Chapter 21 : Like Soft, Drifting Sand
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Author’s Notes: First off, I apologise for the eternity it took to get this chapter out. This was very problematic for me to write, not only because of my tight schedule but also because it’s just, well, difficult. Like the previous, it is transitional, but I hope you like it anyway. Happy new year to all! :)
Chapter Summary: As the War hits home, friendships are questioned and strengthened, heroes emerge, and a prophecy begins to be fulfilled as fate asserts itself. But sometimes, the very thing that’s supposed to keep people together can tear them apart.
The strength I simply never found I will find for you
What I believe our future holds, I will see it through
To be with you a lifetime is really all I ask.
--- Vittorio Grigolo (You are my Miracle) ---
His words came in an ill-timed lull. Heads snapped in his direction, mouths slightly open and eyes alert, all of them waiting for him to affirm what he had just said—or to deny it and tell them he had been joking.
Several heartbeats passed. Hermione lightly yet urgently shook the little boy’s shoulders. “Death Eaters?” she repeated, her whisper magnified by the silence. “At Hogwarts?”
Faces blanched, and sharp intakes of breath were echoed throughout the room.
“But that can’t be!” a female fifth year protested. “Dumbledore said we were safe!”
“Maybe those were just some Slytherins pulling your leg,” another student volunteered, however tensely.
The boy visibly swallowed, his hands shaking. “I’m telling you, I saw them!” His voice cracked, and he stifled a sob. “I was pla-playing Exploding Snap on the fourth floor, and suddenly a door opened from the wall, and I saw them rush out! Four of them! Big and tall and wearing black cloaks, their faces covered with silver masks... So I ran away as fast as I could...”
Panicked buzzing filled the room, although nobody dared move from where they were. Hermione stood up and glanced at Sirius, whose face had gone white and had twisted in alarm.
So there is indeed a secret passage located on the fourth floor. The boy, who had now begun crying openly, was telling the truth.
And then, without having yet recovered from the terrible realisation, another hit her.
“James!” Hermione cried in fear.
A hush fell over the room.
Hermione couldn’t breathe, could no longer stand a moment of inaction. She rushed to the door, all her senses now concentrated on finding James. She didn’t know where he was, but she had to do something. Anything! Blindly, she clambered out, but a strong hand pulled her from behind.
“Wait, Regina,” Sirius declared. “I’m going with you, but wait just a moment.”
She gazed at him in desperate confusion, wanting to scream that there was no time at all to waste—why was he hesitating now?—but he had already turned from her and had started giving Remus and Peter instructions.
“Moony, take charge and keep everybody inside. Wormtail, you help Moony. Make sure that the portrait hole and all the windows are locked.”
Remus briskly sprang to his feet, tugging a still petrified Peter up as well.
Sirius’ grip on Hermione tightened. “We’re going out to look for James and Evans and for the other students who might still be out. We’ll try to go to Dumbledore and McGonagall as well.” His jaw clenched. “If we’re not back by midnight, Remus... You know what to do.” With that, he helped Hermione out the portrait hole and followed suit, slamming it behind him.
He lengthened his stride to keep up with Hermione, who was walking down the hall rapidly and paying him no attention. They reached the top of the staircase, but the stairs to the larger part of the castle seemed to take forever to swing their way. If they could just jump down several flights of stairs without having to endure multiple injuries, Sirius knew both of them would have done so.
“If you hadn’t stopped me from taking off back there, I might have caught the stairs,” Hermione snapped without looking at him, clutching the banister.
“True, but the Death Eaters might have also been nearer,” Sirius replied evenly, belying the fears cruelly tearing at his insides.
“That was the point, you know,” Hermione said scornfully, willing the stairs to move faster towards them. “We don’t want to chase them away; we want to get them.”
“We want to get James and Lily,” Sirius reminded her as they rushed down the first flight of stairs, and then the second. “I don’t know where the hell they are right now. I don’t even know if by wasting—at least according to you—a few seconds, we’ve sent the Death Eaters closer to them...” He paused for breath at the foot of the stairs to the third floor, his chest heaving with both emotion and adrenalin.
“But at least we’ve made sure we won’t be letting them anywhere near the Gryffindor tower.”
Hermione bit her lower lip in quiet consideration. "Fine," she conceded afterwards. "Let's have it your way, then. Divide and conquer." She looked up and met his eyes. "We can split up—”
Sirius gaped at her as though she was insane. "Split up?”
“—and I'll take the left wing on all floors while you take the right,” Hermione continued, unperturbed. All traces of her irritation had vanished, her voice consumed by weary resignation. “Can we meet each other here in an hour? Hopefully we'll have found them by then."
And if we don’t? But Sirius forcefully pushed the thought away. “I cannot let you go off on your own,” Sirius objected, knowing James would never have allowed it. Not in a million years. Not even if he was in danger and she wanted to save him.
“It’ll be faster!” Hermione insisted stubbornly, her annoyance peaking once again. “Will you just please stop wavering and agree? Please! This is no time to be chivalrous!”
Sirius’ patience snapped. “Look,” he snarled. “I don’t care if you go and get yourself killed, but James will kill me for it if that happens, don’t you see? And then he’ll go and kill himself after.” Without another word, he stalked off in the other direction.
“Where are you going, Black?” Hermione demanded.
“Time’s better spent looking for my best friend,” Sirius answered with his back to her. His hand slipped into his robes, and he drew his wand. “Just so you know, you’re not the only one who loves him.”
Hermione froze, watching his receding form. Sirius...
“Do both of us a favour and stay safe, alright?”
Hermione exhaled noisily, seething with indignation, but as Sirius disappeared around the corner, the fear she didn’t want to acknowledge escalated. She was alone now, and the Death Eaters were at large. What would she ever do if she encountered them? She fumbled in her pocket for her wand but could find no reassurance from the piece of wood.
This is not the time to be afraid! Move!
She took several slow, deep breaths; her grip on her wand steadied, and even as she pressed her lips together in dread, she turned abruptly and started to walk towards the staircase at the end of the hall. Her movements were measured now, almost rigid, the stillness in the air no longer suffocating her. Instead, it sharpened her senses and dulled the realisation that her path could as well lead to her death.
Nothing can daunt a woman armed with love.
Hermione scanned the entirety of the left wing on the first floor before making her way down the hall, wary of anything that seemed unnatural. The bolts of the great doors to the castle were in place, but she wasn’t surprised. The Death Eaters escaping that way would be just as effective as a thief ringing a doorbell before entering.
As she made her way back up, she wondered: if Voldemort wanted a terrorising display of his power, why didn’t he send his followers during the day, when students and professors alike were freely milling around the castle? For all the morbid glamour he was known for, why did he decide to attack during the night, almost as though as he didn’t want to be noticed?
At the top of the staircase to the second floor, Hermione once more peered down the hall to check if anything was amiss. She had decided to inspect the floors one at a time; satisfied and yet with her alarm rising, she gingerly took the stairs to the third floor, flattening herself against the wall afterwards as she strained her ears for noise.
She heard a derisive laugh, and recognising it as James’s, she released the breath that she had been holding. He’s safe!
“If you ask me, joining Voldemort would be tainting my pure blood, not honouring it,” Hermione heard him say in an almost conversation manner. Whoever he was talking with hissed in spite, but he continued, “So I hate to disappoint you, Lestrange, but I’m afraid you’ll have to take no for an answer.”
Lestrange. A chill ran through her. She had heard that name and the murders associated with it, and the earlier relief she had at hearing James’s voice evaporated. He was in danger, but how could she best help him? She could make her presence known, but wouldn’t that create more trouble...?
Without another conscious thought, Hermione rushed from where she was hiding and saw James standing only a few feet from where a metal armour had exploded. He had his wand out in a stance fit for duels, his breathing ragged and an unexpected smirk on his face. Hermione watched in suspended terror as James’s opponent, a dark-skinned woman whose face was disfigured with fierce fury, fired another curse. He stumbled as he dodged the light, landing on his knees.
“James!” she screamed.
Why didn’t I think of bringing the map? Sirius berated himself angrily as he stomped up the stairs to the seventh floor. It would’ve made finding James so much easier. But he didn’t have the time to return to Gryffindor tower to retrieve the map, in any case. Not after wasting three-quarters of an hour in searching the left wing of all the lower floors, the dungeons and the entrance to the Slytherin common room included.
“Fifteen minutes,” Sirius gritted out as another clock came into view. Fifteen more minutes and he’d have to meet Regina back where he left her... that is, if nothing had happened to her yet. He groaned, reminded once more of the advantage the Marauder’s Map would’ve given him. Where are you, Prongs?
He pushed open a slab of wall, which gave way to reveal a revolving staircase covering two more flights. Another door concealed by a wall and several feet to the right would be the entrance to the Ravenclaw common room, usually accessed through the fifth floor. Sirius had discovered this passage after many months of trying to get through to Marlene McKinnon.
Sirius’ breathing hitched, and he stopped in his tracks.
And then again, “Crucio!”
The cold, forceful words reverberated even through the brick wall, and his heart clenched. He ran up the remaining steps and kicked through the wall just as a shrill pierced the air.
Lily was twisting in excruciating pain on the carpeted floor ten feet from him, just outside the door to the Ravenclaw common room. Reflexively, Sirius growled and shouted, “Stupefy!” The red light bounced ineffectively off the wall as he ran towards her, but it didn’t matter; announcing his presence was enough to distract the enemy, and the curse torturing Lily was lifted.
However weak she was, she didn’t waste a second before retaliating. “Petrificus Totalus!”
Sirius reached Lily’s side just in time to see the Death Eater, robed in black and yet unmasked, be immobilised as the curse hit his left knee. His body staggered, about to fall on its side, and then:
Another burst of light erupted from the end of Lily’s wand, still angled from the floor, and this time it hit the Death Eater right in the chest. The force was enough to make him topple backwards and roll down the stairs. Sirius rushed to follow him and, to his horror, saw the staircases change just as the petrified body reached the last rung—and dropped vertically, landing several floors down with a thud.
Sirius’ blood froze, transfixed at the sight of the mangled, almost indistinguishable form tens of feet below. His hands gripped the banister for support as a wave of nausea hit him. Then he felt Lily quietly approach his side, saw the realisation strike her as her green eyes widened in shock and her face paled into ash.
Lily’s chin trembled and her shoulders shook, almost as though she wanted to cry. Pity overwhelmed him, and he laid a hand on her arm. She met his gaze fiercely, as though challenging him to blame her, but how could he?
“Are you hurt, Evans?” he asked instead.
“N—no,” she answered, trying to control the shiver that ran through her. Sirius could sense how hard she was fighting for control, finally succeeding when she next spoke. “How did you find me? The Death Eater... I was on my rounds... We should get back, there might be others around—”
Sirius’ entire body went numb. “Evans, where’s James?”
Her sharp intake of breath was painfully audible. “He’s not with me; we do our rounds separately...”
A low, anguished moan escaped Sirius as he took Lily by the wrist and led her with haste towards the secret passage from whence he had earlier emerged. Regina, he thought with newfound urgency. Have you found him yet?
“Where are we going?” Lily asked in confusion as they passed the turn to the revolving stairs leading to Dumbledore’s office. “We should alert the Headmaster!”
Sirius didn’t respond, except to tighten his hold on her as she tried to tug her arm away. Deaf to her protests, he practically dragged her down the stairs to where Regina had said she’d meet him after an hour.
She wasn’t there.
Damn! Sirius cursed, rooted to the spot and eyes wild as he looked around. Twice, thrice, several times.
“Black,” Lily muttered in a low voice. “What exactly—”
“Thank Merlin!” a voice exclaimed, and they both turned to see Professor McGonagall approach them, seemingly having come from Gryffindor Tower. “Mister Black, Miss Evans—”
“Professor, Death Eaters—”
“So Mister Lupin has told me,” Professor McGonagall interrupted Lily. “And now I must request that the two of you return to your common room—”
“But James and Regina—” Sirius protested.
The older woman’s nostrils flared, and she pointed in the direction of the Gryffindor Tower. “To the common room. Now.”
Sirius stared at her disbelievingly. “Professor,” he sharply said. “My friends are in danger, and you expect me to run and take cover?”
Professor McGonagall glared, but her voice was kinder when next she spoke. “Mister Black, I already had Argus alert the staff, and they are currently searching the castle. For the moment, kindly consider your safety as a priority and return to the common room.”
Frustrated and yet unable to do anything else, Sirius whirled to leave, but Lily remained where she was, her inner turmoil reflected on her face.
“What is it, Miss Evans?”
“A Death Eater... a Death Eater’s dead, Professor,” Lily spoke quickly, her jaw tensed. “Fell down the stairs when I hit him with a curse...”
Professor McGonagall’s mouth opened in astonishment, and her brow furrowed with sympathy. “To the common room, Miss Evans. We’ll talk more of this tomorrow.”
Lily stared at her for several more tormented seconds. As the Deputy Headmistress watched her walk away, her shoulders drooped, she worried at how much the young girl had aged in the past hour alone.
James eyed the dark, heavy-lidded woman in front of him, shifting his weight from one foot to another, trying to decide whether to fight or run. The stairs was just several feet down the hallway, and he could attempt making a flight for it; but then he would be running with his back turned to the enemy... Certainly not a good idea.
“Scared, Potter?” Bellatrix sneered, her dark eyes travelling to the fist curled within the pockets of his robes.
“Should I be?” James asked, raising his chin a notch and cautiously drawing his wand out, readying himself for another attack.
Bellatrix cackled. “Oh, look, the boy’s got a wand! Pity we did not come tonight to kill.” She took one step toward him, her gaze intent as a predator’s. “Now if you’ll just be a good boy and step aside...”
James’s face darkened. He was definitely not running. “What makes you think I’d let a murderer like you pass?”
Without warning, he flashed a Stunning spell at her, but she didn’t even flinch. Bellatrix merely deflected it with a wave of her hand and smiled nastily at him. “Such feeble attempts can never stop me, but if that’s how itle-bittle Potter wants to play...” She bared more teeth and then screamed, “Crucio!”
The curse hit James as he tried to duck, and he sank to his knees in pain. One shout, and he instantly regretted it. He would never give the Death Eater the satisfaction of knowing she had hurt him. He thrashed on the floor, gritting his teeth and trying to summon enough concentration to master his senses.
“Tarantallegra!” James fiercely growled, missing Bellatrix by a couple of inches but making her lose the handle on the Cruciatus. He snapped to his feet in an instant, his breathing laboured and his face livid with fury. A surge of adrenalin was coursing through him like he’d never known before, awakening a mode of survival that was fuelled by anger and the desire for vengeance. He knew now that he would either kill or be killed—but the thought that fighting might bring about his own death did not terrify him.
On the contrary, a noble, heroic death was almost welcome.
“You need not fight me, boy,” Bellatrix wheezed, flicking her wand threateningly at him. “You carry a proud heritage that the Dark Lord favours, especially if you do as he bids. Help us, and he will reward you greatly.”
“And all I have to do is kill Muggleborns for sport?” James laughed derisively, eyeing the Death Eater with contempt and bravely stepping forward. “If you ask me, joining Voldemort would be tainting my pure blood, not honouring it. So I hate to disappoint you, Lestrange, but I’m afraid you’ll have to take no for an answer.”
Bellatrix hissed. “Well, let us try again, shall we? Crucio!”
This time, James was quick enough to sidestep and avoid being hit; the curse pierced a metal sculpture of a soldier standing in the corner, and its armour shattered to pieces. Unmindful of the raining debris, he aimed his wand more steadily in the Death Eater’s direction.
James knew it was foolish; the Shield Charm would never be able to deflect the Unforgivables, but then again it might serve as a diversion. Heaven knows he needed one. He saw another light streaking towards him, and as he tried to avoid it, he stumbled to his knees.
His head whirled at the sound of his name, and to his horror, he saw Hermione standing at the corner to the stairs, her eyes wide with fear. “Regina! What are you—” Another Cruciatus curse struck him in the chest and he roared to block off the sensation of the many knives jabbing at him. Dimly, he heard Hermione scream.
“Stupefy!” she shot at Bellatrix as she ran to him. The Death Eater’s wand arm twitched, and the excruciating agony James was suffering eased. Hermione let out a sob of relief as she wrapped her arms around James, but he pushed her away.
“No,” he gasped. “Leave now, Regina!”
No sooner were the words out of his mouth did he see Bellatrix direct another Cruciatus, this time at Hermione, and he yanked her to his other side for safety. “Do not involve her in this, Lestrange,” James warned as he stood and pulled Hermione up to her feet. “This is between us. Let her go.”
“Awww,” Bellatrix cooed. “And here I thought you wanted to play. Bargaining now, aren’t we?” She cast a malevolent look towards Hermione and added, “I might not recognise her, Potter, but the stench reeking from her blood is enough to sentence her to death.”
James’s fist tightened on Hermione’s wrist. “You told me you didn’t come tonight to kill.”
Bellatrix’ eyes flitted appraisingly between the two of them, and James felt his reflexes stretched to the limit. Divide and conquer, he thought urgently. He had to distract the Death Eater so Regina could get away.
“As soon as I let go of your hand, run away,” he whispered to Hermione from the corner of his mouth. In response, Hermione squeezed his hand.
“I am not going anywhere without you, James,” Hermione muttered back stubbornly, causing James’s eyes to narrow.
James glared at her before flicking his wand in Bellatrix’ direction. Reducto! he bellowed inside his head; at the same time, he shouted, as he shoved Regina away, “Go now, damn it!”
But be that his execution of the nonverbal Reductor was excellent, it was a move obviously foreseen by Bellatrix, who had carelessly waved the spell away with a silent Protego. The red light rebounded towards James and Hermione, and this time it was the latter who yelled, “Protego!” The curse hit the wall, and the portraits erupted into smithereens.
Hermione covered her nose to keep from breathing in the debris, her eyes stinging. In the midst of the settling dust, James was aware of a figure, also robed in black, approach the female Death Eater from behind—and his heart sank. Things were getting bleaker.
“Bellatrix,” a cold voice issued from behind its mask, its voice coloured with impatience. “What is with this delay? We are under orders to complete the plan in haste.”
“I was tying up loose ends,” Bellatrix replied, irritated that the other Death Eater would dare question her methods.
“Be quick then. You know the curse, I presume?” he replied with contemptible amusement.
“We have not been given orders to kill,” Bellatrix reminded loftily.
“My dear, since when have we required them?” he sneered, and James just knew it was Lucius Malfoy under the mask. “Or tell me, Bella. Perhaps the sight of two underage wizards frighten you?”
Her nostrils flared. “How dare you!” Bellatrix seethed. “I pride myself on carrying out the Dark Lord’s plans to the last detail, that he might be pleased. Besides, I cannot just kill a Pureblood!”
The other Death Eater tossed his cloak back, revealing long, white blond hair, and slowly lifted the silver mask from his face. A flame lit his normally cold eyes as he surveyed their two opponents. His upper lip curled mockingly.
“I see what you mean,” he acceded. “What a charming little reunion this is. Potter, I believe?” He nodded towards James, who stared back defiantly at him. “I hear he’s a rather gifted wizard, and such a fellow may someday be of use to the Dark Lord.”
“I’d rather die,” James declared valiantly, one arm still shielding Hermione from the Death Eaters.
“Brave too, I see,” Lucius remarked idly. “But let me give you some advice, Potter—tonight, not even your Gryffindor courage will be enough to save yourself.” His eyes glinted. “Let us pass. Now.”
Several tense moments passed, during which not one muscle twitched. And then Lucius and Bellatrix each took a step forward, testing the waters, but James and Hermione stood their ground. Another step, and yet they didn’t move. As soon as the Death Eaters had taken their third step, James and Hermione straightened their arms and firmly pointed their wands at them.
“No more,” Hermione spoke for the first time since arguing with James, her voice ringing. “This is the farthest you will ever get.”
James wouldn’t have wanted her to draw attention to herself, and again he felt his anger mount, but now wasn’t the time for it. He opened his mouth to speak and stall for more time, but it merely gaped at the realisation that perhaps they would be saved, after all.
Professors McGonagall and Slughorn had just turned around a corner down the hallway and were stealthily walking towards Lucius and Bellatrix. The Deputy Headmistress had, with a stern look, warned him to be silent, and James sensed from Regina’s minute adjustment in posture that she had seen the aid forthcoming as well.
Lucius, completely unaware, was just surveying Hermione with the same intense dislike Bellatrix had shown earlier. “Appalling, Potter, the company you consort with,” he drawled. “Let me assure you—the Dark Lord will hear of your insolence tonight, and you will be sorry.”
The gravity of that statement was not lost on James, but he wasn’t given a second to think on it. Lucius turned the wand on them fast, but Professor McGonagall was faster. Blue light erupted from the end of her wand and grazed Bellatrix’ right ear. In one fluid motion, the two Death Eaters turned, both of them immediately retaliating.
Jets of light streaked all around them, and James did not have to think twice as the flurry of curses broke out. Still holding Hermione’s hand, he pulled her away in a run and up the stairs to the third floor until they reached the staircase that would bring them back to Gryffindor tower.
“James, wait! I just remembered,” Hermione said breathlessly, “I was supposed to meet Sirius down there...” Her voice faltered at the annoyance and pained anxiety that crossed his face.
“Both of you should have never left the tower in the first place,” James harshly said. “We were lucky as hell to be out to have gotten out of that scrap.” The idea of what might have happened downstairs, had Professor McGonagall not seen them, was too much to bear. Regina could’ve been hurt—or worse, dead. His throat constricted, and for one mad moment, he wanted to dash back downstairs and duel Malfoy and Lestrange to death.
“We were worried, James,” Hermione reasoned as they briskly walked to the portrait of the Fat Lady. “A third-year had returned running to the common room, crying about Death Eaters, and you weren’t there yet, so Sirius and I decided to look for you...”
“Then why weren’t you with him when you found me?”
“We thought it would be better if we split up.” James threw her an incredulous look, and Hermione laid a placating hand on his arm. “I know you think we put ourselves in danger, but wouldn’t you have done the same for us? Sirius wasn’t down where we’d agreed to meet, and it’s been past the hour we’ve set.
James clenched his jaw. “I’m taking you back first to Gryffindor tower. If Sirius still isn’t there—”
“Lily was also out in the castle—”
“I’ll leave to look for them again. But I want you safe first.” He met her eyes briefly, and Hermione realised that this time, he was not asking. “Flobberworms,” he told the Fat Lady. The portrait swung open, and they clambered in.
“James!” Sirius exclaimed, barrelling towards his best friend and embracing him tightly. “Prongs, I thought—”
“I’m fine,” James interrupted. “Have you been hurt?”
“No,” Sirius answered, letting him go and turning to hug Hermione as well. “How did you find him?” he asked her.
Hermione smiled feebly. “Got lucky, I suppose.”
The three of them approached the couch on which Peter and Remus were sprawled, almost boneless with relief. They both stood and greeted James and Hermione with weak hugs before settling once again. The common room was empty save for the five of them, Professor McGonagall having sent everyone to bed earlier.
“Thank Merlin you’re both safe,” Remus sighed. “I couldn’t imagine what I’d do had something happened.”
“By the way, is Lily—” Hermione started to ask.
“I found her,” Sirius replied in a low voice. “She’s already gone to her dormitory.”
“She’s all right, isn’t she?” Hermione asked.
Sirius exhaled heavily. “Not exactly.” He told them how he had found Lily battling the Death Eater and how she had accidentally killed him, eliciting gasps from his friends.
“Does anybody else know?” Peter squeaked.
“McGonagall,” Sirius answered. “Lily and I ran into her on the way here. She said she already knew about the attack and had alerted the staff to search for you, Prongs.”
“She found us, all right,” James said tightly. “She and Slughorn must still be battling Malfoy and Lestrange.”
Peter let out another squeak, Sirius swore, and a paler Remus enquired, “What exactly happened, James?”
His fellow Marauder simply frowned deeply, and Remus turned to Hermione. “Regina?”
Hermione risked a glance at James, saw the fire blaze in his eyes and knew that it was not her place to speak.
“Prongs?” Sirius prompted.
“I don’t want to talk about it, Padfoot,” James replied curtly. “Not now. Not when I’m so angry with you and Regina for rushing out like that just to look for me, I can barely think straight.”
Sirius’ brows rose in surprise. Hermione, her patience wearing thin, said, “I don’t understand what you’re so angry about, James. I told you, we were worried about you—”
“So both of you,” James said, bristling at Sirius, “risked your lives for me?”
“Tell me, mate,” Sirius coldly said, “what would you have done?”
The same, James answered immediately in his head. But he didn’t say anything. Instead, he abruptly stood up and, towering over them, he declared, “Don’t ever do anything dangerous like that again. I’m not worth it.”
Thousands of miles away, in a village called Little Hangleton, Voldemort was livid.
“My Lord, please punish me,” Bellatrix cried, kneeling before him. She, Lucius, and Augustus Rookwood had just finished reporting on their unsuccessful mission at Hogwarts.
“I do not need you to remind me, Bella,” Voldemort thundered. “Crucio.” Bellatrix screamed. He let a full minute pass before lifting the curse; the woman lay on the floor, breathing raggedly.
“I don’t remember telling you to rest,” he said coldly and turned his attention to the other two Death Eaters. He fingered his wand as he surveyed them with displeasure; yet again, the best of his Death Eaters had failed him.
“Remind me, Lucius,” Voldemort silkily said, his red-tinged eyes boring down on him. “Why did I ask you to go to Hogwarts?”
Lucius fought to maintain eye contact and replied, careful not to let fear colour his voice, “To secure the current location of the Mirror of Erised, master.”
“Precisely,” Voldemort sneered. “The mission was arranged merely to verify the Mirror’s safety. I did not ask you to take it out, nor did I instruct you to play with children!” His voice hardened. “I sent four of you—you come back one less, and with no information to appease me either. Crucio! Crucio!”
Lucius and Augustus writhed on the floor, and Voldemort vented his anger by throwing their bodies up and down. When he had tired of it, he jerked his wand and asked, still incensed, “The name of the one who killed Jugson. Do you have it?”
Augustus shook his head and was rewarded with another Cruciatus. Voldemort glared at Lucius, who held up a hand as though to stop the Dark Lord and gasped, “We shall find out, my Lord. But the one who stalled Bella and me—there were two of them—”
“It was a Potter, my lord,” Bellatrix interrupted. “Potter of the Fourteen Families. James Potter.”
Voldemort tilted his head to one side, thoughtfully considering this information in the midst of Rookwood’s wails. “James Potter,” he spat venomously. “Mark him, as well as the one who killed Jugson.”
“My lord?” Lucius said, not fully understanding.
“They dared defy me this once; they will defy me again. Kill them,” Voldemort commanded, his eyes burning now as he stared at the three kneeling before him. “Kill them, and then Hogwarts will see what happens to those resist me.”
Hermione passed the common room the following morning to find the three Marauders waiting for her, their eyes bleary. The night before had been especially longer for them; half an hour after James’s departure, Professors McGonagall and Dumbledore had arrived, wanting to question them on the incident. Hermione and Sirius told them all that they could, and the older wizards seemed satisfied with their accounts.
“Professor, I can go get James,” Remus had offered, but the Headmaster had shaken his head.
“That’s not necessary tonight, Remus,” Dumbledore had replied. “I shall speak to him and Miss Evans tomorrow morning.”
Now Hermione wondered where James was, but as soon as she opened her mouth to speak, Sirius snarled, “Don’t know where he is myself, that arrogant git.”
Her spirits dropped. She had hoped that things would look up in the morning, but they seemed to pick up right where they left off. Subdued, she followed Peter, Remus and Sirius down to the Great Hall for breakfast. They settled at their usual seats before realising that James was sitting alone down at the far end, munching on toast and apparently in deep thought.
Sirius glowered at him. James must have felt some of the heat, for he turned to look in their direction, but his jaw merely clenched, and he went back to his toast.
Hermione was discomfited. Surely he still wasn’t angry at them about last night?
“Wouldn’t even talk to me,” she heard Sirius mutter, still throwing daggers at his best friend and dragging his knife noisily on his plate.
Hermione exhaled noisily. Wanting to put an end to it, she stood up and marched to where James was.
“Hi,” Hermione nervously greeted. The frantic thumping of her heart stilled when James shifted and looked straight into her eyes—his were cold, unfeeling. She shivered; he seemed to have completely shut himself off.
“Mind if I sit with you?” she asked anyway. James shrugged, and so she sat down, turning over phrases in her head.
“James,” Hermione hesitantly began, his detachment making her feel like she was talking to a stranger. “We’re—I’m—sorry about last night.” She paused, but he said nothing, so he continued, “Maybe we had been reckless, but there was no time to think. You would—you would have done the same for us, we know it—”
“You don’t understand,” James said cuttingly.
Hermione struggled with herself, biting back a retort. “All right, James,” she said, a touch of steel this time. “Tell me what’s bothering you. Make me understand.”
A shadow crossed James’s features, and he averted his gaze towards the High Table. Dumbledore had risen from his seat and was on his way to descend the platform. The sinking feeling in his stomach told him he knew what the Headmaster was going to say, but if it was going to help him escape Regina’s scrutiny...
“Looks like Dumbledore wants to say something, we’d better listen,” he said offhandedly, turning his back to her.
The Headmaster waved his hands for attention, smiling slightly as the noise in the Hall died down. “I know what a pain it is to waive conversation in the midst of a hearty breakfast, and on such a fine morning as this—” He glanced at the ceiling, where the sun was on its way to its rise. “Nevertheless, I have some important announcements to make.”
His voice turned sombre when next he spoke. “Last night, four Death Eaters entered Hogwarts.” Nervous buzzing filled the room, and Dumbledore said, “Fortunately, nobody in the castle was hurt, and the staff was alerted immediately to attend to the situation. One of the Death Eaters was killed in combat.”
Gasps punctuated this sentence.
“Three of the Death Eaters, however, had eluded capture and had escaped via which they had entered as well: a passageway on the fourth floor that was, before now, unbeknownst to us.”
By this time, the murmurs had escalated into audible words.
“How come it wasn’t guarded?”
“D’you reckon they’ll come back again?”
“Lucky they came at night then, eh? When nobody was roaming the castle?”
Dumbledore had to raise his voice to make himself heard over all the concerns. “This passage has been sealed off, and protective charms have already been placed over it. I implore you then to immediately report to your Heads of Houses any conceivable means of entry that you might discover.” His eyes wandered furtively to the Marauders, and his tone hardened.
“I do not have any reason to believe these Death Eaters can once again break into Hogwarts, but then again, I cannot emphasise strongly enough how dangerous the current situation is. Rules on your out-of-bed hours and tighter security measures will be enforced more stringently, and wrongdoers shall be punished more severely.”
Then the Headmaster smiled, surprising his students. “On a lighter note, allow me to give credit to the students who showed exemplary courage when faced with last night’s events. Ethan Amber,” Dumbledore said, nodding at the small third-year, who looked terrified with the attention. “Remus Lupin, Peter Pettigrew, Sirius Black, Regina Weisz,” he enumerated, inclining his head towards each person he named. “And of course, our Head Girl and Boy, Lily Evans and James Potter.”
Dumbledore then proceeded to award each of them fifty points to Gryffindor—nay, a hundred each to James and Lily—and the table of red-and-gold erupted in cheers, but Hermione wasn’t listening. Amidst the suddenly cheerful mood, Lily’s downcast expression was all the more noticeable, as was the gravity with which James hung his head.
“But I wonder how they escaped?” she softly asked.
“Smoke,” James answered, his gaze resolutely on his plate. “Dumbledore called and told me this morning. The Death Eaters Conjured smoke, and by the time it had cleared, they were long gone.” His hands balled into fists, and he added, “Professor Flitwick, who stood guard on the fourth floor, was found Stunned afterwards. It was all very poorly done, if you ask me.”
Privately, Hermione had to agree, but she was so relieved at having James speak to her that she spontaneously reached out and touched his arm.
James shuddered, and Hermione drew back, hurt. For several moments, they stared into each other’s eyes, but for the first time since they were together, she could not read his. She only recognised that they were intensely filled with... With what?
The bell rang, and he hurriedly stood up. “I’ve got Transfiguration,” he murmured, almost apologetically, as he rushed by her.
Hermione could not find enough strength to stand. She had Transfiguration too.
Four days passed. Sirius was counting—oh yes, he was—the number of days he had had to endure James sitting next to him in class. Normally, he would have considered it a treat and would have wasted no time at all in conniving with his best friend to disrupt class, but now that James had retreated to silence...
Sirius sighed with boredom and scrutinised James, who was resting his left cheek on the palm of his hand. In his opinion, James rather looked like the time Lily had brutally rejected him; his hazel eyes were tired and rimmed with dark circles, and his complexion was sallow. Just now, he seemed ready to sink into a stupor. Even as Sirius wondered, for the gazillionth time, what was eating his best friend, he knew it was pointless to ask.
Infuriatingly, as though he was under the Unbreakable Vow, James just wouldn’t tell them.
Sirius acted flippantly about it, as if he was plain relieved to have James with them again. Remus had been more vocal, and he echoed Sirius’ concerns: it was understandable for their fellow Marauder to be down, but he was not getting up. Something was deeply troubling him—and that in itself was unsettling.
He smoothed back his long hair and rubbed his forehead tiredly. What bothers me most, he brooded, is the way he treats her. Sirius threw a backward glance at Hermione, who was now seated beside Remus. It made him uneasy, the haughtiness that carved her face, but he couldn’t blame her. He had seen her attempts to talk to James, knew that she had possibly used up all the tricks in the book, only to be rewarded with cold, cutting aloofness.
Well, you should be happy now, a voice told Sirius. They seem to be on the verge of breaking up.
But he wasn’t, not if it meant having a Kissed boy with glasses for his best friend.
As soon as Professor Flitwick had dismissed them, fifteen minutes earlier than the time, he swivelled in his seat to see Regina briskly walk to the door, head held high. Then he turned to his left and realised that he wasn’t alone in watching her; James was staring at her, his features contorted with distress.
He loves her still, Sirius realised, and again James’s stupidity annoyed him. He sat back and crossed his arms exasperatedly. “I thought you love her?” he asked bluntly.
James’s face closed protectively. He swallowed twice before seriously answering, “I do.”
“So why don’t you talk to her? I remember a time not so long ago when you could hardly keep yourselves off each other,” Sirius said. “What is this you’re doing, a new funny way of showing you care?”
James sat up straighter, his eyes flashing. “I do care, Padfoot, enough to stay away from her. She can’t be seen with me, or she’ll be in danger.”
Wow. That was the longest he had spoken in four days. Sirius looked around and saw, to his relief, that the room was empty save for Remus, Peter, and the two of them. He frowned at him. “Why, ‘cause you might get yourself in trouble with Death Eaters and she’ll come to save you?” He snorted. “Don’t delude yourself, Prongs. Last time she risked her life for you, you ended up biting her—the two of us, for that matter. I doubt she wants to be on the receiving end of your tantrums again.”
Furious, James stood up. “I didn’t want her running around to save me, Black—”
Sirius stood up at this point, glaring at him.
“—not if she might die herself. And I certainly don’t want her associated with me any longer, not after what Malfoy said that night.”
“Yeah? What did he say?” Sirius demanded. At the corner of his eye, he saw Remus and Peter approach them warily.
“That I’d be sorry,” James raged, days of pent-up worry and frustration pouring out. “It sounds trivial, doesn’t it? I’d be sorry.” He laughed harshly. “Only they’re Death Eaters, they’re sure to bring news to Voldemort, and I’m a Potter...”
“I’m a Black, Potter,” Sirius said, returning his courtesy, “and I ought to be in more danger than you, yet you don’t see me being an absolute git about it.”
James looked at him pityingly. “You really don’t understand, do you?” he said quietly. “I do not fear for myself, Padfoot. I fear for her—for all those I care about, but most especially for her.”
It seemed to Sirius that James had suddenly shrunk, and he felt embarrassed for being so shallow. “All right,” he conceded. “I get you now. But you know, you really still should talk to her. The way you’re acting, I’m sure she thinks you don’t give a damn.”
“She’ll say I’m being stupid,” James muttered.
“You don’t have to worry then. She’s already been saying that these past few days,” Remus said lightly, teasing a weak smile out of James.
“You owe her an explanation, mate,” Sirius said unrelentingly. “Even if she punches you in the face and breaks up with you on the spot—” The other three Marauders winced. “You owe her one.”
James chuckled without humour. “That would really make your day, Sirius, wouldn’t it? Us breaking up.”
“How come I have somebody as thick as you for a best friend?” Sirius wondered. “Prongs, I’m for what makes you happy. I’ve always been. If she will pull you out of your self-inflicted misery, I’d rather you be with her.”
“You make it sound easy,” James said, smiling grimly. And awfully tempting. “But you haven’t been listening to a word I was saying. I told you, I don’t want her near—”
“And yet you’re unhappy without her,” Peter pointed out.
“I think,” Remus intervened evenly before James could lash out again, “that you want her around, and yet you believe you aren’t supposed to. Now I also think you’re setting too much store by what Malfoy said—”
“And with good reason,” James rejoined.
Remus held up a hand. “Regardless,” he said, “don’t you think she’ll be safer if you keep her near so you can protect her?” James fell silent, and he thought it sound to press another point. “You need your friends, Prongs. You need us around. And don’t ever say,” he sharply said, “that you aren’t worth risking our lives for. You... It was your idea to try and become Animagi for my sake, even if everything could have gone horribly wrong...”
“There are things worth dying for, James,” Sirius said. “Friendship—brotherhood—is one of those.”
James met their eyes squarely even if his insides were burning with shame. “I’m sorry,” he spoke, running a hand through his hair. “You were right, Moony—”
“Just Moony?” Sirius interrupted, pretending to be insulted.
James grinned. “And Padfoot and Wormtail,” he said, and then the smile disappeared again. “I’ve been a prat and... I’m sorry. I do need you, all of you, even if you annoy the hell out of me. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
“If it even comes close to happening again,” Remus said wryly, “we’ll whack you on the head until you come to your senses.”
The bell rang, chasing the last of the gloom away, and it is with lighter spirits that they began gathering their things for the next period. “You still have to talk to Regina, though,” Sirius reminded James.
The very idea filled James with dread. “Yeah, it’ll be a cinch,” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “How will I tell her that I want her back, that I still love her, that the only reason I was acting like a—”
“A pile of rat droppings,” Sirius supplied helpfully, and Peter and Remus snorted with laughter.
“Yeah,” James agreed dryly. “How am I going to say that the only reason I was acting like that was because I was afraid Death Eaters would come after her because of me?”
Peter blinked. “You just did, James. You just did.”
The first thing she saw was the white rose.
Hermione dropped her bag to the floor, slid into her seat and gingerly picked up the rose. Attached to its long stem was a white card. She flipped it open.
She stiffened, recognising the scrawl. “Are you really Remus?” she whispered fiercely to the sandy-haired boy next to her.
Remus turned to her in surprise. “Yes, why do you ask?”
Hermione shrugged. “I don’t know. You and James might’ve switched using Polyjuice or something.” It was evident, seeing the Marauders together again, that James had risen out of his funk and had explained himself—perhaps even apologised—to his friends. She threw an annoyed glance in James’s direction and saw him watching her nervously, as though waiting for what she would do with the rose. She rolled her eyes.
“Does he really think one rose is enough?” she murmured, unimpressed.
“Evanesco,” Hermione said, tapping the rose with her wand. It vanished. She glanced at James once again; he bit his lower lip in disappointment and turned away from her.
Then there were two white roses that appeared to the right of her plate during lunch. Each had their own card, one with I’m sorry and the other reading I really am sorry.
A smile tugged the corners of her lips, but she pulled them down. Another fleeting look at James told her he was keeping an eye on her, so again she pulled out her wand and Vanished the roses with the air of one unconcerned.
Let him stew over it for a while.
In the afternoon, three roses came during Potions, and four roses sprang atop her desk during Defence Against the Dark Arts.
I’m sorry. I really am sorry. And thank you for loving me enough to look for me that night.
The fourth card made her purse her lips in amusement. I’ve been an unforgiveable prat, but please forgive me. And then the fifth, which she received at dinner, melted the hurt he had caused her and made her want to throw her arms around him, hold him close and tell him she had forgiven him.
I love you still.
And yet Hermione refused to give in that easily.
It was while she was working on her assignments late that night at the common room that James finally came up to her, holding out six white roses. The flowers were, she realised, his way of softening her up before he could approach her.
“What is it?” she asked curtly, unwilling to risk a glance at his face lest she be swayed.
James gulped. “These are for you.”
“Well, you can just place them here,” Hermione said, patting the space next to the parchment she was writing on. “I’ll read the cards later.”
He did as he was told and tried to convince himself he should be heartened she hadn’t decided to throw the flowers in the garbage bin. “Can I talk to you—er, right now?”
“Last time I heard, you weren’t interested in talking. Besides,” she gestured to the parchment, “I’ve got Transfiguration.” She resumed writing, giving the appearance of one who did not have time to spare, and James slunked away defeated.
The flowers and messages persisted over the next couple of days, and so did his attempts to converse with her. But even though her anger had long dissipated, it was still with utmost nonchalance that she regarded his efforts.
“Are you still mad with him?” Remus asked tiredly Friday afternoon.
Hermione could barely conceal her smile as she Vanished the nineteen roses she had found beside her cauldron. “No, not anymore.”
“How come you won’t talk to him? Please, Regina. Give the poor bloke a break.”
“I bet he asked you to tell me this,” Hermione said, throwing a snide look in James’s direction.
Remus sighed. “No, he did not. But believe me, you’d be doing us a favour by relenting to hear him out. He’s moping, and he’s grumpy, and he’s wearing us all out.”
Twenty roses appeared by her plate at dinnertime, and Hermione, half-annoyed and half-pleased with his persistence, left the table without bothering to read the twentieth card. She began making her way to the library instead of to the common room, but something strange happened the moment she stepped down the hallway.
A rose—this time, it was red—appeared in front of her. Hermione looked around but saw nobody, so she skipped over it and took another step. Another red rose appeared, and another, and another, marking her path to the doors of the library.
“Is somebody trying to trip me or what?” she muttered in irritation, aware that James had been following her, hidden under his cloak, determined to get her alone and talk to her.
She pushed open the doors, entered and chose a table at the corner. Hermione took out the Spellbook she had borrowed from Sirius and began reading, but she couldn’t concentrate, knowing that James was just around.
Startled, Hermione put down the book. What she saw made her inhale sharply. Dozens of roses, a mixture of red and white and pink, appeared on the wooden table out of thin air, a card dangling from each of them. She shook her head in amusement and made up her mind.
“James,” she said, “I know you’re here somewhere. Pull the cloak off, for Merlin’s sake. If Madam Pince sees this—”
There was a sound of fabric whipping through the air, and then James was revealed standing two feet from her. He was grinning mischievously, as though he knew all along that his ploy would succeed. He came closer and pulled up the chair perpendicular to hers, folding the Invisibility Cloak afterwards and returning it to his bag.
“Can we talk now?” he asked hopefully.
Hermione kept her eyes averted. “Well, I suppose if we’re going to break up, we should end it nicely.”
That stunned James into momentary silence, after which he croaked, “You... you want to break up with me?”
She turned her eyes on him and immediately knew it was a mistake. She could never trust herself to look at him, much more look into his eyes... “Your recent actions have suggested nothing less, James.”
“I know,” he admitted guiltily. “But Regina,” James added urgently, “I can explain things. I can make you understand why I’ve acted that way lately, if you’d just give me a chance and listen.” He placed his hand over hers and was encouraged when she did not pull away. “But first, thank you for what you did that night...”
He saw her lovely brown eyes steadily fill with tears, and he cursed himself for bringing them forth.
“I was—I only didn’t want to lose you, James.”
His throat tightened. “It was the same for me. How do you think I’d feel if—if something happened to you, and it was because of me...” James gripped her hand. “I couldn’t stand even the possibility of you getting hurt. I would die before they laid a finger on you. I... I love you that much.” His words dropped to a whisper.
Hermione rewarded him with a watery smile. “James, I do not love you any less than that, you know.”
A breath he did not realise he was holding escaped him, and he moved his chair closer to her. He cupped her cheek with his other hand. “Does this mean that you forgive me?”
She chuckled. “How can I not after all these roses?”
“I thought you didn’t like them, since you just kept Vanishing them.”
“I’ve been Vanishing them to my room,” Hermione confessed shyly, making James audibly exhale, smile and pull her to him in an embrace. They fell quiet for several minutes, just holding each other and allowing their newfound tranquillity to wash over them.
“I’m the luckiest bloke in the world,” James said after a while, breaking the silence.
“Why?” Hermione murmured against his shoulder.
“To hold you like this and have everything all right again. I’ve really missed you,” James said, smoothing her hair from her forehead. “And there’s more I have to tell you,” he added, thinking about his anxiety over Malfoy’s threat, although it seemed inconsequential just now, “but I’m supposed to do my rounds right now.”
Hermione kissed him lightly and reluctantly disentangled herself from him. “Well, you better go now. We can talk later.”
“I’ll be back before ten,” James promised, making a mental note to drop by the kitchens later for some hot chocolate. He kissed her before leaving.
Humming to herself, a contented smile playing on her lips, Hermione Vanished the roses once more, stuffed the book into her bag and practically skipped on her way to the common room.
“Somebody looks happy tonight,” Sirius commented dryly when he saw her bouncing towards the stairs to her dormitory. Remus and Peter turned to look; Hermione simply beamed at them and was surprised when Sirius nodded approvingly, a small smile on his face.
“James talked to you then?”
“Yes,” Hermione replied happily, “but he has his rounds, so we’re going to talk more about it later.” She then departed to the girls’ dormitories to pass the time, counting the roses and reading and rereading the messages he had written for her, smiling and rubbing the soft petals between her fingers.
In the midst of it all, she wondered what else did James have to say. She felt peaceful now, lighthearted; even so, she sensed that War was subtly changing him—how, she did not know. Perhaps he was more purposeful, fiercely protective of those around him, and though it had been the root of their disagreement, she loved him all the more for it.
At quarter to ten, Hermione hopped from the bed, ran to a nearby mirror to check herself and was surprised to see her cheeks flushed with anticipation. A few brushes through curly hair and she was done, rushing to the common room and hoping she was in time to welcome James back.
Fifth and seventh years, studying for their respective exams, littered the floors and couches. Hermione scanned the room but found no sign of him. She walked over to the Marauders and plopped down next to Peter.
“Hasn’t James returned yet?” she casually asked.
“Nuh-uh,” Sirius replied, and Peter and Remus shook their heads as well. Hermione randomly snatched a book on the table and idly flicked over its pages, slowly becoming interested in the advanced defensive jinxes it contained.
The clock struck ten, but on and on she read, unmindful of the passing time until Peter had stood up, stretched his arms over his head and announced that he was going to bed. She looked up from the book, her eyes straying to clock, and she realised with a jolt that it was already half past ten.
Anxiety gnawed her insides; she replaced the book on the table and said, “Why haven’t they come back yet? Did something happen?”
“Something must’ve held them up, yeah,” Sirius said. He rummaged in his bag for something and held out a parchment to her. “Check the map.”
Hermione took it, tapped it with her wand and muttered, “I solemnly swear that I am up to no good.” She searched the hallways and corridors for either James’s or Lily’s names and, finding both within the Astronomy Tower, told Sirius and Remus about it.
“It’s what they visit last,” Remus mildly said. “It means they’re on their way back.”
Somewhat comforted, Hermione kept her eyes on the map, studiously looking at other places and yet always going back to the Astronomy Tower, where James and Lily were. The anxiety turned to uneasy jealousy; what was taking them so long up there?
Ten minutes passed, and still the bubbles remained. Hermione tapped the map once again, muttered, “Mischief managed,” and stood up.
“Where are you going?” Sirius asked in surprise.
“Out,” Hermione answered evasively. “May I bring the map?”
The knowing look in Sirius’ grey eyes as he appraised her made her uncomfortable, but he merely shrugged in response. She mustered a quick thanks as she rushed to the portrait hole, climbed out and hurried to her destination, taking care to check the map every once in a while. Thankfully, the professors seemed to have finished their own inspection of the castle, and Peeves was busy with the Bloody Baron in the Slytherin dungeons, so it was with no complications that she reached the Astronomy Tower.
Cautiously, she scaled the walls leading to the gate to the rooftop. She heard muffled voices, one distinctly male and the other female, and Hermione did not doubt they belonged to James and Lily. She could not discern the words, however, so she inched closer until she was near enough to peer around the brick wall.
Lily was standing near James, her eyes puffy as though she had been crying. James was saying something, his voice low. The conversation was obviously of a personal nature, and something inside Hermione kept her from announcing her presence.
And so she watched, fearful of what would unfold.
James followed Lily to the Astronomy Tower, knowing it would take only a quick look around to ensure that nobody was out of hours. They had met few students on their patrol tonight—perhaps only those who were foolhardy enough to wander even after the Death Eaters’ excursion into Hogwarts.
Holding his lit wand aloft, he inspected the left expanse of the rooftop, taking care to check behind the statues, where snogging couples preferred to hide. Lily searched the right side; they did their rounds together now as per Dumbledore’s instructions.
“Nothing here, Lily,” James called as he walked towards her. “Everything all right there?”
“Yeah, I suppose so,” Lily replied flatly, meeting him halfway. James’s features came into view, illuminated by their wands, and she envied the serenity manifested therein. “How do you that?” she grumpily asked.
James blinked in confusion. “Do what?”
Lily looked out over the grounds. “Stay happy,” she answered. “Even after meeting them, fighting them... But I suppose it’s different for you, isn’t it?”
James tensed. How stupid he had been not to notice the melancholic air Lily had been carrying the past week. But then again, they rarely spoke to each other even when they were walking together, and James was particularly keen to avoid conversation with her. This week, though, he must have been too lost in his own desolate thoughts to pay her attention; he suddenly felt unreasonably guilty.
“I found it comforting, did you know,” Lily continued, this time gazing at him, “that you seem troubled as I did.” She scrunched up her face. “I tried talking to Alice, to my friends, but they... They didn’t seem to understand. And then I thought you’d be the best one to understand.”
“Well, I’ve had friends to talk to,” James said, feeling incredibly awkward. “And I thought they wouldn’t get me, but I was wrong.”
Lily smiled faintly. “Like I said, it’s different for you. Sirius was there too. And—” A dull pain socked her gut. “That girl, Regina.”
What am I supposed to say next? What does she want me to say? James replied uncomfortably, “Well, if you want to talk, go ahead.”
It seemed to James that her green eyes grew brighter, and he knew he should look away but found himself unable to do so. He stared as she retold him how she had duelled with the Death Eater and how she accidentally ended up killing him. Lily was crying now, and his hands stayed dumbly by his sides, unable to offer even a comforting pat.
“Er—what did Dumbledore say?”
Lily gave a small hiccup. “That it wasn’t my fault, of course. Only... I see his face, frozen, not knowing he was falling to his death...” She shivered. “And I’m scared of what will happen if V—V—Vold—He-Who-Must—he finds out who did it, or if any of the Death Eaters do. What if they go after my friends, or my family? They’re Muggles, they have almost no protection.” She sniffed and dried her cheeks with the back of her hand.
“In a strange way, I do not regret what I did to defend myself. You know how Dumbledore keeps saying we need to be prepared for what’s out there?” She laughed shortly. “I did not expect to have to do battle here in school. It’s just like an examination, only... Only one curse separates you from life and death.”
James couldn’t keep his eyes off her now. Under the moonlight and speaking pensively the words that mirrored his own thoughts, Lily Evans had never looked more beautiful.
“Are you scared, Lily?”
“Not for myself.” Lily gnawed at her bottom lip and then added, “I know that there is a war, that we’re going to get caught up in it sooner or later... I had merely hoped it would be later, perhaps during Auror training. But not here. Not at Hogwarts. If it can happen here, nowhere is safe then.”
“You’d be safe with me,” James murmured fiercely. Lily’s emerald eyes widened even more, and James wondered how in the world had she gotten that close, and he instantly regretted his words. “And your friends, you’d be safe with your friends,” he mumbled to cover his embarrassment, but Lily wasn’t listening.
She flung her arms around him, clinging to him tightly and dropping her wand in the process. James panicked and was about to step back from her, but she nestled her face on his shoulder. Hesitantly, he lifted a hand to stroke her back, hoping to comfort her, and then his other hand had found its way to her waist.
Lily lifted her head and gazed into his eyes as she allowed her hands to travel up and entwine at the back of his neck. Reflexively, James moved his hands up her back as well and encountered soft, wavy hair; he felt her shift as she stood on tiptoes, and she was closer than ever, the freckles dotting her cheeks now visible.
Mesmerised, James dipped his head, bending—slowly, excruciatingly slowly—until his lips were a mere fraction from hers...
Hermione felt dizzy, her head spinning after having held her breath the entire time. She attempted to gulp some air and instead emitted a hoarse, pained gasp; hastily, she stuffed her knuckles into her mouth, her entire body trembling.
She couldn’t take it anymore. She took one step back, accidentally causing a twig to crack. Hermione barely heard it. Blinded by tears, her breathing ragged, she ran away as fast as she could. It was a miracle that she found her way back to her dormitory. She hurled herself onto the bed, hugged her pillow to herself and cried.
No matter how hard she tried to hold on, James was slipping away from her.
Destiny was putting up a damn good fight.
A light breeze swept past the couple atop the Astronomy Tower and blew the tendrils of Lily’s hair across his face. Her lavender perfume drifted to his nose, and unbidden to his mind came the memory of the sensual vanilla he had once favoured.
James jerked his head back up just before his lips touched hers, and Lily’s eyes flew open. As though burned, she disentangled herself from his arms and bent to retrieve her wand from the floor, her long hair concealing her blush.
“I—er—we’d best be getting back,” James said uneasily.
“Yes, we should,” Lily managed, determinedly not looking at him. The two of them walked back to Gryffindor tower in clumsy silence. James saw Remus and Sirius sitting on the couch as they emerged through the portrait hole, saw their identical expressions of shock and—perhaps it was just his conscience—reproach. Nevertheless, he welcomed with relief the light of the common room.
He was about to join his friends when Lily touched his arm in restraint. When he turned to her, she offered him a soft smile and said, gentler than what he would have liked, “Thanks for lending an ear, James.”
James. James. His name rang in his ears. Not Potter. Since when had he hoped she would call him like this? Had this occurred sooner, he would have whooped with joy and prance around like a madman, but things were different now.
And he didn’t regret it, did he?
“No problem,” he replied, attempting a mix of detachment and warmth and certain he had just failed. “Good night.”
“Good night,” Lily echoed.
James did not watch her go, nor did he think he should have in the first place. To hide his discomfort, he joined his friends in front of the fire. He could feel their probing eyes on him, but he was not tolerant enough to answer any suspicious inquiries tonight. His mind was full of what had just happened—oh no, nothing happened, Prongs, old boy.
That reminder of vanilla... Thank Merlin he remembered Regina in time.
James sat up abruptly, his glasses sliding down his nose. “Regina,” he said. He looked at his friends. “Have you—have you seen her?”
Remus rolled his eyes. “Now he remembers,” he told Sirius, his words tinged with spite.
Befuddled, James sputtered, “I, yeah, well—it slipped my mind.” He glanced at the clock and saw that it had barely passed eleven o’clock. “Well, I suppose I should be glad she didn’t stay up to wait for me.”
Sirius snorted and threw his best friend a dirty look. “She isn’t an inconsiderate clod like you, Prongs.”
“You mean she did wait?” James glanced around the common room. “Where is she then?”
“She got worried at ten-thirty and you weren’t back yet, so she borrowed the map and checked,” Remus said. “Regina said you were with Lily atop the Astronomy Tower, and I told her that meant you would be back soon, but she left soon after.” His brow furrowed. “I assumed she went to find you...”
“I didn’t see her at all,” James replied, his blood running cold. If Regina had indeed gone to the Astronomy Tower... He could only imagine what she had seen.
“We assumed as much, since she returned without you. Distraught, I might add,” Sirius said, his tone accusatory. “And of course I can see why,” he added darkly.
James groaned, sinking back into the couch and feeling the beginnings of an intense headache. “She’s got it wrong.”
“Does she?” Sirius asked pointedly.
James frowned. “Of course she does. Nothing happened—it doesn’t mean anything at all, doesn’t change anything...” And then, aware that he was blabbering, firmly said, “I’ll talk to her tomorrow.”
“You’d better,” Sirius warned him icily. “You have a lot of explaining to do, and it sure must be better than the crap you’re talking about now.”
“Just shut it, Padfoot,” James snapped. It seemed that these past few days, Sirius had done nothing but point out every one of his missteps—and, he thought irritably, defend Regina. When he told him so, he simply looked dumbfounded, as though James had missed several steps on his way down.
“With the string of bad decisions you’ve been making lately, how can anybody not notice?” James glared at him, but Sirius merely shrugged. “As for Regina... Merlin’s beard, Prongs. She loves you, and she treats you well—sometimes even better than you deserve, so why should I not be on her side?”
Shortly after, Sirius and Remus declared it a night and decided to go to bed. Exhausted as he was, James continued staring into the fire, immersed in his own troubled ponderings. The world must’ve gone crazy for him to have landed in this situation. Whatever his shortcomings were, however his arrogance, he had always considered himself to be loyal. Stubbornly loyal, in fact, he corrected himself, especially when it came to the Marauders.
So what was he doing messing around with two girls, especially hurting the one he said he loved, the one he said made him the happiest he had ever been?
James passed his hand over his face in frustration. Lily’s green eyes, which had always captivated him, kept swimming before his vision long, and the shame that ensued from being dishonest to Regina was unbearable.
Please, forgive me.
When James next opened his eyes, the logs had long been reduced to ashes, the cold offset by the sun’s first rays stealing through the curtains. He stood up and stretched, surprisingly feeling well-rested after a harrowing night. Sleep had also cleared his mind; he had finally decided what to do.
It was only a minute later, when he was more awake, that he noticed the blanket lying on the floor—a warm, fuzzy blanket that had most likely fallen when he rose from the couch and that was certainly not over him last night.
Author’s Notes: Next chapter will finally reveal the answer to one of the frequently-asked questions, haha. I don’t know when it will be up though; it will be almost as long as this chapter, maybe even longer, to incorporate all the necessary details. *prays nobody is getting bored with the pace* I’m going crazy trying to keep track of all of them, but hopefully I make it. :) Thanks to everybody who’s been reading, especially those who have been reviewing and reminding me to update. Review responses are quite delayed though (see, I thought I had no right to answer them until I had posted a new chapter). :P
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