Chapter 5 : Fading
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“Lindsey, what are you doing?” Lily asked as I growled in frustration and tossed my homework into the yellowing grass at my side. The once green plant life beneath the pile of papers crumpled in defeat.
Frowning at her question, I let my head rest against the soon to be hibernating tree that was serving as my backrest. What was I doing? What was I going to do? Maybe I already knew and James was holding me back. Maybe I still didn’t know.
I scanned the landscape with tired eyes. People who had spent the entire day outside were standing and abandoning the place. The grass was yellowing, the leaves on the trees were falling, and even the color of the sky seemed to be washing out as the sun began to set, casting long shadows across the once green lawn. I felt myself shiver as a breeze went through the air, making the temperature drop.
It seemed that everything was dying.
My eyes snapped to the lake as a second year girl shrieked and ducked away from her friend, who had just threatened to push her into the still, dark water. Laughing, the pair looked hopefully around for another victim, but the grounds were quickly becoming deserted. I wondered if I’d ever been so care free.
Lily cleared her throat as the pair gave up and sat down, their legs submerged in the cool water.
Oh. Right. I was thankful to Lily for prompting me. Others would have let the question go, but Lily wasn’t usually the type to let her friends ignore her.
“What am I doing?“ I repeated to prove that I had heard. “Anything but this Transfiguration essay.” My eyes slid closed. I didn’t want to look at the world anymore. Not now, when it was falling apart so naturally.
“No, what are you doing? About…what Dumbledore asked?” She said, whispering the last part.
I sighed and opened my eyes so that I could have some semblance of a polite conversation. The first years had calmed down now and they were sitting with their feet in the water, their voices drifting brokenly over the grounds.
“…giant squid? Do you reckon…?” One asked, peering into the water inquisitively.
The other, the one that had almost been pushed in, shrugged, but edged away slightly. They sat uncomfortably for a moment before they shrieked in unison, removing themselves from the water and sprinted towards the castle.
I stared as one long tentacle snaked lazily, almost playfully, back into the water. Once the dark water had returned to stillness, it was like none of it had ever happened. How many other things lurked, so alive, in this slowly deteriorating place?
My eyes flicked back to the girls as they reached the castle. I wished that our problems were so simple.
Just before Lily prompted me again, I opened my mouth. “I think I’m going to join. I’m not entirely sure…but I can’t imagine sitting at home, safe, while James and Sirius are off risking their lives. The only problem is getting them to accept it. They know that I wanted to be an auror…this isn‘t much different.”
She nodded and told me what I wanted to know before I had to ask. “Me too. Actually, I think we’re in the same boat.”
I found myself grinning. “What did he say to you?”
She frowned. “He told me that he knew I could take care of myself, but that it was more dangerous than I realized, especially because my family can‘t protect themselves. He told me to at least think about it.”
“Oh, he knows just how to play you, Miss Evans,” I said, trying not to look smug.
She rolled her eyes. “He’s James Potter. He knows how to play everyone. People see Sirius as the manipulator, but I think your brother plays the game just as well, when he chooses to.”
That made me laugh, however reluctantly. “That’s his secret to success. While everyone is wondering how Sirius is conning them, he sneaks up from behind.”
We sat in comfortable silence and Lily started writing the cursed essay again, her quill scratching against her parchment at a measured pace.
The steady sound of her writing was the only thing that wasn’t changing, here.
Movement on the grounds made me look up. It was James and Sirius, walking slowly around the lake. I watched quietly, wondering why they of all people seemed to fit into this dying picture in front of me. They didn’t seem to notice what plagued me as they walked slowly, wrapped up in their own world.
Were they talking about Sirius’s secret? Would it be easier to get secrets out of James than Sirius?
“Do you know what Ana is going to do?” Lily asked, not looking up from the paper. It was clear that she had been worrying about her. I had been considering it, but somehow, her decision seemed less optional. Ana had nothing to lose. She of all people knew the cost of defying Voldemort. Did we dare risk the same consequences?
So many questions.
I shrugged, thinking more of Ana herself, who was at a gobstones meeting. “I think she’ll do it. But she hasn’t said anything to me.”
Lily nodded seriously, her green eyes unfocusing slightly and her quill becoming stationary in her fingers. “Yes, I think so too. I’m afraid that Remus only made her want to do it more. She…she might do something stupid once we’re out there…just to spite him. Sometimes, I feel like she's stopped caring.”
Grimacing, I reminded myself to keep an eye on her. Why was it that everyone I cared about always seemed to be in danger? My parents were aurors, James acted with self-abandon, Lily was a muggleborn, Sirius-…
I frowned at that, stopping the thought dead in it’s tracks. And Ana, who was now on the verge of doing something stupid. Of course, the silly notion that most people were somehow inherently safe unless something went wrong had long since abandoned me. Nobody was safe. Not anymore. We were all in mortal peril, it was luck and skill that kept us alive, now.
The wind suddenly picked up, causing leaves to fall from the tall tree that we were sitting against. The sound disguised the approach of James and Sirius as the leaves fluttered toward the ground, scattering around us indiscriminately.
“How can I help you gentlemen?” I asked, picking up a stray leaf and twirling it around by the blackened stem, hoping for a more polite exchange than usual.
James smiled, though there was a sadness, a fear in his eyes, that worried me. “We…I just wanted to come and check on you. It’s getting late…”
He swallowed at my frown, but held his ground, looking unapologetic.
Lily made a hmph noise and put her homework aside, like I had.
I glanced over at her and we both stood. James and Sirius each took a wary step back, not taking their eyes off of us. The similarity between them made me frown. “James Potter.” I began calmly. “We are sitting on the Hogwarts grounds in broad daylight. I hardly think-”
“It was noon when they took you from Hogsmeade, Lin.” James interjected, looking immediately contrite for bringing it up.
I narrowed my eyes, but this time it was Lily who spoke. “Yes, it was. But that was different and you know it. She was alone, for one thing,” That made James and Sirius wince guiltily, “And there were six of them. You were with me when we found the spot they’d taken her from. She stunned three of them and we found out later that she broke the fourth one’s wand. Two of the three we found needed the hospital before they could be sent to Azkaban. If they’d sent any fewer, even one less…she may have escaped. She is far from helpless, James….Potter.” Her frustration at forgetting to call my brother by his surname had me holding in a small smile.
I was glad that Lily had pointed it all out. It felt a bit braggy for me to voice that accomplishment myself, though I had every intention of saying it if necessary. It didn’t help, however, that my skill hadn’t saved me in the end. In fact, it had only made my sufferings worse as my captors struggled to justify the losses I’d caused. James didn’t voice that flaw in our argument.
“I know that. But it doesn’t stop me from-” He started again.
“Well it should!” I exploded, finally unable to retain my patience with him. My fuse seemed to be getting shorter by the day. Had there really been a time when I could go a day without an argument? “I understand that you feel responsible, James. I understand that you worry. But I am of age and perfectly capable of taking care of myself. You’ve seen me in dueling practice. You could tear me apart, but I can hold my own against most people. Do I worry about you? Of course. But I don’t try to stop you from going through with your mad schemes! Besides, no one is safe. Not anymore. Besides-” I opened my mouth to continue, when Sirius spoke for the first time, cutting me off with an ease that made me blink.
I didn’t know what it was, but he was the only one who could cut across me mid-rant. Not even James or Lily were capable of that. Maybe it was just one of his mannerisms. Despite his civility compared with other Blacks, he still expected people to listen when he spoke. And they did. For some reason, not even I was able to dispel that.
“You’re different, Lindsey.” He said, not even looking surprised at how easily he cut through my speech. “They want you to join them, but they know that you won’t. Not now. They understand grudges, not forgiveness. To forgive is to show that you need someone. It’s a weakness.” He spoke for a moment as if he were quoting someone, as if he might have put stock in those words, then returned to normal.
“They know you aren’t weak. You proved that. So you’re an enemy, and that won‘t change. Regulus may still try…but the rest of them know better. James still has the advantage that you don’t. Their arrogance makes them believe that they can get him on their side. They don‘t understand family ties like yours. For us-…for them, family are the worst enemies.” His voice was as taut as ever, and even cooler than usual. Clearly, he was already irritated about something.
I felt sympathy, suddenly, catching his slip. He was one of them. It didn't stop me from holding my ground.
I glared at him, swiping leaves from my hair as more fell around us, shivering slightly at the slowly dropping temperature. “Their arrogance? Do you own a mirror?”
His complete lack of reaction was almost as amusing as it was disturbing. I may as well have not spoken.
“How do you know? You left. You never bought in to that nonsense.” I pointed out, trying again, pulling my cloak closer to my body. I didn’t like the cold.
As he watched me, something in his face changed. He looked…caring. His mouth opened and he gripped his cloak as if to begin taking it off. For half a second, a world of possibility seemed open to us, though I didn’t exactly understand what.
Then his eyes closed and his hands fell stiffly, yet almost brokenly, to his sides. When he opened them again, the moment was gone, almost like it had never happened. Only a second had passed. His eyes were emptier and harder than they had been before. The spark in them seemed dim.
He laughed, and as usual, it wasn‘t a happy sound. This was the second, sadder Sirius, and his monotone voice only reinforced that theory. “How do I know? Lin, I‘m-…sometimes…I feel like one of them. I grew up with them. In many ways…I can‘t help being one of them. And...I did buy into their foolish ideals. It was only luck that saved me.” His words were reminiscent of that night in St. Mungos, just softer, more careful.
I accepted that, realizing quite suddenly that if anyone could understand what had happened to me, it was Sirius Black. I had known it before, but something told me that I had underestimated his hardships. Had he been through the same things I had? Worse?
After giving me a knowing look, Lily put us back on track. “But none of that changes the fact that Lindsey and I have made up our minds. You’ll have to accept it. We’re joining The Order of the Phoenix.”
Her statement hung defiantly in the air, like a declaration of war. In many ways, that was exactly what it was.
James sighed, his eyes locking on mine. An understanding went between us. He wouldn’t get in the way, but he was going to do whatever was in his power to protect us, even if it slowed our cause and made the world die even faster than it already was. Even if it killed him. I tried to look reassuring. He had to know that I felt the same way. If we gave up on each other, we weren’t worth saving.
Sirius's eyes slid closed, his face blank. For the first time in weeks, I really looked at him, instead of avoiding seeing his real face. It was harder than it should have been. There were dark circles under his eyes that put even my own to shame. Despite his crisply cared for clothing and well groomed appearance, he looked like he’d been through a war. The contrast between his outward appearance and his deteriorating mental health was so jarring that it was almost comical. It was like he was trying to carry a mountain. And failing. Despite all that, he was still handsome.
I felt compelled to speak. “Sirius, are you alright?”
It took a moment, but his eyes opened when I said his name. I winced involuntarily, feeling lost in his eyes. It was like trying to see to the bottom of a deep tunnel when you knew that nothing good could be at the bottom, only something darker than you could understand. With a shiver, I found myself unable to look away. His face looked too much like he had that night in the hospital six months ago, void of emotion. For a long moment, he stared at me like I was something he‘d never seen before, like something he’d never see again. Then, one word escaped his lips. “No.”
With that, he turned sharply and walked away, his robes billowing in the breeze. One hand was in his robes, gripping his wand like he did when he was nervous, and the other was balled into a tight fist.
I watched him until he was out of earshot, then turned to my brother, trying not to seem worried. “Well…do I need to know? No, wait. Do I want to know?”
James, who had been watching Sirius with a look that was torn between worry, anger and fear, put on a reassuring smile that only made me worry more. There was something…ironic in his eyes. “…no. You don’t.”
He then imitated Sirius, looking just as tense as he strode away.
“I don’t envy whoever crosses their path tonight.” Lily whispered, eyeing their dangerously impressive figures as they strode tensely toward the castle. Did they look intimidating to me because I knew what they were capable of, or because of the air of intensity that Sirius had somehow spread onto James?
I agreed with Lily silently, picking up her homework and reading it over for reference, ignoring the withering look she gave me.
It was only when they were long gone that I realized that James had lied to me.
* * *
“Lindsey, you seem quite…distracted, lately,” Andrew said, taking my hand as we walked towards Defense Against the Dark Arts.
I shrugged, flinching slightly at the abrupt contact. Would it kill him to give me some kind of warning? “There’s…a lot going on.”
I couldn’t tell him about The Order. Somehow, it didn’t bother me much.
He nodded. “Yeah. Did you hear about-?”
I cut him off before he could continue. “Yeah, I did. So, this new defense teacher…have you heard anything?”
He gave me a curious look at the abrupt subject change, “Um…no, not really. Ben said that she was a pushover, but…”
I nodded, feeling slightly queasy at what I’d put a stop to. I hated that kind of talk. Last winter, I’d sat in the cold darkness, imagining the things they were saying about me. Truth or rumor, it made me sick.
“Did you hear about Lindsey Potter?”
“They took her in the middle of Hogsmeade. People are saying she died.”
“No, I heard that she fought them off. Maybe she‘s on the run”
“Maybe she’ll escape.”
“Maybe she’ll join them.”
“Maybe she is dead.”
I pulled myself back to the present, smiling at Andrew when he opened the door for me. Those thoughts weren’t real. I had enough bad memories without inventing more.
The room was mostly empty, except for Lily, Ana and a few wayward overachievers.
I smiled at Andrew, then took the empty seat between Lily and Ana, leaving him to sit with someone else.
Ana opened her mouth and began to make a smart comment about my treatment of Andrew, but I silenced her with a look and turned to stare at the blackboard, taking advantage of the anticipative silence.
Why had James lied? And why had he been so outright about it? He usually left loopholes in his lies, making it possible for him to claim truthfulness, even when he knew that he couldn’t do so reasonably.
Why, then, had he lied this way, so bluntly, so obviously? I knew that he was capable of fooling me. It was almost like he wanted me to know that he wasn’t being truthful.
I wanted to know. Maybe I needed to know. James had told me that I didn’t. His lie had been short, one word, but I knew how much it must have cost him. That one word could have meant volumes.
Why? Did he know Sirius’s secret? I had so many clues. There were a thousand possibilities, some of them were improbable or worrying. Others were frightening. There was a general idea, of course, but I had no hard evidence.
I couldn’t prove anything.
“Lindsey, what are you thinking about?” Ana asked listlessly, clearly certain that I wouldn’t answer.
“James lied to me.” I said absently, looking up when the bell rang. Ana blinked, looking slightly shocked. The part of my mind that wasn’t wrapped up in mystery wondered whether she was shocked about his lie, or about me actually responding to a question so quickly without a prompt.
McGonagall entered the room with our new professor, who was short and sweet looking. Maybe she was a pushover.
James and Sirius trooped in just early enough to blur the line between tardiness and timeliness while the bell rang, taking their customary seats in the back of the room by Remus and Peter.
“Mr. Potter, Mr. Black, thank you for joining us.” McGonagall said dryly, her lips thin as ever.
Sirius grinned, leaning back in his chair. The smile didn’t touch his eyes. “No problem, Professor.”
Was I the only one who could see how fake Sirius was acting? Everything from his cheeky grin to his relaxed pose was manufactured. And his eyes were like ice.
“Yeah, anything for you, Professor.” James said, going so far as to wink.
McGonagall’s eyes sharpened, but she said nothing.
Behind me, my brother and his friends began having a whispered conversation, ignoring our new professor and holding up fingers as she began calling roll.
I looked back at them more fully, making Remus wink. Mildly worried, I returned my attention to the blackboard. They were taking bets. That could only mean that they had something cooked up. This was either going to be very frustrating or very amusing.
Professor Wimidy was a small woman with big eyes and a very round mouth. She looked quiet and timid.
As the professor introduced herself, I could hear James joking with his gang in anticipation. Despite that, I tried to listen to the professor as she began to explain her plan for educating us, beginning with a brief explanation of herself.
A note appeared on my desk, making Lily huff quietly in annoyance. Ana giggled.
The Lovely Professor Wimidy:
Remus: 4.5 Months, Peter: Isn’t allowed to bet because he still owes me six galleons…,James: 3 Months, Sirius: 2 Weeks. 10 Galleon buy in. You know you want to.
P.S In case I’ve underestimated…Go long. I’ll sabotage and split.
I blinked. They were betting on how long it would take for the strange workings of Hogwarts to rid us of another Defense teacher. Clearly, they had reached a new low.
The postnote made me roll my eyes. He was cheating. If I bet a longer time amount and Sirius did his best to make her last until I was clear, the odds that we would lose were negligible.
Carefully, I scribbled down a response.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by your antics, you four, but really? This is her job! You ought to be ashamed…5 Months?
P.S You’re the worst of them, Mr. Black. And don’t even dream that we’re on even ground just because I’m buying into your scam. Whatever I win is going straight into their Christmas present fund.
I tapped the note, careful to send it to Sirius only, wondering if there was a special punishment reserved for those who cheated on bets.
“…-current climate, I feel that it is imperative that you learn to defend yourselves with magic. This year, we will place an emphasis on dueling.” Wimidy announced happily.
James and his friends went silent. I grinned, wondering if they’d regret their cheek.
“I know that some of you will be more experienced in this area than others, so I ask that everyone behave courteously.” I could tell that she was a nice lady, the problem was that she had just acquired the most impossible job to hold in the world. We’d never had a defense teacher last more than one year.
McGonagall looked at us all sharply. “I expect no less than the utmost courtesy.” She looked at James and Sirius very earnestly, “Anyone who harms another student will be punished severely.”
Seemingly satisfied with our grave looks, she cast one more impressive glance toward my brothers gang, and took her leave.
To general glee, Wimidy told the class to stand and the desks vanished with a wave of her wand. “We will start with a tournament today. And we will have a tournament at the end of the year, for your exam. You will be graded on improvement and general skill.”
As everyone milled around the empty space, Sirius managed to covertly stick a piece of paper into my pocket.
It’s really quite adorable that you‘re still surprised by my behavior. You have yourself a deal.
P.S Don’t worry. I know my place. I wouldn’t dream of being on even ground with you unless I was having a nightmare.
I smiled as Wimidy outlined the general rules. It made very little sense, but his insults always seemed to put me at ease. Our banter had become a constant. Even when we’d been friends we’d exchanged scathing remarks, though they had been mostly teasing. To a degree, maybe they still were.
Glancing around, I noticed James’s smirk. Of course. He and Sirius had both benefited from private lessons in dueling. With less enthusiasm, I had joined in at a later age. After my kidnapping, I’d stepped up and I was better than most, but I was still years behind them in skill.
Looking around the room further, I realized for the first time that we had this class with the Slytherins, meaning that we would soon be in trouble. James looked gleeful, but everyone else looked vaguely nauseous. Sirius, of course, looked bored.
After a long lecture on rules and guidelines, we were paired off. The game would be simple. The losers from each duel would be knocked out of the competition, since that was how it went in real life. The class had thirty-two students, which meant that there would be several mass rounds to determine a winner. We were to duel one at a time in the center of the room while the class watched.
Nervously, the first pair trooped up. It was Dorcas Meadows and Ben Twells.
Dorcas smiled, but Ben looked rather green. They bowed, and I smiled, excited to see some action. Unfortunately, there was none to be found.
Dorcas disarmed Ben, who was unable to block the advance, and the duel ended.
The next four matches went the same way, then James stepped up, looking extremely care free, even smiling. Brandon Carlson followed him, taking a deep breath and trying not to look worried.
James was rather intimidating. Head Boy, a quidditch hero, and an infamous prankster, he seemed to tower over his opponents, both present and future. On top of all that, he was clearly brimming with confidence in a room full of anxious people.
After the customary bow, James twitched his wand, and Brandon turned pink. James frowned, looking disappointed, then he deflected a well-aimed, but obvious, disarmer. Looking completely let-down, James twitched his wand again and Carlson’s wand flew into his outstretched hand before it’s owner had a chance to blink.
James waited until he was declared the winner, then tossed Brandon’s wand back, turning him from pink to normal in the same movement.
When he went to sit on the winning side of the room, people gave him nervous looks.
Next came Regulus. He won simply, disarming his fellow Slytherin before he had a chance to begin. I wondered if he had the same training that Sirius did.
In most of these matches, the duelist who struck first always seemed to win. I supposed that this was due to negligence in teaching. Most of the students didn’t know how to block spells properly.
I stepped up next, unfortunately facing Ana. We both knew who was going to win. I did what Regulus had done, disarming her quickly and painlessly.
Remus, Peter, Andrew and Lily won their matches in the same, merciful manner.
Sirius stepped forward to face another Slytherin with his game face on. There was an odd edge to the set of his eyes, like he was worried. Of course, I doubted that many others knew him well enough to notice. To the untrained eye he looked bored and irritated at what he clearly felt was a waste of time.
The Slytherin, Marcus Letony, looked ready to vomit. Slightly shocked by the degree of his nerves, I watched carefully as Sirius continued to look like he couldn‘t have a care in the world.
I frowned. Letony truly looked horrified. His fear was almost unnerving. Was it because Sirius was a Black? Even that didn’t seem like enough.
After they bowed, Sirius surprised me by not striking first, he waited, looking bored to any eye that did not know him well.
When the patented disarmer came his way, Sirius blocked it with ease and a bit of contempt…but there was an air to the motion that I didn’t understand. It was like he was being even more careful than usual.
With an odd amount of control and care, he then disarmed his opponent, turned him pink, and made him fall to his knees in a fit of giggles with three simultaneous hexes.
Apparently satisfied, he tossed the wand back and strolled over to sit beside James before he was declared the winner. The people on the winning side looked at him hopelessly.
He didn’t undo the hexes, but they seemed to fade away after a long moment. He had actually put time constraints on nonverbal spells. That was nearly impossible, aside from the fact that he’d sent three at once. Of course, it was easy for him to appear invincible when he went against someone with no experience.
Had he been testing himself? For what? Maybe his strategy was to pave the way with intimidation. If that was so, he had done a good job.
The second round began with sixteen winners. I fell into a stupor through the next three fights, which were quite similar to the first few.
Then, the next match was called and Regulus strode forward, looking rather grim, followed by Peter. Despite the promising match-up, Regulus won using the now standard method of disarming first. I frowned, knowing that they were both capable of much more.
Remus went next and won, following Regulus’s example, and I did the same with Dorcas, feeling rather sorry about it.
Then, things changed. The names of the next pair were called, and Sirius stepped forward, looking far too much like a small child on Christmas morning, despite his mask of boredom. There was something else, underneath, but I couldn’t understand it. The look on his face would have been quite comical, if he hadn’t been bowing smugly to Andrew, who looked more than slightly queasy.
Sirius struck first, proving his dominance and promising for slow humiliation when he simply turned Andrew pink, which seemed to be something he and James did consistently. I would have to ask about it later.
Andrew seemed to get his head in the game and he started sending hexes at Sirius with a fervor that surprised me. I frowned as he shouted them out, though. That was his downfall. He would have lost anyway, but this would be a slaughter.
Allowing an amused smirk to break through his facade, Sirius deflected the first few with silent aloofness, then dodged the last one with ease, pivoting and turning his shoulder with a contemptuous glint in his eyes, before he sent a tickling charm that Andrew barely blocked. While he did that, Sirius sent another, nastier hex that I didn’t recognize and Andrew’s eyes widened.
Unfortunately, Sirius seemed to be over his hesitance.
There was no other side-effect to the spell, but I knew better than to think that nothing had happened. Unfortunately, it was impossible to tell what had happened, because Sirius preferred to use obscure, nonverbal spells while dueling.
In Andrew’s moment of shock, Sirius sent another, similar hex that seemed to silence him.
Andrew’s face turned red from effort as he attempted to send something else, while Sirius waited patiently with a small smirk, crossing his arms and cocking his head to the side.
In this moment, it became clear to everyone that wasn‘t familiar with Sirius‘s prowess that Andrew was being more than toyed with. Sirius could have beaten him from the beginning without a problem, but he was choosing to drag it out.
The moment before the teacher intervened, Sirius seemed to sense it, because he calmly twitched his wand, stealing Andrew’s and restoring him to normal.
There was a shocked and worried silence as Sirius went to sit amongst the winners once again. I gave him a dirty look, but he just smiled at me without a trace of remorse.
Sitting amongst the losers, Andrew was snapping his fingers in front of his ears and blinking rapidly. Had Sirius….? No. I didn’t want to think about it.
Remus and I exchanged a look when we realized that James and Lily were the only pair left. James was not capable of throwing a match, but I wasn’t sure how he’d feel about hexing Lily.
They bowed to each other, and as the match began, James hesitated, looking conflicted. Lily, who had no such qualms, sent a tickling curse at his gut. He blocked it with mild surprise and sent a disarmer at her, which she blocked easily.
For the first time, James looked at his opponent with interest. Then, he sent a barrage of disarmers and other such innocent spells, all nonverbal. Clearly, he wanted to be done with this match.
Lily blocked about half of them, but she was still hit. She groaned when her wand flew from her hand. I noticed that James had not turned her pink.
There was a smattering of applause for what had apparently been the best and most evenly met match yet. Few people here had actually seen James duel.
Round three began with Frank Longbottom and a Slytherin attempting to disarm each other, and the Slytherin failing quite miserably.
I frowned when I was called to go against the last Slytherin that had made it this far besides Regulus, wishing that I could go against someone I trusted.
I stepped forward and blocked a disarmer, turned my opponent pink-much to James and Sirius’s amusement-and stole his wand.
Reseating myself amongst the winners, I waited for the axe to fall. No matter what happened, from this point on, things would be interesting.
I felt considerably lucky that I hadn’t been paired with James or Sirius yet. In fact, Frank, Remus and Regulus would probably give me a run for my money as well. I realized that my chances of surviving round four were negligible.
James was called next, followed by Remus. The pair stepped forward, gave each other theatrical bows, and started dueling like adults, to the shock of most everyone in the room.
I grimaced at the display of skill, and how obvious it was that James and Remus had been wearing kid gloves with their classmates. I was good at dueling, but James had always been better. Apparently, Remus was just as good as me, maybe better.
Remus put up a shield, which made several people gasp, since they clearly hadn’t thought of it. Sirius rolled his eyes at them all and leaned back, looking highly unconcerned.
Eventually, James won Remus’s wand, without turning him pink. I wondered again what that meant.
Wimidy applauded with the rest of us, and awarded Gryffindor five points as the boys took their respective seats.
Then, there was a heavy silence as everyone seemed to realize what as coming next. The Black Brothers. For some reason, this didn’t feel much like a match between Gryffindor and Slytherin. It felt like something more serious, something just beyond my line of understanding. James was frowning thoughtfully.
Oddly, the only people in the room besides the brothers themselves and James that seemed to understand were the Slytherins. I blinked as another bit of confirmation fell into my lap. But what I was being pointed towards was too outlandish to believe. I watched closely, looking for more signs.
Sirius stepped forward, looking utterly bored and Regulus followed him, looking exactly the same. The similarity was eerie.
Just before they bowed, Sirius grinned loftily. “Now, remember, Regulus; I know where you live.”
There was nervous laughter at his joke on both sides, but I took it as a warning. Sirius didn’t want Regulus to resort to Dark Magic.
I bit my lip as the tension in the room mounted. When the duel started, I blinked. They had the same fighting style, and I realized that maybe they’d been taught by the same person. They were both very good, putting previous duels to shame.
They both relied on cutthroat offense, intimidation, and misdirection. They would rattle off a barrage of spells, spend a second blocking them all with a little bit too much flourish and condescension, then returning to what they were doing before.
Despite the low threat level of the hexes themselves, I knew that anyone else would have been hurt by now. Their style was too aggressive for any level of mercy and the childish hexes seemed inherently wrong and somewhat absurd, like watching a venomous snake cuddling with a small child without lashing out, or two master painters scribbling in coloring books. I shivered at the level of intensity. Sirius and Regulus hadn’t been taught how to fight. They’d been taught how to kill.
The duel was fought in complete silence, except for the sounds of magic whirring and popping about the room.
Then, suddenly, the fight changed, Sirius allowed Regulus to fall into a strange and almost incomprehensible routine, then he struck out of turn, which Regulus managed to notice. Unfortunately for him, he only caught half of it and he was hit with a tickling charm.
In the moment of impact, he sent two stunners, one of which Sirius blocked rather contemptuously, and the other that he dodged with a quick turn and a smirk.
The next few seconds seemed to occur in slow motion. Regulus then whispered a spell that I didn’t understand. Sirius seemed to know what it was, because his eyes narrowed and he reacted without hesitation.
The room seemed to go darker for a spilt second, then Regulus was spread-eagle on the floor, his wand in Sirius’s hand. I was mad at myself for blinking. Surely, I had missed whatever Sirius had done. It was almost like Regulus hadn’t fallen, like he had somehow gone from standing to lying with no transition. The same was true for his wand, which was still in his brothers hand.
For a second that lasted an eternity, Sirius stood quite calmly above his brother, his wand trained on his heart. His eyes were like a frozen lake. Calm, deadly, and unfathomable.
A sense of dread froze me in place. The scene in front of me was eerily familiar, though I couldn't say why.
Nothing about the image would have bothered me except for the look in Regulus’s eyes. He looked like he was ready to die. It was not a look of terror, but one of grim acceptance. He seemed unable to move anything but his eyes, which were locked with his brothers.
The moment stretched out for eternity. Sirius’s face didn’t change but he suddenly looked straight at me. The coldness in his eyes pierced straight through me. But as he stared, his frozen expression melted. His eyes were terrified. He looked away like he’d been burned.
Looking deeply disturbed, Sirius snapped his fingers before anyone could react. Regulus’s eyes widened and he sat up, looking dizzy.
I kept my eyes on Sirius. He looked sick. When his eyes met mine again, his face went blank.
“Mr. Black…Sirius. What was that?” Wimidy asked, eyes wide.
Ever the con man, Sirius smiled charmingly at the teacher, his expression changing unnaturally fast. “Well, I’m no expert, Professor, but it looks like my little brother just fell over and gave me his wand. Sweet of him, really. Saved me the trouble.” Several Slytherins laughed, despite themselves. Again, they seemed to understand more than the rest of us. A few of them looked frightened and the rest looked confused and awestricken. A few in the back were whispering in a monotone, casting wary glances in Sirius’s direction.
Regulus seemed to be beyond hearing as he staggered into the nearest chair.
She frowned at him, but let it pass, proving Andrew‘s earlier estimation.
Had Sirius used Dark Magic just now? Had he done so out of pure reflex? A ball of dread formed in my stomach.
Round four began with my certain demise, as Sirius looked at me with a sickening combination of concern and reluctance. I took a deep breath, trusting Sirius not to hurt me. He would duel me as if I were a child. Of that much, I was certain. I just wanted to last as long as possible against him and remain a shred of dignity while I did it. As long as I did not use anything that triggered a dangerous kneejerk response, I would be fine.
With a false calm, I started out by sending a stunner, a disarmer, and a tickle charm.
He blocked them all with intense concentration, and I knew that the extra thought was for him, not me. He didn’t want to do anything with an automatic reaction, because he had very bad habits ingrained in his instinct, as he‘d already proven.
The differences in our style were clear. I had been taught to escape, injure, maim, kill. In that order of drastic measures.
Sirius had been taught in reverse order, and we both knew it. Therefore, he was being extra careful.
My musings were in a lesser part of my mind as Sirius dueled me carefully, allowing me to look skillful, despite his superior ability. His flourishes and amused facial expressions
Eventually, he won my wand and we both exhaled in relief. I was exhausted, and he was obviously proud of his restraint. James ran a hand through his hair, looking just as relieved as Sirius.
I barely listened as Wimidy awarded Gryffindor ten points.
With a shrug, I took my wand from Sirius and sat beside Andrew and Lily as James and Frank attempted to destroy each other.
James was no longer playing nicely; he dueled with raw power and skill that quickly ended the match with a wide eyed Frank in a body bind and his wand tossed across the room, caught by Sirius.
I didn’t like the awed looks that people were giving my brother and Sirius. It would only inflate their egos, which they had managed to get under control only recently. They were extremely skilled, but they seemed even better than they really were, advanced students among novices, instead of advanced among experts, as they were with our dueling coaches.
There was an anticipative silence as Sirius and James turned on one another with knowing smirks. Both already tired, they bowed carelessly, then began without flourish.
This was the match that we had been waiting for. In a strange way, it was a match of opposites.
Sirius had been trained in dueling, dark arts, and all other sorts of magical fighting skills. And he had been learning since he was old enough to walk. His skill was unerring, and designed to do nothing but kill. Everything in his style was about trickery and cutthroat retaliation. He modified, intent on disarming, but his ability was undiminished.
James had been trained with the same intensity, but with a polar opposite philosophy. He had been learning from the same young age, with an emphasis on ending the fight quickly, but with no blood-shed. He also knew some rudimentary muggle martial-arts, as I did, but that, like Sirius’s apparent skill in Dark Magic, was unused today. He had a head-on approach that left destruction in its path.
They each had a shield that made simpler spells useless, so they were forced to send other, more powerful spells at each other, which they then blocked or dodged. Watching the duel was like watching two skilled fencers fight with pillows instead of swords. I shuddered at the thought of either of them in a real fight.
After several minutes of bright lights, poofs, and bangs, they both acted in the same instant, stealing each others wands.
With an amused pause, they continued. I realized that they were close enough friends that the wands seemed to work almost as well.
People were laughing now, amazed at their skill.
After another minute or so, they both stunned each other-neither of them fell, and Wimidy called it as a tie, awarding fifty points to Gryffindor.
They smirked at each other, clearly exhausted, and went to sit on the winners side all alone, exchanging wands just as the bell rang. Sirius still looked deeply disturbed.
James was looking at Sirius’s wand in a way that made me curious. He seemed torn between disappointment and a weary fear. He flexed his hand cautiously.
As we walked toward the Great Hall for lunch, James met my eyes, and I raised an eyebrow. He looked away guiltily.
Frowning, I let the crowd push me in the right direction, wondering what could be important enough to make James Potter, the most forthcoming person I knew, my own brother, lie me.
Was it Sirius’s secret?
It didn’t occur to me that he really had only been half lying. I needed to know. But I didn’t want to.
By the time that I realized what James had really meant, it was too late.
* * * *
People walked behind my back with their wands out, sat dangerously close to food that I’d be eating, and said things that I couldn’t hear, about things that I didn‘t know about. It was maddening.
I hated the Great Hall.
Despite over six years of practice, being in this school was still a trying experience. Worse was sleeping in a room with other people-even ones I trusted, jerking awake at every irregular snore and each bathroom trip, leaving most of my possessions open to tampering by anyone who was in Gryffindor and several people who weren‘t. Even harder were the hallways, filled with shouts and sudden bursts of magic, and the Great Hall, packed as always, a prime target for invading groups. Even harder were the classes themselves, where I was forced to sit with my back to near strangers while they fiddled idiotically with their wands.
I trusted none of them.
“Padfoot, you look like you’re having your fingernails ripped off one by one. And that‘s rather normal, but it seems intensified this afternoon.” Remus said conversationally, taking a long drink of pumpkin juice and smirking as I flinched at a group of fourth years who walked almost silently behind me.
“Did you get hurt during the duels?” Peter asked me, his eyes wide.
I ignored them both, my eyes catching Lindsey’s as she sat at the far end of the table with Lily and Ana, taking a small comfort in the fact the Johnson was sitting somewhere else today. Usually, I put on a better act than this, not letting on how paranoid I was. But I was still rattled from the duels.
Her eyes were like cool water. Refusing to let myself dwell, I tore my gaze from hers, ignoring the voice in my head that was screaming for my attention. I couldn’t even look at her.
It took everything I had to stay sitting, to keep my hands from shaking. I was losing myself. Somehow, I was hanging by a single unraveling thread. It had happened so fast. And I wasn’t going to stop.
“Padfoot, people are looking at you. At least let go of your wand.” James said, sounding bored as he stared in the same direction that I had. Lily blushed slightly when she noticed and concentrated on her chicken. I doubted that any of her friends had even seen. I felt a pang of jealousy. What would it be like to have the options that he did, to be able to stare at Lindsey without guilt?
I released my wand with a slow frown and flexed my hand, shutting down that train of thought before I could let myself imagine anything of the kind. It was hard enough without tormenting myself with what-if’s.
“Alright. Out with it.” Remus said, frowning at Peter as he took the last piece of chicken.
“Well, if you insist,” I drawled, impressing even myself with my apparent calm, even though we all knew it wasn‘t real. My eyes went down the table again, drawn by some magnetic force. “Moony, if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times; you are a summer, not a winter. Those shoes do not go with your natural hair color. I am offended by the sight of you,” I said in a monotone, my gaze flicking over to the Slytherin table before Lindsey could catch me staring again.
“Well, now I know you’re deflecting, because I look absolutely fabulous in these shoes and you know it,” Remus said, giving me a sharp look that belied his sarcasm.
“Whatever you say, Moony,” James said with a snort, rolling his head around to look at me. “So, would you like to tell me what exactly you did to Regulus? Because I would enjoy hearing where you learned that one. Maybe. And why exactly are you glaring at Snivellus and his fellow junior death eaters?”
“I almost killed him,” I admitted too calmly, shocking myself with my own honesty. I said it like it didn‘t matter. “And I’m glaring at everything. I hate this room.”
James and Remus exchanged a glance and Peter stared at me with wide eyes.
James attempted to make light of my worries. “You hate every room that has people in it, Padfoot. So really, it’s not new. And why didn’t you? Of course, I understand. Taking away Snivellus’s life partner would just be cruel. And then he‘d probably start making eyes at you, or-”
I cut him off, only half listening. “I’m not joking, Prongs. I reacted without thinking. I didn’t actively try to kill him, I actively stopped myself from killing him. That’s a little backwards… If I hadn’t already been so
worried about hurting someone…He tried to do that curse and I just reacted automatically.”
That silenced them. Why was I telling them this?
My fathers voice whispered in my ear. Admit nothing, deny everything. Weak fools wear their hearts on their sleeves. Lies are the refuge of the strong. But telling them was a relief, like lying still after a long day, or those rare moments when I could pretend that Lindsey and I could have any kind of future. Even knowing that my father was a monster, it was impossible to drown out his lessons. Surely, what he’d given me were the instincts of an unlovable creature.
Would I ever make up for the way I had to treat her?
Peter squeaked. “Sirius, you couldn’t actually kill someone….”
I frowned. “A few hours ago, it's possible that I might have agreed with you.” The careful wording made the lie feel less deliberate.
This was crossing a line. They weren’t allowed to know what was happening to me. Not yet, anyway. James and I made eye contact. He knew more than anyone except Lindsey, but she was incapable of putting the pieces together until I was ready. He was the only one I hadn’t put memory charms on so far. If anyone could begin to comprehend what I was becoming, it was James. He knew as much as I could tell him without saying it outright.
He rescued me. “Well, next time do yourself a favor. Take Snivellus and Regulus out. And do it where there aren’t so many witnesses.”
I forced a smirk, pretending that it was all a joke. Remus’s eyes narrowed and Peter looked confused.
“I suppose that it wouldn’t be hard. I could just catch them on one of their man-dates. It‘s quite difficult to draw a wand and duel from a cramped broom cupboard…” I mused stoically, pulling out my wand and twirling it between my fingers. For some reason, the action made Peter wince.
James laughed edgily and Remus settled on amused disapproval.
I couldn’t help but wonder why I wasn‘t more concerned, now. At the moment, any unfamiliar eye could say that I was calm, amused, even. I had almost murdered my own brother in cold blood. Worse, I had been forced to duel Lindsey directly after, terrified that I’d cause her to attain so much as a bruise. I felt nauseous just thinking about it.
Still, my own brother. Lindsey. Was I already that far gone? My job was clearly taking it’s toll more quickly than I’d guessed.
When the bell rang, James and I stayed seated, waiting for the room to empty. This was routine for us. I hated walking through the crowded hallways. Every time someone bumped into me or shouted, I felt the urge to pull my wand. James simply didn’t care about arriving on time to classes, though he usually dragged me along or left me when it came to mealtimes.
Remus and Peter stood before we did, the former giving us a shake of the head and the latter looking at us nervously.
“You know, violence really isn’t the answer, Padfoot,” James said, not joking as much as he intended initially.
I watched the room empty, glad that my back was to a wall that didn’t lead to a door. I was as exhausted as usual, but a wave of lethargy swept over me with unusual force. How long had it been since I last slept?
“I was going to kill him, James. I wasn’t angry or even frightened. I had already won. I could have won whenever I wanted. I taught the twerp everything he knows. It was only a stupid game. Like playing checkers with a six year old. His wand was in my hand, he was one the floor, and I was going to murder him in cold blood despite all of that. It was just another thing to do, no better or worse than a tickle charm. And I could have done it without blinking, without thinking. I didn’t even care. I still don‘t.”
Murder. That word used to worry me. Once, that word had been a ticking clock, counting down the moments until my tattered soul would finally be torn apart, inevitably in many more pieces than just two, destroying any chance that I could even pretend to have at life like the one James would soon have. It had kept me up at night.
Now, it meant nothing. It was just another step, and one that I could take without regret. If I had harbored any doubts before, they were gone now. The road I was walking down was dark, and I could not stop or turn around. I was becoming a monster.
The things that held me back were my salvation. But what exactly was stopping me? What was my anchor? How had I stopped myself? It was hard to tell.
“Despite your careless tone, clearly you do care, or you’d be on your way to Azkaban. I don’t know why, but teachers tend to get a bit upset when you kill people in the middle of class.” James said, giving me a hopeful look.
He didn’t want this to be real. In a way, for him, it wasn’t.
He had no idea.
“Don’t you see? That’s the only thing that stopped me. It wasn’t my…conscience. It was logic. There was no little voice in my head telling me that murdering my own brother was wrong. There was no emotion. I couldn’t have cared less about committing a murder. I saw witnesses. I saw Lindsey, staring at me with those eyes…I thought of the consequences. And I stopped. Now, I‘m horrified, not because I almost did something evil, but because I don‘t care that I almost did something evil. I can’t even make myself care. It‘s like my conscience just…evaporated.” There was something stronger in play, something saving me for the moment, but I couldn’t explain it. And whatever it was wasn’t what James hoped for.
What if this sudden lack of emotion extended further? What if I stopped caring about food, fresh air, quidditch, my friends, my mission, life itself, even Lindsey?
“Sirius, I know that I said that I wasn’t going to ask….” James began under his breath.
I shook my head. “Don’t. Don’t ask. You’re happier and safer in the dark. Soon, you’ll have to know. Just…just watch me. If I start acting…like one of them…stop me. And don‘t let me hurt anyone.”
James raised an eyebrow, taking ‘anyone’ in the proper sense. “Lindsey is safe with you. You know that right? Stop you?”
I just nodded, standing when the room had emptied. “Yes. Stop me. Just…snap my wand in two or throw me in prison…kill me if you must. I‘m…I‘m dangerous. If I hurt anyone…” My nonchalance made him flinch, but I just watched him with careful eyes.
“I don’t suppose that you could stop yourself?” James asked, sounding rather like a worn out parent. Clearly, he didn’t think that things would escalate that far.
For some reason, I smiled. “Unfortunately, when it comes to that, I won’t care enough to try.”
I didn’t realize that I was already far past that point in the road until it was too late.
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