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“Lily,” Petunia starts one day in that tone of voice she can’t stand, in that this is a voice to be listened to kind of way, and at the breakfast table of all places, “You’re to put on your new dress and accompany Mr. Dursley and I to dinner this evening.”

So she doesn’t bother to set down her book, or look at Petunia in response, almost curious to see what would happen in that way that boredom leads to, in the way that resentment leads to. 

“I am not,” Lily says, flipping a page, can’t even remember what happened on that last page. “I’m to visit Mary tonight.”

“This isn’t a request,” Petunia snaps, pounding her fork on the table as she does so. That Lily hears, and that she responds to, jumping slightly at the disturbance. Petunia’s nostrils flare like a horse’s snout would. “This is an order. We’ve business to attend to.”

“What possible business do you and Mr. Dursley have that I need to be there for?” Lily asks, eyes darting back down onto her book, trying to take back that sense of normalcy she had established before she tried to get smart, before Petunia slammed down her fork. Instead of feeling back in control, she just feels silly, petulant, insolent. Not powerful, not vindicated, like she thought she might.

Petunia’s eyes flash dangerously at her. Lily’s still technically not looking at her while pretending to read when Petunia slams even more cutlery, but Lily knows the tone of her voice, knows the pace of her breath, to know that Petunia’s eyes are flashing dangerously at her. 

“You need to be there for whatever we say,” Petunia sniffs, using those horse nostrils for bonus effects beyond anger and now superiority. “You need to do whatever we say. Mr. Durlsey took you in when he didn’t need to, and all we’ve asked for in exchange is for you to behave.”

Drawing her eyes up away from her book, pulling her shoulders back so that she might actually sit straight up for once, Lily tries to mirror the confident chin-tilt her older sister learned how to perfect long ago when she bites out, “All you’ve asked of me is to be pretty and quiet.”

“Same thing,” Petunia sneers, then busies herself with fussing at the servants for a minute. Lily tries to stand up, to head to Mary’s early, but Petunia, ever watchful, notices. 

“The carriage is leaving at dusk, Lily. If you aren’t on it, new dress on and hair properly pinned for once, there’ll be a heavy price to pay.”

****

The afternoon came and went. Lily didn’t fancy paying the price Petunia threatened, mostly because she believed in its validity. Last time she tried to hide from a formal dinner, Mr. Dursley slapped her so hard she couldn’t attend the Longbottom’s ball that following weekend due to her swollen and bruised black eye. 

In all likelihood, she’ll just get to indulge in wine and a nice meal at a long and boring dinner. In all likelihood, they’ll be home in a few hours and she’ll be able to see Mary tomorrow and apologize. 

In all likelihood. It’s just that what happened wasn’t very likely. 

“Finally,” Mr. Dursley gruffs when she walks down the stairs, new dress on and hair properly pinned for once (she’s got Marlene to thank for that. If it wasn’t for her, Lily would have purposely tangled her hair just for spite. The bun knitted at the back of her head is probably the better option). “Let’s go.”

But when the carriage doesn’t make its way towards the Mason’s, their usual dinner companions, and instead trekked the road towards the north side of town, Lily can’t stopper her curiosity. 

“Where are we going?” Lily asks, turning her attention away from staring out the window, now staring at her sister and brother-in-law. She notices that Petunia’s also worn her newest, best dress, and Mr. Dursley’s hair is combed (down the middle, very unflattering) very carefully.

“A new gentleman is in town,” Petunia sniffs. “A Mr. Malfoy.”

“Oh,” Lily acknowledges, then promptly decides she doesn't need to know any further. Pulling up to Malfoy’s manor, Lily sees white peacocks roaming beautifully groomed grounds with fantastically trimmed hedges lining the drive. She notices two large ponds to the side for fishing as well as some woods towards the back, evidence of the leisure life that only the extremely wealthy can afford. 

Arse, she thinks, stepping out the carriage to a servant, who is dressed head to toe in white like a glorified version of those peacocks, taking her hand in assistance. She follows her sister and Mr. Dursley up to the house as they speak in low, hushed tones, obviously anxious to impress, obviously oblivious to the fact that the sort of men who own houses like this are never impressed with anyone but themselves. Lily occupies her thoughts with plans of what she’d do with grounds this large, like open a school or orphanage, and grimaces at the cold marble railing lining the elaborate staircase leading up to the house. At the top of the stairs is a well groomed man with long blonde hair pulled behind his head by an emerald green silk ribbon. 

“Mr. Dursley,” he acknowledges with a curt nod, much more restrained than the deep bow Dursley gave him, then an equally detached, “Mrs. Dursley,” once Petunia stood up from the obscenely low curtsy she’d dipped into for his sake. 

When Lily walks up, however, he gives a deep bow in greeting, something he’d spared himself from for the others. “Miss Evans,” he says, then introduces himself as, “Mr. Malfoy. Charmed.”

“Charmed,” Lily lies politely back. She doesn’t believe for a moment that he’s charmed, nor does she believe him to think she is either, but it doesn’t matter, because this is one dinner with one new businessman. She does take care to take in his white blonde hair and primly cut suit and flat tone, hoping to memorize enough detail to please Mary’s curiosity later, enough to mock with scathing accuracy later in the comfort of companionship. 

Mr. Malfoy’s spread is exuberant, far better than she was used to at the Mason’s. His attendants bring out course after course of ham and pheasant, potatoes and greens, all topped off with layered cakes for dessert. Dinner was, of course, a horrendously boring affair, the worst of it being that Lily was seated directly across from Mr. Malfoy and had to hide her eye rolls for nearly two hours. He drawls incessantly on about city life compared to the countryside with endless complaints about the stale company here in the county, which Mr. Dursley heartily agrees with, even though Lily’s heard Mr. Dursley complain for hours about the riff-raff from the city. But then conversation moves, as always, to politics and the state of the Ministry. Lily makes a bet with herself as she usually does ( finish the wine for every Riddle supporter dined with!) and, big surprise, finishes her crystal of wine in two swift gulps.

“If I may be so bold,” Lily interrupts curtly, speaking up for the first time all night. She thinks she may not be so bold when Petunia’s attention snaps directly to her, critical eye narrowed in warning. But so what. She’s bored and every Riddle supporter she’s met has been the same brand of blatant prejudice, and really, Petunia asked for this. Lily was supposed to be eating at the pub with Mary tonight instead of sitting here behaving herself, so she loses her ability to sit quiet and pretty.

“I hear Me. Riddle is the man to know these days,” Lily says, the first thing spoken from her lips since she introduced herself or thanked the servants for filling her plate. Mr. Dursley and Petunia have already fixed their attention directly onto her, silent signals to shut up, right now, or else. Durlsey’s right eye is twitching; Petunia’s lips are nonexistent. Lily, stupidly, smiles sweetly as she continues, looking Mr. Malfoy dead in the eye. “So popular is the man that I hear it’s near fashionable to leave your estate to him in your will. Funny, isn’t it?” Lily pauses, rhetorical question hanging in the air, “Funny how multiple families have complained of confusing wills and early deaths following one visit of his on the campaign trail. Any thoughts on that, Mr. Malfoy?"

Mr. Dursley clatters his fork. It would take an even more catastrophic event to separate Petunia’s fist from her piece of silver, white-knuckled and red with rage burning bright. 

Mr. Malfoy impresses her; he takes his time with his retort, fully knowing everyone is waiting to see his reaction.

Lily’s sickeningly sweet smile is completely passed over by Mr. Malfoy’s cool gaze on her, eyes flicking to her face for a mere moment before his attention is back on his dinner, cutting veal with careful, calculated calm.

“I find it funny you have any opinion at all, Miss Evans, on matters which will never concern you. Matters built on vile rumors by those envious of the fortune and manner of Mr. Riddle,” Mr. Malfoy clarifies, cool gray eyes flicking up to hers again for but a moment, the attention short and dismissive. “Seeing as you will never own more than a pittance in your own name, I can hardly imagine you to be truly concerned with the wills of those more educated and powerful than what this county or your station could ever provide for you.”

And then he’s turned back to Mr. Dursley, asking mildly, like he’s and bored, “Who might you recommend for a blacksmith out here? I’ve found some of the staff associated with the Manor to be excruciatingly underqualified to even look at a horse shoe, let alone mend one…”

Lily takes another bite of sickeningly sweet cake, and stays silent even through the card game after dinner. 

Quiet and pretty, the most she can ever be.

****

And none of that would have been bad, except they go to dine with Mr. Malfoy again the next night, and for most of the nights over the course of the week on top of that. Lily’s forced to endure more time spent biting her tongue, more time listening to Mr. Malfoy and Mr. Dursley agree that Mr. Riddle has some fine ideas about the proper status of those who have a right to property, of the proper place of women and the poor, of the immigrant and destitute. Lily doesn’t speak up. The burn on her wrist, scattered and chaotic like the ashes that caused it, is enough to keep her quiet this time. 

After the second dinner, it became expected that Petunia and Lily would retreat to the sitting room to entertain themselves while Mr. Malfoy and Mr. Dursley remained in the dining room discussing business. This arrangement was a curiosity to Lily, as she and Petunia were typically allowed to observe these business deals. It’s what’s made Petunia a suitable wife to Mr. Dursley, her cunning mind for detail and manipulation usually aiding him in any sort of negotiation. 

Lily could smell the strong herbal stench of cigars being smoked in the dining room anytime she sat down at the pianoforte in the sitting room after dinner, so Lily very much doubted Mr. Malfoy and Mr. Dusrley were ever seriously negotiating business deals. In the hours she passes plucking away at the piano in the corner, Lily supposes that she overestimated the world’s disdain of Mr. Dursley. Perhaps he’d actually found a friend here, condescending as Mr. Malfoy was. 

After a week on this pretense of business that Lily never saw discussed at dinner, something shifts. A week of this business negotiation comes to fulfillment.  

“Excellent news,” Mr. Durlsey announces, striding out into the sitting room, trail of smoke billowing behind him. A massive smile pulls up on his ruddy face, the first real smile Lily thinks she’s seen on him since she’s known him. “Mr. Malfoy’s consented! He’s agreed!”

Petunia clasps her hands together at her chest in excitement. “That’s wonderful news, darling!”

“Took some finagling,” he continues, jolly like Lily’s not seen him in a long time “Ceded some of the land I didn’t want to, and the settlement fee is steeper than planned, but overall, it is a rather agreeable deal!”

“Finally,” Petunia sighs with some relief. “I was beginning to think it was doomed. Excellent work, darling, truly!”

“I’m sorry,” Lily pauses her piano playing, staring at the two of them with abject curiosity on her face. “But what’s so wonderful?”

“Mr. Malfoy’s agreed,” Mr. Dursley says, striding over towards her, beefy hands tucked proudly into his pockets, “To your engagement.”

__

When Mrs. Evans died, Mr. Evans took his girls aside and told them one thing. 

“Be proper ladies, and you’ll be well cared for when I’m gone as well. No, don’t be upset,” Mr. Evans said, seeing Lily’s distraught expression. “To be married is a wonderful thing. To be married is a marvelous adventure.”

“I don’t want to be married,” Lily said, hands wringing the cotton smock of her dress. “I want to be like you. I want to travel and meet people and do what I want to do.”

“With the proper husband,” Mr. Evans comforted, “you’ll be able to do those things and more.”

Lily highly doubted that. Instead, she was happy to be a girl on her father’s farm, caring for the cows and pigs along with the farmhands, running in the fields and muddying her good dresses, making wood sticks into wands and swords to fit the adventures of the people she’s read about in books. Petunia used to do those things with her too, before their mother died. Now Petunia attends balls and shops for new ribbons at the markets in town. Now Petunia’s interested in the militia men traveling through, in the businessmen who lunch at pubs, and the latest fashions from London and Paris. 

Now Petunia’s not her best friend. Now Petunia turns her nose up at Lily’s scuffed boots and wild red hair, warning her, “No proper gentleman will ever take you for his wife, you know.”

“Good,” Lily says back, nose in the air, too. “I’d like to see them try.”

When Mr. Evans died, Mrs. Dursley, who used to be Petunia, told her one thing. 

“Mr. Dursley is taking you in at great financial risk to himself, you know,” she reprimands, barely looking at Lily during the funeral procession, like it was Lily’s fault their father died. Mrs. Dursley simply continues chiding her in an even icier way than she used to. “Don’t do anything that will have him regret this, instead of sending you off like we could be.”

Then, seeing Lily’s expression, Petunia snaps. “Ladies don’t pout, Lily. Father was always too soft on you. It’s high time you’ve learned how to be proper.”

__

“You can’t,” Lily whispers, fingers trembling where’d they’d once been plucking away at a soft tune. Her eyes find Petunia’s, desperate beyond reason, pleading without hope. “Tuney, you can’t.”

“We can,” Petunia corrects Lily with a level of formality which has forgotten they are sisters, forgotten the dreams and dances and stories and adventures they’d shared together as girls. “It’s our duty to ensure the proper match for you.”

“It isn’t,” Lily interrupts, panic rising in her chest. “I can do that myself. I can--”

“Quiet, girl,” Mr. Dursley interrupts. “Surely you knew this was coming.”

Lily opens her mouth to protest again, but nothing comes out. Surely you knew this was coming. 

And under the careful gaze of Petunia, Lily knows she has no choice. Under the threatening gaze of Mr. Dursley, Lily knows she has no choice. This is her fate. This is what it means to be a proper lady. This is who she’ll be as a proper lady.

Her fingers drop from the piano. Her heart stops beating in her chest. All she knows is one horrifying, mortifying though racing through her head. All she knows is the death of her girlhood, of her whatever freedom she had left. 

Mrs. Lily Malfoy.

****

“He’s rich,” Mary says, laying in the field with her. “That’s all I know about him. He moved into the county not long ago at all. Came in from London.” She looks over at Lily, who is despondently pulling grass on the field up by the fistful. “Miss Vance says he’s handsome.”

“He’s horrid is what he is ,” Lily sighs, staring at the clouds, wondering what it would take to be like them, able to pass through and change as they wish. “The biggest snob I’ve ever met. Arrogant prick.”

“Is he old?” 

“No. I’d wager he’s not yet thirty.”

“That’s good, at least. Mrs. Zabini-- she’s not all that much older than us-- just married her third husband and he’s well over fifty.”

“I don’t care that he’s young,” Lily flips onto her stomach, already figuring she’d have to hide this dress from Petunia before she scrubbed out the grass stains. “I don’t care about him and I don’t want to be married to him. I don’t want to be married at all!” 

“We’re twenty-one,” Mary says reasonably in response, adding some torn grass to the pile Lily has in front of her. “We’re the hold-outs, Lily. Most of the girls in the village have been married off.”

“I know that,” Lily huffs, looking out over the edge of the hill, where the land and sky both look endless. “I know it’s marriage or destitution. I was just hoping…”

“Hoping what?” Mary prods  after a while when Lily trails off, silent, head in her hands, gaze fixed ever forward. 

It’s childlike to wish, and foolish to desire, and embarrassing to say out loud, but if she can’t say it to Mary, she can’t say it to anyone else.

“I was just hoping that when I was forced to marry, it wouldn’t be to someone so repulsive,” she admits, though that’s not the full truth. “I was just hoping I’d be lucky enough to marry for love.”

But of course she wouldn’t be, not with her sister and Mr. Dursley in charge of her fate. Of course their final acts of control over her would be to ensure she couldn’t possibly be content in her marriage, couldn’t be happy in a new home, no matter how grand. 

“Oh, Lily,” Mary comforts, not at all mocking, not at all cruel. She snakes one arm through Lily’s, elbow hooked to elbow, places a kiss atop her head. “It isn’t silly at all to wish for that.”

Walking back to Privet House arm and arm, Mary jokes, “Think about it like this, Lily. The sooner you have weird, freckled, pale children with this man, the sooner I get to serve as your governess, and then we’re both settled."

Lily knocks Mary gently in the hip. “That’s not fair. I was supposed to be your children’s governess.”

Mary just shrugs, smile tugging at her lips. “As long as we’re still together.”

It’s the least Lily can hope for. 

****

Two months. That’s the time she was given, that’s the time she has left of whatever freedom she wants to claim. It’s two months for the wedding parties to arrive, engagement dinners and balls to attend, wedding gowns to be fitted. 

Less than that, really, because Mr. Malfoy’s family begins to filter into town even earlier than planned. Lily receives a note one day, delivered by one of Mr. Malfoy’s servants, that reads:

Miss Evans,

It would be an honor to have you for tea this afternoon. The Miss Blacks will be waiting for you there. 

I will be away to attend to business, but will join as soon as I am able. 

Signed,

Mr. Malfoy

Lily holds the note tight in her hands. It’s been a week since Mr. Dursley told her she was to be married off, and in that time, she hasn’t seen Mr. Malfoy. The two of them haven’t even spoken of their supposed betrothal. Maybe it was a lie, carefully constructed by her sister and brother-in-law. Maybe they were thinking ahead of themselves.

“Can I take the carriage?” Lily asks as she walks into the kitchen, cutting into the conversation Petunia had been having with the cook about her displeasure with the butcher’s selection. Petunia’s sharp eyes look at her with suspicion. 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” she dismisses, going back to her ledger. “I need it for tea with Mrs. Polkiss.”

“That’s fine,” Lily perks up, heading back towards the door with a near skip in her step. “I can walk. It’s finished raining. I’m sure Mr. Malfoy will love the mud I track through his halls.”

“Stop right where you are,” Petunia snaps, standing, following Lily into the foyer. She holds out her hand, seeing Lily’s note in her fingers. “Give that to me.”

Lily obliges. Petunia quickly scans the note once, twice, scowling. 

“Fine,” she snaps, pushing the note back into Lily’s hands. Lily tries not to smile. She knows how much Petunia despises riding on horseback. “Do remember yourself, would you? Tell Marlene to fix your hair to something decent before you go.”

Any annoyance she causes to Petunia is really a win for her, so she enjoys her solitary carriage ride, despite the pit in her stomach at the prospect of meeting her new family. Women are waiting for her as she pulls up, wearing much finer dresses than she’s ever known. Each one of the three is strikingly beautiful in alternating light and dark features, and each is as strikingly terrifying as the other.

“Hello,” Lily greets as she ascends the stairs, bobbing a polite curtsy in front this ridiculous scene. “Miss Black,” she nods to the dark haired woman she assumes to be the eldest. None of them move, until the one in the middle steps forward. Instead of holding out her hand, she pulls Lily into a hug.

“It’s wonderful to meet you,” she says, holding Lily tight before she holds her out, as if examining her, dark eyes studying Lily’s face carefully. “I’m Andromeda. These are my sisters, Mrs. Lestrange and Miss Narcissa Black.”

Maybe Andromeda isn’t terrifying and has just been cursed to look nearly identical to the silent, haughty woman identified as Mrs. Lestrange. Both of them are tall and robust, though slender bodied in their own way. The blonde one is more petite, but Lily still feels minuscule next to this set.

Mrs. Lestrange just turns her chin up at Lily and strides into the house. 

Narcissa Black eyes Lily up and down once, then twice. Turning to follow her older sister, Lily hears her mutter, “He cannot be serious. Bella, tell me he’s joking.”

“Ignore them,” Andromeda whispers. “Bellatrix is never happy, and Narcissa’s recently experienced a rather large blow to her ego. I wouldn’t take it personally.”

Lily bites at her lip, toying with it between her teeth. She already felt out of place, out of her element, and unwelcome. This was simple proof. 

“You’re related to Mr. Malfoy?” Lily asks Andromeda instead, following her into the manor instead of acknowledging just how personally she was taking this.

“Somewhere along the line,” Andromeda tells her, crinkling her nose up. “Distantly, though. I’ve found that many of the well-to-do here invent relations to keep property amongst the few,” she muses. Lily finds herself smiling. Andromeda could be a friend, if the candid way she’s talking to her now is any indication of her open, analytical disposition. She’d recognized Lily’s discomfort and made the first move to attempt to make a relationship. 

Tea with the Black sisters is nonetheless a trying affair. Bellatrix won’t even look at her, but Lily thinks that is preferable to the shaking fury that Narcissa regards her with. Any stifling topic Lily can think to raise, from the weather to the style of furniture in the house, is met with near silence aside from a polite acknowledgement from Andromeda, who didn’t seem shocked or surprised in the least by her sisters’ behavior. 

After nearly two dreadful hours of this silent horror, something different happens. Stumbling— quite literally, stumbling— through the door at too decent an hour for the indecent state of the man comes a welcome intrusion from the silent tea that even Andromeda’s kind spirit can’t salvage.

“Cousins!” Came the announcement, loud and boisterous. Startled, Lily turns her attention to two new gentlemen walking through the foyer towards the sitting room. A white cloaked servant for the manor runs in behind them, pleading wait, sir! , who gets properly ignored by the newcomers. Lily thinks these may be the most striking men she’s ever laid eyes on. The one who did the stumbling has long black hair that brushes his shoulders rather than being tied back in the respectable way. He walks with too long legs, too straight and too tall as he turns the stumble into a saunter. His crooked smile lights into the room. “It’s been too long!”

“Clearly not long enough,” Narcissa mutters, underneath her breath, something Lily makes note of, since it’s the first thing she’s said in a while. Bellatrix just looks on with silent condemnation, knives in her eyes.

“Sirius,” Andromeda says with some level of horror. “You’re here . And drunk.”

“Yes, well,” defends the second man who does more sauntering than stumbling, who has an absolutely boyish, roguish grin on his face. It feels indecent. Lily’s distracted by looking him over, equally tall and long as his friend, but dark where his friend is pale, tanned skin complimenting his black hair. As silky as Sirius’ hair seemed to be, this one’s hair was thick and curly, standing up at different and odd angles, like his glasses, which sit crooked on his fine nose. The hair seems indecent, too. “We were in the area. And also in the area of so many local pubs.”

“I’ll say,” Andromeda blinks, chiding, “You’re usually better at keeping him in line, Mr. Potter.”

“Oh, Miss Black,” Mr. Potter says with some flair while giving Andromeda a kiss on the cheek in greeting, “It seemed a special occasion. Couldn’t help ourselves.”

“But where are our manners, Mr. Potter?” Sirius turns his attention and his strangely vibrant smile to Lily, who’d been sitting in silent observation of this circus show before her. “This must be the sorry bride-to-be!”

Lily’s eyebrows raise up involuntarily, impossible to ignore his word choice. Sirius makes a few unsteady steps towards her, picking up her hand to give a kiss in greeting, an odd, familiar gesture from this odd man. 

“Sirius Black,” he identifies himself, coming off more like a declaration than an introduction. “Welcome to hell.”

That’s when he plopped himself right down on the loveseat next to her and promptly proceeded to pass out.

“Oh, dear,” Mr. Potter tuts, staring down at Mr. Black, one hand jumping up to his hair to tug at hair that doesn’t need to be tugged. He flashes Lily a winning smile, no longer concerned in the least. “Miss Evans, was it?”

“That’s right,” Lily gets out with some indignation, eyes darting with concern between the newly passed out man in her lap and the one standing in front of her acting as if this happens often enough to not be perturbed by the evolution of events here. Mr. Potter dips down, and Lily thinks for a moment that he’s moved to kiss her hand like his friend did, but instead just moves to hoist Mr. Black up onto his shoulders, making the task look like an easy thing to do. 

“James Potter. Charmed,” he says, standing, adjusting Mr. Black more comfortably over his shoulder. He smiles at her like he is. Charmed, that is. He smirks at her like this is exactly how he wants to be introduced, like this is going well. 

“I can’t believe you were invited,” Narcissa Black hisses at Mr. Potter, her eyes narrowed in apparent, abhorrent disdain. 

“Oh, we weren’t,” Mr. Potter says casually, shrugging in a way that made it look like the dead weight of a man on him was no big deal. “But the post confused one Mr. Black with another, and who were we to turn down such a nice invitation, promising weeks of drinking and feasting and balls, when it arrived so serendipitously to the wrong apartment?”

Narcissa’s grip on the tea cup is white. Lily wonders if the fragile thing will shatter.

“Aunt Walbgura will hear about this.”

“I’m sure,” he says, sounding not concerned in the least. Turning his attention back to Lily, Mr. Potter remarks. “I do hope we’ve made a good impression, Miss Evans.”

He’s smiling, still. The smile is still an indecent thing. Lily doesn’t think she’s seen something like it in all her time out in society in the fair countryside, arrogant and playful all at once. Then Mr. Potter’s striding out the parlor, Mr. Black’s head dangling ungracefully at his back. “Night, cousins!”

Sitting in shocked silence at the scene before her, waiting to know when she can go home to-- dare she say-- some sanity at Privet House, Lily hears Mr. Potter’s voice echo once more. She doesn’t need to know the man well to detect the cutting sarcasm in his tone. 

“Oh, Mr. Malfoy. Do forgive me. I’d bow, but as you can see, my hands are more than a bit full. Precious cargo and what not.”

She hears Mr. Potter’s hearty laughter fade with his footsteps, quiet below the footsteps of a new gentleman entering the parlor. This one she knows about as well as she knows  Mr. Potter and Mr. Black, whom she frankly has more respect for at the moment. This one is her fiancé. 

Mr. Malfoy strides into the room with a huff, sparing one dark look over his shoulder at the sound of Mr. Potter’s retreating footsteps before painting his expression into a more neutral thing as he bows for the room. 

Narcissa stands up at his entrance, setting down her tea with a loud clang. Her hands are curled into fists at her side, pointed shoulders squared, pretty eyes narrowed.

“Mr. Malfoy,” she starts, firm, “I must speak with you.”

“No,” Mr. Malfoy says harshly, not fully looking at her. His eyes are on Lily instead, taking graceful steps over to her before taking her hand, holding it up to kiss on the back. Narcissa makes some sort of hissing noise at the sight, and though he moves his cool grey eyes to meet Lily’s green, he speaks to Miss Black instead. “There’s nothing to be said, Miss Black.” He smiles down at Lily, a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes. The image of a snake comes to mind, and Lily has to nearly shake it out of her head when Mr. Malfoy dips down again to give her a chaste kiss on the cheek. 

“Hello, Miss Evans,” he says with the same static smile. “Glad you could join us today.”

“The pleasure is mine,” Lily dips her head politely at him, fully hating the submissive note in her voice.

“Really, Lucius,” Bellatrix startles Lily by standing too, walking behind the chair she’d been sitting at this whole time. It’s the first Lily’s heard her speak. Her voice is high and shrill, and it sends a shiver through Lily’s spine. The voice is so different from her dark hair and deep eyes, leaving Lily with the chilling images of sharp steel blades. Bellatrix’s long, delicate fingers curl tightly against the back of Narcissa’s chair. “I think you should talk to Miss Black. I think she has questions we’d all like answers to. At least in regards to addressing your new house guests.”

“Patience, Bellatrix,” Mr. Malfoy snaps, turning his full attention over to his cousin, his eyes as sharp as his tone. Lily comes to understand many things about Mr. Malfoy in this one moment, things about anger and spite and control that reminds her that it is Mr. Dursley who found this man for her. “All things in good time. Let’s not be rude in front of our true guest, now. Have you had a pleasant afternoon, Miss Evans?”

“Yes,” Lily lies again, turning on the same voice she’s used with other men she’s had to play fawn to before. “Mrs. Lestrange and the Miss Black’s have been very kind to me.”

In response, Bellatrix Lestrange just snorts audibly before sauntering out of the room. Narcissa follows her older sister with a hmph! , her sharp but fair chin high up in the air as she stomps out of the room. 

“I think Cissy’s still upset,” Andromeda tells her Mr. Malfoy, hiding a smirk behind the tea cup at her lips. 

“I don’t have time for her theatrics,” Mr. Malfoy shakes his head, but his eyes are still at the spot where Narcissa disappeared from. “I’m sorry, Miss Evans,” he continues, sparing her a glance out of the corner of his eye. “I have business to return to in my study. Enjoy the rest of your visit.”

Before he could get very far, Mr. Malfoy turns around, reaching into his coat. 

“I almost forgot,” he explains with a tight smile. “This is for you.”

He hands Lily a small box, velvet and weighty. Lily opens it to find a ring with the biggest diamond she’s ever seen. 

“To truly show you as my fiance, of course,” Mr. Malfoy clarifies unnecessarily. “I hope it’s to your taste.”

That’s when he strides out of the room, his tailcoat following his trim footsteps echoing through the hallway. Lily turns back to Andromeda with wide, confused eyes, holding the tackiest ring she’s ever laid eyes on in front of her like it was diseased. Andromeda just shrugs, popping the final scone into her mouth.

“Like Mr. Black said,” she says. “Welcome to the family.”

****

Lily’s next tea with the Black sisters was not different at all to the first. Andromeda is as kind as possible to her, but Andromeda’s courtesy cannot hope to compete with Narcissa’s disdain, Bellatrix’s judgment, and Mr. Malfoy’s total disregard for her own existence. Any hope she’d had of getting to know her fiancé better in the short time before her wedding have been dashed by his cool, removed attitude towards her. 

She hadn’t seen much of Mr. Black or Mr. Potter in the days following their boisterous arrival, but they did appear to be staying, despite their lack of invitation. Once, she spotted the pair lounging under a tree at the pond, Mr. Potter sitting at a fishing line in the sun, coat off and sleeves rolled up despite the chill in the wind, while Mr. Black sat with a large book on his lap. She thought that maybe Mr. Potter was watching her back. He certainly stared at her carriage riding off in the evening for as long as she stared at him and his friend, wondering what casual freedom such as theirs must be like.

Andromeda explained that they were students, but of medicine or law or business or architecture, no one knew for certain. The two of them were apparently known for their flights of fancy, which shifted by the season. 

“Are either of them married, or betrothed?”

“Goodness, no,” Andromeda laughs, high pitched, like Bellatrix’s voice. Lily doesn’t like the resemblance to Bellatrix, but she likes Andromeda, so she does her best to ignore the similarities. “No. Sometimes I wonder if they’re content the way they are, just the two of them in that flat in London. Do you know what I mean, Miss Evans?”

In addition to Mr. Black, Mr. Potter, and the Black sisters, Malfoy Manor also welcomed Mr. Malfoy’s friends, Mr. Crabbe and Mr. Goyle. They were a burly set, and Lily made certain she was never alone with either of them, given Mr. Goyle’s leers and the way Mr. Crabbe kept cracking his knuckles around her. After her first encounter with them, which led to an attack of nerves she had to hide from the others, Lily did her best to convince herself that their behavior was the result of poor manners rather than blatant disgust for her. She found herself needing constant reminder of this poor comfort anytime they walked into the room with Mr. Malfoy like a pair of cronies.      

And then to simply make matters worse, the Lady Dursley, Mr. Dursley’s sister, arrived to stay with them at Privet House to help Petunia with anything she might need (as if this is all about Petunia). There wasn’t anything Lady Dursley liked more than picking over Lily’s appearance, faults and flaws, and anything else Lady Durlsey didn’t care for. Lily quickly learned the woman didn’t care for much except for her ugly, loud bulldogs who seemed to take equal enjoyment in barking orders at Lily as the rest of her family.

“I’m shocked the man accepted the deal,” she tells Mr. Dursley one evening at dinner, third glass of brandy in. “She’s remarkably plain.”

“I think he fancied the red hair,” Mr. Durlsey chuckles, also three glasses of brandy in. “Thought it a novelty.”

“Fancy that!” Marjorie laughs heartily. “Can’t explain men, let alone wealthy ones like that. But still,” she waves her glass at Lily again. In her head, she imagines it exploded in her hand. But it doesn’t. The brandy just sloshes about, and the insults just continue. “I always thought it was a risk to take her in, you know this, Vernon. A scrawny, rude thing like her was a spinster in the making."

Lily grips her fork, knuckles white, vision red. 

“There are worse fates,” she mutters, mostly to herself, but she underestimated Lady Durlsey’s ability to pick her apart.

“There certainly are worse fates, stupid girl, like being destitute on the streets, the way you would have been had you been forced into my home.” 

Lily didn’t flinch, even when Lady Dursley kept her narrowed gaze on her.

“I don’t mean to criticize you, Mrs. Dursley,” Marjorie clarifies to Petunia with what she must have thought was a placating tone. “Of course, you can’t help but be soft with your own family. I’m proud of Vernon here for keeping her in line. Oh, the letters he used to write about freely spoken opinions and ruined dinners. If she’d been my ward, I’d have found a way to take the property and be done with it.”

In her vision of red, Lily detects blurred lines and edges, the marker of tears in her eyes. She’s cried enough over her father, over the farms. She doesn’t want to do more now, in front of this awful family.

“Yes, well, Father left the land to Lily as her dowry,” Petunia tells Marge in a quipped sort of voice, the unpleasantness of the truth coming out in a quick speech. Lily notices Petunia’s white-knuckled grip on her silverware as well, though Lily suspected it was with a different reason for rage than her own. “We’ve had the lawyers look into it. Father was careful with the wording. It is no one’s but Lily’s. Well, Lily’s husband’s.”

“Bah,” Marge dismisses with a wave of her hand. “What a silly thing. Your father was a fool of a man, not letting the land pass on to your scarce male relatives.”

“He had grand notions of women coming to own property,” Petunia says through tight lips. Then, like she couldn’t help herself, adds bitterly, “Apparently he thought Lily more up to the task than myself.”

“You never liked the farms,” Lily speaks up again. Her eyes are at her clenched fists, not at her sister, until rage and indignation make her bold enough to look her directly in the eye. “You never cared for the land or the animals. You don’t even think the land should have stayed in the family in the first place. What purpose would Father have leaving them to you ?” 

Quiet , Lily,” Petunia snaps. Beside her, Lily sees Mr. Dursley’s face growing beet red, a clear warning sign if any. Lily ignores it. 

“The farms are mine,” Lily stands up, hitting the table abruptly as she does so. “They’ve no right to go to you or to my husband. That land is mine.”

“Insolent wrench,” Mr. Dursley growls, also standing, also bumping the table. “You’ll--”

Lily doesn’t wait for him to finish the threat. She turns from the table, running, striding up the stairs. She hears the screech of a chair that means Mr. Dursley has followed her, quickly followed by the heavy stomp of his feet as he catches up to her. She swings around on the stairs, feeling her hair flip wildly around her cheeks as she does so. Her chest is heaving. It’s been a while since she’s snapped back like this, been a while since she actually defended herself like this.

Mr. Durlsey’s hand is raised, ready to strike. 

“Hit me,” Lily dares, her voice shaking, her fist shaking at her side, her entire body shaking. “Go ahead and hit me. Ruin the face you’ve just sold.”

Mr. Dursley stills, his hand poised in the air in such a familiar gesture. Lily’s changed the tune of this familiar routine. Lily’s given him reason to pause. 

“That’s right,” Lily takes another step up. “Turns out there’s some benefit to this arrangement for me afterall. You can’t have the nice cattle you’ve auctioned showing up damaged, can you?”

“He’ll give you what’s coming,” Mr. Dursley warns. The hairs on Lily’s neck stand up, the warning coming too certain, too sure. “You’ll see. You’ll get what you deserve.”

“I will,” she takes another step up, her voice coming out far more controlled than she felt. “I’ll get my farms. You’ll see,” she echos his threat, turns it into one of her own.

Behind her, she hears Mr. Dursley laugh. It is cruel, terrifying. She fears it holds more than just derision, fears it holds some mystery of what he knows that she doesn’t.

Lily finally makes it to her room and slams her door, the last display of defiance she can muster. The rest of her night is spent sobbing, shaking, and wondering just what sort of fate her marriage truly is.

****

Lily emerges from that sleepless night with one thought: Since her comment about Mr. Riddle, Mr. Malfoy has been nothing but polite and courteous to her, despite his distance, and she’s been nothing but polite and courteous to him back. Plenty of husbands take little interest in their wives. She has no reason to suspect foul play while Mr. Dursley has every reason to try to make her next few days, weeks, years, and decades of time defined by fear. It would be a proper wedding gift to her, the lasting horror of the few years she’s had to exist as his ward in Privet House following her into a newer, nicer estate. Perhaps it is jealousy; perhaps it’s some form of seller’s remorse. Whatever it is, Lily’s decided on one thing as the sun creeps onto the horizon in the morning, its orange glow piercing through her window as she sits up in her bed, wide awake-- she will be a good fiance. She will be a good wife. She’ll be quiet and learn to use that to her advantage in time, she’ll play the role she’s  been cast in until she doesn’t have to, until it is natural.She will be rid of this life and finally find freedom in her next one, however she can, even if it means carving up a new image of herself, one that will be safe in such new and strange connections. 

That’s what she’s decided for herself somewhere between sitting on her bed and taking her bath and Marlene pinning up her hair after brushing it out, asking Lily over and over again, “Are you sure you’re alright, miss?” That’s what she’s convinced herself somewhere between skipping breakfast and sneaking out of the house to walk to Mary’s, her engagement ring on her hand, her heart steeled with determination. 

The day is crisp with October’s chill finally blowing leaves off trees into fanciful piles on the path that she crunches beneath her boot, keeping a jaunty pace. Her walks to Mary’s were the highlight of any day that she decided to skirt Petunia’s too watchful gaze and Mr. Dursley’s too ugly anger. 

It’s not the busiest of paths, but it’s not the quietest, so running into other pedestrians isn’t unusual. What is unusual is how she can recognize the gait of the pair before her, considering how little she’s known them. What is unusual is that this pair of strangers happens to be walking the path she walks with so little regard for her routine, little regard of her resolution, which of course they have no way of knowing. Lily finds it in herself to be annoyed at them regardless. 

She keeps her chin up, her path as steady and sure as her new resolution. These two gentlemen are unfortunately removed from the wise circle of her mind; these two gentlemen seem bent on making asses of them all, since the moment she would have passed right between the two of them, they turned on their heels, flanking her on either side without missing a beat. 

“Wotcher, Miss Evans,” Mr. Potter grins at her after his long legs made quick work of the distance between them, his lips pulled up in an amused smirk.

“Where are we off to?” Mr. Black asks, his expression so similar to Mr. Potter’s that it is a shock to her that they are not brothers.

We aren’t off to anywhere,” Lily corrects, knowing she can’t outpace this pair even if she tried. “ I’m visiting a friend.”

“A friend?” Mr. Potter echoes. “You’ve two right here. Your day is now complete.”

Lily politely ignores that, her gaze steady ahead. These men aren’t supposed to be her friends if she’s to be smart about this, safe about this. That much she understood from this week’s fateful tea, but it isn’t something they understood, their long legs keeping perfect stride in the quick pace she’s trying to make it to Mary’s. 

“Mr. Potter,” Mr. Black says, speaking over her head to his companion. “I’m not sure Miss Evans is pleased to see us at all.”

She spares Mr. Black a glare from the corner of her eye. “Don’t you have better things to do than bother young ladies?”

Mr. Potter shrugs to her left. “Not really.”

“Marvelous,” Lily quips, redirecting her gaze forward, mercifully noting the thinning of the trees indicating that the MacDonald house is just around the bend. “Glad to see you putting your ample free time and leisure to good use for once.”

“You make a lot of assumptions of how we use our free time,” Mr. Potter comments with the sort of tone that she just knows is accompanied by some smirk. She doesn’t know how she knows that, considering she’s doing nothing but keeping her eyes straight ahead on the road, but she does.

“Andromeda told me enough,” Lily says, not totally sure why she isn’t just ignoring them. Sometimes she’s good at staying silent, other times, not. “I must admit I envy you, Mr. Potter. I can only imagine what I might do with your money and education. Surely not just sit around.”

“We do a fair bit more than sitting,” That’s Mr. Black on her left. She can also hear a smirk in his voice. “We’re walking now. And yesterday I did a bit of reclining.”

 “It’s good to see not a cent has been lost on cultivating your humor, Mr. Black.”

“I do resent that,” he says idly back, dipping his head forward so he might make eye contact. “I resent the idea that my parents may have had any role in my being humorous. This trait is home-grown, Miss Evans.”

“Hm,” Mr. Potter tuts to her right. “I’m not sure, Sirius. No, hear me out!” He exclaims when Mr. Black scoffed audibly. “Where would you be without the impression you’ve got of dear Aunt Walburga? Even the Uncle Alphard one--”

“Is that all I am to you, sir?” Mr. Black asks, his tone fully offended. “A one-trick, impression pony? I may find reason to resent you as much as Miss Evans here apparently does.”

Lily audibly scoffs, just like Mr. Black had just done. 

“Is ‘resent’ the right word?” Mr Potter muses. Lily imagines his head is tilted to the side in thought. Again, she’s looking at the road and not at him and isn’t sure why she can picture the mannerism so well. “I assumed perhaps confused or uncertain. Perhaps she is naturally taciturn. Are you, Miss Evans?” This time, Mr. Potter dips his head down, trying to catch her eye. “Naturally taciturn, that is. I’d like to know. You speak so little in passing and at tea, and now that you do speak, I’m finding it to be a rather poor assessment of our characters. I had assumed you were at least observant in your silence.”

“Just because you do not like what I have observed does not make the observation any less true, sir,” Lily says, betraying her resolve to turn her head to look at Mr. Potter in the eye for her insult to land. She watches him watch her, watches his response to her in real time. It isn’t what she expects. He smiles at her, indecently amused. Her eyes linger too long on the upward curve of his lips before they snap back forward to her path.

“On the contrary, Miss Evans,” she hears him say, his voice light, the smile still there. “You’ve given me something to think over in our overly ample free time.”

“Heaven forbid you do something actually useful with it.”

“Miss Evans, really,” Mr. Black cuts in, now sounding unbearably bored. “If you’re looking to insult, you’ve done a half job of it. You’re going to have to shape up if you’re to be a part of the family.” And before Lily can respond, Mr. Black nods his head, his hair falling back past his shoulders, pointing to the MacDonald estate coming into full view. “It’ll have to wait for another time, though. I assume we’ve arrived.”

Mr. Black and Mr. Potter follow her right up to the archway that leads down to the MacDonald house. Lily turns, facing them, putting forth an air of politeness and courtesy before dipping low in a curtsy. “Thank you, gentlemen,” she says sweetly, “for ruining one of the few enjoyable moments of solitude I get in the day. Truly, it was a pleasure being available for your simple entertainment.”  

“It was for more than entertainment, Miss Evans,” Mr. Black says, still bored. “We’re here for very practical reasons. Andromeda told us this way is a shortcut into town.”

“It would have been a shortcut had you not turned around to follow me,” Lily crosses her arms, tone dead pan. “Town’s the other way.” 

Mr. Black looks beyond her shoulder, where they’d just come from. “Oh,” he remarks mildly, his head tilted in recollection. “Right. We did do that, didn’t we, Mr. Potter?”

“We did, Mr. Black,” Mr. Potter nods. She hears the way they use each other’s surnames, like this is all a joke to them, like formality is so below them that they are free to mock it.

“You two really think this is so funny,” Lily crosses her arms over her chest, glaring up at Mr. Potter and Mr. Black. “Honestly, is this what the two of you get off on? Mockery? Cruelty?”

“Cruelty?” Mr. Black’s eyes widen again, his fine voice executing both offense and disregard in one. “That’s a bit extreme, Miss Evans, considering you’ve spent the last kilometer rebuking us for our very existence. Do you often go around town accusing strangers of hostilities?”

“Not at all,” Lily snips, “But I find it quite easy to make an exception for you, Mr. Black.”

At that, Mr. Black laughs, a bark of a laugh, tilting his head back in a way that makes his curtain of silky hair tumble gracefully down from his shoulders. She rolls her eyes again. 

Mr. Potter, for his part, has just been watching her banter back and forth with his friend carefully, just like he watches her carriage when it arrives and watches her in the tearoom, in the hallways, like she’s something to be figured out. Something that might be worth watching. He looks amused, but says in a conciliatory tone of voice. “You’re one of the few people we know here, Miss Evans. Thought you might be of some help or company.”

Lily sighs, pinches the bridge of her nose, opens her eyes again. Potter still looks amused. Black is looking at Potter, not at her.

“I’m sorry,” Lily backtracks, trying to reassess her situation here. Banter! That’s what she’s been at this whole time, and she didn’t want to admit she’d enjoyed it, regardless of what she’d said and regardless of what her resolution determined she needed to do. She’d been borderline inhospitable rather than dismissive like she’d planned, all for the sake of needing to please future family members who aren’t even here to witness her efforts. She sighs again, feeling the slight tang of shame seep through her skin. “I didn’t mean to be rude. I—“

Did mean to be rude,” Mr. Potter interrupts before his grin turns big and lopsided. “Don’t be sorry. I’m not. Now we’ve finally seen some of that personality Madame McGonagall warned us of, instead of some silent prized pony passing through like a ghost.”

Lily starts, the shock of hearing her governess’ name flow with familiarity and affection from Mr. Potter’s lips enough to distract her from that creeping shame. “How do you know Madame McGonagall?” 

But Mr. Potter just shrugs, his lopsided grin even more pleased than it was before. Next to him, she notices how Mr. Black scowls at the sight, his beautiful features pulled down in displeasure at his friend’s enjoyment. 

“I guess you’ll have to find out some other time,” he says, “Seeing that your friend is waiting.”

He gestures over to the archway, and sure enough, Mary is standing there with a basket of eggs she must’ve just gathered. Her family’s longterm farmhand Ted stands a few paces behind her, also watching Mr. Potter and Mr. Black with unmistakable curiosity. Mary’s eyebrow quips up in both question and amusement.

Lily isn’t to be so easily distracted. “But—“

“Some other time,” he says, already backing away, long legs keeping him close to Mr. Black, who is walking full speed away. “So long, Miss Evans!” Mr. Potter waves without a care, leaving her standing alone on the road as he and Mr. Black continue down the lane, their heads ducked together in familiar conspiracy. Lily watches them go for only a minute longer before she walks down to Mary’s, Mary’s eyes on her, Ted’s eyes on  her. 

“Who are they ?” Mary asks once Lily’d stomped up the dirt road to her, watching Mr. Black and Mr. Potter amble down the road, eyes hungry for information. 

Lily just shakes her head in befuddlement. “I honestly have no idea.” 

****

Mr. Malfoy returned to London to manage a few accounts and Lily experienced a reprieve from her role as fiance. She didn’t need to visit Malfoy Manor to endure miserable hours spent in the silent company of his strange cousins and didn’t need to endure the strange suffocation of his indifference to her, either. 

The one thing she did suffer was the company of James Potter, who took quite a liking to her morning walks. Sometimes Mr. Black was with him, other times, no. The most relevant factor of this suffering was that she was not supposed to like Mr. Potter, given the contentious relationship he had with her fiancé. The most irrelevant factor of this suffering was that she sort of enjoyed his company. 

“I am a stranger here, Miss Evans,” Mr. Potter explained to her one morning when she’d asked just what he thought he was doing, her tone harsh. It took effort now to make her tone harsh. With his tanned skin and thick, dark, curly hair, Mr. Potter did stand out as a stranger. “I’m simply learning the land from a local. Without a map, I’m afraid I’m utterly lost.”

“Allow me to buy you a map, then,” she told him, eyes forward instead of focusing on him. She found that sometimes, when she looked at him, she’d get a little lost. That, of course, was another inconvenient but overall irrelevant thing about these morning constitutionals spent in his presence. She’d been working around this problem by simply avoiding looking at him (and especially avoiding looking at him when he was looking at her. That’s another inconvenient thing she’d learned of him so far. He spent a fair amount of time measuring her in his gaze). 

Mr. Potter just chuckles at her quip, completely unconcerned for her tone. Like he can read right through her.

“Many others have found my presence enjoyable, you know,” he tells her, that laughter still laced through his voice. “Perhaps you could grow to as well, once you stop scowling like mad anytime I show up.”

“Perhaps you could stop showing up and I’d stop scowling,” Lily counters, using her sweetest voice. It only makes him smile at her in amusement. She struggles to control her smile back at him; this is banter, she knows. This isn’t detestation, it’s playful, and she’s going to have to stop this all once Mr. Malfoy returned. She’d be forced back into the role of quiet fiancé and she’d have to switch away from banter to true insult again, even though she was barely successful at their first encounter a week ago. Mr. Potter is still smiling at her. She’s still looking at the road, not at him.

“I’ve never known a lady to turn down such a willing (and may I add, desirable) escort before.”

“It is always a good opportunity for firsts, Mr. Potter, so allow me the pleasure to be the first to correct you on two accounts.” She’s still using her very sweet voice, and he’s still smiling at her like that, almost like he knows this very well may be as amusing to her as it is to him. She continues, saying, “The first of which is that I am not a lady— not yet, at the least, and therefore do not yet outrank you like I one day will, and rest assured I will take immense pleasure in that fact. The second being on the point of your desirability, which raises the broader, more philosophical question of the nature of desirability. Is desirability different from beauty, which we know to be in the eye of the beholder?”

“I don’t know,” Mr. Potter smirks. “What do your eyes say?”

“You’ll do me the honor of allowing me to avoid answering, sir, for I fear whatever answer I give will be in great disservice to your ego.”

“Nonsense,” Mr. Potter gives her a shake of his head, letting his hair flop about. “My ego can more than fair your evaluation.”

Lily smiles up at him, and this time, it might not be in faux-sweetness. It might be in genuine amusement, in genuine enjoyment of his company. “That’s my fear, Mr. Potter. If I were to give you the flattering answer, I’m afraid you won’t be able to fit through a door for all the inflated self-regard you’d hold for yourself then. If I give you the honest answer, you’ll be utterly convinced that I am simply lying in a false attempt at coyness.” 

He looks pleased with himself, which is the opposite of what she had been intending to do. He looks pleased with her, which she hadn’t intended to do, either. His hands are clasped properly behind his back, a contradiction to the playful way he leans his too tall body over her, telling her conspiritally, “Far be it from me to not believe a lady when she insults me. I don’t pay anyone the disservice of not taking them at their word. More importantly, I hope you don’t do me the real disservice of playing at being coy when you do decide to slog honesty and insult at me.

“That’s good, then,” she smiled. This time it feels real, and that feels wrong. “I promise to be both honest and cutting.”

“That’s all I ask,” he smiles widely back, still sort of leaned onwards towards her. He stands straight with a slight cough, like he’d realized what he was doing. That’s when he stops walking all together, standing completely still for once. “Oh. This isn’t the way to Miss MacDonald’s.”

Lily comes out of her thoughts with a jolt, taking in the same surroundings that Mr. Potter is observing with curiosity around him. 

“Oh, hell,” she mutters, any jovial mood that had been growing in her now dimmed as she slaps a hand to her forehead. “Not again.”

She’d been so lost in her efforts to manufacture annoyance towards Mr. Potter that she hadn’t paid attention to which way her feet were going down the fork in the road. Instead of the bend of trees and break in foliage revealing the pond just before the MacDonald house, Lily’s looking out at wide, clear, and empty farm fields long forgotten. She can even hear the river babble joyfully just beyond her sight. She hadn’t made this mistake in years.

“Who lives there?” Mr. Potter asks, scanning the land and the brick manor in the distance. 

“No one,” Lily says, turning away, trying to will away the heat away from her cheeks and the tears from her eyes, trying to release herself from the grip of memories and scents and sensations accosting her. Lily turns on her heel, ripping her hungry gaze away from home, away from everything that should be, as she retreats back up the lane. The cool October sun casts a long shadow in front of her and Lily follows her own silhouette away from the past. “And no one’s allowed to be here, either.”

“No one’s allowed to be here?” He quips his eyebrow up in obvious interest, taking no time at all to catch back up to her along the road. Lily digs her hands further into her coat pockets, trying to hide the tension in her body balled into hidden fists from his inquisitive attention.

“The previous owner died.”

“It’s abandoned? What of his son?”

Her boots make pleasant crunch sounds as she tramples the leaves on the road below her feet. “Not in the picture.”

“Brothers? Nephews? Cousins?”

“He didn’t leave it to any of them.”

She doesn’t care that his brow is furrowed and that he’s obviously waiting for her to give him answers she doesn’t want strangers knowing, but he waits in vain. Lily carries about the rest of their walk in silence and he lets her.

****

Lily hadn’t lied to Mr. Potter. Trespassing on the old Evans farm was forbidden, even for her and Petunia or Mr. Dursley. It was another thing in her father’s will that she couldn’t explain and that Petunia held her as personally responsible for. Only the next owner can enter into the grounds, and though Lily had sometimes wandered up to the property line back when she was young and angry, back when things were fresh, in confused dazes or when simply trying to get away from it all, she’d never risked stepping onto the grounds proper. 

It wasn’t even as if the farms were guarded or monitored in any significant way. Her father had been respected in the community, and that respect didn’t end in death. Anyone who would put the property at risk generally stayed away out of respect for an old, generous soul who’d never turn a hungry family down when they requested help in the form of produce or livestock. Lily stayed away out of fear, not out of respect. She’d always been too afraid of the ghosts of her past to dare break the promise she’d agreed to when the will was read, too afraid of disappointing her father even now, seven years after his death. 

Lily has no idea what compels her to return to the farm after leaving Mary’s that night, even though she knows she’s already late for dinner. Lily has no idea what drives her to walk down the lane, to creak open the now rusted gate, and wander the fields and barns or test out the creaks in the floorboards of the porch.

She has no idea what drives her to come back the next night, either, or the next. All she knows is she has three weeks left before being wed to a man she doesn’t know and all she wants is to come home.

****

Mr. Malfoy’s return from London came at a cost that was perhaps disproportionate to the reprieve she’d gotten in his absence. Her breakfast is interrupted by one of the Manor servants in that horrible, peacock white she’s grown to dread who arrives with a note for her, sealed with a wax crest. The handwriting is perfect, written in an ink of deep emerald. Add green to the list of colors Lily is absolutely sick of. 

Miss Evans,

Mr. Malfoy is set to return today and I was hoping to spend more time with you before so. I’ve noticed your absence in these days. I do hope it was for good reason rather than your avoidance of your duties here, now. I’ll do you the courtesy of extending the benefit of the doubt, regardless of just how many doubts there are. 

Pleasantries aside, I hope you’ll join me for today’s preparations for his return meal. Of course, I’m sure your dear sister has taught you all of the intricacies of running a large household, and I am eager to see you demonstrate your prowess in this most noble impetus for the wives of good men. I am well acquainted with the staff here and would love to have you accompany me in preparing and planning our dinner this evening. 

Regards,

Narcissa Black 

It takes Lily a few minutes to gather herself, reading and rereading Narcissa’s notes for each of its thinly-veiled threats masquerading as kindness. It takes her another few minutes to find Petunia near the chicken coop, overlooking one of the maids doing the washing with a sour look on her face. 

Overhead, the dark gray sky gives an ominous, thunderous warning.

“Petunia,” Lily starts, hating that she’s back in this position of needing something from her sister once more. “Can I borrow the carriage?”

“No,” Petunia says without thought, barely looking at her. “You’ve had it far too often of late.”

“But I’m requested at Mr. Malfoy’s. Miss Black—”

“But nothing. One of its wheels is unhinged, anyway, and Mr. Durlsey was supposed to ride it to attend to a contract with Mr. Polkiss and couldn’t even do that.”

Lily feels some of the panic in her chest tighten, her eyes darting back up to the rolling clouds, trying to calculate how much time she had before the storm. “Alright. Can I go on horseback?”

“No,” Petunia shakes her head again, turning away from the laundry maid and heading into the house. “Mr. Durlsey has already taken one, and I need the mare to ride to Madame Malkin’s. I’m being fitted for a new dress and need to deliver her your measurements as well.”

“Tuney, look at the weather!” Lily begs, trying to get her to see reason, which is a fool’s errand whenever Petunia’s found reason to be petulant. “Postpone Malkin’s, and let me race the rain to the Manor. 

“Don’t raise your voice at me, Lily,” Petunia snaps at her. “Madame Malkin is already having to adjust a gown for your wedding at short notice, and now I need a new gown for the occasion. I’m sorry to be such an inconvenience to your social calendar, but your wedding is becoming an inconvenience to all of us.”

“Oh, Tuney, I’m so sorry that you’re the one inconvenienced by this entire arrangement!” Lily turns on her heel, stalking back into the house before Petunia can beat her. “I’m walking.”

“You’ll catch your death if it rains,” Petunia says, completely unconcerned.

“Only if I’m lucky,” Lily snaps, turning on her heel with as much flourish as possible.

Her walk towards the Manor, past the MacDonald house and the farms, is very much interrupted by chilling rain. Lily’s traveling cloak is soon soaked through, her plaited hair is plastered to her back, and her muslin walking dress sticks uncomfortably wet against her body, weighing her down and making the near two hour walk that much more of a torment. 

“Good heavens, Miss Evans,” Narcissa notes with light horror when one of the white clad servants escorted Lily into the tea room. Her trail is marked by dripping puddles and mud piles. “I didn’t realize you’d been called directly from the Thames.”

“He-Hello Miss Black,” Lily greets, trying to be polite through her chattering teeth. “It’s-it’s-it’s raining.”

“Obviously,” Narcissa says in that detached voice of hers, the one dripping with a finely honed yet seemingly unpracticed air of removal. “You’ve decided to track half the earth of the countryside in with you, as well.”

“Didn’t-t mean to,” Lily shivers, waiting for permission to enter the room proper from Narcissa. “Didn’t think it would be this b-bad.”

“You’re an absolute mess,” Narcissa chides. “The maids are going to have a devil of a time cleaning up after you.”

“I’m sorry,” Lily chatters, tired of waiting, too cold to think of anything else but the fire in the hearth in the center of the room. “May I s-sit?”

“Yes, fine,” Narcissa snaps before crossing the room. “You dry off. I’m going back to the kitchens to focus on dinner, which I was hoping you’d take over from me. Running a large household is complicated work. Are you sure you’re ready for this?”

Lily doesn’t respond to her barb, too focused on rushing towards the fireplace, settling herself onto the carpet, mud and rain water everywhere. Maybe Narcissa wasn’t expecting her to, anyway, because she hears her heels click down the marble hallway and out of sight. 

Peace, Lily breathes out in silent gratitude. She can grovel to Narcissa later, when her dress isn’t icing over her body, sticking to her skin and sending incessant shivers deep down her spine and and chest and arms and fingers and toes. In front of the fire, she starts to feel her fingers return to her, then the tips of her cheeks.

Peace was too much to ask for, really, given her luck and circumstance. 

“Oh,” she hears behind her. “It’s you.”

Twisting her neck, Lily watches Mr. Black amble into the room, his silky black hair once again loose around his face rather than tied back like she’s used to seeing from the gentry. 

“Ye-yes,” Lily nods, turning back to the fire. “M-Me.”

“Long time, no see, Miss Evans. What’re you doing?”

“S-s-sitting.”

“Well, yes,” he rolls his eyes at her. She can’t see it, but she knows he’s rolling his eyes. “I just mean, what encouraged you to go deep sea diving this fine day?”

“It’s raining.”

“I know,” Mr. Black sighs dramatically, laying out on the couch behind her, one long leg sitting improperly up on the edge, one arm thrown fashionably over this head. “James and I were supposed to go riding, but now we can’t, and I’m bored. The countryside was supposed to be exciting, but this weather is worse than London when you’ve nothing else to do. I don’t know how you folk live. I’ve come near to studying for God’s sake.”

“Sirius—“ Oh, no, “I was thinking instead, we could- Good Lord,” Mr. Potter stops somewhere her ears estimate to be the entrance way, startled. She still doesn’t bother turning away from the fire this time. Her whole hands have some feeling return to them, and her whole face begins to experience what warmth is like once more, but her back is still devoid of any feeling, cold and numb and sharp with pain. “How long has she been here?”

“Hell if I know,” Mr. Black mutters. “Won’t give me more than one word answers, will she? But anyway, what were you thinking we’d do?”

“Miss Evans.” Suddenly, Mr. Potter is kneeling beside her, trying to draw her attention away from the warmth of the fire and to him instead. “What on earth is going on?”

“I’m drying o-off,” she informs him, trying not to look at him. He moves his face into her view anyway, his forehead wrinkled, his spectacles askew. She pulls her eyes away from his, staring back into the fire. “Then I have to help Miss Black.”

“There’s no drying off like this,” Mr. Potter chides, standing up. She hears some rustling and sees his legs move out of the corner of her eye, and the next thing she knows, a jacket— warm and clean and dry— is slung over her shoulders, 

“Sirius, fetch Andromeda, would you?”

“Me?” Mr. Black asks, surprised. Lily gets the impression that he isn’t used to doing anything he doesn’t want to do. Lily gets the impression that he wouldn’t listen to anyone but Mr. Potter when it comes to doing things he doesn’t want to do. “Why me? You go fetch Andromeda since you’re so concerned.”

More stern this time. “Sirius.”

“Ugh. Fine, ” Mr. Black whines one more time before she hears his boots echo out the room. Mr. Potter kneels back down, very close to her. This time, he lets amusement pass through his concern. 

“Why’d you walk half the countryside in this kind of weather, Miss Evans?”

“It-it wasn’t raining when I left,” Lily defends herself, hearing her vowels become prolonged by the still rampant but not so violent shivering she can’t yet stop. “And the c-carriage is broken, and Tuney wouldn’t let me take a-horse, and Mr. Malfoy’s returning, and—“

“Is he?” Mr. Potter asks with some false interest. “So that’s why Narcissa’s been so unbearable.” 

“Why does she care so much about Mr. Malfoy?”

“Doesn’t matter. What matters is getting you out of that dress— I mean,” In the glow of the fireplace, Mr. Potter’s cheeks turn the slightest shade of pink. Lily sees the color change at his ears, too, and she’s reminded of how close they are. Too close for proper distance, too close considering they’re talking like this in her fiancé’s home. “I mean, you need a clean, dry dress. Yours will never dry and you’ll catch your death all because of Miss Black and Mr. Malfoy.”

Lily can hear footsteps echo in the marble hall, clear warning that they were about to be caught. She doesn’t know what she’s guilty of, but it feels wrong, this attention he’s given her.

“T-take you’re coat off m-me,” Lily tells him, trying to shrug off his jacket from her back, but like the rest of her, the jacket sticks firmly against her rain soaked gown. “I don’t- I don’t need your help.”

For the moment that Mr. Potter doesn’t react, doesn’t stand up, and she thinks he seems hurt. She thinks a pained expression crosses his sharp but very nice features, but then he stands, removing the offensive item before stepping a few paces back. 

“Of course, Miss Evans.”

He couldn’t have moved a moment too soon. Mr. Black and Andromeda pile into the tea room, followed by Narcissa, whose arms are crossed petulantly over her chest. 

“Heavens,” Andromeda exclaims, walking up to Lily with only a few steps of the apparently signature feature of the Black long legs, kneeling down exactly where Mr. Potter had been but a moment ago. “Miss Evans, you shouldn’t have come if it were such an inconvenience. You’re soaked through.”

“N-no inconvenience,” Lily protests, the dignity of it marred by the unavoidable clanging of her teeth together. 

Andromeda stands. “I thought you were having one of our carriages pick her up.”

“The servant must have forgotten to wait for her,” Narcissa responds to her, looking at her fingernails instead of her sister. Lily’s known Petunia long enough to spot an excuse when she hears one. Beside her still, standing with his hands behind his back, hiding his wet jacket, Mr. Potter scoffs. 

Andromeda guides Lily to a standing position, assessing how much of her was still too wet to function. “This dress might be salvageable with a good scrub, Miss Evans,” she comments, eyes roving over the mud at her hemline. “But it won’t do for you now. Besides, it’s inappropriate for dinner. Narcissa will lend you a new gown to change into after you’ve had a long, hot bath.” 

“I will not!” Narcissa protests, her beautiful pale features curled up in displeasure. “Lend her one of yours if you’re so set on helping her.”

Lily looks with some slight panic between Andromeda and Narcissa. Any gown she borrowed from Andromeda would be comically too large on her. 

“Yours will fit her better,” Andromeda says stubbornly, leading Lily out of the tea room and into the private area of the house, which she has never wandered before. “And Mr. Malfoy would be less than pleased with you if he were to see Miss Evans like this, knowing you refused her hospitality.”

“Very well,” Narcissa snaps, following her older sister up the stairs. Lily’s guided to a washroom by Andromeda, who is then relieved by a harried-looking maid eyeing Lily with some level of deference mixed with pity. 

“Don’t worry, ma’am,” the maid comforts Lily, offering her a clean towel once Lily begrudgingly acknowledged it was time to leave the bath. “Soon, you’ll be the one who can refuse Miss Black hospitality here.”

Lily finds herself smiling at the thought, especially when she discovers that the gown Narcissa has left out for her is scarlet red, which clashes horribly with her red hair and washes her out. Her only saving grace is Narcissa’s sense of style and vanity, meaning she couldn’t find a gown ten years out of style to torture Lily with. 

Warm again and with her hair curled elegantly over her shoulders, Lily finds enough spirit to ignore the lump in her throat and the warmth in her cheeks and forehead warning her of fever to come. Instead, she makes her way back downstairs for no other reason than to prove to Narcissa that she isn’t to be so easily defeated by whatever plot she has going on. Walking to the kitchens at the back of the house, Lily passes by the sitting room where Mr. Potter and Mr. Black are playing a game of chess. Mr. Potter looks up at her passing. She doesn’t stop to say hello, keeping her gaze forward.

Lily finds Narcissa in the kitchen, snapping at a cook in the same way she’s seen Petunia snap at her inferiors. The kitchen is hot and stuffy, rich with the smell of meats and spices and overrun by the noise of the roaring stone oven and chattering servants. 

“Your antics in the rain have left me with all of the day’s work to do by myself, Miss Evans,” she says snottily. Lily resists the urge to raise her eyebrow in derision. Narcissa’s hands are clean, her hair impeccable. This woman hasn’t known a day of work in her life. “It’s nearly sundown. Mr. Malfoy has already returned with Mr. Crabbe, Mr. Goyle, and Mr. Lestrange, who I didn’t know was coming, so we’re going to have to manage.”

“Mrs. Lestrange’s husband?”

“Who else?” Narcissa rolls her eyes, moving a piece of blonde hair away from her face and back behind her ear. She removes the apron from her fine silk dress before shoving a large wooden box in Lily’s direction. “The least you can do is help set the table. The table cloths are already laid out and dishes set. The cutlery should be of no problem to you, right, Miss Evans?”

Lily gives a blank smile in response, her mind reeling. She doubts even Petunia, who actually did pay attention to their governess, knows the arrangement of a full formal dining set. For all the status she and Mr. Dursley tried to pretend they had at Privet house, they never had more than three courses, even to entertain the Lady Dursley and the Colonel or Mr. and Mrs. Mason. Even though Lily has attended dinners here at the Manor before during her— oh, God, those horrid dinners she sat in silence through were her courtship— none of them were this ten course monstrosity Narcissa has constructed for her fiance. 

Lily has a few good guesses about what blow to her ego Narcissa’s recently survived. She’ll have to confirm her suspicions with Andromeda or Mr. Potter at her earliest convenience.

She sets down forks and spoons and knives of various sizes resembling the relationship to what Lily does know about dining, but by the time everyone is sitting down for dinner, she notices that a butler must have come through to correct her mistakes. She makes note to find out which one and send him baskets on baskets of flowers in gratitude.

Dinner, as Lily could have predicted, is a trying affair. If Lily had anticipated any sort of attention from Mr. Malfoy, she would have been sorely disappointed. Once again, she’d underestimated either Mr. Malfoy’s disdain or Narcissa’s ability to manipulate to get what she wants, because Lily isn’t anywhere near the head of the table with Mr. Malfoy, who is instead next to Narcissa herself at his left and Mr. Rudulphous Lestrange at his right. Lily is regulated towards the back, away from the head, but notices that she at least sits at higher rank than Andromeda, Mr. Potter, and Mr. Black. Mr. Black sits in sullen silence at the end of the table, steadily drinking wine and simply picking away at his food. 

Mr. Malfoy and Mr. Lestrange discuss Mr. Riddle’s campaign with fervor. Lily notices how Bellatrix and Narcissa contribute passionately to the conversation whenever possible. Andromeda focuses her attention on trying to draw Mr. Black out of himself with the help of Mr. Potter, but there isn’t much success. Lily tries to do what she does best in these situations, which is to stay silent and out of it for as long as possible before she can be free again. It’s easy to do that when she feels so horrible, fully recognizing that her morning’s walk is catching up to her in the exact way Petunia warned her it would. 

In between courses, in between trying to coax his friend out of his sullen state, Lily knows that Mr. Potter is trying to catch her eye, trying to get her attention. Lily does her best to avoid it, but she finds herself meeting him there in that gaze. He doesn’t flinch away the way she does. He holds himself steady. It’s for that reason, and no other reason she is willing to acknowledge, that she keeps tentatively meeting his eye. She can’t read his expression. She makes sure he can’t read hers. 

He’s smart enough not to speak to her openly. She appreciates that. It’s nice to see this careless man has some ounce of self-preservation. 

“You do not trust me, Miss Evans,” Mr. Potter mutters below his breath, speaking so that only she would hear him. Her eyes dart across the table, but Mr. Crabbe and Mr. Goyle are too busy offering their opinions to Mr. Lestrange to leer at her. 

“You’ll have to forgive me, Mr. Potter,” Lily says evenly, not looking at him, cutting her partridge carefully with what she prays is the correct knife. “I am meeting so many new people. It is difficult to ascertain the character of each one of you here, and I fear my alliances may have already been made for me.”

“Trust me or not, then,” he says, “Whichever way, you’d do well to heed this advice. You won’t survive this family without friends. Even with friends, you may not find it worth surviving.”

Then, under the guise of reaching over her to refill her wine glass before the butler behind him had the opportunity to, James Potter leans over to Lily Evans, whispering close enough for her to feel her skin prickle at his presence. Either that, or from the chill of the fever she knows is setting in. “You’ll want to switch to the dinner knife; you’re cutting poultry with a fish knife. I know you’re trying.”

****

Lily’s luck turns from bad to worse when the dinner party moves into the sitting room and she finds herself back at the pianoforte, doing her best to keep her fingers steady while her body begins to shake once more, head head pounding, her muscles aching. Mr. Potter and Mr. Black are nowhere to  be found now that everyone is seated to play cards; she suspects they slipped out, much like she’d like to do. She’ll have to learn from them how to do so, considering she wants nothing more than to disappear right now.

“Miss Evans,” Narcissa snaps, breaking Lily out of her stupor. “If you’re not going to play well, don’t play at all. Lord knows mediocre talent is the last thing any of us asked for.”

“Quiet, Miss Black,” Mr. Malfoy looks up from his game, his eyes sharp. “I asked Miss Evans to play.”

“I’m sorry,” Lily says to the room, all eyes now on her; the collective gaze of Mr. Malfoy’s family and friends makes her want to scrub her skin clean of any remnant of them, wipe herself away from their attention and curiosity ranging from detached (Andromeda) to threatening (Mr. and Mrs. Lestrange). “I know my playing isn’t what it should be. I don’t feel well. Is it possible to call a carriage earlier than planned?”

“Don’t feel well?” Mr. Malfoy at least has the decency to lay down his cards, giving her his undivided attention. “Are you ill, Miss Evans?”

The silence in the room at their conversation is stifling. It takes Lily more effort than she’d like to admit to keep her voice at a normal level and rate when she says, “I spent some time in the rain today, sir. I do believe it’s just a passing cold.”

“You should have seen her,” Narcissa whispers loudly to Bellatrix. “Dress soaked so completely through you could tell how sickly she really is, and then tracking mud everywhere. It took the waitstaff hours to scrub it from the carpet.”

Bellatrix just snorts, something that should be comical and indecent but which just reads as dignified when coming from her. 

“There’ll be no need to call a carriage, Miss Evans. I’ll send one of my men on horseback to alert your family you’ll be staying here for at least the evening or until you feel well enough to travel.”

Both Lily and Narcissa protest at the same time.

“Oh, no, really—“

“You can’t be serious—“

“She can stay in one of the guest rooms,” Mr. Malfoy decrees, picking his hand back up. “Miss Black, you can draw it up for her. Andromeda, would you play for us now?”

Clearly dismissed, Lily numbly stands up to follow a seething Narcissa up the stairs and into one of the superfluous rooms, completely in silence. Narcissa disappears, then reappears, throwing a pile of night gowns onto Lily’s new bed. 

“You’ll have to send for your things tomorrow, Miss Evans,” Narcissa informs her with barely restrained contempt. “You cannot keep borrowing my gowns; you’re lucky I even found one to fit you for tonight. Your face nor figure could never do them the justice they deserve.”

With that, she was gone, replaced instead by a lady’s maid, who helps her out of the scarlet red dress from Narcissa and braids her long hair back for her. The lady’s maid dutifully ignores how hard Lily cries through the whole ritual, exhausted, scared. It’s another act of kindness in this household she feels unable to return, the third of the day. She thought kindness was supposed to make her feel welcomed; instead, she just feels helpless.

****

Lily wakes up in the morning to her lady’s maid opening her bed curtains and bringing a tonic for her fever and a poultice for her body aches. Lily can’t find it in herself to be embarrassed for crying last night or to be ashamed of how pathetically exhausted she is today, both mentally and physically.

“One more thing, my lady,” the maid says, curtseying respectfully after helping Lily change into a new night gown and braiding her hair away from the warm rag on her forehead. 

“Oh, please, you can call me Lily,” Lily begs. Marlene always called her Lily. They’d basically grown up together. This was the wrong thing to ask, unfortunately, because the maid’s head just dips lower.

“You’re to be head of the house, ma’am. I cannot do as you ask.”

“Oh,” Lily sighs. “Right. I’m sorry. What were you saying before?”

The girl picks up something tied together with some twine, her cheeks the palest of pinks, and hands the bundle to Lily. “I was asked to bring you these.”

What she gives Lily is two books, one fat and stout, the other, long and light. Lily unties the twine, setting it to the side with care. The stout book is a collection of Shakespeare’s works— specifically, the tragedies. Bemused, she picks up the second book. It’s one of maps of the local countryside. Lily smirks, thinking she knows exactly who wrote the note poking out slightly from the atlas.

Andromeda informed me that we missed quite a spectacle last night when Sirius and I were out— I can neither confirm nor deny that we were at the Hogshead Tavern, and I can neither confirm nor deny that it was I who broke the vase in the foyer early this morning. In my defense, it had no business being in the way like that.

I thought you might need something to occupy your time in isolation. One, I think, may speak to your station, or at least provide meaning here. The other is purely a selfish selection; I wanted you to know you’ve no reason to buy me that map you so thoughtfully threatened me with. 

Your friend,

JP

****

The first day of her respite in the Manor passes largely without incident. Though sick, she isn’t uncomfortable between the tonics, draughts, and salves supplied by the lady’s maid. In fact, the time she gets to spend lounging in bed instead of enduring nagging from Petunia or withstanding Narcissa’s critical gaze is a blessing she relishes, knowing it is a blessing hard-earned and short-lived. 

Later in the afternoon, however, she wakes up to the tell-tale signs that she isn’t alone. 

“Nonsense,” reprimands a familiar and out-of-place voice. “You’re full of it.”

“Are you willing to bet on that, Miss MacDonald?” That’s Mr. Black, his voice light and teasing and fun. 

“Careful,” Mr. Potter warns in a tone that is a failed attempt at sobriety. “He’s a dog, that one. You’ll lose the pot before you know it.”

“No,” Mary counters, confident. “I know a liar when I see one, regardless of their status of being arguably respectable.” 

“Now that’s a lie,” Lily opens her eyes enough to see the little card game playing out in her room, horrendously enduring to her soul. Each one of their attention shifts over to her as she coughs, propping herself up on her elbow. “I watched you lose a month’s allowance to Mr. Dearborn only a fortnight ago.”

“Lily!” Mary exclaims, dropping her cards on their makeshift game table, rushing over to her bed and sitting down at her side. “Oh, I’m so glad to see you.”

“I’m so glad to see you,” Lily emphasizes, gripping Mary’s hand on her cheek in her own with a smile. “What on earth are you doing here?”

“Thank Mr. Potter,” Mary smirks widely, at her, a little too knowing. Behind her, Lily sees Mr. Potter smile. His arrogance would be insufferable if it weren’t charming, if it weren’t earned, bringing Mary to her. “I was expecting you this morning. Imagine my surprise at what the cat dragged in instead. Are you feeling just terrible?”

“I’m not so bad,” Lily confesses with a small smile, though her voice sounds so much more raspy than it should. “I fear everyone is making a fuss over nothing.”

“She’s the one lying this time, Miss MacDonald,” Mr. Potter interrupts this time, smiling fondly over at them. “Miss Evans was nearly hyperthermic yesterday. She should be grateful she isn’t fairing any worse.”

“He’s being dramatic,” Lily corrects for Mary, rolling her eyes good-naturedly. 

“Am not,” Mr. Potter corrects. Then, “Sirius, don’t cheat. I want to see how well Miss MacDonald’s been able to read your character.”

“Go back to your game,” Lily whispers at her friend, loud enough for the rest of the room to hear. “I want to see you win.”

“Noted,” Mary smiles back, giving Lily a kiss atop her head before standing back up, declaring, “Prepare to fold, Mr. Black. I’m betting the pot.”

Mary, much to Lily’s delight and much to Mr. Potter’s entertainment, does have a read on Mr. Black, who grumbles indignantly before shoving over his pile of chips to Mary, demanding another round. Lily falls asleep again to the sounds of their playful bickering, thinking that if this were what the rest of her life we like, it wouldn’t be so bad at all. 

****

Respite at the Manor grows tiresome by its third day, when Narcissa decided that if Lily was well enough to venture down into the kitchens, she was well enough to be vexed. 

And really, Lily thinks she shouldn’t be held accountable for how things went down that afternoon. 

It was the first day Lily genuinely felt strong enough again to manage a walk around the grounds, as well as the first time she’d had proper time and space to explore. Wrapped in her cloak to protect against the morning chill, Lily ambled throughout the gardens, picking flowers and weeds alike to create whatever bouquet came to her mind as she hummed to herself, finally able to see the benefits of what her new station as Mrs. Malfoy might afford. She could shape these gardens into something magnificent, even something for the public to be able to tour. She could teach other women how to tend to not only flowers but fruits and vegetables, encouraging local horticulture and independence for at least the bare essentials of herbs and produce. 

“You’re looking awful chipper,” Narcissa sniped bitterly, watching Lily shake her boots off at the door in the kitchen connected inconspicuously to the garden. “Has your lazing about finally ended?”

Lily ignores the jab, searching the cupboards for a spare crystal vase for her clippings. “I’m feeling much more myself, Miss Black, thank you for your concern.”

“Hmph,” she snorts, stepping up from her chair at the servant’s table. “That’ll be all, Mrs. Bulstrode. Do not exceed the allowance in that pouch. Anyone charging you more than that for this list sees you for the fool you are.”

“Yes ma’am,” Mrs. Bulstrode acknowledges with a bow of her head, collecting the coin purse and parchment from Narcissa.

“As you see, Miss Evans, someone has to keep this house running,” Narcissa says with a superior tone. “We can’t all be so blessed to be resting in bed for days on end, entertaining all sorts of visitors.”

“Yes, Miss Black,” Lily nods her head with a practiced light tone, arranging her flowers around attractively in the vase. “It’s truly a wonder the household managed without you for the weeks Mr. Malfoy was here before your visit. You know,” she clarifies, feeling only a little spiteful and not at all remorseful, “When Mr. Malfoy was courting me. We had delicious dinners. I suppose they found a way to do without you.”

Lily smiles serenely at Narcissa, who slams down her teacup onto its saucer. 

“I don’t know what game you’re playing at, Miss Evans,” she grips the edge of the table, venom dripping from her tongue. “And for all my opinions of you, I don’t think you stupid, so I cannot see what you hope to accomplish here, courting nobility when you should be rolling around with some farmhand. Mr. Malfoy will tire of this novelty and of whatever charity has gotten into his mind to create this arrangement, so know this,” she pulls herself up to her full figure and height, looking every bit the noble woman she claims to be, which Lily has no ability to mimic. “I was here first, I have been in his heart first, and I will be the one there before you each and every time. You’ll see.” Her words ring in the air, clear as crystal, bold as brass. Lily freezes, like she tends to do, like she hates. 

“And have someone take that up to my room,” Narcissa snaps to the room at large, gesturing to a seeping teapot. “I’ve a headache coming on. Don’t dare disturb me unless absolutely necessary.”

Her words echo in the now silent kitchen for the moments after Narcissa is gone, shocked at both her honesty and lack of propriety. Lily stares down at the table, feeling her eyes begin to sting for jabs that hit too well on her insecurities about this entire situation. 

The kitchen resumes its bustling activity. Beside her, she senses more than sees Mrs. Bulstrode move towards Narcissa’s tea. 

“Allow me to,” Lily says quietly to Mrs. Bulstrode. 

“Be my guest, my lady,” Mrs. Bulstrode shrugs without much care, striding out the kitchen to accomplish her errors. “Best of luck to you, ma’am, that you keep your head at the end of this.”

That’s how Lily came to drop off a teapot filled with a most special brew of hers, aided by dandelions, caraway, and horsetail. This was something she learned when she was younger and angrier, right after she was forced to move in with the Dursley’s and before she’d truly come to understand that grief comes with rage and that her attempts at freedom were to be truly doomed. Lily used to make this brew for Petunia all the time before she caught on that Lily understood the basics of herbal diuretics. Narcissa hadn’t learned that yet.

Still. Lily isn’t fourteen and angry anymore. She’s twenty-one and supposed to be mature, whatever that means, but she can’t help the bitterness that courses through her veins, can’t change the nervous, anxious energy rolling out of her in waves. Rather than sit in bed and ruminate over the equal parts of her who feel vindicated and guilty, Lily gathers her cloak and a shawl and decides to walk the rest of the grounds. 

She spent her morning in the elaborate sculpture garden filled with flowers and fountains, so she redirects her ambling to the east end, where the fishing pond connects to the woods she noticed the first time she saw the manor. And there, lying down in the sun, jacket off, sleeves rolled up, and arm slung over his face to protect it from the glare, is someone Lily thinks can be good company, could be a good friend. 

Without turning his head and seemingly through supernatural perception, he asks, “What’re you doing out here, Miss Evans?”

“Hiding,” Lily admits honestly, shrugging her shoulders. “What’re you doing out here?”

Mr. Black also gives a shrug of his shoulders, not bothering to move the arm that’s draped over his eyes. “Much of the same, I imagine.”

“Mind some company?”

His shoulders shrug again. “If you insist.”

Lily sits herself down on the grass, but under the shade of the weeping willow, where she notices he’s stored a basket with some cheese, apples, and a book she can’t make out the details on. She tugs her shawl a little closer to her body, getting comfortable.

His voice is a little muffled with his face covered, but she hears him ask, bored, “Your betrothal going well?

“Do you want the right answer, Mr. Black? Or the honest one?”

This time he does look over at her, and she’s rewarded with the quip of his eyebrow, the pull of his lip, that shows he’s interested. “Honest, if you don’t mind.”

“I’m miserable. I don’t understand any of you people,” Lily shakes her head, wrapping her arms tighter around her knees. “Narcissa is cold and jealous, Mrs. Lestrange seems to want to throttle me only slightly less than the way her husband looks at me, Andromeda’s kind but still hard to read, and Mr. Malfoy has spoken less than fifty words to me in all the time we’ve been engaged.”

“I don’t see what you don’t understand,” Mr. Black remarks. “That all adds up.”

“Well it’s just…”

“Just what?”

“What am I doing here?” Lily asks earnestly, voicing a question that’s plagued her mind since the beginning. Mr. Black quirks another eyebrow at her, inviting her to continue. “I am a girl of no importance, with no connection to wealth or politics. Mr. Malfoy’s new in town, and from what I gather, has no intention of making this village home. Narcissa is absolutely besotted with him, to the point of being horrid to me, and I can so easily tell that none of his friends approve of me or understand his decision to be wed here.” Lily tugs at some grass, pulling up the blades absentmindedly. Maybe she isn’t that sad, angry adolescent old girl anymore. Maybe she’s younger than that, just a kid trapped in something she doesn’t understand. Turning her head, she sees that Mr. Black is watching her carefully. “Really, Mr. Black, do you know? This is your family. Surely you have some insight.”

He scoffs, rolling his eyes, attention back on the clouds. “This isn’t my family.”

“You aren’t related to the Miss Black’s? To Mr. Malfoy?” 

“No, I mean, technically, yes, I am. I’m surprised Narcissa hasn’t already told you, she’s usually so eager to gossip. Maybe she really does hate you,” he muses, eyeing her over once more. “It doesn’t matter. There isn’t much to know. I tried to disown the lot of them when I was sixteen. This is the first family reunion since then.”

“Sixteen?” Lily’s eyes widen at the image of Sirius Black, somehow smaller, scrappy and angry. “Whatever for?”

“Careful, Miss Evans,” he evades silkily, like she’s seen his cousins navigate conversations too. “A man’s still entitled to some secrets.”

“Of course,” she nods, trying to moderate her curiosity. “But whatever did you do? Where did you go?”

“Well, I was still away at school, which is fortunate. And then I always knew I was welcome at Godric’s Hollow— that’s James’ estate. Well, his parent’s,” he clarifies. “I had the Potter’s and a few other friends, as well as one decent uncle. I managed,” he ends with a shrug. 

Lily takes in that information, trying to merge it with her own observations of him so far. Their unorthodox arrival to the manor, the social distance they keep from the others, Mr. Black’s low rank at the dining table, and more make just a bit more sense. No wonder she feels comfortable amongst Mr. Black and Mr. Potter once she started allowing herself to; they are the only outsiders here to give her perspective and provide guidance. 

She just has one question. “Why’re you allowed to stay? If you’ve disowned them, and they’ve disowned you. Why are you here?”

At that, Mr. Black actually laughs. With his hands pillowing his head behind his back and more trust between them, Lily gets to admire just how suited for this life he is, with all the attractive trimmings of money and good grooming. “Fair question. I assume Malfoy derives his own sort of pleasure seeing Narcissa and Bellatrix so worked up. They’re horrid to endure and bossy as all hell. I think we’re helping him punish Cissy.”

“Punish her for what exactly?”

“Hell if I know,” Mr. Black gives another casual shrug. “That’s the sort of gossip that a certain level of disownment prevents you from coming to know.”

“But if you had to wager?” Lily prods.

“If I had to wager,” Mr. Black elaborates, smiling. “And you know I’m a betting man, you’ve preyed upon my weakness— If I had to wager, I’d say for nothing at all. Malfoy’s a bitter, cruel, and petty man when he wants to be, Miss Evans. I’d do my best to avoid his ire if I were you. He and Narcissa have basically been betrothed since birth. That you are now betrothed to him is quite the shock to many, but none more than to her rather sturdy ego. Narcissa isn’t used to not getting what she wants.”

Lily once again just nods, trying to fit this information in with what she already knows and what she’s already tried to convince herself of over the last few weeks. 

“Mr. Malfoy has been nothing but kind to me,” she says out loud.

“If you call what he has done to your future kindness, I doubt the wits I thought you possessed,” Mr. Black says dismissively. “You cannot confuse indifference over abject cruelty for kindness.”

“It is a kinder life than what I currently live,” she mutters into her arms wrapped back around her knees, thinking that the absence of any care is still better than the presence of any violence. And there’s been none of that. She just wishes that thought weren’t accompanied by yet.

It gives Mr. Black pause before he says quietly, “Just be careful, Evans. No one knows what’s coming next.”

Lily turns her attention back to Mr. Black, wanting to read his expression, wanting to understand this warning better, but before she has a moment to do so, Mr. Black sighs loudly and dramatically, flinging his arm down with a thud against the grass. “I want to go back to London,” he complains, “But James insists we can still have fun here.”

An interesting word, an interesting assessment. Lily racks her brain, tries to remember, tries to picture the last time she’d seen him genuinely amusedl. “You don’t seem to be having much fun.”

“I’m really not. Though, admittedly, it has been nice having access to Malfoy’s stationary again,” he smirks, giving Lily a sidelong glance. “You and I both benefited from his prolonged absence, no? You’d be shocked how confusing business matters can get when half the letters are forgeries and fakes.”

Lily finds herself laughing. “What exactly do you mean, Mr. Black?”

“Nothing at all, Miss Evans. Just that imitation is something both Mr. Potter and I both happen to excel at.” He’s amused then, just for a moment longer, before he sighs again, loud and long. “ That was fun. And we’ve a collection of handwriting— a wide collection, valuable for the right things— to last us a good while, but they finally caught on that something was the matter and we had to stop. Now I’m just bored.” 

“Then why not return to London?”

“Miserable here with James is still better than bored and alone in London,” he tells her, giving her a side-eye and a slightly bitter tone, saying “James won’t leave. He’s convinced himself—“ 

And then he stops himself. Lily provides an encouraging, “Mr. Potter’s convinced himself of…?”

“Nothing,” Sirius says petulantly. “Hand me that apple, would you? I’m famished.” 

Digging in his basket, Lily grabs the apple to roll to Mr. Black and takes the block of cheese and crackers for herself. Upon closer inspection, Lily learns that the book he’s packed is a sketchbook filled with portraits and still lives supplied by the charcoals he also has stowed away. 

Lily flips through his sketchbook without asking, knowing that he hears the rustle of its pages as she progresses through each of its magnificent entries. There’s images of buildings, clearly from London, and simple things like cheese propped next to pints of ale. There’s sketches of his friends, too. There’s a few idle doodles of a man with thin hair and large scar on his face and a few of a short, stout man with a big grin on his face, but mostly there’s portraits of James Potter. Some are more detailed than others, some just his face, laughing or thinking, and some of his full body, tall and proud, and some of him lounging on a reclining sofa, reading. 

“You’ve done his visage great honor,” Lily tells Mr. Black, who is watching her carefully, as her fingers run along the edge of the pages. She wants to treat the sketches with the same reference in which they seem to have been drawn. They feel intimate, these compilation of lines pulled together to make the shape of a man; she feels like she is seeing Mr. Potter in a new light, in a softer light, exposed. 

“James is a good subject, when he decides to sit still long enough to be drawn, which is rarely. Most of those are done from memory.”

His memory of his friend is great indeed, Lily thinks, continuing to turn the pages. She sees the transition from London to here; his subject matter is far more bucolic. One full page is a lovely rendition of this willow tree and pond and more of the flowers in the garden; he’s spent a lot of time out of doors.

The next page gives her some pause. On it is a charcoal portrait of a young woman looking back at her. Her hair is braided over her shoulder, small curls that have escaped her plait framing her face, littered with freckles. It’s her eyes that give her pause; Mr. Black has captured a deep sort of sadness there in the expression, but there’s also something accusatory in the slight narrowing of her eyes, the strong bend of her brow. 

“You’ve drawn me as well,” Lily breathes out, her voice more like a whisper than she’d prefer. “But you’ve done me far too much credit, sir.” 

She wasn’t that pretty, or that scary, or that complex.

“I don’t think so,” Mr. Black says, giving another one of his signature shrugs. “I think there’s something more to the blank stare you prefer to give the world. I think you’re what I used to be.”

“Which means?”

“Trapped,” he clarifies. “Which leads to my next question: What are you going to do about it?”

****

On the fifth and final day of her stay at the Manor, Mr. Malfoy announced that he was taking a party to go hunting. Mr. Crabbe, Mr. Goyle, and Mr. Lestrange eagerly agreed to his day plans, their busy business matters suddenly unimportant or otherwise forgotten. Mr. Black and Mr. Potter were notably absent from breakfast— they were never early risers. Lily suspected they spent more and more of their evenings sampling the local taverns, which meant they spent more and more of their mornings recovering from their follies.

For her part, Lily observes the men prep their horses and then their rifles from the breakfast set up on the patio without much to say or do. She sits quietly with her tea, because no one has spoken to her this morning, and thinks of the foxes, pitying them for the similar role they play alongside her in this folly of life, existing to keep up the status of rich men.

“We’re riding into town to do some shopping,” Andromeda tells Lily when she finally finds her alone, watching the men wander into the woods. She sits herself down next to Lily, taking a tea cup and plate to serve herself. Narcissa, who had followed Andromeda out, sets herself down as far from Lily as possible. 

“I don’t know what you expect to find,” Narcissa says testily. Lily takes some petty pleasure from the fact that Narcissa appears even more blanched than usual, her pristine porcelain skin looking pulled at her cheeks. She’s stirring her own cup of tea with far less poise than she usually holds herself to. “There isn’t anything fashionable to be seen in this godforsaken town.”

“Well, fortunately, Cissy, you’ve already packed enough gowns to dress an entire regiment if necessary,” Andromeda comforts without sincerity as she cuts her ham “But I want to see to a heel that needs mending and maybe pick up some new fabrics or floss. I’m thinking of adding new embroidery to my dress for the engagement party.”

“Engagement party?” Lily asks, finally pulled out of her stupor. Her teacup rattles in protest as she set it down without ceremony. “What engagement party?”

Narcissa gives another one of her signature snorts; she hasn’t said a word to Lily since the kitchen two days before. Andromeda looks over at Lily in surprise.

“Whatever do you mean, what party? Your party. The ball, of course,” she says. “Your sister should have told you. Mr. Malfoy commissioned you a new gown and everything.”

“Oh,” Lily utters, feeling her cheeks heat up in the growing shame of how evident it was that she had no understanding and no control over her own life. “She didn’t say.”

“Must have slipped her mind,” Andromeda tuts, but otherwise seems unconcerned. “It’s in a week, now,” she muses, toying with a muffin in her hands. “I really do need to get to work on embroidering that border, then…”

“Where’s Bella?” Narcissa watches the edge of the woods with her neck craned as Mr. Goyle, the last of the party, disappears into the trees. “I want to be sure we’ll be back before Mr. Malfoy returns from the hunt.” 

“Do I need to put on my boots?” Lily asks hesitantly, feeling silly, almost like she felt back when she still sought Petunia’s approval on the sad, desperate notion of her sister being decent. Lily berates herself for holding onto this idea that Narcissa might be decent. 

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Narcissa snaps; she does very much sound like Petunia. “You aren’t coming with us. Aren’t you supposed to be sick?”

Lily just shrugs, trying to shake the mental image of her sister out of her head and remember exactly who is to be lady of this estate soon. She tries to put some of that boldness back into her voice, telling Narcissa, “I’m familiar with all the shops and their keeps. I can help you barter for the best deals, I know who holds onto their most precious stock until you—“

“I will not sit back and think to be insulted by you, Miss Evans,” Narcissa’s full attention on her is quick and critical. “I rather know how to conduct myself in a shop and not fall to such a low place as bartering.”

“Calm down, Cissy,” Andromeda sighs. “I’ve seen the women barter and trade here. Not everyone will recognize your signet ring and immediately lose all spine in the face of your demands.”

“And that’s even less reason for Mr. Malfoy to stay here!” She cries indignantly, slapping her cup down to prove her point. “I don’t understand—“

“Cissy.” Andromeda says firmly, warning in her voice. “Drop it.”

Narcissa’s nostrils flare unflatteringly, but she does as Andromeda says. Lily gives Andromeda a look of gratitude before looking to change the subject. 

“Well, if I’m not to go into town, then perhaps I can return to Privet House instead. I’m feeling much better.”

“Speak to Mr. Malfoy, then,” Narcissa says, standing and clearly ready to be done with this conversation, done with her. “He’ll arrange for what you need.”

“I can’t just order a carriage myself?”

She gives Lily a rather impressive glare. For a woman scorned, her sense of loyalty is remarkable. “Don’t be presumptuous. This is Mr. Malfoy’s estate, Miss Evans, not yours. He would consider it a great insubordination.”

“Alright, then,” Lily pouts, sullenly falling back into her wicker chair, wondering what exactly was the benefit to being engaged to the man if she had no control over his staff or unruly family. 

“I’m going to drag Bella out of her room, even if she does threaten me,” Narcissa tells Andromeda. “Let’s go before we lose any more of the day and I lose anymore of my will to continue living through this charade.”

Andromeda follows Narcissa back inside, rolling her eyes. Lily envies the woman. She wishes she could roll off Narcissa as easily. Lily sighs, resting her head back against her chair and closing her eyes. She really did feel better and for the first time, perhaps ever in her life, missed Privet House. At least she knew how to handle Petunia and how to avoid Mr. Dursley.

Lily allows herself a big sigh, trying to ignore the prickle of tears at the back of her eyes. Crying now would only bring about a headache, and she needed to prove to Mr. Malfoy that she was fit to return home. 

“I thought we’d never be rid of them,” a voice says at the same time the wicker chair next to her scrapes against the granite with a screech. Lily opens her eyes with a start, her hand jumping to still her heart. 

“Mr. Potter!” Lily exclaims. “I didn’t hear you coming. You nearly had me in a panic.”

Mr. Potter just smiles deviously, tapping his nose. “Master in stealth, Miss Evans. Isn’t that right, Mr Black?”

“Right, Mr. Potter,” Lily hears to her left, and startled once more, she turns to see Mr. Black lounged comfortably in the chair Narcissa had just vacated.

“You two are dangerous,” Lily tells Mr. Potter as her heart rate returns to a normal pace. She wonders why it takes so long to do so. She wonders why looking at Mr. Potter makes it so that her heart beats in her ears, in her chest, in her fingertips, wanting to grasp at more. “I thought you two were laid up in bed and I would have a moment’s peace.”

Mr. Potter shrugs, piling a plate from himself with eggs and scones. “We had some business to attend to early this morning.”

“I thought you were simply nursing a hangover.”

“Us? Never,” he shakes his head, still smiling at her like that. Lily has to turn her attention to Mr. Black to keep her focus. 

“What was this business of yours, then?”

But Mr. Black taps his nose conspiratorially, just like his friend had just before. 

“Of no consequence to you, Evans,” he says. She doesn’t mind that he doesn’t call her Miss , even though it is improper. It makes her feel like they are friends. She very much would like to be friends with Mr. Black.

“Fine, then,” she shrugs. “Keep your secrets. It’s how everyone treats me, anyway.”

“Now, Miss Evans, no need to be dour,” Mr. Potter pleads with her, his smile still at full voltage despite his reproach. “Especially when we’ve come to enjoy the day with you.”

“Well then, you’ve finally made things interesting. What do you propose?”

“The family’s all gone, haven’t they? Malfoy’s taken most of the horses, but there’s a few left in the stable. What do you say to riding out further in the property, away from the woods, for a picnic?”

Lily sits up straighter in her chair. After days of feeling the total malaise of a poor mental and physical state, a day spent away from the others and in the stunning brisk day is too tempting an offer. 

“A proper one?” Lily asks, thinking back on the picnics she and Mary would have together as girls on the farm. “Full basket and blanket and everything?”

“However you wish it,” Mr. Potter promises. “We’ve made good friends with the kitchen staff. I think we can manage to knick whatever you desire.”

Lily finds herself smiling broadly and incessantly, elated almost, as the three of them walk towards the stable. She’s wrapped in her cloak and two thick scarves while Mr. Potter and Mr. Black lug an overly stuffed basket, traveling blankets, and sack of books and charcoal for the day between them. It was as if for the first time in too long a time, someone had thought about what she would like and how she would like to do it. It was as if someone had cared enough to come to know her in a particular way, but thinking like that simply made her feel unmanageably giddy, so Lily tried to focus on slowing her walk so as not to startle the horses as they approached. 

“Oh,” she says as soon as the stablehand opened the stable door for them. “There’s only two.”

Sure enough, there were only two riding horses left in the stable, lazily eating at the hay laid at their feet. Lily felt her heart deflate. They wouldn’t be able to ride out with only two horses.

“Well, I don’t see reason to abandon our plans yet,” Mr. Potter shrugs. “We can ride together while Mr. Black carries the packs.”

Lily looks between Mr. Potter and the bigger of the two horses and thinks about his proposition. To share a saddle with him would be an awfully intimate thing. To not share would mean…

“We can turn around and walk to the willow tree, Miss Evans,” Mr. Potter says, explaining the alternative. “But I had assumed that you, like us, wanted a few hours completely away from this Manor.”

When Lily doesn’t answer immediately and just stands there biting her lip for a minute, Mr. Potter ducks his head to be more level with hers, to be that much closer and to be that much more reassuring or enticing. She can’t decide which of the two he is. Meanwhile, Mr. Black has already begun saddling up his horse, bribing her to behave with a few apples from his bag. 

“Are you going to let the mere possibility of impropriety stand on your way here?” He asks, like he’s amused. It would be easier if she could be amused, too, instead of just afraid. Mr. Potter’s still looking at her, waiting. She thinks his smile falters. She doesn’t know why she’s afraid, just that she is. She tries breathing again. Her dress feels tight, her cloak too warm, the stable too small and the smells too overwhelming. 

Distantly, Lily’s aware that she’s having one of those moments that Mary used to affectionately call an “episode.” She hasn’t had one in years, not since the first months of living at Privet House, when pain and fear were fresh and new. She thought she was over those things and had hidden her fears deep in the crevices of her being, covered by scar tissue protecting every part of her she buried. What she knows is she fears being seen and questioned by others after all the time she’s spent justifying her place here in this world; but she doesn’t fear Mr. Potter. What she knows is she had convinced herself that there was nothing to fear in Mr. Malfoy or in this new life of hers, and if she abandons that notion, she isn’t sure how she’ll manage to survive the next days, weeks, and years here.

“Miss Evans?” Mr. Potter prods. His voice is quiet now, softer now. His face is softer now too. “Miss Evans, I was merely teasing. Please do not feel pressured to do anything you find uncomfortable. Of course we can go to the willow tree. I love the willow tree. I—“

“Thank you, Mr. Potter,” Lily interrupts him, giving him the steadiest smile she can muster. “But I do want to ride out. You are my friend and soon to be family. Riding without shouldn’t be improper; I trust you.”

“Yes,” he blinks down at her, maybe confused, maybe relieved. When he walks away to help the stablehand prepare their horse, she thinks his dark cheeks might be tinged pink.

“Allow me,” Mr. Potter gives her a respectful dip of his head when it’s time to mount. He helps her get settled, side-saddle, on the extra long saddle before he climbs onto the saddle behind her, his arms coming around her as he holds the reins in his hands. Any apprehension she had felt being so intimate with him right now disappears the moment the wind brushes through her hair and they leave the vestiges of the groomed Manor behind, riding out at a comfortable trot into the far more natural landscape of rolling hills, untended land, and bucolic pastures. 

Lily feels as if she can breathe again. She takes lungfuls and lungfuls of air, smelling the grass on the wind.

“Marvelous, isn’t it?” Lily asks, turning slightly to catch Mr. Potter’s eye. He’s already looking at her.

“Yes,” he agrees, soft. “Marvelous.” 

He’s still looking at her. 

It isn’t a long ride before Mr. Black points out a tree along the edge of a brook running through the land and dismounts before he helps her off the horse. Mr. Potter takes the lead off both horses, letting them be comfortable for the next few hours of their leisure here.

And it really is leisure. Lily lays out the blankets from Mr. Black’s pack and settles on the ground with a book. Mr. Black pulls out his sketchbook and Mr. Potter takes off into the brook, removing his boots and rolling up his pants to see if he can catch the minnows with his own hands. It is a ridiculous thing, pointless, and harmless. Lily thinks he is a man of energy that simply needs to be released from time to time.

Lily’s weaving picked flowers together by the time the sun creeps up in the sky to indicate lunch time, blaring bright through the windy chill of the day. Both Mr. Potter and Mr. Black indulge her by wearing her creations like crowns without the need of convincing from the warm ale they have with lunch. 

“How far out does Mr. Malfoy’s property go?” Lily asks, spreading butter over her piece of bread torn right from a fresh loaf. 

“Far,” Mr. Potter tells her. His thick hair keeps his flower crown in place; she’s reminded of tales of Greek heroes, drinking with dryads. “Farther than you’d expect. This acreage is a good chunk of the county.”

“We rode out to the edges of the property line,” Mr. Black explains, waving his flagon of ale for emphasis. He makes the crown of wildflowers and weeds look like something formal, fashionable, desirable. “We investigated. After Lestrange showed up. He’s usually looking after his own stock and accounts, but I know he helped Malfoy buy out several properties in London, evicting tenants by the masses. While Malfoy’s nothing more than the epitome of the landowning elite living off the labor of his servants, Lestrange has actually been known to be keen on business and doesn’t often spend time at his leisure.” At Lily’s quipped eyebrow at his slights to his own class, Mr. Black tips his tin of ale at her before taking an indulgent sip. “I think the French have some pretty good ideas, Miss Evans.” 

“Would that not put you at risk, Mr. Black?” She teases. “I’d hate to see your pretty head roll from the guillotine. I don’t think even your beauty would recover from such mutilation.”

“One of the perks of being disowned is the very high unlikelihood of finding myself the lord of Grimmauld Place,” he says with a wry smile, taking another sip of ale. “Besides, I think even if my dear mother were to pass, she’d find some way to haunt it just to prevent any possible inheritance I may still be granted.”

“Safe, then,” Lily nods, turning her attention to his companion. “What of you, Mr. Potter?” Lily asks in the same teasing tone, smiling affectionately at him. She holds up her hand, dissecting her view of him right there below his chin. “You’ve been awfully silent. Concerned for your neck?” 

He shakes his head, looking at her ruefully. “Concerned for yours, Miss Evans. What a shame it would be for you to lose such a good thing as your head once you gain your title.”

“Oh,” Lily blinks. “I hadn’t even thought of that.” Then, as if an afterthought, as if from a voice and brain that isn’t her own, Lily repeats the same monotonous mantra she’s had to rely on for weeks. “Mr. Malfoy is a good man.”

At that, Mr. Black audibly scoffs before standing up, stretching his arms lazily. What he says feels far removed from his casual saunter to put some distance between them. 

“If you want to see the true measure of a man, look to how he treats his inferiors, not his equals,” Mr. Black says, a smart thing that comes off more like a warning. “Have you seen his true measure, Miss Evans? Have I not just told you what it may be?” When she doesn’t answer because she cannot answer, Mr. Black just quietly says, “Thought so.”

Still looking over the horizon, still easily holding her attention, Mr. Black leans against the tree that’s been faithfully providing them shade all day. “You’d be hard pressed to find a single resident of Godric’s Hollow who hasn’t been aided by Mr. and Mrs. Potter through food, crops, money, shelter, or education. The same cannot be said for the majority of other landowners, least of all your fiancé.”

Before she can form any response or rebuttal, Mr. Black swears. “Ah, bollocks. Seems we’ve miscalculated, James.”

“What?” Mr. Potter stands as well, joining Mr. Black’s sentry. Lily tries to follow their gazes, but her view is blocked by their legs. He swears as well. “Ah, bollocks.”

Straining her neck, Lily finally spots what’s caused them such distress. She can make out the many legs of horses, can just pick up the rattling of metals cages and guns. The hunting party moves across the clearing, circumventing one section of the woods by accessing the moor to get to their next spot. As they move, she sees the telling flecks of auburn and red hanging down from one of the horses, showing their successes. 

Oddly enough, Lily feels that panic rise back in her, dress too tight again and air too limited again. She thinks about the foxes. She thinks about the word Mr. Black used to describe her days before. Trapped.

“Wretched luck, mate,” Mr. Black slaps Mr. Potter on the back in sympathy; the noise helps draw some of her back into herself. “Looks like the plan backfired. Or rather, didn’t.”

Bollocks ,” Mr. Potter repeats, watching the party go by with detached curiosity. “I was so sure it would work this time.”

The two of them stay standing in front of her until after the party has re-entered the woods. By the time they turn around, enough of her senses have returned to tell her that Mr. Potter and Mr. Black had done her the kindness of hiding her from the hunting party’s potential view. She doesn’t have the decency to feel grateful towards them; she only feels the quiet horror of shame long associated with helplessness take over, causing her to bury her attention back into her book, away from their conversation. 

Hours pass, and like all emotions, so does the shame. They settle back into what becomes a comfortable silence, comfortable rhythm. The sun starts to dip lower, casting long shadows that give warnings that they should head back soon. Mr. Potter pulls out another flagon of ale for the three of them to share over the remaining bread and cheese.

“Earlier,” Lily asks Mr. Potter and Mr. Black, relishing the warm beer, “What were you two on about? What did you think would work?” 

They don’t even have the decency to look ashamed. Mr. Potter just smiles fondly at her.

“Can you keep a secret, Miss Evans?” He asks. He really is a bit too much to look at, especially when he’s looking at her like that. She’d been watching him over her book these past few hours, just like he’s been watching her.

“It rather depends on the secret, I think,” Lily says, taking another dainty sip of her drink.

“It may concern your fiancé.”

She just lifts an eyebrow up at him. His smile gets bolder. It really is an irresponsible thing, an improper thing.

“Nothing dangerous, of course,” Mr. Potter shrugs, while Mr. Black interrupts with a petulant, “ Unfortunately.”

“Yes, unfortunately,” Mr. Potter nods solemnly in agreement. “Regardless of what anyone may say about us, we do still care about our freedom. I assure you, tampering with the rifles was never going to lead to any major damage.”

“If you want to see major damage, though, gunpowder really isn’t that hard to manipulate,” Mr. Black adds as useful commentary.

“You tampered with their guns?” Lily asks, eyes wide. “Someone could have been hurt— you could have been hurt!”

Mr. Black just shakes his head at her, lightly laughing at her concern while Mr. Potter keeps looking at her with a far too innocent smile. 

“No, nothing dangerous, we know what we’re doing— no, you probably don’t want to know how or why,” Me. Potter laughs, reading the question on her lips. “We just thought the lot could do with a bit of inconvenience, Miss Evans,” Mr. Potter clarifies. “But I’m afraid I may have given Mr. Crabbe and Mr. Goyle too little credit, as their haul surely shows they had the dexterity to fix the guns. They may be marginally smarter than gorillas, not the other way around.”

“Devastating,” Mr. Black shakes his head in mock grief. 

“Indeed, Mr. Black,” Mr. Potter shakes his head as well, tutting. Seeing her slightly strained expression, he continues in a softer voice, explaining, “It’s not entirely personal. I never cared for hunting. It always filled me with a great sadness to see animals preyed upon for simple sport. Such majestic creatures as the stag deserve to be more than simple venison.”

“Hunting for game is one thing,” Lily shakes her head slowly, her mind recalling the sight of hanging foxes, fixing her gaze on the patch of woods they last disappeared into, “But this is just vanity. Mr. Malfoy has no need for those pelts, or the money they might fetch at market.”

After a moment of staring, Lily hears Mr. Potter say, soft in a way, sad in a way, “I like to hear you insult Mr. Malfoy, Miss Evans. It gives me hope that some part of you may yet survive this.”

Lily looks down, abated and abashed. Her mind immediately jumps to that same sentiment that has carried her through to this point. “Mr. Malfoy is a good man.”

But Mr. Potter just scoffs. “You can abandon the act, Miss Evans, laudable though it may be—“

“Mr. Malfoy is a good man, and my fiancé,” Lily cuts him off, gathering her skirts so that she can stand up now, to her full height for whatever level of assertiveness she could muster here. Her voice is even when she crosses her arms in front of her chest, staring down at the two gentlemen. “I’d like to go back now.”

“Evans,” Mr. Black rolls his eyes in exasperation, seated in front the tree before flopping down onto his back. “No need to get all worked up. We’ve plenty of time to make it back and plenty of time for me to finish this drink.”

“No,” Lily shakes her head resolutely. “We’ll return now. It’s late enough as it is. The party will be back soon.”

“Even less reason to leave, then,” Mr. Black counters, lounging as comfortably as ever. Mr. Potter’s eyes flick warily between her and his friend, as if struggling to see what balance could ever be struck between the two of them. 

“Let’s go, Sirius,” Mr. Potter sighs, a heavy thing that pulls his broad shoulders down, that makes him seem smaller despite reality, despite how he goes to stand up as well. “Miss Evans is right. She’s due to greet her fiancé soon, as she’s made perfectly clear.”

Mr. Potter’s taken her side, but it doesn’t feel that way at all. She feels very much alone as she watches Sirius scoff before doing what was asked of him, rolling up their blankets and packing away his art supplies. 

When Lily has her cloak buttoned up and scarf round her neck, after their pack of supplies had been strapped to one of the horses, Lily steps away from Mr. Potter when he asks if she’s ready to be helped back on the horse.

“I’ll ride with Mr. Black, thank you,” Lily tells him, not fully able to look into his eyes. 

Mr. Black consents to this new arrangement without scoffing and without rolling his eyes for once, just with a soft, resigned, “Up you get, Evans,” as he helped her mount side-saddle, following soon after.

The ride back to the Manor is far less pleasant than before, as if some force had grasped at the fabric of good memories and warmth Lily had woven around herself this day and tugged and pulled and took, took, took, until she herself was threadbare. She uses the quiet cold of the ride back to try to figure out what could do that so quickly and effectively to her mood. She uses every bit of her time trying to convince herself that it isn’t just simply her oncoming and encroaching reality, but for all of her stubbornness, Lily Evans isn’t a fool and refuses to play one, either.

She isn’t fooling herself by pretending that the apprehension she feels in her body around Mr. Potter, like when he helps her off Mr. Black’s saddle and his hand lingers in hers for just a moment, is the same as the apprehension she feels around Mr. Malfoy.

She isn’t fooling herself by pretending that the respective silence of these men at dinner is the same. Mr. Potter keeps looking at her with something akin to pity. Mr. Malfoy doesn’t look at her at all. 

Mr. Black had asked her what she was going to do about it. Looking over at him sitting in the lowest position at the table, Lily thinks that he’s the fool for thinking a caged animal had anything remotely resembling choice. She thinks he’s twice the fool for returning to that cage. 

Another thing. Lily finds that she can’t eat the venison. 

****

Lily is no fool, but maybe she hasn’t given Mr. Malfoy enough of a chance. As she’s riding away from the Manor the next morning in one of Malfoy’s finer carriages, Lily wonders if she’s still letting her fear of the past bleed into a fear of the future. 

Lily had woken up on that sixth day resolute in her desire to actually talk to Mr. Malfoy and play the game of acquiescence that Narcissa told her she must if she’s going to find herself back at Privet House before she’s forced to take permanent residence in the Manor. By the time her lady’s maid has finished curling her hair, Lily walks down the stairs to find breakfast in full swing. She’s surprised by the presence of Mr. Potter sitting with Andromeda at the table, and even more surprised by the way Mr. Malfoy looks up at her entrance, like her presence has, for once, had an impact on him. 

“It seems you’re doing well, Miss Evans,” Mr. Malfoy comments, looking up from his papers. At his attention, Mr. Potter and Narcissa’s heads turn in her direction, both with carefully neutral gazes that she can read right through.

“I am, sir,” Lily says, giving a slight curtsy in greeting to the room, trying to not show exactly how surprised she is under his attention. “Thank you. All of the rest and open air here has done wonders.”

“Come. Sit,” Mr. Malfoy orders, gesturing at the chair next to him, where Mr. Lestrange usually sits. “I want to talk before you return to your family.”

She feels Narcissa’s eyes at her back as she walks up to the head of the table. Mr. Malfoy regards her with curiosity, asking, “How have you enjoyed your stay, Miss Evans? Your lodgings comfortable? The staff helpful, respectful? This will be your house to manage soon.”

“Yes, yes to everything,” she says with a smile that she finds isn’t hard to form, isn’t all that difficult to fake. “Everything has been splendid. Especially the gardens. They’re stunning.”

“I thought you might like them,” he nods, pleased. “I’m happy for the chance for you to become more comfortable here before the wedding. It’s also given me time to see what you may need in the meantime. I grew tired of seeing you in Miss Black’s wardrobe, or of whatever frocks you had from home. I’m sure you don’t mind that I took the liberty of having a few gowns purchased on your behalf, including one I hope you’ll wear to the ball this Saturday. They were delivered just this morning.” 

“Oh,” Lily blinks at Mr. Malfoy, continuously surprised at the fact that he apparently had noticed her at all over these past days. “Thank you, sir, that is too kind.”

“It’s a pittance for you to be able to look the part,” he shakes his head, and she thinks it’s dismissive, but then Mr. Malfoy leans over in his chair towards her, and there’s a slight tilt up to his lip, a small but seemingly playful smile as he asks, “May I confess something, Miss Evans? I’ve enjoyed your company here at the Manor. You’ve been a source of both novelty and variety these past few days, and I shall dearly miss hearing the pianoforte after dinner. I think you play with charm.”

And the shock doesn’t end there, either. Before Lily can respond, Mr. Malfoy is standing to leave, like always, but before he goes, he bends down cupping her chin in his hand and placing a chaste kiss on her cheek. 

“Until Saturday, then,” Mr. Malfoy says, attempting another one of his rare smiles. “Good day, Miss Evans.”

Lily doesn’t care that Narcissa is glaring daggers at her, or that Mr. Potter is suddenly deep in conversation with Andromeda and won’t look at her when she leaves. Hopping back up the stairs to her room, Lily discovers that her trunk is already packed and that all she needs to do is grab her traveling cloak and book from the bedside table. 

She isn’t bothered at all to return to Privet House, her mood and vanity bolstered by the slack-jawed reception she receives from Petunia as the carriage driver pulls out not only her old mahogany trunk but the new, gaudily painted trunk containing beaded silk dresses, more finery than she’s seen in her life, all for her. 

Maybe she does not have the marriage that she had dreamed she would. Maybe her cage is made of gilded metal, but for all the horrors she could be facing, at least she’ll never go hungry. Worse comes to worse, she’s got five new gowns of her own she can sell. She even has two, three friends in the family, though she suspects Mr. Black will not often accept her invitations for tea. She thinks Mr. Potter would, though. 

The fact that she wants more than tea from his company is irrelevant.

****

“What a wonderful problem to have, I think,” Mary tells her, shrugging her shoulders. “If Mr. Malfoy truly is as uncaring as you believe him to be, then you’ll have plenty of time to live the life of the idle noblewoman, taking on both charities and lovers as you please.”

Lily scrunches her nose up, trying not to laugh. “I’m not sure how you came to that conclusion.”

“One,” Mary holds up her finger, counting, “Prick husband. That’s fine, plenty of women get them, and you’ll learn to grit and bear it like the best of them. What few women get is number two— big fortune. You’ll be so kept in silks you won’t know what to do with yourself.”

“But I don’t even want silks, I want—“

“I know,” Mary cuts her off, grimacing, steadfast. “But we make do. And that’s what’s brought me to number three, the matter of what you do want, which is one Mr. Po—“

“Mary!” Lily hushes her, swiveling her head to check behind them in the crowded haberdashery. With all her luck, Narcissa would be standing behind them, or Mr. Malfoy, or worse, the subject himself. “Watch yourself, please.”

“Fine,” she agrees primly, finally picking out which of the buttons would have the honor of joining her sewing kit, likely never to see the light of day. “But you miss my point, Lily, which is that you watch yourself too much, and that is why I know this beautiful plan will never come to pass.”

Mary sighs, staring at her friend in sympathy. Her expression softens as she reaches out for Lily’s hand, because Lily had sort of frozen, staring out into the shop with a blank look. 

“Lily,” Mary grips her hand harder, the way that helps. “Lily, dear, I’m only teasing. I know you’re in a tough spot. I just think there are some bright spots in this is all.”

“I know,” Lily reassures Mary that she’s back, that she isn’t offended. “I know that. It’s just… I just...”

“Just what?”

Lily bites her lip, trying to think of how to express her fears without seeming melodramatic. She doesn’t know how to tell Mary that despite the comfort and reassurance she’d gotten yesterday from Mr. Malfoy’s gift and attention, there is a nagging feeling lingering in her heart warning that something dangerous still lingers below the surface of this whole situation. She doesn’t know how to voice her fears without making it sound like she has compared too much of Mr. Malfoy with Mr. Dursley; they are a far cry from one another. While Mr. Dursley threatens with brute strength and bulk, Mr. Malfoy seems to do so through its very absence. Which is more dangerous? The bear you can see, or the snake lying underfoot? Lily has no idea. All she knows is she’ll continue to do her best to avoid Mr. Malfoy’s ire, as Mr. Black had told her to do. 

So Lily just shakes her head, wrapping her arm through Mary’s as they meander down the lane back towards home once Mary paid for her goods. “I just think it’s best to be careful.”

“Sounds boring,” a voice says from behind, right in her ear. This time, Lily does find exactly who she feared she would when she turns, wearing a smirk that is way too bold, way too pleased. 

“Mr. Potter!” Lily exclaims, feeling her lips pull up in a smile, big, genuine, uncontrollable. She covers the shock of seeing him, the speeding of her heart’s beating, by reverting to easy joking, hitting him in the arm with her small purse wrapped around her wrist in reprimand. “Haven’t we gone over this? Don’t you have better things to do than following young ladies around?”

Mr. Potter just laughs merrily, frustratingly unphased by being hit with her purse, one hand on his stomach as he laughs. It’s a good sound. She taps him again with her purse just to hear it again, and she’s rewarded with his head tipping back, mirth and merriment in his eyes. It’s so easy to be this easy with them, away from the Manor. 

“We aren’t following you around,” Mr. Potter says, still chuckling, teasing. Mr. Black, standing at his side, is shaking his head in amused reprimand. “Is this how she usually greets friends, Miss MacDonald? With violence?”

“Only the good ones,” Mary says, amused. Lily hits her with her purse as well, making Mary laugh. “See, Mr. Potter?”

“I see,” he laughs again, so Lily hits him again for good measure, then Mr. Black, because he’s laughing just like Mr. Potter.

“Barking,” Mr. Black observes like he would the weather. “Absolutely raging.” 

“I think with reason,” Lily defends herself, finding herself smiling like the others. 

“With reason?” Mr. Black repeats in faux indignation. “You run into people you know at market— and it must happen often, Evans, it’s a small village with nothing to do except wander about— and lose all civility. Really.” 

“Maybe it’ll teach you not to eavesdrop, hm? Perhaps you’re just facing the consequences of your own actions for once?”

“Absolutely no remorse, either,” Mr. Potter notes with a rueful shake of his head, ignoring her playful jab. “A menace to the village, a menace to society—“

Anyway,” Lily cuts him off, rolling her eyes. “What brings you out?”

“Boredom,” Mr. Black shrugs. 

“What else?” Mr. Potter shrugs, just like Mr. Black. They do that too often, the same move with the same mannerism. 

“But also, I’m out of charcoal,” Mr. Black elaborates, pointing towards the supply store just behind them, across from the haberdashery. .

“Oh!” Mary exclaims suddenly. “Yes, you’ve just helped me remember— totally forgot, need to buy— would you care to escort me, Mr. Black?”

And while Mr. Black clearly looks surprised, Mary MacDonald usually isn’t one to be dissuaded or take no for an answer. Lily watches her hook her arm through Mr. Black’s, a near comical pairing of opposites in Lily’s eyes, and start pulling him away, ignoring both Mr. Black’s and Lily’s protests. Lily knows exactly what Mary is up to— anyone with a brain can see what she is up to.

“Mary—!”

“This isn’t— really now, there’s no need to manhandle me, Miss MacDonald.”

“Of course there isn’t,” Lily hears Mary say, her voice fading as she escorts Mr. Black back up the lane, “Especially considering that I’m going to buy you a drink after this.”

That was enough to convince him to cooperate. His whole body straightens once more back to his full, graceful height, and Mr. Black turns to give a final, cheerful salute to Mr. Potter as he accepts his fate.

“Miss MacDonald is an impressive creature,” Mr. Potter says, admiration laced through his voice. “Not many can convince Sirius to do what he doesn’t want to do.”

“That’s Mary,” Lily sighs, accepting her fate here as well. She starts walking back towards Mary’s, back towards Privet House, knowing Mr. Potter will follow. “And you, as well, it seems. You’ve convinced him to stay at the Manor for longer than he’s happy.”

Mr. Potter takes her in with an evaluating gaze, careful, before answering in a level sort of way. “In the end, no one can force Sirius to do anything he doesn’t want to do. Not even me— and I wouldn’t dream of asking him to, either. If he truly thought there was nothing to be gained from being here, we’d be back in London faster than you could blink.”

Around them, the vestiges of town development fade away, leaving nothing but overgrown trees and flowers and weeds and bushes in their path. This is the part of the walk Lily cherishes, the in between and the uncontrolled. She’s never gotten over the allure of untethered nature, especially now in the fall, with leaves in vibrant colors just before their death. She’s always admired their ability to go out with such a bang. 

“What’s to be gained, then?” Lily asks openly, pulling her eyes away from the reds and golds and browns around them. She finds most of those colors in his eyes anyway.

“Laughs,” Mr. Potter shrugs, then smiles at her. It continues to be a nice thing. “Friends.” 

She nods, slowly, taking him in (also slowly). That’s a hard thing to do— Mr. Potter isn’t suited for leisurely consumption. He seems to demand attention, demand processing, demand space without ever explicitly doing so. It is just who he is, this compilation of big smiles, big hands, big heart. She wonders how it’s like for him to go about the world without exhausting it; surely everyone he encounters is as overwhelmed as she is when taking him in. Surely this must be something special about him, not anything special of the bond between them, that she feels this sense of too much, not enough, too fast, too slow, too much and too little around him. 

Still. She looks up at him, straining her neck,trying to keep desperation out of her voice when she asks, sad, mulling is words over in her own mouth. “Hm. Friends. Shall we still be friends when I am Mrs. Malfoy, Mr. Potter?”

He doesn’t answer her right away. She didn’t think he would. His long fingers linger along the shrubbery at their height, his touch grazing the earth in the same twofold way the rest of his senses tend to operate— gently, but with the attitude that it is his for the taking anyway. She thinks again about old Grecian youths. He is asynchronous in that way, someone out of time and place, in the way he reminds her of the past but makes her think of the future. 

“I think it would be a violation of all chivalry to leave you in such desperate times as that, Miss Evans,” he finally says, quiet and soft but firm in that same dichotomous way of his, able to occupy extremes without being overwhelmed by them. Dichotomous, asynchronous.  She thinks about the days of Arthur when he talks of chivalry, reminded of lions and swords and armor. “I could not stand to abandon you then, when it would give me  opportune chance to report to Minerva McGonagall just whether or not her teachings truly did fall to the wayside, as she so feared they would.”

“Oh! That’s right!” Lily exclaims, properly distracted from overanalyzing his response. “I had completely forgotten! Will you tell me how you know Madame McGonagall now, sir? Or will you keep your secrets in that dirty, rotten leverage tactic of yours-- for which you should know I’ve resented you for it since that day.”

Mr. Potter laughs, shaking his head at her. “I hate to know I’ve caused you distress, Miss Evans. Or perhaps I don’t hate to know that. Perhaps I find vexing you one of my many joys in life.”

Lily hits him with her coin purse again, smiling widely, just like him. 

“See? I’ll have to tell Madame McGonagall that it truly was tragic of her to have to leave your education early to take care of her family.”

“That she did!” Lily exclaimed, nudging him on. “But how do you know that?”

“She left her post to take care of my mother,” Mr. Potter tells her, his hands now clasped behind his back, walking very tall. She likes it when he does that, likes the chance to watch him. “Not family, not technically, but she and my mother grew up together. I was away at school when she fell ill; I had no idea, or I would have been home immediately. I owe Minerva McGonagall a great deal. She nursed my mother back from the brink of death, and in that, likely saved my father as well. I should say it may be tragic she’s left you without knowledge of a proper dinner set, but I am not sorry in the least she did so.”

He’s smiling softly, gently, sadly, tales of the past mixed in with the hopes and fears of the present. He’s smiling softly at her, letting her in on something personal, on something meaningful, letting her in on the matters that stir his heart and his action. Lily finds herself having to look away from that expression, from that sincerity. 

“Nor am I,” Lily agrees softly, her eyes on the fork of the road in the distance. Talk of her governess has brought them back to the farms, where Lily had been fighting every urge not to escape to since the first day she got trapped at the Manor. The temptation to reminisce down memory lane is too strong to resist. 

“This will do, Mr. Potter,” Lily tells him, stopping right there where the path splits. “I’ll find the rest of my way home.”

He looks at her with some confusion, his long legs having already taken him down the other path. “Privet House is this way, if I’m not mistaken.”

“Yes,” Lily confirms. “And if you take the bend in the path just past Mary’s, you’ll find yourself back at the Manor.”

“Yes,” he repeats idly back, his eyes narrowed at her as she starts to walk backwards down her own path, her eyes still on him, her feet finding familiar earth. “I thought no one was allowed—“

“Goodbye, Mr. Potter!” She waves, finally turning back towards home, feeling vitality seep back into her with every step she takes towards home. 

He watches her go until he can no longer see her in the distance. He watches her long after that, too, eyes focused on the spot her small form finally disappeared, thinking.

****

She recognizes the footsteps, impossible though that may be, improper though that may be. She recognizes the footsteps and feels no fear, feels no stirring of danger there in her stomach where it’s usually housed. She just feels the air shift around them as he nears, step after step, crunch after crunch. She feels that spot in her chest where her heart is housed, where emotions besides fear are housed, become warmer, glowing, growing, when he stops and stands still for once, right here, right next to her. 

“You come here often,” he says, speaking the words out into the night, up into the same patch of stars she’s been looking towards for hours now. She knows he’s looking at the stars. She’s looking at him. 

He looks back down. She doesn’t look away.

Lily doesn’t answer him, either, though he isn’t expecting a response. She just pats the grass next to her, inviting Mr. Potter to sit, since he’s here already and she’s learned that getting rid of him is no simple task. He doesn’t just sit; he lies down next to her, limbs splayed indecently across the earth just like hers are. 

“You’re out late,” he comments mildly, languidly, softly. 

She likes it, here on the ground with him. They are finally equals. She answers him, lazily, casually, teasingly, 

“No later than you.”

“I guess that’s fair.”

She raises an eyebrow, smirk tugging up at her lip. She’s looking at the stars again. She doesn’t know where he’s looking. “You guess?”

She can practically hear him smile, like the voltage of its release is tangible energy. “Alright. I more than guess. I know.” I know. I know you.

“Alright,” Lily simply repeats, turning his word over in her mouth, but that’s it. She lets the next minutes pass on, counting stars, tracing constellations with the caress of her eyes roving the sky. 

Eventually, when she feels like it, when she knows it’s the right time, she asks,“Why are you here, Mr. Potter?”

He shrugs on the ground next to her. She knows he does; she feels it, perhaps because his shoulder is brushing against her own. Curious. 

“Oh, you know.” You know me. “The thrill of breaking and entering on abandoned property has always been a weak spot of mine,” he grins, sharp and lovely. She’s turned her head to watch him answer, because she wants to watch him. They’re equals here on the ground. She can do that— watch him, like he watches her. Maybe he broadens his grin, sharpens its edges, because she’s watching him. He certainly seems to intentionally glow when he shrugs again, easy, joking. “Ask Sirius.”

Lily gives him the smile she suspects he’s waiting for, small, exasperated, entertained, charmed, before she shakes her head back and forth against the ground, feeling the back of her skull roll with a pleasant sort of pressure. She laughs, softly, careful not to disturb the night.

“I’m glad you find trespassing humorous, Miss Evans. It makes me want to do so more.”

She’s still smiling. “I’m so sorry to disappoint you, then,  Mr. Potter. We aren’t breaking and entering, at least not yet.”

“We’re not?”

“We’re not,” she repeats again, taking a deep breath, eyes back on the skies, on an empty expanse of vacant, empty promises. “This is my land. This was-- and will be-- my farm.”

He doesn’t respond, not immediately. He doesn’t respond for so long that she thinks he just won’t. They’re lying on the ground and she reconsiders the idea they could be equals when he has such power over her thoughts, when the simple suspicion that the light touch along the sleeve of her dress at her elbow might be him playing with the loose fabric there, like a boy tugging at fabric for her attention. But that could be the wind’s doing, rustling the grass, tricking her. 

She doesn’t want it to be the wind. 

His voice, when he does respond, when the time is right, is nothing more than a soft sigh into the night.

“You never said.”

“It doesn’t matter, anyway,” she whispers back. “I’m going to lose it all.”

She feels him shift. “What do you mean?”

He feels her shrug. His shoulder still brushes hers. 

“The minute I marry, I inherit the farm. The minute I marry, all my property passes to my husband. That’s the only way the land stayed in the family, you see.” Lily says, a whisper, breathed still into the night, breathed out and away from the weight in her chest. “My father was smart. He was also too ahead of his time for anyone’s good, least of all mine.” She pauses, thinks, feels, doesn’t know which is more important in this life. “I used to admire him. I used to think reverently about his memory. In all this time, I stayed away from here for simple fear of disappointing his ghost. Now I think he was a fool with too much faith in this world and too much faith in my sister to do the right thing.” She pauses, tries to stop herself from crying. This is old news, old pain. It isn’t worth crying over. 

“I wonder what he would make of me now,” she says quietly, shakily, praying for the wind to take more than her words, praying for the wind to cover her in dirt and seed until she is engulfed, reborn, out of this life. “I don’t think it’s fair that he gets to die and leave me here to pay for his optimism.”

She feels him shift, because they’re touching there at the shoulder, there along the arm, there almost almost almost at the hand, fingers brushing one another in doubtful, desirous ways. She thinks that if she were to turn her head, she’d find his face very near hers, too close, too far. 

“What are you saying?” He asks, his own whisper in the wind. “Miss Evans, what do you mean? Do you not wish to be married?”

Lily lifts one of her hands to palm away at the tear that’s rolled down her cheek. Her hands brushes his on its way up. She thinks his tried to follow, thinks his hand has a mind of its own that intended to intercept hers, intended to clasp her fingers in his in a such a simple gesture of kindness, connection, affection.

“Do you know how suffocating it is to be a woman?” Lily asks, ignoring his question, still staring at the skies, almost accusatory. At him or at the heavens, she doesn’t know. “To know that nothing is yours? To know that whatever you have belongs to whatever man is nearest to you, a father, a husband, a son? If not those, then a cousin you have never heard of before comes in to take your home simply because he can, because that is the way it is. If you’re lucky, he’ll propose to you and you’ll find yourself only miserable instead of both miserable and destitute.” She wipes away another tear before declaring to him, not to the heavens this time, turning her head to look him in the (close, very very close) eye, “The responsibility of choosing your fate is a terrible burden. I envy your privilege of carrying it.”

James Potter doesn’t respond. She isn’t sure how he could or what she expects from a response, anyway. He’s so close to her that she can’t look at his whole face at once. Her eyes have to pick where to look, like his do, too. She tries to keep her eyes on his, green to hazel, but that’s hard to do when both sets keep looking down at lips instead.

“I wish I could give it to you,” Mr. Potter says eventually, adding his whisper to the air surrounding them, adding his prayer to the earth around them. “That burden. I want to know what you’d do with it.”

Lily shrugs against his shoulder, human contact under layers of fabric and layers of expectations between them. “We’ll never know.”

He sort of shakes his head. He sort of opens his mouth, looks like he wants to say something, looks like what he wants to speak into existence is important, and Lily knows she’s hit her limit of things she can handle in one evening. 

“Why—“

“It’s late,” Lily says, sitting up. He sits up next to her, shoulders still brushing. Lily brings herself to standing fully, shaking some of the grass off her skirts. “Walk me home?”

He takes a moment to react. She thinks he doesn’t want to drop the subject, but, good man that he is, he obliges.

“Of course,” Mr. Potter replies, standing as well. James Potter doesn’t have to do this, but he is, for her. She tries to feel like something ordinary, something beyond this gesture. He wipes the dirt off his trousers, then follows her lead on the walk back to Privet House in silence that is both comfortable and not. It’s familiar, yet not. He’s familiar, yet not. Lily still doesn’t know what to do with any of this and doesn’t even know what she wants with any of this. 

“Your family won’t notice you’ve been gone for so long?” He asks when Privet House comes back into view, taking it in for the first time. For all of Petunia’s pride in the house, it is nothing extraordinary, small and plain. 

“I am either too noticed or never noticed,” Lily shrugs, keeping their pace slow as their walk together comes to an end. “Mr. Dursley and the Lady Dursley were busy finishing a bottle of brandy when I snuck out this afternoon, while Mrs. Dursley pretended to read sermons. My bet is they have fallen asleep by now.”

“May that brandy be strong, then,” Mr. Potter wishes for her, a small, restrained smile at the corner of his lips, soft, rueful. They’ve reached the courtyard, clandestine evening over. Lily feels a pang in her heart at the thought, at the acknowledgment that this is the end of the night— perhaps this is the end of them. Anyway. It must be past midnight now. Only two days before her engagement ball, a little over a week to the wedding.

“I suppose this is goodnight, then,” Lily says, looking at him, not the house. He looks back at her, not at the house where he prays Petunia and Mr. Dursley have forgotten her, wonders what it would be like if they haven’t, wonders what it would ever be like to forget Lily Evans. 

Lily doesn’t forget herself. She bows, grabbing her skirts into a curtsy, dipping her head down in formality. He bows in response. He does something else too, taking her hand in his to place a kiss upon, fingers curled around fingers, skin brushing skin. Lily remembers how Mr. Black held her hand to kiss in greeting a month ago, how even then this was a joke to him. Right here,  right now, doesn’t feel like a joke. With Mr. Potter’s eyes searching hers, head still bent reverently over her hand, breath still hovering over her knuckles, Lily can’t think of anything that could be remotely funny about this situation.

“Goodnight, Miss Evans,” Mr. Potter says, another whisper, another form of desperate prayer that she doesn’t understand, doesn’t know how to have faith in. When he steps away, he’s careful to walk backwards, step after slow step, still watching her, still trying to discover what secrets of life he can discern from the planes of her face. She wonders what he finds there. Lily gives him until he cannot reasonably walk backwards any longer, until he cannot reasonably read her face any longer, before she turns to sneak back into her house.  

The top of her hand, the exact spot his lips brushed with careful, intentional affection, burns long after he’s gone.

****

“It’s the latest style, of course,” the dressmaker tells her, pins in her mouth, hands gathering some of the excess fabric at the bottom of the white gown. “Couldn’t have asked for a lovelier bride to showcase it, either.

She thinks it possible Petunia snorted behind her, but Lily stares at herself in the reflection, taking in the image before her. The low neckline of the dress dips wonderfully far below her collarbone, creating a flattering square shape before meeting long sleeves at the end. The corset cinches at her waist before expanding out to create the illusion of hips as billowing silk fabric radiates from the angled cut marking the bottom of the corset. 

“You do look lovely, Lily,” Mary says at her side, walking around her to admire her from all vantages. Lily smiles slightly back at Mary in the mirror.

“I suppose so,” Lily agrees half-heartedly, thinking the corset felt much more like a casket than a nice garment. The silk is soft beneath her fingers, iridescent in the light, reacting to her touch like liquid pearls. It’s incredibly expensive, she knows, because it’s what Mr. Malfoy demanded on rush order for her. Lily can’t imagine how many hours of how many skilled hands were pressured into creating this. Looking into the mirror again, Lily finds the vestiges of her humble origins taken away by the fine folds of fabric, all erased except for what cannot be hidden or forgotten in her red hair curling at her cheeks and freckles spattering across her skin. She wishes she felt more like herself. She wishes she didn’t have to become a porcelain doll to be wed. She wishes the sight of herself didn’t sicken her. 

“Enough of this,” Petunia stands up, calling attention back to herself. “Stop showcasing yourself, Lily, and have the girl finish pinning in private. Madam Malkin, I’d like to see my new dress, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course, Mrs. Dursley,” Madam Malkin tipped her head respectfully at Petunia, beckoning her to follow her to a dressing room behind the showroom. Lily blinks, startled back into the reality of the dress shop, and manages to pull what tears wanted to spill out back into her eyes. She steps down from the pedestal, gathering the excessive fabric around her legs up into her arms to navigate the shop easier.

“I’ll be right back. I’m going to look at the muslin,” Mary tells Lily over her shoulder as Madam Malkin’s assistant leads Lily to the other side of the shop to the available fitting room. “I’m thinking of a new walking dress. And maybe a ribbon.”

More things for Mary to add to her sewing kit that will never see the light of day, but that’s Mary, always caught up in the plan over execution. Between mulling over her friend’s habits and navigating the large dress between stacks of fabrics and shop tables, Lily doesn’t notice exactly who she bumps into until she does, literally . She immediately drops the dress back down.

“Mr. Potter,” Lily feels her mouth tug up in a smile, the business of the dress shop forgotten, the sore empty pit of her stomach filled. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t looking where I was going.” Her mouth pulls wider into its smile, wanting to see his do the same. It’s been less than twelve hours since he walked her home last night. Her hand burns again from where he touched it. “Fancy running into you here.”

Mr. Potter, for his part, seems a bit startled. He doesn’t answer her at first, eyes roving across the white dress, pinned primly, corset tight. He gathers himself after a mere moment, eyes darting back up to hers, his smile pulling up at his lips too slowly, too tightly, to be what she’s used to. 

“Miss Evans,” he gives a slight bow. It feels forced. 

“What are you doing here?” She asks, trying to make casual conversation, the way they could every other time they’d run into each other.

“Lost a bet with Sirius,” he smiles, which feels more relaxed now, feels more honest now. “He gets to stay back and lounge in his room while I pick up the mended jackets.”

“Unlucky you.”

“Unlucky indeed,” Mr. Potter says, eyes trailing back down over her dress. Lily imagines she can feel the gaze like a physical thing, uncertain, grazing, tantalizing. 

“Do you like it?” Lily asks, self-conscious, giving the fabric a bit of a spin, turning to show the back of the corset. “The dress?”

“A vision, isn’t she?”

Mary comes up behind Lily, waving a handful of silk ribbons over her head. Mr. Potter turns his attention away from Lily’s exposed collarbone to Mary, a difficult feat. 

“Miss MacDonald,” he greets, warm smile back on his face. “Pleasure running into you, as well.”

“Oh, a pleasure, I’m sure,” Mary smirks, then looks over Mr. Potter’s shoulder. “Where’s Mr. Black? He’s usually at your heels, loyal dog that he is.”

Mr. Potter actually laughs fondly, a sound that rings in Lily’s ears. “I’ve always told Sirius I thought he’d make a better dog than man. Lazy sod is sleeping off a hangover, if we’re being completely honest. I think he had a very good time at the pub with you, Miss MacDonald. He’ll be greatly ashamed to know you’re a functioning member of society this fine morning.”

“You city folk always underestimate me,” Mary says proudly, standing tall. “But if we’re being completely honest here, Mr. Potter, I think we should include everyone in this conversation. Right, Lily? Anything you’d like to be honest about?”

Lily knows there’s no subtle way to glare daggers at her best mate right in front of Mr. Potter, but she does anyway. Lily covers for it with a smooth smirk back up at Mr. Potter, who is regarding Mary with his own open curiosity. 

“I’m sure he deserves whatever ill he’s experiencing,” Lily says with some authority, straightening out her dress. 

“I’ll tell him you said so,” Mr. Potter warns, smiling at her. 

“Good,” Lily smiles. “Tell him I said he can use some humility. His good looks have made him think he’s far too charming and far too immune to the world for his own good.”

Again, Mr. Potter laughs, and again, Lily has the urge to do nothing more than make sure she can make him laugh again, make him smile again and feel that joy reverberate through her bones like that more and more and more. 

“Come,” Mary nudges Lily forward, trying to get her feet to move again. “Petunia’s going to flip if we aren’t there to croon over her ugly new dress.”

“Alright,” Lily cedes, also trying to get her feet to move forward, and they do, eventually, reluctantly. With a rueful smile, she bids, “Goodbye, Mr. Potter.”

She only makes it a few paces before she feels a tug on her dress. Turning, Lily sees that she isn’t caught on a corner or anything like that. Looking down, Lily sees it’s Mr. Potter’s long fingers that have caught her dress fabric near her hip. His fingers toy with the cream silk, eyes downcast. When he does look up at her, after a moment, after forever, he meets her openly curious gaze with a guarded expression she hasn’t really seen on him before. 

“You are a vision,” Mr. Potter confesses quietly, not really looking her in the eye. “But I don’t care for the dress. Nor the occasion.”

Before she can respond, he’s giving her another short bow, leaving her with nothing more than a smile brighter than it should be and a “Cheers, Miss Evans,” before he was gone. 

****

“Whose side are you even on, hm?” Lily pokes at Mary, her fingers jabbing into the boning of Mary’s dress. “Could you please refrain from exposing me in front of Mr. Potter?”

“I wish I could expose you in front of Mr. Potter,” Mary sighs dramatically, arm in arm with Lily while Petunia walks a good few paces ahead of them back to the carriage. “You’re too well trained for that.”

“Well trained?” Lily’s eyes widen in some offense. “I’m not well trained, I’m engaged to another man!”

“Yes, another man you don’t wish to marry.  I’m just of the opinion that that’s even more of a reason to have one last dalliance with this one,” Mary shrugs. “Mr. Potter strikes me as the sort of man who knows how not to be caught in mischief. My advice is you take him up on any sort of proposition he has for you.”

****

“I heard that Miss Skeeter was trying to get her hands on an invitation so she could create copies,” Marlene tells Lily, gently pulling away the fabric keeping her hair curled tightly and far neater than would have been natural. Her fingers work delicately though Lily’s thick hair, skillfully determining to see just how to pin what, where. “I don’t think she succeeded— what with such short notice of an occasion, and then with the covetous attitude everyone’s been keeping their invitation secure, all while boasting publicly about how and why they got invited.”

“It’s like we’ve never had a ball here before,” says Mary, lounging on Lily’s bed, scoffing lightly. “Some big money bags roll into town and everyone loses their heads. It’s embarrassing, really.”

“I don’t know,” Marlene counters, biting her lip. “We certainly haven’t had one with this level of grandeur, Miss MacDonald. I should dearly like to see it, just to know what all those fashionable women will be wearing.”

“I’m sure you won’t be missing much, Marlene,” Lily comforts. “I’m sorry. You know I asked Petunia if you could come.”

“I know,” Marlene smiles at Lily through the mirror, a comforting and familiar gesture from her maid. “Don’t worry about me. Tom says Mrs. Dursley promised us punch for the evening so long as we get our work done.”

Lily nearly snorts, disrupting the meticulous way Marlene has been stringing pearls through the curls she’s pinned, further supported by small braids providing structure to her updo. “That’s Christmas come early. I wonder what’s gotten into Tuney.”

Marlene smiles wickedly at her. “Tom caught her finishing off a bottle of mead by herself in the pantry the other night. Says she was hiding from the dogs. I think the Lady Dursley has finally cracked her.”

“Poor Tuney,” Lily revels, not feeling sympathetic in the least. It was a comfort to see she could still be affected by the world. 

“That looks lovely, Marlene,” Mary admires, standing up from the bed and stretching her arms up, relishing the last moments of being in nothing but undergarments before suffering a corset for the evening. 

“Thank you, Miss,” Marlene says graciously. “If you help me lace up Lily’s gown, I can do something quick to your hair.” 

“Oh, no, it’s not time for any of that yet, is it?” Lily asks, distressed, trying to put off this moment for as long as possible. 

“Sorry, Lily,” Marlene apologizes, scrunching up her nose. “But have you seen the dress? It’ll take ages to lace properly.”

Marlene was right, in the end. The dress Mr. Malfoy gifted her is certainly a product of an expensive, skilled dressmaker from London or even Paris and is certainly further evidence of women’s low status in society, for Lily would sorely like to see a man forced to endure standing still while multiple hands tug and pull at their waistline until breathing becomes far more of a chore than it should. 

For all the pains, the end result is admittedly something stunning. When Marlene and Mary finally step away after helping her into a pair of heels, Lily takes a moment to admire herself in the reflection. The emerald green silk of the dress is rich, full in color. It brings out the green of her eyes to an unexpected capacity, accents the pale glow of her skin. Like her wedding dress, the bust is cut low and tight to display more of her chest than she’d usually be allowed and the corset cinches to gift her an impossibly small waist that meets a bustle beneath, giving the dress body. Puffed sleeves stop right before her long, matching opera gloves pushed above the crook of her elbow. 

“One last thing, ma’am,” Marlene tells her after tying a string of pearls around her neck to match the pearls in her hair. “Your ring.”

“Do I have to?” Lily complains, holding up her hand, caught in the act she’d been playing of avoiding wearing it. Marlene pats her hand sympathetically after she slips it onto her finger, not majorly impacted by the thin glove. 

“You look absolutely stunning, Lily,” Mary tells her, holding out her hands to get a full view of Lily’s dress. “If you weren’t already engaged, you certainly would be after tonight the moment some old, sorry, fussy gentleman saw you in this.” 

“I hope you find some old, sorry, fussy husband you can’t stand tonight,” Lily says bitterly. “I really do.”

“They couldn’t handle me,” Mary says over her shoulder, sitting down for Marlene to help her with her hair. “Especially not when I finally get to wear one of your new gowns tonight. Do you think Mr. Malfoy will notice?”

“Most likely not.”

“Excellent,” Mary muses, pleased. “Bodes well for the rest of the clothes I’m going to steal from you, then.”

Lily catches herself snorting at Mary in the mirror, amused and only jokingly exasperated. She really does look very pretty. She wonders why she doesn’t care for what Mr. Malfoy might think of her in this dress. She only cares for how another man might react.

Lily’s stomach has been in a knot since she woke up that morning, and she experiences no relief in the carriage ride over to the Manor, suffocating in the small coach between her dress, Mary’s, Petunia’s (complete with large feather flouncing in her hair), and Mr. Dursley’s very presence. 

Maybe being so dressed up made her think of herself as, for once, being a significant player in this whole affair. She was wrong. The party is in full swing by the time the attendant helps each one of them out of the carriage. He has the manners to bow particularly low to her, muttering her name in acknowledgment before rushing to help the next carriage. She can hear the music from inside rolling  down the large marble stairs, which are much harder to navigate with so much extra dress on her, with guests drinking and conversing on the patio. Mary’s eyes are wide in amazement, taking in the mass amounts of familiar folk as well as new faces who must have come from London or other places across the county and country. Lily notices that what she’s considered so fashion forward and new on her must be the norm for these unfamiliar guests. She ultimately blends right in, losing that small appeal of being special in this all over again. 

“Honestly,” Mr. Dursley huffs when he finished elbowing his way through the main foyer. “You’d think they’d have some manners around here and show us the proper respect. Are we guests of honor or not?”

Next to him, Petunia purses her lips in that way she always does, that ridiculous feather flouncing in its own display of displeasure. “I’m sure they’ll do something for us later, dear. But look! The Mason’s are here. Come along, come along, Let’s remind at least them who made tonight possible…”

The moment they’re free of chaperones, Lily grabs Mary’s hand and they rush into the main hall, giggling like they used to at their first balls together, back when they were young and things were new and bright, champagne and music and dancing the only things on their minds. 

“Come on,” Mary smiles at Lily, tugging her along. “I want to see the main room and show you off as you should be.”

“I should probably find Mr. Malfoy,” Lily muses as she puts down her now empty champagne flute. “I don’t understand. I thought brides were supposed to start the ball. I wasn’t told to be here early.”

Mary sets her champagne flute next to Lily’s. “Perhaps Mr. Malfoy is a modern man and doesn’t care for conventions.”

“Doesn’t care for me, I think,” Lily says out loud before she can stop herself and then, looking at Mary, bursts into laughter with her, fighting their way into the cleared main hall converted into space for a reasonably sized band and dance floor crowded with moving bodies.

“Is that— impossible,” Mary observes with scrunched eyebrows. “Hold on, Lily, I have to see— I’ll catch back up to you!” She promises over her shoulder, scurrying off through the crowd. Lily watches her go before steadying herself to make her way up to the front of the room, where Mr. Malfoy is surrounded by some gentlemen she recognizes, and others whom she doesn’t. The only woman present is  Bellatrix Lestrange, who spots Lily first, and mutters something to the ear of the man on her left. Lily watches the man as he turns to watch her through eyes that feel wrong. He’s a startlingly pretty man, well-groomed and impeccably styled in his black tuxedo that contrasts shockingly with his pale skin. Lily can’t help but hold his gaze the entire time she makes her way to the group, knowing more than just the class and gender power dynamic is being actively communicated to her as he regards her in that evaluative gaze. It isn’t until she is right upon the group that Mr. Crabbe directs Mr. Malfoy’s attention to her behind him. 

Lily breaks eye contact with the stranger first. She feels as if she lost some game she doesn’t know the rules to. 

“Mr. Malfoy,” Lily dips down lower than usual in her curtsey, knowing she’s still being watched. “You’ve created an absolutely splendid evening,” she tells him, internally wincing at her own groveling. She gives him the same charming smile she used to give the butcher for discounts. “I daresay this night will be the only thing the countryside will be able to talk about until Christmas.”

“Given how little happens here, Miss Evans, I’m sure you’re right,” he says back. She wants to believe he meant it as a joke or compliment. Behind his shoulder, she sees that man leave the Lestrange’s, gliding up until he’s snuck up on Mr. Malfoy. Lily doesn’t break eye contact this time. 

“Introduce us, will you, Lucius?” He asks. Lily doesn’t like his voice. That’s all she registers; that there is something that feels wrong, wrong about this man.

“But of course,” Mr. Malfoy bows his head slightly, extending out his hand as if to present her. “Mr. Riddle, my fiance. Miss Lily Evans.”

Lily curtseys as expected of her, low and formal, knowing this is a man of power and status she has previously not encountered. She notices that he does not bow, doesn’t pretend to be polite here. He observes her through narrowed eyes, hands clasped behind his back.

“Truly fascinating move, Lucius,” Mr. Riddle comments idly, already turning away to stalk back to his other friends, “I’m interested to see how you manage this.” 

Lily keeps a static smile on her face, vacant, trying to use it as a mask to hide the fire burning in her head, an art she’s perfected over the years and a skill she was a fool to think she would be able to leave behind after her marriage.

“Yes, sir,” Mr. Malfoy responds, like what Riddle remarked was a command, watching him return to Mrs. Lestrange’s side, muttering something in her ear. Lily drops her fake smile the moment Bellatrix’s eyes lock onto hers, a practical snarl on her lips. Lily narrows her eyes at the other woman, knowing that this is only the beginning of a life-long power struggle between the two of them. She senses Mr. Malfoy redirect his attention back to her, and immediately, she’s able to put that static smile back on her lips, painted on like a beautiful forgery.

Mr. Malfoy looks at her with curiosity, his head tilted. He’d seen her shift, and something in her feels cold at the prospect. She doesn’t like that. She doesn’t like that she’s shown she might be something more than the quiet girl she’s acted like for her own protection. Slightly panicked, she turns the static smile on her face into something that might seem more genuine, asking, “Do you dance, Mr. Malfoy?”

“I do not, Miss Evans,” he tells her evenly, hands clasped behind his back like Mr. Riddle’s, closed off, copying him, “I find conversation with friends much more enchanting than being passed from stranger to stranger.” Then his lips turn up slightly, like he’s realized just how unsociable he is and is trying to apologize, nodding over to the dance floor and telling her, “Go. Enjoy the evening with your people. They’ll be happy to see you mingle.”

“Thank you, Mr. Malfoy,” Lily curtseys again, surprised at her early and easy release. “I do hope you’ll consider at least one dance with me,” she says quietly, sadly, both truthfully and untruthfully. She doesn’t know what she wants. “An indulgence. Practice for when we shall be permanent partners, yes?”

“Ah,” Mr. Malfoy nods curtly, already turned back to his friends. “An indulgence. Perhaps, Miss Evans.”

Properly dismissed now and feeling both rejected and relieved, an unpleasant combination that sinks into her stomach like a weight, Lily scans the room for Mary. She also scans the room for another person and perhaps even his friend, but neither are to be seen right now, a disappointment. She’s trying not to let it bother her, but she’d been led to believe that drinking and frivolity are all they were here for, anyway, so if they’ve abandoned her already, what was the point of any of their friendship in the first place?

“Lily!” Mary beckons her over, cutting through her thoughts and through the din of the crowd, waving enthusiastically. “Lily, over here! Come! Greet this fine gentleman,” Mary announces as Lily draws nearer, gesturing to the man in front of her. Coming closer, it takes Lily a moment to recognize a man she’s known her whole life. 

“Ted!” Lily greets, shocked. The farmhand she and Mary grew up running around and throwing apples at for fun, the kind of fun two young girls find endlessly entertaining to the detriment of a nice, charming young man obviously playing along, stands before her in a slightly ill-fitting, second hand suit so different from his usual working clothes. “What are you doing here?” Lily gushes, taking him in. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you dressed up— or clean!”

“Thanks, Miss Evans,” Ted rolls his eyes at her, his cheeks still summer-tanned from all his labors outside. “Please, I welcome you, help me feel more out of place, will you?”

“No more out of place than me and Mary,” Lily comforts, putting her hand on his arm in solidarity. “Forgive me, Ted, you truly are a welcome sight.”

“Thank you,” he smiles now, genuinely, broad shoulders standing a bit more tall and proud now. “This is supposed to be your party, is it not?”

“Allegedly,” Lily nods vacantly, causing Mary to laugh again next to her. Ted smiles sympathetically.

“Then your approval is all I need to feel welcome,” he says, shaking his head in amusement, taking in the scene. “I cannot imagine Lily Evans the mistress of this estate. I didn’t think you’d ever find a gentleman who could handle you. Where is this Mr. Malfoy? Does he know you’re an absolute menace to the peace of mind for those simply trying to work, with your incessant questions and good aim?”

“Laugh it up, Ted,” Lily says primly. “My aim is still good, you know.”

In an effort to perhaps avoid the scenario where Lily gets to prove she’d still be able to hit Ted Tonks in the head with a projectile, Mary changes the subject, asking, “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” 

“Because I honestly couldn’t believe I was invited,” he rubs his neck, his ears turned slightly pink. In all the years Lily’s known him and teased him, she doesn’t think she’s ever actually seen him look as sheepish as he does now. “I didn’t want this dream to end by speaking it out loud.”

“Who invited you?” Lily prods, endlessly curious about who Ted Tonks is connected to, considering that Lily knew he spent all of his time between the MacDonald estate and The Three Broomsticks in town.

“Me,” a voice rings proudly behind Lily, who turns around, her head swiveling on her neck to see Andromeda Black, dressed better than Lily’s ever seen her, stand with her sharp chin held high in the air as she holds out a glass of wine for Ted and keeps the champagne for herself. Bolder still, Andromeda uses her free hand to cup his chin and place a kiss on Ted’s cheek, causing his ears to go even more red. 

“Mr. Tonks has been kind to me these past few weeks. He’s been showing me the village,” Andromeda smiles, an almost vicious point to it compared to Ted’s ducked head, full cheek, shy smile. Lily watches them in absolute entertainment, absolutely floored at the odd couple. “I thought I’d follow in your footsteps, Miss Evans, and go for one of those long walks you’re so fond of. What a wonderful mistake that was.”

“I found her with a broken heel, sitting absolutely dejected in the middle of the road, muddied beyond belief. I helped her home,” Ted explains to them, though he’s looking at Andromeda, easy and teasing. “And then we kept running into one another in happy circumstance.”

Judging by Andromeda’s coquettish smile, Lily understands that “happy circumstance” is actually careful calculation from a woman getting exactly what she wants. It’s wonderfully impressive to witness. 

“He was kind enough to show me the local landscapes. I thought to repay him by showing him that not all drinking has to be done in dirty, low lit pubs.”

“You had no complaints about those pubs,” Ted teases again. 

“I don’t,” Andromeda nods, still smiling. “I didn’t expect to find the countryside so stimulating. I’m more than happy to be proven wrong.” 

“It’s certainly the countryside that’s gotten you to change your opinion,” Mary says right before taking a sip of her drink. Lily laughs, nearly choking on her own drink, and the moment is thankfully lost to the band having started a new song to the delight of couples across the ballroom. 

“Oh, this one I know,” Ted sighs gratefully. “Another dance, Miss Black?”

He’s already tugging her along by the time Andromeda calls over her shoulder, “Enjoy your party!”

Watching the two of them dance a chipper, excitable sauteuse waltz, Lily thinks that Andromeda has never looked more different than her older sister. Andromeda Black dancing along with Ted Tonks is a young girl, happy and carefree. Lily thinks they might be inverses of one another, that Miss Black can chose to leave her cage by marriage while Lily takes her place. They both will pay a heavy price.

Ted,” Mary says in disbelief. “Can you believe it? Ted.” 

“I think it’s fitting,” Lily comments, still watching them. Across the room, she sees Narcissa and Bellatrix doing the same, eyes carefully tracking their sister’s movements. “I think they know what they’re doing.”

In watching Andromeda and Ted dance, Lily’s eyes finally lay claim on Mr. Black, his back turned in conversation. Mr. Potter isn’t with him. 

“You’ll be alright?” Lily asks, gesturing with her head to her intended target. Mary raises an eyebrow at Lily, noticing Mr. Potter’s absence as well, but blessedly gives Lily little trouble or teasing, simply saying back with a sly smile, “I’m sure I’ll manage.”

Lily gives Mary’s hand a squeeze in thanks before making her way around the dance floor, through thick crowds, to reach her friend.

“Mr. Black,” Lily taps him on the shoulder in greeting. “I was starting to think— Oh.”

“I’m sorry,” this man says. It is not the Mr. Black she’s known for a month now. He looks just like him, except very much not at all. Same pale skin, same long, silky dark hair, but perhaps better fed than his doppleganger. “Have we met?”

“No,” Lily says, feeling her cheeks heat up, taking an instinctual step back. “I’m sorry, I was confused, I thought—“

“That this ugly copy was me?” That’s Mr. Black, making a dramatic entrance as always by coming to stand right next to his look alike, who looks none too pleased at Mr. Black’s arrival. He stands very still, very tall, nodding at who must be his twin brother. 

“Sirius.” 

Mr. Black gives the same curt nod. It looks even more painful for him. “Regulus.”

“Mother was asking of you,” Regulus Black says, picking an imaginary trail of lint off his formal suit in an effort to seem casual, detached. He isn’t as practiced as Sirius Black, though, who gives the more perfect performance in response.

“To see if I was dead yet? I hate to disappoint her once again.”

Regulus Black opens his mouth, looks like he wants to say something in response, but shuts it. Instead, his eyes flicker between her and Sirius, seeming to register who she must be.

“You and Mr. Potter have been making quite a stir here,” Regulus remarks, his eyes narrowing, his voice a much more quiet hiss when he asks, “What on earth were you thinking? Did you think no one would notice your absence from town, or the oddity of your being here instead? For a man who likes his distance, Sirius, this baffles me. On top of the impropriety, you’ve brought even more attention to her ,” he finishes, not by looking at her, but gesturing to her as if she really is the prop she’s imagined herself to be for so long.

Even in her mild, muted offense, Lily remains quiet. She allows Mr. Black to step slightly in front of her, instinctual, protective. Part of her recognizes that the conversation playing out in front of her is not about her, not about now, but about something older, more painful. It makes her want to grab Mr. Black’s hand. It makes her want to hug him.

“It’s Miss Evans’ wedding,” Sirius counters evasively, ignoring the rest of his brother’s jibes. “Why shouldn’t attention be paid to the bride?”

“To this bride, of no name and no family?” Regulus Black scoffs, rolling his eyes, making it seem like what he has to say should be the most obvious thing in the world. That’s a trait they share, making it seem like they are either the smartest person in the room or everyone else is simply a dunce. “People are talking, wondering what Malfoy could be up to, wondering what this girl could have done to bewitch him, wondering what this means for the Ministry seats in the county— far more than talk was a month ago, when everything was announced in the papers as is proper. Even Dumbledore has noticed. The attention on the affair is a mess, aided and abetted by rumors, Sirius, of the inappropriate friendship—“ 

Regulus stops himself, shutting his mouth before he could become further unrestrained. In a more even-toned, cool voice, back to that pretending act, he warns, “I just hope you know what you’re doing.”

“Now, that’s a sorry lie, Reg,” Sirius shakes his head mockingly. “You’ll have to shape up if you’re going to stay one of Riddle’s golden boys.”

Regulus opens his mouth to defend himself, then closes it. Lily gets the impression that he has swallowed many words meant for his brother. But then he actually opens it again, makes a step towards Mr. Black, who just puts his hand on the small of Lily’s back, pushing her forward, away from the other without so much as a good-bye.

“Come, Evans,” Mr. Black mutters, low enough just for her to hear, his hand still there on her back. She’s grateful for it. She thinks she needs the help moving after being frozen for too long.  “I need to talk to you, where we won’t be overheard.”

Oddly enough, he leads her right to the dance floor, where the couples have been dancing something slower than a sauteuse, giving them the time and tempo for muted conversation.

“I thought you wanted privacy,” Lily comments, idly, a contrast to the way her heart is beating loudly in her chest, a casual remark in stark contrast to the knowledge that what she witnessed was something important, something significant. Mr. Black holds her close, and that she knows is significant. He’s never struck her as the type of man who easily holds people closely, carefully. 

“This is private,” he says, still talking low for only her to hear, though he keeps his eyes scanning the room, once again perfecting that performance of nonchalance. She knows him enough to recognize the skill; she knows him enough to know he’s rattled, even as he continues casually, “Trick of the trade. Public settings are the only true place for intimacy.”

Lily just waits for him to fill her in, settling into the comfortable rhythm of this dance with Sirius Black. This is what she’s used to doing now and she’s near sick of it, all this waiting, waiting, waiting, for someone else to tell her what’s going on, for someone else to help her make sense of the world as it changes all around her. Mr. Black, good man that he is, obliges.

”Something’s going on here, Evans, and I don’t like it. I can’t make sense of any of it,” Mr. Black mutters to her, his mouth close to her ear, his eyes still searching around the room as they spin just like the other couples. She wishes she could be just like the other couples. She wishes her life wasn’t this game of chess she’s playing without being able to see the board. What Mr. Black tells her does not help her grasp the game any clearer. “Regulus, ponce that he is, is right. We have no idea what’s really happening. I don’t like that Riddle’s here. It seems like it means something.”

“We’ve always known Mr. Malfoy’s admired him,” Lily says evenly, trying to ignore the chill down her spine at the recollection of their first encounter. “The Lestrange’s, Crabbe, Goyle—”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Mr. Black shakes his head, trying to put the pieces together. “I can’t explain it, Evans. It’s just a feeling. Do your best to avoid his attention,” he warns her. “Riddle’s a snake if I’ve ever seen one. I’ve known him my whole life.”

“You have?” Lily asks, looking him in the eye rather than over his shoulder, as she had been. His carefully neutral expression is marred by the slightest of frowns now, too. 

“It’s not anything I’d make up to brag out about,” he mutters, still leading them flawlessly in this dance, her feet following his, her body reacting to the firm pressure of his hands directing his lead. “My parents have been supporters of his political campaigns since he first came onto the scene a decade ago. Imagine. A man from seemingly nothing suddenly charming his way into the homes, wallets, and wills of the elite. No one really knows where he’s come from, just that he was here, and people who stood in his way were robbed of their property, inheritance, wealth, and worse. I had enough reason to despise my parents before he showed up; I had even more reason after.”

“What am I supposed to do with this information?” Lily asks, after he’s spun her out, back in, gloved hand still in gloved hand. “I get it. This is bad, and getting worse. What on earth am I supposed to do about it?”

He looks at her like she should already have the answer. “Be bold about what your next steps are.”

“That’s what you keep telling me,” she complains, slightly impatient, irritable, hopeless, still following his lead. “But it isn’t an answer, Mr. Black. I don’t have any choice here.”

“How much is your freedom worth, Miss Evans?” Mr. Black asks, his mouth so near her ear that they stand, chest to chest, cheek to cheek, desperate martyr to desperate believer. “What is the cost of the right thing? Is it not worth everything? If not, then you are a different woman than who I have understood you to be.”

The song ends. So, too, does his hold on her, as important and precious as it’s felt. Before he can truly drop her hand from his, she grips it as the sinking feeling of dread settles into her like a familiar friend. This feels like the end of something, and she isn’t ready to figure out exactly what is over. 

“Indulge me, Mr. Black,” Lily whispers, unable to hold his gaze in hers, desperate believer becoming only desperate. “Help me stave off this inevitable shroud of loneliness, sir. Just for one more dance.”

Sirius Black doesn’t answer, not in the way she’d expected. He doesn’t rip his hands from hers, he doesn’t sulk away, he doesn’t bow gracefully out. Sirius Black gives Lily Evans a kiss on the cheek instead, something so wholly surprising yet comforting, fitting, that all she does is reach up to touch a hand to that spot, remembering this man to be one of enigma, hard to reach and harder to shake once in. 

“I’ve a better dance partner for you, Evans,” he mutters, voice still near her ear. “Just remember what I said, especially about those next precious steps.” 

Opening her eyes, Lily sees exactly who she has been searching for this whole evening and possibly for this whole life. He makes his way through the crowd and his smile lights up the room, lights up those dark corners of her heart that she’s been trying to keep shuttered for her own good. She thinks about how much work she’ll have putting those boards back up once she’s through letting him in. 

Mr. Potter walks up to her and Mr. Black on those too long legs, too bright smile, too much for one man in this day and age, and doesn’t take his eyes off her the whole time he makes his way through the crowd, stepping through chatting groups with ease, not missing a beat. 

It takes her a lot of effort to look polite, not pleased. This isn’t right. 

It feels right. 

“Mr. Potter,” Mr. Black bows formally, a mockery of the custom, not his friend. “Perfect timing. Have you noticed the guest of honor in attendance tonight?” 

Mr. Black points his chin out, directing Mr. Potter to where the cluster of his former family, her future family, stands with Mr. Riddle. 

“Ah,” he says, a hand jumping to his hair. He does that when he’s thinking. “I had not.” After a brief pause in which he just stares over at Riddle, he checks his watch, a strange gold thing, and turns back to Lily and Mr. Black, that winning smile back on his face. “I do believe operations should be set in motion a bit earlier than planned. Wouldn’t you agree, Mr. Black?”

He shrugs. “I figured as much.”

“Operations?” Lily asks, wide eyes jumping between them. “What have you two planned?”

“Nothing at all,” Mr. Potter says, feigning innocence. Mr. Black adopts the same serene expression, smiling angelically. 

“Oh, come now. Indulge me,” Lily requests, wondering who will finally take her up on that offer, but Mr. Potter just shakes his head at her, holding his hands up defensively. 

“I assure you, Miss Evans, any mischief afoot is being properly managed. You have my word.”

“What’s the value of your word, then?” She teases back, only jokingly testy with him. “What’s the value of a promise of a scoundrel?”

“Far more valuable than anyone else’s here,” Mr. Potter counters, that smile faltering slightly as he takes her in, eyes roving her face, the lines of her dress. His voice almost sounds serious when he says back, “Scoundrel I may be, Miss Evans, but dishonorable I am not.”

“Very well then,” she cedes, sighing and shrugging her shoulders, wishing it were that easy to shake him off, too. “I’ll find a way to endure this injustice. Perhaps Mary will entertain me, or even Mr.—“

“Oh, not so fast,” Mr. Potter laughs as she steps away to make good on her threat, reading through her like he knows her. Mr. Potter reaches his hand out, grabs hers at her side, tugs it up as he pulls her back. She lets him, another horribly improper thing. 

Mr. Potter stares at her though his spectacles, his eyes light and teasing, roguish, boyish. “This is a party, is it not? There must be a better way to spend the time than quarreling over nothing. Come,” he tugs on her hand, pulling her in, at the same time the orchestra picks up for another set, the timing so right that it was almost as if he had planned it. Like this mischief truly were properly managed, as he promised. His lips tug up in that smile. “How did you put it earlier? Indulge me.”

Lily does just that. She curtseys in response to him, queuing the start of their waltz set in motion long before now.

Mr. Black, taking his exit, fades away to the background as the dance begins. Many other things fade away in the background when Mr. Potter wraps his hand around her back, the pressure of his palm felt through the ties of the corset, the individual tips of his long fingers sensed through layers of fabric, magnetic. Her hand in his feels right, like it fits, like hands were meant to be like that, even though that is a silly and whimsical thing to think. It feels less like he is leading the dance, and more that she allows herself to follow, assured by his confidence, pulled in by that asynchronous allure of him. Instead of feeling out of time, he has instead chosen to slow time down around them. She wonders how he did that. She doesn’t question that it’s impossible, because he seems to be capable of making the impossible only improbable, and the improbable very likely in his hands. 

She’s only one of those improbable things in his hands, a girl who should have been paired with the likes of Ted Tonks, not Lucius Malfoy. She shouldn’t be here, dancing with single men, but she shouldn’t be engaged right now, so she really doesn’t know where everything falls on the spectrum of what is right and fair and good and proper. She knows these things are not the same matter, either, but doesn’t know what else to do with that.

Part of her wants to speak right now, just to show Mr. Potter that she is clever and witty and charming, that she’s capable of both dance and speech, but she isn't. Lily finds she isn’t capable of much besides listening to the music, listening to the cues from Mr. Potter’s gentle lead, her focus on the knowledge that he is looking at her, in her eyes, in her being, and she is looking back at him, green eyes to hazel, here from past and present and future lives. Lily thinks that perhaps they find themselves together in one of those alternate lives in ways they could never, now. Perhaps they are young lovers or quarrelsome old friends. She thinks that potential is enough.

“What are you thinking about?” Mr. Potter asks through the silence which had held them together in this pull, after he’d spun her out, back in, two people in perpetual orbit. His eyes are bright, gold, bold. 

“Nothing,” Lily lies, incapable of telling him the truth. “Just that I find you a perfectly adequate dance partner.”

“Perfectly adequate?” Mr. Potter laughs quietly, something that tumbles in his chest, something that pulls through her. “Is that all?”

“I said what I said, sir,” Lily holds firm, trying to keep her smile tapered down into something polite, into something neutral, and not the natural, cheek pulling grin it wants to find itself in. Despite his hold on time, he cannot change reality, and there are several things wrong here. She tells him evenly, “I find it my civic duty not to pay you compliments. I’ve already discussed with you my concerns about that ego of yours.”

“Preposterous,” Mr. Potter teases, his face now a little closer to hers, his cheek near hers, his mouth nearer hers. “I think the greater sin than pride is dishonesty, Miss Evans, and that is what you are being.”

Lily doesn’t respond to him. She doesn’t want to acknowledge the dishonesty of engaging with him, of dancing with him, the manipulations of truth and logic that have convinced herself that this might still be considered proper, that no one would pay any heed to her with him. 

She’s fooling herself, of course. Mr. Malfoy’s gaze is on her this entire time and she can feel its presence like cold steel, sinking through her skin. As they follow the rotation of the other couples in this dance, Lily sees Petunia and Mr. Dursley watching her with narrow, knowing eyes. She thinks even Mr. Riddle has taken notice.

“You’re worrying too much,” Mr. Potter mutters low, just for her to hear, right there in her ear like he can read her thoughts, like he is familiar with their turnings and troubles and machinations. “Keep your eyes here, on me. Don’t let them know they affect you.”

“Of course they affect me,” Lily hisses back, careful not to be overheard and careful not to look disturbed. “This is my life.”

“I’m not denying that,” he counters, swaying them back and forth. “I know your situation and your station, Miss Evans. I’m only asking that you don’t show fear now, don’t show weakness now. I’m just asking you to trust me on this.”

He’s looking at her and she’s looking at him and knows that all he’s asked of her is to trust him. Since they met, all he’s asked is that she trust him enough. Lily has no idea what good faith in a friend means right now, but it can’t hurt. Besides. She’s already done what he’s asked. She’s already back to looking at him instead of over her shoulder. 

For only a moment longer, it is just the two of them here in this room. For only a moment longer, she feels nothing but the swish of fabric around her as his long legs step into her for the waltz, feels his hand in hers enough to be able to imagine what his finger prints might be, imagine what those impressions he’d leave on her hip bone where his other hand rests might be. For a moment longer, she’s just a girl again. 

The song ends, as all songs do. But when the song ends, Mr. Potter doesn’t remove the hand from the small of her back. When the band stops its playing, Mr. Potter holds her close for one moment too long as people separate around them, conversations resuming, whispering in her ear, “Find me in the study, before the clock next strikes.”

Lily treacherously looks over her shoulder to where she knew Mr. Malfoy had just been staring at her, but she’s relieved (for the first time) to see Narcissa Black distracting him, her gloved hand on his deep green jacket arm. 

Feeling reckless, feeling improper, she squeezes Mr. Potter’s hand in hers. “ Yes .”

But then she was wrong to think Mr. Malfoy was distracted. She’s still standing too close to him, he’s still holding her for too long. James’ eyes widen only slightly over her shoulder for a moment before a new hand is at her back, right there between her shoulder blades, too close to her neck.

“Mr. Potter,” Mr. Malfoy’s voice drifts into the air before the rest of him comes to view right beside her. Mr. Potter has the decency to drop her hand and take a few steps back, proper distance between them once again. “I see you’ve been keeping my fiancé entertained.”

What Mr. Potter doesn’t have the decency to do is look ashamed or even just demure. He looks perfectly innocent, saying back jovially, “Yes, well, seemed like someone ought to pay her some attention. I noticed you had important business to discuss with not only Mr. Riddle, but also Miss Black in that very fashion-forward dress. I’ve never seen so much of Narcissa before.”

Mr. Malfoy’s barely passable smile is nothing more than a full grimace. “It is a blessing to be surrounded by friends and family, Mr. Potter. I notice you have neither of those present here tonight. Perhaps you should have considered this reality before coming back and peacocking yourself here as you’ve done.”

“Peacocking?” Mr. Potter actually laughs, much to Lily’s horror. Fear keeps her rooted in silence, Mr. Malfoy’s hand still on her back like a claw. She feels caught, seen, trapped, exposed. She feels they’re both at risk for once, but Mr. Potter just shakes his head, dangerously stroking the fire. “I could never dare try to compete with that ridiculous bird you’re so fond of, Mr. Malfoy. I leave that noble pursuit up to your and your dear family.” 

“By all means then, leave, if you find this place so distasteful,” Mr. Malfoy goads, his other hand actually waving towards the main door. “You’d show a remarkable sense of self-preservation by doing so, rather more than I expect you capable of. Then again,” Malfoy pauses, his voice taking on an additional edge as his eye traces Mr. Potter’s face, evaluating his thick dark hair, dark skin. “Perhaps there’s nothing left to preserve. One look at you is enough to know what your mother did to her good family line when she met your father.” 

"Yes, the upgrade is quite visible," Mr. Potter counters, his eyebrow raised as the only acknowledgement of the insult, the threat. "It does remove any visible trace of our relations. Surely you must be grateful for at least that.”

“Beyond words,” Malfoy says right as the band strikes a new tune, another waltz. As Mr. Potter bows in exit, knowing his cue, it sounds more like a funeral dirge.

“I’ll leave you to your fiancé, then,” Mr. Potter says, and she’s not sure which one of them he’s talking to, not sure which one of them his obvious grimace is for, and she doesn’t get more than that moment to try to read him before Malfoy’s hand traces down her spine, wrapped around her waist, while his other hand keeps a death grip on hers in his.

She isn’t following his lead but his command. This is the dance they’ve been playing at for quite some time now.

“I will not be made a fool of, Miss Evans,” Mr. Malfoy tells her, staring down at her. His expression is perfectly neutral, but Lily is too familiar with the experience of serious threat to not recognize it when it shows itself so plainly before her. She thinks about Sirius’ words and warning. 

“I was doing what you asked, Mr. Malfoy,” Lily replies evenly, keeping her tone level and priding herself in being able to look at him in the eye as she lies, “I thought you wanted me to be amongst the people tonight.”

“Don’t be insolent,” he warns as his eyes flash at her. “You do not have much ground by which to defend your case.” After a pause in which he was satisfied that she was sufficiently silenced, looking down at their moving feet rather than his face, Mr. Malfoy continues in that same low voice, “I may not care for our marriage, but the matrimony will take place as scheduled, and I will not tolerate any doubt that you are my fiancé and soon to be my wife, no other’s.”

“What do you mean?” Lily asks, startled by his candor. She’d never expected him to say what she suspected this whole time out loud. “Sir, release me from this contract if you yourself also finds this an unsuitable match.”

“Unsuitable is not the same as undesirable or unfavorable. You’ve yet to serve your purpose, and I have every intention of seeing this through.”

Lily doesn't answer him; there isn’t a response she knows that might possibly make sense in this situation. She can’t really think much past the uncomfortably tight grip he has on her hand, the uncomfortable press of his body on hers as he leads them around the room, the slight shiver in her spine at his face being too near hers. In a jarring moment of damning realization, Lily remembers that matrimony is more than a ceremony but a bed, too. Her body is hot, constricted, her breathing difficult, her movements reduced to whatever Mr. Malfoy allowed for in this waltz. She isn’t saved from this moment, either. Lily cannot magic herself into the body of an unknown girl observing this dance, however much she wishes. As the years well up in her eyes that Mr. Malfoy simply scoffs at, Lily finds herself unable to create a world where her fiancé looks at her with blessed disinterest rather than marked disdain when the music ends and he releases her hand with one more painful wanting squeeze before he abandons her in the middle of the dance floor without preamble, without any additional explanation.

Lily does the only thing she can think to do. It is the exact opposite of what Mr. Black advised. She isn’t careful about her next steps but willfully, wantonly reckless. 

The clock begins its striking. Lily begins her trek across the ballroom, putting on a wonderful performance of light comments with guests, smiles, gratitudes. And one moment she’s talking to another guest, leaning against the study door, and the next she isn’t. The clock strikes again, counting down her freedom. Its eleventh, final chime, echoed across various timepieces tolling throughout the Manor disguises the heavy opening of the study door, its creak and click when it settles back into its place.

The clock stops chiming. Its ticking in the quiet study mirrors the beating of her heart that rattles around the hollows of her chest, pounding against her bones. She needs it to stop its fluttering, especially now she’s away from the din of the party, just standing there, facing the door she just slipped through backwards, convinced the whole world can hear her heart drumming against her ribs. 

Lily listens to her heart pound for only a moment before she turns around, safe. Safe is the word she thinks, feels, knows, the moment she steps away from the door, an unbidden smile already draped across her face. 

Perhaps she knows the world cannot hear her heart. If it were able to do that, maybe it would have been kinder to her this whole time. Perhaps she knew that the only balm for this fear is the gentlemen sitting patiently at the loveseat in front of the window, waiting for her with a completely identical smile, a bottle of the champagne, and— the best yet— a plate full of cake. 

“I thought you might fancy a break,” Mr. Potter says with that smile which only grows the closer she walks to him, something kind, something like a  soft place to land. “And food. People never eat at their own parties.”

He pours her champagne, watching her settle next to him out of the corner of his eye, something he knows she notices and something he doesn’t make to stop

“How’d you convince a servant to hand this over? I haven’t seen them move desert out yet.”

“Didn’t,” he says proudly. “Nicked ‘em. In your honor, of course,” he adds with an impish wink, and she suspects that he needs very little reason to nick things from various places. 

“Then I’m honored,” Lily says, grinning with him as their glasses clink merrily together.  There’s a moment where he’s not just looking at her from the corner of his eye, he’s looking at her with full force, full attention, and it’s almost too much. It almost makes her sad. She takes a sip of her glass, needing to drop his gaze to reground herself before looking back with him. This is reckless and indulgent, this is temporary, this is far from being careful.

“Where were you before?” Lily asks, taking him in on the cushion next to her, his hazel eyes sparkling in the low lamp light of the room like the champagne in his hand. “I looked for you all evening.”

“I’ve only just come in from London. I had some matters of business to address,” he says. She wonders if she’s simply imagining the pink tinge on his cheek. “Besides, I needed to clear my head a bit. Make sure I was seeing things clearly.”

“And were you?”

“I sure hope so.”

And another moment. She thinks they are defined by moments. The way he looks at her feels as brilliant as the way she wishes she could look at him. Whatever his business, she wished him success. That’s the one thing about him that she did truly know. She wished him success.

But then her smile fades, its vibrancy dimming. That’s all she could ever wish for him, or from him. Lily tries to hide the sudden, overwhelming way she wants to cry in the next sip of her champagne, eyes darting away from the too bold way he’s watching her now. She’s aware of how close they’re sitting; the green silks of her dress draped over his knee. 

She can only avoid his eye for so long. Mr. Potter dips his head, trying to catch her gaze in his. She lets him, her eyes finding his too easily and far too greedily. An indulgence. 

Mr. Potter’s gaze is soft, much like his voice. “Allow me to ask you a question.”

“It rather depends on the question, I think,” she whispers back. She wishes her voice sounded more casual, instead of shaky and uncertain and deeply, desperately sad. 

“Fair,” he nods, cryptic. Usually she can read him, but that innate ability of hers is failing her now. She has no idea what he actually asked her back here for besides a break from the crowds suffocating her. Then, with the same neutrality he’d use to comment on the weather, he observes, “You don’t wish to be married.”

“That’s not a question,” Lily protests evasively, turning her gaze forward, away from his calculating attention. Her voice is at least more steady now that whatever magic hold of this moment shattered in the reality of his observation. 

“Fair,” he repeats, this time with some humor, a bit of dry entertainment lacing through his voice. She won’t look at him. “How’s this one, then,” he continues, but different, the words from his mouth suddenly turned hard. “How on earth did you get here, and why are you playing along with this— this farce ?”

If they are defined by moments, he has shattered this one. 

“Farce?” Lily turns back to him, eyes narrowed at him. They really are sitting too close. She can see the gold flecks in his eyes. Her voice turns as hard as his. “I’m afraid I don’t understand the question, Mr. Potter.”

“No,” he shakes his head at her, standing up, leaving her to watch him with guarded eyes. He’s standing over her, still shaking his head in disapproval. “No. Don’t play this game with me, Miss Evans. Don’t play the coy society woman when we both know you’re a far cry above that sorry station.”

“You’re out of line, Mr. Potter,” Lily cuts out, treacherously evading him once more. Even she knows it is an insufficient response as she slams down her glass of champagne on the table for effect. It splashes over her hand, a mess. “You’ve no right— no right— to say who I am.”

“Oh, I disagree,” he snaps, holding his chin high in defiance of her reprimand. “You think me cruel, Miss Evans, for pointing out the truth! I think the greater cruelty is your apparent inability to see the truth of what’s happening before your very eyes. I admire you far too much to attribute this to ignorance, but the thought of you being a willing pawn...” he shakes his head again, closing his eyes like she’s a disgrace. “You’re too smart to be a fool, and too good to make a deal with a devil simply to have finer clothes than your wretched sister.”

Her blood boils, in rage, in shame, in utter, desperate frustration at her station, but she holds her tongue. That’s what proper ladies do in the presence of higher ranking society, in the presence of men. The reminder of this irreparable power imbalance makes her sick with indignation, but Mr. Potter doesn’t care for the mad fury written into her pretty features. He just sighs deeply, one hand on narrow hip and the other hand in his hair, staring at her like she’s something he can’t figure what to do with.

“One of us needs to address what’s happening here, and if you refuse to do so, then so be it,” Mr. Potter starts again, striding back towards the loveseat. “I’ll be the person you can hate and blame for the rest of your life for ruining this illusion, but at least I will have spoken. You say I have no right, but I know you, Miss Evans, I know—”

“Know nothing,” Lily spits, finding her voice, cutting him off. Oddly enough, his eyes light up at her interjection, finding a spark of life coming through her subservient silence. “You have no idea… Could— never…” Her hands are fists in her lap, fighting every urge to run or fight. 

“There is no farce,” Lily says scathingly, remembering his words. She wants to be away from here, away from this fight, away from this lie. She’d get up, but he’s between her and the door. “I very much am getting married in a week, and very much am the society woman you so scorned. You may be having trouble accepting this, but not me. This is who I was always going to be.”

“Forgive me,” Mr. Potter scoffs, walking away from her on those too long legs. “I don’t wish to be impertinent.”

He’s turned away from her, hands clasped at his back, the long coat tail of his jacket swaying slightly with the agitated shift of his heels. Then he’s swinging back around, arms first, followed by the rest of him.

“That’s a lie,” Mr. Potter corrects, his eyes focused on nothing but her. “I do mean to be impertinent.”

“I wish you wouldn’t,” Lily sighs, feeling deflated and defeated as she drops her gaze from his, hands in fists of anxiety rather than rage. She’s fought too many times, with herself and with Petunia or Mr. Dursley, and she doesn’t want to any longer. She just wants peace. She just wants acceptance. They both apologize at the same time. 

“I don’t want to fight. All I wish is for—“

“I just mean— hell, Miss Evans. Marry me .”

“I’m sorry,” Lily blinks up at him, her head snapping up at words she must have misunderstood. “I didn’t catch that.”

James Potter is wearing a look she’s never seen on his face. She’s never seen anyone look like that. It’s burning. 

“Marry me,” James repeats, closing the distance between them by striding back up towards the sofa, only to stop and crouch to one knee right there at her feet, looking up at her. Burning. “Pick me,” he elaborates— begs . Burning. “Pick me, choose me, love me instead.”

Her heart stops its beating. She’s waiting for him to land the joke.

“Excuse me?”

Mr. Potter doesn’t look like he’s joking. Mr. Potter looks perfectly serious. Things feel perfectly serious when he reaches up, grabbing her by the shoulders, gloved hands on draped fabric. The touch is intense. She realizes she’s never known touch like that, desperate, desirous, passionate.

Improper. Improper, improper, improper.

“Miss Evans,” he repeats, fingers curled into the draped sleeves at her shoulders, fingers curled against her skin. “Marry me.”

“Mr. Potter,” Lily stutters, trying to think, trying to remember her surroundings. The foolishness of this decision to sneak away in a public place comes crashing down on her, realizing how brash of a move it was to follow him, to trust him. Suddenly, she’s fully aware of the noise of the party just beyond the grand mahogany doors. “Mr. Potter, we are at my engagement party.”

Which isn’t an answer, and both of them know it. His eyes are roving her face. Desperate. Desirous. Hungry. 

“What is it you want, Lily?” He asks, still clinging to her like she’s the only thing left for him to hold on to, the only thing left to believe in. The use of her name is as intimate as the layers of fabric separating skin to skin contact. Improper, improper, improper. He’s no right to use her name like that. He’s no right to keep touching her, to keep looking at her like that. “Help me understand. I have land. I have a title. I can give you everything he can,” Potter says, like it was simple, like it's only about the money. “I can do better than that. I can give you a lifetime of kindness. I can promise you lifetimes and lifetimes of affection. Can he?”

That is a cruel question, unnecessary, since they both know the answer. And he just keeps going, asking another question he already knows the answer to. “Are you ready to be trapped in a loveless marriage, Lily?” 

I’m already trapped, she wants to bite out, which she doesn’t, because anger isn’t polite, anger doesn’t suit her sex or her station. Instead, she says evenly, treacherously, “Marriage isn’t about love. Not for women. Not for me.”

“It could be,” he says. She loses control, scoffs visibly, and he holds on to that, knowing she’s still here, still listening. Some part of her is alive under the veneer of control. “In the brief time that I have known you, I have seen your mind and your wit, your excitement, your capacity for kindness, and so much more.” This time, he picks up her gloved hands, holding them tightly. Her engagement ring, large and tacky, glitters at the both of them. In seeming defiance to the precious gem, Mr. Potter, still on one knee, continues, “Pick me, Lily. Choose me. Love me, and let me prove it to you over and over again that I love you, fully and honestly.”

Lily sits for a moment in stunned silence, taking him in. She finds that the biggest problem right now is that she believes him. She finds out that believing his honesty here is worse than anything she could imagine as he teasingly dangles before her a different fate, and different story, which she could never have.

Her mouth opens, then closes, then opens again, only sputtering sounds coming out. How could she ever respond to that? How could she ever forget that?

She wants James to know. She wants him to know more than anything that this has nothing to do with him. Her eyes flicker down to the ground, then to the door, remembering where they are, remembering people will notice her absence. 

“I don’t have a choice, Mr. Potter,” she reveals, voice nearly a whisper for the shame of it, the truth of it, the fear of it. She can’t acknowledge his confession without risking some more of her own. “Do you think I want this?” She looks back at him, eyes both fierce and afraid. “Do you think I care for elaborate balls and titles, care for Mr. Malfoy or his politics? Do you truly think I am here for finer dresses than Petunia? My consent is nothing . I am an object to be transferred from one home to another. I am nothing more than a business deal.”

James nods, listening to her, taking her in. His eyes rove her face, hungry for more, still unsatisfied with the explanation he’d been pushing her for this whole time. Maybe he really does know her and knew this isn’t what she wanted; maybe he was just waiting for her to be able to admit so, as well. 

“I don’t have a choice,” she repeats, needing him to understand. He’s a man. He’s a man of means. He has control over his fate, a privilege she has never known. Beyond that, he doesn’t have a Petunia or Mr. Dursley looming over everything. The injustice of it all stings in her eyes and she her rip her hands from his, standing up to stride past him towards the door. She isn’t sure where she can go except away from here and the promises he can’t possibly fulfill. But then he catches her hand, holding it there. 

She won’t turn to look at him. It is just Lily  Evans and James Potter alone in this study, one hand on the door knob, her other one in his. 

“Help me give you a choice,” Mr. Potter pleads behind her, voice level, serious, calm. He doesn’t try to turn her around, doesn’t force her to walk back. She could break his grip if she wanted to. “Help me give you freedom.”

She turns, hand off the door knob, other hand still in his at an arm’s length away. She wants to be angry at him for teasing her so horribly like this, wants to be furious at him for ruining any possible acceptance of her marriage she was coming to terms with.

Her eyes are narrowed when she asks, “How could you possibly do that?”

“Don’t marry me,” Mr. Potter says, closing the distance left between them, so that it’s just her and him in the room again, no space, no secrets. “Just run away with me.”

Lily must have lost the ability to hear properly. She must have lost the ability to reason properly as well, since she knows immediately what she wants to say. 

“Excuse me?” She sputters, eyes wide. Her skin is burning beneath the glove he’s holding in his, her engagement ring pulls down at her hand, pulls down at her heart, her will. “I— I can’t just… that’s preposterous…”

“I know it’s death to you to run away unmarried,” He shakes his head, processing what he’d just asked of her. “I know you would never be able to be in society again. Just…” He runs his hand unnecessarily through his hair with his free hand, pulling up at thick locks that don’t need help standing up on their own accord. “Marry me, and I promise to give you your freedom. Trust me enough to know that if you choose not to feel what I feel for you, I would never keep you bound. You could travel the world, you could take on a different lover for all I care right now.” He takes a big breath, looking at her in a way she’s never been looked at before. Burning. She’d burn the world for him, she knows, like he’d do for her. “Just give me the chance to help you be free.”

He drops her hand, just so that he can close whatever distance is left between them, moving slowly, like she might run at any sudden movement, moving slowly like he knew she needed, moving slowly like he is savoring this moment. His gloved hands are back to being curled around her shoulders, thumbs where her dress exposes her shoulder, the most intimate of touch she’s known.

“For once in your life, you can choose your fate right here, right now. And for once in your life, I am begging you: do the improper thing.

He’s looking at her, and she’s looking at him. His eyes behind his spectacles are so bright. Lily searches his face, searches her heart. She believes him. She believes that if anyone is able to help her, it is James Potter. She believes that if anyone is to be trusted so suddenly and so fully, it is James Potter. She knows that if anyone is dumb enough, bold enough, good enough to help break her from this prison, it is James Potter. 

Sirius didn’t just tell her to be careful; he told her to be bold. 

She’s known her answer since the first time he asked for it. She's know what her answer would be since the first time she laid eyes on him.

“Yes,” she whispers.

“Yes?” He asks, shocked. The grip on her shoulders actually loosens, and she misses it, misses the pressure, misses him.  

“Yes, I’ll marry you,” Lily tells him, watching his reaction carefully, praying this dream of hers isn’t going to become a nightmare. Praying that maybe she can have it all, marriage and love and freedom in one. She told him days ago she envied him, and here he is, fulfilling his wish to give her a choice. She’s wiser than she was that night; freedom cannot be given but must be claimed, taken, achieved. Lily smiles with a foreign sense of power over him, completely out of her element, feeling in complete control of this situation. “I’m yours, however you’ll have me.”

That’s when it happens. That’s when his mouth breaks open in the widest, brightest grins Lily thinks she’s ever seen. It does something to her then. It pulls on her heart, it tugs at her stomach, it fills her with air. She likes his smile. She likes that she’s the one who put it there. She likes to see that she has an effect on someone else, a positive one, a massive one, if the voltage of his grin is anything to be trusted. She more than likes these things. She might just love them. 

Another thing happens. She feels her own mouth pull up in an equally bright grin, one that makes her understand that right here, right now, is some of what she’s been waiting for her entire life. Lily finds herself nearly giggling, tears welling in her eyes, alight with happiness. She understands more about life and love than she ever has, more than any story or novel has been able to express, when his hands move up slowly, reverently, from her shoulders, brushing up her neck, tracing her jawline, cupping her cheeks. His eyes behind his glasses reflect more than the lamplight in the room; they’re glowing back at her. 

She wonders what he was like as a school boy, whether the whole world filled him with wonder like this, then wonders how she could compete with the whole world. His eyes dash down to her lips, like hers to his. His head tilts. Hers does too, still cupped gently in his hands. 

“Miss Evans,” Mr. Potter asks, voice shaking, hands shaking, as if he weren’t already centimeters away from her face. It’s funny. He asked her to marry him with more confidence than he could muster here. “May I kiss you?” 

She gives her answer in the first, tender press of her lips to his, an exhilarating way to begin her new life. She feels his lips pull up into a smile as she pulls hers just a breath away from his and has just enough time to smile, too, her heart absolutely soaring, before James pulls her back to him and her first kiss quickly becomes her second, third, fourth, and more. 

James’ mouth works firmly against hers and her fingers are raking through his horribly behaved hair, hair that suits him, hair she never thought she’d be able to pull like this. She swallows a moan from him in her next press of her lips to his and is rewarded for her boldness with his own when the next thing she knows, she’s following his steps backwards, one, two, three, til her body is pressed between him and the mahogany door, flush against his body. This is all so new and so, so much more than she ever dreamed of to the point that it’s nearly too overwhelming to her sensitivities when Mr. Potter presses his body more firmly against hers, one of his legs lost in them multitudinous folds of silk below her waist and the other one helping keep her steady now that she feels out of breath. His mouth is no longer against hers, but her disappointment is short-lived when she’s met with the new sensation of his lips at her jaw, her neck. The recovered oxygen helps her manage to get out the one worry he hasn’t been able to wipe clean from her mind.

“Someone might find us,” she whispers hoarsely. She knows he knows the risk here, but the cost of being caught is so different between them.

He shakes his head, muttering with hot breath against her skin. His hands are trying to find access to her that her bodice cannot allow. “Sirius has been guarding the door.”

“Good man,” she breathes, and that’s the last thing she manages to get out before she pulls him back into a deep kiss, fierce, desperate, deliciously wrong. Lily loses herself here in a way she never has, not caring for what her sister would do, not angry or bitter for what position of the world she’d been forced into, not concerned about Malfoy or the Miss Black’s. All Lily knows in this moment is touch, affection, desire. She doesn’t feel afraid. She just feels alive.

Suddenly Mr. Potter’s gloved hands aren’t cupping her cheeks anymore and he pulls away. Lily feels his breath still hot against her cheek, feels his chest heaving, just like hers. She thinks he’s about to step away, but what he does instead is rip one glove from his hand, then the other, tossing both over his shoulder.

“A bloody inconvenience,” he whispers before she feels his fingers at her arm, tugging away at her own long gloves. Then he stops himself, still his fingers, looks her in the eye through those thick eyelashes. “May I?”

“Yes,” Lily nods, breathless, ridiculously touched by the way he stopped himself. She gently pulls her arms from around his neck, letting him trace goosebumps along the soft flesh of her forearm, pulling down on silk fabric until the glove drops to the floor. He repeats that same, tantalizing, tender gesture with her left glove, attention back on her mouth for a slow, meaningful kiss as he drops the engagement ring from her hand along with the glove in an undignified heap at their feet.

Lily captures his hands in hers, her thumb caressing the back of his hand joyfully. His face is still very close to hers, eyes flickering over her features, soaking them in just like she drinks him in, parched. 

“James,” she starts, but doesn’t get very far, because his mouth is back on hers, pressing a quick, firm, intentional kiss against her lips. She can feel his lips curl up before he even pulls away.

“God above, say my name again,” he says there against her lips, pleased as the devil. “Ruddy propriety with its titles and fabrics and bleeding gloves.” He disparages, marking his disdain for proper customs with another kiss, his thumbs caressing the back of her hands like he couldn’t get enough. “So much pretense to simple connection.”

“James,” Lily giggles, smiling contently. “I like that much better than ‘Mr. Potter,” she says with a laugh, marking his proper name with a haughty tone. He chuckles too, something that reverberates through her body as they stand still so close, as his lips pepper her forehead, her cheeks, her jaw, with light kisses.

“Lily,” he smiles in those kisses, squeezing her hands in his as he marked each freckle as his. “Only Lily. Never Mrs. Malfoy.”

Lily grimaces, pouting. “Never,” she agrees before turning her disgust into something playful, into something flirtatious. What an indulgent thing, to converse with her betrothed and like it! “But in your disparagement of names, Mr. Potter, how  does the name Mrs. Potter sound?”

James’ smile is absolutely vibrant, like him, but it must be only a fragment of what her smile is, considering she’s never felt an emotion so strong like this that joy could hurt her heart, pull at her cheeks, tinge her eyes with tears of happiness and relief. 

That I can handle,” James says, “That shall be the exception, then, as you are in most things, my dear, dear, Mrs.—”

That’s when the clock strikes again in twelve recurring, foreboding chimes. 

Oh my god,” Lily exclaims, ripping her hands out from his so that they can cover her gasp, an old habit of politeness. She steps out from her position between him and the door, moving into the main room, looking to confirm the time on the clock. “We’ve been gone an hour.”

“What? Impossible,” James says, following her, shaking his own strange gold watch out like he thought the truth might tumble out from its mechanisms. While he made sure his watch matched the grand timepiece here in the study, Lily takes a long look at herself in the reflection of the window glass at the center of the room, revealing her disheveled hair and flushed face and wrinkled dress, all compiled together in a comical disarray of decency. After the shock of seeing herself this improper wears off, Lily laughs at her reflection, hand clasped to her mouth again, muffling her slight panic. She turns back to James, who is just watching her with blatant confusion and curiosity.

“I have to— I have to go back out there,” Lily gets out, fighting the urge to cry, channeling the energy into trying to re-pin her hair in a presentable way. “People will have noticed I’ve been gone. Oh, god, Mr. Malfoy must have noticed.”

“I’d worry more about Narcissa or Bellatrix,” James says, handing her her gloves once she’d been able to at least straighten out her braids and re-tuck some curls pulled loose. Her hair isn’t actually that bad. James has shown considerable constraint when it came to leaving it alone and in place, knowing it would have been impossible for her to hide evidence of its dishevelment. She had not paid him the same courtesy; it’s a good thing his hair never looked in order.

“Mary’s prepared to cover for you,” he tells her, handing over her second glove. “She’s been in the gardens this last hour, just in case we needed the excuse.”

Lily looks back up at James, who looks concerned, but not anxious. She wishes she knew how to balance that energy. Instead she just pins him with wide, panicked eyes, “What am I supposed to do? Go back out there and pretend like nothing just happened?”

“Yes,” he says, nodding, grabbing her shoulders, his thumbs rubbing at the exposed skin of her collarbone. “You’re going to go back to the party, the perfect bride. Sirius and I will come up with a plan for what to do next; we can’t stay here, not after tonight and especially not with Riddle around, but we’ll be near. I’ll contact you again as soon as possible.” At her clearly overwhelmed expression, at the vacant way she nods her head, James tilts his head to the side, reassuring smile on his face in an attempt to reclaim some playfulness. “Alright, Evans?”

“Alright,” Lily nods, better this time, braver this time, before she squares her shoulders, ready to survive until she can live, until she can thrive. Jutting her chin proudly in the air, the way someone without shame would do, she breathes strength into her shoulders and steadiness into her breaths. Just as she steps back towards the door, she turns, meaning to say farewell to James, only to watch as he reaches for her hand at the last moment. 

“Wait—“ James cuts out, just as she was about to tug on the doorknob. “I nearly forgot.”

James opens his fist, revealing Malfoy’s ring. 

“I’m so sorry,” he says, kissing her forehead when he slips the ring onto her gloved finger, a balm for the both of them. “Bear it just a while longer. Perhaps this might bring you comfort.”

Then he digs in his coat pocket for a moment before extracting a long, thin golden chain. Hanging from its delicate clasps is an equally delicate gold ring, a thin band with small diamonds littered through gold leaves, a miniature laurel. 

Lily stares down at the ring and its chain in apparent shock, her mouth agape. What trill  of pleasure she’d felt at the sight of the ring, at the gesture and promise and meaning, is marred by the shrill jolt of fear in her body. “James, I— I can’t wear this.”

“Not yet,” he nods, closing her fingers one by one around the ring until a protective fist encloses it. “But it is yours— no one else’s— to keep safe until we are clear of this mess. Can you do that?” 

Lily nods, slowly, now staring at her closed fist. James gives her another gentle, promising kiss on her forehead, whispering, “We’ll see one another again soon.”

“Promise?” Lily asks, eyes down, voice small. She wishes she weren’t this small, scared girl, but she is. In the end, is that all she is? She forgets this concern when James answers with a finger below her chin, tipping it up so that he could respond while looking into her eyes. 

“I solemnly swear,” James nods, trying to reassure her with a small, genuine smile. He places another kiss to the corner of her eyes, the tip of her nose, her cheeks. “Think of me. Trust me. I’ll get you from Privet House tomorrow. I promise you that.”

The worst part is that Lily believed him. 

The worst part of this evening is his ability to make her feel better, to make her think that it‘s over, make her think things might actually work out for her. After one final, chaste kiss full of promises that could never have been kept, Lily’s able to go back into the party and pretend that the smile on her face, over abundant with joy, is for this farce. She immediately integrates herself with the crowd, talking to old friends and acquaintances, enough for people to be able to think, Yes, yes, I saw Miss Evans not that long ago at all. She smiles to herself, proud of the smooth way she’s conning these people, proud of the confident, prideful smile she even shoots at Narcissa when they pass one another in the ballroom. She thinks James and Sirius would be proud of her, too, for the way she can also properly manage mischief. 

And it isn’t until the last of the guests have departed for the evening, isn’t until she’s waiting with Petunia and Mr. Dursley to take her graceful, final exit from this place, that she discovers her folly. Petunia’s obnoxious feather still sits proudly atop her head as she and a ruddy-faced Mr. Dursley join the remaining members of the household on the balcony, waving off the final party goers. Lily stands next to Mr. Malfoy for good measure, smiling still, even as Bellatrix and Narcissa glower sourly from the threshold of the doorway, Andromeda nowhere in sight. Just beyond them, Mr. Riddle watches the proceedings carefully, staying well away from Mr. Dursley, who already tried to grovel at his coattails once before this evening. 

“Hmph,” Mr. Dursley harrumphs, watching as Mr. and Mrs. Weasley climb into the same carriage as the Diggory’s to make the long trek home. “You could have pruned this guestlist a bit more, Malfoy. It was far from the elite affair you sold it to be, letting in all sorts of riff-raff.”

“I wanted to be sure to make a good impression on the people,” Mr. Malfoy explains, looking off absentmindedly, not really bothering to look at Dursley while talking to him. “A good reputation goes a lot farther than you might know.”

Mr. Dursley  may have had one too many brandies to catch the dismissal, but Petunia, always sharp, distracts attention from her husband’s rudeness with her own as Lily stands there, still half smiling, only part of here as the other parts of her is divided between her memories of the last few hours and fantasies about her next few decades. 

“You’ll have to have us over for dinner again soon, Mr. Malfoy,” Petunia says, horse face long and pleased. “It’s been ages, and we shall be family by week’s end. I haven’t forgotten our last dinner. You implied you would get Mr. Dursley those contacts for minerals. Do you recall?”

And as much as Lily enjoys seeing Malfoy start to become the slightest bit flustered, something in her drives her to kindness as she puts a placating hand on his arm and looks up at him, giving him a sweet, innocent smile, saying, “It’s late. We’ll leave you be. I expect I’ll be over tomorrow,” Lily lies easily, joyfully. “We can discuss then, hm?”

“Yes, yes, let’s get on with it, then,” Mr. Dursley huffs again, tugging Petunia along towards the stunning stone steps. 

“Good night, Mr. Malfoy,” Lily dips down in a low curtsey, enjoying every second of this charade for once, thinking about how this farce is now a joke to her as well. It’s an almost perfectly executed one as well, topped off with the sweet smile she gives in response to his small head nod in acknowledgment and dismissal as she turns to follow her sister to the carriage. Almost. 

She doesn’t make it three steps before she’s stopped by a cold, cold hand grasped around her elbow to stop her, timed perfectly with the cold voice too near her ear.

“Not so fast, Miss Evans.”

****

The events of the rest of the night, and how Lily Evans ended up back in the same guest room she spent sick in, this time guarded by rifles and Crabbe and Goyle eagerly serving as the cronies they have always been, really depended on whose opinion was asked. 

The Lady Dursley, when Petunia and Vernon Durlsey arrived home from the ball without their ward, would say Lily was always going to be too much trouble to be worth it, and that Mr. Dursley was a fool to think otherwise. Mr. Dursley agreed. But Mr. Dursley was still going to gain land out of this deal, so it didn’t matter much in the end.

Petunia couldn’t decide how Lily got into this mess. It was, of course, Lily’s fault. Even still… Petunia couldn’t decide how Lily got into this mess. 

Mary MacDonald would say it’s because Lucius Malfoy is a bastard, plain and sample. Mary would have the most accurate assessment of the situation.

Andromeda Black, currently eloping with Ted Tonks, has no opinion of the current situation unfolding and would prefer to have as little to do with her family as possible, thank you very much. 

Now according to Lucius Malfoy, Lily Evans was back in the Manor as insurance until the wedding, until a marriage license was signed and he’d gain her entire acreage. Mr. Dursley was an idiot if he thought he was still going to get some of the farm after the risks Lily Evans had done to his reputation in trying to make a cuckold out of him. According to Lucius Malfoy, everything could still go according to plan if orchestrated properly.

Sirius Black would actually have agreed with Lucius Malfoy’s assessment of the situation. It took him bleeding ages to find that books of maps he’d sworn he and James had found in the library, only to find it in the very room Lily was stuck in now, moments before he and James had planned to dash from the Manor that evening. And if James hadn’t been such a sentimental sod, he could have made this connection two days ago and been done with this whole mess before having to talk to Regulus. It doesn’t matter now. He has the county maps, he can trace the property lines connecting Malfoy’s land to the old Evans farm, can trace the outskirts of both and the lines of what pieces they know Malfoy acquired elsewhere in the county while here. Marrying Lily was the fastest, cheapest way he could find to own over half the county, control over half the county. It would guarantee Malfoy’s own seat on the Ministry and likely lead to even more seats in the Ministry for Riddle. A beautiful plot, really. But then James is at the door looking like he’d just been hit in the head with an anvil and they really have to book it back to London if any of this is going to work. But everything could still go according to plan if orchestrated properly. Mischief to be managed and whatnot. 

Narcissa Black would actually agree with Sirius’ assessment of events, if pressed. That this was a beautiful plot, that is. Mr. Malfoy would pay dearly for the stress he’d put her under by orchestrating this whole affair, but when all was said and done, she’d be the lady of much more acreage than she’d originally thought. So long as the girl was dealt with swiftly, properly, this was a beautiful plot that she was, in the end, impressed by. Lucius showed even more potential and wit than he had ever in the past; even Mr. Riddle was won over once Lucius had explained everything with great showmanship.  

And according to Lily Evans, she was locked in this room, guarded by rifles, because that’s the sort of fate she seemed to run into these days. According to Lily Evans, this really was all her fault. Because when Mr. Riddle gripped her arm, suddenly everything she had done in the past month, everything she had failed to notice and work out for herself, mattered. Why she in particular was traded off to this man. Why Mr. Malfoy had decided to delay his betrothal to Narcissa, all to further wealth he could later share with her, proudly. How she underestimated Narcissa’s ability to reliably place her in the study with James Potter, unsupervised and unchaperoned, for a damnable amount of time. Why she thought she could be lucky enough to be above Riddle’s radar. How her earlier power move against Narcisaa, a brash, supposedly nonconsequential pot of bad tea, would be turned on its head to inspire Malfoy’s true threat: poison, good poison, in her own tea if she refused to cooperate, to behave, to be complacent and quiet and sign the marriage license in a week in front of God and her fellow countrymen to prove that this is a match of equals. Mr. Riddle sweetened the pot for Mr. Malfoy, then, a vindictive sort of smile and thrill on his face any objections in the ceremony, any whisper dissent from her or her friends, would result in the early and tragic widowhood for Mr. Malfoy. 

Regulus Black, who stood witness to these conversations that night, has no opinion on the matter. 

(And as for James Potter, sentimental sod, he’d say that whatever happened in Lily’s opinion is the right answer, because this is her story. The only addendum he’d include would be that it is his folly, and his alone, for thinking they could finish out this farce of an engagement ball instead of whisking her away to Godric’s Hollow the very precious moment she said yes, as he should have. That’s what he gets for propriety. But he’d promised her-- more than promised, he’d solemnly swore-- that he would be at Privet House in the morning for her, and he was. He just met a different Evans sister there). 

In the end, it didn’t really matter whose opinion was correct on the exact manner of how Lily Evans ended up here, back in the Manor, rifles at her door, hopes completely abated and abashed. That’s where she was, sobbing, ripping pearls from her hair and tearing away at the silk ribbons keeping her corset suffocating her need for extra breathing right now, terrified, grieving. 

The only consolation in this solitude is that no maid is around to see her ring, her real ring, something simple on a gold chain, fall from its safe haven where it had been tucked away and protected at her heart by her breast, shielded from others’ prying eyes. She puts this one on her finger in defiance, throwing her fraudulent other against the wall. When her hair is undone and her silk dress is in shreds, somewhere between distraction and destruction where her head hurts from crying tears she didn’t want to believe could keep coming, she refuses to sleep. She is just a girl in undergarments, tangled hair, gold chain hidden in the palm of her hand, lying somewhere between consciousness, waiting. 

****

Needless to say, the knocking at the door in the morning startles her awake. She has no idea when she fell asleep, or what time it is when that incessant banging on the door is answered with the clicking and turning of the door knob, but she does know that she must look an absolute mess to whoever is on the other side of the door, unmade and unkempt and unrepentant. 

When the door swings open, Lily’s still sitting on her bed, deciding that not paying this unwelcome intruder the honor of her pretending these are civil circumstances is her only act of defiance left available. When the door swings open to reveal the party before her, she does not regret her decision.

“Petunia,” Lily breathes out, sitting a little taller in bed out of surprise. “What are you doing here?”

“Making sure you aren’t being more of an imposition than you have to be,” Petunia says gruffly, walking into the room, followed immediately by one of the staff members dragging in Lily’s trunk. In the threshold beyond Petunia’s shoulder, Lily sees Narcisaa standing with her arms crossed, watching Petunia. She sees the tips of the rifles held by Crabbe and Goyle remain where they are, protecting property. Petunia barely allows her eyes to rove the small room before she sits down in the lounge chair near the door, uninvited and likely unwelcome if Narcissa’s watchful gaze is anything to go off of.

“Madame Malkin is nearly finished with your dress. I’ve told her to deliver it here since you’ll be staying until the wedding.”

Lily doesn’t answer her. She just narrows her eyes at her sister, seething. This is your fault, she wants to say. Scream. This is your fault. 

Petunia narrows her eyes back at her, like she heard her. Like she still knows the language of sisters. 

“I’ve brought your trunk. Just a few items of clothing until you’re able to retrieve the rest of your belongs from your room yourself. I’m not the post, after all.”

Lily doesn’t answer her. Petunia’s no longer glaring at her, but she’s looking at Lily funny, and when she speaks, she has a pointed edge to her tone that Lily doesn’t fully understand. 

“Your trunk is all in order, but for heaven’s sake, Lily, mend the beading on your yellow purse. You know how much I despise that one, anyway.”

Lily doesn’t answer her sister, but the look she gives is less the a seething glare and more of a raised eyebrow. 

“The purse, Lily,” Petunia snaps again, looking Lily very carefully in the eye. Lily stares back at her. Of all the things Petunia has yelled at her for, blamed her for, the status of her yellow purse had never been one of them. It was relatively new; Petunia had even called it ‘fashionable enough’ when Lily purchased it this past spring. “Take a close look at it, would you?”

“Alright,” Lily nods, trying to process Petunia’s words while keeping her voice level, still derisive, for the sake of Narcissa’s careful attention, Crabbe and Goyle, and even the maid dusting down the hallway, listening. “I’ll look at it.”

“Glad you understand me for once,” Petunia says, standing up, smoothing out her skirts. Lily’s suspended feelings of loathing come back full force for Petunia at the comment, so easy and off-hand, so cruel to the truth of their relationship. But if Petunia notices the way Lily would very clearly like to throw a vase at her head, she doesn’t mention anything. All she does is walk away, leaving her, just like she did at the party last night. 

“Thank you again, Miss Black, for treating my sister so well. I’m sorry she’s been such a burden on you. Now, where is Mr. Malfoy? I meant what I said about making good on those mineral contracts.”

****

Lily waits until Petunia has left, until Narcissa’s heels walked away, until she could hear for the sounds of the door to be locked again from the outside, before digging into her trunk, curious in spite of herself. What she finds in her trunk is surprising, impossible, for many reasons. 

The first thing Lily notices is that Petunia had packed (or had Mary pack, anyway. Lily highly doubts Petunia would be so generous as to actually do this herself) more than her bare essentials of dresses, nightgowns, shoes, and stockings. Inside of this trunk, packed deliberately beneath this layer of essentials, is a collection of Lily’s favorite items from her bedroom, both childhood and current. Her good brush, her wool blanket, her sloppily hand-knit stockings, the hand mirror her mother had left her… This is not the provisions Petunia claimed she brought; this feels like contraband. The second thing Lily notices is that her yellow purse has not a bead out of place, as Petunia claimed. The only unusual thing about the bag is that it is full of paper in the form of both parchment and pounds.

Two notes. Lily reads the one she has been waiting for this whole time first.

I haven’t forgotten my promise— I did go to Privet House this morning. I had no idea you wouldn’t be here. Your sister promises me that this note will find you and that is the most I can hope for right now.

What was it you had asked me? The worth of the word of a scoundrel? Hopefully a lot. Extend out that trust of yours just a little longer. We will see one another again soon.

Yours, if you’ll still have me. 

The second note is bound to a stack of pounds, more money than Lily has held at once before in her life. Petunia’s neat hand gives a small explanation which could never hope to help Lily fully comprehend her sister’s actions or character.

This is what I estimate those unnecessarily flamboyant gowns Mr. Malfoy purchased you will sell for at market when I have Marlene scrap the material. Here is your cut, after accounting for her wages and my troubles.

It’s always good to be in charge of your own affairs when you can be. Maybe this can help you do that, wherever you find that chance.

Regards. 

Petunia.

****

The lady’s maid slid dinner through a crack in Lily’s door at six that evening. The lucky thing about being locked away in her room was that the maid didn’t notice Lily’s riding coat set aside, her walking boots out and ready to be donned. She gave Lily a sympathetic look, her back turned away from Crabbe and Goyle, before backing out of the room without a word. Lily scarfed down her soup but wrapped up the cheese and bread for safekeeping in one of her scarves, just in case. James’ note was scarce, to say the least, and the more she thought about it, the less of an idea she had about what he might have in mind, let alone a time or place to expect him. All Lily can do is repack her trunk, carefully wrapping her favorite items safely in socks and gowns and counting away the pounds she can claim to her name with nothing else to do than trust and wait.

And then wait. 

****

And wait.

****

And wait.

****

The benefit of being a means to an end is that she was actually left alone in this room for the four days. Not even Narcissa stops by to torture her with some comment nor Mr. Malfoy to domineer. It seems they have all lost the need for appearances. 

The peace and quiet wouldn’t be so terrible if it weren’t associated with a growing sense of her own oncoming doom. There were only two more nights before the scheduled ceremony, and Lily believed Mr. Malfoy’s threats to be incredibly credible. She also believed James’ word to be credible, all in all. She just hopes it comes through in time. 

Lily passed her time doing much the same she would have had she had this freedom (the irony!) before now: reading, napping, and getting frustrated at her embroidery work Petunia had so thoughtfully packed. That’s what she’s up to now, just in her nightgown, holding up her hoop to try to see if her unpracticed flowers were symmetrical at all.

That’s before she drops the hoop, startled by a sound just outside her door. 

One thud, then a second. More sounds, like metal scraping, and then the door knob starts to jiggle. 

It’s instinct that has Lily abandon her needle work in favor of reaching for the brass candlestick at her bedside. Then there’s more handle jiggling as Lily creeps up to the door, her steps silent, candlestick raised in defense, when the door swing open to reveal a man whom she has never seen before in her life.

Lily stands, frozen with her candlestick raised. The man also stands very still, except for his face, which immediately lifts up with a smile.

“Hello,” the man says politely in a hushed tone that implies if she is going to hit him over the head, she should at least be quiet about it. “I do hope Mr. Potter and Mr. Black let you know I was coming.”

Lily just narrows her eyes, trying to make her candlestick look impressively dangerous rather than fairly pathetic to be waving at this stranger.

“Oh, dear,” he frowns slightly, taking in her expression. “I suppose not.” He holds out his hand, polite smile on his face, completely ignoring her candlestick, introducing in that same whisper. “Remus Lupin, at your service.”

She feels herself lower her candlestick incrementally. “How do you know Mr. Potter?”

“Old school friends,” Lupin clarifies, smile still there. “James told me I should let you know that this is ‘ a scoundrel’s debt paid .’ I assume you know what that means?”

Lily lowers her candlestick, taking a big sigh of relief. “Thank God.” 

Mr. Lupin is still looking at her expectantly. “Your trunk?” 

“Oh, yes,” Lily nods, moving into action. Mr. Lupin seems nice enough, waiting patiently for her to tell her how he can help her. He’s a thin man, not quite as tall as Mr. Potter or Mr. Black, and Lily thinks he could use a good meal or two and a day in the country sun. She points to the packed trunk at the foot of her bed, packed and repacked every day she’s spent here. Lily picks up her traveling cloak and riding boots from its top, always ready. It’ll make an odd combination with her nightgown, but she can’t remember a whole lot of stories where the damsel in distress got to choose her getaway outfit.

“Here, sir,” Lily tells him, quickly sitting on the floor to lace up her shoes. 

“Perfect. Peter?” He calls quietly over his shoulder, and then another gentleman is in her bedroom (A record! Two unsolicited suitors! She wishes she could see Petunia’s face at this scandal), with another broad grin.

“Peter Pettigrew, Miss Evans,” he says, his whisper a little squeaky. He’s a short man with soft round cheeks that Lily immediately trusts. 

“Hello,” she greets back with a small wave, finishing her second shoe before standing up again, smoothing out her nightgown before tossing her cloak over her shoulders. 

“Sirius was right,” Mr. Pettigrew tells Mr. Lupin as they each grab either end of her lightly packed trunk. “James really was courting above of his league.”

Lily grins at the compliment for a moment, indulgent, before asking, “Where is he? James, that is. It’s not that I am upset to meet you, but I was really expecting him to show up as well.”

“He and Sirius are downstairs, working in the study.”

“The study? But—”

“I know,” Lupin soothes quietly, glancing over his shoulder both ways as he backs out of her room. “They’re doing damage control. Now, if you’ll follow us, we should be timed perfectly to rendezvous back at the carriage.”

Lily pokes her head out the door, heart pounding, after they clear the doorway. With her swiveled on her neck, she notices one thing: the house is quiet. And then she notices the next: on the floor, seemingly passed out, are the massive forms of Crabbe and Goyle that Mr. Pettigrew maneuvers around with surprising grace. 

“Merely asleep,” he tells her in a conspiratorial whisper. “I know it may be tempting to kick, but I’m afraid that might be enough to wake them.”

Lily, tragically, listens to Mr. Pettigrew and, tragically, does not kick Mr. Crabbe or Goyle in the shins. What she does do is move their rifles even further from their bodies lest their sleeping hands wander. 

Mr. Lupin answers her unasked question as they begin maneuvering the trunk down the stairs. 

“The household finds themselves otherwise occupied tonight. Mr. Malfoy, Mr. Riddle, and all other associates were invited to dine at a mysterious potential donor’s house a nice ride away. The waitstaff find themselves occupied by a rather horrible smelling mess in the kitchens, something really quite tragic and unpleasant and requiring many hands to deal with.”

“And Mr. Crabbe and Mr. Goyle ate from a wonderful gift basket left out for them, filled with a few of my specialty sleep droughts,” Mr. Pettigrew adds with a wry smile, obviously proud of his handiwork. Lily smiles back, easy, her heart racing in a way that isn’t just panic but maybe enjoyment. It’s a realization that in some ways, being a player in this heist with these men is fun. She wonders what sort of horrors they were as school boys together and what sort of improper company they can be to her now. With every step down the main hall, moving quickly and quietly out of the house towards one of the garden access rooms, Lily feels more and more of her life come into focus for this foreseeable future of hers. To bake and read and converse and study with friends, equals, are a few of the simple potential pleasures that make her feel practically giddy.

Mere steps away from their exit point, her luck returns in all its glory. 

“Oh, Peter, watch out for the—! Well.”

The trunk drops with a damning thump on the floor at the same time that the crystal vase on the shelf Mr. Pettigrew just bumped into crashes onto the hard floor with a ringing din. Mr. Pettigrew’s stricken, wide-eyed expression of horror after he looks at his empty hands meets Lily’s as the two discordant sounds echo across the room, out into the hall, the quiet, empty Manor ringing with noise that doesn’t belong.

“It slipped—“

“No matter, Peter,” Mr. Lupin comforts, not criticizes, quickly. “Hopefully James and Sirius are finished and we just need to go .” He looks at Lily expectantly. “Alright, Miss Evans?”

“Alright,” Lily utters back. She doesn’t feel alright, and her ears are strained to hear anything that might reveal James and Sirius’ location across the house, or the sound of any stirring up the stairs where her guard was unconscious. Mr. Lupin is still looking at her expectantly when she snaps her attention back to him after a small cough for her attention. 

“Would you get the door, please?”

“Oh!” Lily whispers, bolted into action again. “Yes. Thank you.”

Outside, the night air whips about her face. It’s essentially November and feels that way. Lily’s travel cloak over her thin nightdress is pitiful protection in the air. 

“This way,” Mr. Lupin nods his head towards a patch of trees a few yards away.

Hidden from view of the main house waits two horses and a beautiful, sleek black horse and carriage. The design strikes Lily as both fashionable and slightly impractical with some of its excessive gears on the side, or the matching details on the attached horse’s saddle. It isn’t very big, but it is sleek, and the detail of silver and gold adorning the polished black exterior makes the whole thing seem like a piece of art rather than valid transportation. Mr. Lupin smiles at her slightly bemused expression, more than amused himself.

“You haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Sirius’ carriage, have you? His most treasured possession.”

“I can’t say I’m surprised that this is his,” Lily whispers, opening the door to the carriage so that he and Mr. Pettigrew could fit the trunk in its cargo seat. They both seem a little out of breath from carrying it across the house and yard; Mr. Lupin gives a wheezy cough.

“You climb in as well, Miss Evans,” Mr. Pettigrew advises, holding out his hand to help her take the step up into the task carriage, checking his watch with his other hand. “James and Sirius should be right out, so we really have to—“

But Mr. Pettigrew’s soft, naturally quiet voice is suddenly drowned out by a deafening bang, once, followed by another. 

Sprinting around the corner comes James Potter and Sirius Black, quite the double act, caught, it seems, in the act. The loud boom, it turns out, are the result of Crabbe and Goyle being now perfectly awake, with perfectly functioning rifles running much slower behind them. 

“Pardon me, Miss Evans!” Mr. Pettigrew squeaks a mere moment before he shoves her rather unceremoniously into the cab and turns on his heel, dashing to where Mr. Lupin is calling for him by name.

There’s another round of bullets. Lily can see the earth fly up, but being shoved into the carriage disoriented her and Lily can see neither James nor Sirius for a moment that feels too long to properly stand, especially with the restricted view she has from the carriage. But just as she puts her foot out to figure out what’s happening (Mr. Pettigrew in the left on a horse, Mr. Lupin on the right, flanking position) and then James, right there, right in her face. 

And if she started to cry at the sight of him, so close, blazing look in his eye, she really doesn’t think she could be blamed for it. Especially when he also seems to forget where they are, why they are where they are, and he cups her cheeks for that moment of greeting, his foot on the step of the carriage with her, body propelled into hers from the momentum.

“Thank you, Evans!” Mr. Black says over his shoulder, her attention drawn to him, his mouth pulled open in an absolutely beautiful, stunningly wide grin that is both foreign and fitting on his face. His silk black hair whips in the wind, never in his face, perfectly tucked behind his ear. He’s positively glowing even as he hoists the reins to mount the black horse driving their get away ride. “This is the most fun I’ve had in months!” 

“Let’s have fun in the next town, Sirius,” James shouts, giving her a slight nudge to retreat back into the cab before slapping his hand against the wall of the carriage. “Go!”

The carriage jerks into motion. She can still hear Sirius laughing gleefully as he breaks into full speed, Mr. Lupin and Mr. Pettigrew following accordingly. Over the sounds of galloping horses, Lily thinks she hears another shot ring out. She thinks her suspicion is confirmed when Sirius gives a hoot of celebration.

“Lily,” James tugs at her hand. She didn’t realize she was holding his hand, let alone the near death grip she had him trapped in. “Lily, are you alright?”

Voice quiet, eyes staring out, scared. “Are they going to follow us?”

“They won’t have much luck if they do,” James answers, his free hand moving the hair that escaped her braid out of her face, tucking it behind her ear. “Sirius can drive this carriage like a mad man. Remus and Peter are prepared for a hard ride. We won’t be stopping for hours.”

Voice still quiet, eyes staring at him this time, still scared. “They have horses, too.”

And at that, James smiles easily, affectionately, as if his hand weren’t losing circulation in hers right now. “They technically do have horses. Most of those horses are technically out in the pastures right now, well away from the accessibility of the stable. By the time they can find Malfoy, also on his own wild goose hunt, we will be safe amongst friends.”

Lily nods at him, taking it all in, taking him in. He holds up their interlocked hands, the one that she has hostage in hers. He brings it to his lips, kissing the back of her hand, looking her in the eye. 

“Lily,” he repeats, “Are you alright?”

“Yes,” she nods, a smile breaking across her face, one that he mirrors. “Yes, I am. And I will be.”

James was right; they ride long into the night, and do not run into any trouble on the road. Here in the sanctuary of the cab of the carriage, Lily Evans is tucked under the arm of James Potter, his jacket warming her legs, which are propped across his lap like they were meant to sit like this, to fit like this. She asks him questions and he answers them, voice soft in her ear despite the noise of the wind and wheels turning outside, despite her still pounding heart that settles down in small increments the farther and farther they get from the Manor. 

“What was it you and Mr. Black need in the study?” 

“Oh,” James says. “Safeguards.”

Amongst them, her father’s will, the original copy. The contract drawn between Mr. Dursley and Mr. Malfoy, promising her hand in exchange for the farmhouse while Mr. Malfoy kept the rest of the acreage. An outline of the land he would gain connecting to the Manor’s property line near the same brook they picnicked at mere weeks ago.

“It really was all about the money,” Lily sighs, staring out the window, watching the racing scenery go by in blurred images. 

“Seems so,” James mutters, nose brushing against her hair, one of his hands pulling absentmindedly at the end of her braid, the other wrapped around her shoulder. “I’m sorry, love.”

“Don’t be,” Lily says, kissing him on the cheek. It surprises him, if the way he blinks owlishly at her is any indication before she quickly redirects his attention to the kiss she steals from her lips, short, promising. “Don’t pity me, Mr. Potter, on the occasion in which I have never felt more valued, never felt more attended to, than what you have done for me tonight.”

After other slow, promising kisses, the oddest contrast to the speed at which his friends are taking them forward, Lily’s head is back to being safely tucked away under his chin. 

“We gathered enough documents to send to Dumbledore for any retribution that might come against us,” he tells her, soothing a fear she had that she had not yet voiced out loud. “Malfoy’s been buying property across the county under pseudonyms to disguise the acquisitions. It might be enough evidence to prove fraud or at least make a convincing case about him attempting to sway an election.”

“You found that quickly.”

“Here I’ll admit help. Regulus tipped us off. I never thought much of him,” James muses, his gaze now out the front window where they can see Sirius’ legs, see his hands at the reigns. “We may have underestimated him.”

“Where are we going?” is Lily’s next question, when his attention comes back from Sirius and is redirected to shifting the blanket over her, keeping her warm. 

“Godric’s Hollow. We’ll be safest there,” he elaborates, “Dumbledore is waiting for these documents, and my mother is dying to meet you.”

Lily smiles. A mother, a home, a safe haven, are gifts second given and gifts twice adored for knowledge of their fleetingness. The only thing left, the only worry left, then...

“We’ll send for Mary as soon as we reach town,” James tells her, voice quiet, watching her look back over her shoulder. “I’ve left a note for her explaining what I could. I know how important she is to you.”

Lily throws her arms around his shoulders, completely wrapped up in him. Good. Safe. Seen, loved. Home. 

“Thank you.”

****

It is a familiar path, the one that leads down the fork away from the MacDonald's and away from town, a destination in its own right. She has wandered this dirt path in many forms, child to teen to adult, but never quite like this. Never while hand and hand with a man and never in the form she takes now, complete with extra weight around her stomach gathering up the fabric of her dress to cover the tight swell of her abdomen. 

They stand like that, hand in hand, at the top of the hill in silence for a little longer, almost reverently, at this place where past, present, and future are intimately tied together.

She’s the first to break the silence. “What do you think, Mr. Potter?”

He takes a few steps forward, pretending to survey the house ahead and the fields around, as if he would know anything about farms. “Well, Mrs. Potter,” he says, still facing the property. “It’s something I could very much get used to.”

Lily smiles at his turned back. Seeing James out of day coats and suits and in workman’s breeches is something she could also very much get used to.

And then he’s looking at her, content. Pleased. “There’s plenty of space for the baby.”

“I’ve never known Sirius to be the outdoorsman.”

James puts her with a withering look. She’s still grinning widely, the same way he does when he’s pulled jokes half as clever as that one over her.

“Sirius isn’t a baby,” James shakes his head, stalking back towards her, feet kicking up dirt in the road. He comes up around her, arms wrapped around her, his hands resting gently on her belly. “He’s just an ill-trained dog.” 

James gives her a kiss on the temple, hands moving from her belly to her lower back, where he massages comfortably, familiarly, genuinely as Lily closes her eyes, humming in delight. The baby isn’t due for another few months, which makes now all the more right to move. They haven’t been here since she was still Lily Evans and he was committing blackmail for her (a romantic!), and so much has changed while so much has stayed the same. Petunia has finally fulfilled her dream of giving Mr. Dursley a son. Sirius says Andromeda’s baby girl is clumsy and messy as can be (“What can I say?” Ted lamented one day with an affectionate smile. “She’s a Tonks.”). And then Andromeda says Narcissa Malfoy is expected to give birth not long before Lily, which is something she heard in the shops one day, because Andromeda Tonks has never spoken to Narcissa Malfoy.

Lily’s eyes wander to the line of trees that she knows would have been what joined the farm property to Malfoy Manor. This knowledge is now simple trivia; the estate hasn’t been owned by Malfoy in nearly two years, abandoned when it was clear he could never salvage his local reputation once word had slipped about his business deals and what he might have done to Mr. Evans’ daughter, the one who looked like him and acted like him. Same eyes, same hair, same love for the potential of the land laid out before her eyes. 

“It’s a good place for a baby,” she whispers, hands resting on her round belly where his hand has been resting before. Her eyes rove down to the farmhouse just down the hill. Her eyes rove home. In a heartbeat, she can hear the stone floors pounding with life. She can hear the movements of the household when she was little; she can transport the sounds she’s come to be familiar with now. She can hear the kettle go off for too long as Remus forgets it on the stove, she can smell Peter’s dough rising beneath the smells of the sweet buns already cooking in the oven. She can hear the scrapings of Sirius’ charcoal moving across the pages, sketch after sketch littering the floor the only evidence that time has passed on those perfect, languid days of youth. 

“Room for your parents, as well,” she adds, seeing the full household unfold before her eyes, surrounded by family in its various manifestations.

“Good place for a family,” he says, knowing what she’s thinking, kissing the top of her head, laying his chin there, taking in the world. “Good place for anyone who may need it.”

She thinks it possible that for all the need that existed in the world, she is the one who needed this the most.

This, she means. Right here, right now, in this form, with James. She is the one who needed this, the familiar way of his body around hers, his heart beating home home home in her ears in the rhythm that all love poems take their form from, in the beat that all love songs fail to ever fully replicate. 

“This is home, James,” Lily whispers, turns to face him, tears in her eyes despite the gentle, gentle, gentle smile on her face. She stands on her tiptoes, pulls at his coat, brings his lips down to hers where she can feel his smile there as well, gentle, gentle, gentle. This. “This is a place where I can give you lifetimes and lifetimes of affection.”

****