As the door of Hagrid’s hut swung closed behind them, the smell of wood smoke greeted their nostrils. In the hearth, a fire crackled merrily, licking the bottom of a cast iron kettle hanging on the rod over its flames. All manner of traps, baskets, saws, snowshoes, ropes, and hooks dangled from the rafters.
As they pressed into the room, the girls quickly assembled in front of the fire, rubbing their arms to warm up. Goosebumps dotted Lily’s pale skin, James noticed, before catching a convenient view of the back of her legs. How long ago, it now seemed, since they’d been swimming in the lake.
“Yer welcome ter borrow my moleskin coat,” said Hagrid, gesturing to a hairy hunk of fabric hanging on a wooden peg by the door that bore a strange resemblance to a skinned bear.
Sirius flicked his wand and floated the coat over to them. It zoomed across the cabin, slowing as it reached their backs, wrapped around their shoulders, and easily accommodated all three of them at once. They caught sight of it as it enveloped them.
“Thank you, Black,” Lily said with pleasant surprise and the others chimed in similarly.
“Don’t mention it.” Sirius flashed the smallest of smiles.
Collectively, the boys crowded in behind them, trying to soak in some of the wonderful heat from the flames while the girls threaded their hair out from under the hefty collar. Lily’s hair formed a glorious fan of red on black that caught James’s eye. How many times had he sat behind her in class, her school robes in lieu of the moleskin, willing his attention back to the board?
He and Sirius squeezed towards an open spot on the girls’ left. Remus picked up an old pine lute leaning against the fireside armchair and turned it about in his hands for a quick assessment. “Do you play, Hagrid?” he asked, before taking a seat with it.
“I’m learnin’ ter.”
“Mind if I give it a try?”
“Be my guest,” said Hagrid, checking the oven, which was built into the side of the brick chimney.
Peter claimed a seat on the bench at the table and leaned back on his elbows to gaze at the fire.
James flashed him a small smile. Did everyone feel so drawn to fire? he wondered, as they let its warmth seep into their bare skin. Or were Gryffindors more attracted to it than most? He could never picture the Ravenclaws huddling around the fire in their common room with the same zeal and communality as they always did in the West Tower. He’d even asked Hazel Blott that question once; she’d looked at him like he was daft.
At his feet, the flames twisted and curled like a snake to a charmer’s flute, occasionally launching an errant spark onto the already singed and threadbare rug.
“You look a bit like three evil sorceresses huddled under that coat,” remarked James as Remus began plucking a few strings to tune.
“Ha, imagine the things we could Transfigure you into,” replied Bonnie in a clear reference to the famous witch, Circe, a part which James thought Lily, with her streaming red hair, could play especially well.
“Evans already threatened to turn me into a Billywig earlier,” he quipped.
“Fortunately, I didn’t have to go that far,” Lily cheeked with a glint in her eye.
Remus started into a few chords of what sounded like The Girl from Impanema, drawing everyone’s attention.
“Sorry—I’m rusty,” he winced after hitting a wrong note. James spotted the usual blush at the tips of his ears; it naturally occurred whenever Moony found himself at the centre of attention.
“Sounds really good,” said Hagrid. “Maybe you could give me sum lessons?”
“Sure. Anytime,” Remus replied, without lifting his eyes from the strings. “If you don’t mind very inexpert ones.”
Typical Moony. “His mother’s a music teacher,” James pointed out.
“Why haven’t we ever heard you play before?” Florence asked quizzically. Bonnie, too, leaned out past her friends to listen.
“Because Remus hides his talents,”answered James. Remus glanced up and flashed him a small, grateful smile, though a slightly abashed one, nonetheless.
“Well, I’m not surprised,” said Lily. “I heard him play in the music room once.”
“When was that?” Peter asked, scrunching up his brows.
“That a boy, Remus. Nose to the grindstone,” said Sirius. Remus immediately blushed.
“Puh-leez,” said Lily. “I shudder to imagine what you and Potter would accomplish on rounds.”
Sirius’s face slid into a grin. “Oh, we’d accomplish something. I’m just not sure it would fall under ‘rule enforcement’.”
Lily smiled in spite of herself, as did everyone else, but the exchange was soon punctuated by the sound of water hissing on the flames.
“Water’s ready,” Lily called over to Hagrid as she slipped from beneath the coat and pulled out her wand to take the kettle off. Her lavender shorts, white shirt, and pale skin contrasted with the flames, but her hair met its equal.
Hagrid peered over from the kitchen. “I’ll take the cakes out, too, then. Should be plenty warm by now.”
Lily expertlyfloated the steaming kettle across the room, setting it down as though cushioned against the trivet she slid underneath. Hagrid doled out a tin of tea and a tea ball and Lily set it steeping. Setting aside the coat, her friends wandered over to help. Meanwhile, Hagrid plated the cakes.
James and Sirius exchanged a bloke-ish glance of ‘Should we pitch in?’ and Remus looked up from the lute to ask the same.
Then James spied the earthenware mugs stacked on the open shelves above the sink. “Suppose we could set the table,” he suggested. “Moony, don’t budge,” he added, seeing as the kitchen only provided enough space for one giant—or three normal wizards—in which to pivot and Remus’s music enlivened the hut as much as the fire.
James floated the mugs down in a vee formation like flying geese, prompting them to split when they reached the table’s edge and then circle to their proper places. Sirius brought the sugar, creamer and spoons along in a corkscrew, setting them down in the centre amongst the drips of candle wax.
Finally, the girls coronated the tea kettle with its own little cosy, Hagrid set down a tray of tea cakes, and everyone claimed a seat around the scrubbed oak table. James was pleased to find himself sharing a bench with Sirius and adjacent to Lily, who claimed a spot on the next one over.
Hagrid sat down with a creak which made James wonder if the poor bench underneath him would hold, then began doling out the tea cakes, each one falling onto the plate with a curious ‘clink’ as though it were a mineral straight from Prospero’s in Hogsmeade. Lily directed the tea pot to pour.
“Hagrid, can you tell us more about the falcons?” she asked.
“What d’you want ter know?”
“Well, for starters, how do we tell the males apart from the females?”
James took a sip of tea, which tasted of fresh mint, and wondered if Hagrid had picked it himself. It grew on the banks of the stream in the Forest. Prongs always crushed it with his hooves while cantering past.
“You’ll have ter wait ‘n’ see,” answered Hagrid. “The females’ll be bigger o’er time. Otherwise they’re identical. S’not like peacocks where the males get showy.”
Sirius knocked James’s knee under the table. James knocked it back harder and threw him a dirty look. Sirius did his best to stifle his grin, but not the amusement in his eyes.
“Have a feelin’ you got two females an’ one male, judgin’ by the size o’ their legs. That’s the only way’er tellin’ right now.” Hagrid dunked his cake into his tea to punctuate the remark.
Before James had managed his first bite, he saw Bonnie teething hers as though it were a gold nugget. Across the table, Remus was trying to break his in half: His expression became strained and then puzzled. He set it back down and reached for his tea instead.
“One of them is a little devil compared to the others,” said Florence. “He was pecking everyone—at least, we assumed it was a ‘he’.” She glanced up at Hagrid for confirmation.
“It probably hatched firs’ too, then.” Hagrid chuckled. “Pipped its way right out of the shell as soon as it could. They have an egg tooth on their bill, see, like a pick. Must ter fallen off already, I looked fer ‘em.”
James picked up his cake and tapped it against his plate investigatively. The suits of armour on the third floor clanked less.
“So, er, what do they eat?” asked Bonnie. “Can we feed them the same as our owls?”
“That’s a good start,” replied Hagrid. “You won’t have ter regurgitate anythin’. They’ll eat ‘em whole.” He seemed to miss the revolted looks everyone exchanged.
“They’ll also eat snakes ‘n’ insects in a pinch.” Sirius and James’s eyes glittered. “Once they’re older, they’ll mos’ly eat other birds, like pigeons.” Peter darted a watery glance of relief at James.
“They eat their own species?” Florence’s nose wrinkled. “I’m not sure I like them as much anymore.”
“S’different with animals,” Hagrid protested. “Wouldn’t be any fish in the lake if they didn’t eat other fish, now would there? S’not the same as this business with You Know Who.
A pause elapsed around the table.
“How long will they live?” asked James, breaking the silence.
“I s’pose ye could expect at leas’ fifteen years. Up ter twenty-five if ye take good care of ‘em.”
“We will,” Sirius replied matter-of-factly along with a nod, then his brow wrinkled. “Shouldn’t we feed them soon? It’s been a couple hours since we found ‘em, at least.”
Hagrid nodded. “There’s some sausages in the ice box we can give ‘em after tea.”
“Maybe we can send our owls out to hunt for them as soon as we get back?” suggested James.
He watched Lily take a sip of tea, testing its temperature with her lips.
“S’a good idea,” agreed Hagrid. “Yer owls will be grumpy about it, o’ course,” he chuckled, “huntin’ fer another bird.”
“So how do we know they’ll come back to us? Once we let them fly free?”
“I suppose you’ll have ter see fer yerself, but if yer takin’ good care of ‘em, they’ll mos’ likely start ter bond with you. That’s how it usually works in falconry.”
Sirius and James exchanged avid looks that said, ‘Summer hols just got even better.’
Hagrid surveyed the plates with confusion. “You all aren’t eatin’ yer cakes. Aren’t ye hungry?” He gestured a bratworst-sized finger at James’s. “Long day ye mus’ ter had out there.”
Before anyone had time to fabricate an excuse, a spark jumped out of the fireplace, pulling Hagrid’s attention over to the hearth.
“Fire’s getting’ a lil’ low. Think I’ll go get sum more wood,” he said, lumbering up out of his seat and heading toward the door. The Gryffindors followed his progress...
“I’d offer to help,” Lily murmured to James as soon as Hagrid was out of earshot, “but the shovelling convinced me otherwise.”
Remus leaned across the table as soon as the screen door slammed shut. “The tea cakes are like rocks. Have you tried them?”
“Yeah, you could clobber someone with these,” said Sirius, picking his up off his plate and turning it over in puzzlement.
“Yes, but how are we going to get away with not eating them without hurting Hagrid’s feelings?” Lily asked, eyes softening.
“Better Hagrid’s feelings than our stomachs,” said Bonnie demonstratively.
Lily smirked at her friend.
James glanced over his shoulder toward the door. “Well, they’re easy enough to get rid of before he comes back.”
“But surely he’ll suspect?”
“We could always Vanish them bite by bite when he’s not looking,” suggested Florence. “That way it’ll at least seem like we’re eating them.”
“That won’t work.” Sirius shook his head. “Seven people wielding wands over tea, I ask, and you think Hagrid won’t notice?”
“Well, what’s your idea?” Florence challenged.
“I’m with James.”
Lily rolled her eyes.
Hagrid’s footsteps thudded on the stairs…
Everyone scrambled for a wand but only a few had theirs successfully in hand by the time the door cracked ajar and Hagrid nudged through with an armload of wood that nearly hid his face.
Sirius cast a round of Evanescos; Bonnie stuffed hers into her lap; and James, whose wand was caught up in his back pocket, snatched a handful of cakes from his and Lily’s plates at the last second and—ping!—slung them into the fire with a Chaser’s accuracy, his wrist unfurling with its usual reliability.
The flames sizzled and flared teal green as Hagrid approached with the load of wood and James’s shoulders tensed as he waited to see if his ruse would be discovered. Or would Hagrid notice the guilt written on all seven of their faces when he turned around? He trusted his mates to deadpan well enough, but what about the girls? He’d wager Bonnie couldn’t pull a poker face if her life depended on it…
Hagrid’s forehead wrinkled as he examined the peculiar colour of the flames. “Hmmph. Wood mus’ be greener than I thought.” He tossed a few more logs on top.
James swapped a glance with Sirius. Lily’s lips twitched before she hid her expression in a sip of tea. Bonnie smothered a smile by resting her chin in her palm. Florence tucked one foot up onto the bench and coolly focused on tying her shoe.
Hagrid brushed the woodchips off his boilersuit and ambled back to the table. He glanced around at the table setting as he reclaimed his seat and his woolly brows perked. “Yous liked yer cakes, I see. Would anyone like s’more?”
A strafing round of ‘no’s’ made Hagrid start.
“They were really filling,” bluffed Lily, patting her stomach for effect, “and we’re saving our appetites for dinner soon.”
“Well al’righ’…” Hagrid took a sip of tea and a bite of cake, which deposited crumbles in his intricate beard.
James took the opportunity to lean over and whisper in Lily’s ear. “Who’s been kissing the Blarney Stone now, Evans?” Her hair pleasantly tickled the side of his face and even though she cobbed an elbow in reply, he caught her smirk as he straightened back up.
“I checked on th’ birds while I was out. Snug as bugs from the looks of it… Guess I’ll cut up that sausage soon as I finish me tea,” he said, taking up his mug. “Yous are welcome to warm up by the fire if you’d like.”
“Can we help with the washing up?” Florence asked.
“Sure,” replied Hagrid. “Don’ think there’s room fer the lot o’ you, though.”
“We can take turns,” Lily said.
“I’ll help,” Peter squeaked.
“Count me in,” chimed Sirius.
“That makes three of us,” said Florence.
Fortunately, Hagrid didn’t seem to notice the mysterious absence of crumbs on the plates when everyone floated theirs to the kitchen, even though they traded guilty looks amongst themselves. Once the table had been fully cleared and a storm of bubbles brewed up in the basin by Sirius, the rest of the gang retired to the fireside.
Lily and Bonnie reclaimed the moleskin coat while Remus and James perused the books atop the mantel and Hagrid loaded another log onto the fire. James had just cracked an encyclopaedia of magical creatures open to a page on ‘Smargamuffs’ and he and Remus were debating the meaning of ‘endentular’ when Hagrid decided to take Remus up on his offer of a lute lesson.
A moment later when Bonnie excused herself to the loo, James found himself suddenly alone in front of the fire with Lily. A strange self-awareness crept up his spine as his eyes drifted up from the book still in his hands and ran smack into Lily’s. If only for a split second, she’d been watching him.
“So the trick is to try to get your finger on only one string at a time,” James heard Remus say over his shoulder.
Lily’s gaze faltered for a moment as she glanced away, then back again. “I forgot to ask Hagrid if the chicks will be full-grown by the end of summer,” she commented casually, wrapping the oversized coat more tightly around her, nudging up the ends of her hair in the process.
“They should be,” he answered matter-of-factly, registering the steadiness of his own voice. “It only takes a matter of weeks. I remember reading it somewhere.” Her gaze lingered until he glanced down at the book still in his hands, gently closed it, and slipped it back into its slot on the mantle, between two volumes that had collapsed into an a-frame in its absence.
“And then you’ll bring them back to school with you next autumn?” Her tone was inviting and when he searched her face for the smirk that said ‘we’ll see what McGonagall has to say about that’, he couldn’t find a trace.
“That’s the plan.” He nodded sincerely.
Lily’s face budded into a teasing smile… “I suppose this is the one time I hope you get away with it, Potter,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
Oh, really? James lowered his voice and cocked a brow. “You seemed to hope I’d get away with things a minute ago.” He swept a pointed glance into the fire, where the remains of the tea cakes fuelled the flames.
Lily’s mouth opened to respond, but as though acknowledging touché as the only possible reply, she closed it again. She hadn’t lost the twinkle in her eye, however. On the contrary, it spread across her face in the form of a delayed smile.
James directed his own smile into the fire as he picked up the poker to sift the coals. In the kitchen, Florence squealed and he looked up in time to see her dodging under a mug whizzing over her head.
“So what are you planning to do with the poor captives this summer?” Lily asked.
He shrugged in response. “Fly... Feed them... I’m not sure they need much else.” He glanced up and caught her eye, struck by its intense greenness. She didn’t look away this time. He set the poker back on its hook and pondered Hagrid’s wireless on the mantel for a moment before venturing on.
“I suppose we could always send you—” he stopped himself from using the word ‘owl’ “—a falcon part way through the summer—if you wanted to see how much they’d grown. But then, you could always just get a letter from Bonnie…” he trailed off. He didn’t dare assume she’d actually want to receive post from him—and he wasn’t about to go out on a limb and suggest it either.
“No matter who sent it, my sister would freak.”
“She could hardly blame you for receiving post.” A flicker of good old Gryffindor indignation rose up in his chest on her behalf and he flashed a frown.
“Oh, Petunia finds a way to blame me for everything,” she grumbled and followed it with a sigh, “but I’d enjoy seeing Loki, once he’s actually got feathers enough to fly.” Her wording said nothing about hearing from him; nonetheless, the fact that she hadn’t flatly refused the offer broke new ground between them and gave his stomach at least one butterfly.
He scuffed a burn mark on the rug with the toe of his Chucks while he turned it all over in his head. The Gryffindor common room rug was full of such singe marks—evidence of sparks flying too far and wide. They gave the old rug its character. Even the house-elves didn’t try to repair them.
“Dare I ask what you and Sirius are up to this summer?”
He quirked a brow, not unlike one of her earlier ones outside, for effect. “I don’t know, dare you?”
Lily gently rolled her eyes.
He smiled in reply. “We’re not as corrupt as you think we are, Evans. Most days we eat breakfast and dinner with my parents. Pretty unexciting stuff. And we fly a lot.”
A charred log collapsed with a thud, creating a swarm of sparks reminiscent of fireflies.
“Yes, Sirius already tried convincing me your family tree is made up entirely of cherubs.”
James didn’t need to look up to see the glint in her eye. He already knew it was there based on her tone.
“And he also mentioned you didn’t believe him.” He glanced up to gage her reaction.
She shrugged blithely under the coat. “We have been housemates for six years, if you’ll remember.”
“So you’ll excuse me if I find your cherubic nature a little hard to believe.”
James chuckled. “Well, we do sneak into London every once in a while.”
“Oh? What does that entail?” Her green eyes widened.
Should I admit the things we get up to?
‘If she doesn’t like you for who you are it’s no use, mate,’ a voice much like Sirius’s chimed in.
James met her eye. “Record shops, discos, the Underground… and the occasional pub—just to see if we can get in.”
“And do you?”
“Only the dodgiest ones.” He flashed a grin.
Half a laugh escaped her and he enjoyed it immensely—so much so that he let it knock around in his chest for a moment.
James sobered his tone. “It’ll probably be harder to do that this summer though, with the growing danger.” For a second they held each other’s eye as if to say they both well knew what dangers he’d just alluded to even if the levity of their conversation didn’t invite delving into it. Despite the hefty coat, James saw Lily’s shoulders rise a defiant inch.
“What about you?” he asked.
“Oh. I have a part-time job at the bakery in town. Other than that, I’ll try to visit my friends. It’ll be easier now that we can Apparate.” She shot a glance in Remus and Hagrid’s direction to check on their progress.
“Yeah, that’ll be ace.” James ran a hand absently through his hair. A bakery?Why couldn’t we have had a simple conversation like this before? I’d have really liked to…
“It’ll make it easier to get away from my sister, too,” she added and he caught the weariness in her tone.
Behind them, Hagrid struck a dissonant chord and Remus offered gentle encouragement.
James’s face knit into a quizzical expression. “Is your sister—jealous of you?” He wasn’t sure why this hadn’t occurred to him before, but it suddenly struck him as the perfect explanation for her behaviour on the platform.
Lily’s brows plunged and she suddenly looked a little sad. “Yes, I think so.”
James was about to ask where her sister went to school when Bonnie returned and, for some reason that only his instincts could grasp, he decided to change tack.
“Well, you shouldn’t let it bother you. It’s not your fault,” he finished summarily.
“What’s not her fault?” Bonnie asked innocently.
“Petunia,” Lily answered. “And the fact that shehates me.”
“Well, Petunia’s a prat,” Bonnie scoffed as though she’d had altogether too much practice at saying this.
“Try telling that to my parents. The last time she stuck my wand in a manky pot soaking on the stove, my mum maintained she must have mistaken it for a wooden spoon.” Her eyes flitted across James and Bonnie’s, a flash of indignance flaring in them, and her shoulders tensed under the coat again. “It took me over an hour to oil it back to normal.”
“Yes, I remember that story,” Bonnie groaned, surveying her friend’s long face. “Well, cheer up, you can always come visit me if it gets bad.”
“That’s a nice thought.” Lily flashed a grateful smile and extended one wing of the coat for her friend to duck under.
James stood idle throughout the exchange. Summer would be dull as dishwater if reduced to living without magic for its duration. Fortunately, his parents had never been the most stringent enforcers of the Restriction of Underage Sorcery, so he could hardly imagine being lorded over by a sibling, especially a prune like Lily’s sister. Nor did he know how to be of help…
Inviting Lily to take refuge at his house for an afternoon seemed out of the question, though he’d have gladly extended it—and his parents had always been gracious hosts to anyone he brought home.
Still, this would be different. Much different. He’d certainly never invited a witch home before—and the idea of Lily visiting his house struck up old nerves and gave him the sort of frissons he’d felt earlier when she’d healed his hand.
“You could always visit Remus,” he suggested spontaneously in an attempt to be helpful, but a pang of envy shot up in his chest nonetheless. “He could use the company. Someone besides us to check on him and make sure he doesn’t spend the whole summer with his nose in a book.”
Lily bestowed a genuine smile on him. It made his chest go warm and lumpy.
“What are you saying about me, James?” Remus set down the lute and walked up.
“I told Lily she could pay you a visit if she needed to get away from her sister this summer.” He shrugged nonchalantly.
Remus blushed slightly at the tips of his ears. “Oh—right. Certainly. Though I’ll admit I’m not anywhere near as exciting as James and Sirius.”
“Yes, but at least I’d make it back home without getting arrested,” Lily quipped laughingly.
“True,” Remus conceded with a grin.
Sirius and Florence suddenly reappeared from the kitchen at James’s elbow. Peter tucked in next to Lily to complete the group again.
“Our turn for the washing?” James asked, glancing sideways at his mate.
“No, we finished already, you tosser.”
“There wasn’t much,” Florence explained.
“Besides, we’re going to miss dinner if we don’t get back to the castle soon,” said Peter, glancing at his watch.
“But we haven’t fed the chicks yet,” James reminded.
“Yeah,” Bonnie agreed.
“We can do it,” Sirius offered, referring to the wizards, and with a slight smirk he added, “We have our ways of getting a meal after hours if we need to.”
Lily adopted Sirius’s smile. “All right…” she agreed, glancing at her friends.
“It probably won’t take that long anyway,” hedged James.
“Hagrid’s cutting up the sausage for them right now,” Remus added, thumbing toward the kitchen.
“Almos’ done,” Hagrid called over his shoulder.
“I wouldn’t mind getting a decent meal after being outside all day,” Florence conceded.
“We think its Beef Wellington tonight.”
“I’m not even going to ask how you know that, Sirius,” Florence quipped.
“Well, get a move on already, then, we’ll take care of the rest.”
“Yeah, thanks, Sirius.”
A sincere round of glances passed from one group to the other.
After the girls had thanked Hagrid for his hospitality and expertise, the door clacked shut behind them, leaving the boys to wait while Hagrid filled a paper sack with the sausage bits.
“S’a fine thing yous did today,” Hagrid said, “rescuin’ those chicks.”
“Ah, it was nothing,” dismissed Sirius, waving a hand.
“Maybe for you,” James murmured under his breath. “You just stood around talking to Evans.”
“Jealous, Prongs?” he replied in an undertone, eyes glittering devilishly.
“We’ll come back to check on them in the morning,” promised Remus.
“Yeah, we’ll be seeing you, Hagrid,” said James. “Thanks for all your help. I’m not sure what we would have done without it.”
Hagrid’s chest puffed out under his boilersuit and his eyes glittered like warm coals. “I’m sure you lot’d’ve figured somethin’ out…. Well, best be goin’ if you don’ wanna miss yer dinner.” He swept them along with his hand.
The boys murmured another flurry of thanks, took their leave, and had no sooner rounded the corner than they spotted the three girls stooped in front of the cage.
“What’re you still doing here?” Sirius asked indignantly.
“They were too cute. We couldn’t resist saying goodbye,” Bonnie replied.
Sirius rolled his eyes in mockery.
“We just wanna see one of them eat first,” Florence cooed, spying the paper sack.
“Even if it means you won’t eat?”
“You’d tell us how to get into the kitchens…. wouldn’t you?”
“We can’t just give away secrets like that. We worked hard to figure that out, y’know.”
A closer examination of Sirius’s deadpan expression revealed a twinkle in his eye.
“You’d let us starve??”
“No… We have some butterbeers upstairs we’d let you have.” The ghost of a grin floated across his face.
“And fudge,” Remus added helpfully.
“Just trying to help.” Sirius shrugged innocently.
The boys collectively nursed their grins as James unlatched the cage door and reached in to feed the chicks. He held a morsel of food over their pointy, open bills and let it drop into the nearest one. Then he reloaded for another round, working clockwise to keep track.
Everyone watched raptly as the chicks instinctively gaped their bills skyward.
“They are pretty cute little fuzzballs,” Sirius conceded, looking on with his hands in his pockets.
The girls watched for a moment longer.
“All right, we’re going now…” said Florence finally and together the three of them spun.
“Make sure they don’t take your hand off again, Potter,” Lily called gently over her shoulder.
He barely glimpsed her expression as a curtain of red hair swung round and eclipsed her face, but the twitching of her lips had been unmistakeable.
“Make sure you don’t miss dinner,” he sang back.
She shot a last glance over her shoulder at him. In the moment that followed, James found himself staring at her shoulder blades again, but it wasn’t the dolefully familiar view it had been this morning when she’d turned her back on him at the lake. This time her hair swished playfully across her shoulders in unison with her stride, stoking a warmth in his chest.
He turned his attention back to feeding the chicks before his mates called him out.
“Looks like we might have to rename one of these buggers,” said Sirius, squinting at the size of their legs through the cage. “I think Hagrid’s right, there’s only one male.”
“We’re not renaming Loki,” countered James.
“Nope, definitely not. He looks like a male anyway. Think we might have to rename Merlin, though. Malta works for a female, but Merlin doesn’t.”
“Better ask Lily,” advised Remus with a slight frown. “I think she chose that one.”
James felt a pang of regret, then he wondered if he could find a way to suggest renaming it ‘Circe’. It meant falcon, after all… and it reminded him of her, huddled under Hagrid’s moleskin coat earlier.
“Good thing you didn’t admit to the girls how we really found our way into the kitchens.” Remus grinned.
The boys traded knowing smiles.
James’s hand probed the bottom of the paper bag, his fingers rooting into the corners and finding it empty. “Time to make tracks for the castle. They wolfed everything,” he said, crumpling it up and stuffing it in his pocket. Sirius latched the door shut and tucked the blanket back over the cage before prodding the hay with one last Warming Charm. Tacitly, through six years of practice, they broke into step in unison, casting one last collective glance back at the chicks.
The sky had waned pewter grey and the sound of their toes sweeping over the grass struck a quiet rhythm amongst them. A glance ahead into the Scottish gloaming revealed the girls only a hundred yards in front of them. Overhead, the first stars of the night began to dot the northern sky. As usual, the brightest made the earliest entries, leaving space for the lesser to fill in as the evening unfolded. James inwardly wondered how there could be such evil in a world with so many hopeful beacons holding out through the darkness.
He spotted the Dogstar and then…
“Cassiopeia’s out,” he said aloud.
“So’s Sadge,” said Sirius, referring familiarly to Sagittarius. “Looks like it’d be a nice night to sit up on the tower if we can manage it.”
“I think the fourth years have their exam tonight,” said Remus.
“Common room it is, then.”
They turned their gaze back to the path ahead.
“D’you think they’ll make it in time?” Remus wondered aloud, glancing at the girls.
“D’you think we’ll make it?” James asked in return. His stomach must have shrunken, he’d eaten so little today. And as handy as knowing their way into the kitchens had become, he’d always rather take a seat in the Great Hall.
“I dunno, but I’m not in the mood to run,” Sirius replied lazily, “even though I’m beyond starving.”
The four of them had their eyes pinned to the girls’ backs, avidly watching what appeared to be some lively exchange about who knew what, when suddenly Florence glanced back over her shoulder. So did Bonnie. Then Lily hissed something to both of them.
“Covert,” quipped Sirius, and then… “I think we’re being discussed.” He glanced pointedly at James.
“Not me,” Remus quipped wryly.
Typical Moony. James shook his head in dismay, and he might have chided his friend, but his heart was too busy turning cloverleaf patterns in his chest to find the spare words for it.
Peter piped in at James’s shoulder. “Looks like it might be time for you to buckup and ask her out again, Prongs.”
James scratched his chest to try to make the ridiculously sharp feeling there go away, but, before succeeding, he glanced down to catch Peter’s expression. Under the sandy hair, Peter wore a smile that said he’d been enormously proud of his joke. And his eyes shone with a cartload of admiration.
James flashed a smile back at him before his expression turned thoughtful again. He knew his mates were waiting for him to answer, but he wasn’t in a rush.
And while the thought of asking Lily out again made his stomach lurch more than a ride down into his Gringott’s vault, it wasn’t cowardice that crept over him as he found his answer, but something more… He tucked his hands into his pockets and gave it a handful of steps more thought.
“No…” he finally said, “…I think I’m gonna wait.”
A/N: Thanks to everyone who read and reviewed this story. I sincerely appreciate your comments. And a special thanks to Sherylyn for beta-ing and for the opportunity to post it here!