Chapter 1 : the chorus
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The morning the war ended, James dreamt about death.
Bombs squealing as they soared through the air to level cities with a single blow; rifles choking and spitting out ammunition, shells cascading to the floor like pebbles by the sea; bodies shuddering, spasming, sinking to the ground where blood ran in rivulets amongst the soil. His breath ringing harsh as tawny gas crept over the horizon and the smell of garlic burnt the area to a crisp. His body in the dirt.
He dreamt of little Peter, who had only ran off to the war because James had proudly declared he intended do the same. Little Peter, who had died in his arms, lips blooming red and his hands scrambling for a hold on life, scratching James' uniform in his frenzy. Little Peter and his cold, watery eyes.
He dreamt of Sirius and Remus too. In his dreams, they crawled out from under the bodies in the battlefield, faces waxen and the skin on their hands paper-thin as they reached for him. They crooned his name, low and guttural.
"Come and join us, Jem. Come and join us. You led us to our deaths - now let us lead us to yours."
He woke up to the sound of the world ending.
Once upon a time, it had all seemed so simple.
Run to the office, deepen his voice, cross his fingers, and hope to God they let him enlist.
Grab a beer at the pub - agree with Old Tom when he said the war would be over nice and soon, would probably wrap up before they even got the chance to cross the Channel - announce that the rotten bastard he'd see at the other end of the battlefield was going to get it.
Stumble through the town with the boys, drunk off the thought of victory and songs that sang of glory, and then maybe steal a cheeky kiss off Lily Evans if she'd humour him before he left to do his solemn duty.
Never mind he had just been short of eighteen. Back then, he'd thought he was the king of the world, that nothing could break him. Nowadays, he wondered whether there was anything left to break.
Dawn crept forward in faint sweeps of pink, like watercolour on canvas, or streams that carried away slack bodies. It bled into a dismal grey sky; below, hundreds of men followed suit. Europe was awash with the screams of those dead, dying or soon to be so. Its armies were splintered across the continent, bodies bitten by bullets, hands wrapped around machine guns, loading and reloading and cocking and firing.
Sometimes, James felt like a machine gun himself. A tool in the hands of his general, belching out metal and fire until one day, he'd suddenly stop.
Fighting for the sake of fighting - because he was not here to question why, not here to wonder if there were German boys too young to kill on the other side, German men who couldn't sleep at night - German people, children, sons of worried mothers - German human beings. He was here to point his weapon and shoot, his ears ringing from the chaos. He was here to win.
Whatever the fuck that meant.
On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the war screeched to a halt.
James could hardly believe it. Could barely bring himself to relax his grip on his gun, or scream in exultation. He could only stare as if the messenger had spoken Swahili. His eyes swiveled around the rest of the troop, who all abruptly seemed old and tired and as dazed as him, a far cry from men gripped by the fervent madness that had pushed them this far.
"I need a fucking smoke," said Benjy Fenwick at last, and then James felt like he was about to start crying.
He could go home. To his mother and father and their secret Yorkshire pudding. To Godric's Hollow and its pretty little cottages with rose bushes and cobblestone paths and the scent of gardenias desperately trying to stay strong. To Lily Evans who dotted each i with little hearts and added sketches to the corners of her letters and signed them off with a flourish, her looping script promising her love.
Home to Remus and Sirius, who he refused to believe were dead until he saw undeniable proof, and Old Tom at the pub and the boys who were always up for an impromptu game of football in the field by the church.
Back to a world that wasn't his anymore, but he'd be damned if he didn't claim it back one more time.
The evening after the war ended, James dreamt about life.
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