"Please, Sir, let me make sure I understand you," I said, clutching at the wide perch stand in the corner of the Headmaster's office, letting it bear my weight. I pretended to peer down at the fledgling Phoenix, Fawkes, as he pecked at the still-burning embers of his previous body, but in reality I was trying to buy time to organize my thoughts.
"You're involved in a secret organization created to fight You-Know-Who… and you're recruiting me? Does—does the Ministry know about it?"
Dumbledore smiled and crossed his study to stand before Fawkes' perch. He leaned against it, opposite me, and idly lowered a hand into the ashes. Fawkes scuttled over to Dumbledore's hand, his plump body seeming an ungainly weight to carry on such thin legs and uncoordinated wings. The neonatal bird clambered up onto Dumbledore's palm and stretched out his neck, beak open wide, begging for food.
"You know you never feel well if you eat too soon after your transition," he chided Fawkes lovingly before placing him back down into his nest of ashes. Eventually my Headmaster turned his eyes back toward me. "We exist outside of the Ministry's purview. It's simple to guess why. But I'm not only involved in the secret organization, Lily. I founded it. The Order of the Phoenix."
I didn't try to hide the smile that tugged at my lips at the name. "The Order of the Phoenix," I repeated, glancing down at Fawkes. I drew in a deep breath, trying to fight down the sudden sense of uncertainty clawing at my stomach. "If I join—how does it work? What sort of legal authority does the Order have? Do I leave school to join, or work undercover, or—"
"One step at a time, Lily." Dumbledore clasped his hands behind his back as he spoke, but his scholarly visage was ruined slightly by a noncommittal shrug. "I've agonized for a long time over whether I should talk to you before or after you complete your time at Hogwarts. Unfortunately, events have dragged you into the war earlier than either of us would have preferred."
"I doubt I could have avoided it, being a Muggleborn." I frowned and glanced down to watch Fawkes trundle up onto his perch, feeling too vulnerable, for a moment, to meet Dumbledore's eyes. Fawkes nearly slipped off his perch but finally settled, and ruffled his scant and still-smoking feathers as though basking in his accomplishment. He cocked his head at me, and a hint of the noble and penetrating creature he would mature into shone from his eyes, steadying my thoughts. "I can't avoid it. I've already lost friends because of it."
And then my lost friend had turned around and tried to manipulate me into Voldemort's schemes. A spike of anger and adrenaline pierced my heart at the stray thought of Severus Snape, and I drew in a long breath to try to calm myself.
Dumbledore caught my eye, and somehow seemed to know what I was thinking, but didn't comment on my debacle with the Dark tracking spell Snape had cast on me. I was still disgusted to think about it: it had marked me out to the Death Eaters and consequent reanimated dead bodies in order to draw them to James. Instead he said, "What you have to decide is the manner of your involvement in the war and how much you're willing to risk."
He smiled, a little sadly, and walked away toward his desk as though he didn't want to face me with the truth. "I would prefer you to finish your time here, in school. Of course, you're of age and I can't force you to stay… but I need you here, Lily." He turned, eyeing me over the rims of his spectacles. "Do you understand?"
I nodded slowly, wondering just what sort of tasks the Order would need me to perform in these hallowed halls. And then I shivered. Perhaps the castle was not as secured as we were all led to believe.
I opened my mouth, on the verge of asking if there was anyone I could talk to about the Order, but I caught myself before asking the foolish question. I clenched my jaw instead, before asking, "I suppose you want me to keep this to myself?"
"That is the thing about secret organizations: it does help if they are not spoken of." He sank down onto the cushioned chair behind his desk. "Take your time to decide, Lily. If you don't want to join, or if you would rather wait until after you leave school, I'll understand. Come talk to me once you've decided. I don't want to pressure you," he added gently, "to get in over your head."
"Yes, Sir." But it was too late for him to hope that I didn't get in over my head. I suddenly felt like I was spinning and growing lighter, about to float away. I scooped my school bag to help weigh me down and slung it over my shoulder. I moved slowly across the room, feeling like my head wasn't really attached to the rest of my body.
I wanted to turn and tell him: of course I'll join. Even though the idea terrified me. But realistically, this didn't seem the sort of decision that ought to be rushed in to.
"Ah, yes. Happy Valentine's Day." Dumbeldore's voice brightened as he gestured to Bertram's flower, which I'd hastily tucked into one of the pockets of my school bag. "Always one of my favorite holidays. It must be all the chocolate."
"I always did prefer chocolates, myself," I said with an inward smile, thinking of the previous week when James had brought me illegally smuggled-in Honeydukes chocolates and Butterbeer to help me study for an Ancient Runes exam. But I sobered quickly. "I'll let you know what I decide, Sir."
I excused myself, and hurried down the staircase. There was still a sizeable chunk of Potions class time left, but not nearly enough for me to actually brew anything decent. I wasn't even sure what Potion I'd missed today—and to be honest, I didn't really care. I turned on my heel and headed toward the Gryffindor common room, suddenly feeling the need to enshroud myself in a comforting quilt before the fire, and do some serious thinking.
And then it struck me, a thought so obvious that I momentarily stopped in my tracks before remembering myself and continuing through the Portrait Hole: Dumbledore wouldn't have asked me to join if there was a doubt in his mind about my answer.
"Merlin's pants, am I in the right universe?" The theatrical tone, disbelieving, rang across the Common Room so loudly that I jumped. "Head Girl Lily Evans cutting class—and not even using the time to study?"
I didn't bother glancing up at Sirius as I finished shuffling my deck of Exploding Snap cards and started dealing out my hand of Solitaire. "I'm not cutting class, Black, as you should know. Dumbledore pulled me from Potions, and now there's not enough time to brew anything."
"Ah, is that what you're telling everyone?" he asked devilishly. He crossed the Common Room and collapsed onto the couch next to me. "Well if you're not going to use your spare time to study for N.E.W.T.s, like practically every other seventh year in the whole bleeding castle, at least play a worthwhile game."
He swept out an idle hand, brushing aside my cards. I punched him lightly on the arm in protest. "Hey, you lout!"
Sirius only grinned, and summoned over the Wizard's Chess board from a table across the room. Once the board was settled on the table, the pieces arranged themselves into their proper formations and stood waiting for commands.
I drew in a long breath, considering whether I should tell him to shove off and leave me alone with my thoughts. But I shook my head, letting out a long sigh. I had to admit that I really didn't fancy being alone at the moment. "Fine then," I said, leaning forward to rest my elbows on my knees as I contemplated the chees board, wondering what opening move to make. "I've got twenty minutes until Arithmancy starts. You're on."
"Fancy making a wager on the outcome?" Sirius asked, waggling his eyebrows at me.
I laughed and reached out to move a pawn. The piece wriggled uncomfortably under my fingers. I always forgot that I was supposed to order the pieces to move, not do it myself. Muggle habit. Obviously I was a rookie at this game. "No. We both know you're going to win."
"True." He hesitated, then issued a brief command to his knight, which responded immediately. "Are you going to Slughorn's Valentine's party tonight, for the Slug Club? James mentioned something about it."
"Yes," I groaned. "Slughorn wouldn't accept any excuses this time. Are you?"
Sirius snorted. "The moment Slughorn got wind that I'm disowned from the most noble and ancient house of Black, he stopped inviting me to his little events. Good thing, too. Little ponce. Besides, I already told you I have a date."
"In a spare classroom. Right." I shook my head, bemused, and then tentatively ordered my rook to move. The piece frowned at the strategy, but at least it did move; I'd seen some players' pieces flat out mutiny. We each played a few more turns, my pieces still seeming to question every command, before Sirius seemed to grow annoyed with their insolence.
"You've got to be confident, Lily, see." Sirius said. "So they'll trust you."
"Confidence doesn't always equal competence," I argued, tugging on my braid in frustration as I agonized over what move to make next. Sirius, it seemed, had laid down a trap for my every potential move, and I didn't see any safe path to travel. I'd have to start sacrificing pieces, something I was always reluctant to do. Besides, I didn't need the morale of my troops to sink any lower than it already was.
"It doesn't," he agreed, surprising me. "But sound confident enough, and no one will question your competence."
"Interesting theory," I said—and then was distracted as, in his next move, he captured my Queen. I hadn't even realized that I'd left a hole in her defenses.
Sirius grinned. "You need some serious tutoring in this game. Some Sirius tutoring." His eyes widened comically as he made his pun, and I hit him playfully over the head with one of the couch cushions.
"Oh just put me out of my misery already," I said, ceasing my battery of him so that I could clutch the pillow to my chest. My chess pieces shifted nervously on their squares as the Queen fell, knowing that it wouldn't be long before their forces were decimated. "It's almost time for class."
"As m'Lady commands," Siris said, with such a great impersonation of Sir Cadogan that I laughed, and forgot for a moment my displeasure at being so thoroughly beaten in the game. It didn't take long for me to topple over my King, surrendering. I tried to ignore my chess pieces shaking their fists at me in anger as their enemy celebrated. Feeling guilty and determined not to look at the pieces, I quickly slung my book bag over my shoulder and headed for the Portrait Hole.
"How'd you get so good at chess, anyway? It doesn't seem like your type of game."
"Remus likes to play and I got tired of losing," Sirius answered, rolling to his feet from the couch and stretching languorously, almost cat-like. In moments like that I could see why a full quarter of the girls enrolled at Hogwarts found him attractive, but I didn't let his looks phase me. He grinned at me, making him appear a little more handsome than he had moments before. I pushed open the Fat Lady's portrait, immune to his charm.
"Have fun in Arithmancy!" he called after me, sounding delighted that he didn't have to sit in class, while I did.
I rolled my eyes at him but tossed him a friendly wave as I joined the steady stream of Gryffindors rushing from the Common Room to head to their next class. Like watershed eventually joins a stream and then trickles down different tributaries to the ocean, we made our way to the Grand Staircase, mixing in with students from all the other houses as we descended to our respective destinations.
I broke away from the rest on the fourth floor, heading towards the Arithmancy classroom. I paused halfway down the corridor before a large mirror to straighten my plaited hair and to make sure that I didn't look too harried, but spent only a moment there before turning the corner past the Prefect's bathroom, darting into the next classroom, and sliding into my regular seat by the window just as the bell rang.
I frowned, glancing around. This wasn't the most popular class, but Alice normally shared my desk and kept me company while we wrote pages and pages of essays breaking down the magical theory of various complex numerical formulas. I peered around the dusty chalkboard, which was filled with the formulas we would be using today. While the rest of my classmates dutifully jotted down the formulas onto their parchment, I craned my neck, looking to see if Alice was perhaps talking to the Professor. But she wasn't there. I wrinkled my nose; it was odd for Alice to skip a class.
Without Alice there to help keep my mind on track, I found myself daydreaming, pondering the Order of the Phoenix. I kept my eyes down on my paper and moved my quill, half-heartedly taking notes, but I had no idea where the flow of the lecture was going. If I join the Order…what then? The thought of dueling another Death Eater, or worse, those dead bodies, made my heart flutter.
But wouldn't I rather be in the thick of it, in the know, than simply trying to survive on the fringes of the fight?
After class I took the shortcut down to the second floor, and was so absorbed in my thoughts that I forgot to skip the trick step. I sank down waist deep into the step, swearing. My face reddened with embarrassment; I hadn't forgotten that step since I was a second year.
"Oooh, has the Head Girl got her head in the clouds today?" Peeves materialized next to my face, hanging upside down. He stuck out his tongue at me and zoomed around over my head, taunting me. "Got herself stuck, she has." I wondered what mischief he had already gotten up to this morning; he seemed overly pleased with himself.
"Go away, Peeves," I grunted, annoyed, as I tried to wrench my foot out from where it had gotten stuck. Whomever had designed this particular staircase had a sick sense of humor. I glanced down, remembering that Remus had once told me that the trick steps sometimes led to a secret passage, but unfortunately I had chosen a rather boring one to fall into.
"Rude she is today," Peeves said, frowning, before making an equally rude gesture at me with both hands. "I'll watch her struggle, shall I?"
"I didn't expect anything more of you." With an almighty heave, I jerked my foot free of its trap and managed to pull myself out of the step. Before I could grab my bag, Peeves picked it up and rose to the ceiling, dangling the bag down just out of my reach.
Praising the heavens that I hadn't left it in my bag, I pulled my wand from my robes and leveled it at him. "We're not going to play this game today, Peeves," I said, my voice hard. It was hard to believe that I had been utterly terrified of him first year. Peeves stared at me, considering, before dropping the bag. My books fell heavily to the floor, parchment flying everywhere. "If you just got ink all over my books…" I warned.
"You're no fun anymore," he sulked, a devious glimmer in his eyes as though he was planning on ambushing me later. I shot sparks at him with my wand, and his eyes grew wide before he disappeared. Peeves was observant enough to know that seventh years could come up with some creative hexes—it was the only measure of control we had over him.
Sighing, I flicked my wand at my school supplies, jumbling it all back into my bag. I kept a close eye on my surroundings as I made my way out of the castle, paranoid that Peeves might retaliate by dropping something onto my head. Feeling foolish, I kept my wand out to scare him off.
I paused just outside of the Great Hall and drew in a deep breath. The lawns were still draped in snow, but the snowfall was light, as though a finishing touch to the wintry masterpiece. The frigid air was refreshing, and the wide open space of the castle grounds unboxed my stifled mind.
I carefully picked my way down the short staircase that led down to the sloping front lawns of the castle. Students trudging out to the greenhouses before me had made a path through the snow, but the steps were still dangerously icy. Several of my classmates ambled down the path before me, laughing at chatting, reassuring me that I wasn't as late as I felt I was.
I turned, surprised, but gladdened to hear James' voice. A dark blur was headed towards me from the Quidditch pitch. He skid-landed in a flurry of snow, showing off as he dismounted his broom in one smooth motion. Broom in one hand and Quaffle in the other, he trudged the remaining distance to me with a grin.
"Just been testing out the new broom," he said by way of greeting as he joined me on the path. "Early birthday gift from dad. It's absolutely amazing," he reassured me, as though I dared to think otherwise.
"Oh yeah?" I grinned and glanced over the broomstick as he hefted it onto his shoulder. It certainly looked new, all sleek and polished, but I was never one to keep up with every new model release. "Think it'll help bring you a win this Saturday in your re-match against Slytherin?"
"That's all skill, my love," he said, so arrogantly that I laughed at him. He handed me the Quaffle so he could throw an arm around my shoulders and hug me into him. "But seriously, a quicker broom will give the edge I need."
I turned the red Quaffle over in my hands, pressing my fingers into it to test the leather's give. "I'm looking forward to the game," I told him. "Although it's a pity that you can't join us at Hogsmeade beforehand. Alice said that Frank would try to come up, and probably Fabian as well."
"Now that does sounds like a merry double date," he said, waggling his eyebrows at me. "But I'll need to start warming up and focusing on the game. You have a Butterbeer for me, alright?"
"I'll try to survive the afternoon without you," I told him dryly as the greenhouses came into view. I turned, playfully shoving the Quaffle roughly into his stomach. He grunted, grabbing it, and I danced out from under his arm. I didn't want to be so obviously intimate with him in plain view of other students.
"You'd make a miraculous Beater," he told me with a wince, tucking the Quaffle under his arm. He had that old mischievous glint in his eyes that gave me pause. He bent briefly, scooping up some snow. "Unfortunately for you, my aim, as a Chaser, is impeccable."
"You wouldn't," I dared him, eyeing him as he formed a snowball in his hands.
"I wouldn't? You started it."
"James—" I warned, having a hard time catching my breath through laughter. "Don't—"
He did it anyway, as I knew he wood, pelting me right in the face with the snowball. Ice slid under my clothes, making me shiver. Despite myself, I squeaked in protest as the cold struck me. I tried to retaliate, flinging snow in the direction I thought he was, but slush blinded my vision. His arms encircled my waist, and he pulled me down into the snowdrifts with him.
"Happy Valentine's Day," he said, and pressed a quick kiss onto my cheek before leaving me to clamber up alone out of the snow.
I swiped snow from my eyes, and realized that the whole Herbology class—both Gryfindor and Hufflepuff-had come out to watch the commotion. They were grinning at James as he swaggered toward them. Behind James, Emmeline was shaking her head, laughing. The Hufflepuffs looked less amused. Tensions were rather high between the two houses, what with the upcoming Quidditch game.
If Gryffindor lost, it would strengthen Hufflepuff's bid for the House Cup.
He raised his arms, brandishing the Quaffle, seeming to revel in their attention. "Didn't I tell you that I never miss?" he asked our fellow Gryffindors, who roared and whistled their approval at him. His act certainly had the intended effect: boosting their morale. The Hufflepuffs, on the other hand, groaned good-naturedly at his Quidditch bravado, and several called out less-than-polite comments in reply.
But I got my own back in the next instant, when I lobbed a giant snowball at James that caught him right in the back of the head. Even the most ardent Gryffindor House supporter cracked a smile at the image of James suddenly awash in snow. He froze, shoulders shaking with laughter, and hooked a thumb back in my direction.
"And I told her that she'd make a great Beater. Good thing that wasn't a Bludger, eh?"
"I wish it was," I announced as I passed by him, trying to muster my dignity despite being covered in icy slush. "Just be thankful that I didn't drop an avalanche on your head, Potter."
I turned back to grace him with a playful glare as the other students followed me into the humid warmth of the greenhouses. His eyes met mine, promising retribution later. A flush touched my cheeks as I imagined just how he was planning to retaliate. I was looking forward to it.
"Quite a display," Alice said as she met me at the Greenhouse door. She looked pale, and I wondered if she had missed Arithmancy because she was feeling ill again. Probably from stress, I decided. She worried too much about Frank.
"Just don't injure him before the match, alright?" Emmeline said, cutting in before I could ask Alice why she hadn't been in class. Emmeline took my arm and pulled me over to our usual table in the back so that Madame Sprout could shut the Greenhouse doors against the cold. "We need to win this one to qualify for the House Cup."
I smiled prettily, shrugging my bag off my shoulders. "I make no promises."
Emmeline sent me a side-long look, suppressing a smile. I decided I was probably glad that she didn't say the inappropriate, innuendo-filled comment that surely had come to her mind. But I caught her eye, and we both laughed, knowing what she was thinking.
Madame Sprout sent us a severe look—"The plants," she insisted, "need peace."—but in that single moment, I couldn't be bothered by what the plants wanted. I felt alight with contentment, feeling bonded with camaraderie to all of the students surrounding me, buoyed especially by my relationships with Emmeline and Alice, and James.
I let this bubble of peace swell within me until it filled my whole being, and for a time, forgot about the War, the machinations of the two opposing sides, and my part in it all.
Later that night, I slunk into my room, dragging my bag behind me, and shut the door so gently that I didn't even hear the latch catch. I leaned heavily back against the door, shutting my eyes and attempting to let the day's stress leak from my bones in a long sigh. It wasn't that the day had been any more trying than an average day, but thoughts of the Order of the Phoenix weighed on me. I mustered the energy to push myself from the door and cross my room to the window, staying far away from my bed because all I really wanted to do in that moment was curl up in a blanket, yet I still had to show my face at Slughorn's party.
I sighed again, and then mentally slapped myself and set about getting cleaned up. Moving mechanically, I stripped off and started the shower tap running. Hot showers never failed to get my blood flowing and brain chugging along, and as an added mental treat, I pulled the lever to start mixing a flow of foamy glowing green bubbles with the spray. I stepped into the water and couldn't suppress my childish grin as the bubbles surrounded me. It wasn't long before I had steamed up the whole bathroom and filled the entire glass-encased shower with green foam, but I was in no hurry and had no intention of leaving my little paradise.
I'd lost all track of time when James tapped on the bathroom door from his room and opened it a crack. "Lily?"
"Come in, you're letting out the warm air."
"Warm air?" He grinned as he quickly let himself into the room. "It feels like a sauna in here."
"Exactly." I smiled at him and beckoned him over. He arched an eyebrow at me, then unfurled the small piece of parchment in his hands before sauntering over toward me. He pressed the parchment up against the glass wall of the shower.
"I thought you'd want to see this," he said, holding the parchment to the glass with one hand as he undid the buttons of his shirt with the other. I leaned close to the glass wall, trying to make out the writing.
Dear Mr. Potter,
Please forgive me for sending this message to you via house elf, and with such short notice. I am sure you have heard the news that several students' parents were killed in a recent attack in London. In the light of these circumstances, I believe it would be inappropriate to host a frivolous party during a time of grief, and have thus canceled tonight's event.
Please send my regards to your father,
-Professor H. Slughorn
"Rather noble of him," I said, looking up at James.
He shrugged as he pulled off his robes, leaving them in a pile on the floor. I admired the lean lines of his body as he stepped under the spray with me, and blushed as he caught me eyeing him. He stepped into the circle of my arms and pulled me close to him, and I concerned myself with nothing but the feel of his skin pressed against mine. My heart rattled with lust so violently I was sure he could feel the rhythm pulsing against him.
"I can think of a few things I'd rather do than go to Slughorn's party," James said, grinning.
"Mmm." I didn't have to ask him to name what he had in mind. I closed my eyes and let my head fall back, reveling in the feel of the slick warmth of the bubbly water as it battered my skin, and the contrasting smoothness of his hands sliding from my shoulders down to the curves of my hips. He pulled my hips against his as he leaned over me, bending his head to kiss my neck.
"You feel so tense," he murmured, his lips moving against my skin.
"So relax me," I told him devilishly, reaching down to stroke my hand against his skin in a place so sensitive that he shivered despite the heat of the shower.
He grinned at me, accepting my dare. "That, I can do."
Eventually we shifted from the bathroom to his bed, not bothering to towel off. The bedroom felt chilled compared to the warmth of the bathroom, and we dived under his coverlet to stave off the cold. I cracked the window just barely enough to let in a whisper of icy fresh air that created an excuse for us to huddle together.
"You know," James said later, once we were sprawled, sated, in each other's arms. He ran his fingers along the bare skin of my stomach, drawing idle pictures that I couldn't make out. The coverlet hung askew, half-draped onto the floor. At some point we had become overheated and I'd flung it away, but I couldn't recall exactly when. Now, the winter chill was settling over us again, and I reached down to grab the coverlet and fling it over our naked bodies. "Eventually we're going to have to go down to dinner."
I blinked lazily at him, and scooped a lock of hair out of my eyes. "I'm too comfortable to move."
He laughed, looking triumphant. "Relaxed, are you?"
"Yes." I stretched, and my fingers brushed against a stray piece of parchment on his bedside table. I glanced over at the parchment, which was so large that even though the parchment was folded into quarters, a corner of it hung over the edge of the table. The Maurader's Map.
"Can I look at it?" I asked, tapping the Map with a finger. He nodded, so I pulled it from the table. Rolling onto my belly, I spread the Map out on the bed before us. James passed me his wand, and smirked at me as I incanted, "I solemnly swear that I am up to no good".
"Sexiest thing you've ever said." He laughed as he shifted over to lay beside me, his body pressing against mine. I leaned eagerly into his warmth. "Although you can barely say it with a straight face," he said, pulling the Map slightly closer to him so he could see the tiny labels moving around the corridors.
"That's because the phrase is ridiculous," I said playfully, looking down at the Map. The detail of the grounds was intricate, and even though I had seen the Map a handful of times now, I couldn't help but be impressed. "Who came up with that anyway?"
"I'll never tell," James said. He tapped a finger onto the Map as though making up his mind, and I peered over to see that he was pointing at the kitchens. Then he leaned over and kissed the top of my head. "You stay here. I'll nip down to the kitchens to get us some dinner."
"I'll track your progress," I said, grinning. As he rolled out of bed and dressed, I found Gryffindor tower on the Map and located our two dots, closeted together in the Head Boy's room. "Bet you can't make it there and back in fifteen minutes."
He snorted. "Amateur." With that he was gone, and I gleefully watched his dot move down to the Common Room and pass by the Fat Lady's portrait. Perhaps the Map was a bad influence on me, because I found myself mischievously looking for Sirius' dot, wondering if he had, in fact, managed to charm someone into spending the evening with him in one of the spare classrooms.
A stray movement out of the corner of my eye, a shifting of movement where it was unexpected, made me focus on the periphery of the map. Emmeline Vance. I gasped. Emmeline's dot was moving slowly down the path towards the train station, accompanied by Hagrid. A horrible premonition crawled up my spine: Emmeline was about to do something rash.
Grabbing James' new broom, I darted into my room only long enough to throw on some clothes. Two flicks of my wand flung the shutters of my window open and wrenched up the sliding pane. I stepped back and set the broom on the floor. "Up!" I ordered, holding my hand out at hip-height.
Obediently, the broomstick leapt up to my hand and hung there in the air, waiting for me to mount it. I flung a leg over the broom and then carefully levitated until my toes lifted from the floor. I'd never had wonderful coordination on a broomstick, but managed to ease myself through the open window without hitting my head on the sill. The snowfall was light, but still I was nearly unseated as the winds buffeted me. A thrill of vertigo and the fear of falling to my death nearly made me vomit, and I swooped toward the ground. Feeling more secure as I skimmed low above the snow drifts, I leaned low over the broomstick and sped toward Hogwarts Station.
It was odd to see the Hogwarts Express pulled into the station without its swarm of students. I flew wildly around the steam rising from the engine and jerked myself around to land on the platform several compartments down from where the dark shadows of Emmeline and Hagrid stood with her trunk.
As I landed, the wand of the smaller figure alit and rose to point straight at my heart. The conjured light blinded me, and I threw up a hand to block the glare. "Emmeline? It's me."
"Lily?" The light faltered as she lowered her wand. I swung off of the broomstick, leaving it to hang waiting in the air behind me as I trotted over to my best friend.
"What're you doin' here?" Hagrid's voice seemed to boom in the darkness, but my only answer for him was a shake of my head.
"Emmeline. What do you think you're doing?" I gestured to her trunk, which Hagrid had lifted to load into the train's compartment as easily as if it weighed nothing at all. He seemed to decide that it would be best to give us privacy, and retreated into the compartment without another word.
"I can't explain," Emmeline said in a low voice. She pulled up the hood of her cloak, as though by shrouding her face she could help hide her secrets. "But it's important."
And suddenly it hit me. I knew why she was leaving. Ever since the incident that had been so scarring to her the previous summer, the murder of the Muggle family that had lived across the street from her, she had wanted to do something to help fight Death Eaters. Her frustration and feelings of helplessness had only grown since Moody had talked to her about joining the Aurors on the day of her hearing. They need capable witches and wizards now, not five month's from now, she'd said only this morning at breakfast. And now she was leaving because—I was sure—she had joined the Order of the Phoenix.
I didn't ask her to confirm my suspicions. She didn't need to.
She met my eyes, and through that bond we had formed after seven years of tight friendship, she knew what I was thinking. She nodded, slightly, and even as my heart swelled with pride for her brave decision, it also seemed to break. I drew in a sharp breath as the dagger of sudden loneliness pierced my chest. But all I could do was nod in return. An understanding settled between us. I flung my arms around her in an embrace so abrupt that I trapped her arms to her sides.
"Be safe," I whispered, before letting her go.
She nodded, and wiped a tear from her cheek. "My dad's been ill. I have to go tend to him at home, he's always hated hospitals," she said, offering an explanation for her leaving that anyone spying on us could overhear. "All my best, Lily," she said. And then she steeled her shoulders, and disappeared onto the train.
Hagrid and I watched in silence as the Hogwarts Expressed pulled away.
"You shouldn't be out here alone, Lily," Hagrid said after the train had disappeared from sight. "C'mon, let's get you back up to the castle."
"I'll be fine, Hagrid," I said glumly. I pointed my wand out into the darkness of the platform. "Accio broom!"
With the sound of an arrow shooting from a bow, the broomstick shot over to my waiting hand. I mounted it, and tossed Hagrid a wave goodbye as it lifted me into the air. "Race you back to the castle!" I called to him, forcing a smile.
"Yer going to get yerself killed on that broomstick!" he called after me as I sped away from him, shooting low above the path back to Hogwarts.
"Am not," I scoffed stubbornly as I leaned low against the handle. I summoned up a burst of speed that made my stomach clench with fear and delight, and my eyes water with tears as the wind stung my face. But when I adjusted my balance on the broomstick to better handle the curve of the pathway around the lake, I nearly unseated myself. Automatically I pulled up to drastically cut my speed, wincing as I imagined how painful it would be to go bouncing off of the rocky path.
Heart racing, I had to admit that maybe Hagrid was right: I didn't really know how to handle a broomstick all that well.
I pulled the broom up, heading higher into the air. At this slower speed, and with the aid of the crescent moon, I could really appreciate the beauty of my aerial view of the Hogwarts environs.
I gasped as I spotted the stag.
It was rushing over the ice of the lake in large lithe bounds. Although its movements were graceful, I could see the power in its limbs and in the spring of its steps. It had beautiful but unusual coloring for a stag, with hide so deeply brown that it was almost black, and dark antlers which curved gracefully overhead before branching out into at least a dozen individual points. Deadly weapons, if pressed.
Almost without thinking, I threw out a hand as though the mere motion alone could stop the stag's progress across the ice. "Prongs!"
The stag pulled to a halt and its head came up, on alert. I dove downward and managed to dismount the broom more gracefully than I had at Hogwart's Station. The stag stamped a front leg at me, seeming impatient, as I jogged over to its side. I slipped on the ice, too stunned to pay attention to my footing as I neared the Animagus.
Even though I knew it was James, the size of the stag was daunting. It seemed to tower over me, its thick neck holding up the heavy weight of the antlers. No doubt the animal could bound over me—or into me, crushing me—without even slowing its momentum. Its sides were heaving from the long run down from the castle, and each short breath shot from its nose as steam. I reached out a shaking hand, touching the side of the stag's neck. At my touch, the warm, soft hide under my palm twitched. The stag's head turned, regarding me, and its eyes were intelligent. Thin dark lines encircled the stag's eyes, hardly discernible, but making the stag appear bespectacled.
"James?" I whispered, still disbelieving.
The stag snorted, either scoffing or laughing, I couldn't tell. It reared up on its hind legs, startling me so badly that I stepped too quickly back and slipped, falling down onto the ice. It transformed, then, as quickly as those matches that Professor McGonagall used to have to change into needles. The figure shrunk as it Untransfigured itself into the more familiar, human shape of James Potter, which then very politely held out a hand to help me up off of the ice.
My hands were visibly shaking with shock, but I slipped a hand into his anyway, letting him pull me upright and into an embrace.
"What are you doing out here, Lily?" James asked, his voice a whisper.
"I'm sorry I stole your broomstick," I said numbly. And then the shock of seeing him transform, and Emmeline leaving, and what Dumbledore had offered me that morning, hit me all at once. I drew back from James and pressed me thumb and forefinger against my forehead, determined not to cry. "Can we please go back up to the castle?"
James nodded, looking concerned. In a matter of moments we were both seated on the broomstick, James' arms wrapped comforting around me as we leaned forward over the handle. I let James steer us back up into the castle. We slipped through my open bedroom window and clambered from the broom. I sat down limply by the two trays of food that rested on my bed, but I found I had no appetite.
James ran his hands over the broomstick, inspecting it, before leaning his prize carefully against the wall. "You forgot to clear the Map."
"I know, I'm sorry. I saw Emmeline going to the train station," I pulled up my knees and wrapped my arms around my legs. "I wondered why. Her dad's ill. So she's leaving."
I didn't want to lie to him, but I couldn't—I couldn't outright talk about the Order. I desperately wanted to ask him if Dumbledore had approached him too, to ask if he was thinking about joining. But I couldn't break Dumbledore's trust.
"I'm sorry," James said quietly. He sat down behind me on the bed, wrapping his arms around me and resting his head on my shoulder. I leaned back into the embrace, not knowing what to say.
We sat in silence for a moment, watching the snow drift in through the open window. A gust of icy wind blew out the candles, plunging us into darkness and chilling me to the bone. I turned my face into the warmth of his neck.
"Will you sleep here tonight?"
His answer was to pull off his shirt, and then mine, and slide into bed with me. I snuggled up against his chest so that I could hear his heart beating. "My head is spinning," I admitted, squeezing my eyes shut against a swell of tears.
He tightened his arms around me and settled his chin atop my head, sighing with contentment as he anchored me to him. Finally, I slept.
"This is nice, isn't it?"
"Yeah. Hard to think it's almost at an end."
In unison, Alice and I leaned forward to rest our elbows on the polished wooden table of The Three Broomsticks, cupping winter-chilled hands around steaming hot mugs of Butterbeer as we surveyed the High Street of Hogsmead through the pub's front window. Snow piled up on the windowsill and ice had sent crystal fingers creeping along the pane's edge, but if Alice and I held our heads close together, there was still enough clear space through the center of window for us both to watch the throngs of exuberant students, proudly decked out in mittens and scarves of their House colors, gallivanting down the streets.
"Four years we've been coming here, can you believe it?" Alice slid her mug toward mine, tipping its heavy ceramic rim against mine in a lazy toast.
I didn't answer, but simply dropped my head to take a long draw of the Butterbeer. Tears sprang to my eyes at the taste. It wasn't the drink's sweetness that was so striking, but the way that drinking it while sitting here with Alice felt so comfortingly like home.
"If I ever make a love potion, it's going to smell like Butterbeer," I mused before taking another quick sip of the drink. I nodded my head in satisfaction before I caught Alice looking askance at me, grinning. I shrugged bashfully. "What? It probably would."
She laughed. "I believe you."
We'd both been mired in the doldrums over the last few days; Emmeline's leaving had depressed me more than I cared to admit, and Alice had been distraught to learn that, at the last minute, Frank had been sent off to some undisclosed location, no doubt facing undisclosed dangers. But as we sat now in silence as contented as two Royals basking in the light of their domain, I finally began to feel the first stirrings of closure settling around my shoulders.
We hadn't talked about why Emmeline had left. I'd spread the story around the Common Room that Emmeline's father was ill and she'd gone to care for him, and before nightfall the next day it had been accepted as fact throughout all the Houses. But Alice was sharp, and she and Emmeline were close. Besides that, I'd never been a good liar, and Alice knew what I looked like when I tried to pass off a lie as truth. I wondered if she believed the tale, or silently suspected the truth. I didn't dare try to find out. I couldn't risk revealing Dumbledore's secret, and I almost resented him for causing my deception.
"So what do you want to do next?" I asked Alice after a time, fishing around in my pockets for a few sickles to pay for my drink. "I fancy some chocolate, and then—"
Alice reached out and grabbed my wrist, silencing me in an instant. She tilted her head and narrowed her eyes at something she saw beyond the pane. I tilted my head too as I peered out of the window, trying to spot what had so unnerved her. My heart started dancing nervously in my chest. "What—"
"Is that Fabian?" She slid from her stool and marched toward the door, hauling me after her.
"Why wouldn't he be with Frank?" I asked dumbly as we tumbled across the threshold and were struck full in the face by a freezing cold wind, winter's last hurrah.
Intent upon her target, she didn't answer. I slipped my hand from hers but obediently followed her down toward the Post Office, resisting the urge to fish my wand from my pocket as I trotted after her. I scanned the streets, but the sheer number of students moving around the town distracted my eyes.
Until I saw him, a tall man with red hair dressed in Muggle clothing standing under the eaves of the Post Office, calmly watching us approach. I met the man's eyes, and though he looked like Fabian, no glimmer of recognition shone out to greet me.
"Wait, Alice…" I said, grabbing the back of her robes to slow her. "That's not Fabian."
The man stepped out into the street and quickly bridged the space between us.
"No, I'm not Fabian," he said jovially, offering me his hand to shake. "Acquaintances of his? I'm his brother, Gideon Prewett."
I peered at Gideon. It made sense. The two men looked very nearly identical, except this man wore his hair longer, tied back in a tail. His eyes looked every bit as tired as his brother's usually did, though. I cautiously took Gideon's hand. He laughed at my suspicion as we shook.
"Can never be too careful these days, eh?" he said, grinning. "I'll try not to be offended."
"Ah, yes," Alice said slowly as she shook Gideon's hand in turn. "Fabian's mentioned you before, and your sister, but I didn't realize you two were identical."
"Yes, of course. Lovely to finally meet you. Alice, isn't it? Soon to be Longbottom, eh?"
She flushed and grinned. "This is my friend Lily Evans. You should talk to her about the department. She really can't make up her mind about what to do after we graduate."
I sent her a questioning look that Gideon clearly interpreted.
"I'm an Auror," he explained, dropping his voice as he said it. "Off duty, mind. Thought I'd drop by for the Quidditch match. Heard there might be some recruiters at this game. Supposed to be a good one."
"As we've heard a million times," I said, unable to suppress the urge to roll my eyes. Alice snorted a laugh, and Gideon grinned.
"I'm sure your House Quidditch players won't let you forget it."
Alice and I both sighed in unison.
"I'll admit, though, that I have another reason for being here." He pulled two pieces of crumpled parchment, folded neatly into small squares, from his pocket. "Owls aren't always to be trusted these days," he said, handing one parchment each to Alice and me. "From a mutual acquaintance."
I glanced down at the parchment. In actuality it was a letter, with my initials scrawled hastily across the top fold. I knew that handwriting.
"I knew it," Alice breathed, staring at her parchment with wide eyes before excitedly shoving it into her pocket to read later. "I knew it." She turned to beam at me. "You never were any good at telling lies."
"No, she isn't," a male voice said, cutting off my reply. Alice's smile slipped right off her face, and my spine began to crawl. I hadn't told Alice just what Severus Snape had done to me, putting a tracking hex on me, but Alice had seen enough over the years to put up her guard when Snape was around.
I turned to face him, galled somewhat at the thought that he dared to approach me as I stood talking to an Auror. I forced myself to calm down and make my expression carefully neutral before I looked over at Snape, reminding myself that he probably didn't know that Gideon was an Auror. And it needed to stay that way.
Snape looked as haughty as he usually did, standing there with his hands thrust into his pockets, his shoulders hunched against the cold despite the faded Slytherin scarf was wrapped around his neck. The shifting wind plastered his dark hair against his forehead. He tossed his head, flinging long locks of his hair out of his eyes as he said, "I need to talk to you, Lily."
I clenched my teeth, and almost unconsciously raised my chin as he took a step closer to me. "I don't want to talk to you."
He sighed, glancing furtively over my shoulder at Alice and Gideon. "I know," he said earnestly, lowering his head so that only I could hear him. "But it's important." He reached out to lightly grab my arm. "Lily—"
I stepped back out of his grip, terrified that in that brief contact he had somehow hexed me again. "Don't touch me."
"Is there a problem here?"
Snape sneered as Gideon stepped up behind me. I could just barely see the Auror out of my peripheral vision: he looked intimidating even without a wand as he crossed his arms and slanted a concerned look across at me.
"None of your business," Snape said icily as in the same moment I turned to give Gideon a tight smile.
"It's fine," I told Gideon and Alice briskly. "It'll just be a moment."
Snape immediately turned away and trudged across the street. I followed him, digging my wand out of my pocket as I went. I held it loosely in my fingers, trying to look nonchalant. But when he reached the eaves of the Shrieking Shack—the only place in Hogsmeade devoid of other students—and turned to face me, the muscles of his jaw bulged as he repetitively clenched his jaw.
"Do you really think you need that, Lily?" He finally asked, sounding offended.
"The last time we talked, you hexed me," I said, crossing my arms. "What do you think?"
"It wasn't a hex—"
I held up a hand, begging him to spare me his excuses. "What do you want?"
He glanced around, making sure we were alone, before drawing his wand out his robes. I tensed as he waved it lazily through the air. "Muffliato."
I narrowed my eyes, fingers tightening on my own wand. "What was that?"
"A spell to make sure we're not overheard."
"Right," I said, dryly. "Who's going to overhear us, the ghosts of the Shrieking Shack?"
"There are no ghosts in the Shrieking Shack," Snape said through gritted teeth, as though I'd struck a nerve. "Listen, Lily—is that man down there an Auror?"
"Why would you think that?" I asked blandly, hoping that he couldn't sense my anxiety over the question.
Snape shook his head. "Whatever. That doesn't matter. The point is: you shouldn't hang around those types of people. It isn't-"
"Safe?" The word slipped from me as a venomous hiss, and he seemed to know that he'd lit a fuse. His eyes widened in surprise as I stepped forward to jab him in the chest with a finger, wishing that my touch could bruise him down to his heart. "Don't you dare admit that you were about to tell me that I shouldn't hang around with the likes of Aurors because it isn't safe! Because it makes me a target of your kind—"
He reached up to grab my wrist. But instead of forcing my hand away from him, he pulled me closer to him. "Why can't you accept that I'm just trying to look out for you?" he asked, anger threatening to fracture the thin veneer of his calm. "And you're not making it easy!"
Our gazes met with the mental clash of two sparring swordsmen, and we glared at each other for a long moment. "Because you chose the Death Eaters," I answered softly, still so horrified to admit it—out loud—that the words almost stuck in my throat.
He stared at me for a moment, his lips tight and trembling with what I presumed was frustration. But he didn't get the chance to respond.
The low voice, the speaker perhaps just around the other side of the Shrieking Shack, was so close that I jumped. "What-?"
Before I could even turn to look, screams split the air. A green glittering blur caught my eyes, and I glanced up at the dark, cloudlike mass that was rising into the air, writhing as it twisted into the shape of a large snake twined around a hollow skull.
I stood there, stunned for a moment, before I realized that Snape had grabbed my shoulder and was trying to drag me away from the Shrieking Shack, towards the High Street. I heaved myself away from him, fueled by a rush of fear and anger that left me trembling, but my mind was clear. I tightened my grip on my wand and ran around to the back side of the Shack. Snape followed me, frantic.
"Are you mental?!—"
A body lay abandoned, sprawled down in the snow, but the Death Eater—the masked and terrible specter that I built up in my mind, expecting to see—had already gone.
"Wait, Lily." Somehow—although I realized I shouldn't have been surprised-Gideon Prewett had already reached the murder scene. His wand was out, and he was peering at the tree line around the Shack has though hoping to spot the murderer. Alice was with him, looking pale and determined. Snape had gone, somehow. "Sometimes they booby trap the bodies."
I could still hear screaming. The students, down in the village. I nodded, clinging to my last shreds of serenity. "I should let you handle this then, yeah?" I said breathlessly, locking my knees so my legs wouldn't go out from under me at the sight of the dead man. My eyes wanted to slip away from the scene, and my brain refused to find details of the person's utterly still face, frozen in surprise-
"You're going to have a riot on your hands if you don't calm the students soon," Gideon said as he finally looked down at the body, his voice hard. "Which was no doubt the intent."
"Alright." I forced myself to turn away from the ghastly scene. My eyes trailed up to the commandeering, almost mocking Dark Mark hanging over us. I drew in a long breath, held it for the count of 5 while I silently wished from James' commanding and confident presence to come to my aid.
Alice rested her hand on my shoulder, and at her touch I let out the trembling breath and remembered to inhale again. Exhale. Inhale.
"Come on, Lily," Alice whispered, her gentle arm around my shoulders turning me and guiding me down toward the High Street. How was she so calm? "The students need your leadership. Focus on that.."
I pulled myself out of my mental horror at what I had witnessed, and then forced myself to nod at her. Color flitted in my peripheral vision as my eyes caught a multitude of House scarves shifting as students ran for the hoped-for safety of the indoor shops or sprinted up toward the castle. Some students were still screaming, others were crying, others simply stared up at the Dark Mark.
The air seemed to pop behind us as at least a dozen Aurors and Ministry Officials Apparated to the scene. A part of me was morbidly fascinated to find out what would happen now—but they had their job to do, and I had mine.
I nodded again, steeling my nerve, and stepped forward to do my best.
Almost 10K words, another monster chapter! Hope you enjoyed!
I seem to only be able to write when I'm away from school on an externship! :) That said, this chapter is brought to you by the Pacific Rim soundtrack (composed by Ramin Djawadi). The next Interlude shall hopefully be following shortly.