Severus slept uneasy that night, vidid recollections of the events in the forest shifted through his mind. He dreaded the morning which would no doubt bring with it interrogation and unfounded but perfectly justified accusations.
At least James can't be sure it was you, he told himself over and over again as he lay there in bed. It's not as if he wasn't used to being subjected to blind allegation before from James and his group. His reputation as a Slytherin had always ensured that the worst would be thought regardless of guilt.
Having been the attacker this time though Severus was uncertain how easily he would be able to feign innocence under closer scrutiny.
He had headed straight for bed that night without dinner and awoke the next morning with a fresh blanket of cold panic covering his body. He sat up in bed and surveyed his dorm room. Avery and Mulciber had returned and were sleeping soundly, their breathing calm and restful. How they could be so peaceful given yesterday's events was beyond Severus but then neither student shared the same turbulent past with James Potter as he did.
Garrick was nowhere to be seen and was probably already eating in the Great Hall. Severus supposed he had better make his way to breakfast too, he was absolutely famished after having skipped his supper.
He washed and dressed then made his way out of the dungeons towards the hall. The castle corridors were filled with an early morning chill, Severus could hear the distant echos of an early morning Quidditch practice through the windows that faced the freshly misted grounds.
He was half way across the entrance hall with the clattering of cutlery ringing in his ears when a hand gripped his forearm tightly and pulled him away from the large doors and into the corridor next to it that led to his Dark Arts classroom.
Lily came to a halt and let her blushing hair flip across her face as she rounded on Severus.
"I need to talk to you." Her voice was terse but she kept it low and shifted her eyes down the deserted hall to make sure no one else was listening.
"What about?" Severus asked trying to keep his tone casual but somewhere on his face he felt an involuntary twitch.
"Oh." He let the sound slip and cursed himself, he had expected this of course but part of him had hoped for a different subject.
"Oh? OH?" She let her voice rise slightly and stuck her hands to her waist, her elbows jutting out at cautious angles. "He comes stumbling back from Hogsmeade yesterday covered in blood and won't tell me a thing about it."
"Did... he?" Severus asked letting his eyes rest above her shoulder.
"Sev." She bit, looking on the verge of attack. "Do you know anything about it?"
"Actually do you know what? I don't want to know." She flung her hands up, a sense of resignation in her motion. "James doesn't want to tell me, yet I'm sure he'll tell Sirius everything. If he wants to go running off into the forest looking for danger then that's his decision. What I do know Severus is that he was in the process of looking for you and your new "friends." Garrick in particular."
"Garrick's not my..."
"Wether he's your friend or not is beside the point. You can't deny that you've been hanging about with him recently,"
"He's in my house."
"Don't make excuses."
Severus went silent for a while as he felt her eyes bore into his face. Finally she spoke again, this time retaining the quality her voice held before she'd lost it's composure.
"Look, I have no idea want went on in that forest yesterday but even if you..."
"Just shut up Sev please. Even if you had something to do with it I don't care."
"I know you and James hate each other and nothing I do will stop you two from trying to injure each other every chance you get. You are both idiots."
Despite the seriousness of her tone Severus still allowed a scoffing laugh to escape his lips.
"You and me, we haven't been friends since fifth year but..." She suddenly looked sad and Severus would have given anything to not be having this conversation. "James thinks you're itching to become a Death Eater and I know that's true."
"You haven't told him?" Severus asked his eyes widening in surprise.
"It's not his business and it stopped being mine the day you called me..."
"Lily how many times am I going to have to apologise for that before you forgive me?" Severus groaned irritably.
She rested her eyes on him, she looked tired and shook her head. "Always one more time."
Severus felt a sickly feeling punch his stomach.
"Severus it's not the word I can't forgive it's the fact it came from you." This was the first time they had spoken about this in years and Severus found that the long wait had made him no more prepared to hear it. "We stopped being true friends long before then and you know it."
"What do you mean?" He asked defensively, feeling his brow break into a sweat.
"The fact you couldn't see it tells me I'm right. When you started hanging around with Avery and Mulciber and-"
Severus felt confused and frustrated, hitting the wall with the palm of his hand. "My friendship with those two had nothing to do what you and I had. Nothing."
"It had everything to do with it. You three were running around like little Death Eaters in training..."
"I never tried to hide that from you." He argued cutting in.
"Oh thank you Severus. That's so noble of you. How do you think that made me feel? Hearing that my best friend wanted to join a group that would love nothing more than to see people like me strung up from the highest tower in the castle."
Severus swallowed hard, all his resolve to argue lost.
"So how was that meant to work Sev? Muggle killing during the week then round to mine for tea on Sunday? You're so bitter over something that never had a hope of working out in the first place. You hate James and act like he's the reason we're no longer friends, well guess what? Maybe you didn't have to like him. You wouldn't have meant any less to me... because you were my best friend, not James. You held me together during those first years when I was certain I wouldn't be able to handle it and you kept pushing me forward. You and James, I would have made it work... but what's the point if in five years time my best friend will be part of the group that's burning my house down to the ground and murdering my family just to make a point, just another article in the Daily Prophet."
"Lily..." Severus wanted to deny everything, tell her she had it all wrong but somewhere the words faded on their way into being. He just looked at her. Even now Severus was desperately trying to win her back whilst trying to join Lord Voldemort's army at the same time. She was right, he was an idiot.
"And despite all this... mess." Her voice shook and she clenched her fists tightly as she spoke. "Despite years of silence, being proven right time and time again. Despite everything..." she let out a huge sigh, regaining her composure. "I just don't want you to end up as one of them. You're better than that. You keep going down this path and you'll end up dead or in Azkaban and I can't stand the thought of that happening."
Severus was speechless, after all his time he thought she held nothing but contempt for him and yet...
"Are you one of them Severus? Be honest with me, please. I won't tell anyone. I just need to know if my friend really is going to end up trying to kill me." She crossed her arms and stood there, waiting for his reply.
"Severus?" Garrick's voice broke the silence like a mallet. He cocked his head and observed the two students with his hands in his pockets. He strode over casually and stood next to Severus, nudging his shoulder. "What's going on?" He asked casting a suspicious look between the two of them.
Severus felt his stare and shifted nervously under it. "Nothing. We were just..."
"Do you know her?" Garrick asked, raising his brow.
"No. We were just..." he caught sight of Lily's face dropping into a cold stare, she shook her head.
"We were just talking about our next Potions lesson." She interrupted, her voice vacant of emotion. "What's that got to do with you?"."
"I would have thought you'd be more concerned about your boyfriend's messed up face." Garrick grinned, leaning lazily on the stone wall.
Lily fixed him a glare and stood up straight. "And how would you know about that?"
"I saw him yesterday at Dinner. I bet you would really like to get your hands on the person who did that to such a handsome face." His voice was sickly and he licked his lips, relishing the situation.
"I bet I wouldn't have to look far." She glared at him, hate etching the lines on her furrowed brow.
"Well funny you should say that because-"
"We're late." Severus interjected loudly, unable to take the tension anymore. He made to turn but faltered when Lily's voice hit his ears.
"See you in class Severus." She said in a loud irritated voice. She wasn't going to let Severus walk off without acknowledging her, not in front of someone like Garrick.
"Y...yeah see you Lily." He dragged a smile to his lips and then departed with Garrick following behind.
"Friend of yours?" He inquired again, with a grin that flashed his upper teeth.
"I already said." Severus grumbled, quicken his pace.
"Shame." He replied casually. "She's a pretty one that Evans. I can see why Potter's taken such an interest."
Severus could feel his skin bubbling with irritation.
"Wouldn't catch me fooling around with a Mudblood though, no matter how easy on the eye they were."
"Well she wouldn't be interested anyway." Severus bit back.
"Careful Severus." Garrick replied, his words holding a hint of warning. "Wouldn't want to undo all that good work you did yesterday, would we? And it was good work by the way, fantastic I'd go as far to say."
Severus shrugged, he really didn't want to talk about it, especially not with Garrick.
"I can't believe I got you so wrong. I never thought you'd have the guts to see it through. What was that spell by the way? The one that sliced up Potter's face like it was a piece of fruit?"
"Just something I've been working on. It's not finished." Severus added quickly not wanting to divulge the details any further.
They made their way to the entrance hall to find both Mulciber and Avery gathered in hushed conversation.
"Morning boys." Garrick greeted them. His mood was far more jovial than usual and Severus assumed last night's events had a lot to do with it.
"Morning." Mulciber replied looking distracted.
"Sev!" Avery cried, his grin infectious. "Last night, in the forest that was amazing." He punched him on the shoulder. Severus winced but for once didn't mind the gesture as he surveyed his beaming housemates. It was odd to be praised for something other than Potions.
"Yeah, it's gonna take a while for that mark to heal on Potter's face isn't it?" Mulciber chuckled.
"Quiet." Severus shot back nodding to the group emerging from the corridor to Gryffindor Tower.
James, Sirius. Remus and Peter were too busy chatting to each other to notice them. Only James was silent, his eyes downcast, a tender looking cut snaking along his face and a dusk coloured bruise bloomed on his chin. He glanced up and his eyes locked onto Severus' group, he froze, forcing Sirius to bump into the back of him.
"Alright Potter?" Garrick chimed with a satisfied smirk. "Walk into the Whomping Willow?"
"Shut up!" Sirius barked. He pushed passed James and came face to face with Garrick, his eyes screaming ill intent.
"I wasn't talking to you." Garrick snarled, his nostrils flaring.
"Padfoot leave it." James pulled Sirius back and stood in front of the group eyeing each of them. When his eyes met Severus they flicked away. He made to turn and enter the Great Hall.
"Got nothing to say Potter?" Garrick inquired, smiling back at his group. James turned and stepped right up to Garrick, their noses inches away.
"I wouldn't waste my breath." James growled, grinding his words into Garrick's face. "And you." He turned and approached Severus who took an involuntary step back. "You might be kidding some people round here but I know what you are."
Severus felt a surge of anger start to boil his blood.
"Look Potter just because someone had the guts to take a shot at you for once don't blame people who had nothing to do with it." Garrick motioned to his fellow students. "What next? Going to start hanging people up by their ankles until they talk?"
James' face froze and he glanced nervously back at Sirius who frowned inquisitively.
He hasn't told them what happened Severus realised. James was too proud and too humiliated to divulge the details even to Sirius.
Severus knew this sudden bout of satisfaction was tainted with a bitter glaze but the look on James' face right now was something Severus could have dined on all term. He took a step forwards, James kept his eyes locked on his, a long pause passing between them.
James looked to be contemplating his words but finally turned and made for the grounds.
"James?" Sirius called to his friend.
"I'm not hungry." James called back, shoving his hands into his pockets and stomping away.
Sirius glared at the gathered Slytherins but said nothing and made for the Great Hall. Lupin followed but Peter, looking throughly flustered went the way of James.
"Leave him Wormtail, he needs some space." Lupin said.
They didn't wait for him and disappeared behind the door. Peter bit his lip, looking so overwhelmed he might be sick. He surveyed the remaining group and gave a nervous squeak which he tried to pass off as a cough and then left to chase after James regardless.
"Oh this is so great." Garrick couldn't hide his glee. "James looked fit to burst didn't he?"
They all grinned at each other, feeling very triumphant.
"Shall we?" Garrick motioned for the Hall. Severus followed but Mulciber and Avery faltered.
"You two go. We've got something to do." Without another word the duo left hurriedly, whispering in low tones as the went.
Garrick watched them leave and then shrugged.
"Breakfast?" He looked at Severus who nodded, wishing Atwater was with them as he didn't particularly relish the idea of dining alone with Brune Garrick, Death Eater or not.
Severus persevered through the next few weeks of school, his lessons becoming more complex by the day, his head slowly filling with so many lines of text and diagrams that he had little time to think about anything else, James Potter being one of them.
Severus had done his level best to avoid him and in a castle the size of Hogwarts this wasn't the hardest task he'd had to perform. Long swaths of free time buried inside the books of the library or in the greenhouse growing ingredients. When their paths did cross however he was greeted with a more subdued character than he'd previously come to anticipate.
Severus had not abandoned the anticipation of comeuppance but as the days rolled on he found himself feeling far less jumpy when finding himself alone in a dark hallway or deserted part of the castle.
"Maybe he's finally realised what an arse he used to be." Atwater remarked on a snowy December evening in the Great Hall. He shoved a forkful of blueberry cheesecake into his mouth and gave the Gryffindor table a scrutinising look.
Sirius was busy stealing half of Peter's apple pie whilst Lupin sat with his elbow on a book, perusing the text and taking a sip from his pumpkin juice. Severus looked over and spotted James and Lily, their heads bowed close together, he whispered something into her ear to which she smiled and murmured something back. Even now the closeness of which the two carried out their interactions filled Severus with an emotion blacker than his robes.
"At least you got your task out the way." Atwater mumbled giving Sirius a glare, who was now leaning behind him to talk to Olivia Caldwell a girl in Hufflepuff who giggled and placed her hand on his chest to push him away in a very half hearted fashion.
"Why don't you just let me help." Severus asked for what felt like the tenth time that week. If James Potter was acting differently these days that was nothing compared to Atwater who had taken a surprisingly reserved turn in the last few weeks. Severus would often find him lost in thought, casting glances towards Sirius' group with a calculating look in his eye.
"It's fine. I've got it under control." Atwater replied irritably, keeping his voice low.
"Look I can easily get Sirius on his own, I'll just start acting really suspicious and he's bound to start following me round again. Then we can get him." Severus didn't really fancy taking on Sirius let alone James but if it was troubling Atwater enough to have such an effect on his carefree attitude then he was prepared to do anything to help his friend.
"Thanks but I just need a bit more time. It'll be ok." Atwater looked tired, dark circles eclipsed his eyes and his long mane of grey was wildly untidy. He took his glasses off and pinched the bridge of his nose.
"Well you better hurry up. We break up for the holiday in a week and if you don't-"
"I know, I know." He cut across tersely before realising his tone and smiling weakly at Severus. "Sorry."
"Ok Atty but remember if you need help..."
"Thanks." He flipped the page of his textbook, looking uninterested in it's subject. "Anyway, What are you doing for Christmas?"
"I'm going home." Severus answered looking throughly perturbed.
"Really? Are you feeling ok?" Atwater looked shocked and placed a hand on his friend's forehead. "No temperature." He lightly flicked him between the eyes. "Reflex is fine."
"Get off!" Severus grumbled, whacking his hand away.
"But why would you go home and not stay here?" He seemed genuinely interested in the answer.
"I have to help out at my mother's shop over the holidays. Always have." Severus grimaced and tried not to ponder on two weeks carrying heavy boxes in the dusty, cramped storeroom.
"Well at least you get paid... they do pay you right?"
Severus shook his head and leaned his chin wearily on his hand. "Nope."
"I imagine the satisfaction you get helping out your loving, caring family is payment enough."
Severus laughed and rolled his eyes. "What about you?" He asked.
Atwater shrugged. "I'll be here. It makes it much easier for my father to ignore me if I'm not actually in the house at the time."
"Get lost Mulciber!" Sirius' voice piped up from across the hall.
Both boys turned to find Mulciber stood at the end of the Gryffindor table holding up his hands in a gesture of innocence.
"I just said it was a shame that a Black was flirting with someone like Olivia Caldwell, I mean I know you have appalling standards but even you must realise there's not a scrap of magical blood in her family."
"Are you looking for a fight?" Sirius growled, his face growing red. He stood up from his bench, the whole group's attention was on him now.
"There's no teacher to hold you back Sirius so you better mean that." Mulciber challenged, looking amused.
The hall was indeed fairly empty as dinner was coming to an end and most students and teachers had already left the hall to enjoy their evening's free time.
"Sirius sit down." Lily shouted trying to lean across James to pull at his sleeve.
"No Lily. This loser comes all the way over here just to open his big mouth and I'm going to shut it for him." Sirius slammed his fist onto the table and stepped away from the bench.
"My, my. Sirius Black having a Mudblood order him about like a mutt. Better listen to your master Sirius." Mulciber grinned, backing away casually from the table and moving towards the doors. "Well at least if Olivia knocks you back you could try for Lily instead, they're both about the level of filth you go for I suppose." He cackled and then ran for the exit as Sirius took off after him at full pace, his face dagger sharp, his teeth bared.
"Sirius!" James hollered across the hall looking annoyed. He cast his eyes towards Lily and let out a sigh. "I'll go get him." He said wearily, looking tired.
Peter looked nervously at his remaining classmates and got up from the table. "I'll make sure he doesn't join in." He stuttered and took off after James.
Lily cast an aggrieved look at Lupin who looked sympathetic and listened as she ranted about the whole affair.
Atwater let out a low whistle and turned to Severus. "Is he mad?"
"That was a bit full on wasn't it?" Severus agreed looking over towards the empty doorway.
"Completely crazy." Avery added sliding onto the bench next to Atwater, his shoulders hunched and keeping his voice low.
"Where did you come from?" Severus asked.
"I was here the whole time." He replied.
"The whole time." He repeated pointedly.
"Alright but why's Mulciber picking fights with Sirius when he doesn't even need to?" Atwater said, some of his usual intrigue returning to his demeanour.
"Well maybe he's just fed up of Black making a move on anything with a pulse." Avery said making for the cheesecake on Atwater's plate before having his hand slapped away.
"Seems a bit reckless though. I mean we're still meant to be keeping a low profile about all of this." Severus replied.
"Well I wouldn't say what you did to Potter was very low profile. Amazing but hardly inconspicuous." Avery argued before turning his attention back onto Atwater. "You really should get a move on too Atwater, there's only a week..."
"Yes I know, don't you start as well."
The cry was sharp and shrill like needles raining onto glass.
It punctured the room's ambient chatter and captured everyone's attention.
Lily had fallen backwards off the bench and scrambled to her feet. She grabbed hold of Lupin's shoulder but was pushed back as he contorted violently. His body shuddered and then he coughed heavily. A splattered rain of blood covering the table in front of him. He gasped for breath and clasped his neck.
Lily made another grab for his arm and spun him round trying to hold him still. "Remus, Remus what's wrong!"
He tried to say something but chocked again and spluttered more blood, painting the front of her robes, specks of crimson on her shoes.
A few students screamed, others backed away. Lupin stumbled over his bench, his complexion pale his eyes rolled high. Blood dripping down his chin like he'd been feasting on a live animal.
Avery took a small bottle from his robes and gave it a triumphant shake, showing it off to Severus and Atwater.
"You'll never guess who I got for my task." He said, a vile grin appearing on his lips.