"Accio shirts!" said Sirius, flicking Moony's loaned wand in the direction where he and James had earlier raced to undress.
"Can I borrow that?" asked James, reaching for the wand.
"I've got yours already," replied Sirius, and with an articulation of his wrist, an airborne shirt finished zooming across the lake and flapped into James's chest. A pair of glasses also appeared in midair, and James reached up to grab them. Meanwhile, the girls were busy snatching shorts and shirts of paler colours—lavender, pink, white, tan—out of a pile on the beach.
James towelled off and employed a quick Drying Charm on his hair before slipping his shirt over his head. He wriggled his head through the neck hole, threaded his arms out the sleeves, and caught Sirius's eye again.
"I'll come back out as soon as I'm through," vowed Sirius, and his words were accompanied by a steady grey gaze.
James gave a nod, then glanced expectantly toward Lily, who was now fastening the last few buttons of a summery white blouse over her newly-dry swimming costume, her fingers slipping the pearly white buttons through the buttonholes, their iridescence shining in the sun. She glanced up at James after working the last one.
"Ready?" he asked, trying to ignore the fact that both Florence and Bonnie were watching the exchange.
Lily nodded and they set off together while the others loaded into the boats to head towards the infirmary. Side by side, they crunched up the sloping beach, leaving their friends' chatter and the clunking of rowboats behind them. Where the beach met the single-file path, James eased back a step to let Lily lead the way.
They proceeded in silence at first. Her gait seemed easy and natural as he watched her walk in front of him: She stepped lightly over the encroaching roots, her shoulders swaying and her wheat-coloured, slightly spiral wand in her right hand.
Her ease seemed to contrast with the way he felt. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been alone with her. Moony was the lucky dog who got to spend time with her every week, strolling the castle on prefect rounds, not him. How many times had he wondered what that must be like?
He glanced ahead and searched for something to say before the mood could slip from casual to awkward. Though they'd been housemates for six years, his normally agile brain failed to produce a ready topic of conversation…
"Should we head towards the old stone wall?" he asked.
"Yeah, I think so," she replied, glancing over her shoulder at him. "Near where it meets the edge of the forest?"
"Right, that's where I saw it fall."
Another moment of silence passed before James spoke again. Fortunately, here the path widened into a flat bank flanked with primrose bushes, allowing them to walk abreast.
"That was a brilliant spell you used back there," he ventured, glancing at her. When the sentence seemed to hang, he added, "I just wish Peter wouldn't have—" He searched for the right words. 'Bludgered the thing,' seemed like an accurate phrasing, but he checked himself before uttering it. He didn't want to sound… arrogant.
"I think Peter tried his best," interjected Lily with a firm glance over at him. He shifted his lips. "After all, he was stuck in the shallows with nowhere to go," she added.
Yeah, stuck in the shallows with a perfectly good wand at his disposal…
"Remus figured something out," he mumbled.
"Remus had waded further in already," she returned.
James didn't reply. He didn't like the turn the conversation was taking already. And he disagreed.
Wasit really too much to ask for Wormtail to account for an object's mass before wielding a Stunner at it? We're sixth years, after all. He may not have killed it on purpose but he killed it with ineptitude.
"What would you have done?" Lily prodded, as though sensing his disapproval.
"Set a Shield Charm… run for the trees… fired off a few owl pellets to deter it… anything," he rattled off.
Lily flashed him a look. "Well, it's not fair to expect Peter to be as good at everything as—" She broke off quite abruptly and changed sentences. "Why do you hang 'round with him if you despise him so much?"
"What? I don't despise him! I like Peter," James yelped.
"What do you like about him?" Lily pressed, slowing to a stop and pivoting to face him. Her eyes narrowed. "That he worships you?"
She crossed her arms loosely over her chest and waited for his answer as they stood a few feet apart from each other on the pebbles and dry grass.
James frowned at her last words.
"No... He amuses me," he said simply with a shrug. What does she want me to say? I'm a bloke—and blokes don't recite elaborate sonnets about why they like their friends.
But sometimes you don't treat him like a friend, his subconscious niggled.
Well, he does make himself into a walking bull's-eye sometimes...
"You mean you find him endearing?" Lily coaxed, still eyeing him.
"Yeah, that's the word." His insides squirmed.
Lily blinked back at him. He found it hard not to notice her startling eye colour, even though she was angry with him.
She thinks you're a complete prat. There's no changing that. You might as well stop now.
"And he's loyal," ventured James. "And he can be clever, when he sets his mind to it… Look, I spent a long time helping Peter with certain things last year, and I wouldn't have bothered if I didn't like him." He desperately hoped she wouldn't ask him to define 'certain things', which were actually 'certain highly illegal things'; things which should be registered with the Ministry of Magic before even undertaking them.
Her eyes lingered on him a moment longer before deciding she'd heard enough. She unfolded her arms, glanced along the shore, and let out a small sigh.
He wanted to move on, move away from the conflict, work together harmoniously for once, but he wasn't sure how. Maybe it was hopeless.
"Can we just get this done already?" he ventured, throwing a glance toward the bend in the shore where he'd seen the bird land in a clump of tall grasses. "I wasn't planning on having an argument about Peter." Or I would have waited for Sirius.
Lily didn't budge.
"I also wanted to say thanks for helping Bonnie," she said softly while bestowing on him a very direct gaze.
Inwardly, his heart skipped. Outwardly, he blinked.
"'Was nothing. Glad to help," he replied with a shrug, and for the first time that day, he didn't need to feign nonchalance; it was how he really felt about helping a friend.
Lily hadn't flinched. She remained standing in front of him, but her expression appeared newly softened, her shoulders more relaxed, and her wand hung down at her side. James noticed it again.
"What's your wand made of?" he asked with a conversational gesture toward it. Seemed innocuous enough… and he'd always wanted to know.
Her eyes traced his gesture. "Curly willow. Why do you ask?"
"Just wondering," he shrugged. "It's uncommon. Shall we keep moving?"
They set off again, side by side.
"I think it fell into that clump of sedges down there," said James, pointing to a spot where the lake rounded a bend close to the forest's edge and near to the old stone boundary wall.
"And yours?" Lily asked.
"Oh—It's mahogany," he said with a smile.
They lapsed back into silence, though less awkward this time, as they rounded the bend which James had pointed out.
"It should be right around here somewhere," he said, pointing into the thickest tufts. "Let's spread out a bit and start searching."
He began sweeping the clumps of grass with his toes and out of the corner of his eye, he caught Lily doing the same, but then suddenly, on a small patch of bare ground between them he spotted it—a mere jumble of black, white, and brown feathers. One wing bent sharply into the air; its head jack-knifed in an unnaturally acute angle; its beak bored into the dirt.
"It's over here," he said with a solemn nod, advancing toward where it lay. Lily paused, then pattered forth in the same direction.
James reached it first and squatted down on his haunches next to it. Automatically, his eyes scanned the broken body of the sublime bird. Although flecked in dust from its impact with the ground, he could still see its every streamlined glossy feather and imagined the rushes of liquid air they had known. It evoked memories of the wind in his hair, his cheeks being pinned back, and tears being pulled from the corners of his eyes.
He knew from reading Which Broomstick and Quidditch Monthly that the best manufacturers could only hope to capture the diving characteristics of these fine flyers. His eyes momentarily flickered closed and he sighed from somewhere deep in his chest, thinking about the lamentable reality that such a bird would never fly again.
His private thoughts were suddenly interrupted by the feeling of being watched and the recollection that Lily stood so close by. Angling his head, he saw that she stood above him, observing him keenly; yet respectfully, she waited for him to speak.
He straightened up to face her. "It's definitely dead," he murmured. She nodded in solemn agreement then crouched down to have a look. James remained standing, trying his best not to intrude, though he couldn't help but notice how her eyes scanned it much as his own had. Only a small crease between her brows betrayed her thoughts. She reminded him of Moony sometimes, though even more compassionate.
"It's sad to see something that was once so full of life now dead and broken," she said.
James silently agreed.
"Well, I can fix the broken part, at least." She reached out for its angular wing and touched a wand tip gently to its feathers.
"Ossify!" she said in barely a whisper.
James was puzzled. "You know healing charms?"
"One or two," she said, flexing the newly mended wing and setting it peacefully back against its body.
She glanced up at him. Her coppery hair bent the sunlight and scattered its rays.
"Could you have healed Remus's foot?" he asked, as she stood up next to him and brushed the dust from her hands.
"I'm not ready to practice on people." She smiled weakly at the indirect compliment, shaking her head.
Inwardly, James wagered otherwise, recalling the first time he and his friends had bolstered their resolve to attempt the potentially-dangerous Animagus transformation. And Lily never ceased to amaze him with her magical abilities.
"So what do we do now?" Lily asked, casting a look back down at the bird still lying on the ground.
"Well, we can't just leave it here—obviously," said James and the wheels began turning in his head in the hopes of providing a solution.
For a moment, they stared at the bird in collective thought.
"I could conjure something to wrap it in, like another towel—" ventured Lily, "—but where would we bury it?"
James's expression shifted as he performed a mental summary of the grounds.
"Do—do wizards bury their dead?" Lily backtracked suddenly. A strange note of uncertainty had crept into her voice, striking an audible departure from her usually confident tone. And he found it odd to see her looking at him like that, her brows scrunched in an inquisitive vee, intently waiting for his answer.
Right...she's Muggleborn. She wouldn't know.
Since all four of his closest friends claimed at least one magical parent, he rarely fielded such questions, and he sometimes forgot to expect them from her; Lily always seemed so perfectly at ease in the Wizarding World.
"They do," he replied evenly.
Hadn't she ever encountered the Hogwarts cemetery before, located well beyond the Quidditch pitch? Peter had quite memorably stubbed a toe against a marble headstone late one night during an excursion back in fourth year. Unfortunately, the Hogwarts cemetery was a place to inter wizards. As to where to bury an animal—?
Lily remained square to him, but unlike her earlier posture on the path, with her shoulders so firmly set in resolve, she wore an expectant, slightly questioning look.
Against the sudden silence, the waterside elm overhead rustled in the breeze.
"I think we'd best ask Hagrid that question. He'll know of a good place." James gave a resolute nod. Though he and his friends claimed to know the grounds better than any other students who'd preceded them, Hagrid's knowledge of it was unsurpassed.
"Let's leave it here for now and go check out the cliff," he ventured, giving his head a sideways nod in that direction. "I'm still interested in seeing whether there were any fledglings left behind... And I ought to see if Sirius has returned."
Lily's feet remained rooted as her brow knit deeply. "But wouldn't this bird have had a mate?"
James's eyes flitted across Lily's. "No, for some reason I don't think it had one."
"Why not? Don't birds nest in pairs?" she persisted.
"Well, if they were nesting in a pair, wouldn't its mate have flown out too?"
"Hm, I suppose so," she agreed.
Does she find discussing 'mates' as awkward as I do? Probably not.
The sun winked down through the leaves, dancing on the ground between them.
"How do you know so much about falcons?" she asked quizzically, breaking the awkward pause.
"There's a reason so many Quidditch teams are named after birds of prey," explained James, as though on cue. "There's the Falmouth Falcons, the Kenmare Kestrels, the Holyhead Harpies…" He slipped his hands out of his pockets and began to pull back fingers and count off professional teams before deciding he needn't bore her with the list—though strangely enough, she appeared to be listening. "They've, um, always interested me."
They continued making eye contact after his words ran out. For a lingering moment, James returned her gaze, every nerve, it seemed, alert.
Lily glanced away. "Should we head back to the cliff, then?" she suggested lightly.
"That anxious to get rid of me, Evans?" he quipped.
Lily gave a funny little smirk and replied, "It's either that or I run back up to the castle and ask the Bloody Baron to strangle me right now."
James flashed a gamely smile.
"Be a pity," he mumbled.
"I was just starting to enjoy hanging 'round with you."
She blushed as they broke into step. The tall grasses, which hadn't yet sprung much new growth for spring, and consisted mainly of last year's dry blades, made a soft shirring noise as they left them and rounded the stand of trees to begin the walk back up to the cliff.
"Do wizards keep falcons?" asked Lily, her tone thoughtful.
"Like owls, you mean?" he glanced over mid-step. "Funny you should ask. It used to be quite popular. It still is, somewhat, though it's a bit of a dying art." He tucked his hands into his pockets and recalled a fascination formed back in his childhood, when he'd plop down on the Persian rug of the family library and flip through books, mesmerized by the moving pictures of them, soaring through sparsely clouded skies, wings athletically apoint. "I've always wanted one."
"Oh? What's the allure?" Lily's head swivelled, her expression eager.
"Well, they're the fasted flyers on earth...incredible divers...and amazingly intelligent too. They'll perform pretty much any task you set them to. Merlin kept 'em," he added in a tone of finality meant to imply 'and everyone knew he was bloody brilliant.' "He was famous for them, actually." He glanced over, checking for her reaction.
Lily met his eye. "But they're not magical creatures, are they? I mean, Muggles keep them too."
"Right. That's the thing—they're simply amazing."
Lily ventured a look in his direction, he could feel it on his profile, but he kept his eyes on the sloping grass ahead. Meanwhile, the words 'not of magical origin' and 'simply amazing' swirled nebulously through his head and he felt grateful for Legilimency being a very rare skill.
"So… you're planning on climbing down to have a look?" asked Lily.
He nodded a stoic 'yes'. He had no idea what a nest built into the side of a cliff really looked like, though he could scrabble up a decent mental picture of one. He wondered whether he should wait for Sirius to arrive before scrambling down.
"Why wouldn't you just fly?" asked Lily.
He glanced over at her, pleasantly surprised she'd brought up flying. "Because I'd have to run all the way back up to Gryffindor Tower to get my broom. I can't Accio! it from here—it'd wreak havoc on its way out of the castle—"
"Wreaking havoc's never stopped you before," Lily interrupted.
James smiled. "And then, Filch'd be all too happy to give me detention from now 'til the end of the year." Lily conceded a half-smile. "Furthermore," he paused slightly, "it's hidden between my mattresses at the moment."
Lily speculatively arched a brow.
"I don't like having it jinxed," he answered simply.
"So—" Lily began, loading a pause, "will this be your latest act of gloooorious heroism? Something for the whole schoooool to talk about until the holidays arrive?"
They'd just been working together so harmoniously, James felt a sudden stab of betrayal. Was this some sort of trick question, like the earlier Fanged Frisbee one? He checked her expression…
She was smiling outright at him, green eyes twinkling… Having him on.
James chuckled uncomfortably. He had to give her credit for nerve.
"Funny, Evans… I see what you think I'm all about."
Lily laughed too. Before the sparks of merriment had died from their eyes, they came upon the precipice.
"We jumped from here," he said, peering over the edge. He couldn't help but wonder if she'd be impressed; the thought had sneaked forth involuntarily, like a wisp of ether.
Lily leaned over the spot indicated and dropped her gaze to the water below. The wind had kicked up since he'd jumped with Sirius and the ripples along the surface had darkened and deepened in amplitude. A drape of hair hid her expression.
The wind tousled a red lock into the updraft as though it were a dancing Firemuse. James turned to face into the breeze bracing their backs and caught sight of a familiar figure strutting down the lawn in an unhurried, graceful lope. It was a walk which had become intimately familiar over six years…
A moment later, his best mate pulled to a stop in front of him. At once, before Lily had had time to turn around, Sirius ever-so-subtly arched a brow in silent enquiry: 'Fairing all right, mate? Still getting along?You mean she hasn't hexed you yet?' The expression fled before James had time to answer it.
"I brought this—" said Sirius, producing a small wooden crate which had been hanging by his side. It bore the words "Zanzibar's Magical Spices" in scrolling black script; the rusty screws and weathered wood suggested it had travelled from afar upon inclement seas. "Kitchens," he added to James.
"We'll need it," said Lily, taking it from his outstretched hand. "We found the bird," she said, and the soft timbre of her voice suggested that, as suspected, it had met its demise.
"So what's going on now?" asked Sirius soberly.
"I thought we should have a look for a nest," said James. "Too bad you didn't bring my broom."
"I can't remember everything," Sirius replied with a grin. "So who's climbing down, then?" Sirius cast a glance in Lily's direction as though he dare not assume. Then he walked to the edge and peered over; the updraft rifled his fringe.
"I was about to," said James.
"Excellent. Down you go then," Sirius directed in a sing-song voice.
What's he so bloody cheery about?
"I'll keep Evans company up here in the meantime," Sirius added, his voice ringing—to James's ears, at least—with devilish nonchalance.
Ha—so that was it!
James resisted the urge to answer with a grin. He tucked his wand safely into his waistband, seized the blunt stones of the lip, and began to lower himself down.
Sirius and Lily leaned over the edge to watch him go. Lily's hair trailed down like Rapunzel's and somehow, though leaning several degrees over a precipice, Sirius still managed to keep his hands tucked casually into his pockets.
"Watch your step," advised Sirius flippantly.
"Yeah, be careful, Potter," added Lily.
Author's Note:First, St. Margarets suggested the idea of Lily and James talking about 'mates. Much appreciation to her for that as you can see I've used it here. Second, 'act of glorious heroism' is a canon quote of Snape's which I've adopted into Lily's dialog for the purpose of this story. Last but not least, a big thank you to Sherylyn for the beta. Betas really do make the fan fiction world go round!