Author's Note: Yes, you'll get the next chapter of Commentarius soon, but here's a little something else to keep all of us sane. Enjoy. =)
A Sort of Victory
The party was loud, crowded, and had lost any semblance of decency around the time the first years started drooping and the butterbeer began to burn as it went down. The wireless crooned an old Cauldron Cakes tune as the Gryffindors milled about the common room, talking, dancing, shouting, and occasionally climbing atop the furniture to profess a gargled speech or two before someone inevitably dragged them back down. The banner that hung above the fireplace had originally read, "Go, Go, Gryffindor!" in bright scarlet and gold, but at some point early on in the evening, "Poor, Poor, Gryffindor!" had replaced the previously encouraging exclamation and the less optimistic slogan had been flashing on a loop ever since.
Standing at the back of the room, watching the scene enfold, James reckoned it certainly said something about the resiliency—or perhaps the alcoholism—of his fellow housemates that they could celebrate a loss as sensationally as they could a victory.
At that moment, he would have given just about anything to be able to do the same.
Raucous laughter drew his gaze over to the fireplace where his teammates sprawled lazily about, drunkenly recounting all the fouls Hooch hadn't bothered to call on Hufflepuff that afternoon. They were not alone in their remonstrations. The whole of Gryffindor had been doing much the same for most of the night, content in their delusions if it somehow managed to salvage their pride. James tucked his hands inside the pockets of his Quidditch robes and sighed. His shoulders huddled over his barely touched drink, but he couldn't bring himself to take a sip. The hunched position allowed for the deliberate shadowing of the newly sewn 'C' emblazoned on his lapel, a mark that was suddenly feeling more of a branding than an accolade.
What a bloody shambles.
At the sound of his name, James lifted his head, somewhat surprised to find his seeker, Ellie Walso, standing at his left. The small fourth-year was shifting about from foot to foot, fingers tugging and twirling at the ends of her dark hair. Despite her usual bravado, she couldn't quite meet his eyes, and James swallowed hard. At her nervous smile, he attempted to grin back, but for something that had always come so easily to him, forcing out that single grin suddenly seemed inexplicably difficult.
"Taking a break from celebrating?" he asked.
Ellie shrugged. "I'm not much of a drinker. And I didn't see most of the fouls Hooch let pass, so…"
Silence settled between them. James remembered watching Walso during trials earlier that term. The girl was quick, lithe, and had some of the sharpest eyes he'd ever encountered on the pitch. Her broom wasn't topnotch, but James had seen the potential in her almost immediately. Selecting her for the team had been his first and easiest decision as captain.
They chuckled awkwardly. James motioned for Ellie to speak.
"Right. I just wanted to…the thing is…I'm sorry," she finally blurted, and James's head jerked back in surprise as her fingers moved in hasty rhythm with her rushed words. "I didn't catch the snitch and we lost the match and you all played really well, but it was all the rain and ruddy fog and I just couldn't see properly and it was your first match as captain and I'm just…I'm so—"
"Oh, hell. Walso, no." Something in his chest sank as he shook his head frantically, bile brewing in his stomach. "It wasn't your fault. Don't think that. You played brilliantly. It was…you never should've been put in the position where you had to catch the snitch to win. That's not fair to you. It was my…it wasn't you. A half-second more, and that snitch would've been yours."
"But it wasn't," the seeker replied forlornly. "I was a half-second behind and Moresley got the snitch. I let you all down."
And there it was, James realised, sucking in a harsh breath. Like a sucker punch to the gut, someone had put into words the feeling that had been eating at him all night.
I let you all down. I let you all down.
"Quidditch is a team sport," he heard himself saying, words someone else had told him at some point, the plagiarism all he could depend on now. "You win as a team, you lose as a team. You didn't let anyone down. You're top notch, Walso. Truly."
It was suddenly too hot in the room. Too hot, too crowded, too loud, too…too much.
James couldn't quite look at his seeker as he motioned towards the portrait hole. "I've got to…yeah. Back in a moment."
Ellie extended a placating hand, but James shook her off without a word. Fuck. Turning on his heel, he was out of the common room in a matter of seconds. The portrait slammed closed behind him and the Fat Lady let out an angry exclamation, but James paid her no heed. He was already striding down the corridor, only managing to get the proper amount of air in his lungs when the sounds of the party had long faded away behind him.
The corridors were empty and dimly lit. He walked and walked, the sound of his heavy breathing and quick footsteps the only noises penetrating the heady silence. He couldn't stop moving, only wanted to get away, anywhere far away. Go, go, go. Out of here. Away from here. Bloody far away from here. The mantra kept him going until he finally reached the dead end at the far side of the seventh floor, and even then it was an abrupt thing, a skidding of feet at the unbeatable barrier. With defeated movements, he knocked a weary fist against the hard wall, then twisted until he felt the cold stones against his back. He sunk to the ground, letting out a long breath as he dropped his sweaty forehead against his propped knees.
I let you all down.
His team, his mates, his entire bloody house…they'd all come out to see him lead their Quidditch team to a victory, and instead he'd failed miserably. For four years he'd played on the team, dreaming of the day when he'd be the one shaking hands at the beginning of the match, calling plays from the air, giving the victory toast at the party afterward. Instead, he'd barely clasped Ed Moresley's sweaty palm at the beginning of the match, had hollered himself hoarse shouting plays that hadn't been heard due to the rain and the wind, and had sat brooding on the side of the room as various Gryffindors lifted their drinks in joke-filled speeches that had lamented their pathetic loss.
Saying it was like being there all over again—body sodden with rain, gloved fingers slick, throat burning from yells or exertion or something else. He'd had the Quaffle in his hands when the final whistle had blown. Even now, the sound echoed in his ears. Then came the shock. The numbness. The reality.
He'd lost before, of course. That wasn't new. Part of the game, even. But he'd never lost while being captain, and certainly never during his very first match as captain. What sort of example did that set? What sort of precedent? Had Hank Arnold been right at trials when he'd muttered that McGonagall had been sipping too many toddies when making sixth-year James captain over someone else? He knew he was younger, but he'd been on the team longer than anyone else. He knew Quidditch—he lived Quidditch. It was the one thing he always did right, even when everything else was going to hell. Or it had been, anyway.
The one thing he'd never managed to blunder, and he'd gone and ruined that, as well. Maybe Hank Arnold was right. Maybe everyone was right. Maybe he was just a bloody worthless cockup. He sure as fucking hell felt like one.
He sighed again, letting himself bask in the vile feeling .
He didn't initially recognize the soft, clicking sound as footsteps. They came quietly, gradually, but when James finally realised what they were and that they seemed to be heading definitively in his direction, he chose to ignore them. He could only hope that whoever came upon him in his bath of misery had the decency to turn about and leave him to his shambles.
But the footsteps came closer—light, almost hesitant footsteps—and James knew whoever it was wasn't taking the decent way out. Perhaps it was Walso, come to fetch him after his pansy-arsed fleeing. Or it could be one of the lads, come to cheer him up. Didn't matter, really. James had no interest in speaking to either. Whoever it was, he'd turn them away and get back to his misery.
Oh, fucking hell. Now he was hallucinating. Perfect. Just bloody fucking perfect.
An exasperated sigh sounded from above him. There was a soft rattle of ice against glass.
"Oh, come on. It's alcohol. Yum."
But that was her voice and her sardonic tone, wasn't it? It sounded as if it was. And in the wasteland that had suddenly become his existence, James reckoned it really didn't matter. What did he have left to lose? So he was mad, eh? Having visions? Brilliant. He was keen. Maybe he could go spend a few weeks in Mungo's. He had a Potions essay due in a few days he hadn't bothered to begin yet. Wouldn't mind being excused from that.
Almost giddily embracing the insanity, James lifted his head from his knees.
Lily stood there before him, long hair hanging about her face, thrusting what appeared to be a butterbeer bottle and a tumbler filled with an amber-coloured liquid at him.
Instinctively, numbly, he grabbed the tumbler.
"Good choice," she said, and if James weren't already certain he was going utterly mad, the moment Lily Evans casually sat down beside him in the darkened corridor at the far end of the seventh floor to apparently have a drink would have solidified it. She lifted the bottle of butterbeer to her lips and went to take a swig, but her eyes darted left to meet his and when she saw that he wasn't drinking, her hand dropped back down to her lap and she frowned.
"Well, go on," she said. "I haven't poisoned it or anything. In fact, that's the drink I wanted, so I'm going to be supremely cross if you leave it to waste."
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
She shrugged her reply. "Taking a walk. Then I got tired. Reckoned this was as good a place to stop as any."
For the first time since the final whistle had blown, James felt the remnants of a smile begin to tug at his lips.
"A walk? In the drafty end of the seventh floor with two drinks in hand?"
"It was stuffy in the common room. And I'm a thirsty girl."
He wanted to laugh—attempted to do so even, but the feeling was so unfamiliar to him tonight that all he could manage was a choked sort of snort. The awkward sound came out harsh, short. It grated wrong against his ears.
"What about you?" she asked, not so much as blinking at his mad noises. "Stuffiness get to you, as well?"
This time, he wanted to snort. "Yeah. That was it."
They sat in silence. Feeling the need to do something, James lifted the tumbler to his lips and took a healthy gulp. The burning liquid left an instant blaze down his throat and it took everything he had not to sputter like a green boy and spit whatever remained of the alcohol out. He coughed lamely and his eyes watered. Bloody hell.
"Christ, Evans," he wheezed hoarsely. "What the fuck is this? Straight scotch?"
"Too much?" she asked, and there was a definite twitch to her lips as she took a dainty sip of her butterbeer.
"Could've done with a bloody warning."
"What did you think it was?"
"I don't know!"
"Poor thing," she cooed, pouting at him. "Fancy something a bit lighter? We can switch if you'd like."
She didn't call him pansy, but she might as well have done.
Grumbling something nasty, he took another hefty swig to prove a point. He was prepared this time. The burn was less biting, more welcomed. The ice clattered softly against the glass as he set it against his propped knee again.
"You played well today," Lily said.
For the second time, James nearly choked. His eyes flashed instantly to hers, but she didn't sound as if she was teasing, and she stared at him earnestly enough.
"We lost," he said.
She cocked an eyebrow. "Is that mutually exclusive to playing well?"
"I didn't play well."
"Thirteen goals, wasn't it? I don't know much about Quidditch, but I'd say that's not too shabbily done."
Now it was James's turn to cock a brow. "You were counting?"
Lily threw her head back and laughed. The happy sound filled the barren corridor, echoing off the stone walls.
"You'd like that, wouldn't you?" she muttered, but there was humour in her voice and she shook her head ruefully at him. Her hair was down, and some of the fiery-coloured locks brushed against her shoulders at the slight motion. She looked rather pretty, he noticed—not that she didn't always, of course, but he reckoned she must have done some girlish thing because her eyes seemed especially prominent and her face had this soft glow about it. "Mary's in charge of the betting pool, actually," she told him. "She had me keeping stats during the match."
"So you were counting."
"Not like that."
The easy banter relaxed him, made him feel more like himself. It was part of why he liked her, that she was clever and quick and had too much confidence to overly fuss, even when he managed to royally tick her off. James wasn't certain by what stroke of luck it was that she was somehow still laughing, but it seemed she was. Usually by this point in a conversation, he'd have said something bloody moronic (had he yet?) and she'd have rolled her eyes, called him out on it, and strode away. It had been their routine up until this point, the avoidance dance. And while it was true that James had deliberately been keeping his distance from her this term so they hadn't yet had the opportunity to indulge in such scenes, it was still expected. He certainly didn't mind the change, but neither did he understand it, nor why they were having this conversation in the first place.
He wasn't surprised when her laughter eventually trailed off, nor particularly at what came next. He watched her take a long sip of butterbeer, then flick her gaze towards him.
"I'm sorry about the match," she said.
His stomach clenched, but James forced out a shrug. "It happens."
"I'm sure the team can come back. It was only the first match."
But what if we can't? But if I can't?
He never meant to ask it out loud. His mouth filter had always been off where she's concerned, but usually it was the smarmy-git filter that was the problem, not the embarrassingly-personal-pansy one. But the words somehow slipped out anyway, and he suddenly found himself inexplicably grateful for the dim lighting as the heat rushed up his neck and possibly to his cheeks. At least he had the intelligence to spout out the first question rather than the second. There was much to be said for small favours.
Lily cocked her head to the side, considered. "Do you think you won't?"
James didn't have an answer. Instead, he returned with, "Do you?"
She shrugged. "Haven't the faintest. You could fit what I know about Quidditch into a matchbox. If someone hadn't gone and changed the banner, I would've thought we were celebrating."
James stared determinedly down at his half-empty glass, but he could still feel Lily's eyes burning holes into the side of his face. Against his better judgment, he turned his head to meet her gaze. Her eyes were narrowed, but flashed with surprised. She looked a bit mystified, actually.
"Damn, Potter," she said. "You're actually really eaten up over this, aren't you?"
"I'm fine," he bit off, ducking his head again. Brilliant. Now she thought him some petulant child moping over his lost toy. Worse, perhaps she was right. He drained the rest of the scotch, ignoring the burning sensation as it went down. Placing the tumbler back on the ground, he quickly rose to his feet. "Thanks for the drink. I'm off for a walk of my own."
"Come on, Potter, don't—"
"It wasn't your fault—"
"No? Then tell me something, Evans—whose bloody fault was it? If not mine, the sodding captain, than whose?"
He hadn't realised she'd followed him to her feet until he'd suddenly whirled on her and found his face mere inches from hers. He stumbled back, but the sudden anger pulsing through his veins kept him from moving too far. He preferred the anger to the depression, found it more familiar, less stifling. His hands shook and his eyes glared, and not for a single moment did he let himself think that this was possibly the closest he'd ever got to Lily Evans without being hexed, and possibly ever would.
Not even a single moment.
"Just bugger off, Evans," he snapped, frustrated with himself now, with both of them. "No one asked you come out here. I didn't ask for your placating scotch or your sodding pity. Whatever game you're playing at, just quit it, all right? You don't understand—"
"You're right. I don't." She closed the distance between them, crossed her arms over her chest. "So explain it to me, would you? Or didn't you say yourself that Quidditch is a team sport? You win as a team, you lose as a team? Unless that was just some nonsense you were spewing to appease Ellie Walso."
For a moment, James forgot his anger. His mouth went dry. "You heard that?"
Lily nodded. "And saw you dash from the room after looking like someone had just gutted you."
James took a step back, immediately lifted his hand to his hair.
"It wasn't nonsense," he said. "Not for her. It wasn't Walso's fault."
"Of course not. Apparently it was yours."
"Understand? Yes, I know. We've been through this—"
"Quidditch is the one thing I don't royally fuck up, all right? It's the one bloody thing I have!" He was furious again, suddenly, irrationally. He shot her a hard look, his face flushing. "I was made captain, Evans. Maybe that doesn't mean anything to you, but it meant something to me! Someone thought me good enough to slap a 'C' on my chest, to actually lead a team, and now I've gone and cocked it all up! I'm not like you, all right? I was never meant to be made Prefect or to keep place at the top of the class. But I had something with Quidditch. I know myself when I'm in the air. I can be something when I'm up there, have people respect me for it. So maybe it was just a game, and maybe I am letting it eat at me, but it was my game, my team. Do you know what it feels like to know that the one thing you had, you've managed to botch up, too? Do you have any idea what that feels like to know how many bloody people you've let down?"
"But you haven't let anyone down!" Lily cried, shaking her head. "We all saw you up in the air today, James. We all heard you, hollering with the wind, trying to keep the team together. Why do you think they all kept fighting for as long as they did? Half of bloody Hufflepuff had already thrown their hands up and let the match go. But Gryffindor kept fighting because you kept fighting. They were following your lead."
"It is true! For Merlin's sake, do you really think I wanted to be out there? In the sopping rain, counting goals? No. I was a drowned hen lost in an ugly scarlet slicker. But I wasn't bloody well about to leave when the lot of you were up there fighting with everything you had. It was brilliant to watch—and I don't even like Quidditch!"
She looked decidedly cross now, as if she couldn't believe he'd even made her go into all of this. But her words were a revelation for James, a cooling compress on overheated skin. Could she be right? Was it possible he hadn't failed so catastrophically? It was so far from everything he'd thought of that afternoon, seemed ludicrous to even contemplate. But perhaps...
The team had kept fighting until the grisly end, he conceded. James had yelled himself hoarse trying to keep them motivated, trying to keep himself motivated, and he'd be damned if they hadn't managed to keep some semblance of a formation. They'd fallen behind so quickly in the beginning and had spent the remainder of the match merely attempting to keep up, so it had all seemed so bleak at the time. But if he hadn't been the one in the air, hadn't felt the pressure of the points or the weight of the captaincy or the way that bitter wanker Hank Arnold had shot him pointed looks from the goal hoops...what would the match have looked like then? What would he have looked like then?
Wet, James decided, almost smiling. And a bit muddy, too.
But it also couldhave looked a bit thrilling, he supposed, warming up to the idea. A classic game, the prowling cat chasing the cunning mouse. And no matter who won, there was always joy in the hunt, wasn't there?
Had he led the hunt?
"It's about the attempt," Lily said, as if reading his mind. "Not the outcome."
About the attempt.
"Do you really think—"
"You don't even know what I was going to say!"
Lily waved off the protest. "Tonight seems to be a night filled with you saying and thinking extraordinarily dim things. Chances are, I was bound to contradict you."
James felt himself grinning—a real grin, the familiar one. Hell, he almost felt like laughing. "Right."
Lily lifted her hands in defeat, a rueful "What can you do?", but she was grinning too, and for the first time since she'd abruptly shown up ten minutes earlier, James found himself contemplating the circumstances in which they now found themselves.
He also remembered that they were standing quite close, and she was still looking rather pretty.
"Why are you doing this?" he asked, his eyes carefully skimming her face, looking for answers. "Why'd you even bother following me?"
"Curiosity, at first," Lily answered, but gave no hints as she turned around and began to step back towards the wall where they'd sat. "It's not every day one spots James Potter looking wrecked with possible self-conscious angst. It seemed worth investigating."
His brow furrowed. "I'm not that bad."
"And then I have this thing about kicking helpless puppies when they're down. It just seems a bit shabbily done, you know?"
"Now that you mention it—"
"Plus, you were wrong." She said it so simply, so definitively, that James was almost grateful she bent down to gather their abandoned drinks from the floor and couldn't see the undoubtedly soppy look on his face. He'd covered it up by the time she tossed a grin over her shoulder. "And we both know there is no one who adores telling you how wrong you are more than I do."
James's lips curled. "Well, there's something we can agree upon."
Lily straightened out and headed back towards him again, their brief encounter seeming to be ending exactly the way it had begun—with a pretty witch clutching two drinks and stopping just in front of him. Of course, James wasn't having himself a moment this time round, but there was still a certain amount of parallelism there.
"Thanks," he said, and found himself meaning it more than he'd thought. "I'm still not quite sure why you're here, but I think I'm rather glad you are."
"You're welcome," she said, and James had to keep himself from grinning like a damned fool when she playfully nudged his side. "Truth be told, I don't think I'm too sorry myself. I think I like you like this, all raw and humbled. Much more tolerable that way."
"Insult me as you will, Evans," James said, shrugging lightly. "I'm still exiting this conversation more encouraged in my affections than I was before."
Lily groaned loudly, and James found his first laugh as the sound echoed through the corridor.
"All right, come on," she eventually said, and slowly started up the corridor again. "You may not be an utter failure, but losing still blows. Let's go drown your sorrows in some more scotch, yeah?"
With an extra jaunt in his step, James gave a quick nod and dutifully followed along, finding the prospect of returning to the party decidedly more appealing than he had before.
The remainder of the night all gets a bit blurry from there, but James is informed the next morning (by a gleeful Sirius and a rueful Remus, both of whom held conference with him as James miserably hung over the toilet), that he had indeed indulged himself in another scotch (or seven), and proceeded to have a fine time at the party. He'd apparently even gotten to give his victory toast, although when he'd finally fumbled his way atop the study table, he'd instead spent the next two minutes rambling on about "a different sort of victory," and something about cats and mice and thinking about sacking Hank Arnold off the team, but mostly about how pretty and clever Lily Evans was, and didn't everyone know that she liked him better now, she really did, and that was good, just really good, because he probably loved her, just really probably loved her, didn't they know? He'd apparently wanted to continue from there, but Lily Evans herself had been the one to drag him down from his mighty perch and—allegedly—grinning, had thrust him at his mates, telling them it was time to get him off to bed.
And though he can never get it confirmed, not by any reliable or particularly sober source, there is also the possibility that there was some sort of pecking of cheeks business before he's carted off to bed.
A sort of victory, indeed.