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Perfect CI by heartfelt. @ TDA
Chapter 28 - Valentine's Day

Sirius stripped off his robes, not bothering to go into the bathroom, then balled them up and threw them at his four-poster bed. He didn’t want to wear robes. He spent every damn day in the black, obnoxious things that had a habit of trying to wrap around his legs. Just because it was the Valentine’s trip to Hogsmeade didn’t mean he had to get all dressed up. He was going to wear what he wanted, and if Belle didn’t like that, well bollocks to her.

With that thought set firmly in place, he stalked over to his trunk and heaved it open. He moved the faded, worn pair of jeans to the side and grabbed the newer pair that didn’t look quite so aged. He pulled those on along with a T-shirt and jumper.

There, he thought. He was wearing Muggle clothes. He was a grown man, he could decide to wear whatever he pleased. Sirius huffed into the bathroom then turned the knobs of the sink, leaning his elbows on the polished stone as the water came crashing from the spout. He splashed his face and hair with it to try and relieve some of the steam inside of him, though he had no idea why he felt that way. It wasn’t like Belle told him he had to wear robes or anything... he just assumed she’d want him to look all dressed up. She was probably going to be wearing something elegant and probably wanted him to find a classy restaurant, or hell, maybe even build one just for the occasion. Well, tough, Princess. Sirius didn’t put on shows. He didn’t dress like something he wasn’t... not that she’d ever asked him to.

He glanced up in the mirror and studied himself. His jaw set firm, eyes darker than usual. What the hell was wrong with him? Belle never told him they had to go to an expensive restaurant, and even if she had, he didn’t mind eating at nice places. So why did it bother him now? He rubbed his fingers over his face. Too bad all his dorm mates were off doing their own thing; he could really use one of them around to help him let off that steam.

He should be excited about today. It was his and Belle’s first actual date. They were going to spend the afternoon together. He was going to pull her into a dark booth somewhere and make up for the time they’d lost during their argument that they could’ve spent snogging. Good food, a beautiful girl, and some snogging. It all sounded brilliant, so why was he stomping about acting like he couldn’t stand the thought of it?

What if he took her somewhere to carry out his plans and it wasn’t good enough? What if it wasn’t what she’d expected? Maybe she wanted crystal glasses and silk napkins... like she’d certainly had every other Valentine’s Day of her life. What if she didn’t like the small gift he’d gotten her? She told him not to get anything, but girls always said that kind of junk. It wasn’t like he had a diamond necklace to give her or anything, though. Maybe she wanted something like that and his gift would look like a joke to her.

Get ahold of yourself, this is Belle we’re talking about. He repeated the thought over and over as he left the bathroom and slipped on a pair of boots. Belle had never acted like he wasn’t good enough before, or that what he had to offer wasn’t good enough, so why would she start now?

Even if she did, that was her problem. He was Sirius Black. He didn’t have to try to meet anyone’s standards.

On that thought, he left the Gryffindor tower and headed down the flights of stairs, still wrestling the strange combination of anger and anxiety building through him. When he reached the Great Hall, he’d worked himself up enough to fully believe Belle would be standing there in some ball-gown and scowling at him for his simple attire. Relief flooded through him when he saw her on the far side of the room, speaking with Professor McGonagall and wearing a pair of black trousers and a tight, blue jumper that he was certain had to be identical to the color of her eyes. He stood for a moment and just watched, the blonde unaware that he’d arrived.

The professor seemed relaxed, something that rarely was the case for McGonagall. Belle was moving her hands around a lot; it was a habit of hers to talk with them when she got excited. A half smile flicked over his face as he realized she’d pulled all her blonde hair into a tie, leaving her neck exposed. He loved that slender curve of skin, and already found himself itching to touch it.

He shook his head, a bit surprised at himself for the way he’d gotten worked up. Belle had never done anything to make him feel he had to act like a person he wasn’t. And he never cared about what a girl thought of him before... why start now? He’d never tried to impress anyone, not willing to cover up the rougher edges of himself. But still, the idea of Belle being unhappy with their plans for the day had caused a sort of cold dread in the pit of his stomach, even if he didn’t want to admit it. It wasn’t fair that the girl could get under his skin the way she did.

“Sirius,” came the heavily accented voice, pulling him from his thoughts. He smiled as she and the professor moved near, nodding at them both.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Black. I’ll be escorting the next round of students to Hogsmeade myself. If you’d both care to wait by the entrance, we’ll be leaving momentarily.”

“Sure. Thanks, Professor,” Sirius mumbled. He was still irritated about the rule of having to be escorted by a teacher to the village, but it was better than having a third year wander off outside of the school’s wards, he supposed.

Once the professor was out of earshot, he turned to Belle. “What was that about?”

“Well, I believe she’s realized we’re going to ‘Ogsmeade and informed us zat we can expect to leave momentarily.” Belle’s eyes danced with humor at her own sarcasm, though she managed to keep her voice completely serious.

“Oh, is that so?” he countered, feeling foolish for how easily his mood could improve by just being around her. “You know, you’re quite the brat, princess.”

“Don’t worry, darling. You’re still ze king of zat department.”

Instead of drumming up what he knew would be a witty comeback, he reached forward and laced his hand around her neck, pulling her into him and covering her mouth with his. He didn’t think twice as he deepened the kiss. It was meant to tease her, but he found himself getting too wrapped in the taste of her lips to think straight.

He heard a loud whistle come from one of the few students scattered around the Great Hall, but didn’t release his hold on Belle until he felt her body go placid in his arms.

“There,” he said, keeping his arm around her. “That’s what you get for being a smartarse.”

“Oh, zat really taught me a lesson.” Her voice was full of laughter, her lips swollen from the pressure of his. He reached forward to grab her again but she ducked out of his grasp, giggling as she started walking through the doors and into the entrance hall.

“So what do you want to do in ‘Ogsmeade?” she asked once he caught up with her. The pressure of earlier came back and he couldn’t help but think whatever he wanted to do, it wouldn’t be fancy enough for her.

“Er, there’s a few nice restaurant we could go eat at. Or, I suppose,” he nearly choked on his next few words, “we could go to Madam Puddifoot’s Tea Shop.”

Belle scrunched up her face. “Well, if you really wish to do either of zose, zat would be lovely. But... I was zinking... what if we just went and got pudding somewhere? Or maybe go to ze sweets shop? It’s so lovely outside for February, and it might be more fun to browse around instead of being stuck inside with all ze other kissing couples.”

Sirius’s face broke into a genuine smile. He’d expected her to at least want to go sit in some overcrowded restaurant and show off how happy they were to other happy couples, but now he couldn’t figure out why. Belle never cared what anyone else thought.

“That sounds brilliant to me,” he said, pulling her into him and stealing one last kiss.

“What were you and McGonagall talking about, anyway?” he asked once they parted.

“Oh, I was just asking ‘er when ze next meeting to discuss our careers would be ‘eld.”

“And did you tell her what you were thinking about doing?” He watched as a rare nervous energy filled her eyes. As far as Sirius knew, he was the only one she’d talked about her plans for the future with. She’d brought it up while they were roaming around Swansea and had stolen away into a small book shop. The moment they entered, a dreamy kind of look had come over her. Whether or not she’d intended to tell him, he wasn’t sure. But she’d ended up talking all about how she wanted nothing more than to have her own little bookshop one day.

“Sort of,” Belle finally answered, shrugging as if it wasn’t a big deal. “I told ‘er zat I zought I might make a good business owner. Some’zing like a bookshop.”

“And?” Sirius prompted. He knew McGonagall never bit her tongue. If she thought the idea was ridiculous, chances are she told that to the blonde.

“And.... she said zat she zinks it’s a wonderful idea.” A bright, invigorating grin spread over Belle’s narrow face. “She said zat she can give me book which ‘ave advice on ‘ow to run a business. Set me up with acquaintances she ‘as zat could ‘elp me find ze perfect place for it. We didn’t ‘ave much time, but now I know zat when I bring it up during ze career meeting she won’t zink it’s a silly idea.”

“Isabelle’s Bookstore. Maybe you should make it a bakery, too. People always come for baked goods.” She just smiled up at him, half laughing. He knew what a huge deal it was for her to talk seriously of making this a reality.

He couldn’t help but think that she’d look just right in a place like that. Some quaint little shop where she could breeze through it with that contagious laugh of hers. Her looks would probably convince anyone, man or women, to buy just about anything.

He knew she wanted a life much simpler than one she used to have. She wanted something she could enjoy, something that could be hers. Even if he didn’t love books the way Remus and Lily did, he still loved the idea of Belle getting what she wanted.

He noticed McGonagall making her way over to them, but it was apparent by her hurried walk that something was wrong.

“Professor McGonagall-”

“Get to the Gryffindor tower immediately,” she ordered, cutting him off and barely making eye contact. “If you pass anyone in the corridors, order them to wait in their respective common rooms.”

Before Sirius could ask what happened, she was already throwing open the ancient doors and rushing outside. They stood frozen for a moment, the sound of slamming reverberating after McGonagall. Before Sirius could think about what he was doing, he threw himself at the doors and tried to yank them open, only to realize the professor had sealed the exit on her way out.

“Not Hogsmeade,” he mumbled, then banged an angry first on the wood. “Not Lily and James, not again!”

“Ever’zing is going to be fine,” Belle whispered, taking his hand and pulling him away from the ancient wood. “A student probably just hurt zemselves. Every’zing is fine. Lily and James are fine.”

Sirius closed his eyes, squeezing them shut to block out anything that wasn’t his own thoughts. He couldn’t just wait there; he had to see that they were safe for himself. All of them. Lily, James, Remus, Peter, Frank, Alice... nearly everyone he cared about was in that bloody village. If something happened...if there was another attack...

“Come on,” he said, pulling Belle behind him and toward the grand staircase. “Look. I’d rather you not come with me, but you’re going to argue if I ask you to stay behind, yeah?”

To his surprise, she didn’t even ask where they were going. Without even pausing to think, she just whispered, “Yeah,” and continued racing up the stairs with him. The last thing he wanted to do was put her in danger, but he knew she could hold her own.

His heart sped through his chest, matching the force of his boots as they crashed against the stone. Belle’s click clack click clack made it clear she was wearing those things with spiky heels, but that didn’t slow her down. She was directly beside him as they went tearing down the third floor corridor and came to a halt in front of the One-Eyed Witch.

It’d been months since he and his mates had gone through the secret passages. With all the shit going on, seeing what kind of trouble they could get into hadn’t been high on their priority list. But he still knew every one of them like the back of his own hand. He pulled his wand out and tapped on the hump, whispering Dissendium.

“Impressive,” Belle said as the passage opened. He ushered her in first, then followed behind and lit the tip of his wand.

“The passage leads into Honeydukes. We’ll be able to get out there and see if...” he couldn’t even finish the sentence, unwilling to think that something could or would happen. They’d get there and everyone would be fine. Whatever sent McGonagall rushing off had nothing to do with Hogsmeade, with his friends. It couldn’t.

They continued the journey in silence. It seemed like hours until the trap door finally came into sight, but in reality Sirius was sure it was the quickest he’d ever reached the other end of the tunnel.

“Hold still,” Sirius ordered, and turned his wand to point at Belle. “Disillusio,” he whispered, though it was too dark to be sure how well the spell took. He turned the wand on himself and repeated the process, relieved when he felt it working. An intense tingle spread over his skin, like walking through mist, only colder.

He gave it a few more seconds to let the camouflage sink in, then cracked the trapdoor open and peeked inside. The cellar was empty apart from the crammed shelves, and he rushed to get himself out then grabbed Belle’s hand and pulled her along with him.

He took a breath, trying to think. “We should be hidden enough with the Disillusionment charm. If we get up there and something is wrong, if they - the Death Eaters - have taken over, just get back into the tunnel and run.”

“Not until we find ze group.” Her tone was sharp, and Sirius realized she was just as worried as him.

“Fine, stick we me and don’t get yourself killed.” He gripped her hand as they made their way through the room, the silence above sending an eerie shock through Sirius. There were always footsteps, always voices. His hand instinctively clutched tighter to Belle’s. He had to know she was right there, had to know she was safe with him.

“We need a plan,” Belle whispered as they reached the door. “If zey, ze Death Eaters, are behind zis door, we’ll Apparate into ze pet shop where James purchased Butterscotch. We need to find ze group, not get murdered trying to.”

Sirius nodded, impressed with her quick thinking. The pet shop had enough separate rooms for the different animals that they could Apparate into one of those and be hidden, then sneak through Hogsmeade. He thought, not for the first time, how inconvenient it was that he didn’t have the cloak.

They’d make a pass through the streets and hope the Disillusioning charm stuck, then if he couldn’t find any of them he’d send James his Patronus. He wanted to avoid doing that; if his mates were hiding somewhere, then sending his massive dog-

Dog! That was it! If they couldn’t find the group he’d talk Belle into hiding somewhere and change into Padfoot, then go searching on all four legs.

“On the count of three,” he whispered, clamping his hand over the door handle. “One...” It would be okay, they would all be okay. “Two...” His heart was jumping through his chest.

“Zree!” they both said together, Belle’s accent overshadowing his voice.

Sirius pushed the large sheet of wood open, only to be greeted with a deserted shop.

They moved carefully, both aware that just because it didn’t look like anyone was there, didn’t mean they were safe. The silence was unnerving in the usually crowded room, the glass jars sitting untouched with sweets filled to the brim. They stayed against the walls in order to blend in better and snuck to the front of the shop. Sirius looked out the window, the streets empty.

“We’ll stay against the sides of the buildings,” he said, the small hand still pressed into his. “Duck when we go past windows.”

He felt her nod, then led them through the door. The streets were just like the shop. No noises, no students running around...

They continued through the village, moving past building after building and peering through all the windows. Just when he was starting to think they’d made a mistake by coming instead of just waiting at Hogwarts, he heard a voice he’d recognize anywhere echoing down the street. He couldn’t make out the word, but he was certain it was Lily’s scream that rang in his ears.

“Did you...?” he started to ask, but stopped himself as he realized Belle’s blonde waves were catching in the light. Shit. The spell was wearing off.

“Yeah, I ‘eard ‘er,” she answered, her eyes moving over Sirius in a way that made it obvious she could see him just as clearly as he could see her.

“Should we do the spell again?”

“No. If someone’s ‘urting Lily-” she cut her words off as the shout came again. Before Sirius could replace the spell, Belle was already taking off down the street, her feet moving faster than he’d ever believed possible in the death traps she called shoes.

The shouting came again, but now that they were closer Sirius could just make out bits of it. It sounded like she was looking for someone, frustration coating her voice.

“In the Quidditch shop,” he said, hoping like hell she was in there. He knew they should stop and assess, figure out where to go from there, but they’d be wasting time that could be the difference between Lily being alive or dead when they found her.

“Lily,” he shouted, ripping open the small door. He didn’t have a chance to look around, because just as he’d pulled it open she’d gone to do the same, and her body went tumbling into his. Sirius struggled to catch his balance, leaning against the door-frame.

“Zank God you’re okay,” Belle said, sliding past Sirius and throwing her arms around the redhead.

“What’s going on?” Sirius asked, grabbing Lily by the shoulders.

“Hogwarts students.” The words came out in a rushed tumble. “We’re making sure they’re all cleared out of the shops. James is across the street...” she paused, taking a few deep breaths. “The Dark Mark. It’s been spotted over an Inn a few miles from here. The Death Eaters might still be here.. they tried to weaken the wards around the Village... McGonagall took off, she... she was keeping them from getting through.”

“Okay, okay. How many more shops do you have to check? Is everyone back at the castle?” Sirius asked, not letting the panic capture him.

“We should be nearly done. Slughorn and Pomfrey are a few ahead of us. They told us to go back, but we couldn’t. I couldn’t.”

“The rest of the group?”

“We haven’t seen them. Frank and Alice had to meet with Moody, they weren’t going to be here until the evening. Remus and Peter were supposed at The Three Broomsticks with their dates, but we already cleared that and didn’t see them.”

“Okay,” Sirius began, trying to figure out the most logical next step. “Let’s get James. We’ll see what-”

“Sirius, Belle,” came the familiar deep voice. Sirius turned around and saw James running over the cobblestone toward them. “How did you-”

“The Witch passage,” Sirius answered. “Let’s get back to it and get the hell out of here.”

No,” Lily argued, a rare show of her temper coming through. “Not until we know there aren’t anymore students left.”

“Zen we’ll split up. Zere aren’t more zan seven or eight shops down ze lane. Pomfrey and Slughorn must’ve cleared a few of zose. It’ll go faster zis way.”

“No, you stay with me,” Sirius growled.

“Mate,” James began, glancing at Lily. “It’s the best way to get the Village searched. All the residents are in their homes. Just glance in the shop and call out to make sure there aren’t any scared third years hiding or anything.”

Sirius eyed James, not able to understand why he was so comfortable with letting Lily go at it alone. There could be anything behind the doors. Just because the Death Eaters hadn’t gotten into the village that second, didn’t mean they weren’t still trying.

“Remember, Lily,” James continued, glancing at her. “If you get into any trouble or if anything seems off, use the Patronus.”

“You both start on ze left side of the street. We’ll go on ze right.” Belle didn’t meet Sirius’s eyes as she spoke, which infuriated him nearly as much as it shamed him. He knew Belle was able to look after herself, but if something happened-

“Look,” Lily said, pointing down the street. Sirius turned his head and saw Slughorn half waddling half running toward them.

“Miss Evans, Mr. Potter.” A layer of sweat was covering the man’s pink face. “We need to get back to the castle immediately. Mr. Black. Miss Leclair,” he glanced at them as if he’d just noticed that they were present. “What are..? Never mind that. We don’t have time. The Headmaster’s asked me to get you back to the school.”

“But Professor, we haven’t finished searching the-”

Slughorn interrupted Lily before she could continue. “Everything’s been searched, Miss Evans. We need to get back this instant.”

“Where’s Madam Pomfrey?” James asked, glancing around. Sirius watched as fear sank into Slughorn’s eyes.

The questions was left unanswered as a loud crack filled the air. Sirius’s hand shot out and he instinctively pulled Belle into him, glancing around to find the source of the noise.

In the distance he was just able to make out some sort of orange light, Dumbledore’s silhouette visible in the glow of it.

The light twisted around the headmaster, shooting over him and darting through the sky like a million shooting stars. Just as the extraordinary display faded away, a sheet of blue erupted from his wand.

Sirius watched as the blue spread out, creating a sort of wall in front of the headmaster. God, he wished he was right there. Right next to Dumbledore, to the action. It was hard to tell just how long the imitation wall remained, but Sirius was sure he hadn’t taken a breath since it formed.

Dumbledore raised his wand again. This time he sent the light in front of him instead of overhead, wielding it to dart out like a million arrows. Sirius wasn’t sure what they were designed to do, but he knew he bloody well wouldn’t want to be on the other end of them.

After the last of the arrow-like magic disintegrated, Dumbledore just stood and stared off, like he was searching for something. Whatever he was looking for, he must’ve found his answer because he relaxed his posture and lifted his wand one last time, then drew a large X in green before slipping the wand back into his robes.

“That’s the spell to reset the safety wards,” Slughorn mumbled in amazement. “You can’t set them unless the danger has been cleared. He fought them off. All of them.” The man glanced around, the sight of the group seemed to bring him back to reality. A more serious tone took over. “It’s time to get back to the castle.”

None of them argued, still left in their own sense of wonder at what they’d just witnessed. Sirius couldn’t believe Moony and Wormtail had missed it. They were probably herded back into the school and locked in there because of the sealed doors McGonagall had-

“Wait,” Sirius said, coming to a halt. “McGonagall took off earlier. Where is she?”

Professor Slughorn didn’t meet Sirius’s eyes, instead kept his straight ahead as he spoke. “She’s in the castle with Madam Pomfrey.”

“Was she...” James began.

“Look,” the man stopped and turned to face them all, his eyes pleading with them. “I couldn’t tell you all the details even if I knew them myself. Headmaster Dumbledore will speak with you when he’s able.”

“Professor Slughorn,” Lily said quietly, reaching forward and laying a small hand on his arm. “Thank for letting us stay and search.”

A blush filled the man’s face, just visible above his mustache. “You’re good students,” he said, glancing around at them. “All of you. Going to make something important of yourselves one day.”

Then Potions teacher slipped into a story about the different friends he had and what they were now doing, his robust voice being the only sound to break through the hushed atmosphere. Sirius glanced over at James, seeing for the first time how exhausted his mate looked. They’d had a long day. All of them.

He was thankful that the professor came when he had, not giving them the chance to split up and search. It’s not that he didn’t think Belle couldn’t handle herself. She was a large part of the reason James and Lily were still alive. When they’d entered the hotel in Swansea, her actions had been immediate. Her wand raised and pointed at Bellatrix before Sirius could so much as blink.

It wasn’t that he didn’t think she was capable at all, it was just that they didn’t understand how the Death Eaters worked. Sirius would give anything not to understand the way he did, but he’d heard too much when he was still living at Grimmauld Place. These people, all the Death Eaters, were no different from one another. No different from the people in his deranged family tree.

If they would have gotten through, they’d go after anyone that looked like easy prey. Lily would have been dead in seconds if they realized who she was. Her blood being the only reason they’d need to take her life. If Bellatrix would have gotten through and saw Belle... saw the girl who’d disarmed her in the hotel room... death would be a blessing compared to what his cousin would have done.

“Hey,” James said, laying a hand on his back. “Probably more exciting than any other Valentine’s Day plans you had, right?”

Sirius’s lips curved into a smirk as he looked over at his best mate. He saw the fear still resting in James’s eyes and knew the boy had been just as worried as Sirius. He’d heard enough stories from his mum and dad; he understood what Voldemort’s group was capable of. But he’d dealt with it better than Sirius. Trusted Lily to be able to take care of herself. He supposed that had to come from Olivia, from having a mum who could kick anyone’s arse.

Sirius was about to answer when he felt a hand on his shoulder and glanced around, a chill forming when he realized no one was there.

“Hey,” came a whisper. Sirius raised an eyebrow then slowed down, James catching on and doing the same. They waited until Slughorn was a few yards ahead of them, both the professor and girls having yet to notice they were so far behind.

“How did you guys get out here?” Sirius asked, talking to what appeared to be nothing but air.

“We went and got the cloak from your trunk after they brought us back to the school,” bodiless Remus began. “Lucky you still had it from last month’s moon and it wasn’t in James’s dorm. The front doors were locked off to anyone going out, but Hagrid came in just as when we were trying to go out and we were able to slip past him.”

“We got back into the Village and say you lot walking toward the exit with Slughorn,” Peter added.

“Worried sick about you prats,” Remus mumbled. “What happened?”

Sirius glanced at James before turning to where he thought their invisible friends stood. “It’s a long story. We’ll fill you in when we get into the common room.” A very, very long story.

Breakfast the next morning in the Great Hall was a quiet affair, nerves and exhaustion weighing on everyone. Lily sat nearly still, the only movement being the rise and fall of her chest with each breath. She stared at the professor's seats, or more specifically, one empty seat.

“Sorry I’m late,” Alice whispered as she slipped in on the other side of Lily, dark circles shadowing her eyes. “Has he said anything?” The students around the table simply shook their heads, no one having the words to answer.

The last eighteen hours had been some of the longest in Lily’s life. It wasn’t like St. Mungo’s, when she’d fallen in and out of a mixture of sedation and exhaustion, unsure of what was real or what was a dream. No, it’d been nothing like that...all of them were painfully aware of each second that passed since the return from Hogsmeade. Each second that ticked away with no word of their professor's condition.

The entirety of Gryffindor House had sat in the common room waiting for information. Every moment seemed to drag on. Finally, when the portrait hole swung open, they’d all expected to see the face of their Head of House. Instead they’d been greeted by Professor Dumbledore, his bright yellow robes doing nothing to lighten the somber expression on his face.

I will inform you all if her condition changes.

That was the most Lily had been able to take in. It felt like everything else he’d said was a blurry mixture of letters, but those nine words were painfully clear.

Her condition. And what the hell is her condition? she’d felt like screaming.

“Good morning, students,” came the aged voice. Lily managed to drag her eyes from the empty chair over to the Headmaster, not surprised to see that he looked just as tired as the rest of them. “We’re now minutes away from the delivery of the Daily Prophet. I feel it best to warn you of what you’re about to read.”

The small bit of chatter that had been passing through disappeared in an instant, food forgotten and ignored as they waited for Dumbledore to continue.

“The Dark Mark was discovered over an Inn a few miles from Hogsmeade yesterday afternoon. The safety wards surrounding the village were challenged. I won’t discuss the terrible details of it all, as you’re sure to read them printed upon the front page in mere moments. But I would like each and every one of you to know that what you’re about to read is one of the most despicable, gruesome acts your generation has witnessed. I do not have hopes that it will be the last.

“Let this attack serve as a reminder that we must stand together, stand strong and comfort one another. It’s time to set our differences aside, whether friend or foe, Gryffindor or Slytherin.” He paused and glanced around at them, his always comforting eyes stopping when they fell upon Lily. “We’re very fortunate to have students in this school who care deeply about one another, and because of that I’m pleased to say that all of your fellow students returned from Hogsmeade unharmed.

“Before we feast on the food before us, I wish to inform you of one last thing. Professor McGonagall was injured yesterday. Her recovery is well underway and she’s resting peacefully in the hospital wing under the watchful eye of Madam Pomfrey. Now, please enjoy your breakfast and let the events of the past twenty-four hours serve as a reminder both of the dangers that we face and the benefits of facing them together.”

The headmaster had barely gotten his last few words out when the sound of beating wings took over. Owls came soaring through the hall, beaks clutching letters, papers, and packages. Lily fumbled in her front pocket as one of the birds landed next to her. She brought out a worn coin, slipped it into the owl’s pouch and unfolded the paper carefully.

The headline caused an icy fist to clutch around her heart.

Attack at Muggle Inn Results in Mass Casualties.
A small Scottish Inn, just miles from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, was the scene of nine deaths early Sunday afternoon. Seven Muggles, identities not yet known, and two Aurors are among the dead, with countless more injured.

It is believed that the Village of Hogsmeade also fell into the line of danger, and residents are now saying they watched out their window as Albus Dumbledore, Headmaster of Hogwarts, defended the village. The reason for the attack on the Inn and the attempted attack on Hogsmeade is still unknown.

The Department of Magical Law Enforcement is working around the clock to investigate the cause of death and find the group responsible for this senseless crime.

“That’s bullshit,” James said, and Lily glanced up to see him reading over her shoulder. “They know goddamn well it was the Death Eaters. The Ministry is just taking too many payoff to keep the Prophet printing this rubbish.”

“Everyone knows that,” Alice said as she scanned her own paper. “Maybe a few years ago the Prophet could trick people with their articles, but now... there’s been too many things. People have seen the Dark Mark with their own eyes.”

“What do they even think they’re playing at? The Ministry?” Remus asked, his frustration clear. “It’s not getting them anywhere. Wasn’t it two Ministry officials that were murdered last month? Clearly their lies can’t even protect their own.”

“Those two probably stopped playing the game,” Frank reasoned. “You know, probably refused to keep the lies going. Probably tried to do something to talk the Minister out of her stupid charade.”

The group all mumbled their agreements and Lily glanced back down at the paper, skimming past most of the details and their many theories of why this attack occurred. It was all a twisted bunch of lies. Nine people were dead, her professor was injured, and the Ministry couldn’t even let the Prophet print the bloody truth.

“Moody mentioned these two Aurors yesterday,” Alice said, her finger pointing to a small picture of the deceased witch and wizard with their names printed below. “He was talking about the test, and said it was hard but not impossible. That two trainees had just passed Friday... it was these two.” Lily put her arm around Alice as the brunette’s eye filled with tears.

“Sorry,” she mumbled, wiping them away. “I know this isn’t the time... it’s just...”

“If this isn’t the time, I don’t know when is,” Lily soothed.

“We should get going,” Sirius said. “That way we can see Professor McGonagall before class. Though with her in the hospital wing, we’ll probably just be revising for N.E.W.Ts.”

“Should we get her something from the kitchens?” Peter asked, his voice struggling to remain steady as his eyes continued to search the Prophet. “Something to make her feel better?”

“Nah,” Remus answered, patting Peter on the back. “Then she’d just feel obligated to shout at us for sneaking into the kitchens.”

Lily didn’t pay attention as the group changed the subject to N.E.W.T.s. For once, she didn’t want to think about them. She didn’t want to think about class, or about the fact that they had less than four months until graduation.

All she wanted to do was go upstairs and curl in a ball. She wanted to cry for the people that had their lives taken from them yesterday. Cry for how many had already been lost, and how many were still going to be snatched. She wanted to cry for their world, for the dark blanket that seemed like it would suffocate them all.

Her finger fumbled over the Prophet, and she used the tip to trace a large smile one of the dead Aurors held.

Had they realized yesterday morning, had any of those people realized, that they only had a few hours left to smile? A few hours left to live?

She broke from her trance when James laid a gentle hand on her arm, and glanced up to realize her friends were already making their way from the hall.

“I’m sorry,” James murmured, sitting down beside her at the half empty table. It seemed no one was really in the mood to eat breakfast that morning. “I’m sorry everything’s so fucked up.”

She felt her lips curve up, and let her head rest his shoulder. It was their job to demonstrate how to act for the rest of the school, but she didn’t care right then about being appropriate. About setting a good example. All she wanted was to let the sound of James’s soft words take everything she was feeling away.

“Did you ever think it would get like this?” she asked, glancing up at him as large tears pooled in her eyes. “Did you ever think it would be this bad? That we could hurt this much for people we’ve never even met?”

He was silent for a moment, one hand stroking over the hair that fell down her back. “I think,” he began, his voice strong. “I think the fact that we can hurt this badly for people we’ve never met is what’s going to eventually make our world better.”

She let that statement fumble through her heart. How had the boy she’d known for years, the one she was certain at times would never be anything more than a spoiled bully, gotten so wise?

“I can’t say everything’s going to be okay. Because it isn’t. But we’ll be okay. And our friends will be okay. And Professor McGonagall will be okay.” James soothed, “We’re going to finish our year. You're going to beat us all with your N.E.W.T. scores. And who knows, maybe by then the war will be ending. Maybe the Ministry will get things under control.”

They stood up together as James spoke, lacing fingers through fingers and walking out the Great Hall.

“Have you thought more about Mr. Henniway’s offer?” Lily asked as they began the climb to the Hospital Wing. She hadn’t wanted to bring it up the night before last, everything still so fresh to James, but now it seemed like a better topic than the attack.

“Sort of. Part of me knows there’s no way I can play Quidditch. I want in on whatever Dumbledore has up his sleeve to stop the Death Eaters. Then part of me thinks, well, maybe I can do both. Or maybe the war will just be over by then. What about you and your Healer application going through to the next round? What will you do if you get accepted?”

“I want to make a difference. I want to help people,” Lily said, the words out of her mouth before she could stop them. “Sometimes I think maybe I can help people by Healing them. Or maybe I can do both. Heal people and try and get involved in whatever Dumbledore has going on. But then I think about Bellatrix. The way she looked at me, at both of us, and I realize people like her don’t do both. They don’t just work by day and go murder people by night. It’s everything to them.”

James slowed down and leaned against one of the many sparkling windows, pulling her into him and wrapping his arms completely around her. “Whatever you decide to do, you will be helping. And maybe I’m wrong and Dumbledore doesn’t even have something going on. But being a Healer would be just as important, Lily.” His calloused thumb rubbed over her cheek as he lowered his lips and kissed her forehead.

“I know you want to play Quidditch,” she whispered, tilting her head to meet his eyes. “You shouldn’t give Henniway your answer, not yet. We both know you aren’t wrong about Dumbledore. And I’m sure you’ll corner him and make him tell you everything soon enough, but that doesn’t mean you have to completely rule out Quidditch. You love it. And he said you don’t have to decide until graduation. Anything could change by then, right?”

“Yeah,” he answered softly, smiling down at her. “Anything could change by then. Except for the fact that I’m still going to be doing this.” He bent down as he said the last word and laid his lips on hers. Lily felt the familiar fire grow to life inside her, the tingling drowning out all the worry and fear she never seemed to let go of. Even if it could only be for a minute, that minute of not having to think was a haven for her.

“You were amazing yesterday,” he said as he pulled away. “In Hogsmeade, being your stubborn self and refusing to leave until we knew all the students were safely out.”

She felt a red tinge fill her cheeks. She’d been silly not to trust that Madam Pomfrey and Professor Slughorn could check all the shops, but she just couldn’t leave without being sure for herself.

“And Professor McGonagall is going to be back in the classroom before we know it,” he continued. “You know she isn’t going to let a fight with Death Eaters keep her from torturing us innocent students.” Lily laughed at James’s words, and hoped they were true.

“Oh,” he added, “I forgot. I didn’t want to interrupt you while you were reading the paper, but Mum and Dad sent letters.” He reached into his robe pocket and pulled out two, handing Lily one of them. “We better get to the Hospital Wing... we can read them during Transfiguration revision.”

Lily glared at James, swatting at him playfully as she grabbed the envelope from him. A tender warmth crept into her heart when she looked down at Mrs. Potter’s handwriting on the front. She slipped the letter into her pocket and smiled, excited to sit down and read it. Sometimes she felt like she was being disloyal to her parents’ memory by loving Olivia and William so much. But she knew her mum and dad would be nothing but happy and grateful to the Potters for giving Lily the kind of care they did.

Maybe things in her life weren’t going the way she’d imagined a few years ago. She wasn’t getting ready to head off into the world, her mum and dad’s support behind her, knowing without a doubt she’d be a Healer or a Potions Master or a Developer for the Ministry... or something else wonderful. And she certainly hadn’t planned to be falling head over heels in love with someone when she was barely eighteen. But none of that mattered, because she had people she cared about and who cared about her. That was more than anyone could ask for.

Back in the chaos of the Great Hall, Alrek sat hunching over his breakfast, nodding every few seconds at the words spinning around him. They always wanted to talk. Jenna, Briscoe, all of the other Ravenclaws. He couldn’t simply ignore them the way he wished to. Just tell them to shut the fuck up and walk out... despite how enticing that idea was, it would break apart everything he’d been working for.

He needed to keep the false friendships he’d created steady. If the Dark Lord needed him to infiltrate the Mudblood’s group again, he had to be ready. They’d invited him to join them at last Saturday’s game, so he was almost certain they didn’t suspected that he’d had his hand in the attack. He could continue to play the part of casual friend, and if the Dark Lord wanted him to gather more information, he’d be ready and able.

“Hopefully she’ll be back teaching class soon.” It took Alrek a moment to realize Jenna’s words were directed at him.

“Sorry,” he said, positioning a charming smile on his face. “I was being lost in my thoughts. I’m sure Professor McGonagall vill be able to be teaching soon.” Jenna seemed satisfied with his answer and went back to speaking with a student across from them. He felt the annoyance of his thoughts being interrupted seep into him, and decided it was best to make an excuse and leave before his patience ran out.

“I am needing to return a book. I vill be seeing you in Charms.” With a wave goodbye, he stood from the table.

He knew he was supposed to be giving Jenna more attention. It was obvious she fancied him. Her bloodline was clean, making the act of falsely courting her less painful. Not that she knew it was false, of course. But he needed to make it obvious to Potter and the group that he hadn’t set his sights on the Mudblood. That way they would open up to him more. Give him their trust. He needed that trust to be concrete so that if he was ever given the opportunity to attempt to lead them to the Dark Lord again, nothing would go wrong. He couldn’t afford any more incidents. Not like the one in Swansea.

Alrek began his walk up the stairs, but came to a halt when a sharp pain stabbed into the place of his forearm that housed the Dark Mark. He bit down, grinding his teeth together as he struggled to make it up the stairs. Once the corridor opened, he was able to slip into an out of sight corner, his body leaning heavily against the wall. He didn’t know what the Dark Lord had done to him, apart from the obvious torture, but anytime his mind turned to thoughts of the attempted capture, a pain unbelievably agonizing would tear through him. It was quick, occurring as suddenly as a bolt of lightning. But fuck, did it hurt.

He would make her pay for that, he thought as she continued to let the wall support the weight of his body. He would make the filthy Mudblood pay for the torture he’d undergone. It was her fault he hadn’t known the others would be arriving at the hotel. It was her fault for being too stupid, too careless, to tell him the correct information.

He’d asked her as clearly as possible while still remaining unsuspicious if it was just her and Potter going to wedding, and she’d told him it was. She’d been wrong, and he was paying the price it. Not for long. He wouldn’t pay the price for long. He’d give her what was coming, and when he was the one to finally end her pathetic life, the Dark Lord would honor and thank him. He would resume his rightful place among the ranks of the chosen.

He would take care of it all. Take care of her.

But for now, he simply needed to play the part of Alrek Rukin, Durmstrang transfer and friendly Ravenclaw.

Then when the time was right, he’d make her sorry. Make her suffer the way he had to.

Thank you, as always, to my amazing beta, CambAngst ♥

So, this chapter definitely ended up being a bit longer than intended. I hope this one is okay. Thank you again so much for everyone who's reading and reviewing. Please don't hesitate to share your thoughts. And if this chapter was way too long, feel free to tell me.

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