Harry & Ginny
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Barb LP - The Lost Generation
Chapter 9 - Epiphanies
Title: The Lost Generation (1975-1982) (09/20)
Author name: Barb
Author email: psychic_
Sub Category: Romance
Keywords: MWPP Lily Snape Bill Weasley
Spoilers: SS/PS, CoS, PoA, GoF, FB, QTTA, Harry Potter and the Psychic Serpent, Harry Potter and the Time of Good Intentions
Summary: Bill Weasley begins his education at Hogwarts in 1975, in the middle of Voldemort's reign of terror. He never suspects that the Gryffindor prefects he looks up to, Lily Evans and James Potter, will eventually have a son who saves the wizarding world, nor that the Weasley family will eventually play an important role in the Dark Lord's fall. All he knows is that in a very scary wizarding world, Hogwarts is a safe haven where he has always longed to be-until, that is, there are whispers of vampires and werewolves, of Death Eaters and traitors, and a Seeress pronounces a Prophecy which will shake the wizarding world to its very foundations...
DISCLAIMER: This story is based on characters and situations created and owned by JK Rowling, various publishers including but not limited to Bloomsbury Books, Scholastic Books and Raincoast Books, and Warner Bros., Inc. No money is being made and no copyright or trademark infringement is intended.
Author notes: This chapter contains some Slytherin debauchery which is not for the squeamish. Descriptions are not explicit, but bear in mind that this is still an R-rated work, and this chapter certainly lives up to that. Please also bear in mind that this was started quite a while before Rowling's Order of the Phoenix was released, and does not necessarily take anything into account that appears in that book. This is designed to be a prequel to Harry Potter and the Psychic Serpent, which follows on the heels of Goblet of Fire and also does not take into account anything that appears in Order of the Phoenix.
The Lost Generation
Monday, 26 December, 1977Lily felt strange putting on her robes to go out in London, but they were covered up by her long cloak, so no one would be the wiser. Petunia and Vernon had gone to his sister Marge's for Christmas, so the Evans family was going down to Little Whinging, in Surrey, for Boxing Day, to see Petunia and her husband. Lily was not pleased to hear about this, telling her parents that she had expected to see her sister and brother-in-law on Christmas and had made plans to see some friends in London on Boxing Day. To avoid a day of Lily and Petunia sniping at each other, they'd agreed to let her abstain from the Surrey trip.It wasn't strictly true, though, that she was seeing friends in London. It was one friend: James. And it wasn't in London, exactly...After falling asleep in James' arms, on the train, she'd felt rather self-conscious waking in his embrace to find him staring down at her, his eyes very blue behind his spectacles, his look one of grave concern and-something else. She was a bit frightened for a moment, and swallowed, blinking sleepily. He had gently asked her whether she was ready to talk about 'it,' and assured her that she didn't have to. Instead, she asked him point-blank how he and the others stayed with Remus during the full moon. He took a deep breath and said to her, "We're Animagi."She had been speechless, and asked him how they'd done it, and what animals they became when they transfigured themselves. Now that all of the secrets were out, he spoke freely, telling her about the pain, the sneaking around, the question of whether they would all be able to do it, the thrill of finally accomplishing their goal. She, in turn, had talked about how stupid she felt to trust the Slytherin girls, how she didn't really blame Severus for having enough self-respect to not want to be mistreated by her any longer...James held her again and tutted softly, and she'd quieted and looked into his eyes for what felt like a very long time. Finally, he backed away a little, turning bright red, and asked whether she wanted to come to Ascog Castle on Boxing Day. She could use the Floo network to come from the Leaky Cauldron in London. She'd accepted the invitation and she and James spent the rest of the trip alone together, talking endlessly.Lily rode the tube to the Leaky Cauldron with a flutter in her chest. She'd never done anything like this before; she'd be traveling clear across the country by herself, to a different country, technically. It was hardly the same thing as traveling to Scotland on the school train, with hundreds of other students. When she reached the wizarding pub, she went to the bar and asked Old Tom whether she could buy some Floo powder from him; the five Sickles he charged her seemed a bit steep until she considered that she'd be traveling quite far on those five Sickles, and that James would have some Floo powder for her to get back, so she didn't have to buy enough to cover a return trip. She also knew that it was probably cheaper to buy somewhere in Diagon Alley, but Tom was charging partially for convenience.James had assured her that it was perfectly safe; she'd never done it before. He explained how to throw the powder into the fire, step into the green flames, speak clearly, and hold your elbows in. He'd given her a funny demonstration in their train compartment, pantomiming spinning through the network, then falling out of the "fire" with aplomb, looking rather like a gymnast who was trying to "stick" a landing after dismounting from the parallel bars or horse. When she'd said this, he'd had no idea what she was talking about, of course ("Don't you dismount from a horse with a mounting block?"), and they'd laughed about that too, as she tried to explain men's and women's gymnastics and the Olympics, and other things Muggles did for amusement.Tom accompanied her to the fireplace and held out the pouch to her; when she pinched some powder between her thumb and forefinger, she imagined she must have looked somewhat apprehensive, because he said skeptically to her, "You sure you know what you're doin'?"Lily swallowed and nodded, took a deep breath, and threw the powder into the fire, saying loudly and clearly, "Ascog Castle!"She stepped into the green flames and immediately felt herself whirling. Trying to keep her elbows in and yet also deal with her hair whipping in her face, she saw grate after grate whirling past, and sometimes she had glimpses of people, witches and wizards she'd never met, homes she'd never visit. Finally, she felt as though someone were pushing her out, and she stumbled forward, hitting something warm and solid which kept her from falling.It was James Potter.His arms were around her and he grinned down at her as she looked back at him, wide-eyed from her first Floo trip. She felt herself flush and straightened up and away from him. Her chest had been crushed against him, and their bodies hadn't had a sliver of air between. They'd hugged before, many times, and each had comforted the other in times of distress, but somehow-this was different. She shifted her weight from foot to foot awkwardly, while his smile became equally embarrassed-looking and he said with a croak in his throat, "You didn't stick the landing." He was trying to sound teasing, but there was something funny about the way his eyes looked..."Hello, Lily," said a familiar voice nearby. Lily jumped, not having noticed another person standing in the doorway of the comfortable sitting room. Remembering the way she and James had been pressed together from knee to shoulder just moments before, she felt a warmth rise from her neck. However, as soon as she realized who was speaking, she felt warm from rage instead; somehow she had forgotten that James was living at Ascog because that was where Sirius lived."Well!" she said tersely to James. "It was nice seeing you, James. I'll just be going now. Where do you keep your Floo powder?" She turned and searched the high mantle with her eyes."Lily!" James said pleadingly. "Don't! I just-I just wish you two would talk. Please end this feud.""Feud! You call this a feud!" Lily exploded, turning around. "I call it refusing to consort with an attempted murderer. Not to mention Remus also would have died if he'd had his way.""I never wanted that!" Sirius cried plaintively, striding into the room.She threw her hands up and rolled her eyes. "So that makes it all right? You're as bad as those animals who blew up Honeyduke's!" As soon as she said it, she wished she hadn't; the stricken look on his face, the unshed tears suspended in his dark eyes told her that her sharp words had hit their mark, and now she wished like anything that she had missed. "Oh! I-I'm sorry, Sirius," she found herself saying softly. "You're-you're not like a Death Eater...What you did was just-just so stupid and thoughtless-"He nodded, looking thoroughly miserable. "I know, Lily. I know. I should have been expelled, I should have gone to prison..."She looked at him, feeling dreadful. She had thought these things herself, there was no denying it. But it would hardly be sporting to tell him so when he was saying this himself. Then she remembered Severus again, and Remus..."What am I doing?" she suddenly asked no one in particular. "Why am I apologizing to you?" He looked at her, the blazing green eyes and hair still wild from traveling by Floo, and she could see in the eyes looking back at her that he still cared about her, that he would take anything she had to dish out, without complaint. James looked back and forth between the two of them, his mouth drawn into a line."Listen, Lily. I wasn't trying to trick you or anything. I thought-I thought it would be nice to have you come visit during the holiday. But I also thought that maybe-maybe you and Sirius could at least come to some sort of understanding, so we can all go on? I-I care about the two of you too much for you to be cross at each other all the time like this. It's been months, and you still aren't getting along. I'm going to leave the room; can you at least try to talk? For me?"Lily could see that James was reddening ever so slightly, and she thought about his words: I care about the two of you too much. She had known that James cared about her, in an oblique sort of way, for years, but hearing him say it was different. When they didn't protest, he turned and left, leaving Lily and Sirius standing in the middle of the room, awkwardly looking about (but not at each other). Finally, evidently remembering that this was his home, Sirius waved a hand at one of the squashy couches around the fire and said, "Have a seat?"Lily positioned herself on the edge of a cushion, primly folding her hands on her lap as though she were waiting to perform in a piano recital. She looked at Sirius expectantly. He was sitting on the other couch, perpendicular to hers, cracking his knuckles compulsively, making Lily flinch. Finally, she said, "I think you might be the one to start, especially since if you keep that up I'm going to hex your fingers so they'll be in a permanent knot and you won't be able to do that any more."Sirius swallowed and then cleared his throat, crossing his arms in attempt to keep his hands apart, and then just sitting on his hands instead. "I-I don't know what to say, Lily," he began, his voice cracking with emotion. "Any name you want to call me, any curse you want to put on me, I'd deserve it, because-because if Remus had-had hurt Snape, it would have ended up hurting you, and you're the last person in the world I ever want to-""Stop!" she cried. She had never felt so embarrassed in her life. "Please stop, Sirius. Don't-don't grovel. I-oh, I don't want to go on being on the outs with you." Her voice had grown very soft, and she realized as soon as she said it that it was true. She'd begun to treasure her resentment of Sirius; to let it go would be to release something comfortable and familiar, a constant companion since the incident in September, a poor replacement for having friends in her own house, but still...She felt a shivering begin in the pit of her stomach as she contemplated just letting it go; it was both terrifying and-something she'd longed for without realizing how much. She felt tired-so tired of actively nurturing this grudge, and the thought of releasing it was both frightening and liberating. "I-I hate what you did but-but you're James and Remus' best friend, and I don't want-what I mean is-I got into a rut, these past few months. Once I started being nasty and cold to you, I didn't know how to stop-""So-why were you nasty to Snape, too?" he asked. She looked at him, aghast."Could-could everyone tell? I couldn't even see it, not right away. I've-I've been thinking of almost nothing else for the last few days..." When she wasn't thinking of James...She smiled ruefully. "It wasn't even just the things he brought up when he was breaking up with me...There were a lot of little things that accumulated, one on top of another, until-until he broke. And I broke him...Oh-it's a wonder he put up with me as long as he did...I was so thoughtless. He was almost killed, and then I-""That's not why you were like that to him. Well, not entirely."She stopped. "You seem to know quite a lot. Care to enlighten me?""You didn't really want to be with him any more. He finally figured it out, or accepted it, as the case may be. He could tell you wanted to be with someone else. I could too."She raised her eyebrows at him. So, we're back to that again. He thinks I'm still not over him. "Oh, really? Well, let me remind you that you rather miscalculated and thought I wanted to be with you before I hexed you; afterward I didn't speak to you for a time. Did you think that was my way of saying, 'Come and get it?'""No, no. I didn't mean me. I meant James, of course.""James!""Yes, James." Sirius looked her in the eye, and she could see that, despite the fact that he was trying to call her attention to James Potter, he still cared about her a great deal. He's making it very hard to be cross with him, she thought, realizing that she'd somehow known that he would, if she'd allowed him to actually talk to her, which was why she'd avoided it for three months. He was looking at her now with those puppy-dog eyes. And then she remembered that James had told her that Sirius' Animagus form was a large black dog, and she laughed at the thought. He frowned."What's so funny?"She drew her mouth into a line in an attempt to refrain from further laughter. "Nothing. You were-what were you saying, exactly?"Sirius took a deep breath and looked at the fire now. "I saw the way you looked at him after he saved Snape. When we came back after our suspension was over. And I know that you wrote to him while he was back here. Every few days."She looked down at her hands. "I was-I was keeping him apprised of what was going on at school. I'm Head Girl. He's Head Boy."Sirius raised his eyebrows. "So those owls were just business, were they? They why wouldn't James show any of them to me?"She felt warm again. "I don't know," she said softly. When she'd written to him, she'd seen him in her mind's eye, lying in the bed in the infirmary, looking at her with that clear, honest expression of love on his face, after stating that he'd saved Snape to spare her unhappiness. Not the best reason to save someone's life, to be sure, but certainly honest. He didn't pretend that he was doing it on principle, as some people might. Except that James was the sort of person who'd do it on principle, and then try to cover it up, make excuses...Lily also found herself wondering repeatedly whether Severus would do the same thing, whether he would save James, Sirius, Remus or Peter from a certain death. She thought and thought about it. It probably occupied her mind more than the fact that James had saved Severus. She wasn't sure when she had decided, No, Severus would probably never do that... but she had a nagging feeling that it was sometime after that that she began being less-than-loving to Severus, that she started making careless remarks about him and even joined in with other students making vampire jokes. She'd tried to forget his furious face when she'd done this, she reminded him that she knew better, knew that it was the porphyria, and it was all in fun-but was it? Didn't he have a right to expect his girlfriend to stick up for him, to show a little more loyalty than that, to refrain from laughing at him? Was she really behaving as a loving girlfriend should when she did these things?She looked up at Sirius. "Don't expect miracles," she said quietly. "I think-I think I can be civil to you for James' sake. You're like a brother to him. But if you pull one tiny stunt when we're back at school, I will not hesitate to give you detention..."He grinned and hugged her quickly; she could tell he was reluctant to let her go, but he did. He held her shoulders now, though. "And James? How do you feel about him?"She looked at him shrewdly. "Has he told you something? Is he really putting us in the same room to make up, or so you can convince me that I want James to be my new boyfriend?"Sirius smiled ruefully. "James wants us to make up. I want you to see that James is the bloke for you."She narrowed her eyes, watching his ardent, animated face. "Why? Are you saying you're not interested in me anymore?" She knew she sounded suspicious-and she was.Sirius reddened. "No. I'll be completely honest with you Lily-there's no way I'd turn you down right now if you wanted to kiss me. Or anything else. But-I know that's not going to happen. And I think the one you do want to be with that way is James, and I can tell that he wants to be with you. I want you both to be happy; it's like James said, only it's me this time: I care too much about you both. I want you both to be happy." He shook his head, giving her a lopsided smile. "This is so perfect it's almost scary, Lily. And even if you decided that you two don't want this-I will still do anything for both of you. You have a willing slave for life. I'd crawl over broken glass for miles. I'd-"Lily held up her hand. "I get it, I get it." He looked at her, that expression of both love and hopelessness in the dark, glistening eyes again. She sighed. "All right, Sirius. We'll call a truce. That doesn't mean I forgive you for what you almost did to both Severus and Remus, but it means I think we can go on anyway. Put it behind us." Her voice had become very quiet. "Did Remus-did Remus ever tell you about us?"He looked embarrassed and glanced away from her. "I figured it out on my own. I was a little jealous at first, but then-then I thought-Remus deserved some happiness. And then the stupid git decides that he doesn't deserve it at all, that he shouldn't be with anyone because he's not 'fit,' and-and he basically throws it out the window."She nodded. "I told him I loved him and he claimed he didn't love me back, that he just thought of me as a friend, but-but he looked so odd. Like he was going to be sick any moment. He didn't look like even he believed what he was saying," she told him softly. "But I had to accept it at face value. He clearly wasn't going to change his mind..."Sirius shook his head. "He loved you-loves you still, Lily. Is there any chance you still love him, rather than James? Is that-is that why you've been so hesitant about James?"She was the one shaking her head now. "No. I care what happens to Remus, but I don't feel the same way about him anymore. Something changed in me when I found out that he was a werewolf..."Sirius stood, frowning. "What? Are you one of those bigots who-""Calm down, will you?" she said quickly. "I didn't mean that like it sounded. I don't hold anything against him for just being a werewolf. But I'm possibly always going to be upset with him for not telling me himself. For not being honest with me." She looked at the fire, trying to will herself not to cry. "And for not taking a chance and admitting that he loved me, letting me into his world, letting me help him cope. I could have been as supportive as any of you if he'd only let me." She looked up at Sirius again, no longer feeling like she was going to cry. "But as long as he's not convinced he deserves to be loved, there's nothing I or anyone else can do to help him."She spoke very quietly, but she could tell that he caught every word, as he was nodding in silent agreement the entire time she was speaking. "All right," he said, "so why is it you're hesitant about James when you don't have any interest in me or Remus? I'm assuming it's not because you've decided you fancy Peter."She tried not to laugh. "No, I don't fancy Peter. He can be very sweet to me sometimes, but-I don't know. He fawns a bit much. No; the reason why I'm not rushing out of the room and into James' arms is-I don't know that I want to at all."Sirius looked rather upset at this. "What? Why? James is the best! Honestly, Lily, you could never possibly find anyone better in the entire world-"She nodded. "I know, I know. That's one reason why."Sirius frowned, coming to a dead stop. "Huh?" was all the response he could muster.She plucked at her robes nervously. "I haven't had a great track-record with boys so far, have I? I crushed on you, changed my mind just as you realized I existed, fell for another good friend, Remus, who decided not to tell me a very, very important detail about himself, then right on the heels of Remus rejecting me, I run into Severus' arms. I don't want to do that again. If-and I emphasize if-I have another boyfriend-any boyfriend-while I am still in school, it won't be for a couple of months, at least. I need to recover from this whole thing with Severus. I need to try to think through some things, like whether I want to risk losing James as a friend if we try to be together and it doesn't work out. I don't think I could take that..."Sirius nodded. "Fair enough.""And-oh, Sirius! I'm so young! And so is James. And-I just-he's the sort of boy who-" She sighed, frustrated at not being able to say what she meant. "All right. Let me see if I can explain this. To me, James isn't the sort of boy you just date in school and he's your school boyfriend, and then you each finish school and go off into the world and put all that behind you. James isn't the sort of person you break up with. He's the sort-" Her voice caught. "He's the sort of boy-man-that you marry. I just-I don't know. I feel like if I were to start seeing James-that would be it for me. For the rest of my life. And I wonder whether I'd feel restless when I'm older, because I didn't see a lot of people before him...I don't want to resent him, ever. And I don't want him to resent me. He's only had Bonnie. Is that usual for boys? How many girlfriends have you had?"Sirius frowned, thinking. "This year?"She threw up her hands. "My point exactly. For me, being with James right now is-scary. It would be a very thorough step into adulthood. He's not like the rest of the boys at school. Yes, he clowns around with you, but-somehow, he's still different. His integrity is different, his authority is different, his-" She stopped, embarrassed.Sirius smiled at her. "You're not able to hide how you feel about him. All right, all right, I understand why it's scary for you to be with James when you're so young, and since you don't want to lose him as a friend. Fine. You'll be single for a while. If you like, I can pretend to be your boyfriend sometimes, if you want to ward off other blokes..."Lily laughed. "Oh, right, and give you an excuse to suddenly snog me, as a cover story. What's so wrong with me just saying to the world, 'I don't want a boyfriend for at least a couple of months.' Does that make me unforgivably weird?""No, it doesn't make you weird at all," James said from the doorway. Lily felt herself flush, wondering how much James had heard. "Thought I'd check on you two, assess the damage. All limbs in the right place?" He grinned at them."Lily was just saying that I shouldn't be trying to date her just yet, as she wants some time to get over Snape," Sirius said laconically, draping an arm around Lily's shoulders. She promptly took it from around her and spun, so that now the arm was twisted behind Sirius' back. He grunted. "I mean-unh!-just saying that she-damn, Lily! That hurts!"James laughed. "That's all right." He looked at her, his gentle eyes very understanding. "I still haven't had another girlfriend, since Bonnie died. Nothing wrong with being unattached."She nodded, still unsure of how much of what Sirius had said had been discussed between the two of them in advance. If James Potter ever does want to pursue me, she thought grumpily, he'd damn well better do it himself instead of just having Sirius spend all day singing his praises.She let go of Sirius' arm and stepped away from him. He flexed his arm, grimacing slightly. "You're fast," he said, impressed."Older sister I detest. You learn things."Twisting his arm behind his back didn't seem to dampen Sirius' feelings for her one iota; now that he wasn't in pain anymore, he seemed to be thinking about something else entirely, and he suddenly clapped his hands together. "Oi! I know what we could do! The pool!"Lily frowned. "Pool?" She glanced out the windows to the courtyard; the flagstones were frosted and drifts of snow softened the corners. "Um, are you mad?"They both laughed. "Hardly," James said. "And you could probably wear this bathing outfit Ursula bought that she won't be using any time soon. She wanted to do some slimming first, but-well, she's going to have a baby. So she doesn't expect to use it. She'll have even more slimming to do after having the baby..."Lily grinned at Sirius. "You're going to be an uncle! Congratulations!"Sirius grinned. "Yeah, I'll be that disreputable uncle every kid loves to have about..."James hit his arm with the back of his hand. "Just go up to Ursula and Alan's room and get it so Lily can go swimming.""Actually, you should come with me, Lily, and then you can use Ursula and Alan's en suite bath to change. James and I are on the top floor. Then we'll meet you back down in the entrance hall-""But-but-" she sputtered. "You still haven't explained how we're to tolerate the cold. Spells?""You'll see. It's downstairs; paradise in a dungeon."Lily had previously thought that was what Severus had created for her, their first night together, but she didn't say so. "That sounds like an oxymoron."Sirius stepped in front of James. "Are you calling my best friend a moron?" he demanded only half-seriously.James shooed him from the room. "Oh, get on with you. Come on, Lily. The stairs are this way." She followed them out into a rather small hall lined with hooks and benches for cloaks and boots; the only decoration was a series of mounted fish high above the hooks. The curving stone stairs reminded her of the Tower of London, and of more than a few Hogwarts stairs. When they reached the landing with Ursula and Alan's room, Sirius and James casually opened the door and let themselves in. She saw a generously proportioned bedroom with a large semi-circular bay window thrusting out over the courtyard, but not obscuring it. There were warm tapestries and hangings on the walls and the four-poster bed, and a beautifully carved walnut armoire, desk and bureau. Sirius went rummaging in the bureau and came up with a bag from a Muggle shop in London, from which he pulled a rather modest one-piece bathing outfit in sapphire blue. Lily was relieved to see that it could hardly be called daring, and that it was real, not created from magic that could give out eventually, leaving her wearing nothing at all. At least she was fairly certain it was real...After they'd gone, she let herself into the large bath that adjoined the room and, after first saying, "Finite Incantatum" over it in case it did carry any spells, she donned the bathing outfit, marveling that it fit her so well, and complemented her coloring, and didn't reveal anything she didn't want to reveal. She felt a little self-conscious about being so pale and freckled (redhead's curse) but there was no help for that. She put her robes over the bathing outfit to look a little more respectable until they reached the pool and went back down the circular stairs.When she reached the entrance hall, she stopped in shock; Sirius and James were waiting for her in their swimming trunks, towels slung over their shoulders. She realized that she'd never seen either one of them with so little on, and she reddened, attempting to both avert her eyes and sneak peaks at the same time. She was not prepared for this. I'm going to be unattached for a while, I'm going to be unattached for a while... she chanted in her head, trying not to look at James' shoulders (or back, or arms, or legs...) as he walked before her down the stairs to the dungeons.When they reached the pool room, Lily stopped, gawping at it, enthralled. The room had an arched ceiling like the Great Hall at Hogwarts and was also enchanted to look like the sky. There was a moving mural on the walls which depicted a garden, complete with birds, squirrels and gnomes. The interior of the pool was painted turquoise blue, so that the water also appeared to be turquoise. She felt like she was getting surprise after surprise, and laughed out loud, turning her head to look at all of it at once, unable to keep from smiling."No wonder you came back from your fortnight suspension looking so well rested," she said to the boys, watching as a garden gnome on the wall waved to her, then ran under a shrub, which continued to shiver after the gnome disappeared from sight.Sirius smiled ruefully; she tried to look at his face and not his body, as well. He was every bit as distracting as James. "Oh, we weren't allowed in the pool while we were suspended. My mum reamed me out good, and even though she didn't ream James out, we were both basically confined to our room except for meals. A fortnight of being cooped up with him," he said, jerking his thumb at James. "It's a wonder I didn't wind up in St. Mun-"Grinning mischievously, James suddenly gave Sirius a push, and, after windmilling his arms for a moment, his best friend fell forward into the water with a tremendous splash! that threw water onto Lily's robes and onto a good deal of the walkway around the pool. Sirius surfaced, shaking his head to clear his wet hair from his eyes. "All right, Potter. Now you've done it. My towel's all wet!" He brandished the damp cloth that had been draped around his shoulders before he'd fallen in.James relented. "All right, give it here. I'll hang it up to dry." But when Sirius was certain James had a good hold on it, he pulled and James came tumbling into the pool, his towel also still around his neck. Lily couldn't prevent the laughter that escaped her.James surfaced, shaking his hair out of his face, as Sirius had done. His glasses were still on, but covered in water. "You bloody sod!" he said to Sirius. He walked to the side of the pool and put his now-soaking towel on the walkway, as well as his useless glasses. Then he turned and Lily saw a glint in his blue eyes that told her Sirius was in deep trouble. Sure enough, James suddenly dove under the water and swam toward Sirius' legs, and it was the work of a moment for him to yank Sirius-who was flailing his arms again-under the surface. James then swam underwater toward the end of the pool where Lily was still standing, clad in her robes. He surfaced right in front of her, pushing his hair out of his face instead of shaking it, so he wouldn't get her wet, saying, "Well, are you just going to stand there, or are you going to come in?"She had managed to stop laughing and stood above him, her arms crossed on her chest while she tried to keep a straight face. "Oh, I thought I'd just watch the pair of you behaving like ten-year-olds for a while." But she couldn't prevent a smile from stretching across her face, and she uncrossed her arms. "Be prepared. I've been swimming since I could walk, you know."She opened the robes and turned to hang them on a hook on the wall, not realizing the effect she was having on the boys behind her. Blimey was all that came into James' mind, and he didn't need his glasses to follow the line of her long legs up from her feet to her knees to her-Splash!Lily had leapt into the pool suddenly, then surfaced, laughing, her long red hair darkened by the water and suddenly sleek and cohesive. She didn't see the looks the boys had had when they'd first seen her without her robes, as they were now both wiping water from their eyes. She grinned and laid back on the surface, looking at the imitation sky and lazily doing a backstroke. "This is lovely," she said, not looking at either one of them. "It's a good thing, too, that your mum didn't let you down here during your suspension, Sirius. That would hardly be a punishment.""Still, I was hoping she wouldn't think of it. Unfortunately-""-unfortunately, your mum isn't daft," James finished, splashing water in Sirius' face. Sirius splashed back, and soon there was a cloud of mist hovering above the surface from the furious splash war going on, which Lily, shedding her need to appear to be the "mature" one, happily joined. They raced and splashed and dove for Knuts, and by lunchtime were thoroughly exhausted, lounging by the side of the pool, idly watching the garden gnomes, who were shooting them cheeky grins."This is nice," James said, lying between Lily and Sirius. "The three of us, all getting along again." He turned to look at Lily, who had tipped her head back and closed her eyes. He followed the line of her long neck down, down...She's so beautiful... But he remembered what he'd heard her say to Sirius: What's so wrong with me just saying to the world, 'I don't want a boyfriend for at least a couple of months.' Does that make me unforgivably weird? She was still wounded, wounded by Severus Snape. James had fought the urge to get a ferry up to Dunoon, hunt down Snape and wring his neck with his bare hands. She had sobbed so, cradled against him, on the train. She had attacked herself, said how much she deserved it, and he had contradicted her every time...Seeing her now, with so little on, he was at a complete loss; how could Snape have let her go? When he was being realistic he knew she wasn't completely perfect. He knew her faults, after being her friend for more than six years. But if anything, those faults made him love her more. He doesn't know you, and he never will, James thought, his eyes moving back to her face. He saw, with alarm, that her eyes were open now, and that she was looking back at him. She knows I was gawping at her, he thought, feeling himself flush.She didn't speak. She had opened her eyes to see James looking at her body in a frankly admiring way, and she'd been unprepared for that. First, she didn't think much of her body-she thought she was too thin and gawky. Second, this was James. She couldn't recall a single time he'd ever looked at her that way. Except-except when she'd broken her leg. Before he'd helped her don her dressing gown over her night dress, he'd been looking at her strangely, and she wondered how much he could see through the night dress. It was rather thin...She swallowed, allowing her eyes to move over his body now. She didn't imagine that Quidditch alone was responsible for those arms and legs, for that stomach and those shoulders...She shook herself. Stop it. He probably kept fit swimming in the pool during the holidays...Sirius, too...It was so odd to her that they were all so grown up now. She suddenly had a very vivid memory of their Sorting, over six years earlier... A storm struck up while they were crossing the lake, and she clung to the side of the fragile little boat, terrified. Two of the other children in the boat with her were equally pale and drawn, occasionally whimpering in fright as the wind whipped the surface of the lake into fearsome swells. One boy, though, didn't seem to mind. Even though he was the smallest of the four of them, with black hair that stood on end even while damp from the rain and smudged glasses that sat crookedly on his thin face, he held on tightly to the edge of the boat and grinned at his traveling companions."S'all right, don't worry," he piped in a charming alto voice that carried a hint of Wales. "Nothing bad can happen to you here. We're at Hogwarts! Or as good as!"He gave them a brilliant, crooked-toothed smile and Lily did suddenly feel that it was going to be all right. If this slip of a boy could be so brave, so could she. When she discovered that the ceiling of the Great Hall reflected the stormy sky outside, she gazed at it in awe, and then at the floating candles and the long tables stretching down the enormous space, the head table with its regal-looking witches and wizards, the professors who would try to pound knowledge into their heads for seven years.When she turned to a boy beside her to see what someone else thought of all this, she thought her knees just might buckle. He was the most beautiful boy she'd ever seen, glittering black eyes and smooth dark hair sweeping back from his brow, his even white teeth visible when he flashed a blinding smile, and even a dimple in his chin that made her think of her dad teasing her mum about an actor she liked who had a cleft chin-what was his name? Kirk Douglas. That was it. He had a chin just like Kirk Douglas. All thoughts of Hawthorn, her previous crush at her Muggle school, fled from her brain as she beheld the boy beside her.Then she realized that she was rather staring, and that he looked almost like he expected girls to stare at him, and she pulled her eyes away, feeling foolish. They all marched forward when they were told, Lily trying not to stare at the beautiful boy. He was one of the first to be Sorted. Lily had recognized Professor McGonagall when she'd greeted them in the entrance hall, and after a couple of other students had been Sorted, McGonagall read from a scroll in her hands, "Sirius Black!"Lily saw him step forward; he was one the tallest of the first years, moving with a confidence unlike that of most eleven-year-olds. She remembered the name:Sirius Black.He sat on the stool and McGonagall placed the hat on him; it was a matter of perhaps ten seconds before it cried, "GRYFFINDOR!"He leapt up, looking almost smug, as though this is what he expected, and the students at the Gryffindor table whooped and hollered and generally made a racket. Lily didn't know anything about the house system, and hadn't been paying much attention when the Sorting Hat had been singing its song about the four houses, but she knew that Gryffindor certainly sounded like the best house to her now. She only had to wait for a half-dozen or so other students to be sorted before Professor McGonagall read her name from the scroll:"Lily Evans."Her heart thudding in her ears, she managed to walk forward without tripping over her robes. McGonagall placed the hat on her and it slid down to her shoulders, plunging her into darkness. What was going to happen now?And then she heard the voice: "Ah, it's you. I've been waiting for you..."Lily swallowed. "Er, me?" she thought back at it. Somehow she instinctively knew that she didn't need to speak aloud. She knew that she was hearing the voice with her mind and not her ears."Yes, you," it answered her in a gruff sort of voice."Er, why?" She felt that she was being a very poor conversationalist, but she hadn't previously realized that making conversation was required for the Sorting. Until several minutes before she'd entered the Great Hall, she hadn't even heart of Sorting or a Sorting Hat. No one she'd met on the train had had a clue, as she'd only managed to sit with other first-year Muggle-born witches and wizards. The older students all tended to band together with their friends, and new students of wizarding background did the same."Why? Because you will be famous, my girl, beyond your wildest imaginings. If you choose. But fame will come at a price. And today is one of the days when you will make a choice that will affect you for the rest of your life.""I will? But I thought you chose which house was right for us.""You're different. For one thing, you have many gifts. You are fiercely loyal and very hardworking; you could be a Hufflepuff. You also have a sharp, astute mind that would be at home in Ravenclaw. But you have other traits as well. Your ambition and cunning could making you a Slytherin no one will soon forget. You're a natural leader, and a Slytherin leader is a force to contend with indeed. The impact you could have on the world is great. But-but your bravery, ah, your bravery and your capacity to love...that's what could make you a Gryffindor.""Me? Brave?""My girl, your love and bravery could change the world, if you choose. But you must choose."She thought of the beautiful boy who had already been sorted into Gryffindor; but suddenly she felt as though she were being tempted, and as though it would be wicked to choose Gryffindor based just on that. "Tell me what else Gryffindors do. I don't remember what you sang."The hat said some very grand things about fighting for others, and saving even your enemies, laying down your life for a good cause. She felt very small. "And you have the capacity to do all of those things," it said, though she doubted it. "You also share characteristics associated with the other houses, as I said. But I think you would do best in Slytherin or Gryffindor.""And I have to choose?""Yes."She hadn't realized this. She thought of all of the great and noble things Gryffindors did and felt rather humbled. Is that really me? she thought. And what about what it said before, about me becoming famous, if I choose? Which choice will lead to that? Do I even want to be famous, and what will I be famous for? These thoughts whirled around her head, until finally, she said, "All right. You can't give me the least little hint?""You choose. However-let me help you. You have a sister, do you not?""Y-yes.""And if she was hurt, would you help her?""Of course.""But you do not like your sister.""What does that matter? If anyone were hurt, I'd help them if I could, whether I knew them or not. What reason would I have for not helping them?"The hat paused. "What if they killed your parents?"She stopped, not expecting this. I'm only eleven, she wanted to say. Why do I suddenly feel that the weight of the world is being placed on me? But after considering the hat's question, she finally answered. "I would help the person but make sure he was turned in to the police, so that justice could be served. It wouldn't be justice for me to let him die; I'd be no better than a vigilante then.""You have chosen," it told her."I have?" she said, bewildered."Another one for GRYFFINDOR!" it suddenly bellowed, and she knew now that she should remove the hat and proceed to the Gryffindor table, where the stunning boy named Sirius Black was already sitting, surrounded by older students. She blinked when she emerged from the dark hat, the bright candles hurting her eyes. She only stumbled once on her way to the cheering Gryffindor table, coloring deeply, wondering about some of the things the hat had said to her...Finally, the little boy who'd been in the same boat with her was walking forward to be Sorted; she didn't catch his name when McGonagall read it. She had noticed that when the students whose surnames began with 'F' were being Sorted, it was far faster than her Sorting. Every now and then the hat would take a little longer to do someone, but it still didn't seem very long to her. Perhaps it had only seemed to her that she had had the hat on for a rather long time? When McGonagall lowered the hat over the head of the boy from the boat, it was the fastest Sorting she'd yet seen. Before it had even completely obscured his face, it was crying out, "GRYFFINDOR!"An enormous smile split his face as McGonagall removed the hat from him and he raced to their table amid the requisite cheering; Lily laughed while she clapped along with her other fellow Gryffindors; she'd never seen anyone look so thoroughly thrilled in all her life. He slid into a space next to Sirius Black and the taller boy slapped him on the back. The two of them were sitting across the table from Lily. She saw that the small boy with the messy hair and the glasses also had round blue eyes that were excitedly taking everything in. He grinned at Lily and said, "Hullo! I'm James Potter and this is my best friend, Sirius Black! You were in my boat, weren't you? What's your name?"She couldn't help but smile back at the happy boy, who had made her feel better when they'd been crossing the choppy lake."I'm Lily Evans."She lifted her eyes to his face again and discovered that he was still looking right back at her. He knows I was looking at his body, she thought with deep embarrassment. There was an incredibly awkward moment when they were each looking into each other's eyes, silent, but suddenly, Sirius thwacked! James in the back of the head with a wet towel, saying, "Time for lunch! I'll get us some dry towels from the changing rooms. Hang on."Sirius disappeared, and James scrambled to his feet, then held out a hand to her, helping her stand. He didn't let go of her hand right away. When Sirius returned with the towels, they each draped one around their waists, and one around their shoulders. Shrouded thusly, they made their way up to the kitchen, Lily in the rear, remembering what she'd said to Sirius:James isn't the sort of person you break up with...He's the sort of boy-man-that you marry.The thought made her chest hitch, made her stomach flop in fear. But she pushed this thought away. The future isn't today, she reminded herself. The future is still-in the future. And so, with that thought instead, she made sandwiches with the boys, and they talked and laughed around the kitchen table, and managed not to grow up even a little bit more that day, to Lily's enormous relief."Aaaah!"They all screamed in delight when Jack's eyebrows became singed. He had been the only one in their game of Exploding Snap to remain unburnt, and now his luck had run out. Bill, Alex, Jack, Geoff and Charlie sat around the kitchen table, smoke drifting upward from each of them now, as they laughed and continued playing.The holiday so far had been wonderful, in Bill's opinion. He'd received bonafide Christmas presents, with a promise that when he was back at school in January he'd receive a completely separate birthday present; Charlie and Annie weren't attacking each other constantly (Annie actually seemed to have missed him); it was wonderful to see how Peggy and Percy had grown; and he never quite remembered how much he missed his parents until he saw them again, beaming at him and Charlie as they stepped off the train, making him get that warm feeling in the pit of his stomach that said, I'm home. He wasn't at the Burrow yet, but all he really needed in the world to feel at home was to see his mum and dad. They were his home. And his brothers and sisters. It didn't matter how tumble-down their house was, Bill felt, as long as they had each other.His mum and dad had let him invite his mates for Boxing Day, and he'd even managed to talk Alex into coming. Alex said that his parents had Wood relatives coming over to their house, his father's side of the family, whom he'd rather avoid, anyway. Bill had asked him whether he'd be missed, but Alex had said, "Nah. They're really coming to see the baby, anyway. I mean, Oliver is all right, I suppose. He'll entertain them. No one will miss me."Bill had wondered at the dejected note in his friend's voice, and wondered also whether he and Geoff and Jack should have made more of an effort to include him in their activities during the autumn term. Perhaps he assumed that they hadn't missed him, either. As he watched Alex play cards, it seemed to Bill that he was more like his old self, laughing, making off-color remarks (except when Bill's mother was in the room) and winking cheekily at Annie when she poked her head around the kitchen doorway, making her blue eyes widen and her thin, freckled face grow even paler than it had already been before it disappeared abruptly again. Charlie chuckled when he saw this."Someone has a crush on you..." he couldn't resist saying, and Bill had a feeling that this would be a new way for Charlie to torture Annie while he was at home.Alex scowled, wishing he hadn't instinctively tried to amuse the little girl. "She's seven! She is seven, right Bill?"Bill grinned. "Yeah. But I think Charlie may be right. She's never looked that way at any of my other friends."Alex shook his head, glaring at the cards in his hand. "Bleeding seven-year-old," he muttered. Right, he thought. I appeal to seven-year-old girls, and grandmas who love to pinch my cheek, and I don't even fancy girls at all. Lucky me.But none of his friends knew this about him yet, and he wasn't prepared to tell them. Only Remus Lupin knew, and he felt, somehow, that he could trust him to keep this information to himself-if he even remembered that he knew. Lupin was a seventh year, and probably too preoccupied about his N.E.W.T.s to remember having once comforted a second year in an empty classroom...Alex wondered whether Lupin realized that he sometimes followed him with his eyes; he'd been alarmed, worried that Lupin would look up and find him looking back, but it had never happened. It was almost as though Alex didn't exist at all. He tried not to think about the older boy, who'd been so understanding when he'd needed it, but at night, lying in his bed alone, it was impossible to tame his dreams..."Who'd like some hot chocolate?" Mrs. Weasley said suddenly, bustling into the kitchen, her rather pregnant belly under a loud flowered apron she'd wrapped around her robes, as if to emphasize her condition (which was somewhat redundant). All of the boys answered in the affirmative, and when they'd laid aside their cards to drink from the steaming mugs, Bill's mother beamed at them all affectionately, patting her own boys on the head before leaving the room. Alex could tell she really loved being a mother. Which made sense, as she was about to have her sixth baby in a few months. She was cheerful about being pregnant too, as his mother had not been when she was expecting Oliver. Everyone had had to steer a wide path around her and her hormonal rages for nine months. He was glad he'd been at school some of that time. He shook his head and grinned at Bill."You're lucky your mum likes expecting a baby. My mum was a holy terror."Bill looked fondly at the doorway where his mother had just disappeared. "Oh, she has her moments. But mostly-yeah. She's looking forward to having another baby. A playmate for Percy, she and Dad say. That's why Charlie and I are only about two years apart, and Peggy and Annie, too. We've each got a partner in crime this way," he said, grinning at his brother."Right!" Charlie agreed. "So why is it that Annie and I are always going at it, and you and Peggy are always making us break it up?""Because that's just what brothers and sisters do," Bill said, shrugging. "Well, some brothers and sisters.""So what if Percy's partner in crime is a sister, and not a brother?" Alex asked.Bill shrugged. "I reckon they'll still do a lot together, being so close in age. Especially since they'll be the youngest. Mum and Dad have both said they're stopping after this. They reckon seven living here is pushing it as is, and that's even with some magic to hold up the new addition upstairs."Charlie nodded. "I think six kids is plenty. Since we're the two oldest, we get to take care of the little blighters when Mum and Dad aren't around, after all.""Charlie!" Bill said, clearly upset with him. Charlie grimaced."Sorry. You know what I mean. I wasn't-well, you know. Anyway, sorry." He stood and put his cards down on the table. "I think I'll quit while I still have some hair on my head that's not burnt. You blokes have fun, though."Jack, who'd known Charlie the longest, other than Bill, laughed knowingly. "You have fun, too, teasing your sister about Alex." Charlie's round freckled face was bisected by his wicked grin."Too right!" he said, before leaving the room. Bill turned to see Alex frowning at his cards while sipping his hot chocolate, as though he was trying to ignore what had just been said."Whose turn is it?" Jack asked, picking up his cards again."Geoff's," Bill said immediately, as the one who kept track of these things. Geoff nodded, staring at his cards, trying to decide what to do. Then he looked up at the wizarding house, at the wireless on the kitchen mantel, blaring Christmas carols, at the pots and pans which were lazily washing themselves in the sink, and at the faces of the other boys around the table, boys who thought he was like them, who didn't suspect a thing. They were all normal. They didn't have any deep dark secrets that could make them outcasts in wizarding society...How much longer could he scrape by at Hogwarts before they kicked him out? He was lucky Dumbledore had had him Sorted when he'd arrived. Or was he? Perhaps he should have asked to be taken home again (or the caravan that passed for his home), not tried to do everything these boys could do, be what he could never be..."What's wrong, Geoff?" Jack said suddenly, having noticed the boy's lip shaking. Bill scrutinized him; his eyes were glistening as though he was going to burst into tears any moment."I'm going to be kicked out of Hogwarts!" he said suddenly, shocking them all."What?" Bill said, frowning. "Why?" But as soon as he said it, he knew. I was right, he thought, but not happily. Poor Geoff.Jack was peering in his friend's face as though he'd never seen him before. "Why would you say that, Geoff?" But he flicked his eyes over at Bill, and Bill thought, He remembers what I said, that I thought he might be-"A Squib," Geoff said, as though finishing Bill's thought. "I'm a Squib." He swallowed and looked up at the other boys; only Alex looked shocked, but then, he didn't know Geoff very well. He could tell from Bill and Jack's faces that they'd suspected something before this. "You two knew, didn't you?"Bill and Jack looked sheepishly at him. Bill started to say, "Well-yeah. We wondered a little about-""-about why I was so bloody useless with a wand? About why the only classes where I get good marks are the ones that don't really require magic? About why you've never seen me successfully do a spell, or fly a broom?" Bill and Jack nodded grimly, while Alex just continued to look dumbly at him."So," Jack said at last; "why do you say you're being kicked out of Hogwarts? Sprout or Dumbledore tell you not to come back after the holiday?"He shook his head. "No; but the work's getting harder now that we're almost half-way through third year. I don't know for how much longer the teachers will let me slide, just writing essays and taking exams and not actually being able to do magic. Something has to give, eventually. I mean, how could I possibly hope to pass the O.W.L.s?""Well," Bill said uncertainly, not sure what he was going to say; "you'd probably get one easily in Divination. And Potions. Then there's History of Magic, and Astronomy. That's already four. And probably Muggle Studies and Herbology. That's six. Plenty of people get six; nothing to be ashamed of. Perfectly respectable."He shook his head. "If you don't get at least one among Charms, Transfiguration or Defense Against the Dark Arts, you either have to do fifth year over or you just leave the school. I've seen the old school records; I did my research. It doesn't happen often. In the fifties, some bloke who always overslept missed his Dark Arts and his Transfiguration exams, and just wasn't much good at Charms, so he had to do fifth year over. And there was a witch in the sixties who had a rotten memory and failed all three of those exams and didn't want to be a fifth year again, so she left. But they-they were just lazy. They could have passed if they'd cared enough. No amount of studying will get me through those tests, or the damn difficult ones we're likely to have at the end of third year, either. It's just going to get worse and worse, harder and harder for me to hide my problem. And it's not like I can just go to a Muggle school if I leave; I might not mind that, actually, if I could go to just one. But the way my mum and dad move around, I'd be changing schools every month, if not more often. I love Hogwarts. I've never felt that any place was like home to me until I went there. But it's just a matter of time before I have to leave..."There was a catch in his voice, and he wiped impatiently at the tears that started to leak out of his eyes, especially in front of the other boys. Alex looked at Jack and Bill, who had stopped looking shocked and instead looked quite sympathetic. He was the first to speak."How did you get that letter?" Alex asked softly. "Your Hogwarts letter?""It wasn't sent to me by the school," Geoff said, no longer crying. "It was my mum's old letter. I found out last year. I should have known something was up when she said I should make sure I had it with me during the Sorting. No one else had their letter in their pocket, I'm pretty sure. I reckon she put my first name in there in place of hers, so it no longer said 'Bronwen Davies' but 'Geoffrey Davies.' Easier to do than replacing the whole name. She said it was sent to me with that name instead of 'Geoffrey Rottenham' because she and my dad had never married and they assumed at the school that I had my mum's name. She said wizards and Muggles do it differently when two people who aren't married have a kid-wizards give the kid the mum's name."Jack frowned. "I never heard that."Geoff sighed. "Something else she made up, I reckon. But that's why I sometimes don't answer right away when someone calls me 'Davies.' I'm not used to being called that. Well, I'm getting more used to it, after over two years. But it's still strange to me."Alex's eyebrows flew up. "Your mum and dad never married? And she told you like that?""What? No, I always knew that." He shrugged. "It was just never important to them. They didn't feel like going through the mess of getting fake papers for my mum, so she could 'exist' in the Muggle world. Said they felt married, and that's all that mattered and the rest of the world could go to hell if they were going to criticize. Besides, we never really lived in one place long enough for people to find out details about my parents, especially about my mum being a witch. They liked it that way. It was just the three of us, on the road, we didn't need nobody else." He sighed and looked down. "Well, they didn't need no one else. I wouldn't have minded a sister or brother, or a mate. Never lived in one place long enough to make friends with someone. And even if I had made a friend, I'd have left him about five minutes later, wouldn't I? Fat lot of good that would do." He looked at the other boys. "You blokes are the first mates I've ever really had."It was that that undid Alex. He fought down the lump in his throat and stood up, his face set stubbornly. He didn't know this boy well, but Geoff knew what it felt like to be on the outside looking in, like Alex. He knew what it was like to worry about his deepest darkest secret coming out, and being rejected by the world because of it.He knew how Alex felt every day of his life."You're not leaving Hogwarts," Alex said suddenly, surprising them all. They stared at him. Bill frowned; Alex knew that Bill usually liked to be in charge (probably force of habit, as the eldest in a large family). But this time, someone else had spoken first, and he wasn't going to let Bill talk him out of this."What?" was the only response he received; all three boys spoke at once."I said, you are bloody well not going to leave Hogwarts. How do you know you're a Squib? You could still show some magical ability later in your life. You never know. Just because you haven't yet means-means you might be a late bloomer. I heard about this Muggle-born witch who didn't start doing magic until she was thirty. It happens. You want to come back to Hogwarts when you're thirty? Might as well learn now, while you're young, with other witches and wizards your age, and later-when you've started showing some magic-you'll have the education and credentials you need. And you won't have to live in the Muggle world after you finish school, unless you want to, that is.""You-you really think I'll turn out to be magical eventually?"Alex shrugged. "Even if you aren't-we won't stop being your friends." Jack and Bill agreed loudly, Bill slapping him on the back, making Geoff look sheepish. But then he looked worried again."But-but what if they make me leave? When it becomes painfully clear what I am?"Alex pounded his palms on the table and leaned forward, peering into the other boys' faces. "We'll help you stay in school. When you're in a class where you have to do magic, one of us will help you! We'll give you pre-charmed objects and we'll levitate things from the doorway of the classroom, hidden from the teacher; we'll help you brew potions that will shrink a cat when you're supposed to be doing it with magic-whatever it takes."Geoff's jaw dropped. "You mean-you'd help me cheat?"Alex straightened up and gave him a lop-sided grin. "Yes." He nodded at Bill. "Bill's the best bloke in our year at wandless magic. He can do spells without a lot of wand-waving, so the teachers won't suspect it when he's the one helping you. Jack's in your house, so if Bill or I can't be on hand for a test, Jack will be. And I've seen Muggle magicians do really amazing things with sleight-of-hand. I can read up on how they manage it without doing magic, and then I can teach you, so you can swap a transfigured teapot for the one you were supposed to be doing, and McGonagall won't suspect a thing. You don't have to worry. We're on the job. No one's going to kick you out of Hogwarts."Geoff looked stunned. "That-that sounds grand. You'd-you'd all do that?" He noticed that Bill and Jack still looked somewhat surprised by Alex's outburst, and the plan he'd outlined, but they hurriedly agreed. Then Geoff was frowning. "Yeah, the only problem is-I haven't done well at magic up until now. Won't the teachers notice if I'm suddenly a lot better? Won't it look odd?"Bill shrugged. "Maybe they'll just reckon you-you had a magical growth spurt. They usually happen when witches and wizards are young, but sometimes they happen later. Peggy's just had one; she can fly a broomstick now. We have a special one Mum and Dad bought for me when I was about four; it can't fly more than a few feet off the ground."Geoff sighed. "Even your five-year-old sister can fly a broom and I can't."Alex frowned. "Let me work on that. A broom that's responding to someone else's magic that you can seem to be flying. In fact-I'll bet Bill can come up with a charm for that. He's tops in the year in Charms."Bill looked bashful now, but also a bit doubtful. "I don't know. That might be a bit beyond me just yet."Alex shrugged. "So you have a goal. It's a worthwhile one, don't you think?"Bill considered this; the seventh-year boys probably learned a lot of interesting magic to be able to create that map of theirs, and to be able to stay with a werewolf during the full moon without being in danger themselves. Perhaps the most important things you learned in school weren't learned in the classroom. He looked at Geoff. And maybe the best possible reason to try to learn a bit of complicated magic is to help a friend."I'm in," Bill said suddenly, grinning at Geoff."I'm in," echoed Jack, putting his hand on his housemate's shoulder.Geoff looked round at them all, clearly moved. He looked as though he couldn't speak for a minute, but he finally said, "You won't be sorry. I promise you." Then he shook his head. "I never thought I'd have any mates at all, let alone the best ones in the world."He beamed at the three of them and Alex saw how touched he was, and thought, Yes. It's the right thing to do. No one should be shut out of the world he was born into just because-because he's different.No one.Saturday, 31 December, 1977Severus Snape's head felt like it was going to explode. He glanced round at the merry crowd of Slytherins around him, as they cut a swath through Diagon Alley on the last day of the year. The world looked a bit bleary to him; he wasn't sure whether that was Narcissa Anderssen walking on his right or Claudine Gaillard. Not too surprising, as he had already had four swigs of Ogden's Old Firewhiskey from someone's hip flask and seemed destined to have one hell of a hangover the next day.Gah. Karkaroff was blithering on about something again, his arm thrown around Claudine Gaillard's shoulders. That must mean the one to his right was Anderssen. All of the other seventh-year Slytherins were present as well, having hatched a plan to crash a New Year's Eve party. Severus was starting to doubt the wisdom of coming along on this jaunt, but as he'd had a miserable holiday so far, he had decided that it certainly couldn't get worse.The first night he'd been back with his uncle, he'd snuck out to a wizarding pub he knew in Dunoon and had sat by himself in the corner, drinking shot after shot of Old Ogden's. The barkeep hadn't questioned him about his age. His Uncle Duncan had come looking for him, somehow suspecting he'd be there, and half-dragged him home."Och, lad, if ye're lewking to git drunk, at least do it at hame," his uncle had chided him. "Then I don't haff t'drag ye back here like the town sot."His uncle put him fully clothed into the tub and turned the shower on him full blast, ice cold water striking him like so many needles. He wanted to spring out of it and run, but he couldn't get his arms and legs to work quite properly, and finally he had to just wipe the water from his face and moan, "Enough, already. Stop the damn water.""Why should I?' his uncle demanded."Because I'm going to be sick now," he informed his mother's brother, ever dignified, before leaning over the edge of the tub and spewing onto the tiled floor-and his uncle's boots. Duncan MacDermid swore and muttered something under his breath that sounded like, "I shoulda known..." as he cleaned his boots and the floor, leaving Severus in the tub while he did it-but he did finally turn off the water.His uncle helped him dry off and get to bed that night, and didn't wake him the next morning. When Severus finally opened his eyes, he felt like a house was sitting on his skull, and who the hell told the sun it could be that bright? Didn't it know it was bleeding December?His uncle gave him a hangover remedy when he stumbled into the kitchen at two in the afternoon. Severus gulped it down, even though the first taste was vile; after a little bit, he became accustomed to it, or his taste buds had numbed. That night he drank too much again, after dinner, and sat through the Christmas Eve service in a stupor, the trilling notes of the children's choir sounding warped and misshapen in his abused brain.He wasn't sure whether his uncle knew he was drunk again until they reached the flat afterward and Duncan said to him, "Do ye think ye can reach the loo before yer sick this time, lad?" He nodded, holding his hand before his mouth, and sprinted up the steep stairs leading to the flat, then down the corridor. He knelt in front of the toilet, heaving, and when his uncle entered, he vaguely remembered him leaning against the doorway, stroking his beard."Would ye like to taill me why ye suddenly feel the need to be stinkin' drunk all the time, Saiverus? It can't be that ye've gotten in the habit at skewl. They'd naiver allow it. And I think ye'd be exceedin' some kind of spewing quota, as waill," he added with a mischievous grin. His nephew wished he'd managed to be sick on his uncle's boots again.When Severus was fairly certain he was done heaving, he leaned heavily against the cold tiled wall and said, "I've lost her.""Her? Yer lass? Och, I'm sorry lad. I'd no idea...Whain did she taill ye to bugger off?"Severus shook his head. "I did it. I broke up with her.""You! But ye're damn miserable, man! Are ye daft? Why the haill'd ye do that?"Severus just shook his head, staring at the pattern of the tiles on the floor, unable to explain. His uncle helped him into bed again, this time clucking sympathetically.The next evening they'd exchanged perfunctory gifts and eaten their Christmas joint with a remarkable lack of joy. Afterward, his uncle surprised him by pouring him a shot of whiskey. Severus looked up at him, startled."Well, ye've already tried it on yer own. I reckon I ought to teach ye the proper way to drink, oughtn't I? Fairst-ye make sure ye've had a proper meal. I shoulda noticed that ye didn't eat much o' anythin' the last two nights. Saicont-don't go overboard. Ef ye want to drink t' forgait, ye don't need to down the whole bottle, lad."Severus nodded and knocked back the shot he'd been poured. He pulled his lips back from his teeth and gasped as it burned his throat, even though he knew he would feel this sensation. His uncle nodded at him. "There. That's enough fer now. Moderation. Yer still probably a wee bit drunk from the last two nights anyway. Gait some raist now, lad. I'll see ye in the mornin', and ye can hailp me in the shop."But being in his uncle's apothecary on Boxing Day was a disaster. He was supposed to be overseeing a very delicate beauty potion his uncle was brewing while Duncan went to the front to wait on a customer, and instead he knocked a vial of something-he had no idea what-off a shelf. The vial broke on the edge of the cauldron and some of its contents dripped into the potion. There was an immediate bad reaction. The noise and smell caused his uncle to come running back to the laboratory, where he started swearing at Severus loudly, pointing his wand to clean up the glass shards. Then he looked at his nephew and sighed."Ye're only goin' to be trouble round here, in yer current state, lad. Why don't ye go doon ta Diagon Alley, see whaither ye can meet up with some o'yer mates from skewl."Severus looked at him dully. He wanted to say "What mates?" But he could tell that his uncle wanted to get rid of him, so he agreed.After stepping out of the fire at the Leaky Cauldron, he had half a mind to just spend the rest of the day drinking there, but he knew that all he'd be able to get out of old Tom was butterbeer; he was under no delusions about Severus' age, as the barkeep at the local pub had been. So he wandered into Diagon Alley, past the shops still bearing their festive holiday decorations, thronged with other Hogwarts students on holiday who were meeting friends for a day out.He was gazing into the window of Quality Quidditch Supplies, idly thinking that a new broomstick would be nice but was very unlikely, when Karkaroff had run into him."Snape! You look like hell. Had a rotten Christmas, eh?"Severus sneered at him, "Happy Boxing Day to you too, Iggy."For once Karkaroff ignored the hated nickname. "I heard about you and Evans. Rotten luck, that. She must have been a good shag, too, am I right?" Severus clenched and unclenched his fists, resisting the urge to smash his arrogant little face in. "I mean," Karkaroff went on, "being dumped by a Mudblood-""She didn't," he said abruptly, setting the record straight. "I'm the one who ended it. She even begged me to take her back.""What?" Karkaroff goggled. "I thought someone had said that, but I assumed they'd got it backwards. You really did?"Severus tried to shrug nonchalantly. "I grew bored with her. She had her uses, of course," he added, attempting to sound as callous as possible. Karkaroff smirked and nudged him with his elbow."I'll wager she did, I'll just wager she did," he said winking. Severus thought he looked like a fool. "I just-I thought you couldn't be daft enough to send her packing, when, any time you wanted, you had the Head Girl giving you a piece of-""Do you have a point, Karkaroff?" Severus was growing impatient. The smaller boy peered at him, as though assessing his potential. Being observed in this way was making Severus uncomfortable. Finally, the other boy spoke."I'm meeting up with the other seventh-years in about half-an-hour. Slytherins that is, of course. We-we didn't think you'd be interested, what with having a Gryffindor girlfriend and all. But, if she was just a temporary amusement-you're welcome to come along."Severus looked at him suspiciously. What was the catch? Well, he thought, only one way to find out. He'd just have to make certain he was on his guard the entire time."Fine," he said, nodding. And so he spent the rest of the holiday meeting up with the other seventh-year Slytherins in Diagon Alley every day. His uncle took heart from this; it seemed that his nephew had friends at last. To his uncle, he pretended to be having a better time than he really was. Severus discovered that he had to withstand a certain amount of vampire ribbing, but he also sent some well-aimed jinxes in the direction of the jokers a few times, causing the others to laugh at them, rather than him."Got you good, Karkaroff!" Diana O'Sullivan had crowed when boils had sprouted on his face. The Slytherins did this with each other all the time; you couldn't turn your back on anyone, or you risked being caught out, the target of a hex. They were all of-age, so they no longer had to worry about doing magic outside of school.When, on the thirtieth, Karkaroff had come running into the Leaky Cauldron, where they were having tea laced with the rum from Narcissa Anderssen's delicate ladies' flask, and told them all that some Gryffindors were having a New Year's Eve party they could crash, it seemed like a wonderful prank to play-a gang of Slytherins showing up at a Gryffindor party. Evidently, all of the seventh years who were not in Slytherin had been invited, as well as a number of sixth years from the other (non-Slytherin) houses. Severus looked at his housemates; he could tell that they were all feeling the snub, even though they would have thrown an invitation from a Gryffindor in the host's face."We'll show them what a real party is like, eh, Snape?" Narcissa said to him, a mischievous glint in her eye, as she lifted tea that was probably less tea and more rum to her lips and drank, her eyes boring into his over the edge of the cup. He licked his lips nervously and nodded, his head buzzing. He wasn't certain that he'd been sober for twenty-four hours straight since getting off the train from Hogwarts.When, on New Year's eve, Karkaroff had handed him some Floo powder and told him to say, "Ascog Castle!" before stepping into the fire at the Leaky Cauldron, he couldn't help thinking, That sounds familiar. But then he was whirling through the Floo network, and before long, he was stumbling out of a large stone fireplace in a rather crowded room where too-loud music was blaring from a Wizarding Wireless, and scattered teacups which were on every horizontal surface. The other Slytherins who'd preceded him were already starting to make the party more "interesting." Someone was levitating a table, delicate bone-china cups skittering across its surface before they crashed to the floor in a heap of shards and dust, and someone else was turning up the wireless to a deafening level, so that it started to make the windows rattle in their frames. Severus shook his head at the juvenile antics, striding from the room, thinking, I need a drink.He paused in what appeared to be an entrance hall, narrow and crowded though it was. This is a castle? he thought. If so, it was a small, mean castle. It was certainly no Hogwarts. More like a tower house, he thought. He turned right, walking into a kitchen with a large refectory table and a tapestry on the far wall that bore a prancing lion in blue and silver. Hmm, he thought. That looks familiar. I should know that... But just as he couldn't remember where he'd heard Ascog Castle, he couldn't place the blue-and-silver lion. There were too many people in the house for him to count, the kitchen as crowded as the sitting room, and he couldn't tell who (if anyone) was in charge. Karkaroff had come in here too, looking at Severus with an evil grin as he poured a bottle of something into the punch bowl sitting on the table, which was surrounded by more of the delicate china tea cups. Severus strode over to him and, after seeing Karkaroff help himself to the spiked punch (so he knew that it wasn't something that Karkaroff was avoiding) he ladled some into a cup; as he lifted it to his face, his nose told him before the taste even reached his mouth that it was now adequately alcoholic.Karkaroff disappeared. Severus grabbed what seemed to be a ham sandwich from a platter near the punch and wandered from the room. It didn't seem to be a very big house (he was damned if he was going to call the thing a 'castle'). He idly began to climb the winding stone stairs; on each upper level there were two bedrooms, and each one was occupied by a different panting couple, judging from the sounds seeping from the closed doors; the landings were populated by other teenagers waiting their turns, whether for mere snogging or all-out shagging he didn't know and he didn't care.On the top floor, he heard the sound of someone retching, and a familiar voice saying soothing words to the sick person. Severus crept closer; the sounds were coming from a bathroom that was reached through one of the bedrooms. Thankfully, this bedroom did not have any rutting teenagers in it, but through the open door of the bath, he saw immediately that it did have-Lily Evans, Sirius Black and James Potter.He backed away immediately, before they saw him, ducking behind the door, listening, his heart going very fast. He was still holding a bite of the ham sandwich in one hand, and he stuffed this into his mouth, trying to chew quietly."There, there, Sirius, you're going to be all right," Lily was telling him gently. When he'd glimpsed them briefly through the doorway, he'd seen that Lily was crouched on the floor rubbing Sirius' back, while Black was positioned before the toilet, heaving, and Potter leaned against an adjacent wall, coolly surveying the two while he ate a sandwich. He'd seen that look very quickly, but was it-was he jealous of Lily and Black? Could she possibly be getting involved with that bastard? Severus felt a rage well up in him as he considered this."Didn't-know-whether-you-were-coming-" Black choked out. "Waited and waited...""So you sat around all day drinking?" Lily scolded him."I think it's Peter's fault," Potter offered. "He brought some vodka to put in the punch, but I wouldn't let him." Severus smirked; too late, he thought, remembering Karkaroff. That punch was definitely alcoholic now. "Remus wouldn't drink any, so Peter dared Sirius to have a shot. And another, and another. I don't know what either one of them was thinking.""Well, obviously not very much," Lily answered acidly. "I'll have to give Peter a piece of my mind later. I mean, I know Sirius has had alcohol before, but he's obviously not used to this kind of drinking. Did you eat anything at all?" she said, evidently addressing Black. There was a kind of choking sound, and then Severus assumed that Black was heaving into the toilet again. He winced; he'd stopped retching after the third day of his holiday, learning how to drink just enough to anesthetize himself from the pain of not having her any more, but not so much that he was going to be found by his uncle lying face-down in a pile of his own sick."I'm sorry I was so much later than I said I'd be," Lily was saying softly to him. Severus' heart ached, hearing her speaking so gently to the boy who'd tried to kill him. Somehow, he still felt that that gentle tone of voice belonged to him, that he was the only one who deserved to have her speaking to him that way..."Are you going to be much longer?" Potter asked. Severus wasn't sure whether he was speaking to his best friend or Lily or both. He sounded irked and impatient."Why?" Lily asked, sounded irked herself."I heard some-some people who weren't invited might try to crash the party and thought I'd check around to make sure no one had. We also need to make sure everyone's out of the house and everything cleaned up by the time your parents and sisters are back, Sirius, and you're clearly not going to be in any condition to help us with that." Ah, it was Black and Potter's party. Severus was fascinated; Potter sounded more than a little put-out by his friend. Were the perfect Gryffindors having problems?Severus crept away from the room before Potter discovered him; he went back down the curving stairs, not pausing on the ground floor landing. He just continued down, down, until he found himself in the dungeons. Hmph. Dungeons, he thought. Maybe it is a castle after all. Of a sort. He wandered down a torch-lit corridor, hearing familiar voices and laughter ahead of him. The Slytherins had gravitated to their customary territory, the dungeons, and made their own party, evidently.He was shocked when he entered a room with a large pool and a sky that looked like the night sky outdoors, glittering with stars. There were also some torches around the room, lending a flickering, other-worldly radiance to the space, the flames reflecting from the shivering surface of the large pool. Severus whirled, thinking he heard something behind him, but all he could see was a shuddering shrub, part of the mural lining the room. There seemed to be numerous night-sounds and murmurs coming from the mural of a garden; he wasn't sure he liked this. It made him nervous. And then he became even more nervous when he realized that the bodies swimming in the pool weren't wearing anything; boys and girls alike, his fellow Slytherins had stripped and jumped into the pool, splashing and laughing, shining breasts and shoulders and buttocks making him swallow and hesitate on the threshold. Narcissa Anderssen swam up to the edge closest to where he was standing, her long blonde hair clinging sleekly to her head, making her sharp cheekbones and nose stand out even more than usual."Coming in, Snape?" she asked slyly. "Show us what you've got," she added with a laugh, throwing herself backwards into the water, floating on the surface for a moment, showing him-everything she had. Gah. All of them were in there, he could see. Every one. If he didn't do this-he'd just be a laughing stock again. He hesitated for a moment, then turned away to remove his robes and other clothing, trying to ignore some of the girls whistling behind him. It's just swimming, he told himself. He turned quickly, before anyone could get a good look at him, and jumped into the water, narrowly missing a lip-locked couple. When he surfaced, pushing his hair out of his eyes, he saw that the couple was a pair of boys, and some of the girls were watching them with admiration. He found himself staring at the girls, instead, wondering what about this fascinated them so, since they were clearly not being welcomed.Then, before he knew what was happening, a soft, feminine body was pressing up against his back, breasts crushed against him, long legs wrapping around his waist, making him gasp. He pulled away and turned around to find out who it was.Narcissa Anderssen.He swallowed. "I-I thought you had a boyfriend. Malfoy," he said quietly. He knew this was a rather stupid thing to say when you are in pool with a girl and neither of you has anything on, but it was all he could think of.She shrugged. "So what? What he doesn't know-can't hurt you. The bastard had to be somewhere else tonight, if you can believe it. Business, he called it. If he's going to leave me stranded on New Year's Eve, I think I deserve to have a little fun on my own, don't you?"As she spoke she slid her slippery arms up around his neck, her fingers twining in his wet hair, and pulled his face down to hers; she deliberately pushed her stomach against his, making him jump from the contact. He knew she could feel the purely physical effect she was having on him; she smiled against his mouth as she kissed him. He tasted the alcohol she'd had on her tongue. Then she reached down and wrapped her hand around him, and he moaned into her mouth for a moment before breaking the kiss and pulling her hand away."What do you think you're doing?" he demanded, looking around tentatively at the other Slytherins. But he didn't have the audience he'd feared; the others were quite preoccupied with similar pursuits. Two of the girls were being surveyed by Karkaroff now, who seemed to be quite enjoying what they were doing to each other, and other couples, both mixed-gender and same-gender, were engaged in various sex-acts and near sex-acts that were making Severus more and more nervous. He turned back to Narcissa, raking his eyes over her exposed body, surprised to find the thought Why not? in his brain. But-he didn't want spectators."Not here," he told her tersely. She smiled wantonly."All right. Follow me."She climbed out of the pool, and, hesitating for a moment, he followed her, but no one seemed to be watching, so he didn't have to worry about feeling odd walking about in front of the others with nothing on. Narcissa certainly didn't seem to have a self-conscious bone in her body as she walked before him, her hips swaying, her wet skin glistening in the torchlight. She led him to an adjacent room; as soon as he closed the door behind them, she was all over him, and he allowed himself to lose himself in her, to find forgetfulness in her body. He'd never known that the other Slytherins did things like this, went skinny-dipping and had what amounted to orgies...He probably should have known, but he was so on the fringes, and it had never occurred to him. Or was this a special occasion?She pulled away from him, watching him from under her lashes, a smile curling at the corner of her mouth. "Evans wasn't making things up, obviously. Pity she left you.""I left her," he growled, irritated. Why didn't she shut up and just get to it?She traced her finger down his left arm, humming to herself, as though he hadn't said anything. "I see you don't have it yet," she said, tapping the skin just below the crook of his elbow."Have what?" he said, before taking her breast in his mouth. She gasped, holding his head in place. "The Mark. Didn't you see Igor's? I think Lucius' is very sexy. I can talk to him about you, if you like. Put in a good word. He doesn't want me to get it. He says I can serve the Dark Lord by serving him. Get it? Serve?" She waited for a reaction; Severus moved his mouth up to her neck and put his hands under her bottom, lifting her up. How did she go on chattering while he was moving his hands and mouth over her? Was she not noticing? "It's meant to be a double entendre," she went on. "Serve. Get it?""You mean sex. I get it," he snapped at her. "Speaking of which-" he said, lifting her higher, with a grunt.And then he had her up against the wall, her legs wrapped around him, her arms around his neck, while he thrust up into her, and she stopped talking about Lucius Malfoy and Marks and instead whispered throatily into his ear, "Bite me."He was momentarily distracted again, which he did not appreciate. Was she ever going to shut up? "What?" he spat."Bite me. I have-a vampire fantasy I want you to fulfill-"He thought he heard some muffled shouting from the pool room. They must really be going at it in there, he thought. He froze, staring at her, an evil light in her eyes, and he saw that she was looking over his shoulder, not at him, and he thought he felt a breeze on his back. Has someone opened the door? he wondered. Then he heard an inarticulate cry and two sets of footsteps running from the room. He turned, but saw no one, and she turned his head back to her with her hand on his jaw."Finish what you started," she breathed. "I'll go first, if you like.""What?" he said again, his head thrumming, wondering who had run out of the room."With the biting. I'll bite you first."He decided to shut her up once and for all by clamping his mouth over hers, then resumed his previous activity, but when he was close he finally did what she wanted, and brought his mouth down on her neck, biting. At first, his teeth weren't quite sharp enough to do more than bruise her, but then one of his canines did manage to break the skin ever so slightly, and he tasted some coppery blood on his tongue. When she realized that he'd succeeded in biting her, she shuddered in ecstasy just before he stopped, unfulfilled, feeling like he was going to be ill. He pulled away from her, wishing he was anywhere else on the planet. She leaned against the wall, her chest heaving, looking like he had given her just what she'd wanted. He shook his head. Malfoy can have her, he thought. Twisted bitch.He strode from the room, without a word to her, and she laughed, the sound echoing in the underground cavern. He was surprised to find the pool empty; he threw on his clothes and left the dungeons as quickly as he could, then made his way through the bodies in the sitting room, going back to the fire. He threw some Floo Powder into the flames and, just as he was whirling out of sight, he saw James Potter and Sirius Black come running at the fire, screaming, "Snape, you bastard!"And then they were gone, and he was whirling his way home, home to the depressing flat above the apothecary, home to his uncle, who would never know how he had debauched himself and how ashamed he felt. Worst of all-He knew that he was still in love with Lily. And there was absolutely nothing that he could do about it.Friday, 10 February, 1978Lily paced her room. She had to break it to him gently. She had to explain to him that she only thought of him as a friend and didn't want him to be more without him giving her that look she knew so well, the look that could make her lose her resolve and say the opposite of how she felt, just to spare his feelings.No. No chickening out, she told herself sternly. You can do this.She thought back to the New Year's Eve Party, and the planning for it. They'd thought of it on Boxing Day. Or rather, Sirius had remembered that his parents and older sisters and their husbands were all invited to a party on New Year's Eve, and that he and James would have the house to themselves. "And the great thing is, we haven't any servants, not even house-elves. And no wizarding neighbors, just Muggles miles away who don't even know this is a house, and not a ruin. No one to tell! We can invite all of the seventh-years-well, maybe all of the seventh-years except the Slytherins. Of course, that's only about thirty people. All right, the sixth-years who aren't Slytherins, too..."Lily frowned. "As much as I admire your mother for doing her own housework and not using house-elves, that also means that you don't have any help getting ready for a party. You can't just do this with no planning. You need to have food and drink, and-""Drink! Excellent. All right, we'll need some whiskey, some vodka, some gin-""I meant," Lily said loudly, "punch or egg nog or butterbeer. Something like that. No alcohol." Sirius pleaded with her with his eyes. That usually worked. But not this time. "No. Absolutely not. And I expect you to back me up on this, James."James saluted her as though she was a general. "Right. No alcohol." Sirius scowled at the pair of them."Aw, having the Head Girl and Head Boy help me plan this party is no fun at all..."But actually, it had been. They'd planned it completely in a couple of days, and sent out the invitations using post owls from the post office in Diagon Alley. Lily was glad to have something to do to keep busy, and something to look forward to. It helped keep her mind off Severus. Most of the time.Then, on the day of the party, she'd very nearly forgotten that her mother was supposed to have some tests that day, to ascertain whether she was still in remission. Lily had had to sit in the hospital lounge for hours with Petunia and Vernon and her father, all pretending to be civil to each other. Because of the holiday, there was a shortage of people working in the lab, processing the results, and the time seemed to stretch on for an eternity. Lily had checked her watch repeatedly, very impatient. She had told Sirius and James she would come and help them get ready at noon; although his family would still be there, they could surreptitiously work on making sandwiches in the guest room where Lily would spend the night.Instead, she didn't show up until after seven. She and her parents finally returned home at six, and then she had to change her clothes and tell her parents where she was going (the Leaky Cauldron, which wasn't completely untrue). When she finally stumbled out of the fireplace at Ascog Castle, the party was in full swing and she couldn't find Sirius and James anywhere.She shouldered her way through the crowd, hanging her robes in the entrance hall, she'd worn them over her jeans and cardigan in order not to look out of place in the Leaky Cauldron. She climbed the stairs, hearing what was going on behind the bedroom doors as she ascended through the house, wondering where on earth James and Sirius could be.She finally found them in their en suite bath. Sirius was getting sick into the toilet while James stood nearby, looking strangely unsympathetic, and oddly enough, managing somehow to eat a sandwich while Sirius was ejecting the contents of his stomach. When James looked up and saw her, however, he stepped forward, grinning, saying her name affectionately and hugging her tightly. She held him close to her for an agonizing half minute, before stepping back nervously."What's going on? What's wrong with Sirius?"James looked at her grimly. "He's pissed. Three sheets to the wind."She rounded on him, crouched on the floor as he was. "Sirius! I thought we'd agreed, no alcohol! Oh, never mind..." she amended herself, crouching down next to him and putting her hand on his sweating brow. He was the color of parchment, and looked mortally embarrassed for her to see him in this state, but very quickly, he had no choice but to thrust his head over the commode again.Lily wasn't sure how long this went on. Sirius would stop for a while, sitting back on his haunches, talking to her, trying to make jokes about his condition, then he would start looking green around the edges and lunge for the toilet again. Lily never left his side, and they shooed numerous amorous couples away from their bedroom, sending them off grumbling. We planned this party, thought Lily with worry, thinking of Sirius' family returning home after their own party; and who knows what all of these people are even doing to the house? We haven't been downstairs in hours, they might have dismantled all the furniture, or transfigured it into farm animals...Remus showed up at one point, saying, "There you all are," but he immediately turned green and had to leave; he couldn't be around someone spewing without wanting to do it himself. Peter showed up after that, also clearly inebriated, but not as bad as Sirius, and when Lily immediately started yelling at him, he ran off.When Sirius finally seemed to be all right, they tucked him into bed. Lily kissed his brow tenderly, and he grasped her hand briefly, his eyes boring into hers. "Thank you, Lily," he rasped, before letting her go. She nodded grimly and left the room with James. She checked her watch; eleven-thirty. They found Remus and Peter, but only Remus was still conscious. With his help, they rousted the couples out of the bedrooms and worked their way downstairs. In the kitchen, they discovered the spiked punch and dumped in the sink. Each taking a room, they waved their wands, repairing and cleaning things as they went, to make less work later. Then a sixth-year girl from Ravenclaw grabbed Lily's arm in the entrance hall and said, "A Slytherin spiked the punch. I saw him and the other Slytherins show up, but no one knew where you and Potter were," she said suggestively, looking at the stairs leading up to the bedrooms."Where are they now?" James demanded, appearing at Lily's elbow. The sixth-year pointed at the stairs to the dungeons. "They went down there."James and Lily hurried down the stairs, and once they were in the corridor, they immediately heard the echoes of the Slytherins coming from the pool room. They ran forward, wands out and at the ready, and Lily thought, I should have known something like this would happen...When they reached the pool room, she couldn't believe her eyes. James gasped and immediately spun her around. She shook him off, irritated."For pete's sake, James, I'm not a child!" She turned round and started shooting sparks at the pairs and trios of Slytherins in various combinations around the room, making them spring apart. When they saw that it was the Head Girl and Head Boy interrupting them, they merely laughed. "Get out!" Lily cried, her voice echoing against the walls and ceiling. "All of you! Party crashers!" She was furious, and all they did was slowly and lazily start to move apart and find their clothes.James tried not to stare at the girls, especially as they were Slytherins, but he'd never seen so many nude people in one place at one time. He noticed Lily giving him a sideways glance with her eyebrow raised, and he cleared his throat, sending sparks up to the ceiling."Faster! Now! You are uninvited guests! Get the hell out of here!"Finally, they were dressed, still moving at their own leisurely pace. As they were leaving, Karkaroff leered at Lily. "There's still two more in there," he said, pointing with his thumb at the changing room door. James and Lily moved toward the door and she opened it, immediately wishing she could wipe the memory from her brain.He was in there, with nothing on, and he had Narcissa Anderssen up against a wall, her legs wrapped around his waist as he moved within her, his sleek black hair touching his shoulders, shivering with each thrust. Lily gasped, and Narcissa caught her eye over his shoulder, a knowing smile on her face, one of her generous breasts just visible past his muscular arm. There was no mistaking who was shagging her; Lily had come to know his body very well.With a cry, she ran from the room. James Potter stood frozen for a second, still watching them, but then he realized that he should go after Lily. She was probably devastated. Slytherin bastard, he thought, not for the first time. He chased her up to the entrance hall, then up to the next landing; he turned her to face him. "Lily! Lily, say something!" He looked in her face, worried. She seemed distant, disconnected from the world."He always told me he hated her," she finally said softly at last. "That he didn't think she was the least bit attractive," she continued, her voice oddly high-pitched. She seemed to be looking at some distant point that he couldn't see. Sirius stumbled down the stairs, running his hand through his hair. James was momentarily distracted by this."Sirius! What are you doing out of bed?"Sirius yawned and stretched. "Not tired. Feeling much better. Brushed my teeth and everything. See?" he said displaying his scrubbed dental work. "Didn't want to have bad breath at midnight, you know. No one would want to kiss me."James rolled his eyes. "I don't give a damn if anyone wants to kiss you. We just found Snape in the changing room next to the pool, shagging Anderssen.""We?" Sirius frowned.James gestured with his head at Lily. "We."Then Sirius saw the zombie-like state that Lily was in and he realized, even through his haze, what James meant."Where the hell is he?" Sirius growled."You sit here and wait for us, Lily," James said gently, helping her down onto one of the steps. We'll be right back."They hurried down the stairs, seeing Snape entering the sitting room when they were still half a flight up from the bottom. They practically leapt to the floor of the entrance hall, but when they entered the sitting room, the jostling bodies got in their way, and they had trouble forcing their way across the room. Just as Severus Snape was stepping into the green flames, they lunged at him, both crying out, "Snape, you bastard!" before he was whisked away. James checked his watch, his chest heaving. It was only three minutes before midnight. He and Sirius left the room again, going back up the stairs, finding Lily looking oddly composed, gazing out the window that looked onto the courtyard. She seemed to be staring up at the stars."It's almost midnight," she said quietly, as though she hadn't seen her former boyfriend shagging another girl. The boys came and stood on either side of her, also looking out the window. Then, suddenly, color blossomed in the sky, like exotic flowers, and Lily said, "Oh! They're setting off fireworks over the port. It must be midnight. Happy new year.""Happy new year," Sirius whispered to her. The strains of Auld Lang Syne drifted up the stairs from the party guests one flight down. She looked up at him and he leaned down, brushing his lips against hers briefly. As he pulled away she saw a look in his dark eyes that made her catch her breath."Happy new year, Lily," James said now. She turned to him, trying to discern the expression behind his blue eyes."Happy new year, James." She stood on her toes and brushed her lips lightly against his. He seemed momentarily startled, then met the pressure briefly, before straightening up again.She looked out the window once more. It was as though Severus was dead to her. But now...Now she had to deal with Sirius and James. She looked up at each of them, her heart racing within her, wondering what was happening...After they'd rousted all of the guests out of the house at one o'clock and put things back the way they'd been, they'd climbed wearily to the top floor and bade each other good night. Lily hadn't really thought to bring anything in which to sleep, so she simply climbed into the bed in the guest room in her underwear, wondering what she would do if one of the boys came into her bedroom during the night. She lay on her side, facing the door, wondering who she would prefer to come in, if one of them were to do that. She didn't have any idea. She hadn't expected to fall for Sirius all over again. He'd been an unexpected revelation during the holiday, warm and friendly, hugging her each time he greeted her or said goodbye to her. And then he had been drinking because he was uncertain whether she was coming to the party, and when she'd arrived to find him terribly sick from that, he seemed to need her so, and something in her responded to that...What was going on here? she had wondered. She'd meant what she'd said to Sirius; being with someone like James so young was frightening, scarily permanent. Sirius gave off an aura of fun, of carefree adventure. Perhaps that's what she still needed-one last chance to be young and alive.Lily was still unsure how she felt when they returned to school; she was glad she'd told both boys that she didn't want to have a boyfriend for a while, especially as she was feeling incredibly torn. Sirius seemed to have turned over a new leaf; he was finishing his homework without being prodded, running errands for Lily in the castle, and generally being helpful and attentive. On the other hand, he and James didn't seem to be getting along. She remembered James staying in the bathroom with them when Sirius was sick. Had he been chaperoning them? she wondered. Strange time to feel threatened, she thought. She still hadn't been able to work out how he had been able to eat while Sirius was spewing his guts out.As time went on, Sirius became more and more tempting, and she tried to work out what was so tempting about him. She finally realized that no one would mistake Sirius for a boy you don't break up with, a man you marry, as she'd described James. That's it, she decided. I'm just scared. But who wouldn't be? I'm young. Maybe at this age I should be with the 'fun' boy, instead of in a 'serious' relationship. She no longer cared about him trying to hurt Severus, not after seeing him with Narcissa...But then she remembered Severus breaking up with her, and remembered how it felt when she saw him with that Slytherin slut; she realized that the very same thing could happen to her and Sirius. And worst of all, in addition to putting herself through all that again, she would be essentially saying to James, "Oh, can you just wait a bit while I dally with your best friend? I have some more wild oats to sow. But I'll be with you presently. You're next on the list." Yes, he'd really go for that.Finally, just after the beginning of February, they confronted her in the corridor, after Transfiguration, when the other students had already gone ahead of them to the Great Hall, for lunch."Lily," Sirius had said, looking very nervous. "Do you-do you like us both?"She looked back and forth between the two of them. "Oh, of course I do!"James looked at her levelly. "No, not in general. As-as a potential boyfriend," he finished quietly."Which I know you don't want yet," Sirius said hurriedly, looking sideways at James. "You said you wanted to wait and all-""-but it feels a bit as if you're-we-well, like-" James struggled."It feels like I've been leading on the pair of you," she finished for him. James grimaced, his expression confirming what she'd said. She sighed. She had hoped to have more time to work out her feelings. She had looked back and forth between the two of them, finding so many good points in each of them that she didn't know what she thought any more."Well," James suggested, "maybe you should go out with each of us. Go on the sleigh ride with Sirius this Saturday, and with me next Saturday." To alleviate the students' restlessness, especially as there were no Hogsmeade weekends still, Dumbledore and McGonagall had transfigured the horseless carriages into horseless sleighs, and there had been sleigh rides across the large castle grounds each Saturday since the new year.She nodded. "All right. That makes sense." She looked back and forth between them. "I may-I may just decide to remain friends with you both. Can you each handle that?" She looked in their eyes anxiously. They glanced at each other for a moment before nodding.She'd had an odd feeling in her chest when she left James sitting in the Gryffindor common room, reading, to go on the sleigh ride with Sirius. Sirius led her out of the portrait hole, and she looked over her shoulder at James, whose eyes met hers and didn't leave them. Then Sirius was pulling her into the corridor, and she immediately felt, somehow, that this was wrong, that she shouldn't have agreed to it.Sirius' arms were warm around her inside the sleigh, as it whooshed across the grounds amidst the other sleighs, bells jingling. She'd been in a real horse-drawn sleigh when she was younger, and it was very odd not to see a team before them, prancing through the snow. She tried to start conversations as they rode, but they always seemed to peter out. At one point, Sirius turned to her and lowered his mouth to hers; she lifted her head to meet him, trying not to think of the kiss in fourth year. This one was a nice enough kiss, as he wasn't being presumptuous, but she ended up feeling that it was very mechanical, very calculated. She pulled away first, putting her head on his shoulder, sensing his disappointment. There was no spark, no urge in her to throw her arms around his neck and kiss him madly. Her heart ached within her. Oh, James, she thought. I wish you were here...She avoided Sirius in the week after their sleigh ride, but finally, the day before she was to go on the sleigh ride with James, she felt she could avoid him no longer. She had to tell him. He had to know. She stopped pacing her room and squared her shoulders. She knew what she wanted at last. She didn't just want a good time; she also wanted stability and love and a future. At night, when she closed her eyes, she saw a face in her dreams, and it was the face of the man, she now admitted freely to herself, whom she loved.James Potter.Putting her hand on the knob, she opened the door, stopping short when she saw Sirius standing there. "Oh! Sirius! What-what are you-"He strode impatiently into the room. "You said you had something to tell me, Lily," he said hopefully. She could tell that he thought she'd picked him, and that she wanted to talk to him before her sleigh ride with James so that he'd know he had nothing to fear, that she was just going through the motions. She ached inside; she didn't want to hurt him, not really. She just-didn't want to be with him, either.The words spilled out of her in a rush. He listened silently, a spark going out of his eyes as he began to understand the meaning of her words. He nodded when she was done, then leaned forward to kiss her cheek."I meant what I said before, Lily. James is the best. So I suppose you decided that you agree with that." Her stomach dropped at the tone in his voice. She'd hurt him."Sirius!" she said softly as he turned and left. She stared at the closed door, sighing. Finally, she went downstairs to the common room; Sirius wasn't there, but James was sitting before the fire. He sat up attentively when he saw her and she walked over to him."Did he tell you?" she asked, wondering. James shook his head."Tell me what? Do you mean Sirius? He came down from your dorm, and then went up to ours. Didn't say a word."She sat in one of the other armchairs and looked at James very seriously. "I-I told him that I only think of him as a friend, and that I can't imagine thinking of him as more."James looked at the fire again and nodded, swallowing. "Okay. That explains it," he said softly. Why doesn't he look happier about this? she wondered. You'd think he-but wait, she thought. What if he's changed his mind and doesn't want me anymore? She thought about Sirius. Would she tell him she'd changed her mind? No, she decided it was better to be alone. She'd already done that with Remus and Severus, run to the second when the first rejected her. That was the sort of mess she'd been hoping to avoid this time around. She sighed and rose. The best laid plans..."Anyway," she said quietly. "I thought you should know." James looked up at her dispassionately again. She felt her heart constrict. Has he decided he doesn't want me just as I decide I do want him? She went up to her dorm before she began to cry. And in the morning, they were supposed to go on their sleigh ride together. He would have to tolerate her presence the entire time, obviously wanting no part of this. Brilliant.He watched her go, thinking, That's it, then. She doesn't want either one of us.He'd listened to her words about Sirius, hearing, I don't want either of you. I just want you both to be friends. She was just trying to be nice, telling him what she told Sirius, but not saying, Do you get the hint? I don't want to be with you either. He stared at the jumping flames. I never should have gotten my hopes up, he thought. There aren't exactly dozens of girls trying to get me to date them, after all. Sirius is usually dripping with girls. (The fact that he'd been with no one since the new term had begun was a detail that had not gone unnoticed by the female population of Hogwarts.) But me? I had Bonnie, and that didn't exactly go swimmingly. In fact, Lily probably doesn't want to be with me because of what I told her about me and Bonnie. Fabulous.He was feeling now that everything he'd gone through in the last month had been for nothing. Unbeknownst to Lily, he and Sirius had been spending a huge amount of time together, but it was because their chief goal was to make sure neither of them had any time alone with Lily. He'd been watching his best friend during the holiday, the best friend who had told him that he'd told Lily how wonderful James Potter was. Now he wondered whether Lily had ended up thinking that he couldn't speak for himself...On New Year's Eve, after they'd said goodnight to her, they'd gone to their own room, and James didn't sleep until nearly four in the morning, because he was lying awake, forcing himself not to sleep, so that he would be able to hear if Sirius left the room. Sirius' breathing sounded strange, and he suspected that his friend was doing the very same thing, listening and waiting for James to make a move.He wondered whether she was trying to get out of the sleigh ride with him tomorrow; that must be why she came downstairs, explaining to him what she'd said to Sirius, as though she was talking to a four-year-old, saying, Do you get it yet? What I'm saying is I don't want you either.He eventually fell asleep in the chair, and didn't wake until he heard footsteps on the stairs. He rubbed his eyes under his glasses and tried to open them. He thought he might be dreaming; Lily had come down the stairs from the girls' dorm, her dressing gown over her nightdress; she went to sit on the window seat past the tables where they did their schoolwork and played games, watching a new fall of snow cover the grounds. She pulled her knees up to her chin and wrapped her arms around her legs.She smiled at the falling snow. She'd dreamt that it had snowed, and James was in her dream, smiling at her. Suddenly, her fears and doubts had dropped away, and she knew somehow that it was all going to be all right. She loved watching falling snow, and decided to come down to the common room to get a better view.James tried to figure out whether he could leave without her hearing him, but the second he moved, the frame of the chair creaked, and she turned her head in surprise. "Oh, James! Are you still up? Well, I should talk. I couldn't sleep. I'm so excited about tomorrow. And look! We have a fresh snow for our sleigh ride together."She smiled at him and he was shocked to see the love in her eyes. What was going on? he wondered. She turned back to the window, hugging her legs to her chest, a small smile on her lips as she watched the gently falling snow. He rose and walked to her, trying to work it all out. "But-but you said-" he stammered. "You said that you talked to Sirius and told him you just want to be friends."She turned to him, her brow furrowed. "Yes. I did.""But-but I thought that you meant-you meant to say, without saying it, that-that you felt the same way about me. That I didn't have a chance." His head was spinning. Surely he couldn't have been wrong? The opposite was too much to hope for...Now she looked even more puzzled. "Why would you think that? I'd have said, if that's what I meant."And then suddenly the full meaning of her words washed over him. "You mean-you mean-"She grinned at him now, swinging her legs down to the floor. "That's why you seemed so odd when I told you. I thought that was a rather funny way of being happy."He shook his head, feeling incredibly thick. "You weren't just trying to spare my feelings. You were-""I was being incredibly shy about-about saying that I'm very much looking forward to going on this sleigh ride with you tomorrow. And many more," she added softly, standing and walking toward him. She put her hands on his arms tentatively, but soon there was no hesitation from either one of them; his arms went around her slim waist and she slid her hands up behind his neck. When his lips touched hers she had most intense feeling of coming home, of knowing where she belonged in the world, of fitting in a way she never had before. He deepened the kiss, holding her face up to him now, and she pressed against him, wondering how they had stayed apart for so long, but remembering how she had feared losing him as a friend. Somehow, that fear seemed stupid and inconsequential now, as he drank her in and she gave up all of her previous resistance. James. She was with James at last, and nothing had ever felt so right.They broke the kiss at the same time and looked in each other's eyes, seeing the same love there. He leaned over and kissed her on the nose, and she smiled before twining her fingers in his and leading him back to the window seat."Watch the snow with me," she whispered.They sat together, Lily leaning on James' chest, his arms around her and his cheek on her hair, as they gazed out the window at the crystalline miracles covering everything in sight, making the world new and clean and perfect.
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