Time was elastic in the weeks following the news. Days and nights—especially nights, when the rest of the world made its great escape from reality—sometimes seemed to stretch out interminably, and then other times, rushed past in a blur. James would have wished for more of the latter, if not for the fact that time now felt so precious, and each day lost was a small occasion for mourning.
He had developed a penitential determination to confine himself to his home ever since he had found out. The first two days hadn’t been so bad. He had taken the news as stoically as he could, looking at his mother’s aged face and knowing that it would be selfish to put the extra emotional burden on her. It would be fine, he told himself: his father had lived a long and happy life, after all. Dying was natural, normal, and impossible to fight against. He felt grief fall in step with him, but it was a quiet companion.
It was the night of the second day which had broken him. Alone in his bedroom, he had wept, the tears stinging his eyes and making him feel like a failure. Grief had gotten tired of being ignored, and vanquished all of his strength and calm. They were frail opponents. Anger and guilt acted as replacements, digging in their heels. He hated the moments when those feelings were roused, because he could never anticipate or control them.
He found his only comfort in the predictable routine that his days settled into as the end of October crept closer.
Most mornings, he awoke late; half the time, he spent a minute or two debating whether he ought to eat breakfast or lunch, but usually settled on the former. He didn’t like to feel like he had missed something, not now, not when not missing was so important.
The world outside his window on the morning of October twenty-fifth was grey and blustery. James made his journey down to the kitchen, and waited while the Potters’ house elf, Sprotty, did him a fry-up. While he was waiting, he picked up the Daily Prophet that had been left on the kitchen table and read through it, marking each page with a story that he felt was important. Today, the front page carried a story about a protest that had been carried out by the Wizarding Families Alliance in Diagon Alley—James only skimmed it, but it had something to do with Muggle-borns endangering other people. He also marked a story about the match between the Wigtown Wanderers and the Caerphilly Catapults, and another about a potioneer named Damocles Belby, who had developed a better cure for Vanishing Sickness.
When his breakfast was ready, James returned back up the stairs, newspaper and plate of food in hand. He stopped at the first door on his right when he reached the landing and pushed it open with the hand that still clutched the Daily Prophet. It swung open with its familiar stuttering creak, and he entered his parents’ bedroom.
His mother was there, as she usually was, tidying things unnecessarily. James stopped a few feet from the end of the bed, and she gave him a weary smile.
“Good morning, dear,” she said, flicking her wand so that the glass phials and bottles sitting on the nightstand wiggled into a neatly organized group.
“Morning,” James said stiffly, deliberately leaving the word good out. He was saving that for a day when he really meant it. After the moment they always had at this time—the moment in which she seemed to expect or hope for him to say something more, and he never did—she stowed her wand in the pocket of her blue robes, and leaned down to kiss her husband’s forehead briefly.
“He’s doing well today,” she said quietly, as she drew past the place where James stood. He made eye contact with her, acknowledging that he had heard, but refused to respond. How could anybody be doing well when they were dying?
When she had left the room, James sat down in the wooden-backed chair next to the bed. He placed his plate on his lap, turned the newspaper right-side-up, and only when he was fully settled did he finally look at his father.
He tried to force himself to do this for as long as he could every day, simply because it made him so uncomfortable. Edgar Potter was barely recognizable to his son. His hair was a shade short of transparent, the skin on his face seemed in danger of sagging off, and his thin body stretched out beneath the bedcovers like a railing. His frail hands were mottled with deep blue veins and liver spots.
But James forced himself not to look away, because he knew he had done that for far too long already.
His father was often sleeping when James visited, but this morning, he was staring at the window in a vacant sort of way. James knew, of course, what his mother had meant—there were days when his father moaned in pain as he slept, and others where his mental state was so disturbed that he seemed to be an entirely different person. A day like this, where his father was not only awake, but also seemingly at peace, was the exception to the rule.
When James first spoke, recounting the first story in the Daily Prophet without preface, his father started slightly, as if he had not even realized James was there. Then, recognition dawned, and he relaxed.
These mornings were not an exchange, not a meeting. An outpouring might have been the only appropriate word for it, for James simply sat and read until he was done. He never held back the unpleasant stories, because he knew how it felt to be on the receiving end of that kind of deception. Once he had finished both his breakfast and the stories, he laid his fork and knife to rest on the plate with a clatter, and folded the newspaper with a rustling. And somehow, it was enough to make him feel better, if only because he was there.
This time, however, it went differently. The room was quiet but for the distant sound of the wind beyond the window, until a voice wheezed from the bed, interrupting James’ slightly bitter ponderings about why there were still so many bottles on the nightstand, when the potions were supposed to have stopped.
“Thank you,” his father said. The words fell somewhere between a statement and a question.
Some part of him knew, as he sat there in shock, that this was an opportunity that he shouldn’t pass up. What if this was the last chance, the only chance, he had to talk to his father again? They didn’t know how long he would live now that they had ceased treatment.
The disease he had was rare—and James hated that, perhaps more than anything else—and incurable. His mother’s explanation had been a mix of things that he understood and things that he didn’t. Usually, when a witch or wizard’s physical and mental condition began to deteriorate due to age, their magical abilities would follow a similar course. They would decline, until finally sputtering out for good. The disease his father was suffering from, which was called venefantosis, changed that, for some reason that no Healer had yet been able to determine. Instead of receding naturally, the magic that lived in his father had turned against his body, sapping him of his strength, his memory, and his life, all to sustain its own existence. It was why his father was bedridden, and why his mental state was so fragile. The disease could also cause dangerous and uncontrollable outbursts of magic when untreated.
There were potions that could slow the disease and control the magical energy, but there was no reversing it, no destroying it. And now, his mother said, it had come to the point that there was no sense in putting off the inevitable.
Even if he lived for the full two months the Healers had given him—given him, like it was some kind of gift, James had often raged to himself—there was no telling if this would be the last time his father was lucid enough to carry on a conversation.
He thought of trying to apologize for being absent, or even of giving some parting speech that expressed what his dad meant to him, but he couldn’t. The possibility that it was all a coincidence, that the thank you had not really been directed at him, but perhaps at some random memory of another person and another time, frightened him too much. And he wasn’t ready to let go, not yet.
“You’re welcome,” he said, picking up his plate, standing up from the chair, tucking the newspaper under his arm, all with almost surgical precision.
When he emerged into the hall beyond the bedroom, he found his mother standing there. It looked as though she had simply been hovering outside the room the entire time that James had been inside. He felt his jaw clench, remembering not only the bottles at the bedside, but also everything else that had been quietly tucked away before.
His anger with himself was only matched by his continued anger at his mother. He had tried and failed to let go of the resentment—it kept coming back, convinced of its own righteousness. The fact that she had finally shared the whole truth with him meant little, because in his eyes, it had been far too late.
“Why is he still taking potions?” he asked, in clipped and accusatory tones.
“It’s not—they’re only to help with minor ailments,” his mother replied weakly. She was wringing her hands, and James suddenly felt a small surge of pity for her. He looked at her properly for the first time in weeks, seeing through all of the anger that had gathered around her, and he thought of Lily. He thought of how he would feel if it were Lily who was dying, instead. It was not the first time he had contemplated it in the aftermath of finding out about his father’s condition, but it was the first time he had ever compared it to his mother’s situation.
“He’s awake,” James said, lost for anything else to say. Once again, he had been presented with an opportunity to make up for a mistake, and once again, he had been unable to seize it. It would make for an excellent source of self-loathing later.
The rest of his days were usually filled by visits from either his friends or Lily, and today, Lily arrived a little after five o’clock. She was still dressed in her work robes, though she had a coat and scarf on over top of them. James always teased her slightly when he saw her all dressed-up like this, but truthfully, he thought she looked cute. Or beautiful. It was sometimes hard to separate the two, in his mind.
He took comfort in the company of all of his friends, but he found that it was Lily who made him feel least troubled. There was something, he thought, in physical refuge—in the ability to embrace Lily and breathe in her familiar scent, to have someone there who could hold him together when he felt like he was falling apart.
Her face was cold from the wind when he kissed her in greeting.
“How was work?” he asked, happy to have something else to think about.
“The Ministry was a mess today,” she said, eyes widening. “There were reporters everywhere trying to get a statement about the protest.”
“I read about it in the newspaper,” James said, taking her coat and scarf for her. “Do you want tea?”
This was how most of their conversations went these days, and how James preferred it. For a while after he had told Lily about his dad, she had tried to coax his feelings out of him, but he had finally found some way of expressing to her that the last thing he wanted was to dwell on all the doom and gloom. That was something he could do perfectly well on his own.
But routine was a series of actions, and it seemed that eventually, they always ran into reality.
“Are you all right?” Lily asked quietly, later, when the house had gone quiet and the sky had turned inky black. They were laying side-by-side in James’ bed, and his head was resting on her shoulder.
James gave his usual answer. “Not really.”
Lily wrapped her arms around him tightly, and he felt melancholy reach into his chest and take hold of his breath.
“You will be,” she reassured him. For the first time, he thought she might be right, after all.
After the next Order meeting, which had revealed little in the way of new insights about Byron Gamp or Roddy Darrow, Hestia approached Lily, much like Alice had at the previous meeting.
“Want to go do something fun with us?” she asked, brown eyes alight. James, Remus, Sirius, and Peter had stopped their conversation about the new surveillance assignment Dumbledore had decided to give them, and were looking back-and-forth between Hestia and Lily curiously. Hestia noticed their confusion.
“Sorry,” she said to them, “we only need Lily this time.”
Lily laughed nervously; she was surprised by Hestia’s question, too, but excitement was blooming in her stomach. Across the room, Alice, Dorcas, and Emmeline were throwing glances their way, clearly waiting on her.
“Maybe,” Lily said, in answer to Hestia’s question. “What is it?”
Hestia pursed her lips in thought for a moment.
“You’ll find out if you come,” she finally said, grinning in a persuasive sort of way.
Lily felt slightly hesitant, and not just because Hestia wouldn’t tell her where they were going. She felt a responsibility towards James these days, with all that he was going through. It had surprised her that he wanted to come to that night’s meeting, but she had noticed that he had been doing a little better over the past few days. More than that concern, though, there was something about Hestia and Alice’s sudden friendliness towards her which was a little off-putting.
She looked over at James, trying to gauge from his face whether he would be hurt if she went. On the contrary, however, he looked a little like he was going to laugh.
“Well, this is a relief,” he said, some of his usual levity making a rare reappearance, “because I was just about to say that we have some very exclusive, blokes-only stuff to do.”
Lily smiled widely. “What a lucky coincidence, then.”
As she joined the other women, she felt a little like prey being closed in upon by its predators. All of them were so much older and more worldly. Two Aurors, a Healer, a reporter for the Daily Prophet, and her. One of those things was very, very different from the others, it seemed to Lily.
The mysterious excursion took them to the middle of nowhere: a field full of pumpkins, far from the twinkling lights of homes and businesses. Lily was reminded that Halloween was only a few days away, and an image of the Great Hall at Hogwarts, filled with pumpkins and bats and laughing faces, floated into her mind.
The sound of Emmeline exhaling in a huff, some five feet to her right, pulled her away from the twist of longing in her stomach.
“Another pair of shoes ruined,” she groused, stepping gingerly off of the rotting pumpkin that she had Apparated onto. Emmeline always looked perfectly pulled together. Her blonde hair was drawn back into a low chignon, not a hair out of place; her lips were perfectly painted with red lipstick; and she always wore pearl earrings the size of sickles and perfectly-tailored robes.
The night air was filled with that indefinable smell of the cold, and the ground was covered with a web of tangled vines. Lily could see her breath forming clouds as she exhaled.
“Where are we?” she asked.
“My uncle’s farm,” Alice answered in her honeyed voice.
“Let’s not stand around like a bunch of ninnies,” Dorcas stated, before locking her eyes on Lily. “We’re here to initiate you.”
There was a moment, in which the bottom of Lily’s stomach seemed to fall out, before anyone else spoke.
“Oh, Dorcas, don’t be so mean,” Alice said. “You make it sound like we’re going to string her up by her thumbs!”
“I’m only repeating what the rest of you said,” Dorcas countered, somewhat defensively.
“Yes, well,” Hestia interjected, the tip of her wand flaring with light, illuminating the small circle they had formed, “you do have a talent for making things sound much nastier than they really are.”
Dorcas rolled her eyes.
“We’re not here to torture you or anything,” Alice explained to a bewildered Lily. “We just—well, Dorcas told us that you were at the riot that night a while ago, and we thought—you know, it would be helpful if we showed you some spells. Because we thought that James and the others probably got some kind of training because of their assignments, but you probably didn’t.”
“Okay,” Lily said. Her pulse had quickened slightly—she wasn’t terrible at Defense spells, but she was not unusually good at them, either. There were half a dozen people she could think of almost immediately who had been better in their Defense Against the Dark Arts class, and here she was, standing in front of two women who were practiced Aurors, about to demonstrate her abilities.
“Did you do a N.E.W.T. in Defense?” Dorcas asked, pulling the very thought out of Lily’s mind. Lily nodded. “Well, that’s a start. And I suppose you can cast a Patronus?”
Lily’s hesitation made Dorcas’ eyes bulge.
“You can cast a Patronus, can’t you?”
“Sort of,” Lily said, her cheeks burning. “I can do a silver mist, but I haven’t tried in ages.”
To her surprise, Dorcas didn’t dwell on it. “Well, we’ll start there, then.”
Twenty minutes later, after all four of them had taken turns demonstrating and trying to coach Lily, she had still only been able to cast a shapeless silvery mist. She was trying to keep positive, but the more they tried to advise her, the worse she felt she was doing.
“Maybe I should just keep practicing on my own, and I’ll get it eventually,” she said, after her umpteenth failed attempt.
“Your memory’s just not happy enough,” Alice said.
“And you’re holding your arm too low,” Emmeline, who was sitting on a pumpkin observing them, added.
Lily held back a sigh of frustration.
“You have to think of something that’s...vivid,” Alice continued. She had said something like this before, but Lily didn’t really know what she meant. “Not something you really remember, but something you feel, something that makes you all warm and makes your hands tingle.”
“Very poetic,” Dorcas remarked disinterestedly. Hestia snorted with laughter.
“Oh, hush,” Alice said, swatting her hand in Dorcas’ direction. “Just give it one more try, Lily.”
Lily thought it was pointless, but she didn’t want to give up in front of any of them. She took a deep breath and tried to think of a memory like the one Alice had described. She wasn’t sure she could think of one like that—there were dozens that made her smile, but she had to think for a very long time before she hit on one that came close to what Alice had described. She thought of her last birthday, when James had surprised her in the Hogwarts kitchen with a piece of cake. It was like being doused in molten gold. It wasn’t something she had thought of very often, but maybe that was the reason why it seemed to be so powerful.
“Expecto Patronum,” she said—it was going to take a lot more practice before she could do it non-verbally—and the silver light that emitted from her wand was like a bolt of lightning, coursing through the air, stretching out like fingers from a hand...
When it had finished taking form, Lily stood frozen in confusion for a split-second, because she couldn’t understand why she had just conjured James’ Patronus—but then her eyes adjusted to the sight, and she realized that it wasn’t his. It was a doe, and not a stag.
“Good job,” Dorcas said, with an exhale of impatient relief. The doe’s image lingered for a few seconds more, and then disappeared in a shimmer.
Lily could hardly believe it—she’d cast a real Patronus, finally! It didn’t even seem that hard, now that she had done it.
Invigorated by her own success, she spent the next half-hour practicing different curses and counter-curses. Some of them, she had learned at school, but most of them were entirely new—things that they only really taught to people who entered Auror training, Dorcas said. By the end of it, she was starting to feel drained from all the spellwork. She took a break for a few minutes, sitting down on a pumpkin like Emmeline had. Dorcas and Hestia decided to have a mock-duel, and Alice came to join Lily.
She sat in amazed silence for a while as she watched Dorcas and Hestia duel. They were both frighteningly good, though Dorcas was certainly better. Watching them made her wonder how, if there were witches and wizards like Dorcas among the Aurors, Voldemort had not been caught yet.
“It’s chilly, isn’t it?” Alice remarked, folding her arms and hunching over slightly, as if to brace herself against the air.
“It is,” Lily agreed. “Thanks, by the way.”
Alice tilted her head from side-to-side nonchalantly.
“It took me ages to cast a Patronus when we started Auror training,” she said, a self-effacing substitute for a you’re welcome. The re-emergence of the subject made Lily think back to her Patronus’ form.
“What does your Patronus look like?” Lily asked. She wasn’t sure if this was too personal a question to ask someone you hardly knew, but she had a feeling Alice wouldn’t mind.
“It’s a kestrel,” Alice said. She grinned a little self-consciously. “I had to look through some books about birds before I figured it out.”
Lily let a few second pass before posing her next question.
“Is it the same as Frank’s?”
“Almost. His is an eagle,” Alice replied, in a knowing voice.
Lily didn’t quite know what to make of that information or what it meant about her own Patronus, but she decided that it at least meant that her situation wasn’t entirely unusual. She wondered what James would say, if she told him.
Alice was stammering slightly, the dark outline of her seated form wound with tension.
“I just thought I should say—not just for myself, but for everyone—we don’t think that you’re...incompetent, or anything.”
Lily got the sense that she wasn’t just referring to tonight’s activities, but to the attitude that most of the rest of the Order had taken towards her, James, Sirius, Remus and Peter. She thought back to Dorcas’ initial reaction, her incredulity about their age, and the way Alice had remonstrated her.
“Oh, it’s all right,” Lily replied. “I understand. We are a lot younger than everyone else.”
Alice shrugged. “It’s not really about you, though. Well, I mean, of course it is...but it’s more about everything else we see when we look at you. Like Dorcas.”
Lily glanced at the woman in question, who was currently laughing in reaction to Hestia tripping backwards over a pumpkin.
“I know she wasn’t very nice, not even from the start, but the thing is, the week before all of you joined, she had to deal with this awful case—Death Eaters tortured a bunch of Muggle kids who were probably about your age, so badly that they might as well have killed them,” Alice said, her voice gaining strength. “I think we all just felt so guilty when we saw you.”
Lily tried to absorb this, to understand it. She looked at Dorcas again, and some of her steely, intimidating exterior seemed to have worn away.
“It’s not your fault. We wanted to join,” Lily pointed out.
“Yes, but...” Alice’s sigh came out in a cloud of vapour. “It’s really just the fact that you had to join at all.”
Lily didn’t know what to say in response to that, but Alice wasn’t done. A troubled look seized hold of her usually sunny features as she spoke.
“You can’t know what it’s like for us,” she said, almost as if she was speaking to herself. “When we went to Hogwarts—even when we left—the name ‘Voldemort’ meant nothing to any of us. I remember the first day anyone ever talked about him. I was about a year-and-a-half into Auror training, and I overheard two people talking about how they would have him in six months.”
She paused to smile bitterly.
“Of course, when I finished training, he was still around. People only talked about him more and more every day. The number of times we convinced ourselves that we were close to catching him, that he was running out of places to hide...and yet, here we are, and things are worse all the time. And you don’t know what it’s like, to live in a world without a threat like that, and then have it become your world.”
Yet again, Lily found herself at a loss for words. She could vaguely remember a time when Voldemort hadn’t been front-page news every day, but it was true that she had never really known a world in which he didn’t exist. The realization made her feel like she had a hole in her chest.
“I always thought that I could make things better for the next generation, and then...well, I see you, and you are the next generation, but I haven’t managed to make anything better,” Alice ruminated. “That’s what I mean when I say it’s not about you, not really—it’s just that when we look at you, we get reminded of how we’ve failed.”
Lily had no idea whether this was supposed to make her feel better or not. The best she could say was that she felt about the same as before: glad that no one seemed to dislike her solely because she was younger, but still not really on equal footing with them. Being associated with failure wasn’t exactly what she would have wished for.
Hestia was now practicing the Levicorpus spell, which Lily had mentioned to them earlier, on Dorcas. Even prim-as-a-rose Emmeline was laughing as Dorcas hung upside-down in the air. Lily, however, couldn’t share in their amusement.
“Do you think the Aurors will catch him?” Lily asked. “One day?”
The corner of Alice’s mouth, which had been curled in a smile as she watched her friends, unfurled itself.
“No,” she said, her voice thudding in the night. Lily was caught off-guard by the unequivocal tone in her voice—she would have expected more platitudes and words of comfort from a woman who was herself an Auror. “I don’t think the Aurors can. But I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe that the Order will.”
She gave Lily one last weak, self-conscious smile, then stood up and went over to try her hand at Levicorpus. Lily watched the four women as they talked and laughed, and tried to keep Alice’s words from defeating her. A chill had worked its way into her bones—whether it was from the air or their conversation, she couldn’t quite tell.
Even though she was young, and even though she hadn’t experienced anything like they had, there was one thing that Lily suddenly saw. Each one of them, behind the face they presented to the world—behind Dorcas’ critical glares, Alice’s twinkling smiles, Hestia’s gentle teasing, and Emmeline’s immaculate lipstick—were jaded. The trials of the world had not filled them to bursting: they had emptied them, instead. Lily wondered how long it would take before she became the same way, and if she would even notice it when she did.
Author’s Note: I hope you liked the chapter, and, as always, I would appreciate a review—I’d particularly be interested to hear anyone’s thoughts on the disease I’ve come up with. JKR said that James’ parents died of a “wizarding disease”, and since we didn’t hear too much about those in the books (I thought dying of spattergroit was probably stretching credibility :P), I’ve had to go a bit rogue on this one. Does it seem believable?
The next chapter holds the reappearance of a familiar face...can you guess who?
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