And so he waited.
After the humiliating experience of explaining to Sirius what had happened—very briefly covered, although that didn't stop Sirius from all but crowing in triumph—things were weird, between him and Lily. For a while. They still talked and worked and studied together, but now every accidental touch caused an awkward pause. He'd still catch himself staring at her at odd moments, and she'd see and he still felt like he had to hide it, to pretend like he didn't fancy her, because he didn't want to pressure her.
But that faded, slowly, and they did form a new balance. She spent less time with him, and more with Mary and anyone else she could stand to be around. He even caught her laughing at something Helena Hodge said. She wasn't just his anymore, and at first that burned, that she had others she was telling some of her secrets to, but he repressed it enough until it went away because he didn't have any right to feel that way. She spoke up in class and wrote letters to Emily's parents and hummed Beatles songs when she thought no one could hear.
The rest of his life continued as normal. The Quidditch season began strongly. He never once mounted his broom at practice without wishing Emily were still around, but even that immediate pang began to hurt less with each passing week. Snape was still an arse but they never spoke. Helena Hodge inexplicably stuck with Peter, and James still didn't really care for her but at least now he could speak to her like a person. Sirius banged his bookbag into his brother in the corridor every chance he got, but that was family business, and he too avoided Snape like the plague. He and Snape still glared at each other, and James didn't expect that peace to last forever, but for now was good enough.
By the time winter rolled around and the Marauders had to end the first half of the Polish Pirate Poker season, James no longer felt strange deducting points or assigning detention. It was simply part of his everyday life, much like feeding his cat or Hogsmeade visits or full moons.
As the Christmas holidays drew nearer, James told himself that he wasn't going to ask Lily about it, that he absolutely mustn't. And in a way, not talking about it was comforting. What if she'd changed her mind and was no longer interested? At least if he didn't bring it up he could fantasize about coming back from Christmas and meeting her under mistletoe and, well, from there things took a direction inappropriate to share with others.
But he tried so very hard to not think about that fantasy because he didn't want to expect it, not after she'd made it so patently clear that Christmas was not the final deadline. She seemed to be doing well, but he didn't know for sure since she didn't get into that level of emotional depth with him, not since he'd burned the diary. They were still close but not like they'd been over the summer, and James had learned to live with that.
He did manage the courage to ask her to visit him after Christmas. The Woods were taking her in and initially James thought of inviting her to stay with him for a while, but thought better of it.
"Algernon will pine for me," she said pensively. "I should come over to keep him company, and keep your mum from poisoning him again, if only for a day."
To his surprise, she hugged him when they parted ways at Kings Cross. "Thank you," she whispered in his ear.
"Er, thank you," he said, unsure.
She laughed and pecked him on the cheek. He felt the blood rush to his face.
"Happy Christmas," he told her, scooping up Algernon with his free hand to keep him warm. He pulled his trunk over to his parents and a very put-out looking Sirius.
"Is that her?" his mum asked when she hugged him.
"Yeah," he said, angling Algernon away from the hug.
"She has nice teeth."
"Er, yes, Mum."
"I like girl with good dental hygiene."
"It's why I married you," said his dad.
"And don't I know it," she said.
James smiled, glad to be going home.
On New Year's Day, Lily came for dinner. James had been fretting all morning, over nothing really. He'd tidied up his room, kept his mother away from the kitchen while his dad cooked, and bribed Sirius into good behavior by promising him he'd install an invisibility button on his motorbike.
Lily arrived right on time, snowflakes dusting her hair and a smile on her face. "Happy New Year."
"Happy New Year," James said, unable to keep himself from beaming. He'd missed her, even though it hadn't been long. "Come in."
She charmed his parents, as he'd known she would. Even Sirius didn't seem to mind her so much, going so far as to offer her more mulled wine after dinner. They sat around the fire in the living room while James' parents reminisced about their first Christmas together (Odette had tried to cook and had managed to burn down the kitchen with purple flames, of all things). Stuffed with pudding and wine, James nestled into his armchair with Algernon on his lap and fell quiet while Sirius argued with Odette about fire prevention spells. Lily caught his eye and smiled at him, and he returned it.
Not long after, his mum leapt from her seat. "The wood! We need more wood!"
"For the fire! Of course," said Oscar, quickly getting to his feet. "We're nearly out and the fire will stop."
Sirius stared at them. "There's plenty of wood."
"No, there really isn't. Come on, you're helping," said Odette, grabbing Sirius by the arm and hauling him to his feet.
"I don't trust you to know what's what about fire," he said.
"I'll show you! Out back."
"In the garden," Oscar added.
James thought he heard Sirius mutter something about Potter madness as his mum dragged him toward the kitchen.
"Are your parents really that bad at acting?" Lily asked once they'd gone.
"Er, yes," said James, running a hand through his hair. "Sorry."
"They're a little mad, aren't they?"
"I see where you get it from."
"Oy," James said, without malice.
"They're nice, even if they are mad."
"And she hasn't killed Algernon yet, so there's something."
"She does care for him, only she's not very good at it."
James didn't know what else to add, and Lily didn't seem to either. She absently picked at some lint on the sofa, staring at the floor.
"How are you?" he asked, quite seriously.
She lifted her gaze from the floor. "I'm well," she said after a moment. "It's difficult, not being home for Christmas, but I'm glad I'm staying with the Woods and not at my parents' house. I spent enough time there wallowing during the summer."
James nodded. Had he encouraged her to stay at her parents' house then? He couldn't remember.
"It hasn't been an easy Christmas," she continued. "Then again, I'm looking forward to this being the worst Christmas of my life. I think at no point in my life will I have as poor a Christmas as this one, which I find immensely comforting."
She tilted her head. "You've been awfully quiet tonight."
"Not much to say," he said, shrugging.
"There's a first." She hadn't teased him like this before, gentle yet assured. He liked it.
"What's there to say?" He gave her a rueful smile. "I'm well, Lily."
"I'm glad to hear it."
"I'm not as pleased with life as I could be, but I'm pleased enough."
"Was that a subtle hint?"
"If you'd like it to be," James said, hoping he came across as much suaver than he felt.
She rested her elbow on the edge of the sofa and propped her chin on her hand. "And if I'd like it to be?"
"Far be it from me to force you to interpret my words in a certain manner," he said, a playful smile tugging at his lips. He could feel his pulse in his fingers.
She looked away, seeming suddenly fragile. "Are you still open to continuing the discussion we had a few months ago?"
He said carefully, but trying to hide as much, "I'm always open to such discussions, I'll have you know."
"It's been more than two months."
"I have a calendar, too, you know."
"You jest, but I mean it. We don't have to talk about it if you don't want."
"Of course I want to talk about it, but only if it's going to end the way I want it to."
"I think the chances of that are much higher than they were two months ago," she said lightly.
"Is that so?"
Heart racing, he said, "Well, I'm not asking this time. I told myself that I was going to ask you one last time, and I did, and you know I'm a man of my word."
This was fun, now that they both knew where it was going.
"Boy of your word, at best."
"You wound me."
"So you won't ask?"
"It was the last time. I can't go back on that."
"You're going to make me ask?"
"Well, if you don't this conversation certainly isn't going to go the way I hoped, and in that case I don't want to have it at all."
"Fine, you win. Oddjob."
"Low, Lily Evans. Low."
"James Oddjob Potter, will you go to Hogsmeade with me? On a date?"
"I might have to think about it," he said. "That wasn't very convincing."
She laughed, once, then stood up and crossed the room to lean over him, her hands on the armrests on either side of him. If her hair hadn't been tied back in a bun, it would've been falling in his face. Algernon leapt out of his lap and darted into the kitchen.
He leaned back in the chair and shot her a one-sided grin.
"Well, all right. Maybe."
"Or yes. Definitely. Whenever's convenient for you."
"Just kiss him!" came Odette's muffled voice through the front window.
James cringed, but Lily laughed.
"Good enough for me," she said, leaning down even further so that their faces were only inches apart.
James couldn't believe he was about to snog Lily in front of his Mum and Dad and, oh Merlin, Sirius, but he wasn't about to derail things either.
She closed the distance between them, and James' heart soared. The angle was awkward, but it was still the best first kiss he'd ever had.
"How's tomorrow for a first date?" he breathed when she pulled back. "Or now. I'm completely free."
"Oh!" she cried, staggering back.
James frowned, but then he saw the second most beautiful sight he'd ever encountered, there at his feet.
"He finally did it," Lily said.
"Algernon," James said, nearly in tears. "You are the best cat in the world and I love you so very much." He gingerly reached out and removed the bacon sandwich half-wrapped in wax paper that Algernon had brought him.
"It's a miracle," he added, barely able to look at the sandwich.
"I kiss you and you're astounded by a sandwich," Lily said flatly.
He took a large bite of sandwich and sighed happily. "This is the best day of my life."
Admittedly not the best thing to say, he realized belatedly. He could see why Lily took offense and smacked him lightly upside the head.
"I meant you!" he said, gently resting the sandwich on the side table.
"I know, but I never imagined I'd have to compete with a sandwich. You really know how to show a girl a good time."
Yes, James decided, she was definitely never going to let him forget about his sandwich moment, but that was perfectly fine since she'd be sticking around to do so.
He even let her have half of the sandwich, and if that wasn't love, James didn't know what was.