A/N: The title for this one-shot is from the quote below. I'd like to thank Shiloh (TheEmpress) for betaing this story for me -- Shiloh, you're fabulous!
All that's left for me to say is that I adore and admire James Potter, and for that reason I hope I've done him justice. Please let me know your thoughts in a review!
"The deepest definition of youth is life as yet untouched by tragedy."
-- Alfred North Whitehead
There is nothing in the world like the sound of your wife weeping. It crushes your very soul and threatens to wrench your heart from within your chest with talons of poisoned ice.
She wasn’t crying over something insignificant and stupid I had done. I wished she were, because then I could have done something for it. I could have given her flowers and told her how lovely she was, not only on the outside but also on the inside, for putting up with an idiot like me. I could have made her smile.
I’d have given both my legs to make her smile then. I’d have given my life to ensure she never had to live in hell again.
Lily wept the tears of the young and innocent, those who have had the world dropped cruelly on their shoulders and have no choice but to bear the weight. She wept all the harder for the fact that she was crying to begin with – she never did like anyone to see her like that, not even me. She cried all of the tears she had pent up over months of putting on a brave face.
It destroyed me to hear her like that, to feel her shaking with fear as she sobbed against my chest. My glasses, too, were fogged up, though I tried with all my might to be the strong one. That’s what I was supposed to be; that’s what I wanted to be.
I’m too young for this
, I thought frantically.
Not twenty-two years old, and already the head of a family. I was supposed to stand in the way of anything that threatened them.
Never in my life had I felt so pathetic and useless.
I couldn’t even tell her everything would be alright. I couldn’t even do that much for her. It would have made a mockery of her tears.
Because Dumbledore had been right, as he always was. Because my family was being targeted. Because a sick, evil bastard had gotten it into his head that he was going to kill an infant.
“I’m scared,” she whispered.
We all were. It was a joke not to be scared in those times, even if Voldemort wasn’t trying to slaughter your child.
What do you say
“I’ll take care of you.” I meant it. With every drop of blood in my body, I meant it.
All day, she held onto Harry for dear life, letting go only when Sirius arrived and Harry practically leapt out of Lily’s arms at him.
Sirius was better with kids than he liked people to think. Similar maturity levels, I always said.
It was then, as he hugged Harry in his arms, allowing Harry to grab fistfuls of his hair, that he told me his idea.
“James…I think you should use Pete as Secret Keeper.”
“No, no, listen. Pete…well…nobody expects much of him. It’s just an added layer of security. Who in the hell is going to think you used him, of all people? They’re automatically going to think you used me.”
It was true. I felt slightly ashamed to admit it to myself, but it was true that nobody expected much of Pete. Not even us. He wasn’t capable of much, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. We all knew he would go to the ends of the earth for us, and bring us back a load of biscuits if we asked him to.
Sirius spoke about Pete in his normal way: nonchalant, dismissive, as if Pete were completely dispensable because of his many ineptitudes. In some sense, he was; we could’ve chucked him from the group at any moment – and there were times when Sirius had come close.
I liked to believe that I didn’t think of Pete like that anymore; that I saw him as my equal and my brother, instead of someone who was convenient to have around because he made me feel like the best thing since Dictation Quills were invented. But none of that mattered…for in the end, I didn’t choose Pete as Secret Keeper because he was my brother, or because he was top notch, or because I had faith in his ability to protect the most precious treasure in the world. I wanted Sirius for those reasons. In the end, I chose Pete for the simple fact that he was pathetic, and I chose him with the hope that the entire world would see the same ridiculous person we had always seen.
He agreed, as we knew he would. We could always depend on him to never say no.
The War was taking its toll on Pete. He looked depressed and downtrodden, as if he were going to burst into tears at any moment. He was going prematurely bald, too, poor guy.
“Thanks for doing this, Pete.” I clapped him on the back after all was said and done. He nodded and looked like he was going to be ill. Maybe he’d been on too many missions with the Order lately – he never did very well with those.
“Say goodbye to Uncle Peter,” Lily cooed, holding Harry in one arm and demonstrating how to wave goodbye with the other.
Harry waved one hand wildly and even managed to say “Bye.” Smart kid. My
Pete’s face seemed to deflate, melting into a picture of worry and despair. He walked over and held Harry’s hand for a moment, bowing his head as he did so. For a moment I wondered whether he was going to cry. I wouldn't have judged him for it - Pete was Harry's family, too.
Finally, he gave a great sigh and turned to leave.
“This’ll all be over soon, mate,” I said. He nodded, and then he was gone.
“You know,” I said to Lily, “now that nobody can actually see the house, we can leave the curtains open when we – ”
“You’re so crass,” she laughed, trying to chastise me and failing miserably.
It was glorious to hear her laugh. Her voice echoed off the walls and cascaded around me, making the house feel more like a home than the comfortable, well-furnished prison it had become.
* * * * *
I had never really stopped to think about how young I was. I enjoyed being
young, of course, but that’s not the same thing.
Working for the Order was serious, and I believed in the cause with all my heart. I loathed everything that was evil and vile and cruel. But the fighting, the battles – that was always a bit of a game for me.
I was a mighty eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old, and nothing could stand in my way. Sirius dueled alongside me, as we placed bets on who would snuff out the most Death Eaters and took turns composing offensive limericks about our adversaries. We exalted in our own brilliance and accomplishment. We were saving the world one reckless adventure at a time.
Lily and I never took each other for granted. You can’t, when all around you people are falling dead and you know that any day, any moment, it could be one of you. It does wonders for passion. Not that I would ever have taken her for granted otherwise. She was beautiful and perfect and everything that I didn’t deserve. She kept me accountable while placing no conditions on her love. When I fought, I fought for her, because if she were to die, the earth would crumble from the inside out. Without her, the world would collapse and cease to hold any purpose. And when she
fought, it humbled me and reminded me what a lucky git I was.
I welcomed this life – the danger, the uncertainty. I was young, so what had I to worry about? I had energy, I had friends, I had a lover, I had a cause. The whole wide world offered itself to me on a platter. James Potter was unstoppable.
I loved being young, but I had never fully appreciated its implications before that day Dumbledore talked to us.
It was numbness that I first felt. I registered something about a prophecy; about Harry; about Frank, Alice, and Neville. And uncertainty…loads of uncertainty. For as bloody intelligent and perceptive as Dumbledore was, there seemed to be a hell of a lot he didn’t know.
The walls seemed to press in on me as I paced back and forth, trying to decide whether to believe what I had just heard. My son slept soundly in my arms, blessedly unaware of the fact that the world was going to hell all around him.
Lily and Alice sat together on the sofa, holding hands and whispering to each other. Alice’s brow was furrowed, and she looked scared out of her mind – that was a sight I never liked to see, because Alice rarely looked scared of anything. Lily’s nose was red, and her eyes were shining, and I knew she was holding her breath in a fruitless attempt to keep the tears at bay.
Frank stood in the doorway, cradling Neville. His eyes, cloudy with worry, caught mine, and I knew we were both thinking the same thing.
It wasn’t that Frank wanted it to be Harry, or that I wanted it to be Neville.
It was just that Frank didn’t want it to be Neville. And I didn’t want it to be Harry.
Maybe it wasn’t either of them. Maybe Dumbledore’s hunch was wrong. Maybe there was nothing to be worried about.
I wasn’t feeling too fond of the word “maybe” at the moment. I didn’t trust “maybe.”
Lily rested her head on Alice’s shoulder as Alice wrapped her arms around Lily, stroked Lily’s hair, and with a trembling lip murmured the same kinds of things that I would no doubt be repeating later when Lily was in my arms.
Alice and Frank weren’t much older than us – only a few years – but when I saw Alice holding Lily in such a maternal way, and Lily looking more vulnerable than she liked to let on, it made me think…
It was at that moment that I realized how truly young we were.
I recognized, then, that I wasn’t as carefree as I liked to imagine. I suppose that kind of situation should have made me feel old. And it did, in its own way. But that only threw my age – and all its disadvantages – into sharper focus.
For the first time, I understood what it was to be “too young.” I’d never felt too young for anything, until that day. But I was
too young – she was too young – we were all too young for what was being asked of us. We were children; there was no escaping that fact, no matter how fast I ran or flew.
We were children, facing evils that no person of any age should have to confront. We were children.
I looked down at my son – my absolutely perfect child – and I prayed a silent, feverish prayer. I repeated it, again and again, in my head, in my heart, in the depths of my stomach where fear had finally begun to take root. In that same moment, it became a conviction, and I clung to it like a lifeline, until I had fully resolved that there was no other way.
We would win the War, so that my child would never have to face these terrors at such a young age – so that he would never have to see what I had seen.
It was no longer a prayer; it was a necessity.
* * * * *
“Are you terribly unhappy?”
I loved Lily. I really did. There was nobody in the world like her, and I loved being married to her. But she was a woman, and she was therefore occasionally prone to asking the kinds of silly questions that women ask.
There was nothing happy about our situation, or our reason for hiding out in Godric’s Hollow. But I wasn’t completely daft; I knew what she was getting at. Contrary to popular opinion, James Potter did, in fact, have a brain.
“You know I’m happy with you. I love you.”
“But you’re bored. I know you are.”
It was true. Being cooped up in that house was frustrating, although it had nothing to do with Lily or Harry. I never once regretted marrying Lily, and I certainly didn’t resent Harry. But I wished I could have taken them to a Quidditch match. I wished I could have snuck Harry out to watch me set off fireworks in an abandoned field with the Marauders. I wished I could have taken Lily dancing.
Sirius told me he finally figured out how to make his motorbike fly – I never did get to see that. I couldn’t be there for Remus during the full moon, though there were nights when I wanted nothing more than to transform and run for hours upon hours, not stopping until I had reached the ends of the earth. I wanted to fly, to run, to climb – anything other than what I was doing, which was absolutely nothing. I didn’t want to sit paralyzed in the middle of a maelstrom, observing and waiting, hoping and fearing.
I liked to imagine that, if I ran fast enough, I could escape - not my life, but everything that threatened it. Maybe, if I was fast enough and strong enough, I could save everyone else, too.
In the beginning, I was still allowed on missions…but eventually Dumbledore decided it was best that we remain concealed. Besides, I hated leaving Lily alone. Even in the beginning, I never left her alone at night. She had terrible nightmares. I couldn’t blame her – I had them too, only I didn’t admit it.
The worst part was feeling useless: knowing that my friends were risking their lives and I wasn’t standing beside them.
It was the action, the adventure, that had always made me feel big and important. But confined in that small house, in that small village, there was no escaping the truth: Lily and I were in the middle of something that was so much bigger than us. We were powerless, insignificant, and so incredibly small. In many ways, we had no clue what we were doing.
Our life in Godric’s Hollow was a mockery of what it should have been. There was a house, a yard, a nice little fence; there were photographs, trinkets, and even a stupid cat – all the right things, but for all the wrong reasons. It’s not a proper home if you’re forced to live there, shrouded in fear.
We went through the motions of everyday life, trying so hard to make it seem real. We told ourselves it was good practice, and that someday, when this was all over, we wouldn’t have to pretend anymore. It would be the real thing. But for the time being, we were just children playing house.
But then there were those moments when I felt how true and palpable everything was in our lives. For every gloomy day that Lily had, she had five vibrant ones. Her optimism was infectious, her touch was electrifying. She reminded me what it meant to be alive.
The guys visited as often as they could, which wasn’t much, but it saved me from going mad more times than I could count. Sirius came most frequently; Remus found it hard to make time, between Order business and his furry little problem, and Pete was so stressed he had all but shut himself off from everyone.
Harry loved Sirius. He ignored everybody else when Sirius was around and threw amazing tantrums when Sirius had to leave.
One particular day, Sirius spent the better part of an hour falling over and faking spectacular deaths as Harry brandished a toy wand at him. At Harry’s election, that activity transitioned into a rousing game of “Where’s Sirius?” I tried not to laugh too hard at Sirius attempting to hide underneath a tiny blanket that only covered his face, because I, too, spent approximately five hours a day playing “Where’s Daddy?”
Satisfied that both Harry and Sirius would be entertained for hours to come, I snuck into the kitchen to find Lily. I held her close to me, reveling in the feel of her skin, and trailed kisses over her face. Stress and sleepless nights had made her face pale, dulled her hair, and left circles underneath her eyes, but my eyes would never see any sight lovelier than her. I wanted to whisk her away for a weekend and allow Sirius to babysit against my better judgment. But as I couldn’t do that, I settled for the next best thing.
I told my best friend of ten years to bugger off so I could spend some time with my beautiful bride.
It was one of those sacred times when the world seemed to contain nothing and nobody else but the two of us; when the cloud hovering over our heads dissipated; when we became lost in each other and almost forgot where we were. It offered us a fleeting glimpse of what life should have been like after Harry was born, and made us hope fervently for a world that was fit for him to inhabit.
* * * * *
“Padfoot!” I bellowed into my mirror. I attracted stares from everyone else in the St. Mungo’s corridor, but I didn’t bleeding care. “Padfoot, you’d better answer me and get your lazy arse over here, because I’m having a baby!
Sirius’ grinning face appeared in the mirror. “You’re
having a baby? That explains a lot, I thought you looked a little heavy lately. Only I didn’t say anything because I reckoned you were just retaining water – ”
“Shut it, and get over here!”
An hour later, there was indeed a baby. He was accompanied by a lot of profanity that I didn’t know Lily was familiar with. Hell, there was a lot of profanity that I
wasn’t familiar with. Honestly, you’d think the Healers would listen to her and give her more pain-relief potion when she asked for it. I tried to explain that you don’t say “No” when Lily Potter says “Yes.” Some people just don’t listen.
The first time I held my son, I struggled to wrap my mind around what I was seeing. This kid was half me
. I had created this. In the middle of a world cloaked in the specter of death, I was holding life in my arms. I was in awe. I was in love.
Lily was exhausted, pale as a ghost, and her hair lay matted against her sweat-covered forehead. Still, her eyes lit up at the sight of Harry as I placed him in her arms. I’d heard once that, without fail, a new mother will count her baby’s fingers and toes, as if checking to make sure they’re all there. But Lily touched each tiny finger and each miniature toe as though blessing them.
I heard a familiar voice in the corridor and, in one fluid movement, burst out of the room and jumped onto Sirius’ back.
“I’m a dad!” I shouted gleefully.
“Oi, get off me, you git! You’re a lot heavier than you look. And where’s my godson? Can I see him?”
Lily was nearly asleep, so I prised Harry from her arms, kissing her on the forehead and promising to have him back in a moment.
“He’s perfect,” I announced, showing him off to Sirius.
“Imagine that,” he teased. “So are you, I've heard.”
It was true, nobody had ever accused me of excessive humility; and I certainly wasn’t going to start with the birth of my firstborn child.
“Fancy seeing you here!” called a friendly voice. It was Frank, and in his arms he held Neville, who had been born just the previous night.
“Look, Harry,” I said, “this is your new friend Neville.”
“I think they’ll be excellent friends,” said Frank.
“Wreak havoc on Hogwarts together,” added Sirius.
“Co-captains of the Quidditch team,” I agreed.
I was scared out of my mind, being a new dad. What if I didn’t know what to do? What if I messed up? What if the kid didn’t like me?
Of one thing, however, I was certain: the world had never seen anything like my boy. Harry Potter was going to be someone special.
* * * * *
Godric’s Hollow was a quaint place, and downright picturesque, especially so on holidays. The residents were quite festive and took even the smallest occasion to heart. I particularly enjoyed Halloween, as the Muggle traditions were foreign and fascinating to me. The Muggle kids were fun to watch, running around dressed up as pumpkins and ghosts and various wild animals. The witch costumes amused me to no end, although I really didn’t understand where the idea for the green face had come from. Lily tried to explain it to me; I still didn’t get it.
The children hurried home as the sun sank lower in the sky, casting long shadows on the ground and bathing the village in a dim glow. Even from inside the house, I could tell it was going to be a cold, wet night, but that only made our house seem cozier in comparison. I already had a fire going, and I played with Harry in the sitting room as Lily jabbered away in the kitchen about the various strange Halloween costumes Harry could wear in the years to come. I was rather entertained by the idea.
An uneasy calm had descended over us in the past week. Anxiety still hung like a fog throughout every room, stuck in every corner like persistent dirt, but that was to be expected. Anxiety was a way of life until the War was over. The panic, at least, had subsided. There was worry, but there were also equal amounts of faith; we had been afforded the highest level of protection conceivable.
I didn’t know whether it was the ordinary anxiety, or whether it was something else entirely, but as soon as Lily entered the room to retrieve Harry, I felt an odd jolt in my stomach. It wasn’t nerves; it was instinct, and it was imperative that I act on it.
I caught her wrist and pulled her onto my lap, kissing her in a way I hadn’t kissed her since long before the shock of last week’s news. Heat radiated from her cheeks, and I lifted my glasses, the better to feel her skin against mine without obstruction. Finally, she pulled away, looking pleased, and asked me what I’d done that for.
“I just love you,” I said. It was essential, according to the feeling in my stomach, that I tell her so.
“Well, I love you, too,” she laughed. “But I have to go put Harry to bed.”
“Hurry, up, then, so I can put you
to bed,” I grumbled.
I kissed Harry goodnight and handed him to Lily, then yawned and stretched as they disappeared up the stairs –
My heart stopped within my chest as the front door burst open with a deafening bang
and the sickening sound of wood ripping apart.
I reacted as I always had, running in the direction of the danger to face my adversary. But this time was different than every other: my mind was clouded with panic, my chest constricted with a kind of fear I had never known until then.
In my mental haze, as the room seemed to spin out of control all around me, I shouted words to Lily without having a clue what I was saying. Probably something stupid like “I’ll hold him back.”
Halfway to the door, my stomach lurched as I realized that my wand still rested on the sofa. There was no chance of retrieving it. Then my heart plummeted like a stone as I remembered Lily had left her wand on the mantle.
Tears sprang to my eyes as he raised his wand. He could kill me; I couldn’t care less. I wasn’t afraid of death. Enough Order members had fallen by my side that I understood my own mortality.
My tears were tears of despair and shame, enough shame to destroy a hundred lifetimes. I was looking into the eyes of the demon that was going to kill my wife and son…and there was nothing I could do about it.
All of my education, my training, my experience – none of it mattered. I may as well have been holding a toy wand, or a stick I’d grabbed off a nearby tree. In the millionth of a second before he cast the spell, I saw myself exactly as he saw me: a child. A stupid, pathetic child trying to play with the grown-ups.
I had failed them.
I had forsaken them.
In the end, I couldn’t protect them.