The last enemy
that shall be destroyed
(1 Corinthians 15:26)
Don't go 'round tonight
It's bound to take your life
There's a bad moon on the rise
(Bad Moon Rising, Creedence Clearwater Revival)
"It's no go, mate," a sullen voice declared into the candlelit gloaming of a dim bedroom. The owner of this bedroom — a tall, angular youth with dark-framed glasses and darker hair — was sprawled aslant in an overstuffed armchair, his legs stretched out and resting upon a large, leather trunk. A cluster of candles floated around him, giving the odd impression of a fiery crown.
The boy, whose name was James Potter, was peering into a small, grubby mirror — but it was not his own reflection that looked back. Instead, his best friend Sirius Black grimaced at him through the glass. It was from here the sullen voice came.
"I swear," said Sirius from the mirror, "Mummy darling's gone even madder this summer. There's no way she's going to let me come."
"That doesn't make any sense," complained James. "What's changed?"
"Apart from her rapidly-eroding sanity, you mean? I reckon she's decided once and for all that the Potter family tree is a giant cesspool of blood traitors and Muggle-lovers."
"You came to stay last year."
"That was before your dad was publicly quoted in the Daily Prophet calling Abraxas Malfoy a 'bigoted old buffoon.'"
"Aha, yeah, good ol' dad," snickered James. He swatted away one of the candles, as it was veering a little too near his forehead.
"Watch out," advised Sirius. "You're going to set the drapes on fire again."
"Never mind them," said James, knocking another candle away from the thick velvet curtains that hung plushly before the tall windows (and showed irrefutable evidence of prior singeing). "This is rubbish. It's bad enough you missed the Puddlemere United match, but now I won't even see you until the start of term?"
"I'm not exactly chuffed myself."
"What if I come to you?"
"Bad idea, mate," said Sirius darkly.
James scowled into the distance. He'd never been to his friend's home, nor even met his family beyond one brief interaction at King's Cross. Sirius preferred it that way; he'd made it clear he didn't want James to have anything to do with them. James understood this, to a degree. After all, Sirius's parents were not nice people. They were what James's mother might refer to as 'ultra-traditionalists,' or what James's father might refer to as 'bigoted old buffoons.'
The Blacks were one of Wizarding Britain's most noble and aristocratic pure-blood families. They were famous for their fabulous wealth, dominating political power, and uncompromising stance on blood purity. The Potters, in the Blacks' view, did not quite rate. The name 'Potter' had long been dropped from the Sacred Twenty-Eight, an anonymously published bible of pure-blood families that the Blacks topped both alphabetically and fanatically. This fact, coupled with Mr. Potter's outspoken political views on Muggle rights, meant that the Blacks did not much approve of their son's friendship with a certain James Potter.
James wasn't all too bothered by this, for he did not much approve of the Blacks.
Still, it was annoying, as now their dislike of him was interfering with his summer plans. For a while, Sirius's family had at least tolerated James. He may be the son of Muggle-lovers, but they were at least pure-bloods. All that seemed to be a thing of the past, however. Almost immediately after Sirius had returned to his London home for the summer holiday, his parents had whisked him off to his uncle's country house where they evidently thought he'd be safe from the pernicious influences of blood traitors and Muggle-lovers like the Potters.
They didn't know about the mirrors though, thought James with smug satisfaction.
"How is it, at your uncle's?"
"Foul," said Sirius. "I don't know where old Alphard got the idea that I give a rat's arse about horses or hunting. Never thought I'd miss bloody Grimmauld Place."
"Did you at least get a chance to look at the library?"
James leaned forward in excitement. "And? Did you find anything?"
"If you want to learn how to curse off your enemy's genitals? Yes. If you want to learn how to become an Animagus? No luck."
"Damn." James sunk back into his chair, disappointed.
"I told you not to get your hopes up. The only books in that rubbish library are about ancestry and evil. What else would you expect? It was curated by a bunch of Dark Arts-loving swine…"
Disappointed though he may be by the results of Sirius's search, James felt a swell of pride at his friend's ongoing tirade. Sirius hated Dark Magic as much as James. He wasn't anything like his fanatical, blood supremacist family. That had been made clear when he'd been sorted into Gryffindor House with James back in first year. Sirius, unlike his rotten relatives, was good.
"…and if I have to sit through another tea with Narcissa and her slimy Death Eater boyfriend, I'm going to lose it, James, I really will. Lucius bloody Malfoy. Going on and on about how the Death Eaters are upholding the Black family traditions of blood supremacy and — oh yeah, they murder children for fun. Isn't that grand, darling?"
James felt his stomach drop. Sirius had undoubtedly seen the article in the Daily Prophet last week about the Muggle family in Leeds found brutally murdered…three children, all under the age of ten…
"I thought they hadn't connected that to Death Eaters."
Sirius grunted. "Not officially."
Death Eaters. Once a whisper in the newspapers, a rumor, a conspiracy theory, the name was cropping up more and more often. And though it was never printed, never mentioned in the inky columns of the Prophet, everyone somehow knew the name that went before it, the name even James's own parents refused to speak…the one they called You-Know-Who.
Sirius was still talking. "And of course, my idiot brother just laps it all up. It's disgusting, watching him suck up to mummy and dear Uncle Alphard. He's pathetic, just trying to show off, to be their good little pure-blood son. You know, sometimes I wonder if I should've been harder on him as a kid. Let him fight his own battles, instead of always taking the brunt of it. Maybe then he wouldn't be so enamored with Black family values…"
Sirius trailed off here. He hardly ever spoke about his childhood, but James suspected it had not been very nice.
"Look," said James consolingly, "when do you get back to London?"
"A week. But it's not any better there."
"I know, but do you think you could sneak out? Just for the day? I could meet you in Diagon Alley."
Sirius thought about it. "I probably could, if we did it on a weekday. They always have something going on." He brightened a bit at this idea. "How about that Thursday?"
James agreed and quickly extinguished the arm of his chair: It was smoldering.
When Thursday arrived, James woke with the birds. He was an early riser by nature, and today he was excited. He and Sirius had agreed to meet at the Leaky Cauldron at half-past eleven. The time was chosen because Mr. and Mrs. Black were likely to have left for their various appointments and social obligations by then, giving Sirius an easy escape. He had to be secretive about it, because they were weird about him going into London without them.
It was ten-til-nine, and James was impatient.
The problem with the summer holiday, he felt, was that there was simply nothing to do. Sure, he enjoyed a break from classes and exams as much as the next student, but he missed the constant buzz of activity in the castle, the clamor of people filling halls.
Unlike Hogwarts, his own home was very quiet. Potter House was a big, rambling, old place, tucked away in a cozy corner of the Cotswolds, and for most of the summer James rattled about in it, bored. He hated being bored. His parents were around, of course, but they had their own concerns. His father's health had long teetered near the edge of trouble, and lately things had gotten worse.
If James wasn't careful, if he spent too many idle hours lying on his bed doing nothing, then he got rather sad about it.
So he kept busy. In the mornings, after a hardy breakfast, he took to the field behind Potter House to practice Quidditch. James was a Chaser on the Gryffindor Quidditch team, and he was very good, but he could always get better.
In the evenings or on rainy days, he spent most of his time teaching himself new spells and jinxes. He'd convinced his mother that it didn't matter if he did underage magic outside of school, despite the strict laws prohibiting it. The Trace, he had reasoned, only told the Ministry where the magic was being used, and as they were a Wizarding home, no one need ever know the spells came from a certain fifteen-year-old boy. And wasn't it better, he had insisted, that he use the summers to study and learn new magic, rather than lolling around for months on end, doing absolutely nothing?
His mother had laughed, ruffled his hair, and agreed that "as long as he didn't burn the house down," she couldn't see any harm.
Good ol' mum.
His parents had already left for the morning. His father had yet another 'routine' checkup at St. Mungo's, and his mother had accompanied him, as she always did. They would be gone for most of the day, as they always were. Not that they would mind if he went to Diagon Alley on his own. They weren't controlling, like Sirius's parents. James more or less did whatever he pleased.
After finishing breakfast, James was dismayed to see he still had yet another hour to kill, so he wandered down the hall to the library, a room he had come to haunt over the summer. The library at Potter House was a very handsome room, lined with dark mahogany bookcases and crammed to capacity with lovely calf-bound tomes of every size and color. A marble table, piled with ever more books, anchored the center of the room, and a worn sofa of faded rose velvet was pushed back in the cozy recess between the shelves. A large, sloped fireplace dominated the eastern wall, and as James crossed the room, he ran a finger absently over the grooves of a small, triangular carving in the chimney breast. An old habit, a superstitious ritual for luck. He barely noticed he was doing it.
With a sigh, he settled himself down at the marble table and grabbed a stack of books he had piled there the night previously. The library's collection was vast and varied. It had been curated by an eccentric mishmash of generations of Potters. On its shelves sat books on potion-brewing, medical magic, and healing teas. Compendiums on herbalism and treatises on Kneazle-breeding. Heavy, brick-like tomes of Transfigurative theory and wispy little manuscripts on experimental charms. An Encyclopedia of Fungi sat next to A Treasury of Toad-Keeping. There were books on art and architecture, literature and plays, more than one edition of The Tales of Beedle Bard, and even a very dusty corner devoted to eighteen-century efforts in gnome breeding. What it did not have, so far as any of James's scholarly expeditions had uncovered, were instructions on how to become an Animagus.
Another glance at his watch, another sigh, and James selected a hefty volume from the stack and began to read. He didn't really expect to find anything. He'd been through just about every book on Transfiguration in the collection. ("My little scholar!" exclaimed his mum, upon finding him holed up in the library for the fourth time that week.) All the books talked about Animagi — it was, after all, considered the pinnacle of Transfigurative magic — but none seemed to give the exact measures for how to properly do the thing. James had probably read everything ever scribbled on theory, but when it came to implementation, the books were fuzzy and vague.
The thing about becoming an Animagus was that it was a bit complicated…and a bit illegal. Well, not illegal exactly, but you had to register yourself with the Ministry of Magic, which was not something James had any intention of doing. Secrecy for this mission was essential, which meant his options for learning were limited to books, and here he had hit a dead end.
James scratched his nose and ran a finger along the wall of text, looking for anything new. He stopped suddenly and straightened his glasses as a phrase caught his eye: The Infallible Animagus. He had seen that before, in the bibliography of another book at the school library. He hadn't been able to find it in the stacks though, which meant it was probably in the Restricted Section. This was bad luck because you needed a professor's approval to get a book from there, and professors very rarely approved of anything James Potter did.
Nonetheless, he flagged the page in the book and carried on with his reading.
It had been several years since James first got the bug in his brain to become an Animagus. The ability to turn into an animal at will, apart from simply being really cool, seemed like the perfect solution to his most perplexing problem.
The problem went something like this: At school, James had three best friends: Sirius Black, Peter Pettigrew, and Remus Lupin. The four boys shared a dormitory, which suited them marvelously, as it provided a ready-made private headquarters to plan their mischief (of which they made much). It also meant that, living in such close quarters, it was very difficult to keep secrets from each other.
Remus had learned this the hard way. Because the thing was, Remus Lupin had a very big secret. Though James and Sirius had bonded from the first moment they met, it took a bit longer for the others, shy and awkward creatures as they'd been. But James had been intrigued by the quiet boy who shared his dormitory, a boy who was at once so guarded, and yet so clearly desperate to make friends. James appreciated his sense of humor, which was clever and sharp and often surprising, such that his victim didn't get the joke until Remus was several paces away. It wasn't long before Remus, and then Peter, were assimilated into the Gryffindor gang that now comprised of four.
But Remus Lupin kept disappearing. Once a month, every month, he was just gone…and when he came back…well, he rather looked like he'd been attacked by an angry hippogriff. By their second year, the boys had figured it out. Being only twelve, they had not yet developed the sense of incredulity that would make adults laugh and look for another explanation. Because the thing was, Remus Lupin was a werewolf.
"Cool," Sirius had said when Remus at last confirmed their suspicions.
But it wasn't cool. Not really. James had been watching for four years as his friend went off by himself into some secret agony. There was nothing he could do, short of bringing lots of sweets to the hospital wing the next morning, and it was driving him mad.
Peter was the one who gave him the idea. One morning, after a particularly rough full moon, Peter, Sirius, and James were all sitting around Remus's bed in the hospital wing, when Peter blurted out: "I wish we were all werewolves, then we could just go with you."
Remus did not like this much, saying it was a terrible thing to wish, but the idea stuck in James's head. No, they couldn't become werewolves, of course. But…why couldn't they go with him? What if they became some other sort of animal? Werewolves couldn't hurt other animals, you see. Couldn't turn them, at least. If they became animals, they could go along with Remus when he transformed and — well, he didn't know exactly what they would do, but then at least he wouldn't have to be alone.
James hated being alone.
He glanced at his watch: Forty-five minutes to go.
At eleven o'clock, James decided he couldn't wait any longer. Shoving a useless text back on the shelf, he marched to the kitchen. He would have to travel by Floo, unlike Sirius, who lived in town and enjoyed using the Muggle Underground. James had been on the Underground exactly once — last summer, with Sirius — and he'd found it far more disconcerting to hurtle through tunnels below the city than through something sensible, like chimneys.
Collecting the small velvet sachet his mother kept on a hook by the hearth, James dispensed a pinch of shimmering powder into his palm and threw it into the fire. The fireplace burst with green flames; James stepped through, proclaimed "Diagon Alley!" and went spinning into the blurred network of grates.
He stepped out onto the warm stone hearth of the Leaky Cauldron. The pub was dimly lit and rather emptier than James was used to seeing it, but he supposed it was rather early in the day. Of course, that didn't stop him from trying to convince the bartender to serve him something stronger than butterbeer.
"You forget, son, I know your parents," the bartender growled, though he looked amused.
"Bad luck," said a voice behind him. "Guess you've still got your baby face."
James spun on his heel. Sirius Black was grinning at him, hands stuffed into pockets, slouching in a pair of Muggle jeans and a t-shirt. He looked taller — which was annoying — and, as always, cool. James was delighted to see him. With a galumphing cry, he threw his arms around his friend and pulled him into a hug.
"All right, all right. Keep it in your pants, mate," said Sirius, laughing as he pushed him off.
James grinned. "Two butterbeers, then," he told the bartender, who handed them each a foaming mug. "Blimey, I've missed you," said James as they settled into a pair of shabby armchairs across the pub. "This might go down in history as the most boring summer yet."
"Tell me about it. I thought I was going to claw my own face off."
"At least it's almost over, eh?"
"Cheers to that." Sirius let out a short, mirthless laugh. "You know, the bitch threatened not to let me go back to school this year."
"Yeah, something about it being better to have a drop-out for a son than a blood traitor. I dunno, I tuned her out." He took a swig of his drink. "Like she could stop me."
James frowned, observing his friend closely from behind his butterbeer. He was troubled to see the same lines of misery from their last conversation still etched onto Sirius's face, and there was something hollow about his voice that was unsettling.
"Well," said James, "never mind that nonsense. Next summer, I have a plan: I'm just going to steal you off the train before Walburga can get her greedy little hands on you. Can't exile you to the country if they can't find you."
Sirius snorted. "Uh huh. Sure."
"I mean it! It's not technically kidnapping if it's another kid doing the napping, right?"
"You think I'm joking, but no court would convict me. Besides, I think I could make a very compelling case for legally adopting you. You may call me 'Papa.'"
Sirius choked on his butterbeer. "First of all, you prat, I'm older than you."
"Minor legal complication," agreed James. "Second of all?"
"Second of all…" Sirius shook his head and a grin spread across his face. There he was, his old friend. "Second of all, I've missed you, you fucking idiot."
They finished their drinks and headed towards the shops. Both boys had already done their school shopping — or rather, their mothers had ordered their things — but they still found plenty to look at, lingering for a particularly long time in the cluttered corridors of Gambol and Jape's, the joke shop, restocking their arsenal for the year. Quite a few items in this shop had been banned at Hogwarts thanks to the efforts of the Gryffindor boys, and this was something of a point of pride.
After the joke shop, James dragged Sirius to Quality Quidditch Supplies, where he spent rather too much time waxing poetic over the various broomstick models. James had a theory that he could make Sirius care more about Quidditch through exposure and sheer force of will, although four years of this treatment had not made much difference. Sirius's eyes glazed with boredom as James went on about the tailwind of the latest Comet model, and eventually James relented and suggested they move on to Flourish & Blott's. He wanted to see if they had any new books on Animagi that might be useful in their quest.
Sirius was skeptical. "We've been looking for years, and you really think Flourish & Blott's just happened to get something in with their latest shipment on Tuesday?"
"What can I say?" shrugged James. "I'm an optimist."
The bookstore was the most crowded shop they'd visited yet, stuffed with students and their parents doing last minute shopping for school, but James plowed through the masses straight back to the Transfiguration section. He'd been here more than a few times this summer and knew his way around. "All right," he told Sirius, "I'll take this aisle, you take the one over there."
And so James moseyed up and down the aisle, checking the spines of books for anything of interest, anything he hadn't already read, but he was disappointed. He decided to try the next row.
As he rounded the corner, something in the aisle across from him pulled his attention from the rows of spines. A red-haired girl dressed in Muggle clothes had her nose so deep in a book she might've been smelling it. A smirk spread across James's face. It was Lily Evans. She was a classmate and one of his and Sirius's favorite people to annoy. This was mostly because it was so easy to wind her up, but also because she was friends with James's arch nemesis, a boy called Severus Snape.
He sauntered over. He couldn't help himself.
"Having an intimate moment, are we?"
She looked up from her book, and he was pleased to see her cheeks flushing red. Back in third year, he and Sirius had devised a competition to see who could get Evans' face to match her hair. Ten points for the ears…
"Oh," she said, sounding very unimpressed. "It's you."
"Nice to see you too." James leaned casually against the bookshelf and began to leaf through a crisp, leather-bound tome. "Forgive me if I don't kiss it," he said, motioning to the book. "See, I like to keep my relationship with literature purely platonic. Too much heartbreak."
Lily placed the book she'd been sniffing back onto the shelf and gave him a deliberate looking over. He felt a twinge of self-consciousness at her gaze and ran a hand through his hair.
"You must get so bored over the summer," she said at last, "without the usual suspects to torment."
James laughed. "You have no idea. And clearly you've missed school. Sniffing books. Going through withdrawal from all the swotting, are you?"
"Well, you know what they say. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Funny how it doesn't seem to work with you."
"Charming," said James.
They glowered at each other for a moment, James smirking and Lily scowling, but then Sirius's voice came floating from the other aisle: "Oi, did you find anything?"
"Not yet," called James in return. "But come see what I found instead."
Sirius strolled around the corner, his bored expression mingling with faint surprise at the sight of their classmate. "Oh. Hullo, Evans."
"Black," said Lily, and she looked even less pleased to see him than she had James.
James couldn't help but think that a good round of Evans-baiting would cheer his friend up immensely, but Sirius didn't seem very interested. "So did you find anything or not?"
"Nothing," sighed James, with a despondent glance back at the shelves. He'd abandoned his hunt to come annoy Lily Evans, but he knew there was nothing there. The words Infallible Animagus were still humming in his brain. That was the book he needed, he knew it.
"Told you so," said Sirius.
"Yeah, yeah. The pessimist is proven right. The world is a dark and unforgiving place. Huzzah."
"What are you looking for?" asked Lily, who had been listening to this exchange with a curious expression. Oops. James shot a warning glance at Sirius. The last thing they needed was nosy Lily Evans trying to figure out what they were up to. They'd already had Severus Snape on their case for years.
"A book," said James lightly. "We are in a bookstore, you see. I reckon you're familiar with the concept, what with all the page-sniffing."
It worked. Lily rolled her eyes, and they were back to verbal sparring. "Do you have to practice being so insufferable, or does it just come naturally?"
"What can I say, it's a gift."
"If it were my gift, I'd ask for a receipt." And with a dismissive look she scooped up the stack of books at her feet and began to walk away, but then Sirius called after her: "See you later, Penny Prefect."
This stopped Lily in her tracks. She glanced back over her shoulder. "Who told you I was made a prefect?"
Sirius smirked. "You did, just now. Bet you're awfully chuffed. Tough luck, though. We've got one on our side this year." He clapped James on the back victoriously, and James grinned, pleased that Sirius had picked up the sport.
Lily's expression turned to pure horror. "Not you—!"
Both boys erupted into laughter.
"Merlin, can you imagine?"
"Dumbledore would have to be mad. No, Lupin."
"Oh," Lily sighed, clearly relieved. "And I suppose you think he'll let you get away with everything?"
"Er…obviously," said James.
"Well, it's a good thing there are two prefects, then."
"Oh yes," agreed Sirius with a solemn nod. "Thank Merlin, Penny Prefect is on the job. You're not going to stalk us, are you? I know you can't get enough of my lad James here, but that would be a slight abuse of power, don't you think?"
"Oooh, I get it. Because I'm so obsessed with you." Lily Evans made eye-rolling look a professional sport. "Aren't you boys ever going to grow up?"
"Not if I can help it," said Sirius.
"All right, Peter Pan. This has been fun, but I've got to go meet someone I actually like. Give my love to the other lost boys. Oh, and Potter? No hard feelings, right?"
James looked at her blankly. "What?"
"For when you try and sabotage me as a prefect, and in retaliation I end up assigning detentions during every Quidditch practice? All's fair, right?"
This shut him up for a moment. James narrowed his eyes. "You know," he said slowly. "I don't think you've got the nerve."
She smiled. "Let's find out."
"You mess with Quidditch and you'll have the whole house against you."
"Gee, wonder what that's like." A small laugh, soft and derisive. "God knows after last year Gryffindor needs all the practice it can get. Best not to piss me off, then. Enjoy the rest of your summer, boys." And with a final, taut smile, she turned on her heel and walked away.
James glared after her, feeling unreasonably irritated. Gryffindor's embarrassing defeat last term was still a sore subject.
"She's all talk," said Sirius with a dismissive wave, turning back to the books. "Hey, here's one: Animagus Unveiled."
"No, I've read that," said James grumpily, pulling his lingering gaze back to his friend. "It's mostly about the legal stuff…boring. What's the point? I've read all of these."
Sirius arched an eyebrow. "You've been busy."
"It's been a long summer."