Hi everyone! I know it has been a very long time since I posted, but I have had a very busy couple of years. I have finally finished the next chapter. It is unbeta'd because having finished it, I thought you would all prefer an immediate post rather than being made to wait around while I tried to find out if my poor beta has given up on me or if she is still up for a bit of Marauder madness. I am always grateful for constructive feedback - particularly with unbeta'd chapters, so feel free to leave me some! Moonsign x
"The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him."
Having suffered through OWL exams in fifth year, and being due to suffer through NEWT exams next year, Sirius was thoroughly enjoying the fact that the sixth years had a relatively stress-free wind down to the end of the summer term. As the distant golden dream of the summer holidays slowly edged towards a more incandescent reality, the Marauders – and more often now (at James's insistence) Lily's group of friends as well – took to spending the early evenings lounging in the sunshine at the edge of the lake.
They must have made a care-free picture, Sirius sometimes reflected. The group of school students crowded together under the beech trees, outer robes stripped off, school bags tossed aside, sharing round scones and jellies and ice-creams filched from the kitchens. The sad truth was that if one were to zoom in closer, they would discover that the normal topic of conversation amongst the friends was much darker and more serious than the idyllic picture led one to believe.
Remus had discovered that they were not the only students who had been called quietly into Dumbledore's office to discuss the future and their possible roles in the war. Once they had discovered that Lily, Rebecca and Alice had been subject to a similar meeting, discreet enquiries around the Gryffindor common room had revealed that others had been approached as well. This knowledge – this burden of responsibility – had created a strong bond between the chosen few, and to his surprise Sirius found that he genuinely didn't mind the inclusion of Lily, Alice, Rebecca and Frank into their widening group of friends.
Out of earshot, they took to discussing their futures, their plans for the war, the growing threat of Voldemort in the outside world. With mouths full of strawberry ice-cream and school ink smudging their fingers, they would discuss spells for dealing with mortal wounds, offensive and defensive curses that hovered on the edge of legal under Ministry law, and the sheer depths of depravity that Voldemort's followers were sinking further into day by day.
"They think it's a kind of localised blood-boiling curse," Frank told them in hushed tones a few days before the end of term. His aunt worked as a Healer in St Mungo's which was experiencing more and more strain under the pressure of Death Eater victims every day. "It sort of just cooks one part of your body while you're still alive. They're using it for torture. My Aunt Heidi says this poor bloke came in with his left hand entirely boiled through from the inside. There was nothing they could do. They had to amputate it."
"They couldn't grow is back?" asked Peter. His chubby face was a kind of greeny-grey colour which had become its normal hue over the last few weeks. Peter, Sirius thought, was not cut out for the war.
"It's a dark curse, Pete," Remus told him. "Same as Neil's legs. You can't grow back limbs lost through dark curses."
"S'right," James agreed. "My Dad works with this Auror called Alistair Moody. Total nutcase apparently, but a really good Auror in the field. He's already lost a leg and three fingers. Dad reckons by the time he retires he'll have hardly any limbs left."
"He can't be that good an Auror if he already lost a bunch of body parts, though," said Alice.
"No shield charms against some of the darkest curses, love," Frank told her. "And if you're one person duelling three others there is only so much you can do. Here, pass the caramel sauce, Potter. You're hogging it."
"Sod off," James said amiably. He had his back up against a tree and Lily was leaning up against his shins. "I saw how much you poured on just now."
Frank made a grab for it and there was a short scuffle resulting in Frank being hexed by Lily and James getting a cuff around the ear.
"So I was thinking about Patronus charms," Remus interjected, once Frank's nose had been returned to its normal shape and the caramel sauce had been redistributed. "You know there's that rumour going round about Voldemort getting Dementors under his control. I just think it might be good to be prepared."
Dementors, Sirius knew, sucked all happiness from a person and forced them to relive their worst memories. Considering the wealth of bad memories Remus had in his back pocket, Sirius could understand why he was worried
"Anyone know how to do it?" he asked.
"Never really thought there would be a need for it before," James pointed out. "Most people go their whole lives without even laying their eyes on a Dementor. I know it's on the Auror training programme because of having to deliver prisoners to Azkaban."
"I know it," Rebecca said, unexpectedly.
"You do?" Sirius was surprised. He had never thought Rebecca was entirely stupid – Lily wouldn't be friends with her if she was – but he had never thought of her as the kind of person who was prepared to spend hours perfecting an advanced charm like the Patronus in her spare time. They hadn't exactly engaged in intellectual conversations while they were dating.
"I always wanted a pet," she said. "I was afraid of the dark and didn't like being alone in it. I liked to imagine having an animal friend who could protect me. But my mum is allergic to the furry ones and doesn't really like the scaly or slimy ones. I heard about the Patronus charm taking the form of an animal when I was in first year and I thought it could work as a compromise – it could be both a pet and a night light."
"And a genuine bloody powerful protection charm," Remus murmured in awe.
"You learned the Patronus in first year?" Lily demanded, turning to her friend with a hurt look on her face. "Without telling me?"
"More like the end of second year before I got it right. I thought you would laugh at me – being afraid of the dark and all. By the time I got to fifth year I wasn't afraid anymore, so I didn't really use it."
"This is why you always slept with your curtains shielded shut!" Alice rolled her eyes. "You told us you just really felt the cold."
"Well?" James said, eyes alight with anticipation. "Let's see it then."
"Ah – okay." Rebecca gave a nervous laugh and pulled her wand out of her sleeve. "Er…Expecto Patronum!"
From her wand exploded a bright burst of light that tumbled to the ground and resolved itself into the slender form of a glowing, silver fox. It raised its pointed head towards the people staring at it, sniffing the air. Then it trotted over to Rebecca and nuzzled at her hand for ear scratches.
Sirius was gobsmacked. A corporeal Patronus was supposed to be one of the most complex pieces of charmwork an ordinary witch or wizard could perform, yet here one sat next to her teenage creator, busily scratching on-existent fleas away from her left ear with a back foot.
"Is it supposed to do that?" Frank asked with fascination as the silver fox tried to pounce on a bumblebee. "I thought they only took on the form of an animal. I didn't know they actually acted like them."
"She always has," Rebecca said, shrugging.
"She's a protector," said Lily, holding out her hand to the fox. "She does what she can to protect Rebecca. When she was first cast, Rebecca wanted an animal friend to protect her. She complied."
"I thought they were only meant to get rid of Dementors," Alice said.
Lily shook her head. "That's what they're most widely known for, but the Patronus charm has been around for so long, nobody even knows why they were first invented, or the full extent of what they could do. They are literal reflections of our souls."
Sirius stared as the little fox gave up on the bumblebee and curled into a little ball in a patch of sunlight. "How long does it stick around?" he asked.
"It used to only be for a short while," Rebecca told him. "But now I think she'd stick around indefinitely if I didn't dismiss her."
Sirius looked at Rebecca – for probably the first time since he had dumped her two years ago with a huge sense of relief that he couldn't explain. He had picked her as his first girlfriend because she was popular and pretty and would be good for his image. What he had missed, he realised (through a mixture of unacknowledged gayness and self-centredness of teenagers everywhere), was that she had grown into a remarkable young woman who he would be proud to call a friend, if she could ever forgive him for the appalling way he treated her. She had probably always been a remarkable girl.
Yes, she was pretty with her tumbling dark curls and mahogany eyes, but there was a determination and fire in her that instantly defined her as an obvious candidate for Gryffindor house. He did not know how he had failed to notice before. Probably the same way he had failed to notice how remarkable Lily was until James pounded the realisation into him.
"Do I need to be worried?" an amused voice said in his ear, and Sirius jumped as Remus sniggered and drew away. There was a piece of dry grass caught in his hair and a smudge of ink on his nose. His battered wand was tucked behind his ear and he looked like a rumpled, summery mess. Sirius's heart skipped a beat. Remus really had nothing to worry about.
"No," he said quietly, for Remus's ears only. "Just – starting to realise that...you know."
"She's a person and not just a failed experiment in your bid for heterosexuality?"
"You always had a blind spot when it came to girls. I blame your harpy. Sorry – I mean mother."
"You should be sorry – giving harpies a bad name like that."
"We should do it," James said, with a tone of determination.
"Learn Patronuses?" Peter asked.
"No Pete. Take up synchronised swimming. Of course learn Patronuses."
"Rebecca will teach us, right?" said Alice.
"Er…I can try."
"Good," Sirius said. "That's settled then. We just need to find a place to practice."
"It needs a bit of work, but it might do," Remus said. "We found it when we were making the map, remember, but then kind of forgot about it because it was cold and dark and far away."
They were in an ancient classroom tacked onto one of the disused corners of the castle. Part of the corridor leading to it had crumbled away under about a century of ivy and the door to the classroom at the end had been left ajar by a probably-long-dead previous occupant of the school and was now jammed that way under a hundred years of decomposing leaves and soil which had blown in. A few, rickety Victorian desks leant up against the walls like the last cheap drunkards at a party and an ancient blackboard could just be seen behind a tangled mass of ivy which had managed to sneak its way in through a broken window.
"Bit of an understatement, mate," Sirius said, eyeing a tiny mouse skeleton which lay curled under one of the desks.
"I thought you might be able to help," said Remus. "Seeing as you spent so long doing up Alphard's old cottage for us."
"Alphard actually lived in his cottage," Sirius said. "It wasn't so bad once I had scraped a century of pipe tobacco off every surface."
"Eew." Peter was gingerly lifting up the hinged lid of one of the old desks. "Something died in here. About three hundred years ago."
"I think it'll work." James strode to the front of the classroom and surveyed it like a king. "Hardly anyone comes down here and we need somewhere private to practice."
"It'll be better than our dorm room anyway," Sirius agreed. "That was a big mistake. Do you know how hard it is to get a new mattress for the third time in five years? The house elves think I set them on fire on purpose. And it's literally never been my fault."
"It was your fault at least two of the times," said Remus. "And I have a feeling Alice might have set it on fire on purpose yesterday. I can't say I blame her. It was gross. I found myself lying in a patch of actual marmalade the other night."
"What did this classroom used to be?" Peter asked. "It's weird they don't use it anymore."
"I don't know for sure," Remus said. "I tried looking it up in the library the other day. According to Hogwarts: A History the Necormancy classrooms used to be based around here."
"Necromancy?" James backed away from the blackboard like it might leap out and attack him. "That's illegal!"
"It is now," said Remus, "but a couple of centuries ago is was taught in Hogwarts. They only banned it in the Victorian era when the Ministry finally realised it's probably not a good idea for people – particularly students – to be wandering around raising corpses willy nilly."
"That's creepy, mate." Peter edged closer to where Remus and Sirius were standing. "What if there are still corpses wandering around here?"
"I think that someone would have noticed sometime over the last hundred and fifty years, Wormtail."
"I still don't like it. It feels dark here."
"Well, then it's the perfect place for us to be practicing Defense Against the Dark Arts, isn't it?" James said, regaining his good cheer. "Let's go tell the others."
"You know, I never thought we'd have to use this book again," Sirius said, as he and Remus took turns to lug the massive tome down the corridor towards the abandoned classroom.
"What did you use it for the first time?" Frank asked, as he and the rest of the group trailed along behind. "Having seen the inside of your dorm I can't think you actually used the charms for housekeeping."
"It's really not that bad," James protested.
"It's utterly repulsive," said Lily. "You know, I walked in the other day to find an actual rat sitting on Peter's beside table eating an old fish paste sandwich. I chased it down a hole."
Sirius, who had helped Remus spend the better part of an hour healing a howling Wormtail's singed bum cheek, carefully avoiding the eyes of the other Marauders.
"I bought it for the waterproofing charms," Remus said, hefting the book up in his arms again. "We needed them for…something."
"Something involving pirate ships and a giant pumpkin kraken, huh?" Alice said, rolling her eyes as realisation dawned. "You lot are something else."
"Something amazing," Sirius declared.
"Something that shouldn't been let out unsupervised."
The Marauders led their friends down the increasingly more deserted corridors to where the old necromancy classroom was located. It was mid-morning on a sunny Saturday and most people were outside, so there was no one to question where they were all trooping off to.
"Well," Alice said, turning in a small circle to survey the room. "It's a bit of a fixer-upper."
"That's one way to describe it." Rebecca prodded at an old shelf set into the wall above her head and was showered with a dusty sprinkle of long-dead moths.
"Hence the book," Sirius puffed, hefting the book of housekeeping charms up onto a desk. The lid promptly caved in. "Oops."
"Come on everyone," Remus said. "I thought we could each pick a different charm to master. Someone can learn the scrubbing one, someone can do the dusting one, someone can do the grime-vanisher and so on. Who wants to do what?"
"I think the girls should do it," Frank said. "Aren't women supposed to enjoy housework…AAARGH! It was a joke! A joke!" He sat up gingerly from the floor and checked his ears were still attached. Then he scowled at Lily, Alice and Rebecca. "That was an overreaction."
"Sorry," said Lily, not sounding sorry at all. "My wand slipped. It's the curse of being a weak little woman."
"Such a curse," Alice agreed, and Rebecca mock swooned which caused her to 'accidentally' send another stinging hex in Frank's direction.
"Alright, alright." He winced as he stood up and dusted himself off. "No women-jokes. Got it. Gross – what's this I was sat in?"
"I think it used to be half a squirrel," Peter cheerfully informed him.
"Merlin's baggy trousers – I call dibs on the grime-vanisher charm."
It took them the whole weekend and most of the evenings of the following week, but by the time Friday came around again, the classroom was nearly unrecognisable. The ivy was cut back and the holes in the walls and around the window frames sealed in. The blackboard had been scrubbed down and about two-thirds of the surface was thankfully still useable. The stone walls and floor had been scoured down to their original pale grey, and the late afternoon sun streamed in through the sparkling windows.
Sirius and James had begged the house elves in the kitchen to provide them with any old, unused furnishings in the castle and the result was a surprisingly homely mish-mash of wobbly-legged table and chairs, large purple rug, squashy, balding sofa and a dark oak wardrobe.
"I like it," Frank said, as they crowded round the table nibbling on muffins from the kitchen. "It's like our own little common room. Or workshop."
"The perfect place to prepare for a war," Sirius agreed with satisfaction.
Progress was slow. Weeks passed before any of them managed to get beyond a wisp of silver smoke drifting from the end of their wands. Unfortunately Rebecca was not really one of life's natural teachers and she had a tendency to yell things like, "Just think of something happy, for Godric's sake! Why is that so hard, you utter nitwit!" and "It's not 'Patronoos', Pettirgrew. Honestly, it's a wonder you make it out of bed every morning on your own!" when things weren't going well.
However, she was also not one of life's quitters and she worked hard with each of them and kept at it evening after weekend after evening.
Lily, to Sirius's great annoyance, was the first to achieve a fully corporeal Patronus. It was only a week before school broke up for the summer holidays when a large, elegant doe exploded from her wand and cantered around the room on silver hooves. Everyone stopped what they were doing to gape in admiration.
"I wouldn't have taken you for a deer, Lils," Alice eat, holding out her hand for the doe to 'sniff'. "I was expecting something like a lioness or a big scary mama bear."
"I wasn't expecting that either, to be honest," Lily said, cocking her head to the side as she studied her Patronus.
Sirius avoided Remus's amused gaze.
"Expecto Patronum!" James bellowed, making them all jump and from his wand sprang Prongs in all his proud, antlered glory.
Everyone in the room was struck dumb for a moment before Rebecca broke out in a shriek of laughter and pointed a shaking finger and the stag and doe who were touching noses in the centre of the room. "You can take back anything you ever said about you and Potter not being made for each other now, Lily!"
Lily appeared unable to do anything but gape and her doe slowly faded as her concentration wavered.
"Were you keeping that one under wraps?" Sirius demanded quietly of James once the others got back to practicing with renewed vigour. "You never told us you could do a corporeal yet."
"I couldn't," James told him earnestly. "But then I saw Lily's was a deer and it just made me so happy I suddenly knew I could do it. It was like…my…my whole soul wanted to burst out of me with happiness."
"I'd rather not know about things bursting out of you from happiness, thanks, mate."
"You're a wanker."
Sirius looked at him.
But Sirius was secretly grateful to his friend for the description because as soon as James's said it, it brought to mind the moment when he watched Remus standing at the crooked garden gate to Alphard's cottage, joy dawning on his face as he realised what Sirius was proposing.
Now, Sirius raised his eyes to meet Remus's and gave him his most brilliant smile. He raised his wand. "Expecto Patronum!"
The canine that burst from his wand was not Padfoot, as he had been expecting. Moony landed crouched and wary on the stone floor for a few seconds before tilting his face towards the sky in a silent howl.
"Is that a werewolf?" Frank asked incredulously. "Trust a Black to have a werewolf as his bloody Patronus."
"Wow," Rebecca murmured and Sirius tore his gaze away from Moony to see her eyes flicking from him to Remus, to the wolf and back again. "Wow," she repeated.
"Why can everyone do it except me?" Peter asked plaintively. "It's so unfair! What am I doing wrong?"
The mood broke and everyone began chatting as Lily hurried over to help Peter. As she bustled around him, correctly his stance and his grip, he caught Sirius's eye and winked.
Peter, Sirius thought wryly, was rarely given enough credit.
It took the others a couple more days, but with the extra support and help from their friends, by the time the end of term arrived they could all conjure a corporeal Patronus. Peter's rat, however, had a tendency to go a bit see-through if he wasn't concentrating and disappear altogether if something made him jump, which to Sirius's mind made the whole thing completely pointless. Everyone kindly avoided mentioning it.
The last day of term dawned mild, but overcast, in good Scottish summer tradition. The halls of the school were filled with students engaged in last-minute packing, or trying to track down missing shoes, robes, toads, books, and (in one unfortunate case involving second-year Ravenclaws and a misplaced banishing charm) noses.
It was mid-morning before everyone finally finished trooping out of the castle to mill around Hagrid who stood out like an unexpected mountain sprouting in a moorland.
"Alright, all o' yeh!" he bellowed, once Filch indicated the last student had been ushered out. "Nice and orderly, please!"
He took the lead out of the school gates and they trailed after him, Professor McGonagall bringing up the rear to hurry on the dawdlers and malingerers.
As they approached the place where the coaches waited to take them to Hogsmeade station Sirius felt a weirdly familiar pricking at the back of his neck. It took him a minute or two to place it, but it suddenly struck him that it felt like Grimmauld Place – a mix of dark magic and constant underlying fear. At almost the same moment, Remus – who had been walking quietly at his side – suddenly froze, wolf-like. His nostrils flared and Sirius saw his eyes flit to the coaches. He muttered something.
"What was that, Moony?" James asked.
"No thestrals," Remus repeated louder. He swung round, his eyes searching for Professor McGonagall at the back of the crowding students. "There's something wrong! Professor! The thestrals are gone! Someone's killed them!"
Sirius didn't question Remus's sense of smell. His heart leapt into his throat, even as he saw Professor McGonagall's distant face turn grey as she caught Remus's words.
There was a loud crack of apparition to their left, then another to their right. Screams rose from the students near to the edges of the crowd and Sirius was nearly shoved off his feet as a stampeed started back in the direction of the school. He saw McGonagall go down under a wave of students, but quickly reappear again with a crack on the outside of the crowd, hurrying students back towards the gates.
"Get yer filthy paws off 'em, yeh ruddy pack 'o curs!" came Hagrid's voice from up by the coaches and Sirius swung round in time to see the huge man literally pick up a black-robed figure by the scruff of its neck and toss it like a rag doll against one of the coaches.
This was it, Sirius suddenly realised. This was 'The War'. This was what they had been preparing for. Sirius had pictured himself lining up with the Marauders and his friends in a twilight battlefield facing a line of masked opponents. He had not pictured hoards of screaming, stampeding children. He had not thought about how difficult it would be to tell black enemy robes from the black of the Hogwarts uniform. He had not considered the fact that the people he was fighting would have so much more experience than he did, and so much less conscience when it came to the people they were willing to hurt. There was no duelling code of honour, no lining up and squaring up. Just crack after crack as more hideously-masked Death Eaters arrived on the scene.
There was a high-pitched, terrified scream to Sirius's right and he saw two little first-years sprinting towards an open coach door as a Death Eater fired teasing shots of red light at their legs.
Without thinking, Sirius's wand was in his hand a blasting curse was heading towards the Death Eater at lightening speed. His small moment of triumph was short lived as a shield charm sprung up around the figure who spun on nimble feet to face Sirius, a yellow stream of light already heading towards him. He only just stumbled out of the way in time, and an orange spell was following the yellow more quickly than Sirius could even think about the words of the shield-charm.
He clumsily rolled out the way and aimed his wand under his arm. "Expelliarmus!"
A turquoise beam hit him in the arm with a stinging burn just as the Death Eater yelped in surprise as his wand jumped out of his hand. Unluckily for Sirius, rather than flying towards him, the wand just fell to the Death Eater's feet. The figure stooped to pick it up, then fell flat on his face.
Sirius gaped at the elegant silver stag that stood proud behind the fallen Death Eater. A singed-looking James hurried up beside it and literally bonked the downed figure over the head with a beater's bat. The man lay still.
"Stop trying to duel!" James yelled at him. "They're better than us! Be creative!" He ducked a red light that narrowly missed his head and left the tips of his wild hair smoking.
And that, Sirius realised, was where he had been going wrong. He had been trying to fight like an auror. He needed to fight like a marauder. He had pockets full of prank items and deviousness on his side.
He glanced frantically around and saw two Death Eaters sheltering in a nearby coach, which was charmed to protect students against malevolent magic, aiming curses and hexes out of the open window. Sirius had powerful arms as a result of his position as a beater, as well as impeccable aim. He grabbed a couple of dung bombs out of his pocket and, pausing to stumble out of the way of a mustard-hued spell, hurled them as hard as he could through the open window. There were a few seconds before the Death Eaters came stumbling out the door, retching and chocking. Sirius hit the two of them with stunning spells while they were distracted.
He glanced around to see a masked figure moving purposefully towards him. Sirius frantically glanced around and spotted a rock a few metres away. "Factisuntlepas!" He yelled, pointing to the rock. It writhed and glowed as it transfigured and became a hare, which took one look at the surround chaos and bolted right into the path of the Death Eater, who stumbled over it. A red light shot towards the man from the left and he fell to the ground with a thud. Sirius turned to see Alice, who gave him a cheeky thumbs-up.
Sirius's arm was noticeably burning and he didn't dare check to see what was wrong with it. He hadn't recognised the hex that had hit him, and at the moment ignorance was bliss.
There was a terrific cracking sound from right near the gates and Sirius swung round to peer over the heads of the battling students. A man appeared – dark-haired and good looking in a snake-like kind of way. He surveyed the field with calm eyes, then, before Sirius could even think about stopping him, shot a green curse towards a battling fifth-year girl. She went down and lay still, eyes wide and staring. The man smiled and Sirius suddenly realised that his eyes were red.
Another green curse took out Professor Stalworthy – the Arithmancy professor who must have joined the battle at some point. Another took out a seventh-year Ravenclaw boy. Sirius knew enough about dark curses to recognise an Unforgivable when he saw it. But how was the man casting so many over and over again? Unforgivables were meant to drain the caster so that it was nearly impossible to cast them in such quick succession without pausing to recuperate.
With a start of horror, Sirius started shoving his way towards the man, ducking curses, stumbling over fallen bodies, shrieking when something that stung like the blazers hit him in the thigh. But he had to get there, because the person who had screamed Voldemort's name – the person who now stood in front of him fiery and defiant, had long red hair and a slim figure. And she was quickly joined by another lanky person with smoking black hair and a wild grin.
As Sirius ran towards them, his eyes fixed on the scene, a Death Eater actually flew through the air and hit the castle wall near Lily and James. Sirius glanced to the place where he came from in time to see Remus grab another Death Eater's wand arm and literally wrench it out of the socket before tossing the man in the direction of the castle wall again. Then Remus leapt- wolf-like – to land beside his friends.
They were going to die, Sirius realised. All three of them were going to die and he was too far away and powerless to stop it. He glanced towards the castle gate to see hoards of professors sprinting towards them from the school, unable to Apparate on the school grounds. Some of them were on brooms, and Dumbledore was in front, running with the speed of the much younger man, his wand pointed at something clasped in his palm. Suddenly he disappeared and Sirius gaped as he reappeared directly in front of James, Lily and Remus, facing Voldemort.
Portkey, he realised. Dumbledore had been charming a portkey, which was an incredibly delicate and intricate spell. How the man had done it while sprinting towards a battle, Sirius had no idea.
"Black, look out!" Sirius felt himself bowled to the ground under Frank's sturdy weight as a violet beam shot over the place where his head had been. "This is not the time to be admiring the view." Frank admonished him.
"The professors are here," Sirius told him, even as the first wave of professors arrived at the gate and dove into the battle.
But he turned his attention back to the task at hand. A short way away, a Slytherin fourth year was clumsily hurling what appeared to be stinging hexes towards a laughing Death Eater. The bounced off his shield as he strolled towards her, and Sirius realised there were two second years cowering behind her.
Sirius was not normally a fan of Slytherins, but the girl was showing a Gryffindor amount of courage and Sirius aimed a bat-bogey hex at the Death Eater's back with a distinctly Slytherin flair. The girl stared as the man shrieked and clutched his face, then she turned to see Sirius. He shot her a quick salute, which she returned, before hustling her charges back towards the school.
Now more of the professors had joined the fray, the tide of the battle was turning. More and more Death Eaters were falling and more and more students were streaming back through the gates of the school to safety.
"This isn't over, Dumbledore!"
Sirius looked over in time to see Voldemort shrieking at the headmaster, before pointing his wand to his throat. "RETURN!" As the sonorous echoed across the battlefield, Death Eaters started disappearing with sharp cracks – some of them mid-dual.
There was an almost supernatural moment of silence as the last crack of Apparition died away and it was as if every person – student or member of staff – were caught in a brief, frozen moment of time.
Then a wail rose up from the mass of bodies and suddenly it was chaos again.
Professors took charge; some of them hustling remaining students back towards the school, some rushing to help the fallen. Sirius stood dazed as Madame Pomfrey hurried through the gates and started collaring sixth and seventh year students to help her tend to the wounded.
Sirius's eyes frantically sought out Remus and he eventually spotted him bent over a slumped student at the wall of the castle. Remus straightened and looked up, sensing Sirius's eyes on him. He was coated in blood and for a moment Sirius thought his heart might stop, but Remus gave him a reassuring wave and Sirius buzzed with relief as he headed towards him.
Sirius wasn't sure he had even heard anything at first, but when the faint cry came again he spun around. He didn't see her at first – crushed as she was beneath a toppled carriage. But as he moved closer he caught sight of the dark mahogany curls adorning the head that was the only thing visible of Rebecca. Her fox Patronus was curled up next to her ear.
He felt a rush of dizzy sickness as he squatted down beside her. She was utterly crushed. There was Death Eater beside her whose head was actually caved in by one of the decorative balls of the coach. Sirius was glad Rebecca's head was turned away. The man's brains were leaking out onto the grass.
"OVER HERE!" he yelled, waving to catch the attention of Professor Spout. "She's crushed under a coach!"
Professor Spout nodded and gestured that she was getting help.
"How did this happen?" he asked brokenly as he turned back to Rebecca.
"I did it," she whispered, and there was a note of smugness in her voice.
"There were four of them after a group of kids who were running back to the school," she said. Her voice was barely above a whisper and he had to lean closer to hear her. "I knew I couldn't duel four at once and keep them from hurting the kids, so I caught them all in a binding charm, and before they could break free, I dropped a coach on them." She laughed wetly and blood flecked her lips. To Sirius's horror her Patronus started to flicker, the silver light growing dimmer. "I only just learned the binding charm so I had to stand quite close to do it."
"You reckon the sacrifice was worth it?" Sirius demanded, and the pain in his own chest was agonising as he watched her gurgle up more blood.
"Don't you?" she challenged him. "Isn't this what we were all about?"
"You wanted to be a Healer."
"I wanted …to help p-people."
He breathing was shallow and wet. The fox flickered in and out of existence.
"How could this happen?" Sirius whispered, and he stroked his fingers through her long hair. "How can this be allowed to happen?"
"It sh-shouldn't," she said. "You must stop it."
"We will stop it."
"I'm dying you…knob."
And he wanted to deny it, but couldn't.
"I'm sorry it's me here. Now." As you're dying, he couldn't bring himself to say.
"I wouldn't... want it to be anyone …else." The blood was dark and frothing up freely now. "I always l-loved you, you know. And I l-l-like to think that if…if you didn't bat for…the other Quidditch team, it might have w-worked between us."
"Of course I …knew. Blindingly obvious w-w-when I dated you and you only…had eyes for…him. Bloody werewolf."
"You knew that?"
"That I was l-l-left every full moon by …my boyfriend?" She even managed to roll her eyes, which was an incredible feat for someone who Sirius was now positive had literally minutes to live.
A couple of teachers and Madame Pomfrey were hurrying towards them across the field.
"I know …everything. I'm not s-s-stupid."
"I know you aren't," Sirius reassured her, stroking her head. "I was stupid. And if I wasn't the way I am I'm sure we would have worked. You'll always be my favourite girl."
"Out of the way, Black." Sirius was rather unceremoniously shunted aside by Madame Pomfrey who bent over Rebecca.
The tone of her voice made Sirius push his way back into line of sight, just in time to see the fox Patronus flicker out for good. Rebecca's face was still.
At final count, thirteen students and four members of staff lost their lives in the battle. Many others were grievously injured. Those who were uninjured were floo'd home one by one to their families for the summer. As Sirius and James waiting their turn in the Gryffinor common room, neither of them could bring themselves to chat. Remus and Peter had already left and Sirius felt bereft and torn and alone.
Sometimes images of how he had pictured the war – battle lines, shining curses cutting through the air, glorious victories – would clash horrifically with the reality that had been emblazoned into his brain forever. It left him retching and panting with horror, but at the same time, so much more determined to honour Rebecca's memory and to stop Voldemort and his followers before they could do any more horrific damage.