A/N: This is a Jily Secret Santa fic that I was supposed to finish about a month ago but, unfortunately, life happened. So here's the fic, finally, for the lovely s-n-a-p-s!
The High Street Café isn't the sort of place students visit during Hogsmeade weekends.
It doesn't have the saccharine temptations of Madam Puddifoot's, or the buzz of the Three Broomsticks or the mystery of the Hogs Head.
It's small, non-descript, and incredibly boring – which is exactly why Lily decides to spend her Hogsmeade afternoon there with a fag in one hand and a milky Earl Gray in the other. She doesn't want to be seen or bothered or fed shit jokes over a pint with her boots sticking to a pub floor. Here, she isn't a prefect or popular, she's only another face in the crowd, an unremarkable someone sitting in a corner with the Daily Prophet's editorial section in front of her.
A Threat to Peace: Muggle-borns and the End of Isolationism
By Bradley Ayers
A bit of ash lands on a photo advertising self-mending hosiery, and Lily brushes it aside before the sepia toned woman can make a fuss.
Another exhale, another masochistic read through of the article, another stream of smoke leaves her lips in a long, drawn out hiss.
If we truly value our safety and self-preservation in a time of terror and chaos, we must not substitute our livelihood for political correctness. To ignore the Muggle-born threat is to ignore common sense. Their unique connection to the Muggle world puts our world and our secrets, and—according to new studies—our health at risk.
We must not let fear replace critical thinking and practical policy changes. While I do not support the terror inflicted by the Death Eaters, their political aims are not so different than that of the average British witch or wizard: preservation of Wizarding kind, stronger legislative measures for the Statute of Secrecy, and increased surveillance on Muggle-borns and their Muggle associates who may be a threat to—
There's a knock on the window next to her booth. She looks up, her look of surprise quickly morphing into a slight grimace.
James' breath steams up the window from the outside, masking his face until he's reduced to a hazy blend of apricot and black. Lily starts to wave her fingers when James moves away from the window and makes his way to the door. A frigid gust and a little bell follow his entrance, and he orders a plate of chips and tea before the door closes behind him. He makes his way to Lily's table, shrugging off a heavy black coat, running his hand through his hair, smiling like it's a comfortably balmy summer day and not ten below zero.
Lily watches his approach under a messy fringe with a guarded eye and a watery smile. She's recently found herself in a strange, unexpected state of limbo, a state where the sight of James's shit-eating grin and crooked glasses leave her feeling up for a challenge rather than a nasty retort. He's almost seventeen and almost a gentleman and almost knows that the world doesn't revolve around him
But he's not quite there, Lily notes with a muted snort, as his dragon hide shoes—worn but shiny, a warm chestnut—clip clop along the floor, shuffling to a halt alongside her table. He tilts his head to one side.
"Fuck's sake," James starts, throwing his coat into the booth. "The tea isn't that shit, is it?"
Lily rests her fag in the ashtray. "Not really in the mood for a laugh, honestly."
"I can tell," he says, sitting across from her, pushing his thick-framed glasses further up the bridge of his nose. "You look… tired."
"A bloke's way of saying you look like shit."
James sits back into the booth, stretching his arms. "Alright, if you insist. You look like shit."
"Disgusting. Vile, even."
"Alright, that's enough," Lily says, hiding a smile behind her cup.
"But why are you here? Only boring people with no friends come here." James's line of vision rests beyond her shoulder. "Sorry, mate."
Lily turns around, spotting a surly Hufflepuff sinking behind a thick book. She turns back with a sigh. "I'm reading. Trying to keep a low profile for once."
"That's not all you're doing," James says, grabbing her fag. He takes a drag, cradling it between his fingers as if it's his own. "Can't let the ickle third years see you. Bad influence, what would McGonagall say?"
"She already caught me once, last year," Lily confesses.
"Tut, tut," James says with a lazy smile, voice deepening into a whiskey sour. "And to think, everyone thought you were a good girl."
Lily rests her elbows on the table, leaning forward and lightly brushing her fingers against his as she reclaims the fag. It rolls between her reddened lips, a smoldering stub, until she exhales in a narrow stream of smoke. "I've never been a good girl. Not like that, anyway."
James's smirk widens. "Oh, but see, you know that, and I know that, but the rest of the bloody school?"
"I know what the rest of the bloody school thinks of me," Lily says, stubbing the fag with a flourish. "Let's see, they either think I'm some sort of saint because I help people with their charms homework, or they think I'm an annoying bint whenever I open my mouth. There's no in-between, I reckon."
"People respect you," James says with a shrug. "That's something. A lot of something, really."
Lily adds another sugar cube to her tea and swirls it with a spoon. She almost smiles, almost takes the compliment for what it is. But she can't tell if it's all an ulterior motive. This is what limbo has done to her, she thinks. It's turned her soft, second-guessing herself and his banal charm.
"So, don't you have your mates to spend Hogsmeade with?" Lily asks.
"Remus is sick," James starts, helping himself to her napkin and breaking off bits and pieces. "Sirius landed himself a fucking detention, and Peter is out with that Jacobs girl."
"That's what I said. Her personality is alright but she likes gobstones for fuck's sake."
Lily sneers. "You know I wasn't talking about Jacobs, you prick. I meant you braving the world without your motley crew."
"Speaking of pricks, I thought you had a date with, uh," James inclines his head, feigning recollection with a drawn out wince. "Anthony Bates."
Lily's lips twitch into a frown. "How'd you find out about that? He only asked me last night."
James shrugs. The waitress floats by and places a plate of chips in front of him. He quickly tucks into it, replying with a mouthful of potato. "Word gets around fast."
"Or you were stalking us in the library last night," Lily retorts, grabbing a few chips for herself.
"Yeah, that's it, I was prowling the library, eavesdropping. I don't have anything better to do with my time. The gossip was so good that I had a wank right in the charms section." James pops another handful of chips into his mouth before moaning, rolling his eyes to the back of his head as he mimes below the waist. "Oooh, Bates fancies Evans. Oh, fuck!"
Lily rolls her eyes and steals another chip. "Not sure if I'd put it past you. I heard you had a wank during Astronomy last year."
He stretches his arms, languid and long-limbed as ever. "Don't flatter yourself. I heard Mary go on about Bates to some girl in the common room."
"Hmph," Lily grumbles, dragging her ballpoint pen and a sheet of paper towards herself. She draws out a rough outline, underlining the words "injustice" and "legislation" and "bigot" once, twice, thrice until the pen makes a thick, dark indent in the fibers.
"You look upset," James notes, eyes alert and darting across her face.
"Well spotted," Lily mutters.
"Mary's always had a big mouth, you can't be surprised—"
"I'm not mad at Mary."
She marks a fourth, fifth, and sixth line under "bigot" until a small tear forms. With a sigh, she pushes her notes away from her and the editorial towards James.
"We had plans before this rubbish," she says.
James' eyes glide across the page, his relaxed features tensing with each new line until he's squinting with pinched lips.
"D'you know what Anthony said?" Lily asks. Her eyebrows are knotted, and her cheeks are a light ruby. "He said, 'he's got a point though.' Can you believe the nerve he's got?"
James looks up from the paper, his face twisting into an apologetic grimace. "Er, yeah, actually."
"Well, for starters, Bates is a dickhead. Not to mention the fact that his dad is Erling fucking Bates."
James blinks. "Erling Bates. Erling Bates."
"Repeating his name isn't going to make me know who he is!" Lily says, waving her hands impatiently.
"Erling Bates, the businessman," James says. "He's the bloke the politicians go to when they want to figure out what they reckon they ought to believe in, because they're a bunch of spineless twats. He's traditional, and I mean really fucking traditional. And he has enough money and power to run the entire Wizengamot. He already influences over half of the lot."
Seeming to use Lily's steadily curling lip as encouragement, James continues.
"I read an article a while back about him. He's a bag of dicks. If it were up to him, Muggle-borns wouldn't even be allowed to go to Hogwarts without taking some sort of bullshit examination. Tried to encourage the Wizengamot to pass some sort of proposal a few years back but it fell through. Complete nutter, he is."
Lily's flush advances to a violent cherry, and she returns to her outline with a humorless laugh. "Christ, you old money purebloods just can't help yourselves, can you?"
James raises his eyebrows. "Ouch,"
"I'm serious!" Lily says. "You're such a small group but you're running this world like your own personal… oligarchy. It's unfair for the rest of us. Especially my lot. Trying to keep as much power for yourselves as possible until you die out..."
James shifts, continuing to rip the spare napkin. "Not all of us care about that."
"So what?" Lily snaps, not looking up from her paper. "I just have to cross my fingers and hope that all purebloods are as enlightened as you are? Hope that they don't want to spit on me or harass me or call me a health hazard?"
Lily only manages to write a sentence or two of her rebuttal before looking up. He's slumped shoulders and ruddy necked, picking at his chips. With a slight pang of guilt, Lily taps his hand. His raises his head, face devoid of its usual bravado and replaced with a sheepish cringe.
"Look, I know you mean well. You're smart—"
"—But you only look at the big picture. There're lots of, you know… parts."
"Yeah. It's all a big, complicated mess."
"You know I can't stand traditionalists, Evans," James says, hazel gaze raw behind his glasses.
"I know." And she does know; it was one of the few things he seemed truly sincere about.
"You can't help who you're born to."
"No, but you can help fight an unjust system. Baby steps, yeah?"
"Like writing manifestos in cafés," James says, flicking the corner of her paper with a small smile that Lily returns.
"Just call me Marx."
Lily sets down her pen. "Manifestos… get it? As in the Communist Manifesto. Karl Marx? Marxism?" James continues to look at her blankly. Lily bites her lip to keep from laughing. "Who's the know-nothing now!"
They don't say much after the poor attempt at Marx related humor; James looks through the Prophet, and Lily continues to write. They half-heartedly wrestle for the last chip, their fingers nudging against each other amid the oil and coarse salt. Lily wins with a triumphant, "Ha!"
A moment later, James looks at his watch. "Shit, I should head out."
"Oh! Okay, right." Lily inexplicably feels her stomach squirm. She licks her lips and looks at her paper with newfound interest.
"Got to go over Quidditch strategy with Rogers."
"We need to make up for that loss to Slytherin," James adds. It's clear that he's not keen on leaving.
"Good luck, then," Lily says, glancing at him with a glint in her eye. "Because you lot were bollocks last week."
"Oy!" James chuckles, far more good-naturedly than Lily anticipates. He stands up and slowly gathers his coat, stretching again with a groan as if seated for hours. "Make sure to tell the Prophet and this… Ayers bloke to go fuck themselves like you really mean it."
She taps her ballpoint pen against her lips. "I'm sure they'll publish that."
"Honestly, if anyone can make a grown man cry, it's you."
"I'll try my best."
James lingers for a moment longer, resting his hand on the table. He sinks his head, voice lowering into a conspiratorial whisper. "By the way, I never had a wank during Astronomy. Can't say the same about Sirius, though."
Lily's nose wrinkles in disgust before she bursts out laughing. She raises her hand to his chest and pushes him away. "Fuck off before I fetch up my chips!"
He throws her a crooked smile and leaves the café, just as straight-backed and confident as he came in.
There's a cynical part of her that sees James as nothing more than the wizarding world's equivalent of champagne socialist, helping the cause from a lavish armchair of privilege with Puddlemere United tickets in his pocket; can't get his hands dirty, can't move from thought to action. There's another part of her—stronger than her skepticism—that hopes he surprises her.
She's still stuck in limbo, but now she thinks that maybe, just maybe, limbo isn't that bad after all.