Severus found himself in the headmaster's tower only days later. His presence had been requested following his long absence. He wasn't surprised that Dumbledore had questions, ones Severus was sure he didn't want to answer.
"What brings you back now, Severus?" Dumbledore watched him intently over the rim of his golden glasses. Severus shifted his gaze slightly, should the headmaster decide to use legilimency.
"It was time."
"And the woman? Why is she here?"
Severus suspected Dumbledore's curiosity went beyond what he could use for the Order. "Zahrah's a Death Eater, she bares the mark. She has never aligned herself with Lord Voldemort, rather joined his side purely for information."
Dumbledore tipped his head slightly, eyes narrowed and sparkling dangerously. "And you?"
Severus stood abruptly, already done with the integration. He had expected questions, he hadn't believed that Dumbledore would fall for the gossip about his whereabouts. Severus glanced at the glass of Amber liquid he had been sipping at slowly. His fingers twitched with the desire to drain it, but he restrained himself. "If I can be of further use-"His voice halted as a light knock came at the doorway to the office.
Dumbledore pushed himself from the chair he'd been occupying and made his way, slowly, to the large wooden doors. "Lily, dear. Come in."
"I hope I'm not imposing." Came her small voice. "Rather I had some interesting information to share."
The headmaster stepped back from the doorway and she stepped in, eyes falling on Severus in surprise, much like they had days before. "Oh!" She startled. "I didn't know you had company."
"Nonsense, Lily." Severus spoke in gruff irritation, retrieving his coat from the back of his chair. "I was on my way out." As he stepped towards the doorway Lily was still occupying, he saw a questioning gaze pass between her and Dumbledore.
The old man replied by leading her over to the set of furniture he had previously been sharing with Severus. Taking his leave, Severus overheard the whispered conversation.
"I found myself in Knockturn Ally this morning and overheard some whispers. It seems You-know-who is actively recruiting again. He practically had a booth and a signup sheet set up near Dystyl Phaelanges."
Dystyl Phaelanges. Severus thought to himself as the door thudded shut behind him. He wouldn't mind a visit to the pub nearby. He walked quickly down the many staircases, their ever-changing directions having been memorized long ago.
He had arrived – purposefully – while classes were in session. He had no desire to run into any of his old professors or the few remaining students that might recognize him. Because of that, his steps were the only ones thudding down the stone hallways, echoing off the vast space that surrounded him. The only things there to watch him were the portraits.
"Hold up." The feminine voice of Lily called after him. He stopped at her words in surprise, not entirely alone as he'd thought. His hands were stuffed into his pockets as he faced her, and she caught up to him. "How much did you hear?" She asked, slightly out of breath.
Severus glanced around them warily, knowing students needn't be around for someone to be listening. "Enough. I was headed to Wyverns to check it out…You're welcome to come with." Lily watched him unsurely and he shut his eyes momentarily. "James, Right."
"No." She hurried. "James isn't a problem. I'd- I'd like that very much."
"What exactly did you hear? At Knockturn Alley, I mean." Severus pushed to her surprise.
She shrugged as they continued from the castle. "Much of the same as before, guaranteed protection, a chance to make a difference. It seems the Order's last hit did some damage to their numbers." Severus nodded, confirming that she was right. She paused, flustered. "I'm sorry, but perhaps we could use our words?"
"I'll look into it." Severus explained. "Did you make out any details by chance?"
Her eyes narrowed as she shook her head. "The typical black robes. I couldn't have gotten close enough to make out features without raising suspicion."
"Then how did you overhear them?" Severus asked with his own suspicion.
"Oh." She blushed. "I'd vacated a shop behind them, they didn't know I was there."
Did it seem as if anyone was interested?"
"Quite a few, unfortunately. It is a seedy part of town." Lily and Severus stared at one another awkwardly. "You aren't one of…them, are you? Why else would you have joined the Order?"
He shook his head, a frown on his face deepening. "No. But I can't say I didn't consider the opportunity."
Severus pulled back a sleeve, checking the magical watch on his wrist. Was 10 am too early to get drunk?
I see you kept it." She nodded at the time piece.
He frowned again. "I don't understand why I wouldn't."
Their voices slowly came to a stop and they continued their journey to the gates in silence. Finally, when they were out past the line of apparition, Lily linked her arm through his which earned her a raised eyebrow before she disapparated.
The pub was musty, dust and cobwebs evident in the corners. Lily rubbed a hand up the flesh of her arm uncomfortably as Severus led the way. She watched him from behind, still confused at the person he had become in two short years. The Severus she had known before had never enjoyed food, and now…
One thing she did notice, was how much more comfortable he seemed with himself. He more willingly engaged in conversations, his snark was subdued. It didn't make any sense. He reached the bar, sitting close to bartender and exchanging a few short words before shaking slightly with a laugh.
Lily sat beside him, noticing he had chosen a great vantage point. They could see out the door at the Death Eater activity going on in the streets beyond the doors. Severus hadn't wasted any time ordering a pint of Quintin Black. The murky drink was placed momentarily in front of him before meeting his lips.
Lily watched with a wince as he greedily chugged the liquid. Her own butterbeer remaining untouched. His nearly empty glass came down with a loud thud on the wooden bar. "Pace yourself, Severus."
"On the contrary, perhaps you should speed up." He countered as his hand was raised for another. The bartender had been prepared, quickly sliding a newly full glass in front of him.
Lily vaguely wondered how often he came here. "We aren't here to get pissed." She reminded him in annoyance.
"Maybe you're not." He closed his eyes as the dark black liquid washed into his mouth before setting it down with a satisfied sigh.
Lily turned on her barstool so that she was facing him fully. Her elbow was leaning on the bar, head propped against it. "Out with it then. I seem to remember your intense hatred of drunks."
"Ah, yes." He said, finally forgoing the alcohol and meeting her gaze. "That was before I realized they were on to something." She took the stein from out in front of him in disappointment. He had been flawed before, but this…this was new.
"I don't understand." She said in exasperation. She made no attempt to hide the displeasure she felt toward him in that moment. Their true reasoning for being there had been forgotten.
"About what exactly?"
"Well, any of this." She gestured to him in general. "After the boozer your father was-"
"Don't." He warned, a sudden sharpness to his voice. One he had only given her on one other occasion. "Things happen, people change, get used to it Evans."
She turned in her seat again, taking tentative sips of the drink in front of her as she stared out the open door and into the busy square. They were quiet for a moment, neither quite enjoying the other's presence. The sharp edges of their personality rubbing against each other.
"I'm sorry." He offered suddenly, again surprising her. "I shouldn't have snapped."
"No, I get it." She replied without looking at him. "You aren't the only one who's changed."
"I guess that explains why you don't seem worried about finding a way to explain this to James."
She heaved her shoulders up before letting them drop again, having no desire to get into it. "You could say so." From the corner of her eye she saw him lift his hand to place an order once more. She placed her hand on top of his momentarily. "Could you slow down? at least for me?"
Severus stared at her as the third drink was placed in front of him. When he spoke something was different about his voice than before. It had grown quieter, shameful. "For my sake as well."
Her eyes left his clearly embarrassed features, changing the subject. "You wouldn't recognize anyone, would you?"
"Only the majority of Slytherin house." He examined the three men standing outside, decked in black. "Zahrah would know."
Before Lily could react, his wand had slid from the inside of his sleeve to his hand. She grimaced.
He offered a quick glance around the room. There was only one other person in the bar with them. The man appeared to have arrived before them, judging by the fact his cheek was pressed to the table and drool dripped from his mouth.
Seeming to decide there was no risk involved, he cast a wordless spell and Lily watched, mesmerized, as a silvery creature slid from the tip of his wand.
"Patronus?" She asked, despite knowing the answer.
"Salamander." He confirmed, turning back to the bar. He drew a much slower sip of Quintin than before and she smiled lightly.
His eyes flicked up to the doorway every few seconds, checking for the woman she'd met the night before. He seemed so intent on catching her that Lily was surprised when he spoke again. "What were you doing down here anyway?"
"…Shopping." Lily blushed, avoiding his gaze.
Severus scoffed. "I could have guessed that. I never assumed Knockturn Alley would sell anything that interested you."
"I was looking at Mulpepper's inventory."
"And here I would have thought you could have brewed any of it yourself."
"Not this time, I'm looking for something particular." Her voice turned into a mumble and she felt her face growing hot with the flush of blood.
"Anything I could help you with?" He pushed. "I wouldn't charge half of what Mulpepper does."
"Really, Severus, it's fine."
He turned suddenly as a familiar voice dripping with a thick accent filtered into the pub. She followed his gaze out the doorway and saw the svelte figure of Zahrah conversing with one of the cloaked men they had been watching. The woman had crossed her arms, pushing her breasts together and she conversed easily with the man in front of her. Lily rolled her eyes. "She's one of them, isn't she?"
"Not in a way you'd expect." Severus responded. As if on cue, Zahrah left the men, walking towards the two of them with a swing in her hips. She crooked a hidden finger at Severus, urging for him to follow and he did, like a love-sick puppy. Lily came with, ignoring her lack of invitation and followed the two of them up a set of stairs she hadn't noticed before.
The trio walked down a long hallway before cramming themselves behind a stack of shipment crates, trying to hide themselves as much as possible. Severus flattened himself against the wall, trying to suck his stomach in and failing miserably. It was the first time Lily had noticed his insecurity. He had seemed so sure of his new self until that moment.
"It was Igor of course." Zahrah said with a roll of her eyes as soon as a muffliato had been placed "And Dolohov. I didn't recognize the third man."
"What did they want?" Severus hissed despite the spell.
She winced at the scent of his breath. "I think you can figure that out for yourself. Tried to get me to join them in their, eh, search."
"Does it look like I'm still standing out there?" She swatted at him playfully. "If the Dark Lord didn't order me to be there I won't be getting myself into their mess. Told 'em I was just passing through."
"Why does it matter if it was Igor?" Lily asked suddenly, referring to the woman's earlier statement.
"Durmstrang Headmaster. He always gets himself into this kind of trouble. He's a glutton for punishment, that one."
Durmstrang. Lily mulled the word over, wondering if that's where Zahrah had come from.
"I'd better get a drink of my own and head out before they get suspicious." Zahrah said.
"Yes, of course." With a mumble under his breath Severus undid the enchantment and Zahrah began walking away, Lily close behind. Severus reached out, grabbing her arm and letting Zahrah get farther ahead. "It wouldn't be wise to be seen together." He reminded her as she was pulled back into their hiding spot.
A crash filled the bar room below them suddenly, followed shortly after by a yell. Lily withdrew her wand, expecting Severus to do the same. Instead he grabbed her arm again, holding on to it tightly. "I wouldn't recommend that either. It's our signal to leave."
Before she could say another word, Lily felt a familiar yank behind her belly button and found herself standing suddenly in a place she didn't recognize. She rounded on him. "You're just going to leave her?!"
"I know what it seems like, but it's better than the alternative. She can take care of herself."
She wrapped her arms around herself, uncomfortable in the intimate surroundings of what appeared to be his home. "Severus, I don't understand any of this. Two years ago, you were…and now you're…It's almost like you're afraid."
"It's the opposite of that really." He plopped onto a nearby piece of furniture. "It isn't a matter of not wanting to get involved, I can't be seen."
"Why not?" She perched uneasily beside him.
Severus shrugged. "I sort of ran out on Voldemort. He wouldn't be pleased to know I was back."
"Then why were you so carelessly out in public?" Her eyes narrowed in confusion as she watched him.
"Wyvern's not one to tattle, shall we say. He prefers to keep his clients' secrets, keeps him out of more trouble than if he was to start telling everyone. Plus, I've gained a bit of a disguise, if I do say so myself." The last sentence was given with embarrassment.
Her head dropped into her hands. It had been an overwhelming few days since he had reappeared. "Severus…why now? Why like this?" He furrowed his brows, not understanding the questions. "We haven't seen each other in years and it's been even longer since we talked…yet it's like nothing has changed on your end."
His mouth opened and closed as he fought to find an answer. A grim expression flickered across his face suddenly before it was replaced once again by the stoic calm. "We're going to be seeing each other at the Order meetings, we might as well get used to it. Tea?"
She nodded slowly, suddenly craving the warm liquid. It seemed like stability in a world with him that had suddenly been turned upside down. He stepped away, turning into what she assumed was a kitchen and returning momentarily with two steaming cups. She took her time inhaling the hot vapor and taking small sips until she was prepared to ask her next question. "Why do you let everyone believe you've joined him?"
He shrugged. "After a certain point you stop caring what everyone thinks."
Lily bit her lip, considering his words. It was something she'd struggled with for some time and Severus had so quickly reached the solution. It occurred to her then that he'd kept talking and she focused on his face once more. "I'm sorry?"
"I said, what about you and Potter? How long has that been over?"
She smiled weakly, he'd seen through her lies. "A few months now. He turned out to be someone completely different." Lily heard something sounding like a huff escape Severus' lips, but he didn't say anything more. Before either of them could form another thought, Zahrah apparated in front of them, swiping away a trail of blood trickling slowly from her arm.
"Are you alright? What happened back there?" Frenetic, Severus stood, following her.
"It's nothing, Sev'rus, really. They got a little, eh, enthusiastic, that's all." She smiled softly to ease his worry.
"Here, let me fix it." He gripped her by the wrist, aiming his wand. "Was it more Death Eaters?"
"No, Stan this time. His weekly bender. You've really got to find a new place."
Severus shifted so they were standing farther out of ear shot from Lily. His voice dropped, a conversation meant only for Zahrah, but Lily strained her ears anyway. "That's not why I was there, not this time. We were- "
"What about yesterday? And the day before that?" Zahrah hissed. "Sev'rus, I get it. I know how hard it is, but you need to snap out of it and-"
"Zar, I-." He dropped her now healed arm, hands running through his hair instead. "Maybe this was a mistake."
She glared back at him, stretching up to meet his gaze. "What's a mistake?"
"This!" He gestured loudly, indicating their surroundings and forgetting that Lily was watching everything.
"So, what? You're going to run away like before?"
Lily approached them finally, speaking uncomfortably. "I think I should go…"
"Yes." Severus cleared his throat, turning an angry gaze from Zahrah and giving Lily a softer one. "I'll let Dumbledore know what happened."
Lily shook her head. "I'd like to speak to him myself." She leaned sideways to meet the blonde's eyes. Lily noticed her rigid position and her clenched teeth. "Nice seeing you again, Zahrah." She hurried. "Afternoon…Sev." She stepped away from them, turning on the spot to disapparate when she heard their voices raise again. All she could make out before disappearing completely was something about Hungary.
She didn't waste her time, didn't even bother to knock. Instead, Lily found herself bursting through the door to Dumbledore's office only minutes later. "You knew, didn't you?" She accused.
The Headmaster sat behind his desk, a stack of papers placed before him. "I'm sorry?"
She ignored the startled expression on his face, ploughing on. "About his drinking problem."
"I had my suspicions, yes." He avoided her gaze.
She squeezed her eyes shut in anger for a second. "Then why did you suggest we go together?" Lily demanded.
"He would have gone without my help. It's best to take control of what ambitions he does have left, put him to some use."
Lily collapsed into one of the chairs placed in front of the desk. "I don't understand any of it." She mumbled. "Why is everything so complicated now that he's back?"
"I'm afraid it's a habit the two of you always had."
"No. It's different this time." She insisted. She was well aware that she'd had her fair share of fights with Severus.
Dumbledore thumbed through the parchment. "Has he told you nothing?"
"Only that he traveled – seemingly ate – his way across Europe."
"He lost someone, Lily." Dumbledore said, looking at her finally. "He's coping the only way he was taught."
It wasn't the answer she expected. She racked her mind, trying to come up with someone he might have been close to, but found nothing. "What about her then? The new girl."
Dumbledore sighed, fixing his glasses across his nose. "I'm afraid I can't offer much there. As far as I know they met during his…trip and connected."
"They still seem rather close." She muttered, mostly to herself. She was surprised how much that statement bothered her.
"I know James hurt you, that it was unexpected-"
"Unexpected?! We were talking about marriage! Then I found him in bed with-" She squeezed her eyes shut again, trapping the tears that we're threatening to fall.
"You and Severus aren't all that different. It isn't me you need to talk to."
"It's not that easy!" She protested. "Do you know the last things we said to each other? How can we possibly go back to what we had before?"
"Lily, the fact that you're here, asking about all of it, proves that perhaps you already have. Perhaps you never lost it in the first place."
Lily stared at him in silence, wiping away the wetness of her eyes before finally nodding in agreement. She had never stopped caring about him, the circumstances may have changed, but even then, she knew Severus hadn't ever fully left her thoughts.