“Do you think Valentino will help?” James asked, only after six years finally wounded enough to seek outside help in pursing Lily. At James' hopeful grin, Peter nodded enthusiastically, though it was obvious he had no idea.
Remus pondered for a second, then nodded and replied, “She seems to support your efforts.”
Considering this, James looked to his best friend, who seemed disinclined to comment. “What do you thinks, Pads?”
Sirius looked up, eyes still unfocused. He'd only half been listening to the conversation, but he knew enough to nod and admit, “I know she will.”
– A conversation held on the train ride.
That night, the girls of Gryffindor are wide awake. To my surprise, Lily pours over a magazine; from the cover, I can tell it's a fashion expo. Alice sits cross-legged on her bed, a basket in her lap, occasionally holding up different bottles of lotion and demanding someone smell them. “I have to be at my best tomorrow,” she defends herself when Janet Donalds scoffs.
Janet is a Chaser on the Quidditch team and is a true tomboy. I've never seen her wear make-up and her outfits consist of jeans and a t-shirt, both too large for her frame. She readies herself for bed, sending dark looks at Alice when her voice rises too high. Her best friend, Bethany Kellinger (a slightly girlier version of Janet), does the same.
I'm the only one with nothing to do and, it would seem, no one to talk to. “Lily,” I ask, “What are you reading?” I'm hoping to pull her into a discussion about her recent taste changes, but have no luck. She doesn't even look up to reply.
“Reading,” she trills, completely monotone.
“Right,” I murmur, frowning at my blanket. It's blue with yellow duckies all over; I've had it since first year, a gift from Lily at Christmas. It's one of her worst presents and one of my favorites.
I feel like I'm an outsider looking in on my own life. Once upon a time, I was happy with these friendships – people who I called 'best friends,' but really barely hold the title 'friend.' Nothing left to do and not wanting to talk to myself like Alice, I snuggle down into bed. Sleep comes easier than I'd hoped.
The first day of classes is always hectic.
Unbidden, everyone rises up a little earlier than normal. If they're not up early, then they're up dreadfully late. I'm one of the early ones. Both Lily and I set two alarm clocks, a first-day ritual. As usual, we are both woken by the first one. We're morning people, that hasn't changed.
The sun is floods the room with light, warm and golden. In place of birds chirping, like at home, an owl hoots. “Alice, get up,” Lily chirps, sparing the lump that is Alice an amused glance. That's my cue and I fall into the routine easily. I'm glad Lily didn't break our routine. It's comforting.
“Up,” I demand, and pounce onto Alice's bed.
I hear her let out a noise, or perhaps it is a curse, and she lurches up. “I'm up,” she groans, knocking me to the floor in her haste. I try not to grouch at her and narrowly succeed.
From the bathroom, Lily says, “I'm hungry and-” her voice lowers, as if she is talking more to herself, “-my make-up has never looked better. Let's go, Ray.” She gives herself one last glance-over and whips around, robes billowing behind her. Smoothing my own robes, I am suddenly grateful that our dress-code includes long-sleeves. It will stave off the questions, at least until Hogsmeade.
I follow Lily out the door without pause. For as long as I can remember, she has been the ringleader among the Gryffindor girls. Our friendship has never suffered under her reign, so I have never questioned it. At times like these, it even works to my advantage; at least she isn't looking to me to make decisions.
“Think they'll have cupcakes?” I ponder, not expecting an answer. The old Lily would answer, but the new Lily might not because she is always cross with me.
Lily laughs. “No, but there'll be bacon,” she says, wiggling her eyebrows and grinning at me. I return it happily, happy that she is happy, even though my obsession with food isn't really that strong. Over the years, I've played it up. I couldn't tell you why. I'm not even fat.
I'm not surprised when we enter the Great Hall to an array of students, the hum of chatter, and the smell of freshly cooked food. But I am surprised when Lily nonchalantly takes a seat only a stones thrown away from James Potter himself. Even more surprising is the fact that he doesn't notice.
“It's genius,” James decides, slamming his hand on the table. His goblet quivers.
Sirius is near manic, grin too-wide and eyes too-bright. “They'll never know what hit them,” he says gleefully. His eyes dart towards the table behind ours, where a group of Slytherins groggily get their breakfast. From what I see, they are doing nothing wrong – they're hardly even talking.
Peter looks from James to Sirius and mirrors their looks of joy, inciting further excitement by adding, “And the sticking charm...”
“Don't you think-” Remus starts, but is cut off.
“Don't be a stick in the mud,” Sirius warns, shooting him a playful glare. Beside him, James tosses a muffin at Remus, who catches it. His expression of disapproval gives way to a tentative grin.
James lowers his voice, so that I have to strain to hear it, and I only catch a few words. “-after classes – common room – bloody tossers deserve-” Their heads come together, a perfect little square, and the rest of their conversation is kept private. I blink and turn away, fulling intending on telling Lily about what I could tell would be a prank on the Slytherins.
“Lily,” I whisper, conscious of a tingling at back of my head, as if someone is watching. She doesn't look at me, and I follow her gaze straight to the Slytherin table for the briefest of moments. It feels dangerous to look over there, as if the students seated there can see past my facade and right through to my soul. I try again, “Lily!”
Her head whips around, tips of her vibrant hair grazing my cheek. Her eyes are narrow. “What,” she snaps, and I recoil backwards. The sharp look wavers, fades, and she quickly mutters, “Sorry, I'm sorry. What'd you want?” But her tone is still sharper than it should be. We'd never acted like this to each other; it seems our small fight at the end of sixth hadn't blown over like I thought. And the changes I have undergone have not helped.
So I decide not to tell her. “Nothing,” I say, trying to be cheerful in the face of her obvious annoyance.
I can't help feeling victorious when, a few hours later, Lily comes up to me in the corridor outside of Potions. Her face is as red as her hair, and her eyes are sparkling brilliantly; she is prettiest when she is infuriated. “They filled the Slytherin common room with poison ivy,” she seethes.
Laughing, I ask, “Was it really that bad?” Because there's nothing wrong with a good prank, though targeting the Slytherins was no doubt prejudiced. I wonder briefly if Regulus Black got caught in the mess, but banish the thought immediately.
“Yes,” she hisses, her voice the quiet calm before the storm. “At least thirty kids are in the Hospital Wing! Most of them first and second years. It's disgusting.” Jaw unclenching, she adds, even softer, “Severus got the worst of it, of course.”
That shuts me up. The Marauders treatment of Snape is one thing we agree on wholeheartedly. What did he ever do to them? Besides, doesn't James realize how angry it makes Lily? It makes her care even more about him. Even after their fallout in fifth year, if Lily had to name her best friend, I am sure she would say 'Severus.'
Lily and I share a desk at the front of every class we share. In past years, sitting at the front has kept the Marauders away. This year, they have sat beside, behind, or (to Lily's fury) in front of us in every class we've shared. In fact, Lily has manged to break seventeen quills in the first two weeks of class – it seems they're all quite weak, but luckily James has plenty of extra.
“Class dismissed,” the professor snaps, seeming happy to see us off.
Alice and Frank, who stop only long enough to say a quick later, are out the door in seconds. One of my few friends outside of Gryffindor, a Ravenclaw named Derek, waves me to his side, but I decline with a nod of my head; I'd rather chat with Derek, but I want to stick by Lily's side. Hopefully it will help repair our friendship.
Lily and I linger, taking our time to pack our things. “Unbelievable git,” Lily mutters, scowling. I scowl too, trying to be supportive, but I don't actually have to respond. She's not even talking to me. Lately, she's taken to muttering about James to herself. It'd be a relief, if I weren't so desperate for her to confide in me.
We leave last, at least five minutes after the end. “There's no way-” Lily begins, but stops abruptly when we joined by two of the last people she wants to see. James is at her side and Sirius is at mine. Both of them are grinning, and I duck my head, hiding a smile.
This is a tactic James has used on Lily since second year. He and Sirius wait for us after class and close us in from each side; with me there, Lily can't run away – the clever part is Sirius, who serves to distract me so I can't save Lily from having to converse with James. It's the very reason Sirius and I have any acquaintanceship at all.
“Hello Valentino, nice weather we're having,” Sirius says merrily, walking with a bounce in his step and a smirk on his face. From a passing window, I can see drizzling rain.
Snorting, I dryly quip, “It's raining, Black.”
He bobs his head, undaunted. “I think the rain is nice weather.”
Our conversation is like this every time. Stilted. As if we came up with it beforehand, like the whole thing is staged. A few steps ahead – when did we lag behind? – Lily and James gesture wildly with their hands, debating... or arguing and the sight jolts my memory into overdrive.
James is floundering for words, obviously having thought his gift to Lily was incredibly clever. She clutches the bouquet of lilies in one fist, half-crumpled against her chest. Despite her rejection, I know for a fact that the lilies will soon take a place on her bedside stand. “But why-”
Lily's thin lips and pointed chin seem to soften, her glare wavering until she is wearing a look I can only decide is regret. Much quieter, she says, “I'm just not interested in you, haven't you given up yet?” Being her best friend, I am probably the only one who notices that she is truly impressed and flattered by his unending devotion.
Beside me, a voice interjects quietly, “Pity. He really does love her.” Having thought I was alone in my corner, I look over in surprise to see Remus standing beside me. He is unusually pale. “And,” he continues, “I think they'd be really good together.”
“So do I,” I admit, watching as Lily walks over to us. She is perfectly composed, though seeming entirely uncomfortable (or perhaps that is the sight of the slightly-crumpled flowers), and gives me a look.
Greeting Remus in a tight voice, she leans over and whispers to me, “I see that smile, Ray, and no, it wasn't clever of him.” But when she buries her face in a book, her smile suggests that it's not Charms she's thinking about.
“Don't you?” Sirius asks, looking at me expectantly. I blink, wondering if I'd missed something. “Don't you think the rain is nice?” He clarifies, smile growing a little wider at my expense.
I love the rain. Storms are even better. “No,” I mutter, looking abruptly at the ground in front of me. Lying is one of the things I'm good at. In front of Sirius, though, I seem to be good at nothing. I'm clumsier, too.
Next to the entrance doors, Sirius stops at a window that scales two-stories high. The corners of his mouth twitch as he stands, looking out. Lightening flashes, briefly illuminating his jawline; I wish I could take a picture, the Muggle kind, so he can't leave, because I've never seen a more beautiful sight. Staring at him, I'm struck suddenly by the realization that I've stopped moving.
I'm about to leave, embarrassed, when Sirius says, “Let's play in the rain.” It's only after I look around and realize James and Lily have vanished that I understand he is talking to me.
“You're crazy,” I blurt out, and my statement is backed by the deafening crack of thunder that follows.
Sirius swivels around and, for what feels like the first time, looks at me. Not just looks through me, but directly at me. “Come on,” he says, snatching my wrist. “Live a little!” Tugging me alongside, he pushes open one of the doors.
Thunder cracks again, and a trio of friends hurry past the open entranceway, gaping at us. Just outside the doorway, rain pounds the ground. The sky is filled with black, rolling clouds and it's impossibly dark for being five in the afternoon. But Sirius smiles at the scene and, before I can protest again, pulls me into the downpour.
He lets go of my wrist and laughs, long and loud. The sound is lost in another crack of thunder and the sight of him, laughing soundlessly, is hard to look away from. Then he looks at me, grinning like a kid in a candy shop, and begins to splash around in the puddles on the ground. I can just make out his words, “Come on!” shouted over the drizzle and thunder and thwacks of his shoes against the stone.
So I do. I throw my arms wide, remembering at the last second not to let my sleeves slide down my arms, and begin to spin.
The rain runs in rivulets down my cheeks and off my chin. My clothes are long-since soaked and there is so much rain that I'm sure it's seeped into my very pores. Spinning, the world is lost; I am not harboring a secret; My parents aren't dead. There's nothing but the archway, the clock, the sight of Sirius laughing and jumping... again and again... until I'm too dizzy to even see straight.
When we finally stumble back inside, we're laughing like lunatics. My ribs hurt. I can't remember ever laughing so much that it's hurt. I tell him this, and we both laugh even harder.
“That was fun,” I say, breathless and finally able to sober up. It feels like an understatement.
Sirius looks at me, smiling and panting, and is only able to nod. It's hard to imagine that we're not friends, that we hardly ever talk. Together like this, it feels like we're the best of mates. Only we're not, and I remember this with a strange clenching in my heart.
Blinking, confused and suddenly nervous, I quickly mutter, “I've got to go.”
“No you don't,” he retorts suddenly, having obviously caught his breath. I blink at his protest, blind-sided. I have no reply because, really, I don't have anywhere else to be. So I stare up at him and say the first thing that comes to mind.
“Maybe not,” I say, “-but I think I will anyway.”
I don't wait around to see his reaction.
Avoiding everyone is so easy that my accomplishment feels moot. I don't even have to try. It's like they're all avoiding me, too. Even that thought feels sour, because, hell, everyone is two people: Lily and Alice.
To be fair, I know where they both are. Alice is with Frank, in the Room of Requirement. I can only imagine why. Lily, on the other hand, is in the library – she sits at the very back table, past the Restricted Section, spying on Severus Snape. She's been there for the past two hours. Her homework is done; for something extra to do, she brought along my homework, without asking. If I didn't trust her work, I would have protested her invasion of privacy.
I am not avoiding Sirius. In fact, I saw him multiple times since our strange dance in the rain. I'm sure it has ruined our acquaintanceship; I'm sure of this because every time I saw him, Sirius was frowning at me. Staring back did nothing to redirect his gaze, and he never made a move to come up to me. Not once. It's just another small bit of my life that has been shot to hell.
I trudge my way to the common room, sulking. No friends. No homework to keep me distracted. No love life. No hobby. No anything. I'm a useless waste of space, taking up room and breathing someone else's air. “I'm pointless,” I say aloud, just to hear the sound of my own voice.
Two fifth year girls, Hufflepuffs, pass me by, giggling. “She's a negative Nancy,” one of them comments to the other, not bothering to lower her voice.
“Maybe she is pointless,” the other defends dryly.
My spiraling mood screeches to a halt. In place of depression I feel a wave of anger, hot and invasive. “Maybe I'm going to curse you,” I tell them darkly, hand on the hilt of my wand. The two girls give shrieks and hurry off, making The Fat Lady call down the hall after them.
“Something the matter dears?” The Fat Lady calls, unsuccessfully covering a snort of laughter. “Did you want to go in?” she looks to me with a maternal smile; I am one of the few students who never get exasperated by the paintings antics. Even paintings can favor people, and her favoritism of me never fails to defuse my anger.
I nod and tell her the password, “Sapaterictious.” It's hard to pronounce, and I discovered yesterday that almost any variation of the word will do. The one I used isn't even the password – a matter I keep to myself, just in case it comes in handy.
Inside, the fireplace is lit. It's the only light on in the room, and the entryway is darkened as a result. The flickering flames scatter dancing shadows and one of them is in the shape of a crocodile opening and closing its mouth. Only it's not the flames shadow, it's a hand making a shadow puppet.
Most of the students are still outside, in the library, or just wandering the halls. Aside from a small group of two boys and one girl talking softly at the rooms only table, Peter Pettigrew is the only one in the common room. There's a tiny smile on his face and I suddenly got the feeling that he hasn't smiled in quite some time.
“Peter,” I say softly, thinking to greet him. For some reason, his first name sounds right. Like we are somehow connected and using his first name is proof of that.
He jumps, puppetry abandoned. “Valen- I mean, Rachel, hey,” and I find his stuttering terribly sad. No one talks to him, except for his three friends, and sometimes I swear even they exclude him. I doubt he's ever had a proper girlfriend.
It's out of pity that I sink down into the armchair next to his, sighing. “How're you, Peter?” I ask and immediately want to cringe at his look of surprise. I feel like a git for having not made an effort to talk to him before – he's perfectly nice.
When the surprise passes, a scowl settles onto his face. But he says to me, quiet as a mouse, “I'm fine. What about you? You look sad.”
“I'm fine,” I say with a smile that doesn't meet my eyes. The only thing I know for sure, in that moment, is that neither of us are fine.
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