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Breaking Even by TenthWeasley
Chapter 11 : Into Hogwarts
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 8


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Passing through the gates one morning, a few nights after Sirius had come to Godric’s Hollow, and starting up the path leading towards the school, James had a very weird sensation of stepping back in time, as though not a minute had passed between the end of his seventh year and this moment. He couldn’t shake the distinct feeling of oddness about the scene before him.

Final examinations were close at hand – they could only be a week or so away – and students were sprawled out everywhere on the lawn, soaking up as much sun as they could while poring over lists of obscure potions ingredients and feverishly trying to cram dates of goblin rebellions into their heads. The air was thick with the mounting feeling of panic and students obviously thinking they could learn an entire textbook’s worth of material in an afternoon, and the feeling was so familiar to James himself that he had to resist the urge to grab a book of his own and begin studying it immediately.

Sirius was looking about him with a childish, giddy grin on his face, hands thrust deep into the pockets of his robes. “Poor saps,” he said now, casting a look towards a cluster of boys who looked to be only in their third or fourth year, too young for the pair to have known them well when they were still at school. “I don’t envy them at all. I mean, Hogwarts is nice, but you couldn’t get me to study for an examination now if you paid me.”

James looked at his best friend pointedly. “Are you saying we used to be able to get you to study?”

“Ah. Fair point there,” Sirius responded after a beat. “I was a bit out of that loop.”

“No kidding,” James snorted, as they rounded a bend in the path, and the great oak double doors leading into the entrance hall came into view.

A sort of awed hush fell over the two of them, coming in front of those doors for the first time in almost three years. How did it get to be that long? James wondered, craning his head back to try and find Gryffindor Tower among all the other pointed rooftops looming over the grass. Sirius stepped forward and leaned against one of the doors; it gave inward with a long groan, and cool, musty-smelling air wafted out. James followed him inside.

It took a few seconds for their eyes to adjust from the bright sunshine outside to the dim interior of the entrance hall. James blinked and took off his glasses, polishing them on the hem of his robes. “Ow,” he muttered, again blinking back sunspots. “Okay, so – what’s first?”

Now that he and Sirius were actually inside the school, he was feeling quite a bit more nervous than he had when he had brought the plan to Godric’s Hollow the night before. There really wasn’t any reason that they should be prohibited from entering, per se, and it was true that they had, at the least, a semi-valid reason for being at the castle. True, McGonagall might raise an eyebrow, but she probably would have done that anyway, James knew. And yet he felt more and more queasy the longer they stuck around.

“Don’t know,” Sirius said now, in response to James’s question. He rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet for a couple of seconds. “I suppose we could go and talk to McGonagall? She’ll probably be our safest bet into getting into Dumbledore’s office, don’t you reckon?”

“I suppose so,” James said with a shrug; his stomach twisted even more tightly, and he sucked in a quick breath. “Come on, then.” He turned and set one foot on the bottommost step of the grand staircase, but before Sirius could even move to follow him, the sound of a voice behind them made them turn.

“Excuse me?”

The light shining in from the high, narrow windows made it hard for James to see who was speaking. “James Potter and Sirius Black, right?” the voice asked again; he raised a hand against the glare. A boy in Gryffindor robes, who looked to be in his sixth or seventh year, half-grinned at the pair of them and gave them a little wave.

“It’s Toby McMilligan,” the boy said, warming up to his audience now and looking more excited. James glanced sideways at Sirius – he didn’t remember who Toby McMilligan was supposed to be – but Sirius was looking at the student with narrowed eyes, as though trying to place just where he remembered him from.

“Aren’t you that kid who we told to stop following us around after you set fire to Peter’s robes on accident?” Sirius asked. Toby bobbed his head up and down, looking a bit like a dog.

James remembered now – true to his word, Toby hadn’t stuck around for their sixth or seventh years. In fact, he’d been so noticeably absent after O.W.L.s that James had briefly wondered if he’d died or something. He’d been an annoying pain, though; that was hard to forget. If memory served, he’d even adopted a nickname of his own after he’d somehow overheard Sirius calling Beth ‘Talons,’ though Remus had threatened to dock points from if he ever called himself by it.

Toby was hopping a bit from foot to foot now, looking eager. “What are you doing back at school?” he asked now, creeping a bit closer to where Sirius still stood on the stone floor of the entrance hall. “Are you taking exams, too? Or have you come back to pull a prank? Can I help?”

“We’re not pulling any pranks,” James interceded firmly; Sirius had a look on his face that indicated he might be about to say something rude. “Erm, we’ve got something to do… just the two of us. No help needed,” he added, when Toby’s freckled face remained rather blank and vapid.

“Secret work?” the boy pressed, and this made Sirius roll his eyes so hard James was almost afraid they’d pop out of his head.

“Yes,” he snapped. “So go away.” Looking slightly surprised, and more than a little crestfallen, Toby’s eyes flicked to James, like he needed confirmation. When James said nothing (because, in truth, he was biting back a laugh and didn’t trust himself to open his mouth), the boy scuffed away in the direction of the Great Hall.

“I’d forgotten about him,” James snorted after Toby had left, and the pair of them had turned once more to ascend the staircase. Sirius rolled his eyes again.

“I can’t believe he’s still hanging around here,” he said spitefully. “He’s about as useful as a flobberworm, if memory serves. Blimey, I hope we don’t run into him again on the way out.” He glanced over his shoulder, checking to see if they were already being followed. “I don’t think he was really happy to hear he couldn’t tag along.”

“You did sound a bit harsh,” James said, and then added quickly, when Sirius shot him a dagger-filled look, “Not really harsh. But –“

“Mr. Potter!”

James jumped so badly he nearly fell right back down the staircase. Somehow he hadn’t realized until just then that he and Sirius had reached the first floor landing, and had begun walking automatically along the corridors to McGonagall’s office, but her appearance in front of the pair of them spoke otherwise. Her arms were laden with books, and she wore such a suspiciously severe expression that James was instantly reverted back to his school days, when that look meant he was in a lot of trouble, often for something he wasn’t yet aware she had found out.

“And Mr. Black,” the deputy headmistress added, turning her sharp gaze onto Sirius. He beamed and waved the tips of his fingers at her, and this time it was James who rolled his eyes. “I trust my asking you what you are doing here, when exams are close at hand, isn’t something that needs to be literally spoken?”

“Nope,” said Sirius – of the five of them, he had been perhaps the least intimidated by their Head of House, and spoke to her nearly all of the time as though she were a dear family friend. James knew that not only was he no longer under the reach of her punishment, but he had done nothing wrong; yet the queasy feeling in his stomach still was not helped by her presence.

“Then do explain yourselves, please,” the older woman said, adjusting her rectangular spectacles more firmly on her nose.

“I’ve got a bit of mission stuff to report to Dumbledore,” Sirius said, jerking his thumb at the ceiling in the general direction of the headmaster’s office. “I’ve already been to Mad-Eye at the Ministry, but I figured he could use a bit of briefing, too. James is tagging along. He felt a bit nostalgic,” he added, grinning still more widely. “School habits die hard, and all that.”

James did not feel like telling Sirius at that time that that was not the correct expression.

Professor McGonagall, lips pursed, looked back at James, who shrugged helplessly. Apparently not finding any sort of untruth about the two of them, she merely sniffed and hoisted her books higher. “On your way, then, please,” she said. “The password’s ‘sugar quill.’ And I’ll thank you not to disturb our students. They are hard at work, studying for their exams, and would do well not to be… otherwise amused.” This being said, she strode off in the direction of the staircase James and Sirius had just descended, and, turning a corner, passed out of sight.

“I’ve forgotten how scary she is when she’s in her natural habitat,” said James conversationally, peering down the corridor in the direction McGonagall had disappeared.

“Good old McGonagall,” Sirius responded fondly. “To Dumbledore’s!”

The stone gargoyle outside the passage leading to the headmaster’s office looked as it always had, and James and Sirius knew it well, having become particularly familiar with it in the course of their years at school. Sirius, whose giddy mood seemed, if anything, to have increased after their encounters with Toby McMilligan and McGonagall, patted its head as they approached it. James was almost sure he saw the gargoyle give Sirius a surly look.

“Sugar quill,” he said hastily, and the gargoyle sprang to the side. Revealed behind it was a slowly spiraling stone staircase, and they stepped onto it; James grinned, thinking of how much Beth hated this particular staircase. It always made her sick.

Not for the first time, he found himself wondering if he was really doing the right thing, running off with Snape’s memories like this. Nothing was clear anymore: The lines between good and evil were so much less clear than they had been when he, James, was younger, and right now their actions really were toeing that line. Stealing the memories of a Death Eater, but at the cost of happiness… This was one of those ethical questions Lily and Remus liked to puzzle out for fun. All they ever did was give James a headache.

At the top of the stairs, Sirius rapped quickly on the door with the back of his hand, foregoing the use of the knocker in place for that purpose. After a few seconds passed with no answer, he tried again, and then turned the knob of the door. It opened effortlessly, swinging inward without a sound, and James and Sirius poked their heads around the doorframe. Nobody appeared to be within.

“Let’s do this quickly,” James said, his stomach giving an uncomfortable jolt, seeming to come to rest somewhere in the region of his trainers. If he and Sirius could find Snape’s memories, wherever they were supposed to be, and get out of the office, the headmaster need never know. They could make some excuse for their departure and the whole ordeal would be over with…

Sirius glanced askance at his best friend. “I’ve never known you to be scared of breaking into places we shouldn’t be,” he teased. “And look – we’re not even breaking in! Given the password and everything, weren’t we? Where’s your sense of adventure, Potter?”

“Oi! That’s a bit low,” James smirked, shoving Sirius’s shoulder good-naturedly. Seeming to feel that this was a restoration of some equilibrium, Sirius grinned and moved into the circular tower room, crossing to one of the bookshelves lining the walls floor-to-ceiling.

A low sound came from behind the door: Dumbledore’s pet phoenix, Fawkes, who looked a bit more ragged and worn than when James had last seen him a few years ago. “Hullo,” he said quietly, reaching out a few fingers and stroking the thin skin on the bird’s head. Fawkes cried out again and ruffled his scarlet-and-gold wings amiably.

“You don’t think he’d have hidden it behind some of these books, do you?” Sirius called out curiously from across the room. Without waiting for an answer, he lugged a large leather-bound book off the shelf and peered into the space behind it. “It’s going to take forever to move all of these.”

“Check those shelves over there, then, before you go destroying the place.” James moved away from the phoenix and crouched, peering into a cabinet that was fronted with warped glass. He knew what memories were supposed to look like, once they’d been taken out of someone’s head. Nothing in any of the phials in that particular cabinet looked like silver gas, swirling or otherwise.

A Brief History of the Celebrated Wizards and Witches of the Arthurian Age,” Sirius read out, completely ignoring James’s advice and pulling a book off the shelf in front of him at random. “And they call this brief… I weigh less than this.” He let the book fall to the floor with a loud smack, and James winced.

It was as he was looking around at the noise that he spotted it.

“Sirius!” he hissed, dropping instinctively into a crouch, although he wasn’t quite sure why. Between the legs of the chair Dumbledore had set up opposite his desk and the legs of the desk itself, James could see the bottom of one of the shelves lining the wall behind the desk. And on this self, tucked away in a corner, was a bottle of slowly-moving silver. The darkness of the corner was making it shine, almost as though it were lit from within.

“What?” Sirius still hadn’t moved away from the bookshelf; he was thumbing through a slightly smaller book now, and it had come apart in three neat pieces in his hands.

“Sirius, it’s over –“ James started, but the sound of shuffling footsteps outside the door to the spiral staircase froze both men where they stood (or crouched, as was the case with James still). He popped up to a standing position just as Sirius leaned over to snatch the book from the ground, but Professor Dumbledore had already entered his office. He looked perhaps less surprised to see he had visitors than he ought to.

“Professor,” James blurted, reaching up and ruffling his hair nervously. “I – McGonagall said you’d be here, and – we were just waiting –“

“Ah, yes,” Dumbledore beamed, pretending not to notice that Sirius was trying to wrestle one of his books onto the wrong shelf. “I daresay she expected me to be here, too, but I regret to say that I took a wrong turn on the way back from breakfast this morning and stumbled upon a trick staircase. Rather ingenious, those staircases, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Erm,” said James, because he had nothing else to say. He imagined, for the briefest second, that Dumbledore’s eyes might have glanced in the direction of the bottle of memories on the bottom of the shelf, and hastily tried to pretend he didn’t know it existed.

Sirius crossed over to stand next to James now, an expression of false innocence plastered on his face. “Is there something you wished to speak to me about?” Dumbledore asked politely.

Sirius and James glanced at each other; James shook his head in as tiny a movement as possible. “Oh. Erm, no,” Sirius said, trying to go along with this new change in plans. “I – just a bit of Order business, really, but I’ve been to Mad-Eye about it.”

“So I guess we’ll just be going, then,” James added, clearing his throat.

The look in their former headmaster’s bright blue eyes was so piercing and understanding that James was quite sure he knew all about their true purpose for being in the office – knew, more than likely, that they were after Snape’s bottled memories of Beth… But he couldn’t know, could he?

But he said nothing. “Very well, then,” Dumbledore said instead, smiling still. “Forgive me for not showing you out – I have a good amount of work to do.” He gestured at a small, thick stack of parchment rolls, stacked in a pyramid atop the desk.

“Yeah, no – fine,” James said. “Let’s go, mate.”

The two of them walked quickly to the door, down the still-moving spiral staircase, and finally into the emptiness of the third-floor corridor where Dumbledore’s office was located. “What was that all about?” Sirius asked, as soon as the two of them were alone. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you act weirder.”

“I know where they are,” James said, still walking along the carpet runner at such a pace that Sirius nearly had to jog to keep up. “I saw the bottle just before Dumbledore came in. But I –“ He stopped. It was ridiculous… “We know where they are now,” James continued, switching tack, ignoring the slight look of confusion on his friend’s face at having to keep up with all of this. “We have to tell Beth.”

Sirius nodded, though his mouth twisted slightly, as though he were about to be sick. James couldn’t understand why, but right now, that wasn’t his most pressing concern. The sick, nauseous feeling in his stomach had returned, and it plagued him all the way down to the entrance hall, through the doors, and back out onto the near-summer sunshine of the grounds.

Did Dumbledore know what they were up to – and if so, was he going to stop them?

A/N: They've found the memories! And then good old Dumbledore stopped them right as they were about to snatch them, of course. He's very good at diverting the Marauders from their goals, it would seem. 

I've got a big journalism project to work on this afternoon, but I couldn't justify starting it without posting this chapter. Bad thing? Probably -- but uni's almost over for the semester anyway! Thank you so much for reading, and if you've got any comments or questions about the chapter, I'd love to hear them as always.


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