With a shrill whistle, a slight jerk and a puff of steam, the train began to move; slowly at first, but gradually going faster.
It was the last time.
They watched in silence as the train gathered speed. Hogwarts began to slide away from view, its towers and rooftops gleaming in the afternoon sun, giving way to the familiar dark green landscape that stretched home. Normally they wouldn't have been so entranced by the image of their school; they had always known that they would see it again in only a few months. But this time it was different.
They would not be coming back.
Nature's splendor shone through the window as they sat immobile, their last vision of Hogwarts lingering. Maybe some day they would come back, but they wouldn't be there as students going to class or to the common room with friends. Quidditch matches, house points and Hogsmeade visits would no longer matter. Seven years of Hogwarts had passed, and now they were going home as highly accomplished wizards and witches.
Although filled with eight people, including four of the most renowned pranksters in decades, the compartment was silent. Minutes passed.
"Well," said Sirius quietly, breaking the silence, "we're officially free now."
Lily wiped her eyes, and James put his arm around her. After a year, he still felt proud to be able to do so without being slapped.
She was sitting beside the window on the end of the first seat. The Marauders, Violet, Alice and her boyfriend Frank were sharing the compartment. James ran his hand through his dark hair out of habit, and grinned as he squeezed Lily to his side. She had, "after years of being completely oblivious to his charm", become his girlfriend shortly after they began their seventh year, saying that he was less of a "stuck-up idiot".
Sirius grinned and pulled a pack of Exploding Snap cards from his pocket, and Peter gave a slight smile at the amount of rubbish that came with it. Remus opened a book, though he probably only did it out of habit, because his gray eyes weren't following the words. His face bore three scars - on his cheek, over an eyebrow, and close to his chin - evidence of the "furry little secret": his lycanthropy.
Alice said something to Frank and he nodded, pulling a chess set from his bag. They had been a couple for two years already and they were rarely apart. Sitting beside them, Violet arranged her dark brown hair into a ponytail, and grinned at Sirius as she looked at the cards in his hands.
"So," said Alice as she pulled Frank down to sit on the floor in front of her where she claimed that it was easier to play chess, "What're we all planning to do now that we've left school?"
The grins on James and Sirius' faces widened. "Oh, I think I'll work in a bookshop - somewhere quiet, you know," said Sirius.
"What?" James exclaimed in mock surprise. "But I was thinking of doing the same thing! Though I might decide to work at Madam Puddifoot's. You know I always had a weakness for that place - "
"Shut up," said Alice as they all laughed.
"Nah," said James when their laughter died down. "I'm joining the Order."
There was silence before Sirius nodded. "Me too. Here's one Black that's not going to be a Death Eater," he added in the low, resentful voice he always used when speaking of the family that had disowned him.
"I'm joining too," Lily and Violet chimed in. Remus quickly agreed. Frank pointed out that since he was planning to be an Auror, being part of the Order of the Phoenix was natural. Peter just nodded nervously.
"Me too," said Alice. "Dumbledore called Frank and me to his office…it kind of surprised us."
"I wondered what I'd done," Frank grinned. "And now I'm wondering what we're going to do."
"Kill Death Eaters, probably," said James.
Lily looked at him skeptically. "Come on, James. Do you think a secret organization formed by Dumbledore would dedicate itself to killing Death Eaters? I expect there'll be loads more to it. You know, spying and protecting people."
"I wonder who else Dumbledore recruited…probably a few Aurors," Violet mused.
"And others like Fabian and Gideon Prewett. Remember them?"
"Prewett?" enquired Remus, "I think he - "
"Yeah," interrupted Sirius. "He said that he'd recruited them too."
"What if we die?" asked Peter suddenly.
Violet interrupted the silence that followed, "It'll be worth it."
"D'you think we'll die?" asked Alice, as naturally as if she had asked whether they would need to buy new robes.
Frank looked at her, and then glanced at the chess pieces organizing themselves on the board. "Maybe."
"I don't care," said Remus quietly. "Violet's right."
Peter blushed with embarrassment. It was obvious that he felt abashed for asking the question.
"I think I'll find a job in the Leaky Cauldron, or somewhere in Diagon Alley…" said Violet. "Dad's getting old now, and he's going to need my help."
Alice nodded and grinned as she directed one of her knights forward. "I think I'm going to study to become an Auror too, with Frank. My parents promised last summer that they'd help me, as long as I become a good one."
"Almost the same thing my mum said," Frank commented, smirking as his queen finished off one of Alice's pawns.
Lily looked thoughtful. "I'd like to work in the Ministry, you know?" she said after a moment. "What about you, Remus?"
He smiled dryly. "I'll find something. It'll be hard, though, with my condition…"
"I'm not sure, either," Sirius added quickly. "I'll see if there's anything I'd be any good at." James nodded; he didn't know either.
Silence followed, then Sirius lightened the mood considerably by asking, "Anybody want to play some Exploding Snap?"
The Marauders, Violet and Lily responded immediately and began the first hand, while Frank and Alice played chess on the floor. They were just starting their sixth round of Exploding Snap when the trolley passed by, led by the plump lady with graying hair. James and Sirius stopped the game and rushed out before the rest of them, pulling out galleons.
"Two packages of Chocolate Frogs, two Licorice Wands, one Cauldron Cake and some Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans…" recited Sirius. The lady smiled at him and handed him the sweets, taking the money, as James hurriedly told her what he wanted.
"Hey, Maddox!" Sirius shouted at Violet as he returned to the compartment. Violet looked up in surprise as he tossed her the Licorice Wands and a package of Chocolate Frogs. She gaped at him and Sirius sent her the dazzling grin that had most girls at Hogwarts swoon. He simultaneously opened the package of Bertie Bott's Every Flavor Beans and deposited a cluster into her hand.
"What?" He winked at her and walked away, settling down to eat his own candy. Violet stared at him for a moment, and then looked at the sickles she was clutching. Only enough to pay for one package of Chocolate Frogs.
"Consider it an early birthday present," he said, as he began to eat a Cauldron Cake.
James surprised them all, but rather pleased the woman who pushed the trolley when he fleetingly kissed her on the cheek before coming back into the compartment. Lily bit back laughter and quickly grabbed some of her own sweets, coming to sit down beside Violet.
Their game continued, and some people came to see them: Mary Macdonald, who came to say goodbye to Lily, because she said she was not sure if she would see her before she left the platform; Kevin Drakon, who merely wanted to spend some time with them and play a round of Exploding Snap; and Jonas Peakes, accompanied by his girlfriend, who wanted to borrow Frank's chess set.
As they left, Violet looked up and spoke to Sirius. "Where's Rosalind?"
He shrugged. "We broke up a week ago."
Everybody, except the other three Marauders, looked up in surprise. "Oh," said Frank. "You lasted for a year and a half. That's-"
"- the longest relationship he's ever had," James finished for him. "Yeah, I know. I lost thirty galleons thanks to that."
"What?" exclaimed Sirius in surprise.
Remus grinned. "He bet that you'd last for less than three months. I bet more. And won."
"I didn't know that."
"How come…?" began Lily, rather hesitantly.
Sirius shrugged again. "I know she's interested in Diggory. Remember him?"
"Diggory?" exclaimed Alice in surprise. "Amos Diggory?"
"Yeah, him. Apparently she saw him at a Christmas party when she went home, and…he liked her. Started sending her letters and all that, and she was answering. So I told her that if she didn't want me anymore, we could just break up."
"Just like that?"
"Well, I didn't say it like that," said Sirius knowingly as he opened his Chocolate Frogs package. "I put it differently, of course. But yeah, we broke up. We're still friends, though, I guess."
The rest of the journey passed too quickly. They ate sweets and continued their game of Exploding Snap, and once they grew tired of it they had a long conversation about which of the first years could be a good prankster, while Remus and Lily discussed a book they had both recently read. The girls were surprised to know that the Marauders had left their magical map behind, but James shrugged and said, "We hid it somewhere where it's either bound to be found by Filch, or somebody who deserves to have it. Either way, somebody's going to get his hands on it, and then the map will serve its purpose."
It was nighttime when the Hogwarts Express finally pulled into Platform 9 and ¾. They lingered a bit before getting their trunks and disembarking from the train, spurred on by the sight of their families standing there waiting. James hurried over to his parents, with Sirius behind him; he was to stay with the Potters before he got enough money to buy a place for himself. As Mr. and Mrs. Potter embraced their son, Sirius looked around. Close by, following a group of Slytherins, was Regulus.
Sirius had the impression that his dark-haired younger brother looked around at the same time as he did, and for a moment their eyes met. To his surprise, Regulus did not smirk at him as he always used to. Instead, he looked at Sirius as he had once done when he was a very small boy; he gazed at his older brother with something akin to familiarity, maybe even with a spark of respect, then quickly looked down before hurrying off, following the other Slytherins in the direction that probably led to Mr. and Mrs. Black.
With a sinking heart, Sirius looked away. He had recognized the leader of the group: Yaxley, probably already a Death Eater, or an aspiring one. Sirius hurriedly turned to greet the Potters, hoping that the Blacks would not come towards them. He had no wish to meet them, though it was most likely that Walburga did not think of him at all anymore.
Towards their right, Lily was hugging her parents. To nobody's surprise, Petunia had not come to meet her, but she still felt sad and maybe even resentful towards her sister. As her mother began to speak to her, Lily listened, but was distracted by somebody passing behind Mrs. Evans.
Dark, greasy-haired Severus Snape stalked by. His robes were almost as black as his mood, it seemed. His eyes were lowered as if he wanted to burn the ground with his very gaze. Then he turned his attention towards Lily.
At that moment, she was aware of James coming to stand beside her and beginning to speak to her, before he noticed Severus. There was no mistaking the look of loathing towards James, or the resentment towards Lily, but as he moved away from them, maybe not even Lily perceived the strange longing that was masked by the resentment.
She watched him go, and her mother spoke. "Darling, isn't that your friend? What was his name…?"
Lily's heart constricted, but she managed to speak in spite of it, doing her best to keep her tone controlled. "No, mum. He isn't my friend anymore. Let's go."
James turned to look at her, but she avoided eye contact. She still hurt, knowing that he quite unmistakably intended to become a Death Eater. A shiver ran down her spine…would she need to work against him? Maybe even kill him?
She dismissed the idea from her mind and, after kissing James briefly, followed her parents through the Platform barrier and into the muggle world.