James makes one final adjustment to his sniper rifle stand, checking its balance on the small table he's shoved up against the wall under a broken window. A light breeze slips around the jagged panes of glass that remain, gently tousling the curls of dark hair that have fallen over James's forehead. He combs them back impatiently with his fingers. Wrapping a corner of his jacket around his hand, he punches out the rest of the glass in the window, leaving a clear path for the muzzle of his rifle.
He kneels on the dusty carpet of the abandoned office building, peering through his scope to check its focus. Satisfied, he picks up the radio on the windowsill and speaks into it.
"Royal, this is Prongs. I'm in position."
There's a burst of static, then Kingsley's voice crackles through. "Copy that, Prongs. Moony's going to be your eyes from up here—you'll go on his signal. Padfoot, do you read?" A low buzz of static is the only response. "Padfoot," Kingsley tries again, "check in."
"Yeah, yeah, I'm here," comes Sirius's irritated voice. "Christ, Royal, you just radioed two minutes ago, where could I have gone?"
"I don't think you want him to answer that, Padfoot," Remus notes dryly.
"Don't make me ask for you twice again," Kingsley adds sternly.
Sirius chirps back with false sincerity, "Aye-aye, Captain."
James smirks to himself as he once again hefts his rifle against his shoulder, squinting through the scope at the street below. The late afternoon sun glints off the windows of the building opposite, coloring them in brilliant orange and gold. Though James has a good view of the surrounding area, he's relying on Remus to identify their target, as he's been kept purposefully in the dark about who they're after. It's a system they've used for the past six months, limiting the information provided to the whole team as a way to prevent the very incident James now struggles to push from his mind. He had just managed to convince Kingsley he was up for this job, and is now determined not to give their leader any reason to believe he's not ready.
"Got her," comes Remus's voice from the radio beside James. "She's approaching from the north, Prongs, and . . . looks like she's alone. Won't need you on this one, Padfoot."
Sirius's quiet reply makes James grin again. His mate is always hoping for "a proper fight," even though that would mean they hadn't done their jobs right.
James sweeps the sight of his rifle to the left, glancing up to scan the street with unaided eyes for the imminent approach of his target. His body is tensed with anticipation, all senses on high alert. A twitch of movement immediately draws his gaze, and he notes with some surprise that the figure approaching appears to be female. From the conversations he'd had with Kingsley and the others, he'd assumed it would be someone in Riddle's inner circle, and the only woman in that group had been locked up two years ago.
Pushing away this unexpected development, James refocuses his attention on tracking the woman's every move through his scope. She's wearing a long coat and tall boots with a knit hat pulled low over her forehead, from which James can see wavy brown tresses emerging. With a small click, he removes the safety on his rifle. Adjusting his grip, he lets out a long, slow breath so that he won't instinctively flinch when he pulls the trigger. As he touches his index finger to the smooth metal, the woman looks up slightly, her face coming into view for the first time.
Immediately, James recognizes her. It's his ex-wife, Lily.
Everything inside of him freezes. Time itself seems to slow down, something James thought only happened in movies for dramatic effect. His heartbeat pounds in his ears and his breath comes in shallow gasps as his mind tries to reconcile the impossible scene before him. He can hear voices shouting over the radio channel, but they sound as though they are coming from a great distance and James can't make sense of the words.
The sound of a door banging open behind him jolts James back to full awareness. Time resumes its normal pace as he turns to find Remus advancing towards him, expression livid.
"Dammit, Potter!" This alone would have alerted James to the depth of Remus's fury; he almost never calls James by his surname. "What the hell happened?"
"Remus," James tries, but the other man continues shouting.
"We vouched for you—Sirius and I told Kingsley you were good for this, now he's never—"
"Lupin!" James yells, cutting him off successfully this time. "It's her. It's Lily."
His mate stops dead. Abruptly, the anger deflates out of him and he rubs a hand across his eyes. "Shit."
James scoffs. "Like you didn't know. You're the one on lookout, how—"
"Of course I didn't bloody know! D'you think any of us would have let you come—and as our sniper, for Christ's sake—if we'd known?"
"But they must have shown you pictures. Had her name . . ." James is shaking, both with the lingering shock of seeing Lily and anger at Remus.
"We only ever had aliases." Remus's voice is calm now, placating even. His hands are slightly raised towards James, the way one might approach a wild animal. "And you know how good she is. She can mask her identity if she wants to."
Not from me, James replies silently. He'd have known her the moment she stepped into view, if her hair hadn't been the wrong color. He's irrationally angry at her for dying it—it's his favorite feature of hers—considering he has plenty of other reasons to be angry, to have pulled that trigger without hesitating, even, but he can't seem to focus on them now.
"I swear to you," Remus continues. "Peter's intel was sound."
"But someone knew," James insists harshly. "Someone had to—" He stops, realization striking as he lets out a stark laugh. "Mad-Eye. It's just the sort of twisted shit he'd have no problem with."
"James," Remus says, still in that pacifying tone, "She's not—"
Sirius's voice interrupts them then. Though he's whispering, the slight delay between James's radio and Remus's gives the sound an echoey quality. "In pursuit," their mate reports. "She hasn't spotted me yet."
James's head whips up, eyes searching Remus's wildly. "He followed her?"
Remus frowns, as though this should be no surprise. "Kingsley sent him after you froze up—James!"
But James dodges Remus as he lunges to stop him, leaping over a desk and skidding to a stop at the door. Yanking it open, he barrels into the hall, sprinting towards the stairwell and shouldering through that door as well. It bangs off the wall, the sound reverberating around James as he propels himself down the stairs, pushing off from the handrails for maximum forward momentum. He can hear Remus giving chase, shouting for him to stop, but this only causes James to move faster. Despite everything that had happened, he can't just sit back and let her die.
Bursting onto the street, James realizes he has no idea which way Lily, and subsequently Sirius, have gone. Thinking quickly, he soon sets off in the same direction Lily had been heading, figuring that if she doesn't know Sirius is after her, she has no reason to change course. His head whips back and forth as he passes alleyways and side streets, just in case he's wrong. He's running flat out, and nearly trips over his own feet as he finally spots them at the end of a dead-end road and changes direction abruptly. Lily must have seen Sirius after all. But why let him corner her?
James's heart leaps into his throat as he sees the gun Sirius has leveled at Lily. Her hands are raised, mirroring Remus's posture from earlier. "Stop!" James yells stupidly, as though this can prevent a trained killer from taking down his mark.
But miraculously, Sirius doesn't shoot. He continues to merely stand there, gun raised, until James barrels into him, both of them crashing to the hard concrete as the gun drops from Sirius's hand and skitters away.
"Lily, go! Run!"
"For fuck's sake, Prongs," Sirius growls, trying to disentangle his limbs from James's. "Have you lost your mind?"
But James ignores him, eyes locking with Lily's as he tries to keep a grip on Sirius. A range of emotions flit through her eyes, too quickly for him to decipher. She opens her mouth, but before she can speak, Remus surges into view. He locks his arms around Lily from behind; in another context, he might have been embracing her. It's a hold James knows Lily can easily break, but she doesn't move. James scrambles to his feet, releasing his grasp on Sirius, who immediately dives to retrieve his gun. He doesn't raise it again, however, and the four of them stand staring at each other, breathing heavily.
Suddenly, Lily's eyes widen at something behind James. Before he can turn, pain explodes in his temple, and the world goes dark.
He comes to with a groan, his first sensation a dull pounding in his skull. The next thing he notices are his bound hands, tied roughly with a rope at the back of the chair he's sitting on. His eyes take in the small, dark room, lit only by the glow of an old copy machine. James wonders vaguely why it's still running. The rest of the room is bare apart from Lily, bound in a similar position several feet away from James.
"Welcome back," she says.
"Kingsley knocked you out," Lily explains succinctly.
"Jesus," James mutters. It's no wonder his head is throbbing—Kingsley is not a small man. He looks at Lily abruptly. "Did he hurt you?" he asks urgently, forgetting again that he's supposed to hate her, instead remembering the many jobs they'd been assigned together, how he'd always been distracted worrying about whether she was safe. It had been unnecessary every time, of course. Of the two, James was the one more likely to get injured; most people underestimated Lily's strength. It was often the last mistake they ever made.
"No, I'm fine," Lily answers after a beat, tone carefully neutral as she scrutinizes James. What she's looking for, he can't tell.
"And Sirius and Remus?" he asks instead.
"Both probably locked up as well, with the way they were going off at Kingsley for tying you up," Lily says with a small smirk. "I believe the last straw was Sirius threatening to rip off Kingsley's earring and shove it down his throat."
James's eyebrows shoot up. "Fuck, that's graphic."
In all the countless scenarios where he'd imagined them meeting again, he'd never expected they'd fall effortlessly back into the easy banter they'd always shared. He'd played through entire conversations, but all involved him yelling at her or refusing to speak. Now, however, faced with Lily in the flesh at last, he has no desire to do either. What comes instead is the embarrassing sting of tears, and a pleading question.
"Why did you do it?"
The words hang in the air for a long time, and when James finally finds the strength to look at her again, he is surprised to find Lily fighting back tears as well. "I didn't," she says at last.
This is not what James expected, and he feels all of his anger from the past six months rush back in the face of her simple denial. He'd assumed—or hoped—that she hadn't betrayed them willingly, but had never doubted that she'd done it. "Don't lie to me, Evans."
"James, I promise," Lily says, voice breaking. "I never would have done that to you. Or the others."
James lets out a strangled laugh. "Right. It's bad enough thinking you'd willingly work for someone who chooses to call himself Voldemort—"
"Of course," Lily shoots back, voice suddenly exasperated as she blinks away her tears impatiently. "I would never associate with men who invent idiotic nicknames for themselves."
"Well that at least sounds more like something an ex-wife would say," James says, inwardly wincing at the lame retort.
Lily blinks, momentarily silenced. "I'm not working for Riddle," she tries again, tone steady.
James, not wanting to acknowledge that he and Lily share anything anymore, is furious at his brain for reminding him that they are the only two who refuse to call the gang leader by his ridiculous moniker.
"I knew you'd never believe me if I tried to get a message to you," Lily continues. "How could you trust that it was from me? How could you trust me, period? So I knew it had to be in person, if I was going to have any chance of convincing you. But I was afraid if I ever tried to get close to you again, someone from the Order would kill me." James notices how she doesn't admit to being afraid he would kill her. At least not out loud. "Which is why I let Sirius catch up with me today, and why I let Remus bring me in." The hint of a smirk is back, as though she's amused by the thought of Sirius or Remus ever being able to actually do these things without her knowledge or consent. "If there was any chance of talking to you, I knew I had to take it."
James remains mute when she finishes speaking. The fact that she risked death or torture to see him . . . it's almost convincing. Actually, it sounds like just the sort of stupid stunt he might pull, not Lily. But then, she'd already shown him very clearly that he'd never really known her at all.
Back on the defensive, James demands, "What about the pictures of you with those Death Eaters?" Another absurd name invented for the members of Riddle's gang. "And the recordings of you actually speaking with Riddle!"
Lily is shaking her head fervently before he's even finished. "Someone faked them. I don't know how, but they must have been planning it for a long time to get all those voice snippets of me."
"But how could they have done that without us knowing? The only reason we're even here today is because—" He cuts off sharply as Remus's words come back to him: Peter's intel was sound.
And understanding crashes into him with the force of a brick wall. After all, it was Peter who'd told James about Lily's betrayal in the first place. Initially, of course, James refused to believe him. But the evidence was overwhelming, and the shock of it had prevented James from considering another alternative. Since then, the rage he'd built up as a barrier against the pain had kept him blind to the truth.
Now, he can hardly fathom how he'd accepted Peter's version of events so readily. If anything, James is the one who'd betrayed Lily, not the other way around. He begins to shake uncontrollably, nausea rolling through him as the realization of how close he'd come to killing her takes hold.
Suddenly, Lily is kneeling before him, cool hands cupping either side of his face. "Shhh," she murmurs soothingly. "Come back to me, James—come back."
They're the words she used to whisper to him after a mission had gone wrong, or after one of their own had been killed.
And just as it always did, the sound of her voice anchors James once more to the earth, calms his racing mind until he can focus properly again. With a frown, he blurts out, "How are you here? You were tied up."
With a wink, Lily removes her hands from his cheeks and holds up a sharpened metal nail file. "A woman should never leave the house without one of these up her sleeve."
The first genuine smile in months lifts James's lips. "You're incredible," he says emphatically. Lily flushes, but James doesn't have time to be amused by her reaction. "Now get me out of here—we need to leave, now."
Lily has barely begun to fumble with the knot holding James's own ropes when there's a loud commotion in the hallway outside, followed by a string of curses and several voices James doesn't immediately recognize.
"Shit," he says. "Quick, get back in the—"
But Lily is already two steps ahead of him, as usual, having grabbed her fallen ropes and wound them loosely around her wrists to give the illusion that she is still bound to her chair.
Mere seconds later, the door to the room flies open. A large man with a heavily scarred face and long, yellow nails—James recognizes him as one of Riddle's cronies, Fenrir Greyback—has Remus in a chokehold. James eyes his mate for a moment, quickly concluding that although Remus is occasionally emitting brief gagging noises, he can still breathe. Greyback and Remus are followed by Sirius, held at gunpoint by Peter Pettigrew, who, until a few moments ago, they'd all assumed to be on their side.
"Prongs," Sirius says tightly, looking extremely put out that Peter has gotten the better of him. "Evans, always a pleasure."
"Not going to try to kill me again this time, Sirius?"
"I wasn't going to kill you before, I only—"
"Shut up!" Peter demands, voice high-pitched with nerves.
James glances at Lily, and a brief flick of her eyes is all he needs to understand what she's planning. He looks back at Sirius, and the two exchange subtle nods. Before Peter can get out another word, Lily lets out a blood-curdling scream, the sudden noise enough distraction to cause Peter's grip on his gun to slip. Sirius immediately elbows it out of his hand, simultaneously twisting to break Peter's hold on his other arm. Grabbing Peter's arm, he wrenches it up behind the other man's back, causing him to bend forward with a squeal and bringing his face in perfect range for James to aim a sharp kick to his nose, breaking it instantly.
Meanwhile, Lily has leaped up from her chair and slashed Greyback's arm with her file, causing him to release Remus with a howl of pain. Remus falls to his knees, coughing, while Lily, in a blur of movement, brings Greyback to the floor. She presses the heel of her boot to his throat. He takes a swipe at her leg, but Remus catches his arm in midair and forces it to the ground.
Peter, James notes with disgust, has become entirely incapacitated merely by his broken nose, moaning and clutching it as he rocks on the ground.
"Bloody coward," Sirius mutters as he kneels behind James and makes quick work of his binds. Peter seems to recover enough of his senses to reach for his fallen gun, but Sirius is back beside him in a flash, bringing a foot down on Peter's outstretched hand with such force that there is another snap of breaking bone.
Suddenly, Greyback throws both Lily and Remus off him with a roar. Before he can stand, however, James whirls around, grabs his chair, and brings it crashing down on Greyback's head, knocking him out cold. Remus grabs Peter's fallen gun and scrambles to his feet, aiming it at its former owner. James helps Lily to her feet, a quick glance confirming that she is unharmed.
"Anyone else?" he asks, eyes on the door.
"Two, but Kingsley was taking care of them," Sirius says confidently. As though conjured by the sound of his name, their leader appears in the doorway. His lip is bleeding and there is a bruise forming around his left eye, but he is otherwise uninjured.
"Will someone please explain to me what the hell just happened?" he demands.
"Apparently this piece of vermin," Sirius aims a kick at Peter, "is the reason we've been chasing our tails for the past six months."
"Jesus," says Kingsley, sounding harassed. "I've got to go call Dumbledore."
As he steps out of the room again, Remus and Sirius turn back to Peter.
"I can't believe we didn't suspect you right from the start, you little shit," Sirius says bitterly, spitting at Peter's feet. The man is sobbing freely, cradling his broken hand as blood continues to pour from his nose. "I really wasn't going to shoot you, Evans, I swear," Sirius adds, looking up, and though he's speaking to Lily, his eyes are on James's.
"I know, Sirius," Lily says reassuringly, and James nods.
Remus levels the gun at Peter's head, who lets out another gulping sob. "You should have realized it would end like this," he says calmly. "Goodbye, Peter."
"Wait!" James interjects, hastening forward. "I don't think you should kill him." Remus and Sirius stare at him, uncomprehending. "I don't want you to become killers," James adds nonsensically, while the other two continue to watch him with mounting concern.
"Prongs," Sirius says with a weak laugh. "That's literally what we all get paid to do on a regular basis."
James reddens. "I meant he's not worth the bullets. Plus, I don't think Dumbledore would be too happy about you two calling the shots."
"Pun intended?" Lily asks wryly.
Remus lowers the gun with a reluctant shrug, and Peter practically faints with relief. "I suppose you're right. We can probably get some information out of him anyway. He's not smart enough to have come up with all of this on his own, and we'll want to know if there are any other moles in the Order."
"Right, then, I'll just crank up the old torture chamber," Sirius jokes briskly.
"No!" Peter screams, clearly missing the humor in his former associate's voice. "Please, I'll tell you anything you want to know!" Sirius and Remus exchange looks of revulsion. "None of it was my idea," Peter continues, "it was all Snape—"
James's blood runs cold at Peter's words. "Snape," he repeats bluntly. No one speaks, and James lets out a wild laugh. "You've got to be fucking—I can't believe I didn't—FUCK!" he screams, causing everyone to jump. He pushes roughly past Remus, who doesn't try to stop him.
Outside the door, he strides blindly over two additional prone figures, no doubt the other Death Eaters Kingsley had "taken care of." He can hear someone following him, and by the weight of the footsteps he knows it's Lily. But he doesn't stop until he reaches the end of the hallway, slamming his hands against the wall with another yell of frustration. He remains leaning against it, breathing hard, his forehead resting on the cool concrete cinder blocks.
Lily lets him stay that way for a moment before she says quietly but firmly, "James, please look at me."
He doesn't turn. "I don't think I'm going to be able to live with the fact that Snape is the reason I almost killed you today," he says bleakly.
"Well, you'd better find a way, because I am not losing you again, James Potter," Lily says severely. More gently, she adds, "I know you would never have knowingly killed me."
Eventually James faces her, but finds he can't look her in the eye. "I don't know how you can forgive me for ever doubting you."
Lily touches his cheek, and James meets her green eyes at last. "I can, and I do," she says, "but only if you can forgive yourself."
James nods, though it seems impossible he'll ever be able to do so. To distract himself, he twists a lock of her brown hair between his fingers. "What you've done to your hair is a travesty, Evans," he says, forcefully injecting lightness into his tone.
"It's a wig." Lily pulls at her hairline, removing the false brown locks and revealing the red ones coiled beneath them. "I couldn't bear to change my real hair," she admits with an embarrassed smile.
"Thank god," James says with relief, smoothing back the strands that have come loose from her bun. His hand remains cupped against her cheek, and Lily grasps his forearm, running her thumb along his wrist.
"You know we're still married, right?" she asks. "You called me your ex-wife before."
James grimaces. "It was easier to think of you that way."
Lily nods, and he can see that she understands. "Well, I wanted to be sure, because you keep calling me Evans, but that's Potter to you, mister."
"Whatever you say, Evans," James says, finally managing something close to his old smirk.
Lily shakes her head, a smile escaping her nonetheless. James's eyes roam her face, suddenly eager for the chance to look at her properly, the first he's had since they were reunited. Before he's even planned to do so, he's leaning in to kiss her.
And despite all that had gone wrong in the past several hours-indeed, the past several months-despite all the adversity that remains to be faced, as their lips meet, James feels nothing but an overpowering sense of rightness.