Chapter 10 : Catching the Culprit
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Lily was steadily growing more and more aggravated. She had been in Maxim’s room for the past fifteen minutes and had yet to find any incriminating evidence. The plan they had cooked up was straightforward, but the crucial bits were based on sheer luck, something Lily barely trusted with half her life, much less the lives of all the Aurors in her group.
But after a good two and a half hours of debate, it was the only viable option they had come up with.
Find condemning evidence. Confront Maxim. Proceed with the next appropriate action.
To their credit, Sirius and Remus hadn’t been very surprised by the news of Maxim’s betrayal. From their grim expressions, it looked as if they had suspected Maxim all along and was just waiting for confirmation. Tris, Aileen, Alice, and Frank had been wide-eyed with alarm, and Marlene and Dorcas had been shocked but not overly surprised. Nonetheless, the vote to oust Maxim had been unanimous, and they had all been assigned tasks to accomplish their goal.
And that was why Lily was currently snooping around in Maxim’s room, digging through anything and everything to see if he had accidentally left clues lying around. She knew the chances were slim since Maxim was such a meticulous person, but in his haste, he could’ve tripped up.
She rifled through the stack of parchments on his desk. There were order forms for books he had bought from Flourish and Blotts, a few personal letters from his family, and even an interview sheet from someone who had witnessed the attack on Frank’s safe house. Lily had to admit she was somewhat surprised he had actually gone through with his job. But then again, it was part of his cover, and who knew how long he had planned to stay undercover?
Lily had just moved from Maxim’s desk to his nightstand when the door suddenly opened. Her wand was in her hand in a flash, but she blew out a sigh of relief when she saw that it was only James.
He lifted an eyebrow when he saw her stance. “Were you really going to hex Max if he walked in right now?”
“Yes,” she admitted and then turned back to look at the nightstand. There wasn’t much, which was disheartening. Was Maxim so perfect that he didn’t even slip up? Just once?
James chuckled and closed the door, locking it behind him. Lily frowned. “What are you doing? Max is going to be suspicious if he comes back and finds that he’s locked out of his own room.”
“Wouldn’t it be worse for him to barge in on us digging through his belongings?” James moved towards the closet and slid the door open. He let out a grunt of disgust and Lily saw that Maxim’s closet was as orderly as everything else he owned. He had arranged his robes and shirts by color.
“But at least we’d have a chance to knock him out if we surprised him,” she pointed out.
James stopped sifting through the clothing and turned around. “Do you have so little faith in our abilities? You think we’d lose in a duel?”
She tensed when she heard his tone. It was borderline threatening, and she knew to tread carefully when he was in one of his moods. His nerves were clearly shot to hell, and if she wasn’t careful, this conversation could easily launch into a full-blown argument.
She mentally counted to three before speaking. “James, you know that’s not what I meant.”
He looked at her, his hazel eyes half-narrowed. It looked like he wanted to speak up, but then apparently thought better of it. James blew out a breath instead and raked a hand through his unruly hair. “I know, I’m sorry. I’m just tired.”
“We all are.” She started looking through the cabinet drawers. There was nothing of interest in the first two, but when she went to pull on the third one, it refused to budge. She tugged again, this time with both arms. “James?”
“I need help. This drawer is stuck.”
He was at her side in a second and she stepped away so he could deal with it. He tried pulling it as well, but when that failed, he took out his wand. “Alohomora.”
Lily heard the lock click open and the drawer sprang free. She knelt down next to him and watched him pull out a thin box. It looked suspiciously like the boxes that contained wands at Ollivander’s.
James flipped it open, his lips curling in disdain when he saw the content. “Max has two wands.”
She swallowed. “Are you even allowed to have two wands?”
“Yes, as long as you can provide a legitimate reason to the Ministry.” He scrutinized the weapon in his hand. “Although, I can’t imagine how Max could’ve gotten away with this.”
“But why would he just leave an extra wand sitting in a drawer? Isn’t that a bit too obvious?”
“We never had any reason to believe that he would have two wands. He wouldn’t have had to hide it.” James sighed and slammed the drawer shut.
They both stood and he handed her the box. Lily watched as he took out his own wand and tapped the box, muttering something under his breath. Nothing happened at first, but then her eyes grew when she realized what he had done.
The spell that floated out of the tip of the wand was one that all Aurors recognized. “The Imperius Curse,” she whispered.
James nodded grimly. She took in a deep breath in an effort to calm her nerves. It was obvious that this was the wand Maxim used as a Death Eater. And from the looks of it, he had recently forced his will upon someone. Could it have been Aileen?
“This wand should be enough to prove that Max is the spy,” she said.
“No, it isn’t. The Imperius Curse is an Unforgivable, but the Ministry will exempt Max if he can prove that it was a special situation. This can be used as backup, but not as solid evidence.” James looked around the room, frustrated. “We need something else.”
“But we’ve pretty much looked through everything. What else can we hope to find?”
“Letters?” he suggested. He took the box from Lily and stuck it in the pocket of his robes. “We definitely know he had correspondence with the Death Eaters these past few days.”
Lily rubbed her temples. “He burned them all, remember?”
“A pensieve then.”
“Where would he possibly hide that? His closet?”
The doorknob suddenly rattled, interrupting whatever James was about to say next. Lily froze, and she cast him a horrified look. Had Maxim returned already? Why hadn’t anyone warned them?
But her worries were quelled when Alice’s voice filtered through the door. “Lily? James? Open the door. This is urgent.”
James had the door open in a flash and Alice was at the threshold, her cheeks pink and expression harried. But there was a glint of triumph in her eyes, a glint that gave Lily much more hope than she had thought could be possible.
“Max is on his way back. You two better put his room back in order and come with me. Tris has news for us.”
Lily whipped out her wand and magically set everything back in its place. She and James then followed Alice down the hallway and into Tris’ room, where everyone else had already gathered. The room was buzzing with excitement when Lily walked in.
Tris was waving a piece of paper in her hand. “I was patrolling the grounds when I saw Max release his owl. I made sure he was gone before I went after it.”
James snatched the letter from her. “Where’s the owl now?”
“I stunned it.”
Sirius walked into the room, Aileen closely behind him. “That’s no good,” he said, clearly having heard the tail end of the conversation. “Max will get suspicious if his owl doesn’t return. Obliviate it and then let it fly back to him.”
Tris nodded and disappeared. James growled when he finished scanning the letter and he practically threw it at Sirius, who was motioning for it.
Lily touched his arm. “What does it say?”
“Max told them about our broken wards,” he snapped. “He’s requesting to meet them in Blackthorn Woods tonight at midnight.”
Alice blinked. “That’s about ten kilometers west of here.”
“It’s deserted property,” Marlene said. She had been rifling through a large folder. “No one has any claim on the place, so that can either work in our favor or prove disastrous for us.”
Sirius crumpled the letter and tossed it into the air. The wad of paper flew in a perfect arch and landed right in Lily’s lap. She scowled.
“We’ll just have to risk it,” he said. “Although I, for one, don’t see the problem. The bastard pretty much set the stage for us. We just need to send a return letter agreeing to this little rendezvous and we can catch him red-handed.”
“But that’s the hard part,” Dorcas chimed in. She had tied her hair up in a ponytail today, making her blue eyes appear incredibly sharp. “None of us have seen what Death Eater correspondence looks like. How can we hope to mimic it correctly? They must use some sort of code for communication.”
“I can help.”
They turned to look at Aileen, who had remained silent until then. She smiled grimly when she noticed their stares. “I spent a good amount of time under Death Eater captivity, remember? They would sometimes show me their letters to taunt me. I don’t remember everything, but I know enough to make it sound believable.”
“All right then,” Sirius said, suddenly all business. He snapped his fingers and pointed at Aileen. “You, craft the letter and send it out. Alice, brainstorm possible traps to ensnare our dear Max. Marlene and Dorcas, go find us some realistic Death Eater robes. Prongs, you…”
He abruptly paused, his eyes narrowing when he saw James perched nonchalantly on the armrest.
James raised a brow. “Yes?”
“Wait a minute. Why am I doing all the delegating?” he complained. The finger he had raised wobbled slightly. “You’re the one who’s been in charge of this in the first place. You should be planning!”
The abrupt change of his mood was startling. Marlene and Dorcas exchanged amused looks and Alice barely stifled a giggle. James, however, was looking thoroughly unimpressed.
“Mate, you’ve gone bonkers,” he said.
Sirius shook his head wildly, sending his dark hair swishing across his face. “This is ridiculous. I can’t handle responsibility like this. I need to find Moony.” With a dramatic flounce, he stormed out of the room, sending the doors crashing to the walls. There was a moment’s pause as everyone watched him leave, and then the entire room burst into laughter.
“A dramatic Sirius,” James said, giving Lily a wry look, “is just what we need right now.”
She shook her head. “Your sarcasm isn’t helping, Potter.”
He flashed his pearly whites. “But honey, you love everything about me.”
Lily snorted but chose to dismiss the comment. Instead, she turned to look at the others, who had already started brainstorming for their respective roles. It was always intriguing to Lily to see just how effective the Marauders could be. No one had ever crowned them leaders, but one word from them could inspire a revolution.
It was a skill she had always struggled to master when she was Head Girl but had always come so easily to James and Sirius.
She looked at James just as the thought occurred to her, and found him focused on what appeared to be a very troubled Aileen. She was sitting on the couch next to the fireplace, staring at the crackling flames as if they would provide the solution to all her worries. Her brows were knitted in an attempt to recount what she had seen and heard while she had been held captive, but the experience was apparently proving to be taxing.
Lily blew out a sigh, already cursing herself for her soft heart. She couldn’t stand to see anyone upset, even if it was her potential rival, which was why she found herself giving James a very sharp nudge.
He stumbled forward. “What?”
She jerked her chin towards Aileen. “Go help her. It seems like she needs you.”
He looked startled for a moment, but then his features softened when he recognized what she was saying. His smile was kind when he turned back to her. “Aileen will be fine. She can take care of herself.”
Just as he said this, a small visible shudder passed through the girl’s shoulders.
“Or… not,” Lily muttered.
He sighed and tugged on his hair. “Oh Aileen…”
Oh Aileen, indeed. Lily wanted to yank on her own hair. Why did the girl have to have such a turbulent past? Why couldn’t she just be a normal rival?
“Just go. Don’t make me regret this.”
James’ smile was a borderline grimace. “Why do I have the feeling that I’m the one who’s going to regret this later?”
Yet even so, he pressed a warm kiss to her lips and walked away, his hand still in his unruly hair.
Lily shook her head and worked to suppress her jealousy when she saw Aileen’s frown bloom into a megawatt smile at James’ presence. She didn’t have time for this. She had work to do.
It was a quarter to midnight and the woods were deathly silent. Lily had cast numerous warming spells over herself so that her shivering wouldn’t give her away. She had been assigned lookout duty alongside Remus, Marlene, and Dorcas, and the four of them were spaced out around the edges of the small clearing they had designated as the meeting spot.
An owl hooted in a distant corner of the woods.
Lily glanced at her watch. Five till.
There was a rustle in the leaves above her and she glanced up to see Alice give Tris a light smack on the head. She pressed her finger to her lips urgently and the other two had the grace to look abashed before resuming their positions.
She checked her watch again. The second hand ticked on. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four…
There was the distinct sound of the pop of Apparition.
A hooded figure appeared in the exact coordinates that Aileen had dictated in the letter. He had his wand out, his movements still as he assessed his surroundings. Lily didn’t dare breathe too loudly. When it seemed that the figure was certain of his solitude, he lowered his wand and pulled his hood back.
Maxim’s brown hair glinted under the moonlight.
And that was the cue.
Two more pops shattered the silence and the cloaked figures walked into the small clearing. They stopped a couple of feet from Maxim, who had his wand raised again.
“Caden,” the one on the left said, and Lily was relieved to hear that she barely recognize the voice.
But Maxim apparently did. “Avery.”
“Your letter was a little too hasty for my taste,” ‘Avery’ drawled. He voice held just the right amount of impatience and boredom. “What’s got your panties in a twist?”
Lily rolled her eyes. That was so typically Sirius.
Maxim, however, didn’t seem to appreciate the humor as much as Lily did. “They’re catching onto me,” he admitted. “I don’t know how but Evans seems to have sniffed me out. She has the rest of them hot on my tail. I don’t have much time left. We need to attack soon.”
“Compromised already? I had thought you more capable than that,” James said. “Not tooting your own little horn anymore, are you?” He snickered then, and Lily had the impression that he was enjoying himself a little too much. “I’m sure the Dark Lord will be very pleased to hear of your incompetence.”
Maxim’s face was growing steadily redder. “Get off my back, Nott. This is not the time,” he snapped. “The wards to the safe house are weakened now. Gather me a group of capable Death Eaters and await my word.”
James and Sirius suddenly burst into laughter, the sound so loud that it startled Lily into taking a step back. From the faint rustle in the trees, it appeared that Alice and Tris had been equally as alarmed. What were the boys doing?
“Oh Caden, you’re a regular jester, aren’t you?” Sirius said. He strolled forward languidly, dark cloak swishing faintly with his walk, and stopped a mere two feet in front of Maxim.
“Let me make this clear to you,” he said. “We won’t be doing a single thing until you can guarantee our success. We saw how the Dark Lord dealt with the last group who failed to kill off Longbottom.”
“You’re just a coward then,” Maxim snapped. He was shaking now, whether from fear or fury Lily couldn’t tell.
Sirius leaned back. “Better a coward than a fool.”
She started. Sirius had sounded entirely too much like himself.
Maxim seemed to have caught on as well. He was suddenly on high alert, his wand raised. His eyes were wide in the gloom. “What did you just say?”
James’ wand was out in a flash. “Stupefy!”
Maxim threw himself to the right at the last minute, allowing the spell to zip past his ear and hit the nearby tree, charring the wood black. He was up in a flash and he threw up a protective spell instinctively.
“Who the hell are you?”
“Six months later and you still don’t recognize my voice? I’m hurt.”
Maxim’s face twisted as recognition lit in his eyes. “James.”
James’ smile was blinding in the darkness. He tossed off his cloak with a flourish, the movement seemingly frivolous, but his wand was up and ready. From the corner of her eyes, Lily saw Marlene prepare to move in, but caught the other girl’s eyes and shook her head firmly. Maxim had probably anticipated their presence, but they had no need to confirm his guess. The longer they kept Maxim under the impression that he was alone with James and Sirius, the better. They needed to lure him under Alice and Tris’ tree.
“Surprise!” James cried, sounding a little too happy for the situation.
Maxim, however, wasn’t pleased at all. In fact, he looked downright furious, and a little bit worried. “What the hell is going on?” he snapped. “Why are you here?”
“You know, we wanted to ask you the same question actually,” Sirius said. He was pacing a casual circle around Maxim, an action that served to make the man in the middle more anxious. “We sort of followed you here. We were kind of hoping you could provide some sort of insight into our midnight rendezvous.”
There was a short pause as they eyed each other, and then Maxim began to laugh. It was a cross between a cackle and a sound that bordered on insanity, both of which served to terrify Lily. She had not thought him capable of making such a noise, and it made her wonder just how dangerous he could actually be.
“Oh Sirius,” Maxim finally said, his tone belying his smile, “if only you were smart enough to figure it out for yourself.”
And then he made a dive for it. Maxim propelled himself towards the right, effectively dodging the invisible barrier that James and Sirius had formed, and made a beeline towards the western border of the forest.
James’ voice could be heard over everyone else’s shouting. “Sirius, go!”
Lily whipped around to see what Sirius was going to do, but the space next to James was empty. Instead, she saw a dark blurred figure charging off into the forest and she knew that Sirius had transformed under the guise of the darkness. She was relatively certain no one else in their Auror group knew that James and Sirius were Animagi, and she knew they would rather keep it a secret. In this case, it definitely was an added benefit.
Alice and Tris had jumped down from their tree, still carrying the supposedly foolproof net between them.
“What the hell just happened?” Tris yelled. Her hair was a dull gray to reflect her anxiety. “Why are we all just standing here? We can’t lose him!”
James shook his head. “Don’t worry, he won’t get very far. Sirius will have him back here in no time.”
Lily frowned. “And how will Sirius do such a thing? You realize that he has no wand?” She wasn’t saying it out loud, but she was desperately trying to convey the problem to James. Maxim had a wand, and no matter how fast or clever Sirius was, he was still going to be in animal form. There was no way an animal could take on a wizard, and a dark wizard at that.
Remus and Marlene were with them now, but one look at Remus told Lily he wasn’t worried at all. In fact, he was wearing a very complacent look on his face, as if he believed they had all the time in the world to chat. She didn’t understand it.
Alice was observing them through narrowed eyes. There was a shrewd look on her face, one that often reminded Lily of when her grandmother used to stare her down when she was being particularly naughty in her childhood.
“There’s something you’re not telling us,” she said.
“Not really,” James replied.
Lily glared at him.
Remus rolled his eyes and stepped in between the two subconsciously, as if he had already anticipated the stirrings of a fight and was trying to do his best to keep them under control. Lily briefly wondered if she was starting to get a little too predictable.
“Let’s settle down now,” he said. “There’s no need to get into an argument.”
Alice opened her mouth to argue again, but at that moment, they heard a victorious-sounding bark resonate throughout the woods.
Remus glanced at his watch. “That was quicker than anticipated.”
“Looks like Max wasn’t as smart as we initially gave him credit for,” James scoffed. He thrust his wand into the air and shouted, “Accio Shooting Stars!”
There was a moment of silence as they waited with baited breath, and then twin brooms shot out from the darkness to hover in front of James and Remus.
Alice’s mouth was wide. “You had these prepared, didn’t you?”
James smirked. “Of course. You forgot who we were.” And then without warning, he grabbed Lily’s arm and hauled her onto the broom, eliciting a loud squeak. “Come on! We’ve got a Death Eater to catch.”
He sped off without another word.
They raced through the forest, dodging wayward branches as they flew. Lily tried to suppress her innate fear of anything that involved alarmingly high speeds and clutched onto James’ back as securely as she could.
They suddenly jerked to a stop, the action nearly sending Lily tumbling off the broom.
She stumbled off the deathly transportation device and caught sight of the muted figures in front of her, two of which were shrouded in darkness. Sirius had returned to his human form, his clothing immaculately replaced. But instead of the look of triumph she had expected, he was wearing a furious frown.
Her eyes averted to the left… and then she saw why.
Maxim was standing with his back to a tree, effectively shielding himself from behind. But he was smarter than Lily had thought; his wand was raised, directed at the temple of his hostage.
James cursed when he saw whom Maxim was holding.
Aileen’s figure was semi-hidden in the darkness. Her blonde hair glinted from the moonlight that filtered through the branches, giving her head an almost iridescent glow. She looked deathly pale, her lips pressed in a firm tight line. To Lily’s surprise, the girl wasn’t struggling. It looked as if she was frozen in fear.
“Remove the Anti-Disapparition jinx,” Maxim snarled. “Or else prepare to see Aileen dead.”
James immediately moved forward, but was forced to stop when Maxim dug his wand further into Aileen’s temple. She let out a muted cry. “Not another step, Potter.”
Remus landed at this point, quickly followed by Alice and Tris. Alice let out a gasp when she saw what was happening and Remus had to grab onto both hers and Tris’ arms to prevent them from taking further action.
Dorcas appeared on his right. “Keep Max distracted,” she whispered. “Marlene and I are going to contact Moody.”
Remus nodded and subtlety inched to the left, shielding Dorcas and Marlene’s figures as they slinked off.
Maxim was eyeing all of them with rising unease and suspicion. “Last chance,” he snapped.
Remus tipped his head, his voice calm and oddly soothing. “Don’t be stupid, Max,” he said quietly. “The odds are against you. There are six of us. You have no hope of escaping. So do the smart thing and release Aileen. You aren’t doing yourself any favors by hurting her.”
“Shut up, just shut up, Lupin!” He let out an enraged roar and threw his wand out, nearly slapping Aileen in the head with the ferociousness of his movement. “Expelliarmus!”
Remus ducked in the last second, but the momentum of his movement sent him crashing to the floor. Tris let out a scream and moved to retrieve her wand, but she was stopped when they heard a loud sucking noise in the air. There was an almost deafening crackle, and then a loud pop that they all knew signaled the removal of a warding spell.
A pause, as if an Immobulus had been cast… and then the spells came raining down. Jets of red, blue and violent purple flashed in the night sky, zapping trees and upturning the dark soil.
Alice’s scream could be heard in the din. “What the bloody hell is going on?”
Lily heard James curse loudly next to her. “Our jinx was lifted. The Death Eaters are here!”
Author's Note: Hello everyone! After a good two years I've finally returned to HPFF, with one goal and one goal only: to finish up all my WIP stories. Cast the Die is now my top priority and I'm hoping to finish this story within the year. Keeping my fingers crossed!
Since it's been so long, I would strongly suggest you go back and reread the previous chapter... or even the story itself :P Please let me know what you think! I'd love to hear back from all of you, especially after so long of a writing hiatus.
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