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Chapter 31: A Question
It seemed that the sort of miniature pep talk that Beth had given James in the tree had worked, or at least, was on its way to working. Only a week later, as April was drawing to a close and bringing the beginning of true springtime, the box was in the pocket of his robes and now being carried about everywhere he went.
“It’s mentally strengthening me,” he said one day at lunch, looking surreptitiously sideways to where Lily and Mary were talking animatedly about something. “If I get used to it being there, maybe it won’t be so terrifying when I actually get around to proposing to her.”
“That’s about the stupidest logic I’ve ever heard,” said Sirius matter-of-factly, buttering a roll and not looking at James. “At that rate, you’ll never do it, and we’ll all have wasted perfectly good emotions this year dealing with you.”
James rolled his eyes. “Pity,” he muttered, again looking down the table; it seemed that he couldn’t help himself. Beth, who was sitting across from him, became aware of the fact that he was jiggling his leg nervously.
“You’d better cut that out,” she said, nudging him in the shin with your foot. “That’s going to get annoying fast. Look, James –“ She leaned forward, as though about to convey a secret, and James mirrored the movement desperately. “It’s not going to take a lot of effort on your part. Ask her out for a walk, like you’ve done a million times before. Pop the question. She cries a bit, you hug, and then you’re engaged.” The words felt odd on her tongue again, as they had when he’d first brought up the fact that he wanted to get married, but she wasn’t about to show that to him at a time like this.
“Your lack of sympathy astounds me,” James said sarcastically, chewing on his lower lip. Beth sighed and buried her head in her hands, rubbing her nose viciously. James, like veritably every other boy she had ever come in contact with, really could be a prat about things like this.
“You can disregard my advice,” she said warningly, “but seeing as I’m currently the only female present here, I might think twice before doing so.”
“Beth’s plan isn’t a difficult one,” Peter pointed out, “and it sounds like all the other proposal plans I’ve ever heard. You could just try it.”
“When have you been listening in on ways to get a girl to agree to marry you?” Remus asked incredulously, but he was promptly ignored. Sirius clapped a hand on James’s back, shaking him a bit.
“Look,” he said, waving his hand in the others’ direction, as though they didn’t matter. “You can listen to advice, but mate, just do it. You’re going to feel loads better when you do.” James blinked a few times, and then nodded, although it was a slow and delayed response.
“So… so tomorrow night, then?” he said hoarsely, looking at all of them. Beth nodded firmly, just to give him a visible and positive reaction, and he nodded back, reaching into the pocket of his robes and feeling around as though checking to make sure the box was still there.
Movement from the doors leading out into the entrance hall caught her eye at that moment, and, turning around, she saw Severus moving through them, and – it was a coincidence, surely – he was looking in her direction. Their eyes met, and his mouth twisted into a smile, visible even from this distance. Her heart jumped into the base of her throat, beating ferociously there and feeling as though it would break through the thin skin.
“Excuse me,” she said quickly, and, not stopping to acknowledge the odd look the other four gave her, Beth stood up quickly from the table and walked towards the double doors. Severus had disappeared through them at this point, but she was confident she would find him not far on the other side. Sure enough, he was standing on the third step of the marble staircase, drumming his fingers on the banister. She grinned, unable to help it, and wondering exactly when she had reached this point – that she would leave a meal to meet him in the entrance hall.
“What?” he smirked as she stopped in front of him. She laughed aloud.
“You brought me out here!”
“I did not. You just followed,” he said, grinning, and she felt a sort of tingling in her cheeks that had nothing to do with the sunlight pouring in from the high windows lining the entrance hall. She rolled her eyes good-naturedly and leaned against the banister, so that he was now distinctively higher than she was.
“And what’s put you in such a good mood?” Beth asked pointedly, seeing that the grin was still firmly fixed on his face. Severus shrugged, now drawing intricate and invisible patterns with his finger on the post on the end of the banister. She watched him unseeingly, the ghost of her smile still apparent on her face. The silence between them was thick, but amicable.
“You looked like you were talking seriously,” he said at last, eyes darting up to hers and then quickly back down. “Is…” He swallowed. “Is Remus okay, and everything?”
Beth stared at him in shock. She knew for a fact that Severus hated her friends, and even “hate” wasn’t a strong enough word. Why would he be asking about them now? “He’s fine,” she said, shaking her head slightly as though clearing water from her ears. “It’s James, actually, he’s dead nervous about proposing to Lily tomorrow.”
As soon as the words had escaped her lips, she clapped a hand over her mouth, her eyes going wide, but of course Severus had already heard them. He lifted his head, one eyebrow raised inquisitively. “He’s what?” he said.
“I don’t think I was supposed to tell you,” she whispered, mortified, but something in his expression made her smile nonetheless. “He’s – he wants to marry her. He’s got the ring and everything, he’s proposing tomorrow.” She watched his face closely, searching for signs of reaction – disgust, happiness, anything – but found only cool indifference.
“That’s certainly not something you hear every day, anyway,” he said at last, and Beth nodded, if only for something to do while she continued to scrutinize his features. He looked up and seemed surprised to see her watching him so intently, and she looked down quickly, that crawling, blushing feeling regenerating in her cheeks.
At that moment the bell rang, signaling the end of lunch and the start of afternoon classes, and people began to pour with more frequency out of the Great Hall, chattering incessantly. Severus pressed himself closer to the railing to move out of the way of a giggling bunch of fourth-year Hufflepuffs, although they didn’t spare him a passing glance as they moved up.
“Hey, nice talking to you again,” Beth said, touching Severus on the elbow lest he couldn’t hear her. “It’s Herbology next for me, I’d better get going. I’ll see you around, okay?” He nodded, the same smile – almost cynical, but not quite – crossing his face.
“I’ll see you around, Beth,” he repeated, and, nodding once, she turned and headed for the grounds.
Severus watched Beth go, feeling his forehead crease in puzzlement, and looked after her until she had slipped through the crack in the doors and had disappeared. This, he thought wryly, was certainly a new development.
So James was proposing to Lily. From past experience, he knew that he should be angry about this - at the beginning of this year, as recently as that, he had been livid upon learning that she’d finally agreed to date James Potter in the first place. So why wasn’t he feeling similarly now?
But, of course, his eyes darting unconsciously back across the hall, he knew why – or he had a strong guess, although he wasn’t exactly one to search his emotions. Besides, saying it – even to himself – was hasty, and he’d made that mistake before, Merlin knew. But perhaps this was the final test, the proving moment in which he knew – and, yes, he was sure of at least one thing.
Whatever else had happened, he was no longer in love with Lily. He had to talk to Beth about whatever she was planning after term ended, and the sooner the better.
“Stop chattering your teeth.” Beth tried in vain to get James’s hair to lie flat on his scalp, but as normal, it had a life of its own, springing right back up again as soon as she removed her hand.
“I can’t help it. I’m nervous,” James spat back, checking his reflection anxiously in the spotted mirror Sirius was holding up before his face. “Of all the times for my stupid hair to not lie flat, it had to be today…”
“Because it behaves so well the rest of the time,” Remus laughed, not even bothering to glance up from the book he was reading on his bed across the room. James shot him a look and continued to pat the top of his head anxiously.
“She’s going to say no and laugh in my face and tell the whole school and I’ll never be able to get a date again and I’ll have to leave the country and probably change my name…” he muttered in a rapid stream, and Beth didn’t even think he really knew what he was saying anymore. Sirius scoffed.
“You are being stupid,” he said, point-blank, and snatched the comb from Beth’s hand. “Stop messing with his hair, it’s making him twitchy.” He looked in the mirror alongside James, who was still pressing his hair to his head, almost as though he were trying to rip it out.
“James, you’re going to be late,” said Peter, who was apparently the only one of them who had thought to check his watch in the past five minutes. James jumped as though he had just received an electric shock, and Remus snorted.
“I need to meet Lily,” he said desperately, searching Beth’s face as though waiting for her to confirm this, and she nodded in the gentlest way she knew how. With a little shooing motion, she got him to stand up, and for what seemed like the hundredth time that evening he check his pocket to make sure the box with the ring was in there.
“Okay. Here I go,” he said, Sirius clapped him bracingly on the back.
“Best of luck, mate,” he said sincerely, and Beth felt absurdly proud of him for being so encouraging. “When you come back you will officially be attached to a ball and chain,” he continued, and the pride was silently retracted.
“Nah,” said James, smiling softly and shaking his head. “I want to do this.” And through his nerves, Beth could understand the sincerity that lay there. She knew that he was serious about this.
“Just remember what I told you,” she said, smiling and nodding and trying desperately to soothe his frayed and shabby nerves. James swallowed hard and nodded back, his hand going yet again into his pocket, fiddling with the ring box.
“Right,” he said, and took a deep breath to steady himself. “Well, so long, boys. And Beth,” he added, forgetting as always. “And if I don’t come back, well, use your imaginations.”
“Good or bad?” Peter said, snorting with laughter. James only grinned and wiggled his eyebrows before giving the four of them a mock salute and heading out the dormitory door.
Lily was already waiting in the entrance hall when James got there, his heart doing mad sorts of gymnastics routines with the rest of his insides at this point. She was sitting on the base of the staircase, and as his footsteps resounded throughout the dimly-lit hall, she looked up, a smile crossing her face.
“I’m almost never early for these walks, you know,” she said teasingly, standing up and brushing dust off her skirt. “What’s different tonight? Setting up a prank for first years?”
James shook his head, grinning, and unconsciously reached to take her small white hand in his. “Not tonight,” he joked back, “although that’s not a bad idea, that. D’you want to walk to the Quidditch Pitch tonight? We haven’t gone on that path in a while.”
“I don’t care,” she said, still smiling, and it took all of James’s resolve not to plop down on one knee right there. But he’d planned this out in his head too minutely to stray from his plans now, and so only swallowed deeply and hoped she didn’t see.
The late April night was thankfully mild, and it didn’t appear that it would be visited by the rains that had been so continuous the last few days this week. James squinted up at the sky, evaluating the few clouds left and silently demanding cooperation of them. Rain was not in his carefully-laid plans.
“Anything interesting up there?” Lily laughed, craning her head to try and look at whatever James could apparently see. “You’re acting a bit odd tonight. It can’t be exams stress, so what’s up?”
James found himself cursing the policy of honesty that the two of them had implemented into their relationship earlier in the year. He coughed and muttered something he knew Lily wouldn’t be able to make out – something about sprouts and earmuffs, he thought, just picking whatever words entered his brain – and quickly tried to drown it out with his footsteps on the sodden dirt path down to the Quidditch Pitch.
Lily frowned slightly, but said nothing, continuing to walk complacently beside him with her hand in hers. James eyeballed the sky again, now making mental threats in his mind. If you rain, I am going to do something drastic… You’d better not rain…
Dear Merlin. He was losing his mind.
“So, how are Mary and Marlene?” he said, instantly wanting to smack himself but not able to think of any other veins of conversation. He never asked after her friends, and Lily obviously knew this, judging from the strange look she then gave him, but apparently decided this was just another facet of the strange mood she thought he was in.
“They’re… good,” she said, and then giggled. “Actually – did Beth tell you this? – Mary did the funniest thing last night right before we were going to bed…” And that is where James lost the thread of the conversation, relieved that Lily was able to talk long enough to give his mental faculties a bit of time to calm down. He knew he would feel bad later for not paying more attention, but there were more pressing matters on his mind at the moment – namely, that he was preparing to propose to her.
The Quidditch Pitch inched into view over the tops of the trees, and James felt his pulse quicken considerably as Lily continued to chatter away to his left. They came to a halt outside the entrance leading onto the field, and Lily’s words died away as she looked up at it.
“Do you think we’re allowed to go in?” she said, tilting her head to the side, her smile changing into something slightly more mischievous. James grinned back; he had fully intended for them to do so, although whether it was against the rules or not didn’t really matter to him.
“Absolutely,” he said firmly, and then, so as to try and appear a bit more like himself, said, “I’ll race you to the top!” Before she could react, he sprinted forward, heading for the wooden stairs leading to the top row of stadium seats and grateful for the distraction of running. It took his mind off what he had to do, if only briefly, and it would look normal to Lily, too – a bonus.
He heard her shoes clattering behind him on the stairs, and slowed his pace just slightly so he wouldn’t get too far ahead of her. But he had drastically underestimated the distance he had put between them, for almost as soon as he did so, two arms wrapped around his knees, and he fell onto the steps with a crash and a rather painful sensation immediately radiated through his knees.
“Hey! Ouch, that hurt!” he laughed, twisting around and wincing to see Lily lying on her stomach, laughing.
“That hurt me too, but you had a head start!” she giggled, flipping over onto her back and staring up at the sky (which, James ascertained with a quick glance, still did not look like rain, thank goodness). It didn’t look especially comfortable, lying like that on the stairs, but James slid down next to her anyway, still grimacing – his legs really did hurt from that unexpected fall.
Lily reached for his hand again, and they just lay there, on the stairs, looking up and saying nothing. They didn’t have to; for now, it was enough. And James knew that although it was not in his plan, this was the moment. The box in his pocket seemed to weigh a ton as he became aware of it and, finding the ability to breathe had mysteriously disappeared, he sat up slowly. Small beads of sweat dotted his brow, and he wiped them away hastily.
“Lily?” Why did his voice have to crack at that moment?
Lily looked up at him, still not moving, although that same smile crossed her face again. “James?”
He cleared his throat, willing it not to crack again, and took the deepest breath he thought he could manage without making it overly conspicuous that he was doing so. “I… Well.” He cleared his throat again, and slipped a hand unnoticeably into the pocket of his robes, clutching the box like a lifeline. “You mean a lot to me, Lily. I’m so glad you finally agreed to go out with me.” A grin reminiscent of his normal self slipped across his face.
Lily laughed aloud, sitting up on her elbows. “I’m glad too. Really,” she said, when James raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think I’d have wanted to miss all this.”
“I’m so glad – well, I mean,” he stammered, realizing how much that word had been used in the past ten seconds, “I’m just really happy – would you do something for me?”
Lily frowned, sitting up an inch or so higher. “Are you okay?”
“Yep,” he said quickly, and in one horrible moment James suddenly realized that, due to the way they were sitting on the steps, his face was level with Lily’s. This would not do if he meant to get down on one knee, as planned. Trying to act as though it were normal, he looked behind him and dropped down a step, then another.
Lily was now looking at him as though pumpkins had begun to sprout from his ears. “Are you ill?” she asked again, but James had just gotten up the nerve to do it, and he wasn’t about to back down. Clearing his throat for a third – and, he prayed fervently, last – time, he slowly withdrew the ring box from his pocket. Lily looked at it for a few moments, and then her hands flew to her mouth.
“James?” she said, although the word was considerably muffled. He grinned, his heart doing a terrific set of somersaults inside his rib cage, and opened the lid of the box to reveal the ring inside.
“Lily Evans, will you marry me?” And his voice didn’t even crack.
Tears had formed rapidly in Lily’s bright green eyes, and she blinked them away hurriedly, her hands still pressed firmly over her mouth. She lifted them away shakily and looked at the ring, then at James, and back at the ring. The wind blew through the stadium and James felt the collar of his robes grow uncomfortably tight. He wondered idly if they might be Peter’s.
“Yes,” Lily said at last, but it was in a voice so breathy and faint that he thought for a moment it might have been the wind.
“Yes, James, I’ll marry you!” she laughed, swiping at the tears in her eyes and holding out her left hand for James to slip the ring on. Dumbfounded and not quite believing that what was happening was real, he did so. It was a perfect fit.
Lily was still crying, and – although he was loath to admit it – it was making him tear up a bit, too. He sniffled loudly, and she laughed again, her eyes still torn between looking at him and admiring the ring on her finger.
“I love you, Lily,” he said thickly.
“I love you, James.”
And as he moved to hug her to him – and it was highly debatable if he’d ever let go – James thought that, despite the intense amount of nerves that had preceded this moment, he would do it all again in a heartbeat if it meant another chance to make her this happy.
A/N: FLUFF. It exists! *hugs* And what's more, it exists in two places! I love it -- which may come as news, considering it's been pretty nonexistent in this story up until this point, but it's true. That little floaty feeling that comes from reading the romantic is irreplacable and must be made to be felt as often as possible.
I am just happy right now. You can feel free to ignore the rambling. So, what'd you think? I'd love to hear from you, even if it's only a few words!