"I still think that this is a terrible idea."
Lily said it out loud, although she was sure that no one would listen to her. James definitely didn't care what she thought. He glanced at her with that overstated indifference she'd become very familiar with over the past few weeks, and then went back to avoiding eye contact altogether.
"Stay here, then. You'd just get in our way, anyway."
"I didn't say I wasn't coming."
Lily clutched her wand more tightly, and took in a deep breath. The cold midwinter air left a bad taste in her mouth, as if she was suddenly tasting her own blood.
She had dived head first into deep trouble enough times to know a bad decision when she was staring at one, but she usually got herself involved in sticky situations under the delusion that she was doing the right thing. This time, she knew that they were all about to make a huge mistake. People were going to die tonight.
Right now, more than twenty members of the Order of the Phoenix were ready to attack Sceaduwe Keep. They had surrounded the castle – a blackened, ugly ruin that stood on a barren hill looking every bit uninviting – waiting for their cue to move forward. The intention was to enter the castle at midnight from all sides and trap the enemy inside. They had already grounded the area so that no one in the castle could Disapparate from the site. The Dark Lord and his men would have no way to escape without going through the Order first.
That was what frightened Lily. She didn't believe that the Order was ready to take down Voldemort. He would slaughter them all before he allowed himself to be captured. The Order outnumbered him and his men, but that didn't mean that he couldn't take down many of them before escaping. She believed that the Death Eaters he had with him were the same – ready to die for their Master, if it came down to it.
James filled her with anxiety, too. She wasn't sure how far he was willing to go to avenge Sirius. And how about the other members of the Order? Would they really be content with merely capturing their enemies? The Order already had a body count, and Lily feared that they were too a little bit too keen to expand it.
What would happen when they collided with the Death Eaters? How many dead bodies would fall between them tonight?
How many of them deserved it?
Lily still wasn't sure how she was going to stop the situation from spiralling out of control, but tagging along was the something she knew she had to do. She couldn't sit this one out, or she'd be haunted by it for the rest of her days. This was where she needed to be tonight.
"I don't want to hear any more of your complaints when we get in there," James told her, "Just follow my lead, keep quiet, and for fuck's sake try not to do anything stupid. I don't want you to get us killed."
"I don't want anyone to get killed."
To make matters so much worse, Moody had made Lily and James partners for the mission. They were going to enter the castle two by two from different angles, and Lily was stuck with James.
"Potter is one of our better fighters," Moody had said, "You're one of our worst. You have a beter chance of living through this if you're with him. Also -" he had lowered his voice and glanced suspiciously at James, "- someone should keep an eye on Potter."
She had frowned. "I'm supposed to babysit him?"
"Just make sure that he doesn't take it too far."
She thought about Moody's words when the clock struck twelve, and her pulse quickened. What did James want from this mission – justice or blood?
"Ready?" James asked.
"As ready as I'll ever be," Lily sighed.
They entered the castle from the East. There was a crack on the wall there, big enough to climb through, and they were in before she knew it. Their job was to go through the upper levels of the castle eliminating all possible threats and work their way down in the underground tunnels, where they expected to find Voldemort and his new recruits.
Twenty minutes later, they had checked the walls and the gates and combed the courtyard, and they'd seen nothing but glimpses of their own friends. There were no traces of Death Eaters anywhere.
"This place looks empty. Maybe they aren't here," Lily said as they made their way further into the castle.
"Maybe somebody warned them," said James.
Lily glared at him.
"Someone like me?"
He turned around and faced her. It was very dark, and she could barely see him. His face was completely obscured by shadows.
His accusation hung between them for a moment. She suddenly felt very small next to him.
Small and breakable.
"Is this really the right time for this?" she asked, but her voice wasn't as commanding as she had intended.
"You don't even want to help the Order, do you? You're just trying to use us to get what you want."
"And what do I want?"
"I don't know, but I don't trust you. And now you're mad at me for not eating up your lies. I don't know what you've really been up to, but I don't believe that you've just been taking care of your nephew all these months. I don't believe that you're a Seer, either. Maybe the reason you know about all these attacks is because the Dark Lord has told you about them himself. Maybe you've sold us off."
Suddenly, a chilling fear struck Lily's heart. James was standing very close to her, holding his wand firmly in his hand. He was stronger than her, faster than her, a much better fighter. If he wanted to do something to hurt her, she'd have no way of defending herself. No one would help her. He could even kill her, and no one would know...
"Look, I don't know what you're -" she began, but never finished her sentence. Something flew right past her ear, and then she heard something that sounded awfully like a stray curse crashing into the wall behind her.
She reacted. Her mind connected the curse to the hand she had just feared it might come from, so she pushed James hard and ran from him when he fell.
She did not get far. Strong hands gripped her from behind and pushed her roughly against the wall. She screamed and dropped her wand. Soon, the hands reached for her throat, and squeezed hard. She tried to fight him, but she was losing air and blinded by pain, too weak to release herself from his iron grasp.
And then, out of the darkness, came a familiar voice, and a flash of green light.
The man let go of her, and he fell down with a loud thud. She dropped to her knees next to him and gasped for air. Somewhere close to her, a light was lit. It was only then when she realized what had just happened.
She was panting and coughing next to the dead body of a masked Death Eater, who had attacked her while she had been arguing with James. James himself was standing further down the hallway. He was using his wand as a torch, pointing it first at the dead man, and then at Lily. His glasses were gone. Maybe he had dropped them when she had pushed him, when she had...
A strange mix of guilt and gratitude hit her when the reality of her actions dawned on her. It felt like a bucket of freezing water thrown at her face.
James had saved her life.
And Lily had thought that he had tried to kill her.
"James, I'm sorry -"
"You alright?" he cut her off. She nodded, stroking her sore neck. She felt pitiful, useless, and violated, but most of all ashamed. She had genuinely thought that he wanted to murder her, that he really was capable of it.
What was wrong with her?
She looked at the Death Eater beside her, and felt another kind of chill going through her body.
You killed him, she thought, but couldn't say the words out loud.
"It was either you or him," James said, as if he had read her mind.
He picked up her wand silently, and helped her back up it without making any snide comments about having to rescue her. She felt even more ashamed for having expected him to say something hurtful.
"Thank you," she said and accepted her wand back, but James was ignoring her again. He turned his attention to the dead man, and reached down to take off his mask.
Another dreadful thought occured to her before James revealed the Death Eater's face. The man was tall and lean, and not at all unlike someone she had been looking for.
Could this be him?
James removed the mask, and Lily sighed quietly. The man was sandy-haired, round-faced, and at least ten years older than Severus.
"It's Balthazar Kipps. I always knew he was one of them," James said.
She stared at the man. Somehow, she could still picture Severus's lifeless body in his place.
They hid the body and moved on. Neither of them spoke, but she welcomed the silence. She knew that she and James would have to talk about what had just happened eventually, but not now. They had both been warned about where distractions could lead them.
They ended up in a candle-lit room, the first illuminated space they had seen so far. It was a large hall with an arched ceiling and several closed doors.
"One of those should get us down to the underground tunnels," James said and approached a door, "Wait here. I'll find out where this one leads."
Lily nodded, and stayed behind when James opened the door and when through it as quietly as a shadow.
She waited. James was taking his time, and she was getting more and more nervous with every passing minute. She remembered how Dumbledore had told that the underground level of the castle was designed to confuse intruders, and she instantly regretted having let him wander off on his own. She feared that he had gotten lost.
Finally, she heard a door open – but it wasn't the one James had gone through. When she looked to her left, she saw a Death Eater entering the room through one of the passages.
She drew in a quick breath and hid behind a column. The man didn't noticed her, but he was closing in on her. She had to do something fast.
This one certainly couldn't have been Severus. He was far too short and bulky – and, evidently, much worse a wizard, for she managed to jump out of her hiding place and stun him before he had even realized that she was there.
"That was surprisingly easy," she said to herself as she grabbed him by the feet and dragged him next to the wall. She disguised his unconscious body with a cloaking spell and felt oddly pleased with herself. She had faced and defeated a Death Eater, and she hadn't even been forced to compromise her ethics.
When she turned around, the smirk on her lips vanished.
Another masked man was standing in front of her. She froze and fixed her eyes on the wand he was pointing at her. She imagined that he wouldn't hesitate to kill her if she raised hers.
But she did it anyway. She held out her wand and stared straight at him as boldly as she could. He didn't attack her, but he kept his stance steadily, like he was made of stone.
"Drop you wand," she said, and somehow managed to sound like she really expected him to obey.
The man said nothing. His hand wasn't trembling. She couldn't see his face behind the mask, but she imagined it was expressionless. For a moment, Lily thought that they would be standing there like that for the rest of the night, but then the man suddenly lowered his hand and turned his back on her in one swift movement. He began to walk away from her.
She was confused, but not for long. The way the masked man moved struck a chord deep inside of her, and all of a sudden she realized what she should have understood the moment she had laid her eyes on him.
The man stopped still, but he kept his back on her.
"Sev, I know it's you!" she said. She wanted to run to him, but she didn't want to scare him off. She had been chasing him far too long to lose him now.
He stood there silently for what felt like years. Then, without turning around, he took off his hood and his mask. Her heart almost melted at the sight of his raven hair.
"You shouldn't be here," Severus said.
"Neither of us should be here."
"I told you not to come looking for me. Why won't you ever listen to a good advice?"
"Because I lack a sense of self-preservation. And I miss you."
He turned his face slightly to the right, and Lily could just make out his profile in the dim candlelight – the sharp angle of his nose, the outline of his forehead, eyelashes.
"Severus, please," she said, and walked closer to him, "I just want to talk to you."
He didn't reply, but he wouldn't move away either when she approached him. Eventually, she was close enough to reach out for his shoulder.
She hadn't even touched him when he suddenly turned around and grabbed her by the wrist, pulling her near his face. His dark eyes were blazing with fury.
"You're right. You do lack a sense of self-preservation," he hissed, "You need to get away from here! If anyone else sees you down here, you're dead!"
"Sev, Dumbledore's team is here, and you're heavily outnumbered. We both need to leave."
She held his gaze, and tried to express everything she felt for him in that one look. She was sure that he could not possibly understand all of it, that myriad of contradicting emotions inside of her, but she hoped that he could at least tell that she truly cared about him, and that she was telling the truth.
The expression on his face didn't change, but he did release her wrist. "I can't," he said, "I need to stay here until we're done."
"You don't want to be here. I know you don't."
"You don't know anything about me."
"I know that you regret the day you decided to join the Death Eaters. You're nothing like them, and you never will be. The only reason you're with them is because you have nowhere else to go, no one to be with," she said. She knew she was speaking the truth, because she had read the journal he had written at twenty. These were his real thoughts, unless the changing time had made him completely different to the other Severus.
The look on his face proved that she got it right. His face seemed to open up like a crumpled sheet of paper that was easing back into its original form. She seized the moment and placed her hand gently against his cheek.
"But I'm here for you now," she said, and looked even deeper into his eyes, "Remember how we used to be? Two against the world. We can be like that again. But it starts with us leaving this place as fast as we can, together. "
He wanted to believe her. She could see the desire to run away with her written all over his face. But soon his anger returned, and he removed her hand from his face.
"You think you can just come here and tell me what to do? You haven't spoken a word to me in five years, and now -"
He stopped, and turned his head. Lily didn't know why, until she too could hear voices coming from downstairs.
"They're coming," he said, and turned back to her, "You need to leave."
"Either we both stay, or we both go," Lily replied, "Your call."
She didn't think she had ever seen him so mad. Severus revealed his teeth and made a growling noise that sounded like it could have come out of an angry dog. Then he pulled her near and closed his eyes.
Nothing happened. He looked at her in confusion. "I can't Disapparate," he said.
"We grounded the place. Apparation doesn't work here right now. We have to run."
He nodded, and grabbed her hand. They ran upstairs, back into the dark corridors through which she and James had entered the room. She could only hope that they wouldn't meet any of her friends on their way out.
The darkness seem to go on forever. At last, she could smell the fresh night air ahead of her, and soon they were outside under the open sky. Afraid that someone was watching the main gate, she led Severus to the broken wall and urged him go through it.
Getting out through the wall was more difficult than getting in. She stumbled when she jumped down and lost her balance. Severus tried to help her, but she only ended up dragging him down with her. They both tumbled down the steep, snowy hill all the way to the ditch at the base of it.
She found herself lying on her back in the muddy, slushy ground, and every part of her body was hurting. Severus was right next to her, also covered in wet snow and mud, and she could hear him cursing quietly.
"Ow," said Lily, "And shit. Why do these things keep happening to me?"
"Like you said. You lack a sense of self-preservation," Severus groaned. He stood up and offered her his hand. "Now do something wise for a change and get away from here. I'll deal with this."
She swatted his hand away and got on her feet by herself. "The hell you will!" she said and glowered at him, "I've spent most of last year trying to find you. If you go back in there, I know I'll never see you again!"
Severus gazed at the dark blue sky. She could see that he was struggling with whatever it was he was about to say. He clenched his jaw and shook his head.
"This is just how it is," he said, and looked at her sadly, "I've chosen my side, and you've chosen yours. It's always been like this with you and me. Nothing has changed."
Lily, who was so full of anger and frustration and the fear of losing him that she could have died, did not give much consideration to what she did next.
She grabbed him by the front of his robes, and kissed him hard on the lips.
Clearly, Severus hadn't anticipated this. His lips did not move during the kiss, and his neck remained in the awkward angle Lily had pulled it into when she had forced his head down at her level. But when they parted, his hands landed around her waist like they belonged there.
"Everything has changed," she whispered, and felt like the cold and darkness had nothing on the flames that burned between them.
He looked at her with the sweet, soft confusion of the young man he was, but the hands around her felt steady and strong. All the pain, sadness, and longing she had felt over the past two years came crashing down on her, and she thought she might burst into tears.
She had finally found him.
Lily would have liked to hear what Severus had to say about her now, but she never got the chance. All of a sudden, they heard a thundering noise that seemed to come from inside the castle. When they turned to look at it, they saw rubble, smoke and stone hurtle in the air, like the top of the castle had bursted open and spat out its insides. In the middle of it all, Lily saw a big, black shape flying in the air and into the night sky.
"What the hell is that?" she asked in horror.
"It's the Dark Lord. He's escaping!" replied Severus, "What happened down there?"
Lily's eyes widened. She suddenly remembered Moody, James, and all the others. She had forgotten all about them when she had ran into Severus, even though they were the reason she had come here in the first place.
"I have to go back inside!" Lily said and began to climb up the hill. She could already picture the destruction she might find there, and scolded herself for ever leaving her post.
"No!" Severus insisted and grabbed her by the arm, "Either we both stay, or we both go, remember? I'm leaving, and you should come with me."
"Let go of me!" Lily shouted, and tried to wrench herself out of his grasp. All she could think of now were the people inside. If Voldemort had escaped, he had gotten through them. And if he had gotten through them, there were bound to be dead bodies all over the place.
She heard a cry in the distance, a whistling sound, and a loud snap, and then Severus loosened his grip. She gazed at him over her shoulder, and saw how he arched his back and how his eyes turn in their sockets. Then he collapsed on the ground.
"Sev!" she shrieked and leaned over his body in horror. She felt the base of his neck and felt a pulse – he was alive, but unconscious.
She looked around and saw two men coming at her down the hill. It took her shocked mind a moment to register that she was looking at Moody and James.
"Evans!" Moody yelled, "Are you alright? Did he hurt you?"
"What the hell did you do to him?" she roared back at him.
"Is that Snape?" asked James. He pointed a beam of light at them, and Lily didn't like the look that appeared on James's face when he recognized Severus.
"That's him," replied Moody, "At least we got one of them."
"No, wait!" Lily "Listen to me, he's not one of them!"
"Looks kind of incriminating to me," James said dispassionately. He had kneeled down next to Lily, and he promptly pulled the Death Eater mask out the the folds of Severus's robes.
"Don't you touch him!" Lily shouted, and shoved James so hard that he dropped the mask.
"Enough, Evans. We shouldn't stay here. Voldemort might return."
"I doubt that," said James, "Considering what he did to the others."
"What's going on? Where are you taking him?" Lily insisted. She curled her arms around Severus in a desperate attempt to protect him, but the two men ignored her. They grabbed him by the arms, and lifted his limp body up.
"It's over," Moody said, "Go home and lock your door. Dumbledore's orders. We'll take care of him."
And then they were gone, before Lily could say or do anything else to stop them.