Chapter 1 : Withering
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Also, I am aware that Sirius passed the Secret Keeper responsibility on to Peter Pettigrew, but since I don’t know when that took place, I’m going to pretend it hasn’t happened yet.
When the Potters first moved to Godric’s Hollow, the house—with its many rooms and its staircase and hallways—seemed infinite.
It was quaint, but infinite.
Six months and some odd days later, James was surprised at how the walls seemed to meet him at each step. He felt them inch closer and closer with each passing sunset, the space shrinking in a weary exhalation.
And he watched Lily wither.
He couldn’t blame her, because he himself was withering. He noticed it in the mornings when he dragged his razor down his sallow chin. He noticed it around midday when his brain went fuzzy from the labor of consciousness. And he noticed it at night when he slipped out of his jeans without first unbuttoning them.
Of course they had expected this when they agreed to go into hiding. Sirius being their Secret Keeper had felt it his duty to study the effects of isolation, stage by stage, and report to them his findings. He spent weeks buried under psychology books and James could still hear Lily’s bemused laughter.
“If you’d been this studious at Hogwarts, you might have made something of yourself, Sirius,” she’d teased.
And later, “I hope you know we’re grateful.”
The stages Sirius found were based on Holocaust survivors, but this fact was shrugged off as inconsequential.
He devoted himself thereafter to the making of pamphlets which detailed coping mechanisms for depression, anxiety, malaise, relationship troubles—all battles James and Lily would inevitably fight. One suggested the notion of daily sex, at which Lily blushed delightfully.
“To keep the relationship emotionally resilient,” Sirius reported and then winked in James’s direction.
They had lost the pamphlets. One day they sat in a towering pile on the kitchen table, and the next they were—well, James couldn’t remember where they had gotten off to, which was ironic considering he was almost positive at least one of them discussed memory loss.
Buried in old letters and newspaper, dirty dishes, and empty juice boxes, the kitchen table served little purpose now. James often considered cleaning it to surprise Lily into smiling, but he never got more than ten minutes in before needing a break from the tedium.
To do so, however, required increasing creativity by the day.
James sighed, reaching into Harry’s playpen to rest his palm against the boy’s wayward mop of hair. Harry gurgled happily in response, holding up with eager arms a ball covered in dribble.
“Thanks, little one,” James exhaled in a laugh, taking the slobbery gift with hesitant fingers.
“Ball!” was Harry’s enthusiastic response.
James dried the toy on a dirty shirt draped over the chair against which he was leaning. Harry watched patiently for the span of a heartbeat, and then queried, “Mama?”
“Mama is resting,” James replied wearily. He dropped the ball lightly into the playpen. Harry hugged it to his chest territorially and repeated, this time a decibel louder, “Mama?”
“Mama is taking a nap,” James replied, smiling despite his frustration. He pressed his palms together, cradling his cheek in his united hands to signal ‘nap.’ Harry was not pleased.
“Mama!” the boy screamed, balling his tiny hands into fists. “Mama, mama, mama!” Tears squeezed from his emerald eyes. His cheeks flushed an angry red.
Frantic, James swept the boy into his arms, bouncing him and cooing, “Let’s go find mama, okay? Shh, shh. We’ll go find mama. Don’t cry, little one.”
Harry was pacified; he sniffled adorably in assent. James, on the other hand, was reluctant. Lily wouldn’t be too pleased to be jostled awake before 8 am, and so when James entered their dark bedroom to find her willowy figure sprawled atop the covers, he eased her awake with a whispered, “Wake up, my love. I—I have a surprise for you,” to which her eyes opened and brightened, her arms reaching to accept an impatient Harry.
“A surprise?” she echoed, yawning, while Harry tugged at her tangled waves. “Did you clean the kitchen, James?”
James shrugged playfully.
Carrying Harry, she followed James down the stairs and into the kitchen in silence. Upon seeing the mess that still obscured the kitchen, Lily cocked her head at him curiously, something akin to a frown twisting her features.
James held a finger to his own lips to silence her. She raised an eyebrow suspiciously.
“Trust me,” he breathed, mind whirring as he thought on his feet. Harry clapped his hands coincidentally.
James crossed the length of the kitchen to the front door. The knob was cold in his hand as he twisted and pulled, the door swinging open to reveal a beautiful late-summer sky and a lawn of yellow grass.
Behind him, Lily sighed. He glanced over his shoulder to see longing darken her eyes.
Grasping her soft hand, James helped her onto the porch. He could feel the hesitation in her lurching steps, so he kept his eyes locked on hers, coaxing her in a language of silence, a language born of necessity when words proved inadequate.
And so they stood on the porch, the family of three, clutching each other with a fierceness while the heady wind ruffled their dirty clothes—James in his shirt and jeans, Lily in her blue satin robe that lended to her effortless beauty.
Harry giggled as a stray leaf blew into his face. He tried to crumple it into his mouth, but Lily snatched it from his stubby fingers, and in such an affectionate way no tears were shed. Instead, the boy nestled his face into the crook of Lily’s neck and seemed to drift off. And so they continued clinging to one another, watching as the rolling clouds cast layers of shadow across the yard, as a neighbor boy whizzed by on a bicycle, as a stray dog sniffed his way from garbage can to garbage can.
James kissed Lily’s head and felt her body relax into his.
“I wish we could go for a walk, even just out in the yard,” he voiced.
“I know,” she breathed. “But this was nice. Suppose it’s time to go inside…”
He watched her lips curl downward, thinking that he would do anything, absolutely anything, to watch them inch in the opposite direction. She spun on her heel and ducked inside, his own stomach sinking, and when she glanced back at him questioningly, he jumped. He jumped off the porch and into the yard with a resolute thump and knew as soon as he’d done it that it was a mistake.
Lily screamed. Then Harry screamed.
James almost screamed, but as Lily lunged back onto the porch, straining her free arm as she reached for him, her eyes wild and her mouth gaping, he laughed.
He laughed and laughed and laughed.
“James!” Lily was shrieking. “James! Please, you’re not protected.”
James couldn’t stop laughing.
And then she was beside him, Harry wailing, Lily placing her free hand firmly on James’s cheek. She raised herself on tiptoe to look him directly in the eye. Her gaze was pleading.
He took one last look around the yard. The perspective was new, and so everything was new. The wind somehow was alive. The trees seemed to twist in supplication. The sky bled into a bright, laudatory blue.
Then he turned to Lily.
“I’m sorry,” was all he could say.
He kissed her tear-stained lips and then followed her into the house. Lily slammed the door.
“I can’t—What were you—James…”
Lily’s furrowed brow and tapping foot—tap, tap, tap—goaded him until he erupted with “Because, Lily. Because I just want to make you happy, but I’m a failure at that. Because I’m a shit father and a shit husband. Because I feel so… trapped.”
At his more choice language, Lily let out a hiss and covered Harry’s ears. The latter was still whimpering quietly, snot bubbling from his tiny nostrils, his legs flailing halfheartedly.
“I’m putting Harry down for a nap,” Lily voiced firmly. “Merlin knows he needs it after keeping us up til 3 am.” And she marched out, leaving James feeling ridiculous and guilt-ridden in the middle of the kitchen.
He swiped at the trash piled atop the table, cursing under his breath as the papers fluttered to the cold, tile floor. His legs buckled and he let himself sink to the floor as well, head in his hands.
Nearly fifteen minutes later, Lily’s delicate footsteps descended the stairs and weaved down the hallway. They came to an abrupt stop at the entrance to the kitchen. James heard Lily sigh. He didn’t look up; in her absence he had melted into a repentant puddle.
“Pitiful,” Lily exhaled. Her tone was unexpectedly sympathetic.
Next thing he knew, Lily had lowered herself to the ground and wriggled her way into his arms. She pressed herself against his chest, her forehead level with his chin, and was silent.
“I’m sorry,” James echoed awkwardly.
She remained silent.
“I am,” James continued. “I could’ve gotten us caught.”
Lily fidgeted in his arms. She tilted her head back to meet his eyes and said, determinedly, “You know there’s a possibility that, no matter what we do to prevent it, he’ll find us.”
An involuntary shiver ran down the length of his body.
“I know,” he conceded.
“At this point, maybe it’s best,” she monotoned.
James pulled her closer and pressed his lips into her forehead, lingering there for a tender moment. “It’s been a hard week,” he finally said, ending the kiss. “We’ll get through it.”
Lily nodded, but didn’t seem convinced.
She ran a finger across the fabric of his collar absently. Then her eyelids fluttered closed. James watched as the muscles in her face slackened one by one, her expression dissolving into one of calm smoothness. Imagining her asleep, James allowed his own lids to droop and eventually close. A nap seemed imminent and, truth be told, he was relieved.
But then, “You believe in the afterlife, right?” Her voice was so thin, the sound registered as a vague fluttering against his eardrum.
James immediately thought of his parents. They had died shortly after his Hogwarts graduation, only weeks apart, yet he knew they lived on. He recognized their presence in the small moments, in the moments of stillness and of desperation and of triumph. Most memorable had been their accompanying magnetism that kept him upright during Lily’s 23 agonizing hours of labor.
He felt them even now and so he responded “Yes, of course” with gusto.
“Do you believe we’ll be happy there?” she continued uncertainly.
He smiled. “If you’re there, I can’t imagine a happier afterlife.”
Her response was a teasing eye roll and—James felt his breath catch in his throat as her lips curled and stuck—a smile.
“You’re a piece of work, James Potter,” she said, a laugh in her tone. “But you are not a shit husband. And if we die—no, please don’t interrupt me—if he kills us, your ghostly ass had better be next to mine or I swear—”
James shut her up with a sloppy kiss. He crushed his lips into hers and held them there even as she struggled to speak, to extricate herself from his fierce hold. Eventually, she relaxed. She kissed him back.
He felt the hot tears trail down her cheeks.
When he pulled away to wipe her tears with the pad of his thumb, she was still smiling.
And that smile, it just felt like…
He would hold on to that finally.
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