"I'm afraid, Severus."
"Quiet," he ordered. Immediately regretting his tone, Severus looked around into the wide, frightened eyes of Lily Evans and added, "It'll be alright."
Apart from the sound of their accelerated breathing, several long moments passed in silence as Lily and Severus absorbed everything they had just seen: Mulciber, Avery, and Nott tormenting a Muggleborn first year; the Ravenclaw Prefect, Callaway, arriving with his wand raised; the duel between Callaway and the Slytherins as the Prefect attempted to shield the first year girl; Lily's horror as Nott shouted "Crucio!"; her inability to move or speak after Severus immobilize her, terrified of what the Slytherins would do next if he was discovered to be in her company.
As the duel moved deeper into the Forest, Severus had released Lily from his spell and the pair waited, stooped behind a large boulder on the edge of the Forbidden Forest, hidden from the full moon's rays by the shade of a large oak, until Mulciber approached them again.
"Alright?" Severus stood at his full height again.
"They're wiping his memory. Callaway. But nevermind that," panted Mulciber. "It's true, Severus. What we were discussing before that prat showed. Avery's brought a message from him and everything. He wants to start recruiting. The older students, you know. Avery's brother's already been initiated. Avery's seen, on his left arm, there's—"
"Severus," said Lily in a trembling voice. "I'm going back to the castle."
"What's she doing here?" demanded Mulciber.
Severus said nothing, but Lily replied, "What's it to you? Anyway, we were just leaving."
"We?" Mulciber repeated, sounding repulsed. "Still hanging round with this Mudblood then, Severus?"
Lily flushed. "I'd rather be a Mudblood than a filthy, evil little—"
"Lily!" shouted Severus, as Mulciber drew his wand. Nott and Avery returned, both sneering as their eyes followed the path from Mulciber's wand to Lily's.
"What've we got here?" Nott drawled. Goosebumps spread all over Lily's body.
"Only this lowlife Mudblood is—"
Lily could not help it. A curse erupted from her wand, and Mulciber fired back, knocking her clean off her feet. As she struggled to stand again, Avery, Nott, and Mulciber advanced, Severus wringing his hands behind them. "Alright," he called, "can't we just—?"
But just then, they all started at the sound of hurried footsteps. Lily knew that they were coming from behind her, but before she could even turn her head to look, James Potter had dashed in front of her, wand stretched toward the four Slytherins. It was as if Lily had Apparated up to Gryffindor tower and into the security of her warm bed; she felt suddenly and utterly safe. She had spent nearly five years disliking James deeply for his arrogance, his obnoxious persistence, his tormenting of her friend Severus. But now, immense gratitude for James washed over her, such a warm feeling of security that she could not, at the moment, remember why she usually avoided his company. She struggled to her feet and staggered forward, moving as close to her fellow Gryffindor as she could without touching him.
"Alright, Potter?" Avery snickered. "Got to say, I don't like your odds."
"I don't want a fight, Avery. But I must say I've had quite an enlightening time on the grounds this evening. Lots of good goss flying around, if you know what I mean."
The Slytherins' eyes widened, and Lily could see that they were trying to determine whether James had really heard anything, or if he was merely bluffing.
"So here's what I suggest," James said evenly, after letting his previous statement sink in a bit. "I forget what I heard, and you sod off back into the Forest or wherever you slimy gits hang around while Evans and I make our way back up to Hogwarts. So much as a spark from any of you, and I see a very interesting conversation with Dumbledore in my future."
Mulciber, Avery, and Nott exchanged worried glances, but Severus looked both mutinous and, somehow, desperately sad, his eyes locked on James and Lily. Mulciber nodded curtly, and James gestured for Lily to walk ahead of him. Lily complied without a word. Several times, the pair glanced over their shoulders, but they made it to Hogwarts unharmed.
As they headed up the marble staircase toward Gryffindor Tower, Lily struggled to find a way to thank him, to explain the relief his arrival had instilled in her. Lily was frightened that evening, and she felt compelled to tell James how, even though they had never gotten along, his presence made her feel certain that no harm would befall her. The feeling surprised her, and had been completely absent when she thought her only ally was Severus Snape.
Lily glanced sideways at her companion and was shocked to see he looked furious. She cleared her throat and muttered, "Thanks, Potter."
He stopped in his tracks and glared at her. "Thanks," he repeated flatly.
"Er—well, yes. For getting me out of—"
"Can I just ask: are you mad? What were you doing out there to begin with? With them? With him? Not a week ago the slimy git called you Mudblood!"
"No, I'm not going to calm down!" James shouted, ignoring Lily's continued attempts to hush him. "What sense does it make, going around with people like that? Do you have any idea—do you—they—they're—honestly, what were you thinking?"
Lily had never seen James so angry, least of all with her. In fact, she could not remember him ever being genuinely angry with her at all. Indeed, it was difficult to find James Potter even being serious. At most he had been frustrated, or indignant, or otherwise irritated at her constant rejections. But tonight, James was livid.
"I wasn't—" she tried, but James did not let her finish.
"This nonsense with you and Snape has got to stop. I dunno what you're playing at, Evans, but he's not the tragic, lonely, complicated soul you think he is—don't look at me like that, I know how you talk about him to Libby," he clarified, pointing a finger at her. "But he's dangerous. Even if only by association. And…I know I act like a prat sometimes but, that aside, well…I…you know I care ab—"
"As a matter of fact, Potter," Lily said, "I've already finished it. I've told him we can't be friends anymore. Once he called me that... But I didn't mean to be hanging around him tonight, and certainly not them. I was coming back from Hagrid's and he sort of…well, let's just say he's taking it quite hard. I never planned to meet any of them. He started talking to me and it just, I dunno…sort of happened."
They had reached the portrait of the Fat Lady, and her words seemed to have appeased James.
"Ignotus," he said, and the portrait swung open. They climbed in, and James said, "Alright then. Just…er…be careful, I suppose. The stuff I heard tonight…"
"What were you doing out there anyway?" asked Lily.
James looked taken aback, partly because Lily had never showed any interest in where he was, why he was there, what he was doing, and whether he was still breathing, but also because he was not sure how to answer. The full moon usually ensured James was on the grounds, accompanied by his three best friends, and he was happy he happened to be in earshot of Lily and Snape at the right time.
"Er…was just…having a stroll," he invented feebly, but Lily did not seem eager to press the subject.
"Well, anyway, thanks," said Lily.
"No problem," he said. "Listen, Evans, I was wondering—"
"Oh in the name of Merlin, Potter, thank you very much for helping me tonight but no I will not go out with you."
After an awkward pause, James said. "Er. Right. Actually, I was wondering whether you think I ought to go ahead and speak to Dumbledore. I mean I know I said I wouldn't but…I dunno. Seemed really dodgy."
Lily flushed deeply. "Oh! Well…to be honest…" She was thinking of Severus. Sure, he'd acted horribly to her, but she did not want to get him into trouble, even if they couldn't be friends anymore. "Don't worry about it. Maybe I can...you know, erm, mention it."
"Right," said James. "Well, 'til tomorrow then, Evans," and he disappeared through the entrance of the boys' dormitory.
Lily eyes lingered on the vacant stairway for several seconds before she headed for the girls' dormitory.
For James Potter, it was just another ordinary day: another evening of mischief with Sirius, Remus, and Peter under the full moon; another display of animosity between himself and the Slytherins; another cold rejection from Lily Evans.
But Lily would always remember that evening, a week before her fifth year at Hogwarts came to a close, as the first time she was actually thankful that James Potter—impossibly arrogant though he was—always seemed to have a way of knowing where she was.