Gryffindor House eventually recovered from its surprising and disheartening defeat at the hands of Hufflepuff. The fifth and seventh years, in particular, made a hasty recovery for the simple fact that they suddenly found themselves with mounds of studying to do. Almost before they knew it, O.W.L.s and N.E.W.T.s were upon them. The examination week dragged slowly on, with the frazzled students spending their days taking tests, worrying about them, or studying for them. By the time Friday finally arrived, Lily was ready to fall asleep as soon as her last test was over, and she was certain that the rest of her classmates felt the same. Her last N.E.W.T. was in Herbology, so once she finished breakfast, she trudged upstairs to the second floor classroom where the test was scheduled to take place.

The room was nearly empty when Lily arrived, and she had her pick of the desks. She chose one in the front row simply because she did not feel like expending the extra effort to walk to the back. Sinking into the chair, she set her school bag on the floor beside it and began taking out her quills and inkpot. Hearing footsteps approaching, Lily looked up into the face of her former best friend. To her surprise, Snape's mouth actually lifted in a tiny smile as he passed her desk and took a seat at the one behind it.

Straightening, Lily arranged her supplies absentmindedly on her desk while she mused over Severus' uncharacteristic warmth towards her. For a person who rarely let his emotions show, even the tiniest of smiles was meaningful. And yet Lily had hardly seen, much less spoken to him since the incident months ago when he had stumbled upon her and James snogging in the corridor. The last words they exchanged had been harsh, so why was he glad to see her now?

When the exam proctor walked through the door and began distributing thick stacks of parchment, Lily shook her head slightly in attempt to clear thoughts of Severus from her mind. She picked up her quill and focused her attention on the task at hand. Two hours later, once she had handed in her exam, Lily's mood was lighter than it had been in weeks. There was a definite spring in her step as she strolled down the corridor in the direction of Gryffindor Tower. She was completely finished with exams, and, more importantly, felt confidently about her performance in all of them. James would be finishing his Arithmancy exam at any moment now, which meant they would have the rest of the day to themselves.

The thought of an entire afternoon and evening spent with James caused Lily to grin and pick up her pace. She had almost turned the corner when she heard a familiar voice calling her name. She paused and turned around to find Severus striding down the corridor towards her with a steely glint in his dark eyes.

He stopped just short of Lily, a smile ghosting across his thin lips.

"Lily," he said, nodding politely, albeit nervously, to her.

Lily, who had been watching him approach her somewhat warily, returned the nod and said stiffly, "Hullo, Severus." There was a pause, and then she added, "Did you need something?" Their last encounter, in which he had stumbled upon she and James kissing in the corridor, now rose vividly to her mind. Lily could not fathom why Severus would want to talk to so tarty a girl as he apparently thought her to be.

Severus wet his lips, gathered his courage, and asked, "Ah... how were your exams?"

"Difficult. But they're over with now." Lily shrugged. "Herbology was my last one. You?"

"They were exams. They don't call them N.E.W.T.sfor nothing," he answered, smiling at his little joke.

To her surprise, Lily found herself smiling in return.

"That's true," she replied and lifted her eyes to meet his for the first time. Try as she might, she still could not discern his motive for engaging her in a light chat in the corridor.

"So...," Severus began, trying his best to ignore the jumbly feeling he always got when Lily looked at him with her brilliant eyes. "Did you get into St. Mungo's?"

At the mention of the hospital, Lily's expression brightened visibly.

"Ohhh yes!" she exclaimed, "Well.. I have their tentative acceptance, provided that I get all of my N.E.W.T.s."

"I'm sure you will," Severus said without hesitation.

"I hope so," she responded with a sheepish smile, then glanced curiously at him. "What about you? I... don't remember you ever mentioning what you wanted to do after Hogwarts."

"I think I'll travel," was the response.

"Really? That sounds marvelous. Where do you plan to go?" Lily inquired. She was becoming more relaxed by the minute, now that the conversation was progressing normally, if a little stiltedly.

Severus shrugged, "I'm not sure yet, but I imagine it would be nice to see a bit of the world. Of course-" he paused and gave a telling glance down at his exceedingly pale skin "-I'll probably be best off avoiding the tropics." He smiled as he spoke, very pleased with how personable he was managing to be.

Lily gave a little giggle as she agreed, "Probably a good idea. It would be nice though." This last part was said with a wistful smile. As the Evans family had never been too wealthy, Lily's childhood vacations had mostly consisted of trips to Britain's various seaside towns. She had never been out of the country before.

"Are you taking a holiday before St. Mungo's?" Severus inquired. "I think you deserve one, after the work you've been putting in. You've been at the top of our year for ages."

Lily shrugged off the compliment with a little laugh, "Had to earn the badge, you know."

Severus ignored her comment and looked up at her with a genuine, earnest smile as he suggested, "You could come with me, you know." Even as he spoke, his heart was breaking. He knew the chances of her agreeing were slim-to-none. Not with the way things stood between them. Not with Potter in the picture. But still he hoped. Lily had always been so forgiving in the past; perhaps it was not too late.

Lily had opened her mouth to explain her plans to go along with Marlene and her parents to visit Spain for a few weeks, but she promptly shut it again. There were several moments of complete silence as she tried to register what he had just said and, more importantly, understand why he had said it.

Realizing that some sort of response was necessary, she stuttered out, "Oh I - that's very.. I erm.. already have plans with Marlene."

"Of course," Severus replied. The smile left his eyes, and his face resumed its usual shuttered expression. "I just thought I would offer," he explained. "I ah... miss your company."

"Oh...," was all Lily could think to reply. She swallowed hard, torn between wanting to ask him why he'd treated her this way, if that was the case, and wanting to avoid a messy confrontation.

"Your answer is written on your face. You don't need to say it," Severus said with a defeated expression.

His comment goaded Lily into asking in exasperation, "What did you expect me to say, Severus?"

"I had hoped-" he began, pausing for a tiny moment, then plowed onward. "I had hoped you'd be sensible."

"Sensible?" she exclaimed, barely managing to keep from bursting into laughter. "Even if we were still friends, I can't just... go gallivanting across the continent with you for the summer. Do you realize how that would look?"

"I don't care," he answered, his mouth set in a stubborn line.

Lily sighed and asked, "What is this about, Severus?" Since he obviously could not have expected her to agree to his proposition, she figured he must have an ulterior motive for wishing to speak to her.

Severus blinked, but answered, "Lily, things are getting worse."

"I know that," she interjected.

Unperturbed, he continued to calmly explain, "I'm merely suggesting that you would do well to be around someone who can protect you."

Again, Lily suppressed a sudden urge to burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of what he was suggesting.

"Thank you for your concern, but I think I have that well in hand," she said dryly.

"You think," Severus responded, looking at her quite severely. "Now is not the time to be a headstrong little girl, Evans. Potter-" he spit out his rival's name with difficulty "-can't offer you what we can. What I can." Then his tone softened, and he reached out to take Lily's hand in his as he pleaded, "Stop being selfless for one minute and think of yourself."

Lily backed quickly away from him as he reached for her hand and crossed her arms over her chest.

"So that's what this is all about then? You having another go at James?" she demanded, her eyes narrowed. "Do you know how ridiculous you sound? You're actually suggesting to me that I would be safer if I hung around with the very same people who want to kill me because I'm a Muggleborn?"

"No one wants to kill you, Evans. Don't be delusional," Severus snapped. "Has Potter been feeding you nonsense?"

Her eyes narrowed even further and her cheeks began to flush as her temper rose.

"You're the delusional one, Snape," she retorted. "I know all about your little friends and what they plan to do as soon as we get out of the castle. Everyone does."

"You only know what Potter tells you," Severus argued, shaking his head, his black eyes carefully blank.

"You are infuriating!" Lily exclaimed, now positively seething with rage. "Is that what you think of me now? That I'm some foolish, lovesick little girl who listens to whatever my boyfriend tells me?"

Ignoring her question, he arched one eyebrow, "I bet you think he's noble, don't you? I bet you fawn over his bragging." Even as he spoke, he felt sick to his stomach: "He doesn't care about you, Lily. He's going to go out in a blaze of glory, and he's going to leave you."

Her eyes flashed, and she took a step towards him, now absolutely irate.

"Yes he does, Severus. He loves me, and I love him," she said through clenched teeth. "And you know what? I'm sick of this. All you ever want to do is rail at me about my boyfriend, and I don't want to hear it. Goodbye." With an indignant toss of her head, she whirled around on one heel and strode off down the corridor.

"Lily! Wait," Severus called after her, suddenly contrite. He hadn't meant to anger her; he just wanted to make her understand.

But Lily ignored him and quickened her pace. Severus stood motionless in the middle of the corridor, watching her go in stony silence. It was not until Lily rounded the corner that her spell upon him was broken, and he swallowed hard to force the lump from his throat. With the utmost of determination, he forced his thoughts to calm and, when he was certain he could maintain his usual blank expression, turned sharply on his heels and marched down the corridor in the direction of his common room.

Meanwhile, Lily was having a much more difficult time controlling her emotions. By the time she made it to the portrait hole, she was so furious that she was ready to smack something. Thenerve of him! How could he think he had any say in how she lived her life, especially when he was so obviously biased? As she stormed up the girls' staircase and into her dormitory, she was so lost in thought that she did not notice it was already occupied until Marlene asked, "Woah, Lily. What's got you in such a tizzy?"

Startled, Lily nearly tripped over herself as she whirled around to face her best friend. She swallowed and managed to say, "I-... I spoke with Sev- with Snape."

Marlene's eyes narrowed imperceptibly. What had the slimy git done now?

"Oh?" she asked as she gestured for Lily to sit beside her. "And what was he up to this time?"

"He.. I think he wanted me to- to spend the summer with him," Lily answered.

"He what?" Marlene exclaimed in disbelief.

Lily nodded, "He said he was going to spend the summer traveling the continent and that I could go with him if I wanted. When I said no, he...-" she paused, her fingers clutching reflexively at the comforter, and then continued:

"He said- he actually suggested that I'm not safe with James. That I'd be safer with him. And when I told him he was being ridiculous, he got really angry and.. he starting having a go at James. Saying he doesn't love me, and he's going to leave me, and he's lying to me about the war."

At this point, Marlene rolled her eyes and muttered, "Of course he did." Before Lily could resume her rant, Marlene cut her off by asking, "Lil.. you know he was lying right? He's only saying that because he's-"

"I know," Lily interrupted, before Marlene could say something she wasn't certain she wanted to hear. "I know how James and I feel about each other, and I know none of what Severus said was true. It's just... I'm so sick of it. Every time he sees me, he just sets right in. And if it were anyone else, I wouldn't care, but... we used to be friends. He knows I'm not some stupid girl who falls for the first charming man she meets. Why can't he just leave off?"

Marlene sighed and shook her head, glad to see that Lily had calmed down somewhat.

"I can't explain it either," she said. "But in a few weeks, we'll be out of here, and you'll likely never have to see him again. You and James can go off and get married and have lots of adorable babies together, and rotten ol' Snape can't do anything to change that."

Although she was still vexed, Lily couldn't help but smile a bit at this thought.

"We would make some seriously beautiful babies, wouldn't we?" she agreed.

"Uh huh. And you'll make me godmother to all of them," Marlene responded.

Lily bit her lip in thought and then asked in genuine curiosity, "D'you really think he wants that?" Thus far, she had James had not talked that extensively about the future of their relationship. Although she could easily picture the rest of their lives together, she wasn't entirely certain that he could do the same.

Marlene rolled her eyes.

"Sometimes, Lily Evans, you are quite unobservant. Don't you see the way he looks at you? Didn't he spend the better part of three years chasing you?" she said. "I don't think he plans to let you go annnytime soon."

The tiny smile on Lily's lips grew wider as she allowed herself a moment's blissful daydreaming.

"I guess," she responded. "We just haven't really talked about it yet. Anyway, I'm going to go see if James has made it back to the common room yet. I'm sure he's finished with his Arithmancy exam by now." As she spoke, she rose to her feet, adding, "Thanks for listening, Lena."

"What're friends for?" Marlene asked as she spread herself out on her bed. "You have fun 'talking' with James. I think I'll start catching up on all the sleep I've missed."

Lily responded by tossing a pillow at her best friend's head. As she passed Marlene's bed on her way to the door, the blonde girl sat up slightly and asked, "Are you going to tell James about your little run-in?"

Pausing with her hand on the doorknob, Lily looked back at Marlene.

"I don't think so," she said. "Nothing really happened, and it would only make him angry to hear about it." She felt a twinge of guilt as she spoke. Lily and James both prized honesty in their relationship, so she was unused to keeping things from him. But she was learning that neither James nor Severus was capable of remaining level-headed when the other was brought up in conversation. It was generally better, in Lily's opinion, to avoid the subject altogether.

"You're probably right," Marlene shrugged and laid back down. "I was just curious. See you at dinner?"

Lily nodded in response and slipped through the door, shutting it quietly behind her. When she descended into the common room a few moments later, she found it relatively empty. There was a group of fourth years engaged in a lazy game of Exploding Snap in the middle of the common room, and one of the fifth year Prefects was snoring away on a sofa near the fireplace. Over on the far side of the room by the windows, the Marauders were sitting in a tight circle, engaged in a hushed conversation.

Lily hesitated a moment at the foot of the stairs. Whatever they were discussing, it looked to be a secret. But, in the wake of her distressing confrontation with Snape, Lily's desire for the comfort of James' arms overruled any deference to the Marauders' privacy. She did approach the group with rather heavier footfalls than usual, to give them time to change the subject once they realized she was within earshot. When Remus, who was facing her direction, saw her approaching, he glanced meaningfully across the circle at James and muttered something to his friends. Immediately, the boys leaned backwards in their seats and shifted their topic of conversation.

James, however, looked around, and his face broke into a grin as Lily neared his armchair.

"H'lo, Lil," he said. "How was your Herbology N.E.W.T.?"

"It's over with," she answered, settling herself onto his lap and leaning down to kiss his cheek. "I take it you lot have finished too?"

James slid an arm around her waist and replied, "As of half an hour ago, we are free men."

"Hear, hear!" Sirius chimed in.

"And so, naturally, you're going to spend the rest of the day doing nothing," Lily said, a wry smile on her lips. "Unless I'm interrupting something..."

There was a brief pause as all four boys looked at each other. They silently came to some sort of agreement, and then James replied: "Nah. We're just talking Quidditch."

Though she was not convinced, Lily shrugged and said, "Excellent. Then would any of you fine gentlemen care to accompany me on a jaunt down to the lake? Or maybe a visit to Hagrid's?"

All four boys perked up at the suggestion of escaping the confines of the castle walls, but it was Sirius who answered first.

"Brilliant idea, Red," he said as he hopped to his feet. "Though we might want to make a stop by the kitchens first and get some proper food."

All five Gryffindors shared a little laugh as they trooped through the portrait hole. Out in the corridor, Lily reached for James' hand and tugged him to a halt so that the other three could pass them by.

He turned to her with a quizzical look and asked, "Hey, you okay?"

Hoping her expression was casual, she replied, "Just missed you this past week is all."

James smiled and pulled her into a hug.

"I missed you too," he said.

She stepped happily into his arms and rested her head on his shoulder with a contented sigh. After a quick glance down the corridor to make sure the others had turned the corner, Lily lifted her head and kissed him a bit more eagerly than usual.

If James was surprised at her sudden display of affection, he did not show it. Instead, he returned her kiss willingly, lifting one hand to thread his fingers through her silky curls. In response, Lily tightened her arms around him and pressed even closer as she strove to drive the memory of Severus' cruel comments out of her head.

After a few moments, James remember that there was somewhere they were supposed to be, and he broke their kiss, murmuring, "Hey girl?"

Lily pulled back slightly and looked up at him in confusion, "Yeah?"

"We can't ditch our friends," he explained and pressed a fond kiss to the tip of her nose.

"Oh... right," she said sheepishly and took a small step backwards. With a nod in the direction of the corridor's other end, she asked, "Shall we?"

James fell into step beside her and said with a grin, "Hey, but if you wanna go out for a snog later, I'm more than willing."

Lily smiled, "It's a date."

The pair arrived at the kitchens' portrait door just as Sirius was reaching out to tickle the pear.

"What kept you two?" he asked suspiciously.

"Oh er...," Lily began, fumbling for an excuse, but James cut her off.

"We were having a quick shag," he informed Sirius, who was now looking at them with that telltale grin, "you know, getting off that last remaining exam-related tension."

"Oh hurry up, will you?" Peter interjected. "I'm half starved."

"If there's anything you aren't, Pete," Sirius began, but Remus reached mechanically to smack him upside the head before he could finish his thought. The painting of the bowl of fruit swung forward, and the lot of them were soon inside, filling their pockets with all sorts of treats before heading out of the castle and across the lawns. Just as Lily had hoped, a mere half hour's time spent laughing with James and the lads was sufficient remedy for the doubts that Snape had tried to cast upon her. By the time they returned to the castle late that evening, her argument with Snape was a nearly-forgotten memory.

With their N.E.W.T.s completed, only two weeks of classes stood between the seventh years and graduation. Since there were no further deadlines or obligations upon their shoulders, even the most studious among the Gryffindor group found it difficult to concentrate on anything school-related. Most of their class work consisted of reviews, final thoughts, and any other parting wisdom the teachers wished to impart to their students. After the hectic past couple of months, Lily, James and their friends were glad to spend the next two weeks relaxing in the early summer sunshine.

Of course they did have a few things to worry about. The arrival of the post on the second Monday after N.E.W.T.s caused quite a stir, as all the seventh years would be receiving their test results. Mary and Peter were the only two who opened their envelopes with some degree of trepidation, as they had had a bit of trouble with the Transfiguration exam. Both, however, discovered that they had achieved an "Acceptable," and were therefore able to celebrate their good results with the rest of the group. A few days after N.E.W.T. results arrived, all sorts of acceptance letters and job offers began rolling in. Mary received an offer to write for the Daily Prophet (and nearly fainted with joy when she read it). That same morning, two haughty eagle owls brought James and Sirius the news that they were now officially accepted into the Auror Academy. The next morning brought Lily's official acceptance letter from St. Mungo's Healer Training Program, and Peter learned that his application at Magical Menagerie in Diagon Alley had also been accepted. It was a day of victory for many students, though more than a handful of seventh years could be seen at breakfast, reading rejection notices with slumped shoulders and teary eyes.

During their free period the next day, James and Lily were relaxing beneath the oak tree in the courtyard, enjoying both the warm sunshine and each other's company. James was reclining against the tree trunk with Lily settled comfortably in his lap and both of their book bags scattered on the grass beside them. Their idle conversation was brought to a halt when Lily spied Professor McGonagall marching towards them across the lawn. Flushing slightly, she slid off James' lap to sit on the grass beside him and looked expectantly up at McGonagall, "Good afternoon, Professor."

McGonagall returned the greeting with a stiff smile and a brief nod, then said crisply, "Potter, Evans, Professor Dumbledore would like to see you in his office."

Lily's eyes widened slightly, and she and James exchanged a glance.

"Is something wrong?" he asked.

The tiny smile returned to McGonagall's lips, and James could swear he saw a twinkle behind her glasses as she responded, "Ever the guilty conscience. Not to worry, Mr. Potter. You'll not be ending your Hogwarts career with another round of detentions. The Headmaster merely wishes to speak with you and Miss Evans about your duties in the graduation ceremony this Saturday."

"Oh," James said. "All right. We'll be right up. Thanks, Professor."

With a nod goodbye, McGonagall turned and strode back inside the castle while Lily and James rose to their feet and shouldered their school bags once more.

"What do you think we'll have to do?" Lily asked curiously as they began climbing the staircases to the Headmaster's Office.

James shrugged and answered, "Dunno. Give a speech or something, I suppose."

"And help set up the Great Hall. That was one of the things the Prefects helped with," Lily said. After a few moments, she turned her head to look up at James and asked, "Are you really going to make it to the end of the week without another detention?"

Catching the hidden meaning behind her question, he grinned and responded, "Well, we aren't planning to get caught..."

"Aha! So you lads are planning something," Lily exclaimed. Several times in the last few days, she had entered the Gryffindor Common Room to find all four boys engaged in a hushed conversation in one corner of the common room. Although she hadn't tried to eavesdrop, she had been almost certain they were planning one last prank, as she couldn't imagine that the Marauders could stand to leave Hogwarts with anything less than a spectacular send-off.

James hesitated a moment, unsure how much he should or could reveal of their plans. Although Lily had lately been turning a blind eye towards what little mischief he and his mates had time to make, he knew that Sirius, in particular, would not be pleased with him revealing their entire plan to her. He was relieved when she reached for his hand and assured him: "Don't worry. I don't expect you to tell me anything, and I'm not going to go and report you either. Honestly, at this point, I think it would be pointless to try and stop you."

"That it would," James agreed with a grin. "And you'll have a good laugh about it. I promise."

Lily was spared from having to comment on this by their arrival at the gargoyle statue guarding the entrance to the Dumbledore's office.

The Headmaster was busy writing at his desk, but he looked up with a warm smile as Lily and James entered.

"Good afternoon, James, Lily. Do take a seat," he said, gesturing towards the two plush armchairs standing on the other side of his desk. "I would like to begin our meeting by expressing to both of you how extremely proud I am of the job you have done this year. And I hear that congratulations are in order, as both of you are off to bigger and better institutes of magical education. The Auror Office, I am certain, will be well pleased with your skills, James, and Lily, if your talent with a cauldron is anything like what Horace tells me, St. Mungo's will rejoice to have you join their staff." Before Lily or James could say anything, Dumbledore held up his hand, "The praise is well-earned, I assure you. And now, shall we get our less-pleasant items of business over with?"

Approximately twenty-three minutes later, once both Head students had been briefed on the order of ceremonies and their various duties for Saturday's graduation ceremony, Dumbledore leaned slightly forward in his chair and spoke in a more serious tone: "Before I dismiss you to your next round of classes, there is an important matter that I wish to discuss. James, your opposition to the Dark Lord's quest for power is rather well known. Am I correct in concluding this factored into your decision to become an Auror?"

"Yes, sir," James nodded firmly.

"And Lily," Dumbledore continued, turning to look at her now. "I am assuming that your views are similar to James'?"

Lily nodded too, saying, "Absolutely. He must to be stopped. And soon."

"I am sure, however," continued Dumbledore, "that by reading the papers, you have both realized that the Ministry's efforts to stop Voldemort's rise to power are not going as well as we would wish." James laughed bitterly, but Dumbledore pressed on. "It might interest you to know that I have formed a secret organization, called the Order of the Phoenix, to combat Voldemort and his Death Eaters. While you are still my students, I cannot in good conscience ask you to join us, as the line of work we have adopted is exceedingly dangerous, but since you are both of age and will be graduating in three day's time..."

James leaned forward in his chair, his eyes bright as he crowed, "I knew it! I knew you had something going. When's the next meeting? I'll be there. And Sirius too."

Dumbledore could not help but smile at the younger man's enthusiasm.

"Ah yes," he said. "I believe I will extend the invitation to Misters Black, Lupin, and Pettigrew. I'm afraid the Order could use all the help we can get. We are sadly outnumbered. However I must impress upon you the necessity to keep this matter a most jealously guarded secret. It would be far too easy for information concerning the identities of Order members to fall into the wrong hands, to disastrous results. I am asking you to join because I believe in your abilities, your discretion, as well as your dedication to the cause."

"I'd like to join too, Professor," Lily said quietly. "I was hoping, once I finished training, to be sent out in the field with the Aurors as a Medi-Witch, but that will take two years at least. If I can do something now to help the cause, then... well I'd like the chance to."

"Much as it pains me to say it, if you join the Order, you will certainly have a chance to use your training," Dumbledore said gravely. "I do not need to remind either of you of the danger into which you are walking."

"No, sir," James said, his face set in determination. Glancing sideways, he saw Lily nodding her agreement, and, just for a moment, he considered trying to dissuade her from committing to so perilous a cause. While he had no qualms about joining the fight against the Dark Rising, James would be lying if he said he felt equally certain about Lily signing on. Still, he knew it would be useless to try and stop her, and so he remained silent.

There was a pause, and then Dumbledore said, "I am glad to have you join us, although it is no less than I expected from you two. Again I must impress upon you the danger into which you are venturing. Lord Voldemort's forces are greater than the Ministry chooses to acknowledge. The meeting you are invited to attend will be held at an as yet undisclosed location and will be for the purposes of informing you in better detail how we conduct our resistance."

James' heart thumped in his chest. He had a fleeting mental image of himself dodging curses and dueling with a half dozen masked figures, and it struck him that he was growing up very fast all of a sudden. Graduation in three days' time, then the Auror Academy, and fighting the Dark Rising... Doing homework and worrying about exams seemed very trivial when compared to fighting the strongest threat to the Wizarding World in his lifetime.

Dumbledore smiled. "Something on your mind, James?"

Lily glanced at the Head Boy, noting the flush of his cheeks and the faraway look in his eye.

"He's imagining fighting, I think," she observed, unable to keep the note of fondness from her voice.

James blinked, looking slightly embarrassed.

"Sorry," he said. "It's just... I mean, we can beat him, can't we? If the Order is strong enough, right?"

"It is possible," said Dumbledore delicately. "However, Lord Voldemort did not become so powerful out of sheer luck, and he has not become the terror of the magical community based on happenstance. We will discuss this more at the meeting, but I want you both to know that joining the Order is a commitment that may stretch as long as it's members' lifetimes, and perhaps onward."

Lily nodded, her expression serious once more, "We understand, Professor." While she admired James' optimism about their ability to bring an end to the Dark Lord's quest for power, she found she could not quite share his enthusiasm. This war, she understood, was a necessary thing, but Lily found nothing exciting or glorious in it. She was more than willing to take up the task at hand, but Lily would have been lying if she denied that a small part of her wished that none of this were happening, that this crazed disease of prejudice could be eradicated without so much bloodshed and loss.

The Headmaster surveyed the twosome for a long moment. He opened his mouth to speak, and then closed it again. He smiled.

"Well, that's all we have to discuss for today. I'll be in contact with you concerning the Order meeting, and I look forward to your speeches at graduation."

James and Lily both got to their feet. Professor Dumbledore stood and extended his hand, shaking each of theirs in turn.

"You have each performed admirably in your duties. I thank you, James," he added, "for proving me right. It has been a pleasure working with both of you this year."

James looked uncharacteristically sheepish as he shook Dumbledore's hand and replied, "Thank you, sir."

Although she could only guess what the Headmaster meant, Lily glanced up at James with a proud little smile and reached out to give his hand a small squeeze. "Have a good evening, Headmaster," she said as they turned to leave.

"You as well, Miss Evans," Dumbledore replied and then turned his attention to the pile of parchments upon his desk.

Once she and James were out in the corridor, Lily glanced up at him and asked, "Do you think the others will want to join?"

"Of course they will," James said firmly, taking her hand as they walked through the corridor.

For what was perhaps the first time since his first week at Hogwarts, James stopped and stared up at the maze of staircases above them. He took in the rows and rows of portraits that adorned the walls, a slight frown on his lips.

"Do you think you'll miss it?" he asked, his brow beginning to furrow.

"Hogwarts?" Lily asked, following his gaze. "Oh, without a doubt." She wrapped her arms around James and hugged him close as best she could. It would be difficult, indeed to leave this place that had become her home. It was one of the only places she'd felt safe and accepted as a child, after her once-beloved sister had so harshly turned on her. Hogwarts was where everything had begun for her. It was the place where she'd had some of the greatest triumphs of her life, but also suffered the loss of a dear friend and endured the stress of life-determining exams. "But we have to remember that this isn't the end. I'm going to Mungo's, and you're off to the Academy in a few months. It's just the next step." She smiled, suddenly aware of the pricking at her eyes. "What makes it wonderful is knowing that you're here alongside me. With all that's going on, there's a lot to be frightened of. But somehow..." she pressed a kiss to his arm, "Somehow it doesn't seem so bad. Somehow, I feel that we can win."

James looked down into Lily's bright green eyes. They seemed to shine with a resolve he'd never seen before. Her whole being emanated a comfort to which he was not accustomed, but to which he felt himself clinging like a drowning man. Not knowing the words to say that would assuage any of her anxieties as thoroughly as his own had been eased, he bent his mouth to hers and kissed her.

A war was coming. Rather, it was lying in wait for them the moment they stepped out of the haven that was Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. In a short time, they would pack their things and head home before moving on. It was a heady thought to realize that something that could become one's world could just as easily turn into a rush of fleeting memory. Would any of them remember the smell of the Entrance Hall? Or the way it felt down in the dungeons on a particularly frosty Februrary morning? And gods, would he ever have another shepherd's pie as good as the ones made by the Hogwarts house-elves? The realizations continued to hound James as he moved through the last few days at school. He would never hear another Sorting song. He would never tromp across the grounds to a Quidditch match. At odd times, he felt himself very near tears; at others, he felt as if he was straining to get out.

On their last evening at Hogwarts, James and Lily took a leisurely stroll around the grounds and made a final visit to gamekeeper Rubeus Hagrid's cabin. Their visit was marked by Hagrid's nostalgic recounting of the many detentions James and his friends had served with him during their schooling years.

"It jus' won' be the same withou' yeh," Hagrid said, taking a deep draft from his bucket-sized tankard of mead. "I'll admit to yeh that I didn' mind the comp'ny on some o' the jaunts I had ter take into the Forest. An' d'you remember tha' time Bane and his lot nearly killed yeh?" Hagrid's beetle-black eyes became suspiciously misty. "I don' think I've ever laughed s'much."

"Oh yes, lovely times," James said, grinning and setting down the plate of treacle fudge, "But we did manage to find your pants before daybreak, so no harm done."

Lily, who had yet to hear this particular story, nearly choked on her mouthful of mead. "You nearly got killed? And who is Bane?"

"'E's a centaur," Hagrid explained, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. "Didn't yeh know there's centaurs in the Forest, Lily? I'd have laid money on yeh knowing jus' about everything t'do with the school."

"Well I knew there were centaurs living in the Forest," she explained, glancing sideways at James. "I just didn't know my boyfriend made a habit of interacting with them."

James nudged her in the ribs. "'Course you did," he said playfully rolling his eyes. "And I didn't make a habit of it, per se. Just... had a handful of genial conversations and a casual scrap from time to time."

"Uh huh. And do all of your genial conversations end in near-death experiences?" she asked, skepticism written plainly across her face.

"See, now-" interrupted Hagrid, "I din' mean ter get you you in trouble with yer lady, James." He drained the rest of his tankard. "But jus' pass it on ter the rest of the lads, if yeh see 'em. Had a good chat wi' Remus and Sirius today, but I din' get a chance to see Peter." The gamekeeper was suddenly looking glum. "I tend ter get a bit sad when you lot leave. But-" he brightened "-seems there might be a chance I'll be seeing yeh soonish. Has Dumbledore...?" he trailed off meaningfully.

Lily, guessing the subject to which Hagrid was alluding, nodded her head vigorously: "Yes. He asked us when we met with him last week. So are you.. I take it you're a member too? Dumbledore didn't really say much about it."

"Yeah, but don't say anything ter anyone," Hagrid said seriously. "It's supposed ter be a secret. Probably shouldn' a told you lot, but I figure..."

"Yep," James said quickly. "And we'll explain everything and jaw about it all we want once we're in a meeting. But-" he checked his watch, "we'd better be off. I've got a last bit of business to take care of before everything in the morning."

"And I should probably finish packing my trunk," Lily added with a sigh.

Hagrid looked disappointed, but said, "Right well.. congratulations ter the both of yeh. And I'll be seeing the both of yeh soon at..." He wagged his head meaningfully as he stood to accompany James and Lily to the door.

Lily smiled warmly at him and responded, "Yes. We'll see you again soon." As she spoke, she rose on tiptoe and stretched her arms out to give the half-giant a rather awkward hug goodbye. With her petite stature, her arms barely encompassed half of Hagrid's waist.

"Oh, go on then," Hagrid said, reaching for James as well. He pulled the pair of them close to him so that the twosome clunked heads. Once James' head had stopped spinning, he and Lily headed back up the lawns to the castle. They parted ways at the foot of the staircases to the Gryffindor dormitories. While Lily climbed the stairs to the seventh year girls' room and immediately began packing her trunk, James was less enthusiastic about this task.

An hour later, he and the Marauders - with the exception of Remus - had barely begun packing. Sirius and James were both lounging on their beds, casually removing posters from their walls with their wands. Peter was sprawled on his stomach, munching a few Bertie Botts beans that he had found under his bed while looking for his long-lost Potions scales. Only Remus had made any significant headway in preparing for tomorrow's return home, and even he did not appear too enthusiastic for the task.

Sirius watched in amusement as Remus re-folded a jumper for the fifth time and then wadded it into a ball with a look of digust.

"Y'know, Moony, it wouldn't be the end of the world if a few wrinkled ended up on your jumpers," he teased.

Remus glanced over at him in irritation, then huffed and chucked the crumpled jumper into his trunk.

Ignoring this exchange, James flicked his wand at the poster of the Caerphilly Catapults' star chaser that hung over his bed and watched as it fluttered gracefully onto the counterpane beside him.

"Everything set for tomorrow, Pete?" he asked.

Peter grinned, "They're all in the Shack."

"Good thing no one'll be using it. That'll reek for weeks," Sirius said, grimacing at the thought of all the pig refuse that must now be littering the floor of the Shrieking Shack.

"I rather think it does already," Remus added with a wry smile.

James nodded, "Well said, Moony. Though, to be fair, we took good care of it when we weren't taking the piss out of the place."

All four boys chuckled at this, and silence settled over the room as each one remembered the countless hours they had spent plotting inside the rickety old building. Sirius, who could never stand too much silence, was the first to break the lull in conversation.

"So, Prongs," he began, "the other day, Dumbledore had me, Moony an' Wormtail into his office.." He trailed off and paused in the process of taking down his Led Zepplin poster to watch James for his response.

"And?" James asked as he turned around. His expression was eager, as thought he'd been waiting for this subject to be brought up.

"And he said he'd just had a similar conversation with you and Red. About something called the Order of the Phoenix?" Sirius finished.

Remus gave him a sharp look, "Sirius, we'd do well not to talk about it by name!"

Sirius rolled his eyes and said, "Oh come off it. We're in our dormitory, for Merlin's sake. Who's going to overhear?"

"I think we're safe in here, Re-moose," James agreed, grinning, "That Muffliato spell Peter cast in here in fourth year seems to have stuck for a good while."

Peter grinned proudly as Remus relented, "Well just... don't make a habit of it. Not everywhere is as safe as Hogwarts."

Nodding, James asked, "So, lads, what'll it be? Are you in?"

"Of course!" Peter exclaimed.

Sirius raised an eyebrow, "D'you even have to ask? I'm assuming you and Red joined up too."

"Do you even have to ask?" James responded.

"I think he was more asking if Lily had, not you," Remus clarified.

"Oh, yes," James answered. "Not my first choice, maybe. But I think it'll be for good. No secrets, this way."

"Not your first choice?," Peter asked in confusion.

Sirius, who could read his best mate like a poorly plotted children's book, explained before James could even open his mouth: "He doesn't want her fighting."

Remus sighed, "I hope you didn't actually tell her that, Prongs." He could only imagine Lily's disastrous reaction to being told something like that.

But James merely laughed. After years of pursuing Lily and several months of dating her, he had come a long way in learning how not to put his foot in his mouth when talking to her.

"Are you mad? Of course not," he assured Remus.

Peter, however, was still stuck on James' previous declaration.

"Hang on... you said 'no secrets.' Does that mean you've told her.. about us?" he asked.

Sirius swiveled between Peter and James, keen to know the answer to the blond boy's question.

"Don't be stupid, Peter," James answered quickly, feeling the weight of Sirius' gaze. Truth be told, he had considered that he ought to, but he knew this would reveal secrets that weren't his to share.

Although he presumably had the worst secret to reveal, Remus looked the least perturbed. His expression was thoughtful as he asked, "Well... do you plan to?"

"Er... I dunno," James answered. "I mean, I think I'll have to eventually. I think the three of us-" here he paused to indicate Sirius, Peter and himself "-could bring a good advantage to the fight, seeing as we're Unregistered..."

"Great minds, Prongs," Sirius grinned, relieved. "But yeah, don't tell her. I mean, what if you guys break up? It's a liability."

Remus leaned over reflexively to smack Sirius upside the head but realized halfway through the gesture that he was too far away to reach him and ended up grabbing the bedpost for support. He managed not to topple over and snapped, "Way to be supportive, Padfoot."

Unperturbed, James laughed at the spectacle and said, "Man, I'm going to miss living with you lot."

Before Sirius could respond, the boys heard a knock at their door, followed by the sound of Lily's voice asking, "James? Can I come in?"

To James' surprise, it was Sirius who cheerfully called out, "C'mon in, Red."

There was a clicking sound as Lily tried the handle.

"Hullo? James?" Her voice sounded as if it was traveling through water.

Remus grinned.

"I suppose that Muffliatobit that Peter did really was thorough."

"I guess I'd better undo it," Peter said solemnly as he got to his feet and retrieved his wand, "as we're on our way out anyway." He pointed his wand at the door and muttered: "Finite Incantatem!"

With a whooshing sound followed by the click of the doorjamb, Lily entered the Gryffindor Boys' Dormitory 3C for the last time. She smiled as she looked around, surveying the room and the boys' progress- or, rather, lack thereof.

"I should have known you fellows wouldn't have made any headway," she said, giggling.

James was indignant.

"That's not true!" he exclaimed. "Remus packed!"

The sandy-haired boy pointed to his trunk, which had about a third of all its usual contents inside. "See?"

Lily looked at the trunk, and then back to James. "All right," she conceded, "I amend my statement. I should have known that most of you would be lazing about." Her green eyes twinkled.

"Too right," James said as he flopped back onto his four-poster. "Come and sit with me," he said, motioning to Lily, who smiled as she obliged him and climbed onto his bed beside him.

"Have you asked them," she began in a whisper, "about…you know?"

James nodded. "Everyone's in. I expect Dumbledore will be sending us each an owl as soon as we're home for a meeting, or something."

Sirius abandoned his poster, as well as his general efforts toward getting packed.

"You'll not have any time to miss me properly, Red," he said with a wink.

Lily rolled her eyes. "Keep dreaming, Black." Her voice took on a more serious note. "I've just finished asking the girls about it, too. Marlene said she's in, but Mary's not."

Remus' eyebrows rose. "Really? That surprises me."

"Wait, you asked them?" inquired Peter, looking confused. "Dumbledore told me that he was the one asking people. Are we supposed to be inviting others? I can't imagine that would help with the whole 'secrecy' thing…"

"No," Lily explained. "I just asked if they'd been asked." She turned back to Remus. "It surprises me, too, but…" she shrugged. "I think Mary's frightened. Maybe she'll come 'round and realize this whole bit is a fight worth having." A pause followed. "I wonder how many of our classmates have met with Dumbledore about it."

Remus smiled. "I expect we'll find out at the meeting," he offered as he made a mental tally of the students in their year. "Though, to be honest, I wouldn't hold your breath for too many."

"And you can bet every single Slytherin's planning to go and join up with You Know Who," said Sirius darkly.

Lily shifted in her seat, thinking of Severus and the conversation they'd had only days before. "Yes, well…" she said distractedly.

Remus sighed.

"Can we talk about something else?" Peter asked, looking concerned.

"Hear, hear," said James, sitting up. "It's our last night, lads. You know what that means?"

Remus grinned. "Don't tell me you actually remembered!"

Lily looked between them curiously. "What? James, you didn't tell me you had plans!"

"And the prank later tonight!" crowed Peter.

Sirius chucked his pillow at Peter. It hit him full in the face.

"Shut up, you prat! No one can know!"

"Ooh!" exclaimed Lily. "Going to tell me what you're planning, lads?"

Ignoring Lily, James laughed and dived under his bed, returning with a large bottle of Ogden's.

Sirius, who had crawled under his four-poster, emerged with a large bag of Honeydukes sweets. He dumped the lot onto his bed, which included several thick slabs of chocolate, as well as various other sweets.

"It's the last of my private stores, so eat up!" he said, laughing as Remus immediately reached for a bar of amaretto chocolate.

Lily grabbed James' arm, giving him her best puppy-dog expression and pouting. "Why not tell me? I won't say anything to anyone…" She batted her eyelashes, a smile at the corner of her lips.

"Nope," James said bluntly. "Sorry."

"Fine," she said. "Got anything less… blech than whiskey?"

James shook his head, a grin across his lips. "If you're going to hang with the lads, you've gotta drink like one, sweet," he said, kissing her swiftly on the cheek.

Remus fished a bar of chocolate out of the pile on Sirius' bed and tossed it to Lily. "Here," he said. "As a consolation prize."

James busied himself with pouring the first of what was sure to be several glasses. He handed them all around and then raised his. "A toast!" he proclaimed, beaming around at all of them.

Lily quickly bit off a bit of chocolate to mask the upcoming sharp flavor of Firewhisky.

"To mischief well managed," James grinned, suddenly feeling his throat tighten.

"To surviving the N.E.W.T.s" Peter beamed.

"To Moonlight, and to the best mates a bloke could ask for," Remus smiled.

"And to years of mayhem still to come!" added Sirius, holding his glass aloft.

The four of them looked to Lily, who raised hers and said earnestly; "To Hogwarts!"


Now Available in the "Those Who Thrice Defied Him" trilogy: Don't Let Me Down.

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