Chapter 2 : Two
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“People don’t just up and die at Hogwarts,” Sirius sputtered for at least the fifth time, still looking as though he wanted someone to contradict him. James rather thought he looked a bit lost, staring at the fire roaring in the fireplace, his hands limp and useless in his lap. He’d managed to secure an entire half of the sofa for the four of them, and Sirius was jammed rather uncomfortably against James, his shoulder digging into James’s chest.
James didn’t know much about George Asher, and certainly not more than anyone else seemed to know. As far as everyone could tell, he’d been as ordinary as they came: a seventh year, a Hufflepuff, and vice-captain of the Hogwarts chess club. He had seemed to be well-liked, and Remus had overheard from Mary Macdonald that he was supposed to be seeing Sinead O’Hearn, another Hufflepuff seventh-year. But that was about it; the manner of his death was still a mystery to the assembly of Gryffindors.
“Hate to say this,” said Peter drily, staring blankly into the fire as well, “but people can up and die pretty much anywhere.”
James looked at him askance. “That’s right cheerful, mate.”
“No, really,” said Sirius defensively, swiveling on his cushion to get a better look at his friend and nearly sending him toppling to the floor in the process. “How many times in the past have you known anybody to die at school? Seriously, isn’t this supposed to be one of the safest places in the country?”
Remus, who’d brought his paper up from breakfast, flicked to another page. “There was that girl who died in the bathroom a while back,” he said quietly.
Sirius made an impatient noise. “Okay, besides that.”
“What are you saying, Sirius?” James asked quietly. He glanced furtively around, but no one appeared to be listening; everyone was absorbed in their own conversations and theories. His mind flicked back to the anxious expression on Flitwick’s face, the forced calm of Dumbledore’s voice. It was suspicious, yes, but Sirius had been right: Hogwarts was the safest place James knew…
Sirius appeared to have been waiting for just this question, however. He swiveled on the cushion again and this time nearly whacked the Daily Prophet out of Remus’s hands. “Isn’t it obvious?” he said with relish, as though imparting a secret. “Someone’s got to be behind it, haven’t they? And if you can’t break into Hogwarts, then it had to have been an inside job.”
“We don’t even know that it wasn’t an accident,” Remus pointed out logically, flipping to another page and folding the paper in half. “Or that he didn’t… you know. Kill himself.” Peter grimaced and made a disgusted noise deep in his throat.
“Hang on,” James interjected, still hung up on what Sirius had said before. “What do you mean, inside job? You’re not seriously suggesting that someone here at school had it in for Asher? I don’t think he’d ever done anything worth that.”
Sirius was getting into his element now, however. His eyes flashed with uncontainable excitement. “You saw how scared Flitwick and McGonagall were,” he said pointedly. “Something’s up. And we” – he moved his hand between the four of them – “should figure it out.”
“Leave that to the Ministry, Padfoot,” Remus said, tossing the paper onto the floor at their feet and, with difficulty, stretching his arms in a yawn. “They’re bound to get involved somehow.” Sirius huffed and crossed his arms across his chest, resuming staring into the fire, but it couldn’t have been more apparent that he wasn’t about to give up his scheme.
James’s own eyes drifted down to the Daily Prophet at his feet, the miniature black-and-white photographs flickering and blurring as he looked at them without really seeing them. He reached for the paper, more for something to do than anything else. Around the boys’ heads, the talk surged on.
In one of the photos, someone was zipping around on a slick-looking broom, accompanied by a short article on the latest national Quidditch scores. James read them without interest, and indeed, without processing them at all; he was thinking about the same thing every other person in that room was. George Asher had always been nice, upstanding, ordinary… but if Sirius was right, and someone had murdered him…
He flipped the newspaper over, skimming the articles, and a tiny column at the bottom of the page caught his attention, hardly worth a second glance. James shoved his glasses further up his nose with a forefinger and began to read more intently:
Ministry of Magic officials responded to a report late yesterday evening of a disturbance in Beverly, East Yorkshire. Officials report that an incident had broken out in a Muggle pub when two men, both wizards, came to a head over a violent conversation.
“I can’t repeat what ‘e called him,” said Beverly resident and witch Ermintrude Ponsby, “but it was righ’ nasty, it was. Never would have said it meself.”
No charges are being pressed in the matter.
With a sigh of impatience, he let the paper fall to his lap, removing his glasses and scrubbing his eyes until bright stars popped into his vision. Clearly classes weren’t going to be on today – they’d all been sitting around for an hour, and not a word had been said, positive or otherwise. Perhaps he should just go back to bed…
And then something about the article James had just read struck him anew with something almost like a physical force. He took up the paper again with such energy that Sirius, Remus, and Peter all looked over at him with near-identical expressions of surprise.
“All right there?” Sirius asked, but James didn’t respond. He’d come to the line again, the quote from the Yorkshire witch. And as though it was in front of him again, the message Lily had received swam up before his eyes, the ink etching itself in the air in front of him:
Mudblood. Mudblood. Mudblood. Mudblood…
James leaped up from the sofa to startled cries from the other three, yanking Lily’s letter from his pocket and charging over to the corner where Lily sat with her own friends. She looked up as he approached, her arms folded on the table in front of her, and lifted one eyebrow skeptically. Marlene, across from her at the tiny corner table, still looked a bit miffed to see him at all.
“That letter of yours,” he said at once. “Where did you say you found it again?”
Lily’s other eyebrow rose to join its mate high on her forehead. “There,” she said, gesturing in the vague direction of the sofa he’d just vacated, before the fire. “On the mantelpiece. Why?”
James spun back around to Sirius, who’d trailed behind him to the table, just as he had at breakfast. “You were right,” he said. He waved Lily’s letter in his friend’s face, and Sirius went slightly cross-eyed trying to make sense of what was being thrust before him. “’You’re next,’ the letter said. And Lily didn’t know what it meant, but then this happens?” He shook his head emphatically and turned back to Lily. “Did you know Asher at all?”
“I – a bit,” she said shakily. Her face had gone extremely white, and beads of sweat now dotted her slick forehead. “But I don’t know if he was Muggle-born or not.” This last Lily said in a voice just above a whisper. Marlene reached across and patted her hand sympathetically.
“We’ve got to find out,” James said, already heading for the dormitory stairs, crumpling Lily’s letter in his fist and jamming it back into his pocket. “If he was, then you could be in serious trouble, Lily.”
“Wait,” said Peter, who had now joined the corner group along with Remus. He looked rather frightened. “Shouldn’t we tell McGonagall first? I don’t think we’re allowed to leave the common room – and it’s sort of a serious thing, talking about someone killing – “
“She’s not here,” said James firmly. “And we might not have a lot of time left, anyway.” He didn’t give the other reason for his wanting to take matters into his own hands – he wanted to protect Lily and find out who sent her that letter on his own terms, without getting McGonagall or Dumbledore or anyone else involved – but Sirius seemed to sense this without James having to say anything.
“Make sure Lily stays here,” James told Peter, clapping him genially on the back, knowing Peter would more than likely be appeased by being given a task to do. The prospect of action, adventure, and a mission had made Sirius’s eyes light up like stars.
“Oi!” Lily said, and some of her usual fire had crept into her voice again. “I’m right here! D’you think I’m stupid enough to go blundering about the corridors right now after someone’s just turned up dead?”
She had spoken a bit more loudly than she meant to, and many of the heads in the common room turned in their direction. James heard gasps from a few of the third-year girls across the way, by the portrait hole. That made her scowl ferociously, but she nodded anyway.
“Don’t let McGonagall catch you,” she warned austerely, but James was already gone. He flew up the spiral stairs; it took him mere moments to fish his Invisibility Cloak from his trunk. At the last moment he threw it over himself so he wouldn’t have to do it downstairs, in front of so many people, and then charged back toward the common room.
“Is that you?” Sirius muttered under his breath, apparently sensing that James had come to a stop by his shoulder even before he’d nudged him to announce his presence. He nodded, and then, remembering Sirius couldn’t see him, nudged him in the back of the leg with the toe of his trainer.
He slipped through the crowd easily, mostly staying out of the way of brushing shoulders or arms of his classmates, and eased the Fat Lady’s portrait open quietly enough that no one around seemed to notice it. The Fat Lady herself was busy gossiping with her friend Violet, and swinging shut seemed an automatic motion for her. James stopped to listen to what they were saying, but nothing about George Asher’s death – murder or otherwise – was mentioned.
“And then, if you’ll believe it,” the Fat Lady was saying animatedly, “he nearly rammed me through with that awful lance of his!”
Violet clucked her tongue sympathetically. “I spoke to Barry at the last council,” she said meanly, “but he refuses to tell Cadogan to go retire to the Room of Requirement. Thinks he’s got more to offer, apparently. More duties to perform for the good of the castle.”
James rolled his eyes and left the two painted women cackling, striding off down the corridor in the direction of the hospital wing, where rumor had it that George Asher’s body had been moved until his parents could arrive at the castle. The rest of the professors were sure to be congregated there, he thought. It wouldn’t take much time, just a few minutes to ascertain something of note, and then straight back to –
James rounded the corner leading onto the grand staircase and nearly gasped aloud, clapping a hand over his mouth just in time, nearly tripping over the edge of his Cloak in his haste to avoid a collision with the boy who’d quite suddenly cropped up in his path.
Evan Rosier was walking alone, and seemed not to have heard anything suspicious; at any rate, he continued down the carpet runner as normal, casting a couple of glances over his shoulder to make sure he wasn’t being followed. Secrecy rolled off of him in waves, and James would have bet anything that he wasn’t up to anything good.
Filthy Mudblood. His eyes flicked to the green-and-silver crest on the left breast of Rosier’s robes just as the boy in question reached the end of the corridor James had just emerged from. Once more, looked back furtively, wrapping his fingers around the corner, and then darted out of sight.
The hospital wing long forgotten, James charged after him, the Cloak flapping around his ankles, already reaching for the wand in the inner pocket of his robes.
He didn’t have to go far. Midway down the corridor he’d just turned back onto, a door was carelessly ajar, an innocuous broom cupboard that James had mostly forgotten existed; he’d never had an excuse to use it. Rosier, however, appeared to think differently. Shafts of sunlight slashed the carpet from the windows opposite, and it was just possible to make out a shadowed figure inside the cupboard. James crept closer, holding his breath, not daring to push open the door for fear of being ousted. He made do by laying his ear flat along the wall, just to the right of the door, and listened hard.
“You can’t say that here,” someone was saying just as he stepped within earshot, a voice he recognized as Rosier’s from all the times he’d had to listen to it whining about something in class. “Are you trying to get us caught? God, Wilkes, you’re about the biggest idiot I’ve –“
“All right,” hissed Wilkes, and James couldn’t mistake that boy’s stupid, spitty way of talking, either. “Christ.” There was a pause, and then he added sulkily, “It’s not like anybody’s around to listen. They’re all holed up after what happened to Asher, aren’t they? Bit of luck, that.”
“And why’s that?” Rosier asked coldly.
“Less witnesses,” Wilkes said smugly. “Everyone’s dead scared. Any Mudblood or blood traitor caught out in the corridor alone is more than likely going to taste the wrong end of a Killing Curse.” James was disgusted to hear something like smug pride in his voice, and pressed his ear harder against the stone wall, desperate not to miss anything. “Couldn’t have picked a better time for this, eh?”
James’s breath caught in his throat as Wilkes chuckled, and after a pause, Rosier joined in. His stomach turned; he felt like he was going to be sick. For a moment he wrapped his hand around his wand again and thought about it – two quick curses, no one would be any the wiser –
But that idea was rejected even before his brain had fully had time to form it. Taking on Wilkes and Rosier without backup was a stupid thing to do in the best of times, even if they were each thicker than a bag of rocks. And now, after what he’d just overheard… James didn’t want to believe Sirius. Best mate or no, he was prone to grand ideas, romanticizing and exaggerating everything, and the thought of a roving Slytherin maniac slashing down Muggle-born students was something straight out of the pages of the boyhood adventure novels Sirius still read.
And confronting them in light of recent circumstances seemed even more foolhardy and potentially detrimental than ever now.
“Anyway,” Rosier said, all business once more, and James rushed to listen so quickly that he nearly smacked his head on the wall. “Same time later tonight as last night, all right? We can’t go back our normal route, though. It’s bound to be watched. Try the dungeon passage this time.”
What dungeon passage? But the conversation was apparently finished, and with his heart in his mouth, he heard footsteps shuffling in the cupboard, nearing the door. And so, slightly reluctantly, James pushed back from the wall, heart hammering, mouth dry. Lily’s letter rustled in his pocket, and from out of the blue, panic gripped his throat and squeezed. Was she all right? Was she safe? He had to know, he couldn’t let anything happen to her –
And he ran, full tilt, back to the common room.
If Lily and Sirius and the others were surprised to see him back so soon – and indeed, judging by his watch, he’d barely been gone fifteen minutes – they didn’t show it. It didn’t look as though they’d moved at all from where they were clustered around the corner table. Lily’s hands were clenched on top of it; somehow James noticed her knuckles, digging sharply into the thin skin, turning it white.
Sirius raised his eyebrows at his friend, and James set his lips into a thin line, nodding once. It hoped it conveyed enough for now; he didn’t want to say too much in front of the rest of the group. Later on he would talk to Sirius privately, but the less people who knew about what he’d overheard between Rosier and Wilkes, the better.
But he wouldn’t wait long. Time was of the essence, and Lily was in danger; that alone was enough to keep him on the case.
A/N: Ta-da! What do you think? James certainly isn't taking the case sitting down, but there's also not a lot to go on from what he overheard. A lot of you have had really, really awesome theories and questions about this story so far (and if we're being honest, I'm pretty jealous of some of them), but only time will tell who killed George Asher, and whether Lily really is next -- if the two incidents are connected at all.
Thank you all for all the lovely reads and reviews and favorites last time around! This story's only going to be five chapters long, so I'd love if you'd stick around and see it through. Stay tuned!
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