The room was a cavernous one, with what looked like plenty of hidey-holes. It was obviously poorly kept, with dirt on the floorboards which, James was sure, had never been cleaned even once in its unfortunate life. The walls looked once whitewashed, but now stained with brown just like the floor.
“We have to Disapparate,” James breathed to the others, even as they watched Professor Frensham’s face contort with pain, unable to speak because of the Silencing Charm placed on her. “Now!”
“Well, well, well,” said Malcolm Mulciber. “Look who it is. The sluts and their pimps.”
“What about Professor—” Sirius began, his voice barely above a whisper.
“No time!” Remus hissed. He caught Professor Frensham’s eye and tried to say sorry with his eyes, knowing that they didn’t stand a chance.
After a moment’s hesitation, all of them — James, Lily, Remus, Sirius, Marlene and Mary — linked hands and twisted on the spot in unison, but it was a futile attempt. The Death Eaters clearly were more adept to anti-Apparition charms than they were at cleaning, James reflected gloomily.
“We’re good, aren’t we? Pity we can't say the same about you,” said an unfamiliar man who had the waxy features of someone whose looks had been tarnished over a short amount of time. He leered at Lily, looking her up and down. “We meet again, darling,” he said to her, baring his teeth. “You know, you're quite pretty for a Mudblood...it’s just a shame that you're not very good at magic. Just goes to show how you don't deserve my wand. I mean, come on! A Memory Charm? And it didn't even—”
“Go fuck yourself,” James snarled automatically. A jet of light shot out of his wand involuntarily in his anger.
The third man, who none of them recognised, deflected the spell deftly without a second’s thought. “Try anything else, son, and your teacher’s going to get even more hurt than she already is.” At that moment, Mary and Remus joined in, directing non-verbal Stunning Spells towards them. The man averted these spells too.
“You as well, werewolf. And you, bitch. Try anything and I’ll kill you all. There’s no gender immunity here. Wand away, son.”
“He’s not your fucking son,” Sirius growled. Still, James did lower his wand, but only slightly. The others did likewise, remaining on the balls of their feet, ready to change their stances at any moment.
“You murdered William McCann and Kian Robinson and Maria Alessio,” said James to Mulciber. It was not a question — it was a statement. “You also tried to kill Zoey Rai. Why?”
Mulciber could barely hear the question directed at him; the mention of his victims’ names forced his brain to go back to the times when he performed those terrible crimes.
The first time had been on the Hogwarts Express. He watched as Marlene wept on William McCann’s shoulder. He listened carefully; as soon as he heard Marlene talk about her sisters, he realised what he had to do. He was under strict instructions, so when the McKinnon girl finally left the compartment, heading up the train towards her friends, Mulciber made his move. He only just had time to perform a Concealment Charm when the McKinnon girl was already back, a look on her face as if she was about to ask McCann something.
He saw the confusion in her eyes and for one brief, fleeting moment, Malcolm Mulciber felt a stab of guilt in his stomach for what he’d done. However, it only lasted a second, and he quickly shook it off, reassuring himself that what was done was done, that it was too late to rectify anything.
It wasn’t long, however, before it happened again. Mulciber was forced to kill someone else, but not directly this time. And, he supposed, it did help that Grunnings covered it up with that whole façade about Robinson having a heart attack. So it wasn’t as if he had really killed Robinson. No. He just initiated it.
Even after that, when he thought it was all over, Mulciber and his cronies once again had to kill to ensure their discussions were not spread. It was a shame that the charms they had used were not strong enough when the eavesdropper was too close by.
As for Rai...Mulciber didn't even want to go there. That was all Regulus’ fault. He told Mulciber that the only reason he tried to kill her was because she rejected him when he asked her out — and this was a year ago. So, of course, Mulciber had to cover up for his mistake. Again.
But, as the Dark Lord told them, if they made mistakes, they had to deal with the consequences.
And so, bearing that in mind, the tiny traces of doubt and guilt in Mulciber’s heart were obliterated, the more heinous crimes he performed.
“McCann was being the goody-goody that he always was,” Mulciber started after a pause. “He found out about McKinnon’s sisters. He had to die. Otherwise he would’ve told everyone. It was under the Dark Lord’s orders. Plus, he was a Mudblood. No losses there.
“Kian Robinson was also foolish enough to ask me about it after he overheard Avery and Montague discussing Mr Mudblood Scum, so he had to go. I put the Imperius Curse on Nick Clearwater and he killed him for me. As for Alessio, I actually had no intention whatsoever of killing her. But when someone knows valuable information, there is nothing to do but kill them.
“Rai, however, was not my fault. Your brother,” Mulciber said, jerking his head at Sirius, “got a bit angry at Rai for constantly saying no to him. Reg didn't like that, so he killed her. Or, at least, he tried to. She’ll be dead soon — that’s for sure.” Mulciber finished his speech with a sardonic smirk.
The group digested this information in silence.
“Who are you?” Mary asked, speaking for the first time. Her voice shook slightly but she stood her ground and stared directly at the unfamiliar Death Eaters.
“This one’s Grunnings,” Marlene told her before the man could speak, jabbing her thumb in his direction, “and that bastard over there is Travers. Dad put him in Azkaban so h-he got his fucking cronies to kidnap my sisters and when that wasn’t enough for him, even when he got out, these bastards had to go and kill my dad as well. If only you knew who they were, Lily — we would’ve been having this conversation months ago.
“Where’re my sisters?” Marlene asked them bluntly. “And don't say you don't have them — I know you do.”
“And how do you know that?” Mulciber said. “Give it up, sweetheart. There's no point in wishful thinking, is—”
“And so what if we do have little Layla and Jenna?” interrupted Travers. “There’s not much you can do, is there, considering they're d—”
He was cut off as Marlene, incapable of stopping herself, launched herself at him with surprising force. Unable to say a coherent spell, she plunged her wand into his eye, the nine months of desperation and fear finally being released. Blood spurted out and landed on Marlene’s shirt, and she continued to lay into him as resultant chaos ensued around her.
At that moment, Regulus Black and Georgia Greengrass emerged from the door, their wands out, ready to fight. Sirius’ eyes became wide as he watched his brother cast an Impediment Jinx against Remus, who fell backwards in surprise. Meanwhile, Grunnings was duelling Lily, Mary was duelling Mulciber and James was duelling Georgia. Sirius gritted his teeth and resigned himself to the inevitable; with a swipe of his wand, he duelled his own brother.
Five battles were going on at once; one physical, the others magical. Grunnings, pointing his wand at Lily after he dodged yet another Stunning Spell, shouted, “Avada Kedavra!”
It was as if the sudden tumult was now in slow motion; everyone seemed to pause to see if the jet of green light would find its target — and even that seemed to be taking its time. Lily seemed rooted on the spot, and the fear was evident in her eyes as she simply stared at her attacker. Finally, James, regaining his sense — and anger as he realised what that son of a bitch was about to do — reached out and grabbed Lily’s arm, roughly pulling her back into safety. Then, without a moment’s thought, he reached over, wrested Regulus’ and Mulciber’s wands out of their hands, pointed all three at Grunnings and yelled, “Sectumsempra!”
By the force of the triple spell, Grunnings was lifted from his feet into the air before landing on the ground with a thud, blood spattering the floor and a few droplets landing on Remus, who was nearest and had just regained consciousness. James watched in repulsion as the man’s eyes became blank and lifeless; it dawned on him about what he had just done.
He’d killed someone.
Before James had more than a moment to reflect on this astonishing realisation, there were two loud bangs, one after the other as Mary cast silent Impediment Jinxes on Georgia Greengrass and Regulus Black. Both fell to the floor with heavy thuds. Travers dived half-blindly for his wand, which was lying on the ground, turned on the spot and Disapparated. Clearly, the anti-Apparition charms had broken since their caster was dead.
“Why, you...son of a bitch, Travers!” Mulciber burst out. He was wandless, but this did not stop him; instead, before anyone could stop him, he reached inside Professor Frensham’s robes and pulled out her wand.
“You move a step and I’ll kill you,” James threatened.
“Yeah, Potter,” Mulciber sneered, despite the trace of uncertainty in his eyes. “You’d really have the guts to kill me, wouldn’t you?”
“Look what happened to this one,” Sirius said, catching James’ eye and playing along, jerking his thumb at Grunnings’ body, which was covered in blood. “You wouldn’t really want to be next, would you?”
Mulciber shook his head, even though the fearfulness in his expression was becoming more apparent by the second. “The Dark Lord...he would’ve made so much of both of you, Potter, Black,” Mulciber told them. “Even your half-breed friend here would’ve found a better place if he became a Death Eater...”
“Shut the fuck up, right now,” James spat. “We don't want to hear any more of your shit, d’you hear me? I would never, not in a million years, want to join Voldemort. Never. I’d die before that — OI!”
Without warning, Mulciber had turned on the spot; a bolt of red light burst from his wand just as he disappeared into thin air; the bolt spun and everyone in the room ducked to avoid it, but the jet simply went on, relentlessly, determined to find a target. At last, it backfired against the wall nearest to Professor Frensham and bounded directly against her chest.
James, Remus, Sirius, Lily, Mary and Marlene all watched in horror as the last of the life left Professor Frensham’s chameleon-like eyes and became hollow — and dead.
“Oh my God,” Mary breathed, looking at one dead body to the next.
“We have to go,” James said urgently, also looking at Grunnings’ bloodied corpse. “Fuck. What have I—?”
“No time, James!” Marlene said impatiently. “We’ve got to find Layla and Jenna!” She started to make her way out of the door.
“Wait!” Remus called.
“What?” Lena snarled.
“We need a plan,” he told her patiently. Mary and Lily looked up. “We have to split up, but none of us can be alone,” he explained. “I don't want to take any chances, OK? So James, go with Lily, I’ll go with Mary, and Lena, go with Sirius. Look for secret passageways, a door to the basement or the attic, anything like that. Meet back in this room in ten minutes, whether or not you find them, and we’ll see how we go from—”
“Hold it, Moony,” said Sirius suddenly, just as a bang resounded from where Regulus and Georgia lay, apparently conscious.
Everyone turned towards the source of the noise; all of a sudden, there was a crunching sound as Regulus and Georgia fell through the floorboards and a crack as they Disapparated.
“Great,” Sirius muttered bitterly. “I don't suppose I’ll be seeing either of them any time soon.”
“Hang on,” Lily said slowly. “Jenna and Layla could be down there, couldn’t they?”
Remus looked uncertainly at Sirius, and no one could bear to look at Marlene, whose expression was one of both fear and anticipation.
“This could be it,” whispered Mary. She was scared about what they would find. What if they...?
No. She wasn’t going to think of that. She reached out and grabbed Remus’ hand, squeezing it. He squeezed back reassuringly, even though his palms were very warm, almost sweaty.
After several moments of silence, when no one moved an inch towards the broken floorboards, Sirius got up abruptly and made his way to the hole. He let out a gasp of pure revulsion, swore vehemently and looked away immediately. Lily couldn’t stop herself and peered into it. Her eyes widened in horror and she instantaneously wished she hadn’t.
“Oh, Jesus,” she breathed, and for the first time in many years, Lily Evans blessed herself.
“Sirius? Lily?” Remus said gently. His voice sounded far, far away from Lily. “What’s the matter?”
“I — oh, God!” She keeled over, feeling sicker than she had ever felt in her life. But nothing would come out, and she retched emptily while James kneeled in front of her and watched her in concern.
“What’s happened, Lily?” Marlene asked in a shaky voice. “L-lily? LILY! They’re not—?” The question hung, unanswered, in the thick, bloody air.
Lily pointed with a wobbly finger at the hole in the floor, unable to hold back her tears. “D-don’t l-l-look, Lena. P-please. Please!” she said again, as Marlene made a movement towards it. James had never heard her beg like that before.
“OK, that’s enough,” James declared. He got to his feet and strode over to the trapdoor, looking forcefully through the gap in the bloodied floor.
He was greeted with the most terrible sight he had ever seen in his life. Two girls, neither of whom looked older than ten, were lying, dead on the ground, their faces emaciated through starvation and their wrists whittled down to their bones, becoming too small for the shackles they were encased in. They were completely naked, devoid of even the lowest form of dignity. The sisters’ thin, bruised arms were wrapped around each other, a finger missing from each of their right hands, and their blank, lifeless eyes stared up at James’, who felt the need to look away. He suddenly became more aware of his own body than he had ever done before.
How could he not have appreciated this before? His heart was beating, he was more than just skin and bones, he had never been hit in his life, and here, and these poor girls had been abused and left for dead by those bastards.
James felt the presence of Marlene even before he heard the sharp intake of breath at the sight of her two sisters. He awaited the tears; he was sure they would fall on his shoulder, as was done so many times before in the case of Lily, but they did not fall, either from his eyes nor Marlene’s.
“I’ll fucking kill them,” she vowed quietly, furiously. “I’m gonna fuck them up with my bare hands and when I'm done I'm going to cut them into tiny pieces and burn them—”
“Whoa, whoa,” James quelled her, his voice an octave above a whisper. “Plenty of time for that later, Marlene. We have to go.” He stood up and took Marlene by the shoulders to steady her to her feet.
“Wh-what about th-the — Lay —Jen — what about — them?” Marlene spluttered, unable to say her sisters’ names. James didn't let go of her, lest she fall.
“I’ll take care of it, Lena,” Sirius told her quietly, his voice uncharacteristically grave. He pointed his wand at the bodies and a white, silky material flowed out of his wand and wrapped itself around Layla and Jenna, covering them up.
“That’ll do for the moment,” Remus said finally as they watched Sirius levitate the bodies out from the trapdoor. “We’ll Apparate them back to Hogwarts, OK, Padfoot?”
Holding onto the bodies together, Remus and Sirius spun on the spot and Disapparated.
Mary made to follow them, but Lily stopped her. Now rendered speechless from the shocking revelation of Layla and Jenna’s deaths, she simply pointed at Professor Frensham, whose head was lolling on her shoulder, a small quantity of blood escaping her mouth. For the first time since they had entered the room, their DADA teacher looked relatively peaceful, in death. Mary nodded and understood; she was about to get out her wand but James beat her to it. Muttering a spell, he undid the shackles on her wrists and ankles, and with a final wave of his wand, he conjured the same silky covering for Professor Frensham.
“What about...?” Mary began, her question trailing, as everyone knew who she was talking about. Grunnings’ dead presence was imminent but James could barely look at him; instead, he simply shook his head and they all understood.
“Let’s get out of here,” James announced finally. He grasped hands with Lily and Marlene, who held hands with Mary as she took hold of Professor Frensham’s body with difficulty. As one, the five people — four alive, one dead — Disapparated into the night.
“Shit!” James hissed as he surfaced from his dream. He held up his hands, examining them in the starlight. There was no blood. Of course not.
Just a dream, James...
He could not stand it a moment longer. James got up and got out of his bed, hoping he hadn’t woken anyone up.
“Lily?” James whispered, opening the curtains of her bed in the hospital wing. He wasn’t surprised to find that she was still awake. Casting a Muffliato spell, Lily pointed at the chair and James settled in it, grasping her hands as tightly as he could.
“Why are you still up?” Lily breathed, moving to the very edge of her bed. It was well past midnight; the hospital wing was full of the noises of snoring. Upon arriving in front of the Hogwarts gates hours earlier, they had found Dumbledore and McGonagall waiting anxiously for the four of them.
“I could ask you the same question,” James replied softly. They stared at each other, neither feeling the need to speak; the fact that their hearts were beating at that second was enough for both of them.
Peter had also been attacked by Avery, who had left the school shortly thereafter along with Snape, Rosier and Wilkes. Luckily, Madam Pomfrey was able to heal his injuries in a trice, since, thankfully, none of them were inflicted by Dark Magic.
“Couldn’t sleep,” she said finally, tearing her gaze away from James.
“Neither could I,” he said unnecessarily. “I heard that Zoey died.”
Lily bowed her head, trying to stop the tears rolling down her cheeks. It wasn’t as if she had ever liked Zoey very much, but the thought of her being victimised by the Death Eaters made Lily realise what a terrible loss it was nevertheless.
“Seven years,” she said faintly. “Seven whole years I've known her. And now...”
“Lily...I've been thinking,” James interrupted. Lily looked almost glad to be cut off.
“And?” she prompted after another long, reflective silence.
“And...I still can't believe what I've done.”
She sat up and patted the space next to her on the bed. Hesitantly, he got up from the chair to sit next to her, carefully maintaining a distance, now unable to look her in the eyes. “James...” Lily began, but he interrupted her.
“He’s dead. And — and it’s all my fault.”
“He deserved to die,” she told him firmly. “He’s done so many terrible—”
“And so have I,” James shot back, “but does that mean I deserve to die too?”
Lily simply looked at him. “What you did,” she said slowly, “wasn’t a terrible thing. You saved me. I would’ve died if you hadn’t. And if you had a choice, if you could go back and change things, would you have done the same thing again?”
“I...I don't know,” James whispered. “I know I would save your life again — I don't know what I could do if you died, Lily. But I'm not sure if I could — if I could kill...I...I don't know, OK?”
“This is a war, James,” she stated baldly. “Remember that day, when Kian died? What you told me? We have to fight. There’ll always be casualties.”
“But that’s the thing! I don't mind being a casualty!” he said hotly. “What I mind is the fact that I'm fucking responsible for what happened to the bastard! And I don't want to be.”
“You're scared you're going to go to Azkaban?” Lily asked, as James was unable to take it anymore and stood up. He made to leave but she quickly stood up as well, her hands seizing his wrists and making him turn around to face her.
“Course not,” James countered, allowing her to close the distance between them. “No one will care about that — even this farce of a government. But let me tell you, Lily: I'm sick to death of my conscience about him. Now, I...I wish I didn't kill him.”
“Why did you, then?” she murmured, her hand brushing his cheek, fingering the long cut there which had been inflicted by either Regulus or Georgia.
“Because...” James tried to explain, but this was proving impossible.
Why did he? Was it to stop the man from committing further crimes? Yes, he supposed so, but if James really wanted that, he could’ve just Stunned him, took him to Hogwarts so Dumbledore would deal with him instead.
Was it because James wanted to save Lily’s life? Again, it appeared to be the reason, but again, it was possible for James do something else in order to get the same results.
If that was the case, then why did he do it?
And, just like that, it clicked.
“I did it because,” James began, answering her question at last, “he tried to kill you.”
“And...” she said. Lily was already weakening from her prolonged time on her feet; her legs were beginning to feel heavy, so she pulled away from him and sat on her bed again.
“And,” he continued, his voice stronger now, “I felt so angry at him, just for trying that on you, and I knew that all the things he’d done were evil, so...”
“So you killed him,” Lily finished.
“That doesn’t make it right,” James argued. He reluctantly seated himself on the bed next to her again. “You're Catholic. You should know. Murder’s a sin, surely?”
“How d’you know I'm Catholic?” she asked, surprised.
“Remus,” he replied. “When I asked him why you did that cross thingy on yourself back there, he told me. His mum is — although Mrs. Lupin always says she's lapsed. Eternally lapsed.”
“That’s like me. I'm not religious at all,” Lily admitted. “Never have been, actually. But for the sake of the argument, you didn't murder Grunnings. Murder’s not simple. And it depends on who you do it to for it to be a sin — although why you care, I don't know.
“What you did wasn’t murder, James,” she continued earnestly. “Grunnings would’ve killed me and you and everyone who was with us if you didn’t get there first. You didn’t murder him — you acted in self-defence and my defence and he got killed because of it. But wh-what they did to Marlene’s sisters was murder. What they did to Kian, to Will, to Maria, to Zoey, that was murder. This? This is nothing compared to what he’s responsible for.”
James remained unconvinced. “I don't know what to do,” he confessed, looking more worried than he had ever looked before to Lily. His laughing, slightly arrogant exterior had vanished, to be replaced with a raw look of vulnerability and guilt.
“James,” she said. “James — just answer me this one question.”
“Who did you do it for?”
“You,” he said immediately.
“Exactly,” said Lily matter-of-factly. “There you go, then.”
“What do you mean?”
“You killed that man — for me. If anyone should be feeling guilty here, it’s me.”
“And why don't you feel guilty?”
“Because that man didn't deserve to be on this earth, James; that’s what I'm getting at!” Lily burst out, finally losing her carefully maintained composure. “He tried to kill me. So you killed him. But I told you the spell and I told you to use it if we were in trouble and it was because of me that you killed him in the first place, so I might as well have killed him, for all the difference it makes!
“James, listen to me, OK? You did it for the right reasons. I know for a fact that if our positions were reversed I’d kill him for you — in a heartbeat.”
“But nothing! This is war. People will die. I might be one of them. But I don't need to be telling you this, James, because you’ve already acknowledged the fact that you might be a casualty in this war!”
“Surely, though, it was wrong for me to—”
“No, it wasn’t!” Lily retorted hotly. “In my book, though, you're either with Voldemort or you're not. And if you kill a child, if you try to kill someone I lo — care for, if you abuse someone or murder someone or commit any other heinous crime, let me tell you now, James: I'm not going to just sit there and let it rest. You have to take a side. Just like you said. And if you're not on my side, you're with them. With him. And I know you're not, James. You could never be evil, like Voldemort, like Mulciber. You're a good person. You're a far better person than any of them, and the fact that you have such a strong conscience, even when you did it for the good, shows just how wicked Voldemort is, and how good you are in comparison.
“Stop trying to blame yourself, James. Look at Jenna and Layla. I as good as killed them.”
“Don't say that,” James protested.
“But it’s true! If it wasn’t for me looking after them and then just leaving them to die with the Death Eaters, they wouldn’t have...they wouldn’t have—” Lily stopped, wiping away the tears with her sleeve. She continued bravely, “I might as well have killed them, James. But does that mean you think any less of me?”
James shook his head.
Her shockingly green eyes saw through him, right to the very depths of his soul, as she told him softly, “I’m proud of you, James.”
James stared at her. He was suddenly bombarded with emotions and felt the urge to seek solace in her arms. As he hugged her, James whispered, “Me and you against the world, Lily.”
Lily could taste warm, salty tears on his lips as they melded with hers in a searing kiss; for the first time in many years, James Potter remembered how to cry.
Chapter End Notes:
All right! We’ve at last come to the end of the road. That’s it, folks — minus the epilogue, of course. I had great fun writing this last chapter, and I have to say, it made a nice change, having it a bit soppy at the end instead of another cliffhanger. I was a little tearful myself, to be honest. But I hope it was worth it. Tell me what you thought, please, as usual. Do you think it was the right decision for James? What on earth made me make Lily a Catholic?
Please review. The epilogue will be posted as soon as I can.