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Chapter 1: Lost in the Dying Light
Lost in the Dying Light
Hearing her name, and the name coupled with it, Lily felt the fire flare up in her face, the blood rising high as she contemplated the nature of her very first mission for the Order. It was impossible that Dumbledore should make such a blunder as this; they had not left Hogwarts quite so long ago for him to have already forgotten.
To perform a mission with James Potter, of all people! She still reeled, seethed, whatever it was one was meant to do when faced with such a thing as this. Such a partnership was doomed even before they left the meeting.
It mattered not that they had been off-and-on-again throughout their final year at Hogwarts; she would always believe that his only purpose in life was to throw obstacles in her path and smile pitifully as she struggled against them. Three times that week he had proposed marriage, already knowing what her answer would be, and many more times he had performed little favours that some misguided soul must have told him would win the heart of any witch.
Any witch but her, that is. She would remain strong, stubborn, standing her ground. He wanted to treat her like a queen when all she wanted was to be treated as an equal.
A stray quotation marched into her head: does the lady protest too much?
Lily already knew the truth, felt it echoing through that malleable organ that beat within her chest, but it was better to ignore the softer feelings, far safer not to feel, only to act. One knife had been thrust into her heart before – the power of a single, impetuous word – and she would not let her guard down again, even if it meant sacrificing her last chance at happiness.
But, of course, it could not be the last chance. This war would end one day. Maybe not soon, but one day. On that day, and that day alone, she would return the smile that beamed at her from across the room. She might even venture to enhance it with a "yes."
Until then, she would shroud her heart in shadow.
“When I say run, you do it, okay?”
There was an unfamiliar note in his voice that rang oddly in her ears. It was a sweet sound, even if she could not agree with its sentiment.
“Why should I listen to you?”
Surprised eyes regarded her from behind dirt-flecked spectacles.
“Because when it means your life, you won’t ask questions.”
She remained coolly silent, unwilling to argue with such an idiotic notion. Any notion he forwarded, no matter how salient and logical, would now be rejected without a second thought for the mere fact that his lips had uttered the words. From another, she would have politely agreed and moved on, but him.... These last days had been nothing but torture, to be subjected to his antiquated chivalry and commanding tones, her patience worn so thin that she found herself looking through the holes each time he spoke.
And yet she had no choice but to fight alongside this belligerent, arrogant, selfish prat who had worshipped her from the first moment he'd seen her. Or so he said. The exact moment was never static, but drifted between a glimpse of red hair through a foggy train compartment window to a flash of green eyes seen across a plate piled high with fairy cakes to a voice raised in protest against the injustices of pureblood society. All of these moments had thrust her upon a pedestal from which she could not see the ground.
Looking down from that perch, she could only know to deride him, condemning his every action, discrediting his every word. She wanted to feel the ground beneath her feet, dig her toes into the sands of existence, smell the dirt of life, feel the blood rushing through every vein.
She closed her eyes against the sight of him and settled into a chair in the opposite corner of the room to wait.
For the end of the war. For the end of her life.
They were, after all, one and the same.
They were not in hiding; this was a serious mission that would, eventually, show some positive result for the Order. She felt as though she had to make that clear, most of all to herself. Why she had been chosen for this mission with James Potter, who was as inexperienced with these things as herself, she could not understand. They were too ill-suited to one another: he with his spotless hands and his cool confidence, she dirtied beyond recognition, her confidence long ago trampled in the dust.
She could pinpoint the exact moment she had lost it and lost herself. One word, that was all it had taken. One word and she lost not only her assurance in the world, but the one friend she had thought would, in this terrible world, always remain true.
She heard it, still, in her dreams. His voice taunting her every action, her every word, her every chance at escape.
If Voldemort came to her now to offer her one thing in return for her loyalty, she would ask to be taken back in time to that moment so that she could change it forever. So that she could forgive. So that she could, once more, know the taste of innocence on her now-embittered tongue.
“They're coming.” James did not turn from the window, his hiss echoing against the frost-painted glass. “At least three of them. Must be something big tonight.”
“Three Death Eaters don’t usually constitute a mass attack.” She enjoyed the taste of her own venom.
He looked over his shoulder, adjusting his glasses. He only did that when he began to lose his saintly patience, and she mentally added another point to her side of the scoreboard. It was strange to be using his own tactics against him, though he had changed so much these last few months; since leaving Hogwarts, he had matured. She, on the other hand, had gone the other way, regressing into an unrecognisable creature of the night.
“If you bothered to pay attention, Evans, you’d remember that they don’t travel in groups, not to their meetings.” He bit off the end of each word, eyes darkened by sleeplessness.
She stared up at the ceiling to avoid meeting his eyes. “Maybe that’s why our side experiences the most casualties: we make ourselves too obvious.”
There was a silence that extended deep into the night.
When they emerged at last, it was to join the shadows that lurked just outside the hovel they had made their pitiful home. She did not like this place, the smells, the damp, the chill that was more than mere cold air. The moors were a gloomy place at any time of the year, she thought, glancing down the long gravel path that reached toward the isolated village and the isolated train station and the isolated world, consumed by its own hatred.
He no longer bothered to warn her, and not only for the sake of silence. She could take care of her self; she had proven that much.
Still she let him precede her her through the hole in the side of the abandoned barn. It was not quite a door, but they used it as such, sneaking off into the mist to fetch more food or more water or more of this and that. She wasn’t even sure what she looked like anymore; perhaps that explained why he never seemed to–
His hiss for silence was like the sound of cold-hardened snow blowing across the slate-shingled roof.
Face crunched in mixed anticipation and exasperation, she shifted close enough to whisper in his ear. “I said nothing!”
When he twisted to reply, their faces drew too close and she held her breath, scarcely hearing his words as the smell of him overcame her senses, that strange freshness that should have, in this place, been an impossibility.
“You’re thinking too loud.”
Was it only her imagination, or did he hesitate before slipping away? Did he take too-long a breath? Did he–? Did he–?
The sound of crunching snow reached her ears and she crouched against the fieldstone wall, its rough surface catching at the fabric of her cloak. James was two steps ahead and she stared at his back, then past him to where a shadow stood in the centre of the path. It raised its wand and a gentle blue light shatterd through the darkness, glinting, in a fatal moment, off the lenses of James’s spectacles before he could remember to shade his eyes.
The light grew as a spell was cast, but they both rose, wands at the ready, only to discover that this shadow was not alone.
There was no time for shared glances, for good lucks or goodbyes, not even time to think as they moved in unison to defend, to attack, to defend again, not knowing who they fought, hardly knowing why. All was shadow. Only shadow. Draped in black, their faces masked, the Death Eaters were not people, but an idea, Voldemort’s belief that only the pure should survive, that anything less than pure ancestry was simply unsuitable.
She wondered whether Severus was behind one of those masks. Would he shoot to kill? Would she? What if–?
Her name rang out across the moors. James called out with such volume that icicles snapped off the roof, shattering down upon the snow. She turned aside, her wand thrusting forward, the words flying from her lips before she even knew what she was about to say, before green light flooded the night sky, leaving her in darkness.
It was the first time she had killed an enemy, and he could not seem to believe it. His eyes flickered from her to the body that lay sprawled at her feet to the wand that still glowed green in her pale, freckled hand. Jaw slackened, he knelt down to remove the Death Eater’s silver mask.
“It’s Wilkes.” His voice was flat, the syllables rolling from his tongue without feeling.
She stepped away, her eyes still blinded, not by the green light, but by the red that still stained the backs of her eyelids, the red of fury, of a desperate attempt to save herself. She had never felt such a thing before. All of that anger was contained within the well of her soul; she had always known it was there, but to feel every ounce of it spilling out into the night, that was overwhelming, even terrifying.
Yet she could not convince herself that she did not want to feel it once more. To be filled with so much life, surely that was the purpose of it all?
She looked off into the shadows and saw her own face reflected back, her features etched in darkness.
He moved toward her, hand outreached, slowly approaching as though afraid.
“Are you...?” The words trailed off into the silence of his heavy breaths, his hand dropping before it could touch her arm, seemingly unwilling to risk the taint of her crime. One of his opponents lay senseless, but breathing, while the fleeting footsteps of the other had long ago vanished into the mist.
No better than the one she had killed, Lily continued to gaze into the distance, the fingers of her wand hand tingling. It would always feel that way; she was sure of it. Those spots that did not come off, they would last forever.
“Have you ever killed before?” She spoke each word like a curse. Like the one curse, that curse of death.
When his answer came, it was not what she had expected.
He was still innocent. Whole.
In the silence, a single tear fell from her eye, drifting down the knife-edge of her cheekbone to run along her jaw until disappeared onto the fabric of her robes. The war consumed them all, staining them in its relentless bloodshed, picking them off one-by-one, draining their souls before killing their bodies.
She had fallen. She had become like them.
She could not remember the last time she had looked at the sun. She had seen its light poking through the crack beneath the door, thrusting itself into her consciousness, but it was not the same as that white orb floating high above. She felt so small beneath it.
The place had changed. The mission had changed. She had changed.
He had not.
“It’s like a picture puzzle,” she heard him say, his voice crossing the gulf of the empty room. “And we have to put the pieces together without knowing what the picture’s meant to be.”
Leaning her head back against the paint-chipped wall, she released the air from her lungs in a prolonged sigh.
“There isn’t a puzzle, Potter. Get over it.”
It was a useless waste of breath; she already knew that he would never let an idea go once it had taken root in his juvenile mind. Like a terrier, he would take hold of a problem in his jaws and shake out every secret, no matter the cost. This mystery consumed him whole, and it disconcerted her that she should want him to stop. In all of his excitement, he had neglected to make his twice-daily proposals of marriage, and these had become such a part of her existence these last weeks that she, for all her sins, had begun to feel his neglect.
“But there has to be some sign of him. Dearborn was the best of us. He wouldn’t just vanish like that. People always leave something behind.” The chair on which he sat screeched as he shoved it back to rise.
“Can’t you stand up more quietly?” she snapped, but he paid no heed.
“We saw him at the meeting that evening, too, and that was the last anyone saw of him.” He scratched his chin as he paced the room. “You’d think that, by now, the Death Eaters would have taken responsibility. They’ve done it with everyone else.”
Everyone else. Yes, there had been many, of which Caradoc Dearborn had only been the last. The last of too many. She was sick of the killing and the death and the bloodlust that had consumed them all.
All except for James. By some stroke of fortune, he was unscathed, his curses falling wide on the rare occasion that he made use of something stronger than a simple disarm. It was not that he was a coward. No, he was the furthest from that she had ever known. To kill was to show cowardice, to beunable to face an enemy any longer, to realise that to do anything to save oneself, even if it meant to take the life of another.
He was better than the rest because he would not kill. Wiping his forehead on the sleeve of his robes, he would glance across whatever forlorn alleyway they stood to survey the fallen bodies, and when his eyes would meet hers, she saw disappointment there. She had killed so many now, their faces permanently etched on the backs of her eyelids to haunt her days and nights until death should find her, too.
She looked down at her hands. Neat, rounded nails. A dusting of freckles across the backs. The lines tracing her fate across the palms. But all stained with blood. All. Forever. The mark of Cain was upon her.
“Unless the Death Eaters involved are now dead.” Her voice entered the room, startling him from his reverie.
“What’s that saying? Dead men tell no tales?” He attempted a smile, but one glimpse in her direction flattened out the corners of his lips. “I suppose you’re right, but still–”
Still he refused to give up. That had always been his way.
He returned to his theories. She returned to her self-condemnation.
It took another month of bleary rains and blurry fogs for her to think that, perhaps, there was something in it after all.
“Where was he last seen?”
“So you’re finally taking interest in this?” James removed his spectacles to rub at the bridge of his nose, a sure sign of discontent after days of petty arguments and listlessness.
She leaned against a wall, clutching her empty stomach. “What else is there to do?”
“Sirius would have us–”
A scowl crossed her features, a now well-practised expression.
“Black needs to keep his mind out of the gutter, not to mention on his own business.”
He pulled the wire rims back into place, adjusting how they sat behind his ears.
“That’s what I told him.”
Her scowl transformed into a barking laugh that echoed through the tiny stone room. She cut if off quickly, startling at the noise it made, a noise that could be heard from without, should anyone be passing by.
A little bit of the ice gathered on the sill had cracked. Spring was coming.
“You’re only interested in Dearborn’s disappearance because you’ve gotten tired of feeling guilty all the time.” He came up beside her, his stockinged feet making no sound upon the floor.
She held her breath, wondering if Black's jests could become truth.
“Don’t try to deny it, if that’s what you’re going to do.” He tapped her on the shoulder. “You feel bad about killing a Death Eater who, had he gotten the chance, would have killed you without a second thought.”
She froze as the tapping of his finger became the pressure of a hand.
“Only the good know how to feel guilty, Lily. Really and truly guilty, like you are now, like you have been since it happened.” He leaned close, his hair brushing against hers, it had grown so long, though she didn’t mind.
They had never been so close before. Not in their shared missions, their shared quarters, their now-shared lives. She had never been so close to anyone in her life. Not Severus. Not Petunia. Not her parents. They were on the margins of her memory in comparison to this wizard, this man, with whom she spent her time, her life, with whom she would spend the rest of her days, given the choice.
Oh, she would. She knew that so well, but she could not tell him, not ever.
“Whatever they say, Lily,” he whispered into her ear, every word the fluttering of a butterfly against her temple. “Remember that even in the darkest of days, the blackest of nights, the most horrific moments, life is the greatest adventure of all.”
It sounded like something Dumbledore would say, only she liked it better because it came from the lips of James Potter.
When she finally turned to face him, green eyes filled with all the words she refused to speak aloud, she thought she heard, from afar, the call of a songbird, the herald of a changing season and a season of change.
“If we want to find where he’s gone,” she said with a growing smile. “Then we’ll just have to start looking.”
There was little doubt that it was a clue. The smallest of things, but those were what changed the world, the things that–
“What is it?”
He leaned over her shoulder, placing a hand on her arm to balance himself. She half-shuddered beneath his touch, her hand shaking as she held out the silver-rimmed cufflink between two fingers, the most solid of clues discovered these last long weeks of spring.
“Caradoc used to wear ones like this.” She met his eyes without fear, breathing in his scent, but ignoring its addictive potency. “But the enamel’s broken off.”
His eyes narrowed as she squinted through his bottle-bottom glasses at the scratched bit of silver. “It looks like one of his. Merlin knows he wore them all the bloody time, even in disguise...” He trailed off, eyes darkening, eyes that one knew how to twinkle at the merest joke, the silliest prank.
Lily watched him with care, her eyes glinting for a moment, then with a blink, they dried. So much death, especially within.
“He enjoyed wearing nice things. We all have different ways of dealing with... with all of this.” She waved her hand at the looming shadows. “That was his way.”
“It got him killed!”
James leapt away and she scrambled to catch the cufflink before it fell between the floorboards. She rose slowly, clutching the tiny remnant of a life in her sweaty palm, heart strangely loud in her ears.
So he felt it too. He felt the war closing in around them. Still his hands were clean, but he had been kept in the darkness for too long and it had begun to tear at his resolve, driving him down the path she already knew too well. If they both were to fall, would that mean the end? Of them, of the mission, of the Order, of all the things they had, these last months, so carefully constructed to house future hopes and dreams?
This mystery had been his release, the cloth from which he could patch the rents in his sanity, and now he thrust it aside in anger, giving up all hope that Dearborn could still be alive, a captive of the enemy they could rescue and return safe, whole.
Unlike their patchwork selves.
“Don’t give up now, James.”
She wondered, for some time, whether he had heard her, or could he only hear the beating of his heart, the heaving of his lungs, the endless tirade of hate and horror that rang between his ears, drowning all else? She knew too-well the sound of that tirade, knew the way that he would want to rip himself apart, knew that he would need someone to, as he had done, offer an ounce of kindness in return for all the suffering a life could know.
“There’s still hope,” she whispered, squeezing her hand around the cufflink until she felt its corners penetrate the flesh of her hand, her blood in exchange for his life. If she did not feel so much fear, she could go to him, offer all, and save him from the shadows that now threatened his soul, still so pure, so free.
His back still toward her, he threw back his head to see the stormy sky above.
“It’s so hard to see it.”
At first she thought he would not answer, but at last he turned and she could see his red-rimmed, bloodshot eyes, magnified behind those glasses of his. How could the tables have turned like this? How could he have so quickly become what she had been when, mere days ago, he had been the comforter, the one brimming with hope and excitement, the one who had given her the strength to carry on?
He shook his head and the long curls hanging behind his ears sprang in all directions.
She stepped toward him, but could not bring herself to reach out, to offer herself. She still could not bridge that gap, all of the fear within her heart not for Death Eaters or even death itself, but for the thing greater than all others, the thing that had, thus far in her short, short life, been the centre of her universe.
To be too afraid to love; it was an impossible thing, but still she felt it in every bone, every nerve, that deep-set terror she could not shake off. The shadows had wormed too deep into her heart and now she was shrouded as one of the dead.
That was what they were, she and James: among the dead. Those whose bodies died were the fortunate ones, the ones who need not suffer, who need not know what it meant to fear and hate and kill. The things they said about Voldemort and his soul and how it was dead, they were all true. The moment she had killed that Death Eater, her soul had died. For the briefest of times, she had believed that James could save her, that his love and her love for him – so long and deeply buried – could bring her out of the darkness, but now....now–
A thud. A crash. The sound of attack, of infiltration, of death on his swift wings approaching, ready for the kill.
She did not have time to look his way, not even time to imagine what it would be like to die without never having told him–
A stunning spell collided with her leg, spilling her onto the floor, but she still had the strength to disarm her opponent, a wild-haired Death Eater whose cackling laughter was cut off as the wand flew from his hand. There was a violent tingling up and down her leg, and Lily chose to remain on the floor for now, not willing to risk the attempt to weakly rise, making herself prone to further attack.
She made sure to send the Death Eater’s wand to the furthest corner of the room, and she smiled wanly at the sight of him vainly reaching out for the thin piece of wood only to have it fly another few feet ahead until it clattered through a crevice in the planking. Then she had him. Her smile widened.
Her smile fell away as green light filled the air. The voice had not been her own, but still she knew it as though it had been, so familiar it had become.
She looked over to see James, glasses askew, a cut above one eye, his green-glowing wand extended before his twisted face. The Death Eater crumpled, just as Wilkes had done, eyes wide and white and filled with the horror of staring into the face of Death, a Death with green eyes, just like Lily’s own.
She watches and waits, the rest of the world, the rest of the battle, fading into that green flash that blinds them all, then dies. It is the last light one sees. The rest is silence.
They were now the same. The same blood staining their hands. The same feeling of being broken, in possession of a shattered soul. The fallen angels gathered at Satan’s feet, wondering how they could have fallen quite so far, could not have felt as these two did, staring at each other from across the fallen body of a man. A human. Someone like them who had felt and erred and lived.
One day, the similarity would take that final step, but not yet; please not yet.
“His name was Selwynn.” James’s voice came as from another world. “I remember him, some years ahead of us.”
He reached down a hand to help her rise, her toes still numb. The Death Eater she had, at last, stunned lay unconscious in the corner, arm still extended for a wand that now rested in Lily’s free hand. James maintained possession of the other, anything to remember what it felt to live and not to kill.
“We’re too young, James.”
His tired eyes rose from their morbid contemplation.
Something pulled at one corner of his mouth, stretching away the lines that had come to settle there like sand shifted by the desert winds.
“We’ll always be too young.”
She turned away to regard the dirty old room.
“They knew we’d be here. Maybe it was the same with Caradoc.”
James stepped around the body to stand beside her, close enough to touch without touching, wand still clutched in his white-knuckled hand.
“And they were too much for him.”
Her eyes traced the lines of an ancient roof beam. “He was only one.”
At last she met his eyes, and she saw him as though for the first time. History was dead, meaningless. The days when he had been the bane of her existence had slipped away into the night, leaving only the memories of these long months, almost a year, that she and he had never been alone, not truly. Caradoc Dearborn had only been one, but they were two. Two together.
“We’ll never know for certain what happened to him.”
Once, it would have been an admission of defeat. The mystery contained too many complexities, too many unknowns, leaving too many blanks in the equation so that the solution was nothing more than a mass of algebra, more of a riddle than the problem itself.
“They took him here.” Lily looked down on the Death Eater’s body as though it were that of Dearborn, one black cloak exchanged for another, the mask disguising a well-known face and its roguish smile of old. “He was unprepared, or simply unable to withstand their force. Did they take him? Kill him? Does it matter?”
“Isn’t it the same, you mean?”
James took her hand. For all the warmth outside, for all that spring blossoms hung low on black-barked branches where chirping birds pecked at diligent ants, they were both as ice. Had Death taken them instead, enfolding them beneath his tattered velvet cloak to freeze the life from their bones?
“Let’s get out of here.”
At first, she did not move, her roots too firmly planted in frost-bitten soil.
“Should we do something about him?”
His fingers tightened.
“No. Let his friend over there clean up, if he wants.”
She followed him from this place of death as though herself a ghost, her soft-soled shoes making no sound upon the floor, not even on the path outside that lead to more than simply another place. It wound its way across fields and fences until it vanished into the fading light of day, looking the same as it had before, the same as it would always be.
What differed was those who trod upon it.
“Was it like this, Lily? It’s like being empty, like something has–”
In the silence of a pause, they listened for any sound from within.
“Yes. Something like that.”
She nodded and looked into the distance, but even in the dying light of day, she could see no darkness. The shadows surrounding her heart had fled, not in the battle, not with the death, not in the aftermath; they had gone long before. Mind occupied with the mystery that had no grand resolution, stringing together clues that lead only to more death, more destruction, she had forgotten the reason why she had hidden herself away for so long, why she had hidden from him, the only one who–
“Does it go away?”
When she faced him once more, there was the ghost of something crossing her lips, not quite a smile, but it could have been. Perhaps it would be, one day.
“When it does, you become like them.”
Lines furrowed his brow, his spectacles slipping down the bridge of his nose. With a courageous finger, she pushed them back into place, eyes drifting over the details of his features, seeing them anew.
“We have to keep feeling the guilt, James. Only then do we know what side we’re on.”
The sun dipped below the horizon, the light growing for that briefest moment as its rays made one final effort to survive. What she had known all along had always been true. No matter what monsters lurked in the shadows, no matter how deep the inky night that surrounded their fragile souls, no matter the sacrifices they made for a world they could never see realised, they would have this.
He reached for her and she for him, two silhouettes merging against the last vestiges of day, two together becoming one just as the last of the light faded. The darkness won, as it always would, but that moment of light, though less than a second, could last forever, if one chose only to remember.
Author's Note: To give credit where it's due, the line "does the lady protest too much" comes from Shakespeare's Hamlet, III.ii.230, and the title is some strange mutation of Dylan Thomas's famous poem "Do Not Go Gently".
This story was also heavily-inspired by Celestie's "Amaranthine" and the idea that, even though James and Lily are so often portrayed as an ideal romantic couple, their relationship grew amongst the weeds of war. My baggy monster of a one-shot chronicles Lily's transformation from schoolgirl to legend in the space of about a year.
A note regarding the canon timeline alteration: I couldn't imagine how Lily could fall for James during their seventh year, even if he had undergone a complete change in behaviour. In the context of this story, they had dated, and Lily was in love with him (against her better judgment), but it is only during the course of the story that they become something more.