There are times when it seems like the world is going mad.
Those are the times he likes best, if he’s completely honest, because it’s easier to laugh at the chaos of it all if the world is mad. If the world is rational, everything that’s happening is so much more disturbing.
So he laughs, and pretends everything’s all right, and it doesn’t matter that he’s deluding himself because the world is mad, and that means there’s no proper way to deal with reality.
This worldview, he thinks, is probably why he and Sirius bonded at the outset. Laugh, prank, go mental, and don’t ever let on that you see anything other than laughter in the other bloke’s eyes, because that would acknowledge some order in the world.
And then you might actually have to be scared.
And, all right, it’s probably not the wisest way to operate if you and your family are on Voldemort’s hit list, but he doesn’t know how else to react. He trusts his friends and Dumbledore and the Order, and that’s as seriously as he’ll let himself take the situation, because otherwise he –
But he doesn’t let himself complete the thought, because he’s not sure he could handle it.
Sirius actually takes the war far more seriously, though James is fairly certain he’s the only one Sirius lets know that, and Remus, maybe. He never says anything, of course, just makes half-joking suggestions that James add more security charms around the house, but James always catches that spark of fear in the back of Sirius’s eyes, a spark that doesn’t go with his friend at all.
But of course, he just attributes that to the world being mad.
And speaking of mad, he can hear Sirius approaching on that mad motorbike of his. So much for security, he thinks, smiling.
He’s at the door before Sirius has even cut the engine, but he waits for the knock anyway.
“You’re supposed to wait for the security question,” Sirius admonishes, the moment James opens the door. When James just rolls his eyes, he adds, “It’s bills time again.”
James grins. “And a good morning to you too, Padfoot.”
“Yes, yes, many happy returns,” says Sirius impatiently, brushing past James and inside.
“You know,” says James, as he follows Sirius into the kitchen, “I’m beginning to think you’re only after me for my money. You bleed me dry, then return to your real lovers to enjoy the fruits of my hard labour.”
“Speaking of which, I want to increase Moony’s and Wormtail’s food allowances,” says Sirius, not returning James’s grin but instead surveying the chart of figures he’s spread over the table. “I’m convinced neither of them is eating properly.”
James laughs. “Look at you being the proper worried mummy!”
“Would you take this seriously?” Sirius snarls, looking at James for the first time. He’s glaring.
James gazes back, nonplussed. “What’s up with you?”
Sirius’s eyes drop back to the parchment.
“Nothing,” he mutters. “Stressful weekend.”
“Order thing?” asks James, his voice deliberately casual.
“More like a family reunion,” answers Sirius, making a mark on the parchment and still not looking at James.
“Well I hope you got a good curse in, then.”
“Look, just drop it, Prongs, all right!” snaps Sirius.
James knows better than to push it.
“Fine,” he says, and drops into a chair. “So how much are we talking about for food?”
“Just a few Galleons. Don’t want to spend too much too soon. We don’t know how long we’ll have to rely on our savings before –” He stops abruptly, swallows, starts again. “We just don’t want to spend too much,” he finishes, without looking at James.
“Right,” says James, trying not to show just how distinctly uncomfortable a responsible Sirius makes him. He glances at Sirius’s financial chart purely for something to do. “Hang on! You told me Moony and Wormtail’s rent was the same!” He looks accusingly at Sirius, who stares back, unrepentant. “How come I’ve been paying for Wormtail’s rent, when Moony’s is fifty Galleons more?”
“Because you’ve also got a family to support, obviously,” answers Sirius, completely nonplussed. “Anyway, it’s my fault Moony’s flat costs more, I talked him into getting the nicer one.”
“I don’t care!” snaps James. “I’ll be paying for Moony’s rent this month! I’ve got twice as much gold as you!”
“And three times as many mouths to feed,” counters Sirius. “What’s the problem? It didn’t hurt you before you knew. Anyway, speaking of Moony –”
“No!” James glares at him, because he knows immediately where this conversation is heading. “We’re not going over this again.”
“But, Prongs, look at it logically –”
“How could you even think such a thing?” asks James, outraged. “Now more than ever we need to trust each other and –”
“No, now more than ever you need to be cautious!” snaps Sirius. “You and Lily have been marked for death, James! You can’t just blindly trust everyone!”
“We’re not talking about everyone, we’re talking about one of our closest friends!” James retorts. He’s registered the use of his real name, but ignores it. “If I can’t trust you, Moony, and Wormtail, then –”
“People can change!”
“Clearly,” says James coldly.
“Don’t get self-righteous with me!” snarls Sirius. “I’m trying to protect you!”
“You’ve got a rubbish way of doing it!”
“James.” Sirius’s voice has become desperate. “I’m asking you – I’m begging you to listen to me. Dumbledore knows there’s a spy, and it’s someone close to you.”
James shakes his head. “I can’t believe you believe that.”
Sirius ploughs on. “Consider for a moment the tiniest possibility that you might be wrong about Remus.”
“If not for yourself then for Lily and Harry!” There’s a pause after Sirius says this, infinitesimal but it feels longer, long enough for James to wonder if Sirius will actually verbalise what he knows they’ve both been fearing for months. And then Sirius actually says it: “And for me,” he whispers, and suddenly he looks very young – which, James realises with a jolt, he is. “I can’t afford to lose you.”
James stares at Sirius, wishing he hadn’t verbalised it at all. He’s never wondered what a vulnerable Sirius would look like, but if he had, he wouldn’t have imagined it would make him feel so gutted.
“Obviously,” he says haltingly, trying to recover the appearance of strength, “one of us dying wouldn’t be –” He stops, wondering where he was going when he started this sentence. It wouldn’t be what? Bearable? He can’t say that aloud. Sirius doesn’t wait for him to formulate an audible end to the sentence however.
“Yes, but it’s different for you!” he snaps, the vulnerability in his expression hardening again. “I die and of course you’re very sad, but really it’s no big deal, you –”
“Padfoot,” says James, very quietly, but Sirius cuts him off.
“No, listen! Even if I die, you won’t be alone. You’ll still have Lily and Harry, and that’s fantastic, but –”
“Padfoot, look –”
“Damn it, James!” Sirius shouts, so loudly that James literally jumps.
In any other situation James would find it funny. Easy there, Padfoot, you nearly gave me heart failure, he’d say, clutching dramatically at his chest, and Sirius, who can somehow never manage to stay angry with James for more than a few minutes, would give James a reluctant, sheepish smile, and then probably change the subject.
But it isn’t funny. James is used to dealing with Sirius’s hotheadedness and bitterness, the shields Sirius uses to keep even James out. This rage is anything but a shield.
“Don’t ‘Padfoot’ me like we’re still at school and the most we have to lose is a couple of house points!” Sirius continues, his voice cracking.
James stares at him, unable to think of a response, in part because it’s so unusual for Sirius to lecture anyone for not thinking about the consequences.
“You don’t get it, do you? This is all just some game to you –”
“Of course it isn’t!” snaps James.
“Running around in your Invisibility Cloak like there isn’t a prophecy hanging over your head –”
“What do you want me to do, mope about like Moony?”
“Stop using nicknames!” snarls Sirius. “This isn’t school, all right? There’s more at stake than just detention! You act like this is just the full moon or something, like Remus will change back, but –”
“We don’t know he’s changed at all!”
“Exactly! We – don’t – know. So isn’t it better to be cautious?”
“You’re really one to lecture on caution, Sirius!”
Only James can make the use of Sirius’s real name so stinging, and he knows it. Sirius looks momentarily stunned. He quickly recovers, however.
“Well there’s not as much riding on my loss, is there?” he retorts.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” asks James sharply.
“What do you think it means? You’re a husband and a father! You’ve got something tying you here! It’s time you acted like it!”
“Right, whereas your death wouldn’t affect anyone,” says James, very sarcastically.
“Stop trying to turn this onto me!”
“Why? You tell me to be careful, to forgo principles in favour of safety, but then you act like you’re disposable or something! Like I wouldn’t care if you snuffed it!”
“That wasn’t the point! This isn’t just about you, do you get that? It’s about, I don’t know, responsibility, or whatever the hell you call it! It’s about those two upstairs, it’s about the people who care –” Sirius’s voice breaks, but he doesn’t turn away, and for a moment he and James stare at each other, everything they haven’t said – not just now, but over the past few months (past few years, really, ever since graduation, ever since the war became real) – hanging between them, exposed.
And then James swallows and looks away.
“Well, soon the Fidelius Charm will be in place and we’ll be able to relax a bit,” he says with forced bravado. “Well, as relaxed as a Marauder’s life ever is.” Though he’s not looking at Sirius, he’s conscious of Sirius’s eyes still fixed unwaveringly on his face, and keenly aware that Sirius’s expression is gentler and more vulnerable than James has ever seen it before. “And relaxing isn’t exactly easy with Harry running about. But that’s good. More time to concentrate on chasing him down instead of always having the wand at the ready.” He tries to force a laugh and nearly gags. “And of course you’ll be able to visit more, and” – he wishes Sirius would look away – “and it’ll be just like old times, almost, and –”
“Are you scared?” It comes out a frightened little boy’s half-whisper, and James looks up, slightly taken aback, because of course he’s scared, and if Sirius doesn’t know him, who does? But then it occurs to him that maybe Sirius isn’t asking because he doesn’t know the answer but because he hopes he doesn’t. Maybe, despite his protests to the contrary, Sirius just wants a reason to believe this is all just another school game after all. Maybe he wants James to tell him there’s nothing to be scared of. And for a moment James teeters on the edge of lying, because he doesn’t know if he can stand seeing the look in Sirius’s eyes when he confirms that this is real.
“Terrified,” he says finally, and Sirius nods and makes an odd choking noise.
“I didn’t think it would end like this,” Sirius mutters.
James opens his mouth to retort that it’s not over, but this might be the only time in the war they – he – gets to be honest, so he says simply, “I know.”
Sirius makes that odd choking noise again, something between a laugh and a sob.
“Everything used to seem so simple,” he mutters. “You and me and the motorbike. Nearly making you miss dates with Lily. Your mum making us tea.”
“I know,” says James again.
“I don’t want to die,” says Sirius.
James starts to say, “You won’t,” but this isn’t a conversation for lies.
“I know,” he says quietly instead. “I don’t want you to die either.”
Sirius again makes that odd choking noise.
“I used to imagine being grown up,” he whispers. “It was never like this.”
The odd thing is, James thinks, the way he imagined it was actually a lot like this. Well, all right, maybe not the part where he has to stay indoors all the time because he’s on some dark wizard’s hit list. But everything with Lily and the baby and fighting evil instead of having a proper job and running round with Sirius … that’s all pretty much what he’d expected his adulthood to be.
Which makes it all the stranger – and all the worse – that he knows exactly what Sirius means: his life is absolutely nothing like how he’d thought it would be.
“I’m sorry,” he says, and he doesn’t really know what he’s apologising to Sirius for, or even if he’s apologising at all.
“Me too,” Sirius whispers.
They stare at each other, and James almost blinks back tears before he realises he isn’t actually crying.
“James?” Lily’s voice comes from the stairs. “James, did I hear Sirius?”
“He’s here,” he calls, but he doesn’t break eye contact, and neither does Sirius.
“I thought I heard that mad bike of yours,” says Lily, entering, and at the exact same moment, Sirius and James both finally look away from each other. They turn toward Lily, who’s stopped short in the doorway.
“Am I interrupting something?” she questions, looking between them.
Sirius flashes her his devilish grin.
“Nah,” he says. “Just paperwork.”
He glances at James, who gives him a very tiny smile and hopes that Sirius doesn’t see the tears that are belatedly pricking the corners of his eyes.
“Anyway,” Sirius continues, “I’d better be off. Order stuff, you know.”
“Sure you can’t have a quick breakfast?” asks Lily, looking disappointed, and Sirius half-glances at James again.
“No, it’s urgent,” he says quickly, and James is sure he’s lying.
“Oh, well, goodbye then,” says Lily. “I’m sorry I didn’t realise you were here earlier. I was trying to put Harry down.”
“Yes, well,” says Sirius, shrugging, “we’ll just have to pick up when I come back.”
He glances at James again when he says it, but James knows in his heart that they’ll never continue their conversation, and he’s not sure whether he’s disappointed or relieved.
“I’ll walk you out,” he offers, but Sirius shakes his head.
“No need,” he says quickly.
He’s backing toward the door, and James bites back the urge to ask him if the Order thing is dangerous.
Of course it is.
Sirius disappears, and James hears the front door shut, and then Sirius’s motorbike roars to life.
“He’s mad going out on that thing,” says Lily, and James laughs. “What?” Lily demands, and he shakes his head.
“Nothing,” he says. He pulls her into his arms, thinking about Sirius and traitors and the madness of a war that would have you turn against the people you trust most. “I love you,” he whispers.
“I love you too,” she whispers back, and he thinks that in a completely mad world, that might be the maddest thing of all.