James’ feet fell heavy on the ground as he sprinted through the trees, his wand providing him illumination in the falling darkness. His breathing was laboured, and the hair on the back of his neck stood on end with the knowledge that he was being hunted. A sheen of sweat covered his skin: the day had been hot, and the sun had not been gone long enough yet for the air to cool. It was not a night to be running, but he was not about to give up and surrender. Giving up was out of the question.
At that moment, a jet of blue light flew towards him from his right; he ducked, and the spell rebounded off the tree behind him. He remained crouching, completely still, barely breathing, searching in between the dim tree trunks for a glimpse of his attacker. There was no movement and no sound, save for the chirping of a bird somewhere above him. He slowly started to raise himself back up to standing, holding his wand in front of him.
Suddenly, his entire body went rigid, and he fell to the ground, unable to move. A stream of curses flew through his head as he heard the footsteps of his assailant approaching; the next moment, Sirius’ grinning face was hanging over him in the twilight.
“You’ve got to learn to watch your back, Prongs,” Sirius said. “Finite.”
James’ muscles relaxed and he sat up. “Don’t I usually have you to do that for me?”
“Fair point,” Sirius said, holding out a hand. James took it and pulled himself up. “Well, I think that means I took the day. Where are Moony and Wormtail? I have to thank whichever one of them distracted you with that Jelly-Brain Jinx.”
“That was me,” Remus said. James turned around and saw him and Peter ambling over.
“Good one, Moony,” Sirius replied.
“I wouldn’t be so quick to boast about winning,” Peter said. “I got Remus about five minutes in, so I think you and I are still tied.”
“Well, well, the mighty one’s been properly unseated,” Sirius teased Remus. “Three-day winning streak, and now you’re the first one out?”
“He was sitting up in a tree,” Remus said defensively. “How was I supposed to see him?”
“Want to have another round, then?” Peter asked, looking at Sirius. “Break our tie?”
“Let’s go back,” James said. “My mum’s going to get even barmier than usual if she notices we went outside Dumbledore’s protective barrier. Besides, we don’t want to give Moony another chance to beat us all.” Remus grinned, and they all began making their way back towards James’ house.
It had become a favourite pastime of theirs, these late-afternoon chases through the trees near James’ home, seeing who could avoid the others’ jinxes and hexes longest. Ever since his run-in with the Death Eaters, James had been determined to learn how to defend himself better. Peter, Remus, and Sirius had all tacitly agreed, it seemed, after he had explained what had happened to them. They had started out blocking jinxes in his backyard; one duel between himself and Remus had gotten so heated that they had ended up running into the nearby trees, and from there, the duelling had ceased being structured and one-on-one. It became a chase, where each one of them was both hunter and hunted until only one was left standing.
“Heard from Dumbledore yet, speaking of him?” Sirius asked.
“No,” James said, shaking his head. The last he had seen of Dumbledore was when he had come to speak with James’ parents the day after the attack. He had refused to give James a definitive answer about whether he could join the Order, as he called his organization, instead assuring James that he would be in contact soon. With every day that passed, James began to wonder more and more whether Dumbledore was just avoiding him entirely. His friends were all growing as impatient as he was, for they were eager to join as well.
“If he takes much longer, I’m going to go and find him,” James added. “He can’t expect us to just sit around doing nothing the entire summer.”
“And it doesn’t seem like anyone’s still trying to kill you,” Peter interjected. “We’ve been outside the protection at least half a dozen times now, and we haven’t run into any Death Eaters.”
“Maybe we’re just lucky that they haven’t been around when we were,” James said, as they neared the edge of the cleared lawn surrounding his house.
“Have you seen anyone lurking about, then?” Sirius asked.
“No,” James replied. “I suppose you never know, though.”
“And Lily’s house has been okay as well?” Remus asked.
“I think so,” James answered, without thinking. Remus looked at him curiously.
“You think so?”
“You still haven’t talked to her?” Sirius added, jumping in.
“Do we really have to get into this again?” James asked. They reached a cluster of lawn chairs near the wooden shed where James stored Quidditch equipment and sat down.
“You’re really going to win some special distinction for going after the same girl for three years and then buggering it all up in the space of three months,” Sirius said, propping his feet up on the arm of Peter’s chair.
James rolled his eyes, but part of him knew it was the truth. He had been a first-class arse to Lily that evening, so much so that she hardly looked at him the next day when they said goodbye. It had been nearly two weeks since that morning; he had not received a visit or even a small note from her.
“How did you even manage it?” Peter asked.
They had fallen into a habit of occasionally pestering him for more details about what had happened, but James had managed to avoid the subject rather well so far. He wasn’t at all proud of the way he had acted, and the last thing he wanted was for more people to know about it.
“I don’t know,” James replied. “I told you, it was just a bad situation all around.”
“So, why haven’t you spoken to her yet, then?” Remus asked, with an all-too-knowing look in his eye.
“Is it such a crime to want to spend time with my best friends?” James asked.
Sirius laughed. “Tell the truth: did she ditch you? Or did you just decide she wasn’t all you built her up to be?”
“Neither,” James replied, unable to disguise the mild annoyance in his voice. Sirius seemed to be fairly pleased that James had not been spending much time with Lily lately, but he would have appreciated a bit more sensitivity. “Let’s just talk about something else.”
He certainly spent enough time when he was on his own thinking about Lily, missing her, regretting treating her so coldly—he didn’t need to dwell on it when he wasn’t alone as well.
“Did you...?” Peter began, but then trailed off. “Well, you know?”
James gave him a perplexed stare. “No, I really don’t know.”
“Well...I’m just...did you and Lily...you know?” he said. It was his pointed eyebrow movement that clued James in to what he was trying to say.
“Really, Wormtail?” James asked disdainfully. Sirius was laughing, and even Remus was smirking slightly. “Do you three have nothing better to do than sit around and think about what goes on in my relationship?”
“It’s a valid question,” Peter argued.
“How is that a valid question?” James asked. “Why would she and I be avoiding each other if that was the case?”
He was answered with more laughter. “Well,” Sirius said, “sometimes these things don’t go very well.”
“Really? How would you know?”
“I have to find something to do in London in my spare time,” Sirius replied, stretching his arms above his head and smiling devilishly. James reluctantly exhaled a laugh. He was fairly certain that Sirius was just posturing to be funny, which was fine with him if it meant that they moved on to a new topic of conversation. And they did, at least for a few minutes, since Peter wanted to know what had happened to a Muggle girl Sirius had met in a shop a week ago—mostly for his own purposes, since Sirius had mentioned that the girl had a friend that he might be able to introduce Peter to. As usual, Sirius had since decided that the girl was brainless, and hadn’t seen her in several days.
“I’m telling you, not having one of those Muggle ringers is a dream,” Sirius said.
“What’s a ‘ringer’?” Peter asked.
“You know,” Sirius replied, “one of those things that birds are always asking you to ring them with.”
Peter snorted with laughter. “It’s not called a ringer, you idiot, it’s a telephone.”
“Ah, so that must be why those red boxes on the street always say ‘telephone’,” Sirius said, a crease appearing between his eyebrows. “I always thought it was the name of the company that made them.”
“And you accuse other people of being brainless,” Peter said, still laughing.
“Well, my point was that half the girls think it’s mysterious when you tell them you can’t ring them, and you don’t have to worry about talking to the ones you don’t like ever again,” Sirius continued.
“Maybe I’ll lie about having one next time I meet a girl,” Peter mused.
James was busy wondering whether he might be able to reach Lily on a telephone—he knew she had mentioned having one in her home a couple times, and it might be easier to hear her voice without having to see any accompanying looks of disgust or coldness. Peter must know how to use one, since his mum was a Muggle. But, then again, why should using some Muggle contraption be any easier than just walking up to her door, or Owling her? It was what she might have to say when they spoke, by whatever means, that kept him from seeing her. Lily had disliked him for much longer than she had liked him, and he was fairly certain that it wouldn’t take much for her to revert back to form—perhaps it had even already happened.
“Fascinating as this conversation is,” Remus interrupted, “weren’t we talking about Prongs and Lily?”
“I’ll go see her tomorrow, all right?” James said, before anyone else could offer their profound thoughts on the status of his relationship.
“You’ve been saying that for the last ten days,” Remus said.
“So I’ll actually do it tomorrow,” James countered.
“Oh, rubbish,” Sirius dismissed him. “For years, you used to go out of your way at every opportunity just to get a glimpse at her, and now you’ve gone nearly two weeks without even writing her? And she’s your girlfriend? Something doesn’t make sense there.”
“It’s true,” Peter agreed.
“Listen, it’s nothing for all of you to worry about,” James said, letting his head fall back and rest uncomfortable on the back of the lawn chair.
“It most certainly is,” Remus replied.
“I can’t go through another three years of you trying to win Lily Evans over,” Sirius added. “None of us can.”
James lifted his head back up. “That’s not going to happen,” he stated. Even as he said it, a strange feeling of horror gripped at his throat—maybe it was true. He didn’t know whether Lily considered them finished already, but if that was the case...well, he wouldn’t be able to just let it go and move on. Sirius was right; he would probably end up spending years trying to get her back. Why, if there was a chance of avoiding that, was he sitting around doing nothing about it? Why had his dilemma never appeared to him this way before?
“Shouldn’t you be just as determined to go see her as you are to see Dumbledore? Maybe even more so?” Remus suggested.
James knew that Remus was right—the situations in which he wasn’t right were few and far between, of course. He sighed and let his head fall back again.
Before he could respond, he heard what sounded like a window being unlatched and the sound of his mother’s voice.
“James, come inside! I don’t want you sitting out there in the dark!”
He made a noise of great irritation as the window was shut. His mother was right: night had fallen fully since they had returned to the lawn, though James had hardly noticed it.
“You guys want to stay over?” James asked.
“I should get back,” Remus replied. James knew that his mum was nearly as fussy as his own, and figured he had told her he would be home at a certain time. At least Remus’ mum had reason to worry, though, with her son suffering from lycanthropy.
“I’ll pass for tonight,” Sirius said, standing up with the rest of them. “I heard that tone in your mum’s voice, and I think I’ll steer clear.”
“Fair enough,” James said. “Wormtail?”
“I have that job interview in the morning, so I should go home too,” Peter responded.
So James said goodbye to all three of them, Remus and Peter Apparating and Sirius roaring away on his motorbike, likely giving Mrs Potter even more to be irritated about when he went inside.
He looked at the grandfather clock in their foyer. It was only nine o’clock, and perhaps still early enough to go visit Lily. Why had it taken two weeks of his friends nagging at him to finally realize that he was only making the situation worse by staying away?
Because you aren’t, a very small voice said in the back of his mind. It was true that the thought of going to see Lily concerned him for reasons that had nothing to do with the state of their relationship. The Death Eaters had been after him, and the last place they had known him to be was in that park near Lily’s home. Perhaps they knew that James was protected here at home, and were waiting for him to go to Lily. Going to see her might put them both in danger again, and he could not have that on his conscience. The Death Eaters did not know her real name, and as long as James kept away, she could stay under the protections of both Dumbledore and of anonymity.
Not being able to see her was painful, though. In moments like this, when he allowed his mind to grasp at memories of her laughing at one of the jokes he made solely for her, of holding her close to him during late-night interludes in the castle, even of her aggravating inability to admit that she was wrong about something, it took great effort to simply sigh and try to focus on something else.
For once, he welcomed an oncoming scolding from his mother.
“Where are you going?” his mother asked, sweeping down the staircase.
“Nowhere, Mum,” James said dully. “Remus, Sirius, and Pete just left.”
“I knew Sirius must have left, with the racket that thing of his makes,” his mother said. “You will be staying here, though?”
“Yes,” James said. His mother smiled and took his face in her aged hands.
“That’s my boy,” she said. “Thank you for being so sensible, dear.”
“Yeah,” James said, pulling away from her grasp. Her ability to make him feel like a ten-year-old was uncanny. “I’ll be in my bedroom.”
“Say good night to your father, dear,” his mum said. “He’s just settled down in bed.”
Her ability to stretch the truth of a situation was also uncanny. His father had been “settled down in bed” for the better part of the past two months, as far as James could tell, but his mother never failed to make it sound as though he had been up and moving around all day. Her tendency toward obfuscation had become even more pronounced since James had been captured: he had never seen someone able to fret at every opportunity at the same time as they pretended that everything was all right.
When he reached the landing, James considered walking down to his parents’ bedroom and heeding his mother’s wishes. But he thought of the last time he had done so, remembering how thin and tired his father had looked, and he decided against it. He instead went the other direction, toward his own room, and hoped as he closed the door behind him that he would not end up doing the same thing the next day when he tried to go see Lily.
Being afraid of a window was absurd. This, Lily knew. She tried to imagine herself saying it aloud, and realized how pathetic it would sound.
I don’t like going near the window.
But it was the truth. Well, perhaps she wasn’t afraid, but she was certainly anxious. She had moved her bed as far away from the window as she could, and she felt small fluttering of panic whenever she had to get within a few feet of those glass panes. Despite the muggy weather, she had kept them shut tightly against any invading breeze, and her curtains remained drawn.
It wasn’t just the windows; that, Lily knew just as well. Everything about being in her home made her feel on edge, for this was where it had happened. Words could not put into meaning how awful it had felt to return back to this neighbourhood, to her home right down the street from where she had found James being attacked...even now, nearly two weeks later, the memories of spells flashing in the dark and a menacing, robed figure overpowering James were too much for her to take. If she was lucky, they would come during her waking hours, when she would be able to close her eyes and eventually force them away. But they would also plague her when she slept, and then she was defenceless against them; the only respite came when she would wake up with an electric current of terror running through her.
These dreams, these thoughts, these fleeting moments of panic—they were what had kept her closeted inside her bedroom for the better part of two weeks. Her days were filled with nothing, but that was how she preferred it. She liked safety and comfort, having now seen the alternative.
And yet for some reason, she was suddenly starting to realize how pathetic she seemed. She wished she had someone to shake her out of this melancholy.
She understood why her family had decided to leave her to her moping, for the first few times her parents had attempted to talk to her or cheer her up, she had snapped at them. But even if she had confided in them, she doubted they would have understood. After all, Dumbledore had explained the situation to them, and patiently answered all their questions, but it still seemed like her parents were unable to comprehend it. And Petunia—well, Lily didn’t think she had any clue what was going on.
There was no one to help her. At first, she had assumed that James would be her shoulder to lean on, but it was as if he had disappeared completely. While she knew that Dumbledore had told them to stay close to home, she hadn’t thought that James would really listen to him. Trust him to start following rules now, of all times.
She sighed, and let her head rest against the wall behind her. She was sitting on her unmade bed. What was she going to do with herself?
There was a knock on her door, though Lily was fairly sure that it was not opportunity on the other side, but rather one of her parents.
“Come in,” she said, trying to sound as normal as possible. To her great surprise, Petunia stepped into her room, switching on Lily's light as if she owned the place. Annoyed already, Lily asked, “What is it?”
“I need to talk to you about something,” Petunia said.
“Did Mum send you up here?” Lily asked.
Petunia shook her head.
“Well, if you're trying to—”
“Will you shut up for a second?” Petunia interrupted her. She crossed her arms and took a few paces into the room, eyeing Lily's dirty pile of laundry as if it might come to life and attack her when her back was turned.
“Have you showered at all in the past week?” she asked, scrunching up her nose.
“Would you mind getting to your point?” Lily asked. Petunia merely raised an eyebrow, unflappable as ever.
“Fine,” Petunia said. “I want to leave, and I need your help.”
Lily looked at her in bewilderment. “How am I supposed to help you with that?”
“You can convince Mum and Dad of things that I can't. They'll listen to you,” Petunia said.
“They only listen to me when I beg them,” Lily replied, “not when I'm trying to make a well-reasoned argument. You're the one they listen to for that.”
“I know, and begging is exactly what I need.”
Lily stared at her, puzzled again. “You're going to have to explain.”
Petunia looked at her as if she were the dimmest person alive.
“You hate being here, I can tell. I hate being here. What's not to understand?”
“You want me to beg them to let us both leave? And is this still about you moving to London? They've told you no at least a dozen times, and I’m not going to—”
“That's why it's going to be about us moving to London now,” Petunia said, trying to pretend as though she was not flushing furiously. For her part, Lily would have gotten less of a shock from a lightning bolt than her sister's suggestion.
“Are you joking?” she asked.
“Believe me, I wish I were,” Petunia said. “I’ve realized it’s my only chance—and you’d better believe it’s yours, too.”
“Let’s not get dramatic,” Lily responded.
“I’m not joking, Lily,” Petunia said. “Get out now, while it’s still easy to. You think it’s well and good now to be at home, but all of sudden it’ll be three years later, and you won’t know what you’ve done with that time. Besides nothing, of course.”
“Or…it’s possible that I’ll have my own experiences, and not just repeat exactly what you did,” Lily said. She felt badly for saying it a moment later. “Listen, Petunia, the thing is, we don’t really—I don’t see why either of us would want to live with the other.”
“We’ve managed it up until now. And I’m not asking for us to become close flatmates, or anything like that,” she added quickly, when Lily opened her mouth to retort. “We hardly even have to see each other, really. It’s just that I know Mum and Dad would be more willing to let us go if you were on my side, especially if you told them that you had to go to London for your—stuff.”
Stuff, of course, being any and all things magic, in Petunia’s vocabulary, accompanied by the usual pinched, uncomfortable expression.
Lily sighed. “I don’t know. I really don’t think this is the best time…”
“All right,” Petunia said, clearly frustrated, “stop being so negative for one minute, and try to think about why you would go with me.”
Lily sighed and assented. There was the fact that she still wasn’t any closer to finding gainful employment, for one thing, and that London was simply the centre of both Muggle and magical Britain. There was also, of course, the added security that would come with the anonymity of city life. Here, Lily felt like leaving her home made her a walking target, but in a city of millions of people, she would be able to blend in. And, of course, there was James. Though there had been nothing but silence between the two of them recently, Lily could not help but hope that nearness would change that.
“I’ll think about it,” Lily stated. Petunia smiled happily and pranced toward the door without a moment’s hesitation.
Lily didn’t know why she was even bothering to hold out still, considering that she had already more-or-less convinced herself into agreeing with her sister. When she imagined herself living in London, she had felt momentarily freed: she knew it was silly to rest so much on such a little thing as a location change, but she didn’t want to continue living in constant fear. There was nothing here for her, in some respects, but in others, there was too much. And both the lack and surfeit were pushing her away.
A small voice in her head was nagging at her, telling her that perhaps she was so eager to change her situation was because she wanted run away. After all, that was what she had done that night when they had been captured by Death Eaters, so it would not be a stretch of her character. And since it seemed likely that James was upset with her for that first lapse in courage, what would he think of her if she were to do the same thing over again?
Things could not just change, she realized. She had to change: had to become braver, more determined. It wasn’t going to matter where she was if she stayed exactly the same.
She dug around the piles of dirty clothes until she found some shoes to shove her feet into, and then very carefully walked downstairs. If her parents heard her leaving, they would try to stop her, and Lily knew that her resolve would weaken if that happened. She had to do this now.
It was a rather gloomy day outside, considering it was summer. Lily had been glad of the dismal weather until now, since it had given her another way to excuse her hermit-like tendencies, but now that she was outdoors, she would have been glad for some light and warmth. She folded her arms across her chest, looking all around while her heart beat in panic.
But nothing happened. No one jumped out at her, no spells shot in her direction—nothing. She finally released the breath she had been holding in, and part of her thought that maybe just this was all right. She had been outside, hadn’t she? She nearly gave in and went back inside, but she forced herself not to.
Instead, she went back to where it had all started. The park that sat at the end of her street looked the same as it always did, but it was no longer a place of happy childhood memories. She knew what she was doing was stupid, and recklessly dangerous. If Dumbledore could see her now, he would be disappointed. But the alternative was continuing to feel disappointed in herself, and Lily couldn’t stand that.
For a minute, she just stood at the place where the grass met the pavement, watching for any sign that she might be about to get herself killed. Again, she saw nothing but trees and shabby playground equipment. One of the swing seats was hanging limply from its chain, probably broken since she had last been here by a group of neighbourhood teenagers.
No one was here but her.
She crossed the grass and sat down on the remaining swing, trying her best to breathe evenly.
I’m fine, she told herself. This is fine.
Her hands were clasped together in her lap so anxiously that they were beginning to turn white.
She tried to think of something more cheerful, to distract herself, but failed miserably—the first memory that came to her mind was sitting on this very swing weeks ago, kissing James, which only made her feel terribly alone.
Tears were prickling behind her eyes, and she rested her forehead in her hands, willing herself not to cry. She was going to stop this silly, overemotional nonsense in its tracks.
There was nothing to be afraid of, at least not here. No one was waiting to attack her or her family.
It wasn’t the end of the world if she was alone. Just because she didn’t have anyone around that understood what she was going through didn’t mean that she couldn’t get through it. In fact, maybe being alone was a good thing. Maybe it would help her to become stronger, as she wanted to.
Lily sat there in the park for at least a quarter of an hour, and she thought. She thought about what had happened since she had left school, about her sister, about London, about her family, and about James. Somehow, by the time she stood up on shaking legs to return home, she felt like she knew what she needed to do to make things right.
She slipped back inside, taking her shoes off so as not to make as much noise on the staircase, and returned to her room. All her dirty clothes were thrown into a pile that she would deal with later, and she even made her bed and cracked open the window to let some fresh air in. She was crossing the upstairs landing to reach the bathroom and shower when raised voices reached her ears.
“I’ve told you already, she’s not in!” Lily’s mother was saying shrilly, presumably to someone at the door. “Now—I’m sorry, but if you won’t leave, I’ll—I’ll have to call the police!”
Lily edged to the top of the stairway anxiously, hearing the faint noise of someone responding to her mother. It was a male voice, and Lily wondered who could be upsetting her mother so much that she was threatening to have them arrested.
“I don’t care who you say you are! I’ve had strict orders to keep this door closed to anyone who comes calling for Lily, and as that’s what you’re doing—”
“Mum, what’s wrong?” Lily said, walking down the stairs hesitantly. Her heart was starting to pound faster, like it had when she was back in the playground. “Who is it?”
She did not need her mother to answer, however: the voice that called out her name in the next moment was unmistakable.
“James?” Her heart lifted as she flew down the rest of the staircase and pushed the front door open further.
And there he was. The last person she had expected to see, and the first person she had hoped to: her spectacled, messy-haired James, standing on her doorstep as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world, making Lily forget entirely the promises she had made to herself not an hour earlier.
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