Chapter 8 : Peeled Grapes & Monogrammed Towels
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Peeled Grapes & Monogrammed Towels
When Lily shook James awake the next morning, it was from the best sleep he had had in weeks. He felt miles better than he had the previous night, and it wasn’t for any reason that Sirius and Peter would make some kind of suggestive remark about—it was only that, with Lily next to him, he had felt more at peace than he usually did.
“James, I have to leave for work soon,” she said softly. He answered by positioning the pillow so that he was more comfortable.
“That’s nice,” he mumbled. “I’ll stay here. See you later.”
“On second thought,” he said, wrapping his arms around her waist, “you’re going to have to call in sick today.”
“I’m sorry, but I can see that you’re not well at all—”
Her attempts to chide him, however, were half-hearted, and she giggled as he tried to pull her further onto the bed. She relented after a few moments and lay down, facing him.
“Did you sleep well?” she asked. He nodded and mumbled a “yes”. He didn’t want to say it and sound pathetic, but it he hadn’t needed to spend one moment wondering if she was all right, and the absence of those kinds of thoughts had allowed him to sleep soundly. For the first time in a long time, he had felt relaxed and carefree.
Still a bit bleary-eyed, he looked across the pillow at Lily. Her red mane of hair seemed especially bright today, almost like she had stepped out of an illustration. The smile on her face as she looked back at him was slightly sheepish. They slept every night in their respective beds (or, for James, sometimes on the couch in Sirius' flat), but something about being next to each other had changed that invisible tether that stretched between them—the intangible connection that was their relationship. They had grown closer in silent slumber, which was somewhat unbelievable, considering the difficult few months they'd experienced. In these kinds of moments, it was easy to forget the past.
After a few minutes, his eyelids closed again, and he felt Lily's hand on his forearm.
"I really do have to go now," she whispered. He opened his eyes and made a pleading face. It was murder to have to get up from such a comfortable position. The bed was practically hugging him.
Lily laughed again, and leaned forward and kissed him. She had meant for it to just be a quick peck, but James was never one to miss an opportunity, and pulled her in for more. He inhaled the flowery smell of her shampoo as her hair fell next to his face, and the clean smell of soap as he moved his lips to her neck.
"I have to go," she said reluctantly, pushing herself up and away from him. James exhaled in frustration.
"Why do you have a job, again?" he asked. Lily laughed as she looked in the mirror next to her wardrobe and ran her fingers through her hair. James pushed himself up lazily, so that his back was resting against the creaky wooden headboard. "Sirius and I could make room for you in our merry band of unemployed bachelors, you know."
This made her laugh even harder. "I'm not a bachelor. And is it really a 'band' if there's only two of you?"
"You know what I mean," James said, reaching over to the nightstand and putting on his glasses. The floral-patterned green wallpaper came into clear focus. It was a bit like being trapped inside some old lady's garden.
Lily turned back to him, folding her arms across her chest and smiling rather saucily, considering it was eight thirty in the morning.
"I have a job because I have to pay the rent and eat."
James waved a hand dismissively. "Sirius and I eat well enough. I might even take you out for a nice dinner every once in a while, if you're lucky."
"Oh, I see," Lily said, "so we'll just be living off your money, then?"
"Why not?" James asked, shrugging. He was joking—mostly. Lily walked over and kissed him again. This time, she was too fast, and ducked away before he could pick up where they had left off a few minutes before.
"Throw in a few holidays to a place with sunny beaches, and you've got a deal." He knew Lily well enough to know that she was entirely joking, but he couldn't help but push her a little further. He wanted to see her reaction, because even though he was mostly joking, there was a small part of him that had started to hope for more with Lily. Thinking about his future, and everything it would eventually include—moving out into his own place, marriage, a family—it didn't seem strange at all to him to picture Lily by his side. He was completely happy when he was with her, and the only thing that concerned him was whether she felt the same way.
"Perfect," he said. "So, you'll resign today? I can hire someone to feed you peeled grapes all day."
"I like the skin on grapes," Lily replied, and then went back to ushering him out the door.
After wishing her a good day at work and parting ways, James already had a plan of where he was going to go next, and that was to find Remus and talk to him. It suddenly seemed silly that he'd been avoiding him for this long. He debated for a moment about whether to visit Sirus’ flat or Remus’ home first, since there was a chance he would find Remus at either, but decided to check the former first. Luck was on his side, for he found Remus in Sirius’ sitting room, which was really just a sofa and an armchair sandwiched between the kitchen table and the window looking out at the street below. His friend was sitting on the sofa and reading the Daily Prophet. Nothing moved but his eyeballs as James strode into the room, flitting upward to look at his friend and then back down to the newpaper in front of him.
“Hey,” James said. Remus mumbled a “hello” back.
James picked a dead leaf off Sirius’ houseplant as he tried to decide how to broach the subject. Why Sirius had even bought a plant in the first place was a mystery to James; it had been marked for death from the moment he'd bought it. “It occurred to me that I may have been a bit of a berk recently.”
Remus smiled a little, but it was clear that he wasn’t ready to let it go that easily. James sat down in the armchair, the springs in the seat creaking noisily, as they always did.
“All right, here it is—I’m just going to say this,” he said. “I know the whole Order thing might not be—well, your thing, but I don’t see why. And since you have a habit of keeping important personal issues to yourself, I have to ask—why?”
Red blotches appeared on Remus’ neck, and there was a long pause before he replied. At that point, it hardly mattered whether he confirmed or denied that there was something wrong, so clear were the signs he had given off.
“I just didn’t feel like I fit in,” he said. James wasn’t sure if this was the truth or not, but it was somewhere to start, at least.
“Is it…because of your furry problem?” James asked. He always felt awkward, not about having to bring his friend’s condition up, but at having to acknowledge that it made him somehow lesser in the eyes of others.
Remus opened his mouth to answer, but then seemed to second-guess himself. He exhaled heavily.
“Isn’t it always about that?” he grumbled. James frowned.
"Come on, Moony. It's Dumbledore's group, isn't it? He's the one who helped you all through Hogwarts."
"We're not at Hogwarts anymore, James," Remus said.
"Right," James replied, confused. He knew they weren't at Hogwarts, but he wasn't sure what that had to do with what they were talking about. "But no one in the Order is going to hold your furry problem against you."
Remus raised his eyebrows dubiously. "Are you sure about that?"
"Of course," James said, the memory of the last Order meeting and the conversation about werewolves joining Voldemort flitting into his mind. Remus' mouth twisted in thought, but then released. It reminded James of a rubber band being stretched and then let go of.
"It's not about that, anyway," he muttered. "Can we just leave it alone?"
James almost slumped back in his chair and let it go, until he remembered how much this had bothered him for the past couple of weeks.
"Just tell me what it is," he insisted. Remus closed his eyes in exasperation, but James didn't care. If it took badgering for his friend to explain what was going on, so be it. "I'm not going to laugh at you or anything—"
"If I had the luxury of inheriting a bunch of gold from my uncle, or having rich parents, or even being able to get a job to pay my own way, joining the Order might seem a lot more appealing, all right?" Remus snapped. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he looked mortified.
James felt as though someone had hit him with a Stunning Spell. This was not what he had expected. He couldn't find a response that sounded appropriate in his own head, and so just sat in silence for a few moments, trying to let it sink in. Remus was concerned about money? Well, of course he was—now that James had spent even a second thinking about it, he felt like an idiot for never considering it before. He suddenly felt embarrassed by his own privilege, ashamed that he had been joking with Lily not an hour before about throwing his money around on peeled grapes, sunny holidays, and fancy dinners, when his best friend was worried about making ends meet.
"I didn't know," was all he could think to say. "Can—can't you just keep living at your mum's house, until—"
"Until what?" Remus said. His voice had lost its acid, leaving behind only corroded misery. "I don't want to live there for the rest of my life. That was half the point of me going to Hogwarts, so I didn't have to depend on my parents to support me forever. But now every job I try to apply to has a section that asks whether you have any chronic diseases, and they've always listed lycanthropy there..."
James felt a rush of indignation on his friend's behalf.
"You don't have a disease!"
"It doesn't matter what they call it," Remus countered, massing his forehead in a frenetic way. "The point is, no one wants a werewolf working for them."
"Well—maybe the Order would help," James suggested, the wheels in his mind turning. "Lily got her job because of them. Maybe they'd do something like that for you."
"It's not the same situation," Remus muttered. James decided not to press the issue, since his friend seemed so dejected. There was only one other thing he could think to do that might help. He wasn't concerned so much with Remus joining the Order anymore—though he didn't want him to have to drop out of it purely because of money. He was far more worried about his friend just having the money to pay rent and buy groceries—he suddenly had a new perspective on what Lily had said earlier that morning.
"Let me help you. I'll give you a loan."
Remus started so violently that he nearly jumped off the sofa.
"No. Absolutely not."
"Don't ask me again. I'm not taking your money, not in a million years."
"You'd be doing me a favour!" James protested, and Remus' face contorted unpleasantly.
"Don't do that. I'm not stupid, and I don't want your charity." James had never seen Remus like this—shades of it, perhaps, when they had done various things over the years to make his life slightly easier, but he had never been this vehement before.
"Make me a deal, then," James proposed, continuing before Remus could object. "If you haven't found a job by the end of the month, I'll give you a loan."
"That's not a deal," Remus argued, looking as though he was on the verge of tearing out his hair. "There have to be two sides to a deal."
"I wasn't finished. In exchange, you have to give the Order a chance, and keep coming to meetings until you get a job," James added. Remus' face screwed up in concentration for a few seconds, but then collapsed.
"No, I can't. I'll be fine—"
"Moony. You should know by now that I don't take 'no' for an answer." James had that feeling of high-flying invincibility, when he knew that he could convince someone to his side by sheer force of will and persistence. "If you don't take the money and use it for practical things, I'm just going to give it to you in other ways. I'll buy you a racing broom and the most expensive dress robes I can find—"
"It's not funny!" Remus said in a strained voice.
Remus exhaled again, resignation visibly settling on him as he did so. He made James wait out at least thirty seconds of silence before replying.
"I hate you sometimes," he finally said. James smirked.
"We're agreed, then?"
"Yeah. But James?"
"Just for the record, you're still being a berk."
James only laughed. There was relief filling the spaces left by anxiety on his best friend's face.
Work at the Ministry continued to be uneventful for Lily. Some days, she wondered whether Marlene had been simply exaggerating the need for someone in the Office of Magical Records. Hardly anyone came in, and there never seemed to be any pattern to those visits that did occur. Nor did it seem as though a strange number of files on Muggle-borns were being requested from the shelves, which had been one of Marlene's main concerns.
Midway through the afternoon, while Mr Finkley was off searching for a file that had been misplaced, Lily was sitting at the desk day dreaming. She was mostly thinking of James, and the strange things he had been saying about her living off of his money. She wasn't quite sure, but it had all seemed like a bit of a roundabout way of broaching the subject of them living together or getting married, or something along those lines. What she couldn't figure out was why he had brought it up at all—she knew James loved her, of course, and she loved him back, but he couldn't possibly be thinking that sort of thing. Wasn't she supposed to be the one dreaming of wedding dresses and monogrammed towels, not him?
The thing was, though, that she wasn't dreaming of those things at all. It had nothing to do with James, and everything to do with the fact that she just didn't care about the superficial trappings of coupledom. She didn't care about having a fancy wedding or picking out china place settings—in fact, the entire thing kind of made her shudder. It just seemed so unnecessary, especially when there were much more important things going on every day. People were being killed or seriously injured every day; thinking about a dress and hors d'oeuvres seemed like a waste of good time.
But she didn't even know if James had been hinting at that, anyway. Even if he had, it was all hypothetical, and hypothetically...could she see herself marrying James? Wasn't it too early to be thinking about any of this, considering that they hadn't even been dating for half a year, and that neither of them had been in any other serious relationships? How was she supposed to know that there wasn't someone else out there who was better suited to her? Could there even be someone better suited to you than one who had been willing to die for you? Sometimes the magnitude of James' love for her was terrifying.
On that alarming thought, Marlene walked into the office, as she tended to do at least once a week. Lily wasn't looking forward to explaining that nothing unusual had happened yet again, but at least it gave her something else to do than circle the drain of hypothetical questions.
"Hello, Miss Evans," Marlene said. Order members were always careful not to betray their associations with each other beyond that of casual co-workers—Lily had recently seen Alice Longbottom and Dorcas Meadowes walking into the Auror Headquarters, and neither of them had so much as smiled at her. (Not that Dorcas seemed to be the type of smile at someone in a corridor, of course.)
"How can I help you?" Lily asked. She herself had gotten quite used to playing this double role, though her instincts for politeness still tripped her up at times, since she always wanted to acknowledge other Order members when she saw them.
Marlene was holding one of the files from Magical Records in her hand, with its large "M" stamped across the front of it. She tapped the top of it as she answered.
"I have a file here that I took out last week, and I was wondering whether you could find out anything more about whether Mr"—she paused to look at the name on the file, which Lily had a feeling was for dramatic effect only—"Oxlade had been out of the country in the last year. Or if his family had."
"Er..." Lily searched Marlene's face for some hint of what she was getting at, because this wasn't the sort of request that they usually got in the Office of Magical Records. "Well, if he had, it would probably be in the file. Or if he'd set up a Portkey to travel, someone in your department would probably—"
"Yes, I know, but I thought you might just be able to take a look for me," Marlene said, handing the file over. "A second pair of eyes, in case I missed something."
Lily didn't see what that would help, but, playing along, she opened the file. Instead of the Ministry forms that usually stared back at her from the insides of the folders, there was instead a handwritten note sitting at the top of the file. She glanced up at Marlene, who nodded meaningfully. Lily started to read the note.
We mentioned at the first meeting that there would be some additional duties associated with your job here in Magical Records. Consider this your orientation with those duties. I'd suggest saying that you need to check another file, and that you'll be right back, so you can take care of it away from prying eyes.
For one of the few times since she had started working at the Ministry, Lily actually felt excited about something. She knew what Marlene was asking her for, and sure enough, when she looked at the section under Blood Status on Lawrence Oxlade's file, she saw that it read Muggle-born.
She snapped the file shut. "You know, I think I might have seen something useful in his wife's file when you had us pull his for you. I'll just go into the shelves and take a look."
Marlene smiled. Lily scurried off into the records hall, hoping that she could make it back before Mr Finkley would notice. He didn't like to have no one supervising the office, but Lily was so caught up in finally getting to do some real work for the Order that she didn't very much care. She knew Mr Finkley had been looking for something under the letter "B", so she tried to pick a section of the records hall as far from where he would be as possible.
When she had checked and triple-checked her surroundings, listening for the sound of Mr Finkley's footsteps or the terrible, off-key tunes he sometimes liked to hum when he was working, she opened the file again and took out her wand. She knew the charm for what she needed to accomplish, but she was slightly worried that there would be some protection on the Ministry records that would prevent her from using it.
Detratamens, she thought, pointing her wand very carefully at the word Muggle-born. She breathed a sigh of relief when the ink siphoned off the page and into the tip of her wand, leaving the field under Blood Status blank. She then performed the counter-charm (Atratamens Exempli), which was a bit more precise than simply getting her own quill and writing what she needed, because it preserved the original handwriting and appearance of the document while allowing her to reform the ink into whatever words she wanted. This spell had been quite well-used by Hogwarts students in her fifth year to forge notes from Madam Pomfrey—as long as they'd attended the Hospital Wing and gotten a note from her once, they could make it look as though she'd written it for them any time. Eventually, the teachers had realized what was happening because Sirius had tried to get out of Professor McGonagall's class twice in one week using the same note that he'd splattered pumpkin juice on, and they had started to put enchantments on their notes so students couldn't tamper with them.
The Ministry, however, appeared to harbour no such concerns, because Lily could easily perform the charm. When she put down her wand, the file read Pureblood instead. As she stared at her handiwork, it suddenly hit her that what she had just done was quite illegal, and, on top of that, sure to infuriate anyone with anti-Muggle-born sympathies. Like, for example, Voldemort, who already would have been happy to see her dead.
Well, at least I'm not making myself any worse off, she thought to herself, before closing the file and heading back towards the office. Not for the first time, she felt a strange sense of understanding why James had spent so much time breaking rules in school. It was a bit fun, after all.
Marlene was still waiting in the office, and, to Lily's dismay, Mr Finkley had joined her.
"Find anything, Miss Evans?" Marlene asked. Lily shook her head.
"Nothing, sorry," Lily replied, handing the file back over to her. "Maybe ask someone in the Portkey Office?"
"Oh, I have already," Marlene said airily. "Looks like I'm just chasing smoke. Have a good day, both of you."
Mr Finkley looked down at Lily through his pince-nez severely once Marlene had gone.
"The desk should not be left unattended," he stated. Lily tried to give him an apologetic smile.
"She was in a hurry." Apparently, she hadn't looked apologetic enough, because he gave her enough work that she went home an hour later than usual. It didn't dampen her mood in the slightest, though—doing something useful had felt like a rare triumph.
When she arrived back at home, she was still basking in that glow, and found Petunia sitting at the kitchen table. It was unusual for her sister to be sitting out in one of the common areas of their flat like this, especially since her body language indicated that she had been waiting for Lily to get back from work.
Lily considered retreating to her room, as she always did, but guilt and good spirits tugged at some part of her, so she entered the kitchen instead. She put the kettle on for tea, and silence reigned.
It was infuriating how Petunia did this: everything about her expression and the way she was sitting told Lily that she wanted to talk to her about something, but she refused to be the one to initiate the conversation. The worst part was that when this happened, it was usually about something important, and so Lily couldn’t even feign disinterest. Sighing, she took the first step.
“How are you?” she asked. What she really wanted to ask about was Petunia’s arrival this morning, but it seemed better to ease into things.
“All right,” Petunia said stiffly, adjusting her bracelet.
“Do you want tea?” Lily asked. Petunia shook her head in reply. She was beginning to think it wouldn't be so difficult to ignore her sister after all, if only on principle. And typically, it was then that Petunia decided to speak her mind.
“There’s something that I need to tell you,” she said briskly. Her face was blooming red already; Lily couldn’t wait to hear what was coming. “I’ve been—dating a man for several months now.”
This didn’t exactly shock Lily, given her sister's behaviour lately, but she was surprised to hear it had been going on for months. She also felt a bit like laughing at her oddly formal use of "a man".
“Well, that’s nice,” she replied, unsure of what else to say. After a few moments of awkward silence, Petunia continued.
“His name is Vernon Dursley,” she said, and a picture of a portly, mustachioed man in a suit immediately entered Lily’s mind. She tried not to laugh, especially when Petunia added, “He’s a junior drill salesman.”
“So…how did you meet?” she asked, genuinely curious. Petunia had dated one boy several years ago, when Lily was in third year, but she had been too distant from Petunia (both physically, since she was at Hogwarts, and emotionally, for the very same reason) to ever hear any details.
“After work one day,” Petunia said evasively.
“You just bumped into him on the street, then?”
“Of course not.”
“Did he try to sell you a drill?”
“Lily, that’s enough.”
“I’m only asking—”
“We met when I went out for a drink with some of my co-workers, all right?” Petunia finally explained, looking truly exasperated. “I really don’t see why this is so important.”
“You’re the one who brought him up!”
“Yes, I’m aware,” Petunia snapped, “but not to tell you silly stories about how we first met, and what our first date was like, and that kind of nonsense.”
Lily crossed her arms and waited for her sister to gather herself.
“I brought it up because we’ve been engaged for a month, and I didn’t see how I could put off telling you any longer.”
Lily’s jaw dropped like a piano shoved off the roof of a tall building. Petunia was engaged? It almost seemed like a joke, but Petunia had no sense of humour to speak of.
“You—you’ve been—engaged for a month?” Lily spluttered. Out of all the things she was thinking, this was what formed into intelligible speech. “Have you told Mum and Dad?”
Petunia at least had the decency to look away as she said, “Yes. We told them right away. In fact, they’ve been begging me to tell you.”
“I should think so,” Lily said caustically. “Hang on—you’re only telling me now because you couldn’t put it off any longer, and because Mum and Dad were begging you to?”
There was a moment’s pause. “Well…yes, more or less.”
The kettle began to whistle shrilly, but Lily appreciated the sound. It seemed to convey something of how she was feeling better than she could at the moment.
“I don’t see why you even bothered telling me at all,” she shot back. Petunia looked momentarily overwhelmed by an urge to spit insults back, but instead removed the kettle from the burner. Its shriek faded to a restless hiss.
“I would have told you sooner, but it’s not as if you’ve ever seemed particularly interested in my life. Not even since we started living together.”
Lily opened her mouth to protest the injustice of this remark, but hesitated. The same, of course, could be said of Petunia, but she couldn’t exactly deny her own guilt.
“Anyway—I’ve told you now, haven’t I?” Petunia continued. “And the reason I’ve told you now is because Vernon thinks it’s proper to meet my sister before the wedding, of course, so you’ll come out to dinner with us soon.”
Lily was surprised, but somewhat mollified by this. Vernon sounded like he might not be so bad, if he was the one who wanted to meet her.
“There is, of course, one condition,” Petunia said. She didn’t even need to elaborate: it was all in her tone. Lily felt any glimmer of hope at an improved relationship with her sister fade. It could never again be like when they were children, because too much had changed. "You can't say a word about—what you are."
"Does he know?"
Petunia's face went red. "Yes. Unfortunately."
Lily considered asking what Vernon Dursley's reaction had been, but decided she didn't even want to know. She was furious with her sister for a litany of reasons, many of which hadn't even settled enough in her mind for her to put words to them.
"When are we having this dinner?" Lily snapped. She figured this was the barest minimum of details she needed to walk away from this conversation without having to revisit it again soon.
"This Saturday night?"
"Busy." She wasn't, but it made her feel better to make her sister's life just an ounce more difficult.
"Fine," Lily said. "I'm bringing James."
Petunia's eyes nearly popped out of her skull.
"You will not."
Lily shrugged. "If James doesn't go, I'm not going. Do you think I'm going to go sit and be the third wheel while you and your fiancé have dinner together?"
Petunia's face went from white to brilliant red to pink in a matter of seconds. She turned to one of the cupboards, got a teacup, and slammed it down on the counter. She then picked up the kettle, poured a cup of steaming water carelessly, and slammed the kettle back down on the burner.
"Fine. But not a word about your school, or your job, or anything."
With that, she picked up her teacup and strode from the room. Lily wondered when she would notice that she was just carrying around a cup of boiling water. She sighed and poured herself a proper cup of tea, her mind racing with everything that had just happened. What an absolute hag Petunia could be sometimes—she'd been dating someone for months, and had been bloody engaged for a month without telling Lily, her only sister. And never mind the fact that she still had no idea when the wedding was, or when Petunia would be moving out...
There was the sound of breaking china from Petunia's bedroom.
"Oh, bugger," Lily said to herself, rather loudly, not because of the broken teacup, but because she had absolutely no idea what she was going to do when Petunia moved out with her new husband, leaving her with the entire rent to cover on her own.
Author's Note: If you have a moment, I would really appreciate any thoughts—however brief or long or good or bad—on the chapter!!
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