Chapter 1 : The Anatomy of Genius
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She did not know how or when, only that it had happened. It came to her slowly, the painful realization of attraction to one she had sworn to ha–
No, not hate, merely dislike strongly. Despise. Feel contempt for. Hate was for cowards, for those who could not bear to see others happy, those who knew only how to destroy, twisting hearts in their gnarled, corded hands, fingernails blackened by the filth of their deeds.
His hands were smooth, strangely so. They did not make sense, attached to such a body. He did not know how to use them, how to care for their beauty, yet they survived, year after year, unscathed. No scars, no injury that lasted longer than the fading of a bruise. In this regard, he was, among his friends, an oddity.
Her eyes would follow the motion of his hands as he wrote his essay, a rare moment of labour for one who never knew the meaning of “try”. He simply did. Words fell from his mind onto the page in perfect sentences, needing no thought, no care, no plans, as though a voice whispered through his brain, relating all the secrets of the world so that only he could hear. He who knew every turn in every corridor, every tree in the woods, each sense a second sight so that the world lay bare at his fingertips.
There were some who called him a genius. She preferred “idiot.” Natural ability made him lazy, reckless, and utterly unpredictable.
If there was one thing that she detested on this earth, it was the unpredictable.
With a flourish of his quill, he brought the essay to its brilliant conclusion and let the parchment retract upon itself, perhaps smearing the ink as it rolled shut. No doubt it would be passed through many hands before it reached the desk of Professor McGonagall. Black would glance over it with a shrug. Pettigrew would hungrily commit each line to memory for use in his own essay. And then Lupin would, with painful care, read it through and correct any errors, though those were great rarities. Or so she had heard.
A pair of hazel eyes met her own, and she turned her head to stare out the window, down on the empty grounds, the twilit lawn, the looming shadows of the forest beyond. The book in her lap went unheeded except for the slow movement of her forefinger and thumb as she rolled the corner of one page into a fibrous ball.
It was only when he left the room that she remembered to breathe.
He had not tried to contact her for three weeks. She found herself counting them, wondering why he had changed, why he no longer incessantly asked her to go out with him, why his eyes no longer followed her around a room. If his presence had been disconcerting, his absence was doubly so.
It was strange to watch him when he was not watching back. He seemed far more normal then. Not that Lily could claim to be an authority on normality; she left those sort of things to Petunia, who revelled in banalities and trivialities, anything to escape the truth, that she, the eldest, had been passed over. There were times when Lily would have happily given it all to Petunia: the magic, the glory, the alienation. What would it have been like, if the world had been turned on its head?
Her thoughts took these circuitous routes far more often of late. She would drift through her mind even during the holidays as she walked down the snow-dusted streets, hands deep in pockets, feeling nothing like the girl who used to run in the sunshine after her shadow. Now she was the creased-brow scholar, best in her class, but no one had asked her if that was what she wanted.
Footsteps pausing, she stared into the window of the nearest shop.
No, she knew nothing about being normal. Nor did she want to.
The voice hailed her from the other side of the street. He waved at her over the tops of passing cars, his hair more ruffled than usual in the midwinter wind. She raised her hand with an awkward twitch, more surprised at the strange leap in her pulse than the sight of him in an unlikely place.
She started to continue on her way when she saw him weaving through the cars as though they were no more than bludgers. Horns blared, but he leapt onto the pavement beside her, a silly grin stretched wide across his face.
“It’s nice to see you too, Evans.”
The usual biting reply was on her tongue, but she repressed it with a held breath. It must have still shown on her face because his own crumpled slightly, like a child’s when scolded. A string of curses passed through her head, but from her throat emerged a different set of words.
“I’m surprised to see you in Cokeworth. To see anyone here, really.” She pushed a strand of hair out of her eyes.
His eyes glanced up and down the street. “Well–”
“Don’t lie, Potter. It’s an awful place.”
He blinked, jaw beginning to drop before he caught it. After a moment, he ran a hand through his hair, as was his habit, but Lily noted that he did not seem to be preening, only disguising a strange nervousness. There was no one to impress here, no adoring friends and fans to goad him on. There was only Lily.
That’s all she was: Lily Evans of Cokeworth, wrapped up in her sister’s old coat and a moth-eaten scarf, not a whiff of magic about her.
Yet he had recognised her from afar, perhaps not immediately, but with him, she could never be sure of anything.
“It’s your home. How bad can it be?”
Once again, her face conveyed more meaning than words could express.
His eyes narrowed as he tried to read her, tried to understand. How did reality compare with the image he must have held in his mind of a pretty mudblood princess in her golden tower or a goddess perched upon a burnished throne, the blood of sacrifice lapping at her feet? It was what she despised most: that he should love her without knowing her.
She had never hated James Potter, though he had certainly deserved it, time and time again. No, she only hated the pedestal on which he had placed her.
“You’ve wasted your time, Potter. There’s nothing here.”
Her mind told her to leave. Turn on your heel and make a clean getaway while you can, it had roared, as though it feared the quiet, silky voice of her instinct. Stay. Wait. No doubt he would have some clever answer, something typically flirtatious. He would lean against the streetlamp, hands in his pockets, a twinkle in his eye and a sly smile tugging at his lips. He could conjure all of the best phrases, all of the perfect words, but none could pierce her heart.
It was his voice, but the words, that tone.... It was too perfect, too genuine.
She stared into his face. Cars passed on the street. People passed on the pavement. Air passed between them, carrying flakes of snow. Some landed in his hair, a shock of white against black before they vanished, fading, melting, gone.
A moment later, so was she, a flash of red against dreary shop windows.
The final stage could have taken place in a great many of ways. All the cliches of adolescent romance were laid out between them, but Lily cast each aside with pursed lips and narrowed eyes. What was romance but a silly set of conventions? She had no time for such things, not with classes and careers and the cloud of darkness over all.
Looking down at her books, the lines of text blurring and merging before her eyes, she felt the light of hope grow dim. She lived two lives in two worlds, and they would both be destroyed under this looming shadow. Yet she could do nothing, a powerless girl against a wall of flame. She could watch and she could wait, but she could not prevent the destruction of all she had known and loved.
How could she– how could anyone follow convention while the world around them burned?
Untouched by flame, blind to the shadow, James Potter did not understand. Did he know the smell of Muggle streets, the endless din of machines and thick, black smoke blocking out the sun? Did he know of corruption and suffering, of loneliness and betrayal?
She hoped he never would.
At that thought, she stopped and blinked, the quill slipping from her fingers. It left a trail of ink along one side of her parchment, and it was too late to transfer the essay onto a fresh roll, but she did not take notice of the ugly black scar.
She could only think of him. There was nothing useful in her mind.
It was strange, how different they were. She struggled, she slaved, dragging every word from her soul until she felt it bleed. Each word had its place, each sentence its purpose. No superfluity dared appear, no unnecessary adjective or misplaced comma. Her hand knew no grace as it looped and swirled its way across the parchment, but her brain composed with painful precision. She knew no such word as effortless. Every ounce of her strength was laid at the altar of perfection while he smiled and watched her from the corner of his eyes. Energy surged through her veins, and she bent further over her parchment in furious application.
He was mocking her. She was certain of it. What else could explain that smile, complete with dimples and a sparkle in his eyes that rivalled that of Dumbledore at his most meddlesome?
Ever since that day in Cokeworth she had avoided him with neither grace nor subtlety. She wanted him to know that he had crossed a line. Too much of her time at Hogwarts had been spent keeping her worlds separate. In Hogwarts, she was a witch, at home, a Muggle. Everyone, even Severus, had thought that she was following the rules, being the good girl, but really it was how she remained sane. There was no way she could ever be like the others, using magic day-in and day-out without thinking. Every spell brought to mind its manual equivalent. She would see her mother or sister at handiwork, sewing or cooking or cleaning, their hands scarred and hardened, and she knew that it would only take a wave of her wand to do it all and more.
Potter did not think of those things. He simply did not think.
But none of this explained why she thought of him. Again and again, he would be there in her mind, gazing back with sickening admiration or with that stupid smile plastered across his face. If he wanted her to like him, he would stop acting like a love-sick fool.
The last of the sun’s rays faded from behind the line of rocky hills. Soon, all she could see in the window panes was her own reflection, a sight she never found pleasing, particularly after a long day bent over her books. From a spot of ink on her nose to the lank strings of hair that hung over her forehead, she looked less of an adolescent boy’s fantasy and far more like a twisted nightmare.
Her back ached when she rose, collecting her books and parchments with all the ease of an octogenarian. She was among the last stragglers from the library under Madame Pince’s gaze, but she let her feet drag in the corridor, letting it stretch before her in crimson-carpeted majesty. The portraits leaned against their frames, gently snoring. The sound of splashing water met her ears; Peeves had found his way into the prefect’s bathroom again. Lily threw her head back to look at the ceiling, the barrel arches leaping back and forth from column to column like dolphins alongside a sailing ship. She had seen it in a book.
Anything was possible in a school of magic, but it never stopped her from dreaming of more, of all the places she wanted to go, the things she wanted to know. She had not yet decided on a future career, but she thought it should be something that–
The force of the collision resulted in a storm of parchment and dog-eared books accompanied by a thunder of curses.
“Evans? Are you alright?”
She glared up from the floor, clutching a smarting wrist.
The force of that single syllable hit him like a slap. He took a step back.
“I’m sorry. Let me help–”
“I’d rather you didn’t.”
She slowly rose to her feet, bracing her shoulder against the wall.
“Where were you going in such a rush, anyway? You should already be in the Tower.”
There was a slight tightening of his facial features. “So should you.”
He said nothing more on the subject and prepared to turn away in the direction he’d been heading. Away from Gryffindor Tower. Away from the lavatory. Away from any place in the castle where his presence could be explained.
It was enough to dull the pain of her fall. Her gaze lingered on his hands, hanging beside him, the fingers half-curled in anticipation. There was some parchment protruding from the pocket of his robes, the one visible corner showing lines of ink in the shape of an illustration rather than text. Was it a map? Some diagram torn from an old book?
She narrowed her eyes and decided to take a risk.
“Then we’ll just have to go there together.”
Never before had she seen so much contradiction in a person’s face. Was he elated or disappointed? Annoyed or excited? It seemed that he was all of these things at once, and she had to admire his facial features for taking on this challenge. There was something about them that held her interest, something that dangerously approached what some would call “pleasing.”
Lily smiled in spite of herself to relish the rare flavour of victory.
She found him slumped against a drystone wall on a February night, a silly grin plastered across his face as he stared up at her with glazed eyes. She wondered why he’d been left alone. Remus, ever the responsible, would have ensured that he made it back to Hogwarts, and if Sirius and Peter had also been in this shape, they’d be stretched flat beside him.
That left the only possible solution: James had been drinking alone.
It was not out of character, merely curious.
No one else was in sight. The moon had already risen, its pale light glinting off his–
He mumbled odd syllables.
–glasses were missing. They were not on his face or on the trampled snow around him, nor was there anything else in sight, as though he’d been deposited there by unseen hands. She remembered seeing his friends in the Three Broomsticks, quieter than usual, but then again, James always was the lifeblood of their fellowship. The others had their demons, only half-concealed by pranks and childishness, but there was ever a shadow in their eyes. James knew nothing of darkness or demons. He was, as ever, naive.
Perhaps that was what she disliked. He didn’t know how to feel remorse. He didn’t wake up in the night, sweat pouring down his temples, the nightmare still fast upon his heels. James Potter wasn’t the sort to have nightmares, and Lily doubted that he ever would.
Another set of burbled words met her ear. A hand now rested on her foot.
She let out a long, pained breath before kneeling down to take hold of his arm, but he refused to rise. Perhaps “refused” was the wrong word. To all appearances, he seemed incapable of anything. He must have consumed a considerable amount of Firewhiskey, though it was possible that he simply didn’t have much of a stomach for the stuff. If this was the case, then a very damaging piece of information had fallen into Lily’s–
James toppled over even as she held his arm.
She suddenly had rather more than valuable information in her hands.
It seemed impossible to imagine that this very pathetic, very pissed wizard was the same one who could dart through passing cars just to say hello; who could make words pour onto parchment; who could be so ridiculous and so brilliant all at once.
She nudged him with her foot. With a strangled cry, he sat up, eyes rolling, mouth gaping, hands flailing, then he clutched her leg as though it was a lifesaver on a raging ocean.
He raised his head, unfocused eyes seemingly piercing through to her soul.
“Who’re you?” He formed the words with clumsy lips.
She watched him, wondering whether she should laugh or cry. He was likely the strangest person she knew, yet at this moment, something was not right. His self-induced state of oblivion implied an pain that gripped him from within, a sense of suffering that she’d never ascribed to his disposition. There was no sign of it now in his glazed eyes and slack jaw, but it had to be there, lurking, as it does, waiting for its next opportunity to drown the spirit and chill the heart.
“You look like a girl I know,” he said, leaning his face against her knee as tongue and jaw finally worked in unison. “Lily. Yes, lovely Lily.” He burst into throaty laughter at the feeling of those Ls against his tongue.
A touch of colour rose in her cheeks.
“Come along, Potter. You need sleep.” Ever the practical. What choice did she have?
“Will she be there?”
In your dreams, boy. Lily clamped her mouth shut and stared at the sky until she could trust herself to speak a lie.
“Yes, of course. I’ll take you to her.”
He made a burbling sound that she took to signify acceptance with this plan. A plan that she scrambled to create, her own mind stiffening with fatigue after a day long with study.
There was the option of levitating him back to the castle, but she did not think it wise. He could lash out at any moment, forgetting where he was, or worse, recognizing her as that lovely Lily of his dreams. All of her concentration would be required for the spell, which she had never attempted on anything larger than a bowl of cooked vegetables at dinner. If he fell along the way into a puddle or down the side of a hill–
It’d serve him right. Her mind was feeling particularly malicious.
It would be little better to walk with him braced against her shoulder, but she doubted that logic applied to any matter concerning James Potter. She could not leave him to be discovered by those Slytherins she’d seen behind the Hogs Head; she shuddered to think of what they were capable of.
James looked up at her with a silly, confused smile, hearts in his eyes as he began, once more, to speak of Lily. He was nothing short of pathetic.
She had to trust her instinct. Bracing herself against the wall, she dragged him to his feet, sending him reeling, head-first, into her chest.
“Get up, you idiot.”
She steadied him with both hands on his shoulders, anything to remove his head from a particularly awkward region of her anatomy. “What was that?”
He narrowed his eyes as he stared at her. Even with his glasses, even if he had been sober, it would have been difficult to see her face, to make out her features against the nightblack sky, even if her hair gave her away. The darkness made the world close in around them. Some would think it romantic. She thought it impractical. She wished that there were miles between them rather than millimetres. Had he felt the same way when she had caught him in the hallway that evening, weeks ago? She had been the inconvenience then.
She did not know what to think, what to feel, what to do.
A frown transformed his face into a mockery of itself. He tried again to speak, but shook his head after a long moment passed in vain attempts. Sobriety was invading his solemn oblivion. Recognition was taking root, even if his brain could not make a definite connection between the tired, impatient witch and the thing of his dreams, both dancing before his dazed eyes. There was something twinging within her at the sight of him in this state. A line had been crossed; she could not retreat.
She placed his arm around her shoulders, preparing to lead him away.
“But how... how did you... where did you...?” His head hung awkwardly to one side, and she was reminded of Nearly Headless Nick.
“You need to get back, Potter.” She nudged him toward the path. Her voice softened. “Can you walk?”
“But you...?” His legs wobbled, but held.
“Yes, I’m helping you. Now walk.”
She wasn’t even sure if he had recognized her. It did not matter if he had.
He remained silent, all his effort going into the action of placing one foot in front of the other, often pausing to stare in wonder at the prints they made in the snow. Every so often, he would shake himself and squint down at her face, flushed with the exertion of bearing his weight. Once or twice, his mouth opened, and she could smell his breath, putrid and sharp. Between her puffing breaths, she wondered what he thought of this comedic act, one clown dragging the other through the snow beneath a St. Valentine’s moon. It was the stuff of those old plays her sister read in school. Lear and his fool in the storm.
The pathway turned from gravel to cobble, the snow dulling the ring of their hard-soled boots against the stone. The snow softened even the looming shadow of the castle, its crevices and crannies no longer threatening the legions of unseen creatures the seventh years once described in horrific detail. It was a faraway memory, raising shades of first years slinking across the quad in fear for their souls. Another ridiculous prank, yet she still felt her flesh creep as they passed beneath a gargoyled arch before she pulled away to let him rest against a worn column. Only then with the rush of cold air against her side did she realize how close they had been and for so long a time.
She surveyed him again in the dim light.
“Tell me one thing, Potter. Why do it at all?”
His eyes still seemed unfocused, staring into the space just above her left shoulder. Did he see the demon there, watching him with emerald, almond eyes and a cursed grin? At last he blinked, gaze falling on her face.
“Why do anything?”
There was a long pause as she bit at her lower lip. He was more alert than she expected.
“But why this? Why alone? It’s–”
“You think everything I do is stupid.”
The air was gone. Not a gasp to be had in the atmosphere, not for her. She could not move her lungs, could not swallow the sky, could not think for all the memories in her head. The silly things she had told him, once and again. Stop. Don’t. Can’t. Shouldn’t. Mustn’t. Judgements, commands, restrictions, squeezing him tighter and tighter until he broke, a shattered glass that could not hold its liquor, a soul that could not care for the turning of the world.
Yet he had done this to himself. He had taken each word to heart and the darts had run deep, poisoning him with–
She thought of his hand as he wrote an essay, moving steadily across the page, quill held firmly between his fingers, pausing only for ink, never losing a drop. No poison, no darts, no judgements, no rules. Only the words and the mind that made them. He could do so much if only he could... If only he tried...
If only he took the time to think.
Her voice echoed off hollows of stone. She had taken too long. Only his footprints remained, and those soon faded into the night.