A/N: Just like that, after 366,806 words and 599 pages, Voyeur is over. I really don't know what to say—so I'll say a ton, naturally.

This fic was born out of grief and loss. I started writing it as an escape from all of the things that plagued me in the real world over the past year. Somewhere along the way, it sounds like it became a similar sort of momentarily refuge for some of you, which makes me happier than I can say. I'm grateful to every person who took the time to review or reach out to me or both during the making of this fic. Healing after traumatic loss is hard, but I'm leaving this fic in a much better place than when I started it. It probably sounds ridiculously sentimental, but all of you played a part in that. Thank you.

Onto less soppy matters.

This is my final plug for my Tumblr, scriibble-fics, where you'll find me while I'm working on the sequel and other writing projects. I love any and all questions and prompts, and I'll share sequel updates there. I'm sure the first question will be, "When will the sequel come out?" and to that, I'm not entirely sure. I like to have at least a handful of chapters written ahead of the most recently-posted chapter so I have a sort of buffer when it comes to updates. I've already written bits and pieces and huge chunks of the sequel, so it's a matter of stringing things together and figuring out wtf I'm doing, which I'm looking forward to, but I'm giving myself at least a few weeks to breathe. I hope I've earned enough trust after 366k words to prove that the sequel will happen in the early part of 2021, even if I work on other things for a minute first. I'm too invested to give up at this point, and I hope to see you all there. In the meantime, check out my one-shot Eighty Days, also posted here. It's in the Voyeur universe, based around the time sixth year when Lily realized she fancied James and came to terms with it. It's through her POV, which was a blast to write for the first time. The prompt came from a suggestion on Tumblr, and I'm compiling a list of others. Do reach out if you have any.

Finally, if you're a Jily shipper and read a ton of fanfic (or want suggestions on other fics to read!), head over to the Tumblr jilyawards2020 to vote on your favorite fics by December 5th at 11:59 EST. (No Tumblr account needed to vote!) They put a ton of effort into creating it all, so I'd love to see a big turnout.

I can't wait to hear your thoughts on this final chapter and your feelings as a whole. Thanks again for going on this wild ride with me. Love to you all.

Chapter Twenty-Six

"Odds that Slughorn remembers anyone else even exists within the next…half hour?"

Four days before their NEWTs, James found himself at the final Slug Club dinner of his life, praise Merlin, in the absolute strangest company he could imagine. As they loitered before the meal started, he stood with Sirius, Marlene, Rooney, and Morton.

If someone had told him at the last Slug Club dinner he'd attended that he would have voluntarily stood there among the four of them, drinking a glass of wine he didn't want, he would have thought them insane.

Instead, he just felt a little insane.

The layers to it all were exhausting.

He and Sirius knew that he had seen Lily and Morton together. Hell, not long after that, he and Sirius had both seen Lily and Morton together after the previous Slug Club dinner. Rooney and Morton had no idea. James very much doubted that Lily had told Marlene, because he assumed Marlene would neuter him immediately if she found out.

All five of them finally knew about Morton and Lily, although he wasn't sure if Rooney and Morton knew that he and Sirius knew. He doubted it.

He, Marlene, and Sirius knew about him and Lily. Rooney and Morton didn't—so long as Marlene hadn't let something slip to Rooney, of course.

It was hard for even him to keep track of, and he lived it.

At Marlene's words, James followed her gaze and found a familiar sight: Slughorn and Lily chatting animatedly, as if no one else in the cozy quarters of the Potion Master's office existed. Even from behind, Lily looked vivacious and captivating, although James knew he was incredibly biased. Unsurprisingly, Slughorn apparently agreed, because Lily had his walrus moustache jumping from laughter.

"If Pete were here to demand a wager, I'd say under ten minutes, because I'll go over there and rescue her myself before too long." Sirius said the whole thing casually, but James knew he meant it. Hell, he probably would have done it even if he and Lily hadn't planned it, because he looked about fed up with Slughorn. "Four days, and after seven years we won't have to deal with his nonsense anymore. No reason for her to suffer more than she already has."

"She likes him."

How could even a simple statement from Morton annoy James so much, even still?

Sirius snorted. "She likes everyone, or does her best. Mate, let me know what Snivellus looks like when I go put my arm around her." He'd thrown the last part to James before he left their group to head towards Lily, and the glimmer in his eyes reminded James of countless mischief-making plots the two of them had planned.

Leave it to Sirius to find a way to annoy Snape even in the most important of moments.

"As Lily would say, bless him." Marlene's look matched Sirius' nearly exact. "I'm always glad to see Snape looking miserable—more miserable than usual, that is. Sour git's always miserable."

Neither Rooney nor Morton looked surprised by her words or the viciousness behind them. Were they used to such viciousness from her generally, or viciousness geared towards Snape specifically?

"Are they still giving her grief?" Rooney asked in the next moment. For a second, James could only stare, astounded by the fact that Marlene had told him anything about their run-ins with the Slytherins or what Lily went through. In the next, it became apparent Rooney actually knew very little. "I get why they're rude to her. She's an easy target. I'm not saying that it's right!" He'd added the latter very quickly, the second Marlene had turned sharp eyes to him. "Of course it's not. But she doesn't keep her head down, does she? If they're going to find a muggleborn student to hate on, well, it makes sense that it's her. She throws their whole concept of blood superiority out the window. There's not a class she's not outperforming all of them in, except maybe Snape with Potions. They have to hate that. It's still fucked, but it makes sense why they hate her, at least by their logic."

Marlene's eyes softened, and she let Rooney take her hand, her hackles lowering.

"You should be happy, Mar." Morton nodded towards the cluster of Slytherins near the empty hearth. "Look."

Snape had caught sight of Sirius with Lily. James didn't doubt that just seeing them together had to drive him at least a little mad, because if Snape hated anyone more than him, or at least on par, it was absolutely Sirius. It didn't help that Sirius had also looped an arm around Lily's shoulders in the easy, familiar way he'd taken to doing, and that would have certainly been enough to make Snape glower, if he hadn't already looked that way.

After all, when in recent years had Lily publicly stood with a bloke like that?

Snape looked mad enough to spit.

James loved to see it. He could hardly forget that Snape and his little cluster of horrible fucking friends were baby Death Eaters in training. He wanted to see them upset, the whole lot of them.

Sirius said something that made Lily push his arm off her shoulders as Slughorn laughed, but Sirius put it back, undeterred, and she let him leave it there.

"It takes some getting used to," James offered, trying very hard not to smile. Morton and Rooney looked dumbstruck. Really, he didn't blame them. He spoke casually, but he still wasn't entirely used to it either.

"Hestia and I have agreed he can live until after NEWTs before we kill him for trying to take away what little time we have with Lily," Marlene said. "Hestia's not completely sold on the killing aspect—she likes him a little for reasons I still don't understand—but I'll bring her around." She glanced to James. "You wouldn't miss him much, would you? Before you answer, remember that I still vaguely love your misery, even if we're mates now. It's habit. So if you would miss him—well, I'd probably enjoy that. And if you wouldn't? That's permission. It works either way."

Weirdly, when she'd gotten downright angry with stress over NEWTs instead of her usual angry joking, he'd missed her endless taunts. It felt nice to have her back to her normal, abrasive, entertaining self.

"That's the thing about having three best friends," he told her. "There's two spares. Have at him."

When Marlene laughed, James understood as he hadn't before that it would also take Rooney and Morton some time to get used to seeing her banter with him.

Sometime later, when he caught Lily's eye at dinner, she merely smiled at him impassively in response to the look he gave her. He couldn't read the expression on her face.

In contrast, he didn't need a single word from Sirius to know that things had gone exactly as they'd wanted. Sirius conveyed it all in one of those looks where James could almost hear his thoughts just from the very small wink he shot his way.

Knowing that they'd pulled something off made tolerating the whole dinner much easier, although it still wasn't enjoyable.

It became even less enjoyable when Slughorn cornered him afterwards, once the party had started to disperse. "Still planning the Auror path?" he asked, his expression keen. "Lily said you'd both gone to the Ministry over Easter to talk to Alastor Moody. A rare, rare thing, I hope you know, to have him recruit you." He looked duly impressed, and almost greedy over it. James didn't doubt that he looked as such because he imagined the endless possibilities of bragging over his connections to not one, but two new burgeoning Aurors—Aurors specifically sought-out by the department. He would love telling people that.

"I think we're both still shocked over it," James said, because he hardly knew how else to respond, and it was the truth. "But yes, that's my plan. It's a dream come true, really." That was the truth too.

"Well, I daresay you've earned it—and she has too, of couse, and several times over. I'm sure going through the process together will help you both immensely. It did for Frank and Alice, after all, two other favorites of mine. They must be thrilled. Alice and Lily always seemed quite close."

Was it James' imagination, or had Slughorn's eyes taken on an even sharper look when he's said the word 'together'? He could hardly forget the way Slughorn had looked at him over Christmas break when he had happened upon him and Lily patrolling together. He'd very much had the air of oh, well done at seeing Lily wrapped up in James' cloak.

"Not like Frank and James," Sirius said from his side. He clapped James on the back. "But it's different for blokes, innit? Frank was a great mate while he was here and we played Quidditch together, then he disappeared off to the working world, and he shows back up randomly over Easter as James' new drinking partner. Women, they keep in contact. Men? Well, after not talking for two years, Frank and James bonded over what had to be an entire keg of Firewhiskey."

Slughorn all but roared with laughter.

Sirius' innate charisma carried the joke—the very true joke—and James could hardly begrudge him for it. It was important that Slughorn like Sirius, after all, even if that came at James' expense.

It would have helped if Sirius didn't look so gleeful doing it.

As they said their final, final goodbyes and managed to escape Slughorn's clutches, Slughorn added to Sirius, "I'll write to Theodore tonight. It does seem like a remarkably good fit—how many wizards care to learn about muggle transportation? I can't imagine that department is terribly full."

Theodore Mulciber.

"Lily set me up, but I sealed it," Sirius told James in an undertone as they left the office, his voice so low that James had to strain to hear it. He looked very proud of himself. "Don't let her take the credit if she tries. I started talking about cars and tried to act like her a bit, all eager student, which he liked. He doesn't know a bloody thing about cars. I could have just made shit up and he would have believed me. I would have, too, if Lily hadn't stood there. I expect she would have killed me. She—"

James held his arm out to stop Sirius in his tracks. In straining to hear Sirius' voice, he'd picked up something else.

Lily's voice.

What the fuck was with finding her in intimate situations after Slug Club dinners?

When he and Sirius crept closer along the wall to listen, James chanced a glance around a corner to get a visual. Lily stood a few feet away from Snape, just between the tapestry of Mungo Bonham and the entrance to the prefects' bathroom. She had her back to James, which meant he could see Snape's face entirely as he looked at her.

Snape looked regretful, a look James had never seen before. He'd never seen Snape looking anything less than sullen or bitter or angry or vengeful or happy at someone else's expense, to the point that the expression on Snape's face as he gazed at Lily rendered him almost unrecognizable. James pulled his head back quickly, worried Snape might see him. If he did, James didn't doubt that things would devolve into another corridor brawl that Lily wanted him to avoid.

Then again, the corridor was empty. That absolutely counted towards discretion, didn't it?

"—of course I know that," Lily said, clearly in the midst of something. She sounded hostile, her voice like ice. "You really think I don't know what they're like after all these years, and that I don't know what they're capable of? They've shown it to me over and over, Sev. You've seen it too. Don't act like this is new information."

Sev.

Somehow, James hated hearing the nickname even more when he knew that she said it directly to Snape's face.

In contrast to Lily's anger, Snape sounded gentle, almost kind, and entirely earnest. Much like the expression James had glimpsed on Snape's face, he'd also never heard him use that tone before.

Snape sounded almost human.

"All that changes once we're outside Hogwarts," he said. "I know now what you've dealt with here. I'm sorry for it. But once we're out—they're not going to hold back. They're going to target you when they can. They've said so. They don't talk about you much in front of me, but what I've heard—"

"Why wouldn't they talk about me in front of you? What, am I your pet mudblood and they'll let me be the rest of the time we're here because—why, Sev? What did you say about me to get them to back off?"

A testy silence followed.

"I'm trying to help you," Snape said finally. James wished he could see their faces. "Just—don't be reckless. Your little display with Black—what do you think they thought?" He'd gone bitter at the end, much more the Snape James knew.

"Tell me."

Another silence followed. James didn't doubt that Snape stayed that way in order to avoid digging his own grave even further than her tone implied that he already had.

"Let's say I'm shagging Sirius." At Lily's words, Sirius shifted uneasily at James' side. James didn't dare look at his face. "Fucking hell, let's say I'm shagging all four of them. Why not? That would change nothing about the way Nott has treated me for years. Even before I started hanging around Sirius and his friends, Nott said the same shit. Last fall I wasn't even speaking to them, and Nott still told me that he and his mates had talked about it, and they'd started to wonder if enough pureblood cum would fix my dirty blood. They were keen to try it, he said, and I should—"

"Don't talk like that."

"Why? These are your friends, Sev. You need to know who they are. You act like this shit surprises you, for Christ's sake, and it can't—"

"Do you know who your friends are?"

Lily's recanting of Nott's words had already sent James reeling. His stomach lurched. His breath got stuck in his throat. His head began to pound.

Snape's tone shifted into something sharp and bitter and entirely like him. It made James' wand hand itch with the suppressed desire to make him stop fucking talking, as he had for seven years.

He didn't dare look at Sirius. If Sirius saw an ounce of how he felt—

Well, they'd still be scraping Snape off the fifth floor corridor well past when the rest of them took their NEWTs.

Somehow, just when James thought it had gotten as bad as it could go, Snape made it worse. He excelled at that more than anyone James knew.

"I know you know who Potter is, since you've seen the way he acts," Snape said. If he looked anywhere near as acerbic as he sounded, James didn't know how Lily stood there, in the line of fire. "Apparently that doesn't bother you anymore, the sort of arrogant bully he is, even though it used to make you sick. But what about Lupin? What about Black? Do you know who they are? What they're like? What they're capable of?"

James' wand hand physically hurt from the desire to explode Snape into little, tiny pieces. He didn't look at or touch Sirius at all as they stood side by side, but James could inherently feel that desire mirrored in him.

He felt sick.

Lily sounded sick. "Whatever you're on about—"

"Don't act like you haven't noticed Lupin's little monthly episodes by now, even if you never wanted to before." Snape's customary sneer had entered his voice. "I know you've put it together, and that—"

"Don't." Lily's voice packed a punch so furious that James almost felt it. "I've already heard this from you before, so whatever you're going to say—don't. Don't say it. Ever. If you care about me—if you ever cared about me—you'll not finish that sentence and you'll never say anything like that to anyone again. If we were ever friends, you'll do this for me."

"I'm not—"

"Were we friends, Sev? If we were, don't. Don't do this."

The question, so pointedly asked, broke something in Snape.

"Of course we were friends." He sucked in a deep, audible breath that sounded painful. "I never wanted to stop being your friend. That was you. What did you expect me to do when you warned me away from my friends? Did you want me to not interact with anyone in my house? They're what I have. They're all I have now. How can you overlook all of the things Potter and Black have done, but you can't understand how I've ended up? And you pushed me to end up here, Lily, because you pushed me away."

"Stop." The rancor had left Lily's voice. She sounded suddenly very, very small, the opposite of the way she had spoken moments before.

"It's the truth. I've become who you said I would be. You think you had no hand in that? Didn't you want to see me end up where I am—practicing the Dark Art and pledged to the Dark Lord? Didn't you push me away so you could be right?"

Snape had gone past bitter and into cruel.

"Do you know how much might have changed if we had stayed friends?" he went on. "How much could have changed if you'd ignored the way your friends treated me and acted towards me and talked about me? You let them influence you, and you gave up—"

"I'm not doing this.'

"You're not blameless, no matter how you act. This is—"

"You said you'd let her handle them," Sirius muttered to James' left. He looked angrier than James had seen in ages. "I didn't promise shit."

In all of two seconds, Sirius rounded the corner, aimed his wand at Snape, and hit him with a jinx that cracked loudly and knocked him back several feet, where he landed in a graceless heap.

"Stop." It took James a second to register Snape's crumpled form, and then another to see Lily stand in front of Sirius. She stood a good head shorter than him, but she it didn't stop her from acting like a human shield, the only obstacle between Sirius and Snape as Snape scrambled to his feet, wand aloft. Sirius still held his just as tightly. "Don't you fucking dare, you two." Her face was chalk white. "Sev—go. Just go. I heard what you set out to say. I've got the warning. That's enough."

James felt rather outside himself. For a second, it felt like he could almost see through a perspective somewhere above them.

He could see himself, Sirius, and Lily standing together, a united force.

Snape stood alone, opposite them.

In that moment, battle lines—already implied, but somehow not permanently set—were irrevocably drawn.

James didn't expect Snape to leave, and Snape looked like he very much didn't want to. He still held his wand high, and James could see his dark eyes flit between him, Sirius, and Lily in rapid succession. "Be careful," he said, eyes resting on Lily. It sounded like a warning, and a final one at that.

The second he tuned to walk away, Lily turned sharply too, facing James for the first time. Her brilliant eyes shone with unshed tears. "Tell me when he's gone," she said, her voice just above a whisper. "I don't want him to see me cry."

The second Snape disappeared, out of the corridor and into the bright lights of the Grand Staircase, Sirius nodded, his jaw tight.

Lily wept.

There was no build up, no gradual slippage of tears that transformed into something deeper. No, she began to weep immediately, with the sort of gut-wrenching, all-encompassing sobs that would have better suited the middle of a crying jag, not the very beginning. She sobbed so hard that it left her bent over, hands covering her face, like she could hardly stand from it all.

Closest to her, Sirius reached out to grab her. With a hand on either shoulder, he deposited her directly in front of James.

James didn't even have to think. He wrapped his arms around her and she let him, although he couldn't tell if she noticed. Her hands remained over her face, and she pressed those against his chest as she cried.

"Stay the word and I'll kill him," Sirius said, his face stony. "I'll enjoy it too. I've been waiting for an excuse." He looked like he meant it. Really, James didn't doubt that he did. He'd already tried to kill Snape once, after all, and over much less. "Nott too."

That got Lily's attention.

"Did you hear all of that?" she asked into James' chest, her voice breaking twice as she spoke. "Everything?"

"At least most." James ran a hand over her hair, much like she stroked Oliver when she fawned over him. "Lily, I—"

What the fuck was he supposed to say?

That his desire to throttle Nott and his scumbag friends with his bare hands hit him so hard that he almost shook from it?

That he was endlessly, entirely grateful that she'd shut down Snape's potential outing of Remus' lycanthropy?

That he didn't believe anything that Snape said about her having a hand in the way he'd ended up?

Marlene saved him from having to figure it out.

"What the fuck happened?" Her voice came out cross, and James turned to see her standing behind them, Rooney and Morton at her side. They looked stunned at the sight of Lily's weeping, or James holding her, or both. In contrast, Marlene just looked mad. Her glare, blindingly hot, looked between James and Sirius, her head moving sharply. She then went and tugged Lily gently out of James' arms, and held her close to herself instead.

It was the kindest thing James had ever seen her do.

"I'm fine, Mar," Lily said, face still in her hands, still gulping in air like a swimmer desperate for air. She hadn't even needed to look up to recognize Marlene's voice or arms, and she sounded like she tried to convince herself. "Honestly, I'm—I'll be okay. Just—Sev, and—" She didn't finish her thoughts.

She didn't have to. "Oh, fuck him," Marlene snapped. "What did he—no, it doesn't matter. Fuck him, Lil, and fuck whatever he said. Don't give him your tears. He's not worth that."

"I know, I know, I know." It sounded like something Lily had heard from her before. "He just knows, Mar. He knows those—those things to say that hurt the worst, and I—fuck, I can't anymore. I just can't."

Lily had once said the same about Marlene, that she knew the things that would hurt Lily the most, and had thrown them in her face.

It had started to look like a pattern.

James hardly knew what to make of that.

Marlene clearly didn't care what Lily meant she couldn't do. "You don't have to," she said, as if that solved everything. "It's over. It's done. He's gone. Let's go upstairs."

That snapped Lily back to reality.

It almost looked like all her grief had made her forget where she was. Her back suddenly went rigid underneath Marlene's arms, and she pulled away from her abruptly. As she wiped thick tears from her cheeks, James watched her take in the view of the corridor and note everyone who watched her, all four boys uncertain over what to do or say.

She flushed immediately and took in three deep breaths in a row. "I'll be up," she said to Marlene, and she clearly worked to keep her voice steady. "But I'm going to be sick first, so go have your shag with Luke. Seriously. I'll be fine, and I'll see you after. But if you're back first, don't tell Hestia. I will." Boris the Bewildered stood so conveniently nearby, his expression as confused as Morton and Rooney looked, and she murmured the password and then slipped inside.

It took Sirius less than a second to make up his mind.

"Let me," he said to Marlene when she went to follow Lily. "He said something about me, and I need to—" He didn't finish because he didn't have time. He ducked into the bathroom before the opening could close, which left the corridor entirely silent.

"What happened?" Marlene demanded almost immediately, whirling to James. Even though he knew she didn't direct her anger towards him, the flash in her eyes still made him shrink back a little.

"I don't even know."

It was the truth. He felt stunned, all too aware of Morton and Rooney's stares and the damp spot on his shirt where Lily's tears had escaped the barrier of her hands when she'd cried into his chest.

"James, I fucking swear—"

"He wanted to warn her about things the Slytherins had said about her." That seems safe enough to divulge in front of Rooney and Morton. "And then he…I don't know. He blamed her for things."

It was the most vague way to describe what had happened, but Marlene looked like she understood instantly.

"Oh, fuck him," she said again, even more viciously than before. "He doesn't get to—what did he say about Sirius?"

"He doesn't like that she's friends with us. Apparently it's caused talk."

She understood that too.

"I'm with Hestia. He is the worst." She tightened her ponytail savagely. "Fuck the rest of them, but he—the rest of them have never made her cry. They've made her mad or horrified or even feel unsafe, but never cry. Fuck, I hate him." She rounded on Morton and Rooney, and both of them shrank back just as James had done moments earlier. It made him feel a little better. At least he wasn't the only one who feared her. "Neither of you are going to breathe a word about this to anyone. You're going to pretend it never happened. She'll hate—"

"We've got it, Mar." Morton rubbed his face with his hand as if he tried to scrub away the worry present there. He looked like he didn't know what else to do. "She hates when people see her cry. I know. We'll never bring it up."

Morton had seen her cry over Snape another time, James realized abruptly. He'd scoured the castle for her after Snape had called her a mudblood, and had found her in the Charms stacks in the library, where he sat with her while she cried.

Probably simultaneously, James had tormented Snape by the lake. He'd kept it up for ages that day.

Shame flooded his body, hot and thick.

"I'm going to wait for them," he told Marlene. The back of his neck burned. "I'll make sure she's in the dorm before too long. I know you want to see her."

The furious sharpness of Marlene's features softened a little. Something about the way she audibly swallowed looked and sounded almost vulnerable. "Thank you."

When the hell had they gotten to such good terms?

When the hell had they started respecting the other's place in Lily's life?

When the hell had he started really, truly appreciating her?

The three of them left after that, and James couldn't tell who looked more reluctant to do so, Morton or Marlene. Morton's face looked almost stained with worry, an expression he either couldn't or didn't try to hide. Marlene still looked angry.

Rooney, on the other hand, looked curious.

He was the only one who glanced back at James when they'd gotten to the landing to the Grand Staircase. Even from a distance, James could feel his intelligent eyes on him, bright and keen.

The second they disappeared from view, James used the master password to force Boris the Bewildered open despite the bathroom's occupancy.

"—can't yell at you. It's over. You already did it. What's done is done." Lily sounded exhausted. "Do you at least feel bad? If not for Snape, at least for Remus? Do you know what it would have done to him if James hadn't gotten there in time?"

Oh.

Fuck.

Sirius had told her about the Whomping Willow incident.

Maybe it shouldn't have surprised James, but it did. After all, as Hestia often pointed out with disdain, Sirius was more likely to employ lies than the truth in tough situations. It fairly astounded him to know that Sirius had admitted something to Lily that was so heinous and brutal and painted him in such a bad light that even the Marauders almost never spoke of it.

"I regretted what it would have done to Remus almost immediately. James really laid into me over that. But Snape?" There was a strange, harshly honest quality to Sirius' voice. He so very rarely called Snape by his actual name that that sounded strange too. "I'm sorry, love, but at this point, I can't feel bad for anything that happens to him. Anything that comes to him—he deserves it. I hate his fucking guts. He's everything that is fucked about the world right now. They all are, all those fuckers, but Snape—no one raised him to believe this shit. He wasn't raised in this pureblood culture like the rest of them. It's not an excuse—look at me, I was raised that way and I know it's wrong—but he indoctrinated himself. He chose this. Fuck what he said about you—this was always how he was going to end up. He wanted it and he's proud of himself. Whatever happens to him happens and I won't feel bad about it at all."

James stepped out of the entrance and into the bathroom proper.

Sirius and Lily sat side by side on the bench that James only associated with shagging her, although he didn't just then.

Oddly, Sirius held Lily's hand.

Odder still, it didn't even look that odd.

Lily still cried, although not with the wracking sobs he'd seen in the corridor. Tears still fell, thickly but silently. She made no attempt to dash them away, almost as if she knew doing so meant fighting a lost cause.

James had seen her after two Death Eater attacks that could have killed her. Hell, he'd lived through one of them with her. Never had she reacted as strongly as she did to just a few sentences from Snape.

Lily caught sight of him and tried to smile, an attempt she dropped immediately. She did wipe at her cheeks then, just a quick pass of her hand over both, before she looked back to Sirius. "Would you do it again?" she asked, sidestepping everything he'd just said. "Would you send him to find Remus?"

Sirius didn't pause to think. "No. No, I wouldn't. But, again, not because of what it would have done to him, but because of what it would have done to Remus. If that makes me a shit person—well, so be it."

Lily stared at him with such intensity that James wondered how Sirius could even meet her eyes, but he did, and his gaze never wavered. She nodded shortly, just a single duck of her chin, and then let it drop.

In the years to come, James never heard her bring up the Whomping Willow incident to Sirius again.

She shifted gears entirely.

"You need to stop rowing with Hestia."

The words threw James completely. From the look on Sirius' face, they did him as well.

Then Sirius chuckled, his faint smile rueful. "Yeah. Yeah, I know. It'd be easier if I liked her less. It gets harder the more I like her."

How had he somehow managed to echo James' own thoughts about Lily almost verbatim?

And when had Sirius and Hestia started fighting?

And why hadn't Sirius said a single word about it to him?

"She hasn't said it, not in those words, but I think that's how she feels too." Lily used the sleeve of her shirt to dab under her eyes. "Look—bring her here. The password is 'caraway.' Have a bath. Ask her where she wants things to go after Hogwarts. See what she says. And stop snipping at her in private over unrelated things that you're not even mad about."

"She does it too."

"I know. I've said all this to her, minus the bath part. I've told her she's acting like a real dickhead. I'll say it now to you too: you're acting like a real dickhead."

"You're such a bloody meddler." Still, Sirius sounded fond.

"I'll stop meddling after this, and then you two are on your own. It's just impossible not to meddle when it's obvious what you both want but are too fucking stubborn and hardheaded to go after."

If 'forgiving' topped the list of adjectives that best described Lily, James would come to find another strong contender was…well, he never would come up with a word for it. 'Self-righteous,' perhaps, because she always thought she knew what was best for everyone around her, even when she didn't, and she set out to make it happen, even when she shouldn't.

"Okay. Okay, I'll let James have you." Sirius hadn't given any indication before that that he'd even known James stood there, still hovering uncertainly near the bathroom's entrance. He touched her hair in a way similar to something James had often seen from Remus, just a brief press of his hand that looked absent but affectionate. He stood and met James near the entrance. Up close, he looked as exhausted as Lily sounded, as he hadn't just minutes before when they'd left the dinner party, and he shook James' shoulder just as Fleamont often did to both of them. James knew he mirrored that action from his dad, rather consciously or not. He stopped near the back of Boris the Bewildered's statue and hesitated. "Love, about Nott—"

She had clearly expected something to that effect. "Four days, plus NEWTs, so six days. After we're off the Hogwarts Express, do what you like."

Sirius grinned, suddenly all savage pleasure, and then left.

Lily looked at James. "Will you come hold me?"

She'd never asked him that before.

Once he sat next to her and pulled her into his lap, she pressed her face into his neck and began to cry again, the stream of tears having previously only just stopped.

Without much else to do, James stroked her hair and waited.

Eventually, after she'd cried to the point that his collar felt more like sponge than shirt, she spoke.

"He's never tried to actually upset me before," she said, her voice shaky. "It's unfair that I'm like this, because I've gone in on him loads of times. I've told him exactly what I think of his choice in friends and his actions and everything, and he's never hit back. But he—fuck, he knows how much I worry over being a good, supportive friend, especially to him. We had so many conversations before I finally stopped talking to him, where I told him how much his friends worried me and how I was concerned over their actions and what it was doing to him. Every time he told me not to give up on our friendship, how important it was to him, how he needed me, and he knew how horrible and guilty that made me feel, like I was responsible for him. That's why he said what he said. He knew it would hurt the worst, even if it didn't sound that bad. He knows my weak spots."

"I hate him." He couldn't help it.

Strangely, that almost made her laugh. Her exhalation tickled his neck. "I know you do. That's fine. Six days."

That brought his mind right back to Nott.

She sensed it somehow. He assumed he had to have tensed or given some other physical reaction, because he didn't know how she could have known otherwise. "He's all talk," she said, bringing her hand up to fiddle with the buttons on his shirt. She didn't have to clarify that they no longer spoke of Snape. "Like I said, it used to bother me a lot more. These days he's just unoriginal and repeating basically the same thing with little variation. I just didn't care for Snape implying that Nott's saying anything like that because of my actions with Sirius or anyone else. That's not how it works with him."

"Even if it's just talk, it's not okay."

"I know that. You think I don't?" She sounded somehow even more tired still. "But it's just how my life goes. It's the only way I've ever known the wizarding world, really, as a place where people go out of their way to make sure I know I don't belong, and pathetic men wanting to feel powerful will always treat women this way, here or in the muggle world. Here it just comes from a place that also has to do with blood."

"I don't know what to say," he said after a long pause, because it was the truth.

"There's nothing to say. I appreciate you very much for caring like you do. Sirius too. But I've handled it on my own this long. Let me finish it out."

Frustration began to prod at the back of his neck. "You don't have to handle it on your own anymore. I—"

"I know. I know, James." She tipped her head back to look at him, and he used the sleeve of his own shirt to dry her cheeks as carefully as possible. The gesture made her smile, small and soft. "But we've been through this. If you care too much, people will talk."

She was right, but she was also very wrong.

The whole thing was wrong.

"So, what, Sirius can jump out of the shadows and defend you? Pete can start duels over things said about you? If Remus—I don't fucking know, if he started a scorched earth campaign against the Slytherins and set their dorm on fire in your honor, would that be fine?"

He didn't mean to make her laugh, more irritated than joking, but he didn't mind seeing her laugh just the same. "I'd like to see that. I'm sure he's terrifying when he's angry." The humor faded from her face rapidly. At the time, James associated it with the conversation at hand. Later, he would wonder if she thought to Sirius' recent confession and how Remus must have reacted then. He heard her throat click as she swallowed. "But, yes, that's the basic idea. No one is going to question a thing if they do any of that, except for Remus' sudden change in personality, I suppose. Your friends don't look at me like you do, and I don't look at them the same way back. That's there with us, even though I try really hard not to show it. Maybe it's over-the-top and paranoid to think this way, but—you have to be more careful than they do about the way you treat me publicly. It's there with us, James, and people will see it if we're not careful. I know it's not fair, but it's better we're too cautious than not enough. We already haven't done a great job at it."

Fuck caution.

He knew very well that she wouldn't appreciate hearing that, so he pushed that impulse down.

He kissed her, and her fingers in the side of his hair felt blessedly normal, something he would have thought impossible months before when he'd longed after her with little hope of getting anywhere. It hit him yet again, as it so often did, that he held Lily Evans just then, and it blew him away a little. "Six days," he said, caressing the smooth skin just above her knee.

"Six days."

"I'm taking you to Hogsmeade."

He hadn't planned to say it, but knew as soon as he did that he meant it, no matter how hard he had to work to convince his friends.

xxx

As it turned out, James didn't have to work hard at all.

Sirius had already shared the whole saga of Snape and Lily by the time James had reluctantly disentangled himself from her to return to Gryffindor tower. He'd clearly said it all—Lily's admission about Nott, Snape's words about him and Remus, Snape's further accusations, Lily's tears—and he still looked mad over it all.

Remus looked more sad than worried that Snape had nearly broken his word to Dumbledore and told Lily about his lycanthropy.

"It just feels like shit that he'd use me to get her to stop hanging around us," he said bluntly when James pressed. "I'm not surprised, but it doesn't feel great." He looked at James intently. "What was your read? Do you think he's going to say anything to anyone else?"

James hesitated. "No," he said finally. Sirius made a skeptical noise, something low in the back of his throat. "You heard him before they started rowing, Padfoot. He sounded like…a person. He might hate us, but…she explicitly asked him not to say anything about Moony if he ever cared about her. I don't think he'd go against that easily. He's in love with her."

None of them corrected him for using 'in love' to describe Snape's feelings for Lily. That spoke volumes.

"That was good of her," Remus said quietly. "How is she? Padfoot said she'd gotten sick."

James hadn't even asked after that, and felt badly for it, despite the chaos of the night.

"She's a wreck, but she's trying to act fine." He could see no reason to lie. "Over Christmas, she asked me if I would show her how to get to Hogsmeade. I told her I would if I could. She asked again the other night because she just wants to get out of the castle, and I don't blame her. I said I needed to talk to you lot first. Do you mind?"

Really, Lily couldn't have asked for a more sympathetic audience in that moment.

"No," Peter said immediately. "Take her."

"Go for it, but don't let her tell Hess, or I'll get in trouble for not taking her," Sirius added. He still looked perturbed, even though he did his best to grin. "Shag her somewhere good, yeah?"

"Will you take the mirror passage?" Remus asked.

James exhaled, all relief. "Yeah. Yeah, I reckon that's probably best. I figured it didn't matter, since we're almost out of here anyway, but I wanted to check first. You know, it's sad if you think about it, that everything we know goes with us."

Sirius sat up straighter on his bed, irritation no longer present on his face. Instead, he wore an expression James knew well, one of mischief-making excitement. After seven years of friendship, he found himself conditioned to feel immediate excitement too, despite their very fucked up night. "It doesn't have to," Sirius said. "I just had a thought."

That night, near three in the morning, Filch's precious filing cabinets detailing student rule-breaking exploded, sending years upon years upon years of meticulously-kept records flooding onto the floor of his office.

In the chaos left behind, James placed the Marauders Map, which looked like just another piece of worn parchment alongside so many others.

He knew they absolutely didn't have to blow up Filch's files in order to plant the map, but, well, that was really half the fun.

"Only truly exceptional rule-breakers will find the map, you know?" Sirius had said when he'd suggested it. "Let someone earn what we worked so hard to make. And if it's still there when we have kids—when Prongs and Lily have kids, most like, because you know he's going to knock her up to lock her down sooner than later if he can—we can tell them about it. That's how we'd know if we should keep them or send them back—to see if they have it in them to earn it too."

xxx

The morning before their NEWTs began ("NEWTs Eve," Peter called it, until Sirius finally told him to stop ruining holidays), Sirius came to breakfast looking particularly pleased with himself.

"Ask Hess," he said when Remus finally asked why he looked so smug. "Ask her what she said last night."

At his side, Hestia shot him a glance torn somewhere between fondness and exasperation. "I said I'd be his girlfriend," she said before anyone could prompt her.

"And she suggested it. I didn't even have to ask."

Hestia's exasperation grew. "Don't gloat."

"Sorry," Sirius said, looking not sorry at all. "But it was about time, Hess. Give me the moment."

Looking at him, James had to wonder what Sirius liked better: having Hestia as an official girlfriend, or the fact that he'd won something he'd worked very hard to get.

When Lily was right, she was right. There was something to that sense of victory.

On Hestia's other side, Lily smiled into her coffee, quietly pleased.

"I'm only truly good at knowing how to get to Hestia and Mar," she swore to James just before curfew that night, after he'd finally verbally wrestled her out of the common room. When she'd agreed to leave, it felt like a win all his own, and she'd met him without question or comment (after making him wait almost exactly seven minutes) in a deserted corridor on the fourth floor. "It's not like I'm all-knowing about every girl. And I should hope I would be good at knowing them at this point. What, you're telling me if a girl wanted to get at one of your mates, you wouldn't know how to help them?"

"Of course I would." He didn't hesitate. "Sex."

She laughed quietly. "Not get at, I guess, but—get with. If a girl wanted to actually date one of them—"

"It still stands. Blokes aren't complicated. You know this."

"So, what, you've wanted to date every girl you've shagged?"

He saw she waited for an answer she already very well knew. Eventually, he gave it to her anyway. "No. But—just be quiet, Evans. I'm taking you somewhere."

Her smile went cheeky in a way he very much liked. "For months now, you've almost always only called me that when you're inside me or planning to get there," she said, her voice barely audible. "I kind of missed hearing it outside of that too."

Desire hit his stomach in a heated swoop. "Oh, I'm planning to get there," he promised, and the way she looked up at him left him desperate to kiss her.

He did kiss her the second he could, right after he'd tugged her through the mirror that led to Hogsmeade.

She didn't hesitate to follow him, and didn't hesitate to let him kiss her in the pitch-black tunnel. "Where does it go?" she demanded breathlessly, her hand wrapped around his tie, the same question she asked in every new passage he'd shown her. "Are you taking me to Hogsmeade?"

"I said I would, didn't I?"

He wished he could see her face when she laughed, the sound soft and under her breath. "Well, yes. But it's the night before NEWTs—"

"I figured you'd harass me about it before now and I'd take you then. I'm surprised at you, really."

"I had NEWTs to study for! I didn't have time to get after you for not taking me on some jaunt! Which, again, it's the night before NEWTs, in case you—"

"Right, so you already know all you can know. You're not about to learn anything new in the next few hours. Really, it was polite of me to wait until now. I gave you the other days to study. You're welcome." He pulled his wand from his pocket and lit it wordlessly. The light blinded him for a moment, and her too. The way she lifted and held out a hand—palm out, fingers shading her eyes—looked identical to the way she'd looked when he'd turned on a light the very first night in his bedroom. It became her entirely. "I have to show you something before we go."

She lifted an eyebrow, her expression taunting.

"Not like that," he said, her wordless question obvious. "Although I'll show you that later. Here, look."

With that, he revealed his invisibility cloak for the first time.

He liked to think that he'd taken her breath away many times in a variety of ways since Easter, but that night in the secret passageway, showing her the cloak passed down from his family line, he knew he'd blown her away entirely in a way he never had before.

Such a little swot to the end.

She nearly dropped her wand in her eagerness to reach out and touch the cloak. Her fingers slid over the slippery fabric, eyes wide and mouth slightly open, and he relished her brief moment of silence almost as much as he loved every time she spoke to him.

"This is extraordinary." Her words came out as a breath. "Do you know how rare this is? It's not like any charmed invisibility cloak where the spell wears off. This is—oh, this is incredible."

He wished his dad could have seen her reaction too.

"He and Mum apparently used it to sneak around at night," James explained once she'd collected herself enough to continue down the passage with him. He took her hand as they walked, something he hadn't done at Hogwarts since they had patrolled the empty corridors together over Christmas break. He relished the opportunity, such a small pleasure in a strange, infuriating world. "I've told them both that I don't want to hear that sort of thing, but—well, you've met them. They're gross together."

"I think they're sweet."

"You would. They're not your parents."

"True, but I wish my parents loved each other half as well." She took a breath and then smiled at him. "Tell me about the passage."

Without any real idea for how else to respond, James did.

They'd discovered it fourth year, he explained, in a strange combination of careful planning and accident. Nearly Headless Nick had sworn that the mirror led to a passage out of Hogwarts, although he wasn't sure how to activate it. He had spent more than one evening there with the Marauders, watching with no small amount of pleasure as they struggled to open the passage, seemingly enjoying their frustration and his ability to float back and forth through the wall separating them from their goal. At one point, scowl fierce, Sirius had muttered to James that Nick was clearly having them on. There was no passage, he'd said darkly. Still, Nick had never led them wrong before, so James insisted they keep at it, and his friends had heeded his word. They'd managed it eventually, locating the tiniest defect in the mirror's ornate gilt frame, one so small that he'd struggled to find it repeatedly over the years even after that first time.

"We pushed Pete through first," he said when they reached the end of the tunnel. "He was the one who found the notch in the frame in the end, and Sirius was so happy to have figured the bloody thing out that I thought he'd kiss him instead of shove him. Truly, I think Pete probably preferred the push to a kiss, although Sirius didn't exactly ask him. Here, watch. No, wait, you do it." He gestured to the three stones to tap. He wanted to see the look on her face when she opened the passage, certain he'd love her expression.

Then again, what expression of hers didn't he love? He even loved when she looked mad, for Merlin's sake.

Yet, sure enough, he found himself smiling at her own excited smile when the dead end cracked open as if on invisible hinges. It made him think of the way he'd felt the first few times he'd flown as a child—full of adrenaline, ecstatic, free. As the warm air of the June night filtered into the passage, she looked free, freer than she had in months.

He'd expected to love the look on her face, and he did. But he also found himself almost saddened by it, and for reasons he couldn't articulate.

He kissed her, hand against her cheek, and then nodded for her to go first.

Thoughts of pushing Peter still in his mind, and eager to make himself feel less sad—and to wipe away the look of concern that had crossed her face when she'd caught his expression—he pushed her out of the tunnel and watched her tumble down the mossy hill where the passage exited.

She didn't scream or even squeal, but she made a quiet, surprised sound that reminded him entirely of the sort of noise Oliver made when someone tried to pick him up if he lay in a sound sleep. She sounded startled and indignant, but not mad.

He started to second-guess that assessment when he climbed out after her, laughing, because after he shut the passage he had just enough time to deflect a hex she threw his way, but only just. He watched the pale red light of the spell hit a nearby tree in the thick copse of woods, the bark ringing out with a sharp crack. He recognized it immediately as the mild stinging hex she shot at Sirius whenever he got on her nerves particularly badly, although she'd never tried it on James, at least not all year.

She actually hadn't even tried to hex him since the previous October. He hadn't made it a full year, but near eight months? That was a personal record by far, and somehow more important than that he'd gotten her to fire at him again.

"Fuck you, Potter—" she began, which only made him laugh more. She sounded like Evans then, not Lily, and as she'd said just a bit earlier before they'd reached the mirror passage, he rather missed thinking of her that way. "Seriously, fuck you—"

"Will you? Do you promise?"

"You'll be lucky if you have the parts to accomplish fucking anyone when I'm done."

"I thought I'd gotten really good at getting you off, at least enough to keep me around. You wouldn't—"

"You don't need a cock for that. There are other ways. You know that."

He opened his mouth and then closed it. "Fair. You make a fair point."

She laughed by then too, however reluctantly, although the look she gave him still smacked of irritation as she lifted her hands up to right her hair. "Go wrestle your mates. That's not something you do with your girl, Potter, at least not with no warning in a strange place when it's dark—"

"Are you calling yourself my girl?"

He very nearly missed the brief way her fingers faltered from where she plucked a pine needle from the top of her head, although she recovered so quickly that he wondered if he'd imagined it, his lit wand the only light in the dense trees. The canopy above them spread so thick that he couldn't even see the stars.

"Absolutely not," she insisted.

"But you're more mine than anyone else's." He didn't phrase it as a question.

She fixed the tuck of her skirt with careful, practiced motions and rolled her eyes. "Obviously."

"So you're a little mine. That makes you my girl, Evans."

He wanted to add 'friend' onto the back of that word, but he knew he couldn't. Still, the desire burned hot in his chest.

Desire for her burned in his chest.

He eyed her wand, held securely but lowered by her side. "Are you going to try to hex me again if I come over there?"

"That depends on what you're planning to do." Her voice sounded taunting, a tone he especially liked.

"I'm planning to take you into town."

"And then?"

"I don't know. We'll see. I'm impulsive. I'll figure it out."

She hadn't been to Hogsmeade since Christmas, a full six months prior. He hadn't really thought through what that would mean to her, since he'd already visited once on New Year's Eve and a second time over Easter, the latter the same night that she first came to his bed and everything between them had changed. At first, he hadn't considered that the visit might affect her strangely, and it took him a while to consider why she went not only silent after he'd thrown the cloak over them—the silence for obvious reasons—but tense against him as well.

"I want to do a full lap," she murmured the moment they hit the area where Hogsmeade's residences buttressed up against the commercial district, the dingy Hog's Head on their right. He had no complaints, especially because he had every excuse to pull her as close as he could under the cloak. He knew he didn't need an excuse to do that in private, but that didn't mean he didn't want one. He also didn't truly mind the sharp elbow she planted in his side when he brushed her hair aside to kiss her neck as she hesitated outside Gladrags.

"You're very distracting," he murmured, stifling a laugh in her hair. "Don't tell the lads, but I prefer sharing the cloak with you."

"I should hope," she shot back under her breath, "But Sirius will be devastated to hear that."

"What's he need me for? He has a girlfriend now."

"It's nice to hear that you perform the same functions for him that a girlfriend would. I'm not exactly surprised, but I am surprised to hear you admit it."

He found himself receiving a second sharp elbow when he responded to her banter by going for the ticklish spot on her ribs.

Yet despite her jokes, her tension never abated, and he understood why when they passed the Three Broomsticks. She forced them to cross to the opposite side of the cobblestone street to walk by, just as they had on the way down the main strip, like she couldn't stand to get too close to it. Once there, hidden in the shadows of the awning of a quill shop closed for the night, she reached out to stop him and stood still, looking at the building. He tucked a thick handful of hair behind her ear to get a better look at the profile of her face. She chewed on her lower lip, and he kissed her temple before he really thought about it—and then realized that he'd seen Sirius do the same thing to Hestia more than once. He'd thought it disgusting every time.

Well, at least he'd never taken the piss out of Sirius over it. If he had, he didn't doubt that Sirius would give it back to him even harder if he ever saw him do the same.

"I'm alright," she said, her voice almost inaudible. "It's just…it's weird, isn't it? How normal it looks? How normal it all looks?" Hogsmeade did indeed look entirely normal, but the Three Broomsticks looked maybe the most normal of all, smoke rising merrily from the chimney and the windows glowing a soft yellow. Even in the middle of the week, the pub still boasted a considerable crowd. As they watched, a cluster of witches and wizards in their early thirties exited, amusement on their faces. Their laughter bounced up and down the almost-empty street. "War makes death and chaos seem commonplace, I guess. I can't blame people for hoping things can get back to normal if they try hard enough." She turned her head away from him to follow the group's progress up the street. "I know you've been here since, so it's probably not that crazy to you like it is to me. I just wanted to see it and didn't know when I'd get a chance again, since I wanted to be with you the first time I came back here."

Well, fuck. His heart twisted.

She'd absolutely turned away from him in order to avoid his gaze when she admitted something so personal. He knew that. Still, he found that that didn't detract from his appreciation for her words, which hit him square in the chest, as he always especially appreciated the comments that he didn't have to wrest from the dark corners of her mind. It helped that she let him turn her face back to him, and he knew her embarrassment at her vulnerability from the heat of her cheek, even though he couldn't see it in the dark. He kissed her, and he felt her hand lightly touch his chest, almost like she knew she'd knocked the air out of him with her admission. She tugged at his tie, just as she had in the passage, and he found himself pressing her up against the exterior of the shop behind them before he thought about it twice.

"Do you remember me telling you I wished I'd kissed you after Slughorn's Christmas party?" he asked, pulling back from her mouth just enough so he could talk. His nose still brushed hers. "When we sat at the Three Broomsticks on Christmas Eve?"

Even though he couldn't see her clearly, he still heard her smile. "Yes. I considered acting like I hadn't wanted you to try, because I was still sort of embarrassed, but I was immediately glad I told you that I had wanted you to kiss me too. You looked so fucking floored. It was truly a great thing to witness." Her fingers fiddled with his tie, light and mindless. "And I was really pleased to see that you looked that way, shocked instead of totally arrogant. You did look a little smug, but mostly stunned and pleased. I'd thought you might act worse, and that would have put me off you immediately."

Present James took a second to send Past James the most sincere of thank yous for not mucking things up with her before they'd even started.

Then again, he hadn't really gotten a chance to muck it up. The Three Broomsticks had exploded less than a minute later.

"I would have tried to kiss you that day if everything hadn't happened," he said, and she laughed under her breath.

"I should fucking hope so. I know you can be thick sometimes, but I would hope that you would have gathered that when a girl tells you that she wishes you had kissed her a different time, that it's a clue to kiss her that time." She lifted her hand to trace her fingers along his jaw. "Although I still ended up kissing you for the first time. I hope you know that I'll never let you live that down."

"What, that I made you want to kiss me so badly that you finally just did it yourself? Yeah, that's a terrible thing for me to hear."

"No, that you didn't have the balls—"

He felt her laugh against his mouth when he kissed her, and then her arms went around his neck and she pulled him closer still, close enough that he had no idea how he wasn't crushing her against the shop. Maybe he was, but she liked it if so, and she apparently liked it further when he slid a hand up her skirt. She made a soft noise against his mouth as he caressed the smooth skin of her hip, but she reached down and stopped him when he trailed his fingers inward.

"You're a real idiot for not showing me this cloak earlier," she said. She placed his hand pointedly on her hip atop her skirt rather than underneath, and even in the dim street lighting he could still pick up the way her eyes glittered. "I could have really gotten into shagging you under this in the corner of a corridor somewhere. I would have especially liked trying to get you to break your silence. I can think of about four different things that I'd do just off the top of my head. You really blew it."

Okay, fuck Past James for not thinking about that.

"But I'm not about to do that here," she said, and she smiled, small and coy, at whatever she saw on his face. "Let's see some of that famous impulsiveness. Where should we go?"

"The Shrieking Shack." He wasn't sure where the idea came from, but he immediately thought it a good one when she looked surprised. Would catching her off-guard ever get old? "Are you afraid?"

"No," she said instantly. "I'm just surprised that your go-to move with a girl is to—what, scare her with ghost stories until you get her knickers off? Has that ever worked for you before?"

"It's a new tactic, so I guess we'll find out. Come on."

Despite her prior words, Lily did indeed get edgy the second they entered the Shrieking Shack. It took every ounce of self-control for James not to reach out and scare her. Her jump might have been worth it, but the anger that followed made the appeal pale.

"It's not a ghost," he told her when they entered the house's spacious living room. His voice sounded oddly loud in the silence. He sidestepped one of the many pieces of furniture that littered the floor, but then paused and crouched beside it, shining his wand on the shattered armchair in front of him. "Come here and tell me what you see."

Later, he wasn't sure why he told her. She hadn't asked where they went on full moons, not even once. He didn't doubt that she'd keep that up until he finally made the choice to tell her everything, because she respected privacy to a detrimental degree. Yet, standing there, it just felt right to admit at least a piece of the puzzle. It felt like the least he could do after all of her care for Remus and her immediate acceptance that he couldn't explain it all to her.

"Those are bite marks," she said after she'd joined him at his side. While she examined the arm of the chair, running her fingers along the many deep grooves, he watched her face. He thought he could almost hear her mind working, and to see her face as it did was a glorious sight. He could see the moment it clicked together, and her eyes flew to his face. "Is this where Remus—"

"Yes. This is where we come. We go to the forest afterward, but he transforms here. It's…brutal to see."

"I can imagine. I've read on it, and it's supposed to hurt terribly."

"He's loads better since you started helping him."

"I'm glad. Really, really glad." She stood and he joined her. "So this connects to the Whomping Willow?"

He hadn't expected that. Truly, he would have expected her to ask him how he and Sirius and Peter accompanied Remus each month before she asked him that.

"How—"

"It stands to reason, doesn't it? Sirius told me that you pulled Snape back from a trapdoor. I know you must have done that somewhere around Whomping Willow. Everyone knew that something had happened with you two there fifth year. So this must connect to there somehow. How? Will you show me?"

He did. What was the harm, after all? They would take their NEWTs less than twelve hours later.

Still, he could hardly imagine how his mates might have reacted if he'd shown her such secrets earlier in the year. They probably would have killed him.

She opened the trapdoor when he showed it to her, lowering herself onto her knees. The light of her wand revealed the dirt tunnel that would take them back to Hogwarts if they followed it. James knew every bend and protruding root and slight dip in the earth like the back of his hand.

"Thank you." Her voice was quiet. "For saving Snape. Sirius told me you caught him just in time. I know you hate him, but—thank you."

"I did it for Remus." He didn't know why he told her that. He could have—should have, probably—just accepted her praise and moved on, but it felt like deception. "I would have done the same if it were anyone besides Snape. I would have felt better about it too, because I fucking hated him in that moment. I worried so much for Remus. I even—well, I thought about how much easier it would be if I just let Snape come up here. At least then he wouldn't be able to out Remus. But I couldn't do that. I can't stand him, but he didn't deserve to face a werewolf, and Remus deserved none of it."

It felt strange to say it all aloud. He knew he echoed Sirius' sentiments from the prefects' bathroom almost entirely, but he hadn't known quite how strongly he felt that way.

"I don't think that makes you a bad person," Lily said after a moment, as if she heard that in his voice. "Remus is totally innocent in all of this. He couldn't decide any of this for himself. Snape made his choice to take Sirius' bait. I'm really glad he's okay, but I'm more glad for Remus. That would have destroyed him."

She stood, and when she closed the trap door carefully, it made James think that she'd somehow closed the door to that ugly part of their past. That was how it felt, at least.

"Show me around then, ghost," she said after a deep breath, and she smiled at him. "I assume you know your way around since you help haunt this place. Show me."

That time she took his hand, instead of the other way around.

He did. He took her through each of the rooms and told her bits and pieces as they walked. He showed her the decrepit loveseat that Remus had thrown Sirius into on the last full moon, which had tipped entirely over and broken apart in the process. He showed her the bedroom where they sat around before each full moon, he, Sirius, and Peter joking and laughing and doing their best to keep Remus in high spirits. He showed her the wooden mantle of the fireplace in the master bedroom where Sirius had slammed a bottle of Firewhiskey so hard that it had cracked in half. Recreating the move, Peter had broken it the rest of the way.

"You don't need to tell me anything you're not comfortable with," she said sharply when he started to talk about how he'd transformed into Prongs in the small bathroom on the first floor and hadn't considered how he'd get out the door. He'd only gotten a few words into the story before he'd faltered, and he couldn't think of any way to cover up how he had halted entirely. "I mean it. If you want to tell me someday how all of this works, great, but don't tell me unless you're sure. Secrecy is what's allowed Remus to live normally, so it's important to keep it. The only thing that concerns me is your safety, all four of you, but I'm trusting that you know what you're doing and to not do anything stupid." She paused. "Please tell me it's not foolish for me to trust you about that."

"We wouldn't do anything stupid about this. The rest of life? Sure. But we know how serious this is. We're safe."

"Good. If something were to happen and Remus were to get ahold of one of you—well, that would destroy him a thousand times more than if he bit or even killed Snape. He loves you all. He loves you especially, you know."

No, James didn't know. He stared at her.

She smiled a little and reached up to touch his cheek. "I love your reactions like this. It's the opposite of how arrogant you used to act. It's a bit like when I told you I wanted you to kiss me after Slughorn's party—you just look surprised as all hell."

He found himself leaning into Lily's hand, not unlike Oliver did when someone scratched his cheek in a particularly satisfying way. "I've just never thought that. Sirius and I are different with each other, but Remus and Pete, they like all of us the same."

"No. No, both of them like you above the rest. Like you said, Sirius does too, obviously, but all three of them are devoted to you. Do you not see that?"

He did, sort of. He at least knew that they loved him just as he did them, although he'd never put it that way to their faces. But he'd never thought that Remus or Peter favored him. Sirius? As she said, he obviously did. Yet Remus and Peter? He'd never seen it.

"You're their leader," she said, and he nodded. He knew that. "They wouldn't follow you if they didn't all like you best. Besides, Remus spent years talking kindly about you to me in hopes that he helped you out. He wouldn't do that for Sirius or Peter. He's patient, but he doesn't have that patience for either of them. And Peter—if you told him to go drown himself in the lake, he would without hesitation. It wouldn't take Sirius much to convince him either, but I think Peter would do it even if you didn't tell him to. If he thought it would make you happy, he'd dive in head first."

"I have no idea why."

That's what it came down to, in the end. Even at his most arrogant, it had never really made sense why his friends followed him into everything without question. Hell, he'd gotten Sirius to return to the mirror on the fourth floor for several consecutive days in a row to try to crack how to open it, something Sirius clearly didn't want to do, and he hadn't even had to work to get him there. They'd followed him readily into becoming Animagi, and broken countless school rules he'd wanted to flout just for laughs. They disliked who he disliked and accepted who he accepted, no question.

Yet even after seven years, he still didn't fully understand why they did it.

Sirius had a bigger personality. He spoke the loudest and with the most conviction. He could talk anyone into anything. He'd make a great leader.

Remus was smarter than him, or if not smarter, at least worked harder and applied himself more. His mind worked in brilliant, logical ways that James often couldn't fathom. Even if James had more innate magical talent—and he knew he probably did, and that Sirius did too—Remus often knew how to wield his own talent more effectively because he worked at it. He'd make a great leader.

And Peter? He was so kind and pure of soul that they should have followed him. How much better off would they have been if they followed him more often—no, if they followed him at all? He'd make a great leader.

What made them put him so consistently and wholly in charge?

"I would have never thought you capable of this sort of humility," Lily said, pulling him out of his thoughts. Her eyes scanned every inch of his face, drinking in his expression. "I wish you'd shown me this side of you before this year. It could have changed a lot."

He threaded his fingers through her hair. "I don't think I had this side of me before this year." He heard the raw honesty in his voice, and knew she did too, based on the softness of her smile.

"I see that. You'd never struggled before this year. You needed some of that to grow up a little."

He kissed her, and her gaze had gone tender by the time they broke apart, that look reserved exclusively for him.

He'd spent many enjoyable evenings in the Shrieking Shack with his friends. Unlike Remus, who suffered through each full moon, James always looked forward to those nights for the freedom and bonding and exhilaration they provided. Yet looking at Lily's face just then, he rather thought that standing there with her topped all those nights.

Well, except maybe the night he'd first transformed into Prongs. He couldn't think of a thing that could top that, aside from the idea of her telling him she loved him. When that day came (and it was a 'when,' because he would make it happen), he didn't doubt the rush he would get would surpass almost every other high of life thus far.

That was hyperbole, maybe, but he was lovesick and soppy enough to believe such longing thoughts. Still, when she would indeed tell him she loved him in the not-too-distant future, he would find his sky-high, unrealistic expectations all but met.

"Have you been to the Hog's Head?" he asked.

She hadn't, and he took her back under the cloak, out of the Shack, and along the winding path back to Aberforth's pub. After doffing the cloak out of sight, he ushered her through the heavy wood door. The Hog's Head smelled as it always did, of goats and straw and spilled spirits. Lily quirked an eyebrow as she took in the room with a sweeping glance, and then she looked to James and pressed her lips together, as if trying not to smile.

Aberforth stood behind the bar. James had never seen him anywhere else in the pub, or absent from it for a moment. He looked to James, then to Lily, and then back to James. "Figured you'd have more sense than to bring a date here, Potter," he said, James thought he hid a rare smile.

James grinned. "Nah. You've got me pegged all wrong. I've got no sense. What do you have for red wine?"

As Aberforth turned to an array of dusty bottles, he asked over his shoulder, "Is this the girl you stormed out over?"

Lily looked at him, her expression an open question.

James hardly knew what to say.

Aberforth was taking the piss out of him.

Unbelievable.

"I should hope I am, or things will turn very awkward very fast," Lily said, and Aberforth gave a low, singular chuckle.

The man could laugh?

Only later would James realize exactly what it meant to make Aberforth laugh and to get any sort of bantering out of him. Aberforth liked him. Even though he'd seen him consistently for three years, he'd never thought he'd see the day.

"I never heard all of that," Lily said after he'd told her the whole story of publicly rowing with Sirius about her during Easter break. He had her back to the copse of trees where the passage lie, seated on the invisibility cloak that he'd spread out on the ground. She'd expressed her hesitancy to sit on it at first, still clearly revering its existence, but he got her to curl up into his side with a little coaxing. "Sirius said you'd rowed, but he didn't say it was in the middle of a pub. Talk about defending my honor. What a scene."

At a distance, Hogsmeade looked rather like a storybook. James took a drink straight from the bottle of the rather decent wine Aberforth had sold him and then passed it to her, feeling supremely content in the warm night air. "It was worth it. He got you to come home that night because of it all. I'd row with him every day if it meant you'd come knocking at my door in your Harpies jersey."

She smiled. "Like you said, blokes aren't complicated. Sex."

He had his hand back in her hair, running his fingers mindlessly through the ends. "You're more than that to me."

He'd spoken honestly, even if the words came out flippantly. They were true words, and obvious ones at that, at least as far as he was concerned. To his surprise, they hit her harder than he would have expected. The teasing banter slid off her face like rain rolling down a window, and then dropped entirely. The soft, tender look overtook her expression instead, and she ducked her head to press her cheek up against his shoulder and looked towards Hogsmeade's lights twinkling in the distance. "I'm glad."

She wanted him to drop it. He didn't need her to tell him that for him to know. Yet he couldn't, not when she had changed so abruptly. "I'll tell you everything I love about you if you'll let me. I'd like to tell you everything I love about you."

He'd hesitated to say 'love' at all in any context, but if it bothered her, she didn't show it. Instead, she laughed softly under her breath and took a drink from the bottle. "One thing," she said after a long moment. "You can tell me one. I can't handle more than that. Even that—" She didn't finish, but she didn't have to. Even just one compliment would make her uncomfortable. They both knew that. "Ease me into it."

He wracked his brain. A million thoughts had jumped to the forefront, difficult to wade through. How could he pick just one thing he loved about her?

"I love how much you care about other people," he said finally. "I could see that even before you gave me the time of day, but I've really seen it since. You're the greatest friend I've ever seen—a little too great sometimes. I think you'd put all of us before yourself without even thinking about it, no matter the situation."

She passed him the wine, and she looked up at him again. He couldn't see much of her in the faint, faint moonlight that reached where they sat just inside the trees, but he didn't doubt that her collarbone had flushed. "You're like that too. You know that, right? Even when I thought you were an arrogant, bullying toerag—even when you were an arrogant, bullying toerag—I could still tell that you were a great friend to your friends. I thought more than once that it would be nice if you could spread some of that kindness out just a little and think of someone outside your group. You've gotten better at that, and it's wonderful to see."

He didn't quite know what to say.

"You're also not just sex to me, for the record," she added, and teasing once again lit up her face. Things had clearly gotten too serious for her taste, and she sought levity. "Although I do sometimes think about what Mar said over break when she wondered why I'd like you if we weren't shagging. She had a point. I liked you much better after the first time. I'd worried more than once that maybe we had all this build up and then we'd shag and it would just be alright or even terrible. Or maybe we'd do it and find out that that was all it was with us. I worried about that too."

"I didn't worry about anything like that," he said, and she laughed.

"You wouldn't. It's not who you are."

"No, I just knew it was all going to be great with you, both the shagging and having more than that. How could it not be?"

"I love your optimism," she said, and he tucked those words deep in his brain to bring back up later. He wanted to relish any time she used the word 'love' when speaking of him.

Not long after, they set to carrying through with their discussion of shagging, and she laughed when he said something into the sensitive skin of her neck about how clearly his ploy to take her to the Shrieking Shack had gotten her out of her knickers. It all felt a little playful, something about the way they kissed and touched and moved more full of laughter than desperate and heated, like they usually came together. They teased and joked even in the moment.

"This is setting such a bad precedent," she said breathlessly when he had his fingers inside her and his mouth teasing the sensitive skin around her breast. "You took me to a haunted house and a pub full of goats. I shouldn't shag you after that sort of epic romancing. What's next, a daytime trip to Azkaban to get me in the mood?"

He laughed and looked up in time to see her tip her head back in pleasure as he curled his fingers in a way he knew she loved. "I was thinking Knockturn Alley first. I'd want to work up to Azkaban. That's a finale sort of date. Hard to top that."

After, he felt almost too content lying next to her on the mossy forest floor, tracing his fingers along the smooth length of her stomach. The air smelled like summer, warm and soft, and the earthy soil beneath them reminded him of countless nights spent running in the forest with his mates. Combined with the scent of her perfume, he felt he suddenly had a very good idea of what he might smell in Amortentia.

"Hey?" She kept her eyes closed, and she still felt as relaxed as ever under his hand. "Were you using this cloak when you saw me with Alex?"

He froze.

She waited.

"Yes." He almost struggled to get the word out past the rush of embarrassment that flooded his body.

How had he not considered that she might ask him that?

Maybe because it felt like a lifetime ago?

"That makes a lot of sense," she said, eyes still closed. "And it makes sense how you and your friends were able to get away with causing so much chaos. Talk about an unfair advantage. I guess I should be proud I ever caught any of you out of bed at all."

He didn't know what to say.

"I lied, by the way," she added a second later, and that caught his attention and forced his mouth open.

"About what?"

Her lips curled up into a rueful smile, and she touched her face with something close to embarrassment. "I lied about not fantasizing about you before Christmas. I did, almost right after you saw me with Alex."

Okay, that turned things around.

Later, James would wonder if she'd admitted it only because she hoped that her embarrassment would cancel out some of his, that same line of reasoning she'd first said to him the previous fall. If she set out with that goal in mind, she succeeded. His mood flipped in an instant.

"Tell me," he demanded, grinning, and she opened her eyes at that. She rolled to face him, her expression exasperated but fond. "Lecture me about my ego after."

"To clarify, it wasn't a fantasy. A fantasy is a purposeful thing made out of a conscious decision. This was a dream, and one I very much did not want to have." She ran her fingers through her hair, pushing it back from her face, and he decided that, yes, she did look embarrassed. "I kind of liked the way you looked at me in that first secret passageway when you told me you saw me with him, at least once I got past how mad and embarrassed I was. You looked like…like you cared and you felt like shit, but also like you wanted me really, really badly, like you couldn't help it when it came to me, and—well, you know me. I love that, and I already fucking fancied you, so I dreamt about you, and then I was even madder at you than before."

Yes, later he would indeed decide that she'd exposed something she saw as vulnerable in order to make him feel better about his own admission. He would love her even more for it.

Unfortunately, he couldn't help but gloat over what she'd told him, whereas she had quickly moved past what he'd told her.

"I need details."

"Of course you do." She looked at his face, no longer studiously staring away from him, and smiled at whatever she saw there. "I'm sorry to disappoint you, but I didn't remember a ton even the next morning. I just woke up very turned on and very aware that I'd dreamt of you and very angry about that. And—fuck, I was so embarrassed. I thought that you'd figure it out somehow, even though there was no way you could have known, and I knew what a field day you'd have with that."

She had a point there. That would have changed everything about the way he'd pursued her. He would have gone full-on in a heartbeat.

"Sorry," he said when he heard her sigh deeply. He reached up to try to rub the look off his face, which he knew had to read entirely of smugness, because that was how he felt. "I'm still not over that you started fancying me sixth year. This is—well, this might top that. It probably does. I haven't decided."

"You're so—"

He kissed her and she let him, and he dragged her closer on the cloak, eager to have her against him again. She didn't pull away even after the kiss had ended, but kept her face temptingly close to his, her expression soft and sweet. "Hey?" she asked a second time, kissing him again, just once and very gently. "Do you think your parents shagged on this cloak?"

He pushed her away at that, and she laughed until he finally joined in.

Later, after they'd taken the passage back, snuck up to Gryffindor tower under the cloak, and parted ways in the dark and deserted common room, he thought more about what she'd said.

His parents probably had shagged on the cloak. Gross.

But more to the point, they would have done so without having any idea that they'd end up married someday with a son who would repeat that action with a girl of his own.

He found, not at all to his surprise, that he wouldn't mind if that eventually happened with him and Lily too.

xxx

NEWTs began the next day.

Peter looked particularly pleased after their Transfiguration practical exams. He'd succeeded in turning a desk into a pig with no issue, and had even transfigured several chairs into piglets to follow the sow around the room. The examiner, a diminutive, ancient-looking witch, had clapped a little at that. James couldn't remember ever seeing Peter look quite so proud.

Potions went remarkably well for Lily, of course. When she had turned in her practical portion, a vial of Essence of Insanity that had the pearlescent, dark blue appearance they all strived to achieve, James heard the NEWT examiner compliment her quietly under his breath, his eyebrows high on his forehead. He looked duly impressed.

Marlene, on the other hand, struggled.

The desk she'd attempted to transfigure still had a boxy body, even though she'd meant to turn it into a graceful swan.

Her Essence of Insanity had ended up more purple than blue.

In their written Charms exam, she forgot the seven necessary wand movements to cast Avenseguim.

That night after dinner, she didn't exactly cry in the common room, but she did sit with her face in her hands long enough that James wondered if she did.

"Mar." Hestia sat listlessly, an unopened issue of Teen Witch Weekly in her hand. She looked as exhausted as James felt. "Look at me." When Marlene complied, forced by the strange power Hestia had over people, her face looked as pale as James had ever seen it. "What's going to happen if you fail everything? You won't, but what's going to happen if you do?"

"I'll disappoint Mum, just like Charlie did when he fucked off to the continent," Marlene said immediately. "All her hopes of placing me somewhere in the Ministry would just—"

"Why do you care? You don't even want any of the jobs she talks about." Hestia leaned forward, out from under Sirius' arm. "You're a McKinnon. Even if you fail, you'll land on your feet. It's just what you and Charlie do. If you get T's across the board, you can go find something easy and fun with none of this pressure, and you'll be great at it. Isn't that what you'd rather do anyway? You're not about to sit behind a desk, no matter what your mum wants. Maybe you should fail it all."

Marlene ruminated over that, her expression less horrified than before. James didn't miss the grateful look Lily shot Hestia. He wondered if he imagined the about time aspect of it, but he thought not, because Hestia gave a little shrug as if to respond, well, at least I did it.

"I've coddled her for weeks and Hessie fixes it in a single sitting," Lily muttered to James before they all gave in and went to bed, too exhausted to even talk much. Still, she didn't look displeased. "I'm just glad Mar's okay."

She was okay, strangely. Even the next morning, she sat at breakfast with all her normal, infuriating pep and biting wit.

James hardly noticed, too wrapped up in looking around to actually listen to anyone.

It was his last day at Hogwarts.

Ever.

It didn't feel real.

How was he meant to depart on the train the next morning and not lose it?

"Are you alright?" Remus sat across from him, and James found his brown eyes on him, gentle and kind.

He hardly knew what to say.

"I feel it too, Prongs," Remus added, even quieter than before. He'd piled his plate with food but had hardly touched any of it. James found that his plate looked identical. "Unreal, isn't it?"

James nodded. At his left, Sirius threw some piece of banter across the table at Marlene, who responded with something snappish that sent Peter choking on his pumpkin juice and Hestia shooting Marlene a pointed, disapproving look. Lily nudged Marlene reproachfully, but she couldn't hide her laughter, laughter that Sirius shared, clearly not put out by whatever Marlene had said.

It all looked so normal. How could it all come to an end?

"I can't believe it," James said finally, and Sirius instinctually turned at the sound of his voice. When James waved him off, Sirius gave him a close, careful look, began to say something, and then clearly thought the better of it. He turned away, obvious intending for Remus to handle whatever he saw in James' expression. "We'll be down here tomorrow for breakfast, but tomorrow night? We'll go to sleep knowing we'll never be back here again."

Not only that, but they'd wake up the next morning in the real world, which was infinitely scarier than anything he could yet imagine.

"Would you have done anything differently?" Remus asked. "Seventh year?"

James didn't have to think about it for a second. "No."

Remus smiled. "I thought not, which means you've done all you can do here. Things seem like they worked out like you always wanted, or at least quite close."

James couldn't argue there. Again, he was too lucky by half.

"Tell me we'll be alright," he said to Remus abruptly. "Even though we're not here, we'll be alright, won't we?"

James knew he sounded more like a child than an adult, but in that moment he didn't care. He was a child, really. They all were.

Remus didn't answer right away. He picked up a piece of toast, looked at it, and set it back down. "We'll be together," he said finally. "That's always made things alright."

They weren't the words James wanted to hear, but as soon as Remus spoke them, he knew they were the words he needed to hear.

As with all days one doesn't want to end, the hours flew by uncomfortably fast.

Their Herbology NEWT came and went.

History of Magic passed quicker than James could ever remember, no doubt aided by the lack of Binns' droning.

Defense Against the Dark sped by. In their practical portion, Sirius hit James with a well-timed hex that set his robes aflame. Somehow—James never did know how—he managed to put the flames out and fire a hex back before Sirius could so much as cast another spell. Their examiner had looked impressed, he thought—and maybe a little concerned, because Sirius laughed the entire time they dueled, just as he always did, his face shining with a specific kind of pleasure that only appeared with combat. He looked and sounded crazy.

In addition, Lily had Arithmancy, Sirius and Hestia had Muggle Studies, Remus had Ancient Runes and Arithmancy, and Peter had Care of Magical Creatures. That left James alone in the common room with only Marlene for company. She looked about as thrilled as he was at the prospect, which meant accepting but not excited.

"We're going to have to find things to talk about, aren't we?" she asked with her typical bluntness, and he had to laugh. She smiled in return, bright and winning. "I know you have good taste in music, since you like Star Grass Five, and good taste in women, since you like Lil. What else is there to you that isn't utter shit?"

Six months prior—hell, even three months prior—she would have said the words with the intention to cut. Yet then, when she said words almost identical to those snappish, irritated things she used to throw at him when she didn't like him, she managed to make them sound entirely charming.

"There's not much." He paused. "We've got Quidditch in common, don't we? Let's go fly."

And so he spent the final hours before dark on his last day at Hogwarts getting heckled by Marlene McKinnon as they took turns playing keeper and chaser.

Of all the ways he'd anticipated the year ending, he hadn't ever thought of that scenario.

On the other hand, he had anticipated drinking in the common room that night.

It was a bigger party than anything they'd ever thrown—or at least a louder one. The energy felt like every Quidditch win rolled into one, just electric and almost over-the-top with excitement bordering on hysteria. They'd had end-of-the-year parties before, of course, but never their end of the year, and that changed things.

Despite it all—the noise, the good cheer, the chaos, all the things he loved about a party—James found it hard not to slip back into the same melancholy that had plagued him that morning at breakfast, aware that each hour that ticked by brought him closer to leaving the place he loved most in the world.

His friends seemed to fare better.

Sirius alternated between sitting quietly in their usual corner of the common room, Hestia on his lap, and regaling whatever audience would listen with dramatic retellings of some of the Marauders' best pranks. There turned out to be a rapt audience for such a thing, and Sirius made for a great narrator. Remus and Peter sat nearby, correcting Sirius at key points when he exaggerated or misremembered or flat-out lied in order to improve the story, and Marlene offered her own two knuts during those moments, tossing in sarcastic comments. Sirius volleyed them back without pause, their conversation a fluid dance.

And Lily?

He hardly saw her.

She was everywhere and nowhere all at once, and he only caught glimpses of her brilliant hair at different times.

At one point, she sat with the sixth-year girls, engaged in a deep chat with Mary Macdonald.

Another time he spotted her with a cluster of second years, her smile gentle. He recognized the four girls in the group as those who had also been outside on the day of the Death Eater attack.

Later still, he saw her laughing with a smattering of fourth- and fifth-year boys, her face open and free. If she noticed the blatant admiration on their faces, she didn't let on.

And past that, he saw Remus quite literally catch her, reaching out a hand to stop her as she passed him. She sat down beside him at his prompting, and they ducked their heads together, her deep red against his light brown, to delve into something intimate and quiet. They wore matching expressions of fondness when they looked at each other.

James did his best to emulate her, both because it seemed like the right thing to do, and also because he wanted to. He sought out everyone he could think of that he might possibly need to talk to, and even some he didn't. He chatted with younger students he only knew in passing, and found to his delight, but not at all to his surprise, that he universally intimidated the lot of them. Lily would get after his ego for that, he knew, but there was something incredibly satisfying about watching people light up to talk to him, and to see the nerves that spread over their faces at the same time. Lily had said that people followed his lead, something he'd always kind of known, but he suddenly saw in full force exactly how cool people thought he was. Again, he'd known it. He'd craved that sort of reaction for as long as he could remember, and he'd achieved it. But he hadn't done much that year to maintain his rowdy, rule-breaking persona—in fact, he'd gone the opposite way, far more Head Boy, although not entirely. People clearly knew who was behind the most recent barrage of Slytherin pranking, and he got joy out of that too. Most of all, it felt really, truly good to know that he'd maintained such respect that year without even trying.

Really, that more than anything left him feeling more like he could face the outside world. If he could convince people to like him with even a fraction of the sort of reverence that the younger students had for him, he'd be set.

He spent the most time hunting down every member of his Quidditch team. Intent on passing on any and all words of wisdom, he talked at length with Abigail Murk, the team's seeker, who he didn't doubt would get put up for captain in his place. She turned pink under his attention, as she always did under any attention, although he saw something further in the way she looked at him.

Lily had said that she was used to blokes looking at her like they wanted to shag her. Something about the way that Abigail surveyed him over her cup, her eyes mainly downcast like she couldn't look at him for too long, reminded him of that. Even more, it reminded him jarringly of the way that he'd seen Lily look at Morton that very first night in the classroom. She had looked at him like she thought him good-looking, and James had recognized the look in the way that girls often looked at him. All he could think on that October night was how Lily had never looked at him that way. Of course he knew by June that she'd fancied him in a passing way for nearly a year by that point, not at all in the all-encompassing manner that he wanted her, but enough that she found him attractive even though she'd never shown it.

Abigail looked at him that way. Truly, all of the sixth-year girls did, even Violet Griffith, although she refused to speak to him just the same.

Sometimes, in his tunnel-vision for Lily, he forgot that. He could instantly recognize when another bloke fancied her, but how often did he overlook when a girl fancied him?

Almost as if she'd read his thoughts, he found Lily looking at him from across the room, lips pressed together as if she tried not to smile. She thought it funny that he sat amongst a cluster of girls who fancied him, whereas he would have hated to see the situation reversed.

In the next moment, he remembered that the sixth-year girls—save for Violet—had told Lily more than once that she ought to give him a shot. That, certainly, was what had left her nearly laughing. She no doubt wondered if they would badger him about it like they had her.

They didn't, of course. They weren't stupid. Bringing up another girl he very clearly wanted when they all fancied him? Talk about a dumb move.

Still, their attention felt rather good.

Yet Lily's attention far later felt better after the remaining party stragglers shuffled off to bed, leaving only the seventh years in the common room. "Should I worry about you running off with one of them?" she asked, and she didn't bother to specify who she meant.

"Yes," he said immediately. "Yes, you should. I'd like to see you worry. It would be a nice change of pace to see that sort of role reversal."

She laughed, but really, he'd meant it.

"There's no point in sleeping. We're up for the train in, what, a few hours?" Sirius looked antsy, like he typically got before a Quidditch match or a good duel with the Slytherins, but he always looked positive and excited then. In the present moment, he just looked almost defeated, a shadow of his usual self. "I don't want to leave," he said bluntly when he caught James looking at him. "Why would I? Things are great here. But if we have to leave, I'd rather get it over and done with. I hate waiting."

"Hessie, will you please take him upstairs and shag him?" Marlene didn't open her eyes or move at all from where she'd stretched out across the couch, her dark curls streaming down the cushions. "Or take him somewhere else and do it. Remus and Pete can entertain me, since I assume those two are going to have to get it in within the next twenty minutes."

She waved a hand vaguely in the direction of Lily and James, or at least where she heard their voices. James had already taken to stroking the smooth skin above Lily's knee, and even though he hadn't consciously made the decision that he intended to pull her off by herself—well, the thought always kind of lingered in the back of his mind no matter the time of day or place or moment.

Lily laughed the second he looked at her, but she didn't even go through the motions of teasing him. It was one of those moments where she wasn't difficult at all, and he relished it.

They went to the Astronomy Tower, ceding the Marauders' dorm to Sirius and Hestia if they wanted it. James had suggested Sirius and Hestia take it not out of any magnanimous effort, but from the intense desire to get Lily completely to himself for as long as he wanted. He didn't fully trust his friends not to do something stupid and chaotic if they stayed in Gryffindor tower.

"It's almost four in the morning," he reminded her impatiently when she insisted that they leave separately. "It's literally right down the corridor. Who's going to see us?"

Still, he followed her directive and took off first. Really, even if he thought her caution pointlessly overblown, he knew it would take more time to convince her to see his side ("the impulsive side," she would no doubt say) than to just do as she asked.

She made him wait exactly seven minutes, of course.

He waited for her on the stargazing platform atop the winding stone staircase, intent on grabbing her the second she came through the door and joined him outside. Yet when she did finally appear, he took one look at her face after she magically secured the door, and all (okay, most) of those thoughts vanished.

She looked concerned.

"You've seemed a bit off all day today," she said before he could speak. "Even tonight. If it were just tonight, I'd think you'd just gone stroppy from drinking, but you even looked it at breakfast. Are you okay? I avoided you because I knew if I tried to talk to you about it I wouldn't be able to keep my face together, but it's not—"

He stepped away from the parapet to kiss her, both because he wanted to—he always wanted to—and also because seeing her care had brought an unexpected lump to his throat.

"I'm alright," he said, pressing his cheek against her hair. "It's just…well, it's sad, isn't it?"

The words fell entirely short and sounded lame to his own ears, even worse than when he'd tried to explain himself to Remus that morning. But she caught the meaning somehow, and put to words the things he couldn't say.

"It's incredibly sad," she said, resting her head against his chest. Her hands had gone around his back, painting slow, soothing circles. "I feel bad for even thinking that, when there's so much that has gone right this year and we're so lucky in so many ways. Hestia and I escaped two Death Eater attacks, and you and Sirius and Remus and Marlene all escaped one. Remus' lycanthropy at least improved, even if it's still a horrible thing for him to have to deal with. We got to see Sirius and Hestia find each other, which I think they both needed even though they didn't know that they did. Mar came around on you. Your mum came around on me. We got the jobs we wanted, assuming I didn't totally botch Transfiguration and you didn't totally botch Potions. And…us. There's that too." Whereas the other things had flown from her mouth almost mindlessly, she'd faltered when it came to them, as if she didn't quite know what to say. Truly, were the roles reversed, James doubted he would have known how to explain them either, not what they were and not what they meant to each other. It would have been difficult under the best of circumstances, but sleep-deprived, fairly drunk, coming off several weeks of hard stress, and melancholy to boot?

Hell, he was glad he could even still form words.

"I feel spoiled for wanting to stay when so much good has happened," she said. "But so much good has happened that it's hard to see how things could be better out there. I don't want things to change. It's terrifying. Things are so great right now that any change seems like it can only make things worse, because there's so little that can get better."

Apparently sleep-deprived, fairly drunk, coming off several weeks of hard stress, and melancholy made her more articulate with her feelings, which, when he thought about it, made total sense. She had less ability to hold up barriers just then.

"Sorry," she added almost immediately. She gave herself a little shake in his arms and made to pull back. "Now I'm getting stroppy, when I came up here worried if you were—"

He kissed her again, stopping her words short, and he swallowed the tiny noise of surprise she made when he pushed her back to hold her against the locked door. He simply couldn't even look at her anymore, and the thought of seeing her face just then when he felt like he teetered on the edge of something deep and dark and sad felt like too much to bear.

They ended up on the platform's stone floor, although he didn't know who brought them there, her or him. He suspected her, since she ended up on top, straddling his waist and hovering over him so that her hair fell all around his face in a way that still felt exhilarating but had also become wonderfully familiar. She no longer looked sad by the time he could bring himself away from her mouth, and he certainly no longer felt sad at all, especially not when she pulled her soft cotton sundress up over her head, revealing that she was bare underneath save for her knickers, which knocked the fucking wind out of him. Her body should have become as wonderfully normal as the curtain of her hair, but he somehow didn't think it ever would. Even then, after he'd spent countless hours admiring her from all angles, he still found himself almost as floored by her as he'd felt the first night she'd come to his bedroom during Easter break. That night, she'd shucked her Quidditch jersey off just as she had her dress, which had left her only in knickers—and the same knickers, he realized suddenly, the lace soft and well-known underneath his fingers.

With anyone else, he probably would have chalked it up to coincidence.

With the terrifying way he knew her mind worked, obsessive over every last detail? He didn't doubt that she planned it.

His clothes followed easily, both far too used to the dance of undressing each other for any sort of pause. He sat up to let her tug off his shirt, and then dragged her closer to him, desperate to feel her skin on his. He still marveled at her softness, just as he had after the very first time he'd gotten his hands inside her jumper to traverse the smooth plains of her sides and length of her back. Her fingers plucked open his belt without a break in their kiss, and he groaned at the loss of her when she moved off him to pull his jeans and pants down and off. He groaned a second time and then swore when she took her time kissing her way back to his mouth, scattering attention everywhere but where he wanted it most. She kissed from the inside of his knee to his thigh and across one hip to the next. He'd put a hand in her hair at that point—and then, unable to help himself, buried the other there too—and it took conscious effort not to push her back down when she made her way up his chest, her mouth slow and almost lazy, her breasts soft against his erection as she ran her body up along his.

"Lily—" he began, uncertain where he planned to take it even as he spoke, but the words came anyway. He heard the pleading in his voice. "I can't do this tonight, all that where you mess with me. I love it, but it's been such a long fucking day—a long week—long weeks—I just—I need to be inside you. Will you—"

He almost couldn't breathe from his desire for her, somehow even more heightened than usual, something he wouldn't have thought possible if someone had asked him even an hour before. Everything in life was suddenly just all too much—the promise of the future, the promise of change, the promise of catastrophe—and she felt like safety.

What did she catch on his face? He saw her glimpse something there as she glanced up at him through her eyelashes, something that gave her just the tiniest bit of a pause. She nipped at his collarbone, and he felt her teeth again, soft and teasing, as she made her way up his neck. "Say that again," she prompted quietly, her words reverberating from his pulse point through his entire body. "Say that again and touch me."

He yanked her knickers down, and he had his fingers inside her almost before she could divest herself of them entirely. The angle was all wrong with her on top of him, his wrist twisting awkwardly, but he didn't care. He lacked patience and finesse, but it looked and sounded like she didn't care about that either as she grinded against his hand, all heated need.

"I need to be inside you," he said again, his voice tighter, and his throat only constricted more at the way she looked down at him. She watched him almost hungrily, the look in her eyes deep and dark and intense, and he fucking loved it. She looked at him like she owned him, or at least like she wanted to own him, and he couldn't imagine anything more incredible than that.

She exceeded his expectations, of course, and made things even better.

"Fuck," she breathed, her nails sharp but pleasant against his chest, and he heard himself make a noise he didn't intend when he saw her forehead break in the pleasured-but-pained way that he'd grown conditioned to love. "Fuck, James. When am I going to stop wanting you like this? Sometimes it feels like it's taken over my life."

She was addicted to him too.

Fuck whatever else happened out in the real world. He would carry that knowledge with him until the day he died.

(He thought that then, a bit of hyperbole in the back of his brain that roared with triumph at her words, although he didn't set much stock by it. He had no idea that he actually would carry that knowledge with him until the day he died, and with as much pride as he felt in that moment.)

"You're killing me," he said, that constant refrain that rang throughout every time he got her clothes off of her. "You're killing me, Lily." She rode his hand just above his cock, and he could feel her against him as she moved, sliding with such promise that he throbbed. "I'll get you off after if I come before you do," he added quickly, a desperate attempt at a bargain. "But I can't fucking stand it. I don't want to throw you down, but fuck, I don't have the patience for you to—"

"Sit up."

Without thinking, he followed her lead. He probably would have jumped off the tower itself at that point if it meant she'd fuck him.

She shifted her weight so he could sit more comfortably, and then took him inside her with no warning. The unintelligible noise he made it return came out so loudly that she kissed him to silence him, pressing her breasts to his chest and wrapping her arms around his neck so tightly that it felt like she enveloped him fully.

As always, the world stopped spinning once he got inside her. Time stopped. His overwrought brain ceased to worry, because he almost ceased to think.

"Are you going to get mad if I go slow?" she asked, pulling back enough to look at him. Her hair fell all around her faced in waves mussed into mess from his fingers, and she looked somehow more beautiful than ever before.

Then again, he thought that almost every time he looked at her.

She'd set a slow pace with her hips, that speed she'd spoken of, and he shook his head, hardly trusting himself to speak. It was all almost too good—the look on her face, her body against his, the way she moved against him with such mind-blowing skill—and he felt, again, too lucky by half. "Do whatever you want," he said when he finally trusted himself to speak. Even then, his voice broke. He ran his hands down the smooth length of her back so he could cup her arse and bring her against him even further, and he heard the tiny, pleased oh she gave against his ear, which sounded like the sweetest of compliments. "I don't care right now as long as I'm inside you."

"Fucking hell." She sounded almost pained. "As soon as one of us has a place—" She didn't finish. She didn't have to.

His groaned. "You're getting no sleep."

She laughed softly, but he meant it.

It became quickly apparent—even with minimal brainpower at work—that she hadn't decided to rock against him in the achingly slow, torturously wonderful way to torment him, as he would have normally assumed. When she pulled her face away from his neck, he caught a look of beautiful, broken pleasure on her face unlike anything he'd seen before. She looked like she relished having him inside her, not in the heated, frantic way he was used to seeing, and used to feeling himself. It was softer than that somehow, as if she intended to linger over every second she had him inside her, and not because she wanted to come, but because she wanted him and for as long as possible, and that—

Well, that actually made it harder for him to let her have that, because it made him want to fucking ravish her.

"No, let me look at you," he demanded when she went to kiss him. She gave a familiar sort of huff, something that sounded more out of principle than real upset, but she listened. She leaned back, dragging a hand through her hair, and the change in angle sent her eyes closed and her lower lip between her teeth. Suddenly, he didn't know where to look—at the incredible expression on her face or the soft movement of her breasts or the tight muscles of her legs or where they came together and he could see himself sliding in and out of her. The latter heightened every sensation even more, creating such pleasure that it almost hurt, because it was all so good.

The absence of time meant that he didn't know how long she rocked against him. It could have been minutes or hours or days or lifetimes, but it was long enough that she would later heal bruises and scratches on her knees. Yet in the moment, she clearly thought of none of that, and he didn't either. He forgot everything—where he was, what the next day would bring, the horrible uncertainty of the future—lost in the sights and sounds and feel of her. His tunnel vision had never felt so extreme, because the entire world faded away, everything vanishing except for her.

He'd loved every way they'd ever shagged, but he later thought that he might have loved that night in the Astronomy Tower most of all.

There was just something intimate and almost tender about it all, their usual frenzied passion replaced by something softer. That was how he saw it, anyway, and he rather thought she did too. She ran her fingers over every part of him she could reach—over his cheek and across his jaw, down his neck and over his shoulders, and finally down his chest and stomach. She knew his body well by then, and he knew hers in turn, but she looked at him and touched him rather differently. She looked as if she normally touched him for his pleasure, but just then she touched him for hers, like she wanted to map out his entire body and sear it into her memory.

It might have been the greatest thing James had ever seen in his life.

He marveled at her marveling at him, each second a glorious stroke to his ego, a silent confirmation that she was every bit as hopelessly desperate for him as he was for her. Finally, picking up speed in the movement of her hips, she met his eyes, her cheeks flushed. "You're seriously so fucking fit," she said, and he wasn't sure if the admission or pleasure made her look almost pained, although he would have put his money on a combination of the two. "I know I don't say it enough, but—fucking hell, James."

In return, he said the first thing that came to his mind, something he normally wouldn't have verbalized aloud.

"I'm going to remember that forever," he told her, and it came out as more of a threat than a promise. She swung her head around as she laughed breathlessly, a laugh that stopped abruptly when he pushed a hand into her hair so he could drag her close and kiss her.

She truly went to work after that, changing the rhythm of her hips in a way he couldn't explain, but one that felt more pointed and less exploratory, a clear goal firmly in her mind.

It took very little time at all for her to come. Alcohol made it easier, she would tell him later (and he would wonder how he was supposed to know that information without exploiting it always), not that she needed the help. It was the combination of the angle of his cock and her clit against his pelvis and the look on his face that eventually sent her, she would explain later, but she wouldn't go into what that look was exactly, to his disappointment. (Had he known, he would have exploited that too.) She sounded every bit as desperate as he loved as she got close, the exact opposite of her carefully-presented public veneer, and gave him a mighty shot of primal pride to watch her come apart so fully. Her expression just looked raw, open and honest and unable to hide a single thing she felt, and because she couldn't hide a single thing she felt, he saw the tender look that spread her face right before she came.

She'd looked at him a lot of different ways during sex before, but never quite like that.

When she came, she clutched his back and bit his shoulder with such abandon that she left marks both places. She said his name as the tightness in her body broke, a simple, "Fuck, James," the mantra he always thought about her suddenly reversed. That was enough, really—the way she pulsed around him, his name spoken so desperately, how she held him as if she needed him for support just to survive—to do him in too.

She caught his face in her hands just in time to watch him come, and he had that feeling again like she sought to own him as she took in every inch of his face.

That look alone would have sent him if he hadn't already fallen over the edge into climax. He didn't know it then, but in the future, it would always affect him in just that way.

As the world slightly righted itself again, he pressed his face into her neck, his breathing ragged. "I love you," he said against her skin. He hadn't consciously said it since admitting it to her in his dorm room. "I'm not saying it so you'll say it back, and I don't want you to feel bad that you can't. I just need you to know that I love you."

Like so many things with her, he hadn't planned to say it. Yet to his surprise, he found that he didn't regret saying it or fear her reaction or anything of the sort. It felt okay to have told her.

Then again, he didn't doubt that most things would probably feel just fine after coming like he had, especially when he remained inside her. Hell, a multi-person duel could have happened all around them just then, and he didn't doubt that he would have shrugged it off.

She kissed his shoulder exactly where she'd left a faint imprint of her teeth that he would only find later, and the discovery would leave him grinning for several solid minutes. "I know," she said, and she somehow managed to make the words sound deep and meaningful. Considering everything they'd gone to that year, those words were deep and meaningful. "You make me feel very lucky." She made those words sound even deeper, and he lifted his head to look at her. Her color had gone slightly pink, as it hadn't been the last time he'd looked at her, and he didn't doubt that it had everything to do with the bashful nature of her smile.

Of course, that only made him love her more.

Fuck, he was a goner. He already knew that, but he knew it suddenly more than ever in that moment.

"Watch the sunrise with me."

Her smile grew less bashful and more amused and gently fond. "You're such a melt."

"You keep making it sound like that surprises you."

When he relaxed onto his back, he saw that the sky had lightened, the stars above him fading rapidly. After sliding off of him, she curled into his side with little prompting, an arm draped across his chest and her cheek against his shoulder.

"I've been thinking," he said after a long, companionable silence in which he felt no need to move ever again except to trail his fingers through her hair.

"Always dangerous with you."

He smiled at the smile in her voice. "I know." He paused. "What if we went somewhere together before we hear if we're starting at the Ministry? We could find some real boring, discreet muggle town and spend a couple nights. And we could just pretend—"

As soon as he said it, he wished he hadn't phrased it as a sort of pretending, and it stopped him short. That sort of verbiage invited the potential for too much upset over what they couldn't have, which he hadn't intended. He'd only wanted to point out and claim what they could have.

Sure enough, she sighed softly. "We shouldn't have to pretend."

"I'd rather pretend with you than have anything with anyone else." He drew her face up to kiss her until he wiped the traces of sadness off her face. It took a bit, but he got her there eventually. "Say you'll go so I don't have to kidnap you. I'll do it, but I'd prefer not to. It sounds like a lot of hassle, and you don't seem like the kind to go quietly."

That got a hint of a smile out of her. "You wouldn't like me if I was." She surveyed him for several long seconds, her expression inscrutable. He waited, cautiously optimistic but expecting a firm no with a lecture about discretion, even if they went to a tiny muggle village of two hundred people where no one could ever know them.

Instead, she surprised him.

"Could we go to the coast?"

A grin split his face as he kissed her again. A question had never sounded more like a victory.

"We can go anywhere you want," he told her, hand against her cheek. "I'm not about to say no to you."

It was an unfortunate truth that he'd more or less accepted.

"Okay," she agreed. Her next words came out warningly. "Somewhere small and discreet and far away where only muggles—"

"Got it. Whatever you want. It's yours."

Another unfortunate truth, although much as he'd felt after she'd asked him to take her to Hogsmeade, he couldn't exactly feel bad for wanting to give her everything he could. She gave the same back to him, after all, and life was just too short to let his pride get in the way of making her as happy as he could.

"I want something else."

He didn't hesitate. "Name it."

She smiled. "Before we go back to the common room, will you shag me in the secret passage by the suits of armor, the one you first showed me? It seems fitting to end it there, like a full circle, doesn't it?"

Of course she could manage to make something so bloody hot sound so logical.

Yeah, he loved this woman.

"I've never wanted anything more," he told her, and in that moment, he absolutely meant it. He pulled her closer, leaving her more on top of him than beside him. "Let me be a melt first."

She didn't protest, not to his insistent hold on her or his demand. Instead, she stroked his side absently, the movement seemingly more mindless than conscious, and held him in return.

Together, they watched the sun rise.