The Only Thing

Summary: Lily Potter's love and sacrifice for her son is the stuff of legend. But there was another member of the Potter family. James Potter was more than an arrogant toerag who finally grew up, more than a Marauder, more than a member of the Order of the Phoenix. He was a father.

How on earth would a man like James Potter handle that responsibility, at the tender age of twenty, especially at a time when his world was crumbling all around him?

A/N: This is a little character study of James I've had sitting around for over a year. I decided I'd like to post it. It was written as a birthday gift, but its owner said I could. I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it. You are welcome to let me know, if you do. ;)

A/N2: Thanks go to MaraudersWolf and Masked One for beta reading.

A/N3: For Bridget.

--

James Potter had never been one to wait for things to happen. His philosophy had always been to attack life with full vigor. Whether it was playing Quidditch, breaking rules with his friends, tormenting the bloody Slytherins (preferably Snivellus) or, most importantly, pursuing the girl of his dreams, James had charged head on.

No, he didn't wait for things to happen; he made them happen. This strategy for living had always served him quite well during his youth. But then he had grown up.

And the world had changed.

But still, he had not shied away from what life had thrown at him. Life was too good for James Potter to allow some evil twisted bastard to destroy what he had. After finally winning the girl, James intended to enjoy his life with her.

And so, together with Lily Evans Potter and their friends, he had joined in the fight to preserve the good in the world. After all, James Potter didn't back down from a challenge; he was a Gryffindor and a Marauder—and a man with too much to lose.

All this made his current situation all the more intolerable. It went against every instinct he had.

James Potter was in hiding.

--

"James, will you please stop pacing," Lily implored as she stooped to wipe up a glob of porridge from under the high chair in which their fifteen month old son, Harry, sat finishing his breakfast. "Why don't you go see if you can contact Sirius in the Floo? He's probably going just as stir crazy as you are."

"Dumbledore doesn't want us to use the Floo unless it's an emergency," said James, frustration oozing with each word. "In case it's being watched."

Lily looked up sharply. "But I thought the Fidelius Charm would keep us hidden no matter what."

"It does," said James reassuringly. "But Sirius isn't protected by a Secret Keeper. I don't want to draw any more attention to him than he already has. He's already in enough danger and I'm sure he's got more important things to do than entertaining me."

"I guess that rules out Remus and Peter, as well," Lily said dismally.

"I definitely can't contact Peter," said James. "That's far too dangerous. Not to mention, Sirius would kill me if I exposed Wormtail's hiding place—and Remus will be in no condition to entertain anyone." James frowned, deepening the crease on his already furrowed brow. "I wonder if Padfoot was able to keep him company."

"Last night was full moon!" said Lily, her hand going to her mouth as the realization dawned. "So that's what had you so preoccupied." She laid her hand on James's shoulder. "Even more than usual…" James nodded and Lily sighed sadly. "Poor Remus, I can't believe I forgot."

"Don't you go feeling guilty," James said. "I feel bad enough for both of us."

"Remus understands, James," Lily said firmly.

"Yeah, I know he does," said James, "but it doesn't make me feel any better about it." A massive grunt of frustration escaped him. His friend had suffered greatly and there had been nothing James could do about it. He did not take well to being useless. "I'm going to go check the windows upstairs and then get a shower."

Lily opened her mouth to say something and closed it again with a knowing smile. She wouldn't point out the obvious, that he had already checked the windows twice this morning and the locking charms were merely a sham of protection against Voldemort, anyway. If the Fidelius Charm didn't work…. A tiny shiver went up her spine.

"You do that," Lily said. "And when you get back, Harry should be finished with his breakfast. You can watch him while I go get a shower and do some laundry."

"Alright," James said listlessly.

--

James stood stock still as the hot water beat down on his back and neck, willing it to wash away the knots of tension and his feelings of dread, guilt and worthlessness. He knew he should appreciate what everyone was doing for them, and he did, but it didn't stop him from feeling the twinges of resentment. They were out there doing something—fighting—and he was holed up, hiding, waiting….

He never would have dreamt it.

But then again, he never would have dreamt a lot of things…that he would have fallen so hard for a girl in his fourth year or that he would have married her when he was barely nineteen, much less that they would have had a child before his twenty-first birthday.

Of course, he never would have dreamed how desperate things would become, how it would make people seize life so fiercely, wanting to savor it before it was too late. And so, like many others during that time, he and Lily had married, probably sooner than they otherwise would have. But it had been the smartest, best thing he had ever done.

He closed his eyes as the water pounded on his shoulders and thought back to that bright spring day, how unbelievably beautiful Lily had looked, smiling from behind the gossamer veil as she seemed to float like an angel down the aisle towards him, Sirius standing strong at his side.

James opened his eyes as the mist of the shower swirled around him, carrying him dreamlike to the night Lily had told him she was to have their child. The way he sat there staring at her dumbly for a full minute at least, unable to decipher the glut of emotions sweeping over him—shock, wonder, joy…fear.

For a brief time, he had become rather overprotective of Lily, until she had finally snapped him in line.

"I'm pregnant, not an invalid, James," she had said firmly. "And you aren't the only Gryffindor in the house. I have work to do just like you and I intend to do it as long as I'm able."

James smiled at the memory. God, how he loved her fire.

Lily had continued to work, doing some rather impressive things for the Order. More than a few people owed her their lives. But he didn't want to think about that now….

He forced his memory forward to the morning of July 31, 1980. Lily had nudged him awake. "James," she had whispered gently. "James, wake up. It's time."

He was sure he had never come fully awake so quickly, even though he had been out on Order business quite late the night before. He and Lily had Side-Along Apparated to get her safely to St. Mungo's. While some witches chose to give birth in the comfort of their own homes, Lily, being the daughter of a Muggle woman, had felt more comfortable going to hospital and having healers nearby in the event of complications—and to provide her with more potent pain relieving potions, if needed.

When they arrived, James had been both relieved and unnerved by the level of security at the wizard hospital. It had been a sign of the times.

But in the middle of all the horror and destruction raging in their world, Lily had given birth to their first child. She had given him a son.

The actual birth was a bit of a blur to him, lots of groaning and rather agonizing sounds from Lily, who was happy to have access to those potions, and some frighteningly light-headed moments for himself, but he had survived it without fainting. He was thankful for that. Sirius, Remus, and Peter would have never let him hear the end of it if he'd fainted.

The birth had all been different than he had expected and it had caused him some anxiety in the following few months. He had always believed that it would be the most beautiful thing he'd ever experience and that a flood of love would come washing over him on first sight of his newborn child.

In reality, it had been rather messy and his first thoughts upon seeing Harry had been more "What's wrong with him?" than that his child was the most beautiful thing in the world.

James had never really seen a brand new newborn before. He hadn't known to expect the misshapen, almost pointed head and the red swollen eyelids. Add the thick thatch of black hair plastered rather disgustingly to his head and Harry had seemed more like he belonged on a page in one of Moony's books on rare magical creatures than in Lily's loving arms.

Fortunately, the swelling had gone down after a couple of days, and Harry's head had rounded out nicely. He had actually turned out to be a very cute baby. But James kept worrying about that overwhelming flood of love. When was he going to feel it? Was something wrong with him? How could he be in love with his child when he felt so—so tired and irritable?

Still, he enjoyed watching as Harry would lie on his back, swatting at the dust particles dancing in the stream of light filtering through his bedroom window or the way he would suck on his own little toes.

James loved to give Harry the rare bottle, when Lily was away on errands. The way Harry would reach up with his pudgy little hands and grasp James' fingers on the bottle…

Lily had stopped doing dangerous missions for the Order once her belly had become so large that she wasn't able to get around easily and she hadn't gone back.

She continued to do work for the Order—analyzing information, helping in the preparation for missions, concocting potions, etc… But she had chosen to stay home with Harry at James's urging. Of course, it had been what Lily wanted. James didn't delude himself into thinking he could make her do anything she didn't want to do, but regardless, he had been very thankful to know she was safe at home, out of harm's way.

Out of harm's way

That had been the delusion. It had become quite evident that no one was out of harm's way so long as Voldemort was on the loose.

But time had sped by, and Harry had grown. Little teeth, white and sharp, had broken in the bright pink gums; chubby little knees had stayed red once he'd started crawling across the floor.

And James had missed so much of it.

He was gone, more and more, working for the Order. Things were not going well. He was losing colleagues and friends on an almost regular basis.

But he would come home, tired and glum, and find Lily and Harry playing together on the floor. One look at the slobbery smile that greeted him when he collapsed on the couch managed to lighten his mood. The first time he heard "Daadaa" he had temporarily forgotten that life wasn't perfect.

But inevitably, he had to return to the real world. Each morning, it seemed to be worse when he awoke than it had been when he had gone to sleep. It was getting harder and harder to recruit members to the Order of the Phoenix and their numbers were dwindling.

Then, one stormy night, Dumbledore had brought horrible news to a meeting. Marlena McKinnon, one of their best, had been killed. But even worse, her entire family had been murdered along with her. Apparently, Voldemort was sending a message. James had nearly choked on his sorrow. Marlena's youngest would have started Hogwarts in September.

Dumbledore had sent them all home. James could still hear the professor's voice in his head.

"I want you all to go home," he had insisted. "You need rest, all of you. It will do us no good to have you exhausted and distracted. This has shown more clearly than anything before what we are up against. But you cannot give in to despair. There is still hope—but it is harder to see when your eyes are clouded by grief and fatigue."

James had Apparated home to find Lily and Harry, sitting in front of the fire, rolling Harry's ball to one another, playing, as if everything were normal. James stood in the doorway, watching, until he could no longer focus on them through the well of tears in his eyes. "Oh, dear God, what have I done?"

What had they done?

He must have made some sort of sound, because Lily had looked up, startled, reaching for her wand instinctively. "James!" she gasped. Then she saw the look on his face, the tears rolling down it. "Oh, God, James, what's happened?" She stood up and crossed the room, grabbing him into a hug when he had choked on his words.

"What have we done, Lily?" he choked. "How could we have brought a child into this world? It wasn't fair. What were we thinking?"

But they hadn't been thinking. They had been in love. Harry was the blessing of that love.

Now, standing in the shower, James wiped at his eyes and turned into the pounding water, letting it wash away the tears. What the hell was he doing up here, wallowing in self-pity? They had brought Harry into the world, and by Merlin's beard, they would protect him, love him and give him all that they had.

He turned the water off, dried, dressed and headed downstairs. The sound of Harry's little giggle floated up the staircase. James stopped and watched from the doorway. Lily was sitting on the floor with their son in their usual spot in front of the fire, playing peek-a-boo. James smiled. It was almost wonderfully normal. Almost…

The wooden floor creaked as he took a step inside and Lily jerked around. She always tried so hard to appear calm, but James knew she was as much on edge as he was, Fidelius Charm or not. He smiled at her lovingly.

"Look, Harry; it's Daddy," she said, her eyes sparkling.

Harry looked up and a slobbery grin broke across his face. "Daa-dee!" he said excitedly. He scrambled to his feet unsteadily and started to run across the floor, arms stretched out before him, little bowed legs moving frantically to keep up with his body. But Harry's momentum was building faster than the little feet could go and he came crashing into James's legs, grabbing his father's slacks to stop himself falling. James laughed at the shocked expression in the wide green eyes looking up at him and then Harry grinned again, four little white teeth shining out of the drooling mouth. Two fat little hands stretched up in a wordless plea; pick me up, Daddy!

James bent down and heaved his son into his arms. "That's my boy," he said proudly. He squeezed the wonderfully warm little body to him, breathing in the smell of baby powder and dried porridge.

James felt the lump forming in his throat. The overwhelming love he had for this child was nearly painful.

When had that happened? When had he fallen so hopelessly in love with this tufty-haired little boy?

"Are you alright, James?" Lily asked, worried.

He swallowed the lump and blinked back the tears. "Yes, I'm fine," he said truthfully. He gave her a sincere smile and she smiled back a little nervously. She must have thought he had lost his mind. "Really," he said strongly. "Go get your shower. Harry and I are going to have boys' time."

"That sounds like a wonderful idea." Lily reached out and brushed her fingers softly across his cheek before heading up the stairs.

James and Harry sat on the floor to finish the game of peek-a-boo but Harry must have tired of it, so they started to roll the ball instead.

But something just didn't feel right. "Wait a minute, Harry. I have a better game." James stood up and lifted Harry, setting him in his playpen. "I'll be right back." James sprinted up the stairs, taking two at a time, and took an old shoe box from the shelf in his cupboard. He pulled the little golden ball out and then sprinted back down to his son and they settled back on the floor.

"Look, Harry, a Golden Snitch." James held the ball up for Harry to see. The firelight glinted off the fluttering wings. "Can you say Snitch?"

"Niiitch!" Harry cried, reaching out for the Snitch.

"That's good, Harry!"

James let the Snitch fly up and grabbed it from the air, nearly missing, but not quite. He was a little rusty. "Your ole' dad's out of practice," he told Harry earnestly.

But soon, James was snagging the speeding ball from the air with ease, thrilled with Harry's reaction. Harry would squeal with delight and clap his little hands and cry, "Niiitch!"

"Your turn," James said. "Can you catch the Snitch, Harry?"

"Mine!" Harry snatched at the fluttering ball still in James' hand.

"That's the spirit!"

James pulled his wand and cast a spell to slow the Snitch to the point it could barely stay in the air. Then, he tossed it towards Harry. Harry reached out with both hands and grabbed it easily from the air. "Niiitch!" he squealed and started to put it in his mouth.

"No, don't eat it!" James grabbed Harry's hand and pulled it down. "Blimey, Harry, I think I made that too easy. Want to try again?"

Harry nodded and clapped his hands enthusiastically. James took the Snitch and adjusted the spell so it was a bit faster. Harry grabbed it again.

Finally, Lily came into the room. "Oh, James, you aren't showing off in front of our son with that blasted Snitch, are you?" She laughed.

"Oy, he's the one showing off," James said proudly. "Watch this." He let the Snitch go and Harry grasped at it and pulled it from the air. "I think we have a Seeker on our hands."

"Assuming he can fly," said Lily.

"What do you mean, assuming? He's my son, isn't he?"

"Heaven knows, there's no denying that!" Lily laughed, obviously referring to the fact that Harry already bore quite a resemblance to his father, though he had his mother's vivid green eyes.

Too soon, it was time for Harry's nap. But James wasn't ready for their time to end. He had missed so much time with his son already.

"Can't we just skip it today?" he asked.

"We could, but in about an hour, we'd all regret it," Lily said, smirking. "It's just a couple of hours, and then you can play again. It isn't as if you have somewhere else to go. For once, you have all the time in the world."

A chill of foreboding washed over James, as if a window had been opened to the cold late-October air. He didn't want to waste another moment away from his son. But he was being selfish and absurd. Harry needed his nap. It's just the tension and thinking about all those things in the shower, James told himself.

So James gave Harry his bottle and held him for a short time before finally taking him up and leaving him in his crib. When there were no more sounds of squirming and babbling coming from the room, James pushed the door open a crack to peek inside. Yes, Harry was asleep.

James walked quietly over to the crib and looked down at his sleeping child, so innocent. He reached down and softly brushed a plump little cheek. "I love you, Harry," he whispered, his voice cracking with emotion.

He stood straight and made for the door. Before he switched off the light, he looked back at the only thing in the whole world that could make James Potter go into hiding. Compared to Harry, nothing, absolutely nothing else mattered.