Out of instinct James cast a Shield Charm, whipping around to face his attacker.
The darkness was intermittently lit up with assorted hexes and curses. Brief, colourful flashes; from a distance, he supposed, they might look beautiful. Closer up they were a little less appreciated. They did, however provide a means of seeing their opponents; their dark silhouettes were painted with violent reds and greens, casting shadows amidst the dense forest.
James straightened, mercifully able to hold the Shield Charm. He faced his opponent, cutting a very impressive duelling stance as he shot a Stunning Spell at the Death Eater, who dodged it easily.
“Ready?” James challenged his voice almost casual.
The Death Eater hissed in reply, but said nothing else. James marvelled at their ability to make his job that much easier.
It was easier to kill if you didn’t think of them as human.
The Death Eater wasted no time and sent a string of hexes his way. James blocked what he could, but he was overwhelmed and hit by a Cutting Curse. Luckily he seemed to be of the ‘quantity not quality’ school of thinking and it did little more than graze his face.
“Is that all you’ve got?” James crowed. “Your master couldn’t teach you any better than that?”
James could see the look of victory fade from his eyes, being replaced by seething rage.
A weakness; the weak ones were always letting anger get in the way, it clouded their focus. Usually inexperienced ones, who had not yet been taught to be cold and indifferent.
This one must have been young, still fired up with hate and fear. Not yet able to mask his emotions quite as well as his face.
As they duelled, James let his mind wander. This was somebody’s son, maybe someone’s brother. Possibly someone he’d gone to school with. Just another kid who’d grown up way too fast. Just like him.
“Your mudblood whore will die,” the boy jeered.
Anger was a weakness—
“She’ll cry for you. She’ll die screaming, sobbing for mercy.”
There was no thought behind it, just snarling fury. That boy was dead before he’d even hit the ground, sneer still frozen on his face.
Somebody’s former son. Somebody’s lost brother.
Not his concern.
There wasn’t time to think about it, to pause and reflect on what he’d done. Not now.
The air was alight with tension; spells whirring, black cloaks billowing like sails; the bodies wrapped with in them twisting in the cool night air. Duelling was, for something so violent, a very graceful thing.
“Catch up, James!” Sirius called. Despite the fact that he was heavily engaged in a duel with a rather vicious Death Eater, he had a stupid grin on his face.
James forgot about the boy sprawled on the ground. He smiled and shook his head. “Sod off!”
There were six other Death Eaters, against the six of them still standing. Two had gone down, but he James didn’t make any note of it except that it wasn’t Sirius, Remus or Peter.
The battle began to lean in their favour as the Death Eaters began to drop, dead, stunned or howling in pain. The last of them was thrown back into a tree and with his fall, the forest fell silent, void of threats and curses. The hush was only interrupted by the crunch of leaf litter beneath their feet, or the whisper of robes.
James lit his wand and surveyed the damage. Sirius, Remus, Peter, Marlene and Emmeline followed suit. They were, the six of them, ragged and weary, each showcasing various injuries and torn robes.
Tonight it had been Frank and Gideon that had suffered the brunt of tonight’s ‘ambush’. Playing the bait rarely ended well.
Marlene and Remus immediately went to their aid. James ran a slender hand through his permanently messy hair and strode over to the body of the boy he’d killed lay. He crouched down beside him, feeling an enormous sense of catharsis as he reached for the mask.
Gregory Warwick. A boy two years behind him at Hogwarts, James and Sirius had played a prank once, (involving musical forks and charmed food, if he remembered straight) on him and his particular group of deadbeat friends. He’d been the Slytherin Prefect when James had been Head Boy, a slimy, smarmy little git who’d always been snide about Lily. Not really a surprise that he’d turned out this way.
Bit of a shock to have killed him.
“Warwick, huh?” Sirius said from somewhere in the darkness. James searched for him, eyes straining to look any further than a few inches. “Watch where you’re pointing that thing.”
James lowered his wand. “How many?”
“Nine. Three dead, four stunned and two with injuries. You’d think Voldemort would teach them some basic healing.”
“Why? They’re just cannon fodder,” James replied dully.
Sirius grunted by way of agreement and scuffed his foot in the soil. James could just make out the beginnings of a bruise on his face.
“You all r…”
“We need to get Gideon and Frank to St. Mungos. Nothing serious, but I can’t do anything for them here,” Marlene announced, getting up from her knees and brushing her robe off. Remus was already levitating them on to conjured stretchers whilst Emmeline and Peter saw to the remaining Death Eaters.
James nodded and he and Sirius lumbered over to give whatever help they could.
James toppled from the fireplace, glasses skewed on his face. He’d never been good at Floo and almost invariably ended up on his face.
He swiped at his glasses on his robes, pushing them back up onto his nose before peering around at his majestic surroundings.
There was ruffle of feathers as Fawkes rather pointedly stretched on his perch. The phoenix always gave him a sense of comfort, even though he frequented this office for causing general mayhem and mischief not so long ago.
Things had most certainly changed.
There was a thump and a string of curse words that heralded Sirius’ arrival.
“Got caught up at St. Mungos,” he explained, dusting his robes. “Crouch, sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong.”
“Come now, Sirius. You’ve had your nose in quite a few places it oughtn’t have been.”
Dumbledore’s imperious figure has appeared in the doorway, smiling munificently and looking every bit as calm and dapper as if he had just been on the receiving end of a Cheering Charm. McGonagall followed on behind him.
His former Headmaster moved to sit behind his desk, McGonagall stood behind him, showing rare outward signs of stress: she kept flattening the material of her robes, and fretting with her sleeves, however, the stern look on her face never faltered.
“Headmaster,” James and Sirius chorused by way of greeting.
“James, Sirius,” Dumbledore replied, nodding benignly in acknowledgment. “There really is no need for such formalities.”
James didn’t answer, but if he had it would have been with a sly smile and a ‘Yes, Headmaster.’
“Now, the order of the day. Everything went accordingly, I assume?”
‘They never stop failing for it. I suppose their lack of respect does have its advantages,” James sighed. “Three dead, four stunned and two with injuries. All captured.” James recounted in a sterile manner.
Dumbledore nodded, his long fingers steeped before him on the table. He appeared to be deep in thought.
Professor McGonagall could no longer uphold her stately façade. She stepped forward, wringing her wiry hands. “And what of the Order?”
“Everyone’s fine, Professor. Gideon and Frank are in St. Mungos, but they’ll be fine. We talked to the Healers: just a powerful stunning spell.”
McGonagall’s face visibly paled with relief. Her thin mouth twitched as though she might say something, but she quickly regained her composure and straightened.
“You don’t have to worry about us Professor, honestly, we’re Hogwart’s best,” Sirius ventured, a loping grin on his face.
Dumbledore chuckled. McGonagall almost allowed a smile to grace her severe features. “I worry about you, Mr Black, because both you and Mr Potter have the attention span of gnats.”
Sirius guffawed and James shook his head and smiled.
“I am glad that you both have all your limbs intact.”
“As are we all,” Dumbledore intoned.
For all outward appearances Dumbledore was the jovial, quirky man he had known through his school years. But that famous ‘twinkle’ in his eye had dulled; his face seemed to droop with age and James was sure that Dumbledore had never looked this solemn three years ago. But perhaps those signs had always been there, now he just knew how to recognise them.
The illusion of innocence had rapidly faded with the knowledge and experience they had gained. It was no use holding onto ideals anymore: they were soldiers. They were fighting a war which threatened to kill them all, to put it plainly. He wasn’t a silly little boy anymore and he couldn’t talk himself out of the consequences. There were times when James would be sitting at home, washing dishes, or reading a book—those were the things that seemed surreal now.
James didn’t like to think too often about what his life might have been if Voldemort hadn’t come into the picture. He knew that his aspirations had changed in short time, staying alive was a priority. He knew that he’d had the potential to take his life in any direction he chose. But, he lamented, it did not do well to dwell on dreams.
Nowadays, the stuff of nightmares had become hauntingly mundane. He used to react to any trace of violence, now he could look at a body and think of numbers, of the big picture. He understood a little of what Dumbledore must have felt: the anaesthetic nature of having to look at the ‘big picture’.
He wondered sometimes if he was the only one to feel the numbness, he knew he shouldn’t have to wonder about Sirius, Remus and Peter, but this war had affected them all in no small way; it was hard to tell who was being honest and who was putting on their game face. Or maybe it was that he didn’t have the energy to care anymore.
Dumbledore was looking at him curiously. Sirius and McGonagall were having a rather animated conversation (or rather, Sirius had spurned off into monologue which required an inordinate amount of gesticulation while McGonagall tried not to laugh).
After shaking his head at the antics of his best friend, James turned his attentions back to the headmaster, and inquisitive but all knowing look.. He knew that there was little point in lying to him, but then again, Dumbledore had little use for questions. Albus Dumbledore was the sort of man who could appraise the meaning of picking one’s nose. It didn’t stop James from trying, he’d always done it, always liked to see just how far he could get with a lie before he was caught. The lies had changed, but this childish little game had remained the same.
James shook his head. “Fine,” he mumbled. “As well as can be expected.”
“You look tired.”
He smiled. “Burning the candle at both ends,” he replied offhandedly.
Dumbledore didn’t say anything; he just kept staring at him intensely.
James remained stoic, his own owlish features twisted into a rictus of nonchalance. He didn’t really feel like spilling his guts to his mentor, he was an adult now and there seemed to be little point in confiding in him. There seemed little point in doing much else than plotting and duelling these days.
And sleeping, he added unconsciously, there’s a world of point in that.
Lately he had been feeling the strain of being a symbol of the public’s hope. Having survived Voldemort’s intentions three times, he and Lily were very well known. He was used to fame on a small scale, but having the hopes of a Quidditch victory on your shoulders was slightly removed from the expectations of the Wizarding World.
He understood it, though, understood that they fulfilled a need. Represented and image of strength, vitality and prosperity. They survived, they very nearly thrived under the circumstances, and that was enough, he assumed.
But right now, it was becoming harder and harder not to let anyone down, he had started fighting this war with grand schemes of protecting the innocent, seeking justice and saving the future, but now his reasoning was far more basic than that: to protect his wife and his friends. To protect their futures.
They had all sacrificed too much to be entirely selfless at this point.
“It’s nothing I can’t handle, Sir.”
“Of that, I have no doubt,” Dumbledore said affably. He raised himself from his desk; the early morning sun had begun to stream through the high glass windows, bathing everything in a warm glow.
The rich tapestry of textures and colours in Dumbledore’s office seemed renewed by the start of a new day, last night’s antics were just another memory now. Another brick in the wall, as Lily would frequently say.
Dumbledore approached James, his face once again ageless, pleasant and determined. “Just remember what we are fighting for, James,” he said softly, but with conviction.
“I don’t need reminding, Professor,” James said, shaking his hand. Dumbledore smiled and turned to Sirius to say his goodbyes.
“Give my regards to Lily,” McGonagall said austerely. James smiled wryly and saluted her as he stepped into the fireplace.
“I expect I’ll be seeing you soon,” Dumbledore intoned just as he had raised his hand.
“Of that,” James replied, “I have no doubt.” He had just a moment to see McGonagall’s near melancholy reaction before he was gone, engulfed in green flame.
It was less than half an hour before he said his goodbyes to Remus, Peter and Sirius at the Hog’s Head. They met there as a way of touching base, socialising without the necessity of a bloodied struggle. James had jumped and twitched like a spider being threatened by flame, until Sirius smiled and had officiously ‘given him his leave’.
There was a time when you couldn’t have pried the four of them apart with a powerful Accio. But they weren’t schoolboys anymore, they each had their own complicated and horror riddled lives, James couldn’t even remember the last time he had been out on a Full Moon run with Remus, things had been so hectic, that he hadn’t even the time. He was responsible to someone else now. He’d once felt guilty for abandoning his Marauders, but that sentiment had been replaced with the same weary view he applied to everything in his life: Sacrifices had to be made.
Of course, Lily would clout him if she heard him refer to their marriage in that fashion.
Strung out on thoughts, James ambled up the stairs, his fingers trail the banister, the ancient stairs creak beneath his heavy footsteps. He was trying to be quiet, but he was so eager to just sleep, that he wasn’t as cautious as he might have been.
Photographs danced, waved and smiled at him from behind glass as he made he way to the bedroom. The air inside the house was crisp and fresh, feeling untainted and new, the morning sun now streaming in through windows he stumbled towards the bed, kicking off his shoes and shirking his robes.
She didn’t stir, even when he crawled into bed beside her, feeling heavy and exhausted, her hair was fanned out in stark contrast to the white bed linen. She didn’t stir when he groaned, feeling the new ache of muscles that he was quite sure hadn’t existed yesterday, she didn’t stir when he rolled over to face her.
He watched her sleeping for a few moments, the serenity on her features instilling a calm and awe within him. His hand hovered in indecision above her, before he ventured to lightly brush some hair from her face. He very carefully continued to trace down the length of her arm, feeling her skin dimple under his touch.
She made a very small sound and drew herself closer. James felt at ease now, his palm now splayed on her pregnant belly.
He did not need reminding.
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