A/N: I have been sitting on this chapter for a while, unwilling to publish it because it's the last chapter and I always felt like there was one more thing that I needed to change or fix. I killed and resurrected characters repeatedly, until ultimately I realised that my original plan was the only one that worked, and I was trying to shoehorn things that didn't fit in here.
So in the end, having considered several different endings, I've stuck with the one I always originally intended. I hope it doesn't disappoint.
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The corvette had been on their tail since it had arrived on the scene; it had gained ground on them quickly, but once it had closed the gap between itself and the Fawkes it had started to hang back right on the edge of firing range. Sirius suspected that Lucius Malfoy had either been so eager to do his master's bidding that he hadn't outfitted his navy with a full complement of men and guns, thus meaning the corvette may not be capable of winning a fight with the Fawkes, and was just a scare tactic there to make the attacking force seem stronger than it actually was, or - and he personally thought this more likely, based on his knowledge of the man's character - he wanted to be damn sure that it was his ship that was responsible for capturing the Fawkes, and the others were under orders to merely get close and stay close until his ship could catch up.
A loud bang and an accompanying cloud of smoke from the corvette let Sirius know it was coming, but he barely had time to yell a warning before his voice was drowned out by the shrill whistling of a cannon ball flying through the air.
James spun the wheel, and the Fawkes lurched with the sudden change of direction, sending men crashing to the deck and a wave of water over the port side. The cannon ball landed in the water a few feet off their starboard bow, and Sirius blew out a sigh of relief, followed by a word of muttered appreciation for James' abilities as a helmsman. That was the sixth - no, seventh - shot that corvette had thrown at them in the forty or so minutes it had been on their tail. He had a horrible feeling that they might be establishing range in preparation for the actual assault that they all knew was coming. He adjusted his position in the crow's nest and settled his eyes back on the pursuing ships, idly listening to the sounds coming from the deck of the Fawkes far below him.
'Goddammit Remus, will you do something about those bloody guns!' James' irate roar rang across the deck as he fought the pull of the sea to steady their course.
'Hang on, let me get my magic wand and I'll just miracle the buggers away shall I?!' Remus yelled back from the other side of the ship, the strain showing in his voice as he fought to tie a line off. 'What exactly would you like me to do about their guns Captain?'
There was a moment of quiet - at least in terms of voices - where Sirius could only hear the roaring of the sea and wind, and then James' voice boomed out again.
'Get Sirius and get up here!' James ordered, and on hearing that Sirius decided not to make Remus come looking for him, irate as he seemed to be. He stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled, and after a few brief moments Alec appeared to relieve him. Sirius clapped him on the back and left him there, climbing down the rigging with surefooted ease.
Remus was standing at the bottom of the mast, watching his progress down. Sirius allowed himself to drop the last few feet onto the deck, his boots hitting the floor with a muted thud that kicked up a fine spray of water droplets from one of the many small puddles that littered the deck, testament to exactly how much water had crashed over the Fawkes during this little race.
'I suppose you heard the summons then.' Remus sounded slightly calmer, which Sirius supposed could only be a good thing; a bad-tempered Remus was a sloppy Remus, much as he was when he lost his head. Neither of them had a temperament like James', which could channel anger into some kind of cold fury that actually made him more ruthless, more relentless; for all he seemed the hot-head, he was actually the steadiest of the three of them.
'I think Malfoy probably heard him.' Sirius attempted the joke, though he knew it wasn't funny. 'Probably heard him yelling about the guns too.'
'Let's not keep him waiting then. He's in a keelhauling kind of mood.'
'Isn't he always?' Sirius answered, following Remus up towards the helm where James still controlled the wheel, trying to strike a balance between manoeuvring the ship in as unexpected a route as possible to avoid drawing fire and making the best possible time to their destination. Sirius didn't envy him the task, and was grateful that James hadn't opted to pass that responsibility onto him.
James glanced over at them as he heard their footsteps coming up the stairs. 'Good, you're both here.'
'You called?' Sirius leaned against the rail, while Remus merely folded his arms and waited.
'Yeah, listen, we have to do something about that bloody corvette. I think Malfoy may be smarter than I gave him credit for.'
Remus' expression sharpened into one of wary concern. 'How so?'
'Look at the gap between us and the other Diagon ships.'
Remus and Sirius both turned and looked at the three other ships following them. Sirius knew they weren't actually close enough to be of concern, since he'd been watching them almost as closely as he had the corvette from the crow's nest, so he wasn't wholly sure what he was looking for.
'They're gaining on us, but we expected that didn't we?' Remus sounded as confused as he felt.
'Of course we did, and I'm pretty confident that you calculated their top speed accurately because they're going no faster than we expected, but we're not moving as fast as we expected to.' James answered, his eyes still fixed on the sea as he steered easily. 'We banked on being able to travel a certain distance at a certain speed, meaning that we'd arrive at Ministry Point right before they did, getting us to relative safety while leaving them no time to back out of the ambush; but because of that Corvette sitting right behind us spewing bloody cannon balls, I'm having to veer us all over the place to avoid them. We're not ever moving very far off course, but enough that it increases the amount of time it will take us to get to Ministry.'
'So what are you saying?' Sirius had a sneaking suspicion that he knew what James was getting at, but he wanted his oldest friend to confirm his suspicions.
'You think that the corvette's purpose here is to slow us down for a specific reason.' Remus said in a flat tone. 'We thought it was just holding off on attacking because Malfoy wanted to lead the fight, or that it was undermanned, or biding its time, or just plain wary of entering into a fight without back up; we never stopped to wonder if Lucius had come into this with a plan of his own.'
James nodded. 'That's exactly it. If you pay attention to where that ship is aiming when it fires...I don't think any of those shots would have hit us. I think the whole point was simply to make us to take evasive action and slow us down. And more importantly, to make us veer in a specific direction off course.'
Sirius swore violently and kicked the railing hard. 'We're being herded.'
'What?' Remus took two quick steps forward, his eyes darting between the other two men. 'Herded where? There's bugger all for miles.'
'There's another large headland between here and Ministry point.' James pointed out. 'If they can force us close enough to the coast, before we get past that point, we'll find ourselves cut off from the open sea and ground up against the coastline by those ships. No escape possible.'
'So we need to stay in open water to make it around that headland to Ministry Point - where Moody is waiting for us - while staying ahead of four pursuing ships, one of which is doing it's very best to force us into the coast?' Remus rubbed a hand across his face, his expression tired. 'Well, this just keeps getting better and better.'
'We're still ahead of them.' James responded. 'We have some time.'
'Time for what?' Sirius asked sourly. 'I know you're a great helmsman James, but you've no choice but to avoid those cannon shots, and every time you do they close the gap a little more.'
'We might have time to engage the corvette.' Remus answered thoughtfully, causing Sirius to swing around and stare at him. 'That's what he means.'
'You what? You want us to what?'
Remus looked over at James, whose attention was still firmly focused on the wheel and the horizon. 'That's what you were thinking isn't it? That we sink the corvette. We'd lose time and ground during the fight, but if we can sink or disable it before the other three can catch up with us, we're sailing unfettered again, and we're faster than the brigs and the man of war anyway, so we can make some time up. It's just a matter of whether or not we can fight and win before they catch up.'
'I reckon we can.' Sirius sounded suddenly confident after his initial shocked response. 'If we spin around and charge them down. Never thought either of you would suggest something like that though. More my speed than yours.'
'Desperate times.' Remus glanced at him, then back at James. 'It is somewhat reckless though.'
'Most of the things we do are.' James pointed out. 'Ready the guns and the men. We'll come about and engage them.' His tone was firm, his voice clear. 'We have to be quick, and we have to be clinical, and we don't have time for niceties. We do whatever it takes to get that ship off our tail, and we do it fast.'
Sirius and Remus acknowledged the orders and turned to leave, but both stopped on the stairs when James called after them. 'Find Lily and send her up to me will you?'
Sirius turned, and stared up at his best friend. 'What the hell for?'
'Because it turns out that I do need every man I can get.' James answered grimly, sparing only a quick glance away from the helm.
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James felt the ship rock suddenly as the cannon ball clipped the railing, sending small splinters of wood flying in every direction, before plunging into the sea. Water flew up upon its impact, showering the forecastle with droplets of salty water. He shoved his wet hair back out of his eyes and gripped the wheel firmly, trying to steady his course.
If he listened closely he could hear the sound of Remus and Sirius getting the ship ready for the coming fight; he was simply waiting on their signal to come full about and bear down on their pursuers. One of them anyway. The most problematic one.
He would never admit it, but he was worried he might have made the wrong decision. If they couldn't disable the corvette quickly enough, they'd be in the middle of fight as three other ships were bearing down on them, and that was a situation that they couldn't hope to escape. But crazy though this scheme sounded, it was their only chance, because he knew that if they allowed the corvette to continue its course of action there were only two outcomes possible; they would eventually be forced to move inland to avoid the ship and its fire, and would be trapped between their pursuers and the land; or he would have to keep course to avoid that happening and allow a shot to land, hoping against hope that it only caused minor damage but knowing that it could just as easily knock out their mast, or rudder, or even hole their side. This may have been a risk, but it was a calculated one, and weighed against his other options attack really did seem the best defence.
Light footsteps coming up to the helm pulled him out of his musings, and as he looked up Lily appeared in front of the wheel, and he found himself doing a double take at the sight of her.
She had once again given up on the dresses that Alice had been so keen to keep her in, and James was fairly certain that her ladies maid would have been pretty appalled with her current get-up. Her hair was tied in a long braid that she'd pinned up into a bun of sorts, and she was wearing close fitting breeches, tucked into leather riding boots that stopped at the knee, and a shirt that was much closer to what he customarily wore while at sea than the ones she typically favoured, which were usually a little more tailored and quite a lot higher in the neckline. The sleeves were rolled up to the elbow and she'd tied the excess material in a knot at her waist. The entire thing looked much too big for her, and it took his suddenly sluggish brain a moment to understand why.
'Is that my shirt?' He demanded, and she smiled coyly at him.
'Why yes, yes it is.' She answered sweetly, and he found himself momentarily lost for words. Only momentarily though.
'And why are you wearing my shirt?'
'Didn't want to bleed on one of mine.' She answered easily, moving closer so the she held the same spokes of the wheel he did, just from the opposite side. 'Actually, if you want an honest answer, it's much less restrictive than most of mine are. I thought I'd make sure I was comfortable if it came down to fighting. And certain of my, er, attributes are less obvious in this shirt, thanks to the size and lack of tailoring; since you were worried about me being easily identified I thought I'd conceal them a little.'
'Conceal them in my shirt.' James pointed out again, feeling like he was very much stuck on that particular point.
She offered him another of those much too mischievous smiles. 'I'll let you take it back later.'
For a moment his mind just became one blank white space, totally incapable of any rational thought, but then concerns about impending doom came rushing back in and forced out the momentary influx of hormones.
'I need you to do something for me.' He said quietly, trying very hard not to look at her too much.
'Yes James?' She fluttered her eyelashes, and he narrowed his eyes at her, certain that she'd be less playful once he'd told her what he wanted her to do. Cruel though it might be considered, he found he was looking forward to wiping that little smirk off her face.
'Once I've brought the ship about, I want you to take the helm.'
Her eyes widened and her jaw dropped. 'You want me to what?'
'I want you to take the helm, and steer the Fawkes through the battle.' He repeated the sentiment and waited for a response, which took a moment to come.
'Why me?' She sounded nervous, and he softened his tone and his posture into one of calm reassurance.
'Because you're the best person for the job. How often have you sat up here with me and watched what to do? How many lessons have I given you? How many times have you stood between me and the wheel while I steered? You know exactly what to do, what to feel for, how the ship responds. You think quickly on your feet, and I trust you to make good decisions while we're under fire. Just follow orders and trust your instincts.'
'James….' She trailed off, then picked up again. 'Why not Alec or Will? They're both excellent helmsmen. Greengrass, Diggory...they've probably all got more experience at the helm than me.'
'Experience isn't the only thing that counts.' James answered. 'And I need all those men in other posts. It should be me at the helm really. So I'm asking you to do this for me, so I can command the assault without worrying that I don't have someone I trust steering my ship.'
She stared at him for a good few moments, then looked down at her feet and nodded quickly, worrying at her bottom lip with her teeth. He lifted a hand off the wheel and pressed his thumb to her mouth, easing her lip out from between her teeth. He left his hand resting on her cheek, his thumb just brushing the corner of her lips.
'Don't look so worried.' He murmured gently. 'Do you think I'd hand my ship over to someone if I didn't have complete faith in them?' She looked up at him then, green eyes brimming with concern and unease, and he leaned over the wheel to gently kiss the spot on her lip that she'd just been biting at. 'Don't worry.' He repeated again, and she managed a weak smile for him.
The sound of a throat clearing behind her made Lily jump, but James had seen Greengrass coming and just nodded an acknowledgment of his presence.
'All ready sir. Waiting on your command.' Greengrass delivered the statement in a tone of voice that was so calm that James briefly wondered if the man was medicated. He dismissed the thought; none of his crew were daft enough to get drunk in a situation like this.
'Then we're coming about right now Greengrass. Let the mates know.'
James let him get back down to the main deck, heard him call out to Sirius and Remus, and then he spun the wheel. Sails swung on their riggings, and the Fawkes turned one hundred and eighty degrees in only a few seconds and was suddenly racing towards the corvette. James stepped back from the wheel, holding it with one hand, and Lily placed both her hands on the spokes, her grip tightening as James released it.
He put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. 'Listen for orders, and keep her steady.' Then he kissed her cheek and ran down the stairs to the deck.
Sirius did a double take as he arrived alongside him at the starboard rail. 'Who the hell has the helm?'
James avoided looking at him. 'Lily.'
'Lily? Fucking hell.'
'She can do it.' James answered shortly.
'I don't doubt it.' Sirius answered without pause. 'The amount of bloody time she spends up there with you, she probably knows it better than I do. I just never thought you'd let her do it.'
'No, neither did I.' James muttered, more to himself than to his friend, and then he allowed himself to focus on the upcoming fight.
They were bearing down fast on the corvette, and for the first time he could see the name painted on the side. The Veela. The wind carried the sound of confused shouting coming from its decks, and James found himself hoping that meant that they had really caught them unawares.
'Ready on the guns!' Remus' voice echoed across the deck, and James held his breath as he watched the men on board the Veela loading their own cannon as the Fawkes raced closer. The two ships slid alongside each other, and Remus, James and Sirius yelled the command to fire almost in unison. The ship quaked underneath them, and black smoke filled the air, clogging their lungs and clouding their vision.
'Come about, come past and come about for another round!' James yelled, and he felt the ship move as Lily adjusted the steering to follow his command.
The Fawkes had just about come past the Veela, and the corvette was just about ready on its own guns, when Sirius' voice yelled one more command to fire; a single gun from the Fawkes fired, and James watched in shock as the shell hit the stern of the Veela right at the waterline, smashing a huge chunk of its hull into nothing more than flying splinters. The crew of the stricken corvette immediately gave up any attempts at preparing to retaliate, and began to abandon ship as water began to pour through the large hole in its stern.
The crew of the Fawkes cheered, and Remus' voice rang out above them after only a moment.
'Back to our course! Secure the guns and back to your posts!'
The deck became a hive of activity as some men immediately abandoned their fighting posts for their sailing ones, leaving others to tie off the guns, and the ship continued to steer back to its previous course under Lily's careful guidance.
James shook his head as he watched the men of the Veela evacuate its decks. 'Pirates would never have given up like that; they would have tried to board us before their ship sank.'
Sirius rested his arms on the rail. 'That's because unsuccessful pirates don't get paid; they'd have to capture the ship, or they'd be without one. These buggers get a salary, win or lose. They abandon ship, they just get another one.'
James propped himself up on his elbows alongside his second mate. 'So you're saying that the mistake that navies make is that they pay their sailors no matter the outcome of its engagements?'
'Bloody right.' Sirius answered with a snort. 'They haven't got much incentive to fight as hard as possible have they? Besides, what's the point in paying people who aren't successful anyway?'
James stared at the side of his head. 'You know, there's something extremely wrong with that whole opinion, but I'm damned if I can explain what.'
'I shouldn't bother then.' Said Sirius. 'Go relieve your lady at the helm. We may have sunk the biggest nuisance, but we were just bloody lucky. If any of those three catches up with us, we're buggered.'
'About time we had some luck.' James pushed himself up and stared off at the three Diagon ships still following them. 'They gained a bit more ground than I'd like, but we've bought ourselves some breathing space.'
Sirius straightened up and flexed his shoulder muscles to relieve the stiffness. 'I'll go help Remus assess any damage and reset for the next little skirmish shall I?'
'I sincerely hope Moody will be taking care of them for us.' James replied as they both moved off to their respective jobs.
'Yeah, but he's an unreliable bugger.' Sirius winked at him. 'I'd trust us over him any day.'
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'Thanks Miss Lily.' Alec grinned at her as she handed a line back to him.
'You don't have to call me Miss Lily, Alec.' She watched him expertly tie it off, and then tug on it to check it.
'It wouldn't be respectful if I didn't, Miss Lily.'
She gave up, and wandered off after a quick goodbye. Every man in the crew treated her with that kind of deference, and no matter what she said she couldn't get them to stop. Oddly enough, it bothered her less these days, now that she was no longer running from her past and hiding her identity. Before she'd hated it because she'd been trying so hard to be someone else, to not be Lady Lily, to not be the Earl of Cokeworth's daughter; now she just didn't like that these men, who she spent so much of her time with, saw her as a breed apart.
She wasn't offended as such - she knew that they saw James, and Sirius and Remus for that matter, in a similar way - it just enhanced her feeling of not belonging. She knew she didn't belong in the world of nobility any more - she didn't think that she could ever go back to it, not now she knew what it was to be actually free to make your own choices, and besides, she doubted she'd be accepted back now, having run away from her obligations and spent months on end running around the world unchaperoned - but she wasn't wholly sure that she belonged here either.
Remus was standing at the port side rail, staring out across the sea, so she joined him. The three ships were still there, and to her eyes they seemed bigger.
'Are they closer?'
'Yes.' Remus answered. 'You can actually see their names now, look.'
She had to screw up her eyes, and she wondered how good Remus' eyesight was to be able to spot such small details over this distance, but after a moment's effort she could read them. The two brigs were the Lethifold and the Dementor, and she could only just make out the name painted on the side of Lucius's ship – the Manor.
'We lost some time in that little skirmish with the Veela, but James was right, we had to.' Remus continued in conversational tones, and Lily found herself appreciating once again Remus' habit of telling her more than anyone else probably would under the same circumstances. 'They caught up a little then, and now the wind isn't in our favour and they're making up ground a little at a time. They have more sail you see, so they can quarter the wind a little more effectively than we can. And James is being careful not to run on too straight a course; we don't want to give them a chance to cut us off, and we don't want to end up in range of their guns.'
'Are we very worried about them?'
Remus squinted at the horizon. 'Not yet. If we keep our current pace, and they keep theirs, we should just beat them to Ministry Point, and with any luck Moody will do all the fighting for us. If they start gaining on us a bit faster…well, then things could get a bit hairy.'
Lily blew out a sigh. 'Well, here's hoping then.'
He looked at her out of the corner of his eyes. 'You did well at the helm.'
She looked down at her hands and began to toy with a ring on the finger. 'I didn't have to do much.'
'Still, James trusted you with it.'
'Yes well.' She clasped her hands together and straightened her shoulders a little. 'We had quite the discussion about what my role in this escapade would be, and it seemed that he might have paid more attention to what I said than I thought he did.'
'He listens to you.' Remus lowered his voice, though he was certain that none of the crew were in earshot. 'You might not believe it, but he really does. He cares about your opinion, about what you think.'
'I know he does. He's one of the few people who ever have. You and Sirius too.' Lily stepped away from the rail. 'I'm going to go to my cabin for a little while.'
She'd not gone more than two steps when Remus called after her. 'It might be better if you went to James' cabin. We're only about twenty or thirty minutes away from Ministry Point now.'
She looked steadily at him, then nodded quickly. She strode across the deck and entered James' cabin; no-one paid her the slightest bit of attention, since it was a familiar sight to the entire crew by now, Lily coming and going freely from the Captain's cabin, whether he was there or not.
Once she was inside, she opened one of his cabinets and pulled out his spare sword belt and sword, and the dagger she borrowed from him whenever she needed one. She sat on his bed and re-braided her hair, making sure it was tightly secured. She adjusted all her clothing, and tied the sword belt around her waist. She tucked the dagger into her boot.
Then she sat back on the bed and waited for news, feeling the movement of the ship as it responded to James at the helm. She wondered if he would insist on keeping to their agreement of her staying in the cabin, or if he'd ask her to take the helm to free up another man for the fight. She hoped he'd agree to let her come out one way or another, because she didn't think she could take sitting in his cabin, listening to the sounds of the fight happening outside and letting her imagination run wild.
Abruptly her mind flashed back to the first time that had ever happened after she'd come on board the Fawkes; the fight with the Acromantula. When Diggory had recognised her and circumstances had forced her to confess her identity and problems to James. In a very real sense, that had been when everything had really started to change.
And things had changed. She didn't want to be the passive girl hiding in her cabin, terrified of the sounds and smells of a fight anymore. She wasn't that girl. But she would keep her promise to James if he chose to hold her to it.
She just hoped he didn't.
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Sirius was completely fed up of this game of cat and mouse. Ministry Point was in sight in the distance, and they all knew that Moody's ships were lurking around somewhere, waiting for the opportunity to pounce on Malfoy.
But in the meantime, the Fawkes was in the firing line, and things were getting dicier by the minute. All three ships Diagon ships were gaining ground, and James had concluded that they were more than likely using rowers as well as sails. They had the wind in their favour and James still had to steer evasively, costing them some of their distance advantage every time he had to weave rather than head straight. They couldn't spare men to row, so they were somewhat stuck.
All in all, Sirius concluded that it was going to be a damn close run thing unless Moody made his appearance in the next few moments.
'The only thing that's really in our favour is that they can't just blow us to bits with the guns.' Remus' face was set as he stood next to Sirius in the bow and watched the ships close in one them. 'They need to guarantee that they can take Lily alive, so they can't just hammer us with cannon fire to sink us. They need to board us. That's in our favour, because we can fire on them with impunity.'
'But we're massively outnumbered.' Sirius replied shortly. 'We don't have enough guns to keep all three at bay.'
'Where's your usual optimism?' Remus eyed him bemusedly.
'Ran out a few miles back.' Sirius answered shortly. 'That first brig – the Dementor - is going to be on us very shortly. We should be ready for it.'
Remus frowned as he followed Sirius' eye line. 'I'll let James know, you start getting everyone ready.'
He rushed off, and Sirius began shouting orders to the men. A moment or two later, James arrived next to him.
'Who'd you hand off to?'
'Greengrass.' James replied, his tone curt, the strain in it evident. 'He won't admit it, but his leg is bad. It won't make a difference to his ability to steer, but it might make him an easy target in a fight.'
'Very…concerned of you to think of it.'
James gave him a sideways look. 'It's about the best possible deployment of men.'
'Hmmm. On that subject…Lily.'
James stiffened. 'Don't bring it up Sirius.'
Sirius held his hands up. 'I'm just saying…have you seen her fight recently? Because she's good with that sword James. She's better than some of the lads.'
Sirius huffed an annoyed breath out. 'Look, don't get all pissy with me. I'm just trying to say that I think you might be taking the wrong approach here. Firstly, have you thought that by having her stay in your cabin you're backing her into a corner? She'll be trapped in there if anyone gets in past us. Secondly, we could actually use her sword arm. And finally, don't you think that you might feel better if you can actually see her during the fight? Rather than some part of your mind always wondering about her.'
James rubbed his face with one hand tiredly. 'Don't Sirius. I'm not sure about any of this as it is. Damn girl has my mind all messed up.'
'I've heard it can take you that way.' Sirius smirked. 'Be honest, if it was anyone but Lily, you'd let them fight.'
'But it is Lily. She's the one they're coming for Sirius, and she's pretty recognisable; her hair is like a damn beacon. I let her stand out on deck, and they go straight for her.'
Sirius remained silent for a moment, then grinned widely. 'I might have an idea about that.'
James turned to look at him, and Sirius leaned in to speak quietly in his ear. 'What if she's not recognisable?'
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The door to James' cabin flew open, and Sirius rushed in. Lily was standing at the bookshelves, staring at nothing in particular.
'Got something for you.'
She turned at the sound of Sirius' voice, her eyebrows rising when she saw that he held what looked like a small bundle of fabric.
The hat and scarf hit her in the chest, and she caught them instinctively. Sirius grinned at her. 'James' only stipulation was that you "bloody well better not be easy to spot in a crowd".'
Her mouth fell open. 'He said I could come out?'
Sirius grinned again. 'He did. He's soft when it comes to you. Better get yourself shifting anyway, we've only got minutes before we're going to have to start firing on them.'
'What's the plan?' Lily checked her hair was secured high up on her head and covered it with the dark brown tricorne, and then she began to wrap the lightweight scarf around her neck, pulling it up over her nose so it covered the bottom half of her features. With the brim of the hat pulled low, it was hard to make out any of her face at all. Sirius nodded his satisfaction.
'We keep them at bay as long as we can with the guns. Moody should be very close by, we're nearly at the ambush site; he should guess things have gotten a bit tricky once he hears cannon fire, and then he'll head our way. If he gets to us quickly enough, great, if not we might have to repel some boarders.'
'Sounds like lots of fun.' Lily adjusted her sword belt and checked her dagger was handy.
Sirius winked at her. 'I always think so.'
She followed him out of the cabin and over to James and Remus; Remus eyed her with some amusement, James with worry.
'Stay close to one of us at all times.' He instructed, and she found herself nodding along; it wasn't an unreasonable request, and he had given a lot of ground today.
They stood in silence as they watched the three ships bearing down on them, closing the gap little by little all the time.
There was no sign of Moody as yet, and everyone on board was preparing themselves for a fight in which they were outnumbered five to one.
'Nearly….nearly…' Sirius was standing on one side of her and mumbling under his breath, so quietly that Lily could barely hear it, but she knew he was watching for the moment when they could begin to fire on the lead ship; it might be the start of a fight none of them would survive, but at least the tension would break.
'…and there.' James' low voice came from alongside her, and then with a squeeze of her shoulder he pushed past her and his voice rose into a shout. 'Ready on the guns!'
'Fire!' Remus' voice came from the far side of the deck, and Lily jumped at the sound; she hadn't even heard him move away from them.
Cannon fire drowned out the voices of the crew, and she found herself tasting acrid smoke on her tongue as the gunpowder hung in the air, obscuring her view of their pursuers. At least one shot had found its mark, she heard the tell-tale sound of splintering wood clearly, but she had no idea of how much damage had been done.
'Reload!' Sirius' voice shouted this time, richer and smoother than Remus', but no less urgent. The crew of the Fawkes hurried to ready the guns, and then the looming shape of one of the Dementor appeared through the smoke, its guns pointed directly at them.
'Greengrass!' James shouted, and the Fawkes lurched to the right, out of the sights of the brig's cannon.
The smoke from the first round of cannon fire had cleared, and Lily could clearly see the Lethifold gaining on them; Lucius' man of war was still some distance behind, though it too was gaining.
Lily made her way to Sirius, who was standing stiffly by the rail, arms folded and brow furrowed.
'They could have us in their sights again in moments.' She said quietly. 'Why aren't they attacking us?'
'They don't want to sink us Lily.' Sirius answered. 'They can't risk doing so; they need you alive. What they're trying to do is get close enough to board us. And I doubt we have the firepower to sink them, so all we can do is keep them at bay with our own guns. We're in a stalemate right now, and thank God for it too.'
'So what do you think they'll do?'
Sirius looked at her carefully. 'Well, if it was me, I'd try to box us in and board from more than one side. But that's just me.'
Lily pursed her lips thoughtfully and looked back over her shoulder. 'So what do we do?'
'We keep running, we fire on them when we get a chance, and we hope like hell Moody is nearby.'
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She'd almost thought he was joking, but nearly twenty minutes had passed, the Fawkes' guns had fired seven rounds in total, and their lead was now next to nothing. Both brigs were within spitting distance of them, and the Manor sailed lazily along behind, apparently content to leave the pursuit in the hands of the others, at least for now.
They were sailing at full pelt towards Ministry Point, the rocky promontory clearly visible, and Lily had found herself leaning on the rail and staring at it, as if she could will them to reach it faster. She realised how ridiculous she was being, shook her head firmly and moved purposefully away from the rail, striding along the deck with determined steps, even though she had no idea where she was going.
She stopped in the shadow of the stern and leaned against the door of James' cabin, knowing that no-one from the pursuing ships would be able to see her there, and pulled the scarf down off her face, allowing her to take deeper, steadying breaths. Then she simply stared across at the ships that were there with the express purpose of dragging her off to be a pawn in someone else's plans. A warm hand ran down her arm from the shoulder, and she jumped violently.
'A little wound up?' James asked in a gentle tone, his hand still resting lightly on her elbow.
She laughed, but it was a hollow sound, even she could hear it. 'At the thought of Lucius Malfoy getting his hands on me and delivering me to Snape? Yes, absolutely.'
They were silent for a moment, and then James' arm wound around her waist and tucked her into his side.
A part of her registered her surprise at this public display of affection - James was usually careful not to openly show his partiality for her – but the largest part of her just relaxed under his touch, and she sagged against him, one hand coming up to rest on his chest, feeling his steady heartbeat under her fingers.
'He's not going to get his hands on you, you know that don't you?'
Lily closed her eyes tightly. 'I hope not.'
'He's not Lily. Trust me.'
'I do.' But it wasn't a matter of trusting him. James would never betray her or let her down, she knew that, but not everything was in his hands here. Those ships were gaining on them every moment, and he couldn't be certain of what was going to happen when they finally caught up.
But he wouldn't let someone take her while there was breath in his body, and she would fight to stay with him with her last ounce of strength.
The realisation of just how stupidly, unreasonably, in love with him she was should probably have come at a different kind of moment she supposed, a softer, more romantic one, but this was so much more them wasn't it? To feel that final piece of resistance crack at such an inopportune moment.
She opened her eyes and turned her head to stare across at Ministry Point again, and then she felt her breath catch.
At almost exactly the same moment, Alec's voice came from the crow's nest. 'The Auror! The Auror!'
From around the peninsula of Ministry Point came four ships flying the Phoenix banner of Hogwarts, the Auror in the lead, and bearing down fast.
James let his breath out in one fast rush. 'The old bastard did hear the cannon fire.'
Sirius ran past them, sword drawn, as Remus' voice shouted an instruction to ready the guns; Lily had rarely seen his face more grimly set.
James nodded at her. 'Cover your face, find Remus and stay with him. They're committed to this now, so they can't back out. They'll hit us hard, out of desperation. It's five against three, and Moody isn't to be taken lightly at any odds. Lucius will want to take us before they can interfere.'
The Fawkes gave a sudden lurch to port, and he swore furiously under his breath. 'And here they come.' Noting Lily's blank expression, he elaborated for her. 'Grappling hooks. They're going to try and board now. Go to Remus.'
He gave her one hard, unexpected kiss, and then stepped away from her, turning on his heel and running towards the port rail. She itched to follow him, but recognised that following his orders was necessary in circumstances like this and ignoring them now would be a poor way to repay his trust, so instead she pulled her scarf back over her face, turned and moved swiftly across the deck in search of Remus.
She found him at the forecastle, yelling instructions as the crew prepared themselves to repel boarders. The Dementor – being the brig which had thrown the hooks - was pulling ever closer, its greater bulk preventing the Fawkes from using her speed advantage, and Lily could see the crew standing by with boarding planks.
A shiver ran through her, but she drew her sword and held it firmly as she stood next to Remus, who gave her a reassuring nudge with his elbow.
'Just stay alert, don't let your temper take over and make you lose control, and try not to think too hard. You have good instincts, let them guide you.'
She acknowledged his advice with a nod, and then the first boarding plank fell into place, and men bearing the insignia of Diagon's navy spilt onto the deck.
Steel rang against steel as the two crews crashed into each other, and Lily found herself immediately pressed against Remus' back as a man with a scar running the length of his face launched himself at her.
She caught his blade with her own, completely instinctively, turned it aside and thrust back. The man dodged her strike easily, but caught Remus' cutlass directly in the gut.
He fell to the deck at Lily's feet, and for a moment she couldn't take her eyes off the blood that was oozing from his wound. She'd always assumed that it would spurt, that life would leave the body quickly. She'd seen people die before, of sickness, of age, at the hands of James and many other members of the crew, but this was the first time she'd really observed violent death.
'Lily, focus!' Remus barked the words as he shoved a man back from her with his foot, his blade coming up to parry the sword of another man charging towards them.
Shocked back into action by his words, she moved without thinking and for the first time ever felt her sword bite flesh as she drove it into the side of the next man to come at her. She pulled it back, and watched his body slide off the blade and crumple to the deck.
She didn't have time to think about what she'd just done, because another man was coming towards her and her sword arm moved instinctively in the patterns she'd learnt from Greengrass and honed with James and the others, and for the first time in her life she was fighting for herself, defending herself and there was a fierce exhilaration in that that pushed all the horror to the back of her mind for the time being.
Somewhere she registered the wider sounds of battle; the booming of the cannons, the sound of splintering wood, crashing waves of water and the hollow screams of men caught up in this ugly, brutal fight, but she kept her focus on the task at hand, hearing James' voice in her head whenever she faltered, that stupid quote he favoured – "if you're going through hell, keep going".
She stuck with Remus as they fought their way across the deck, with no thought in her head other than staying alive in the face of what seemed like overwhelming opposition. She caught glimpses of both James and Sirius at times, but other than registering a brief sense of relief that they were safe she had no time to think about them.
It felt like she'd been fighting for hours, but it had probably been only minutes, when the sound of cheering filled her ears, and she spared a quick glance over her shoulder. The Lethifold - the second of the brigs, the one that hadn't engaged the Fawkes - was sinking, taking on water fast as her crew dove over the sides, presumably in an attempt to make it to one of the other ships.
She couldn't see much beyond that, the air was too thick with the smoke from the guns and the spray of the waves, and besides, she had no time. Her attention turned back to the fight, and she blocked a thrust from a bearded man charging towards her, but a dagger in the man's other hand sliced into her cheek, her dodge not quite fast enough to avoid the blow entirely. She stumbled backwards, and her hat fell off. The man's eyes narrowed onto her hair, and he yelled a garbled sentence about "finding the girl" which drew the attention of several other sailors.
As men began to fight their way towards her, Lily felt Remus standing reassuringly alongside her, and then Diggory's sword cut down a man to her left, and he placed himself to the other side of her.
The first man to reach Lily dropped before she could even move her blade, and her eyes briefly met James' across the deck as he threw down the pistol he'd just fired and launched himself into the crowd, pushing his way towards her, his sword cutting through the men between them with practised ease. She was vaguely aware of Sirius joining him, but she also knew it was too late; there were too many men in wearing the uniform of the Diagon navy around her, and not enough left to fight them.
She stiffened her posture and prepared to fight to the very last breath, when a sudden shout changed everything.
'Having trouble there Potter?'
A very familiar voice echoed around the deck, and once Lily had managed to trace it to its source she saw Frank crossing a boarding plank onto the Fawkes and jumping onto the deck, a stream of sailors following behind him.
'Thought you hated sailing!' James' voice sounded even, but Lily knew him well enough to hear the relief in it.
'I do!' Frank shouted cheerfully as he knocked the sword out of another man's hands and punched him in the jaw. 'But I love a good fight more!'
The momentum of the fight suddenly changed direction then; the Diagon sailors were suddenly no longer the superior force, and they were worried more about their survival than grabbing the girl they'd come for. Lily was grateful, because it allowed her to take a breath and let her mind catch up with events, and she was able to step back out of the fight and watch the final crew members of the Dementor drop their weapons and surrender.
Once she'd caught her breath she took a moment to ponder Frank's sudden appearance, and she realised then that one of Moody's ships had themselves used grappling hooks to come along the other side of the Dementor; they'd then boarded from the other side, secured the enemy ship and used the brig's own boarding planks to cross to the Fawkes.
In the further distance, she could see the remains of the sunken Lethifold floating, and beyond that, the Manor was sailing away from Ministry point, with the Auror and both of Moody's other frigates following behind at top speed.
The fight was all but done.
Lily lowered her sword and sagged back against Remus, whose arms caught her easily.
'You did well.' He spoke the words quietly in her ear.
'I killed people.' She responded in a low tone, her eyes on the bodies scattered on the deck. The adrenaline was leaching out of her system now, leaving only numb shock and the realisation of what she'd been part of. 'I killed some of those men.'
'You defended yourself. You know that if it was me or Sirius or James feeling the guilt about it that you'd tell us the same.'
'Maybe.' Her eyes landed on James as he crossed the deck towards her, and abandoning all sense of ladylike behaviour – who was she kidding any more anyway – she closed the space between them and threw herself into his arms.
He caught her easily and held her tight, and it was easy to just bury her face into the crook of his neck and pretend she couldn't see the grisly aftermath of the afternoon's work. Her feet were swept out from under her, and she felt a gentle swaying motion that could only mean she was being carried.
She kept her eyes closed.
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The next time Lily ventured out on deck it looked much the same as it normally did; the bodies were gone, and the other debris produced by the fight had been cleared away. The sails were furled, the wheel tied off, and while the grappling hooks were gone, the Dementor was still there, tied off to the side of the Fawkes instead, with Frank's ship – the Lionheart – on its other side.
Moody hadn't yet returned, and neither had the other two ships that had followed him. Any men that had surrendered, or had been pulled from the sea after the sinking of the Veela and the Lethifold were being held on board the Dementor. The Fawkes had been surprisingly lucky in terms of losses - six men dead, and a number of injuries - and while she knew she should feel guilty over the fact that her initial response to that news had been overwhelming relief that James, Sirius and Remus weren't among the dead, she couldn't bring herself to feel it. She would mourn those lost men, but right now she didn't have room in her heart for any more emotion than was already swirling through her.
All three ships were quiet, which she supposed was normal for the middle of the night when they weren't actually under sail. She knew that somewhere there would be someone on watch – probably several men actually, given that James and Frank were both fairly extreme in their paranoia – but she saw no evidence of them. The deck was bathed in moonlight, and it felt oddly peaceful to be out there, especially given what had occurred there only hours earlier.
Crossing to the starboard side rail, she rested her hands on it and stared out at the open sea, trying to replace the flashing images of blood and disorder in her head with peaceful ones of the reflected moonlight in the water, and the gentle lap of the ocean against the side of the ship.
A warm body settled next to her, forearms brushing hers. 'Penny for them?'
She sighed heavily. 'They aren't worth it.'
'Let me guess – you feel guilty about what you've done, unsure about the future, and you can't stop seeing things you'd really prefer not to have on your mind while you're trying to sleep?'
'Those would be the highlights, yes.'
James looked at her carefully. 'Well, I'm afraid I can't help you with the last one. Time is the only thing I've ever found that can help dull the memories. But the guilt…Lily, you don't need to carry that around with you. They attacked us. They came here for you, and you fought to protect yourself. No-one, no-one, could criticise you for that. Don't tie yourself up in knots over something you can't change.'
She was silent for a moment, then she turned to him and laid one hand on his arm, just below the elbow. 'Do you want to know the truly terrible thing?'
He nodded slowly, his eyes glued to her face, and she felt as if she had to peel her tongue from the back of her throat to get the next sentence out. 'For all I feel awful about killing those men…I don't know that I would change it if I could.'
There was no censure in his eyes, so she continued, determined to blurt it out before she lost the nerve. 'For the first time in my life, I fought for myself. You and the others, you trusted me enough to let me fight. And I don't know…I can't help but feel – a sense of thrill about that? A sort of satisfaction that I am actually capable of that, no matter how terrible it is?'
He smiled at her softly, and reached out to tuck a loose lock of hair behind her ear, before he seemed to change his mind and moved closer to remove the pins that held her locks in some semblance of order. His fingers worked through her hair carefully, smoothing out tangles and gently tugging on the ends.
'I don't think that's strange at all.' His voice was calm and smooth, and there was an ease in it that Lily wasn't sure she had ever heard before. 'Didn't I once tell you that a cage is always a cage, no matter who put you in it, or what it's made of? Well, you're not caged anymore are you? And no-one can put you back in one. You can take care of yourself. You don't even need me anymore.'
'That's not true.' She spoke automatically, then sort of wished she hadn't when she his eyes met hers and crinkled into an amused smile.
'Good to know I'm not redundant yet.'
'No.' Her heart was beating so hard that she thought it would burst out through her chest. 'No, you're not.'
James' hand cupped the back of her head, fingers still twisted in her hair. 'What is it you still need me for, exactly?'
She was blushing furiously now, and was thankful that the pale moonlight meant that he wouldn't be able to see it as clearly as he normally would. But looking up at him, at those stupid hazel eyes that twinkled at inappropriate moments, and that half smile that always suggested that he knew a joke you didn't, she couldn't find any reason to lie to him.
'To keep me going, keep my spirits up. To remind me that I'm not in a cage, and I won't be put back in one. To make me feel like there's a point to all this.'
His other hand lifted up to play with the ends of her hair that stopped at her collarbone. 'I never thought I'd be capable of inspiring such thoughts in others.'
'You underestimate the effect you have on people.' Lily licked her lips nervously as she paused, feeling his fingers still gently stroking the skin of her neck. 'You make everyone in this crew feel as if they have a purpose. But that's not what I need you for most.'
James' hands continued their ministrations, and Lily fought to keep her thoughts straight as she tried to articulate them. 'I need you because I love you. I'm not just in love with you, I love you. Because…because I believe you when you say that you're in love with me.'
He didn't respond with words, just covered her mouth with his, lips and teeth meeting, breath mingling, and she lifted her hands up to sink into his hair and hold him there, swaying against her on the deck of the ship in the dark of the night. He kissed her with a sort of abandon she didn't usually feel from him, with an intensity that burned through her blood and set her fingers and toes tingling.
When he finally broke his mouth away from hers, there was absolutely no space left between them. 'You have to know that I love you. I know we never discussed what would happen after all this…please stay. Stay here with me.'
'Where will we go?' Lily felt the edge of giddy happiness creep into her tone. 'What are we going to do? Are you going home?'
He pressed his forehead down onto hers. 'Lucius Malfoy is probably in Moody's custody, or at the bottom of the ocean by now; Albus has troops marching on Diagon to re-install the rightful king. My title will be restored, and my estate, but someone else can deal with that for me. We're part of the Order of the Phoenix now. They're changing the world Lily, and I think we should help them. So we sail, and we fight, and we both get our revenge on Riddle. And we do it together.'
'Sounds wonderful.' Lily's face broke into a brilliant smile. 'Perfect, in fact.'
'Good.' James kept his grip on her, kept her held tightly to him. 'But before we do anything else, we have to go to Phoenix first. For Frank and Alice's wedding.'
'What?' Lily yelped, making James grin widely.
'Frank told me earlier. They're getting married as soon as possible.'
'That's…I'm so incredibly happy for them.'
'I thought you'd want to be there.'
'I do. I really do.' She kissed him fiercely. 'Thank you for thinking of it.'
'And while we're on that sort of subject…' James released her from his death grip on her and dipped one hand into his pocket, pulling something out in his closed fist. He held his hand out and opened it, revealing a gold chain with a delicate filigree ring dangling from it. 'This was my mother's wedding ring. Peter…retrieved it for me after she was killed.'
He hesitated for a moment, then he reached over and put the chain around her neck, his hand closing over the ring where it hung against her chest. 'I'm not asking, not now. But…one day I will. And I want you to keep it safe until then.'
She reached down and covered his hand with her own. 'Your mother's ring…I'll cherish it.'
'Well, it's yours now, I guess.' James locked eyes with her. 'Much like I am.'
Lily let go of his hand and threw herself at him, locking her arms around his neck and clinging to him. He laughed, and it sounded strange in the quiet night.
'If you like the idea that much I could make you a sign. "I own James Potter". Or we could write it on your shirt.'
Lily loosened her grip and looked down at him. 'This is your shirt. And as I recall, I promised you could have it back.'
'Well.' Lily let go of him entirely, and then brushed deliberately against him as she stepped past him. 'I always keep my promises.'
She walked towards his cabin in confident strides, and it took only seconds for her to hear heavier boot steps following after her. She grinned to herself. It was a hell of a thing, finding out exactly who you were, and where you were meant to be, and realising that you were already there.
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A/N: So that's it. Done. It feels weird.
This fic was always supposed to end with them deciding to stay together and fight with the Order. I never intended to write anything more, so I leave it entirely to each of you to decide whether they get their happy ending, or not. I've left enough loose ends (cough *peter* cough) for you to work with.
Thank you to everyone who has read, reviewed, favourited, followed, or otherwise shown their support for this fic. I appreciate you all, and maybe I'll see you for the next one (there will be a next one!).
Finally, there is a link to my Tumblr on my profile, if anyone wants to message me there. I'm always happy to hear from anyone; you take the time to speak to me, I take the time to listen.