The next Order meeting didn’t occur until nearly a fortnight later. The last days of September, chilly and grey, seemed to announce that fall had truly arrived, and slipped away like withered leaves tumbling from the trees. Lily and Petunia had adopted a frigid sort of civility, which involved an outright refusal to discuss anything related to Vernon or the wedding, that got them through the rare moments that they were in each other’s presence. Had their dinner not been followed by things that seemed much more significant to Lily, she might have been more upset about it.
In fact, she was surprised at how steady she had felt after that night. She would have expected that all of it would have made her feel inherently different somehow, but she had woken up the next morning and felt completely like herself. Petunia’s resentment was disappointing, but manageable. She still wanted to go to work on Monday and keep helping the Order. And, most importantly—for it was the thing that she had worried about the most—she didn’t feel anything less or unwanted when she looked at James.
So, in the meantime, she went to work every day, she spent time with James, and that left little time for worrying about Petunia.
The next meeting was on a rainy Tuesday evening, in an house in the outskirts of Reading. Lily had deduced by now that all of these meeting places were the houses of various Order members, and this one—squat and square, with a neglected-looking hedge—was apparently Gideon Prewett’s, since he welcomed Lily, James, Sirius, Peter, and Remus at the door. (James had confided the story of his and Remus’ deal to Lily, and though Remus was still refusing James’ offer of money, he had made good on his promise to attend the next Order meeting. Lily couldn’t help but notice that, though he had protested to James, he looked pleased to be there.)
Lily still felt like the five of them were the odd ones out with the Order, but there was at least a slow thawing to their presence taking place. Almost everyone smiled and said hello as they arrived, even if they continued on to form their typical groups around the sitting room: Emmeline, Hestia, Benjy, Alice and Frank, and Dorcas cloistered together near the opposite end of the room, muttering and pulling faces as they traded gossip; Dedalus, Edgar, Marlene, Gideon, and Fabian chatting amiably on the sofa. Hagrid and Caradoc (Lily had to remind herself to start using his first name, rather than calling him “Professor Dearborn” still) arrived together, having just come from The Leaky Cauldron. Alastor Moody stumped in about five minutes later. Dumbledore and McGonagall were the last to arrive, the latter sporting a tartan pair of rain-robes.
There was more energy in the air that night than the other Order meetings Lily had attended, and she knew why. They were all anticipating an update on the riot that had occurred near The Lazy Harp. It had appeared on the front page of the Daily Prophet’s the following morning, but the article had been decidedly unsatisfying.
“I still can’t believe nobody told me,” Peter grumbled. As they had all expected, he was none too happy to find out that Lily, James, and Sirius had been involved in something so exciting, and that he had not been included. James had told Lily that Peter’s complaining was nearly insufferable in the days immediately following, and now, faced with such an immediate reminder of what he had missed, he was back at it.
“At least you didn’t almost get arrested,” Lily pointed out, trying to be helpful. Peter only shrugged glumly.
“I suppose,” he replied, as if he’d really wanted nothing more in his life than to be arrested for something he didn’t do. James and his friends tended to have a strange perspective on these sort of things.
“Shall we get started?” Dumbledore’s voice cut through the anticipation hanging thick in the air.
Although the Order’s activities were varied, there was no sense in dancing around by talking about anything but the matter that was on everyone’s mind. It turned out that Dorcas had the most to report—which made sense, considering that she had been present and she was an Auror, but Lily nevertheless exchanged unkind glances with James and Sirius as she began.
As Dorcas explained what had happened on the evening in question, Lily felt, for perhaps the first time, that she knew exactly what someone else in the Order was talking about. It made a monumental difference in her confidence as she sat and listened, until she reminded herself how the story ended. Strangely, however, Dorcas didn’t mention Lily, James, or Sirius in her story. Lily was surprised, since she would have thought Dorcas would relish any opportunity to criticize them. Was she trying to deny them any sort of credit? (James and Sirius’ disgruntled expressions seemed to be sure this was the case.) Or did she just have something else up her sleeve? (Lily, for whatever reason, couldn’t put aside this possibility so easily.)
“The good news from all of this is,” Dorcas said, “that I think we’ve finally started to put together the connections between the patrons of The Lazy Harp and Voldemort.” She paused for a moment to let this sink in. “We were first suspicious because we heard that people we suspect to be Death Eaters—Dolohov, for one—were seen going in and out of the pub a few times, but for whatever reason, they never came back.”
“We thought for a while that we’d gotten bad information,” Benjy Fenwick added. He was seated directly slightly behind Dorcas, and looked intently at the back of her head after he spoke, as if expecting—or hoping for, Lily amended in her head—acknowledgement. Dorcas merely shook a strand of dark hair off her face and continued.
“Until the night a few weeks ago, when Potter saw a wizard coming out of the pub,” she said. “Marlene traced the fireplace he used to escape, and it turned out that the building belongs to a member of the Wizengamot named Byron Gamp—which didn’t give us a lot to go on, until the night of the riot, when Potter apprehended the man he’d seen before.”
James looked rather mollified, if a bit surprised, that this had been delivered without remonstrance.
“His name’s Roddy Darrow, and he has a record—nothing Dark, and nothing particularly clever, either. Stealing a broom, possession of a Class C Non-Tradeable Substance, Apparating without a licence—he doesn’t have one, which partly explains the use of the Floo Network that night.”
“I assume that the final piece of that puzzle rests in where he was going when he used the Floo Network,” Dumbledore broke in. “Were you able to find that out, Marlene?”
“Yes, but I’m afraid it doesn’t shed much light on things,” Marlene replied, a disappointed smile on her lips. “He went to the Ministry. The fireplace was illegally connected to the Floo Network, and very poorly so: the only place it was connected to was the Atrium at the Ministry. We shut it down and fined Gamp, since he owned the building, but that’s the most we can do about it. Gamp’ll claim that someone else broke in and did it without his knowledge—”
“That’s not what Darrow said,” Dorcas interjected, looking smug. “You see, he’s not a particularly clever criminal, so when we intimated that he might be suspected of supporting Voldemort, he started talking before he’d had enough time to think. And he sang us a very helpful song about how Byron Gamp asked him to go to The Lazy Harp a few nights a week to help some of his other associates. He was hired muscle to make sure money was collected and delivered to Gamp, while the other associates were there to try and solicit the money, by talking to wizards and witches about the safety of the community. Apparently, Gamp is at the head of an underground—well, underground as of yet—pro-pureblood movement, and he’s been promising his adherents that he’ll push that agenda at the Ministry.”
A few beats of silence followed.
“Sorry,” Lily interjected, feeling her cheeks flush slightly, “but what exactly does he mean by ‘pro-pureblood’? It sounds more or less the same as ‘Death Eater’, doesn’t it?”
It was Frank who answered. “Yes and no. It’s certainly the Death Eaters’ philosophy, but there are more people than you’d expect who subscribe to the philosophy without being willing to kill for it.”
“Darrow isn’t a Death Eater,” Dorcas added. “At least, he doesn’t have the Dark Mark, like some of the others do. Like I said, he’s practically got porridge for brains, so I don’t see why Voldemort would bother recruiting him.”
“And so the question is,” Dumbledore said, pulling the ends of the conversation back to centre, “how our friend Mr Darrow, Byron Gamp, and Voldemort are all connected.”
Dorcas nodded. “We’re still working on that.”
“I can keep an eye on Gamp’s dealings with the rest of the Wizengamot,” Edgar spoke up. Lily knew that he was one of the members of the wizarding court, as were Dumbledore and Moody. Edgar was the Head of the Department of International Magical Cooperation, and was therefore very senior at the Ministry. Lily had spotted him taking the lift down to Level One a couple times since she had begun work at the Ministry.
“With all the people we’re going to be seeing in court because of the riot, something’s bound to turn up soon,” Frank said confidently. Everyone seemed to agree with this.
Questions still danced around in Lily’s mind as the meeting came to a close about a quarter of an hour later. The rain had ceased beyond the windows of Gideon’s house, and a few of the Order members made quick exits into the dewy night, called away by work or family or exhaustion. Others lingered, Lily, James, Peter, Sirius, and Remus among them.
“I’m still confused,” Peter said candidly.
“If only you’d been there to witness it first-hand,” Sirius needled him. He was staring off into space rather discontentedly, and teasing Peter seemed to distract very little from whatever was on his mind.
“I don’t quite understand it, either,” Lily chimed in. She didn’t really feel the need to rush to Peter’s defence—he seemed to hold his own rather well, most of the time—but it was true that she was feeling similarly confused. Even though the meeting had added more pieces to the puzzle, it felt like there were many still missing.
“I’m surprised nobody mentioned anything about the Daily Prophet,” Remus remarked.
“I’m sure they know all about it,” Sirius grumbled.
Lily rather agreed with him; it seemed that the other Order members often forgot that their five newest members weren’t privy to the same kinds of information that they all were. Their conversation was cut short, however, by the approach of Frank and Alice.
“Hello,” Alice said, with a tentative smile. Her blue eyes sparkled atop the rounds of her cheeks with genuine warmth, something that Lily felt was rather lacking amongst the Order. She was rather surprised that Alice and Frank had deliberately come across the room to speak to them, and perhaps her facial expression prompted Alice’s next question. “Do the five of you have to run off somewhere?”
“Er—no, I don’t think so.” It was James who replied, ever-ready with words in a way that the rest of them were not.
“Oh,” Alice said brightly, “well, a few of us—Frank and I, and Sturgis and Hestia—we were going to go for a drink, and we thought we’d ask if you want to come.”
James was exchanging glances with Remus, Sirius, and Peter, and Lily could see a cloud of hesitation forming over them. She knew that James and Sirius didn’t particularly like most of the other Order members, but she wasn’t quite ready to write all of them off.
“I’ll go,” she blurted out, feeling a little overeager even though Alice had been the one to invite them.
“Great!” Alice replied, before turning to the four boys. “What about the rest of you?”
They all looked a little taken aback.
“It could be fun,” Peter piped up, and this seemed to offer the final blow of shock that landed them all around a table at a small pub near Wandsworth, which Frank said quietly catered to wizards and witches in the middle of a Muggle street. Lily could tell as they approached that it was rather like The Leaky Cauldron—any Muggle who passed by seemed not to even see the place.
It seemed to Lily that, despite their hesitation, James, Remus, Peter, and Sirius warmed to Frank and Sturgis rather quickly, bonding over a shared interest in the upcoming Quidditch season. For her part, Lily was very pleased that there were—for what was the first time in ages—other people to turn to when she didn’t really feel like talking about Quidditch. Alice and Hestia asked her about Hogwarts, lamenting that they missed their own school days.
“Were you all at Hogwarts together?” Lily asked, taking a sip of her gillywater.
“Frank and Hestia and I were,” Alice said, weaving her fingers together and resting her chin on them. “And Emmeline, too.”
“And were you all in the same House?” Lily added.
“Well, Frank and Emmeline were both in Gryffindor, and Hestia and I were in Hufflepuff,” Alice answered, tilting her head back-and-forth slightly as she lifted the names. She had a very sprightly sort of look to her that was almost elfish, with short blonde hair and slightly large ears.
“We’ve been friends for too long,” Hestia joked, and Alice elbowed her.
“What about Sturgis?” Lily asked.
“He’s two years younger than us,” Alice explained.
“Dorcas is four years older than us, and then Benjy is two years older. I think that’s right.”
Prodded by Lily’s incessant questioning, they sketched out the background of all of their friendships for her. Alice and Hestia had been best friends since they started at Hogwarts, and after they were done school, Alice had gone into Auror training. Frank, whom she had only been briefly acquainted with at school, had done the same.
“And they fell in love,” Hestia interjected, with a mocking, love-struck impression. Alice elbowed her again.
Auror training was also where they had met Benjy and Dorcas. Hestia, meanwhile, had gone on to become a Healer at St. Mungo’s. They had only really become friends with Emmeline, who worked for the Daily Prophet, later on.
“When we had all joined,” Alice said cryptically. Lily would have liked to ask them how they had started with the Order, but thought that the middle of a pub probably wasn’t the best place to ask.
“It’s too bad Dorcas couldn’t come,” Alice remarked. Lily smiled a little uncertainly and took another sip of her drink. Hestia laughed, catching the subtext of Lily’s expression. “Oh, no, really—I know she can be difficult at times, but you’d like her. I know you would. Eventually, at least.”
“Why couldn’t she come?” Lily asked, trying to humour them. She wouldn’t have been surprised if Dorcas had declined to go just because Lily and the others were invited.
“She and Benjy both had to go back to the Ministry. They’ve been drowning in paperwork ever since the riot,” Alice replied.
“Yes, well,” Hestia said, leaning in conspiratorially, “that’s what they said they had to do, anyway.”
Alice rolled her eyes good-naturedly. “Dorcas would kill you...”
Suddenly, Lily was reminded of Benjy gazing at the back of Dorcas’ head.
“Is—?” She paused, wondering if it was any of her business. Hestia had been the one to bring it up, though. “Are they—together?”
Alice was in the middle of shaking her head when Hestia said, “In Benjy’s dreams, very much so.”
“Hestia,” Alice admonished her. She turned back to Lily with a look that was in the vicinity of condescension. “It’s complicated.”
Lily nodded, and for some reason—maybe it had been Alice’s look, which had suggested that Lily wouldn’t understand—she couldn’t stop herself from blurting out the response that was on her mind.
“Well, I understand what that’s like,” she said. Alice and Hestia’s eyes both lit up with interest. Lily had expected both of them to be much more serious and mature, since they were almost ten years older than her, but it seemed that some curiosities lingered far beyond adolescence.
“James?” Hestia asked. “Or someone else?”
Lily had been about to say it was James, without a moment’s thought, until Hestia had asked the question. She was reminded rather uncomfortably of the fact that it hadn’t been just James, if she was really honest. The thought of it, especially knowing what Snape was now, and what he had done to both her and James—she almost bit right through her tongue. There was no way she was going to share that with anyone.
“James, yes,” Lily said, hoping that her smile would cover the beat of awkward silence that had passed.
“Well,” Hestia said, pressing her fingernails into the grain of the wood table, a sly look on her face, “maybe Benjy does have a chance after all, then.”
Alice cleared her throat. “So, all of you were in Gryffindor?”
Lily nodded, and she didn’t miss Alice’s eyes floating towards Sirius, who was listening to Sturgis describe how he had once crashed a broom into greenhouse three at Hogwarts. For some reason, it made Lily feel a little uneasy. The next moment, though, Alice managed to merge the two conversations going on by asking who had won the Quidditch Cup the past year, and Lily let it go.
The following Monday, James was shaken awake by Sirius late in the morning. It was unusual that Sirius awoke before him, so he pulled himself from the slightly uncomfortable position he had been sleeping in on Sirius’ sofa, and reached down to the ground to retrieve his glasses.
“What’s wrong?” he mumbled, thinking that there might be something wrong with the Order again. As his mind focused, slowed by the last vestiges of sleep that were still upon him, he saw that Sirius was holding an envelope.
“Bloody owl wouldn’t stop pecking at the window,” Sirius grumbled, tossing the letter into James’ lap. “You sleep like the dead, mate.”
James turned the envelope over, and saw his name written on the front in a familiar hand. He slumped back on the sofa.
Sirius went stalking off into the kitchen, and the sounds and smell of him making toast soon followed. Meanwhile, James stared glumly at Sirius’ floor. The sun was streaming in the window behind him, illuminating the dust particles dancing in the air. It was so easy to forget about things when you couldn’t see them. Too easy.
James sighed and looked down at the letter again. He knew it was from his mother. She had sent him a few others over the past week, asking when he was going to be home next. He had managed to make himself feel a little better about his absence by clinging to the fact that he had been there less than ten days ago, but the truth was, he had come home near midnight, went straight to bed, and then left again before noon the next day.
Might as well get it over with, he thought, and tore the envelope open.
It seems that my previous letters were not clear enough. Come home today, or I will be forced to start sending you daily Howlers until you do.
His eyes lingered on “today”, with its angry underline. He read it again, and then once more. A surge of defiance filled his chest for a few moments; he didn’t want to go back just because she’d written him some unpleasant letter. He didn’t care if she sent him a year’s worth of Howlers. He was an adult now, and he didn’t have to do what she said.
But even stronger was the dread that followed, because he had a feeling he knew why his mother was being so demanding. In the rare moments that he had been back home, he had seen enough to tell him that his father still wasn’t well. And if his mother, who had initially been determined to pretend like everything was all right, was breaking that facade...
His fingers closed, crumpling the parchment slightly. Everything had been going so well lately—and now, this had to happen.
Sirius re-entered the room, a slightly burnt piece of toast in his mouth. Only on very rare occasions were there clean dishes to be found in Sirius’ flat, and so he more or less had to survive on food that could be easily eaten with your hands.
“What was it?” he asked, sitting down in a creaky beige armchair across from James.
“Letter from my mum,” James muttered.
“Just like first year again, isn’t it?” Sirius joked. James remembered the number of letters he had received from home during their first year very well—at least three a week. He had put up with it (partially because it did, in fact, give him some comfort when he was eleven years old) for the first year, but during Christmas holidays in second year, he had told his mother to stop. One letter a week, he had told her, was the most he could stand. It was making all of his friends laugh at him.
Apparently, some kind of regression had occurred.
“We ought to go to your house for tea next Sunday,” Sirius said, shoving the last bit of toast into his mouth. “I could do with real food for once.”
“Yeah,” James replied, in a voice that felt empty. “We’ll see. I think she’s upset with me because I haven’t been home much.”
He wavered on the edge of explaining the rest of the story to Sirius, but decided against it. He had told him that his dad was ill some time ago, but he didn’t really want to bring it up again. Sirius was never a very good confidant when it came to family issues, which was strange, considering that he’d had so many of his own. But—and perhaps this was why Sirius had trouble understanding—not everyone had the option or the justification to run away and never look back.
When Sirius had shown up at his door years ago, having just walked out on his family for good, James had not really been able to understand what his friend was going through. Now, though, he thought he had at least some insight. He knew that some desire for retribution had made him stay away in the first place. He had been so angry with his mother for pretending that everything was all right that he had been determined to show her just how all right he could pretend things were, too. Going away was the easy part, though. After the feelings of resentment had faded, the fear of what was happening remained. There had been shame, too, because he knew that refusing to go home was cowardly. Over time, the shame and fear had developed into true discomfort with being in his own home. He had been afraid, and too ashamed, to go back and face up to it all.
Besides, with everything that had been going on with Lily and the Order, it had been easy to convince himself that there were good reasons for his absence. His father’s health had been in the back of his mind through it all, but it was easy to distract himself from the pain of the memory of their last conversation, in which his father had not seemed at all like himself.
He took his wand out and Vanished the letter, but this time, he knew he would have to heed his mother’s request.
“She’ll understand,” Sirius said confidently. “You can tell her it’s my fault if you want. Mrs Potter would never get cross with me.”
James laughed a little.
He spent a half-hour lingering at Sirius’ flat, trying to brace himself for whatever he was going to face when he got home. It didn’t work very well. When he finally left, he felt more anxious than ever. He ran a clammy hand through unwashed, slept-on hair, a particularly unpleasant combination.
As if to spite how he was feeling, it was a beautiful fall day outside: sunlight spread on crisp, breezy air. James had to squint a little as he Apparated just outside of the gate in front of his home. Everything was exactly the same as he remembered it, from the funny clicking and creaking of the iron gate to the way the stone house and its garden looked slightly neglected. The same Flutterby bush twitched lazily in front of the sitting room window, as it had for as long as James could remember.
He walked in the front door and hesitated in the entryway, wondering if he should call out to announce his presence.
The sound of his mother’s voice echoing around the stone walls prompted a very painful combination of emotions, most of which he couldn’t name. It got even worse when she appeared in the entryway. He was prepared for her to narrow her eyes in anger, to shout, to make him feel ashamed—but instead, she embraced him.
It must be bad, a voice in his head said, unbidden. He tried to swallow the lump that had formed in his throat at the precise moment his mother had put his arms around him.
Acantha Potter drew back, her hands still on James’ shoulders. At first glance, she might have appeared as unchanged as their home, but James could see the extra lines that had been carved into her milky skin. His mother was nearing eighty, but she had never quite seemed her age to James until that moment.
He wished he had never come home. Whatever would have happened if he had continued to defy his mother, it couldn’t possibly have been worse than what he was being confronted with now—and he was sure the worst was yet to come.
“Thank you,” his mother said, her voice faltering slightly. She put a hand to his cheek. “Would you like some tea?”
“Breakfast, then? Sprotty can—”
“No—Christ, Mum, you’ve got to stop.”
She pinched her lips together in displeasure.
“Mind your cheek,” she said, but her voice was tired.
James never in his life spoken to either of his parents like this, but he was sick of it: sick of them trying to keep a stiff upper lip and treating him like he was still a child. If they knew what he had been through in the last six months alone—he had been put under the Imperius Curse, had escaped from two Death Eaters, had been in the thick of the Ministry fighting a mob, and had made a girl love him and made love to her—he was far, far from being a child. The problem was, the things that had made him stop being a child were exactly those things which he couldn’t talk to his parents about.
He couldn’t help but glare at his mother as they stood facing one another in silence. Maybe if she had told him what was wrong months ago, they wouldn’t be standing here now, in such a mess.
“Why did you want me home so urgently?” James demanded.
“You can at least sit down, so we can talk properly,” his mother replied, equally firm.
“I don’t want to.”
“Stop being so childish.”
The pinpointing of it—of the exact thing that made him so angry—was the last straw.
“I’m being childish?” he shouted, louder than he had meant to. “You’ve lied to me for months for no reason, and I’m the one acting like a child?”
“Yes, precisely,” his mother said, her eyes flashing.
“Would you just tell me—?” He couldn’t finish it, couldn’t say the word “wrong”. It stuck in his throat and refused to come out.
His mother tilted her head sideways in an expression of sympathy that he wanted to fling aside. He didn’t want sympathy.
“James,” she said, and the tone of her voice asked him, Don’t you know by now?
It was then that he stormed past her, climbing the staircase to retreat to his bedroom, slinging barbs about immaturity and deception as he went. It was ten minutes later that she entered without knocking, and sat down on the edge of his bed, where he was lying, tossing a Quaffle against the ceiling and catching it as it fell. And it was there that he let his mother hold his hand while she explained to him what he had suspected, what he had hidden from, what he had dreaded.
It was there, among dirty laundry and Quidditch posters, that he learned that his father was dying.