In a strange, unexpected twist, James found himself feeling very sorry for Lily Evans.
The usually cool, haughty redhead looked both exhausted and utterly beat down, as if the pressures of life had finally caught up with her. Her mess of long dark red hair was thrown in an unruly bun at the top of her head, and her clothes were wrinkled and unkempt. She lay slumped at her desk, one hand propping up her head while the other lay faintly against her amorphous painting.
The rest of the class had finished their paintings the week before. Lily and James had been at it for two weeks, striving for that ever-elusive perfection. James was nearly there. Lily was unfathomably behind.
Class was almost over. James carried his brushes over to the sink, dumped them inside, and returned to his desk. Lily had not moved. He hesitated, and then shook his head and moved his painting to a safe holding place on the north wall.
Mrs. Briarwood raised her voice above the din; “Turn in your pastel work by pinning it to the east wall! Make sure your name is on the back, or you’ll be marked up for an incomplete!”
A flurry of students rushed towards the eastern wall. James chuckled, and began packing his paints into his bag.
Impulsively, he glanced at Lily again. She had sunk even further into her defeated, miserable position. At some point she had flipped over her painting, possibly too ashamed to look at it.
James felt his gut wrench a little.
Someone brushed against his arm. He jumped, and then was caught by the view of Rose Bennett sashaying towards Lily.
“Hey, Evans,” Rose said loudly. James eavesdropped.
“What do you want?” Lily sighed, not even turning her head to look at the blonde girl.
“I heard you were failing the painting project,” Rose pouted sympathetically, “wasn’t that due a week ago? You must really be awful at it.”
Lily barely inclined her head. Rose continued with a cruel smirk, “I got high marks for mine. Perhaps you need some tips?”
James tried to suppress a snort. Rose was notorious for being terrible with paints. She was good with clay, but could not perform with any other mediums without making a mess of everything. Lily’s ghastliest cave painting could be better than Rose’s muddle of splattered color.
“Or perhaps I simply need you to go away,” Lily replied snippily, but James was surprised to see her eyes lacked that familiar angry spark. She just looked tired.
“Or perhaps you should get off your high horse and realize you aren’t even a good artist,” Rose retorted, “seriously, a six-year-old could do better than you at paints.”
Lily rolled her eyes in a rather feeble showing of disparagement.
“Face it, Evans,” Rose sneered, “you’re just a sad little nobody that only goes here because you have no friends, no talents, and no life.”
She waited for a response. Lily just stared straight ahead blankly.
Rose tossed her hair scornfully, made an irate noise, and stomped away.
James felt uncomfortable. His discomfort only increased when Lily collapsed, her head falling into her arms and her whole body crumpling. She was not crying, but her posture so clearly screamed weakness and defeat. He wanted to comfort her, but he also wanted to yell at her for being such a stubborn, icy witch the previous week.
“Class is over! Goodbye!” Mrs. Briarwood shouted. She opened the door, and people immediately streamed through it.
James got up to join them, but paused. Lily was not moving, had not yet cleaned up her space, and appeared absolutely wretched.
He lingered, debating with himself, until everyone had vanished into the bright sunlight. Mrs. Briarwood disappeared hurriedly out the employee exit.
It was quiet, tense. James felt ridiculously embarrassed and moved to leave silently, but he accidentally knocked a clipboard off the table.
Lily raised her head, noticed him, and lifted her eyebrows, “What are you doing?”
“Er,” he rubbed the back of his head embarrassedly and hastened to pick it up, “uh. Nothing.”
She did not believe him for a second, but apparently did not care enough to call him on it. Instead, she sighed wearily and sat up a little straighter, “I reckon I should be going then.”
“No, wait!” James blurted.
She frowned, “What?”
“Er,” he felt awkward, and could feel himself growing hot, “nothing. Just uh, wondering why you’ve been so unlike yourself lately, I guess.”
Her usually brilliant eyes narrowed, “What do you mean?”
“Well, I dunno,” he shrugged and ignored the sweat on the back of his neck, “you just seem a bit tired I guess, and kind of hopeless. Apathetic.”
Lily looked for a fraction of a second as if she could muster her usual fiery rage, but then the passion was checked. She blinked, “I suppose.”
James had to force himself not to look shocked that she had not only admitted a temporary character defect, but had remained calm while doing so. “Why?”
“None of your business,” she said dourly, standing and heaving her bag on to her shoulder.
“Evans, wait,” he rumpled his hair, slightly exasperated but overall feeling much more calm. The fact that she had not yet ripped him into minuscule splinters helped a bit.
She rolled her eyes at his gesture. It had always irritated her, “What Potter?”
“I just . . .” he paused, then shrugged, “Is there any way I can help?”
Lily stood still. Her eyes widened with surprise, and then quickly narrowed suspiciously, “What’s the ulterior motive?”
“There isn’t one,” James said, mildly offended, “you just seem depressed lately. I was wondering if I could help.”
She shifted her weight from one foot to the other. James watched, slightly guarded. Her mostly apathetic face shifted minutely from anger to shock, and then back again.
Finally, she pushed her hair out of her eyes, “I don’t believe you.”
Of course you don’t, James thought dryly, you are the most difficult, annoying, obstinate girl that ever walked this sodding planet.
“I think you’re just reveling in the fact that for once you’re beating me at something,” she continued tiredly, “so just, leave me out of it, okay? I’m going home.”
“Since when do you give up?” James asked, perplexed.
“I’m not giving up,” she elucidated wearily, moving a few paces towards the door, “I’m just refusing to start with you. Goodbye.”
She pushed open the door, and walked into the blinding sunlight. James groaned in exasperation and followed her, “Evans, wait!”
Lily walked purposefully in the slanting, golden light of the late afternoon. Her bag swung from her narrow shoulder, and her messy bun bobbed with her footsteps. James easily maintained pace with her.
“What do you want?”
“I want to snap you out of this weird funk,” James replied, “I mean, no offense, you annoy the hell out of me when you’re a snotty ice queen, but I’d rather you be dynamic then just . . . depressing.”
“Thanks,” she said sarcastically.
James turned with her onto the street that led to her house, instead of his. She noticed, “What, you’re going to follow me home? Since when do you care?”
“Since I don’t like this you more than the other you,” he smirked.
She rolled her eyes, “You realize I’m only an icy snot to you, right? Because you’re the only pompous prat that manages to both irritate and infuriate me. Everyone else I can deal with. You, I can’t.”
“Ah, there’s a spark of the old Evans,” James nodded proudly, “biting my head off for no reason. Way to go.”
“Ugh! Sod off!”
“Yes! More improvement!”
“I’m going to shove my wand up your – “
“Now, now, Evans,” James grinned, thoroughly enjoying himself, “lets not be, dare I say it, naughty.”
She stopped in the middle of the street, and glared at him with her infamous Stare of Torturous Death and Excruciating Agony. He automatically took a few steps back and raised his hands, “I have my whole life ahead of me – don’t kill me.”
Her cheeks turned red, “Potter! Just shut up, okay? I’m tired, upset, and I absolutely don’t want to deal with your immaturity right now! Grow up, or leave me alone!”
James knew, instinctively, not to listen to her words. He shrugged, “Hey, lighten up. C’mon, I’m trying to figure out why you’ve been all miserable in class this past week.”
“My sisters getting married!” Lily snapped.
James felt slightly uncomfortable. He shoved his hands in his pockets, “Er – aren’t weddings usually causes of celebration?”
“Not this one,” Lily slowed to a stop, and raised a hand to shield her eyes
from the angled golden light, “its just . . . complicated. Petunia – my sister – isn’t in a right state. She’s utterly infatuated with this beast of a man. He’s repulsive and self-centered and egocentric, and she claims to love him. I truly despise him, and she truly despises me, so none of it is working out too well.”
“Why does she despise you?”
Lily smiled bitterly, “Because I’m a witch and she isn’t.”
“That’s not very fair.”
“Yes, well,” she dropped her hand, “that’s how it is.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, surprising himself, “I had no idea that you’re sister was so difficult. Or that your home life isn’t all daisies and pudding.”
Lily glanced at him, “Every family has their issues. I’m not asking for pity.”
“I know,” he backtracked quickly, “its just, I guess I don’t really know you.”
She looked at him. He looked back. He was struck by exactly how much shorter she was then him. Her eyes were at least a foot lower than his. They were filled with understanding, and gradually diminishing bitterness.
“I suppose I don’t really know you either.”
“No,” he agreed, “you don’t.”
“Maybe, we should just, try again,” she dropped her heavy bag by her feet.
“Or we could try to move forward,” he suggested quietly, “I don’t know you, you don’t know me, and neither of us like our judgments of who the other was. Perhaps we should learn from that and try to progress.”
She nodded, “Of course. And this whole art-partner thing will be bloody awful if we don’t at least try to cooperate.”
“For Mrs. Briarwood?” James offered, holding up his hand.
“For Mrs. Briarwood,” Lily confirmed, smiling tiredly and raising her hand as well.
“Alright,” he beamed as he shook her hand, “see you tomorrow then. I hope your sister’s fiancée moves to Australia!”
Lily smiled, “Me too.”
He grinned one last time, and then turned around and walked briskly back down her street. The golden light was to his back now, and he could see his shadow walking ahead of him with a bounce in its step. Somewhere deep down, a weight had been lifted off his already buoyant heart.
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