“What is it with her?” said James, trying, and failing, to look as though this was a throwaway question of no real importance to him.
“Reading between the lines, I’d say she thinks you’re a bit conceited, mate,” said Sirius.
“Right,” said James, who looked furious, “right —”
There was another flash of light, and Snape was once again hanging upside down in the air.
“Who wants to see me take off Snivelly’s pants?”
As the gathered students jeered and cheered, James became aware of a hand on his arm. Snarling, he jerked it away, twisting to see Remus giving him a wry smile.
“I don’t know about the rest of the school, Prongs, but, whatever Snape keeps beneath those rags, I’d rather not see it.” Remus’ hand casually brushed over his robes causing the prefect badge pinned there to flash in the still-bright sunshine.
James’ eyes widened as he realised the impossible position he’d been about to put his friend into. He flashed the good-humoured grin that had helped him through so many potentially awkward — not to say illegal — situations. “You’re probably right, Moony. So how about…” he swept his wand arm in an enormous arc through the sky, “a wash?” The dangling, squirming and cursing Snape flew high over the lake, before dropping with an explosive splash, a dozen yards off shore.
Remus nodded slowly as the pale Slytherin struggled to the bank, his robes about him like an oil slick, and the crowd, lead by Peter, whooped and cheered.
Sirius stepped up beside James. “Well, that was relatively easy. A pity he can swim though.”
“Mulciber and Avery are just there anyway”, James rejoined, nodding towards the two standing at the bank, watching their housemate flounder towards them. “Come on, let’s go in. It’s too crowded out here,” and he led the way back to the Gryffindor Common room, Tortalini-ing their way past the Pink Lady and into the cool of the window seats. Once there, however, James showed no desire for private conversation with the others, or even for the peace and quiet of their dormitory. Rather, he stayed in the common room, desultorily watching the others play Exploding Snap and refusing to be drawn into a game. Every time the portrait hole swung open he’d glance up, then away, until finally Sirius looked up from the pack he’d shuffled to see James gazing fixedly after a swinging red pony-tail as it exited the common room to the corridor. He wasn’t at all surprised that James, a few seconds later, announced that he was going for a stroll before tea and disappeared without waiting for a reply — or for any offers of company.
Lily paused to glance back over her shoulder, then, when her eyes confirmed what her ears had suspected, she continued steadily down the corridor, her lip curling in distaste. James’ fleeting glimpse of that sneer stung him to close the gap between them in a few quick strides and grab the girl by the shoulder. “Evans, what…?
She turned on him, pushing his hand from her shoulder with such fury that it smacked hard against the cold stone wall. “Don’t you dare touch me.” Her voice quivered with an intensity he couldn’t comprehend. Though she wasn’t holding a wand, the fists clenched at her sides looked more than dangerous enough to make James step, startled, away from the slow-burning red-head.
“Sorry! I… I’m sorry,” he said.
She glared at him for a moment longer, then turned sharply on her heel and strode away, pony-tail swiping the air behind her.
“Ahhh, Evans?” he called after her. “What precisely is it I’m apologising for?”
She stopped dead, stood unmoving for nearly a minute while James held his breath, then, enormously slowly, turned to face him again. This time wearing a smile that almost looked pleasant. Almost, it looked like the smile she’d worn when addressing the first-years last September — warm and reassuring and hinting at the world of fun and adventure that went with its wearer. Almost. This smile didn’t go past the curve of the lips. The eyes now approaching James like emerald-tipped drill bits were every bit as hard as the wall that had bruised his hand just seconds before.
“Shall I tell you what you’re sorry for, Potter? I… have a few seconds, if you… want to hear it?”
“Sure, why not?” James said, recovering a little of his aplomb, but still distinctly nervous about that smile.
“Well. First,” she said sweetly, “you may remember what I said earlier about being something of a show-off. Now that, I can almost excuse; after all you are, in fact, a skilled and… powerful wizard. And rich. And I’ve heard one or two girls mention that you’re good-looking. And you have no trouble with school-work and you’re a Quidditch hero and you’re immensely popular. And with all those disadvantages, it’s not too surprising you’ve got a little swollen between the ears. I might even be generous enough to believe that you could, eventually, grow out of it. After all, arrogance probably isn’t as fixed a trait as that blasted black thatch you grow. Yes, you might, yet, grow up.” The smile that had crept across James’s face at her description of him slipped a little at her suggestion of his immaturity.
“Then, there was today’s scrap with Sev… with Snape. And it was hardly the first, was it? I grant that he might look like a weird, cold and maybe cruel person, but you sort of expect that from a Slytherin — especially with this Voldemort pushing the pure-blood thing. But what’s your excuse? Since when does a Gryffindor need three friends behind him to humiliate a single Slytherin who wasn’t even bugging you! I saw you, James Potter! That was a completely unprovoked attack and one of the most shameful displays of bullying I’ve ever had to deal with!”
Neither of them were smiling now, and Lily’s fists were clenched again.
“And it just makes it worse that you’re so popular! Did you see young McEwan out there? He was all eyes for his hero, the great James Potter. And the rest of his year, and I daresay a good number of others in the other years. They all look at you and think that Gryffindors are supposed to be arrogant, bullying toe-rags! A fine house this will be in five years’ time! You’ll be gone but it’ll be over-run by Potter clones, abusing everything we’re supposed to stand for!”
“And… and these are the things you think I’m sorry for?” James asked weakly of the girl who was now standing so close to him that he was pressed back against the wall.
“No. I don’t happen to believe you’re sorry for any of that. I don’t think you have the faintest idea what you look like from outside of your cosy little clique. You can’t have any idea of how painful it is to see someone like you, day after day, wasting a life that should be…” She paused suddenly as though choked, and stepped back. James was startled to see how bright her eyes were. After a second she looked up and continued in a low, even voice. “What you’re sorry for, Potter, is yourself; you’re a sorry excuse for a human being. That’s what. Now leave me alone!”
This time James didn’t interrupt her as she strode away, but leaned back against the wall, breathing rapidly as his head whirled with the things she’d just said and what he should have said but didn’t — couldn’t, and the memory of the sheer physical proximity of her, and the echoing emptiness of the corridor now. The sunset slipped out of the windows and was replaced by dusky twilight while he stood there and felt his heart pounding against his ribs. It was a long time before he felt he could breathe properly again, and then he turned and headed for the front doors. He needed some air!
The final few days slipped away in glorious sunshine, and long before Lily’s words had ceased to ring in his ears James and his friends were ensconced in a carriage on the Hogwarts Express, steaming back to London. The first couple of hours passed in the traditional remembering of the good times of the past year that they were now leaving behind them, but long before the others had ceased to ruefully recall detentions, and laugh over pranks and escapades, and exult over their successful Animagus transformations, James was sunk back into his seat and staring moodily out of the window. Remus exchanged a glance with Sirius as Peter dug into his bag for some Pepper Imps, and Sirius went down on one knee in front of a startled James. “Oh how the mighty are fallen! How the great ones are brought low. I beg thee, Sir Potter, to share with your companions her name?”
“Her name? Get up, you idiot!” Sirius was pretending to grovel abjectly on the hem of James’s robe. “What are you talking about?”
“Well, let’s see,” said Remus. “For the last week or so you have not once slept late, but nor have you eaten breakfast — two highly unusual circumstances.”
“And you’re talking about as much as Peter did in first year!” put in Sirius.
“And you haven’t put one over on Snape — or anyone else either — since that time after the Dark Arts exam,” added Peter.
“So there can really be only one conclusion,” said Remus. “You’re in love. So who is she?”
“Hang on,” Sirius interrupted. “Peter’s right. You’ve been moody ever since you washed Snivelly’s underwear for him. It was Lily, wasn’t it? You went after her that afternoon in the castle. What happened? Did you kiss and make up?”
Peter squealed with laughter, and began to mime frantic embraces with grotesque kissing noises. James immediately pushed him off the seat as Remus shook his head.
“I doubt it, Sirius. I know Prongs is pretty keen on my partner in prefecting, but I don’t think she cares that much for him, somehow. Some of the things she’s said in meetings… I don’t think so. And I very much doubt she’s changed at all, so why should James suddenly get a fever over her?”
Sirius was watching James, who’d turned to look out the window again when Remus mentioned the prefect meetings. “That is it, though, isn’t it, Prongs? It’s Lily. So tell us,” he continued when James made no answer, “why Remus is wrong? What’s changed so suddenly that you’re unable to even put a Skid Jinx on a Slytherin?”
The carriage fell silent as James finally looked away from the window. “Yeah, you might be right.”
“Of course I’m right, you great Gryphon! But what changed things? What did you say to her when you went after her that time?”
“I… didn’t say anything, really.”
“Alright. What did she say?”
James shrugged. “She just told me off.”
Remus nodded wisely. “Like I said, she really doesn’t care for you at all, Prongs.”
A.N: The section in italics at the beginning is from J.K. Rowling's The Order of the Phoenix.