The weather outside the enchanted windows at the Ministry of Magic today was dismal - rain was falling in slanted sheets, and the wind scuttling thick, smoke-gray clouds across the sky. Unfortunately enough, it was also one of the rare days that the inside matched the outside, and the rather gloomy cast it gave to the light inside the building did nothing to cheer up the Monday blues evident on most of the faces of the people scuttling about, going to and from offices and courtrooms and the like.
In the Atrium, however, the moving golden symbols on the peacock-blue ceiling mixed with the gold of the Fountain of Magical Brethren, not to mention the shining coins sparkling up from the water from generous donations of Galleons. The broad hall shone with light as it always did, and here, it was quite easy to forget the outside storm. James Potter, perched on the edge of the fountain and hunching over with his forearms balancing on his knees, thought it was a rather good place to be on a day like today, if you had to be in a government building at all - which, unfortunately, he did.
He wasn’t on Order business - the last documents regarding his parents’ estate had finally been drawn up, and he’d been asked to report to the Department of Magical Law Enforcement today to sign a few last papers, though he felt like he’d written his name at least twice on everything by now. He was rather glad it was all over - he didn’t want to still be dealing with this when the baby came, and that was only a few months away now.
A little shiver of excitement shot through James’s stomach even still when he thought about it. The fact that he was going to be a dad was so simultaneously absurd and wonderful that sometimes it almost didn’t feel real, and was instead a dream he’d had that he’d not quite fully woken up from yet. The crib had been purchased, the nursery painted, and it was still a surprise half the time when Lily reminded him of something as mundane as a doctor’s appointment.
Through the months, though, Frank and James had grown closer over the fact that they were going to be fathers around the same time - though Frank was older, James suspected he was feeling rather similarly about the whole thing. That was, in fact, who he was waiting for now, as he tapped the toes of his trainers on the polished hardwood floor, and enjoyed the gold lighting of the room when it was so dismally black elsewhere in the building.
As he had been coming down from the second floor, intent on heading home, he had run into Frank coming up from the Muggle Liaison Office with a sheaf of parchment clutched in his hand. He’d looked worried, and after exchanging greetings James had asked him what the matter was - only to be directed to wait in the Atrium if he wanted to talk, because Frank had something important to tell him. And now here James was, doing just that.
Despite rather enjoying the view, and thinking about Lily and the baby, James was rather apprehensive about whatever it was that Frank had to say. The older man hadn’t looked particularly happy when he’d requested the impromptu meeting upstairs - that much had been obvious - and for a rather terrible moment, James wondered if something had happened to Alice in her own pregnancy. A twist of trepidation joined the previous feeling of excitement in racing along his spine. James shifted uncomfortably on the rim of the fountain, nearly losing his balance in the process, and wondered how many more minutes he’d have to sit there waiting.
As it turned out, however, he didn’t have to wait much longer at all. Just as his mind had completed its cycle of thoughts - the estate, Lily, Frank, and then back again - Frank Longbottom himself appeared at the end of the Atrium, near the small half-circle of gold lifts. He seemed to see James right away and began striding purposefully toward him, edging around the slower-moving witches and wizards who seemed to be in no particular hurry. James felt a bubble of apprehension well within him; he stood up and wiped his hands on his jeans, as they had become suddenly clammy.
Frank came to a stop next to him and folded his arms across his chest. “Don’t make it look suspicious,” he warned in an undertone, fiddling with the parchment in his hands. “I don’t want anyone to think we’re talking about anything important, got that?”
James nodded; the bubble was growing. Perhaps this trip was going to turn into something having to do with the Order after all. "What's going on?" he said in a low voice, anxious not to catch the attention of a wizard who had just passed by much too close for comfort.
“When was the last time you saw Dearborn?”
“What?” If James had been expecting any question at all, it hadn’t been that one. He looked down at the coins in the fountain; the ripples from the water trickling from the golden statues made the surface waver like a mirage. “What do you mean, when was the last time I saw Dearborn?”
Frank gave him a hard look from the corner of his eye, and James frowned, trying to remember. “I don’t… I can’t have seen him since the last Order meeting, can I? And that was nearly a month ago, wasn’t it, we’ve got another one tonight.”
Frank sucked in a long breath and briefly lifted his hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. “He’s missing.”
“I – what?!”
“Dearborn’s missing.” Frank’s voice was so low that James couldn’t help it; he took another step closer to his friend, desperate now not to miss a word. “He hadn’t been showing up for work for a couple of days, and we all thought, you know, he was sick or something. Your friend Remus” – he jerked his head at the ceiling, as though indicating Remus’s sorry little corner desk –“sent him an owl, and it came back. So Moody and the Prewetts went to investigate his flat. No sign of him, no sign of a struggle. Just… gone.”
James’s brain suddenly felt ice-cold; Beth’s voice flitted through his mind, and he remembered what she’d said outside that Muggle theater the night Remus had told James that Voldemort’s supporters were after Lily and him.
“I think they – the Death Eaters – they’re following him, or something.”
He swore softly. “And nobody knows – I mean, they haven’t found…?” His voice trailed off; the thought was too horrible to be spoken aloud. Frank shook his head once, more of a jerk than anything else, and James swore again simply because he couldn’t think of what else to do.
“James, you need to be careful. You and Lily both.” Frank swiveled a fraction of an inch in his direction, tautness ranged along the lines of his shoulders. “Dearborn found out You-Know-Who was targeting you. You know he thinks the pair of you would be assets to his side. Don’t get backed into a corner and think that’s your only option.”
James stared unseeingly back down at the water. “Our loyalties lie with Dumbledore,” he said quietly, his voice shaking slightly. “They will always lie with Dumbledore, Frank.” His friend nodded once and clapped him on the shoulder, as though trying to reinforce him through the gesture. When it became apparent that neither man really had anything more to say on the subject, Frank turned and began walking away, heading for the stone fireplaces ranged along one wall, pre-lit with bright green flames for easy departure.
Letting out a trembling breath, James sank back onto the edge of the fountain and dropped his head into his hands, the edges of his glasses cutting painfully into the skin around his eyes. He massaged his temples and tried to calm his jolting heartbeat, but peace was something that evaded him at the moment. And, with a nauseous feeling in his stomach, he realized it was probably something that would evade him for the foreseeable future.
Just as abruptly as he had taken his seat, he bolted to his feet, nearly stumbling over the hem of his robes as he did so. With near-suspicious quickness, he started after Frank, his mind only set on Flooing home and getting back to Lily and the baby, and praying desperately that they would be all right when he got there.
In his haste to leave, he didn’t see the man sitting on the opposite side of the fountain. But the man had seen him – and not only had he seen him, but he’d overheard nearly every word of the conversation between James and Frank. With a rather haughty expression on his face, he strode away in the opposite direction, towards the golden grilles of the lifts, and became lost in the crowd.
By the time James got back to the lobby of the building where his and Lily’s apartment was, he had worked himself into a full-fledged panic with absolutely no basis for it whatsoever. His heart was rattling around in his chest, going a thousand miles an hour, and he found that his fingers couldn’t work well enough to grasp the handle of the door.
“Shit, shit, shit,” he whispered in a stream, the words blurring one into the next, all while the inner corners of his mind were telling him to calm down and relax, that nothing Frank Longbottom had said should have gotten him this worked up. But one of the Order members, the one who’d discovered You-Know-Who’s interest in James and his wife in the first place, was missing… It wasn’t a chance he could even begin to fathom taking.
He was halfway across the lobby towards the set of burnished steel lifts when he realized that taking the stairs would be faster, and nearly fell over his robes in his haste to turn around. This particular complex didn’t have a front desk, not like their old one, which meant James could generally get away with wearing his robes without being rewarded with suspicious looks from Muggles. He bolted up the stairs, taking them three at a time, and all but threw himself at the door on the third landing.
“Lily!” James didn’t care if he was yelling, didn’t care if their neighbors heard his shouts. He completely forgot about the door key sitting comfortably in his pocket; with a raised, he banged on the top of the door, hearing the sliding bolt rattle on the other side. “Lily!”
There was no answer. James ran his hands through his hair and clenched his teeth, trying his absolute hardest to keep a level head and quickly failing in his efforts. If she wasn’t here, there were only a handful of places she’d be – she wouldn’t be at Remus’s, or Mary’s, or Marlene’s, they were all at work – maybe Peter –
And then he heard the sound of the bolt being drawn back, and the door swung inward just as he whirled around to face it once more. Lily stood framed in the doorway, one hand on her hip, her lower lip sticking out slightly. She looked rather like she’d done for the majority of the time James had known her at Hogwarts, irked by his very presence, and for some reason that comforted him more than anything else.
“James Potter, what the hell do you –“ she started, but wasn’t able to finish her sentence. James closed the distance between them and wrapped his arms around his wife, burying his face in her shoulder, slightly ashamed of the tears of relief that pricked his eyes behind his glasses. For the time being, though, he didn’t care how stupid he was acting; Lily was here, she was okay…
“What’s going on?” It was Lily’s turn to sound slightly panicked; she gently shoved James away from him and looked up into his face imploringly. “James, are you all right?” She watched him closely as he moved into the foyer of their flat, gnawing on her bottom lip and stepping aside as James swung the door closed.
“Dearborn’s missing.” He thought it best to get the news out there, without preamble; no sense beating around bushes. Lily’s brow creased in confusion, as though she didn’t understand what her husband had told her.
“Dearborn. Caradoc Dearborn. He wasn’t answering letters, and Moody and a couple others went to his place and he was just gone, and he’s the one who found out You-Know-Who was…” James swallowed thickly and sank down to the linoleum, removing his glasses and laying a hand across his eyes. “And I was so scared they’d gotten you and the baby too…”
“Merlin,” Lily whispered, though James couldn’t see her, hand still across his eyes as it was. She gave a slight groan, and then he heard her sink down next to him, though with her being a little over six months pregnant, it was rather difficult.
“James. Shh, James.” She gently lifted his hand from his eyes and then took both of them in their own. I’m fine. Look, we’re all fine… calm down, it’s okay…” James let out a shuddering breath and closed the already-minute distance between them, wrapping his arm around Lily’s shoulders and drawing her closer to him.
“We can’t stay here,” he said at last, his voice low. “If they’ve got Dearborn then it’s too risky – they really could come for you next, and I don’t – I couldn’t –“ He stopped, and cleared his throat. “We need to talk to Dumbledore at the meeting tomorrow night. I want you as safe as possible.”
Again, Lily’s forehead puckered. “We just moved here. All of our things – and we painted the nursery already –“ she protested, but James cut her off with a curt shake of his head.
“I want you safe,” he repeated earnestly. “We’ll go anywhere – maybe get a house somewhere further in the country, away from London. Somewhere where it’s more difficult for them to find us.”
Lily sighed, and offered him what he could tell was supposed to be a bracing, cheerful smile. “Okay. We’ll talk to Dumbledore.
Leaning over, he kissed her forehead gently and then buried his face in her hair, drinking in the scent of her and trying to further calm the blood pounding through his veins. He didn’t know how long they sat like that, the linoleum cold beneath him while his heart thrummed hot. But it was what he needed.
“Severus. Come here.” Severus, who had been leaning back against the stretch of wall next to the hidden door at headquarters, opened his eyes as slowly as he could and glanced to his right. Bellatrix Black – no, she was Lestrange now, he kept forgetting – was standing in the far corner, her face half-hidden in shadow, eyes glinting with something he did not particularly like. She gave an unnaturally girlish sort of giggle and beckoned him closer. Reluctantly, he went to join her.
“Isn’t it incredible?” she breathed, pushing some of her dark hair out of her eyes and gazing rapturously up at him. Severus raised an eyebrow, but didn’t comment. “That the Dark Lord… he’s here,” she added, and gave another giggle that somehow raised the hairs on the nape of Severus’s neck.
“He’s here often of late, Bellatrix,” Severus said smoothly. “Those of us who are privileged enough to be a part of his audience are well aware of that fact.” Bellatrix’s grin dropped at once; with a sort of hissing noise, she retreated further into her corner, arms folded tightly over his chest.
It was true, Severus thought smugly, smirking a bit and returning to his stretch of wall. The Dark Lord had been around headquarters lately far more often than he had once been, although much of his time was spent alone with Roark, conferring behind closed doors. And, unfortunately, this had required Severus’s presence more and more often, as well.
His stomach clenched uncomfortably at the memory of the previous night, talking to Beth on the corner outside her flat complex. He had, in fact, been on his way to headquarters then, and it was the first time he’d wished he’d been able to skive off a meeting. She’d been rather tense that night – understandable, after meeting with her parents – and he’d just left her. He didn’t have any other choice, but still, every time he thought about it…
He slipped a hand into the pocket of his robes, closing the tips of his fingers around the delicate chain that was pooled there at the bottom. Beth’s bracelet was still there, right where he’d left it – he would have to return it to her soon. Severus would have been lying, though, if he’d said he hadn’t enjoyed having a sort of token of her with him.
“What have they called you here for?” Bellatrix’s voice broke through his thoughts again, and for the second time in a span of a few minutes, Severus opened his eyes in annoyance.
“I am called often,” he said shortly, unable to help a small tingling of pride zip up his spine. Bellatrix’s mouth twisted in displeasure.
“That’s not what I meant,” she snapped. “You act like you are better than me, Severus, but –“
“There are many differences between you and me,” he interrupted her, closing his eyes again and letting his head fall back against the wall with a muffled thump. “Primarily among them is that I am known to be able to be trusted, and you” – he smirked again, though his eyes stayed closed – “are not.”
He heard her take an angry step toward him, but just as she made to take another, the front door of the building swung open roughly. Both Bellatrix and Severus started in shock as a figure was briefly outlined against the steely afternoon clouds outside before the door shut behind him again, and he could only be seen by the poor light of the foyer.
“Travers,” Bellatrix said haughtily. “You’re supposed to be at the Ministry.”
The man called Travers – Severus recognized him by sight, though he’d never had much occasion to speak with him before this – stopped dead, his arms busy in the process of removing his overcoat. “How did you know that?” he said, voice rising incredulously on the last syllable.
“I know plenty –“
“If you’re supposed to be at the Ministry,” Severus said, stepping neatly on Bellatrix’s sentence for the second time, “then why are you here?”
“I’ve got news,” said Travers, and then his eyes alit with a fever not unlike that Bellatrix’s had held when thinking about being so close to the Dark Lord. “I overheard James Potter talking with Frank Longbottom in the Atrium.”
It was as though boiling lava had been poured directly into Severus’s stomach. “You - Longbottom?”
“And Potter,” Bellatrix cackled meaningfully. “Well, Travers, out with it.” The fingers on both of her hands flexed eagerly.
“He won’t come over to our side,” Travers told the pair of them. “Said just as much to Longbottom – all but screamed it, really, it was a pretty thick thing to do.” He laughed nastily. “He’s too protective of his little Mudblood wife.”
Severus was overcome with the sudden, strong desire to hit him.
Bellatrix, however, looked rather annoyed. “He’s still refusing? After all the –“ She tapped the fingers of one hand on the opposite arm. “The Dark Lord… he won’t like it…”
The lava in Severus’s stomach had turned to thick, sluggish ice; there was another reason Lord Voldemort would be displeased, a far more important and grave reason that Travers and Bellatrix couldn’t even begin to imagine… It was no longer a secret that both Lily Potter and Alice Longbottom were evidently pregnant, and the Death Eaters – most of them – weren’t thick enough to miss calculating that they were both due to give birth at the end of July…
If James was an idiot enough to defy the Dark Lord’s wishes yet again – and it very much seemed to Severus that he was – then it placed his entire family in serious danger. James was a rather powerful wizard, Lily an equally strong witch, and having them alone for opponents was enough to put them at risk. With the added danger of a son or daughter born at the end of the seventh month… Severus tried desperately not to think of Beth, knowing how close she was with James, and forced himself to speak.
“So, he – he’s definitely refused it, then?” He couldn’t think of anything more intelligent to say.
Travers gave another harsh laugh, completely devoid of humor, by way of an answer. “Potter’s had his last chance, I’d wager,” he sneered. “I’d be watching my back, if I were him…”
Bellatrix joined him in laughing his time, the sound high and obnoxious and grating on Severus’s ears. He felt suddenly sick to his stomach, and thought, for a horrifying moment, that he very well might vomit. His last chance…
Without realizing it, Severus reached again into his pocket and clamped his hand around the chain of Beth’s bracelet. James was her best friend – and if he was in danger, then she, however remotely, shared in that danger. And for the first time since joining the ranks of the Death Eaters nearly two years previously, he felt just a fraction of his loyalty towards them waver. Because he could not – would not – do that to her.
A/N: This author's note is going to be rather quick -- sometimes it's rather a pain, having to post chapters on Sundays, because now occasional Sundays are spent driving back to university after a weekend at home! And it's always at prime posting time, too, those drives... But we're really getting into the story now, and I'm very, very excited. There are only 9 more chapters of In The Red to go!
Thank you, as always, to people who read and review this story. You're truly the reason I do it. And special thanks to Ardeith, who is always so supportive and encouraging and never, ever fails to review! If you have the time to tell me what you thought of this chapter, I'd love to hear your opinions!