A/N: Yes I'm alive. :) I'm so sorry it has taken me awhile to get this update. I blame real life but also the fact that I lost half my notes for this chapter (that's what I get for writing on scraps of paper I find lying around) and so trying to write it was difficult without the notes on details and explanations I knew needed to happen. Until, lo and behold, I found the notes while cleaning my room. And then it all fell together. Hopefully some of you are still interested in this story. Thanks to everyone who sent me reviews and who kept reminding me that I needed to get working on these chapters and finally finish this story.
I hope you enjoy this chapter. We have about five more to go and then an epilogue. The next chapter is already started and I swear it won't take me months to update this time.
Disclaimer: At this point I would think this is obvious but - JK owns the HP characters, I own the plot and any additional characters you don't recognize.
Chapter 25: Come What May
Moody's map lay across the ledgers, maps, knives, and broken candlesticks that made up James' desk. In between the deep folds in the parchment was the single dirt road leading to the settlement and the only entrance point from the sea: a narrow canal between—Moody had cautioned—steep cliffs. The rocks were said to shred the hull of a ship in moments if care was not taken. To pass through the opening one had to be of keen eye, steady hand, and on good accord with the Lord. As for the path, it would take days of circling the coast to find another port where the path might begin.
James' fingers carded through his hair, his back to the room where Shacklebolt, Remus, and Lily muttered, cursed, and argued over the map. Dozens of plans had been offered up then thrown aside since they had left Moody's port. No matter the good time they were making, it did no one any good if all they could do was wait outside the cove for Lestrange and the coven. They would be outnumbered, unable to outrun an armada. And Bellatrix would surely kill Sirius, and perhaps Dora, before James could attempt to take over her own ship. If she left the security of her cove at all.
They couldn't outrun them, they couldn't lure them out, they couldn't even bargain with them—though no one had dared make that suggestion. Keeping a careful eye on the sun's descent, James took a steadying breath. Six hours until sunset. They would be at the cove before nightfall if the wind and current held.
"Regardless of how we get in, our only option is to invade the compound," Lily said smartly.
"Invade?" James would have considered it a snort if it had come from anyone but Shacklebolt. "You don't know the layout of the compound. It would take time to gather information, to understand the situation before attempting—"
"There's no time." Remus slapped the palm of his hand on the desk. "If we wait any longer, they'll be dead."
They. James finally turned his face from the window, watching Remus careful face off with Shacklebolt.
"History would suggest that since they knew James, they know Sirius. If he's still alive they're holding him to lure us there. And if we wait much longer they'll decide he isn't worth the bait and get rid of him." Remus' voice was calm, deceptively so since James could see the tremor in his hands. "Dora may not be bait, but she's not there willingly either and the longer she's there the more danger she's in."
There was a flash of defensiveness in Shacklebolt's eyes, but he bit his lip and James could see him tamper down whatever snapped reply he'd been formulating. James saw his relief reflected in Lily's own features, if only for a moment.
"Time or not," Shacklebolt began, "they'll be in more danger if you don't think through all the possible angles. Do you even know where in the compound they might be? They could be hidden buildings on opposite ends of the cove."
Remus looked like was about to argue further, the flush on his cheeks rising, but Lily interrupted.
"Could we reach the path from another point on the coast? Not a port, but anchor the ship and take the longboats to the beach?" She tapped the inked border just shy of the cove. "With ropes we could navigate the rocks or steep ground, then use the path as a guide but come through the trees to the compound. They'll be watching the path or the cove, not the forest."
It wasn't a bad idea, in theory, James considered. Granted, they had no concept of how dangerous the beach was, no idea if scaling it was even realistic. And then there was the matter of the ships. Leaving them like sitting ducks for someone to come upon did not sit well in James' stomach, not to mention if one of the coven's ships went out and came across them…
"Who knows if we could climb it…or make it through the wilderness in time," Remus muttered, but it lacked the heated rejection of earlier suggestions.
"A good rope and a strong man on top," Lily countered, catching James' eye. "And we wouldn't have to be too far from the opening of the cove. If we can make it before dusk we will have a handful of hours to get into position around the compound."
Thinking of Hagrid and counting off the number of men in his head, James felt his lips start to curl into a half smile. He came closer to the table and rested his hands on the wood. It felt cool under his flushed skin, grounding in a way that watching the sun's descent had not been.
"It's risky…like Remus said it may be impassable. And then we'd have men stuck on a beach out in the open and would lose another day. Even if it is passable, they might not make it to the compound fast enough." James released a long breath. "But we don't have any better of plan."
"You're forgetting something," Shacklebolt interrupted. His face was pinched in the same expression as when he had first told James about Bellatrix. "In that compound there are perhaps hundreds of pirates. Dozens of ships. You do not know where in that compound your friend is. And supposing you do surprise them, supposing you manage to make it into the compound—sixty men cannot win against hundreds."
Calm, reasonable Shacklebolt. There was a reason he was Moody's right hand man, and the reason Moody had sent him with James was becoming steadily clearer. The realization didn't stop the trickle of irritation that crawled up James' spine at the reminder of what they faced.
Remus leaned over the map. A glint appeared in his eye, flashing a little too brightly, a little too much like Sirius when he had a truly wicked plan.
"What if we gave them something else to look at?" Remus looked up, meeting James' eyes. "Make them look one way while we come in from the other?"
"That would have to be a hell of a distraction," Lily muttered, so softly that only James glanced sharply at her.
His brow creased briefly, Lily's words echoing in his ears as James looked down at the floorboards. He followed the board to the wall, then up to the ceiling. Gradually the wrinkles on his forehead relaxed.
"A hell of a distraction…" he breathed. Leaning over the map, James tapped the mouth of the cove on the map.
"Remus, you'll take the longboats and the men to this section of the beach. We'll use Lily's suggestion. Climb the beach, get through the wilderness and locate a good position behind the coven. You'll wait for my signal and then come in from behind them to attack."
Shacklebolt and Remus were giving him matching looks of doubt; Lily was frowning, staring at him as though she were trying to work out a puzzle with the wrong pieces.
"And what are you going to do?" Remus asked after a long moment.
"And what about the army of pirates waiting?" Shackelbolt demanded at the same time.
James smirked. He trailed a finger from the outer sea, through the mouth of the cove and into the bay. "I'm going to go right up the center and wake them up. Draw them out and keep them busy."
The corner of Remus' mouth twitched. "They'll be expecting an attack from sea. Their entire focus will be on the frontal attack—moving men to the boats and boats to meet us."
"They'll be so busy watching the front door, you can slip in through the back, find Sirius and Dora and retreat to the woods. They won't be able to follow you there," James finished. He saw the beginnings of a frown on Remus' face, but James turned swiftly, focusing his attention on Shacklebolt.
"Shacklebolt," James walked around the desk, catching Shacklebolt's elbow. "I'll need six, no eight of your men. Eight of your best men with nothing to lose," James finished, dropping his voice a little lower.
Shacklebolt tilted his head, lips twisting into an ironic smile. "We're pirates, James. None of us have anything to lose."
James pulled him to a stop just before they reached the door of the cabin. "And I'll need to borrow your ship."
Shacklebolt's eyebrows lifted, but he tilted his head in agreement. "If I may, James," he began, his voice low enough it only carried to James' ears, "what are you going to do when all those men come after you with their boats and weapons? The cove is too small for maneuvering ships and the mouth too narrow and dangerous for escape."
"We're not leading them on a race. None of the ships are getting out of the cove," James took a quick glance over his shoulder, before forcing a smile. "And don't think I won't have a few surprises for them when they come for us."
James felt Shacklebolt's fingers grasp his forearm in silent acknowledgement, and then he was gone from the room. Taking a deep breath, James pivoted to face Remus.
Remus' eyes were fixed on James' face, but he didn't speak. He didn't ask the rest of the plan, as if he could see it written across James' face. Which, James concluded, after all these years he probably could.
"Find me seven good men," James ordered. "Tell the crew they'll either be scaling a cliff or taunting the coven. Let those who are willing volunteer and then pick the rest."
Remus nodded sharply. "And if the coven doesn't take the bait."
"They'll take the bait." James' mind was already six steps ahead, a slight smile on his face that was a bit too toothy. "I'm going to take a page out of Sirius' book and give them a flashy show they can't ignore."
"Six," Lily interrupted, coming around the desk to face them both.
James went rigid. "Not this time. You're going with Remus to help lead—"
"No, I'm not."
James refused to admit he gaped at her, though he felt his jaw go slightly slack at the sharp, stubborn rejection of his order. A part of him was still planning the raid, jumping between cannon fire, hidden weapons, flour, nets…he shook his head sharply. No.
"That wasn't a suggestion, Lily."
Lily's eyes narrowed and her hand made a twitching motion near her hip, almost as if her fingers were seeking a weapon. James paused, focusing on the movement and wondering when such a reflex had become a part of Lily.
"You asked for seven crew members, seven volunteers. Well I'm volunteering." Lily looked sharply at Remus, daring him to contradict her. "Six men."
She shoved past James, and where her arm brushed his it lit a smoldering fire along his skin. He felt rather than heard the door slam as she left.
There was a moment of heavy silence. Remus watching him warily as James stepped up to the desk. There was another moment, and then James swept the log books, the parchment, and candles to the floor. A lantern smashed open, the candle rolled along the scattered glass back towards James' foot. The parchments fluttered and the log books seemed to groan as they hit the floorboards.
To his credit, Remus did not even flinch. The bland look on his face was so achingly familiar, so long absent after all these months, James almost forget his anger and hugged his friend. But there were only hours until sunset, so much to do, and now Lily…
So James didn't. He grunted a repeat of his order to Remus—seven men—and let the second mate leave. James stared at the candle near his foot, the wick burned blacker then ink, and cursed.
The sea had turned a dusty pink, highlighted with orange by the time the two ships made it to the beach. The longboats were prepared with weapons and men. They did not take supplies; there would be no need.
Several of the men clapped each other on the forearm, smiling with seeming ease if the hardness in their eyes had not belayed their casualness. James watched them all, carefully observing the faces of the fifteen—because Remus had followed his orders even if Lily still refused to—men who would provide the distraction needed. Many of them probably did not truly know why they were doing this at all; they were simply following orders, simply living off the adrenalin that fueled their lot in life. James couldn't think any less of them. After all, all fifteen men had volunteered.
Remus was at his shoulder, and James transferred his gaze to Lily and Liz. The redhead whispered something to the brunette, and then they embraced. There was no falsity in their parting. James saw Lily pat her side and then her boot, Liz mirrored the move, marking where her sword and dagger were secured. They pressed foreheads, and then Liz turned to go to the last longboat.
"You could tie her up. Put her on the longboat. I'd help you," Remus' voice was soft.
Lily turned and her eyes met James'. She stayed where she was, matching his gaze, until Cook passed her on the way to the boats and clapped her on the shoulder. When she broke the stalemate, James turned his back, eyes on the horizon. It was barely hours until full sunset.
"She'd fight us…me. She'd fight me." James ran a hand through his hair. His bangs fell back into place and he sighed.
"Do you think she'd truly be safer on our side of the attack?" Remus kept his voice low and he was suddenly the second mate, the calm confidant rather than the lover seeking vengeance.
Yes, James wanted to say. But he didn't say a word, and Remus didn't ask again.
Remus released a breath and James looked over his shoulder to see Lily had joined the fifteen volunteers. Most of the longboats had dropped; the last one was waiting for Remus.
James turned to face his friend. "Remember, wait for my signal before you attack."
Remus lifted an eyebrow. "You haven't told me what that signal will be."
"You'll know it." James grinned a little.
Remus rolled his eyes and a small smile formed on his lips. Then it faded and he looked over his shoulder at the beach where they would climb. They could not see the cliffs of the cove yet, but they were close enough that it would hopefully not take too long for the crew to make it to the compound.
"James…just…" Remus fumbled and looked over at him. James waited, but Remus only huffed out a quick breath. Reaching out, the second mate caught the captain's forearm with his hand. His grip was tight and little purple bruises formed under the pads of his fingers. James could hardly blame him; his grip was perhaps tighter.
Then Remus slipped away, swinging over the side and to the longboat. James waited a beat, then turned on his heel to face the men he had left.
"We've got work to do."
It seemed that Lady Luck had decided to smile upon them. At least, Remus considered, until sunset. The beach had been rocky and steep, but not impassable. With Hagrid on top and the extra ropes, the men and Liz had managed to scale the beach and make it into the forest in good time. Breaking through the underbrush had been more difficult, but they had followed the compass, avoided the path, and now waited just behind the compound. There was a little deer path that led up to their position, but it was so overgrown that Remus suspected it had either been forgotten or never actively used by humans.
Leaving the men behind to watch the compound, Remus had circled the perimeter, following the edge of the forest while keeping his eyes on the largest building in the compound. They would be in there, he decided, after sneaking back toward the crew, taking in a few more deer paths, one that led toward another rocky beach. That's where Lestrange would be, and where they were probably keeping Sirius and Dora. Remus tapped his fingers impatiently along the hilt of his sword, then moved quickly to rejoin the crew.
After that he split them down the middle, mixing some of his crew with Shacklebolt's and vice versa, then he sent Shacklebolt toward the right flank of the compound with quick orders. He kept Liz and Hagrid with him, reminded both crews not to light any fires, then waited.
The sun had just kissed the edge of the horizon when Remus wandered toward the edge of their campsite. None of the men were sleeping, too wired about the coming battle, too caught up thinking about their comrades on the boats. Beyond the posted guard, just at the edge of the trees, Remus could make out a slim figure watching the compound. He patted the guard on the arm, then followed the broken grass to stand at Liz's shoulder.
Liz jumped slightly, but quickly returned her gaze to the compound. Remus could see a few pirates milling around near the water's edge, counted the eight ships that lined the port, then looked beyond to the slim entrance of the cove lit red-orange from the setting sun.
"Do you think this is going to work?"
Remus glanced down at her, then looked back toward the sun. "I think if it doesn't work…it won't really matter." He felt her look over and repressed a sigh. "I think this is the last move of the game and one way or the other it ends tonight."
Liz shifted on the balls of her feet. Her fingers brushed the sword at her side, then began to pick at the bark of the tree on her other side.
"Are you scared?" she asked, so softly that Remus almost missed it. As if she was embarrassed by the question, and half hoped he hadn't heard. He looked sharply at her, but Liz didn't meet his eyes. She stared instead at the compound, fixated like a bug too close to a flame.
Scared? He was a pirate, he had killed men. Remus had marauded on Moody's ship, had killed under James' watch. He'd faced Riddle's own crew, then the Duke of England without too many cracks to his own calm mask. And yet ever since finding the necklace Remus had flung himself half-cocked at Lestrange and Sirius and James. He had fumbled, faltered, and fallen sometimes so low that it was a wonder James hadn't thrown him off the ship. He'd sulked and brooded, insulted and snapped. And through it all the feeling just under the surface had been the same and now more than ever…
Remus swallowed. "I'm scared I'm not strong enough."
Liz twisted to look at him.
"I'm scared that after everything, I'm still an eighteen year old boy whose too small, not fast enough, too weak going up against someone bigger, faster…better than me." In his pocket, Remus' fingers tangled with Dora's necklace. "I'm afraid I'm going to make the same mistake I did then."
The back of Liz's hand bumped against his. Remus twitched slightly at the touch. "You're not a boy anymore, Remus," Liz reminded him.
He stared at her. Then his lips pulled into a bitter, toothy smile and Remus turned his gaze back to the compound. He focused on the windows that were lit and the shadows moving across the illuminated panes. His teeth bared a little more.
"No. I'm not."
James sat hunched over one of the nets in the lower hull of the ship. Several of the cords were frayed or snapped, leaving more than a few gaping holes in the netting. He twisted some thin rope around his fingers, weaving it among the older threads to repair the biggest of the holes.
The crates or barrels containing additional powder or weapons had been scrounged from the lower decks. Most of the men were above deck on either of the ships. At least four of the men were combining the nets while others loosened rigging and kept the ship on its steady course. James had already lain most of the booby traps along the deck, accompanied by packets of flour and powder, securing cannons along the rails and using the last of the pitch. The preparations were almost done, everything was almost done. It was part of the reason he had retreated to the darkest part of the hull.
James' fingers slipped against the coarse rope and he released a muffled yelp. Dropping the net, he eyed the reddening rope burns on his fingertips. James braced his elbows on his knees, letting his hands hang loosely between his legs.
He had tried to catch Lily after laying the plan out for the men, after instructing them on what he wanted and what their job was once they got into the cove. James had tried not to watch Lily's face as he spoke, but she was up front, with her red hair and eyes that no one could miss or ignore. So he'd spelled out the plan for her in particular, trying to explain in details and booby traps why she should have gotten in the longboat.
After he'd finished, she'd turned and walked away to collect extra rope. James couldn't tell if she was angry that he was trying to protect her, angry at his plan, or just angry at him.
The sound of fabric brushing against wood brought his head up, and even in the dim light he could make out Lily. Sliding off the box he'd perched on, James watched her navigate the supplies to shove several coils of rope off a crate. He leaned his hip against the barrel and watched her pull an old hammock from the crate. She shook it out and dust and frayed rope tickled James' nose. He sneezed.
Lily turned sharply. The lantern light hid her eyes, but he could see the downward pinch of her lips. She watched him for a moment, then turned and shook the hammock again.
"They need these on the other ship," she said. Glancing over her shoulder, Lily nodded once at the net James had dropped. "That one too."
James knelt and picked up the net, stroking the bundled material with his fingers. Acutely aware of the sun getting closer to the horizon and the impending arrival at the cove, he walked around the crates, only coming to a stop when he was a few feet away from Lily. Without a word he held out the bundle of net, far enough away that she would have to step closer to reach it.
"You're angry at me."
Lily's eyes narrowed at the bundle in his hands as if she knew what he was thinking. And of course she did, James mused. She always did.
"Yes, I'm angry with you." It was so soft he almost didn't catch it. "But not angry enough to waste more time." She came forward, trying to tug the net from James' grip, but he tightened his own hold at the last second.
"Lily, would you at least listen to me—"
She tugged hard and the net came free from his grip. Bringing it close against her chest, Lily groped behind her for the hammock and rope. "I need to get these above deck. Captain's orders." Her shoulder knocked against him when she passed.
"Lily, would you just stop!" James grabbed for her arm but caught a handful of the mesh. The nets and hammock fell between them.
"What?" Lily demanded, her face flushed.
His own anger flared. "We don't have time, there's no later or after this, Lily."
"I know," she began.
"No you don't know," he ground out, frustrated. "If you knew you would have gotten off the damn ship when I asked—no ordered you to."
"I know, James," she snapped.
"And now," he continued as if she hadn't interrupted him, hands shaking in fists at his side. "Now it's too late and you're stuck here—"
"Is that what you think I am?" Lily snorted, but it held no amusement. "Stuck?"
"We're going to die," James snarled and the words echoed painfully in the hallway. To say it out loud hurt more than he realized. He hadn't said the words to Remus, hadn't needed to say the words to the men. He'd tried to say it a few times while prepping the booby traps, but he couldn't get the words to form on his lips. And yet now, in the dark hull, against the anger at Lily and the frustration about what was to come at sunset, now he blurted it out too easily.
"But if you had gone…" James stopped again, running a hand over his face. "Damn it Lily, why couldn't you have listened to me just this once. I knew what I was doing…"
He looked up when fingers encircled his wrist and drew his hand away from his face. "I told you I would be here," Lily whispered, "I would be whoever you needed. Do what you needed."
"And what if I needed you to go?"
The skin where her fingers had been burned. James watched her pull away, flush rising further on her cheeks. He reached out and caught her own wrist, but didn't pull her toward him.
"I needed to do this. I had to do this, Lily. And you…you didn't."
She slapped him. His face stung and he gaped just a little at her, releasing his grip and taking a stumbled step back. She'd hit him once, after he'd left her on the inn, after she had returned to save his life. But that felt like a lifetime ago and even then her eyes hadn't looked so…hurt.
"Don't you dare," she broke off, swallowing hard. "Don't you dare, James."
And then Lily was gone, leaving the nets at his feet; leaving him alone in the cold hull with a stinging cheek.
James turned and kicked a crate hard, releasing a loud curse. He dropped his hands, bracing his palms against the wooden box. The hiss of the wick in the lantern, the blood roaring in his ears, his heartbeat…it all faded away. And he heard…
"How much longer do you want me to wait, James?"
"Are you ready to die yet, James? Because I'm certainly not."
"Understand? How could you understand?"
"I gave you a sword. I taught you to use it. What you did with it was your own choice."
He kicked the crate again and some of the wood gave under the weight of his boot. He ignored it, ignored the little voice in the back of his head that said a broken toe would just tip the odds even more against him…
"I will never love you any less."
James shoved himself away from the crate, stumbling slightly, then turning toward the door. He caught up with her halfway down the shadowed hallway, just outside the door of her room.
She stopped so suddenly that he had to brace a hand on the wall to not run into her. "That hurt," James pointed out to her.
Lily blinked. "Good."
"Lily," he tried when she went to turn away again.
"You are a good man, James. A good pirate, even." Her voice was icy. "A loyal friend. You think you're selfish when really you're not; you're honorable and willing to do so much for those you care about." Her eyes narrowed slightly. "But you can be a fool."
"A fool," he repeated, voice rising. He swallowed down the anger, trying to keep his emotions tempered. "A fool to want you safe? To not want to watch you die?"
"A fool because you don't think I warrant the same courtesy," she snapped.
James recoiled, faltering back a step.
"That I shouldn't want you safe or couldn't bear to watch you die." She reached out, grabbing the front of his shirt in a fist to prevent him from moving away, not that he could have. The anger drained a little more from each word, until it had leaked out completely.
"Or wouldn't want to be at your side to defend you. To die with you."
Something in his chest broke. It was the only explanation James could come up with. Nothing compared to this burning the crawled into his chest, ruptured and trembled through his entire body and leaked into his soul. Fear and love warred together, but couldn't outdo the other. They melded, shattered, and left his muscles quaking under Lily's hand.
The sun was still setting and when it did, for better or worse, this ship and all the men aboard would go through the mouth of the cove. Remus would lead the men down from the forest. And everything would either burn or survive.
But right now, there was only the pressure of Lily's hand on his chest.
James grabbed her waist and pulled her roughly up against him, so their chests, hips and knees knocked together, capturing her lips and refusing to let go. He felt her gasp, felt his breath and hers mingle between them when he deepened the kiss. His lips traced the words on hers.
His heart pounded in his chest, or was it hers beating against his breast that he felt? James felt Lily squirm against him, looping her arms around his hips. James nudged her forward until they knocked against the door frame and then his shoulder hit the door. It swung under their combined weight and James stumbled through, pulling her along with him, feeling her own murmur against his mouth. With a swift kick the door slammed onto the barren hallway.
The sun dipped lower on the horizon, causing the grey shadows to stretch long against the walls of the corridor, skirting the abruptly-closed door as if in respect.
Until the sun sunk even lower and the whole corridor became shadow.
Please review and let me know what you think :)