'Curiosity killed the cat.' - traditional proverb.
The screech of Sirius' post owl interrupted their breakfast, just as James and Sirius were sitting around the table trying to set out their exam schedule for the end of term. The end of school seemed to be racing away.
Sirius paid the owl, who took off with a hoot, and started flipping through the paper. "Augh," he said, "I knew this subscription was a good idea." Sirius flapped a page at James. "More of my illustrious pedigree in the news."
"I'm trying to work," James answered absently, "keep your kin out of my porridge."
Sirius balled the newspaper up, shredding the classifieds section. "We're going to get our chance to do some good, James old boy. We have to."
"Then hurry up and fill out your exam sheet," James replied, "or you won't get into the Defense Against the Dark Arts sections you want." James was already writing out his own schedule. "I think that, all things considered, I'm going to concentrate on Defensive magic and hexes this term, then--"
Sirius interrupted. "That's what we're both doing, then," he said, scribbling on his sheet. James leaned over and saw Sirius hastily scrawling a few lines in "focus" and then copying out the N.E.W.T.S. subjects he intended to take - two in Defensive Magic, Advanced curses, and Runes. He still had two slots, and studied the list, forehead creased.
"Think you're studying enough, lad?" James asked.
Sirius was bent over the parchment, head bowed. "I concentrate best when I'm busy."
"And when you're taking the same subjects as me," James added.
"Am I?" Sirius glanced over and saw they'd picked nearly the same focus. "You're not taking Runes."
"You're only taking that because you want to study with Remus."
"Not only." Sirius sucked on the end of his quill for a moment, then absently spat it out in disgust when he realized it was a real feather. "A lot of the overseas postings like a chap to know his Runes."
James blinked, interested. "Really? I can't see them being much help against--"
"No," and Sirius interrupted. His course selection sheet was crumpled at the edges a little where he'd been clutching it. "I mean, the normal postings. Jobs. With the bank, for example?" He shrugged. "I figure, I like it - maybe I'm daft since I like it - but it comes naturally, and maybe after everything we'll need something." He shrugged again. "Else."
James stared at his own sheet, then wrote in four dark arts defence N.E.W.T.S. "Can we take any of these first term?" He scratched his head. "Get some out of the way?"
"Don't know." Sirius was still frowning. "I almost wish we could take more."
"You want to take more exams?" James held a hand to Sirius' head. "Are you well?"
"I just," and Sirius pursed his lips, skimming over the list again. "I'm quite happy to never crystal-ball gaze again, and you were always the one that liked Arithmancy, but I hate having to choose." He tapped his quill against the parchment.
"We can always just take these and learn the rest ourselves, mate," James said, leaning back. "Do a spot of research on our own?"
"What do you want to look up now?" Sirius was still staring at the list of options. "We've both mastered magic more advanced than any student in the school, we've pulled Snape's robes above his head more times than I can count..."
James glanced around the Dining Hall, and his eyes were drawn to the Slytherin table, where Snape was sitting on his own reading a textbook. James snickered despite himself; Snape was already in his exam-prep mode. He looked farther down the table to Snape's typical group of friends, and said -- "That reminds me, your cousin was acting very oddly the day after you left for work."
"Oddly?" Sirius narrowed his eyes. "How?"
"I just mean," James said, "she seemed a little too interested in a certain section in the library. Her and the rest of those little toads were talking about, I don't know." James shrugged. "It was just odd."
"Odd is your uncle that smokes hashish from India," Sirius countered. "Anything odd about my family is no good."
James sighed. "I know that if anything's happens here, Sirius, you'll try and catch them out." He stared across the room, still watching Snape read and the rest of them eat. "But please try and consider the other issues as well."
"Someone is going to have to catch them," Sirius said. He was unconsciously shredding the paper again. "I just really want it to be me."
"It would be nice to know that we stood a chance against them, though," James answered glumly. "Not like your duel last term that McGonagall had to break up--"
It was a stray comment, but Sirius snapped his head up. "What the hell are you talking about?"
In the back of James' mind, he was reviewing what the Slytherins had been up to right before the start of Christmas hols. He looked down at what was left of the headline news, and then said suddenly, "We haven't had enough practise with the Dark Arts to be fully effective." He pursed his lips, as Lestrange's head popped up and glared their way. James added, quieter, "even with all the Defense stuff we've done, how do we have any idea that it's going to work unless we know the curses themselves?"
"You don't mean."
"Nothing that bad, not to practise anyway," James added quickly. "But we could read up one night." He glanced over, made sure the rest of the table was engrossed in other things. "And it would be nice, for once, to know that if they pull out one of the nastier things that people don't like to talk about - and I think they might - we'll at least know what to do about it."
"You're talking about learning the tricks of the trade," Sirius said to James, frowning hard. He leaned over the table, pitching his voice low. "You're willing to do that?"
James nodded, fierce. "If it means we're more prepared? Yeah."
Sirius chewed on his lip. "What do you think Dumbledore would do if he found out?" At James' disbelieving glance, he said, "I'm just wondering, mind."
"I think that Dumbledore's tired," James answered shortly, "and that he's getting more tired every day. And I have to protect Lily."
"She'd have a fit if she heard you say that," Sirius answered, but he didn't grin. "Head Girl and all that. You're Head Boy, come to say. Willing to risk that, too?"
"Fine," James said quietly, tossing his quill on the table. "I have to protect me, then. And you're nutters if you think that I'll let any advantage out of my sight." He sighed. "You know it's a good idea, especially with how things are going, even in school."
Sirius nodded, slowly, and looked dark. "I don't think," he told James slowly, "that we should involve anyone else." James stared at him. "You know we're the quickest students."
James continued to tap his quill against the table. "You don't think that they'd want to know the curses we learned?"
Sirius frowned, biting his lip hard. All the blood was leeching out of his bottom lip slowly, and it was turning faintly white. "Maybe," he replied, finally.
James was quiet all through their study block the next day - "study block, why do they call it that when it's only the second day of term? I bloody well hope we don't have anything to study yet" - even though Peter nearly spilled bright purple ink over all their textbooks. James just muttered a few words and mopped the stuff off his books with the sleeve of his cloak, not even bothering to pull his wand out.
"What's up with him?" Peter asked Sirius as James switched tables with an absent smile. He settled down to read as Peter peered over at Sirius' book. "And what are you taking your N.E.W.T.S. in?" He rubbed his head wearily. "I can't imagine ever passing any of mine."
Sirius passed over his selection parchment - still not all filled out. "I thought that what I was taking this year would mean that picking the exams would be easy," Sirius said, "but it seems that each class you pick has at least three different possible exams. And you can sign up for double exams, or half-classes, or practicals."
Peter sighed in disgust. "Fat lot of good that does me. I'm taking none of what you lot are, am I?"
"Not unless you're taking Defensive Charms, Curses, theory and practical both--" Sirius waved the paper around as Peter tried not to laugh, "oh, and Runes."
"Why the ruddy hell are you still taking Runes?"
"I like it," Sirius answered, then ducked as the Professor overseeing their study glared at them. "Remus is taking exactly what you'd expect, and Runes. Lily's sticking with Potions and things, and James basically has the same exam schedule as I do."
Peter scribbled something down. "I think I'm going to stick with four," he said finally, "I definitely won't pass any more."
"You'll be fine," Sirius said.
"Quiet!" the professor said, but not too angrily, so Peter and Sirius just lowered their voices.
"So what is up with James, d'you think?" Peter whispered. He drew a stick figure on his parchment, adding a stupid hat and an umbrella. "He seems, a bit. Well."
"James is always 'a bit,' " Sirius whispered back. "It's nothing."
It turned out to be James sneaking out in the middle of the night that very night.
Sirius opened his eyes sleepily to James staring at him, sitting on the edge of his bed. "I got it," James whispered, "come on, get up."
It must have been two in the morning, and they had a double block of directed - "coming, coming," he muttered, trying to find his dressing gown.
Sirius padded down the cold steps barefoot, and found James curled up beside the embers of the Common Room fire. He studied his watch, blinking a few times before he could actually focus on the time. It was two thirty six in the morning. The Common Room was, as expected, deserted.
"All right, you psycho," Sirius whispered, "I'm up, what did you get?" James held up a slim little book with tight bindings around the cover. Sirius sat down, curling his toes underneath himself. The fire wasn't nearly warm enough. "Er. That."
"Is exactly what you think it is," James said, placing the little book on the table. "I figured we should start here. Been looking through the library all holidays, trying to figure out where to start."
Sirius, alarmed, looked up from the book. "Hold on, I thought this was a stray thought from yesterday!" He shuffled around in his seat. "You've been to the library already? You managed to get a book out of the Restricted Section already? What exactly were you doing all holidays while I was slaving for a living?"
"Don't tell me you're worried," James immediately replied. "We handled the Map fine."
"And nearly got it confiscated last term," Sirius said. He searched James' face, finally saying, "I am worried."
James frowned. Sirius looked at the book. It seemed relatively harmless, really. Small, grey, just a book - except for the tight metal rings clamped around the covers to hold it closed. "I am too," James said. "You'd be mental not to be. But I think we can do this. We've done everything else, right?"
Sirius picked up the book. The fire didn't give off enough light to read properly, so he lit a few candles on the table. It still wasn't really enough light to see anything. "All right," he said, examining the covers. "How do we open--"
At that, the snaps holding the book flew open, nearly slicing his finger in their race to free the pages. Sirius yelped, almost dropping the book right onto the floor. He held it gingerly, on his flat palms, while the cover opened to the first page.
James pulled his chair closer, leaning on Sirius' shoulder. Sirius began to read. " 'An Account Of Curses, Olde, and--"
He broke off when James put a hand over his mouth. "Do you think," James said slowly, "that we should be reading these books. Er. Aloud?"
Sirius scowled, and pushed James away. "This little project was your idea." He pulled his own chair closer to the firelight. "But if we're going to do this, we might as well do it right." James tugged his own chair as close to Sirius as he could get, leaning over the arm so he could see the pages too. Sirius swivelled around, to give him a better view, and then said quietly, "Got a quill?"
"We'd better take this one back, the teachers are all starting to--"
Peter leaned over to whisper, "What?"
Sirius nearly jumped out of his skin. "It's nothing," he said, stuffing the book away, out of sight. He shouldn't even really have it out of the dorm room - no one had noticed its disappearance yet, at least they hoped. "Leave off."
Peter narrowed his eyes, hurt. James frowned at Sirius, and told Peter, "it's just extra credit."
'Truth and oil always come to the surface.' - Spanish proverb.
Sirius and James started disappearing at odd times, and looking exhausted in the mornings. This wasn't unusual, but it was unique for them to be so completely closed-lipped about the whole thing. Remus found himself spending more and more time with Lily and Peter, while James and Sirius ran about who knew where.
When Peter asked him about it once or twice, he laughed it off, but privately he was starting to wonder. He wasn't, obviously, the only one.
"Has Sirius been acting, oddly, lately?" Lily said, putting down her Potions essay.
Remus glanced at them with a vague shudder, glad only that he didn't ever have to take Potions again. "He's been skulking around," Remus admitted slowly. "Disappearing. To be honest I didn't want to ask him about it."
Lily sighed. "He and James were out all night last night," she said, and absently put her textbook away, waving her wand to sort her notes. "And you know I don't normally pry into your affairs, but he seemed," and she searched for a word. "Tense."
"Well Sirius has been tense for weeks." Remus hesitated. "You don't think they're."
He shook his head, frustrated. "No. I don't know."
Lily flicked her wand again, simply making a mess of their study notes. "I don't know anything," she admitted. "To be honest, I was hoping that it was a boy thing, and that you were going to laugh at me and I could just forget about it."
Remus gave her a watery smile. "I could laugh at you if you want."
"I don't think I'll feel better," she told him.
Remus started to notice other things, as well. Several times, Sirius came to class with burns on his hands, and once James woke up in the middle of the night weeping. Remus sat in bed, quietly, while Sirius whispered, "James? James?"
The three of them carefully pulled their curtains open, staring at James' closed set. "Should we..?" Sirius asked, scrubbing at his face.
Peter shrugged, frowning. "Is it." He started to rise, and then hesitated. "Maybe it's private?"
"He's asleep," Remus said, thinking hard. "So it's not really, it can't be, right?"
"I'm going to," Sirius muttered, and reached over for the bed curtains. At that moment, James gasped, then settled down again. They all looked at each other warily, and Remus listened hard. It sounded as if James' breathing had settled into a steady rhythm again, and they couldn't hear him sobbing anymore.
Peter asked uncertainly, "is that it, then?"
It seemed to be it. Except in the morning, James looked tired and pale, and Lily looked at him, both worried and angry at the same time. Remus knew how she felt.
Peter quietly sent a hex over to Sirius, and made his hair stand straight up. Sirius didn't even look up; he just kept his head bent, reading something and copying notes out of the book. Remus chuckled, and added a few pieces of parchment stealthily. Peter snickered, and still Sirius didn't look up.
James came into the room, shivering and nearly blue in his Quidditch robes. The rest of the Gryffindor team straggled in looking just as miserable. "It shouldn't be this cold," James declared, "not in January." He flopped in a chair near the fire. "No, I lie. It can be this cold in January. Just not when I'm supposed to be flying Quidditch." He moaned. "Why do I keep trying to do these pre-dawn practises?"
"You have been up before breakfast every day this week," Remus said mildly. "It's bound to wear you out."
"Weren't your morning practises only Tuesdays and Thursdays?" Peter said, surprised. "Where have you been?"
James had his eyes closed, and looked for all the world like he was asleep. Remus watched the nervous tic of his Adam's apple bobbing up and down, as if he was swallowing, gulping.
Sirius chose that moment to look up, and pull his wand out. "All right," he said, "who did it?" He tried to push his hair flat again, but it just resulted in it springing back up again - though a few of the parchment pieces fell off, and they fluttered to the floor. "Argh!" he said, scrubbing at his head.
Peter bounced up, and made his way up to their room with Sirius following closely behind him. Remus shook his head, and glanced over at James - he still appeared asleep, though his mouth twitched occasionally and his body was most definitely not relaxed. Remus called out softly, "James?"
Remus pursed his lips. "Look, where were you yesterday morning?" James didn't move. "Or last night?"
"mmm," James said, and then murmured, "I could sleep for a million years."
"Listen," Remus told him, sitting opposite James, "you were crying in your sleep yesterday." James slowly opened his eyes, and Remus shifted uncomfortably. "Well, you were."
"I was," James said.
"Lily and I have been wondering, James," Remus said, quietly, "what you and Sirius are up to."
James moved around, rubbing his hands together briskly over the fire. He noticed that James' hands were still bright white. "Why don't you ask Sirius?"
"I'm asking you," Remus replied.
James closed his eyes again, holding his hands out, palms upward, towards the warmth of the fire in their grate. "I could sleep forever," he told Remus.
"Nothing?" Lily said, eating her porridge. "Nothing at all?"
"Nothing at all what?" Peter asked, sitting down with them. "And have either of you seen James?"
Remus looked at Lily. "We can't figure out what's up with Sirius and James," he admitted, stirring sugar and cream into his porridge. The two of them weren't at breakfast. As usual. "Any thoughts?"
Peter stared dully at his bowl, finally spooning a healthy helping of brown sugar and clotted cream onto the hot cereal. "Not a one, about James, Sirius, class, or otherwise," he told them.
"I suppose we'd best grab the two of them some toast," Remus said, eying the table. He was annoyed. Sirius and James had got up at the crack of dawn again to do who knew what, and when he and Peter got back to their room, they'd probably be fast asleep in their beds. Trying to nap once more before class. It wasn't fair.
"You're more forgiving than I am," Lily answered, sniffing. She'd already finished her breakfast and was scribbling out a last-minute assignment. "I'd let them starve."
Peter was already gathering up some toast, wrapping the pieces carefully in a napkin and stealthily putting a huge juice jug under his robe. "They'd make sure we ate even if we were cheering for Slytherin next match," Peter told her. "It's not a question of what they've done."
Remus nodded. "He's right." He nodded to Peter as Peter stood, trusting him to take care of feeding James and Sirius. He didn't feel like talking to either of them right now anyway, and he had to ask Professor Kettleburn something about the practise exam in a few weeks - there wouldn't be time enough to go back to the dorm and then go out to see him. "Besides," Remus added, just for Lily's ears, "it doesn't mean I've forgiven them."
She looked at him, surprised. "I thought you four never fought."
He snorted. "Fight? Us? Please. Don't you remember only last month, when Peter and James nearly bit each other's heads off over a bag of Sugar Quills?" He grinned. "It usually takes a matter of hours to resolve things."
"You don't seem to argue with anyone."
Remus rolled his eyes. "I'm easier to get along with than James or Sirius, haven't you noticed?" He played with his spoon. "I just want to know what's going on right now."
"Me too," Lily said, softly. "And not because I don't trust James. Just--"
"You don't trust James," he finished for her. "It's all right," Remus muttered, suddenly flush. "I don't trust them either. Think about what they did to the whole dorm last term - it takes a gullible person to trust them," Remus added, starting to chuckle. The laugh died. He put his spoon down with a clatter, and watched a few post owls dropping notes off for students. It was patently clear within a few seconds who was grateful for mail and who wasn't; a Hufflepuff student, Remus thought her name was Tracy, put her face in her hands. Sirius's cousin, however, was nearly beaming, if you could call anything that close to a sneer beaming.
Lily flipped through her copy of the Daily Prophet. The front page had Frank Longbottom, photographed outside a non-descript Muggle warehouse, skulking in the corners. Remus didn't even bother glancing at the headline. It would be the same old story. "Look at this," she said, pointing to the story inside. "It's positively disgusting."
Remus, however, was watching the Slytherin table. "That's disgusting," he told her, pointing as Lestrange and his pals were now laughing over the paper, Snape reading the article. "I bet his holidays were simply splendid."
"That much venom isn't becoming," Lily said, low. "Still, I understand. I mean, he used to be so different--" and Lily paused, frowned, and said finally, "They've all chosen their side. Best they just get out of here fast."
"People change," Remus said. He knew that it still hurt her, seeing such a reversal. He suspected it hurt Snape, as well, but some things wouldn't ever be taken back, and no use dwelling on it. People changed, sometimes for the good - proof of it in Lily's acceptance of James - or for ill - proof in Snape glancing over at them, and then looking away. "We'll never be rid of them," Remus said to her, standing. "We'd see them in the news, if nowhere else. I'd better get to class. Listen, maybe we should just ask Sirius and James?"
"We probably should," Lily replied. "After tea?"
"Right," Remus told her. He didn't feel at all hopeful about their chances of getting a straight answer.
That was because James and Sirius definitely weren't going to give them a straight answer.
"Fine," Lily said resentfully, watching their retreating backs. "They're going to practise Quidditch instead of speak to us, we'll figure out what's going on."
Lily snuck up to their room while Remus sat in the Common Room, unhappily shreading candy wrappers. She marched back down again, hands in fists, and said "I don't know. Maybe we should follow them." He stared at her unhappily, moved his mouth unhappily, but nodded.
Remus didn't see Sirius and James leave the room, he didn't see them close the door, he didn't see a thing. That wasn't unusual; many a night he'd heard James sneak out the portrait hole, wearing his Invisibility Cloak, off to do some good, or bad. He pulled shoes on, got the map out from under his pillow, and whispered "lumos" quietly.
The two dots marked "Sirius" and "James" carefully and steadily crept down the corridor, up a flight of stairs, and through a wardrobe in a spare room to an unused office. Peter snuffled, in bed, and rolled over with a gentle sigh; it was now or never.
He worried briefly about how to warn Lily, but when he got down to the Common Room, she was already standing in the middle of it, facing their stairway. "I heard them leave," she said by way of explanation. "I was sitting on the stairs."
"No one wondered why you didn't come to bed?" he asked.
Lily was already headed for the exit. "Sure they did." She paused. "I hope you know where they went."
The map was folded, safely in his pocket and wiped clean. They didn't have far to go; Filch was down in the dungeons, so it said. "Follow me," Remus answered, and set off down the hall.
The trip felt like simply ages. Remus' legs wobbled every time he set one down on the stones, sure that someone would catch them in the hallway. He was even more nervous about what might happen once they found James and Sirius. This kind of hiding, like they had a real secret, was as stupid as it was hurtful. "Here," Remus hissed, pushing his way into the wardrobe carefully. "Through here."
Lily was right on his heels, and then Remus felt his way around in the dark, finding with difficulty the hidden doorhandle at the back of the wardrobe. He pulled his wand out, unlocked the door--
and Sirius and James sat bolt upright, their own wands out immediately. "Oh," James murmured, and dropped his arm. "It's you."
Lily strode into the little office, wand still in her hand. Remus held back. There wasn't much furniture - two chairs, which Remus would bet Sirius had snuck from somewhere else, a table, and a lot of dust. "It's us," Lily said to James.
Sirius, Remus noticed, was rubbing his hands together rhythmically. He said, "we, uh. Thought you might be someone else."
"We locked the door magically," James cut in. "I guess, not very well."
"You're lucky we aren't Filch," Lily said, voice steady. Remus let her speak. He leaned against the hidden door, and bit the inside of his cheek.
James licked his lips. "Filch doesn't know a lick of magic," he told her. "He couldn't have got in without a lot of fuss. We would have heard."
As if that was the issue, getting caught. Remus glanced around again. He had been hoping, even as late as back in the darkened wardrobe, that this was something innocent the four of them could laugh about now - and then again later, with Peter in the morning. The looks on James and Sirius' faces, however, spoke a different story. They were obviously guilty.
"So what," Sirius started, and swallowed. "What are you doing here?"
"Well," Lily said, speaking directly to James, "we've been worried about the two of you lately. Disappearances. Mysterious meetings." She let out a soft 'hah', and Remus supposed it was meant to be a laugh. "You had us thinking you were up to something serious."
She looked at the two of them for a very long moment. "We were thinking along the right lines, weren't we?"
Remus waited for James to answer, but for the first time in his life, he didn't seem to have anything to say. Finally, Sirius said to her, "You were pretty much bang-on."
"Why," she asked quietly, cracks in her steady mask showing, "am I not reassured?"
It was the principle of the thing, Remus thought, pressing his tailbone against dark wood. They hadn't even deigned to explain something was going on; they had tried to hide the very fact that there was something to hide. It wasn't like James, or Sirius. The guilty, even wary, expressions the two of them wore were wholly unfamiliar to him. Remus crossed his arms.
"You followed us," James stated weakly. Remus shook his head again, just a fraction - not a denial. He was trying to piece together who was the betrayed party.
"Of course we did," Lily told him. "Concern does that to you. And we were right to be concerned." She stared darkly, from James to Sirius and back again. Hands on her hips, wand clutched in her fist, she looked a lot more fierce than most of the dark wizards they'd researched. When neither of them spoke, she said dangerously, angrily, "I don't suppose asking for an explanation will do us any good."
James raised his hands, supplicating, and Remus shook his head, nearly standing behind Lily in his attempt to stand away from James and Sirius both. His arms were crossed, pressing against his chest, and his hands were digging painfully into his own taut forearms, fingernails making little marks in the skin.
Sirius was the one to pull the book from under the pile and place it in the middle of the table. The cover was all black, shabby almost, and slick like oil. Lily glanced at it for only a moment, then immediately returned her eyes to James' face. Her anger didn't lessen. "What," she said low, harsh, "is that?"
Remus picked it up, flipped through the pages quickly and then put it down carefully, silently. He knew exactly what it was - they'd been studying this type of information for the last two years, trying to figure out some way to fight it. He backed up, and opened the door of the office just as silently.
Sirius winced as he closed it behind him with a little 'click' instead of the bang they all expected.
'Curses, like chickens, always come home to roost.' - Greek proverb.
"Lily," James said low. "Lily. Lily." He rubbed his hands together, briskly; it was cold in study hall, even though it was barely evening. "Lily."
She didn't even look up from her work.
"All right," James said weakly, "obviously you're angry."
Lily clicked her teeth together, and bent over her notes. Professor McGonagall eyed the two of them, but as this wasn't technically silent study, let them be. James ran a hand through his hair, impatiently tapping one finger against the ancient desk. How many students before him had sat down in this study hall, in this very chair, and felt utterly hopeless about their prospects, their futures? Maybe all the great Gryffindor students had once sat right here. Maybe there was some kind of magic in the chair itself; maybe all the Head Boys before him had perched right in the same spot, tapped their fingers under the watchful eye of a teacher, and felt helpless.
"I said what's wrong?" Lily asked softly.
James glanced up. He'd been staring at a knothole in the table, and Lily was now looking at him, face registering concern. "I was just thinking about feeling," and he stopped tapping his finger. "Helpless. I guess."
"We are not helpless, James," she said immediately. "But even feeling that way doesn't give you the right to try and learn things that could get you expelled." She lowered her voice even more, though it was apparent that McGonagall, currently absorbed in clucking her tongue over some third year essays, was paying them no mind. "Or worse," she added ominously. "You can't just play about with things like that."
James started stuffing all of his things back in his bag. "You know, I was quite willing to grovel for as long as it took to get you to forgive me for lying to you," he told her, not bothering to be that quiet. A few other seventh year students looked up in mild interest. He kept his face very blank, very formal. "But if you think that I would dare 'play about' with." He stood up, slinging his bag over his shoulder. "I have an essay to finish, and then I have Quidditch practise," he told her. "In the dark. So if you don't mind, I think I'll go find some peace and quiet."
As he walked stiffly down the row of tables to the doorway, he mentally begged Lily to get up and follow him. Obviously, she didn't.
"She really thought that's what we were doing?" Sirius said, toting the blanket over the grounds. No one in their right mind was out that afternoon - the wind was howling and the air was fierce. James' cheeks felt positively pinched with cold. "Playing about?"
"I don't know," James muttered, and ducked behind the shed. "There, hand me the blanket." He spread it on the ground, and then conjured them up some heat. "Okay, we shouldn't be seen out here. Do you have it?"
Sirius rooted around in the bag, and pulled out a feather cushion. "Are you sure you want to try this one out in the open?" He squinted into the sky; the Ravenclaw Quidditch team was flying over the field, and there was a teacher supervising them. "In the day time?"
James held his wand grimly. "Just get ready with the counter-spell, all right?" He stared at the pillow. "Agrippina's book wasn't too specific on how to put the fire out, but I want to be ready, just in case."
Sirius murmured, "because a little dousing spell is going to help against this," and backed up a few paces. "All right," he said, "go."
James narrowed his eyes, pointed his wand steady, and said low, "incendio."
The pillow burst into flames, orange fire slowly engulfing the whole thing. Sirius muttered, and the flames were extinguished - though not without charring a great deal of the insides and the pillowcase as well. "Augh," and James waved his hand in front of his nose, "that's going to stink forever."
"Good thing we're not trying this in the castle," Sirius commented. He pulled another little pillow out of his bag. "Want me to protect it first, or do you want to work up to that?"
"Let's just see if this works at all," James told him, and pulled his sleeves up. Their little pocket of air was rapidly cooling, even despite the fire they'd cast not two minutes ago. His arms already had goosebumps. The wind had died off though, so they weren't shivering quite yet. "Okay, back up. I'm not even sure a little dousing spell will work against this at all. Agrippina didn't specify any counters to this."
"Handy, that," Sirius said, stepping away several paces. He was practically in the underbrush. "She obviously didn't want anyone to be able to stop this one."
"Or any of them," James said, and then swallowed. "All right, and mind, if anything else goes up we hoof it straight into the Forest for the rest of the period."
"Incendatur," James whispered. Nothing happened. He took a breath, and hissed, "incendatur!"
The pillow smoked for a moment, then there was a flash. Sirius tilted his head, then stepped forward cautiously. When there was no subsequent sign of anything going up in flames, they both lowered their wands. Sirius grabbed the white pillowcase, and peered inside - then turned it end over end, shaking out what was inside.
A handful of ashes fell onto the frozen ground. "Well," he said, a little shaky. "I think that worked."
"--can't believe that really happened," Sirius was saying as they sat down to stuff themselves. James had two hours to rattle off all of his homework and then he could sleep exactly eight hours. Then Quidditch, then class, then Quidditch, then another jaunt into the Forest with Sirius.
Remus passed them the platter of potatoes, pleasantly enough. "What happened?" he asked, voice even.
"Nothing," James said immediately, and Sirius added, "nothing," and Remus smiled tightly, and told them,
"that's fine, it doesn't matter," and got up to move.
James admitted, "I can't believe it really worked," to Sirius. "For the first time in my life I want to pay attention to History of Magic. Too bad we threw out all of Binns' notes." He dished up. "Agrippina managed to use a change in her own verb tenses to effect the intent of a spell."
It was like a whole new world had opened up for James - suddenly, instead of the rules of magic being about how to change what thing, the rules were why you wanted to change and how. "Do you think that if I asked someone who'd gone to a Muggle primary school, they'd explain these language things?"
"Take Runes," Sirius said absently. "Say, do you think he's really angry with us?"
"It's too late to take Runes, why don't you just tell me?" James answered, and then frowned. "I understand half of what she says about all of it - the twaddle about needing to conjugate and use passive and active. But it would help ever so much more if someone who actually knew how to speak another language could take a look at it."
"I don't think I've seen him this angry with me in a while," Sirius murmured, oblivious to what James was going on about. James stopped, looking up. He had no idea who Sirius was talking about, until he saw him staring at Remus - who was talking to Lily at the end of the table, surrounded by Peter and a couple of Lily's friends. One of them was giggling at Remus, obviously flirting. "I suppose I can't blame them. We won't tell them what's going on."
"He can't be half as bad as Lily," James said, suddenly not in the mood to dissect the intention behind curses and the ideas of language and how it reflected and literally shaped the world. "She thought we were just playing around."
"Well, isn't that what we're doing?"
"Come off it," James said angrily, "it's not like we were going to try that 'burn only your enemies and leave their clothing' spell in the common room! We went out to the Forest, we made sure that no one would be hurt. We're only learning these to try and figure out a way to stop them."
Sirius picked at his food. "The Forest where, I might add, there are all manner of creatures who are alive and would burn quite well."
"It worked, didn't it?" James said. "Burn the animal, leave everything else." He speared a piece of meat. "Scary stuff."
"You want to try the solvo" and Sirius' goblet clinked "tomorrow? Best do that in the cupboard."
James nodded, then yelped as Sirius' goblet faded away, his juice spilling all over the table. Sirius muttered, and the goblet reappeared. "You want to watch it," James hissed at him, "you weren't even holding your wand."
Sirius mopped the mess up with a napkin. "I didn't mean to."
James stared at the wet patch. "You have to be careful."
Peter found James hard at work late the next night, this time on some things Gus was asking about. The prefects were still worried about the school itself, and while despite the chaos outside, it seemed Hogwarts was untouchable - a few people, he and Gus included, weren't totally convinced. Of course nothing James seemed to try would really solve the underlying problem: what they needed was a real plan in case anything drastic happened, and he just didn't know how to set that up.
"Do you do anything but work anymore?" Peter said, sitting down across from him. "Every time I look over, you or Sirius have your head stuck in some book or another. I know that we can't copy as much homework as in lower school," he added, "but you two never worked hard to get top marks. I'm working half as hard as you and we're nearly tied enough in standings." Peter shook his head good-naturedly at the idea of getting marks anywhere as high as James' usual standing. "It's unnatural."
"Not homework," James answered absently, sketching another route. Maybe if they trained some of the fourth years, made sure all prefects knew all the secret passages out of the school. It killed him to think about giving away those secrets, though. Something had to work. James added, "For the prefects. They asked if we could meet again tomorrow, and I want to have something to show this time."
Peter sat there quietly for a moment, until James looked up. He sighed inwardly. Just what he needed. "Are you waiting for a chance to yell or scold me as well?"
"What?" Peter looked puzzled. "I was waiting for you to finish whatever it is you're doing so we can go. But if you'd like I'll scold you." He pulled his eyebrows together fiercely and scowled, scrunching his whole face up. "How dare you do such a thing, James, how dare you. I'm ashamed."
"Oh, shove off." James shoved the parchment into a corner. They'd never work out the details of such an elaborate evacuation. And maybe it was irrational paranoia to assume that they'd need it. He said to Peter, "I thought you might be angry at Sirius and I as well, is all."
Peter shrugged. "I assumed that when you and Sirius had it all figured out - whatever it is - you'd tell us what was going on. That's usually how it works." He looked a little alarmed. "That is how it works," he repeated.
"That's the plan," James answered, trying to sound normal. He pictured that pillowful of ashes, and said, "Sirius and I are just ironing out a few kinks."
Peter flicked him on the forehead, and then stole his quill. "Where is Sirius, anyway?" he said. "We're nearly late."
"Late?" James stared blankly at Peter, forehead aching slightly. He'd been getting headaches - perhaps he needed new glasses, for reading or something.
"For Remus?" Peter stared. "Surely you haven't--"
James smacked himself in the forehead, hopping up madly. "No, I didn't!" Peter stared some more. "All right," he said, "just please don't tell him. I don't want him to know I forgot it was the full moon, all right?"
"Where is Sirius, anyway?" Peter followed him up to the dorm to grab his Cloak, and added, "the way those two have been acting, he better not skip this or he'll be even more in the doghouse."
"Oh, hah hah," James said weakly. In truth, Sirius had probably forgotten all about Remus' transformation as well. He and James hadn't been paying much attention to anything other than Agrippina and her kin, that week. "Let's check--"
But Sirius came wandering out from who knew where. "Where are you two heading?"
James cleared his throat, trying to subtly indicate they were in major trouble. "Thought we might go visit Remus, my friend," he said casually, "while he's in mortal danger and all. Care to join us?"
Sirius' face rippled for a brief instant, and then he said, "well, if we must, James." He loped an arm over James' shoulders. "Lead on."
They snuck out of the portrait hole, and Peter, looking around cautiously, transformed, then skittered down the hallway. James and Sirius followed him, wrapping the Invisibility Cloak around themselves as soon as they were out of sight of the Gryffindor hallway. No one would probably question the Head Boy out of bed at this hour, but it was wiser not to take that chance.
They snuck through one of the many shortcut passages and then walked rapidly after Peter as he darted across the lawns towards the Willow. The branches stilled, and James glanced up at the castle. Sirius was already transforming, bounding out from under the Cloak. James said to the big black dog, "he's probably already changed," and then looked up at the dark castle, Cloak hiding him from view. He murmured, "we should have been here sooner."
The next afternoon James visited Remus in the hospital wing, where he was in bed trying to mend a fractured elbow. "No idea how it came about, either," he told James, and winked. "One of those things."
James rolled his eyes, all too clearly remembering the ravine Remus had fallen down in his wolf form the night before. "You're just clumsy," he told Remus, "every month, you're in here with a broken bone."
"Yes," Remus said, but he wasn't joking anymore. James dropped the pretense as well, handing Remus his lunch tray. "I suppose Sirius had to study."
"He wasn't sure you wanted to see him," James answered, fidgeting. "But he said he'd save you some cake from tea."
"Thank him for me," Remus told him.
James nodded, suddenly very uncomfortable. He'd kept a huge secret from his friends and his girlfriend, he'd hidden the fact that he was studying illegal magic, and here was he and Remus, talking about today's tea. "Do you think I'm horrid, for keeping secrets? Do you think that we would play about with something like that for no reason?"
Remus blinked, and flexed his elbow gingerly. James peered at his arm; everything seemed to be in working order. "Are you asking me this because you're concerned about you and Lily?"
"Well, what am I supposed to do, Remus?" He fiddled with his quill. "Lily and I aren't even speaking. We may break up."
Remus pushed his blankets away, sighing. He said flatly, "What answer do you want? I'm as angry at you as I am at Sirius," and flexed his fingers carefully. James flinched a little, stung. He'd had no real idea that Remus' anger welled as deep as Lily's, because it manifested so much more silently. James watched Remus' arm cramping, hand shaking gently as he tested the bounds of his own bone, muscle.
James got up quietly.
"We have to talk some time, Lily," James said, wearily. He tried to keep his voice quiet so that the rest of the room wouldn't hear their fight. "Even if it's for you to tell me to shove off for good. And call me selfish but I'd rather that be now, than later."
"You know, I'm not that concerned with what you want," Lily said, refusing to look at him. "I have to concentrate on what I know."
James threw his hands up. "Well, what do you know?"
Lily finally stopped playing around with her chess pieces. "I know that you kept a huge secret from me, that you were trying out" and as James looked around the room nervously, she stopped, not actually saying it aloud. "I know that you kept that secret from me, both as your girlfriend, your friend, and as Head Girl of this school."
James could believe her anger, could believe and understand it. He nodded, slowly. "I didn't tell you because, as Head Girl, you would have perhaps felt responsible to make sure it didn't happen; that our experimentation stopped." He bit his lip. "As a friend, I didn't want to, either directly or indirectly, involve you - or Remus, or Peter - with something that was dangerous and nasty."
"And as your girlfriend?" Lily asked him. "I suppose that it never occured to you that I was worried about you. Or that Remus was worried about Sirius, not that those two are ever going to have this conversation."
"No," James replied, "they're probably not." He pulled his glasses off to rub his eyes, pressing his fingertips to his forehead. He definitely needed a new prescription. He didn't answer her question, staying quiet. There wasn't really much of an answer. He did say, "I was, however, offended that you would even think for a second that I would do something as irresponsible as 'play around' with magic that, mean."
"Magic isn't mean," she answered, "wizards are."
"And that's exactly the point!" James said, annoyed. "Which implies that you think we have that cruel streak, that you don't think we've changed at all-- That I, of all people, would want to know those things, for any other reason than to try and protect, stop--" James took a breath. "That I would be interested for one second in actually wanting to use these things to hurt people."
Lily stayed very, very silent. "Fine then," he said, and practically jumped out of his seat. "I'm going to bed," and he made his way up the stairs, not caring anymore if she was watching or not.
"James," Lily said. "James."
He inwardly rolled his eyes - it was kind of stupid, really. Their roles were reversed almost fully now: she'd spent three days completely ignoring him, up to and including the prefects' meeting about a potential - now concrete - Hogsmeade trip. The only difference was he wasn't nearly as good at ignoring Lily, so she was trying to wear him down with sheer stubbornness. The theory being, eventually, he'd have to give in and speak to her, and it was sound. "Please, James," she said.
He ignored her, continuing to read. Lily gave up for a few minutes, then pulled her chair a little closer to his. Despite the rumors, neither of them had bothered to tell anyone of their precise relationship status, and so the places nearest to him were usually reserved for her. "Look, I'm sure you think that I'm being horribly juvenile, or worse female, about this whole thing." She pursed her lips. "After all, look at Remus and Sirius - they're getting along well enough, they're playing cards right now."
James obediently looked at the two of them, even though he was trying to ignore her. They did appear to be getting along, though neither of them were smiling. Peter watched them deal out another hand of some Muggle card game that was popular this term among the lower school - Sirius had taken a liking to Muggle cards. "They're speaking, sure, but have you noticed that they haven't touched each other once?" Lily said to him. "Not once. Sure, they're getting along fine."
It was true. They hadn't touched once, hadn't fought, hadn't argued. Lily added, "I sometimes wonder if they ever speak about anything serious."
James shrugged - couldn't help himself. She cracked a small smile. "So you do respond." He went back to his book, reading the same line about some stupid thing over and over. "All right, you don't," Lily continued, "fine, I'll speak then. Perhaps this will be easier anyway."
Lily leaned over to him, frustrated and obviously so. Her cheeks were flushed a little, and she looked tense all over, hands clasped together. "This whole thing, the secrets, what you're trying to do - it's like I don't even know you anymore, James," Lily said. "I don't know what's gotten into you, I don't know what you're doing. The James Potter I couldn't stand only humiliated Severus, you didn't-- it wasn't like this, and I thought he had grown up a-- I just. I don't know. I don't understand you."
She glared at a couple of fourth years who were sitting up, talking excitedly about the Hogsmeade trip tomorrow, as if she was mentally willing them to go to bed so they could have some privacy, even if there were a dozen students still talking and reading. Tomorrow would be the first - and James knew possibly the only - Hogsmeade trip this term. It was just too dangerous.
He ignored her. He flipped another page in his book and wrote a line of notes - not from one of the books he and Sirius had liberated from the Restricted section, but for an essay that was due the day after tomorrow. Since there was another Quidditch practise for the Chasers tomorrow morning, early, before the Hogsmeade trip - he'd scheduled it himself, back when he was motivated and insane - he had to finish this now. Another roll, and he'd be done. He could do that before midnight.
"Are you ever going to answer me?" Lily added. "Because I've had it up to here, and I'm starting to think that maybe we need some time apart." She sighed. "Perhaps permanently."
James did look up at that. "You're really that angry?"
"I'm not even angry!" she hissed, ducking her head as one of the students still awake glanced at them. "I just don't understand."
James put his quill down on the table, blowing gently over the still-wet ink. "You know, when my parents were killed," he said, "I didn't feel helpless. It felt like, if I just picked my wand up?" he told her, "I'd be able to do anything. I could get revenge. I just had to do it."
Lily sat down, folding her hands in her lap. The frustration in her eyes faded, but her mouth was still thin, jaw still clenched. "You very nearly did," she said to him.
"I did," he admitted. "But Dumbledore made me a prefect," he added, "and so that wasn't what I wanted to do." He pushed the essay - Ancient Curses and How To Break Them - aside, and leaned back. His left temple had started to ache some time last hour, and now it was throbbing, almost in time to his heart. At least James imagined it was in time with his heartbeat. "But I had the power to get revenge if I wanted to."
"And now you don't have that?" she asked him.
James looked around the Common Room. The fourth years were still in the corner, bent over whatever they thought was the new fad; most of the rest of the students had gone to bed. Peter had snuck away, probably to the kitchens, and Remus and Sirius, in those few moments, had disappeared who knew where. One of the other prefects was out visiting a girlfriend, not that he'd ever admit it. None of the upperclassmen except them were around. "If someone came in here and started hexing kids in their rooms," James said slowly, softly, "Even after all the extra prep we've done, the things that Dumbledore has tried to teach us - I wouldn't know how to block them all."
Lily exhaled, slowly, and then brought a hand to her mouth, pressed it there until her knuckles were white and shaking.
James shrugged, smiled wryly. "I don't know as it's going to happen," he said quietly. "But I just keep thinking," he continued, reluctantly, "about the fact that we have students living within this school that may be a danger."
Lily sat there, and after a moment James returned to his essay to give her a bit of private thinking time. Eventually she stood, stretching. "I'm going to bed," she told him, then added, "You're a good Head Boy, James."
He watched her mount the stairs, and look cautiously around the corner before stepping onto the landing. James sighed. He really didn't want to mention it to Lily, not when his worry was just that - a nebulous anxiety that they weren't prepared if students within the school wanted to take action against them. He didn't really think that anyone would be so foolish as to try something when Dumbledore was around. And yet.
He wrote the rest of his essay, and in the morning couldn't remember having finished it, but could recall in great clarity the nightmare he had.
'The snake bites the tamer first.' - Romanian proverb.
In hindsight, it seemed incredibly convenient that Albus Dumbledore and Minerva McGonagall were both away on business the same weekend. McGonagall was only gone for the day, after all - some "teachers' conference", which in hindsight was incredibly fishy, and yet James nodded merrily and let her go. Dumbledore, he traveled quite a bit lately. James knew exactly why, he read the papers like everyone else. His parents had told him a little bit about what Dumbledore was doing, and it was enough to know that Dumbledore was probably needed in a thousand places at once. James had stopped wondering where he disappeared to long ago.
It was, however, incredibly convenient timing.
James said, "maybe a few Frog Pellets," to Sirius. They were trying to decide what to get Remus for his birthday - at least James was trying to decide. Sirius had already bought him a new broomstick with the money he'd saved over the last holidays. James had been astounded, and shocked, and a little pleased. Expensive presents might not be as important to casual blokes like Sirius and Remus, but the fact that Sirius spent the money he'd saved for weeks on Remus maybe meant that they'd settled down for good.
"He won't want Frog Pellets, half-wit," Sirius replied. "But some Invisible Ink, maybe." James and Sirius both grinned.
In third year, before they'd mastered the fine art of higher prank-pulling, one of their favorite tricks was to write over school assignments in Invisible Ink, ink that was visible, then disappeared, then reappeared. It wore off completely in enough time that the more lenient teachers just graded their papers last, and the less lenient ones just gave them zero. The poor substitute Herbology teacher, however, spent almost a month trying to figure out how she erased their assignments, and would apologize over and over. Sirius and James, especially, hammed it up - telling her that they'd find it, she probably just misplaced them. They'd ransack her office trying to find them, and in the course of it the ink would reappear.
"He never used that unless we tricked him into it, though," James answered. "He was always scared she'd catch on and give him a zero."
"He just didn't like the idea of getting caught out in a prank so simple," Sirius answered promptly. He looked in the window of Zonko's, staring at the display of dancing something-or-others. The frost was a little too thick to rightly tell. "I don't know, James," Sirius said. "We're in a spot of trouble there, for sure."
"Maybe I should give it up and just buy him a crate of Butterbeer."
"He prefers Old Speckled Hen."
"Do you see anywhere to buy that here?"
The two of them had already taken a few steps away from Zonko's when an incredible force threw them off their feet. It was actually a girl, a fourth year, who'd run right over both of them, they just hadn't seen her because of the snow. Her face was white and terrified. Students poured out of Zonko's, and James grabbed her arm, pulling her away from the mass.
He said, "what's," but didn't get to finish asking. A rush of burning hot air went past him, then a, a chant, low voices - then a loud bang, and James was thrown off his feet into a snowdrift at the edge of the road. Everywhere, he could hear the yelling of students. Feet nearly trampled his hands twice.
James managed to raise his head, and looked at Zonko's. The shop was bright red with fire.
Remus ended up walking to Hogsmeade with Peter. "And they're still not speaking, even if I think Lily's stopped pondering killing him," Peter said, munching on a pineapple jelly sandwich. "Though she might be justified in some courts. James and Sirius have always been like that, true, but it's right obnoxious of them to keep whatever to themselves. Especially from you and Lily."
Remus cringed. "Well, at least we'll get a break from all this fighting today," he replied, gesturing to all the snow. There were several inches of snow on the ground already, and more was coming down swiftly. If it got any thicker they'd have a near impossible time trying to see in it. As it was, if the roadway hadn't been lined with festive decorations that also happened to glow brightly, they may have easily got lost simply on their way from the castle to the road. "No one will be able to see each other."
"Should minimize the damage, it's true," Peter said pragmatically. "Plus our hands will be shaking too much from cold to point a wand steady." He finished his sandwich and rewrapped his scarf, covering his mouth up.
"Our?" Remus asked. "Who are you angry at?"
Peter made a face, curling his shoulders, but the gesture was barely visible under the orange scarf wrapped around his neck tightly. Yards of wool protected his throat from the cold and made it appear as if his neck was horribly swollen. Peter said, albeit muffled, "Maybe I'll start a row with Lily," and readjusted the thing so he could speak a little clearer. "Just to be different."
"Or me," Remus said, sighing. "Since James and Lily are currently on the outs, I reckon I'm the only one not presently locked in a blood feud."
"That's it," Peter answered lazily. He groped around, pulling open the door to Honeydukes. "I hate you. You no good, slimy--"
"Pettigrew," Snape said, pushing his hair out of his face. "Good for you, finally telling that--"
"You'd better watch it, or you'll find out what you're made of--" Remus snapped, and immediately shoved his way back out the door. Peter trotted after him. "I didn't know he even ate candy. Would think it was too sweet for his nasty temper."
Peter's eyes darted towards the candy shop. "Are you sure you should have yelled at him?" he asked. "He has that pack of friends, and who knows where James and Sirius are if we need them."
Remus tucked his hands under his cloak, shivering under the awning. Snow drifts were already piling up on the sidewalk, and the bare cobblestones of the actual street looked icy and dangerous.
He was contemplating which was the lesser of two evils: the snow drifts - wet and soggy, but much less likely to try and pitch him forward onto the ground - or the bare street - dry shoes, granted, but also an imminent danger of having his feet fly out from under him. He was about to step out into the snow drifts, accepting his fate to have soaking wet socks until tea time, when, from down by Zonko's, there came a loud bang.
He and Peter glanced at each other, and then tore off down the street. Neither of them fell.
Sirius knew what this was. He shook himself off, dazed, and remembered last month in the newspaper about an enchanted fire that took out a Muggle school. Children had died. He knew exactly what this was.
Kids and villagers were running everywhere, but not a green scarf to be seen.
Sirius took off, heading straight into the trees, wand drawn. He stared back once at all the chaos, and then heard the whizzing of broomsticks overhead.
Broomsticks meant students. Students that were going to be back up at the castle any minute. He pulled the Map out of his pocket.
"I solemnly swear I am up to no good," Sirius muttered, and stared at the Map. It might not show people in the village, but he could definitely see students inside the school. Students that weren't in the lower school. Students marked with little green dots.
His cousin's name was on the outskirts of a large group of sixth and seventh years whose dots were making fast headway towards the castle.
"How long," Sirius said to himself, taking off in a run, "do you think it would take," and he ducked into the woods at the edge of the path, "to go from outside Zonko's to the castle?" He could hear yelling and shouting - James' voice rang out with commands - but the snow was so thick, no one would notice that he wasn't around until he was well gone.
In amongst the trees, the snow was falling gently. Sirius looked around, then transformed rapidly, taking off through the trees. If they could take off on broomsticks and already be on the grounds, he could catch up to them before they got to their Common Room.
He collided with someone, just off the path, and stood, dazed. Peter was peering through the trees, trembling. Sirius transformed back. "What the hell are you doing here?"
Peter jumped a mile into the air. "What are you doing here?" he asked stupidly.
Sirius glanced at his watch. "I have a date with some family members," he said, looking behind him. "Go help James."
Peter blinked, then obediently trotted back to the village. Sirius transformed again, tearing off. Peter, hiding. Sirius mentally snorted, paws making tracks in the fresh snow. Poor boy.
His cousin was just opening the door to the castle when Sirius wandered up. "Hello there."
She didn't even turn around. The half a dozen students with her - Sirius was amazed to see that Snape wasn't one of them, for once - did, however. Lestrange looked down at him from his vantage point at the top of the steps. "If you have any sense of blood," he said, "you'll get inside right quick."
"If I have any sense of what--"
"Thank goodness!" Professor Flitwick squeaked, scurrying out of the castle. "I was about to go down to Hogsmeade - Lily Evans sent an owl saying there was an explosion!" He looked at them expectantly. "Are you the first students back?" Sirius opened his mouth, and Flitwick continued, "Nevermind, just make sure that any students going past you gives you their name so you can take them down."
Lestrange looked at the Professor for a moment. Bella looked at him, and he said, "I think, we're going to go to our Common Room." Bella opened the castle doors. "We'd best go count our students," he added, "being Prefects and all."
And with that, the group of them filed into the castle, casually taking their cloaks off as they went.
Sirius stood on the bottom step, fuming for all he was worth. The snow wasn't cold anymore, he couldn't even feel the wind. He was burning, shame and anger warring inside him, and his fingers were clenched so tightly he could feel his fingernails digging into his knuckles. Sirius could feel the blood boiling in his arms, his legs, his chest, all of it, and yet he couldn't do anything.
"Sirius?" Flitwick squeaked. "Will you please take names down at the door?" He was fastening his robe and pulling his wand out.
Sirius gritted his teeth, cheeks burning. One day. But he said, "of course."
James yelled again, "PREFECTS!"
Martha pulled the two Hufflepuff sixth years and a Ravenclaw sixth prefect up by the arms, panting and out of breath. "Oh, James," she moaned. "Oh my word." Martha looked at the building, then back at James. "We were in the post office, oh my word--"
"We have to get the kids out of here," James said urgently, feeling a hard knot of panic settle in his chest. "Right the fuck now."
Martha bit her lip, nodding. "You two, round up the Hufflepuffs."
James shook his head. "We can't do this by House - we need too many people on the path." He nodded to Gus as Gus ran up, and then continued. "Look at this snow. We have to make sure that there's someone at every corner to make sure no one gets lost." James mentally added, or worse.
Gus said, "I'll sent our sevenths to watch the path. Blue sparks for where to go, red for trouble." James nodded. "You had best," and he blanched, "deal with Zonko's."
James nodded again, grim. He was already thinking about that, though the main concern in the front of his mind was the panic being caused by a hundred scared and running children in the village, not to mention the villagers. "Martha and I will do that. Get the rest of the sixth year prefects to grab kids and send them along straight to the castle." He shielded his eyes from the intense glare of the fire. "Go."
Gus set off at a trot, yelling at kids. There was still people running everywhere, and if they didn't act quickly, more kids might run off and make themselves more vulnerable. James sent a blue flare up from where he was standing, and yelled, "HOGWARTS. Follow the blue sparks, and do it now." He was immensely grateful to see that the majority of the students around him had heard, and, scared and panicky as they were, obeyed. "Gus," he yelled after him, "If you take Gryffindor and Ravenclaw, Martha and I will try and get inside!"
"Just make sure you get back yourself," Gus called back, already marshalling those nearest him.
"Don't worry," James called out, peering after Martha. Damnit, where had Remus and Peter gone? And where the hell was Sirius? "I intend to." Gus was already barking orders at the third and fourth year students mulling around outside the destroyed building. Several of them were crying. James saw several orange scarves in the throng. "Gryffindors!" James yelled louder, "stick together and follow Gus back to school! Now!"
Martha said, "I'm going to see if I can get in from the back," She was holding her wand out, and James nodded, feeling a little sick. The fiery glow had already hit the second storey of Zonko's, and though the wood wasn't necessarily burning, the heat was unbearable even outside.
Sally and George, the Gryffindor fifth year prefects, came running up. "We have a message from Lily," they said, "she went to the post office to send word to the school."
James sighed in relief. No matter how capable she was, he was still incredibly grateful that Lily wasn't anywhere near. He squinted, then said to the two of them, "go see if any students are left in the pub, then head straight for Gus with whoever you find." They, too, obeyed.
Gus was already shooting blue sparks into the air, bright enough so that students could see their way through the snow and to the path. James could see a little trail of them, off in the distance, though they were fading fast. He waved at Gus, yelling, "Keep shooting them up, they're not lasting in the snow."
Gus was counting heads on the next block, and James saw that the fifth year prefects were already making sure that their kids stuck to the path, cloaks wrapped tightly around themselves to ward off the biting wind. Maybe the wind was another part of the curse? James pulled his wand out, sends another volley of blue sparks up to mark his position as the initial bout were already nearly gone in the thickening snow.
"James! Finally!!" Remus slid up, wand out and cheeks bright pink. He looked around, alert, then stared at Zonko's. "Do they, how many kids were inside?"
James swallowed. "I don't know. Sirius and I were right outside, when." He shook his head.
Remus looked at him sharply. "Where's Sirius now?"
James felt his chest tighten a little bit, but he didn't say anything. The truth was he had no idea. Instead, he told Remus, "Go and find Martha - she's trying to get in through the back entrance. If we act quickly enough, maybe we can get whoever is inside out before the-- before."
James was incredibly grateful to see that Remus didn't question or hesitate, just ran around the back of the building and disappeared from view. James took another moment to think. Martha and Remus would do their damndest to get inside; Gus could handle the third and fourth years. James turned to the kids still standing outside. "What the hell is wrong with you? Go back to the school." A few of them looked alarmed. James pointed to the next building. "That might be next." He jerked his arm. "Or that."
Theresa Adams, a sixth year from Gryffindor, spoke up. "We're capable enough to help here, James."
He looked at her. "Fine, gather up some more sixth years and find Remus and Martha." He stared at the crowd. "The rest of you, get out of here. Stick together, and make sure Gus counts you on the way past."
Theresa nodded, and a few students separated themselves, making their way to the building - but it was no good. The wood was too hot, glowing an angry red even though it wasn't actually burning up. The spell reminded him of something. It obviously wasn't an ordinary fire.
Martha ran up to him. "We can't get in," she said flatly. "But the owner said that most of the kids ran outside when it happened, that there were maybe a dozen still inside?" She swallowed. "So if we can't, do anything. Then."
James' lips were very thin. "Send someone to find Sirius."
"I just saw him, you won't catch him. He tore off," came a voice from behind him. James nearly jumped out of his skin, and whipped around to see that Peter was standing beside him. Peter added, "I think. He might have gone looking for his cousin and that lot."
Peter said, low, "he had the Map on him. It said they were up at the school."
James frowned, thinking very hard. Obviously he wasn't the only one that was wary this afternoon; still, even with their best efforts, a dozen students might die. He thought rapidly. Wood wasn't alive in the same way animal flesh was alive, plant not mammal. Their students, however, were. He suddenly had a splash of ice down his spine, chills running from neck to toes, as he put together what Sirius had obviously already figured out.
"Martha," he asked, strained, "have you seen a single Slytherin student in the last half-hour?"
Lily raced along. She knew that getting word to the school was the most important thing, but the terror in her stomach was still there. The school knew, someone would come and help them. Someone would come and help James.
Of course he was inside the shop, she just knew it. He and Sirius always went there first, and she'd heard them talking about shopping for Remus' birthday.
Running along the icy road, Lily prayed with all her might. Her family, Muggles that grew up Anglican only in the faintest sense, had never been much for religious ceremony. It didn't matter; at this point, Lily would become a nun if it would mean that the day didn't get any worse. If James was just all right, if they could just get the students back to the school.
She skidded to a halt in front of the store, nearly knocking someone over. The snow was so thick that she hardly saw who it was until she was scant feet away, and then--
"James," Lily croaked.
He was standing outside the wrecked and smouldering building, a tearful Martha beside him and Peter shielding his face from the heat, she nearly fainted. James looked up, and nodded to her. She pressed one shaking hand to her chest. Not inside. Not inside. Not inside. Not--
"Are you all right, Lily?" Martha said, wiping her eyes.
"I." She kept the hand pressed to her chest. "I."
James said, "Gus is head-counting, taking names of all the students returning to school. His prefects are making sure everyone gets back to the castle safely." Lily nodded, breathing shallow. "Remus went to try and get inside, but it doesn't look likely. Sirius is," and he paused. "No one's seen hide or hair of any Slytherin student in ages."
She processed all that he'd said slowly. The students were all right; even if she couldn't take care of the Gryffindors personally, she trusted Gus. Their friends were all right; James would be more upset if Sirius were in the kind of trouble that he didn't bring on himself, or that James thought he couldn't handle. There was a horrible tension in the air, as the snow melted around them in the presence of so much heat. And there were no Slytherin students to be seen.
A kind of horrible anger slowly replaced her fear. "No Slytherins?" James nodded. His face was blotchy, pink and white, flushed from the heat and pinched from the cold. "No Slytherins."
James answered quietly, "I'm sure Sirius will figure out where they went."
It dawned on Lily. That was why James looked tense, even if Sirius was apparently out of harm's way. She said, "Is it wise to let him?"
"I have to figure out how to stop this," James said. Lily dropped the subject, instantly accepting that the chaos in front of them was more important than where Sirius was - however dire the question was of what Sirius might do. "I think I know what to do," James aded, "but." He pulled his wand out. "I guess we have no other options."
Something in Lily's mind was quietly screaming, but she pushed it down, choking down the panic. It was momentary, the paralyzing fear, and then it was gone. She noticed that Peter, however, was standing behind James, a horrified expression on his face, not moving. He didn't seem to be able to surpress his fear as easily.
She said to James, "can I help?"
"Just be ready with one fucking enormous counter-curse," he mumbled, starting to walk rapidly around the building. The back of the shop seemed a little less dangerous than the front; perhaps that's where they'd set off the fire from. "Martha," he said, "make sure everyone is standing back."
They turned the corner, and saw Theresa, tears streaming down her cheeks, ringed with five other sixth years. "Everyone, they all look alive." She added, "We, we can see in the windows still," she said, and gulped. James nodded grimly. Lily wasn't sure what he was thinking; only that it was desperate.
James said, "move away." He pointed his wand at the door, mentally cycling through his options. A normal dousing charm wouldn't work; Martha tried that. They'd gone through all the magic they knew already, and nothing had worked. He finally said, "non incendatur," quietly.
The door seemed to stop glowing quite as brightly.
James looked at Lily. "You have to want the fire to stop burning," he said. "You're not making it. You're willing it to stop burning itself." Lily looked at him blankly. "It's as if the building wants to burn." Lily nodded slowly. "On the count of three, then," James said, and then, "three."
"non incendatur," and then there was a horrible groaning sound, and James felt every single nerve cell in his body start to scorch. This was why no one could counter Agrippina's curses, he realized. If you tried then the will turned on you.
'You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink.' - traditional proverb.
Lily woke up with a raging headache, and wrapped in soft, sweet-smelling sheets. With effort, she forced her eyes open and looked around - hospital wing. Her skin felt tight and sunburned.
James, she realized with a start, was wrapped up beside her. "James?" she called out, softly. "James, wake up." He wasn't moving. Lily started to panic a little, and then the Madame came hurrying over.
"Lily Evans, don't you move," she said, clucking her tongue and pushing the girl back into bed. "I have enough problems trying to help all those poor children who were inside that building," she added, "I can't force you to get better."
Lily sat up. "I have to get up," and when the Madame tried feebly to push her back down, she said, "no, really, I'm all right, I just have a massive headache." She rubbed her forehead. "As Head Girl I really have to get up."
The Madame sighed. "It's true, people have been asking after you and James all evening."
Lily glanced over at him. "How is he?"
"He'll live, though not without some help," she answered. "Whatever he did in Hogsmeade did a lot of damage."
She knew that James had known the curse used on Zonko's. Lily drank the potion the Madame gave her absently, and mercifully her head cleared. She thought. James knew the curse, but - oh. Of course.
"When will he be awake?" she asked, trying to sound casual.
The Madame clucked again. "If he's up before tomorrow morning I'm putting him right back to bed. The poor boy needs to rest."
"But I can get up?" The Madame looked like she was going to argue, but there was a moan from down the other side of the room, and with an agonizing look she hurried off again. Lily took the time to get out of bed and get dressed.
She had no idea how she'd made it from Zonko's back to the castle.
Heading up to the Gryffindor Common Room, she passed no students. The halls were deserted; Lily figured most of the children were probably locked in their Common Rooms for the night, teachers scouring the castle. She kept a fist closed around her wand, even though it seemed silly. She was back in the castle. It would be all right.
Stepping through the Fat Lady's portrait was an indescribable relief.
Only the sixth and seventh years were still up, Sirius and Remus talking low in one corner. Lily halted, counting heads automatically. When Sirius saw her, he motioned her over.
"How are you feeling?"
She rubbed the back of her head. "I think I swallowed a Fire Crab."
"That would be," Remus said, "the fact that James managed to reverse whatever spell that was and used you in the process."
Lily blinked. "Used me?"
Sirius looked down. "He, it's quite complicated. It's from, er."
Remus continued quietly, "Agrippina's book, actually."
Lily blinked again. "Agrippina's book?" She looked at Sirius, who refused to meet her eye. "Agrippina's book." She put two and two together. "The one that you stole out of the library."
"James told me," Sirius said slowly, "that he saw my cousin reading it last term, right before holiday."
"And that's why he picked that book to study?" Lily asked.
Sirius was incredibly uncomfortable. "Only partly," he said. "The other part was that, it, it was a challenge--" and he held his hands up as Lily started to look angry, "--a challenge to try and rework the spell so that we could counter them."
Remus looked over their heads, and called Sally and George over. Sally hugged Lily tightly. "Oh, thank goodness," she said, "we weren't sure the two of you were going to be all right so quickly." She glanced around. "Where's James?"
"Er, sleeping," Lily said. "I." She stopped. This was the question that, as Head Girl, she should have asked the moment she woke up, but couldn't quite bring herself to. With Sirius and Remus around, it was a little easier. "Where do we stand?"
Sally broke into a huge grin. "Martha got everyone out of Zonko's, and they're going to need some tender care - but they'll be all right."
"Did everyone get back to the castle all right?"
George spoke up. "A few broken bones in the panic, nothing major. Two third years got lost and Gus had to go find them, but other than that, everyone stuck together and followed James and Gus." He looked down, suddenly embarrassed. "Even I had no idea what to do until James started yelling for the prefects to divide up and start gathering students up by year."
Lily said softly, "I panicked, too."
Sally coughed. "But everything's all right. McGonagall wants to talk to the two of you, but not until tomorrow morning. I think that she's ready to give you two a prize for keen work."
"Oh, I hope not," she said, "I didn't do anything, it was all our Head Boy." Remus tugged on Lily's sleeve, discreetly, and Sally and George wandered off, sensing their wish for privacy. "All right," she said, "what's the bad news?"
Sirius grimaced. "We have a bit of a problem - well, I have a bit of a problem, that doesn't have to do with you lot - but other than that, two things." He glanced at Remus.
Remus said, "this is just a bit of an oddity, but - I saw Snape inside Honeyduke's right before the blast went off." He was frowning. "Which means, unless he can Disapparate, it's unlikely he was involved."
Sirius scowled. "I wouldn't put it past him."
"Oh, drop it," Lily said. "You hate him, he hates you - whatever else is circumstantial. Maybe he wasn't involved," she continued, "which is good news." Looking at Sirius' face, she added, "It's not going to make you lot trust each other any more."
Remus replied, "True. It's odd enough, being how tight he wants to be with that group, that he wasn't there, however." He looked extremely thoughtful. "I think maybe he wasn't invited."
"Private party for the initiated," Sirius said, looking extremely black. "That sounds right for those snakes. Or maybe they thought he might tell you," Sirius said suddenly, surprised, as if the thought was disturbing.
Lily sighed. "Well, it doesn't matter - I don't want to talk about it. What's the other thing?"
"There's also the question of how James knew to do what he did." Lily made a face. "Exactly," Sirius said. "And while a bit of mischief making can be overlooked--"
"--tampering with spells as nasty as that one is likely to get you two expelled," Remus answered softly.
Lily winced. If it was just a matter of keeping what, exactly, had happened from general gossip - "What are people saying now?"
Remus checked off on his fingers. "Accident. James performed a miracle. James and Sirius did the whole thing themselves--" and at Lily's anger, said, "that one's mostly dead. Slytherin trick--"
"--which is the truth," Sirius interrupted, savagely.
"James didn't do anything, he was just lucky. James knew the spell--"
"--which is the truth," Sirius interrupted again.
"--for some reason." Remus shrugged. "It's wild rumor right now, but at this school, wild rumor has a habit of being true." He smiled, without humor. "The real question is, how many people saw what he did?"
Lily thought. "Martha was there - I have to call a Prefects' meeting tonight. Theresa and, and her friend--"
"Peter and I," Remus added helpfully.
"Peter and you," Lily amended. "Three Hufflepuff sixths, and a Ravenclaw sixth, a friend of Martha's."
Remus nodded, "That's who Peter and I could remember as well, but." He bit his lip. "I was concentrating on trying to get inside, and Peter, he's more than a little shaken up."
"So, I have to talk to Martha and Theresa," Lily said. "And now." She stood. "But what kind of trouble are you in, Sirius?"
"Er," he said, looking embarrassed. "I was caught by Flitwick with a group of students coming back to the castle. A little."
"Too soon," Remus said. Lily looked between the two of them. They'd obviously already been talking about what had happened for quite some time; there was some tension, but they were sitting closer than they had been in days, and she noticed suddenly that the two of them were holding hands again. Oh, good. Very good.
"Too soon?" Lily asked finally. "Surely he doesn't think you were with that group. I mean, last term you nearly took Bella's head off just for--"
"No, no," Sirius said. "I don't think so. But. Filch found me at the entrance of the school, as I was counting students--"
"Oh, so that was you doing that," Lily said absently.
"And he found something on my person that is," and Sirius grimaced again. "Incriminating, to say the least. Though he doesn't know exactly what it is."
Remus grinned. "We managed to make a, a kind of map of Hogwarts, see." Lily raised an eyebrow, beginning to wonder just how many secrets James and his lot were hiding. Remus lowered his voice. "One that can tell you who's where."
"It's ever so handy," Sirius said, "except Filch confiscated it and threatened to hang me in the dungeon."
"Oh, but," Lily replied, "that doesn't sound too bad. If he doesn't know what it is."
"Dumbledore will," Sirius answered, a little gloomy. "Or he will when he sees it, when Filch hands it over. He's coming back tonight too, we forgot to tell you. On his way from whereever right now."
"And that, coupled with the fact that you and your cousin were both back early..." Lily finished. "Ahh." She stood. "Well, they can't possibly think you had something to do with it, and James and I can always say we sent you ahead to count students off."
Sirius looked surprised. "You'd cover for me?"
"If you mean, when yesterday I was angry enough to spit at both you and James?" She nodded. "Of course. Obviously, James had the right idea." Lily looked between the two of them. "I just think it's time to bring the rest of us in."
She got word to Martha by asking one of the portraits very nicely, and met her and the other Hufflepuff sixth and seventh year prefects, along with Gus and the rest of the Ravenclaw prefects, in the Prefects' study.
"Today has shown us something," she said, quietly, "that I think we've all been aware of, unconsciously or not, for quite a while. We're going to have to do something else to keep our students protected."
Gus nodded. "I'm assuming you're speaking for both you and James, tonight?"
Lily nodded. "Unless anyone has a problem?" Several heads shook, and she said, "all right. James," she started, "wanted to have a plan put into place so that if we had a massive problem like this, we'd be able to counter it." She grinned. "There's nothing like locking the barn after the horse has run away, but we'd better get on it."
Martha's eyes were narrowed. "And how, exactly, are we going to involve the Slytherin students in this plan?" she said.
Lily's face rippled, intense anger present for just a second. "The lower school," she said, "we will treat on more or less equal footing, for all houses." She paused. "Fifth year and up for Slytherin are on their own."
There were a few ripples of whispers, but all in all, no one looked very surprised. Lily sighed. "I don't want to do this, but if anyone noticed, there were no Slytherins present in Hogsmeade today at the time of--" and she stopped. Saying 'attack' made it true. "At the time. Not even a third year. Now, I went past the dungeons on the way here, and there was a notice posted that no Slytherin third or fourth year were allowed to go today, for 'misconduct'." She paused. "The fifths and up? Either they were warned and didn't say anything to us," Lily said, and then paused again.
"Or they did it," Martha finished grimly for her. "You and James aren't the only ones to have come to that conclusion. Hufflepuff took a vote already - fifths and up are on their own." She folded her arms. "No help, no warnings."
Gus put a hand up, looking weary. "Though, Lily, I agree with you on principle, unless we can prove that they had a hand in it, there's no way to take direct action without Dumbledore's assistance, approval and interference."
Lily sighed. "I know. Let me tell you what I know - which, as yet, I haven't heard in the rumor mill." She bit her lip. Sirius wouldn't be angry if she told this story - and if she laid the groundwork for setting up his innocence, he might even thank her later. "Sirius Black followed - don't ask me how, I don't know - that group of Slytherins, including his cousin, back to the castle. The only group to be in the village, might I add. He timed it; they took a route directly from Zonko's to the castle, and he figures they were lounging in the courtyard in just enough time to have set off, whatever they did, and ride back on brooms."
Gus showed the first sign of being angry, truely angry, all day. "You know, I do not like Sirius Black one bit," he started, "but if that's what he did and saw, then it's proof enough to my ears."
Martha nodded, as did Charlie, the other Hufflepuff rep beside her. "What was he doing at the school?" she asked. "I don't see Sirius as the type to race off to get a teacher if something goes wrong."
"He was heading in to count students as they made it safely to the castle," Lily said. "I don't doubt his word for a second," she added fiercely.
Martha raised a hand. "I don't either, I mean, I know how much he hates that lot. Me and the rest of the school." She grinned a little. "It just seemed a bit odd that he'd get out of the thick of things."
Lily answered smoothly, "Sirius did what he thought was best for the school."
Gus actually laughed. "People will never cease to amaze you?" he asked her. Lily held her breath. She had a feeling that Gus wasn't buying it, but it didn't matter; as long as the story got out that he wasn't bent on revenge, then his story would hold and the fact that the Slytherins were back early would be given more weight. "Flitwick," Gus added, "already told me part of this. I believe it."
"Good," Lily replied, immensely relieved. "I want to talk about this more when James is up and mobile - tomorrow afternoon, perhaps, after tea?" Everyone nodded, and then she said, "then, Martha, may I talk to you for a minute? I'll see everyone else later." At people's suspicious looks, Lily actually laughed. "Oh, this is personal, not school-related."
Martha sat down again, and as everyone filed out, Lily waited, trying to decide how to start this conversation. Martha actually looked amused. "I know what you're going to say, or ask," she said. "I've already thought about it. You and James didn't walk back to the school, after all," she added, grinning.
Lily grinned too. "All right," she said, "then what did you tell them?"
"That thanks to James' valiant efforts, we managed to free the rest of the kids," Martha said. "Everyone was too busy being terrified to ask how." She snorted. "If they do, the likely answer is going to be that we were too afraid to realize what was going on. Plus, half the sixths were trying to pry open a window, and the rest were with Remus trying to get a ladder when James did that spell."
Lily blinked. "They were? I don't remember that."
"You were fairly focused as well," Martha replied quietly. "Remus ordered them away. I think he wanted James to have some privacy."
Likely, Lily thought to herself. She had already figured out that the motto between the four of them seemed to be, no matter what the fight, you keep it internal and watch each other's backs. She was only now getting used to it - but she intended to keep to it. "James has nothing to hide," she began, and Martha laughed out loud.
"Of course he does. He has something to hide - like how he always manages to get food from the kitchens, how he and Sirius and Remus always are top in marks and never try - hell, I have secrets, if you want to go there," she said, still grinning. "I want Charlie to ask me out. Is he? Chances are slim." She stopped grinning, suddenly. "James' secrets, I know that they're a little more serious, but the two of you were chosen to run this school, and so I have to trust those secrets to be for a good cause."
Lily smiled at her. "I can promise you, they are."
"That's good enough for me," Martha replied. "Unless you know how they always get top marks..."
Lily stood, rubbing her cheeks absently. They were still stinging a little bit; must be the after-effects of the spell, still. "He and Sirius trade homework around, Remus and Peter too," she said. "Remus does the bits he's good at, James does the rest, and Sirius makes up the excuses for when neither of the other two have done it."
Martha laughed again. "I have to try it."
"It works wonders," Lily said, remembering several essays she'd given up on in exasperation and finally begged James to let her copy - who'd promptly lent her someone else's work - "so long as you're not copying from Sirius. He's genius enough, but tends to spell things wrong."
McGonagall wasted no time; she called Lily and James into her office the very next morning, after Dumbledore reassured the students at breakfast that they were, of course, safe at the school. McGongall, however, didn't seem nearly as reassured as he was. She was actually fidgeting with a quill when Lily helped James into the office. "You two," she said, "please sit down."
Lily helped James - who was still incredibly sore - into a seat, and then sat down herself. "I don't have a lot of time," she said crisply, "but what I would like is your personal accounts of what happened. Any details you may remember, anything insignificant. We shall just wait on--" and then Dumbledore came into the room, "ah, yes, Professor Dumbledore. Shall we begin? Lily?"
Lily blinked, and then narrated her section of yesterday, editing out only the precise nature of what James managed to do, and Sirius' disappearance. James' story, though they hadn't compared beforehand, didn't differ in any details. He even added that Sirius and he had thought beforehand about such a scenario - which Lily hadn't known - and he'd told Sirius to head up to the school straightaway. Lily knew that Sirius was following his cousin, rather than any specific orders from James, but it surprised her even more to know that they'd discussed it, and James had, actually, thought about how to use Sirius' natural tendencies to best help the situation. She could tell, moreover, that he wasn't lying to cover Sirius' ass.
"Thank you," Dumbledore said. "I think I may have to interview Mr. Black, on this as well as another matter--" to which James winced, and Dumbledore smiled knowingly. "Ah, yes, James, that's right, if you wouldn't mind, I'd like to speak to you about that as well." He stroked his beard. "Nonetheless, that can wait for a little while. We have more pressing concerns on us, do we not?"
James and Lily both nodded. McGonagall said to them, "I want to be honest with you. Your handling of the situation yesterday was remarkable, and I have no doubt, that if," and she stopped. Dumbledore put a reassuring hand on her shoulder. "Yes, well." She dabbed at her glasses. "This has made me even more convinced of the decision to make the two of you Head Boy and Girl."
James spoke up. "We've already been talking with Gus and Martha," he said, "about being better organized the next time."
"Ah, yes," Dumbledore said thoughtfully, "the next time. Do you know," he asked quietly, "what happened yesterday?" They nodded. "Then you know that caution is of the highest imperative. We are not as free," he said, "as we might wish to be. Not at all."
Lily said, face hard, "Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Gryffindor are together."
Dumbledore nodded again, sadly. "Yes, yes, that is to be expected." He stood. "Very well. Yes. To be expected." He looked at James. "I believe you and Sirius Black have an appointment with me about a piece of parchment?" he asked, more jovially.
Lily was surprised at his ready acceptance of their implicit shut-out of Slytherin House, but then it occurred to her that perhaps he had much more significant problems elsewhere. Frank Longbottom, she remembered, had nearly been killed in a building fire downtown, it was in the Daily Prophet this morning.
"We're going to be hanged," Sirius moaned. "This is it."
James smacked the back of his head. "Come off it," he said, "things are too serious for them to worry about the pranks we might get up to, old chap." Sirius grinned. James added, "besides, they'd have to figure out how to work the damned thing, first."
The two of them were bantering, trying to keep up a light mood in order to dispel an incredible case of nerves. Since Hogsmeade, nearly everyone had been walking around jumping at shadows. The tension was getting to them all.
James leaned out the hall window, where Sirius' cousin and her boyfriend were doing who-knew-what, laughing. He amended, nearly everyone.
"All right," McGonagall said, "he'd like to see the two of you now."
Sirius and James mounted the staircase to Dumbledore's office. Neither of them were overly concerned; events of the last few days had highlighted sharply where their concerns needed to lie, and school-age pranks were not it. Detention seemed miles off, nearly impossible. James' skin still itched whenever he brushed up against something, a faint residue of burning tinging the hair on his body. It made nearly everything, sleeping included, extremely unpleasant.
"Ah, boys," Dumbledore said, "to think that the two of you are back into trouble so soon." His face was incredibly neutral, rather than amused, and their hearts sank. They weren't really going to get into trouble for a bit of parchment that no one really knew what it did.
Filch was standing off to the side, holding the Map like a time-bomb. "That one," and he pointed to Sirius, "had this bit of paper in his pocket. He was with them snooty Slytherins," he added, "That Day. It insulted me," and he waved the parchment needlessly. "Called me by name. Said it wouldn't give up its secrets."
Dumbledore looked at Filch for a very, very long moment. "Is that so," he finally said gravely. "Very well, Argus, you may be sure that I will deal with this matter personally."
Filch's expression suddenly went from triumphant to disappointed. "But, Sir, you're busy, you are--"
"No, no," Dumbledore cut in, "that's fine, thank you, Argus." He pointed at the Map. "Please leave that for me - I need to study it to determine their," and he hesitated. "Punishment."
"But that's evidence--"
"I'll send it along as soon as I'm finished with it, I assure you."
Filch had no choice but to go, putting the ratty piece of parchment onto his desk. James and Sirius glanced at each other while Dumbledore picked it up, carefully examining it from all sides, sniffing the paper, balancing it on his head. He attempted to tear a small corner of it, and the paper resisted - not fancy or showy, it just simply refused to be damaged. "Well," Dumbledore said.
James cleared his throat. Sirius fidgeted. It had been two whole terms since they'd been hauled into Dumbledore's office; it was a little embarrassing. "Sir," Sirius started, "James didn't--"
"Did the two of you buy this?" Dumbledore asked. He acted as if he hadn't even heard Sirius.
James shook his head, swallowing thickly. "Er, no..."
"Then you manufactured it yourself. Very interesting," Dumbledore said, and James sagged. He was interested, which suggested that he might not be angry. "I assume," he asked them, "that it has more unique properties than simply refusing to tear, wrinkle, or insult the holder by name." James nodded. Dumbledore studied it, then pulled his wand out, putting it to the paper. "Show," he said - and the map wrote "no :) ".
They were extremely grateful that they'd charmed it to only insult specific people. Still, Sirius gulped.
"Interesting." Dumbledore's face was still completely neutral, however he handed the Map to James. "I don't suppose you would like to demonstrate how it works?"
James pulled his wand out, Map spread flat on Dumbledore's desk, and murmured, "I solemnly swear I am up to no good."
Instantly, the lines of the castle began to appear, criss-crossing like magic. The largest portion of the parchment began to draw Dumbledore's office, and then little dots labelled "James Potter" "Albus Dumbledore" and "Sirius Black" appeared within the office.
Sirius coughed gently, and then walked rapidly to the door. Dumbledore's eyes followed the dot labelled "Sirius Black" as it, too, moved towards his office door, then as it moved back to his desk as Sirius returned. He stared at the Map for a very long time, then said, "Amazing."
Sirius and James looked at each other.
Dumbledore folded his hands on his desk, staring at the two of them with a pleased expression on his face. "The two of you managed this all by yourself?"
James was a little unsure of what precisely was going on; he wasn't sure if they were going to get in trouble, or whether they were going to be commended. He decided that the whole truth - at least about how they made the Map, even if not how they found out everything about it - would be best, even if it did rat out their friends. Dumbledore didn't appear to be angry, at least not now. "Er, no. Remus and Peter had a large hand in it," James told him. "Remus is much better at actually looking things up than either of us," he said.
"The four of you created this?" Dumbledore said. "Magnificent." He studied the Map. "What else, exactly, can it do?"
Sirius stepped forward. "It will track anyone inside the school," he told Dumbledore. "Just ask it whereever you want to know where people are."
"Amazing," Dumbledore said again. He put his wand to the Map, and said, "Kitchens!" The Map re-formed itself, showing more of the kitchens instead of his office - and a hundred little house-elf dots. "Truely remarkable," he said. "And this was how you tracked the students yesterday?"
"And once you are finished your business, what then?" Dumbledore asked.
James leaned over with his wand, saying "Mischief managed!" to the Map, and immediately it was blank again, an ordinary looking piece of parchment.
"It doesn't work for just anyone, either," Sirius added, belatedly. "You really do have to be up to no good, in some sense. It knows."
"Remarkable," Dumbledore said again. "And incredibly valuable to someone who might want to cause mischief in school." He picked up the parchment. "I believe, boys, that this map will have to be sent down to Mr. Filch." Sirius and James both nodded. They didn't really expect to get it back. "How long, precisely, did it take you to make?"
James thought hard. "Once we figured out all the potions and charms, maybe a week or two? Of course, figuring out all that took months."
"You four have remarkable perseverance," Dumbledore told them, grinning, "Despite certain evidence to the contrary." He folded up the Map, tucking it into his robes. "And I had best get this to Filch."
"You're not going to keep it?" Sirius asked.
Dumbledore nodded. "Knowing all the secrets of this castle," he said, "even the incredibly unique secrets the two of you have managed to stumble across in your years here - it takes the magic out of the job," he told them.
He stood, and went to the door, opening it for the two of them. "You know," he said, stroking his beard, "such an ingenious invention may be useful in other ways." He paused at the threshold of the door. James got the feeling that he was thinking, very hard. "Perhaps when this term is over - yes. When this term is over." He smiled at them, suddenly snapping back to life. "And as for your punishment - I think a spot of Quidditch training for the lower schools will do the four of you good."
It was not, as they found out, as easy to coach the lower school as it looked. Especially since those who showed up were eager - but nonetheless incredibly inexperienced - volunteers.
"All right!" and James blew his whistle wearily. "That's it," he yelled, "everyone inside." He and Sirius landed next to Remus and Peter, who'd been throwing the Quaffles for the students to catch and block. "Same time next week," James yelled.
The four of them trudged into the castle, moping. "How much longer did Dumbledore say we had to do this?" Peter asked for the millionth time.
Sirius whimpered. "He didn't."
Remus stretched his muscles. "I think he's got the idea that it will bring us closer to the lower school." He sighed. "I'm closer to wanting to throttle the little bastards."
"Language," Peter countered, and then the four of them finally reached the Common Room and fell into chairs. "For pity's sake," Peter said, "I finally know how the two of you were feeling when you were doing extra credit."
Sirius looked at him sharply, then glanced at Remus. Remus was grinning, however. "He's right," Remus said. "I don't think we fully appreciated the sacrifice the two of you made to practise illegal magic."
"What's illegal now?" Lily asked, kissing James on the forehead. James, for his part, looked fast asleep, Quidditch robes still hanging about him loosely. "And speaking of magic," she added, pulling a chair up closer to the four of them, "I have a proposal."
Sirius eyed her. "You do."
"I know that it's usually the four of you in adventures," Lily told them, and glanced at Remus apologetically. "And a girl should never try and come between her boy and his mates." She looked at James fondly. "And if it were a typical adventure, I wouldn't butt in. But this is different, and you and he," she said to Sirius, "ought to have given us the option of joining in."
"Lily, I don't know--"
"No, you listen to me," she said, low. James stirred. Sirius got the feeling that he was awake, but trying to deny it through body language. "I thought that you and James were batty to do what you did, batty and out of your minds. But you weren't. And now I think that we should all try it."
Sirius looked helplessly at Remus. Remus frowned. "You and James hate the Dark Arts more than anyone," he said slowly, glancing around to see if anyone was listening, "and yet, you managed to use them to save a dozen students."
"I'd like to," Peter piped up. "I think, I mean, I think that it's a good idea."
"Well then," Lily said. "Out-voted--" and she paused, suddenly flushing, "unless you don't consider me trustworthy enough to include in this little boys club?"
James finally opened his eyes. "I suggest you listen to the lady," he said, "as she's tougher than you, Sirius." When Sirius protested, James added, "oh, come on, we all know it."
"I'm not trying to convince you," Lily added, "because I'm James' girlfriend, either." She looked at Sirius, determined. "And I know that Remus isn't interested because you and he are whatever you are." Sirius went crimson. "I'm trying to convince you as an equally concerned student, as Head Girl." She paused. "As a friend?"
Sirius finally nodded. "I never thought I'd be the voice of reason," he said, "but I still don't know if this is a good idea." He shrugged. "But we do it anyway."
"Grand," Lily said. "Then I have the perfect extra credit assignment." She held up the newspaper, Frank Longbottom's nearly charred face on the front cover. "Do you have any idea how to counter this?"
"Stand back," James said, and then stared at the goose-down pillow. He pointed his wand, gathered up all the venom and bile he'd been storing away for the past few days - and willed it all into the spell. "Incendatur," he hissed.
There was a little flash, as before, and then the pillowcase sagged. Remus reached over, snagged the pillowcase, and tipped out a little pile of ash.
James lowered his wand.
"Wow," Peter said, eyes on the pile. "That was almost," he paused. "Easy."
"It's scary how easy," Sirius added. "We sorted through nearly half the book, even managed to figure out a counter to a few of these, and Agrippina said they were fool-proof." He sighed. "They tend to rebound on the wizard, however," he added, "as James so nobly demonstrated."
Peter shuddered. James added, "here's another one, we haven't worked out how to counter this if it's not cast by yourself--" and he pointed his wand at the table. "Solvo," he said, and the table started to fade away. James hastily stopped the curse. "That one can be modified all sorts of ways, she has charts and everything."
"So basically," Remus said, flipping through the pages carefully, "this is every way to curse your enemy so they can't retaliate?"
James and Sirius looked at each other. James said, "but Lily brought up a very, very good point." They all looked at the newspaper headline spread across the table. It read 'MINISTRY SPY CAUGHT UNDER IMPERIUS. LONGBOTTOM SURVIVES.'
Lily said, "We saw how it works last year, when Dumbledore took our Defence Against the Dark Arts classes." She folded her arms. "I do not intend to ever be caught at it."
Peter's eyes widened as Sirius said, "So we'll figure out how to fight it off." He looked at James. "We'd already tried it on some spiders, like in class - but, you know how frightening it can be," he said.
Remus stood up. He'd been eerily silent, a shadow, throughout the whole night. "Do it," he told Sirius. "Come on." Still Sirius hesitated. "If it's going to work it had better be you and me, don't you think? I'm more likely to give in to you than James." He put his wand on the table out of reach. "And you said you saw your mother use the curse already. You're the only one of us with direct experience."
Sirius gulped. He remembered the day his mother had forced someone to do her bidding, and it had been the final straw, the day he'd run away from home for good. Going to the Potters' was like a rebirth. He knew that no one in their family would ever use such magic - but James was here, his mind argued. James was here.
Sirius raised his wand.
His eyes darkened, narrowed, and his voice became deeper when he said, "imperio."
Remus squinted, then hopped, then sat, then got up. He stood on one leg, put both hands on his ears - but then his leg tumbled down, making a muted tap on the stone floor of their little room. Sirius nodded, and lowered his wand - and Remus toppled over, hands still to his ears.
James said, "even with the spiders, we couldn't really control it. Not like. You know." He held a hand out to Remus, who hauled himself up, one hand pressed to the side of his head and the other, once he was seated again, fiercely rubbing his knee. "You all right?"
"I can't believe what that felt like," Remus said. "That was nothing like it was in class."
Lily stood up, after a moment putting her wand down on the table in front of James. "That's because," she said softly, "you don't trust our professor." She faced James, and he held his wand out, hand shaking only a little.
After a few tries, they could at least recognise the curse and what it was doing to their minds, even if none of them could really manage to get out from under its effects. James and Sirius got a little better at control, but neither of them could sustain the curse for more than a minute.
"How long will it take?" Peter asked, wiping sweat off his forehead. He'd been standing on one leg for nearly two minutes. "To sort it out, I mean."
"Er," James said. "I don't know."
Lily flipped through the newspaper. "Here's another one - ugh. Muggle torture." She pointed to the picture - it didn't even rate a front page headline, was stuck in the corner of page ten. "Can we find something similar in Agrippina's book?"
"I'm going to get a few more volumes later," Sirius said. "I think I may anonymously write my mother." He made a dark face, and suddenly there was something of his cousin in him - at least, the same kind of hatred. "If anyone knows the latest tricks, it will be her."
Remus put a hand on his shoulder, and after a moment, Sirius leaned against him. James said, "all right, we'd better switch."
"Just like that?" Peter squeaked. "Really?"
Sirius told him, "Really." He added, "we need the practise, just like you do."
Remus kissed the back of Sirius' neck, but then pulled out his wand. He bit his lip, hard, but replied, "in for a Knut, in for a Galleon, I guess."
James nodded, and squeezed his shoulder. "It's all right," he said. "We know what we're doing."