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Come Together

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i. Departure

“For a magic school, they really do make things inconvenient,” Clyde Macdonald said.

The four Macdonalds were in the Leaky Cauldron’s dining room, having just polished off a hearty breakfast. The six-hour drive from Glasgow to London had been completed in stages over the course of the previous two days, much to Mary’s dismay and Andrew’s tremendous joy. But even her anxious parents could not dampen her spirits — not on the morning she was returning to Hogwarts.

“Aren’t you going to learn to, what’s it called, Apparate? This summer you can get us all to King’s Cross like that.” Ruolan snapped her fingers. 

“Sure, I expect I can take the test after my birthday.” Mary was not looking forward to the prospect of Apparition lessons or testing, but took comfort in the fact that she would only come of age in July, and so the examination was a long way off.

“But I want to visit Diagon Alley,” Andrew protested.

Mary laughed; her brother’s eagerness more than made up for her parents’ nerves. In the end she hadn’t been able to keep the Hogsmeade attack from them, although she had left out the part about the Dark Mark and made it sound more like a random incident...which it might turn out to be after all. Right? The Aurors would figure it all out, she told herself.

“Aw, Andrew, I can bring you with me any time.” Mary thought she would probably regret making this offer come July. Andrew was not likely to forget it. But it pacified him for now, and made her mother happy too.

“You’re in a good mood,” Ruolan said. “Is it a boy?”

Mary scoffed; Andrew and Clyde both coughed and pretended not to hear this.

“What gave you that impression? Maybe I’m just excited to go back to school.”

Ruolan’s smile gave way to shrewdness. “Your mother’s no eejit, Mary Macdonald. You’ve got perfume on, and that potion in your hair.” Andrew and Clyde coughed again.

Mary rolled her eyes. “I wish I’d never told you about Sleekeazy’s.”

“Don’t tell me, then,” said Ruolan with a sniff. “I’m sure I’ll see him at the station anyway.”

Mary resolved not to speak to Doc at Platform Nine and Three-Quarters, no matter what message it might send. Her mother was too much of a wild card to be allowed near any of the boys she’d fancied. So what if she was wearing a bit of perfume? She always looked her best. It had nothing to do with kissing him at Evan’s. But — it was good to know that this...whatever it was, wasn’t a one-off. Mary had no clue if Doc fancied her, but at the very least he liked kissing her. Maybe that was her problem. She tried to speed things up. So why not take this slow?

“All right, we’re going to be late, everyone up—” Ruolan bounced to her feet, waving a hand at the rest of her family.

“Mum, it’s ten o’clock,” said Mary, amused. “The train isn’t going to leave for a whole hour.”

“We aren’t aiming to get there in time for the train to leave,” Ruolan retorted. “I need to say hello to your friends’ parents, after all — is dear Doris Evans going to be there, do you think?”

“I expect—”

“—and what if there’s a rush at Charing Cross? Andrew, put your coat on.”

Mary paused rifling through her purse, a clump of Sickles in her fist. “Whatever are we going to Charing Cross for?”

“The Tube, love,” Clyde said.

“Well, what was the point in bringing the car from Glasgow if we’re not going to drive to King’s Cross?” 

“Andrew wants to take the Tube, and since we’re all the way here—”

Mary scowled at her brother, who avoided meeting her gaze. “Andrew can look at trains some other day, Mum. I’ve got an owl and a cat and a trunk, and you want to wrestle them all into the Underground?”

“Don’t take that tone with me—”

“We’ll manage, Mare, don’t you worry,” said Clyde, shooting his wife a pleading look. “We’re on time anyway, we can be extra careful.”

In response Mary thrust her owl’s cage at Andrew, and then her cat’s carrier. “Make yourself useful.”

This was hardly punishment for him; Andrew’s eyes grew wide with delight as the owl, Helga, bit his finger. Mary stifled a groan and slipped on her coat. The Macdonalds were still bickering lightly as they stepped out into the damp January morning.

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“Don’t be suspicious,” Louisa King said, for about the tenth time this morning. 

Her husband William gave her a long-suffering look. “Louisa, why would I be suspicious? It’s not like this is the first time we’re going to Platform Nine and—”

Louisa hissed. “Don’t say it where anyone can hear you!”

“Come off it, you enjoy baiting me—”

“Oh, yes, I’m always pushing you into doing things, you’re never at fault—”

Germaine sighed, though neither of them heard her. Her mother had Apparated them near the station, Germaine’s battered old trunk between them, and all three of them were moving at a glacial pace through King’s Cross. Germaine wanted nothing more than to be on Platform Nine and Three-Quarters already, so that she could be with her friends and her parents could just go home and ignore each other, as they obviously would prefer to do.

She recalled her first year at Hogwarts, when it had been four of them going to the station; she’d been before, of course, to drop off Abigail, but that year had been special, and different. Dad, she’d said, it’s called King’s Cross, but we’re the Kings. And William had grinned and ruffled her hair, telling her she could be king of the world.

The arguing still hadn’t let up. Germaine was brought back to reality.

“You’re calling more attention to us with your shouting than anything,” she said, and finally her parents stopped short, looking at her guiltily. This was more than she’d said to her parents about the...split all holidays. They did not look surprised at her tone, nor her words. That only annoyed Germaine more; if they expected her to be upset, why hadn’t they done anything about it?

“While I’m at it,” she said, “you shouldn’t have kept it from me. I know you told Abigail first. It’s funny, you treat me like a baby but you still owled me about it on my birthday. Did either of you realise that?”

“Darling,” said Louisa, her voice softening, “we know you must be upset, but you didn’t want to talk all holiday—”

Germaine scowled. “Yeah, well, not talking seems to be what we’re good at.” 

Before either of her parents could stop her, she marched right towards the barrier between platforms Nine and Ten, charging through it and leaving them behind.

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“Coffee on the way back?” Ruth Walker said to her husband, her hand absently running over her daughter’s hair.

“Mum, please stop stroking my hair, I feel about five years old,” said Dorcas; Ruth smiled at her and dropped her hand to Doe’s shoulder.

Joe stifled a yawn, scrubbing a hand over his face. “Count me in. The nice cafe, by the—”

“Florist’s, of course,” finished Ruth.

“Drat, I want to go to the cafe,” Doe said.

Joe gave an exaggerated sigh. “Poor you, you only have to go to Hogwarts instead.”

“All right, all right, point taken…”

Ruth laughed. “You don’t have to keep us company, you know. I’m sure you’ve got loads of people to say hello to.”

“Well, I saw most of them two days ago, basically.” But Doe didn’t mind her dismissal; her parents, she knew, got quite misty-eyed about their own school days, and they were best left alone at times like this. She gave them both pecks on the cheek and, trunk in hand, started towards the Hogwarts Express.

The girls liked to sit in the same compartment if they could help it, or the same carriage at the very least — near the front of the train. Since Lily had been named prefect, this worked out very nicely; she could divide her time between the prefects’ carriage and her friends. Doe moved automatically in that direction, but it wasn’t long before she was waylaid by familiar faces.

“Dorcas, darling!” Sara waved her over, hugging her as if they hadn’t just been at the same party. “My aunt loved hearing from you, by the way — this girl,” she said, whirling them both around so that she could address the two students she’d been conversing with, “is going to be a very important person at the Ministry very soon, mark my words.”

Dorcas laughed, extricating herself from Sara’s grip. “I don’t know about that. Your aunt’s really nice, but her work isn’t really in line with Auror stuff, is it?”

Sara’s eyes went wide. “On the contrary! The program is really selective, you know, and any little edge you have could be the difference between acceptance and rejection. Wouldn’t you say an Auror applicant with knowledge of the Wizengamot would be invaluable?”

This question was directed at Chris Townes and Cecily Sprucklin, who looked as though they did not want to be dragged into this conversation. 

“Maybe,” Cecily said, “yeah. I mean, if Sara’s aunt thinks you’re good.”

“Oh, I’m sure all I’d be doing is making her tea and filing her least interesting papers,” said Dorcas, smiling. “They can’t share top-secret Wizengamot business with seventeen-year-olds.”

“I haven’t a clue what they can and can’t share, but if you don’t apply you won’t know either,” Sara said. 

Doe shook her head, laughing. “I think you want it for me even more than I do. Anyway, I should go save a compartment—”

“The usual one?” said Sara.

“If I can get it.”

“I’ll find you and the girls later. Bye, Doe!”

Still smiling, Dorcas continued towards the carriage, stopping once more to chat with James and Peter, the latter of whom was watching Cecily with an expression of great confusion. More than once Doe caught herself scanning the chattering crowd of students. Where were her friends?

Luckily, Germaine appeared just then, her expression thunderous. Doe hurried over to her, alarmed. They had not talked much about her abrupt departure from Evan Wronecki’s party in all the hubbub of packing for school again. Doe had intended to quiz Germaine on the train, and not a second too soon, she thought. 

“Want to sit? Where are your parents?” Dorcas peered over Germaine’s shoulder, as if her minuscule frame could possibly have been hiding Mr. and Mrs. King.

“Hell if I know,” Germaine said. “Have you seen Lily and Mary already?”

“No, I was just looking— Look, let’s just go get our compartment, they’ll find us later.”

Germaine’s scowl eased, just a little. “Okay.”

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James put his hands in his pockets, shaking his head. “It’s typical, it really is.”

Peter tore his gaze from Cecily Sprucklin, frowning. “What is?”

“That rosy post-party mood.” He jerked his chin in the direction of a clump of sixth and seventh years. “Everyone doing things they wouldn’t normally do with people they wouldn’t normally do them with.”

“You’re going to have to spell it out for me, mate.”

“It’s like this.” James pointed discreetly at Chris Townes and Cecily Sprucklin. “Chris and Cecily? Hooked up at Evan’s, obviously. That’s why they’re hovering around each other. But it’s not going to last.”

Peter’s frown deepened. “It isn’t?”

“Nah. Because Florence Quaille has been in love with Chris for ages, and as soon as Cecily hears she’ll make sure to distance herself from him. A bit weird that she never told her friend about it, but...birds, you know.”

Most of this was news to Peter, save for that last part. At least now that he know there was something up with Florence and Cecily, he’d steer clear of them both. It was nice when a girl paid him attention, but it wasn’t worth all that.

“Where’s Padfoot?” Peter looked up and down the platform, but there was no sign of their friend. “Didn’t you come with him?”

“Relax, Wormtail, it’s not like he can get lost here. No, he’s getting us a compartment. Wizard stack loser’s got to suffer somehow.”

Peter looked down at his own trunk. “Hang on, did I win wizard staff?”

“Did you? I have no idea when I put mine down. Do you remember how many beers you had?”

“Eight,” said Peter decisively.

James’s eyebrows rose. “Jesus. I had seven, so that’s you, then.”

Peter grinned. He was about to tell James to put his trunk away when the other boy spoke once more.

“Are you actually interested in Cecily?” James sounded serious all of a sudden — more serious, Peter thought, than the topic actually warranted. “You keep looking at her.”

Peter had to stop himself from looking at her once more. “Nah, not really. I mean, would I have snogged her? Yeah. But.” He shrugged. “Not like I’m in love with her.” 

This was quite sincere. He’d shot up last summer and was now only a little shorter than his friends, but he was aware that Cecily Sprucklin was rather pretty. She was out of his league, and he didn’t mind.

“Oh, all right.” James looked relieved. “We kissed, at Evan’s.”

Peter’s cheer faded a little. “You and Cecily?”

“Yeah.” James was growing more and more sheepish; Peter was surprised that anyone, least of all him, could have that sort of effect on his friend. “Just a kiss.”

“Don’t worry about it, mate. Like I said, it’s not like I’m—”

A hand clapped on his shoulder. “Are we talking about Prongs and his nighttime activities?” Sirius said.

“No,” Peter said, giving him a smile, “just how he snogged Ce—”

“Oh, why didn’t you come back until the next morning, then?”

James rolled his eyes. “I wasn’t shagging Cecily Sprucklin. Look at her, she’s all cosy with Chris Townes.”

Sirius peered in their direction. He seemed unusually energetic, Peter noticed; jittery, like he’d had too much coffee. There was a manic sort of glint in his eye. 

“So she is,” said Sirius finally. “That rosy post-party thing, eh?”

“Exactly,” James grinned, looking at Peter as if to say see? He knows

“Then I’ll go take advantage of it.” Like a shot Sirius was gone again.

James and Peter exchanged a look, their earlier awkwardness forgotten. 

“Has he been acting strange all holiday?” said Peter, nervousness stealing over him. He’d meant to ask Sirius how he was managing at Evan’s party, but of course what with Florence...and Cecily… Well, he’d had a lot on his mind.

“No,” James said slowly. “We’ll find out what it is soon, I expect. C’mon, let’s go get a good compartment.”

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Despite her earlier complaints, Mary was quite proud, as always, to show her family Platform Nine and Three-Quarters. They were Muggles, of course, and so they did not often get a look at a proper wizarding place; not like Mr. and Mrs. Walker, who often talked about their days at Hogwarts, nor like Mr. and Mrs. King, who were both magical and occasionally went to Quidditch matches. The platform was not as impressive as Diagon Alley, but it had a special sort of magic nevertheless.

“The Tube doesn’t hold a candle to this,” Mary said to Andrew, whose eyes were wide. He had been left with their grandparents in September, much to his sorrow, and so it had been a full year since he’d seen the Hogwarts Express.

“I’ll say,” Andrew breathed. “Can you introduce us to your friends? Some really magical ones?”

She stifled a laugh, and resisted the urge to remind him that they were all really magical. “I’ll do you one better — my friends’ parents are fully-grown witches and wizards.”

But she could not find Mr. and Mrs. Walker, nor Mr. and Mrs. King… Perhaps they hadn’t arrived yet. The Macdonalds had indeed been painfully punctual, even with all the strange looks Mary’s owl and cat had earned them on the Tube. Mary was growing impatient; if she wanted to find Doc, she’d have to do it away from her mum’s keen eye, and to rid herself of her parents she’d have to saddle them with another family.

“Oh!” She waved at Doris Evans, feeling a wave of relief. “There’s Lily, come on—”

The Macdonalds dutifully trudged after her. Andrew looked disappointed at the prospect of meeting more Muggles; that quickly changed to extreme embarrassment when he recognised Lily.

There was much hugging and kissing between them all — aside from Lily’s sister Petunia, who simply sniffed and shook their hands instead. Mary tried not to scowl. Though Lily spoke fondly of her sister as much as she complained about her, she didn’t care for the snooty expression with which Petunia gazed at the platform. 

“—so good to see you, Ruolan,” Mrs. Evans was saying, wearing a tired sort of smile. Mary guessed she’d been refereeing some kind of conflict between Lily and Petunia, who were pointedly not looking at each other.

Ruolan smiled in return, practised enough that she did not wince at Doris’s mispronunciation of her name, though Mary caught Lily’s grimace. “Lily gets more beautiful every day,” she said, beaming.

Both Mrs. Evans and Lily flushed at this. 

“You’re too kind—”

Petunia was frowning. Mary tried not to roll her eyes. 

“Lily,” she said, taking her friend’s arm, “let’s go put our trunks away. They’ll spend ages on how are yous and how was your Christmases.”

Lily herself was looking a bit under the weather, Mary thought, pale, like she hadn’t been sleeping. First Germaine, now this. There would be plenty of time to catch up on the train anyway, and she planned on making the most of it. Classes would start again tomorrow, and then they would be caught in the whirl of everyday activity once more… 

“You go ahead,” said Lily, cutting through Mary’s reverie. “I wanted to say bye properly and go find Dex...”

“Oh, all right. Tell Dreamboat I say hello. Dad and I can put your trunk away, if you like.”

“You don’t have to—”

Clyde, hearing the tail end of this conversation, gave Lily a wide smile. “It’s really no trouble.”

Lily accepted defeat, giving Mary a quick hug. “I’ll see you. The usual compartment, right?”

Andrew continued to cling to the two animal carriers he’d been put in charge of; Mary told the families she would back to say goodbye and collect her owl and her cat, and she and her father hauled the girls’ trunks after them towards the front of the train. As it was, Clyde and Mary bustled away too quickly to notice what Doris and Ruolan had turned to discussing.

“Thank you for having Lily over the other night,” said Doris. “She took that frightful bus back, she said.”

Ruolan gave no hint of her true reaction, though her mind whirled at this. She certainly hadn’t had Lily over, because she had not served Lily a big breakfast, and she could not have abided one of her children’s friends leaving without eating breakfast first. But it was certainly possible that Lily had left quietly, and early in the morning...not that she seemed like the sort of girl to dash off without so much as a thank you.

All she said out loud was, “Yes, the bus, it sounds so dangerous—”

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“Point out your friends to me, would you?” Clyde said.

Mary beamed, only too happy to accommodate this request. Her father was a soft-spoken giant of a man, not at all stooped in his old age. The Macdonalds had a successful little dairy farm outside of Glasgow — yes, like in the nursery rhyme, Mary had grown used to saying, and had been thrilled to bits when so few people at Hogwarts understood that reference — and Clyde had made enough money for an early retirement. Mary and Andrew were rather used to a life of leisure, both for themselves and for their parents.

But while Ruolan had a dozen or so hobbies to keep her busy, Clyde’s chief sources of delight were the lives of his daughter and son. It was a good thing, too, that Mary was so sociable and gregarious; she had plenty of stories to regale her father with.

“That’s Chris,” she said, waving at Chris Townes as she pointed him out, “and that’s Cecily with him, they’re Hufflepuffs. Sixth years like me. Those are the seventh years over there, Evan—” Mercifully alone, she thought. “—He’s the one whose party we went to the other day.”

“The girl over there? She’s a prefect, isn’t she?” Clyde said, squinting a little at the badge.

Mary grimaced. “She’s not my friend.” As if sensing she was being discussed, Amelia Bones looked up and frowned at her.

Clyde chuckled. “Play nice, Mare.”

“I always do!” she protested. “There’s Sirius — blimey, he looks angry…”

He was scowling like he’d had a bad run-in with the Slytherins. Mary looked around to make sure none of them were visible. She often had to remind her dad of the names of her acquaintances, but she had a feeling his memory was crystal-clear where Mulciber and Avery were concerned.

“That’s Florence, by the carriage door,” Mary said, spotting the girl’s familiar blonde ponytail. “And that’s— Michael.”

She blinked, unsure what, exactly, she was bearing witness to. Florence was holding Michael’s hand — and then she was kissing him on the cheek, and giving him a very meaningful look indeed. It was only on the cheek, but—

Clyde had noticed the sudden halt in Mary’s running commentary.

“Something wrong?” His gaze fell on Florence and Michael. “That’s not the, erm, boy your mother was talking about?”

“Gosh, no, Dad!”

Clyde’s frown remained. “Good. Looks a bit sleekit, if you ask me.”

On any other day she would have defended Michael Meadowes from her father’s judgment. Mary didn’t think he was untrustworthy, but she couldn’t be certain anymore.

“Here’s the carriage,” she said, her good humour replaced by something more businesslike. “Would you mind asking Andrew to pass me Helga and Olive through the window? I’ve really got to speak to Doe.”

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He wasn’t anywhere on the platform. But he’d definitely gone home for Christmas — so he had to be on the train. Scowling, Sirius stepped in through one of the doors and began the long way down the corridor, peering into compartments as he went and ignoring their occupants’ complaints.

“You’re supposed to sit down when the train’s moving—” One of the Auror trainees, vaguely familiar from last term, tried to block his way. He wasn’t Frank, or Marlene, or Frank’s girlfriend; the other one, Sirius had mentally called him.

“Well, it’s not moving yet, is it?” Sirius snapped. The man didn’t seem to want to argue with that; he pushed past before the trainee could change his mind.

It didn’t take him long after that. Regulus had always been a swot, and so he was right in front by the prefects’ carriage. Sirius could hear that git Rowle through the compartment door, going on about whatever stupid thing his precious father had given him for Christmas, and, faintly, Regulus’s more measured replies. He yanked the door open.

“Get out, this one’s full—” Rowle began, then did a double take at the sight of him. “You—”

“Shut the fuck up, Rowle, I’m not here for you.” Sirius sat opposite his brother, who met his gaze unflinchingly. “Why didn’t you bring the cat?” he said. “I saw you, earlier. You didn’t have a carrier.”

Regulus’s calm gave way to slight panic. Sirius noted this with some satisfaction — he hoped he was scared.

“I — couldn’t bring her,” Regulus said.

“Couldn’t? Or wouldn’t?” Sirius shook his head. He ought to have known. 

“Well, Mum wouldn’t—”

He barked a laugh. “Stupid of me to think you’d do even the smallest thing that goes against her commands. Stupid of me to expect you to think for yourself for about half a—”

“I don’t owe you anything!” Regulus burst out. “Why should I help you?” He chanced a look at Rowle; Sirius glanced at the other boy too. He was, rather wisely, staring at the compartment door and pretending not to listen.

When Regulus spoke again, his voice was lower. “She’s been in a terrible mood because of you—”

“Since November?” Sirius scoffed. “Oh, come on. She’s in a mood because she’s fucking awful, and she wants to be fucking awful.”

“Try and think like her for a second. One of her sons—”

“Spare me, Regulus. All I wanted was my fucking cat.”

Regulus clenched his jaw. “She was my cat too, you know!”

“Please, I was the one who suffered Mum’s wrath any time she knocked something over or scratched her precious armchairs or—” He stopped short, frowning. “What do you mean she was your cat? What the fuck’s that supposed to mean?”

Sirius was certain he wasn’t imagining it this time. His brother had gone pale. He didn’t want to consider what that meant— no, it’s not, I won’t, she can’t have. He should have taken Heathcliff with him to start the school year — he should’ve left Heathcliff at the Potters’ years ago — but Walburga had been happy to have something with which to control her son’s behaviour. She would not have let the cat go so easily... Desperation clawed its way up his throat.

“Regulus. What the fuck did she do?”

Regulus looked sick. “She — she killed her.”

Sirius sat back, the words hitting him like a physical blow. “This is a joke,” he said faintly. “This is a sick joke she put you up to, isn’t it?” He turned to Rowle, who was watching with openmouthed horror.

“It isn’t,” Regulus said. “I’m — I’m sorry, I tried to—”

He should have taken Heathcliff with him… No, he should never have brought the stray kitten into his family’s house, not with his drunk of a father and hellish bitch of a mother— He should never have had anything at all, and then Walburga wouldn’t have had anything to hurt— because of him.

“No,” Sirius said, quite calmly. “No, you tried fuck-all. Like you always do, toeing the damn line.”

“I tried to stop her!” 

Regulus’s voice broke in the middle of his sentence, but Sirius barely noticed. He was standing now, looming over his brother; now he had him by the collar, now he was hauling him up out of his seat.

“No, you didn’t, because you’re just as bad as she is!”

He realised he was shouting. He so badly wanted Regulus to shout back at him — but his brother only flinched. Sirius felt sick all of a sudden, sicker than any part of the conversation had made him so far. He let Regulus go and staggered away, out of the compartment. He needed to forget everything he’d just heard.

“Is something wrong?”

Sirius blinked, expecting to see another Auror trainee — but it was Annie Markham, already wearing her Hogwarts uniform with its shiny prefect’s badge pinned to her chest. In a way it was a relief. He couldn’t let an acquaintance see him fall to bits. He tried a smile, and probably only got halfway there.

“It’s stupid,” he said. “I just need a distraction.”

“Tell me about it. Look, the train’s about to leave, but if we hurry we can get to the prefects’ carriage.”

Sirius frowned. “What’s happening in the prefects’ carriage?”

Annie smiled. “Meetings have been cancelled, so the compartments should be far emptier than usual. Come on.” She took his hand, and he let her tug him away.

 


ii. The Name of the Game

“Go on, Lily, the train’s going to leave without you,” Doris said.

Lily chanced a glance at her watch; it was five to eleven, she realised. She’d stationed her family right at the barrier, hoping to catch Dex when he came through, but she hadn’t spotted him anywhere. Well, never mind, she could look for him on the train... She gave her mother a hurried kiss; after a tense moment, she pulled Petunia into a hug.

“I’ll miss you,” Lily said, and suddenly she was bowled over by emotion. She squeezed her sister tight.

“All right, all right, you’ve made your point—” Petunia was saying. When Lily released her, she was pink in the face.

“Write to me, please.” Struck by a burst of inspiration, she pushed Peppermint’s cage into her sister’s hands. “Keep my owl, that way you can send me a letter whenever you like.”

Doris had gone a bit misty-eyed herself. “Don’t you need him?”

“I’ll use one of the school ones, it’s no trouble.” In an undertone, she told Petunia, “Thank you. For taking such good care of Mum, I mean. I don’t say it enough.”

Petunia, who had bristled when Lily foisted the owl upon her, softened at this. 

“Don’t make me teary,” she said with a thin smile. “I’ve got mascara on.”

With another quick hug and a wave, Lily rushed onto the train. She could make her way to the front from the inside, she reasoned. And she could find Dex as she went. She was so satisfied with this plan that she nearly collided with someone moving down the corridor.

“Sorry!” Michael Meadowes said. “Sorry, I should’ve looked where I was—”

“No, no,” said Lily. The train had begun to pull away from the station; she could feel the hum of the engine growing louder. “I’m all right, I wasn’t paying attention either.”

“Well, I hope you’ve had a nice holiday.”

“Yes, very — I hope you have too.”

He nodded. They lapsed into a brief silence, each wanting to edge around the other but uncertain how to do it.

“Have you seen—” they said at the same time, then laughed.

“You first,” said Michael.

“Have you seen Dex Fortescue, by any chance? Seventh year, Hufflepuff.”

He shook his head. “No, sorry. I was going to ask, have you seen Dorcas?”

“Not all morning, no,” Lily said. “I expect she’ll be at the front of the train, though. That’s where we usually sit. I’m headed there, if you’d like to come along—?”

“Oh, thanks, but it’s not that urgent. I just wanted to say hi, return a book…” Michael shrugged.

Lily resisted the urge to arch a brow. “I’ll tell her to find you at dinner, then.”

“Thanks. If you need somewhere to sit, there’s a bunch of sixth years just over here.” He jerked his thumb at a nearby compartment.

“That’s all right, my trunk’s with the girls,” said Lily. 

Feeling that the conversation had definitely run its course, she said goodbye to Michael and continued her way up the train. She had just opened the door to the next carriage when another figure stepped into her path — but this one, she realised with shock, was an adult. 

The wizard was definitely not the Honeydukes employee who came round with the trolley — not unless they had replaced Brenda Gamp with a very different character. This man would have scared the first years to bits, Lily thought. He was intimidatingly tall, his white-blonde hair slicked off his forehead to reveal every plane of his grim expression. His lips thinned into an even finer line at the sight of her. For her part, Lily was frowning, trying to figure out why he looked familiar.

“You should be sitting down,” the man said.

“I was just going to,” Lily said. Her movements on the train had never been questioned before; she did not know how to react, nor how to ask the wizard who he was. “I’m going up to the front.”

But the man was shaking his head. “Please, just take a seat in the nearest compartment.”

“I’m a prefect,” She pointed to the badge. I need to be in the front — I need to patrol—”

“No prefect meetings today, I’m afraid,” the man said. “You’re to have a seat, Miss—?”

“Evans. But you must be mistaken. Both the heads should be on the train back, and we haven’t gone over weekly schedules—”

The man gave an impatient sigh. “Evans, the Head Boy and the Head Girl are with Aurors, so they are most certainly not meeting with you. As it happens, Aurors are patrolling the corridors too, so you needn’t worry yourself about it.”

With Aurors? Lily felt as though she’d been doused with cold water. She’d worried about what new security measures would be in place at school, and she’d come face to face with them earlier than she’d expected to. 

“You’re an Auror,” she said. “You’re Patrick Podmore, you’re one of the people investigating the Hogsmeade murders.” The newest, in fact; the lead investigator on the case was a witch named Hartwick, but Lily had just read the names of the rest of the team in that morning’s Prophet.

Podmore looked neither pleased nor annoyed at being recognised. “Read the paper, do you? Then you’ll know you should do as I say.”

The man’s patronising tone made Lily want to argue, against her better instincts. “All right, I’m going,” she said, turning on her heel. Michael had said he and a bunch of sixth years were at this end of the train—

“Stop!” 

Lily froze, sighing. “What?”

“I don’t want you wandering around,” said Podmore. He slid open the door to a random compartment, and gestured for her to enter. It was empty.

Lily bit back her protest. She had a bookbag with her, at least, carrying some of her homework and a novel. If Patrick Podmore wanted to spoil her train ride, he could do a lot worse than sticking her in an empty compartment. With a false smile at the Auror, she stepped into the compartment and sat down. He shut the door with finality after her.

She shouldn’t have let her mother guilt-trip her into leaving Pride and Prejudice at home, Lily thought sadly. She had swapped the well-worn thing for a far less perused copy of Sense and Sensibility, since Doris had insisted she ought to have Emma and Pride and Prejudice both for one term. I’ll be taking them right back at Easter, Lily told herself. Removing her bookmark, she settled into a more comfortable position and began to read. 

Almost at once, she felt herself wincing. She’d stopped at an awful part; the Dashwood sisters had just gone to London, and Marianne was in the process of writing her flowery, sentimental letters to Willoughby. Lily found herself quite angry at Marianne, a feeling she’d never had before. But if only she wasn’t such a ridiculous romantic, if only she’d talked to even-keeled, dutiful Elinor, who’d have steered her right… It was impossible to read how she fawned over Willoughby, knowing what came next. If only Marianne had less sensibility and more sense!

Lily sniffed and realised, to her utter horror, that she was crying. Only very little, but she was definitely crying. It was unfair, really, to compare her own situation to Marianne’s. Why, it wasn’t the 1800s, and she hadn’t lost anything. And Dex was no Willoughby — all he’d done was forget to write her back, which was something she’d done to him too over the holidays. He was studying for his N.E.W.T.s, wasn’t he? There was nothing to gain by overanalysing the timing of his forgetfulness, which was to say, the fact that he had forgotten to write her back after she’d slept with him.

But it wasn’t something to cry about. Surely if Mary were here right now, she’d be telling Lily not to cry about it. She took a moment to curse Patrick Podmore for not letting her find her friends; she even felt a little resentful of Dumbledore, who must have let the Aurors come on the train and ruin everything... 

The sex itself had been fine, if a bit awkward (but that was normal too, wasn’t it?), but the problem had really begun the next day. It was strange, waking up with somebody. It had taken Lily ages to fall asleep, unused as she was to the feeling of someone else in bed with her. And as she was wont to do, she did not wake up until the sun had properly risen, blinking in confusion at the unfamiliar room around her.

She’d dressed and slipped out, standing in the beautiful artwork-lined hallway for a few long minutes. Which way was the stairs, again? She had been saved the worry, because Dex had emerged from what looked like a bathroom, his hair damp. He’d grinned at the sight of her, giving her a kiss; Lily had spent the duration of the kiss worrying about what her breath smelled like. Dex smelled like pine needles and mint. On the other hand, she probably looked as dreadful as she smelled.

“Breakfast?” said Dex, interrupting her frantic train of thought. “The blokes are downstairs putting the sitting room back in order, but the house elves can get you something.”

“Oh.” Lily hadn’t contended with the blokes, but of course some of Evan’s other friends had stayed the night too. She was quite sure she was scarlet. “Let me just — wash up—”

He’d given way, and told her to meet him downstairs. Lily had cleaned off the previous night’s makeup hastily, and, for lack of anything to brush her teeth with, rinsed her mouth with a bottle of Dentifricium Mouthwash by the sink. Oh, if only she had a different set of clothes…

All things considered, it should not have been so strange, being seen by her boyfriend’s friends the morning after a party. But Lily felt altogether unprepared. Would they wonder— No, they all had better things to do than speculate about her sex life, didn’t they, and Evan was nice, and Dex wouldn’t let them say anything, and did boys even talk about things like this? She wished there was someone she could have asked, but Remus, bless him, would probably have wriggled right out of answering that question. 

There was nothing to it; she had to swan out there unbothered as you please. Brushing at an invisible speck on her jeans, Lily stepped out of the bathroom and made her way downstairs. The house looked less intimidating in the daylight — airier, certainly, but in a welcoming sort of way. It was easy to follow the boys’ voices to the sitting room, the sight of the previous night’s debauchery.

Spellwork had done most of the cleaning, she guessed. The sitting room smelled like air freshener and the furniture had been moved back into place. Evan was attacking a spot on the carpet with some kind of magical stain-remover. Doc Dearborn was levitating a stack of books back to a coffee table, while Stephen Fawcett and Dex were mending a leg on the high, spindly table that had been the bar. 

“Lily!” Dex sprang up at the sight of her.

Lily gave a tame little wave. “Morning.”

They chorused a greeting at her.

“Can I get you something?” Evan said. “Breakfast, a bit of tea? We’ve got eggs going.”

She thought we must mean the house elves. “Oh, don’t worry about me.” Lily felt she was hovering awkwardly, and they’d all been doing well without her there. “Is there something I can help with?”

“We’re nearly done, don’t worry,” said Doc. “Marissa was supposed to come back and do her share — so much for that.” He rolled his eyes.

Lily tried to imagine Marissa Beasley in her situation, but she could not picture the Head Girl as anything but jovial and at ease. Maybe it would have been less awkward with Marissa there — or maybe it would have been worse, and Lily would only have felt like more of an outsider amidst the seventh years. She was suddenly sure that if she stayed for breakfast things would only get more awkward, and she couldn’t bear it.

“I should go, then,” she blurted out. “My mum will be expecting me.”

“I can Apparate you,” said Dex. “If you give me an address—”

“No, that’s okay, I don’t want to—”

“C’mon, Lily, my mum would be furious if I let you go without you eating something,” said Evan. 

“As it is we’re looking for any way to postpone our studying,” Stephen said. “Awful lot of N.E.W.T. homework, you know.”

“Exactly — just stay until Marissa gets here, she can take you to hers and then you can Floo back.”

Lily could feel her face heating up. “I can’t Floo, I’m not— I’m Muggle-born.”

Evan blinked. “Oh, right. Sorry, I forgot.”

The boys all looked embarrassed now; Lily recalled that Dex had been by the lake during exams last June, when Severus had called her... well… How many of his friends had been there too? Were they all remembering that day right now?

“I’ll just take the Knight Bus,” said Lily hurriedly. “I’ve done it before, it’s no problem.”

“If you’re sure,” Dex said, his expression uncertain.

Lily had assured them all that yes, she was certain, and then she’d scurried off, feeling very foolish indeed. It was a lucky thing that Evan lived somewhere in the Midlands too; the ride on the bus was brief, and then she’d been home, smiling brightly and telling Doris she’d spent the night at Mary’s. 

She had always been under the impression that when she did have sex, her mother would be able to tell. She’d sense it somehow, in the way that mothers sniffed everything out. Lily was no idiot, and did not think having sex constituted becoming a woman, or some rubbish like that, but years of sporadic Sunday school had left its mark. Surely she had some mark of...carnal knowledge? But Doris hadn’t suspected a thing. 

That was almost worse. All she could do was think. Lily had spent the last two days of the holidays alternating between worrying about the ever so casual letter she’d written to Dex and mindlessly flicking through the wireless at a rate that drove Petunia up the wall. Were all songs secretly about sex?

The 60s station, normally her faithful companion, was no longer safe. First Lily had choked on her tea at “I Can’t Control Myself,” and then her eyes had gone wide at “I Think We’re Alone Now” — and even the Stones! She didn’t think she could ever listen to “Satisfaction” again. At that point Petunia had snidely asked her if she was having some sort of fit, and Lily had turned the wireless off with a huff. 

Sure, it had only been two days, and Dex had probably spent those two days with his friends or cramming ahead of term. But Lily had expected him to say something. Wasn’t that the thing to do, when you slept with your girlfriend for the first time? She wasn’t asking for much, was she? Lily knew she ought to tell her friends — but telling the whole story again seemed nearly as embarrassing as living it.

Pull yourself together, she told herself, straightening her shoulders. What the hell was she doing, crying on the Hogwarts Express while reading Sense and Sensibility? Lily would find Dex and make her feelings known. And then everything would be cleared up, and she’d have nothing more to worry about. Satisfied with this decision-making, she shoved the book back into her bag, leaned back, and closed her eyes. 

The moment she had, though, voices rose outside the door. Lily sighed. If the Aurors were arguing with a student again, she ought to go mediate. Smoothing her skirt down, she slid the door open.

“Is everything all right?” she said in her most authoritative voice.

“Oh, you again,” said Patrick Podmore, sounding impossibly weary. “I assure you, Evers, I can sort out a train full of students fine enough without an underage witch’s help—”

“Evans,” Lily corrected. She glanced at Podmore’s adversary. “Oh, hi, James.”

Icon of a quill drawing a line

When the trolley witch’s familiar voice floated down the corridor, Germaine leapt to her feet.

“I’ll get the snacks. What does everyone want?”

“Grab me a Licorice Wand, would you?” Sara barely looked up from the novel she was reading, handing Germaine a clump of coins that was certainly more than the cost of one Licorice Wand.

“This is way too much,” said Germaine.

“Is it?” Sara glanced up then. “Oh, well, everyone’s sweets can be on me.”

“Groo-vy,” Dorcas said. “Get me a Cauldron Cake, Germaine. Actually, two.”

“Got it. Mary?”

“Just a sandwich. The nice sort, please.”

Germaine rolled her eyes. “What on earth is—”

“You know!” Mary gestured vaguely. “The egg one, with the—”

“Egg and cress,” Dorcas said, aiming a kick at Mary.

“Right, how silly of me not to realise.” 

Rolling her eyes again, Germaine slid the compartment door open and walked the few feet to where the trolley woman, a plump, friendly witch named Brenda Gamp, was doling out pasties to a group of third years.

“Morning, Brenda. Had a good Christmas?”

The witch gave her a wavering smile. “All right, all things...considered…”

Germaine wanted to smack herself on the forehead. Of course, Brenda lived in Hogsmeade, and was probably more frightened than anyone by the murders.

“Right, stupid of me,” Germaine said hurriedly. “I hope your family is safe, and everything—” She suddenly could not remember the names of the two murder victims. Oh, Merlin, what if Brenda was related to one of them?

But to her relief, Brenda only said, “Everyone’s okay for now, thanks. Aurors all over the place, of course, but that’s to be expected.” She glanced nervously down the train corridor, as if an Auror was about to jump up and question her. 

A nearby compartment door slid open. “Hello, are you finished yet? Oh, Germaine, hi.”

Germaine started. It was Emmeline, because of course it was. Had she ever said her first name before? Germaine didn’t think so. She noticed that Emmeline’s dark, straight hair was held away from her face with a pair of matching blue barrettes. How odd. She’d never seen her wear any sort of hair ornamentation before. And then Germaine remembered she was trying to distance herself from Emmeline.

“Hi,” she said in return, rather stiffly.

“I didn’t want to interrupt.” Emmeline offered Brenda a polite smile. “I gather you’re not done, then.”

Germaine was torn between standing her ground, and lying and running back to her mates. In the end she said, “No, not done yet, sorry.” She turned back to Brenda, expecting Emmeline to wait in her compartment, but to her dismay the Ravenclaw only moved further out of her compartment and shut the door behind her.

“You girls will want to stick close by if you’re stretching your legs,” said Brenda amiably. “Aurors have been telling off students in the corridor all morning.”

“Aurors?” Germaine repeated.

“They’re patrolling,” said Emmeline.

This made Germaine annoyed, for reasons even she knew were unfair. But of course Emmeline knew this, because Emmeline knew everything, except, apparently, that Chris Townes was a prat.

“That’s nice,” she said, for lack of anything better to say. 

Both Brenda and Emmeline were giving her funny looks.

“I should head back,” said Germaine.

“But I haven’t even got you your food!” Brenda said. “Go on, tell me what you’d like.”

Feeling more awkward than ever, Germaine rattled off her friends’ requests and dumped Sara’s coins into Brenda’s hand. She’d just put her change into her pocket, juggling all the packages she was now holding, when Emmeline cleared her throat. Germaine looked at her, wary. The slightest pinch of a frown had appeared between Emmeline’s brows.

“Are you angry with me?”

Germaine wasn’t good at faking it. She wasn’t like Mary, who could hide everything underneath a cool exterior, nor like Doe, who could be unfailingly polite. She could feel the last vestiges of her patience slipping away. She didn’t have to stand here and make small talk with someone who was — too enigmatic and probably didn’t want to be around her anyway. And how could she begin to explain why things had changed?

“I’m just trying to get back to my friends,” Germaine said, in a clipped sort of way that suggested she was angry with her.

Emmeline’s expression changed almost imperceptibly: a brief narrowing of the eyes, a tightness around her mouth.

“Fine, then.”

Germaine beat a hasty retreat, slipping inside her compartment and shutting the door hard enough to make the window rattle. Her friends did not pause in their conversation. Germaine dropped Sara’s change onto the seat beside her and withdrew a Pumpkin Pasty from the bag for herself, trying to calm her racing heart, 

“All I think is,” Dorcas was saying, “you shouldn’t have to prove yourself to him. You’re smart. You don’t need to look for ways to appear smarter.”

“You should go to Amelia Bones’s book club.” Sara was still hidden behind her novel, a new-looking, squat paperback with a swooning woman on the cover. These, Germaine knew, were Sara’s favourite sort of books, some long, never-ending series of romances by Mandersby and Blake.

Mary wrinkled her nose at this comment, but managed to stop short of expressing her distaste aloud. “Why— What’s that?”

“It’s the perfect way to look smart without actually doing anything,” said Sara. “It’s like a gossip circle, really. The whole book part is a pretense.”

“What’s the book you’re reading right now?”

“You know, I’ve forgotten entirely.” Sara jumped to her feet. “But I can go find out right now.”

Mary looked taken aback by this suggestion. “Well, you don’t have to right away—”

This was just the opening Germaine needed; she wanted to talk to Doe and Mary, but she didn’t feel up to doing it in front of Sara. 

“But it’ll be a pain for you to search through the library for it, Mare,” Germaine said. “What if you need to order one by owl? You should get the title right away.”

“I do need to stretch my legs,” Sara added. Without waiting to hear any argument from Mary, Sara had flounced out of the compartment. Germaine felt a trickle of guilt; there were Aurors on the train, after all, making sure that no one was out of place… But Sara wasn’t doing anything wrong, and if anyone could talk her way out of a sticky spot, it was her.

“She’s off,” Mary said, sighing. “I suppose it’s safe to tell you now, Doe — I saw Michael Meadowes kissing Florence Quaille on the platform.”

Doe’s eyebrows rose. “Kissing?”

“Not exactly. She kissed him. On the cheek. Point being! I don’t think he deserves you.”

Dorcas laughed. “Mary, I was the one who told him to get a rebound, at the party. It sounds like he did.”

Mary looked aghast at this news, and opened her mouth to argue. Before she could, though, Germaine found herself saying, “Can we stop talking about boys for five bloody seconds?”

The compartment went totally silent. Mary and Dorcas were looking at her, eyes wide.

“My parents are splitting up,” said Germaine.

Immediately her friends were giving her twin expressions of sympathy. Doe let out a sigh, taking Germaine’s hand. “I’m sorry, Germaine. I really am.”

“And they told you over the holidays? Blessed Jesus,” said Mary, shaking her head. “That’s a way to start the new year.”

Germaine swallowed. “They told me in September, actually.”

“Oh,” said Mary weakly.

“Why didn’t you tell us sooner?” Dorcas said; her voice was gentle, but the shock in her expression wasn’t difficult to read. “We could’ve—”

“Well, didn’t you notice something was wrong?” Germaine snapped. “Didn’t you notice I was constantly going off to be on my own?”

The other two exchanged a sheepish look.

“I thought you just...wanted to be alone sometimes,” Mary said.

“Not all the time,” Germaine said. 

Tears sprang to her eyes, and the other two smothered her in hugs.

“We’re sorry for not noticing,” said Doe. “We’ll be more attentive, promise.”

Germaine sucked in a shaky breath, clinging onto them as she cried. They stayed like that for a long few minutes until they were all quite aware of how uncomfortable it was to try and comfort a friend in a train compartment — Mary was stretched across the aisle, Doe was half-kneeling on the seat, and Germaine couldn’t really breathe.

“Where on earth is Lily?” she said, her voice muffled by her friends’ arms.

Icon of a quill drawing a line

“I think something’s up with him,” Peter said, for just about the millionth time. “What if something’s happened?”

James had spent the morning trying to reassure his friend, but could only manage so much patience. He too felt restless, uneasy — feelings brought on by the shadows that moved up and down the corridor, visible through the glass of their compartment door. Where was Sirius?

“Nothing’s happened,” he said, a moment too late. “Come off it, we’re on the train. It’s not like criminal elements hide on the Hogwarts Express and jump out at unsuspecting students.”

Peter gave him a dour look. “Do the Slytherins count?”

“Sirius wouldn’t do something stupid all on his own.”

“Right. Paragon of good sense, our Padfoot.”

At last James stood up. If he stayed any longer and listened to Peter’s nagging, he’d only start a row. “I’ll go look for him.”

“What?” Peter blinked at him. “Oh — I’ll come with you—”

“Don’t bother, it’ll be easier to slip past the Aurors if there’s just one of us.” He picked up the satchel he’d stuffed the Invisibility Cloak into; it might come in handy, but he did not want to try and manoeuvre around Aurors in the narrow train corridor.

“It’ll be easier to slip past the Aurors as a rat,” Peter pointed out.

James could not deny the logic of this. “Okay, you go up to the front. I’ll start with the back. Just don’t let some bird catch you creeping up the corridor, all right?”

Both of them grinned momentarily, imagining students shrieking at the sight of a rat on the train. 

“Yeah, I’ve no desire to face an exterminator,” said Peter dryly, and in a moment he had vanished, replaced by his Animagus form.

James obligingly slid the compartment door open so that Peter could get through, and looked up and down the corridor. It was empty — for now, at least. With a grimace, he started down to his right, hands in his pockets. He was under no illusions: if Sirius did not want to be found, he would not be. He did not think, like Peter feared, that their friend was off duelling the Slytherins. There was a certain degree of recklessness that Sirius kept away from — had kept away from, at least, since the incident at the Shrieking Shack last year.

No, Sirius was an adult, and they didn’t need to baby him. James would take a stroll down the length of the train, perhaps knock on a few compartment doors if he recognised a voice, but he was really only doing this so Peter would lay off.

In the end, he didn’t get very far.

“Please,” said an incredibly weary voice, “get inside a compartment. You’re not to wander the train.”

James blinked at the wizard. “Oh, you’re Podmore.” 

He was investigating the Hogsmeade murders, he recalled, and his parents were friends of the Potters’. James didn’t think that would really work as a line of argument in what would no doubt be an excruciating conflict. He’d argued with an Auror trainee earlier — the one who wasn’t Alice or Frank or Marlene. He wasn’t sure how keeping them cooped up in their compartments was supposed to protect them, but that hadn’t worked as a line of argument either.

The Auror looked like he was trying not to roll his eyes. “Astute of you. Now take a seat.”

“Yeah, I will,” James said, without a hint of concern. “Just looking for a friend.”

“You’re on a train, going to the same place. You can find your friend at Hogwarts.” Some of Podmore’s patience, worn thin already, seemed to be evaporating.

“I don’t think the world will end if I walk down the corridor.”

“What you think is irrelevant. So when I tell you do something—”

A compartment door slid open. “Is everything all right?”

James opened his mouth to tell this new arrival that it was best just to stay out of it, but he snapped it shut at the sight of familiar red hair. She hadn’t noticed him yet; she was looking at Podmore. There was a polite sort of determination on her face. If James hadn’t known better, he’d have thought Lily was ready to pick a fight.

“Oh, you again,” sighed Podmore. “I assure you, Evers, I can sort out a train full of students fine enough without an underage witch’s help—”

“Evans,” Lily said. Then she turned to him. “Oh, hi, James.”

“Oh, hi,” he said, aware that he was repeating to her what she’d said to him and sounded a bit stupid.

“Found your friend, have you? Good. Get in the compartment.” Podmore looked about ready to bodily haul James through the door himself.

“No, I—” James began and cut himself off, frowning. Lily was making a series of strange expressions at him, possibly trying to get his attention and convey some secret message.

He couldn’t for the life of him figure it out.

Lily huffed, marched towards him, and grabbed him by the arm, hauling him into her compartment. He was surprised enough that he didn’t bother resisting. The compartment was empty, and her things occupied only a corner of one seat. It was very impersonal, but he felt as though he were trespassing. For lack of anything else to do, James sat. Lily shut the door and sat opposite him.

“I was doing fine out there,” he said.

“You can thank me for the rescue,” said Lily.

“I wouldn’t call it a rescue—”

Honestly—”

“Thanks for the rescue,” said James quickly, grinning. “I was afraid he’d toss me into any old compartment, and there are more bad possibilities than good. Bertram Aubrey, the Lisas, the Slytherins—”

“The Lisas?”

“Yeah, fifth years, you know the Lisas — they’re not bad, they’re just…” He trailed off. 

He’d only just looked at her, properly looked at her. He had assumed her slight flush had come from confronting Podmore, or perhaps from dragging James into her compartment — rather un-Lily-like behaviour overall — but up close he could see that didn’t seem to be it.

Her eyes were red-rimmed, the tip of her nose pink. Something in him constricted. Like most teenage boys, James was mortally frightened of crying girls, because he felt spectacularly at a loss for what to say to them. But he had to say something, didn’t he?

James cleared his throat. “Evans, are you all right?”

Lily had been staring at some vague point over his shoulder; she started at his question. “What? Me?”

“Seeing as how you’re the only other person in this compartment and the only Evans I know, yeah…”

She smiled a little, which was a relief. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be that serious. But James realised he hadn’t seen Lily alone in a while — not since the days when Snape had been her only friend. It was an unnerving sight, like a tree in full bloom had lost its leaves in the middle of spring.

“So?” James prodded. “Are you? All right, I mean.”

She sighed. “Fine. It’s just been a strange sort of Christmas.”

“In the current events sense? Or the…”

She’d been looking down; she met his gaze, half-shrugged. “Both? I wish—” Lily’s smile was a sudden, wry thing. “I wish the world would wait to have crises until my interpersonal tensions resolved themselves.”

“Well, if that’s all you’re wishing for,” said James dryly. 

This too was strange and unusual. He didn’t think Lily was the most practical person in the world, but with him — compared to him — she always seemed to be. Wistful, quixotic: these weren’t words he would have used to describe her. Lily was never...absent, or distracted. She was often an undefinable in-between, but James thought he had an instinct for when something was off.

“No, not asking for much, am I.” Her gaze turned appraising. “You’re an only child, aren’t you?”

He frowned. “Yeah.” 

Lily was nodding thoughtfully, but seemed disinclined to break her silence. He took it upon himself to continue the conversation.

“So it’s your sister, then?” said James.

“How d’you know I have a sister?” Lily said. A little crease had appeared in her forehead.

James laughed. “I don’t know, I’ve gone to school with you for five and a half years?”

“That’ll do it, I suppose.” The tension hadn’t cleared from Lily’s expression.

James’s mirth faded. “Look, if you don’t want to talk about it, I’m the last person who’s going to push. Here.” He tossed the Cloak at her; she caught the bundle, looking very puzzled indeed. “Take a nap, use it as a pillow. I bet your bag’s stuffed full of homework anyway.”

At that, Lily rolled her eyes, looking much more like her usual self. 

“It is not,” she said. “Are you sure I can use your…” She was squinting at the Cloak now, and James suddenly wished he had thought his actions through. “What are these, your mum’s drapes?”

“How rude, Evans. Don’t talk about my mum’s drapes,” James said, his cheer masking his relief. She was asking the wrong questions, for once.

Lily went pink. “No — James, for God’s sake—” She dropped the bundle to the seat and put her head down. “This is comfortable. Thank you. I mean, I probably won’t sleep anyway.”

“Right. Your insomnia. Well, Remus can do without one, I suppose…” He rummaged in his satchel.

“One what?” Lily was giving him a very suspicious look.

James grinned. “Honestly, it’s like you don’t trust me.” Pulling out the box at the bottom of the bag, he tossed it at her. “Catch.”

She yelped and threw her hands up in front of her face; the box landed safely in her lap.

“They’re not going to eat you.” James leaned back in his seat, feeling very satisfied indeed. “Go on, open it. But just one, right? They’re supposed to be for Remus.”

Still frowning, Lily worked the box open. “Oh...chocolates?”

James nodded. “Dad laced them with a really mild sleeping draught for Remus — for when he’s feeling unwell.”

The full moon was nearly upon them; James had been looking forward to presenting them to Remus in the Hospital Wing the morning after his transformation. All Fleamont knew was that Remus was an insomniac, and rather sickly — which were not lies, really, but vague enough that James hadn’t revealed anything of his friend’s actual condition.

“You want me to eat a spiked chocolate,” said Lily slowly.

“Well, when you put it like that…”

“Oh, I’m desperate enough.” And before he could say anything else, Lily popped a square of chocolate into her mouth. “If there’s any side effects, I’ll kill you.” She tipped her head back, staring up at the ceiling. Then she half-sat up once more, twisting her hair out of the way.

 James was suddenly uncomfortable at the thought of her lying there, and him sitting here — awkwardly watching? If she fell asleep, he would definitely feel like he was spying. But if she stayed awake, would they sit in comfortable silence instead? Neither possibility gave him confidence.

“What am I supposed to do while you sleep?” he said.

“You could also sleep.”

“Pass.”

Lily rolled her eyes, sat up again, and pulled a book from her bag. “Catch.”

James was ready; he snatched it out of the air and peered at its cover. “Sense and Sensibility?”

“You could do with a little sense and a little sensibility,” said Lily, now sounding decidedly amused. 

She turned on her side to face him, and James was suddenly very interested in what this Jane Austen had to say. 

“You’re supposed to close your eyes, you know,” he said over the top of the novel.

“Ha ha.” 

But she did, and he lifted the book again. The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex… He could think of it as an exercise in Muggle Studies, he told himself. An exercise in...inattention, carelessness, thoughtlessness, all things James had at one time or another been accused of (unfairly, he thought).

Now he was going to be very inattentive of Lily, and he would not care about the fact that she was in this compartment with him, and he would not think about what she looked like, perfectly at peace. Instead he would be very attentive, careful, and thoughtful to the...the story of the Dashwoods. 

He checked the book’s jacket and frowned. Was he going to need to get through a whole family saga before Elinor and Marianne appeared? In the process he caught a glimpse of Lily, hand under her cheek, eyes shut, mouth still slightly pinched in worry.

James let out an embarrassed cough and angled himself away from her. At his cough she stirred; he was reassured, somehow, to know she hadn’t fallen asleep already, and so he hadn’t been watching her sleep — although he had sort of looked at her and she’d had her eyes closed, so was it functionally the same thing?

“Are you reading?” said Lily. 

James shot her a panicked look, but she still had her eyes closed. “Shh, this Elinor bird’s just come in, and I’m told she has an excellent heart.”

Lily gave a derisive snort, but said nothing else. James turned towards the window, putting his feet up on the seat, and continued to read.

Icon of a quill drawing a line

Lily woke with a start; it was dark outside the window of her train compartment. 

“I was just going to wake you up,” James said. “We’re pulling into Hogsmeade.”

“Right,” Lily said faintly.

Wincing, she stood up and stretched. She’d slept more soundly than she had expected to. It was a good thing she’d come wearing her uniform, she realised, or she would have been in some trouble. She had forgotten all about finding her friends, and Mary had her trunk. Oh, well, she thought, it'll make its way up to the castle one way or another.

“Did the chocolate help?” 

Her attention snapped back to James. “Oh. Yes, thank you.” She didn’t think she could have slept at all without it, in fact. It had been a sweet gesture: chocolate, and sleep, just like her hot cocoa that night last term… 

She folded up the odd blanket sort of thing he’d given her, marvelling at it for a moment. It was so silky, and light — like water, almost. She couldn’t imagine it keeping anyone warm. James cleared his throat. Embarrassed, Lily realised she’d been staring at it, and hurriedly returned it to him.

He gave her a crooked smile. “You can have this back, too.” He handed her Sense and Sensibility. “If you ask me, Marianne is a bit of a headcase, and Edward Ferrars felt too noble to be real. But it was a good way to pass the time.”

Lily returned his smile, a touch incredulous. “You finished it?”

“I can read, you know.” He slid the compartment door open, shaking his head. “You give me so little credit.”

She laughed, grabbing her bookbag. “Maybe I do. It’s a shame my mum has the superior Austen novels right now, or I’d lend those to you. Or, wait — I do have Persuasion at school, I think—” She’d sadly neglected that one in favour of Pride and Prejudice; Lily could barely remember its events.

James had stepped into the corridor; at this, he peered back at her. “Persuasion? Sounds kinky.”

“James!” Lily said, her outraged tone of voice completely countered by her laughter. 

She followed him out of the carriage and into the frigid night, still grinning despite herself. They had both paused by the carriage door instead of moving with the flood of students towards the castle. 

“Thanks for the company,” Lily said, finding she meant it quite sincerely.

James had been busy looking very pleased with his crack about Persuasion; he arched a brow. “You were asleep for most of it.”

“Yes, well…”

“Don’t mention it, Evans. Anyway, your bloke’s waiting for you.”

“My—” Lily turned around. To her surprise, a familiar figure was standing on the platform, squinting at the train.

“Lily,” Dex called. “I tried looking for you — you weren’t with your friends on the train, and those Aurors—”

Relief nearly bowled her over. The tense stretch at the end of the holidays felt like a bad dream now, with his grinning face in sight and his hand held out to her. 

“See you in the common room,” she said over her shoulder — but James had melted away into the crowd. Lily frowned a little at the sudden disappearance, but shook it off. If anything, she ought to start taking James at face value; no more reading into what he said or what he did around her. And then Dex was by her side.

Lily gave him a kiss, looping her arm through his. She had simply been alone for too long, and Petunia had been getting to her. That was all. She was an overthinker. But she had to be sure—

“We’re all right, aren’t we?” said Lily.

Dex gave her a quizzical smile. “’Course we are. Why wouldn’t we be?”

There it was. It was just a silly misunderstanding.

“No reason, I’m being ridiculous. Come on, I fell asleep on the train and I’m starving—” 

In the distance, the castle’s bright lights winked at them. Everything she’d been apprehensive about would turn out not that bad. Lily was sure of it now.