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Breaking Even by TenthWeasley
Chapter 24 : Shatter
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 7

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James arrived back in Godric’s Hollow at a quarter to ten that night, early enough that many of the older Halloween trick-or-treat seekers were still frolicking up and down the street, clutching brown paper sacks in their hands and calling out to one another in excited voices. He had almost forgotten that it was Halloween at all; needless to say, no one had stopped by the Potters’ all evening, though Lily had set a bowl of brightly-wrapped sweets by the front door just in case. Even if anyone had known to stop by, the protective charms would do their work. To anyone but James, Lily, Harry, and Peter – and to those who could no longer gain access, he supposed – the tiny house might as well not exist at all.

Lily had still decorated, though, and James had loved her for it. Bats and jack-o’-lanterns made from black and orange tissue had been carefully taped to the front window, a tradition Lily and her sister Petunia had had from the time they had been very small. Harry had been fascinated by them, and James had ripped one down from the window last week to give to him. He’d promptly chewed it to soggy bits and then spit it out, where the cat had found it, but the one-year-old had enjoyed it nonetheless.

James grinned, remembering, and shoved his hands into the pockets of his robes, whistling happily as he turned left by the old war memorial in the center of the village square. There was a sort of lightness to his insides borne of excitement and satisfaction, and he knew that it had something to do with getting out of the house and going to Hogwarts with Beth. There was something momentous about her sneaking into the castle, stealing Snape’s memories – if they were still there – and he was very proud of her for doing it, even though risky didn’t even begin to describe it.

They had to actually find out where Snape was, now, and had to go about getting the memories back into his head… But one step at a time, James figured. And loath as he was to admit it for how horrible it sounded, even to him, a few more days without Snivellus wouldn’t be too bad…

A tiny ghost and an even tinier witch ran by him then, interrupting his train of thought. Judging by the way they were screaming at each other, apparently brother and sister. He cracked a wider grin at the absurd makeup on the witch’s face, and the general Muggle opinion of the magical world in general.

“You stole that chocolate from me!” she shrieked at the retreating white sheet that was the ghost. “Give it back!” Clearly not looking where she was going, she careened straight into James’s legs, falling backwards onto the cobbles with a little thump.

“Easy there,” he said kindly, bending over and helping her struggle back to her feet. She peered up at him curiously from under the brim of her comical hat.

“What are you supposed to be?” she asked, lisping slightly through widely-gapped teeth.

James struggled for an answer. “I… am a vampire,” he said at last. The girl did not look impressed.

“You don’t have funny teeth,” she informed him frankly, pointing a small hand at his mouth as though to make her point. James hit himself in the forehead lightly with the palm of his hand.

“I knew I was forgetting something! Well, I’ll have to head home to change, won’t I?” He smiled down, but the witch-girl was already careening off up the street after her purloined chocolate, clearly uninterested in why James was masquerading as a shoddy vampire.

Tonight, it appeared, was a night when social courtesies and warnings of strangers were all null and void, and he watched her go with a somewhat sad smile twisting his mouth. And then James realized exactly the sort of thought he’d just had, and an icy feeling crept through the bit of his stomach, climbing up his windpipe. He increased his pace then, turning down the tiny lane off the square, eyes fixed squarely on his house. He didn’t look away until he was on the front stoop, knocking perhaps more quickly than custom dictated.

Lily opened the front door within seconds, and still enough time had elapsed to make James’s heart beat quicker in his chest. “What is it?” she asked immediately, impatiently shoving a hank of dark red hair off her forehead. Harry dandled at her hip, dressed in a blue-striped sleeper, looking quite pleased to see his daddy had returned to him.

“Sorry, nothing. I – nothing.” James stepped through the door hastily, immediately drawing his wand from his pocket and pointing it behind him as he did. The series of locks on the door clicked into place with satisfyingly loud noises.

Lily gently handed him his son, setting her hands on her hips and giving him a piercing look. James felt his ears grow hot, and avoided looking at his wife by dropping a kiss on Harry’s head. Now that he was safely ensconced in his house again, where it was warm and snug and just the three of them, he couldn’t explain the sense of panic he’d felt a few minutes ago in the middle of the street.

“Did we get any takers?” he asked brightly, avoiding the look she was giving him and bouncing Harry up and down slightly.

“No,” said Lily carefully. “But that’s not the point, is it?”

James reached for one of the sweets in the cut-glass bowl and, still carrying Harry, walked into the sitting room and sat down on the sofa. “It’s really nothing,” he said. “I just… I was walking home, you know, and I just thought about you. And I got worried.” Does that sound as weak and pathetic out loud as it does in my head?

A softer expression crossed his wife’s face, and she came over to sit next to him, tucking her legs up under her on the cushion. “We’re fine,” she said reassuringly. Lily took one of Harry’s feet in her hand and tickling it absently. He wriggled in James’s arms, distracted by the sweet his father held in the palm of his other hand.

“I can see that now,” James teased, leaning over and kissing Lily’s forehead.

“So, how’d it go?” She stood up from the couch, heading toward the kitchen and talking to him from over her shoulder. James fumbled at unwrapping the sweet without letting Harry grab hold of it.

“How’d what go?”

Lily’s head reappeared around the doorframe. “You’re kidding, yes?”

James blinked at her, and then his eyes widened in understanding. “Oh.” For a fraction of a second he’d forgotten entirely that he’d been to Hogwarts. “Yeah, I think it went all right. Dumbledore had set up a nice little trick to get into the gates, but Beth got through all right. She had the Cloak and the Map. I haven’t heard anything since, but you know.”

There was a metal clank and the sound of the range hissing as Lily put a kettle on. James knew that Lily didn’t think the risk was nearly as worth it as he did, but that was rather to be expected. Lily and Snape had a history and it was something she hadn’t fully brought up with anyone, even him; he was content to let it be, even while knowing that Beth, one of his best friends in the world, needed Snape in a way that Lily didn’t understand.

But James understood. It may have been Severus Snape, of all people, but it was the same way he needed Lily. He had said as much to Beth before, and it was true still.

She reemerged from the kitchen, wiping her hands carelessly on one of the ugly patterned tea towels Petunia and Vernon had grudgingly given the pair of them as a wedding present. “So what now?” she asked, leaning on the back of the couch and watching Harry, who’d lost interest in the sweet and was now playing with his own toes.

James unwrapped the sweet at last and popped it in his mouth, crumpling the cellophane in his free hand and tossing it onto the end table.”Dunno,” he said. “She’s got to find out where Severus is, I suppose, and that’ll probably take a couple of weeks at least.” He frowned. “Sirius never said whether he’d figured out how to restore memories, either.”

“Mama,” Harry piped up, lifting his hands to his mother. Lily’s eyes crinkled into a smile; Harry had only recently mastered the use of the “M” sound. James gently lifted his son to her, and decided that he would leave the conversation about Beth and Severus and memories there for the time being. There was nothing to be gained by it, and anyway, he’d be hearing from her later in the evening, as long as things went as planned.

The kettle whistled, and Lily whisked Harry off into the kitchen, leaving James alone in the sitting room. He stretched his legs out on the table in front of him, kicking off his trainers, and heaved a sigh. He was tired, so tired – not even from lack of sleep, although he suspected he hadn’t been getting as much lately as he’d have otherwise liked. He may not have been on any front lines, so to speak, but war was war, and he was feeling the strains of it as much as anyone could. He didn’t like feeling like a prisoner in his own home, or that he had to hurry back to said home just to make sure that in less than an hour of absence nothing had gone awry.

A sick feeling settled into his gut at that. James did not want to think of Lily and Harry in danger; a small, absurd part of his brain wondered if he could have done anything to lessen the threat they made in the first place. He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger, pinching the bridge of his nose to will away an oncoming headache. It was this posture Lily found him in a minute later, balancing Harry on her hip while levitating two mugs of tea in front of her.

“Are you sure nothing’s bothering you, James?” she asked hesitantly. One of the mugs drifted in front of his nose, bobbing up and down with impatience, so that minute drops of scalding tea leaped from it and onto his legs. He grabbed it out of the air hastily.

“I just… it’s the same stuff, Lily.” He brushed a hand through his hair. “We were so eager to rush into this after the end of our seventh year, and we had no idea, did we?”

Lily pressed her lips together and shook her head, looking unseeingly at the carpet. “I guess we didn’t.”

“And it’s so stupid,” James continued passionately, warming to his subject now. “It’s absolutely ridiculous to ask two twenty-one-year-olds to sit in the same house, day in and day out, not doing anything but waiting for the inevitable. One way or another, in a good way or a bad one, we’re getting out of here, and we can’t do anything but wait for it.” He made a frustrated noise, because it was better at conveying what he really felt than words ever were. “You’ve got your whole life ahead of you, Lils, and I hate seeing you sitting there and doing nothing with it. Nearly the entire first year of Harry’s life has been inside these walls. I hate this.”

He looked over at his wife, and was surprised to find that the eyes gazing back at him were bright with tears. “Shit,” he muttered, and then set his tea, still untouched, down beside the sweet wrapper. “I’m sorry, Lily. I keep saying these things and I know it’s not making it any better –“

“No,” she interrupted, cradling her tea in her hands and drawing her legs up under her for the second time that night. “You need to get it out, James. And you’re absolutely right.” Lily’s lips turned up in a smile, and James felt his stomach flutter, even after all this time. “But the best thing about wars is that they do end. And this one will too. And you, and me, and Harry, and – our other children, we’re all going to be just fine.”

“Our other children?” James teased. “Making plans already, are we?”

“Well, yes,” Lily said, and then the smile that had tugged at her mouth split into a wider grin.

“You’re not,” James said immediately, sitting up stick-straight on the couch as though he’d been scalded by tea anew. She didn’t respond, except, if possible, to smile even more hugely than she had been before, and he clasped his hands behind his head for lack of anything better to do with them, goggling at her. “You’re not!”

“Surprise!” she laughed, the word nearly hidden in the sound, and this time he knew that the tears sparking in her eyes were ones of happiness, and he was completely all right with it. Heedless of Harry in Lily’s arms, he leaned forward and cradled her face in his palms, kissing her and then kissing her more deeply. All his anxiety and fear had, if only for that moment, melted away.

“Dada?” James felt two small hands on his knees, and, looking down, saw his son was looking at his parents with a very odd expression. He clearly could not understand what his mother and father were doing, and wanted his father to pay more attention to him.

“Dada’s here, Harry-boy,” James laughed, taking Harry up in his arms and hugging him tightly to his chest. “Did you hear that, buddy? Mummy’s going to give you a baby brother or sister! You’re going to be a big brother!”

“Bubba.” Harry’s brow wrinkled in confusion, and Lily giggled. James reached into the pocket of his robes then, withdrawing his wand and twirling it in his fingers. Harry wrinkled his nose happily – his father’s wand tricks were some of his favorite things.

With a tiny twist of the wrist, James made a little puff of violet smoke float from the tip of his wand. Harry screeched happily and reached for it, only to become extremely puzzled when his hands passed through the small cloud, like it was nothing at all. James turned his wrist again, and a tiny scarlet cloud followed the first.

It was a moment frozen in time: James, Lily, and Harry; mugs of tea, Halloween sweets, and small clouds of magic smoke.

And then the moment was wrenched apart.

It was a small thing, and would have been able to go unnoticed if James and Lily hadn’t been on edge for months, waiting for just the sound they heard. There was a click like the sound of a key in a lock, and hinges protesting subtly against being put to use. Both of them stiffened, their ears turned toward the entryway. James could feel his heartbeat in every vein in his body, his lungs clenching with sudden fear. Harry, unaware that anything was the matter, was still reaching for the scarlet cloud of smoke.

“James?” Lily whispered hesitantly, her lips barely moving. It appeared to be the only word she could make sense of. “James?”

He shook his head, already feeling beads of cold, panicked sweat dotting his forehead. His sweaty fingers grappled for his wand. And just as they closed round the handle again, there was an almighty crash, like the sound of the front door being blown off its hinges entirely. Harry immediately began to wail.

“Lily, take Harry and go! It's him! Go! Run! I'll hold him off!” James hollered, springing to his feet quite before he knew what he was doing. He dropped his wand, fumbled for it before it clattered to the ground, and each slip was causing him precious seconds, seconds he knew he did not have. Lily reacted at once, scooping Harry into her arms and sprinting for the kitchen. She would take the back way to the stairs from there, he knew, and get their son up to safety.

There was no time to say good-bye, good luck, I’ll see you soon, be safe, I love you, because James was already running to the front hall to hold off You-Know-Who, and he was already inside, and Lily was gone. There wasn’t time to wonder how the hell he’d gotten inside, how he’d known where they were, who had spilled the secret, because he had rounded the corner, and nearly run smack into Lord Voldemort, made real.

He was shorter than James had expected, hardly much taller than he himself was, although he suspected the hood of his cloak added a few inches. Beneath the hood he could see a gaunt, skeleton-like face, accentuated by a hairline so receded he looked all skull and skin to James’s terrified mind. His eyes were nearly pure red, the pupils small and cold. It was a face of nightmares.

There were words on their way to James’s lips – taunts, shouts, curses, even a few jokes, because he couldn’t make it through anything without joking about it – but they never made it into the air. His hand was half-raised in complete futility (what had he thought to do without a wand, how could he hold off the most powerful Dark wizard of all time unarmed?) when the man opposite him struck, cutting him down like he was nothing, lower than an insect.

James Potter didn’t even have time to have one last thought of his wife, his son, or the child he had never met, and never would. The last thing he knew was green light, and then he was dead, the life already gone from him by the time his head struck the wood floor.

His glasses shattered.

A/N: I know it's rough to put such a sad chapter after such a happy one -- and when it came time to write this, I was very angry at myself for thinking it would be a good idea to make Beth and Severus's reunion on Halloween, knowing what came right after. Despite all the AU that Beth sprinkled over the books, this event was one that had to remain canon. This is actually a scene I've written twice now, having written a one-shot many years ago called Extinguished, lurking toward the back of my page, and many elements from that story are embedded here as well. I hope you can forgive me! (And while I'm thinking about it, James's line “Lily, take Harry and go! It's him! Go! Run! I'll hold him off!” is from the book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows; I do not own it.)

Thank you guys very much for the nominations for Beth to be this year's Best Original Character in the Dobby Awards! Even if she didn't go to voting, nominations themselves are absolutely incredible. It seriously means so much. I do have another story that went through to voting for Best Plot Twist, and if you could make your way to the forums and vote for Bad Blood, it would truly be so appreciated. ♥

I'm sorry for this chapter, but thank you for reading and reviewing all the same!

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