The Three Broomsticks was unusually crowded that day.
«I'll find us a table,» Severus said as soon as they stepped inside, and Lily nodded: splitting up had been their strategy back when they were students too, back when going to the Three Broomsticks meant braving two thirds of the student body all clamoring for a table for the sake of delicious butterbeer. It really was a shame that, not counting Honeydukes, Hogsmeade didn't really have any other places to eat.
«Just a butterbeer,» Severus added over his shoulder as he made his way through the clutter of tables and chairs, looking faintly like the lone, decidedly unamused sober man trying to navigate a late night dance floor.
Lily nodded in return, not sure if he saw it but not about to holler after his disappearing back, and made her way towards the bar.
Thankfully, there were only two people in the line before her, but they appeared to be stuck in the throes of deciding whether they wanted vanilla or chocolate flavored éclairs. Lily resisted the urge to sigh loudly, and scanned the crowd for familiar faces as she waited. No luck: for whatever reason the place appeared to be filled with a disproportionate amount of Quidditch fans, to the point where she had to wonder if there had been a game recently, but apart from that she wasn't even sure who among the bar's patrons were students at Hogwarts and who weren't.
Finally, the agonized couple ahead of her made up their minds (one of each, then share them). The barmaid registered the witch's coefficient at a yellow 24, and then it was Lily's turn.
«Two butterbeers and a waffle,» she ordered.
The barmaid, whose name Lily was fairly certain was Rosmerta, disappeared into the bathroom. Although, she couldn't help but wonder if it really was Rosmerta, as it was such an over-the-top designated barmaid name that she feared she'd just made it up considering the noise level the last time the woman had introduced herself. Either way, the woman believed to be Rosmerta reappeared balancing the tray in her hands. Behind her, on the still-swinging door, hung a portrait of Albus Dumbledore, smiling warmly down at Lily through half-moon spectacles and an immense chestnut red beard.
«That's five sickles and four knuts. Peccatamostra,» the barmaid said, measuring Lily as she rifled through her wallet. Yellow 4. The woman eyes widened, and Lily shrugged slightly in turn. «I know, it somehow got lower.»
Picking up the tray, she then went to find Severus.
It appeared they'd been lucky, as he had managed to find them a table by the window. Lily smiled in approval as she sat down. «Nice table,» she said, holding out the tray so he could grab his butterbeer.
«Yes, I thought so,» he agreed.
Companionable silence reigned as she nibbled on her waffle and he sipped his drink, as though this really was just another Hogsmeade outing after a long week of studying and it hadn't been over a year since they had last seen each other.
She wondered why she'd let it become that long.
It wasn't that they used to see each other constantly, Lily spent most of her time with Mary and Marlene, increasingly so as the years went on, but Severus and Lily would sit together without fail when one or both was facing particularly daunting homework, and Hogsmeade trips just didn't feel complete without grabbing a butterbeer together. He was always in the peripheral, passing by her in the hallways and nodding from his table in the Great Hall, a familiar presence she could grab by the arm for a chat or a library session whenever she liked.
In a way, she thought, things hadn't really changed between them when they left the Muggle suburbia and began attending Hogwarts.
She considered him one of the best friends she had, easy.
How, then, had she let an entire year fly by without so much as a floo call?
(And, had they not made the same career choice independently of each other and then gotten into the same division, how much time would have passed until they met again?)
She'd like to blame the complete change of pace that she found herself in when she was no longer in a boarding school, or else the fact that she had had so much to do, but the truth was that she hadn't given it conscious thought. For as long as she'd known him, Severus had never been more than a few hundred meters away, she had missed him in the past year, a distant hollow feeling, but she had never moved that to the forefront of her mind and actually done anything about it. And, in spite of the fact that it does takes two to tango, she couldn't help feeling that their accidental alienation was more on her than on him.
She wondered how he felt about it. He didn't seem upset, or even to take note of this being their first sit-down since graduating. As it was, sitting there right opposite him with nothing to rest her eyes on but his face, she felt at perfect ease, like no time had passed at all.
Perhaps that was the magic of childhood friends.
She tilted her head and looked at him, really looked at him. Up close and with no one trying to blow her up she could see now that he had lost some of the baby fat in the past year. His hair, stiff and greasy as ever, was longer, almost reaching down to his shoulders, and she could see the beginnings of the wrinkles that are born of frowning too much on his brow.
The change was not extreme, but though she knew he wouldn't appreciate it, she couldn't help feeling a stab of concern. She pressed her lips together, suddenly unsure of where to start a conversation.
Perhaps he'd been seized by the same awkwardness, because in the next moment he blurted, «Why would you do this?»
She blinked at him in surprise. «Do what?»
He picked up his wand and cast some nonverbal spell, she figured one to keep people from listening in. «Become an Auror,» he said after a second.
Lily frowned. «Oh,» she said, and brought her hands to warm themselves around the mug. It was a question she kept asking herself as well, she doubted she'd be able to give him a particularly satisfying answer. «I don't know, I don't have a set purpose, if that's what you mean… mostly I think that it's curiosity. ALBUS is, it's intriguing… to say the least.» She shrugged slightly, letting her shoulders communicate her uncertainty for her.
Something flickered across Severus face, driving his eyebrows down into a frown and turning concern into disapproval. «So ALBUS is what, an itch you want to scratch?»
Lily stared, «What? No! No, it's- it's more that I don't want to do anything else,» she said, slowly, weighing each word before saying it and still finding that it wasn't quite right. She sighed in frustration.
Severus raised an eyebrow and waited for her to elaborate.
She folded her waffle together, smoothing the jam as evenly as she could as she continued, «Remember when we were children and you'd tell me about the Wizarding World?" she said, thinking back to those early childhood days in Spinner's End where a beaming, proud Severus would tell her stories about a number stamped on your aura, with 100 acting as the border line between committing a crime or not. About different levels of stress sorted into a rainbow of different colors that could be interpreted and acted upon by the omniscient and benign ALBUS who watched over them all. "A world where there were no laws, because laws weren't necessary? Because of the sacrifice made by a single man?»
Severus' lips curled upwards into a small smile. «I remember having a hard time convincing you.»
At first she'd thought he was having her on, even when he brought her an edition of the Daily Prophet with a feature article explaining «How to lower your coefficient by 10 points!».
She rolled her shoulders inward, her brow furrowing in thought as she glanced towards the ceiling, trying to find the right way to explain it. «I tried to imagine what it would be like, but I had too many questions for you to know all the answers, maybe even too many questions for there to be answers to any of them. I just couldn't imagine it until I I came to the Wizarding World and saw it for myself, and even then…»
«Still not convinced?» Severus asked.
She pressed her lips together and nodded. «It's like… the mindset, the frame of mind you have to be in to live like this… it requires absolute trust in ALBUS.»
A corner of Severus' mouth quirked upwards at that.
In her mind, unsaid, she thought about the science fiction books she would devour as a child, about the pictures of seemingly perfect worlds they painted where the worms and the horrors were bubbling just beneath the surface. Where there seemed to be some sort of universal cosmic entity in place balancing the lever, making sure that mankind's advances came at some terrible cost.
She felt disturbed that she had yet to discover anything amiss with ALBUS, for all intents and purposes it was exactly what Severus had told her it was all those years ago for better and for worse, and she could not help but feel that if she turned the right rock, looked at ALBUS from the right angle, she'd learn that Soylent Green is people…
This, she thought to herself, was why she needed to spend way less time with late night movie marathons and coffee and way more time outside in the sun, with people.
«But I've read everything I could, asked everyone who would listen to me ramble, and I still don't know what ALBUS is,» she continued slowly, that endless frustration and curiosity mounting that had always kept her late in professor Flitwick's office climbing to the surface again, «I don't know what it measures in people, or how someone can fluctuate between being honest and a criminal from one week to the next… or why my own coefficient is so low, for that matter.»
«And becoming an Auror is supposed to help you figure that out?» he asked, and she appreciated the lack of skepticism in his tone. This, his ability to listen, was one of the things she liked most about him.
She pressed her lips together, took a sip of butterbeer while she wondered how to phrase her next point. «It's the closest I can get to seeing ALBUS in practice,» she finally said.
«It's also the one career in the Wizarding World that ruins lives.» he said, and she would have berated him for being melodramatic if he didn't look perfectly serious.
«You really think that?» she asked.
Severus' eyes lit up in anger and his mouth twisted into an angry grimace, «You almost got blown up today, Lily, within the first five minutes of starting this job! If that doesn't tell you how dangerous it can be I don't know what can. And that's not to mention your coefficient, Lily, it may be low now-»
«-Famously low-» she interjected, thinking back to James, Sirius and Peter spending most of their sixth and seventh years trying to corrupt Evans.
Severus paid no mind as his volume increased to a level that would have had the whole pub turning heads if he hadn't cast privacy wards, letting go of his butterbeer so that his hand could fly through angry and accusing hand gestures, «but it will not stay that way- hell, even if it might, in what world is it worth the risk?»
She was starting to feel not quite like a scolded child, but certainly talked down to and asked in a manner far calmer than she felt, «Why do you do it, then? If it's so terrible?»
«Because-» Severus began before he cut himself off. The anger faded from his face, replaced by a certain hesitance, possibly even apprehension, as he lowered his voice to a quiet confession, «Lily, my coefficient has risen by 15 points in the past year. I'm at 70.»
Her eyes widened. «What?»
Severus nodded, looking aggrieved. «And I'm pretty sure I haven't been yellow for months, never mind white.»
«I- you-» she was stunned. She took a few seconds to try and gather herself before she spoke again, «what are you going to do?» she asked.
Severus chuckled mirthlessly. «My therapist wants me to take a sabbatical to search my feelings for ALBUS, but- well. I'm pretty sure that would only increase my coefficient.»
From what she'd heard of the serene ALBUS getaways, where people went to get away from the stress of everyday life and hopefully lower their coefficients, it would indeed most likely serve to make Severus feel anything but harmonious.
Severus chuckled again, bitingly. Lily pressed her lips together at the sound of it. Resorting to self-deprecation was his go-to defense method, and it always made her feel like she was being shut out. «I'm sorry if I upset you, but-»
She shook her head no. «No, goodness, Sev, no, you should never have to worry about something stupid like upsetting me!» she paused, smiled, and reached over the table to take hold of his hand even when he stiffened at the contact, as he always had and probably always would. «I'm glad you told me, your trust means a lot, our friendship means a lot. I'm glad that hasn't changed.»
Severus smiled wryly, and she felt her own grow triumphant at having cheered him up. «It's been a while, hasn't it?»
She pressed her lips together. «I'm sorry, time just slipped away from me… the past year has gone by so quickly.»
A shadow went over his eyes. «Guess the same thing happened on my end,» he said quietly after a moment and picked up his butterbeer, letting her hand fall to the table.
She watched as he emptied it in a few big gulps. It felt oddly like a forbidding gesture, as if so long as the butterbeer was in place, shielding him, she could not make conversation.
She was relieved when he finally set it down.
«I still don't think you should be an auror,» he stated, surprising her.
«Oh, for the love of- seriously, Severus? Seriously?»
«Yes, seriously,» he said, and leaned forwards over the table to fix her with his black eyes. Those eyes were always intense, you could say intensity was their modus operandi. It was one of the things about him that she'd grown used to over the years, even learned to appreciate, but now they grew darker, more focused. She felt pinned by them, like a butterfly to a collector's tray.. «I've only been at it for a year, but I've already outlasted both of my contemporaries, and I have…this job is not good for people, and as your friend I am not going to shower you with false approval just because I'm scared of tension or- or awkwardness. I'm not going to- to condone you walking down this path!» he shouted, cheeks flushed.
Breathless under the weight of his gaze and his words, she could only sit fixated in her chair and try to summon words. «I guess you don't have to,» she finally said in a quiet voice.
He shook his head at her, and for a moment she could have sworn his eyes glistened. She felt her stomach tighten in turn, and now, sitting there and listening to his warning - his plea - and knowing that it wouldn't change her mind, wouldn't even budge from a decision she'd made before she'd even graduated, she felt worse than a scolded child, she felt like a fool, one who refused to listen to sound, well-intended advice simply because she had a childhood fixation. It was enough to make her wish she would change her mind, if only for his sake.
He said nothing, and finally, tentatively, she said, «Guess working together every day is going to be a bit awkward, huh.»
She was rewarded with an unhappy snort. «As much as I can make it,» he said. She hoped he didn't mean that: being colleagues with her best friend was sort of a dream come true.
Speaking of… «I'm sure Lockhart will be happy to help you there.»
Severus rolled his eyes in exasperation. Another point to Lily, cheerer of depressed friends. «Half the time I can't even believe he's real.»
«Has he been an enforcer for long?» she wondered. The man couldn't possibly be very experienced, but something about the man had seemed intrinsic to the auror headquarters, as though he'd always been there and always would be. Unreal might just be a great term for the man.
«Almost two years, now,» Severus said. «He came in with a coefficient of 168 - the lower limit for someone to become an enforcer is 150 - although if someone becomes an enforcer and then dip below that they are allowed to stay - and he has only been creeping upwards since. I think it's 230 now.»
Lily gaped at him. «230?» she whispered.
Severus grinned. «And he seems so harmless, I know. And in a way I think he is, he's too incompetent to be a real threat to anyone. He's just… he's living in his own world. And this world happens to be one where laws and morals are falling away like rocks off a cliff until nothing remains but his narcissism.»
«Doesn't he have a therapist?» she asked. Everyone was supposed to go to theirs at least twice a year, more often (though at their own bill) if they were having trouble with their coefficients. She'd assumed the same applied to enforcers: criminals, after all, had mandatory weekly sessions.
«Oh, they all do, unfortunately he spends those sessions yapping on about how successful he is and trying to seduce the therapist. Or, if it's a male therapist, he'll give them dating advice.»
«Sounds like he changes therapists a lot.» It wasn't unheard of, but the general consensus was that stability leads to serenity leads to a low coefficient, and, following that line of thought, changes may be detrimental to one's own wellbeing.
«No more than Riddle does.» Severus smirked, and from his expression she got a sense that however much he disliked Lockhart, he disliked Riddle more.
She frowned. What little she had seen of Riddle had made her curious about the man, or more specifically, she wondered how someone as put together and well-adjusted as he appeared to be could have an out of control coefficient. Still, she didn't want to pry into the man's affairs, and asking Severus felt like just that.
However, Severus took the decision out of her hands with his next words. «In a way it's good that you're here, because I've been trying to get him transferred. Not that I approve of your being here, of course-» he gave her a look, both knowing and half expecting her to interrupt, before continuing, «but the man is… not like the others.»
«You mean the other enforcers?»
Severus nodded. «They may all be criminals, but Black, Skeeter and Lockhart aren't more than that either. If they were released into society tomorrow I'm sure they would make a headache for everyone, but I doubt they would do much worse than make us pull a few late nights. They, at least, were a part of society at one point. Riddle has never been.»
Lily's frown deepened, and she felt her half-formed resolve to let Riddle maintain his privacy drown in curiosity. «What do you mean?» she asked. Was Riddle an immigrant?
«He's a Muggleborn like you, for one thing. Unlike you, however, he was in an orphanage until he came to Hogwarts, and when he did he was found to have a coefficient of 235.»
Lily, who had made the mistake of taking a sip of her butterbeer, choked on it. «What?» she wheezed. «235? At eleven?»
Severus nodded. «Yes, his is the highest coefficient ever to be measured on a child. Needless to say, the allowance for minors to continue their education under supervision didn't apply to him, and he was put into intense rehabilitation.»
His eyes were distant as he told the story, caught up in it, as if he'd lived it himself. Lily, for her part, felt distant too.
Before joining the Wizarding World, back when it was more of a concept than than reality, she had been afraid of what her coefficient would be. As Severus described it there was nothing criminals could actually do about it, and she had not been able to help fearing that her own coefficient might be something unmanageable, that the Sorting Ceremony would be her end. Her fear that she would be carted off to wherever criminal children went was not alleviated until the hat read violet 8 above her head, and even then she had never quite been able to shake it.
She could picture a young Tom Riddle walking up to the stool in front of everyone at the Great Hall, placing the Sorting Hat on his head and having his life be ruined in a matter of seconds by something he couldn't control.
And darkly, to her great shame, she was glad it hadn't been her.
«Over the next five years he received two hours of therapy daily, was prescribed a meditative and physical exercise routine for another two, and of course the biweekly integration classes at Hogwarts for when he wasn't chanting his coefficient into submission.
They tried everything, therapy, exercise, all the tried and true methods touted by all the healers but his coefficient just kept rising until it was off the bloody charts. He hit 300 at fifteen. Fifteen, Lily.»
Severus leaned forwards, almost conspiratorially, «That's not the worst of it, though, the worst was that he became like a disease. Not only are there records upon records of him destroying anything valuable in sight but his tutors, his therapists, their coefficients would crawl upwards inch by inch. Most would quit before the damage was done, but he's turned more than one into a criminal, simply by talking to them on a weekly basis. And not one of them has ever recovered.»
Lily could only sit there in incredulity. «I can't believe it,» she said, turning the memory of Tom Riddle over in her head. He had not seemed ordinary, that much was true, but she had ascribed that to charisma and intelligence, not what was starting to sound like criminal insanity.
He was starting, she realized, to sound like Hannibal Lecter, who for all that he had been captured gave the impression that he was only behind bars because he tolerated them, because life as the mouse doing experiments on gullible scientists was keeping him entertained. Who knew exactly what to say, and not just because he could read people (literally, in Riddle's case, and she was still trying to gauge exactly how creepy that was) but because at some point along the way he had figured out how people worked, had seen the cheat sheet and now knew exactly where to apply pressure to make people think and feel the way he wanted them to.
A shiver ran up her spine, and she felt a stab of gratitude towards ALBUS in spite of herself that Riddle had been scouted before he would have been set loose upon the Wizarding World.
Severus nodded again. «His file is… long. You should probably read it yourself, but as it took me an entire weekend I'll give you the long and short of it.
After he hit 300 rehabilitation was... no longer a priority. I believe ALBUS decided that he was to be an enforcer, for his education went from preparing him for the day he became a free man to forging a soldier for the auror department. He was removed entirely from Hogwarts, and when he turned seventeen he was transferred to the auror department where he became an enforcer.
He was put in our division in London straight away, on what was then Minerva McGonagall's team. I believe they knew each other from his integration classes, and she seems to be just about the only person he doesn't itch to stab in the throat.
Moreover, unlike today's pitiful performance, he is undeniably gifted, so much so that ALBUS decreed special allowances to be made in terms of his continued education. All enforcers are supposed to continue to improve themselves, that is, so that they may better serve ALBUS, but special resources were and continue to be pumped into Riddle. More, unlike some, Riddle takes full advantage and it is turning him into something formidable.»
Then, as if he wasn't dishing on their terrifying sociopath colleague's harrowing past, or maybe because of that, he reached over the table to snatch a heart from her waffle, shrugging apologetically when she raised her eyebrow at him. «Thief.» she stated, glad for the reprieve. He winked at her and smiled as he chewed, before he grew serious again.
«Ironic, isn't it,» he said, «that in attempting to make the ultimate enforcer ALBUS has turned an ignorant child into something far worse than the department's regular brand of chronic menaces.»
Whatever Lily had been planning to say next was forgotten, and she could only stare at her sole surviving waffle heart as she tried to reconcile the sardonic, enigmatic man from earlier that day with the human weapon Severus described. She hadn't looked at him, not really, there had been too much going on: but his eyes stayed with her.
She thought back to the moment they had first made eye contact, when she'd stiffened and stopped under his gaze and some indiscernible inexplicable feeling or thought had passed between them. It hadn't been pleasant moment, and she wondered what exactly he'd gotten out of her mind, but she hadn't felt any genuine malice. What Severus was describing sounded more like an intelligent beast than a man, more than a simple wolf in sheep's clothing but something infinitely more dangerous and cruel than even that. However, while she had seen something in Riddle in that moment, perhaps something dangerous, it had not been evil.
Severus too appeared to be lost in thought, though Lily could not begin to guess what he was thinking. She never had been able to, not even when they were children, and it often led to her being caught off guard by whatever he said next.
This, she discovered, was one of those times.
«Do you have a back-up wand?» he asked suddenly, startling her.
She stared at him for a moment as she tried to figure out what he meant, «…to replace the one I lost. Yes, as it happens, yes I do - well, we do. Marlene got herself a new one for her job at the apothecary, and we've been keeping her old one just in case. She's my roommate,» she added at Severus' puzzled expression, cringing internally. He'd missed so much.
If Severus was thinking the same thing he did not let on, settling for nodding instead. «That's good,» he said.
«It works quite well with me, so this shouldn't be a problem,» she continued.
Severus only nodded again. «And if we can't get your old one back, the Department will reimburse you. Eventually.» another small, soft smile made its way to his lips as he looked at her, «They tend to take their sweet time when it comes to this kind of thing,» he said.
Lily grinned, and popped that last, neglected waffle heart into her mouth. «I won't worry, then,» she said, and Severus shook his head slightly, still smiling.
By some mutually agreed upon cue that went deeper than the finished waffle it seemed their little lunch date was over then. Lily threw her bag over her shoulder, while Severus tied a scarf around his throat, and then they got up to leave.
«What's your address?» Severus asked when they were out of the building, and Lily blinked at him. «For Apparition,» he added hurriedly.
She ahh-ed. «That's not necessary, I was just going to use the Floo. Our flat's chimney is directly connected to the network, it's faster than you taking me to the street outside,» she said.
He looked slightly mortified. «Right- right. Well, I was just…»
«It's just that Marlene insisted we get wired up, might as well use the connection now that I have to so it's not a complete waste of galleons, otherwise-»
«I get it,» Severus said, and his smile was the desperate smile of someone wishing more than anything to escape his current situation.
«I'd love to have you over sometime,» Lily said anyway, in the hopes of salvaging what had somehow become a very awkward chat.
«Yes,» Severus nodded. «Sounds good. Yes.»
They stopped in front of Hogsmeade's official floo chimney, where Lily exchanged a knut for a dosage of floo powder before turning back to him.
«See you around, then,» she said. «Tomorrow, in fact.»
He nodded. «Tomorrow, yes. See you,» he said, and before he could turn away, Lily had stepped up and given him a brief hug.
She stepped away and into the fireplace before he could say anything, turning only to smile and say «I have missed you, you know,» to him before green flames obscured his face and whisked her away into the hot, disorienting flurry that would take her home.
A/N: I intended to make this chapter about more things, but what's not to love about almost five thousand words' worth of Lily and Severus gossiping over butterbeer? There is action yet to come, I do so swear.
Big thanks again to The Carnivorous Muffin, a wonderful person and beta who is always ready to help a girl out.