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Chapter 22 : The Worst Birthday
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Disclaimer: The story title is a song originally recorded (under that title) by Bob Dylan. The world, characters and canon events belong to J. K. Rowling. Everything else belongs to me. It is illegal to publish and distribute fanfiction without J.K. Rowling's permission. You may not copy, post elsewhere, change or edit any part of this story. You may not claim it as your own.
The Worst Birthday
It was evening before they released Sirius from St. Mungo’s.
All day, he’d sat in the hospital bed while his wound slowly healed. James, Lily and Peter never left, except to get lunch. (They snuck in sweets for Sirius.)
Throughout the day, a few fellow Order members stopped by for a visit, Dorcas and the Prewett brothers among them, after hearing of his nasty injury. Others, such as Alastor Moody and Edgar Bones, simply sent their well wishes along with those who visited.
It was a boring day, overall, after the excitement from that morning. Peter brought in the Daily Prophet, and many hours were spent pouring over the paper. It was packed full of articles on the Underground incident, everything from witness accounts (which were unrealistic and likely made up) to more chatter about an attack from the Dark side. But no mention of the Order was made, none even of Peter, who had actually talked to Crouch, and for that they were all glad.
“I thought Crouch talked to you, Wormtail,” said James, folding up the news and tossing it on Sirius's bed.
“He did,” replied Peter. “But he only saw me and Moody, didn’t he? You and Padfoot were gone right away, and the others were still at other stations waiting for something to happen. I’d think he just thought we were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s not unheard of for wizards to ride the Tube, after all…”
And to that, nobody had a response. It seemed, lately, with all the attacks from the Dark side and sudden run-ins with the Ministry, that the Order’s presence was becoming increasingly more obvious. As of yet, the group had not been discovered by the Aurors that were always one step behind them.
(Not that it mattered now that they suspected the Dark side knew of them. It was, however, always nice to not have the Ministry thinking they were forming some sort of underground rebellion or something.)
After that, the paper was used strictly to fill in the crossword puzzle on the back, which kept them amused for all of thirty minutes. Crosswords, they discovered, did not last long when there were four of them working on it.
Through out the day, breathing and speaking became easier for Sirius. It no longer felt like he was battling against a force pressing around his chest when he spoke. His sudden gasps with every word soon faded away to happening only occasionally. His voice became stronger and less strained. And after a few hours, the pain became little more than a heavy ache at first. By the evening, the pain was fairly dull and only really gave him trouble if he breathed too heavily, or yawned, for instance.
And then finally, the Healer came in, quickly checked his condition with her wand, and told him he could leave.
“I could have left ages ago,” said Sirius as she filled out a form for him. And, rather smartly, the Healer ignored his comment and kept on writing.
They decided to stop and have dinner out on the way home. It was rare that they were able to do such menial things since joining the Order. Many nights were spent at the Hog’s Head, or lately, fighting something or somebody. They couldn’t remember sitting down together for a meal since celebrating Sirius’s birthday, and so the outing was long overdue.
The restaurant they chose was small, quiet, but nice enough. A few young couples sat here and there, and snippets of conversation were overheard. It seemed as if everyone was talking about that morning’s subway crash. Sirius tuned them out as they were seated.
“You should have kept that bit of metal, Padfoot,” Peter said with a grin. “A souvenir of sorts, to remember it by. To show what you’ve survived.”
Sirius focused him with a look of exasperation. It didn’t matter that what he survived. How many had died in that very same attack, an attack that he had been sent to stop?
“Why would I ever want to remember it?” he asked incredulously.
Peter fell silent after that. James had his arm around Lily and was absently rubbing her shoulder as he eyed the younger boy and how his face fell. He should have said something to Sirius in Peter's defence, but he didn't. Sirius was tired, had had a rough day, thought James, and a bit of rudeness was all right given the circumstances. Instead of saying anything, he took a drink from his glass.
“No, I don’t suppose you would…” Peter muttered, straightening his silverware as his cheeks turned a brilliant shade of pink. He tried not to show how crushed he felt. He'd been at Sirius's bedside all day, after all. But then, maybe it was a stupid suggestion... He was careful to make sure each utensil was evenly spaced so as to avoid looking at anyone.
Nothing more was said, however, for the waiter came up then to take their orders. Sirius was famished. Despite having food snuck into him for lunch, all of his energy seemed to have been sapped as his injury healed. He was now exhausted and starving; he wanted nothing more than to eat and go lay down somewhere.
“Look, Wormtail, I’m sorry for being an irritable arse…” he said when the waiter was gone.
“No, no, I understand completely, Padfoot,” said Peter, offering a smile.
Sirius rested his elbow on the table and his face in his hand, allowing the heel of his palm to press into his eyes. They ached and burned with the horrors of what he’d seen this day. That and the bright, magical lighting that illuminated St. Mungo’s.
“Not feeling well, Sirius?” asked James then, observantly. After all, Siruis had had a rather bad day.
But Sirius only shrugged and dropped his hand. “Just tired… You know, I wish Remus were here,” he said suddenly. “It seems like it’s been ages…”
“It’s only been two weeks since he left again,” said Peter, rather dismissively. He leaned forward and took a sip of his soda.
“Yes, but we hardly saw him when he was home, he spent all his time with his poor mum,” said Sirius impatiently.
“I miss Remus, too,” Lily sighed. “But his job is important. If he wasn’t out there with the werewolves, after all, Sirius, we never would have known about the attack this morning. Then even more people would have died than what did, because you wouldn’t have been there.”
Sirius changed the subject.
“Do you have any plans for your birthday tomorrow, Evans?” he asked, and he gave her a hopeful look, begging her to take the bait, to say something, anything, so that he wouldn’t have to talk about Remus or the Underground anymore.
Her eyes suddenly widened. “Oh, bugger! I completely forgot! Tomorrow is the thirtieth!”
Peter giggled. “Forgot?”
Irritated with herself, Lily sighed. “Yes,” she snapped, although her tone wasn’t directed at Peter. “Oh, blast it, my Mum is probably beside herself with trying to get a hold of me.”
James frowned to conceal the smile that was playing around his lips. “We can stop by later, if you wish,” he suggested.
She sighed again and flipped her hair over her shoulder. “No, I’ll just get in touch with her tomorrow… She knows I’m rather busy. She still thinks I’m working hard toward my career in journalism at the Daily Prophet, you know.”
Sirius grinned and glanced at James, and then his grey eyes flicked quickly back to Lily. “You mean you haven’t told your parents you don’t work there anymore? It’s been months, Evans. October, wasn’t it?”
Lily rolled her eyes. “For somebody so intelligent, Black, you don’t use your brain very much, do you? You know being an apprentice means you don’t get paid. That’s what I was for the Prophet. An apprentice.”
Sirius only raised his eyebrows and smirked at James. Lily was quite amusing, even when she wasn’t trying to be, even when she wasn’t aware she was.
“Well, come on,” she encouraged. “You’ve got to have figured it out by now,” she added, and only then did Sirius realise she expected him to understand something. He crossed his arms and gave her a blank look.
She sighed. “If I wasn’t being paid, then who do you suppose was paying my half of the rent on my flat?”
“Your parents,” guessed Peter, feeling rather smart.
“Exactly. And, as I’m not being paid in the Order, guess who is still paying my half of the rent?”
“Precisely. Do you really think my parents would continue paying if they knew I’d abandoned my future career to run around and risk my life? They’d likely as not pull me right out of the wizarding world. So no, of course I haven’t told them I left. They’ll never know the difference, anyway.”
James grinned at Sirius and shook his head. “Well, well. Look who’s become rather Marauderish. Sneaking, lying, cheating… all for free rent. Lily, I never thought you had it in you.”
She blushed at that. “You make it sound terrible.”
Sirius laughed and immediately brought his hand up to his chest to try to quell the sudden stabbing pain. He had forgotten, almost, and the sharp ache brought sudden tears to his eyes. He still smiled, however, as he addressed her and choked out, “Why, because he called you a Marauder?”
“Yes, exactly that.”
The three boys made exaggerated noises of objection, causing Lily to burst into giggles. And then the waiter returned with their plates. Sirius had bolted down half of his meal in the first ten seconds, but slowed down to properly enjoy the other half. When he was done, Lily gave him half of hers (Peter huddled protectively over his own plate), and he ate until he could eat no more.
Afterwards, a humorous argument over who would have the honour of paying the bill ensued, and when all was said and done, they left the restaurant, walked around an alley and Disapparated to Sirius’s flat.
Sirius was asleep almost instantly, his head drooping back against the armchair he’d collapsed in. He didn’t even take his travelling cloak off, or his scarf. Peter helped himself to a butterbeer. James and Lily sat on the couch, and when Peter sat down and joined them, they had pleasurable conversation about pointless things.
(They all thought it seemed oddly normal after the hectic morning, and for the first time, James was glad wizards don’t watch television. They didn’t have to be pestered with the ongoing news reports that would likely last for at least a week.)
Eventually, though, they decided to leave the flat and let Sirius doze without interruption. Peter went home to his lonely cottage, and James, not quite ready to say goodbye to his girlfriend yet (for they were much closer, more attached and more intimate now than they had been before), decided to join her in her flat.
Lily opened the door to her cheerful flat and led James in, both of them feeling rather blissful after the day’s events and an enjoyable dinner out. They were glad to see it over; it was dark out, it was night time, and Lily was exhausted. All she wanted to do was fall into her sheets and leave this day behind her, curl up against James and feel his warmth and forget about the world.
She tried not to think about all of the Muggles who had died that morning on the Underground. Instead she focused on her birthday tomorrow, seeing her family, as they would undoubtedly want her over for dinner to celebrate. She wondered vaguely why they had not called her prior to today, and surmised that they must be planning a surprise as they seemed to be waiting until the last minute. It wasn't the first time.
A wry smile crossed her face, for they may have even pulled off the surprise if Sirius hadn’t reminded her of her birthday over dinner. She couldn’t believe she had forgotten, but then, more important things were happening than birthdays and celebrations. Still, she felt warm and loved; those were the feelings she found herself living for during times like these.
“What are you smiling at?” asked James, a grin cracking his own face, and his surprisingly gentle voice tore her from her thoughts.
Lily turned around, smiled at him and grabbed his hand, pulling him into the flat and slamming the door shut. She hadn't realised she'd stopped walking to take off her cloak, that she'd been standing in the doorway blocking his entrance. “I was just figuring that my parents must have a surprise birthday party planned for tomorrow. It's not like them to not contact me about coming over.”
“Maybe they forgot.”
She playfully slapped him on the arm.
James flinched and laughed. “Well, you did!” he pointed out, rubbing his upper arm.
Her flatmate, Lucy Englehardt, must have heard them enter the apartment. Her familiar voice suddenly rang out, “Lily? Is that you?” and Lily was somewhat concerned to hear that her tone sounded quite depressed.
“It’s me, Luce,” she called back, squirming as James’s lips nuzzled behind her ear. His mouth left a gentle, pleasurable trail that felt cool against the air, distracting her. A wave of goosebumps erupted on her skin at his light touch.
Lucy appeared around the corner then, and James drew up suddenly with a mischievous glint in his eye. He tried not to smile guiltily, and Lily struggled to keep her own face straight. She frowned with ease, however, when she caught sight of Lucy’s stricken face.
“Lucy, why are you so upset?”
“Lily… I’ve been trying to get a hold of you all day.”
It was then that Lily noticed how red her friend’s eyes were, how swollen they appeared. How pale Lucy’s face was and the stiffness of her skin from dried tears.
“Lucy, what is it?” asked Lily with concern, stepping forward to embrace her friend (who clearly needed it). Horror struck her then, for she could tell instantly that somebody had died. What if somebody in Lucy’s family was on the Tube this morning? The morning's incident seemed ages away; how had it not occurred to her that this would be upsetting for Lucy?
(And vaguely, in the back of her mind, she wondered why the accident wasn't more upsetting for herself as well. Had she really hardened that much over the past few months? Her heart sank at the thought.)
Lily glanced back at James, unsure of what to do. James’s face was solemn and his hands were crammed into his pockets as he looked upon the crying girl. The playful spark in his hazel eyes was gone now; he looked utterly miserable, as if he somehow could sense that something just wasn't right. He bit his lip and shrugged at Lily when he caught her eye. She turned back to Lucy.
“Lily, the landlord has been beside herself all day. She’s furious with us, because you’ve had about a hundred phone calls today. She’s told us to get a phone…” Lucy was blabbering now, her voice interrupted by frequent gasping sobs.
“Lucy, stop stalling and tell me what happened.” She didn't care about the phone calls. She knew it was her family, she'd already chastised herself, knowing her mother would be trying to get a hold of her. She didn't care - she wanted only to know what was wrong with her flatmate.
“Lily, it was your sister calling…” croaked Lucy, looking as if she might start bawling on the spot.
“Okay,” soothed Lily. “I don’t care, Luce, they probably just want me to come over for my birthday tomorrow. Now what’s happened?”
Lucy gave a small gasp and wiped a tear off her cheek. “Lily, you’ve been gone all day… Did you hear about the accident in London this morning?”
“The Underground, yes,” urged Lily, knowing that Lucy was getting closer to telling her of the problem now. A wave of dread washed over her and sorrow hung heavy on her heart for her friend. This was just as she’d suspected. She didn't tell Lucy that she had actually been there, for that mattered little now.
Lucy was crying now, taking deep little breaths as she struggled to get the words out. “Lily, P-Petunia has been calling because…” She faltered, pressed her hands together against her lips, and finally blurted, “Oh, God, Lily. Because your p-parents were on one of those trains…”
It felt as if a great rush of air struck her. Lily’s mouth fell open, and a strangled sound seemed to escape her throat, but she didn’t notice it. She was falling down a black hole and there was nothing to grab onto. Suddenly, nothing mattered anymore. She couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
In front of her, Lucy covered her face with her hands and sobbed quite loudly. Lily knew how it hurt the girl to be the bearer of such bad news. Lucy was shy and caring and sweet; normally quiet and happy, never harming even a fly.
“I’m so sorry, Lily,” the former Ravenclaw managed through her hands. When she lowered them, her face was revealed to be covered in streaks of tears once again. She swallowed and patted Lily’s shoulder. “I’ll be in my room if you need me,” she whispered.
James offered her a small, unhappy smile for having the guts to tell Lily the news. He knew what it felt like to have to tell a friend of a loved one's death. He could recall with a sickening feeling the way it felt to tell Remus of his father, how terribly difficult a task it was, and he hoped with all his heart he would never have to do that again.
(Even Sirius, whose family hated him, who'd been blasted off the tapestry and had run away from home, wouldn't take such news well.
Perhaps the Blacks hated their eldest son, and perhaps Sirius acted tough, but James knew the feeling wasn't quite as mutual as Sirius hoped to have people think.)
Lucy didn't return his smile; she turned and retreated to her room, looking defeated and exhausted after the difficult day of worry and misery. Her shoulders shook, but no more sound escaped her, and then the door shut behind her and they were alone.
Lily only stared blankly at the spot where Lucy had been. Why wasn’t she crying? Why wasn’t she reacting? Her heart was up in her throat, her chest felt tight, her mind was panicky. How was this possible? She couldn’t believe it. She didn’t believe it. Her parents weren’t dead. That was the stuff of nightmares, not of real life. Girls like her don’t have dead parents. That stuff just doesn’t happen in the normal lives of the Evans family.
Dead parents come from illness or the occasional car accident. And that stuff only happens to those unfortunate children. It could never happen to her. She’d received no warning that her parents would be gone forever, that she’d never see them again. There had been nothing to hint that she wouldn’t see them again. The possibility of it had never even occurred to her. Hadn’t it been James, back when they were seventh years, who’d reassured her that her parents were likely even safer than his were? That the Dark side wouldn’t waste time hunting down the parents of a Muggleborn when they had bigger agendas?
She’d believed him, she’d believed that they would be safe and that nothing would hurt them. That they would be around to see their grandchildren, and possibly even a generation beyond.
It was all so unreal.
“Lils?” said James quietly, breaking through her frenzied thoughts. She felt his warm, rough hand on her arm.
She turned to him. His eyes held nothing but concern. Possibly even pity. Lily scowled as she felt her eyes prickle against her will. She shouldn’t be crying; she didn’t believe this was happening. This was a mistake, and she shouldn’t be crying. Her parents were still alive. Her mother didn’t even have reason to go into the city; her mother wouldn’t have even been on the Tube. Her father, perhaps, but not her mother. She cried for her father, for her mother was certainly still alive.
James embraced her. She buried her face in his shoulder and sobbed, her mind still a whirlwind of thought. She wished she could turn it all off.
“I’m sorry, Lily,” sighed James when she finally pulled away from him. She was unsure of how long they had stood in the embrace. She looked town at her hands and absently tore at one of her fingernails that had grown long. “I really am... I don't know what to do.”
“I should go see my mum,” murmured Lily. Her face felt tight with the salt of her tears; a dull ache was inside of her. All she wanted was to lay down and sleep and make it all go away, but she didn’t know if she would ever be able to sleep again.
How could she sleep knowing her father was dead? There would be no peace, only torment.
James gave her an odd look. “Your sister, you mean,” he said gently, reaching out and giving her arm a quick squeeze.
Lily stubbornly narrowed her eyes at him. “It’s a mistake, James. My mum doesn’t go into the city. She wouldn’t have been on or anywhere near the Underground.”
He sighed and ran his hand through his hair, eyeing her but deciding not to argue. What did he know, anyway? “Do you want me there?” he finally asked.
She watched him for a moment, his earnest face as he shifted his weight from side to side, uncomfortable in this situation. Why did his parents, nearly a hundred years old, still live? Her father was only forty seven. A surge of jealousy suddenly shot through her and she turned away from him.
“I think I would,” she finally mumbled. She didn’t know. She didn't know anything.
“I’ll take us,” he said warningly, grabbing her hand. She would let him; she was too upset to focus on Disapparition. She willingly let him lead her out of the flat and back down the stairs, into the dark, cold alley.
Lily released James’s hand upon Apparating behind somebody’s shed. She took off sprinting, darting around the corner and up the dark street to her house. James jogged lightly after her. He wanted to give her a chance to get into the house. He didn’t want to walk in with her, make it look like they were just a casual, happy couple returning home. He didn’t want to intrude, and he wanted to give her a chance to discover what happened without him standing over her shoulder.
His hand clutched his wand in his pocket, and he jogged only to keep her within safe range should some dark being jump out to attack. They could never abandon caution, after all, not after the murder of the McKinnons. Even as family members died, he couldn’t forget that the Dark side likely knew who they were, that they were a part of the Order.
But nobody jumped out at Lily. She ran into the house unharmed. James slowed to a walk, lingered up the walkway and hesitated outside the front door. Finally, unable to delay the inevitable any longer, he pushed the door open and stepped inside.
Petunia looked to be in the middle of doing laundry. The house was sparkling clean, and as his hazel eyes flitted around, James understood that she was doing it to stay busy, that she probably hadn’t stopped working all day trying to occupy her mind.
She stood behind a pile of folded shirts which were stacked neatly on the back of the couch. Her hands were on her hips and her pale eyes glared at her younger sister. Lily had her hands covering her mouth in disbelief, looking terribly pale and as if she might be sick at any instant.
Petunia turned to James. “What are you doing here,” she demanded angrily, sounding hysterical.
But James's concerned gaze was only for Lily; his eyes flickered towards Petunia at being addressed, and a pained silence filled the room. “I’m sorry about your parents,” he said finally, almost as an afterthought, and he shoved his hands into his pockets and ignored her question. He turned his gaze upon his girlfriend once more.
And Petunia gaped at him for a moment, her mouth opening and closing as if trying to think of what to say; it didn't matter, for he didn't look her way again. And then her pale eyes filled with tears; she tossed her head and stalked out of the room, hurrying up the stairs. James didn't care; he'd have a few choice words for her if she dared to blame Lily for this.
Lily, who still held her hands clamped over her mouth, slowly sunk to the ground. The tears streamed freely down her face now, and James walked over and sank into a crouch beside her. He gently ran his hand through her hair, at a loss for words.
His touch seemed to tear her from a trance. Her eyes set upon his, and there was silence in the room for several long moments.
“She told me,” whispered Lily, finally breaking the silence. “That my mother went to London with my father this morning. To meet my nan and shop for my birthday.”
James took her up in his arms and Lily thought that no embrace had ever been sweeter as he cradled her against his chest. He rested his cheek against her hair, and his shirt felt damp with snot and tears. But that was all right. He didn’t know what else to do, and if crying on him was what helped her, then he was happy for that, at least.
He stared at the pile of Brian Evans’ freshly laundered shirts on the back of the couch - they would never be worn again - and allowed himself and Lily to lean back against the wall. As he looked upon the pile, he recognised the shirt her father had worn at Christmas. It jolted him; it was terribly familiar, even if he didn't know the family that well.
Lily's tears and cries eventually subsided into nothing but a dull stare. Her green eyes looked empty and lost; she saw nothing she looked at and her mind raced. And she was right. She didn’t think she would ever sleep again.
There was a knock at the front door. Three knocks, soft and slow and spaced apart.
It woke James from a very light, uncomfortable sleep. He and Lily still sat on the floor against the wall. He couldn’t remember dosing off; he must have done before Lily, though, for the last thing he could remember was her still staring.
She was still asleep now. He didn’t want to move and wake her after such a long night, and for that matter, a long day as well.
“Who’s there,” he said, hoping his voice would carry without having to shout.
James lifted his wand and flicked it at the door, which obediently fell open. The light of dawn seemed to shine in around his friend’s silhouette, and James wondered just how long he and Lily had been asleep on the floor. Sirius stepped inside and shut the door behind him; he turned to look upon the couple and seemed to inhale sharply and hold his breath for a moment, his eyes lingering on Lily.
“Hey,” said James, as Sirius approached and sank down along the wall beside him.
Sirius was still staring at Lily’s sleeping form with an odd look of regret upon his face. At last his grey eyes moved up to meet James. “I thought I’d surprise you lot,” he said quietly. He looked away then, twisting his watch around his wrist as he rested his arms upon his drawn up knees. “For Lily’s birthday, I mean. I went to her flat to take you both out to breakfast.”
James didn’t say anything when Sirius trailed away; he only watched as Sirius’s fingers pulled the watch around and around on his wrist. He had given that watch to Sirius. It seemed like so long ago.
Sirius sighed and licked his lips. “And then,” he said, folding his hands together and ceasing the watch’s movement, “her flatmate told me about her parents. I thought I’d find you two here.”
James nodded. “Some birthday.”
“Agreed.” Sirius banged his head back against the wall. “Lily’s mum made some glorious Christmas biscuits, though…”
James scowled at him. “I helped with that. And there’s more to this than just her cooking, Sirius.”
Sirius smirked, but then his expression quickly became apologetic. “I know. But that was all I knew of her. I’m sorry, Prongs. I didn't mean to sound... I mean, I wish we’d known they were there… I can't believe her parents are dead...” His voice became lighter, musing as he stared unseeingly across the room. “Dead,” he repeated, and it sounded so terribly final that they were both speechless for a few moments.
Finally, James shrugged. He knew what Sirius was thinking about in the silence, what he hadn't said aloud. Maybe we could have saved them. He shook his head; he didn't think they could have saved them even if they'd known. They couldn't beat themselves up over that on top of everything else.
Sirius suddenly sighed and opened his mouth to speak. James quickly interrupted him, heading off the thought before it could be voiced. “Don't, Pads.”
He didn't have to say anything more. Sirius obediently snapped his mouth shut; he understood the reasoning behind the simple command, even if he felt terrible about it.
“I bought her a gift,” said Sirius after a long pause. He reached into his leather jacket and pulled out a small package. “For her birthday, I mean,” he added. He held it out to James. “I know she probably won’t want it now, but there it is.”
“There it is,” sighed James in agreement, and he took the wrapped box, bouncing it in his hand for a moment. Sirius watched the couple earnestly for a few minutes before he looked away, down at the floor.
“Do you think I should leave?”
James quickly shook his head, flashing his friend a suddenly frightened look. “Stay,” he said firmly. “I'm sure Lily will appreciate that you came here for her when she wakes up. And... I don't know what I'm doing. I need your help with this.”
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