A.N. – A gigantic, too-big-to-articulate thanks to almonster for helping me get this chapter finished. Without your advice, who knows how much longer it would have taken for this to get posted!
Chapter Three The Right Thing
It was too good to be true: Lily could only stand staring at James, frozen in confusion, excitement, and shock. It took a few moments—in which she was unable to speak, move, or even breathe—until the simple fact that he was here clicked in her mind. She practically leapt across the threshold and embraced him with abandon, but no matter how tightly she gripped him, it could not communicate how happy and relieved she was.
“I missed you,” she said, her voice slightly muffled from being pushed up against his shoulder.
“I can tell,” he replied, sounding amused. She stepped back to look at him again, to take in his presence fully, and only then did she remember that her mother was still standing in the doorway.
“Oh—Mum, this is James,” she explained. “He’s—” she paused, unsure of how to define James, since the two of them had not spoken in weeks, “—you know, I’ve told you about him before.”
“I see,” her mother said, but she looked unconvinced and anxious. “Are you...quite sure, dear?”
The fearful glance that her mother gave her made it plain that she was recalling what Dumbledore had explained to her and her husband about Polyjuice Potion: how people could look exactly like someone else with the help of magic. Lily’s first instinct was to tell her mother not to worry, that she was being ridiculous, but worry had already taken root in her chest. She was once again frozen, a sensation of dread filling her like poison, and she did not know what to think.
Surely, though, if this were not really James, she would not still be standing there unharmed. She searched for him in his eyes, and he finally seemed to understand.
“On our first date, I took you to a Golden Snidget reserve,” he said, “and that was on the second of April of this year.”
Lily exhaled with relief. Only James, and perhaps a few other people, all of whom were their friends, would know that.
“This is James,” she repeated, looking at her mother assuredly.
But it was like the lead weight she had been hauling around for the past two weeks had returned, this time even heavier than before. All her excitement at seeing James had been forgotten; her mother’s harsh reminder of everything they had been through had brought her back to reality. It was a painful return trip.
From there, things did not improve. Lily invited James in, and he politely told her mother that he was very pleased to meet her. The response he received in return was decidedly cool—surprisingly so, if you considered how curious her mother had once been about James, though not so surprising if you had been living in the Evans household for the past two weeks. James, of course, did not have that advantage in his favour, and so looked very anxious about the bad reception he was getting.
Lily didn’t know how to explain it to him, and she wasn’t even sure if there would be a point in doing so. How could she tell him that her parents seemed to think that it was James’ influence, and not the plans of an evil wizard, that had gotten Lily kidnapped and threatened with death? His parents were not Muggles; he could not understand what it was like to have parents who didn’t have any concept of what a Death Eater or blood status were.
All she did was smile to cover the awkward moment, which passed quickly, since her mother retreated into the kitchen, leaving them along in the foyer. For lack of a better place to go, she led James into the sitting room and onto the floral-embroidered sofa that stood against the wall. There was a kind of nervous undercurrent to the air around them, and Lily was saved the difficulty of figuring out what to say when James spoke first.
“How have you been?” he asked. “Are you all right?”
Unbidden, a rather nasty voice in her head wondered why he was suddenly so concerned after spending weeks forgetting about her entirely.
“Mostly, yes,” she replied. If the situation were different, she knew that she could have looked forward to leaning on him at a later point: perhaps telling him all the fear and misery she had felt, and he would make funny but tender reassurance to her. The thought of that moment, which she knew would never come to be, pained her terribly.
“Lily, I—I’m so sorry,” he said, the words tumbling out like he had lost control of them. “I wish I knew how to explain myself, but...I’m just really, really sorry.”
She wasn’t sure what to make of this pronouncement. She didn’t doubt his sincerity, and her first instinct was to forgive him—after all, she had things to be sorry for, too. But then there was that nasty voice sprouting up again, like a fungus, wanting James to be more accountable, more than just “really, really sorry”.
“It’s fine,” Lily told him. There wasn’t much of a point in making him apologize any further unless she simply wanted to be vindictive; one little voice in her head wasn’t going to force her to go against her better nature.
When she had been in the park earlier, all her thoughts had led her back to one conclusion. She felt horrible about not standing up for James, for allowing him to sign away his freedom because she was too afraid. At the time, she had believed that there would be a way to save him, if only she could escape unharmed. As long as she could stay alive, James would not really end up having to join the Death Eaters. Now, of course, she realized that any chance of saving him would have been slim at best. He would have been condemned to a life of killing and torturing other people—and that was if he himself had lived. Fear had led her to swap James’ life for her own, to put it in its simplest terms, and the guilt of that was crushing her.
But done was done, and Lily had realized that she could only try to do better in the future. After all she and James had been through, Lily could see very clearly what she needed to do. It was so clear, in fact, that she couldn’t believe she hadn’t seen it before—it was like some kind of painful connect-the-dots game that ended in a very ugly picture.
Dumbledore had told them to stay at home until he contacted them, which meant they were still in danger. Lily assumed the danger was not because Voldemort still hoped to recruit them, but because he was looking to tie up the loose ends of his failed attempt. She also assumed that when the Death Eaters discovered that she was not a pureblood, as James had lied and told them that night, their desire to kill her would increase significantly. And by extension, their desire to kill James would also increase, significantly. Once again, she was putting James in danger, this time just by being connected to him at all.
And so she was left with only one conclusion: a way to fix things, though she hated it with all of her heart.
The silence between her and James had now drawn out to the point of being uncomfortable.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” she muttered, not making eye contact.
“I’m fine,” James said, as if it wasn’t already apparent. His hand found hers, and Lily felt guilty, like she was giving him false hope. She felt even worse when she realized she was building up the very same illusion for herself.
“That’s good,” she said, smiling weakly. She couldn’t remember when conversation had ever been this stilted between her and James; even when they had been at odds, their conversations had always been dynamic. She hoped it would make what she had to do easier on the both of them.
“Do you want to take a walk?” James asked her.
She hesitated for a moment. If she was honest, she didn’t really want to go outside, especially now that the sun was on its way out of the sky, but she reminded herself that she needed to be brave. Hadn’t she already gone outside without incident today? And hadn’t James made it here all right, too?
“Sure,” she said, exhaling heavily. Even if she was uncomfortable being so exposed, she didn’t want to have the conversation they needed to have in a place where all of her family could hear.
It had been another day where the summer warmth was unable to burn away the gray clouds in the sky, and, without the sun visible, it was darker than it usually would be at such an early hour. As she walked beside James down her street (the opposite direction from the park, she noticed), neither of them spoke. Lily wondered if he had some great thing to tell her that he was contemplating, like she was doing at that very moment.
They reached an area where the river drew very close to the road, flowing along below a steep but small embankment. James stood at the top of the bank with his hands shoved in his pockets, doing a very bad job at feigning that he was admiring the foliage around him. She could tell he was very troubled about something, and, since this was James, it took all of about thirty seconds for him to blurt it out.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, sounding close to panicked. “Are you angry with me? You have every reason to be, and you can yell at me, or—” He looked around wildly, as if the perfect course of action would pop out of thin air. “Here, you can hex me, and I won’t even defend myself. You can do your worst.”
He stretched his arms out in a gesture of surrender, and Lily almost laughed.
“I’m not going to hex you,” she said, though she did momentarily wonder if there was some easy break-up hex that she had never heard of, before dismissing the idea as silly. That was the sort of thing Muggles thought of when they learned of magic, because they assumed it made everything in life easier. Magic could making sweeping the floor or cutting the grass a bit easier, it was true, but when it came down to the really difficult things in life—the things that broke your heart in half—wands and spells were no help at all.
“Lily, I know you’re mad,” James said, raking both hands through his hair. “Please, just—please.”
She felt like she was quickly approaching the point where her heart couldn’t hold any more sadness, and it made her want to scream. Instead, she sat down at the edge of the embankment. James joined her after a moment’s hesitation. And suddenly, for no reason at all, she realized what an awful point her life had come to: she was about to willingly shut out the person she knew best, and whose company she enjoyed most.
“You can talk to me,” he said, taking her hand again.
With the greatest sensation of inner turmoil she had ever experienced, and several deep breaths, Lily found that she could indeed.
“These past few weeks have given me a lot of time to think,” she began.
It was strange how such a regularly innocuous statement could become so ominous, given the right context.
“Mostly about me, I hope,” he said. He was always trying to make her smile, even in the worst circumstances.
“Well...yes,” she said, without trying to match his cheerful tone. The grin vanished from his face; her stomach was squirming and her palms were covered in perspiration.
“What are you getting at?” James asked.
She opened and closed her mouth several times without finding the right words, before she realized that there really weren’t any right words in this situation.
“I was just thinking a lot about what the right thing was,” she told him. “For us, I mean.”
James did not respond; he was, in fact, looking rather stone-faced.
“And...well, I just thought that, considering all the danger we’re in, and everything we went through...it might be better if we weren’t...dating each other.”
The statement hung in the air heavily, and there was nothing but the sound of the water trickling through its path for what must have been nearly five minutes. James would not look at her, and the tension eventually led her to bury her face in her hands.
When he finally spoke, he simply swore under his breath. His voice sounded unusually hoarse and ragged.
It took a couple more minutes before he said anything more.
“Lily...I know I buggered this up—royally buggered it up, in fact—” he faltered, sighed, and didn’t continue.
Lily breathed deeply. “It’s nothing that you’ve done—”
“Really?” he interrupted her. “Because, you know, it sure feels like you’re punishing me.”
She finally looked up, feeling indignant. Had he not listened to her at all?
“Punishing you? I’m trying to do the right thing, and I know that it’s not what either of us wants—”
“Well, it’s not what I want,” he said. The accusation in his voice was difficult to miss. Lily could not remember ever feeling so totally helpless and defeated as she did now.
“I’m trying to do the right thing,” Lily repeated, her voice near a whisper. She had felt this conviction so deeply earlier in the day, and she wanted that feeling back.
Too many thoughts swirled in her head as she sat there in silence once again. Why did James suddenly care so much about the state of their relationship? Why hadn’t it bothered him just as much to be separated from her for so long? Why had he not come to see her earlier? Couldn’t he have at least written to her?
It felt surprisingly good to let the anger take over her for a few moments, and she realized that it had been there all along, lying dormant until James himself had brought it out into the open. Her more reasonable side pointed out that she shared the blame, that she had not tried to see him either—but she was upset, and some small part of her knew she had a right to be. And, rather than her determination to do the right thing, it was this self-righteousness which strengthened her resolve.
“You know, it’s not all up to you,” she said coolly.
“Oh, so someone gave you the right to decide this on your own?” he shot back. Little red bursts of flushed anger punctuated his face. “If—I mean, if this were even for a legitimate reason, if you hated me, or even just didn’t like me anymore...”
He trailed off, looking at her questioningly.
“I don’t hate you,” she muttered. She heard him sigh.
“Lily, if you don’t want to be my girlfriend anymore, I’d rather you just tell me that than try to make it about something else,” he said, sounding like every word was torturing him.
She found that she had to think about her reply to that statement more than she would have expected.
The moment when James waited for Lily to announce the fate of their relationship had to be one of the worst in his entire life. Whatever he had been expecting would happen when he came to visit Lily, her breaking up with him had certainly not been it. He had supposed that she might be mad at him, that she might be very sad, even that she might be hurt or in danger—but he had been enough of an idiot to believe that her feelings for him would have remained steady.
He wished she had just hexed him instead.
After what seemed like an eternity, she shook her head, which James wasn’t sure how to interpret. No, she didn’t want to be his girlfriend? No, she didn’t want to break up? Or was it just a meaningless motion that had no relevance to what he had said?
“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I don’t know how I feel about anything anymore.”
For a moment, James thought he could almost see her unhappiness tumbling out onto the grass around them, it was so palpable. She looked horrible—she was beautiful as ever, but profoundly sad. She did not look like the same Lily that James had always known.
And still, he loved her.
He couldn’t begin to contemplate what was going through her mind, or what had been going through it the past few weeks. But she was clearly conflicted, and this provided James with a small glimmer of hope, for it meant that it was at least possible for him to come out of this without losing her. He wanted—needed—to say the exact right thing, but he had been able to do that with Lily only on rare occasions.
His search for the right words stopped abruptly, however, when he noticed that she was hunched over again, shuddering slightly: she was crying. He sighed and moved closer to her, wrapping his arm around her shoulder. His own throat felt thick as they sat there. Being with Lily, who was the one person who could really understand what he had gone through, was bringing up so many inexplicable feelings that he had not even realized were there, lying dormant. Terrible things were rustling around in his head—flashes of suppressed memories, bursts of feelings that made him feel heavy and very much unlike his usual self.
He thought he had been all right when he had been at home, with his friends to keep him company—now he could not help but question that.
“I love you,” he said, finally, more to comfort himself than Lily.
“You shouldn’t,” she said, sniffling loudly. This just baffled him even more; not for the first time, he wished girls were easier to understand.
“Well, I do,” he replied.
Silence fell yet again. James retreated deeper and deeper into his thoughts, further into the darkness that he had only just realized was there. He knew now why Lily was so filled with despair: she had spent weeks with only thoughts like these to keep her company.
“You have to try and let go,” he said, as firmly as he could. “I know it’s not easy, but nothing’s going to make it better if you can’t let go of all the bad things you’re feeling.”
He tried to take his own advice—nothing could change what had happened, and so wallowing in the mess it had created was pointless. He wasn’t going to keep reliving that experience, wasn’t going to let it drag him down and keep him from being himself, and he wasn’t going to let that happen to Lily, either.
Finally, she looked up at him. Her eyes were red-rimmed, but no tears were in sight, and when she spoke, her voice was steady.
“I think...the only way I can let go is if I feel like I’m doing the right thing,” she said.
James turned this over in his brain several times, before something hit him.
“So, you’re not punishing me...you’re punishing yourself.”
She looked at him with wide eyes. “No. That’s not—no.”
“That’s really what it seems like,” James replied.
“It’s not!” Lily said, and the edge of frustration to her voice was back. “Why is it so hard for you to believe that I want to do the right thing? That I’m not a complete coward?”
“I don’t think that about you. Or, I didn’t, at least.”
“You see? This is exactly what I mean; you’re never going to be able to see me as anything but a coward now—”
“No,” James said, his tone slightly harsh. He understood that Lily was going through a rough time, but she was being ridiculous. “I didn’t see you as a coward until you sat out here and told me that you thought it would be better if we broke up!”
“It would be selfish of me not to!”
“No, what’s selfish is you trying to make yourself feel better about what you did by pretending like running away is the right thing to do,” James said, now truly angry. Lily’s face was white with a mixture of shock and rage.
“This is even worse than I thought,” she said, standing up.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that, even if I did want to work things out, I’m not even sure if we could! You’re always going to hate me—always going to think I’m looking out for myself more than you, always going to be doubting my motives and my feelings, and it’s not fair!” she said, her eyes shining once again. “I can never win! I’m sorry that I didn’t fancy you first, and that I didn’t stop being friends with Snape, and that I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t! I didn’t, and somehow it seems like you are always better than me. I can never do the right thing, and the first time that I really try to, it’s still not good enough for you!”
Even in his anger, it took James a few seconds to recover from that pronouncement—not only because it was true that he felt that way sometimes, horrible of him though it was, but also because he had never imagined that he had ever made Lily feel so inadequate. Didn’t he know how much he loved her? And how had they gotten into an argument again?
He tried to take a deep breath before speaking again.
“All I’m trying to say is that it seems to me that the brave thing to do in this case would be to carry on just as we were before, and not let anyone else scare us into giving up things that make us happy,” he stated.
She still looked angry, but she didn’t contradict him. James exhaled heavily, getting to his feet and facing her.
“Lily,” he said, fixing her with the firmest stare he could manage, “I love you.” Something closed off in her eyes, like she didn’t believe him. “I can’t fix this, and I can’t make it so it never happened. I really wish I could, but I know that I love you, and that has to mean something in all of this.”
She stared off into the trees across the river as if in a trance. As he watched her, he saw something shift in her gaze and her posture. Her shoulders dropped and her arms uncrossed just slightly, like something was unwinding her.
He braced himself, hoping that she had seen his point, or even that she was simply sick of arguing. In fact, he didn’t care what her reasoning was, so long as he didn’t have to walk away without her. He didn’t even know if it was physically possible for him to do that at this point, after everything that had happened.
“I’m sorry,” she finally whispered, and that was all. James didn’t know what she was sorry about, but he wasn’t going to press her: he had a feeling that this was the best she could do, for the moment. There would be time later, he hoped, to work out the rest.