i. Summer Means New Love
The Scottish air was still thick with summer, but as students swarmed Hogsmeade station Lily Evans could detect the slightest hint of crispness in the air. She smiled and breathed in deep. It was a comforting reminder. Last year had ended as badly it had, but months of warmth had passed, and the cold had returned, and she had grown. Things would be better. With this in mind, Lily waved her friends on. She had only one of these walks left, after all, after this year. Crossing her arms over her chest, she let the sounds of greetings and how-are-yous wash over her, and the crowd carried her towards the carriages.
This happy bubble didn’t last long, of course. Lily heard him before she saw him, pushing through students to fall in step with her. She kept her eyes trained ahead of her, fisting her hands so they would not tremble.
“Lily,” he said, a plea in the single word.
I will not be cross, she told herself. It’s September first and I’m happy to be back at Hogwarts and he will not ruin that for me.
“What,” she said, more brusquely than she’d intended to. Drat; she darted a glance at her companion.
Severus Snape’s face had fallen at her tone. “You’re...still angry.”
If she had felt any remorse at his expression, it blinked away at that. “Seriously? Of course I’m still angry. I was too angry to want to talk to you in June, or at any point over the summer, or now. Would you like a signed declaration?”
His jaw clenched; she could see him preparing for an argument. This was the problem with her and Sev — he was far too defensive to be really, truly sorry. And if he wasn’t really, truly sorry, what were they even talking for?
“I can’t believe you’re letting…that…get in the way of our friendship,” Severus was saying. “We’ve known each other years—”
“And, pray tell, what would ‘that’ be?” Lily’s leisurely pace had turned frantic, but there was only so far she could walk. Eventually they would arrive at the carriages, and the last thing she wanted was to spend the ride up to the castle trying to deflect her former best friend’s arguments. Lily cared a great deal about the beginnings of things, and this was decidedly not a good start to her sixth year.
Severus scowled. “You know. The — the lake, Potter—”
Lily stopped short and faced him. He was taller than her now — had been for a year — and it was disconcerting. She did not allow herself to think about the Great Lake.
“For the last time, Severus,” she said, “this was never about him. Just — don’t come near me until you get that into your head, all right?”
He opened his mouth to retort, but she cut him off with a sharp “No.”
Thankfully, she caught sight of a friendly face over his shoulder; before Severus could come up with anything else to say, Lily fled. She didn’t want to run — she wanted the argument to be put to bed, once and for all. But she knew her friend too well to expect that. Breathe, breathe, breathe. She counted to ten in her head, and with her last remaining shred of optimism, summoned up a broad smile.
This was the face she wore when she called out to Dex Fortescue, who was waiting by a carriage with a bunch of other seventh-years. Lily’s smile grew genuine at the sight of his goofy grin. A Hufflepuff seventh-year, Dex had freckled skin, sandy blond hair, and a flattering habit of complimenting her until she blushed. Yes, there was much to like about Dex — and Lily liked him very much.
“Lily!” he said, stepping away from his friends as she approached. “You’re looking gorgeous as ever, of course.”
“Oh, stop it.” She could feel her cheeks growing hot.
A sudden panic joined the butterflies in her stomach — how was she supposed to say hello? Wave at a respectable three-foot distance? Oh, God, if she didn’t think of something soon, she was going to stick out her hand for him to shake and there would be no recovering from that, not least because it was a Muggle gesture… To her immense relief, Dex pulled her into a warm, tight hug.
“It really is good to see you,” he said, his breath tickling her ear.
“You too,” she said, a little breathless at the combination of his smile, his voice, his arms around her — focus, Lily, he’s talking to you—
“Unfortunately, I don’t have any ice cream for you,” said Dex.
“What a shame. I was obviously only ever using you for the family shop.”
He rolled his eyes, still grinning. “Let me make it up to you. Look...” He sobered, looking away for a moment. Lily was surprised to see him square his shoulders and meet her gaze so gravely — and, if she were being honest, a little endeared.
“I don’t want to…dive into things, or scare you off or anything, but I liked where we were in August and… I suppose I’m trying to say I’d like to keep seeing you. And I’d like you to be my girlfriend.”
There was a small pause in the conversation. Lily wasn’t sure if she was supposed to fill it. But Dex hurried on.
“We don’t have to be around each other all the time and kiss goodnight and whatever. We can just be together like this summer — except now you’ll have something to call me other than—” He waved a hand.
“Ice cream boy,” Lily supplied, grinning. This was just the sweetener she needed. “Of course, Dex. Of course I want to keep seeing you.”
He rocked back on his heels, visibly relieved. “Great. Great.”
“But I might still call you ‘ice cream boy.’” She took his hand and squeezed it.
He cocked his head, pretending to consider this. “I suppose I’ll make an allowance for you.”
Stepping closer, Lily said, “And I do rather like goodnight kisses.” She felt a lick of delight at how his eyes widened. How novel, to have a visible effect on boys, she thought. This explained a lot about some of her friends.
“Oh, I suppose I can make an allowance about that too,” murmured Dex, meeting her halfway. Lily’s hands made their way to his shoulders and she leaned into him and—
“You coming, Dex?” a voice said amidst hoots and cheers. Dex and Lily separated; she saw that his friends had piled into a carriage behind them, and had a prime view of the couple.
“Shut up, you lot,” Dex told them. “Want to join, Lily?”
She considered the nearly-full carriage and his own sweet, stumbling proposition. No, she had plenty of time to meet all his friends, and right after they had made things official might be rather too soon.
“You go ahead. I’ll find the other Gryffindors.”
“If you’re sure…”
“Sure as eggs.”
He burst into laughter, shaking his head. “Whatever you say.”
As he stepped away, Lily pulled him back to her for another brief kiss, to great oohing from the seventh years. She was still wearing her sauciest smile when she walked away to find a carriage of her own.
Perhaps the beginning had been less than auspicious, but things had got better, as she’d promised herself they would. The spring in her step returned, and Lily fortuitously spotted a boy and a girl in red-and-gold ties already seated in a carriage — both sixth-year Gryffindors.
“Lily! Come sit with us!” Sara Shafiq was waving madly at her, leaning across an alarmed Remus Lupin. The rest of the waiting area had grown rather empty since Lily had left Severus. She scanned the remaining students to make sure her friends weren’t waiting for her, then joined Sara and Remus. The former gave her a hug; the latter, a warm smile.
Remus looked worse than usual, Lily noted. He was sick often, and it seemed as though he was close to another bout. Or perhaps it was all relative. Next to Sara, who was tall and willowy and had flawless bronze skin, healthier people than Remus Lupin would have looked wan.
“Had a good summer, Lily?” said Remus.
She made a face before she could stop herself, which made the other two laugh. “So-so. My sister’s seeing this bloke who's got to be the most insufferable man in England.”
“Can he be all that bad?”
“I believe it,” Sara said darkly. “My sister got married a few years ago and he’s great, but before that she dated absolute pond scum. It’s infuriating.”
Amusement shone in Remus’s eyes. “I’m sure it is.”
Sara patted his hand before turning back to Lily. “I’m sure your summer can’t have been all doom and gloom. We saw you with that cute Hufflepuff — what’s his name? Fortescue? Give us all the news!” She lowered her voice, but her excitement was obvious. Remus, meanwhile, looked like he very much wanted to be excluded from the we she spoke of.
“Dex,” said Lily, returning Sara’s smile. “Yes, we did meet over the summer. The one bright spot, I reckon. Dorcas was dragging me to Diagon Alley so often, and he was working in his uncle’s ice cream parlour — you know the one—”
Lily had so often listened to her friends gush over their boys with the air of a wise spinster, rather the Charlotte Lucas. She found that she sounded exactly like them now — but she didn’t mind this pink-cheeked girlishness. She would have to retell this recent update for her friends tonight...but that was all right. And certainly Sara wouldn’t mind hearing it once more. Things were getting better, she reminded herself.
“—and, well, he asked me to be his girlfriend,” she finished, unable to swallow her smile.
Sara clasped her hands together and sighed. “Oh, how adorable! I do love the tender first few weeks of a relationship.”
“First few minutes, actually. He only just asked me.”
Sara looked as though she was about to implode. But before she — or Remus, whose polite interest now had an edge of desperation — could react, another person practically dove into the carriage beside Lily, and the wheels began to creak forward.
“My heartfelt congratulations,” said James Potter, leaning back and pushing the unruly dark curls from his forehead.
Was he being sarcastic? Unsure, Lily held her tongue. Sometimes it was better to stay silent around James Potter — a reminder she often disregarded, to considerable woe — and she figured this was one of those times. The incident by the lake loomed large in her mind; she quashed it down and sat a little straighter.
Sara’s lips were pursed in disapproval. “Was that kind of entrance necessary, James?”
The beginnings of a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. “Obviously, Sara. A new year needs must begin with a bang.” He surveyed the other occupants of the carriage. “Moony. Evans. Hello.”
Rather than simply saying hello back, Lily found herself saying, “Needs must?”
James turned to her, meeting her gaze. “Yeah, and? You have a monopoly on pretty phrases in the English language or something?”
She fought back a glare. “No, I was just surprised. You sounded like you learned to read over the summer. I should be congratulating you.”
“Oh, for Merlin’s sake,” began Remus, but James cut him off.
“I can’t read, of course. What gave you that impression? I had to practice my usage of ‘needs must’ all through the holidays.” And then he folded his arms behind his head and stared determinedly at the darkening sky.
An awkward silence fell. Lily couldn’t think how to respond; he had spoken so flatly, she couldn’t have said if they were arguing or joking. She wanted to consider this a victory, but he had had the last word. James bloody Potter.
“Speaking of the holidays,” Sara said, clearly trying to salvage the conversation, “what did you do, James?”
At this, James showed the first sign of genuine interest. “Mum and I visited family in India. Got to see all the cousins, so that was nice.”
“Oh, how lovely! Give my regards to your mum...and your dad. Does he — did he not come with you both?” Sara seemed torn between the desire to know and the possibility that this was a sore subject; Lily stifled a smile.
James grinned. “Merlin, Sara, you sound like a high society matron. Yes, Dad came with us for some of the holiday — he wanted to see these caves, you know, interesting magical stuff. But Mum’s family overwhelms him sometimes. Poor bloke, can’t blame him.”
Lily tried to imagine a slew of loud, troublemaking Jameses, and found that she quite sympathised.
“Don’t tease me, I was just asking… Where in India are your family from?”
Lily felt odd listening in but Remus was diagonally across from her, and she doubted they would be able to have a conversation over Sara and James, the latter of whom had begun to gesture wildly as he talked. Remus met her gaze and rolled his eyes, smiling.
“How was your summer?” she mouthed.
“Fine. Quiet,” he mouthed back. “No arseholes dating my sister.”
Lily let out a snort of laughter. “And the other two?” She gestured between Remus and James.
A hint of guardedness flickered into her friend’s normally serene expression. “Up at the castle, I suppose…”
Two Marauders were the last to leave, and two Marauders were ensconced in the castle already? So they were planning something. Lily thought back to last year’s Welcoming Feast, at which bats had chased the Slytherins out of the Great Hall, and shuddered.
“What are you up to?”
“Nothing,” Remus mouthed unconvincingly.
Lily raised a warning finger, only half in jest. Remus gave her a pleading look. The sensible side of her knew there was no point getting up in arms about their pranks. He was a prefect, just the same as she was, after all, and he participated. Besides, an argument with Remus, here and now, would inevitably involve Potter, and Lily had had enough contention for one day.
“As long as it isn’t bats,” she said aloud.
“Bats?” Sara repeated, looking between Lily and Remus in confusion.
In mock concern, James said, “Talking to yourself, Evans?”
“Don’t you start, James Potter,” Sara said, swatting him.
“He started long ago,” said Lily dryly. They had pulled up to the castle; Lily resisted the urge to watch Potter’s reaction to her words, and instead studied Hogwarts’s facade. The familiar squeeze of homecoming seized her.
But James chose not to respond. “Needs must be off,” he said, hopping out of the carriage before it had stopped and striding away.
“Idiot boy,” Sara said, vocalising Lily’s thoughts exactly.
The three Gryffindors made their way into the Entrance Hall along with the last trickle of arriving students. Only a handful hovered in the antechamber; still thinking of the Marauders, Lily did not pay them much heed. Sara said goodbye and hurried to join her friends at the table, leaving Lily alone with Remus.
“See you later,” Remus said, avoiding meeting her eyes.
“Seriously, what are you up to?” Lily blurted out. So much for not getting up in arms, she berated herself.
Remus sighed. “You wouldn’t be happier knowing.”
But I would! She bit back the words. If she wanted to finish this year with her sanity intact, she needed to let their stupid pranks pass her by…and yet.
Her friend gave her a wave and walked off. She stood there in the cavernous hall, alone, uncertain. Somewhere between Dex and now, her regained carefreeness had been knocked off-kilter. And she didn’t want to point fingers, but it was usually because of…
“If you’re done being nosy, your dearest, most patientest friends would like to eat,” a high voice trilled.
“Oh— you waited—” Lily swivelled around to look at the girls by the entrance to the Great Hall.
“Damn right we waited!” said the tall Asian girl who had spoken, tossing her glossy ponytail. Mary Macdonald’s leggy, boyish frame gave her an athletic look belied by her vivid blue eyeshadow and pearly-pink lips — and the fact that Lily knew she didn’t have a single sporty bone in her body. “Hurry up, Dorcas is saving our seats.”
“Be nice,” said Germaine King, the other witch and the actual athlete of their friend group, whose pale blonde head just about came to Mary’s shoulder. Despite the look she shot Mary, Germaine grabbed Lily’s elbow and steered her into the Great Hall.
Neither Germaine nor Mary were in the mood to indulge Lily’s impulse to stop and take in the dining hall’s high arches — “you’ll see it every bloody day!” — and so they made their way to the middle of the table, where Dorcas Walker, a dark-skinned, pretty witch, had already carved out a spot for the four of them.
“Finally!” Doe huffed, scooting down so Lily could plop down next to her.
“There’s plenty of space!” Lily protested, which was true; she could not see the sixth-year boys anywhere, which explained the unclaimed seats. Doe, in the middle of tying up her long curls, only shrugged.
“Did you find Dex?” Germaine wanted to know.
The memory of the whole thing — Dex’s embrace, the heat of his mouth — made Lily blush. “Yes, I’ll tell you about it later.”
“Oh, will you,” Mary teased from across the table.
“This year is going to be a year of change,” Germaine said, tucking her short curls behind her ears. “Thank you for going along with the plan, Lil.”
“Really? What’s your change, then?” Doe said..
Germaine held up her hands as if to say wait for it. “Henceforth I will be going by... Gemma.”
The girls looked at one another for a beat. Then Lily, Doe, and Mary burst into laughter.
Germaine folded her arms over her chest, frowning. “I thought it sounded quite good!”
“Who’s this Gemma? Have I met her?” Sirius Black slid onto the bench next to Germaine; the other Marauders joined him. They were all slightly out of breath, Lily noticed. James had his hands in his pockets and did not look at her.
“I’m Gemma,” said Germaine crossly. “I’m trying to get people to call me that.”
“We don’t mean to make fun,” said Doe, trying unsuccessfully to hide her smile. “It’s just — you’re so not a Gemma.”
“Walker’s right, Germy,” James cut in.
“Potter, I swear, I’ll take that smile right off your face—”
“Only if you can reach it—”
“I,” Mary said loudly, interrupting this argument, “plan on having a tragic, doomed love affair. It will be terrifically heart-wrenching.”
Doe snorted. “Likely.”
“I’m choosing to ignore that comment, Dork-ass. But just so you all know—” this, directed at the boys “—I am accepting candidates for my love interest in this affair. Oh, not one of you, of course. Just in case you know someone.”
“Of course,” Sirius said, rolling his eyes.
Mary surveyed the students critically. “I think I might go for Crollins, you know.”
“Crollins?” James repeated. “Have you heard of taste?”
“It’s weird that you’ll call him that, but you won’t call me Gemma,” said Germaine.
“He doesn’t want to be called Crollins.”
“Yeah, not a very flattering comparison, Germaine.”
Lily followed James’s sceptical gaze, currently fixed on Colin Rollins. He was Head Boy this year, and a Hufflepuff like Dex, but was not one of Dex’s group. Which, in Lily’s opinion, was a mark in Dex’s favour; she had not enjoyed prefect meetings with the boy last year.
“Cute he may be,” Dorcas said, “but you can’t deny he’s a bit of a git.”
“He is, bless him,” said Mary fondly. “But he’s a cracking good kisser.”
ii. Sweetheart, Darling, Pumpkin Pie
In short order, the first-years were sorted and the feasting began.
“A woman teaching us Defence Against the Dark Arts! I can’t bloody wait,” Doe said every ten minutes or so; the fifth-year on her other side was beginning to glare at her. The professor in question, whom Dumbledore had introduced as Aprylline Thorpe, sat next to a beaming Slughorn, who seemed to be pelting her with questions.
“She’ll have to survive dear Sluggy first,” said Germaine.
“I’m surprised Dumbledore said so little,” Mary said, reaching for the roast chicken. “I mean, people are disappearing and everything…”
Lily shifted in her seat. She and Mary, the only two Muggle-born Gryffindors in their year, had followed the news with worry all summer. They'd spoken on the telephone after breakfast every morning to dissect the latest Prophet headlines. Hogwarts seemed such a world away from the rest of wizarding Britain…but she had to grow used to the fact that it wasn’t, of course, no matter what it felt like. Without meaning to, Lily glanced over at the Slytherin table, spotting Severus’s dark head next to gangly, fair-haired Anthony Avery, and permanently-scowling Thalia Greengrass. Cassius Mulciber was by Thalia; when Lily looked at him, he met her gaze. Flinching, she turned back to the table.
“Pass me the chicken,” she said hoarsely.
But when Mary tried to hand her the dish, it eluded her grasp — by suddenly floating into the air.
“What in Merlin’s name—” The girls were so surprised by this development that by the time Dorcas had whipped out her wand to try and summon the dish back, it was a good ten feet above them.
“Oh, bring it back,” Mary said, annoyed.
“What do you want me to do, shout ‘Accio roast chicken’ and be bombarded by every plate of it in the hall?” retorted Doe.
All around them, dishes were rising into the air — not the entire spread laid out on the tables, but a considerable amount of food nonetheless.
Lily turned to the Marauders. Was that a scrap of parchment Remus was hastily tucking away?
“What exactly do you hope to achieve with this?” She didn’t mean to sound so peeved. But it was difficult not to feel confused and annoyed and frustrated around the boys...primarily frustrated, of course.
“Well, you can never have too much food,” said Peter with a grin.
“Who says we’re doing anything?” Sirius said. The jug of pumpkin juice he was holding jerked out of his hand, which made him startle and scowl. “Ah, shit. Can someone give me more pumpkin juice?”
“But — what’s the point?” said Lily, struggling to keep the impatience from her voice. “You’re just…stealing the feast’s food?”
James shrugged. “Is it hurting you, Evans?” he drawled.
After how relatively bearable he had been in the carriage, Lily was genuinely taken aback by the scorn in his voice. She glared. All James did was quirk an eyebrow at her, underscoring his question.
“Oh, shut up, Potter,” she snapped.
As if to punctuate her words, the missing food was suddenly replaced on the table — a new roast chicken, a new pumpkin juice jug. The floating food was out of sight.
“God bless the house-elves,” Sirius said happily, grabbing the jug.
James was once again looking pointedly away from Lily. She angled herself away from the Marauders, seething. It’s such a little thing, she told herself, and you’re overreacting. Let it go. If only they — or just he? — didn’t get under her skin so effectively. She didn’t want to be the shrill, prim prefect all the time, but they — certainly he! — made her that way. Let it go.
The incident recurred when the main course vanished and dessert appeared: plates of treacle tart and gateau took flight, and new versions took their place.
“Ugh, this cake isn’t as moist,” said Germaine, poking at the new dessert. Her words prompted sniggers from the fifth-years beside them — and the Marauders. Germaine rolled her eyes. “It’s cake, you dirty pervs.”
“Okay, Germy,” Sirius quipped. Germaine tossed her napkin at him.
“First-year Gryffindors, you can follow us!”
Lily gave Remus a look. He preferred to leave the calling, shouting, and general voice-raising to her in their prefect duties — but he was decidedly in a hurry tonight.
“Something wrong? Something going to happen?” said Lily sweetly.
“Ha ha. Please don’t start, Lily.”
She waved goodbye to Dorcas and Germaine — Mary had skipped away at the first chance to catch up with Crollins.
“He’ll be dealing with Head Boy things,” Germaine had pointed out to her.
“Honestly! I’m not going to ask him to take me right there in the Entrance Hall,” Mary had said, rolling her eyes. “I’m only saying hello.”
The seventh-year prefects seemed only too glad to let Remus and Lily take the lead. There were about ten new Gryffindors, wide-eyed and small. The sight of them made Lily forget Remus’s haste for a moment. Her heart swelled; the wonder in their faces was another reminder that she only had two years of this herself. With Remus at the head of their little group, they made their way out of the Great Hall. A curly-haired girl fell into step with Lily, giving her a toothy smile.
“Hello,” Lily said. “What’s your name?”
“Margaret,” said the girl, “and I’m going to win Gryffindor the House Cup!”
So it was that Lily was busy smothering laughter at this eleven-year-old’s absolute earnestness when it began. First, a plate of mashed potatoes blinked into existence and tipped its contents onto a group of Slytherins. The ensuing string of swearing came from Avery and Mulciber, who — in the immediate horror of being covered in food — forgot to reach for their wands. Lily saw Severus, potato-splattered and scowling, cleaning his robes with a spell. Just as they were all clean, the Yorkshire pudding landed. A gravy boat came for a terrified Bertram Aubrey.
Lily could not see Mary and Colin Rollins, but she would hear the story later, many, many times. Mary, who was leaning close to the boy and engrossed in her work of seduction, did not notice the wobbling chocolate cake whizzing his way. Crollins did, and wisely ducked. So the cake splattered all over Mary Macdonald’s perfectly made-up face — really, it was the only time she’d ever regret her height — and slid, cold and creamy, onto her white uniform blouse.
“James-Sirius-Remus-Peter I’m going to kill you!” she shrieked.
And like summer rain finally bursting from the skies, the whole load of vanished food began to fall on the assembled students.
Of course, the chaos was immediate. People tried to push through to the safety of the staircase or the Great Hall; Remus, Lily, and the first-years were trapped amidst the frenzied press. Remus cast a Shield Charm over them, but the food was only half the problem.
“Heaven bloody fucking help us—” Lily said without thinking. Margaret looked positively gleeful.
“Cor, Hogwarts is even better than I thought!”
iii. With A Little Help From My Friends
Several hours earlier, when most students were strolling from the station to the carriages, Sirius Black and Peter Pettigrew were far ahead of them. The two had been the first off the train, heading for an alleyway where they changed into their Animagus forms. Thereafter, the shaggy black dog — by now a familiar sight to some Hogsmeade residents, who tossed him food every now and then — and the unnoticed rat made their way to Honeydukes and slipped into the cellar.
Once in the tunnel to Hogwarts, Peter paused to control a brief sneezing fit. “I prefer Gregory the Smarmy’s route. Gunhilda’s passage is far too dusty.”
“Time is of the essence,” said Sirius. “This one’s faster.”
Peter rolled his eyes. “Speed didn’t seem to matter when you let that old drunk scratch you.”
“Old drunk? Wormtail, that was a kind old man—”
“—who was stumbling out of the Hog’s Head, yeah—”
“Hey, it’s past five o’clock—”
They continued to bicker lightly, in the way of friends happy to be reunited and on home turf once more, until they arrived at the castle end of the passageway. Sirius made to cast the exit spell.
“Wait, what if someone’s on the other side?” said Peter, grabbing his arm.
Sirius shook him off. “Then check the map, what’re you waiting for?”
As Peter fumbled for the thing, they silently reveled in the pure magic of that sentence. Oh, to be sure, both Peter and Sirius had grown up with magic, the sort they had spent five years at Hogwarts studying and pretending to study. But the map was the marker of a different kind of magic entirely. Neither Sirius nor Peter — nor even the other two — would have admitted this on an ordinary day, but they all knew it, on some deeper level that teenage boys were all too happy to ignore.
The actual spellwork of the map had taken just about all of their fifth year, the exploration and mapping having been accomplished in pranks and expeditions beforehand. They had spent the summer fine-tuning it, a task complicated by James’s departure for India in the middle of their holidays. James was the most skilled at Charms of the friends; the others spent weeks swearing at the parchment when its Homunculus Charm malfunctioned. (Once, it had shown dozens of Filches roaming the otherwise empty halls. The Marauders had shuddered at the image.)
What’s worse, in James’s absence the Marauders’ natural meeting place, the Potters’ enormous estate, seemed no longer an option. The Black family mansion was out of the question. Both Remus and Peter had rather less indulgent parents. After weeks of Remus’s hand-wringing, Peter’s passive-aggressive comments, and Sirius’s complaining, James had told them to just go to the bloody place themselves, Dad’s back and he doesn’t like being in the house alone when it's so empty anyway.
The finishing touches — or so they hoped — had been placed on the map in the Potters’ mercifully airy sitting room, outfitted with Cooling Charms to ward off the summer heat. James occasionally made contributions via the two-way mirror, which were sometimes garbled both due to the magic reacting erratically to the distance and James reacting erratically to the time difference. Fleamont Potter, reading in an armchair, had pretended not to know what the boys were up to — aside from the very first day, when he’d told them, “If anyone from the Ministry shows up, it’s me messing around with all these charms, agreed?”
“I solemnly swear I’m up to no good,” Peter muttered back in the tunnel, tapping his wand over the map. Sirius edged closer, his own wand lit. The third-floor corridor that the tunnel let out into was indeed empty, though the dot marked Minerva McGonagall wasn’t far. Both boys hadn’t really expected Filch to be waiting right there, but they had been willing to make any excuse to try out the map.
Sirius grinned. “Perfect. Ascensus.” The statue gave way, and the pair clambered out into the corridor.
Peter and Sirius dusted off their robes, and Sirius pulled out the bundled-up Cloak of Invisibility. Then, huddling beneath it — “fuck, we’re getting too tall for this” — they made their way down to the Entrance Hall. On that journey they had to be more careful; they stopped and held their breaths on separate occasions as Filch and McGonagall passed by. In the Entrance Hall, Dumbledore, sweeping past them in magnificent blue robes, had paused for the briefest of moments.
“He saw us,” Peter whispered immediately after the headmaster was out of earshot.
“Gobshite,” said Sirius, but he too strode a little faster, a little quieter. When the coast was clear, they slipped into the basement, tickled the pear to reveal the kitchens’ entrance, and, removing the Cloak, stepped inside.
The hustle and bustle was like nothing either boy had ever seen in the kitchens, even though they had stopped by on the day of the Halloween feast in past years. House-elves ran every which way through the vast, high-ceilinged room, carrying steaming pots and pans.
“Chocolate cake,” Sirius said happily, peering at the desserts being carted around them. “Wonderful. It’s always just moist enough.”
“You should not be here!” a squat, all-too-familiar house-elf informed them.
“Oh, hello, Pansy,” said Peter nervously. They had had run-ins with Pansy before; perhaps the only house-elf impervious to cajoling and well-versed in Hogwarts rules, she had threatened them and chased them from the kitchens multiple times.
They needed a distraction; the only thing that came to mind was the manners Peter’s mother had so carefully ingrained in him. “It’s lovely to see you. How was your summer?”
“No, no, no, you won’t divert Pansy with your tricks!”
“Christ, Peter,” Sirius said.
Pansy was now wagging a finger at them. “You ought to be in the Great Hall — I ought to tell Madam McGonagall—”
“No!” Peter shouted. “I mean — please, Pansy, we’re only trying to see what, er, incredible stuff you’ve made for dinner—”
Sirius clapped him on the shoulder. “Keep her talking.” And he strode further into the hall, muttering spells at the finished dishes.
Peter’s stomach sank somewhere around his knees.
“Something is up, yes? Some — some hijinks is in the works?” There was a telltale gleam in Pansy’s eyes. It was a gleam any Marauder knew well: the opposite of the mischievous gleam, it was the sparkle of a prefect docking points, or a Slytherin with a hex on the tip of their tongue.
It was just like Sirius to leave him in this situation, Peter thought morosely.
“All right, you win, Pansy,” he said, which made the elf perk up.
“You’ve guessed it. Yes, we are planning something, and I know nothing will keep you preoccupied while we get it done. You’re sharp. We, er, respect that in an opponent.”
The suspicion remained in Pansy’s expression, but Peter realised his flattery — unrelated to her competence as a house-elf, and entirely related to her horrible narky tendencies — was hitting home.
“So,” he said, growing a little desperate, “let’s make a deal, you and me.”
Pansy clapped her hands together. “Oh! And what will you offer to Pansy, young worm?”
Peter winced, recognising his mangled nickname. “You let us carry on tonight — no, let me finish — and the next time you see us getting up to something and you feel inclined to stop us, you can do it. You have our blessing. You can tell — Dumebledore or McGonagall or whoever else.”
Pansy hmmed thoughtfully.
“This one’s really not all that important,” Peter said hurriedly. “Er, the next one will probably be…much more so. Much more rewarding for you to rat—tell someone.” If he didn’t keep talking, he knew, she would figure out the obvious illogic in his offer: she could always snitch the next time she caught them where they weren’t supposed to be. But guessing that the ‘next time’ she would just shoo them out of the kitchens — a predicament simple enough to get out of, now that they had the map and the Cloak — it was a gamble worth taking.
“Very well,” said Pansy, still squinting at him. “Just this once!”
“Right. Thanks! Carry on,” he said weakly, darting past her to help Sirius.
When the dust — and the gravy — had settled in the Entrance Hall, a hour’s task that required several professors to settle the stampeding students, the Marauders were promptly hauled into McGonagall’s office. The Gryffindor Head of House looked more weary than she had at the feast, James thought, as though the mere reminder that she had two more years of dealing with these four boys had taken a toll on her.
“Evening, Minerva,” said Sirius, giving her a cheeky grin.
She gave him a sharp, quelling look. “Please, Black. Must we begin every year this way?”
“Professor, if this is about the food—” tried Remus, sounding apologetic despite everything; McGonagall snorted in disbelief, as did James, who figured they were years past that defence. “—If this is about the food, you have no proof we had anything to do with it.”
Her hawk-like gaze landed on Remus next, who looked away.
“If I were making this argument before the Wizengamot, Mr. Lupin,” she said dryly, “I believe they’d agree that five years’ worth of precedent does count for something.” Remus flushed.
McGonagall turned to James. “Mr. Potter? Anything to add to your friends’ scintillating statements?”
James cleared his throat. “Maybe the house-elves were trying out a new way to clean up, and it didn’t work?”
“House-elf magic is considerably more sophisticated than that of teenage boys.”
“Allegedly, that of teenage boys,” James offered.
McGonagall shook her head. “Five points from Gryffindor for each of you. No — be glad, Mr. Black, that I haven’t the time to prove your guilt just yet,” she added when Sirius started to protest. “Really, boys. All that effort and planning, just to drop food on students? With the first-years there too? I fail to see the point. It’s hardly sophisticated magic.” As she paced, the Marauders exchanged glances — and small smiles.
“Well?” McGonagall barked, startling them to attention. “What are you standing around for? Get back to your beds.”
In this they obeyed her, shuffling out with growing grins.
“Her expressions are the worst,” said Remus glumly.
“Not bad enough for you to actually behave, clearly,” Peter pointed out.
“Cheer up,” said James. “I swear she almost smiled at the end there.”
The Marauders were sprawled in their dormitory not long after, celebrating success with a smuggled bottle of Firewhisky. Sirius, lying on his bed, poked a foot at Peter, who was sitting on the rug. Remus was the only one of them unpacking, carefully putting neatly folded shirts into his dresser despite Sirius pointing out that he was incapable of keeping them so tidy. For his part, James was slumped against the magicked LP player; The Who hummed softly through the room as he toyed with the tone arm.
“Was the map all right?” Remus was asking.
“‘Twas when we were in the tunnel,” Peter mumbled, fresh off a swig of the Firewhisky.
James looked at the map, which was spread out on the rug between him and Peter. It did indeed seem to be working as they wanted it to. The dots that marked the four of them were stationary in Gryffindor Tower. He pointedly did not look at the girls’ staircase. He also did not look at the sixth-year girls’ dorm. He did none of those things; if, hypothetically, he had done those things, he would have registered that the girls were all in their beds. But he hadn’t, so he didn’t.
“Prongs, you with us, mate?”
James looked up to see his friends all watching him. “What? Yeah.” He turned back to the record player and flicked the tone arm. The music jumped ahead with a squeak. Perhaps wisely, they continued their conversation rather than ask him any more questions.
“The real test is if the spell on the food will hold,” Sirius said. “And then, we can tie just about anything to the map’s magic.”
“It is brilliant,” said James, forcing himself to focus on the others and not the parchment. “Almost like we thought of it ourselves.”
“Just what I was going to say.” Sirius turned to face James, nearly kicking Peter in the head in the process. “So, tell us about the bird from this summer again. Properly, this time.”
James straightened, grinning. Here was a topic he could get behind. They had spent the train ride to school discussing their prank, which allowed for minimal chitchat about James’s trip to India. He had only returned on the last day of August; it was a strange feeling, waking up in the balmy English summer instead of the South Indian monsoon cool, and heading straight to Platform Nine and Three-Quarters. It had taken the better part of the journey for James to sound English again, his accent finally reshaping itself to match his friends’.
“She’s Shruti’s friend from Beauxbatons,” said James. The boys nodded; James’s second-cousin had visited in summers past. “Her name’s Mélanie. She’s half-Indian too… She and Shruti are doing a holiday around the world or something to celebrate having graduated.”
Sirius nodded sagely. “Worldly, French, older. This is going well so far.”
James rolled his eyes. “Yeah, she was…great.” It was difficult to describe a summer fling, he found, though like all teenage boys he was willing to try. The difference between himself in the summer — away from Hogwarts and his friends, for at least some time — was hard for him to put a finger on, but tangible enough that he noticed it. Probably it was because his friends had a far greater James tolerance than anyone he was related to, save his father.
You have to understand that of course James loved the attention of being James Potter; he would not have been James Potter if he hadn’t. But…even he could accept that it was probably better for all of wizarding Britain that he had the hols to let off steam — to just be. And especially in his mother’s family’s home in Mangalore, he could be.
Mélanie — small, generously curvy, quick to smile that knife-sharp smile of hers — was the perfect extension of this summer tranquility. Neither of them had been interested in anything more than brief, sweaty interludes, not least because they did not want to have that conversation with Shruti. “I dunno, she’s…mellow. Fun to be around — but she wasn’t having any of my shit.”
“How refreshingly new for you,” Remus said dryly from his dresser. James made a rude gesture at him.
“She was the kind of summer fling you’d actually want to write to, afterwards.”
“And will you?” said Peter.
James, momentarily lost in recollection, only blinked. “Will I what?”
“Will you write her?”
“Dunno. Maybe.” In the silence, he moved the record player’s arm and changed the song again. Sighing, he looked up at his friends. “All right. What the hell are you looking at me like that for?”
He didn’t miss the glance that the other three exchanged.
“Well, to put it bluntly…we want to know where this fits, in the grand fucking tapestry of your ever-enduring love for Lily Evans,” Sirius said.
James rolled his eyes. “Not everything is about Evans.”
“No,” Peter agreed.
“But with you—” said Sirius.
“—most things are,” Remus finished.
James considered turning to face the wall instead, but he did not think that would do anything to deter this line of questioning. Over the summer, he had come to an epiphany — why talk and talk about Lily Evans when it solved nothing? In McGonagall’s wise words, he failed to see the point. It was time, truly time, to move the fuck on. This was going to be the year he changed.
“Are you going to say something?” said Peter.
“Yeah, only that I was unaware I’m in the sixth-year girls’ dorm,” muttered James, which the others judiciously ignored.
“Mélanie isn’t going to help you get over Lily if you’re not actually seeing her, mate,” said Sirius. “And snogging her. Et cetera.” He waved a hand in faux elegance, as if to suggest James should fill in the blanks himself.
“Mélanie isn’t helping me get over her,” James said hotly. “I already am over her.” At the others’ disbelief, he said, “Seriously. I am. You know how she looks at me. My life is only so long. What am I going to do, wait for her to stop thinking I’m worth less than the dirt she walks on?”
“To be honest, that’s been your strategy so far,” said Remus.
“And you’re not over Evans,” Sirius added.
James groaned, getting to his feet and making his way to the bathroom. He almost wished they could go back to the days when he — foolishly — had pined over her, and the others had — showing incredible, uncharacteristic wisdom — told her he was a hopeless idiot.
It was simple: he would spend the year away from Evans, instead of scheming for ways to casually run into her. He would be polite at best to her, instead of looking for ways to rile her up. He would focus on other things. Every other thing there was to focus on. Didn’t Muggles say something about when things were out of sight?
“Stop staring at yourself in the mirror,” Sirius said, appearing in the open doorway.
“You’re not over her.”
“And how do you lot of oafs figure that?” James demanded finally, sensing that was where they wanted the conversation to go and realising he was unable to talk his way out of it.
“You’ve had Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy on the record player since we got back,” said Peter.
“And so?” James said, exasperated. “I fucking like the Who!”
“You keep skipping over “Pictures of Lily,”” Remus said.
Incredulous, James studied the other three boys, all huddled in the doorway and apparently dead serious.
“I don’t even know how to respond to that.”
James had never thought about whether or not he had a tell that revealed when he lied; he rarely had cause to lie to his friends. He considered it now. He supposed if anyone could see through him, it was one of the other Marauders. So what if he had been skipping that bloody song? That didn’t mean anything It was only part of the process: out of sight, and hearing as well.
James threw up his hands in exasperation. “This is stupid. Look — this time it’s different. Just wait and see, all right?”
He waited for them to protest again. But perhaps they had seen something else in his expression, because they all retreated.
“Exploding Snap?” Peter suggested.
“Yeah, so long as you don’t fucking cheat again,” said James. So he had been skipping a song — but the rest of it hadn’t been a lie.
Unbidden, Lily swam into his mind, sitting in the carriage with her chin cupped in her hands and her elbows on her knees. She wore a small smile; she said, and, well, he asked me to be his girlfriend... But James stopped himself from going further down that road. This time will be different, he promised himself, and he meant it.