Chapter 9 : The Tell Tale Sign
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Lily seated herself on the kitchen countertop, mentally exhausted.
After Moody had returned from the Ministry, he had called everyone to the common area, including James. He then proceeded to lecture on constant vigilance and spent a good amount of time yelling about the broken wards, the traitor and anything else he could yell about.
After further speculation, Moody had finally realized that James wasn’t the traitor and agreed to stop his confinement. The Marauders had done a little impromptu jig in the room, much to everyone else’s amusement, until they realized that there were still more pressing matters to deal with.
Moody had questioned Aileen’s ability as an Auror, as expected, and James had risen to the occasion and defended Aileen until he was practically blue in the face. Lily had to admit that her jealousy had soared to unpredictable heights during that period of time, but as a testament to sheer willpower, she hadn’t done or said anything about it and managed to keep up a friendly face throughout the entire event. She had even put in a word or two for Aileen. Moody was finally overruled by the rest of the Aurors and decided with resignation that Aileen could still remain an active Auror as long as she didn’t do anything to mess the rest of the group up.
And now that everything else was covered, they had to deal with the traitor problem. She scratched her head. While James had vehemently denied that Aileen could be a traitor, she still had her doubts. And it was her doubts that led her to the kitchen, where she could sit and think the situation over.
If the traitor was Aileen or Maxim, they had to leave some kind of evidence behind. Aileen’s ring was one thing, but what about Maxim? Was he so perfect as to plan everything without being seen and with no mistake? It was either that or he just wasn’t the traitor to begin with. But she couldn’t dismiss him so quickly, not when…
She felt a presence behind her and then a pair of strong arms wrapped around her. She didn’t have to turn to know who it was.
“What are you doing all alone here?” James murmured, pressing a kiss to her temple.
Lily extracted herself from him, ignoring the furrow in his brows. She had more important matters to focus on at the moment. She didn’t want to be distracted by James and by the anger she would undoubtedly feel if she looked at him and remembered how close he and Aileen had been.
“I’m just thinking,” she finally replied.
He let out a faint chuckle and shifted so that he was in her line of sight again. “Thinking and ignoring me at the same time?”
“I haven’t been ignoring you,” Lily said, as mildly as she could. She even offered him a small smile, though she knew that he could see through it. “You’ve just been busy.”
James shook his head. He picked her up, ignoring her yelp of astonishment, and set her down a little ways from where she was originally sitting so he could sit beside her.
“Don’t try to pretend you haven’t walked out of rooms just because I walked into them.” He gave her a look that suggested she shouldn’t and couldn’t argue with him. “I just want to know why.”
She scoffed. Loudly. Was it not obvious? Why were boys so daft sometimes? “If you can’t figure it out for yourself then you’re just an idiot.”
If James was affected by her insult, he didn’t show it. “So you admit that you’ve been avoiding me.”
“So what if I have been?”
“I doubt it’s very normal for a guy’s girlfriend to run away from him. Shouldn’t she be running towards him instead?”
She covered her mouth with a hand and feigned surprise. “You have a girlfriend? Oh my, what news! How come I didn’t know about this?”
Frustration was apparent on his face. “What are you talking about, Lily?”
“Well, gee, I don’t know.” Her mouth just couldn’t seem to stop. She knew she shouldn’t have talked to him, and now that she had, she wanted to dump all her unhappy thoughts from the past few days on him. A part of her was convinced that he deserved it, but the other part knew that she was just overreacting. But now that he was in front of her, acting like the daft boyfriend he was, she just couldn’t help it. “Maybe it’s because you’ve been focusing all your attention on someone else these past few days?”
James sighed. Lily wondered if he finally understood what she was getting at, but when he opened his mouth, she knew that it was hopeless.
“If you’re talking about Aileen-”
“Oh of course not. I was talking about Sirius,” she said sarcastically.
He ran a hand through his hair. “Lily, I know I haven’t been spending as much time as I should with you. But Aileen needs support right now.”
Lily closed her eyes and took a big breath. “I know, James. I know. She needs support. She just went through the traumatizing possibility that she might lose her job. She has panic attacks whenever she enters a fight of some sort. I know.”
“But you’re my boyfriend, not hers.” She knew she was sounding incredibly possessive now, but she really couldn’t help it. “I get it that you’re supporting her and I understand… believe me, I do. You guys are best friends… it’s only natural. But the fact that you’re ignoring me-”
“I am not ignoring you,” he protested vehemently. His lips were pressed into a thin, tight line. “You’re the one who’s been avoiding me. How am I supposed to spend time with you if you won’t let me?”
Lily jumped off the counter in a burst of anger and crossed her arms, her eyes narrowed. “Haven’t you ever thought that you hurt my feelings?”
James faltered. He looked at her, a peculiar look in his eyes. It was as if he had never considered the possibility, and the realization made her snort. It was rather annoying that he expected her to always remain headstrong no matter the circumstance.
“Right.” She turned to leave then, but unlike what had happened the previous day, he didn’t let her go.
“Lily, come on. Can’t you just let this one go? I don’t want to argue with you right now.”
She nodded. “That’s a splendid plan. I don’t really want to talk to you either. Now let go of my arm, please.”
James shook his head and tightened his hold. His lower lip was stuck out slightly and it looked like he was pouting. It was a rather lovable sight to behold, but Lily couldn’t help but remember the way he looked at Aileen, that particular spark in his eyes…
“If I let you go you’ll leave,” he said.
“You’re not wrong,” she replied.
James let out a groan and tipped his head back in exasperation. When he looked at her again, there was an angry spark in his eyes. His hands were clenching and unclenching at his sides, and Lily wondered if he wanted to hit her. She knew he wasn’t that type of guy, but he had told her more than once that she often exasperated him beyond anything he had ever experienced.
“Lily,” he finally said, voice patient. “I know you’re mad at me, but I’m trying to tell you that there’s no reason to be. I haven’t done anything to betray you.”
“Oh so we’re thinking that far already, are we?” she fumed. “Why didn’t you say so earlier?” Her fist lashed out, but he grabbed it before it could meet its intended target.
“Bloody hell. Just listen to me for one damn second!”
She wrenched her hand away from him. “No. And frankly, I don’t want to.”
He was incredulous. “You’re angry with me just because I supported a friend in her time of need?”
“Of course not!” Lily shouted, as if his suggestion was absolutely preposterous. “I’m perfectly fine with you supporting her. But what you did with Aileen went far beyond normal support. You were hugging her, whispering things into her ear, stroking her hair-”
“I was comforting her,” he retorted. “What, am I not allowed to do that now?”
“Not when it comes to Aileen!”
James shook his head, his lips curled with something akin to disgust. “I don’t even know why I’m arguing with you about this. You’re being completely unreasonable.”
“Unreasonable?” Incensed, she shoved him with all her force, sending his back crashing against the cabinets. “Unreasonable? Who’s the one giving his undying support for someone without all the evidence? Who’s the one hugging another girl when his girlfriend is in the same room?”
His teeth flashed. “Because unlike someone, I know how to trust.”
Lily stepped back, her chest heaving. “Is that what you think?”
His reply was sharp. “It is.”
“Fine. Just fine.” She stormed out the room without sparing him another glance.
Lily adamantly avoided James for the rest of the day. The moment she heard his voice or even a mention of his name, she left the room and went to seek quiet elsewhere. But since she didn’t want to stay in her room the entire day, she headed outside. It was dangerous to a certain degree, but it was better than watching James and Aileen sitting on the same couch, conversing under their breaths.
She breathed in deeply when she stepped outside and felt a sense of bliss when the sun hit her face. It wasn’t quite winter yet but the weather had chilled slightly. Still, the day was nice enough for a walk, and a walk was exactly what she needed. She had to calm her temper.
Lily picked up a particularly large branch that she had found on the ground and swung it to and fro as she walked. It whacked against the bushes that she passed and she took the opportunity to scan the perimeter to make sure that there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. And that was when she saw the owl.
It looked like an ordinary owl, with its tawny feathers and black eyes. But when she looked closer, she saw that the animal was in pain. There were splatters of blood on its wings and it was hooting softly.
Lily frowned and gently picked it up, examining the wings. If she was right, the unsuspecting owl had flown into a ward. Her frown suddenly deepened. If it had flown into a ward, it couldn’t have been able to fly much further considering the damage to its wings. And since the owl had fallen here, it clearly meant that the ward was somewhere close to the safe house.
Or maybe even protecting the safe house.
But that hardly made any sense. All owls that the Aurors owned and all classified owls had already been screened and the wards had been designed to let them through. The fact that this owl had been blocked meant that it was foreign.
Lily quickly checked and noticed a note attached to the owl’s leg. The words ‘Maxim Caden’ were scrawled on the top. Did it mean that the owl was Maxim’s? But no, she had seen his owl before… a dark-feathered serious-looking animal. Then this meant that Maxim was communicating with someone not in the Auror circle.
She had just unraveled the note when the doors to the safe house swung open and Maxim charged out, his hair mussed and eyes wide. His expression was something between shocked and horrified and he froze when he saw Lily kneeling on the ground with the owl.
He approached her slowly and offered her a faint smile. “Hey.”
Lily nodded. “Hello.”
“I see you’ve found my mail.” He gestured towards the bird in her hands. “I’ve been in contact with one of my interviewees. I forgot to tell him that we have wards protecting against anonymous owls.”
Her smile was tight. “That’s all right. It’s good that I just happened to be taking a walk then.” She handed him the owl carefully, making sure that the note went with the animal. “How are the interviews going anyway?”
“Not that great,” he admitted. “Many people didn’t see anything clearly enough to say, and those who did don’t want to say anything in fear that they’ll be jeopardizing their lives.”
“I wish you luck then. I’m sure Moody wasn’t expecting too much when he gave you and Aileen the assignment.”
Maxim nodded. “Yeah, I guess.” He turned to go, but then as if a thought suddenly occurred to him, he turned back around and offered her an apologetic smile. “Lily, about before… I never meant to argue against you all the time. It’s just… I guess our views differ on many things and…”
Lily shook her head, cutting him off. “It’s all right, Max. We all have our off days. My actions weren’t always rational either.”
His smile was hesitant. “Yeah.” He lowered his gaze towards the ground for a moment and then he bit his lip. “I guess I’ll see you around. I’m going to go answer this and see if I can get a bit more information.”
“All right,” she replied. They bid each other farewell before he headed back indoors.
Lily ran a hand through her hair, feeling rather overwhelmed. It didn’t take a genius to know that something was wrong with Maxim. He was acting extremely odd and she was willing to bet that the note wasn’t from his interviewee at all. But the question was, who was it from and why was he so anxious about it? The normally calm and unruffled Maxim had practically charged outside, as if scared that the note would fall into someone else’s hands. Just what was he hiding?
She was still thinking about the situation when the doors to the safe house opened again and Dorcas and Marlene walked out. They stopped their conversation when they noticed Lily and smiled at her.
“What are you doing out here?” Marlene asked.
Lily shrugged. “Just thinking.” That seemed to be one of her popular responses lately.
“About what?” Dorcas seated herself on the edge of a planter and brushed her blonde hair back. “Is there something going on between you and James that we don’t know about?”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s been talking to Aileen nonstop ever since that meeting we had with Moody earlier. It’s as if they’re plotting some unspeakable thing together.”
Lily’s head jerked up at the word ‘plotting.’ “You think they’re planning something?” She tried to ignore the painful tug of her heart.
“No, I don’t think so,” Marlene said. She leaned against the wall in front of Lily and Dorcas. “He doesn’t seem very happy. It almost seems as if he’s trying to get back at someone or something.”
Lily tried to keep her face expressionless, though her heart was pounding against her chest. Was he getting back at her for accusing him of having some kind of relationship with Aileen? And since she had accused him of it… was he really going to do what she had said? And that involved… that involved cheating on her. But James wouldn’t do that, would he?
“James and I are just in the middle of a fight,” she finally said, answering Dorcas’ earlier question. “We’re kind of mad at each other at the moment.”
Marlene let out a small giggle, her eyes bright. “The two of you are cute in your own way. I’ve never seen a couple fight as much as you guys do.”
“Yeah it’s great,” Lily said dryly.
Dorcas must’ve noticed her sullen expression because she patted her on the arm comfortingly. “Don’t worry about it, Lily. Really. James isn’t an idiot. He’ll soon see that he’s being an idiot and come crawling back to you, begging for your forgiveness.”
“That doesn’t seem to be likely, at least not from what you just said.”
“Stop being so pessimistic,” Marlene admonished.
Lily smiled at the two girls. “Thanks guys. I appreciate it.” Her eyes trailed to the ground, where a few specks of blood from the owl that she had given Maxim were still present. She suddenly remembered something. “Hey, do the two of you know what’s going on with Max?”
Marlene frowned and tipped her head. “No. Is there something wrong with him?”
“He just received an anonymous owl earlier. He said it’s from an interviewee, but his expression seemed… off. I don’t know for sure, but he was rather out of character.”
Dorcas nodded. “I agree. He’s a little too jumpy these days.” She frowned then. “An owl, you said? Did it bring a note?”
“It did, but Max got here before I had the chance to read it.”
“Well that’s no good.” Dorcas rubbed her chin thoughtfully. She was staring into the distance, looking pensive. “Is there a possibility that we can see the letter? Sneak into his room?”
Marlene shook her head. “I doubt it. Max probably destroyed it as soon as he read it if it’s something he doesn’t want other people to see.”
Lily blinked from a sudden realization. “What about Aileen? She would have an idea, wouldn’t she? They’re working together, which means she should know if there’s any information from the interviewees.”
Without waiting for Dorcas and Marlene’s nod of affirmation, she jumped off the edge of the planter and rushed back inside. From what Dorcas and Marlene had said, she assumed that James and Aileen were in the common area, and was rewarded when she saw the two sitting on the loveseat.
Aileen jumped, her eyes wide. “Lily?” She took one look at Lily’s harried expression and her brows knitted in concern. “What’s wrong?”
“When you and Max interviewed people, did you get any good information in return?”
Aileen thought for a minute. “Not really. There were a few people who were willing to say some things, but there was nothing satisfactory enough that would be of use to us.”
Lily gnawed on her bottom lip. “Do you know if Max has any form of correspondence with any of his interviewees?”
“Of course. We both told them to send us any more information they gather.” Her expression morphed from concern to curiosity. “Is something the matter? Why are you suddenly so interested in this?”
“Oh, don’t worry about it. I’m just curious.” She ran a hand through her hair. There was the possibility that Maxim was speaking the truth then. But that still didn’t explain why he was so frazzled about it. It wasn’t as if a follow-up letter from an interviewee was something that ought to be hidden from everyone else.
It didn’t make sense. Something was missing… something vital. There had to be a reason.
James had gotten off the loveseat and was standing by Lily. His expression was a mixture between confusion, concern and a tinge of annoyance that still had yet to fade from their earlier confrontation.
“What are you thinking about? What’s wrong?”
Everything was wrong, Lily thought. Everyone was asking her that exact same question but she just couldn’t seem to give an adequate answer. There were too many questions and too little responses. Maxim’s behavior didn’t make sense… the hole in the wards didn’t make sense…
She was jerked out of her thoughts by an insistent hand on her arm. She looked up to see James staring at her.
“You’re spacing out on me here,” he said quietly.
But she didn’t see James. She heard his voice instead, echoing inside her head again and again.
“If it’s through owl, there has to be a considerable amount of parchment spent on sending messages.”
“Mad-Eye tends to keep track of all information. But besides him, who else does it?”
And whom had she thought of?
Aileen and Maxim.
Maxim… Maxim… Maxim.
And then she looked at James, her eyes horrified. “James… oh Merlin…”
His concern was palpable now. She was gripping his arms tightly, her eyes impossibly wide. He grabbed her hands and noted with shock that they were ice cold. “Lily, what’s the matter? Tell me. What are you…”
Aileen had stood up by now as well. “Lily, are you all right? You look petrified.”
“No…” Her nails dug into James’ arm, her eyes focused on his face. “James, tell me! Tell me I’m wrong. Tell me it’s not true. Just say it!” She was halfway hysterical by now, her shaking uncontrollable. She had always had her doubts, but now that she was so close to finding the answer, she didn’t want to believe it.
“Lily! Snap out of it!” He was gripping her shoulders tightly, painfully, but she didn’t care. She could barely feel it. “Lily, please, what’s wrong? You’re scaring me.”
A sudden thud shook her out of her hysteria. She turned to see Sirius landing smoothly after jumping down five steps on the stairs, Remus right behind him.
He stopped and blinked. “Has everyone gone insane today or what?”
James had his arms wrapped tightly around Lily. “What are you talking about, Padfoot? Who’s going insane?”
“Well you have Lily here who looks like she’s just seen something horrific and then you’ve got Max who’s suddenly obsessed with burning incense.”
Lily did a double take. “Burning incense?”
Dorcas and Marlene walked in at that moment and Alice, Frank and Tris appeared from the kitchens.
“Yeah. He was burning something and muttering under his breath all the while. Maybe he’s secretly Buddhist and we didn’t know?”
Lily wanted to throw up. She knew that Maxim definitely wasn’t burning incense. Her gaze traveled to Dorcas and Marlene and she saw dawning suspicion in their eyes. But she wasn’t suspicious at all. She knew… oh Merlin she knew with a sudden clarity that she didn’t appreciate.
James leaned down. “Do you want to get out of here?”
She could only nod weakly. He said something to the others and she found herself being pulled outside. The breeze brushed her face and she was able to take a shaky breath, but it did little for her nerves.
He seated himself on the exact same planter that she had occupied just a few minutes ago and set her down on his lap. His arms were secure around her waist and she found his presence reassuring. “Lily, please, what’s going on? Tell me something, anything.”
He shifted so he was looking directly at her and cupped her cheek gently with his palm. “What’s the matter?” he asked softly. “You’re only ever like this when you thought you did horrible on an exam or you realized something earth-shattering had happened. And since we’re no longer in Hogwarts, I’m assuming it’s the latter.”
Lily closed her eyes and buried her head into the crook of his shoulder. “I know, James. I know.”
He pressed a kiss to the top of her head. “What do you know?”
And then he froze. Lily felt his body stiffen as the realization of what she said sank through him. She waited as he processed the thought and then she lifted her head to see his reaction.
He was looking at her with sheer incredulity. “You know.” It wasn’t a question.
“I do,” she whispered.
“Are you sure?” He didn’t ask her who it was, but she knew without a doubt that he did know. James had always been brilliant. “Do you have evidence?”
She shook her head. “Not yet. But I will find it. I will…” And as quick as her determination came, it went. She hid her face in her hands, her breathing uneven. “I just can’t believe… I mean it’s one thing to suspect but another thing to actually know.”
James gently pulled her hands away and pressed tender kisses to each of her knuckles. He let his lips linger for a moment before pulling away. “I know,” he murmured. “I know it’s hard.”
Lily stared at the ground for a moment, getting her thoughts back in order. When she looked up at him again, she was grim but determined. “All right, let’s do this. We need to find evidence and we need to do it as soon as possible.” She got off his lap and ran a hand through her hair, straightening it out. “Do you think everyone else knows about this?”
He shrugged. “I’m not sure. I don’t know how much everyone has guessed.”
“Then we’re just going to have to let them know,” she said resolutely. “And somehow come up with a plan without letting Max know about it.”
James nodded slowly. Lily turned to look at him. He seemed to be in deep thought about something else other than the problem with Maxim. Just as she was about to ask, he grabbed her hand and pulled her closer to him.
“So… are we okay?”
She didn’t pretend to misunderstand. “We have to be okay. We have a traitor to catch.”
He sighed and dropped her hand. “Which means we aren’t okay.”
“It’s not like you’re very upset about it,” Lily couldn’t help but say. “You were looking pretty comfortable with Aileen on that loveseat.”
“Does your jealousy have no bounds?” he asked exasperatedly.
Instead of being offended, Lily merely shrugged. She had long come to terms with the fact that she was indeed quite jealous, and now that she realized it, she was willing to admit it.
“You’re the one who’s continually feeding the jealousy.” She held out her hand. “Now come on. Let’s go before they think we’ve run off.”
James gave her a look of utter exasperation and annoyance before he grabbed her hand and allowed her to pull him up. He tugged her closer as they walked, a hand around her waist.
“You’re going to be the death of me, you know?” he whispered.
Lily couldn’t help but offer him a small grin. “Of course. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Author's Note: Quite a drama-filled chapter, isn't it? And yes, the culprit is finally revealed here :) You can consider this the end of the first "part" of the story and the beginning of the second. The next chapter will feature the Aurors' plan in capturing Maxim and provide more explanations as to how he did everything and got away with it. Thanks so much for continuing to stick with this story :) Chapter 10 should be a blast.
And before you leave, please review! Thank you :)
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