My first original novel, Strangers In Boston, is now available on Amazon under my pen name, T.S. Mann (get it?). It's free to Kindle Prime members and $4.99 to people who want to download the Ebook. Paperback copies are available for $12.99. Check it out, and if you like it, please leave a review. Basically, it's American Harry Potter. Except there's no school, no wands, and if you use magic improperly, it can drive you insane and possibly destroy the world. No pressure or anything.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled fanfic.
and the Death Eater Menace
Harry Potter and all associated characters and situations are the property of J.K. Rowling. I make no claim to ownership.
TRIGGER WARNING: More rats! More death!
Chapter 51: The Fall of the House of Potter
Meanwhile at Gringotts …
As James continued to review the documents and figures Rib-Cracker had provided, he fought a losing battle against panic. Just two nights earlier, he had offered to go to Azkaban and allow Harry to take over as Lord Potter. Now, he was beginning to wish he'd gone with that earlier plan.
He paused to take another sip of the water the Goblin had provided. Then, he took a second to worry about whether he was being charged for the water and whether he could afford it before he cleared his throat to speak.
"So, Mr. Rib-Cracker, can you … I mean …" he trailed off as if completely overwhelmed by events.
James bowed his head and sat quietly for a long pause.
"What can I do?" he finally asked in a hollow voice.
Rib-Cracker simply stared at the broken man. "With respect, Lord Potter, I do not believe that I have any helpful advice for you. I have explained the situation. I believe your … options are self-evident. As the hour grows late, perhaps it would be best if you left now and discussed these developments with your family, as they will obviously be … affected."
"Yes," James said in a flat tone. "I suppose they will be."
Then, he rose and thanked the Goblin with remarkable sincerity before leaving the office without another word. Once outside, he paused to lean against a column for a few minutes. He would later realize that he didn't know exactly how many minutes he'd rested there, but he hoped it hadn't been too long. Unfortunately, at that moment, he was having trouble breathing, and his heart was beating at a rate that couldn't possibly be healthy. But under the circumstances, James decided that he simply had too much to do to have a panic attack in the middle of Diagon Alley. Unfortunately, he didn't have any Calming Draughts handy, so he decided to take what seemed to be the next best option: taking the nearest Floo home to Potter Manor and opening up a bottle of whiskey.
Alas, that plan was swiftly abandoned when a silvery phantasmal cat appeared in the air next to him to deliver horrifying news.
Back at Auror Headquarters
To his annoyance, Rufus Scrimgeour now found himself in the small breakroom of the Auror Offices making a pot of tea like a common house elf. He'd reluctantly agreed with Robards that his leg prevented him from following the Aurors either on foot or by broom, and so he'd remained at HQ. The first group of survivors from the rat plague on Level 3 had arrived just a few moments ago, still soaked to the skin, and Scrimgeour had grouchily agreed to fetch something to warm them up.
Meanwhile, Violetta Edgecombe set herself to unlocking the Floo. The Auror Corps had a special staging area for large scale Floo transport operations: a 30x30 room with a massive fireplace against one wall that was large enough for three men to enter at once without needing to duck. Unfortunately, it could only be opened by an active duty Auror, and Robards had neglected to unlock it before leaving in pursuit of Pettigrew. Of course, Edgecombe had the authority to unlock any Floo, but it was apparently a tedious process to bypass Auror security. Edgecombe's husband and the other three civilians (one spouse, one boyfriend, and one "casual friend who'd come as a plus-one") were waiting for Violetta to get the Floo open, while Umbridge spent her time pacing back and forth as she sent a Patronus to warn Cornelius Fudge, Amelia Bones, James Potter, and everyone else she could think about the situation. Hit wizards Jensen and Eagleton stood guard at the entryway to the Headquarters.
As he poured himself a cup of tea, Rufus focused his considerable intellect on the events of the day. The rat swarm that had targeted the Auror Headquarters had been as unprecedented as it had been alarming, and Rufus's concerns only grew upon learning that other levels of the Ministry had suffered similar attacks. Worse still, it had been over twenty minutes since Gawain and his two trainees had left to investigate the Detention Center.
"Dammit!" the man thought to himself uneasily. "They should have been back by now!"
So caught up in his worries was Rufus that he almost missed it – the faint ripple in the surface of the tea in his cup that had accompanied a barely detectable tremor that had just passed through the floor. He focused his potent Legilimency on that sensation and immediately intuited the horrible truth: somewhere else in the Ministry there had just been a large explosion! Then, before Rufus could give that any more thought, he was immediately distracted by sounds that should have been impossible in this building: cracks of Apparation.
Quickly, Scrimgeour limped out of the breakroom just in time to hear the unmistakable sounds of two Killing Curses from near the entrance. Instantly, the ex-Auror Disillusioned himself. Carefully, he crept through the maze of Auror cubicles towards the commotion, slowly, for the spell would fail if he moved too fast. He was saddened but not surprised to see that both hit wizards were dead. Then, Scrimgeour grimaced, as he heard voices nearby that he recognized: Pettigrew … and Augustus Rookwood.
"Damned useless Unspeakable gits!" he thought angrily. "Here's hoping their arrogance doesn't kill us all!"
Scrimgeour sneaked closer, as cautiously as possible, until he could just see Pettigrew's back around a corner. Rookwood was next to him but out of view. With lightning speed, Rufus's mind searched through all the spells that he could use from this angle, as he was certain Rookwood would sense him even through his invisibility the moment he stepped into the clear. After an instant of hesitation, he rejected all the spells that would be instantly fatal. He'd made a vow at the end of the last war to avoid killing unless it was an absolute last resort, lest his soul suffer any more than his sins had already earned. And besides, if the rat bastard had killed Gawain Robards and Kingsley Shacklebolt, then Rufus would see that he suffered for it.
Rufus also rejected the thought of a Stunning Jinx. He wasn't sure about Rookwood's exact position, but he knew that all Death Eaters were trained to cast Renervation Charms to awaken stunned comrades even in the middle of pitched combat. So, the canny ex-Auror abandoned his invisibility and prepared to put as much power into a wordless Disarming Jinx as he could, to be followed by a Leg Locker (an underappreciated spell as it required a specific counter-jinx that couldn't be cast easily in the heat of battle). As he stepped forward, however, Rufus suddenly noticed an albino rat perched on Pettigrew's shoulder, and the second his Disillusionment failed, it squealed loudly.
Rufus's Expelliarmus struck true, sending the other man's wand flying straight into his waiting hand and knocking Pettigrew against the wall. But to the ex-Auror's utter surprise, the albino rat leaped off the man's shoulder and into the path of the Leg Locker! The rat fell to the ground partially paralyzed, and with a loud (and, to Rufus, baffling) cry of "SOCRATES!" Pettigrew transformed into a second rat that darted under a nearby couch. Scrimgeour had just enough time to summon a puff adder and send it after the cowardly rat before he had to duck a Killing Curse from Rookwood.
Scrimgeour immediately returned Rookwood's fire. To his pleasant surprise, the Umbridge woman (of all people!), emerged from a corridor to take a defensive position behind a desk and get the Death Eater in a crossfire. While Rufus held Rookwood's attention, she hit him in the back with a Jelly Legs Jinx. The Death Eater fell to the floor, but to Rufus's consternation, he managed to Disapparate before either Rufus or Dolores could finish him. He reappeared a second later on the other side of the room and blasted Umbridge's cover with a Reducto that also knocked the witch to the floor unconscious. Then, Rookwood swiftly crawled behind some cover. Rufus responded by summoning a flock of crows to distract the man before Disapparating himself to a better position. A second after he rematerialized, he felt Rookwood's overpowered Finite wash over the room, reversing the Jelly Legs Jinx and vaporizing the attacking crows.
After that, it was a brief but furious duel with two old but powerful wizards continually Apparating around the room while casting curses at one another, each fighting to get the drop on his enemy. At one point, each of the two fired a Lacero at the other, and the two spells met in mid-air, causing their wands to briefly lock as Scrimgeour and Rookwood pitted their magic and wills against one another.
But Rufus knew that he would have to finish this quickly. He had hoped that the snake he conjured would have killed the wandless Pettigrew by now, but that meant relying on luck more than he would ever have considered wise. And so, he elected to call upon his own inner Gryffindor and use an absurdly risky stratagem: he made a point of staring directly into the other man's eyes!
As Scrimgeour anticipated, Rookwood took the opportunity to use a silent Legilimency attack, one that would have been devastating against most opponents. And while Scrimgeour was a natural Legilimens, he was not a devotee of actual psychic combat. Consequently, Rookwood's own Legilimency should have given the Death Eater a decisive victory. But the wily ex-Auror had one special trick up his sleeve.
Rufus Scrimgeour liked to collect secrets.
One of those secrets was his memory of an encounter many decades earlier with a dark wizard named Vasyl Dobroshtan. A Halfblood of Ukrainian descent, Dobroshtan had been expelled from Beauxbatons during his final year for "illegal artistic experimentation." And one of his experiments was a technique for embedding psychic attacks inside artwork designed to magically draw and hold the viewer's undivided attention so that the hidden attack could bypass psychic defenses. In his pursuit of Dobroshtan, Rufus had been exposed to one such image that had been embedded with the concept of unimaginable pain, essentially a Cruciatus Curse conveyed through art. And because of the nature of Dobroshtan's magical creations, the effect was even more pronounced when the image was viewed with Legilimency.
Simply scrutinizing the image for a few minutes had nearly been the death of Rufus. But he survived that experience and brought Dobroshtan to justice. Then, he locked that cursed image away in his memory palace in case it was ever needed. As Rufus felt the tendrils of Rookwood's Legilimency slither into his mind, he unlocked that terrible memory and thrust it into the forefront of his thoughts.
And Rookwood screamed as Dobroshtan's artistry burned through his mind.
Unable to break the connection or even eye contact, Rookwood could only shriek in agony and drop to his knees as his own Legilimency was turned against him. Scrimgeour edged closer as quickly as possible while maintaining the link with the Death Eater who found himself unable to look away or even blink. With a flick of his wand, Rookwood was disarmed, but still Scrimgeour did not relent. While he had no wish to damage his own soul by killing Rookwood, he was quite prepared to risk some lesser soul damage if he allowed the fiend to inadvertently kill himself. And so, he slowly advanced on his enemy, letting Dobroshtan's infernal creation do its work. Already, he could see a rivulet of blood dripping down the man's nose.
"Just a few more seconds, and we can end this!" Rufus thought to himself, a sentiment that lasted right up until a brown Norwegian rat bit down on the heel of his good leg hard enough to snap the Achilles tendon. He had an instant to realize that Rookwood's earlier Finite must have been strong enough to dispel the snake as well as the flock of birds, leaving Pettigrew free to sneak up on him. Then, with a scream of his own, the wizard collapsed to the floor even as a terrible burning sensation crept up the bitten leg. Instantly, where the rat had been, there now stood a man bearing a cruelly smug expression. Pettigrew bent down to retrieve Rufus's wand as well as his own.
"Oh dear," Peter said with mock concern. "Now, I seem to have ruined both your legs, Professor Scrimgeour! How rude of me!"
"Bastard!" Rufus spat through the pain and, oddly he thought, the discomfort of a sudden raging fever. "Go on and finish it then!"
"I already have, Scrimgeour," the Death Eater said coldly. "You're dead. You just don't know it yet."
The ex-Auror looked at his palsied hands which were already breaking out into pustules. Scrimgeour's head nodded as if he were struggling to stay awake, and when he coughed, he spat out blood. He looked up at Pettigrew with a mixture of shock, fury and, strangely, regret.
"Damn … you! S'not … fair. It's not fair! I had … plans … in …motion."
"Sometimes, Professor," Peter said sagely, "a plan is just a list of things that don't happen."
Rufus Scrimgeour had no response to that comment. Nor any other.
Nearby, Rookwood took a moment to heal his own injuries and recover a bit from the intense (and humbling) psychic trauma before joining his protégé. Peter summoned Rookwood's wand from where it had landed and then returned it to the other man when he drew near.
"What … what did you do to him?" he asked weakly while still trying to clear his head.
"A blood-borne curse designed to mimic the effects of the Black Death," Peter responded proudly. "It draws on the symbology of rats as the bearers of plague. I can only inflict it once, and then I need to let the symbolic magic recharge for several days before I can use it again. But it's usually fatal to wizards who don't get immediate medical treatment."
Peter looked back down at the wizard lying at their feet, and then kicked him in the ribs. There was no response. "As Scrimgeour could attest. If, you know, he wasn't dead already. Are you okay? You're sort of … bleeding."
Rookwood grimaced and then wiped his hand across his mouth to remove the blood that had trickled down from his nose. "I will … be alright in a few more minutes. But it was an uncomfortably close thing. I did not anticipate Scrimgeour having such a formidable Occlumency trap in his arsenal."
He grunted a laugh. "Let this be a lesson to me, I suppose. I have gone further than anyone alive in the development of Occlumency. And yet, I still find that no defense is perfect. Hopefully, Scrimgeour took whatever technique he just used against me to his grave."
Peter was about to ask for details when both Death Eaters heard a moan coming from nearby. It was Dolores Umbridge, who had regained consciousness and was slowly pulling herself up off the floor. With a lazy sweep of his wand, Peter picked the woman off the floor and dropped her roughly into a nearby chair. She gave out a cry of pain and then looked fearfully at her captors.
"Madame Dolores Umbridge, Senior Undersecretary to the Minister for Magic," Peter said disdainfully. "And would-be hero, apparently. You really should have played it smart and just hid in a closet, I think. AVADA …!"
"WAIT!" Rookwood interrupted sharply.
Instantly, Peter caught himself before completing the curse. Rookwood stared at the frightened woman for several seconds while idly tapping his stolen wand against his temple.
"Umbridge?" he asked mildly, as if the name were familiar and he were trying to place it. "Are you, by any chance, the daughter of Orford Umbridge?"
Dolores tried to answer but was not able to form any coherent words.
"Please do me the courtesy of answering when I speak to you, Madam. You don't wish me to think you rude, now do you?"
She coughed to clear her throat. "Y-yes. I am … that is … Orford Umbridge was my father."
Slowly, Rookwood advanced towards her with his wand held up in his right hand as he casually rolled it between his fingers. At no time did he break eye contact. "Was? Is your sainted father no longer with us, Madam Umbridge?"
"He … he p-passed away last Christmas."
"I'm so sorry for your loss," he said with bland politeness as he continued his advance towards the witch.
"Tell me, Madam Umbridge. What exactly does the Senior Undersecretary to the Minister for Magic actually do?"
She paused to wipe some tears from her eyes, smearing her makeup as she did. "I, um, I advise the Minister on political m-matters. Especially pertaining to Hogwarts." Rookwood's eyes widened slightly, and she continued in a panic as he drew nearer.
"But n-not about anything important mind you! Just educational policies! I'm no one special! Really, I'm not! So, there's just no sense in killing me! No one would miss me at all! It probably wouldn't even hurt anyone's feelings. So please, Mr. Rookwood. What … whatever you're thinking of d-doing to me … just … don't! Please!"
By now, the woman was openly weeping as the feared Death Eater came to a halt standing almost on top of her. Slowly, he raised the index finger of his left hand to rest it on his lips.
Then, he gently brought Gawain Robard's wand down so that the tip touched the terrified woman's forehead, and she shut her eyes tightly and waited for the end. Rookwood said nothing, but his face assumed a mask of intense concentration. Slowly, he turned the wand in his hand clockwise against Umbridge's forehead as if he were tightening a resisting screw. Dolores's face scrunched up as if she were in agony, and she opened her mouth to scream. But not a sound came out. Instead, after a few seconds, she simply slumped in the chair unconscious. Rookwood turned back to face Pettigrew, and although he suddenly seemed even more exhausted than after his duel with Scrimgeour, he also looked remarkably smug.
"Was that supposed to accomplish something?" asked a bemused Pettigrew.
Rookwood shrugged. "I saw fertile ground. So, I planted a seed. In time, we will see what takes root. And what grows."
He took a deep breath. "Now, kindly go and fetch whatever we came here to get while I attend to the others still hiding from us."
Peter nodded and quickly made his way to James's office where he promptly blasted the door off its hinges. Once inside, he easily found the picture of the four young Marauders sitting on his friend's desk. He snatched it up and then raced after his mentor.
Soon after, the rat Animagus caught up with Rookwood in the Floo staging room where five witches and wizards were on their knees begging for mercy in front of a still-locked Floo.
"Did you find what you were looking for, Peter?" Rookwood asked without taking his eyes off the prisoners.
Peter paused while considering the hostages and then smirked. "Oh yes. It was exactly where James Potter told me it would be!"
Rookwood glanced at the other Death Eater for a second and then smiled as he took the hint. "Ah yes! James Potter has always been such a good friend, hasn't he? Tell me – is it true that James Potter is also an illegal Animagus like you?"
Peter gave a fake laugh. "Oh, Gus! You know I'm under an Unbreakable Vow never to reveal anything about that!"
"Oh yes! Silly me!" Rookwood turned his attention back to the prisoners. "Anyway, before you arrived, I was getting to know this lot before I decided whether any of them would be allowed to live."
He pointed to Thomas Edgecombe. "For example, did you know this fellow is the Director of Portkey Regulation? Which means that, with the proper motivation, he can provide us with an untraceable International Portkey!"
"I will never help you Death Eater scum!" Edgecombe said defiantly. "Do you hear me? I will never …"
Immediately, Violetta Edgecombe fell to the floor screaming in response to Rookwood's curse. He released it almost immediately, but her entire body still trembled with the force of her sobbing. Beside her, the other three hostages shrieked in terror at the effects of the Unforgiveable.
"That was five seconds, Mr. Edgecombe," Rookwood said patiently. "If I stop there, she probably won't have any lasting neurological damage."
Edgecombe immediately began to beg for mercy for himself and his wife. "Al-alright! Please! Just don't hurt her anymore! I'll do whatever you want!"
"Of course, you will, Edgecombe," Rookwood said calmly. "There was never any doubt."
Fifteen minutes earlier in front of Gringotts
"Chief Auror!" said the Patronus. "The Ministry of Magic is under attack by a horde of aggressive rats that multiply as if under the Geminio Charm. Rufus Scrimgeour believes that they are under the control of Peter Pettigrew. I am trapped in the Auror Headquarters with several other civilians. Please help us!"
The cat Patronus faded away, but for several seconds, James could only stare at the spot where it had been as if something in him had broken. He actually laughed at the absurdity of receiving such a message from a phantasmal cat on top of everything else that had happened today.
"And the hits just keep on coming," he said aloud with a sick grin on his face. After a moment's thought, he realized that the nearest Floo open right now was at the Leaky Cauldron on the opposite end of Diagon Alley. Briefly, he considered Apparating straight there, but after the day he'd had, James felt absolutely certain he'd splinch himself. So he took off at a run, shoving the night-time customers of the Alley out of his way as he went.
Fifteen minutes later, he stepped through the Floo from the Leaky Cauldron into Auror HQ, where he was surprised to find Amelia Bones and two off-duty hit wizards already on the scene and in the process of freeing three hostages (none of whom was Dolores Umbridge).
"What's the situation here?" he asked. "And where's Madam Umbridge?"
"She's been transported to St Mungo's," Director Bones said crisply. "She's presently unresponsive due to some unidentified dark curse. She was lucky, though. Rufus Scrimgeour is dead!"
James staggered back, horrified. "Rufus? Dead?! Who … who is responsible?"
One of the former hostages spoke up through her tears.
"Peter Pettigrew and Augustus Rookwood. They used the Cruciatus on Madam Edgecombe and then Side-Along Apparated both her and Mr. Edgecombe out of here right before Madam Bones arrived."
"Side-Along …?!" he exclaimed. "That's impossible! There are wards against that!"
"Well not anymore!" spat another former hostage. "Rookwood said he was taking the Edgecombes to get an International Portkey!"
Amelia looked sharply at James who didn't even acknowledge her. Instead, he just turned on his heel and Apparated straight down to Level 5 even as she called on him to wait for backup.
The International Portkey Station
While Thomas Edgecombe's office was a part of the Department of Magical Transportation on Level 6, all International Portkeys had to depart from Level 5 for diplomatic reasons, since such Portkeys normally had to be approved by the Department of International Magical Cooperation. Of course, the head of the Portkey Authority could always bypass those restrictions if given a good reason to do so. The Death Eater's wand pointed at his wife certainly counted as a good reason.
Elsewhere, while clearing Levels 3 and 4 of rats, Pius Thicknesse's squad of Aurors and hit wizards had managed to rescue a dozen Ministry personnel, but they'd also come across nearly that many fatalities from Pettigrew's rat plague. They'd also gotten lucky on Level 4 (Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures). Apparently, when the rats hit this level, Dirk Cresswell, Head of the Goblin Liaison Office, had the presence of mind to break into the Pest Advisory Board and commandeer fifty gallons of doxycide stored in a backpack-mounted sprayer. It turned out that while rats hit with doxycide still duplicated, the copies were already fatally poisoned from the moment they sprang into existence. While Cresswell wasn't able to take out the whole swarm, he was able to slow its advance long enough for the Aurors to arrive and finish the job. More importantly, Cresswell also had a key to the Floo on Level 4, and he was able to open it so that the civilians rescued by Thicknesse's squad could finally leave the building. At the Auror's insistence, all of them went to St Mungo's to be checked out first.
From there, Thicknesse and his party made their way down to Level 5 (International Magical Cooperation), where he was relieved at first to see no immediate signs of rat infestation. He'd actually held out hope that the plague was over. Unfortunately, those hopes were dashed when the Aurors discovered thousands of rats filling the open waiting area in front of the International Portkey Departure & Arrival station. On the far side of the waiting area near the Departure gate, Violetta Edgecombe was chained to one of several decorative columns along with the three Ministry employees who oversaw international portkey travel on the weekends.
And floating above Madam Edgecombe and the other hostages were five words in flaming letters conjured by the Pyrologos Charm: FEAR THE KING OF RATS!
Of course, as dramatic as it was, the entire tableaux was rather difficult to see through the spectral Dark Mark that floated in the air over the sea of rats, a sinister green skull and snake image that took up a third of the waiting area and made observation difficult if not terrifying. Inside the station, Pettigrew was mildly annoyed that circumstances prevented him from being more artistic in his approach.
Behind Thicknesse's group, there was a crack of Apparition. Startled, most of the Aurors and hit wizards turned around with their wands ready to fire, and it was lucky that James Potter wasn't struck down by his own men before he could say a word. He put up his hands to show he was not a threat and then moved to join Thicknesse.
"Status report?" he inquired.
"Not sure, Chief," Thicknesse replied. "We got here just before you did. So far, we've had good luck exterminating the rats as we come across them, but now they're all grouped tight against hostages. We don't know what's going on inside the International Portkey station."
"Well, I can guess," Potter said ruefully. "Pettigrew and Rookwood are in there with Thomas Edgecombe, and they've got him making an illegal International Portkey."
Pius's eyes widened at that information. "So that's why they've put up the Dark Mark! It'll stop us from setting up an Anti-Portkey Jinx!"
"And also from just Apparating inside with them," James added. "They've also taken down the building's internal wards against Apparation, so anyone with a Dark Mark can still Apparate at will!"
Inside the station, Rookwood oversaw Thomas Edgecombe's work while constantly reminding him of the price his wife would pay for failure or betrayal. Peter stood near the entryway to keep a lookout. Socrates was perched on his shoulder. Pettigrew had another rat in his hand, a chunky grey rat named Templeton to whom he was idly feeding a small hunk of cheese. Then, he was distracted by a soft squeak at his feet. It was yet another rat, a small black female named Dock. Sadly, Hickory and Dickory hadn't survived the evening's events.
Peter picked up Dock and spoke to her for several seconds before placing her into a coat pocket. Then, he turned back towards his fellow Death Eater.
"The Aurors are here. James is with them. Time?"
"About a minute," Rookwood answered. "Maybe two."
Peter nodded. "So, a distraction then, I reckon," he said as he raised his wand to activate the Sonorous Charm.
"How can he even do all this?" Dawlish asked rhetorically. "Cast a Duplication Curse on living animals? And control them all to this degree?"
"I think it must have been something to do with him being …" James suddenly stopped in mid-sentence, almost to the point of biting his tongue.
"What?" one of the hit wizards asked. "Is he really a rat Animagus? I've heard rumors!"
"Me too," said another. "Did you know he was an illegal Animagus, Chief Potter?"
James winced while Pius and the other Aurors present diplomatically looked away. The fact that Pettigrew had been held in an Animagus-proof cell had been classified above the security rating of a standard hit wizard. Before any of the Aurors could respond, an amplified voice called out from the office and across the waiting area.
"HELLO, JAMES POTTER!" Peter called out. "HAVE I FINALLY GOTTEN YOUR ATTENTION?"
James grimaced and activated the Sonorous Charm himself. "I'M HERE, PETER. I'M THE ONE YOU WANT. LET THOSE PEOPLE GO AND YOU CAN HAVE ME AS A HOSTAGE INSTEAD!"
There was a brief hesitation. "DO YOU MEAN THAT, JAMES? YOU'RE VOLUNTEERING TO BE MY HOSTAGE?"
"YES! IF YOU'LL LET THE OTHERS GO!"
Thicknesse grabbed James by the shoulder. "What are you doing?!" he hissed quietly. James quickly deactivated his Sonorous.
"I'm trying to stall him before he and Rookwood get away. If I can just get close to him, maybe I can distract them long enough for you lot to bypass the Dark Mark and get an Anti-Portkey ward up!"
"They'll kill you, Chief!" Savage exclaimed.
James simply looked at the female Auror. He had no answer for that. He wasn't even sure at the moment whether he'd consider that a bad outcome. Certainly, a heroic death here and now might simplify matters for his family later on. Before anyone else could speak, Peter spoke again.
"VERY WELL, JAMES. IF YOU'RE SERIOUS – HEHEH, NO PUN INTENDED – THEN I WANT YOU TO WALK FORWARD TO THE MIDDLE OF THE ROOM. RIGHT UP TO THE EDGE OF MY LORD'S MARK. MY FURRY LITTLE FRIENDS WILL LET YOU PASS. BUT IF YOU TRY ANY FUNNY BUSINESS, I START KILLING HOSTAGES!"
"I UNDERSTAND," James answered. "I'M COMING OUT!"
With that, James Potter stepped from around the cover the Aurors and hit wizards had been using. As he slowly walked forward, the living carpet of rats parted before him to open a path. The vermin continued to do so until he was halfway across the waiting area, about fifty feet from the other Aurors. The ghostly image of a skull with a snake crawling from its mouth towered over him. Meanwhile, the rats swarmed around behind him until he stood alone in a circle no more than ten feet across, a small vulnerable island amid a sea of chittering teeth and claws.
James swallowed deeply and whispered a mantra to himself repeatedly. "I am a Gryffindor. I am a Gryffindor."
"THAT'S FAR ENOUGH, JAMES. NOW … TAKE OFF YOUR COAT AND TOSS IT TO THE RATS!"
"What?" James called, no longer under the Sonorous Charm. "I don't understand …!"
"CRUCIO." There was a flash of red light and one of the hostages screamed in agony.
"STOP!" James screamed even as he desperately unbuckled his red Auror's long coat and threw it forward. The curse ended, and the poor man stopped screaming, although his weeping continued. Nearby, to James's surprise, several of the rats grabbed his coat in their teeth, and they swiftly dragged it into the office.
"NICE! NOT MY SIZE EXACTLY, BUT IT'LL MAKE A LOVELY SOUVENIR!" James could almost hear the sneer in his old friend's voice. "NOW DO THE SAME TO YOUR WAND!"
Despite himself, James hesitated just long enough for one of the other hostages to feel the lash of the Cruciatus. Then, he swiftly threw his wand towards the entryway to the station. Another rat picked up the wand from the floor and darted into the office with it.
"Okay!" James called out. "I've done what you asked! Now just … let the others go! You can do whatever you want to me!"
"WHAT I WANT IS TO HURT YOU, JAMES. AND AS I SAID, I STILL HAVE LOTS OF WAYS TO DO SO!"
And then, James heard a sound that stabbed at his heart. It was the sound of a thin shaft of wood ("Mahogany. 11 inches with a dragon heartstring core. Pliable, and excellent for Transfiguration, Mr. Potter.") being snapped in two.
Behind James, several of the Aurors gasped in shock. In wizarding culture, there were few taboos more sacred than "Thou shalt not snap another wizard's wand." It was a punishment reserved for the worst of the worst, for those unfit for wizarding society. For half a second, James wondered if having his wand snapped was a karmic punishment for that drunken Howler in which he'd threatened to do the same to Harry.
"Okay, Peter!" James called out even as he struggled to control his fury. "Are you happy now that you've done that? Is there anything else you have left to take from me?"
Inside the station, Peter glanced over to Rookwood who mouthed back the words "Ten seconds." Then, he called out once more to his former friend.
"JUST ONE MORE THING, JAMES! CHANGE!"
"What?!" James asked in confusion. "What do you mean … change?!"
"I MEAN, PRONGS, THAT I'M GOING TO COUNT DOWN FROM FIVE AND THEN START KILLING HOSTAGES … UNLESS YOU CHANGE! RIGHT HERE! RIGHT NOW! IN FRONT OF ALL THOSE AURORS AND HIT WIZARDS! DO YOU UNDERSTAND NOW, PRONGS?"
James's eyes went wide. Then, he turned back to look at Thicknesse and the other Aurors and hit wizards who all watched him with confused expressions.
James felt pure despair writhing in the pit of his stomach. There really was no end to Peter's ability to hurt him.
It seemed the betrayer could even take one of the proudest achievements of James's entire life and turn it into a humiliation.
James steeled himself knowing what would happen next. He would change, and the whole world would know the truth. That he was an illegal Animagus. That he had been an illegal Animagus the whole time he'd been an Auror.
And worst of all, everyone would know at once that James had known about Peter's Animagus form! Known about it and kept quiet except to tell a few trusted Aurors about the need for Anti-Animagus wards on Peter's cell! Known about it but never guessed what else an Animagus could do even with a form as weak as a pathetic little rat!
Before Peter could cast his curse, James fell forward, stretching his arms out as he did. In the blink of an eye, his arms and legs became powerful hooves even as antlers sprouted from his head. James Potter was gone. Prongs stood in his place.
"Merlin's bones!" said someone behind him. "Potter's an Animagus too! Did any of you guys know about this?"
The excited muttering of Aurors and hit wizards was soon overcome by the booming laughter of the traitor.
"HAHAHA! AS MAGNIFICENT AS I RECALL, JAMES! IT WAS WORTH IT ALL TO SEE THAT STAG … ONE FINAL TIME!"
Then, Peter let out a deafening squeal, and in response, the vast swarm of rats frenzied and attacked both the hostages and the stag. Pius and those with him surged forward, targeting the sea of rats and trying to summon the hostages to safety. But before they could draw near – and before James could do anything to save himself – there was a massive explosion from inside the International Portkey station. A fireball tore through the columns from which the hostages were restrained, and then, the shockwave struck the stag and hurled him the length of the room. Prongs felt a sharp pain in its front leg and reflexively changed back to James Potter … who had just a moment to wonder if he should be more worried about the rats clinging to his body or the fact that his right arm was bent at a wholly unnatural angle before the universe finally showed him some mercy and he passed out.
The Minister's Private Office
"Twenty-three fatalities, James," Minister Fudge said with barely concealed fury. "Twenty. Three. Fatalities. Including two Senior Aurors, the Director of Portkey Regulation and his wife, and your own predecessor as Chief Auror!"
James winced at his boss's ire. He was still recovering from his own injuries. Though quick work by Healers from St Mungo's had repaired the actual damage, he was still in considerable pain, a side effect of changing forms with a broken limb. The non-physical damage was far worse, of course. On top of the financial losses James had only just learned about hours earlier, Peter Pettigrew had also utterly humiliated James in front of his own men and snapped his wand for good measure. The man wondered how far he had left to fall before hitting rock bottom. And then, Cornelius Fudge began to yell some more, and James assumed that question might be answered soon enough.
"And that's just the loss of life! Those Death Eater swine - which your department allowed to escape - blew up both the International Portkey Station and a runic array that has been protecting this Ministry from unauthorized Apparation entry for over two centuries! It will cost millions of galleons to repair all that! Millions of galleons the government can't spare right now!"
The Minister fixed James with a steely glare. "And so, James, I hope I can count on House Potter to provide the necessary funding for those repairs since it was your Seneschal who caused all that damage in the first place!"
James opened his mouth to reply but then gave up and simply nodded his assent.
"Might as well volunteer to pay Wormtail's tab," he thought to himself. "At least that way, maybe I'll be spared the indignity of people learning I willingly signed an indemnity agreement that requires me to pay the damages whether I want to or not!"
"I'll … I'll need to consult with the Goblins about funding, Cornelius … Minister Fudge," James finally said. "But I'll … I'll do my best to set things right."
"Set things right!" Fudge scoffed. "As if that's even possible at this point! It's been less than twelve hours since I announced to the Wizengamot and the nation that the Azkaban Crisis was resolved and that the Death Eater Menace had been dealt with! And in that time, your closest friend who is also your Seneschal and a secret Death Eater, has escaped our custody, freed You-Know-Who's most dangerous servant, and caused a full-scale terrorist incident in the very heart of our Ministry! How do you plan to set that right, James?!"
James opened his mouth to answer but then closed it again without speaking. He honestly didn't know what to say.
Fudge sat back down in his chair in exhaustion. The two men sat in silence for a moment while James waited to see which ax would fall next.
"Oh, and on top of everything else … you're an illegal Animagus! Honestly, James!"
James sighed. "I am an Animagus. The … legality of it is kind of up in the air. I'd always believed that it was something I mastered as a student just through hard work and natural giftedness. I have only recently learned … that I was press-ganged into it somehow by Unspeakables as part of a secret project carried out during my Hogwarts days."
Fudge stared at him dully. "A secret project? Run by the Unspeakablers? At Hogwarts?"
James's face flushed as Fudge pointed out the absurdity of his story, a story he himself wasn't sure of. "It's something else for which my memories have been tampered with, Minister. You should probably ask Saul Croaker if you want to know more."
"If I want to know? Surely, if what you say is true, then you should be the one demanding answers from the Unspeakables! You know, since evading the Conscription List is a crime that that carries a minimum six-month term in Azkaban!"
James didn't answer. He knew imprisonment over his Animagus form was a possibility, but he wasn't really that worried about it. After all, there were other charges floating around now thanks to Pettigrew that might well land him in Azkaban for longer than six months.
Fudge stared at him before he resumed speaking, now in a gentler voice.
"James, it pains me to say this. It truly does. But there simply must be an inquiry over all this. In addition to your association with Pettigrew for all these years, I am informed that you met with him just today mere hours before his escape! And you put up silencing wards so no one could know what you two discussed. You must see how bad this all looks, my boy."
James nodded but again said nothing. Fudge leaned back slowly in his chair.
"Then, I assume you must also see that you cannot continue on as Chief Auror. Even ignoring the scandal this incident has created, you must see how your missteps have devastated morale and caused you to lose the support of your fellow Aurors."
The other man's expression was pained but resolute. "I understand, Minister. You'll have my letter of resignation before I leave tonight."
"I'm afraid I'll require more than that, James. Until there has been a full inquiry into this disaster, I am asking you to step down from the Corps effective immediately. After a few months, if the inquiry shows you to be blameless and the press has died down a bit, we can see about sliding you back into the Corps in some other role. Or failing that, into some other sort of Ministry role. You will be conscripted, after all, even if not as an Auror. And you were very a good Auror, James. Perhaps the mistake was mine in promoting you too fast."
James blinked rapidly as he fought to keep his composure. "I … I'm sorry I let you down, sir. Is there … anything else, Minister? I have a letter to write."
"No, that will be all. And James? I regret that it happened this way."
"So do I, Minister," said the disgraced ex-Auror. "So do I."
With that, James rose to leave the Minister's office. As he opened the door, he found Amelia Bones waiting on the other side. There was a terse exchange of pleasantries, and then he stepped past her and left. The DMLE Director stepped into the Minister's office where she gave her report of the night's events and he advised her of how the meeting with James had gone.
"So give it to me straight, Amelia. What's the likelihood of tracking down Pettigrew and Rookwood?"
"Barring a miracle, nonexistent," she replied. "We've been able to piece together – literally – that the Portkey they used took them to somewhere in Europe, but that's it. We've put out an alert to every European DMLE agency, but at this point, unless the escapees do something stupid to draw attention to themselves, they'll be hard to trace. And clearly, neither of them is stupid."
"Agreed. So here's the big question: Do you think they will be able to get in contact with You-Know-Who?"
Amelia stiffened in her chair. "The Ministry's official position since 1981 has been that You-Know-Who was destroyed, Minister."
"And yet, Amelia, you can't bring yourself to say his name any more than I can. I know the Ministry's official position. Now answer the question."
She removed her monocle and idly polished it with the hem of her sleeve. "You know as well as I that it's simply not a question we can answer. If You-Know-Who survived, then he did so through magical means unknown to us that allow him to continue to exist without a physical body. Merely speculating about how he might still be alive can attract unhealthy attention from the Unspeakables. So no, I have absolutely no idea as to whether either Pettigrew or Rookwood has the means to get in contact with You-Know-Who assuming that it's even possible to do so."
With that, she changed the topic. "By the way, since we've mentioned the Unspeakables, you should know that there may well be something to Potter's claim to have learned Animagery under their guidance. After hearing about his Animagus form, I made some inquiries, and promptly received a rather stern memo from Saul Croaker advising me that there is indeed a 'secret Animagus registry' and that Potter is on it. But they won't say anything else about the topic, least of all who else is on the damned thing."
Fudge snorted. "Aside from probably half the Unspeakables themselves! So, if Potter is not technically an illegal Animagus, we can't hold the threat of prosecution over him for that."
"You're actually serious about seeking to prosecute the father of the Boy-Who-Lived for his role in tonight's events?"
"You mean for the crimes committed by the godfather of the Boy-Who-Lived? That were, at a minimum, facilitated by Potter's incompetence if not worse? I realize, of course, that there's little chance of a conviction, but hopefully, the threat of it will force Potter to open up his family's coffers to pay for Pettigrew's damages. Plus, playing hardball with Potter might improve my standing with the new Lords Black and Wilkes."
Bones nodded. "Well, if that's the way you want to play it, we should probably contact Gringotts first thing in the morning and put a hold on all the Potter vaults for the time being."
"Can we do that?" Fudge asked in surprise. "To an Ancient and Noble House?"
"You can, Praetor Maximus! Your authority extends to any actions needed to resolve the so-called Death Eater Menace. During the last war, it was perfectly common to demand reparations even from Ancient and Noble families for damages caused by family members who turned out to be Death Eaters, especially when the Minister did so in lieu of prosecution. Under your Praetor Maximus authority, I've no doubt you can extend that to the situation of a Seneschal and Proxy as well."
"Good idea," Fudge said. Then, he hesitated. "You understand why I don't want to continue on as Praetor Maximus, I hope."
"Of course, Minister. But the public backs your policies, as does the clear majority of the Wizengamot. I think you have a while before the downsides of Praetor Maximus become an issue."
And there were downsides. For one thing, the motion to confer the title of Praetor Maximus had been made by Peter Pettigrew at James Potter's direction, which only heightened the embarrassment to Fudge's administration that Pettigrew turned out to be a traitor and Potter (Fudge's choice for Chief Auror) had been too witless to see it.
More important, however, was the danger the position itself posed to Fudge. He had and would now continue to have plenary powers over anything having to do with escaped Death Eaters, but only in that area. But the price Fudge paid for such authority was increasing vulnerability in other arenas. Normally, a sitting Minister could only be removed by a No Confidence vote supported by 67% of the Wizengamot. However, beginning one year after imposition of Praetor Maximus (i.e. on August 1, 1994), a No Confidence vote would pass with only 60%. And beginning a year after that, only 51% was required! In other words, a protracted failure to recapture Rookwood andPettigrew would lead to a situation where Fudge could be removed from office by a bare majority of the Wizengamot.
"And look on the bright side," Amelia continued. "The Quidditch World Cup will be held on these shores in just a few months. While it's obviously bad that Pettigrew and Rookwood are on the loose, the damage they did to the Ministry tonight clearly shows why there's a heightened need to improve security. I feel confident you can get away with taking control of the planning for the Cup on that basis."
Fudge snorted. "Get it out of Ludo's hands before he cocks it up, you mean? Yes, I suppose that's a possibility."
He shook his head and decided to change the subject.
"You know, James's resignation leaves an opening for Chief Auror. And after tonight, the only Senior Auror left is Pius Thicknesse, who's only been in that spot for less than a year. Speaking as a former Auror yourself, do you think he's ready for the Chief Auror's job?"
She considered the matter. "No. Perhaps in a few years. But to be honest, while I like Pius and think he's a fine Auror, he doesn't seem to show much administrative skill. On the other hand, I can't think of anyone presently within the Corps who would do any better."
Fudge reached into a side drawer to remove a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. "What about someone formerly within the Corps?"
Amelia watched the Minister carefully as he filled both glasses. "If you're referring to Alastor Moody …"
"I'm not, and you know it, Amelia. You were a Senior Auror when I came on as Minister. And if you were still a Senior Auror when Rufus was injured, I might well have picked you over James."
"Instead, I took the DMLE Directorship soon after your election because you asked me to. And my suspicion has always been that you only offered it to me to clear a Senior Auror slot for James in the first place."
Fudge shook his head. "Your suspicions were wrong. You were eminently qualified to head the DMLE, Amelia, and you've done exemplary work in the post. And since the job is co-equal in our management structure with the Chief Auror position, it was effectively a promotion, as I'm sure you realize. Granted, I may have picked James to replace you for political reasons, but you earned your current job on the merits."
She reached over and took one of the two whiskey glasses. "If I earned that job on the merits, then why do you want me to leave it now?"
The Minister chuckled. "Don't be coy. I'm asking you to transfer laterally to another job of equal importance and for which you're eminently qualified, but which simply has different demands. And one you've just admitted has no other viable candidates."
Amelia took a swig of whiskey and exhaled sharply. "Alright, then, Cornelius. As always, I serve at the Minister's pleasure. So, who do you see replacing me at DMLE?"
He shrugged. "I was about to ask you that."
The woman grimaced as if what she was about to say already left a bad taste in her mouth.
"Well, sadly, the obvious choice was Rufus Scrimgeour, but he was one of tonight's casualties. Of the living candidates …" She hesitated. "If I had to decide right now, I can only think of one person in the DMLE who has the breadth of experience, the magical ability, and the political acumen for the job."
"Really? So, what's wrong with this one person that has you dancing around his or her name even though it's your first choice?"
"It's a he, Cornelius. The current head of the Improper Use of Magic office … who, unfortunately, happens to have a Dark Mark tattooed on his left arm. Is that a good enough reason for reticence?"
"That depends. Isn't your prospective candidate among those accused Death Eaters who were put under the Imperius Curse by Marcellus Frump? Or at least, according to the evidence you yourself delivered this morning to the whole nation?"
Her grimace deepened. "He is. But from what I've heard of the man and his family connections, I'm not sure Frump had to try very hard to Imperius him into joining the Death Eaters."
"I understand why he's … problematic, Amelia. But since the end of the war, has he given reason to think that he might still be a traitor? Or even a Pureblood bigot to the degree that it would interfere with DMLE activities?"
She sulked for a moment. "No," she finally said. "His record has been annoyingly clean and his job performance exemplary."
"Alright then," Fudge said amiably. "While you're at Gringotts in the morning, I'll pay him a visit to discuss his promotion! And we'll both have to keep an eye on him for any latent Death Eater sympathies."
The Minister took another sip of whiskey. "And honestly, after what we've just been through with James Potter, how bad could Corban Yaxley be?"
The Department of Mysteries
Control shuddered at the sound of one of his oldest friends and longest-serving comrades screamed in absolute agony. But protocols were protocols. Number Nine had spent hours exploring the mindscape of Augustus Rookwood and confirmed to the Oversight Committee that the traitor's mind was utterly destroyed. Twenty-four hours later, his "expert opinion offered as Director of the Mind Division" was dramatically rebutted when Rookwood, apparently in complete control of his faculties, took part in a two-man assault on the Ministry that represented the single worst internal security breach in its history. Even in the worst days of the Death Eater Insurrection, the wizarding government had never suffered anything close to two dozen deaths in just a few hours right in the heart of the Ministry.
When Chime 53 activated, the Department of Mysteries went into Lockdown, and the Unspeakables onsite could do nothing except wait … and flinch nervously every time the chime sounded again. Well, that wasn't quite accurate. The Unspeakables probably could have done a great deal to assist in the fight against Rookwood and Pettigrew. But the Code 53 protocols were in place for a reason, and so swift had been the two Death Eaters rampage through the facility that the two had already escaped before the time the Lockdown could be terminated.
That left the Unspeakables with nothing to do but damage control.
Already, the Creatures Division had called in every member and put them on emergency assignment to figure out What The Hell allowed Pettigrew to not only communicate with and control rats but also use the Geminio Curse on them. Control's immediate assumption was that obviously Gustav Kleinwuchs had left a lot more research for Pettigrew to find than the Unspeakables had realized. Their "arrangement" with the war criminal obligated them to set the Death Wolf up with a fake identity in exchange for all of his lycanthropy research. Obviously, Control's predecessors had been foolish to ignore his family's long record of research into Animagery. And only Merlin himself probably knew what other forbidden knowledge had somehow been passed from Kleinwuchs to the grandson who'd been merely an infant when he died.
On a semi-related note, Control was also chagrined by the exposure of the classified Animagus registry to Amelia Bones. Control's immediate instinct was to deny everything, burn James Potter, and let the arrogant sod be sent to Azkaban as an illegal Animagus. But Croaker had pointed out that allowing the father of Jim Potter and Harry Black to be removed from the board might lead to problems later. And in any case, Albus Dumbledore was, of course, aware of the truth behind Potter's Animagery and would never permit him to be convicted for it. Still, it rankled that information that had been deemed an Unspeakable secret four centuries earlier was now known to the Minister for Magic, which meant it would probably be written up in the Prophet by the end of the week.
Nine screamed again. Control winced at the sound of it. Then, he closed his eyes in concentration and mentally reduced his capacity for empathy by 40% before opening his eyes to continue observing the psychic interrogation. He felt badly for Nine's circumstances. Every member of the Division of Mind was presently encircling their Director with their hands clasped together as they connected in a Stage 4 mind-link. From that gestalt vantage point, they were now subjecting Nine to a level 7 deep-scan while they reviewed his memories of the Rookwood interrogation. The process was clearly agonizing for Nine, but Control's guilt was ameliorated by the fact that Nine himself had devised the protocol and insisted that it be implemented immediately upon learning of Rookwood's revival.
To his credit, no one took psychic security more seriously than Number Nine. Truly, he would be missed greatly by the DoM if the same protocols he had created turned out to be the death of him.
After leaving the Ministry, James contacted Albus Dumbledore by Floo and asked to step through to his office. The two men had a brief meeting in which James relayed the evening's developments to the horrified Headmaster. After observing James's demeanor, a worried Dumbledore offered the man a Calming Draught which he gratefully accepted. Then, James made his apologies and said that he needed to meet with his wife.
Ten minutes later, Lily opened her door to find James on the other side bearing a hangdog expression. She frowned as he stepped into the room.
"It's late, James. I was expecting you hours ago. If you've decided now is the best time to yell at me over what Harry did at the Wizengamot, I'd really rather put it off until the morning if it's all the same."
For a second, he looked at his wife in confusion before he remembered that business from much earlier in the day with Harry and Sirius. It felt like it had happened years before.
"Oh, no. It's not that. I just … well …" His mouth trembled. "I don't know where else to go."
Lily's eyes widened as she suddenly noticed how pale he was. And that he had rips and a few bloodstains on his shirt.
"Oh Merlin! What's happened?" Lily asked. In response, he let out high-pitched laugh and then wiped his eyes. She led him over to a couch and sat beside him.
"What's … happened?" he asked. "What a question, Lily-Flower. What hasn't happened today?"
He paused to take a deep breath.
"Peter's escaped. And he took Rookwood with him. They've fled the country, it seems. In the process, they killed about two dozen people at the Ministry, including Kingsley, Gawain, and Rufus Scrimgeour."
Lily gasped in horror, as James continued. "And they also did several millions of galleons of damage to the Ministry building. Damage that I expect I'll have to pay for. Oh, and he snapped my wand."
"Honestly, I think he did it just for laughs."
"No, dammit!" she said in exasperation. "Why would you have to pay for millions in damages caused by Peter?!"
James shrugged. "Because I'm an idiot? It's not important. What is important is you and the boys. Well, the one boy we still have at least."
He reached over and took Lily's hands in his own. "Tomorrow morning, I want you to get a solicitor. Ask Harry if you can use his. That would probably be best. But get a solicitor … and start divorce proceedings against me as soon as possible. Invoke all the Clause 19 penalties you can. If you reveal that I used the Imperius on Jim, you should be able to claim nearly everything I own that's not entailed. Of course, all entailed property will go to Jim anyway once I've been sentenced to Azkaban."
"Change your name back to Evans, too! When I met Sirius today, he invoked the Oath of Enmity against House Potter, but you and Harry should be fine together if you're an Evans. You might have to keep Jim and Harry apart, but I didn't reciprocate the oath. Once I'm out of the picture, I think Sirius will allow the oath to lapse rather than just take it out on Jim."
"James, slow down!" Lily exclaimed. "What's gotten into you?!"
"I can't slow down, Lily!" James responded urgently. "We have to move fast! Or else you and Jim will lose everything! Let me have this one chance to fix things! To finally do something right!"
"Dammit, James!" she snapped. "You're doing it again! Rushing around making plans with no forethought and keeping me completely in the dark! Whatever happens in the future, right now, I'm your wife! So, act like a husband should and tell me what's going on! Why do you think we're going to lose everything? What did you do that's so awful you think going to Azkaban would be an acceptable alternative?!"
James leaned back against the sofa and closed his eyes. A tear rolled down his cheek for him to wipe away. "I trusted Peter."
She scoffed. "We both trusted Peter, James. So did lots of other people."
The man barked out another broken laugh. "No, Lily. We both trusted Peter to be our Secret Keeper. But I was the one who trusted him with our vaults!"
Lily's eyes widened. "Jesus wept," she muttered softly. "How much did he get?"
"More than enough."
James wiped his eyes and took a deep breath.
"Okay. First of all, he's been skimming from the main Potter accounts for years and hiding the withdrawals. On paper, we have around twenty-five million in liquid assets. The actual number is closer to nineteen million, of which I owe Harry eleven million due to an Unbreakable Vow."
"Okay, that's … that's bad," Lily said. "But it still leaves eight million. It's a big hit, but lots of people get by on a lot less than that. Plus, we have all the real estate."
James shook his head sadly. "Over the last three years, ever since he's had oversight on the Charitable Trust …"
"Oh, don't tell me!" Lily interrupted, her anger rising. "Don't tell me he's been stealing from that charity I ran without issue or complaint for ten years!"
"Worse. He's mortgaged every bit of real estate we own for more than it's actually worth, with both the Trust and me personally signed on as guarantors of any unsecured balance on the debts. The cash he got for the loans has already been siphoned off, and there are massive balloon payments due on all those debts this summer. If I can't pay the debt off personally, then the Charitable Trust will be on the hook for the balance. And since I stupidly signed all the paperwork for that, as far as the law is concerned, I'm guilty of embezzling from a charitable organization. That's five to seven years in Azkaban."
"But it wasn't your fault!"
"I signed everything, Lily. There's no evidence to prove that I wasn't involved. My defense, such as it is, is that I was too stupid to read all the papers Peter gave me before I signed them."
He sighed dejectedly. "Just like I didn't read the paperwork which requires House Potter to indemnify Peter Pettigrew personally for any financial penalties or civil damages he incurs under any circumstances. I believe I mentioned just now how he did millions of galleons worth of damage to the Ministry building on his way out. Fudge already told me that House Potter will be held responsible for those damages … right before he fired me. Well, asked me to resign. Same thing, really."
By now, Lily was simply staring at her husband aghast, with her hand over her mouth.
"How … how much is left? Can you even afford to pay Harry?"
James shook his head. "Not all of it. If I liquidate everything that's not entailed and pay every other debt House Potter owes, I'll still be short around four million on what I owe Harry. That's why you need to start divorce proceedings immediately!"
She shook her head. "How is it going to help solve anything if I leave you and take most of your wealth?"
"It will help you and Jim because, under Wizengamot law, marriage contract penalty claims take precedence over all other debts. If you clean me out, neither our creditors nor the Ministry will be able to take anything from you for either Peter's crimes or my mistakes. I'll even testify about how you were cut off from all our financial dealings. And even as Lily Evans, you'll still be able to act as Regent for Jim until he's old enough to become Lord Conditional when he turns 15. House Potter will survive and under your guidance, I know it can rebuild. I think we both know what a disaster I've been as Lord Potter anyway. I know you'll be able to get things back on track."
"While you rot away in Azkaban for years?!" Lily shrieked. James just smiled, as if all his cares were over.
"I doubt it will be an issue, Lily-Flower. I won't be able to pay Harry what I owe him, which means I'll break an Unbreakable Vow. Assuming it doesn't kill me outright, I'll at least lose my magic. And no squib has ever lasted more than two weeks in Azkaban."
"STOP IT!" she shouted suddenly and loudly enough to surprise her husband. "Just stop talking like that! You will not give up, James Potter! I forbid it!"
"DON'T YOU LILY-FLOWER ME, BUSTER!" By that point, the woman had shot up to her feet, and her eyes flashed dangerously.
"Now you listen to me, James Charlus Potter! I know you think you're Godric Gryffindor Reborn, and there's nothing you'd like better than the chance to make some grand sacrifice for your family! But it's not going to happen! If you wanted to give up on your life, you should have bloody well done so back when I thought you were an arrogant toe-rag! Because Merlin help me, after fifteen years of marriage, you have become someone … someone I can't live without! I LOVE you, you stupid oaf! And you have a son who not only loves you too, he idolizes you! And it would devastate him to lose you!"
She paused for breath while James stared up at her, almost awestruck by her outburst. Lily sat back down beside him and squeezed his hand.
"And what's more, James, you have another son. He might not be your son under the law. And he might not want to think of himself as your son. In fact, to be honest, he would be completely justified in hating you and me both. And yet, somehow, despite his upbringing – and due to what I can only describe as a divine miracle – Harry Black is a good person. He is compassionate and brave and has a will of iron. And I genuinely believe that if we can speak to him and explain what has happened, he will be willing to help us despite the Oath of Enmity."
James winced at the name Harry Black despite himself. "And if he won't?"
"If Harry won't help us, then you can make a big show of walking up to the guillotine and giving a speech like Sydney Carton, but not before!"
"I have no idea who Cindy Cardigan is," he said with a furrowed brow. Lily sighed.
"And if you do survive this, I'm going to force you to read Muggle novels for the rest of your life. And give book reports on them!" She sighed. "But right now, you need some rest. In the morning, we'll sit down with Jim and explain what's happened. I gather he had an argument with Harry because of the Oath of Enmity, and he needs to understand about that. And, I suppose everything else."
James nodded wanly and then looked around the room. "I, um, don't have a wand to Apparate. And I'd rather not wake Albus up to use his Floo. Is it okay if I stay here and sleep on your couch?"
"No," Lily replied.
"Oh," he said, crestfallen. But then, Lily leaned over and kissed him gently on the lips.
"You can come to bed … husband," she said.
And he did.
The offices of the Daily Prophet
Just after midnight
PANDEMONIUM AND PLAGUE AT MINISTRY!
ROOKWOOD ESCAPES WITH AID OF "THE KING OF RATS"!
IS CHIEF AUROR POTTER RESPONSIBLE?
Barnabas Cuffe chortled with delight as he carefully handled the mock-up Page One for the next morning's Sunday Prophet.
"This is bloody amazing stuff, Rita!" he exclaimed. "I don't see how Fudge survives this!"
"He will," Rita Skeeter said confidently. "He's more politically astute than his detractors like to believe. More importantly, he can easily scapegoat James Potter for this. Mind you, is it really scapegoating if the goat in question really is at fault?"
Cuffe looked up at his star reporter quizzically. "Yeah, I was wondering about that. I couldn't help noticing that your coverage comes down on Potter pretty hard. You've always given him a soft touch in the past."
"Oh, what can I say, Barney! I guess I was just taken in by that Potter Charm. But now, the scales have fallen from my eyes, and I see the Potters for what they are. A vain mediocre wizard and a gold-digging witch who've both used their son's fame to elevate themselves far above where their talent and character should have led them."
"Careful, Rita, dear. They're still the parents of the Boy-Who-Lived. Despite all that Parselmouth business from last year, Jim Potter's still the idol of Wizarding Britain. And the public might turn on you if you kick over too many Potter-shaped rocks and expose what's underneath."
"Au contraire, Barney," Rita said while rising from her chair. "When Jim Potter's fans realize how his loving parents have endangered his life by letting the King of Rats have unfettered access to him all these years, they'll love me all the more for rescuing him from such shoddy parenting."
She reached into her purse for an envelope she handed to her editor.
"Which reminds me. Here! This is my official notice. My contract says I have to give it to you in advance of any lengthy sabbatical from work. I'll be staying on through the end of June but in a reduced capacity. Then, I'm taking off for the whole summer."
"What?!" Cuffe shrieked, as the reporter headed for the door. "The biggest scandal to hit Wizarding Britain since the fall of You-Know-Who, and you want to take a sabbatical?! And during the Quidditch World Cup? For what?"
She turned back to him from the doorway and gave a predatory smile.
"I'll be working on my new book, Barney. The working title is The Fall of the House of Potter. And believe me, it'll be a bestseller!"
Next: Public humiliation and financial ruin!
AN1: Check out the Sinister Man's web presence on the POS wiki, the POS TV Tropes page, and my Discord server (through which you can see advance previews of this story as it is begin written). Also, the Sinister Man would be profoundly grateful if you checked out my P*****n page and supported my original fiction. Patronage is not necessary to get the free POS previews via Discord.
AN2 (What the Sinister Man is reading): A Simple Act of Vengeance by Frickles.
AN3: Special thanks to my Discord editors: BlueWater5, Bob, Darkarus, dragonsandotters, Fionan, Flareix_ [Prince Flare], Jennifer Weasley, lazinessIsTheMotherOfProgress. Magica, Mr Yarrow Dread Ellen Ink, Marq, nik, Pivosh(Knight of Ron aka Reg), PrettyPinkCupcake, Reverse Card, scallionpancake, TNT, and ZombeyUnicorn. Thanks, guys!
AN4: Vital Statistics: Reviews: 14,402. Followers: 15,122. Favorites: 13,281. Communities: 220. Discord followers: Over 3000! Go Team POS!
AN5: "A plan is just a list of things that don't happen" is a line from a 2000 Ryan Phillipe film called The Way of the Gun. As I recall, it was the only clever line in an otherwise mediocre movie.