24 Hours Shichan Goddess

Hour 23: Hour of Realization

If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day, so I never have to live without you.
A. A. Milne, Winnie the Pooh

Lily stumbled, biting back a curse as her foot got entangled with the gnarled, twisted roots of an ancient tree. She yanked it free, ignoring the searing shriek of pain from her ankle. She glanced over her shoulder fearfully, before turning her attention to James' bowed head that was almost level with her own. His harsh pants seemed to echo in the eerily silent forest.

James' footsteps were slowly growing wearier and his weight steadily increasing on her slim shoulders.

"Sorry," He muttered repentantly, and the weight lessened a little bit. But after a few more hesitant treads he was leaning against her once again.

Lily grunted and called them to a halt. James said nothing, reaching a shaking hand to wipe off the sweat that had gathered on his upper lip. Lily scanned the forest, desperately searching for a place where they could rest, hidden from pursuers. True, due to some miracle or other, they were not yet being actively followed, but it was only a matter of time before that would change.

James' suddenly increased weight nearly made her knees buckle, and James murmured for her to set him down. A few paces farther to her right, she noticed a sizable rock hidden by a substantial amount of foliage. After what seemed like an eternity, she managed to prop him against it.

"Wait here, all right? I'm going to scout the surrounding area." She waved her stolen wand, attempting with all her strength to conjure the protective charms that she knew so well. But the wand only gave a feeble sputter of red sparks, and Lily let her hand drop to her side, exhausted.

As she raised her hand to try again, James interrupted, "Don't strain yourself, Lily…your magic needs time to recharge—your body's simply not up to it right now."

The witch gave a resigned sigh. She knew that James was right, but it was still irksome.

"Better to save your strength when the Death Eaters come to call for tea and biscuits."

Lily's lips twitched into what would have once resembled a smile, and then crept away, searching for signs of the enemy, and for a possible way out.

Once James was sure she was out of sight, he spit out the blood that had been pooling in his mouth. He lifted a trembling hand to wipe the excess off the corner of his lips, absurdly worried that she'd be disgusted.

James closed his eyes and tried to take inventory of his injuries. He found that it required too much effort on his part, because all of the pain just seemed to bleed together. He leaned against the boulder and sighed, shivering slightly in the cool night air. He wondered dully if this was what it was like to die.

Don't think like that! You're not going to die…at least, not until Lily is out of this mess. You just need to stay awake, and do something useful, for Merlin's sake! Well, I suppose it's all right…if I rest my eyes for…a little while. Just while I think of a plan…

He was startled from his hazy doze by Lily's return. He forced his eyes to half-mast and gave her a wan smile. "Nothing?"

"No. The problem is that I have absolutely no idea where we are, and I'm not entirely sure where to go. Wouldn't do for us to just get lost in this forest and die from something stupid like starvation."

She twirled a stupid little pirouette on the spot, and was unsurprised when nothing occurred. "Well, it was worth a shot."

James barked a laugh then groaned. "Damn, wish that had worked." He closed his eyes, and winced when his head connected with the back of the boulder. He was as pale as the victims of the Dementor's kiss. Something swelled uncomfortably in her chest, and she felt the icy fingers of dread close against her throat.

"Are you all right?"

One dull brown eye cracked open to stare at her. "I'm not dead."

"That's not what I meant. Do you think you can manage an escape if the Death Eaters come to call?"

There was a slight pause, a slow intake of breath. "No."

Blood oozed from various cuts and nicks on his arm, his face. Lily tenderly gathered up a bit of her borrowed robe and reached to wipe the blood away from his face.

He flinched before she got too close, and Lily withdrew looking hurt.

He averted his eyes. "Could you…not wear those robes?" He asked awkwardly.

Lily gave a start. "Why?"

"They're Death Eater robes," he muttered embarrassed. "They…." He trailed off, but Lily understood. She tugged the robes over her head.

He gave her an embarrassed half-smile. His eyes closed involuntarily, and his final conscious thought was that if this were it, the time to fall off the proverbial broomstick, at least he wouldn't be alone in the last moments before he hit the ground.

Sirius choked as the pale hand tightened on his neck, lifting him a few inches off the ground. He clawed desperately at the hands, and watched, horrified, as Voldemort slithered to top the platform.

"Remus!"

Remus was being forced to kneel in front of the Dark Lord by two burly Death Eaters. Voldemort nodded slightly, and the two Death Eaters allowed Remus to stand.

The Death Eater restraining Remus on the left tossed back his hood and grinned at the captive, running his tongue over sharp yellow teeth. Fenrir Greyback licked Remus' nape over and old scar, and murmured in feral rasp before moving away, "How nice it is to see one of my creations."

The hand at Sirius' throat grew lax for a moment, and it allowed Sirius to get a lungful of air. Despite the ongoing chaos from the Death Eaters still desperately trying to make it out the door, Sirius had a perfect view of Remus. Remus stood alone in front of Voldemort, wand hand frozen cautiously in the air. His gray eyes darted to the two Death Eaters that had their wand trained upon him.

"Remus Lupin," Voldemort purred softly. "How often I wondered when I would meet you. Come. I invite you to join my ranks."

"Never!" Remus spat.

"What loyalty should you have to those that scorn you? Why risk your life for people who hate you just because of what you are? I know what you are, Lupin, and yet I still welcome you into this magnificent fold.

"Join me and you and I shall rebuild a world where werewolves are not treated like scum! Join me, as so many others of your kind have. Join me, and you shall at last be free of the hate that people who haven't even met you judge you by!"

In Remus' gray eyes there was a flicker, a flicker of longing for Voldemort's promises of equality.

"Remus!" Sirius called desperately, trying to pry away the fingers that had renewed their grip on his throat.

"I-" Remus turned and looked at him, eyes blank, frozen.

"Think about it…" Came the murmured hiss.

"MOONY!" Sirius bellowed desperately, struggling with the hands.

The nickname had its desired effect. Remus seemed to be shaken out of his stupor, and raised his wand. With a quick flick of his wand the Death Eater holding Sirius went stiff with the full body binding curse. He swiftly deflected the curse that sped his way, and yanked Sirius to his feet.

The two threw their hoods over their heads and their masks appeared to cover their faces. Without glancing back, they were swallowed by the mob of Death Eaters thundering out the door, Voldemort's mad laughter following them.

"Think about it Lupin…" The hiss traveled to their ears even as they crossed the threshold of the chamber.

As the pair ran, Sirius sneaked a glance at his long-time friend. He glanced warily out of the corner of his eye to one of his life-long friends, wondering, wondering…

What if…?

No. It was Moony! He would never…. But Dumbledore had confirmed that there was a leak in the Order. And Sirius couldn't banish the memory of the desperate longing in Moony's gray eyes.

What if?

He shook his head to banish the thought. But it was too late. Voldemort's words remained in the back of his mind, whispering, speculating. Doubting. The seed of poisonous mistrust was already germinating in his mind. And he kept wondering…

What if?

Lily wrapped her arms around herself, staring at James. He looked so pale and worn, a shadow of his usual cheerful self. Only the soft rasp of his breath inhaling and exhaling prevented her from shaking him awake to make sure he was still alive.

She gave an involuntary shiver as she thought about what had occurred in the chamber. Her hands trembled as she dressed James' wounds with strips of her cloak. Her mind replayed the scenario over and over again. Would she really have done it?

Would she, could she, have killed James in order to protect the secrets of the Order? Would she have put him out of his misery so that at least he would die by a friend's hand, instead of that of the cruel and merciless Death Eaters?

Even she wasn't totally sure.

What was arguably for the greater good—the protection of the Order—should have superseded any of her qualms. It was one life versus hundreds, and both she and James knew and accepted that. So why did she decide to risk it all by saving James?

And deep in her heart Lily knew. She examined the proclamation he had made under veritaserum, took it out and cradled it gently in the palm of her heart, and she knew. There were no angels singing praises of glory, there were no violins, there wasn't even a great flash of an epiphany, just a slow, comfortable understanding being brought to the surface. It was something she knew, something she had always known but never acknowledged.

She loved him. As much, or even more, then he loved her. That was what had stayed her hand; that was why she could not be his executioner. She could not bear to live in a world without him.

She examined his appearance, and was alarmed to find it more drawn and haggard then before. Where he had once still had had the light of laughter in his face, now there was only a silent, pale mask. He looked so wrong, empty and utterly devoid of the life that she always associated with him, that Lily's heart gave a frightened lurch, pounding painfully against her ribcage. She got jerkily to her feet.

"James? …Oh Merlin, no! James!"

A/N:

I am SO sorry for not updating. Life got in the way, really, and I've always had difficulty finishing my fics. Again, I apologize profusely for the long period of time without updates. I would really like to thank all of you that wrote to me and left me reviews—I apologize also for not responding to them; I actually didn't realize that anyone was still reading this until I checked my old e-mail address and saw the wonderful reviews and e-mails people had left. I stopped using that particular e-mail address two and a half years ago, and I don't know what made me go and check it today of all days. But seeing all of those e-mails/reviews made me go and write this immediately. So THANK YOU very much for sticking with this story, I promise that I WILL finish the last chapter much more promptly than this one.

Oh, and for you readers who are re-reading this, I did in fact change the ending to the chapter, just the last bit, which seemed a bit too melodramatic in the first version.