Chapter 1 : Chapter One
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Top Ministry Official Found Dead
Cuthbert Finch, a senior member of the Department of Magical Law Enforcement, has been found dead at his home in Exeter. He was discovered by his wife Doreen on Wednesday night after she returned from an evening of playing bridge with friends.
‘All evidence at the scene points to a severe and perhaps prolonged struggle,’ a Ministry spokesperson said in a statement released yesterday. ‘The Dark Mark was hovering above the house when Mrs Finch returned, so there is no question as to who has done this.’
Nor is there any question as to why. Finch, 58, was in charge of the court proceedings against suspected Death Eater Harold Jugson, who escaped from custody two weeks ago, after great efforts on the part of many Aurors and other Ministry personnel, including Finch, to capture him. Finch had also ruffled a few feathers over legislation he helped to write that imposed harsher punishments for crimes committed against Muggles.
The statement went on to say that Finch will be sorely missed, though it gave no more information, and the Ministry was unavailable for comment last night. It seems that Cuthbert Finch is to be added to the ever-growing list of victims of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
Lily Evans tossed the newspaper aside and threw herself backwards onto her bed. She could not bring herself to continue reading the article. It was all that seemed to be in the paper, these days; reports of deaths and disappearances, of bodies found washed up on beaches, or in abandoned shacks with the Dark Mark hovering above. The Prophet had sometimes included pictures of the spectral, smoky skull floating like a sinister apparition above the ruins of a cottage. Every time she saw it, she wasn’t able to look for long.
It had even been referred to as a war in last week’s Sunday Prophet, everything that had been happening. But a war had to have two sides, had to have a resistance, but instead there seemed to be simply confusion. Perhaps high up in the Ministry, a plan was being formed, an idea of how to fight back against all this, but there was little feeling of resistance among the ordinary people; many were starting to refer to the wizard behind all the attacks and disappearances as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, too afraid to say his name.
Even Hogwarts was beginning to be affected. Lily thought back to the Wednesday before term ended, when they had been informed the parents of a Gryffindor seventh-year had been attacked. The mother had been killed, and there had been no sign of the father. Lily had seen the girl, Ingrid Tallow, whom Lily had spoken to a few times, and her little brother, Gavin, in the Great Hall, waiting to be picked up by their aunt and uncle. The boy had red, puffy eyes, and was burying his face in his older sister’s robes. The sight haunted Lily still.
She couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to be told such terrible news, to be told your parents were gone and that your life was changed forever. Yet, at the same time, she felt oddly detached from it all, a stranger looking in on the scene with sadness and pity, but unharmed and unaffected. Her life would go on as it always had, and for one tiny moment, Lily had felt relief, relief that it wasn’t her with a mother dead and family destroyed, before she became disgusted with herself.
Lying on her bed in familiar and comfortable surroundings, she felt as if a great weight had settled on her, and she had a sudden desire to throw the newspaper out of the window, as if that would help things and remove the terrible sense of claustrophobia she felt. Her thoughts turned to her parents, who, as usual, had greeted her from the Hogwarts Express with many hugs and kisses, full of the Christmas spirit that Lily couldn’t seem to share, no matter how hard she tried.
Decorating the tree on the evening she came home had been a family tradition since she was eleven years old, but this year, she couldn’t quite get into the spirit of things. She felt strangely separated from her jolly parents and their carefree attitude, her mother humming along to White Christmas as her father reached up to put the angel on top of the tree, and Petunia hanging the last of the tinsel. They were unaffected by this war, as the Prophet had put it. It would never affect them. Lily longed to share their joy, but the image of the little boy kept creeping back into her mind, and she found herself wondering how he would be spending Christmas.
Lily suddenly sat up. She couldn’t be thinking like this, not at Christmas time. It was a time to be thankful and happy. She had to try, for her parent’s sake, for the sake of Christmas itself. She couldn’t let all this bring her down. She needed to get out of the house, get some fresh air to clear her head. She got off her bed and shrugged on a coat and went downstairs.
‘I’m going out for a bit,’ she called as she opened the front door, hearing her mother’s wordless shout of consent as she stepped into the chilly air.
To her disappointment, Lily felt no sense of relief as she began to walk along the pavement. The weather was vaguely misty with a biting cold and the sort of dampness that clings to everything and makes it wet without it actually raining. As she approached the high street, the Christmas lights attached to the shops and houses that lined the road were twinkling through the mist, but they couldn’t summon the warm, tingling feeling they usually inspired in her, along with thoughts of the perfect presents for her family and evenings in front of the fire.
She turned off the high street and began walking along the road that led out of the village towards the copse. Here, Lily had spent many long summer days or frosty winter ones hiding among the trees with Severus. With a pang, she realised she was missing him.
She hadn’t spoken to him now since the summer when he had sought her out in the playground. He had been apologetic and repentant then, but Lily had been firm. She meant what she said, she told him, and would stand by it. Since then, she had wondered if she should have forgiven him, especially during the long days of that summer. She had once even found herself treading the familiar path to his house, but she had turned away before she reached it. The image of the ghostly skull kept creeping back into her mind, and the reasons why she had ended their friendship came flooding back to her.
In her heart of hearts, Lily knew that Severus would not waver from the path he had chosen, however much she begged and cajoled him. His beliefs were genuine, however much he protested otherwise, and there was no way Lily could ever accept that. She would have nothing more to do with her unless he accepted that people like her, Muggle-borns, were equal to him.
But she still missed him, especially during the holidays. She missed laughing with him about the little things, or happily complaining about homework they had been set and irritating teachers. She missed the comfortable hours she had spent in his company, and his calm, collected presence. He was someone to talk to when Petunia had been particularly nasty, or her parents irksome. He had listened in silence and allowed her to talk freely about how she really felt. Her other friends were sympathetic, but they hadn’t understood as Severus had; they hadn’t known exactly how Petunia could be. She had nobody like that now, nobody who really knew her, who had grown up with her.
But she couldn’t be friends with someone who was willing to put up with murder and torture. She couldn’t be friends with someone who would rob a young, innocent boy of his parents, or murder a man for opposing their views.
She had arrived at the playground, where she and Petunia had first met Severus. It seemed so long ago. They were different people now. Back then, things had seemed so black and white to Lily, so simple and clear, a definite right and a definite wrong. As she took a seat on one of the swings, she wished she was that young again and didn’t have to think about war or suffering.
‘You been stood up?’
Lily jumped. She had been so absorbed in her thoughts that she hadn’t noticed someone else in the playground. The speaker was a boy who looked about her own age. He was fairly good looking, Lily noticed, flushing, with an untidy mop of brown hair, longer than any boy at Hogwarts wore it, and he was wearing a leather jacket and faded denim jeans.
‘Sorry, what?’ she asked, blinking stupidly up at him. He grinned and sat down on the swing next to her, twisting around to face her.
‘I was asking if you’d been stood up,’ he repeated. His smile was very nice, Lily found herself thinking, not heart-stopping, but pleasant in a boy-next-door sort of way. She found herself being drawn to him. ‘It’s miserable out here, and you were looking glum. That’s the only explanation I could think of.’
His smile was rather cheeky, and Lily thought his explanation was a little pathetic, but for some reason, it didn’t really matter.
‘I haven’t been stood up,’ she said.
‘Good,’ he said, sending her another cheeky smile. To her surprise, Lily could feel her face getting warm and knew she was blushing. This seemed to spur the boy on.
‘I’d have to have questioned the guy’s sanity. I didn’t know girls as pretty as you hung around here. If I had, I’d have spent more time here.’
It was a pathetic line, and had this come from Potter, it would have made Lily seethe with irritation, but, like his rather unbelievable explanation, it didn’t seem to bother her. Perhaps it was because this boy was something different, a Muggle with no connection to her or Hogwarts or the war; it felt like a breath of fresh air. She felt herself warming to the boy, despite his cheesy lines.
‘That’s a terrible line,’ she said, grinning.
‘Ah well,’ the boy replied, shrugging his shoulders. ‘It was worth a try. What’s your name, anyway?’
‘Lily Evans,’ she said, extending her hand for the boy to shake.
‘Mark Forster,’ the boy said as they shook hands. ‘It’s odd, I’ve heard of your sister -- Petunia, is it?--but I don’t recognise you from any of the schools around here.’
Lily’s heart skipped a beat for a moment. She hadn’t had to lie about this kind of thing for a long time. Reciting lines about a boarding school in Scotland to her primary school friends she was no longer in touch with had been it, so she re-used the same story.
‘I don’t go to school here,’ Lily told him, not quite meeting his eye. She didn’t like lying to him; he seemed so genuine and friendly, it felt like a bigger betrayal than it had to the girls from primary school. ‘I go to a boarding school in Scotland.’
‘Ach aye tha noo!’ he said with a laugh. ‘Very posh. How come you go there?’
‘I err, won a scholarship,’ Lily said, improvising wildly. Her heart was starting to beat a little faster now, and she wondered if she should just leave now before she made a mistake and ended up letting something slip. But there was something about Mark’s smile that was highly inviting, and she felt an irresistible urge to stay.
‘Brains as well as beauty!’ he exclaimed. ‘That’s a little intimidating!’
‘I’m sorry,’ Lily said, blushing again.
‘Hey, don’t apologise,’ Mark said, grinning. ‘I like it. Do you fancy coming for a walk with me?’
Lily paused, slightly taken aback; she hadn’t expected that, and suddenly felt a little nervous and shy. Going for a walk with a boy she had only just met wasn’t something she would usually do, but on the other hand, she liked talking to Mark; he seemed care-free and easy going, and he was so far removed from the terrible things that were happening in the wizarding world. His light-heartedness was infectious, and she was feeling happier than she had been since that day she had seen the grieving young boy. She discovered that she wanted to say yes. But it was getting dark, and her parents would worry if she didn’t return soon.
Perhaps sensing her reluctance, Mark said, ‘I’m supposed to be going to the chippy for some tea, so I can’t be that long or else my mum will flip.’
‘Okay’ Lily said, deciding to throw caution to the wind. After all, it wasn’t like he’d asked her on a date. It was only a walk, and if she enjoyed his company, so what? It was harmless. If she was honest, Lily knew that this was different from enjoying a walk with a new friend; she was being wooed, and she knew it. Moreover, she found that she liked it. ‘I have to be home soon, and the chip shop is on the way.’
Mark grinned and got off his swing, with Lily following suit, and together they crossed the playground and out of the gate. Neither of them noticed a sallow-faced boy lurking behind one of the bushes who watched them leave with a sour yet wistful look on his face.