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Chapter 14: Midnight Oil
James Potter’s mind was ravaged.
Harry was seventeen and James twenty-one, and it would only be a matter of years before Harry lapped his father in age. He would be older than both of his parents, but it seemed like a milestone that had been centuries in coming; it felt like James and Lily had been dead always, and Harry had just been waiting to see if he would survive long enough to feel what their lifespan had been like. Twenty-one years to fulfill one lifetime. Middle-aged at ten years old.
James was now certain that Harry would make it to this milestone, and that he’d even double it. Triple it. Lily and James Potter would always be little more than children while Harry grew steadily older until his decline. His children could have memories of him that Harry himself did not have of his own parents. In this far future, Harry would feel real to his children, even after his death. There would be a voice and a memory to match the face, a promise that he lived as more than just a symbol of war.
This was what James wanted for Harry. This was what Lily wanted for Harry. But Lily could not see that she was slowly destroying her chances of meeting her son. This year she had been spared, but what about next year? There was only so much strength left in James; there was only so far that he could stretch, pretending to be unaffected, supporting his wife’s decisions unconditionally. She was flawed and he loved her for it, but he could not submit himself to death. This was not a selfish wish for himself, but for the one he loved most.
James must live long enough to meet his son, to shake his hand and embrace him, because Lily might not see that day. One of Harry’s parents must be present to fill him with the love that Harry’s life had been lacking for so many years, to bridge across those burns and rebuild their family. This was what they owed to their son. And because of this, James must not lose the tournament.
He also must not lose his wife. He could feel his life pulling into different directions, into tiny, painful pieces. He ordered himself to keep his two-person family together just until Harry came – and then he would be able to sigh with relief. He would be able to exhale. Everything would finally be perfect. James was no stranger to loss, and to the dark feelings that kept loss company. He watched his best friend rot in Azkaban for thirteen years for a crime he didn’t commit. He watched Pettigrew get away with murder. He watched Voldemort hunt his son, year after year…
James was so, so proud of him. The knowledge of what Harry had to endure throughout his life brought tears to his eyes, not out of anguish but out of triumph. His infant son, small enough to cradle in the crook of his arm…savior of the world.
James would not lose Harry again.
He thought that no one could hate Snape as much as Sirius did, but James was beginning to surpass Sirius in this. Personally, James always thought that Sirius’s anger towards Snape was unreasonable, exaggerated, to publicly amplify his hatred for Slytherins. Sirius wanted everyone to know that he hated Slytherins so that he wouldn’t be tarred with the Black brush. Snape was the biggest Slytherin of them all, so he bore the brunt of Sirius’s reflected prejudice.
But none of that was neither here nor there, tonight.
“Pudding was wonderful,” Lily called out to Marlene as the latter woman made her way down the drive. “Thanks again!” Stars had begun to twinkle through the dusk, a sense of peace settling over the village. Everyone was drifting downward with it, beginning to feel relaxed for the first time all the day, sliding back into chairs with full stomachs and satisfied yawns.
Marlene had finally left after having dinner at the Potters’, which was traditional for every Tuesday, but Lily was still extremely wound-up. She knew that James, despite the friendly smile he wore while Marlene was present, wasn’t exactly looking forward to this moment, either. Their buffer was gone.
Lily tiptoed into the kitchen, collecting dishes and placing them one by one into the steel basin for washing. Maybe if she was quiet enough, James would just fall asleep in his armchair and she wouldn’t have to deal with him quite yet. She wouldn’t even have to wake him up…in the morning she could insist over breakfast, James’s voice drowned out by the wireless, that she’d shaken his shoulders and yelled in his ears, but that he had stubbornly kept on dozing. She might even pretend to be annoyed about it.
Footsteps echoed off the kitchen linoleum and Lily closed her eyes. Damn it.
There was silence save for the tinny peals of water spurting from the tap over metal pots and pans, and then James said, “The dishes can wait until tomorrow.”
Lily half-turned, making a face. “There’s all sorts of baked-on grease. I’ve got to scrub it out before the pots stain.”
Never shifting his gaze from Lily’s eyes, James flicked his wand at the soapy basin. The dishes were instantly pristine.
“Was going to do that,” Lily mumbled under her breath.
James frowned – not an unpleasant frown, but the sort of frown he made whenever he was poring over something in his mind, sifting through every grain of it in search of an answer. He then reached out and placed his wand on the kitchen table, expression guarded.
After a bit of reluctance, Lily withdrew her own wand and slid it across the sideboard. This was a preventative measure, the voluntary disarming, as they’d experienced some arguments before that ended with furniture being blasted apart. “Fine,” she huffed, crossing her arms. She wasn’t ready to talk. She wasn’t even ready to argue. She’s been spending all of her time flicking between throwing murderous glances at James, banging every cabinet within reach and thinking of all the ways she could hurt him in retaliation to deliberately knocking her out of the Devil’s Duel; and locking herself inside various loos around town because she couldn’t stand the sight of his face and was frequently overcome with the urge to throw things.
At this moment, she couldn’t bring herself to hate him, no matter how much she wanted to.
“What are you going to do?” he inquired softly. The lamp behind him dimmed, its bright yellow glow fading to rosy twilight. Lily knew enough about the house’s magic and how everything inside it responded to emotions to infer that James was worried about the answer he might receive to his question.
She would be honest, of course. They did not lie to each other about important matters. “I don’t know.”
James nodded as if he’d expected her to say that, and the lamp behind him blew out altogether. He looked down at the floor, unable to ask anything else, afraid that he’d hear something that would pain him. Lily waltzed forward through the darkened kitchen, touching his cheek with the back of her left hand. His eyes slowly lifted to meet hers, uncertain. Anxious.
“It doesn’t matter,” she told him tenderly. “Whatever’s going on inside his head – it makes no difference. I’m with you. I always have been and I always will be.”
James nodded again. Suds were beginning to overflow from the sink, but both of them ignored it. “I’m sorry for throwing you out,” he said at last, trying very hard to make his apology sound sincere even though he knew he wouldn’t have taken back his actions even if he could have. “It isn’t that I don’t trust you…”
“You don’t trust him,” Lily finished simply.
“No, I do not. And I have absolutely no reason to.”
Lily sucked in a breath, turning her head to appraise the window. “He saved Harry, James. I know you don’t like him, but he’s part of the reason why Harry’s still alive.”
James drew back as though he’d been slapped. “What, you think he’s some kind of hero? He’s the reason why Harry’s been in danger all his life. He’s the one who repeated the prophecy to Voldemort and marked our son for death.”
“He didn’t know it was Harry. The prophecy just referred to a boy –”
“A baby. It referred to a baby. Even if it wasn’t Harry, would that still be any better? He gave Voldemort that information freely, completely aware that this would mean the murder of a child. He knew exactly what Voldemort would do with that knowledge.”
“I don’t want to fight about this.”
“I don’t understand how you can look at him in any sort of way except disgust.”
“He was my best friend once.” Lily rubbed his sleeve consolingly, but he shook her off. “He made the wrong choice, there’s no doubt. He did terrible, terrible things. But then he spent the rest of his life trying to make up for it. He protected Harry even though he would have been killed for it if anyone found out.”
“Protected Harry?” James spat, his eyes shining. He blinked; they were burning, betraying just how much her words were hurting him. “Is that what you call refusing to continue with Occlumency lessons because of a personal grudge? Using his position as a Hogwarts professor to bully him mercilessly?” Lily tried to speak but James plowed on, tone ringing with sarcasm. “Please. He made his life a living hell. He was mean to Harry, there’s no way around it. Ever since he stepped foot in Hogwarts, Harry had to put up with a teacher who hated him just because he didn’t like his father.”
“I’m aware of that, but –”
“And Frank and Alice’s son, as well! You’ve heard what Charity Burbage has said. You've seen the amount of times Alice has been in tears because of Trelawney's visions about Snape having a go at Neville for no reason at all. It’s disgusting.”
“I’m not saying that he didn’t do some horrible things –”
“You make it sound like he ever stopped doing horrible things!” James exclaimed. The lamp spurred to life, brighter than ever. The paint on the walls began to perceptibly crack. “Eleven-year-old-boys, Lily. He bullied children. And he never stopped. He continued to abuse his authority as a teacher by getting away with saying whatever he wanted, doing whatever he felt like. He was cruel and unfair and I…” He balled up one hand into a fist, cheeks flushing with rage. “I hate him for it. I want so badly to hurt him for it. You cried all the time because of how Petunia and Vernon were treating Harry, but Snape was every bit as vile as they were.”
“I know,” Lily replied quietly. “It’s inexcusable.”
“And that’s not even the half of it,” James went on, disregarding her concurrence. He leaned back against the table, letting it shoulder his weight. “Now he’s here and I keep seeing him everywhere. The nerve of him, walking past our house... He’s obviously looking for you, and what am I supposed to do about it? I can’t stop him. I can’t stop you from speaking to him, either, because that’s not the kind of man I want to be. It’s your choice, Lily, whether or not you talk to this…to this scum who is in part responsible for our deaths, who taunted our child without consequence. To be honest, I’m just terrified about what he’s going to say to you. How you’re going to react.” He was pacing now, half-delirious.
“And that’s why you had me eliminated from the races, isn’t it?”
“I took you out to keep you safe.” James rubbed one of his elbows in absent agitation. “I’m not a fighter like you are. The odds of me being eliminated before you were so high…I knew that I might only have this one round to do it. It was now or never. But it was more than just keeping you safe. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to keep him away from you. I was following you around most of the time we were on the ship. I saw that slippery snake try to talk to you and I just lost it.”
“I don’t need protection –” she began.
“He doesn’t deserve it, you know.” He cupped Lily’s face in his palms, hot with sweat. “To talk to you. To breathe your air. To look at you the way he wants to.”
She blushed and immediately hated herself for it. White noise filled the room, draining away the sounds of water pooling on the tiles and ice inexplicably frosting over the windows with lacy snowflake patterns.
“What would you have had me do? He’s in love with my wife. He’s in love with you and everyone knows it. Everyone. I’m not so foolish as to think that you’ve never considered him. But it’s humiliating to hear people talk about it.” His words were barely audible; he placed one hand on the small of her back, hovering close to murmur at her ear. “We’re living in forever here, and forever is a long time to be with one person and one person only. Don’t you think I realize that?”
Lily stared at a mirror on the wall behind him, the disquiet from this topic causing perspiration to prickle at her pores. She’d never been more thankful in her life that James wasn’t a Legilimens. In truth, she was secretly flattered that Severus still harbored such powerful feelings for her. It was despicable, she knew; she wished she wasn’t so pleased about this, and felt doubly guilty because of it, but there was no denying that it made her feel somewhat special to be the object of someone else’s steadfast affections.
One could only wonder why he’d marked her as a target to distort into whatever he wanted at will, and what exactly it was about Lily that resonated so strongly with him, but none of it mattered. She did not love him and she did not want him, and may lightning strike her for sinfully enjoying Severus’s love, anyway. If she could trust herself to dwell on it, she might discover that she’d found the memory of Severus Snape to be marginally more attractive now, if only because of the aftershocks of learning how deeply he cared for her. Shameful that it was, his love for her had begun to distort her memory of him, too. It was her darkest secret, her reservoir of love whenever she felt it to be lacking in her life.
She blinked at her reflection in the mirror and was startled to see the other person blink back.
“He’s going to try to work his way under your skin,” James said, lightly kissing her neck. He wiped away a lock of hair that had fallen over her shoulder, lips turning up into a smile of relief when he felt her pulse quicken. At least she still belonged to him, for now.
Lily swallowed. “He might.”
“You’re going to itch. You’re going to second-guess yourself. He might start to seem appeal –”
“No,” Lily interrupted, grasping James’s shirt. “He was never an option. There’s nothing he can say to me that will change my mind. Believe me, he spent years trying, and it never worked. It’s only ever been you.” James wiped away the tears from her eyes with his thumbs. “You’re all that I want, and don't let me forget it.”
On the other side of town, Fred Weasley couldn’t sleep. He flipped over onto his side, always expecting to see the old carriage clock that had once been his grandfather’s, but instead greeting a plain bedside table with a stack of complimentary books on it that he hadn’t even skimmed the titles of. It was odd, and a bit unsettling, that he found the room largely comfortable even though it didn’t remotely resemble his old bedroom in Diagon Alley. It seemed sacrilegious, somehow, to become at ease with his surroundings.
From a glimpse he’d managed of Cedric’s room while the latter had left his door ajar on wash day, most of the rooms in the boardinghouse were quite similar. Cedric had given his space some minor alterations since he’d been living there for so long and needed for it to suit him, but mostly he left it exactly as it was upon his arrival, as if he wished to leave it unaffected for the next person to use someday. There were no portraits or posters plastered to the walls. One could easily believe that Cedric didn’t live there at all, and Room Fourteen belonged to no one.
Fred’s eyes roved around in the semi-darkness, elbow bent behind his head with one hand pressed between a down pillow and the blue-and-white-striped sheets. It was soft and cool, providing a pleasant sinking sensation. That should have lulled him right to sleep, as the bedding was a far cry better than his springy mattress back home, riddled with holes and busted joints as it was, but Fred would have given just about anything to be lying awake in that back-killing bed than the one he currently tossed and turned in. There was no movement from upstairs, no last stragglers of the evening trundling through corridors. It was still – too still. Fred scratched an itch on his arm that he might have imagined, the scratching so loud in the quiet building that his neighbors might have heard it. He sighed and almost went deaf.
His stockings had come loose, the toes twisted up into a tangle of sheets that trailed over the foot of the bed and onto the floor. It was the little mistakes like this that Fred needed, that he found himself looking for amidst all of the transparent perfection in this tiny, claustrophobic little world. He felt constantly in danger of complacency, of accepting the permeating feeling of uselessness, of being without purpose or direction. How did people live in the months of July to April, when the tournament wasn’t at the forefront of everyone’s minds? What did they do? And more importantly: How could anyone truly contribute to a community that was, in reality, magically self-sufficient?
Vesper Lovegood had designed everything in Fred’s bedroom with the unknown tastes of faceless unisex guests in mind, from the vase of freesia to the dressing table with its round, ivory knobs inlaid with gold flecks. There was a narrow fireplace along one wall that had been stoppered up with boards years ago when a third floor had been added on top of Fred’s level, covering up the chimney. He’d snooped around inside it on his second day in Cliodna’s Clock, finding only an antique tea kettle inside a dusty cauldron filled with ashes.
Fred knew that the source of his sleeplessness was probably due to the second round of the races, which was only two days away. He’d been serious about winning when he signed up, but somehow didn’t think that he would have to worry about how to get to Round Five. In the back of his mind, after viewing the roster of ten contenders, he’d guessed that he could make it to Round Four if he really tried. The fifth round, however, presented a heap of anxiety. Now, with Lily Potter eliminated, he might actually make it to the prize.
He wasn’t sure how he felt about it yet.
His mother would be losing her mind if she knew what he’d gotten himself involved in, that much was plain. She’d be following him around everywhere, alternating between boxing him in the ears with her criticisms and sulking silently. Bill and Charlie would think he was asking for trouble; Percy would think he was a downright idiot, which perhaps he was…Ginny would be rooting him on, followed by a tentative Ron, and an even more tentative Arthur. The only person Fred knew without a shadow of a doubt would understand why Fred had made such a reckless move, was George. George, Fred sensed, would have done the exact same thing.
Since George was not right there with him, however, Fred found himself in want of company who could understand his predicament exactly. His two options, as he saw it, were Colin and Cedric. Since Fred was wary of making conversation with Colin, seeing as how it might boil down to the two of them in Round Five, he decided that Cedric would be much more suitable. While he would inevitably be dueling Cedric sooner or later, it was an established fact that neither would be directly responsible for the other’s death. This made Diggory the safest option.
“He’s no George,” Fred mumbled to himself, extricating his feet from a spare duvet that had somehow squirmed its way down to his ankles, “but he’s all right.”
He fancied a distraction, or better yet, for something new to spark his interest. Beyond anything else, Fred Weasley was feeling bored. With the hopes that Cedric might be able to tell him something that would occupy his thoughts later whilst he tried to sleep again, mind reverting back to the Burrow over and over, Fred slipped into his trainers and padded down the hallway.
A stooped old man in a droopy nightcap, the puffball hanging from its tip dangling between his eyes, was emerging from a friend’s room after a long evening of chess. The light from his friend’s brass candelabra, while plenty bright, did not spill past the doorway. It was confined within the room, along with their voices and the creaks and groans of the doorframe.
Ahh, Fred thought. That explains why it’s so quiet. Mrs. Lovegood’s bewitched it so that everything’s soundproof at night. He wasn’t sure why, but this irritated him. It was unnatural not to hear mice scurrying around with cats chasing after them, or to listen for the barely-there clinks of tea mugs and reading glasses as they were placed on tables, of cupboard doors gently opening and closing as people changed into pajamas. Fred had spent all of his time at the Burrow, Hogwarts, and a flat in London, and had never experienced a soundless night in his entire life prior to Vesper’s boardinghouse. He made a mental note to look for vacancies in a normal house somewhere else.
Cedric’s room was situated four doors down, the knob decorated with a wreath fashioned from a bird’s nest that Fred suspected Mrs. Lovegood hung there. He wondered if Cedric would be able to hear anyone knocking through all of the silencing charms put on the house. When he raised his fist to rap at it, he could feel the vibrations against wood but could hear absolutely nothing.
That did it. Fred would be moving out immediately.
The door opened without any noise to accompany it, and through a strip of vertical light, Fred could make out the left half of Cedric’s face, and an open book propped up on a window seat with faded pink upholstery. He mouthed something in a voice so low that Fred couldn’t hear it. Mindful of the charmed corridors, Fred stuck his head inside.
“Oh, so this is your room,” he declared robustly.
“Yes?” Cedric said, drawing back half a step when the ginger man’s head poked around his doorway.
“Hey, Ced,” Fred continued, trying to jam his hands into his pockets and then realizing that his trousers didn’t offer any. “You were making a racket in here, kept me up. Thought I’d swing by and see how you were doing.”
“A racket?” Cedric arched one eyebrow, eyes darting to his book. “Sorry if I was turning the pages too loudly. I’ll try to keep it down.”
“Eh.” Fred combed his fingers through the back of his hair, digging his foot into the doorway just in case Diggory tried to shut it fast. “Long as we’re both awake, you want to go look around or something?”
Cedric couldn’t help but be suspicious about this, but tried to downplay it. “Sure. You hungry?”
Fred had just consumed half of someone’s death-day cake, which had been left in the downstairs dining area after a party, for lack of anything else to do. If he was going to be dead, he might as well be fat, too. The thought of eating more after stuffing his face with so much chocolate made him feel queasy. “Starving,” he replied.
“Let’s go to Odo’s,” Cedric suggested, turning around to put his shoes on. “Odo’s probably gone to bed already, but he never locks up. We’re free to get ourselves anything we want.”
Fred nodded. He wasn’t used to having to go out of his way to make friends. Usually, people tended to gravitate towards him. He and George never had any problems socializing. There’d been enough Gryffindors to comprise the circle around him – standing in the literal center of attention, just how he liked it – and he’d never developed much of a desire to expand on his already-wide group of friends. It wasn’t that he didn’t like non-Gryffindors, but he’d never had much of a need for them. There was Lee and George and the members of his Quidditch team, and countless others…but now they were gone, or rather Fred was gone…
When they made their way beyond the boardinghouse, Fred was grateful for the usual nightly clatter that swarmed to his eardrums. The stirring of cicadas, providing a background hum for bicycle wheels still zipping along alleyways, sounded like a breath of fresh air. It was much less stuffy outside, which allowed Fred’s headache to abate. Mothers were calling out to their children, who were playing hide-and-seek in the dark, demanding that they come to bed. A cluster of people nearby were piled together, six to a bench, in a triangular park with sleeping houses bordering each side. They were all leaning over a little bonfire that cast barely enough glow to light the tips of the surrounding fence, watching salamanders leap around in the flames.
Several doors down, with its shutters tightly drawn, was Severus Snape’s new home. He’d taken no time at all reaping it at an auction after its last owner moved to a flat squeezed between the ice cream parlor and a vegetable market that disappeared every Sunday without fail.
A dull flicker of candlelight slipped between slats in the blinds of Snape’s window. “How d’you think he’s going to do?” Cedric remarked without thinking, and then mentally chastised himself for it. “Sorry. You probably don’t want to think about that right now.”
“No, I was thinking about it, too,” Fred admitted, still keeping one eye trained on the closed window as they passed it. He thought to himself that he rather liked the town when all was dark; with the roar of the ocean and the beach’s sand blowing sideways up the main avenue. It gathered in cracks between cobbles with white grit, smelling of brine. Two dark shapes disrupted the coastline, and Fred recognized them as tents belonging to Colin Creevey and a girl named Orla. They’d erected them right there on the sand for Merlin-knows-what-reason. The tents’ flaps shivered in a warm breeze, the two people inside snoring peacefully in rhythm with the lapping tide. Fred envied them.
“I’m not sure what to think about Snape,” Fred said, belatedly noticing that they were strolling in the opposite direction of Odo’s pub and not even realizing it. They were both heading towards the sea, as if being summoned there. “They say he was on our side, on the good side, but that’s hard to believe. He’s done some pretty bad things that can’t be explained away.”
“Confusing, isn’t it?” Cedric mused. “I heard that he did it all for Lily Potter. Couldn’t have been too bad, really – or else he would’ve ended up in the Grotta.”
Fred shrugged. “Maybe.”
Her name was already hanging thick in the air, so it wasn’t surprising that Cedric mentioned her. She was all over the place, tossed from conversation to conversation in whispers or laughs or tones of dark surprise. Lily Potter, grand champion of the Devil’s Duel, tossed out in Round One by her own husband.
“I could’ve told you all sorts of things about Lily,” Cedric confessed, throwing a stone across the sea. It hit upon wave after black wave before disappearing, crashing into the wooden stilts that held up the depot. “I’ve been watching her all year in preparation for the Devil’s Duel. Now that she’s out, though, it’s hard to tell who I should be watching instead.”
“James?” Fred guessed. “As far as the other team goes, I mean. It takes a lot to attack your own wife, I reckon.”
“Probably. He doesn’t enter the races often, so I don’t know how well he’ll fare. I know that on our own team, Pettigrew’s one we’ve got to look out for.”
Fred didn’t want to be rude and say, “Well, that’s obvious. He cracked Scrimgeour’s skull.” So instead he just nodded in agreement. “Yeah, definitely. Still can’t fathom the reasoning behind him coming here and not over there.” He pointed behind him, thinking that he was indicating the Grotta when Cedric knew that it was just empty ocean in that direction.
Cedric smiled. He didn’t know why he was sharing this information, letting an opponent into his confidence, discussing their other opponents, of all people. Still, he couldn’t stop himself from saying, “But the real threat is back there.” He motioned with his head over to the boardinghouse. Several windows twinkled like fairy lights, candles still lit with residents burning the midnight oil.
“You think so?” Fred found this vaguely amusing, remembering all the times Nymphadora tripped over furniture as well as her inability to perform some of the most basic household cleaning spells. She was bright and bubbly and bumbling, and he couldn’t picture her any other way.
“Of course.” Cedric examined him in a sidelong glance, growing concerned over Fred’s lack of sobriety. “You don’t think she could win, then?”
“Oh, well, she could,” Fred amended, although he was still trying not to smirk. “She was an Auror, so that’s got to be worth something. And her husband can be dead intimidating when he wants to be, which might’ve rubbed off on her…”
There was a dwindling of speech that followed this comment, while both young men considered Tonks Lupin’s capabilities with polarizing opinions. Quite without intending to, they circled around to Odo’s, where they could toast each other with tall glasses of butterbeer under broad lamplight without so much gloom hanging over them. The next day was years and years away, and impossibly, the day after that felt startlingly close. Fred and Cedric decided not to question the incongruity of this logic, or to question anything at all. For the moment, it was nicer to imagine that both of them would win the prize, and that no one would have to die in order for them to get it.