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Bad Blood by TenthWeasley

Format: Short story
Chapters: 5
Word Count: 12,911
Status: COMPLETED

Rating: Mature
Warnings: Strong violence, Sensitive topic/issue/theme

Genres: Horror/Dark, Mystery, AU
Characters: Lupin, Snape, James, Lily, Sirius, Pettigrew, OtherCanon
Pairings:

First Published: 06/14/2013
Last Chapter: 07/16/2013
Last Updated: 07/17/2013

Summary:



A threatening letter is delivered to Lily Evans in the middle of the night, and James Potter vows to discover who's behind it. As he's about to find out, events at Hogwarts aren't quite as isolated as they seem.

2013 Dobby WINNER: Best Plot Twist. Gorgeous banner by Clara Oswald @ TDA!


Chapter 1: One
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The candle on the table burns low, flickering orange and yellow through the dusky ivory of the wax that’s almost completely melted away. The wick is nearly spent – there is maybe an hour of light left to it, and that’s being generous – but this letter won’t take that long to write. It’s close to being finished already, though it’s only just begun to be set down. Four lines of text, no more. But this message won’t take many words to get its meaning across.

Flame glints off the shining newness of black ink and makes it glint briefly silver. A white hand flashes through swathes of darkness and seizes the edge of the parchment. It waves the letter once, twice, three times through the air, and then carefully blots the ink with a paper before sealing it with a crisp sound, audibly sharp.

For a moment, the hand hovers over the old-fashioned wax seal, poised at the candle’s left hand, but then it withdraws. The candle doesn’t have the wax to give, and anyway, there is a time for manners and customs that this occasion doesn’t warrant.

The hand raises the parchment up to the guttering candle and its owner skims the words quickly, checking for errors, anything that might seem careless, and therefore less serious, in the eyes of its recipient, but of course there is nothing amiss. Somewhere in the far reaches of the castle, a bell tolls out the hour with one slow chime. The hand turns and the face of a watch worn on the left wrist winks in the light to confirm that, yes, it was one o’ clock. How had time slipped away?

As the old adage went, time did fly when one was having fun.

The hand seals the letter anew and stuffs it into an envelope, and its owner makes to rise from the chair at the worn-out writing desk. But just before standing up, as a quick afterthought, the fingers seize the quill again and jab it almost forcefully into the inkpot. It scribbles two words in a hasty script that doesn’t match the precise, careful penmanship of the letter’s contents:

Lily Evans

The hand withdraws, clutching the letter, and returns to the shadows. In a puff of breath, the candle is snuffed out.

*

Great gray thunderheads were rolling across the enchanted ceiling of Hogwarts’s Great Hall, occasionally misting the clustered students below with a few specks of rain, blotting the ink on their copies of the Daily Prophet and severely annoying the owls who’d stopped at their owners’ places at the long tables for a bit of toast or juice. James Potter found he didn’t much mind it; it was rather interesting, being rained on inside, and even after he’d been at Hogwarts for more than five years already, it was a novelty that hadn’t yet worn off.

James thought, with something of a bias, that he and his friends always made an interesting tableau at any given moment, and today was no exception. When he was feeling particularly pensive (which, granted, wasn’t terribly often), he liked to study Sirius and Remus and Peter in turn and ponder on how a bunch of misfits such as themselves had found each other in the first place. They were all vastly different, and the differences could be seen even in the way they chose to eat breakfast.

Just now, for example, Remus was studying his newspaper so intently that great lines had furrowed his forehead and the space between his eyes. He’d speared a kipper on the tines of his fork some while ago, and had forgotten all about it in the face of the day’s events, rendering it long since cold. Peter, who liked to stay up late reading, was repeatedly dozing and then jerking himself away over his cup of coffee. His nose inched dangerously closer to the surface as he succumbed further and further to sleep, but James didn’t really feel like nudging him to wake him up more. He might burn his nose if he drifted far enough into sleep, and that was too enticing a prospect to miss out on.

Across from James, Sirius was hard at work, a thing which he rarely ever was at any other time of the school day. At the moment he was spreading a blanket of eggs over a piece of toast with great care, making sure the layer was as even as he could make it. He’d pulled most of the platters within reach around his plate to use later for his sandwich, and as James watched, Sirius sat back and eyed his eggs critically before reaching for a plate of bacon, catching James’s eye as he did so.

“You may not have any,” he said, waving his fork at his breakfast sandwich, sending bits of egg scattering across the table. One landed on the other side of Remus’s paper, but he didn’t seem to notice.

James wrinkled up his nose and reached for the mug of tea at the top of his plate. “You’re disgusting,” he said amiably. Next to him, Peter gave a little snort and started awake, peering furtively around to see who’d noticed. Sirius shrugged and went back to laying bacon carefully over his eggs.

Movement caught the corner of James’s eye at that moment, just as he was about to lean across and ask Remus for the crossword puzzle; he turned his neck so quickly that it cracked, and Peter awoke a second time with a gasp. Lily Evans walked quickly towards where the boys were sitting in the middle of the Gryffindor table, her arm clamped tightly through Marlene McKinnon’s and her eyes fixed on the top table where the teachers were eating their own breakfast.

“All right, Evans?” James called loudly, leaning back so that half of his body was in the girls’ path. He ruffled up his hair with his hand, a gesture that was more reflexive now than anything else. “Sleep well?”

Somewhat to his surprise, Lily gave a very audible and very annoyed sniff and turned her nose straight up in the air, a gesture he’d only ever read about before but never physically seen, and pretended he wasn’t there at all. This, James thought, was quite a bit colder than her normal reception to his flirtations; she didn’t hide the fact that she didn’t much care for him, but she usually feigned politeness, at least this early in the day.

Even more of a shock was the icy look Marlene gave him in turn. “You’re brave to be talking to her, aren’t you?” she snapped, flipping her long plait over her shoulder austerely before turning her nose up in a mirrored gesture of her friend’s. James felt his mouth go earthward. He swiveled to watch the pair of them strut past and take a seat at the extreme end of the table, and then turned back to Sirius, who’d watched the whole exchange.

His friend sniggered and dropped a final piece of bacon atop his eggs, reaching now for the boiled tomatoes. “What have you done now?” he asked, popping one of them into his mouth and grinning around it, the juices dribbling out of the corners of his lips. Peter looked back and forth between them warily, unsure whether or not it was a joke.

“I – nothing,” answered James, flabbergasted. He craned his neck towards that end of the table, and Lily, sensing as much, turned her back to him with an exaggerated movement. He looked helplessly at Sirius, who still looked as though he was about to burst out laughing. “Shut up,” James told him irritably, ruffling his hair again for lack of something more productive to say or do.

Next to Sirius, Remus gave a loud “ahem” and ruffled his Daily Prophet significantly. The other three boys looked over at him. “Care to join the conversation, Moony?” Sirius asked cheerfully. The boy in question looked at each of them in turn, and then sighed, setting his paper down carefully so as not to get it in his porridge.

“I heard Marlene and Lily talking in the common room after the three of you had already come downstairs,” he said carefully, sounding as though he’d rather not be telling them this at all. “Apparently there was a letter waiting for her in the common room this morning, on the mantel above the fireplace. It had her name on it.”

“Why wouldn’t her owl just deliver it at breakfast?” Peter interrupted, but James shot him a slightly exasperated look and flapped his hands for Remus to continue. He did so, his face now contorted in an apologetic expression.

“Apparently it was quite nasty,” he said grimly, “although obviously she wasn’t about to let me look at it. Her face was the color of parchment, though, so I can guess at least one of the words on it.” James felt his insides burn with anger just at the thought – he knew exactly what word Remus meant, though neither of them said it aloud.

“Anyway,” Remus added, looking more apologetic than ever. “Well – I think she’s under the impression, you know… that you wrote it as a rather off-putting and somewhat vengeful prank.”

What?!” James said, half-yelling. He leaned forward and gripping the edge of the table with the tips of his fingers. “She thinks I –“ He whipped his head back around to the end of the table, and just caught Lily looking hastily away. “That’s completely mental! Why would I do something like that?!”

“She probably thinks you’re a touch bitter because she keeps refusing to give you the time of day,” Sirius chimed in from across the table, although the previous traces of laughter had vanished from his eyes. “But still” – he turned to Remus – “he’s not that barking.” Looking back at James, he added cautiously, “You aren’t, are you?”

“Of course I didn’t send the bloody thing!” James fumed. By now his shouting had attracted stares from several other Gryffindors and a few neighboring Hufflepuffs, but he didn’t even look at them. Swinging his legs over the bench seat, he charged up the hall towards the end of the Gryffindor table, where Lily was stirring sugar into her tea and pretended not to see him standing over her.

“I didn’t send you any letters,” James said stubbornly, without preamble. He folded his arms over his chest. “I’d never call you – that. You know I wouldn’t.”

Lily looked up at him coolly, though her green eyes still sparked with something furious. “It has your stench all over it, Potter. This is just the sort of thing you’d find funny,” she told him in an authoritative voice, the sort she used on unruly first years when she was acting in the role of prefect.

“I didn’t send you any letters,” James stressed through gritted teeth, and something about the way he said it seemed to resonate with her. Lily’s face cleared slightly; wariness crept in to replace the anger in her eyes. “Let’s have a look.”

She glanced at Marlene, who shrugged, gnawing on her thumbnail and shooting James suspicious glances now and again. Sirius, Remus, and Peter wandered over from the middle of the table then and clustered around James’s shoulders.

“And it wasn’t any of you lot?” Lily asked, now directing her question to the other three. They all chorused an emphatic “no” and she drew her bottom lip between her teeth, chewing worriedly. “All right,” she said at last, reaching into the pocket of her robes and drawing out a square of yellowed parchment. “But don’t think you’re off the hook yet,” she added warningly. “I don’t trust you any farther than I can throw you.”

James barely heard her; he’d already snatched the envelope from her hand and was studying it with greedy eyes. Lily’s name was scribbled untidily across the front. He turned it round and opened the flap, yanking out the letter. The handwriting on the letter itself was much neater, although it was still obvious that both envelope and letter had been written by the same person.

Filthy Mudblood. Worthless witch.

Mudblood. Mudblood. Mudblood. Mudblood.

Tick tock, tick tock.

You’re next.

James had to read it several times to digest it, even though it didn’t say much in the first place. The word swam before his eyes, and he swallowed down the rage that built up in his throat, knowing someone had chosen those words directly for Lily.

“Whoever wrote this is off his rocker,” said Sirius, reaching around and taking an edge of the parchment in his fingers to read it better. “That’s straight senseless, that is.”

James raised his eyes to look at her; she was watching him steadily. “What does this mean?” he asked, pretending the slurs didn’t exist, jabbing his finger at the last line of the short letter. “’You’re next.’ What are you next for?”

She lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “No idea. That really wasn’t the part that got to me, if you must know.” Lily tossed the remark off carelessly, but it was enough to make James crunch the paper in his hands, a gesture that surprised even him.

“I’m going to find out who sent this to you,” he said hotly. “I promise, Lily. And they’re going to be really, really sorry they did.”

A miniature smile played at the corners of her lips, but she fought it down bravely, and it was gone before James could think to look for it again. “You don’t have to do that,” Lily told him, reaching a hand up for the letter. “Honestly. And anyway, I’m a bit less off about the whole thing now that I can quite clearly see it wasn’t one of your immature joke things.” But instead of handing the letter back to her, James stuffed it into his own pocket.

“Give me a week, tops,” he vowed. Lily raised her eyebrows but said nothing.

“And just how do you reckon you’re going to go about this?” Remus asked from behind James, playing the voice of reason, as always. “What, steal assignments from everyone in the school and start comparing handwriting?”

“That’s actually rather brilliant,” James beamed, patting Remus solidly on the cheek. “Although time-consuming, but that’s certainly one way to go about it when we’ve narrowed down our suspect list.”

“We can narrow it down right now,” Sirius muttered darkly, turning his eyes to the table on the far side of the hall. “I’d bet you all the money in my vault that a Slytherin sent that letter.”

“Well –“ James began, but before he could say anything more, the doors to the Great Hall banged open with such force that all the eating, chattering students quieted immediately. Professor Flitwick burst into the room at a full sprint, running as fast as his legs could go to the top of the hall. All of the teachers and students watched as he approached the center of the table, where Professor Dumbledore was already standing. He leaned over and listened, frowning, as the tiny Charms professor whispered furiously in his ear.

Dumbledore straightened, and Flitwick hurried to pass the message on to McGonagall. The headmaster’s voice rang loudly over the silent mass of students. “All students are to return to their common rooms at once,” he boomed in a rather frightening voice. “At once. Prefects, collect the first years from your Houses and see them there safely.”

Lily bounded into action at once, briskly calling for the first years to form a single file line behind her; Remus, giving the other three a bewildered look, began to do the same. James turned to Sirius and Peter, who each looked just as stunned as he felt.

“What do you reckon it is?” Peter whispered. Sirius, the tallest of the three, stood on tiptoe and craned his neck above the crowd pushing for the door, as though he’d be able to see the trouble from where he stood.

Professor McGonagall pushed past them just then, her face taut, and James reached out and yanked on the sleeve of her robes. She half-spun toward them, knocking her hat slightly askew. “Now isn’t the time, Potter,” she said in a short, clipped voice, resettling her spectacles on her nose. “Get to the common room.”

“What’s going on?” he asked loudly, talking over her. The deputy headmistress looked from one to the other of them sternly, lips pursed in annoyance, and then sighed.

“There’s been an accident,” she told them. “George Asher’s just been found dead.”

A/N: Hello! Thank you for reading the first chapter of Bad Blood -- I'm really excited to finally begin posting this story. I've written the first two chapters, and it should be pretty short, about four or five chapters in all, once it's completely finished. This is an idea that's been hovering in my head for a while, and I'm so pleased to finally be sharing it with all of you!

If you've made it this far and wouldn't mind leaving me a review in the box below, I'd really appreciate it. What did Lily's letter mean? What's James going to figure out? All will be revealed in time, but I'd love to hear your thoughts in the meantime! Thank you for reading!


Chapter 2: Two
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The Gryffindor common room was buzzing with voices, bouncing off the walls and ceiling and making it sound as though bees were lurking in the wall’s tapestries. The entire House was clustered there, packed onto sofas and armchairs, perched on top of rickety tables, or just standing in small groups in dim corners. Everyone was talking about George Asher, and although news generally spread fast around Hogwarts, this rumor had spread with shocking speed.

“People don’t just up and die at Hogwarts,” Sirius sputtered for at least the fifth time, still looking as though he wanted someone to contradict him. James rather thought he looked a bit lost, staring at the fire roaring in the fireplace, his hands limp and useless in his lap. He’d managed to secure an entire half of the sofa for the four of them, and Sirius was jammed rather uncomfortably against James, his shoulder digging into James’s chest.

James didn’t know much about George Asher, and certainly not more than anyone else seemed to know. As far as everyone could tell, he’d been as ordinary as they came: a seventh year, a Hufflepuff, and vice-captain of the Hogwarts chess club. He had seemed to be well-liked, and Remus had overheard from Mary Macdonald that he was supposed to be seeing Sinead O’Hearn, another Hufflepuff seventh-year. But that was about it; the manner of his death was still a mystery to the assembly of Gryffindors.

“Hate to say this,” said Peter drily, staring blankly into the fire as well, “but people can up and die pretty much anywhere.”

James looked at him askance. “That’s right cheerful, mate.”

“No, really,” said Sirius defensively, swiveling on his cushion to get a better look at his friend and nearly sending him toppling to the floor in the process. “How many times in the past have you known anybody to die at school? Seriously, isn’t this supposed to be one of the safest places in the country?”

Remus, who’d brought his paper up from breakfast, flicked to another page. “There was that girl who died in the bathroom a while back,” he said quietly.

Sirius made an impatient noise. “Okay, besides that.”

“What are you saying, Sirius?” James asked quietly. He glanced furtively around, but no one appeared to be listening; everyone was absorbed in their own conversations and theories. His mind flicked back to the anxious expression on Flitwick’s face, the forced calm of Dumbledore’s voice. It was suspicious, yes, but Sirius had been right: Hogwarts was the safest place James knew…

Sirius appeared to have been waiting for just this question, however. He swiveled on the cushion again and this time nearly whacked the Daily Prophet out of Remus’s hands. “Isn’t it obvious?” he said with relish, as though imparting a secret. “Someone’s got to be behind it, haven’t they? And if you can’t break into Hogwarts, then it had to have been an inside job.”

“We don’t even know that it wasn’t an accident,” Remus pointed out logically, flipping to another page and folding the paper in half. “Or that he didn’t… you know. Kill himself.” Peter grimaced and made a disgusted noise deep in his throat.

“Hang on,” James interjected, still hung up on what Sirius had said before. “What do you mean, inside job? You’re not seriously suggesting that someone here at school had it in for Asher? I don’t think he’d ever done anything worth that.”

Sirius was getting into his element now, however. His eyes flashed with uncontainable excitement. “You saw how scared Flitwick and McGonagall were,” he said pointedly. “Something’s up. And we” – he moved his hand between the four of them – “should figure it out.”

“Leave that to the Ministry, Padfoot,” Remus said, tossing the paper onto the floor at their feet and, with difficulty, stretching his arms in a yawn. “They’re bound to get involved somehow.” Sirius huffed and crossed his arms across his chest, resuming staring into the fire, but it couldn’t have been more apparent that he wasn’t about to give up his scheme.

James’s own eyes drifted down to the Daily Prophet at his feet, the miniature black-and-white photographs flickering and blurring as he looked at them without really seeing them. He reached for the paper, more for something to do than anything else. Around the boys’ heads, the talk surged on.

In one of the photos, someone was zipping around on a slick-looking broom, accompanied by a short article on the latest national Quidditch scores. James read them without interest, and indeed, without processing them at all; he was thinking about the same thing every other person in that room was. George Asher had always been nice, upstanding, ordinary… but if Sirius was right, and someone had murdered him…

He flipped the newspaper over, skimming the articles, and a tiny column at the bottom of the page caught his attention, hardly worth a second glance. James shoved his glasses further up his nose with a forefinger and began to read more intently:

Ministry of Magic officials responded to a report late yesterday evening of a disturbance in Beverly, East Yorkshire. Officials report that an incident had broken out in a Muggle pub when two men, both wizards, came to a head over a violent conversation.

“I can’t repeat what ‘e called him,” said Beverly resident and witch Ermintrude Ponsby, “but it was righ’ nasty, it was. Never would have said it meself.”

No charges are being pressed in the matter.

With a sigh of impatience, he let the paper fall to his lap, removing his glasses and scrubbing his eyes until bright stars popped into his vision. Clearly classes weren’t going to be on today – they’d all been sitting around for an hour, and not a word had been said, positive or otherwise. Perhaps he should just go back to bed…

And then something about the article James had just read struck him anew with something almost like a physical force. He took up the paper again with such energy that Sirius, Remus, and Peter all looked over at him with near-identical expressions of surprise.

“All right there?” Sirius asked, but James didn’t respond. He’d come to the line again, the quote from the Yorkshire witch. And as though it was in front of him again, the message Lily had received swam up before his eyes, the ink etching itself in the air in front of him:

Mudblood. Mudblood. Mudblood. Mudblood…

James leaped up from the sofa to startled cries from the other three, yanking Lily’s letter from his pocket and charging over to the corner where Lily sat with her own friends. She looked up as he approached, her arms folded on the table in front of her, and lifted one eyebrow skeptically. Marlene, across from her at the tiny corner table, still looked a bit miffed to see him at all.

“That letter of yours,” he said at once. “Where did you say you found it again?”

Lily’s other eyebrow rose to join its mate high on her forehead. “There,” she said, gesturing in the vague direction of the sofa he’d just vacated, before the fire. “On the mantelpiece. Why?”

James spun back around to Sirius, who’d trailed behind him to the table, just as he had at breakfast. “You were right,” he said. He waved Lily’s letter in his friend’s face, and Sirius went slightly cross-eyed trying to make sense of what was being thrust before him. “’You’re next,’ the letter said. And Lily didn’t know what it meant, but then this happens?” He shook his head emphatically and turned back to Lily. “Did you know Asher at all?”

“I – a bit,” she said shakily. Her face had gone extremely white, and beads of sweat now dotted her slick forehead. “But I don’t know if he was Muggle-born or not.” This last Lily said in a voice just above a whisper. Marlene reached across and patted her hand sympathetically.

“We’ve got to find out,” James said, already heading for the dormitory stairs, crumpling Lily’s letter in his fist and jamming it back into his pocket. “If he was, then you could be in serious trouble, Lily.”

“Wait,” said Peter, who had now joined the corner group along with Remus. He looked rather frightened. “Shouldn’t we tell McGonagall first? I don’t think we’re allowed to leave the common room – and it’s sort of a serious thing, talking about someone killing – “

“She’s not here,” said James firmly. “And we might not have a lot of time left, anyway.” He didn’t give the other reason for his wanting to take matters into his own hands – he wanted to protect Lily and find out who sent her that letter on his own terms, without getting McGonagall or Dumbledore or anyone else involved – but Sirius seemed to sense this without James having to say anything.

“Make sure Lily stays here,” James told Peter, clapping him genially on the back, knowing Peter would more than likely be appeased by being given a task to do. The prospect of action, adventure, and a mission had made Sirius’s eyes light up like stars.

“Oi!” Lily said, and some of her usual fire had crept into her voice again. “I’m right here! D’you think I’m stupid enough to go blundering about the corridors right now after someone’s just turned up dead?”

She had spoken a bit more loudly than she meant to, and many of the heads in the common room turned in their direction. James heard gasps from a few of the third-year girls across the way, by the portrait hole. That made her scowl ferociously, but she nodded anyway.

“Don’t let McGonagall catch you,” she warned austerely, but James was already gone. He flew up the spiral stairs; it took him mere moments to fish his Invisibility Cloak from his trunk. At the last moment he threw it over himself so he wouldn’t have to do it downstairs, in front of so many people, and then charged back toward the common room.

“Is that you?” Sirius muttered under his breath, apparently sensing that James had come to a stop by his shoulder even before he’d nudged him to announce his presence. He nodded, and then, remembering Sirius couldn’t see him, nudged him in the back of the leg with the toe of his trainer.

He slipped through the crowd easily, mostly staying out of the way of brushing shoulders or arms of his classmates, and eased the Fat Lady’s portrait open quietly enough that no one around seemed to notice it. The Fat Lady herself was busy gossiping with her friend Violet, and swinging shut seemed an automatic motion for her. James stopped to listen to what they were saying, but nothing about George Asher’s death – murder or otherwise – was mentioned.

“And then, if you’ll believe it,” the Fat Lady was saying animatedly, “he nearly rammed me through with that awful lance of his!”

Violet clucked her tongue sympathetically. “I spoke to Barry at the last council,” she said meanly, “but he refuses to tell Cadogan to go retire to the Room of Requirement. Thinks he’s got more to offer, apparently. More duties to perform for the good of the castle.”

James rolled his eyes and left the two painted women cackling, striding off down the corridor in the direction of the hospital wing, where rumor had it that George Asher’s body had been moved until his parents could arrive at the castle. The rest of the professors were sure to be congregated there, he thought. It wouldn’t take much time, just a few minutes to ascertain something of note, and then straight back to –

James rounded the corner leading onto the grand staircase and nearly gasped aloud, clapping a hand over his mouth just in time, nearly tripping over the edge of his Cloak in his haste to avoid a collision with the boy who’d quite suddenly cropped up in his path.

Evan Rosier was walking alone, and seemed not to have heard anything suspicious; at any rate, he continued down the carpet runner as normal, casting a couple of glances over his shoulder to make sure he wasn’t being followed. Secrecy rolled off of him in waves, and James would have bet anything that he wasn’t up to anything good.

Filthy Mudblood. His eyes flicked to the green-and-silver crest on the left breast of Rosier’s robes just as the boy in question reached the end of the corridor James had just emerged from. Once more, looked back furtively, wrapping his fingers around the corner, and then darted out of sight.

The hospital wing long forgotten, James charged after him, the Cloak flapping around his ankles, already reaching for the wand in the inner pocket of his robes.

He didn’t have to go far. Midway down the corridor he’d just turned back onto, a door was carelessly ajar, an innocuous broom cupboard that James had mostly forgotten existed; he’d never had an excuse to use it. Rosier, however, appeared to think differently. Shafts of sunlight slashed the carpet from the windows opposite, and it was just possible to make out a shadowed figure inside the cupboard. James crept closer, holding his breath, not daring to push open the door for fear of being ousted. He made do by laying his ear flat along the wall, just to the right of the door, and listened hard.

“You can’t say that here,” someone was saying just as he stepped within earshot, a voice he recognized as Rosier’s from all the times he’d had to listen to it whining about something in class. “Are you trying to get us caught? God, Wilkes, you’re about the biggest idiot I’ve –“

“All right,” hissed Wilkes, and James couldn’t mistake that boy’s stupid, spitty way of talking, either. “Christ.” There was a pause, and then he added sulkily, “It’s not like anybody’s around to listen. They’re all holed up after what happened to Asher, aren’t they? Bit of luck, that.”

“And why’s that?” Rosier asked coldly.

“Less witnesses,” Wilkes said smugly. “Everyone’s dead scared. Any Mudblood or blood traitor caught out in the corridor alone is more than likely going to taste the wrong end of a Killing Curse.” James was disgusted to hear something like smug pride in his voice, and pressed his ear harder against the stone wall, desperate not to miss anything. “Couldn’t have picked a better time for this, eh?”

James’s breath caught in his throat as Wilkes chuckled, and after a pause, Rosier joined in. His stomach turned; he felt like he was going to be sick. For a moment he wrapped his hand around his wand again and thought about it – two quick curses, no one would be any the wiser –

But that idea was rejected even before his brain had fully had time to form it. Taking on Wilkes and Rosier without backup was a stupid thing to do in the best of times, even if they were each thicker than a bag of rocks. And now, after what he’d just overheard… James didn’t want to believe Sirius. Best mate or no, he was prone to grand ideas, romanticizing and exaggerating everything, and the thought of a roving Slytherin maniac slashing down Muggle-born students was something straight out of the pages of the boyhood adventure novels Sirius still read.

And confronting them in light of recent circumstances seemed even more foolhardy and potentially detrimental than ever now.

“Anyway,” Rosier said, all business once more, and James rushed to listen so quickly that he nearly smacked his head on the wall. “Same time later tonight as last night, all right? We can’t go back our normal route, though. It’s bound to be watched. Try the dungeon passage this time.”

What dungeon passage? But the conversation was apparently finished, and with his heart in his mouth, he heard footsteps shuffling in the cupboard, nearing the door. And so, slightly reluctantly, James pushed back from the wall, heart hammering, mouth dry. Lily’s letter rustled in his pocket, and from out of the blue, panic gripped his throat and squeezed. Was she all right? Was she safe? He had to know, he couldn’t let anything happen to her –

And he ran, full tilt, back to the common room.

If Lily and Sirius and the others were surprised to see him back so soon – and indeed, judging by his watch, he’d barely been gone fifteen minutes – they didn’t show it. It didn’t look as though they’d moved at all from where they were clustered around the corner table. Lily’s hands were clenched on top of it; somehow James noticed her knuckles, digging sharply into the thin skin, turning it white.

Sirius raised his eyebrows at his friend, and James set his lips into a thin line, nodding once. It hoped it conveyed enough for now; he didn’t want to say too much in front of the rest of the group. Later on he would talk to Sirius privately, but the less people who knew about what he’d overheard between Rosier and Wilkes, the better.

But he wouldn’t wait long. Time was of the essence, and Lily was in danger; that alone was enough to keep him on the case.

A/N: Ta-da! What do you think? James certainly isn't taking the case sitting down, but there's also not a lot to go on from what he overheard. A lot of you have had really, really awesome theories and questions about this story so far (and if we're being honest, I'm pretty jealous of some of them), but only time will tell who killed George Asher, and whether Lily really is next -- if the two incidents are connected at all.

Thank you all for all the lovely reads and reviews and favorites last time around! This story's only going to be five chapters long, so I'd love if you'd stick around and see it through. Stay tuned!


Chapter 3: Three
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Sirius let out a long, low whistle. “And they didn’t say anything specific, right? You’re positive they didn’t make any confessions or anything?”

James shook his head, not looking at his friend; his gaze was fixed unseeingly on the window opposite his four-poster, arms folded tightly over his chest.

“Damn,” Sirius said softly. “That would have made our job a lot easier.”

He had just finished telling Sirius everything he had overheard between the pair of Slytherins in the broom cupboard, having finally gotten away from the rest of the anxious Gryffindors long enough to speak without wondering if anyone else was listening.

Apparently unable to do anything else, Sirius whistled again. He was propped up against his trunk at the foot of his bed, and launched himself off it, pacing back and forth, snapping his fingers while he did so. “Less witnesses,” he repeated, ticking the talking points off on his fingers now – he was perpetually unable to keep still. “Everyone shoved away in their common rooms. Couldn’t have picked a better time for… something. But what?”

“I don’t know,” James said irritably, running his fingers through his hair in a frenzy, so that it all stood straight up from his head. It looked like he’d just been on the receiving end of a horribly nasty shock. “I didn’t stay to hear what happened next. If they’d caught me –“

But he stopped talking. It felt extremely insensitive to finish that thought, anyway, what with Asher already dead and the whole school in a panic about it. At least Sirius had reached the same conclusion: Rosier and Wilkes were guilty, or at the very least, they knew something about what had happened. He would have stood in front of the Wizengamot and sworn under oath that they weren’t up to anything good.

Not that they normally were, of course – but murder was quite another matter.

Sirius turned on his heel and flopped spread-eagled onto his rumpled sheets. “Okay,” he said decisively. “We’ve got to do something, Prongs. We can’t just sit –“

“Okay, Sirius,” James snapped, sitting up straight in bed and fixing his friend with a look. “Do you think I’m not aware that we’ve got to do something?” He could hear his voice rising, and he wanted to make it stop; Sirius didn’t deserve to be yelled at. But he couldn’t control it. “Lily’s downstairs with that stupid letter and for all I know, she’s next, and I’m not letting anything happen to her –“

He stopped abruptly. Sirius had sat up as soon as James had started in, and the look on his face was like a wounded dog. James realized he fists were clenched on his legs; he uncurled his fingers and, at a loss for what else to do, threaded them through his hair again. “Sorry,” he muttered at last.

“You’re fine,” his friend sad shortly, and then his voice softened slightly in reassurance. “Nothing’s going to happen to Lily,” he said evenly. “We’re not going to let it happen, mate.”

“I know.” James felt horribly guilty now, and more than a little embarrassed at his outburst. He cradled his forehead in the tips of his fingers and swore softly. “I know.” His throat felt swollen, though he didn’t know whether it was from the screaming or something else.

“And here’s what we’re going to do,” Sirius added, jumping up from the bed and snatching James’s Invisibility Cloak from where he’d thrown it onto the ground. “We are going to put on this thing, and we’re going to go back out into the castle, and we’re going to keep looking until we find the Slytherins. And then we’ll hex them into telling us what the hell they’re up to, and Lily will be safe.”

James looked at Sirius over the tops of his glasses and grinned lopsidedly. “Wow. That’s a brilliant plan. Not like any of our other plans have ever been, definitely.”

“You laugh,” said Sirius in mock solemnity, shaking nonexistent wrinkles out of the Cloak. “But simple plans are the best ones. Have I ever steered you wrong before?”

“I feel compelled to remain silent.”

“You, my friend, suck very much.” Sirius held out the Cloak and James took it, clambering from bed and grabbing his wand off the bedside table. His anxieties, his fears, had momentarily evaporated; a swelling sense of purpose and adrenaline was quickly replacing them.

For a moment, he wanted to run downstairs and tell Lily – she deserved to know what he and Sirius were doing, didn’t she? – but there was nowhere private for that conversation. She hadn’t come to the boys’ dormitory since second year (James had never fully forgiven Sirius for releasing that bag of spiders), and the common room physically didn’t allow boys in the girls’ dorms. The common room was still swollen with people, even though hours had passed and no one had any more information than they’d had that morning after breakfast.

No, they had to go. Even now, Rosier and Wilkes could be meeting, hatching plans or doing worse, and James and Sirius would never catch them if they wasted their time trying to pass along messages no one else was supposed to hear.

James draped the Cloak over his head, and Sirius ducked under it as well, checking to make sure that no one could see their feet beneath the hem. Without another word, the boys left the dormitory, gripping their wands like lifelines.

*

“Remus!”

Remus Lupin looked up quickly from his book, his cheeks tingeing pink. Lily Evans was standing above the spot he’d claimed on one of the squashy sofas, looking equal parts amused and skeptical. “Did you seriously not hear the last five times I’ve said your name?”

“Erm, no?” He flipped over a corner of the book, creasing it with his fingernail, and Lily sat down next to him without further invitation. In the adjoining armchair where he was scribbling away at a potions essay, Peter peeped over the edge of a roll of parchment at the pair of them.

“I asked if you’d seen James.” Lily craned her neck around, as though the boy in question had appeared since she’d mentioned his name. “He and Sirius disappeared a while ago.” She chewed absently on her thumbnail and then her eyes slid over to his, as though waiting for him to respond. Remus felt a little bewildered. If he was telling the truth, Lily intimidated him somewhat; she had a very forceful personality, which he supposed was one of the things James liked about her, even though most of her force was used in telling him off. Remus preferred things to be less heated, and unfortunately most of their one-on-one conversations were tainted with memories of her yelling at James for giving a third-year a lump on his head the size of an egg.

“I don’t know where he went,” he said apologetically, toying with the edges of his book. “Do you?” This last was directed at Peter, who shook his head, tapping his quill against the parchment and dotting the top with tiny ink blots.

Lily sighed in frustration and threw up her hands. “They can’t have bloody left the common room. We're not allowed.”

Well, yes, they definitely could have. But Remus didn’t want to tell her about the Invisibility Cloak; that surely wasn’t his place. “He’s got to be around somewhere,” he said vaguely, and then wondered if that sounded a bit distant and insensitive. He tried again. “Besides, I’m supposed to make sure you stay here.”

Lily glared at him. “James doesn’t get to say what I do or don’t do,” she said. “And neither do you.” Remus felt his ears get hot, and propped open his book on his lap again, biting back an apology he suspected would only make her more frustrated. But instead of reading, he snuck a sideways glance at her; she was still turned halfway round, watching the opening to the dormitory steps, chewing her fingernails. If he hadn’t known any better, he would have guessed that she was worried about James.

Remus smirked, sinking an inch or two lower down on the cushion and lifting his book so Lily wouldn’t see.

There was a sudden commotion in the direction of the Fat Lady’s portrait, and students pushed back against the wall to make way for Professor McGonagall, who had just entered the common room. Remus, Peter, and Lily all perked up, attentions simultaneously focused on the deputy headmistress; the lines on her face were more prominent than ever, deep furrows wrinkling her forehead. She came to stand in front of the fireplace, making sure everyone gathered in the common room could see her.

“Boys and girls, can I have your attentions, please?” she said crisply, as though she didn’t have them anyway. “In light of this morning’s circumstances” – was Remus seeing things, or were those really tears in her eyes? – “classes have been canceled for the rest of the day. You will all be happy to know, I’m sure, that George Asher’s family has been notified as to what has happened, and kindly thanks you for your understanding at this very difficult time for all of us.”

She paused, looking at the ground near her feet; Remus was close enough to see her nostrils flaring as she composed herself. When Professor McGonagall looked up again, any previous signs of discomfiture were gone. “Professor Dumbledore has deemed the castle safe again,” she said, “and you are free to relocate yourselves from the common room, if you wish.”

“Is it safe?” said the whispery voice of a fourth-year girl, huddled with her friends in a far corner of the common room. Her blue eyes were round in her china-doll face.

“Perfectly,” said he deputy headmistress firmly. “There is nothing to fear from going about your normal schedules, I assure you.”

Those words broke a barrier of chatter; talk broke and swelled among the heads of the Gryffindors clustered in the tower room, and their Head of House, having said what she had come to say, disappeared back through the portrait hole just as suddenly as she had entered.

Remus watched her go, and then looked over at Peter in the armchair. He shrugged, toying with his quill, brushing the feather over the backs of his hands absently. Lily had turned around to look in the direction of the dormitory stairs again.

“Well,” said Remus, snapping his book shut and climbing to his feet. He stretched his arms out behind him, wincing slightly as his shoulder popped. “I’m headed to the library, then. Can’t focus in here.”

“I’ll go with you,” Peter said instantly, hopping to his feet as well. “And then can we go and see Slughorn? I don’t understand this essay at all.” He looked down at the parchment forlornly, as though hoping the assignment might have changed.

“Sure,” Remus said easily. “Coming, Lily?”

She looked back around at them quickly, just having realized they were talking to her. “I – no, thanks,” she said. “Marlene and Mary are up in the dormitory, I’ll probably just go and sit with them…” Her voice trailed off, and her eyes unfocused. Peter and Remus shared a look, and then Peter shrugged again. They left Lily sitting on the sofa, staring into space.

*

But Lily did not go up the dormitory, as she told Peter and Remus she might. As soon as they were gone, she stood up and crossed to the common room entrance, not even aware that she was chewing on her fingernails – it was a habit she was trying to break, when she thought about it.

Despite their friends’ nonchalance, Lily couldn’t help but feel slightly anxious about wherever it was that James and Sirius had disappeared to. It wasn’t that she particularly cared for their personal safety, but it wasn’t exactly a secret that the word “troublemaker” no longer extended to cover all of their hijinks. And James was just stupid enough to get into serious hot water at her expense where this prank letter was concerned. She had been trying to pass it off as a stupid joke – and in these times, those sorts of blood purity “jokes” weren’t all that uncommon – but whatever she believed, he’d taken it seriously.

“Dammit,” she muttered under her breath, her mind being made up almost without her conscious input. Blatantly ignoring the memory of James’s voice telling his friends to make sure she stayed put, Lily clambered out of the portrait hole, heading off in the opposite direction of the library, just in case.

*

“What do you reckon?” Peter asked anxiously. He was holding onto Remus’s sleeve with one hand while he scanned his essay with the other so he wouldn’t trip over the uneven floor. The parchment was heavily laden with Slughorn’s marks, so that some lines were nearly solid black. “I feel a lot better about the assignment, don’t you? I had no idea that Golpalott’s Third Law – Remus?”

Remus realized with a sort of guilty start that he hadn’t really been listening to his friend at all. “Sorry,” he said, guilt sinking in his stomach. “I – yeah, the law makes much more sense now.”

“I think so too,” said Peter happily, stuffing the parchment into his back and then looking anew at Remus. “What are you thinking about?”

“Lily’s letter,” Remus said truthfully – he wasn’t going to lie. He knew that she wasn’t worried about it, or at least she didn’t pretend to me, but something about it was banging around at the back of his mind, an itch he couldn’t scratch.

“Oh.” Peter sobered somewhat, and then added, “What about it?”

Remus shrugged; there wasn’t anything in particular, really. “James was pretty intent on finding out who sent it,” he said, switching tack somewhat. “I don’t know. It was just… weird. But it was Asher’s death that made it weird, you know?” He rubbed his forehead with his hands. They felt clammy. “Maybe James is right.”

“Well, he’ll do anything for Lily,” said Peter, and Remus felt incrementally better. That was true. James would do anything for Lily, and surely that extended to cover anyone who might wish her dead…

But before he could say anything else, there were hurried footsteps in an adjacent corridor to the boys’ left, and someone came pelting around it at a brisk walk. The newcomer had his nose planted firmly in a book, but, apparently sensing that he was no longer alone, took it down from in front of his face.

“Ah.” Severus Snape’s lip curled in a derisive sneer; Remus fought against saying something sarcastic. “And here I was wishing for more pleasant company. Clearly my wishes are to go unfulfilled.”

“Snape,” Remus said curtly. I will not stoop to his level. “Not scared to be wandering around the castle, then?”

Snape scoffed. “I have nothing to be scared of,” he said scornfully. “Asher was a Mudblood. Nothing more. I have nothing in common with him and nothing to fear.” His eyes flicked to Peter, and then back again. “You’re missing a few, Lupin. James out playing the hero?”

“We don’t know where James is,” Peter spoke up. The tips of his ears had turned pink; he, like Remus, was never fully comfortable addressing the clear enmity between Snape and their own group of friends.

Snape’s lip curled a second time, as though he’d just tasted something especially bitter. “Then he’s sure to be out crusading the castle, looking for a bit of action,” he said. “No doubt trying to get on Evans’s good side, although she’s a bit of a worthless witch to strive for, isn’t she?”

“Come on, Remus,” Peter mumbled, tugging on Remus’s arm. “Let’s just go.” Snape watched them turn the corner he’d just barreled around, and the soft sound of shoes on an out-of-sight carpet runner told Remus that he was walking away.

Something wasn’t right.

He stopped dead in his tracks, frowning, and Peter continued on a few steps before realizing the other boy wasn’t with him. He doubled back. “You all right?”

“I – yeah. No.” Remus rubbed his head again, because that nagging feeling had returned, the one that told him that he was stupid, he was careless, he was missing something important…

Filthy Mudblood. Worthless witch.

Mudblood, Mudblood, Mudblood, Mudblood.

“Oh God,” Remus said. He’d flung his arms out to either side, bracing himself against the walls, without realizing it. “Oh God oh God oh God.” He turned to look at Peter, who looked thoroughly unsettled now.

“Remus?”

“Oh God, no – we have to find James. Go! Now!”

A/N: Short author's note is short! Why? I want to hear what YOU think! Opinions? Questions? Concerns? Theories as to what's going to go down next? This story will end after five chapters, which means there's really not a lot left at all...

Tuesdays seem to have become my routine updating day for this story (after a slight delay after the first chapter), but next Tuesday I'll be coming back from the same camp that affects my Breaking Even updating. So you'll get chapter 4 a day later, on Wednesday! Thank you all so, so much for reading and reviewing thus far -- I'm glad you're enjoying it! ♥


Chapter 4: Four
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Sirius and James were uncomfortably wedged in a niche in one of the twisting dungeon passages, shoulder pressed into shoulder and elbows jammed into ribs. They still wore the Cloak over the pair of them, but James figured they couldn’t be too careful; Rosier and Wilkes could be anywhere, and could come from anywhere, the less they suspected other people were watching their movements, the better.

“Sirius,” he hissed in annoyance, trying to free his wrist to check the time. “Mate, you have got to breathe with your mouth closed. It’s like a furnace under this thing.”

Sirius scowled and slapped a hand over his mouth, but said nothing. Squinting in the dimness and shoving the heel of his hand against his face to try to adjust his glasses, James peered at his wristwatch. It was only seven o’ clock, but the sun would have already set at this time of year. Surely this was nighttime enough for Rosier and Wilkes…

Sirius shifted in the niche. “This sucks. Can we go? We can find somewhere else to stand, Prongs, but I can’t move.” He wriggled again, and James nearly spilled out into the middle of the corridor. “We don’t even know that they’re going to be here anyway.”

“Why would they have lied?” James said hoarsely, pressing himself into a corner to give his friend as much room as possible. “They’re bound to be around here somewhere. We’ve just got to listen.”

“Maybe they knew you were eavesdropping,” Sirius panted, already having forgotten James’s admonition against him breathing with his mouth open. He hooked a finger under the collar of his sweater and yanked in a desperate attempt to cool the skin under it. “Maybe –“

Shh,” James whispered suddenly, jamming a forefinger against his lips and nearly smacking Sirius in the face with his elbow. They stopped talking at once, turning their necks and pressing their ears against the fabric. He could have sworn he heard something, a noise against stone, someone moving down an adjacent corridor…

There it was again: Leather on stone, someone walking. He was sure of it. James craned his neck around to look at Sirius and found the other boy’s gaze, eyes round and wide. He had heard it too. Pressing his finger against his lips again and drawing his wand from his pocket, like unsheathing a sword, he stepped out of the niche, Sirius stumbling after him. The dungeon corridor was cool in comparison with the heat of the niche, and a draft tinged with the smells of earth and water made the Cloak flap around their ankles.

This way, James mouthed, jabbing a forefinger toward the left, where their path divided in a T-shape. Sirius nodded; he had his own wand drawn, lips clamped tightly together. They crept down toward the passage on the tips of their toes. James kicked a loose stone and it rattled against one of the walls; they froze, but the sound of leather on stone came again, and Sirius breathed a sigh of relief.

They reached the end of the passage, and James’s heart leaped into his throat at the glint of light that came from the left fork of the corridor. Dull orange flames glowed at intervals throughout the entire dungeons, but this was the harsher, brighter light of Lumos igniting someone’s wand tip. He pointed at it, but Sirius had already seen, and nodded once. Hesitantly, hearts thudding, the boys poked their heads around the passage corner.

One dim figure was standing in the middle of the passage, halfway down, silhouetted by the light from the torches and the wand. He or she was alone, pacing back and forth in apparent impatience, the white light bobbing along in front of them like a will-o’-the-wisp. As they watched, the person reached the end of his path, turned, and began heading back toward them. The light from their wand suddenly threw their face into sharp relief, and James dug his fingers into the stone wall in hatred.

Wilkes. Definitely Wilkes.

“Sodding bastard,” Sirius suddenly muttered vehemently from over James’s shoulder, and he took a step in the direction of the Slytherin.

“No!” James reached out for a fistful of his friend’s sweater and yanking him back hard. Wilkes stopped pacing at once and raised his wand higher above his head, spreading the radius of the light. James and Sirius smacked their backs against the wall, holding their palms over their mouths.

“Hello?” Wilkes’s voice echoed off the stone. He took a few steps, and his next call was even closer. “Is someone there? I’m not afraid to hex you –“

“Wilkes.”

James, Sirius, and – judging from the way the Lumos light jerked suddenly – Wilkes all jumped at the sudden manifestation of Rosier’s voice. A second pair of footsteps joined the first, and after a few seconds, the Gryffindors dared to poke their heads around the wall again. Rosier and Wilkes were now clustered together beneath the steady light from Wilkes’s wand.

God,” the first boy was saying angrily; James could see his hand was shaking. “You could warn me when you’re coming, you know? At least don’t sneak up on me like a bloody rat – have the decency –“

Rosier laughed meanly, cutting the other off. “At least I’m here,” he sneered. “Or don’t you want this after all?”

“Yes,” Wilkes said grudgingly, and to James’s horror, they started moving away, up the corridor. His brain spun, all signals flashing danger, and his mouth was dry with fear – without thinking of Sirius or the Cloak, he charged forward, wand drawn. The angry crackle of a spell he wasn’t even conscious he’d named ricocheted out of the end of his wand towards the two figures in front of him. It shattered off one of the walls, sending loose chunks of stone raining down on them.

Rosier and Wilkes spun in alarm, and their surprise gave James enough time to ready another spell to hurl at them. Rosier ducked as a jet of purple light spun out toward him, Wilkes falling on top of him in fright.

“You stay where you are!” he roared, distantly impressed with how menacing he sounded, as Rosier made to climb to his feet.

“What the bloody hell –“

“He said don’t move!” Sirius had come up behind James, wand pointed at the figures on the ground. “D’you want your legs blown off the rest of your bodies?”

Rosier sneered. “You couldn’t.”

Sirius took another step toward Rosier, turning his wand in his hands, a nasty look twisting his face. “Want to find out?”

Wilkes shook dust from his hair and looked up at the pair of boys standing over him. “What do you want?” he said, trying for rudeness and failing dismally. “We’re only walking the corridors, and that’s no crime.”

“No,” James spat, “but I’ll tell you what I want. I want justice for George Asher. I want you to leave Lily Evans the hell alone. I want you two to rot in Azkaban for the rest of your lives. And maybe, if you’re good enough, you’ll get a Kiss from a Dementor. I’ll be holding my breath.”

What?” said Rosier venomously, and this time he did climb to his feet. James and Sirius pointed their wands at his heart, and he half-raised his hands to chest height, a grudging surrender. He looked at James. “What are you going on about? I didn’t have anything to do with Asher.”

James’s heart was thudding in his ears. “I – you’re lying,” he snarled. “I overheard the pair of you” – he moved his wand between the Slytherins, and Wilkes ducked his head, whimpering – “earlier today. You were saying… I don’t know, less witnesses, picking a great time. All that rubbish.”

Rosier rolled his eyes. “Oh, Christ,” he muttered, and moved his hand into his pocket. Sirius jabbed the tip of his wand into the other boy’s chest, but he shoved it away impatiently. “Look.” He withdrew a crumpled sheaf of parchment, covered in spiky black handwriting. “McGonagall’s tests for the next month.”

James swallowed hard against the scratchiness of his throat. Blood was still thudding through his brain, pressing painfully against the backs of his eyes. “What?” he said dully.

He’d made a huge mistake.

Footsteps rattled down the corridor just then, and all four boys turned, wands drawn. To James’s immense surprise, Remus hurled himself around the corner, clutching at a stitch in his side, breathing heavily. Peter followed a few seconds later, wheezing. Their eyes were wild; Remus looked from Wilkes to Rosier unseeingly, as though they didn’t even matter.

“James – it’s not – not –“ He gasped and leaned against the wall, wiping the back of his hand along his forehead. “Don’t do anything – stupid.” He gulped and then straightened up. “It’s not them.”

James stumbled back from Rosier and Wilkes, the former now wearing a smugly triumphant expression. “You know who it was?” Sirius asked exultantly, threats and intimidation tactics tossed aside.

But just as Remus opened his mouth again, James realized why he still felt horrible. He lunged for Remus, clapping hands on his shoulders; Peter, still catching his breath, looked at the pair of them in confusion.

“Where’s Lily?” James asked urgently. Remus’s eyes widened, and James swore vehemently. “God, you left her alone? You bloody left her alone?!”

“She’s probably with Marlene and Mary!” Peter spoke up encouragingly, but James was already running back up the corridor, hurling past the torches so they extended in one long blur of flame, running desperately for the Gryffindor common room and – he hoped – Lily inside of it.

*

Mary and Marlene hadn’t seen Lily for some time, and James thought he was going to faint with fear. He didn’t know whether he wanted to hit Remus and Peter for leaving her alone, or hit himself for not protecting her himself, but whatever he did, it had to wait until he found her again. It didn’t even comfort him that Remus thought he knew who’d killed George Asher, a solution he hadn’t taken the time to hear just yet. As long as she was still out there and no one knew where she was, it didn’t matter so much who killed Asher as who might be looking to kill Lily next.

The words of her letter rocketed around in his head, bumping against his skull tauntingly.

Tick tock, tick tock. You’re next.

Filthy Mudblood, worthless witch.

You’re next…

“James, where are you going?” Sirius shouted from somewhere behind him, breathing heavily. The four boys were running pell-mell through the castle in a horrible entourage, no destination in mind; they would stop when they found Lily. The library, the astronomy tower, the entire seventh floor, the second floor where they’d found George Asher – they’d all turned up no sign of her.

“I don’t know, I don’t know!” James tripped over an edge of one of the carpet runners and nearly slammed into one of the leaded windows dotting the corridor, and pushed himself off it with his hands, not breaking stride.

Peter coughed with exhaustion, trailing the pack. “James, you’ve got to slow down!” he hollered hoarsely. “We can’t keep running like this, mate!”

“We’re not stopping!” James shouted. “She might have known we were in the dungeons – come on –“ His sides ached, his muscles screamed at him to stop, sweat was dripping into his eyes, and none of it mattered, because he couldn’t find Lily and that was the worst thing imaginable…

He hurled around a corner, and then another corner, and darted through a hidden passageway he and the others knew behind a tapestry. No one else was around; they had come across almost no one, sprinting through the stairwells and corridors, and he wasn’t entirely surprised. If Remus and Peter had been able to make it out of the common room, then it appeared that the students were permitted to walk about the castle again, but he couldn’t blame them for wanting to keep to the common rooms anyway. But without people Hogwarts seemed that much bigger, and his footsteps and labored breathing echoed loudly off the tall, arched ceilings.

The grand staircase was around the next bend, and James threw himself onto the landing, hands skimming the stone banisters on either side of him. He could still hear Sirius, Remus, and Peter thundering along behind him, despite their protests, and jumped the last five stairs in a burst of adrenaline. And here was the entrance hall, and there –

James skidded to a stop at the base of the staircase. His stomach turned, and stars popped in front of his eyes.

No, no, no, no, no…

“James, what –“ Remus started, sucking in air, and then gasped for an entirely different reason. There was a dull thud from Peter sinking down onto the stairs in shock.

He could tell at once that it was Lily, because no other girl in the world had hair like that – long, red, beautiful hair that was fanned out over the flagstones of the entrance hall, glinting from the torches still burning around the perimeter of the room. She was curled in a loose interpretation of the fetal position, arms thrown over her head, hair covering her face. And puddled by her head, catching her pale hands and turning them scarlet, soaking the edges of that brilliant red hair, was a dark, watery substance that, when it caught the light of the flames, was a deep, horrible, familiar maroon.

“Lily,” James said brokenly. He could feel the other boys’ eyes on him without turning to see if they were really looking, full of concern and worry. “Maybe she’s still alive,” he croaked. “I’m going to go see.”

“James, no,” Sirius said harshly. James made to move forward, but a pair of hands clenched around his upper arms, holding him back. He struggled against them, aware that he was shouting and not consciously choosing the words that exploded from his mouth.

“Let me go! Let me go! You don’t understand, you don’t understand, that’s Lily, I have to protect her, she’s in danger – Lily, Lily! LILY!”

“Peter, for God’s sake! Go and get help!” Remus roared, still yanking on James’s arm, struggling to keep him from getting to Lily’s body. He went at once, previous exhaustion forgotten, sprinting away in the direction of McGonagall’s office.

James was still screaming like a madman. “No! NO! I’m sorry, Lily, please, I’m sorry! No, Lily, come back! I’m sorry!” He pushed against the hands of his friends, but they were too strong, and he kicked and he struggled and nothing did any good. His cheeks were wet with tears he couldn’t remember crying, throat sore with words he wasn’t aware of yelling.

His knees smacked stone, and he was sobbing, her name and pleas and apologies still bubbling through his lips. She was so close, only feet away from him, just there, lying there.

Dead.

A/N: Oh, this is hard to re-read. That sounds sort of shallow or meaningless, I suppose, but it's very weird to put my computer down for nearly five full days and come back to this particular chapter. There was one key part of the last chapter that a lot of reviewers missed, I think -- but it'll tell you for sure who Lily and George's killer was. And if you did miss it, it'll be further explained in next week's fifth and final chapter!

I got home a bit earlier than I planned today, so I decided to go ahead and post this, especially since I found out a few days ago that I'll actually be gone all day tomorrow, too. So it works very well! Please feel free to leave your theories and questions; I love your reviews, and really thank you so much for the response on this story thus far. 


Chapter 5: Five
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They held Lily’s and George’s services together, in the Great Hall, the weekend before the Hogwarts Express arrived to take the students back home. The board had ruled, and Professor Dumbledore had agreed, that time away from the school would be beneficial to everyone, even though the person responsible for the murders had already been taken away. He was just shy of seventeen, and therefore wasn’t yet sent to Azkaban; all bets were that he’d end up there in the end.

James hadn’t said a word since he, Sirius, Remus, and Peter had had been led away from Lily’s body. He spent the entirety of the service hunched over, muscles taut, fingers threaded through his hair and glasses slipping down the end of his nose. Sirius and Remus flanked him, but they might as well have been statues, for all the good they were able to do. No one could do anything, and that was the truth. There wasn’t a person alive who could help him get over a person dead.

“It wasn’t your fault, James,” Remus said to him in a low voice, just as the school was making to leave the Hall and return to their common rooms for the night. Curious first-years were still standing on their toes, craning to get a glimpse of the two coffins arranged side-by-side on the dais. “You know that, don’t you?”

James looked at him levelly. For a minute, it looked as though he was finally going to say something, and Sirius watched him intently, waiting. But he only shook his head and pushed away from them, the crowd splitting for him, the boy who had loved the dead girl so publicly and fiercely.

*

Severus Snape stared blankly at the wall opposite him, not seeing anything, though there wasn’t anything to see anyway. He knew he was in the bowels of the Ministry of Magic, in a holding cell that was little more than a concrete box, until they told him it was time for his trial. That could be weeks from now. He didn’t care. It was quiet in here, peaceful. For the first time in his life, Severus was completely, totally alone, and he wondered why it had taken so long for him to do it in the first place.

George Asher had been little more than a scare tactic; he wasn’t sorry that an innocent boy had to lose his life in the process, but he did pity him a little. It wasn’t his fault he’d been born to Muggles, that his blood was tainted and impure. Still, facts were facts, and now one less man was around to play at being magical while the rest of the wizarding world knew he was lowly. That was the Dark Lord’s purpose, wasn’t it? How proud he must be, if news of Severus had reached him; he would be so proud, knowing his cause was being enacted by such loyal followers.

Severus shifted, wrapping his arms around his knees. He would feel bad about it, he imagined, if he had a conscience. But wasn’t it a wonderfully free thing, now that it was gone? He could have done anything. Anything! Working for the right cause of blood purity was a noble thing, really, to someone without a conscience. He should be lauded for it.

It had always been Lily, always. Even before he’d planned Asher’s death – more coincidence than precognition, truly – he had known Lily would die. All it had taken was intimidation and bribery to get the letter into her common room at the hands of a naïve first year, a decision of the proper spell to do it, and patience. Three steps! How delicious, how exquisite a revenge – she had humiliated him, caused him suffering, and she was a Mudblood (how wonderful, how freeing to be able to say that word again, after her anger and selfishness had ripped it from his tongue) besides! It was such good fortune. Severus couldn’t have planned it better if he tried. He thought for sure she would recognize the handwriting on the letter to her, but of course she hadn’t. How much attention had she ever paid him?

None.

It had been stupidly easy, too, in the end. Severus had worried that when it came down to it, he wouldn’t be able to do it, but Sectumsempra had risen to his lips easily enough. He felt nothing when he did it. She meant nothing to him anymore. And she had found him, there in the entrance hall, blabbering about Potter and Black and the dungeons.

He hummed to himself. Yes, it had all gone splendidly. He had done a good thing for his cause. The Dark Lord was sure to make a martyr of him, sing his praises to the men gathered about him. Two Mudbloods in as many days! What luck!

Why had he said those words to Lupin, though? Had he mirrored the letter on purpose, wanting to be found out? Did he think the pair of them, Lupin and Pettigrew, would be too stupid to figure it out?

He might never know.

Footsteps stopped outside the door to Severus’s cell, and the locks ground together, sliding back with a screech. The door swung inward, passing close enough to him that the filthy, torn hem of his robes moved in the draft. A Ministry official stood on the other side, flanked by others, all wands drawn and pointed at him.

“Severus Snape?” the leader of them said authoritatively. Snape moved to stand to his feet, and the three of them stepped back in one movement. The youngest of them – could he even be more than eighteen himself? – was shaking. Severus grinned.

“That’s me.”

The leader tried to make himself look tall, though Severus had several inches over him. “You’ll come with us,” he said, keeping his wand trained over his prisoner. That was foolish – what was he supposed to do? Where was he supposed to go that was such a threat to these men? He didn’t care what happened next. He’d done everything he’d set out to accomplish.

He went without arguing, without saying another word, but he couldn’t keep the self-satisfied smirk from his face. How wonderful, how truly wonderful, to be a man without conscience. Hardly a man at all.

A/N: SO. It was Snape! How many of you guessed it? There was one bit in chapter three that many of you missed, and that led Remus to figure out the answer: In their conversation with Snape, he called Lily a "worthless witch," echoing what he'd already written in the letter to her. Remus remembered the letter's contents and ran to tell James, but James was more concerned about finding Lily, and didn't listen to his friend in time.

Snape's definitely got more than a touch of mental illness here, by the way, which is a common theme in many of my stories. In the first chapter, he works precisely and delicately to write a letter he thinks Lily won't figure out is from him, but nearly blows his cover to dash off her name as an afterthought. His obsession over Lily and desire for revenge against what he feels is wrongful treatment of him directed him to a "if you can't be mine, you can't be anybody's" mentality. More than that, he desires power, and killing Muggle-borns in an attempt to attract attention from Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters would have seemed a good idea to someone who maybe wasn't all there mentally. I love Snape as a character very much, but it stands to argue that he really isn't a very nice person, and he was the murderer from day one.

A few disclaimers: The title of the story, and much of its inspiration, comes from the song "Bad Blood" by the band Bastille (who you should really check out, if you have the time!). Further inspiration was drawn from the songs "Laura Palmer," "Things We Lost In The Fire," "Pompeii," and "Haunt," all also by Bastille; the ITV drama Broadchurch; the song "So Close" by Ólafur Arnalds; and the songs "Lily's Theme" and "Statues" from the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows soundtrack, composed by Alexandre Desplat. 

Anyway! If you've got any more questions, definitely be sure to ask them, because I'd love to help you understand better if things are still a little foggy. I hope this mystery ended satisfactorily for most of you! A lot of you had really awesome theories, and I was quite jealous of the creativity of a few of them. 

Thank you so much for reading and reviewing and favoriting, all of those of you who did any of those things, and I hope you've enjoyed Bad Blood! It was immensely fun to write, and I'd like to do another mystery sometime. But I wouldn't even still be here without people supporting my stories, so another great whopping thanks goes out to HPFF at large! Cheers, and I'll see you around!


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