie who insists on laying their forearms side-by-side to compare.
"She's so weird about this you'd think it was what she was in here for," Laura comments to James as though Julie isn't even in the room, obligingly laying her arm alongside the blonde girl's, the silky dark colour of her skin providing a contrast that even oblivious James can tell is beautiful to the pale milky hue of Julie's.
"Isn't it lovely?" Julie demands of James, big blue eyes looking up imploringly at him as she leans her head against Laura's, the contrast there lovely too, and James grins and nods and agrees that it most definitely is.
"We do this at least four times a day," Laura explains with a pained expression, but there is real fondness in her face as she draws her head back from Julie's and plants a quick kiss on her friend's temple. James watches them and even as he is awash with happiness that he might maybe have two new friends he is torn near in half by how much he misses his family.
It isn't much longer before he begins to feel the words creeping up on him, that heat in the hollow of his head pooling, rhymes trickling down his spine and into the soles of his feet.
"I have to—I should go," he says suddenly, interrupting an argument between Julie and the big man (Jeremy now), getting up abruptly from his chair next to Laura, "I need to… it was nice meeting you all. I'll see you tomorrow maybe?"
Julie and Jeremy barely even pause in their argument, Karen waves goodbye before returning to her magazine, and Tom doesn't even appear to have noticed James since their conversation. Laura, however, gets up and follows James to the door. She's the tallest girl he's ever met, he reckons, since he's always towered above the girls he knows and Laura is actually on eye-level with him, or thereabouts.
"You're pretty cool, James Potter," she tells him with a little half-smile, folding her arms and propping herself up against the doorframe, "You know, for a mad dude."
"You're not half bad yourself," James replies, his tone gently teasing, and she grins and gives him a friendly punch on the arm and makes him promise to ask his nurse if he can come to the dining hall tomorrow rather than eating alone in his room like he has every other day. James, surprised that this option even exists, agrees quite readily.
"So I'll see you around," Laura says, and James replies, "Yeah," and then turns and walks down the corridor back to his room. It feels most peculiar to be wandering around without supervision, but the words are burning too urgently for him to even deviate slightly from his route back.
He gets back to his cell and sits down at his desk and on a fresh sheet of paper he composes the most lucid poem he's written in months, about two beautiful girls in black and white who clash in technicolour.
The next day he does indeed pose the request to his nurse to be allowed 'out' for lunch. She agrees after a conferral with his doctor, Forwyth, and James finds himself looking forward to seeing his new friends. It is a most curious sensation, for him, to be able to call other people friends. For too long now it's just been him, or him and Al and Lily, and he likes the way it feels.
He then makes a far more radical decision than eating lunch in the dining hall. For the first time he can remember, he doesn't hide his latest poem away in shame, like something dirty and embarrassing. Instead he neatly copies the poem about two girls onto a fresh sheet of paper and then, armed with both, he sets off behind one of the handlers to get his lunch.
Upon his arrival the big man (Jeremy again today) waves him over to their table, and once James has his food and is sat down, he slightly shyly presents his poem to Julie and Laura.
"I wrote this yesterday," he says, not daring to meet their eyes for fear of encountering disapproval there, "I don't know, I guess I thought—maybe you guys'll like it."
The girls subside into silence to read, and James pushes his mashed potato around his plate and hopes he isn't blushing too overtly. There is silence for a while, Karen leaning over Julie's shoulder to read too, and James' ears are flaming red as he waits for the verdict.
Julie finishes first, placing the sheet carefully down on the table, and then she looks up at James with the biggest smile he's ever seen and says, "Thank you, James. I think that's the loveliest thing anybody's ever given me."
James smiles into his mashed potato and blushes even redder than before, which he didn't think was possible. Laura getting to her feet and leaning over the table to drop a kiss on his cheek only exacerbates the problem, and James is shortly so red he thinks he might set his food on fire.
Jeremy is tickled absolutely pink by this and is soon roaring with laughter, the others all joining in before too long. James at first is only more embarrassed, but he soon realises that the laughter is fond and trying to include him, not exclude him, so despite his blush he shortly begins chuckling along with the rest of them, able to see the funny side.
"Your face," Karen gasps breathlessly at him, her face almost as red with laughter as his had been a few seconds ago, "Your face."
James can do nothing in response except surrender to the laughter, and heads at other tables begin to turn towards theirs as they continue to giggle raucously.
It takes them some time to calm down and begin eating properly, and during the whole meal it only takes one quick look between two of them to set the laughter burning again. James, eating his way merrily through his biggest meal in months, wonders in between laughing if this is what being normal feels like. It's been so long since he's experienced it he's not even sure any more.
From that day onwards James begins taking his lunch in the main hall with the others every day. It surprises him, really, how easy it is to settle into this way of life. He finds himself with a routine, even. He wakes at nine and writes poetry until lunchtime, and then he eats with his friends (his friends) and spends the afternoon passing time lazily with them, reading or talking or competing amicably at pool or cards or anything, really. James uncovers more about all of their pasts—Laura's abusive father, Jeremy's blissful childhood, Julie's teen pregnancy, and so much more—and in return he finds himself describing what it's like to grow up with parents like his, how the papers turned nasty when his sister went into Slytherin, how his mother tried so hard to protect them all, how his brother stopped being able to cope and how unfair it had always seemed that their cousins dealt with it all so calmly.
"Your cousin Rose," Laura interrupts him one rainy afternoon, when she is curled up next to him on the sofa listening to his story about a party in his last year at Hogwarts.
"What about her?" James replies, breaking off from describing the black eye he gave a Ravenclaw kid he caught groping Lily.
"It's just," Laura says, her brow slightly furrowed, "I don't think it's fair. Her parents did just as much as your dad during the war—they were both in the 'Golden Trio' or whatever. How come the magazines don't pick on her and her brother the way they pick on you lot?"
It takes James some time to respond to this since it's a question he's been asking himself for years now. Laura has her eyes trained on his face the whole time he's deliberating how to answer, and James wonders somewhere in the back of his mind if she realises how disconcerting her gaze can be. It's too sharp, too understanding—like she can see the map of his thoughts as easily as breathing. It worries James a little. He's not sure he'd like to see the highways his thoughts run, the tangles they get in.
"I think," he begins, if only to tear his mind away from the problem of Laura's stare, "I think it's her mostly. She's so—she's so calm. Serene, almost. She lives up to all the expectations heaped on her so easily. I asked her about it once, you know," he adds, smiling distantly at the memory, "I asked whether it was all an act, whether she actually found it as impossible as the rest of us. But she just looked at me in this way she has and I realised that it's not hard for her at all. It's just who she is. She loves to learn and she's always in control and I mean she puts her foot in her mouth a lot of the time but she's just basically a good person. Her mind does what it's supposed to."
"And yours doesn't," Laura finishes for him, her smile matching his somewhat, reaching over to pat his knee comfortingly, "And neither does your sister's or brother's."
"No," James agrees, his hand going to cover hers, "None of ours work properly at all."
A silence stretches out between them, calm and comfortable, and James wonders if maybe he ought to confess this to one of the doctors here, tell them about the mad mazes his siblings' sanities are wandering in, try to have them helped the way he is being helped. But it doesn't take him long to realise that it's a stupid idea—Lily and Albus have never been good at receiving help from others, and he's quite sure being caged would only send them spiralling deeper.
He sighs deeply, then, and challenges Laura to a game of Twister to take his mind off everything.
It is not until James returns from his room one evening to find a blazingly triumphant Lily in the centre of it to realise how fast time is passing in the world outside.
"I got four Os," she informs him the second he is through the door, not even sparing a second to say hello or tell him that she's missed him, "Four Os and an E!"
James stands in the doorway and frowns at her, which is clearly not the response she was aiming for. To be honest he's mostly just stunned that it's that late in the summer already, late enough for NEWT results to be arriving, but Lily seems to take his silence for disbelief.
"I'm serious," she persists, and she starts rootling around in her bra until she produces a much-folded piece of parchment which she waves around in front of her like a wand, "The results came this morning and I came straight to tell you. The only one I failed was Charms and I botched that deliberately to screw Montgomery over."
James, still silent, approaches her slowly and takes the parchment she is proffering in a slightly aggressive manner. He continues to decline to speak as he unfolds it carefully and reads it three times through. Lily, standing just in front of him, folds her arms and tilts her head up to him. Her brows slant slightly, her eyes beginning to spark a trifle dangerously, but James still doesn't speak.
"Say something, James," she implores eventually, and James finally lifts his eyes from the parchment to study her face. Her expression is a little lost, a little upset, the careful mask she usually wears dislodged in front of him.
"I can't—" he begins, but she cuts him off before he gets any further. Her eyes are glittering now, and it isn't until James looks closely that he realises it's because of tears and not fury.
"I thought you'd be proud of me, James!" she exclaims, and he'd be afraid if her voice didn't catch in the middle of the sentence, "I thought, of everyone, you'd actually be proud!"
James reaches out to her then. He lets the parchment float to the ground as he pulls her roughly towards him, folds his arms around her slim shoulders, presses her into him as she begins to shake.
"I'm sorry," he whispers into the top of her head, "I'm proud. I really am, Lils. I'm so proud of you it hurts a bit. I just—I didn't think it was possible. You hardly went to any NEWT lessons, Al told me."
"Al's a tattle-tale," she mutters into his chest, but she's shuddering less and he can feel the heat of her breath evening out through the material of his shirt. James just stands there and waits, learning the angles of her anew as she relaxes into his embrace. He hasn't hugged her properly since she was thirteen, felt her the whole way up him like this, and now she curves in different places and her forehead fits the hollow on his shoulder just right and James wonders briefly if the first Lily felt like this to the first James, if the shape of his grandmother in his grandfather's arms was as surprising as his sister's is to him.
"You should hug me more," Lily murmurs after a long silence, her hands fisting in his shirt at the base of his spine, "It's nice."
James smiles at that and presses the smile into her hair like he can imprint it there for her to keep for later when times are tougher. His hold on her loosens as she pulls back, and she looks so young with the tearstains tracking diamonds down her cheeks and strands of damp hair clinging to the corners of her face that he's honestly terrified for a second or two.
"So how did you do it?" he inquires of her, his hands moving to rest on her sharp hips, tightening as she tries to move away and escape his question. "Come on, Lil, play fair," he adds, and there's that old easy hint of teasing in his tone that's been absent so long, too long, "You know me inside-out, at least tell me one secret."
She gazes up at him for some time, chapped lips twisting sideways, and then her eyes roll with a hint of her usual fire and she puts both hands on his chest and pushes hard.
"Let me go, oaf," she retorts with that same tone of teasing infusing her voice, "Ring for a coffee for me and I might just tell you."
James rolls his eyes in perfect mimicry of her from moments before but goes to order the coffee nonetheless. She plonks herself on his bed and reads the poetry that's webbing across the walls as she waits, murmuring the odd line under her breath and smiling privately to herself. James goes to sit beside her and he tentatively pushes a loose red curl back behind her ear so he can press his fingers onto the ridge of her cheekbone.
"Mm," she sighs gently as he shuts his eyes and focuses on pushing his new serenity into her mind. He feels it flow, the rush of it smothering her frantic thoughts, soothing her troubled mind, flooding through her fragile limbs and right down to the tips of her long hair until she is as full of it as he is.
Her head droops onto his shoulder and James' fingers fall as he severs the connection, wrapping his arm around her shoulders as they both sit there and breathe.
"How do you feel this?" Lily asks quietly, slightly exhausted by the calm inside of her. James presses another smile into her bright hair and replies in a tone just as low.
"This place," he tries to explain, "The calm. The routine. My friends. Mostly my friends."
"Your friends," Lily repeats in shock, but she is too replete to be truly surprised. She barely even shifts on the bed beside him, which is so unlike the Lily he knows that James would be worried if he wasn't responsible for the state of her.
"Yeah," he replies softly, letting his head fall to rest on top of hers, "My new friends. They're in here too. I like them a lot, Lils. And they like me, too. Not just my name, actually me."
"Wow," Lily exhales after a short pause, "That must be nice."
James thinks of them all and grins and says, "Yeah. Yeah, it really is."
Another silence stretches out and James is just getting comfortable in it when Lily breaks it again, still quiet, still calm.
"It was the old headmaster," she informs him, and James is confused for a moment before he realises that she's explaining her results, "Professor Dumbledore, the one on the wall behind Professor Macmillan's desk. That Dad's always banging on about, you know?"
James searches his memory and finally puts a face to the name—the white-bearded old man who'd gazed down kindly at him every time the headmistress was lecturing him after he'd got in some trouble or another, the one in half the history textbooks.
"Who Al's named after," he clarifies, and he feels Lily nod against his shoulder.
"Well," she continues, "As it turns out, he's a bit good at magic, and I realised that portrait in the conservatory at home that's empty half the time is his too while I was on lockdown so I got chatting to it. He can go between that one and the one at Hogwarts, y'know, like Old Man Black in Grimmauld Place."
James mutters a distinctly uncouth word in response to her mention of Phineas Black, and Lily lets out a brief, surprised burst of laughter before continuing.
"Anyway, after a bit of aggro at the start where he tried to say he expected more from the daughter of Harry Potter and I put him in a trunk for a fortnight, he started listening and then he offered to teach me. It was a bit weird being tutored by a painting but it turns out that magic's actually pretty interesting. He taught me all this stuff I had no idea about, like how there's this spell that can like turn the gravity off in a room for half an hour. How cool is that?"
James agrees that it is really cool, and absently lifts a notebook from the end of his bed to scribble couplets into as she talks. Lily is too used to this habit to not realise that it actually helps him concentrate rather than distracting him, and she watches his pen travel across the page as she continues to explain.
"So anyway while Mum and Dad were out all day at work I just talked to him and when they let me back to Hogwarts I snuck into the headmistress' office to chat to him at night when she wasn't there. It was really helpful, apart from when he kept nattering on about how he was so impressed by what Susan Bones had gone on to do with her life."
"Who the fuck is Susan Bones?" James interrupts, and Lily jabs him in the thigh like he's stupid for not knowing and informs him tetchily that it's the headmistress' name from before she got married and he should have listened to Uncle Ron's stories more. James snorts and Lily jabs him again and when he protests she just tells him to man up and James feels like things are getting back to normal between them again, just a bit.
"He had a theory about us, too," she adds quietly, and James lifts his head from hers and turns a confused expression down on her until she looks up and explains, "Oh, about our thing, you know, with our heads and the way we get inside each other's. Like you did just now. He reckons it's because of—remember when we were younger and there was that Re'em in the woods and we managed to get close enough to touch it? And it just sort of looked at us all creepily?"
James makes a noise to indicate that he does indeed remember (and it comes flooding back, suddenly, the fear and exhilaration and thrill of that glorious moment in the rain under the trees, with his hand resting next to Lily's on the creature's monstrous furred side and two huge golden eyes turned on the pair of them) and waits for Lily to continue.
"Well he said something about telepathy and absorption and anyway he thinks it's because we touched it together at just the right time. And he said it was something about us two, too, just us. Maybe Al as well if he'd been there but he wasn't. It's the way our heads are wired, apparently."
"Nutters, then," James interjects, and Lily makes a noise that's halfway between a sob and a gasp of laughter and turns her face into his shoulder and breathes against his skin.
"I wish we were normal," she whispers, "I wish it more than anything ever."
James raises his hand to the back of her head and winds his fingers into her long hair and presses her closes and replies, "So do I, Lils. So do I."