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i will still be here (stargazing)

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“There was an automobile accident,” a harried looking woman told her as she was exiting the King’s Cross station. “It was just down the street. It’s been blocked off by the ambulances; you’ll want to go out in a different direction if you want to make decent time.”

She nodded distractedly, scanning the throngs for any signs of her family. 

She twisted her fingers together, looped a thick strand of red hair around her index finger until the tip turned white from a lack of blood, ran her tongue between her teeth in a quick linear motion, bit her lip, the inside of her cheek, the side of her tongue, but they - she thought, for a moment, that she saw a flash of gold-red-gold in her periphery, but when she turned to look, there was nothing except the aureate glimmer of her eyelashes in the sun - never came.

Resigned to the fact that her family wasn’t coming to pick her up - they must have forgotten, there could be no other explanation - she considered hailing a cab before remembering that she had no Muggle money, and that even if she had, the overall fee for a ride from London to Surrey would be quite substantial. Sighing, she made her way to a secluded alley and thrust her right hand out over the street, waiting patiently for the Knight Bus to unfold itself into the non-magical world. 

A short but harrowing ride later, and she was letting herself into her house. The door was locked, and the spare key was missing from its hiding place. An exasperated sigh expunged itself from her lungs as she made her way around the back, jiggled the partially open window further open, lifted herself onto the sill, and squirmed inside, barely sparing a thought for the Unlocking Charm she was so fond of; with Minister Gaunt freshly re-elected, magic performed in the Muggle world was even more strictly prohibited than ever.

She wandered back to the front of the house to unlock the door, and dragged her trunk inside, struggling slightly as it got caught on the jutting step just outside the doorway. The heavy wood was Charmed to be Feather-light, but that didn’t stop it from being awkward to manoeuver as it thudded sluggishly up the steps and into her room. 

She sprawled on her bed, her feet resting on the sturdy lid of the trunk, and stared up at the ceiling, which was the same as it always was: the glow-in-the-dark stars she’d stuck onto the ceiling during Christmas break were still there in the swirling conglomerate she had accomplished by jumping on the bed and smacking the cheap pieces of plastic against the pale paint; if she turned her head, she could see the various polaroids - in color and in black-and-white - which still adorned her walls haphazardly, taped onto the previously empty spaces without rhyme or reason.

She wondered where they could be: they were not at King’s Cross, nor were they at home, and she was gone for enough of the past six years that she no longer knew her family well enough to guess at what their preferred haunts may have been. She refused to think about the auto accident the woman at the station had mentioned. It seemed unlikely: her parents had both been driving for years - decades, even - and as far as she knew, neither of them had ever gotten so much as a speeding ticket, let alone gotten involved in something so severe as an accident requiring ambulances, of all things. And she may not have been around much, but she did know that her sister wasn’t one for driving when there were others around to drive her. So there was an accident, but it couldn’t have been them. She refused to even consider it; somehow, even contemplating that either of her parents might have gotten into an accident - especially when they were so, so careful about everything they did - felt almost like a betrayal, though she knew that that was ridiculous.

So, really, what must have happened was that they had gotten stuck behind the accident, and with the ambulances arriving on the scene, they weren’t able to get out. They must’ve gotten stuck a few blocks down from the station, on their way to pick her up, and - of course - with an accident requiring the involvement of emergency personnel, traffic would have been backed up in both directions. There would have been no way for them to continue forwards to pick her up, and no way for them to turn around and return home with how congested the traffic would have become. 

She relaxed into her mattress, relieved. They’d be home soon enough. Her mother would be in tears about the tragedy they’d witnessed, but she’d always had a bleeding heart that she loved to exercise upon the general masses of faceless strangers. Her sister would be pale and shocked, horrified by what she’d seen and the general state of the victims of the accident, but she would buck up and bear the memories stoically. Her father would be as expressionless as ever, but he would disrupt the silence after dinner with his murmurings, lamenting the loss of life or limb as he boiled water for tea, or mixed the ingredients for her sister’s favorite biscuits, or watched the news. They would be sad, of course - she doubted that anyone could witness such a thing and not feel upset by it - but they would be alive and well, relieved and sipping a hot cuppa once they’d gotten home.

She got up, feeling much better about things, and thundered down the stairs and into the kitchen to put the kettle on to boil. She set out four mugs, one for each of them, and rifled through the cupboard for tea bags. Green for her father, white for her mother, oolong for her sister, black for herself. She leaned back against the counter; the top of it was smooth and cool against her palms, the edge of it just sharp enough to bite into her lower back. She shifted impatiently. 

The kettle had just started to whistle when someone knocked at the door. She frowned at the clock, which ticked quietly on the wall, the second hand slipping softly past the twelve and dragging the minute hand to settle the hour at three. She thought it might be Mrs Number Three, whose name she’d never bother to learn, mostly because the woman was absolutely obnoxious and had always invited herself over at around three o’clock every day for as long as she could remember.

“Just a minute!” she called down the hallway to the front door, switching the kettle off as its shrieking began to pierce the silence of the empty house. She wandered down the hall and swung the door open, looking with surprise at the man standing on the front stoop.

He was wearing a uniform that was extremely familiar; she had seen them on the telly often enough to recognize it. She tried and failed to meet his eyes, afraid of the emotion she thought she’d find there.

“Officer,” she said quietly, opening the door wider to allow him inside.

“Are you Lily Evans?” he asked, equally quiet, like he was worried that he might shatter whatever walls of denial she’d managed to build up around herself.

She nodded, made her way to the living room, and slumped on the sofa, unable to speak. She was worried that she might do something embarrassing, like blurt out that her family was dead, or sob. She already knew what he was going to say: Petunia and her parents were dead. They had died in - or because of - an automobile accident, and Lily had spent the past however long she’d been in the Muggle world again wondering where they were and convincing herself that they’d be home soon. She nodded again, like a bobble-head - just bob-bob-bobbing away, unable to stop once it’d started - and her eyes stung; she swallowed convulsively.

“Your parents, Harold and Violet Evans, and your sister, Petunia, were killed in a car accident.” His words were even and measured; his tone did not waver. He sounded completely unaffected by the news as he stood - motionless and expressionless and heartless - in the entry to the parlour.

Lily felt rather like she had been the one in an accident; all of a sudden, she couldn’t breathe: her chest had collapsed in on itself, her ribs squeezing unforgivingly against the fragile tissues of her heart and lungs; she felt cold, her fingertips freezing where the pressed into her palms, her nails digging into the tender skin so dully she could barely feel it, as if the nerves in those areas had deserted to play host to the heart-rending pain of her loss; her heartbeat thundered in her ears, growing louder and louder with each passing second, until it sounded like waves, or an earthquake, or a thunderstorm that just kept rumbling on and on; the light in the room seemed to grow fainter, as though it was being swallowed up by the darkness that had already managed to suck Lily in. The officer’s voice was tinny, swallowed up by the increasing volume of the ticking of the clock; of her heartbeat echoing in her ears and head and throat; of the overwhelming silence.

She had never seen anyone cast the Killing Curse before, but she imagined the colour was quite similar to the shade of her eyes, which seemed especially vivid against the pale, grief-leached pallor of her skin. Even her freckles had lost their bold brassiness, and her hair - though it was perfectly curled and coiffed - was lank and greasy and dull. She was too thin; she’d lost weight, and she could see it every time she dared to look in the mirror: she could see the way her cheekbone protruded, and her chin pointed, and her eyes sunk into her face; she could see the way her skin stretched tight around her skull, the way it was devoid of any expression because it was tight enough that moving the muscles beneath the translucent, milky, blue-lined mask was nearly impossible. She didn’t look in the mirror much anymore because when she did, all she could see was Killing Curse eyes that looked as dead as the emotions lurking behind them. All she could see was the face of a girl whose family was dead.

She wondered if the mirror was the only one who saw that she was dead, too.

Black looked even worse on her than it used to. Petunia always laughed when Lily wore any black at all, saying that she looked like death warmed over.

Lily supposed that looking like death was appropriate for a funeral.

She wished that Petunia was with her so that she could tell her that she is frozen inside. She looked like death, and she was frozen: her heart was frozen, beating slow and laborious, struggling to clench and release, struggling to live; her lungs were frozen, the air inside them turning to ice that burned as it scraped its way up against her ribs and out her trachea like it wanted to tear through her throat and leave her head severed from her body in a bloody mess; her blood was frozen in her veins, and it moved sluggishly from the cells and tissues and organs that needed it, carrying frozen air through frozen blood to her frozen bodily systems.

She was freezing to death.

Everyone always said freezing to death would be peaceful; of course, it would be cold for a little while, but eventually the body would just shut down, and fall asleep, and never wake up again. But Lily was freezing to death, and it was not peaceful, and it hurt. It hurt, frostbite to the skin - the fingers, the toes, the nose - to the lungs, to the heart, to the blood. She was freezing from the outside in, from the inside out, imploding and exploding in a sleepless, freezing hell, and it was the furthest thing from peaceful.

A three-faced man beat his wings and froze himself and his companions. The ninth circle of hell, Lily thought, is a cold and miserable place where sinners go to freeze. She could not put words to her musings, could not find the energy to wonder what she’d done to secure herself a place in that icy inferno, before the cold dragged her under again, muffling her voice and making her mind go cottony in the way it often did when she drowned in the cold, in the silence - they were the same thing, really, both of them empty and lonely and chilly in their own way.

“Lily,” Vernon murmured from the doorway, looking haggard and heartbroken, “it’s time to go.”

She nodded stiffly, and walked over to him. She felt awkward and clunky, like her movements were jerky. Maybe she was a marionette, and the person controlling her movements hadn’t yet learned how best to move her limbs and face. Maybe the only thing her puppet master was any good at was expressing their grief through the wooden faces and limbs of their puppets. Maybe her puppet master didn’t know, yet, that Lily was flesh and bone and blood, that she had a beating heart and working lungs, and veins thrumming with the potential for life. Maybe her puppet master just didn’t care that the way they were moving her was freezing her up with grief, that they way they were moving her was killing her as it turned her slowly and painfully from warm skin and life that coloured itself in red to cold, heartbeat-less, breathless, lifeless wood.

I’m a real girl, she wanted to scream, but her lungs trapped the breath inside themselves, and her puppet master refused to move her mouth, and she stood, her hand resting in the crook of Vernon’s elbow, petrifying slowly, and each step she took felt heavier and more wooden and less… each step felt less… like she was slowly losing all feeling.

“Come on, Lily,” Vernon said again, walking slowly and patiently beside her, a warm arm around her waist to hold her up, to keep her moving forwards, to keep her from freezing…  

For a while, it was only her and Vernon and three caskets. Four cold, dead bodies in a cold, dead room that wasn’t meant for the living. Lily could only stare blankly at the three cists and wonder why - when there were four dead bodies, when there were four unbeating hearts, when there were four sets of breathless lungs - there were only three. 

For a while, it was only Vernon and three coffins and a dead body without a home, and then there were other people, some who Lily didn’t recognize, and others she did, all of them much too alive for a place like that. They filled the cold, dead room with their warmth and their tears and their words, and Vernon’s arm was still wrapped around Lily’s waist, but even that could not keep her warm.

“Funerals are for the living,” someone who knew her parents told her after they’d walked up to stand beside her, where she stood frozen while Vernon mingled with their fellow mourners, no longer donating his heat to her. She stared at the boxes that concealed her family and didn’t reply.

“So why am I here?” she whispered into the silent, cold air after everyone had gone. The silence swallowed up her words, deadening the sound.

Vernon’s arm was back around her, searingly warm; she shivered violently, and wondered what had caused her puppet master to lose control of their fingers.

The knives were sharp, and they glittered menacingly under the low light in the kitchen. Their blades were smooth, the curves of them dangerously elegant as they flashed in a repetitive up-down motion. They cut through cold butter as easily as anything; they slipped through meat without any effort; they chopped vegetables and fruits into tiny little pieces with little more than a flick of her wrist.

The metal was cool against her skin, and it balanced across the breadth of her wrist, the silvery colour bold against the delicate, sun-deprived tissue. She wondered, briefly, if the knife could cut through ice.

It could, and glittering rubies seeped out, and they were the warmest things she’d felt in a long time. They were warm enough that she felt like they were giving her life again, even though she knew what no one else did: Lily died in the same accident that killed her mother, father, sister. 

She made a habit of it, made a habit of cutting through ice so that rubies spilled out, warm and full of life and beautiful in the way that Lily used to be. Soon enough, though, the rubies started to freeze as soon as they spilled out, and even cutting deeper or longer didn’t keep them warm for long.

Vernon saw the ruby-encrusted blade, saw the rubies spilling out of the ice as she slid it in deep, deeper, deep enough to set her veins and arteries on fire before stopping to stare down at the beautiful, brilliant warmth that overflowed and froze as soon as it escaped its icy prison.

He scrubbed those beautiful rubies off the knife, and he wiped them away from the ice, and he cleaned it out, like he was making sure there weren’t any of those glittering red gems left behind to freeze over in their prison, and then he closed the ice up again, and she felt ugly and empty and cold all over again.

“What were you doing?” Vernon asked softly, looking heartbroken like he did the day there weren’t enough coffins to hold all the dead bodies.

“I was cutting the ice,” Lily replied numbly, looking down at where it is all sealed up, the incisions hidden from her sight, “so that the rubies could come out and keep me warm. So that they could make me alive.”

He looked at her cautiously. “They couldn’t make you alive from inside?”

“They weren’t warm inside. They were warm outside, and warmth is life when you’re frozen to death.”

Vernon sat next to her and pulled her into his side. “Feel this,” he said, and lifted two of her fingers to press under the hinge of his jaw, before moving them to balance on his wrist. “Did you feel that?” he asked. “The throbbing?”

Lily nodded.

“That’s my heartbeat,” he whispered. “It tells me that I’m alive. And look, here.” He dragged her fingers to rest beneath her own jaw, to feel the throbbing that was trying to leap out from beneath the thin skin of her wrist. “You have it, too. You’ve got a heartbeat, and it’s telling you that you’re alive. You’re alive, Lily, and the rubies inside of you? They’re helping you stay that way.”

“But it’s so cold,” Lily choked out, keeping her fingers pressed to the pulse at her wrist. She could feel it thrumming, a steady beat, one-two-one-two, patting at the pads of her fingertips, telling her that she was alive.

“If you can feel the cold, that means you’re alive,” he murmured, wrapping his arms around her so that his warmth could seep into her frozen skin. “But there are other ways to be warm. You don’t have to rely on the rubies to keep you warm, Lily. You shouldn’t, because rubies are just pretty rocks, and rocks aren’t warm. They’re cold, and they’ll make you freeze to death.”

Lily shivered. “I don’t want to freeze to death.”

“I don’t want you to freeze to death, either,” Vernon told her softly. “Here, sit up for a minute, alright? I’m just grabbing something that I think will help.”

Lily sat up, noticing that Vernon had moved her to the sofa at some point. She pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them, trying to trap the lingering remnants of Vernon’s warmth against her as her body was wracked with violent spasms. Her teeth chattered.

“Here,” Vernon said, appearing in front of her with two steaming mugs and a soft looking sweatshirt. He helped her squirm into the jersey before sitting beside her and pulling her back into his side. He handed her one of the mugs and took a sip of his own, sighing through his nose as he did so. She mimicked him, taking a slow sip of the hot drink. The rich, chocolatey flavour flooded down her throat and spread through her chest and stomach in a burning line of heat. She took another sip, and another, until she felt warm again for the first time since those inevitable words had slipped out of the police officer’s mouth.

Everything seemed to move slowly around her; the air grew warmer, as though she was radiating the warmth that had filled her up and brought her back to life. She sighed and relaxed against Vernon’s still form.

She dreamed that it was dark and cold. She dreamed of a dangerous knife slicing into ice and summoning rubies from the depths, she dreamed of living flesh and blood, of a girl standing beside a man, of three caskets, of a whispering veil that separated her from the people she loved.

She dreamed of two cars, of a man and a woman who had never gotten a ticket, of three heads stained gold-red-gold. She dreamed of a crash, of crunching metal, of screams…

She woke up screaming, gasping for air; she woke up with sweat freezing on her body, with the cold threatening to drag her under and muffle her cries.

She woke up freezing to death, and she stumbled into the kitchen looking for a beautiful silver curve that was sharp enough to cut through ice, that could dig deep enough to extract rubies. 

She couldn’t find it. She sobbed, and tasted salt on her tongue, felt the stinging warmth trickle down her cheeks. She took a deep breath in and lifted two shaking fingers to the place under her jaw; she dragged them down to rest on her wrist. Her heartbeat throbbed under her fingertips, one-two-one-two, telling her that she was alive.

She put the kettle on to boil and leaned back against the counter. The surface was smooth under her right palm. The edge was sharp enough to bite into her lower back. Her heartbeat thudded comfortingly against her fingers through the thin skin under her jaw.

She was alive.

A tea bag in a mug. Black. A whistling kettle. Boiling water. She let it steep for five minutes, poured some milk into it. Raised the mug to her lips to let the steam caress her face. Took a sip, two, and let the warmth of it spread through her body and radiate out again. 

Again. Night after night after night. Black tea. Hot cocoa. White, green, oolong, like her mother, father, sister liked. Always with two fingers resting under her jaw while the kettle boiled, always with the sharp bite of the counter against her lower back, always with the smooth countertop under her palm, or the glossy ceramic handle of a mug wrapped in her fingers, always with a thought towards a sharp silver blade, and ice, and rubies.


Until one night, followed by many more, when the knife didn’t cross her mind. Until one night, followed by most nights after, when she didn’t wake up screaming because there was no screaming to wake up to.

She thought maybe her puppet master had learned more things than grief, thought that maybe she had no puppet master anymore, that maybe she wasn’t made of wood, anymore, that maybe she was made of flesh and bone and blood.

“I’m a real girl,” she whispered into the silence because she didn’t need to scream anymore.

James snorted at the paper he was reading, and Lily leaned over to look over his shoulder. “Minister Gaunt’s Fool-Proof Plan for Abolishing Blood Prejudice,” he read aloud in a mocking tone. “Yeah right. Anyone with anything amounting to brains knows that whatever Minister Gaunt’s ‘fool-proof’ plan is is going to suck.”

Lily sighed. “No kidding. I’ve read all of the statements he’s given, especially the ones he gave each time he was running for re-election. They’re always about getting rid of blood prejudice, but I have yet to see a plan that actually makes things better for anyone except the Pure-bloods.”

“That’s why he keeps getting re-elected,” Sirius pointed out. “I know he’s got my mother rooting for him every time he runs. Think about it: Muggle-borns are considered second-class citizens. Purebloods may have a smaller overall population, but their votes matter more. So he keeps catering to their wishes because he wants power, and he knows they’ll give it to him.”

“Well?” Peter asked. “What are we waiting for? Let’s see what his newest plan is.”

James opened up the Daily Prophet, spreading out the pages outlining Minister Gaunt’s ideas.

  • As of 1 January 1980, Muggle-borns will no longer be accepted into the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
  • As of 1 January 1980, all Muggle-borns of a legal age must be married to a witch or wizard of Half-or-Pure-blood, thereby introducing fresh blood into certain esteemed and endangered bloodlines, and ensuring that every witch or wizard born within two generations will once again be Pure-blooded. Any Muggle-borns who do not comply by 1 January 1980, will have their magic sealed, their memories wiped, and will be removed from the magical world.
  • As of 1 January 1980, any Half-bloods of a legal age who have not married a Muggle-born must be married to a Pureblood, so that within one to two generations, all their children will be Pure-blooded.
  • As Half-bloods and Muggle-borns reach a legal age, they will be expected to marry a Half-or-Pure-blood so that magical Britain may have an entirely Pure-blooded population within its youth within one to two generations.
  • A Pure-blood or Half-blood may not marry a Muggle-born with the sole purpose of protection from the sealing of magic and removal from the magical world. Either of the former members of society found doing so will face a fine, and the Muggle-born they are found consorting with will be sentenced to the seal-wipe-remove or the Dementor’s Kiss, depending on the gravity of their transgression.

“A marriage law,” Lily said in disgust. “Or as good as.”

“So his plan,” Remus summarized in a low voice, “is to completely eradicate those of ‘lesser blood’ by the time any Muggle-borns who’re accepted into Hogwarts before January first of nineteen-eighty have died. It’s a long-term plan, and he’s putting a lot of faith in the idea that his successors will continue along with it. But, if it does work out as he expects, Muggle-borns will be a thing of the past within a century, and Half-bloods within one and a half to two centuries.”

“It’s a stupid plan,” Lily grumbled.

“Yeah,” Remus agreed on a sigh. “It is. It’s worse for you because you’re Muggle-born. You’d actually be risking something if you didn’t comply.”

“You’re a Half-blood, though. They won’t be happy if you don’t comply either,” Lily protested.

Remus shot her a weak grin. “I’m afraid I’m exempt from this particular law.”

“What! Really?”

He pointed to a subtle line down near the bottom of the page. “According to this, anyone with creature blood need not obfuscate the gene pool with their disease. Since I have creature blood, they don’t want me to be part of their little…” he waved his hand helplessly. “Farce.”

“Because a plan to eradicate Muggle-borns and Half-bloods and people with creature blood isn’t prejudiced,” she muttered.

“Of course not,” Remus replied sarcastically. “Because one day there will only be Pure-bloods left in the magical world. Minister Gaunt’s plan will have succeeded: no one will hate anyone because of their blood anymore. I suppose he thinks the end justifies the means.”

Lily gave him an unimpressed look. “You know as well as I do that they’ll find something else to hate. That’s how people are. They want something to hate because they want to feel better about themselves. Hating someone, or a group of people, because they are less in some way will make them feel validated. His plan doesn’t fix anything. It just… puts an arm where there’s a missing leg. It just patches things up wrong, so that they can’t function anymore. It’s seems like it’ll fix the problem, but now you’ve got an arm where a leg is supposed to be, and you’ve got nothing where the arm is supposed to be, and so you’re crippled and bleeding out and nothing is fixed because everything is so much worse than it was before.”

Sirius dragged his attention away from James to stare at her. “That was a spectacularly gruesome analogy, Lils. You should be a writer.”

“I’m going to get a place in Scholastic Alley,” Lily scoffed, “and I’m going to teach magic and other basic courses to children. My imagination doesn’t need to be confined to writing stories saturated with propaganda for the Daily Prophet.”

James gave her a considering look. “Got any room in your plan for four more?”

“Maybe,” she said with a sly smile. “What did you have in mind?”

“Well, Sirius and I’ve both got the money for that kind of thing; Remus has got his reputation as a responsible young man,” he tossed his friend a mocking glance, his lips curling up at the corners, “and Pete’s got a little sister, so he’s got some experience with kids.”

“I’ve actually got three younger sisters,” Peter offered shyly. “The oldest is going to start at Hogwarts next year, but the other two could be our students. My mum gets tired fast, you know? It’s hard for her to raise them because they’re so high energy, and Dad is always at work. They’d probably be willing to pay for us to take them off their hands for a few hours every now and then.”

“Alright,” Lily said slowly. “So how would we divvy up the teaching?”

“By strengths,” Sirius said promptly, as though he’d given the subject a great deal of thought during the few moments that had passed since she’d mentioned it. “You’d do Potions and Charms. James’d do Transfiguration; Remus would be History, of course, and he might be able to do some Muggle history, too; Peter could do Herbology and Maths, if you want to do some Muggle subjects: he’s got a head for numbers. I could do Defense, and James could help me with, like, marketing. Or something.”

Lily leaned forward, resting her forearms on the table. “That… could work. I think we might be on to something. Of course, we have to graduate first, and it probably shouldn’t be my name on the deed or the office because I’m so not ready to get married, and I don’t want the Ministry breathing down my neck more than they already will be.”

“It’ll go under my name,” James said decisively. “The Potters are a respectable family. We’re Pure-bloods, but we’re well liked by Half-bloods and Muggle-borns. There isn’t the same stigma behind my name as there is behind Sirius’, and Peter’s name won’t get us anywhere.” He gave Peter an apologetic glance, which was shrugged off carelessly.

“Okay. We’re doing this, I suppose,” Lily said, grinning. “Sirius, why don’t you look into some empty lots in Scholastic Alley; James can work on securing permission from the Ministry; Peter, you should start talking to people to see if they’ve got siblings that might benefit from a pre-Hogwarts education; Remus and I will work on compiling the curricula and ways to dodge this new law.”

The boys offered her toothy smiles before going their separate directions. Lily wrapped her arms around her waist and smiled after them. She felt warm inside, but they always seemed to do that. The Marauders had sensed, somehow, that she was struggling on the first day of the term, and they’d gathered around her and brought her back to life and kept her warm and smiling. They had all changed over the summer: she had grown withdrawn and pale and miserable; they had toned down their excessive energy and their unwarranted cruelty. They’d learned to apologise, to be better versions of themselves, and when they surrounded her, Lily felt like she’d become a better version of herself, too. She loved being around them, because most days, when they were around, it almost felt like she hadn’t lost anything at all.

Most days, when they were around, she didn’t even feel guilty for feeling that way.

Some nights, when she was having trouble falling asleep, Lily slipped out of the Gryffindor tower and out of the castle and into the Forbidden Forest. If she walked far enough in, there was a clearing that was all clear skies and soft grass. It was untouched by any of the sinister creatures who called the forest home. It was untouched by the other students. It was untouched by everything except magic and Lily.

The sky was always ink-dark and cloudless; the scent of pine and sap and ozone was something the trees always emanated; the grass was thick and soft and long enough to curl her fingers in as she lay on her back and stared up at the dome of the sky above her.

Astronomy had never been one of the classes she paid much attention in. She was less interested in knowing about the stars, or their stories, than she was in simply staring up at the way they freckled the sky in swirling masses when there was no light nearby to dim their glow.

Lily had heard the sky and the stars referred to as the heavens before. She liked to lie in her grassy meadow after dark; she liked to stare up at the glowing balls of gas, at the planets, at the moon; she liked the silence that surrounded her when she was in that glen, staring up, up, up, at the stars, at the heavens, at the bright, glowing souls of the worthy dead who hung in the sky.

She wondered if she ever looked at her parents’ stars, or at Petunia’s. She was never certain, and so she chose a star for each of them, and she watched them, staring up, up, up, unblinking, even when tears pooled in her eyes and the salt of them stung as they slipped down along her temples, as they turned the stars bright and gave them halos, as her tears made the stars burst and shatter into shards of light that pierced the night sky.

She wondered if her family’s stars ever looked down at where she was lying in that glade and thought about how much they loved her.

“Welcome to Erudition!” the receptionist chirped, and Lily groaned under her breath. It had been an exhausting day. She loved teaching, and she knew the boys did, too, but Peter was the only one of the five of them who really had any skill with wrangling children, and there was only one of him. They were getting ready to close for the season; business slowed down drastically in the beginning of December, and so Lily had taken to closing the office for the holidays. There were always stragglers, though; they were a minority, but after their first year, it was unsurprising for a few families here and there to continue sending their children to Erudition while they prepared for Christmas and Yule and the New Year.

Lily’s temper tended to get shorter as the weather cooled. It was worse as Christmas approached; she was always reminded that the last time she’d seen her family alive and well had been over winter break. They had been so young and carefree back then: she and Petunia and Vernon had built snowmen; they had bundled up in snow pants and warm winter coats before flopping on their backs into the snow, spreading their arms and legs in wide arcs and struggling to stand back up without ruining the angels they’d created; Mum had made mug after mug of hot cocoa that year; Dad had started a fire beneath the mantle, and they had all crowded around it with the heat licking at their faces as they’d toasted marshmallows on pokers. That year had been a bit tight on money, but Mum and Dad had managed to pile gifts under the tree, and the house was warm, and it was dark and snowy outside, but they were safe from the cold, and happy to be together.

And then Mum and Dad and Petunia had died, and Lily had frozen inside. She’d spent the following Christmas at Hogwarts; James, Sirius, Remus, and Peter had stayed at the school, and the castle had been warm, but it was huge and empty and lonely, as hollow as Lily had felt because her family was dead.

She’d frozen again, had woken up cold and screaming, cold and empty, cold and dead and wondering about that missing casket. She had thought, briefly, of glittering silver, and ice, and rubies, and fire burning in her veins because there weren’t enough sweatshirts or hot beverages in the world to fend off the bone-deep chill.

A once-friend had told her once that she had mud in her blood. Mud was cold, and so in that he was right, but her blood was made of rubies: beautiful and shining and stone cold, ice cold, so cold and deadly that seeing it could kill…

A boy who reminded her of Sirius had found her in the kitchen, staring with dead eyes down at a cooling mug of cocoa. He’d dragged her up, slung her arm around his shoulders, and walked her quivering body up the spiraling staircases to the entrance of Gryffindor tower, where the Marauders were waiting.

He hadn’t said anything the entire time, and he’d passed her off into James and Sirius’ embrace before disappearing into the shadows.

They’d pulled her back into the common room and pushed her onto one of the oversized couches. All four of them had curled up around her, pulling mounds of blankets and pillows over them, trapping their body heat inside a soft cocoon. They had protected her from the suffocating cold, had stayed with her all night, and instead of feeling overwhelmed by their hovering, Lily had felt something close to happy.

Even with her boys fending off the cold and the nightmares, though, it still found her. Her bones ached when the temperature dropped, and her mood took a nose-dive, and she hogged all the warm clothing laying around the office, which she suspected was left behind intentionally.

She walked out front in time to see the man speaking to Erudition’s receptionist. He was tall and imposing, his shoulders broad and defined under the hideous Ministry robes. He looked remarkably like Sirius, just as handsome, though his features were somehow both sharper and fuller than her friend’s. His eyes were a piercing mercurial colour where Sirius’ were icy blue. “The Ministry sent me to observe the learning environment here to ensure that Erudition is fit for young magical children,” he was saying earnestly.

Lily sighed. She and the Ministry were not on good terms, though she suspected that had a great deal to do with her failure to comply with their marriage law. “You’d think that the Ministry would have come up with a more plausible excuse,” she said, startling Sirius’ doppelganger and her receptionist.

“Excuse me?” he asked, perplexed.

“Erudition has already been inspected this year for the exact reason you just gave. I know for a fact that no other tutoring offices get inspected more than once. You can tell your superiors that I’ll comply with the marriage law when I’m good and ready.”

“I’m sorry,” not-Sirius said, frowning. “I’m afraid you’re mistaken. I really was sent to observe the learning environment. In fact, I’m not sure I even know who you are.”

Lily scowled. “Lily Evans, one of the tutors here at Erudition. If you’d like, you may come back and meet my colleagues, though I’m sure they’ll have the same objections as I do.”

He gave her a confused glance before nodding amicably. She strode out of the room and to the offices in back, where she knew her friends would be. He followed peaceably behind her and waited patiently for her to open the door.

They were greeted by the sight of James, his arm wrapped around Sirius’ neck, scrubbing his knuckles against Sirius’ scalp; Sirius was slapping halfheartedly at the side of his captor’s face; Remus was sitting calmly in the corner reading, and Peter was cooing at the plant that was growing up the wall opposite the door. Lily cleared her throat, raising an imperious eyebrow; they all stopped what they were doing to look at her and her disproportionately large shadow, who stepped into the room and looked around in mild curiosity.

“Regulus?” Sirius asked, sounding shocked. “What are you doing here?”

“The Ministry sent me to observe Erudition’s learning environment to ensure that it is appropriate for children,” Regulus grumbled.

“We’ve already had an inspection this year,” Sirius protested. “Why are we getting inspected twice? We passed the first time!”

“I bet they’ve remembered that Lily exists,” James said, sounding entirely too cheerful for Lily’s liking.

“Again,” Peter agreed from where he’d stuck his head between two branches of his creeping plant.

“Well,” Remus pointed out reasonably, “it is December, which means her time is running out. And you have to remember that they’re trying to get rid of Muggle-borns; they probably want to scare her into, like, offering herself up, or something.”

“Actually,” Regulus interrupted, “I’m pretty sure that’s not why I’m here. I don’t work in that sector of the Ministry, you know.”

Sirius frowned at him. “I don’t know, actually, because you don’t talk to me anymore. I didn’t even know you were working for the Ministry until you showed up here.”

Regulus sneered. “In case you’ve conveniently forgotten, you are the one who stopped answering my letters. You are the one who stopped Floo calling me, or visiting me, and it’s not like I knew where you lived, so I couldn’t have contacted you anyways.”

“You told me to stop contacting you!” Sirius roared, lunging up out of his seat. “In your last letter to me, you told me that if I was going to continue consorting with half-breeds and other unsanitary company now that I was no longer at Hogwarts, I might as well stop contacting you altogether!”

“I - what? I… Sirius,” Regulus said, his brows furrowing, a scowl etching itself onto his full mouth. “You know I don’t think like that! I’ve never said anything like that about any of your friends! I know you don’t want to associate with Mother anymore, but I’m not her, I -” he broke off with a growl. “Mother!”

Sirius frowned. “You mean…?”

“Yes! Mother must have written that letter. She knew you’d do almost anything for me, and, well, you were never subtle at hiding your distaste when she spouted her bigoted propoganda. She knew how to get to you.”

Sirius slumped back in his chair and ran his fingers through his hair. He sighed. “I’m sorry for not writing back and asking.”

Regulus snorted. “She’d have intercepted the letter. It’s probably for the best that you didn’t.”

“Still. I’m sorry.”

“Consider yourself forgiven, as long as you grab some dinner with me. We’ve got almost two years to catch up on.”

“Done,” Sirius grinned.

“Can we go back to the part where you’re inspecting us?” James asked. “Because this is the second time this year, and we passed last time. Besides, it’s December; business is slowing down because the holidays are close. We’ve got maybe five students. There won’t be much to observe. And even if there was, we’d just be getting inspected again within the next six months; we were looked at in July, and they said they’d be back to see us this upcoming July, so I’m not sure why you’re here, since it’s cold and snowy and December.”

“Frankly,” Regulus frowned, “I’m not sure either. I really don’t know why I’m even doing this job. I’m pretty sure Mother suggested it because she couldn’t bear being related to someone who does something as soft as Healing.”

“Reg,” Sirius said flatly. “You’re an Inyanga. You were literally born to Heal. And, what’s more, you like it. I could understand doing a Ministry job if you didn’t; after all, I’m a Left Hander, and I’m not doing Curse Breaking, and James is a Chaos Mage who isn’t an Auror, and Peter likes Herbology more than he likes the rituals and spells that go along with his affinity. But you like Healing. You enjoy doing what you were born to do, so why the hell are you letting Walburga choose your job?”

Regulus muttered something under his breath.

“What?” Sirius asked, leaning forwards.

“I said she threatened to disown me.”

Sirius laughed, tossing his head back and shaking it. Regulus stared at him in astonishment, and Lily couldn’t help doing the same.

James clapped a hand over Sirius’ mouth, and he stopped laughing long enough for James to explain. “It’s not a well-known fact amongst Pure-blood circles, Reg, but your mother can’t disown you. She’s not the Head of your family. That’s your father, not least because his father was the Head before him, while your mother was descended from his brother or something. She doesn’t have the power, so you can do whatever the hell you want with your life, and she might scream about it like the harridan she is, but she can’t actually kick you out of the family.”

Sirius let out a muffled noise from behind James’ hand, and said, when it was removed, “Dad would never disown you, either. He hates Walburga, so he’d never do anything she wanted, especially not if it meant doing us any sort of harm.”

Regulus sat down on the edge of one of the desks, looking like his strings had been cut. Walburga must have been his puppet master, Lily mused, keeping him wooden and controlled until the Blue Fairy came along and released his chains and told him he was a real boy. “Oh,” he said, like the word had been punched out of him, had been punched out of real, working lungs for the first time in his life.

“Welcome to Erudition!” the receptionist tittered. 

Lily groaned miserably, thinking that she might like to fire the girl so that she wouldn’t have to hear her cheerful greetings every day. She made her way to the front, and pulled up short at the sight of Lucius Malfoy standing regally in front of the entirely too chipper receptionist.

“Malfoy,” she greeted coolly, eyeing him as she motioned for the girl to head out of the room. “What’re you doing here?”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed the date, Evans,” Malfoy said, curling his lip as he looked down at her with something akin to disgust, “but there’re three weeks until the first of January, nineteen-eighty, and, according to… oh, everyone, you still haven’t gotten married to a Half-blood or a Pure-blood in accordance with Minister Gaunt’s Anti-Prejudice Act.”

Lily looked down at her nails casually, thinking she might like to get them done soon. “Oh. Yes. The marriage law,” she replied. “I wouldn’t worry your empty little head about it, Malfoy. I’ve still got three weeks, as you’ve just said. I’m sure I’ll figure something out before you and the rest of the Ministry lackeys come to try dragging me off.”

Malfoy’s lip twitched. “Evans, don’t be stupid. You know as well as anybody that if you haven’t gotten married by now you won’t be getting married by the New Year. Why not just make it easier on everyone involved by just turning yourself over to the Ministry for the Seal and Wipe?”

“Fat chance,” she snorted. “It’s like you’ve completely forgotten what I was like when we were at school together. I know you were a fifth-year when I got there, but you can’t say you didn’t notice what I was like even back then.”

He rolled his eyes. “Just because you won’t come quietly doesn’t mean you won’t come at all. You can’t fight this, Evans, though I know you’ll try.” He shrugged delicately. “I’ll be there when you do.”

“I’ll fight, and I’ll win, Malfoy,” she disagreed. “And you’re right about me not coming quietly because no matter what you and the Ministry try, I won’t be going at all.”

Malfoy opened his mouth to retort, but was interrupted by someone clearing their throat.

“What,” Regulus asked carefully, moving into the room to stand beside Lily, “is going on here?”

Lily smiled at him sweetly, a plan beginning to take shape, and Regulus eyed her warily. “Malfoy here is just trying to convince me that I should head over to Politic Alley for a Seal and Wipe since I’m not married yet.”

Malfoy growled. “I’m trying to convince you to go peacefully so they don’t take you by force when you’re still not married in three weeks.”

She scoffed. “Haven’t you been listening, Malfoy? It won’t be an issue in three weeks because I’ll be married by then.”

“Oh?” he asked, sounding unconvinced. “And who is this… fortunate Wix?”

“Me,” Regulus said calmly, offering Malfoy a draconic grin.

“Well then.” The returning smile was equally sharp, and far more mischievous than Lily was comfortable with. “I suppose I’ll be seeing the two of you for Yule, won’t I. I might even be present for the wedding, given the time constraints.”

“We’re so looking forward to it,” Regulus replied, unruffled.

“I must say, I really do anticipate witnessing Walburga’s reaction. It’s obvious she doesn’t know yet. I’m sure she’ll have… quite a lot to say.”

“I’m sure it will be just one more story for the list,” Lily murmured.

“The list?” Malfoy inquired.

“Oh yes,” she said, baring her teeth, “you know, the ones we’ll tell our children one day?”

“Hm. Well, speaking of lists, I will be visiting you on the first of January, should you be successfully married by then, to interrogate the two of you.”

“To interrogate us,” Regulus said flatly. “What do you mean?”

Malfoy widened his eyes mockingly. “Didn’t you know? It’s how we make sure these marriages aren’t fake. After all, we don’t want Muggle-borns marrying a Half-blood or a Pure-blood and divorcing them afterwards just to bypass the consequences of the law. Marriage should be for people who are in love, not for people looking to break the rules. Don’t worry, though. If she’s coming to Yule to meet your mother, and you’re bringing her to meet your mother, you must really love each other. In fact, I’m sure you know everything about each other, so you won’t have any trouble answering a few simple questions.”

“Of course not,” Lily said confidently. “We know everything there is to know. Don’t we, Reg?”

“I should certainly hope so,” he replied teasingly, leaning down to plant a kiss on the top of her head.

“Wonderful,” Malfoy broke in. “I will see the two of you during Yule. I’m sure it will be an enlightening experience.”

Lily raised an eyebrow at him. “I do so look forward to being a source of interest for you.”

“You’re getting married,” Sirius said, staring at them with a shocked sort of horror.

“That’s the plan,” Regulus agreed, twisting his fingers together and refusing to meet his brother’s eyes.

“Okay,” Sirius nodded. “Alright. And, um, no offense Lily, because I love you, but why? Like, please tell me what the fuck was going through your heads when you told Lucius Malfoy that you’d be getting married sometime between now and the New Year.”

“She’s your friend, Sirius,” Regulus said softly. “She’s your friend, and you love her. You shouldn’t have to lose a friend because the Minister wants to eradicate Muggle-borns, and she shouldn’t have to lose her entire life, either. I can help, and it doesn’t really cost me anything, so I will.”

Sirius squinted at him. “How the hell did you not get Sorted into Gryffindor?”

Regulus smirked. “Are you kidding? Everything I just said was such a completely Slytherin thing to say.”

“No it wasn’t. That was something I would have said, and the hat said I didn’t have an ounce of Slytherin in me.”

“I think it’s a common misconception that Slytherins and Gryffindors are complete opposites,” Regulus said delicately. “We all have our reasons for the things we do, and we’ve all got some moments when we rush in without thinking, or we stay back and calculate. You and me, Sirius? We’re two sides of the same coin. Our hearts are in the same place, even if how we get there doesn’t always line up.”

“Regardless, I still don’t understand why you’re doing this when I could do it just as easily,” Sirius said, returning to the subject.

Regulus snorted. “Sirius, if you could’ve married Lily and gotten her out of this mess, you’d have already done it. There’s a reason you haven’t, alright, and it’s right there.” He points to where James is lying slumped over his desk, his cheek smashed oddly against the back of his hand.

Sirius swallowed, his eyes darting nervously around the room. “Sorry, Lily,” he said softly.

Lily leaned forwards to hug him, burying her nose in his neck. “It’s okay, Sirius. I wasn’t ever expecting either of you to save me. You’ve been half in love with him since at least fifth year, and he’s probably loved you back for just as long.” She laughed quietly, a breathy thing that puffed warmly in the space between their skin. “Didn’t you notice that he stopped asking me out constantly when sixth year started?”

Sirius’ mouth was quirked in a smile that glittered in his eyes when she pulled back. “I would hope so.”

Lily stared at him, her eyes narrowed, before grinning so wide her cheeks hurt. “You bastard! All this time, and you didn’t tell us? I thought we were friends.”

Sirius’ smile dropped. He swallowed hard, his jaw bunched, and he stared over her shoulder at James. “Walburga wasn’t happy when I… when I told her and Dad that I liked boys. I don’t know why, when there’re blood adoption potions and surrogates. Maybe she doesn’t like it because I’m the minority. I don’t know. I don’t know. But she… she threatened to have any boy I was in a relationship with killed. She’s crazy, you know? Out of her mind. But we’ve just been keeping it quiet, because if no one but us knew, she wouldn’t be able to find out, and he… James would be safe."

“Oh,” Lily said softly. She felt rather frozen inside, like the winter air had crept inside and slipped past the Heating Charms, through her skin, to settle deep in her bones, to freeze her blood in her veins.

“Oh,” Regulus agreed. “I bet that was part of the reason she sent that letter. She wouldn’t have wanted you to sully my virtue with your sexual deviance. Or something. Y’know, she never was very strong on the logic front.”

“Your mother,” Lily told them fervently, “sounds like she’s a fucking cunt.”

Sirius raised his eyebrows. “That was oddly strong language for you.”

She sniffed. “I swear.”

“Not… not really,” Sirius disagreed, his face twitching oddly, and his head turned slightly before the motion was aborted.

“When the situation calls for it,” she demurred, “and I think I sense a lovely moment with your mother in my future.” She sighed contentedly. “I will be absolutely beautiful, and she will look like harpag, and I will tell her to her face that she’s a piece of shite cunt who’s got her head so far up her own arse that she can’t see that her own sons are fucking amazing, and probably the best things that will ever happen to her because she’s a bitch.”

“What the hell is a harpag?” Regulus demanded, looking wildly amused.

“I couldn’t decide if she would look like a harpy or a hag, so I just combined them.”

“She certainly sounds like a harpy,” Sirius muttered. “And, Lils? Maybe you should tone it down on the swearing. I’m not sure you’ve quite got the hang of it yet.”

“Fuck you, I am turning twenty next month. I can swear as much as I want to.”

Sirius and Regulus exchanged disbelieving glances, the latter raising his eyebrows as he mouthed wow. Sirius snorted; Lily scowled.

“Still want to marry her, little brother?”

Regulus grinned maniacally. “Fuck yeah.”

“Good Godric, this is absolutely horrible.”

“Don’t worry, there’re only eleven days of Yule left.”

Lily scowled up at Regulus. “If they’re all like this, I will literally die.”

“James and Sirius should be here soon, so at least they’ll provide entertainment of some sort,” Regulus said placatingly.

“Oh good,” she replied sarcastically. “My sanity is hinging on James and Sirius. We’re all doomed.”

“No kidding.” Regulus stood up straighter. “Just a heads up, my parents are coming our way. Mum looks like she’s going to breathe fire.”

“Fantastic,” Lily replied. She looked up at him. “Do they know yet, or…”

“Not yet. I’ll tell them. It’ll be fine.”

“Are you trying to convince me or yourself?”

“Myself,” he whispered. He turned his attention back to his parents, who had grown rather closer than Lily expected, and bowed slightly. Lily gave a half-hearted curtsey. “Good evening Dad,” Regulus said, stepping forward to hug his father. He stepped back and nodded respectfully, his smile disappearing. “Mother.”

Walburga, Lily was disappointed to find, did not in any way resemble a hag or a harpy. She had regal features, which were fixed in what seemed to be a permanent expression of distaste, and her dark hair was expertly coiffed. Her eyes were the same colour as Sirius’, though they were far less friendly, and much colder than his could ever be. She grimaced at Regulus. “Good evening, Regulus,” she said reservedly. “Who is your friend?”

Regulus smiled again, his cheeks dimpling. “This is Lily Evans.”

Mr Black grinned boyishly, reminding her oddly of both his sons. His eyes - the same hue as Regulus’, and just as warm - twinkled as he took her hand and leaned down slightly to kiss it. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss Evans. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

Walburga sniffed. “Have you now? I haven’t heard anything at all.”

“I wonder why,” Mr Black muttered under his breath, sneering at her when she pretended she hadn’t heard; Lily was startled by the expression, which seemed to be completely foreign on his handsome face. Clearly, Sirius hadn’t been exaggerating when he’d said that his father hated his mother.

Regulus cleared his throat. “Yes, well, I have some news.”

Mr Black smiled broadly, his eyes lighting up in excitement. Walburga looked as uncaring as ever.

“Mother, Dad,” he said, and turned to smile down at Lily, who smiled back helplessly. “Lily is my fiancee. We’ll be getting married on the thirty-first.”

“The thirty-first?” Mr Black asked.

“Of December,” Regulus clarified. “Of this year.”

His father’s eyes widened minutely before his jubilant smile stretched back onto his face. “I see. Young love, always rushing into things.”

Walburga frowned. “I thought you’d agreed to marry that Crabbe girl.”

Regulus pulled a face. “No, Mother. You made the suggestion, but I never said I would do any such thing. In fact, I rather distinctly remember saying I wouldn’t be marrying her, even if she was the last Wix on Earth.”

She huffed, looking Lily over, not bothering to mask her disdain. “I suppose she’ll do. What is she? Sacred Twenty-Eight? Pure-blood? Half-blood?”

Lily cleared her throat, stood up straight to make the most of the five centimetres she had on Walburga, and lifted her chin to look down her nose at her future mother-in-law. “She is Muggle-born, Mrs Black.”

Walburga gave her another once-over. “Absolutely not. I won’t have that sort of trash in my home. Regulus, you will not marry her. If you do, I’ll disown you.” With that declaration, she yanked her arm from the crook of Mr Black’s elbow and stalked away, her dress robes swishing dramatically around her ankles.

“You don’t have the power to do that,” Regulus said softly.

Walburga turned and hissed, “I can do whatever I want,” through her teeth.

“Your mother belongs in a rubbish bin,” Lily told Regulus once Walburga was out of earshot. She startled at the sudden laughter that didn’t come from either of them, and turned to see Mr Black standing beside James and Sirius. “Um. Sorry, Mr Black. I… didn’t mean to say that where you could hear.”

Mr Black smiled ruefully. “I’m sure Sirius and Regulus have mentioned that I don’t much like Walburga. You didn’t say anything that I haven’t already said many times before. And please, call me Orion. You’re going to be my daughter soon enough; there’s no need for formalities.”

“Your bedroom is freezing,” Lily whispered into the darkness.

“No it’s not,” Regulus disagreed. “But if you’re cold, there’re plenty of blankets in the trunk at the foot of the bed.”

“I know. I already have them. I’m still cold.”

“Merlin,” he said, exasperated. “If you go to sleep, you won’t be cold anymore.” Lily heard him shift on his Transfigured bed.

“It doesn’t work that way,” she told the silence a few moments later, but there was no reply; all she could hear was Regulus’ steady breathing. In, out, in, out. She tried to let it lull her to sleep.

She woke up on a sharp exhalation, on the hair-raising beginnings of a scream, the sound so quiet it was loud, and she was so, so cold. She thought she could see the cloud her breath made against the dark air. Lily shivered under the mound of blankets she’d piled onto the bed; the chill was bone deep, blood deep, soul deep, freezing her from the outside in, and in the darkness she could almost see a flash of silver, could almost see a sharp blade slipping softly through ice to coax out rubies that were so cold they felt warm.

She pushed the blankets aside and made her way to the door, grabbing a set of robes that had been tossed haphazardly onto the floor. She flung the robes over her shoulders and slipped out of Regulus’ room. She made her way to the kitchen, down flight after flight of steps, because - as she had learned - the Blacks didn’t know the meaning of minimalism, and that apparently applied to the sizes of their houses and the number of stairs within said houses.

The kitchen was easier to find than she’d expected, and she went about making herself a mug of cocoa. Heat to melt the ice in her veins, to fill the hole in her soul. She put two fingers against the pulse pounding under her jaw, like it was trying to punch its way out of her throat. 

One-two-one-two. The smooth countertop under her palm. The bite of the edge against her lower back. A ceramic handle held steady in her fingers. Steam whispering across her face. One-two-one-two beating a tattoo against her fingertips. The bitter cold melted away, slowly, leaving warmth in its wake. You’ve got a heartbeat, she remembered Vernon murmuring years ago, and it’s keeping you alive. If you can feel the cold, you’re alive. One-two-one-two beat steady, kept beating as the cold receded. You’re alive, it whispered. One-two-one-two. Alive. Alive.

“I’m alive,” she whispered into the dimly lit kitchen, her heartbeat against her throat, her fingers.

“Of course you are,” a familiar voice replied. She turned to the doorway, where Regulus was standing, looking hesitant. He opened his arms, and she moved into them, the mug in her right hand, her heartbeat in her left, Regulus’ body large and warm and safe around her, like Protego and Expecto Patronum all at once.

“You feel so warm.” She pressed the words into his chest, let the heat emanating from him seep into her, let it keep her alive as he scooped her up and held her close to his chest, as he carried her up flight after flight of steps, as he put her in bed and lay down beside her, still alive and burning, a furnace that kept the cold away, dragging her so deep and dark that even dreams couldn’t reach her.

“Are you cold a lot?” Regulus asked carefully, looking out over the people dancing below them. They were all bright colours and tinny laughter; the words of their conversations were swallowed by the music that got lost in the space between.

“Everyone always says that freezing to death is a peaceful way to go,” Lily replied, equally careful. She shrugged carelessly, like talking about the cold didn’t have it creeping up on her, wrapping itself around her shoulders. “Maybe it is, for most people. But the way I’ve experienced it, it was like being stripped bare and dumped in the snow, like your skin is fair game for the frostbite, and you don’t ever get a reprieve. It’s just always cold, always hurting, always silent. It’s the moments they don’t talk about, the moments where you’re freezing to death, but your body is still warm enough inside that you can feel it. You’re freezing from the inside out, but you’re also freezing from the outside in, and you’re caught in that pain, stuck in those moments where you can’t fall asleep because your body’s too alive to surrender, even though the rest of you gave up a long time ago. You’re trapped in that limbo; freezing to death, but alive and awake and able to feel it; freezing to death, but you’re dead already, even though it’s not dead enough to count…”

She took a deep breath. “I used to be cold all the time. It’s… it’s gotten better. I don’t wake up screaming from it every night anymore. I remember warmth, and I can feel it, but it’s always there, ready for me, ready to steal the life away from me while I keep on living, cold and hollow. It’s… the cold is my puppet master, yanking me along, and I’m too dead and wooden to cut my own strings, and no one else can see them.”

He wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her into his body. “I think I’m starting to see them,” he whispered, his lips brushing the upper curve of her ear, setting it alight with fire that burned all the way down to keep her warm.

“What about you?” She asked like she needed to know, like her sanity depended on it. “Are you cold a lot?”

He leaned down to brush his lips across her cheekbone. His mouth was scorching. “I’m never cold.”

She believed him.

“We’re getting married tomorrow,” Lily told Regulus, sliding the delicate onyx pendant back and forth across the silver chain of the necklace Orion had given her.

“Yeah,” Regulus said softly.

“You know you don’t have to do this, right?” she asked, feeling uncertain. “I won’t be angry if you back out. You’re risking a lot for me.”

“You stand to lose far more than I do,” Regulus murmured. “And I don’t mind doing this. It’ll make Sirius happy, and I’ve grown to like you quite a bit since we met.”

“Liking is not loving,” she countered. “I don’t want to trap you in a loveless marriage.”

He smiled down at her, the expression soft and his eyes warm. “Lily. I was planning on asking you on a date before Malfoy came to the office. He just pushed my timeline forwards a bit. But I don’t regret doing this, and I’m not going to leave you to the Ministry’s tender mercies.”

Lily looked at Regulus cautiously, and he lifted her hand to his lips. “You’re kind, intelligent, beautiful,” he told her. “My brother loves you, and you love him. I have come to enjoy your company. I like you, and liking may not be loving but we’ll have all the time in the world to get there. Marrying you won’t be a hardship. It isn’t something I’ll feel trapped in. I hope you won’t feel trapped, either, and I’ll do everything in my power to make you feel safe.”

“Okay,” she whispered, and allowed Regulus to lead her onto the dance floor.

He was beautiful when he danced, she decided, all graceful, sinuous movements as his feet carried them along the cresting and receding waves of the music; he seemed to float as the tones grew lighter, softer, and the ebb and flow of his body became more sensuous when the notes struck low and heavy, slow and syrupy, dark and thick and sweet as time slowed around them, viscous as the music poured itself into the body of its chosen host, strong and warm and overwhelming, like molasses.

She wanted to climb inside his body, wanted to know what it felt like to move so deliberately, so elegantly, so naturally. He moved like tongues of flame: hot and bright, eye catching, exquisitely fluid, dangerous and burning and as nimble as water. She moved like ice: solid, all sharp angles and cold motions, delicate, like she might shatter if enough pressure was applied.

She wanted to climb inside him and melt; she wanted to move like he did, to be fire instead of ice, always warm and burning, so beautiful and dangerous that the desire to touch was almost overwhelming because - ice would shatter under the gentle fluttering of a heartbeat, would break into sharp, piercing shards that buried themselves beneath the skin and froze a person from the inside out - the flames would reform, would fight back and burn.

Fire would meet ice, and the inferno would win.

“James and Sirius are dancing,” Regulus leaned down to whisper.

“Where everyone can see them?” Lily demanded. “Where your mother can see them?”

“Yes,” he breathed, and shifted their position so that she could see.

They really were dancing, and though everyone could see them, it seemed as though only a small minority cared one way or the other. Lily thought they looked rather beautiful together: warm, intimate, in love.

Suddenly, Regulus stopped dancing, and Lily looked up at him, followed his eyes to see a furious Walburga marching towards James and Sirius. She remembered what Sirius had said: she threatened to have any boy I was in a relationship with killed.

She and Regulus exchanged a concerned glance before weaving their way through the crowds of people, trying to reach their friends before Walburga could.

Lucius Malfoy stepped directly into their path, Narcissa - looking as beautiful and untouchable as ever - on his arm. “I hear you’re getting married tomorrow,” he said conversationally. Lily gritted her teeth and stopped, looking over Malfoy’s shoulder to where Walburga was moving steadily closer to James and Sirius.

“We are,” Regulus agreed. “I - do you mind if we continue this later, Lucius? Mother is furious, and aiming for my brother, and I’m worried about his continued survival.”

Malfoy turned to look, his brows furrowing. “She looks ready to murder them.”

“She probably is,” Lily muttered. “Please, let us deal with Walburga. We’ll talk with you later, alright?”

The Malfoys stepped aside, and Lily sighed in relief; she and Regulus hurried over to James and Sirius, reaching them just before Walburga did. She looked as though she wanted to rip their heads off, and Regulus stepped between them. “Mother, you don’t want to cause a scene,” he murmured. “Especially not about something that is accepted by the general public, and has been accepted for centuries.”

Walburga sneered in obvious disgust.

“Do you really want to tell an entire group of people that something they’ve believed for centuries is wrong, Mother?” Sirius asked, his posture tense and his face drawn. “You should know better than anyone that being told that you’re wrong is horrible. You wouldn’t want to go making any enemies with your hasty words, would you?”

Walburga hissed wordlessly at him. She smoothed her dress robes down. “I don’t want to see you at home until you decide to marry a witch, Sirius.”

“After the wedding,” he scoffed, “you won’t have to see me ever again.”

“Good!” she snarled, and stalked away.

Lily snorted. “Merlin she sucks. Your father must have been an incredible parent if you two turned out as well as you did.”

Regulus shrugged. “Yeah, Dad was pretty great when we were growing up. He always used to take us to see his parents and sister, and they were also wonderful. Mother’s side of the family is distinctly less pleasant, but they’re rarely around.”

“As long as I don’t have to deal with them too often, it’ll be fine.”

“After tomorrow, we won’t have to deal with them at all. I know I’m not planning on spending any time with them. Or Mother, if I can help it,” Regulus replied.

“That’s probably for the best,” Malfoy said, appearing out of nowhere. “If she’s like that about two men, she must be a nightmare about Evans.”

“Good luck tomorrow,” Narcissa offered, nodding to them. She barely waited for their reply before she and Lucius swept off into the crowd.

“I think I’m going to head back,” Regulus told her a few moments later. “We’ll have a lot going on tomorrow.”

“I’ll come with you.”

They made their way upstairs, and Regulus stopped outside the bedroom door. “We have to sleep in separate rooms tonight. Will you be okay with that, or should we try to figure something out?”

Lily squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. “I’ll be fine,” she told him, and lifted up on her toes to press a kiss to the corner of his mouth.

Regulus lowered his head, held her chin between two fingers and angled it up, pressed his lips against hers once, twice, three times, soft and warm. “Good night,” he whispered, and walked back down the hallway.

“Good night,” she murmured, tracing her lips. She could still feel the lingering remnants of his kisses keeping the cold away.

They were lying beneath the stars. Lily picked three for her family. She thought they’d be happy for her, thought that they’d be happy she’d married Regulus.

He slipped an arm around her and pulled her to rest on top of him so that she could feel the warmth of him all along her body.

“I love you,” he whispered into the darkness, his words thawing out her frozen flesh, blood, bones. Fire melting ice. A star penetrating the vast, cold emptiness of space.

She smiled up at him in the starlit darkness, crawled up his body to press her lips to his jaw, sank down slowly as she trailed them down, butterfly kisses, dry and soft and chaste, down his neck, across his collar bones, one side to another, up again to the other side of his neck, the hinge of his jaw, his cheek, his mouth; she sank down slowly, mapped his sternum, his ribs, his abdomen, his hip bones…

Star-bright heat flooded through her; it burned low in her stomach and radiated out, shot up and down her spine, into her arms and legs. It burned, warm and beautiful and alive. Her heart pounded in her ears, her throat, her wrists, one-two-one-two, telling her she was alive, and she could feel Regulus’ heartbeat thundering against her lips, her tongue, her palms; she could almost hear it, one-two-one-two, like hers, hot and burning, like an inferno, like fire that melted the ice away, like a warm breath that was drawn sweetly into dead lungs, like a voice, warm and wanting and alive, singing praises, crying out before its body collapsed, like the strings were cut, like the puppet master had lost control, like the marionette had turned from cold, dead, petrified wood into flesh and blood and bone, death to life, she was a real girl… 

One-two-one-two, her heart whispered to another heart, to another soul. One-two-one-two; a steady, everlasting rhythm, joined in harmony, two bodies joined together in life; one a harbinger of death, the other a shield against it; one a vast and empty universe, the other a myriad of bright, burning constellations, and she finally understood what everyone else had known all along.

There had always been enough caskets.