Hello, everyone. It has been a wild ride, hasn't it? What started out as a simple experiment to possibly be discarded if I wasn't entertained or intrigued enough quickly grew and took on its own life, until it transformed into perhaps my most popular story. Every time I open up my email I find another notification that someone has alerted or favourited this story, and I'd like to thank you for your almost continuous support and patience. Your passion in following this story has nurtured my passion in writing it.
When I first envisioned this story, the ending you are about to see is the very same that I first imagined five years ago. Without any notion of the plot or what was going to happen, I knew it would culminate in these final moments. I cannot believe how much of my life has gone into this story, and I actually feel guilty for perhaps not giving it the attention and devotion it required or deserved.
I was having great difficulty starting the chapter, but then I looked at my calendar. The next full moon fell on the same day as the premier for the final Harry Potter film. It only makes sense to end this story on the same day that this magical series that has been more than a decade of my life comes to an end. So I began to crank out the pages. And then it came easier and easier, and as I wrote this long-awaited ending, I actually moved myself to tears. I can only hope it does the same for you.
If there is enough clamour for it, I will write a short follow-up as a supplement.
Phew, those were a lot of not-fic words. I'm done now. Please enjoy this final chapter of:
Of Fears Unknown
Chapter Twenty-Nine: Of Destinies Fulfilled
The full moon shone brightly in the night sky, casting the Forbidden Forest into a twilight of black shadows and a gentle light that dyed everything in a silver glow. Thus it seems only natural that the great lion treading between the shadows of the trees was not golden, but silvery white; the sort that you know is golden because you know, but which otherwise gives no appearance of its true colour. So prowled this apparition, pale and silent, like a ghost, through the peace of night. It paused in a moon-bathed meadow to scent the air, and in its stillness it might have been made of stone.
The rabbits, deer, and nifflers that made the enchanted forest their home did not flee from that great and terrible spirit; it was not hunting. Rather, it was patrolling its territory: the Forest's master and protector. When he was not hunting his prey, he was protecting it. Having not yet found any evidence of danger or trespassers, he was content to roam through the trees lost in memories of his adventures the previous night.
Despite having left early from Hogsmeade to beat the afternoon's moon, James Norrington had lost track of time when timing meant everything. He had done so because he had been rather deeply lost in daydreams about his upcoming sailing trip. Because of this, he had begun his transformation into a ferret and thus was unable to become a lion. He was climbing out of his clothes when Chrystafi came upon him. He bent down to sniff at his tiny furry surrogate, his gangly legs splayed out comically to either side to allow his short neck to reach properly. Recognizing him, and in a rambunctious mood, the young unicorn offered his horn and scooped up the little weasel, who then scrambled back to settle itself along his neck and between his ears. Tiny claws anchoring him to a tuft of forelock, the ferret screeched "Charge!" and the unicorn took off, galloping through the deep verdance of the forest, the two whinnying and squeaking joyfully at one another.
They emerged onto the shimmering hills and fields leading toward the school, and the unicorn began to frolic with such freedom and dedication that the ferret was soon dislodged. Thankfully, a pile of leaves broke his fall, and, nickering and snorting in merriment, Chrystafi trotted round to retrieve him—or would have, had those leaves not suddenly begun to move. James found himself being lifted higher and higher into the air, the tendrils cradling him gently. Laughing, he scampered along the moving boughs of the Whomping Willow, the foal trying to keep sight of him from the ground in a lighthearted game of hide and seek. "Find me, find me!" he encouraged. It was rare if his dignity allowed him to feel the playful, mischievous side of the ferret, but right now, he didn't care—he was rather enjoying himself. At last, one of those long winding branches led back to Chrystafi's golden shoulders and they were off, galloping all-out across the open ground. James marveled at the sensation of riding the young unicorn. He was the first to have done so, although this was the only time he would be able to until the foal was fully grown, which would take another few years. Currently his head came up to James' chest and could touch noses with him if he craned his neck—but from the ferret's angle, it was like riding a gangly, fluffy-maned, horned and wingless Xerxes.
They flew across the grass, hooves barely touching the ground, the wind in their fur and the sun in their hearts, past the corrals that held the hippogriffs and the paddocks of Xerxes and Melanie, who galloped along the fence with them; past Hagrid's hut and Jack's enclosure, the young chipperphant chattering at them as they passed; out to the docks and then, with a great flying leap, onto the decks of the Fallen Star. They stood there, panting and laughing, then wondered how on earth they were going to get off, lacking the room for a running start. Not fancying a night on the water, Chrystafi had extended his nose as near to the dock as he could, and the ferret climbed from his neck to his horn, down his face to jump to safety. He backed up in preparation, took a few dancing steps, and launched himself over the low bulwark in a jumbled array of limbs. Unfortunately, one of his hooves had clipped the rail. "Now look what you've done to her paintwork!" The unicorn rolled his eyes and flicked his ears in a manner typical of any teenager.
The lion purred in amusement, feeling a surge of tenderness and affection for the golden colt as he padded through the forest. Tonight was night two of the cycle, the true full moon, and he had made sure not to be caught off-guard again—hence why he was a lion. He meant to make his rounds, then return for a late-evening tea, a book, and a good night's sleep.
He headed for the edge of the woods bordering Hogsmeade to assure himself of the village's peace as well as the forest's. There was something magical about how familiar and mundane the soft candlelight glowing from the windows was. This place was his home; its open, friendly people his family. It could never replace the sea—part of him would always listen for the call of the tide—but now, change didn't seem like such a bad thing. There was a new world waiting to be seen, and a new life waiting to be lived.
He gazed fondly down the lanes and alleys. Once he had saved up enough money, he would buy a cottage here. No. With all the magic here, he would burn his feet on the floorboards. Better to build it himself. He could make it like a ship's cabin—he could model it after the Dauntless.
Swelling with eagerness, he tried to pick out an open lot that would be well suited. He was contemplating how deeply he would have to dig for a foundation when he quite literally ran into an unfamiliar scent. Its acrid tang lay so thick in the air that it seemed to make a wall. Walls were meant to keep others out. This was a border mark! Something was trying to steal his territory! All his pantheric rage boiled up, and he parted his lips in a savage snarl. Who would do such a thing? Who would dare challenge the king of these woods? He parted his jaws to draw in the scent, trying to identify the intruder. At first, he thought he recognized the owner of the Every Shoppe. That didn't make any sense—what would a shopkeep be doing setting scent markers? James glanced toward the shop and saw that a candle was burning in the upstairs apartment window. He was in for the night. It had to be something else. This was fresh, and it trailed into the forest, back toward the school. Alert and wary, the lion followed, anxious of what he would find.
The trees swept by in a blur as James raced to confront this intruder. He ran with his mouth open, the better to catch the scent, trying to figure out just what it was. A realization halted him—or at least slowed his pace significantly. It smelled like Lupin. He smelled carefully. No, it wasn't Lupin either. Besides, Lupin was at the castle battling the moon. Well, never claimed to be a bloodhound, he sighed. No time to sit and mull it over. He'd figure it out when he caught it. The problem was finding it before it did any harm. It was large and territorial, so it was definitely dangerous—but he was large and territorial too. If it touched one bristle on the least of any flobberworm's pseudopod, he would tear it to pieces.
The trail meandered through the trees, but not in the manner of a lost or confused creature. The direction was far to confident, far too purposeful. The deviations that caused the trail to wind so much seemed to be expeditions of exploration or conquest around various features of the land—a gnarly tree here, a shrub there, a hollow log, sometimes simply taking the long way around a tree; there was an overturned stone with great claw marks around it, as of a creature who had been digging at it—and James had no choice but to follow these purposeful meanderings, unable to tell they were such until after the fact.
He heard alarm calls from various creatures now and again, not because the intruder was upon them—the sounds came from all directions—but to warn that there was an intruder and that it was dangerous. What also reached his ears and made the ground tremble beneath his paws was a distant thunder: the centaurs were stampeding. Everything was. He had never seen them so riled up. Concerned, and above all angry, he roared; the deep lowing sort of roar that carries for miles; to announce his presence, establish his claim, and broadcast his challenge to any opposition in the hopes of intimidating, even scaring off whatever had so much of the forest on edge.
It was a strange feeling. Although he was alone in the woods, he could sense the unease of the Forest's inhabitants, smell their fear, their excitement. It was much like that old, dusty, nearly forgotten feeling he had once craved: the feeling, the adrenaline, the fright that had filled him and his men when they were in hot pursuit of an enemy they would certainly later catch: there would be no victory without blood. Blood was the only certainty. Whose it would be and why were unpredictable—the slightest variances, the tiniest stroke of luck on either side could change the course of battle entirely. That was the feeling the lion was experiencing as he raced along the scent trail. Its distant familiarity made his chest constrict with painful memory. How many times had he sailed into the unknown, dreading that feeling—craving it? In the end, who would be victorious, and who would be dead?
James shook his head with a snarl as he charged through the trees. This was no time for reveries! The trail had veered toward the lake and followed a short way along the shore. The stench became exceedingly strong at a bit of gravel beach surrounded by small boulders: one of the lion's—and the man's—favourite places to look out on the lake. Aside from the stronger scent, judging by the difference in freshness of the trail before and after this site, the trespasser had lingered here for some time. Perhaps it had been scoping out the rich vastness of its territory—or perhaps it had been investigating its competition. It was challenging him directly. He had to pause to gather his wits about him. If he was going into battle, he needed a clear head to focus and think straight.
He crouched to lap the black water and catch his breath. His ears pricked at a small rippling, and he looked up to see a shape break through the reflection of the full moon on the water's glassy surface. He recognized that equine head: Strawberry the hippocampus. Other shapes were emerging around her, looking eerily human. Having once swallowed gillyweed and taken an underwater survey of the lake, James had of course met them—and from their manners and lack of courtesy, he hadn't wanted to go back and visit anytime soon—but now they stared at him pleadingly, looking for guidance and protection from the fiend that lurked in the night. Even if they were unfriendly, they acknowledged his dominion over the grounds.
More and more shapes were surfacing—grindylows, even the tentacles of the giant squid—all looking to that great stone lion to save them. Shaking the water from his mane, he nodded a solemn promise to them and set off again, his paws sped with a greater sense of urgency not only because of the weight of his responsibility to the creatures that depended on him, but also due to another realization: the scent was growing fresher. He was beginning to catch up.
The trail led immediately back into the trees. It was moderately straight now, and he could bound through the shadows at a much greater speed. His thoughts were racing as fast as his paws were, of tactics and battle plans. If he could just figure out where it was going, he could leave the trail and head it off there. What was that? He skidded to a halt and spun around, scenting the air cautiously. A shimmering white shape stepped momentarily into the moonlight before shying away and rejoining other pulsing shapes in a roiling mass in the shadows. The unicorns. James licked his lips with apprehension. The whole herd were trotting, in some cases cantering, in a terrified circle, shoving their offspring into the center and tossing their horned heads in anxiety, snorting and rolling their eyes.
One of the foals broke away suddenly and came barreling toward him. Chrystafi. The little unicorn buried its face in James's thick mane, trembling, then looked into his face with frightened crystalline eyes, touching noses with him to take comfort in the familiar smell of his breath. The foal was quivering from head to hoof, dancing uneasily. He looked anxiously into the lion's face again, and James suddenly recognized his expression as the same as the day they had met. With a lump in his throat, and rage boiling in his stomach, he understood that this creature that was trying to take over the forest, whatever it was, was the same one that had slaughtered Chrystafi's mother before his eyes. That settled it. Now more than ever, James was determined to defeat this enemy no matter the cost.
Flicking his tail, he turned back and continued along the scent trail. Chrystafi went with him, clinging to what small comfort he could derive from the presence of his surrogate. One by one, other unicorns joined them until the whole herd was with them, loping behind and alongside the lion on the path. It was like some great procession, but James couldn't think what to. Maybe a funeral.
Stags, owls, bats, and birds joined them, darting through the shadows; more mundane animals that shared the forest. Like the unicorns, they were uneasy and apprehensive. Animals whose kin had been his lunch now ran alongside him: they were all in the same boat now. One big crew braving the same storm, with James at the helm.
It soon became apparent that they had not sought out his presence to join him, but rather that his path had converged with theirs. Their destination became clear as the panicked parade emerged into a large clearing—the very same where James and Chrystafi had first met the thestrals. Gathered therein was the greatest assortment of creatures, magical and not, that James had ever beheld. The whole of the thestral herd was there, and the centaurs, with great acromantulas hanging from branches and tree trunks, as well as knarls, squirrels, rabbits, nifflers, diricawls, the odd porlock, and even a troll, not to mention the unicorns and so on now entering the clearing with him. They had all come to seek safety in numbers, but incidentally it seemed as though they had gathered to await the coming procession, and a thousand frightened and expectant eyes turned to focus on the great lion. Everything was spooked, waiting anxiously for something to happen that would decide the Forest's fate—and theirs.
As they gazed at him, James once again knew they were looking to him for leadership and protection. He was the guardian of the Forbidden Forest and the Black Lake, of Hogwarts and Hogsmeade, and all their inhabitants were relying on him to keep them safe. As though to punctuate this, the ranks parted down the center of the clearing to let him pass through. "The path you follow is coming to an end," said a centaur at his shoulder, laying a hand in his mane, for the centaurs had read this in the stars. "The trail leaves the forest near the Groundskeeper's home. Go. Fulfill your destiny."
Nodding resolutely, the lion sprinted through the clearing, roaring his determination so that it shook the trees.
Now knowing at least where the intruder had left the woods—and he would be able to follow it much more quickly over the open ground—James raced toward Hagrid's hut. It was as though the trees were leaping out of his way, for it seemed like a clear run straight to the edge of them. He could have sworn he saw movement out of the corner of his eye—a root, perhaps, or a branch—but now was not the time to investigate. If the trees were in fact moving, it was to lend speed to his paws as he flew toward Hogwarts. Even the trees were looking to him for protection.
At last he burst into the moonlight near the pumpkin patch. He parted his jaws again to find the scent, and made his way around the hut. The hippogriffs and Xerxes watched him warily as he passed their paddocks, swishing their tails and stamping and, in the latter's case, clicking their beaks agitatedly. Past Jack's enclosure and still no scent or tracks. The young chipperphant emerged from her hiding place to approach the fence, squeaking softly. She looked into his face with fear and trust, and was that affection? She touched noses with him; the first time the normally aggressive R.O.U.S. had allowed such familiar contact. Even the runespoor had given up arguing with itself, and the great enchanted basket holding it was emitting a loud hissing as though it had been disturbed.
Here was the scent in the strawberry patch! It led him uphill toward the castle, passing right under the Whomping Willow. Even it reached its branches out for reassurance, caressing him as he sprinted past. What could have come here to make even the most ferocious trees shake with fear? Don't worry, old friend. I'll keep you safe, he vowed.
Now that there was little cover, he was using his eyes as much as his nose, stretched wide with pupils dilated, searching for something, anything, that would reveal his enemy. The trail led right up to the wall of the school, and he saw great clawmarks scored into the stony surface. It continued around the perimeter of the castle, which meant James had to cautiously stalk toward each corner to avoid giving his presence away, sniffing and listening carefully to make sure the coast was clear. Having rounded the half-dozenth corner in this geometric nightmare, he found himself against a long wall on Hogwarts' eastern side with great sloping fields stretching away toward the rocky hills. It was one of his favourite places to watch the sun rise.
Movement in the distance caught his eye. What's that? He stared into the disorienting moonlit twilight that painted the landscape in greys and black shadows. There were three small, familiar figures near a lone sapling at the base of the slope. He couldn't believe his eyes. What were they doing out so late? It crossed his mind that they might be going to visit himself and Hagrid—but he quickly discarded the thought: Hagrid's hut was on the other side of the castle. But then what? Then he remembered something the Groundskeeper had told him once about the trio: "They're notorious detectives, they are. Always solving one mystery or other. Get themselves into trouble, usually, and break about a dozen rules. But they mean well, and they always figure it out." They appeared to be doing just that, trying to solve the same mystery he was. They were inspecting something in a patch of dirt near the little tree, following along it for a couple of yards. Tracks, perhaps? The trail led right toward them.
And so did its source. James's sharp eyes picked out a shadow slinking toward them over the hill, and at last he recognized the scent. Werewolf! That was why it had reminded him of Lupin—but this was not his friend, and it was hunting the students! If it wasn't stopped, they would end up like him—or worse. Then he realized that this was the monster that had bitten him in the first place; the one that started it all. That was when he decided to stop being a lion. If he was going to fight this thing, he would do so as the very creature it had made him; give it a taste of its own medicine—or rather, force the bottle down its throat.
He was human for the briefest of moments before that old, familiar pain coursed through him, crushing bone and flesh until they had taken on a new shape. And how he fought the change! With every fiber of his being, with all his rage and fear and fortitude and determination, he fought—for a ferret would be less of a match and more of a snack in this fight—until he was a half-beast once more. With not a moment to be lost, he raced toward the children.
By now the werewolf was quite near to Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Drool dripped from its slavering jaws as it breathed the delicious aroma of an easy three-course meal. With a snarl, it pounced. The children turned to face it with shouts and cries of alarm and terror. A great screeching caterwaul pierced the night, and a vaguely familiar shape hurtled through the air to barrel into it before it could reach them. When they saw its misshapen features, Ron and Hermione cried out again. "Great!" shouted Weasely, "Now there's two monsters! What are we supposed to do now? We might as well be lunch meat." Hermione, meanwhile, was preparing to cast a hex that might buy them some time to escape.
"Wait, Hermione," called Potter, recognizing the were-ferret. "I think he's here to help us." And so they backed off to watch.
The two were-creatures circled warily, snarling their aggression, eyeing each other up to determine their strengths and weaknesses. The wolf was huge. Even in half-form James was dwarfed by it. The odds weren't looking good, but never for a moment did he doubt himself, even as he leapt screeching into battle.
They met in the air with teeth bared and claws out, snapping and slashing at one another. With the wolf's superior weight, this was not a technique James could win with, and the first chance he got he feinted, dodged a blow, then darted in the other direction. He lunged and locked his teeth in the wolf's flank, gouging and battering at it with his claws, sometimes front, other times back claws as he struggled to keep his grip on the twisting, snarling creature trying to dislodge him. And while his razor-sharp claws were doing their job scoring flesh and drawing blood, all his teeth had gained him was a mouthful of thick fur. At last, the wolf was able to wedge one of its hind feet between itself and him, and it forced him off, sending him flying, but not before its claws dug deep into his stomach.
James landed hard, screeching in pain and rage. He could feel the blood running down his side, soaking his shirt and, winded, was slow regaining his feet. The wolf was coming toward him to finish the job. It snarled and crouched to lunge—and there was a bright flash of red accompanied by a loud bang. Hermione had shot an emergency signal of red sparks into the night sky. While the wolf was distracted, the half-ferret regained his feet and darted out of the way to bite and claw at its haunches. Bellowing its rage, it whirled around to face him, and they exchanged blows like prize fighters with their forepaws. James began to see his advantage: the wolf might be big, but he had mastery of close combat. He ducked and dodged and dealt his own share of flying claws. He boxed its ears and battered its head, succeeding in making it angrier, and with a quick dodge, he managed to claw one of its eyes. The monster yelped and stumbled backwards, rubbing at its face with its paws as it tried to clear its vision.
Suddenly remembering the children, he turned back to them. What were they still doing here? Why hadn't they escaped? "Run!" he screeched; but of course, they couldn't understand that. He turned back and met with a sudden, sharp blow to the head that sent him reeling to fall dazed to the ground a few yards away.
The wolf advanced on him, teeth bared, drool dripping from its growling mouth. James looked up through the bloodstained blades of grass, trying to focus on the blurry form approaching him. But he was sluggish. He could feel the blood trickling through the fine fur on his cheek from a wound on his left temple. He half-rose, dizzy and unsteady, and scrambled backwards, shaking his head violently to clear it, splattering the ground with blood.
The wolf charged. The were-ferret jumped and rolled to dodge it and, finding himself behind it, leapt onto its back, biting into its neck and clawing at its shoulders and haunches. But the fur was even thicker here, and he could not find a grip with his teeth. With a great heave, the werewolf threw him clear. He went sailing through the air and landed on his stomach. It grabbed his foot in its jaws and dragged him, twisting and scrabbling at the ground, back toward it. Quickly rolling onto his back, James rose to somersault into it and caught one of its forelegs, which he latched onto with his teeth and would not let go. Snarling, it reared onto its hind legs and flailed its arm, but even as he was flung around like a plaything he would not let go. It slammed him into the ground and pinned him under its other paw, and he felt its teeth sink deep into his left shoulder, trying to tear him off. Even through the agony, to which he was becoming increasingly numb, all that he focused on now was biting that leg, and he bit down harder and harder, not stopping when he tasted blood, not until he felt the bones crunching between his teeth.
Howling in pain, the wolf again reared up, and James let go, landing catlike on his feet before his left foreleg gave out, limp and useless, to watch in astonishment as something strange began to happen. Flesh and fur rippled like water, and the rearing wolf, silhouetted against the bright full moon, began to change shape. He wondered if, because he had drawn blood, it would turn into a ferret now, like him. But no: instead of becoming something new, it un-became what it was. It was becoming a man. Its howl turned to a moan, its fur to skin, its claws to hands. Amid the startled exclamations of the spectating trio, James felt a jolt of pain go through him, familiar and agonizing, as he, too, began to change shape. His eyes shot upward toward the sky in shock. It was not yet dawn! Neither the stars nor moon had set! And yet he, too, was transforming.
"Look, that one's changing too!"
Panic filled him at the thought of discovery, and he hid his face, desperately trying to become a lion again. Come on, come on, please. Miraculously free of the moon's power, though not yet completely human, he could feel his mane sprouting on his neck and knew he would make it. A lion once more, he rose gingerly to his paws and slunk quietly away while the children examined the man lying prone in the dirt.
"It's the shopkeep from the Every Shoppe!" he heard Hermione cry as he limped heavily past the sapling beneath which the trio had been taking shelter. Their voices sounded distant somehow, muted, and he almost didn't understand the discovery they had made. All he knew—all that mattered—was that he had won and they were safe. It was over.
"Wait," said a voice much clearer, much nearer, breaking through the muddled haze in his mind, and he brought his great head slowly round to face the three students. He stopped as they approached and they stared at each other in silence for long moments: a trio of shaken fourteen-year-olds and a gigantic lion with blood staining its once-beautiful golden fur, trickling down its face, and a great chunk of sun-like mane missing from a terrible wound on its shoulder that rendered its leg useless. "Won't you show us your face?" Hermione asked softly, twining her fingers in his mane. He looked uncertainly into her sincere eyes. "You saved us."
"And it looks like you saved him, too," added Ron, pointing at the unconscious shopkeep.
"Won't you show us who you are?"
Looking into their solemn, earnest faces, he could only comply. Summoning the last of his strength, he slowly, painfully transformed, gasping with the effort, until he stood, wavering on his feet, a man. For the first time since coming to this world, he could stand in the moonlight as a man. "Mr. Norrington!" they gasped as they recognized him. He took a step and stumbled, exhausted and weak from his wounds. Reliable as ever, the three children caught him and helped him to lie down beneath the little tree. Hermione kneeled so he could rest his weary head on her lap, staring up at the sky which was lightening with dawn's first pale fingers.
He closed his eyes and Hermione stroked his hair soothingly. "Thank you for saving us," she murmured. His eyes fluttered open to meet hers, and she was unsettled by the confusion in them, and by how pale he looked, and the trembling of his body. He seemed to be panting slightly, either in pain or with difficulty. She was about to suggest that someone go get help when a hail called their attention to a group of professors rushing toward them: McGonagall, Snape, Hagrid, Dumbledore, and Lupin, who looked haggard and clutched a cloak round himself—he must have just changed back, with dawn growing stronger.
"Someone call the nurse," said Snape when he had come close enough to see the wounds.
"Came as soon as we saw th' sparks," explained Hagrid.
"What happened here?" McGonagall demanded.
"The shopkeep was a werewolf," Harry replied briefly. "Mr. Norrington saved us."
"I managed to see the end of the fight, James," said an excited Lupin—although his voice sounded strangely hollow, and James couldn't understand why. "I think you've discovered a cure for lycanthropy. If you infect the werewolf that infected you, you disinfect both. I imagine it works something like anti-venom, though I can't be sure whether your countermagic played any part in it." James tried to smile at this, but it turned into a grimace and he gasped in pain. Hermione removed herself and gently set his head on her rolled-up jumper.
"Someone call the nurse," repeated Snape more forcefully, more...desperately?
"It's too late, Severus," murmured the deputy Headmistress.
"James, listen to me," said Dumbledore urgently, breaking onto the kneeling circle, "you're dying."
James blinked uncomprehendingly at him. "What?" gasped the students.
"You are going home," the Headmaster said more gently.
"But I—how can you know that?" James forced the words out with a gasping voice etched with pain, fatigue, and despair. "You said—the only other person like me—died before he could go home."
"Exactly," came the rueful reply. The old wizard gazed at him sadly over his half-moon glasses. "He had to die to go home. It was the only way to release the hold this world had on him."
It was several moments before James's weary mind could wrap itself around the concept, and several more before he could muster enough strength to speak again. "Are you sure?"
James closed his eyes, breathing heavily and raggedly. He had never been afraid of death—if anything, his old profession had taught him to expect it. But there had never been a time when he had less wanted to die. When he opened his eyes again, they glistened. "I don't want to go." It was becoming harder and harder to speak. It felt—and sounded—like every word was being wrenched out. "This place, these people—they're my home." He closed his eyes again, exhausted, strength dying fast. There was a long silence. "Will I ever come back?" he asked more quietly, more easily.
"I do not know. You have stardust inside you now. Perhaps we will see you again, when that world renounces its claim on you."
James nodded in acceptance. "You three," he addressed the trio in a murmur. "I'm sorry I lied to you."
"Lied?" repeated Hermione. "You've been nothing but honest with us."
He smiled faintly and shook his head a little. "It was me all along—the ferret in your school bag, the strange man in your bed. I didn't plan on that bit," he coughed the last words. She managed a smile, tears spilling down her cheeks. "Thank you for protecting me when I could not protect myself."
They squeezed hands. A hug was out of the question. "You were the best ferret I could ever ask for," she gasped. "A good man and a great friend."
"Mr. Weasely—Ron. I apologize for biting your nose. I hope my cooking had been satisfactory."
"More than that, brilliant," the redhead replied solemnly. "Thanks for all the adventures. Even the ones I didn't know I was sharing with you." A gentle handshake.
Those tired green eyes made their way to meet a similarly coloured pair. "Harry," he sighed, and there was a long silence. "Thank you. You kept my secret when it was not yours to keep."
"I wanted to help," the boy replied. "You gave us so many great times—I didn't want you to have to go away. I don't want you to go now." They clasped hands. James could barely grasp the boy's hand now, but his voice was still with him. He was beginning to go numb and the pain was leaving him, its sharp notes fading from his voice.
"Look after these two," he murmured to Hermione. "Rubeus—" his voice caught.
"Shh, shh, don't you try to talk none. Save yer strength."
"Like hell I'm going to die without saying goodbye," he growled. His indignation gave him the strength to keep talking. "You have been so wonderful and kind. You've shared your home and your food and your love of magical creatures with me. You've taken great care of me and you've been a great friend."
Great sickle-sized tears were dripping town into that tangled beard. "Home'll seem so empty without yer," he gasped, clasping that nearly limp hand in his great fist. "All o' Hogwarts will." He and Hermione clutched each other, crying.
James felt a soft nudge against his head and looked to see the unicorn. "Oh Chrystafi," he gasped. He reached up and hugged the little foal to him, and for a moment he let the tears overflow. "Now you've lost another parent." As though understanding this, the golden colt lay down beside him and rested its head on his chest. The warmth was a comfort against an all-pervading cold that was growing deep inside of him.
"Albus, Minerva..." He searched for the right words and the strength to say them. "You took me in—even when you had no reason to trust me—or accept me." He paused for a shaking breath. "And now I am leaving without ever getting the chance to repay you."
"You already have," Dumbledore assured him. Seeing his confusion, he went on: "You saved these students from a vicious attack. If you had not been at Hogwarts, they might not be here now." Those periwinkle eyes sparkled with a sort of hollow laughter, a rueful sorrow. "Give Elizabeth a kiss from me."
"And give that Jack Sparrow a scolding I would be proud of," added McGonagall, kissing his forehead.
He was very still for a few moments before shifting slightly to face Lupin. "Remus—." It was getting harder and harder to breathe or speak—or see or think, or function. It felt like there were cobwebs in his mouth. It felt like they were everywhere—in his chest, on his eyes, in his ears. Hell, it felt like they were in his mind, making it hard to think. He felt like he was very far away, sinking, sinking. The world was beginning to grow dark round the edges. "Remus," he gasped again, his voice very faint. "What terrible bad luck. It seems you'll be losing another James. What troublesome friends we make."
"Oh I don't know about that," Lupin replied with a hollow smile. "What things we discovered, you and I." His voice cracked. It looked like his friend was beginning to slip away. "We were quite a team." He held James' pale hand in both of his, swallowing hard.
Then at last those green eyes turned toward Snape. He reached up and clutched his shoulder with what strength remained to him. "Severus," he murmured much more softly now, barely above a whisper. "My dear, dear Severus. Don't look so sad." Those glittering, glistening black eyes met his, and Snape reached up to clasp that hand, clinging to it like he would never let go. "We've had some good times, eh? What a good friend you've been. You brought me back when no one else could. Maybe you will again some day. You are a great man. Let others see that." With each sentence, James' voice was growing fainter and fainter, and Snape found it harder and harder to hear him. He took a gasping breath and Severus leaned in to catch this final farewell. "I never—got to see the other end of the lake." He gave a great shuddering sigh and was still, his glazed green eyes staring sightlessly up at that beautiful, beautiful castle. Snape bowed his head.
James Norrington was dead.
The dawn was beautiful, painting the sky with vermillion and lavender and the castle with gold, and the rolling fields with shimmering emerald. The breeze blew gently; the leaves and grasses rustled; the birds sang; and Hermione wept quietly.
But all James could hear as he sank into darkness was the sound of waves.