Disclaimer: Copyright Jo-Ro.
Before: England wallows in drought. James has started to date Carlotta, but, despite the other Marauders' urging, he has yet to tell Lily. Lily, Donna, Marlene, the Marauders, James's cousin Sam, Frank, Alice, and a bunch of other people go to the Ministry to protest Egbert Dearborn—the new head of Department of Magical Law Enforcement, who is Sam's brother—and his new policy of admitting only two muggleborns to Hogwarts every year. Frank sneaks into the Ministry interior, and is pursued by a creepy henchman type, so Alice, James, and Lily follow under James's Invisibility Cloak (which has been stored in his quite handy fedora), but when pursued by a questionable wizard named Falstaff, James reveals their location to him.
Chapter 29- "Old, New, Ballroom, and Blue"
"Fire and Rain"
"I have a plan." James looked at the both of them. "Do you trust me?"
Alice slowly nodded, and he looked to Lily. She hesitated for a moment, and then nodded as well. "I trust you. What's the plan?"
"Fantastic." With that, he threw off the cloak and stuffed it into his hat, along with Sirius's pocketknife and his own wand. "Excuse me..." Then, he opened the door, stepped into the corridor, directly in front of the Ministry wizards, and raised his hands as though in surrender. "Alright—you've got us."
(Approximately Ten Hours Earlier)
"So this is where Her Majesty summers..."
"We've been drinking!"
"It's just... it's been a really... emotional day..."
"I'm sorry... I just... I can't..."
They hadn't kissed.
They hadn't kissed.
"I'm a girl who will try anything once—I suppose that should apply to an actual relationship, too..."
Voices and images flooded James's head, making the walk up towards Lily Evans's front door seem to last much longer than it actually did. When, at last, he had ascended the front steps, James hesitated before ringing the bell.
It would be fine. Really.
Carlotta was... great. And excellent. And marvelously straight-forward, by comparison.
This wasn't going to be weird. Really—he wouldn't let it be weird. He had a girlfriend now, and he could be over Evans, who obviously had no romantic feelings for him. She was a girl—a lovely, insane, completely fantastic girl, but, all the same, just a human being. And, from an evolutionary standpoint, human kind was built to handle rejection from others of the species (even from lovely, insane, completely fantastic ones). It wasn't going to be weird. He was completely over Lily Evans.
He rang the doorbell.
A short eternity later, Lily opened the door. She wore a blue bathrobe and a giant yellow t-shirt that covered the essentials and not much else. Her eyes grew wide at the sight of James, and she moved to close up the bathrobe.
"Nice shirt," said James almost automatically.
"Nice hat," she retorted, without missing a beat.
And that's when he knew it.
Namely, that this was going to be a lot trickier than he'd thought.
(Approximately Eight Hours Later)
Egbert Dearborn was more than a little disgruntled. The rectangular plaque (and former occupant of his desk) that bore the name of his predecessor sat in the rubbish bin, laughing at him in the face of his defeat, and Egbert felt powerless to stop it.
Well, it wasn't defeat yet. The Wizengamot would rule tomorrow, however, and then only two options existed for Dearborn—retain his seat as the head of D.M.L.E. or admit to the essential end of his political career.
It was the mudbloods who were really at fault: the dull-witted, tainted mudbloods, whose own greed for magic prevented them from seeing (or caring about) the damage they did. And they sat in the Atrium of the Ministry of Magic, trying to force others to accept it... trying to have him sacked...
Dearborn was an ideologue. It had never been about power, per se, with him. He had grown up in a household where elitist pureblood, if not exactly anti-muggleborn, sentiments reigned. And now, in his brief tenure as head of D.M.L.E., he was only really trying to uphold that tradition: the grand tradition. Death Eaters and... and their leader... were a reaction—a violent and awful reaction and one to be loathed, to be sure, but a reaction to a social injustice nonetheless. If the Ministry could slowly and gently implement a better plan for purebloods—which would not ignore the muggleborn problem, but attempt to regulate it—then Vol... well... the Death Eaters would disintegrate on their own, without a lot of aurors dashing about the country every time someone saw a hooded figure (or, more recently, a green haze in the sky).
A thumping knock on Dearborn's office door told him that the wizard he had asked to see had arrived, and he responded with a somewhat shrill, "Come in."
Alastor Moody trudged in.
The two men could not have been more different—Moody, a large, sturdily built wizard, with wild hair and a battle scarred face, and Dearborn, a lean, neatly dressed politician with a manicure as impeccable as his pedigree. Egbert did not particularly like Moody.
"You wanted to see me, sir?" the head auror grunted, and Dearborn wasn't sure if he imagined an ironic hint in his use of the word "Sir."
"Yes, I did Alastor," said Dearborn, rising from his desk. "I want to know where all your aurors have gotten to."
"They're on assignment, sir," said Moody. "That is—the ones that haven't been put on your own security detail, sir. But you know all this, sir. I showed you our logs not two hours ago."
"None of them have returned?" Dearborn demanded. "That's preposterous! They've been 'on assignment' all day! It's past seven o'clock in the evening, and those... they ought to have reported back!"
"But, Mr. Dearborn, sir—you've been in charge of this department for a few weeks now. Certainly you know it's quite common for my aurors to be out for days."
Dearborn flushed and sat back down. "Well call some back."
"Mr. Dearborn, sir," said Moody, and now he sounded almost dangerous, "there was an attack in Birmingham two hours ago. Fifteen muggles witnesses and three dead... that's a priority case, that is."
"But all of your aurors can't be on priority cases?" snapped Dearborn.
"There are four on your detail," Moody went on, "There's the one that you assigned for a task, and seven out at the house in Bromley."
"The house in Bromley, yes... call them back! If they haven't found anything by now…"
"There's a strong suspicion about the house," interrupted the auror. "There's even a possibility of positively identifying two death eaters. Now, Mr. Dearborn, sir, I imagine that if you called them back now, and the evidence was... mishandled... that's not the sort of stain you want on your record... especially now that you're about to be announced permanent head of D.M.L.E." Moody frowned. "I can promise you, Mr. Dearborn, that the aurors at the house in Bromley have their hands full now, and calling them back now would be an... embarrassing and ill-advised mistake."
(The House in Bromley)
"Damn it, Kingsley," swore Edgar Bones, as Kingsley Shacklebolt's knight crushed Bones's queen.
"I told you that I'm the best," said Kingsley, smiling. "Your turn."
The door to the derelict kitchen opened, admitting Lathe, whose face was covered in dirt. He set his wand down on the sink and turned on the tap, splashing water over himself.
"How was it?" asked Kingsley, while Bones surveyed the chess board between them. "No deaths?"
"False alarm," said Lathe. "There weren't any death eaters there—half the roof collapsed, though, so..." He gestured to his current disheveled state and sat down in the vacant chair at the kitchen table. "Halliday's sprained her ankle, too. She's changing upstairs now. Any idea how long we have to work out of here?"
"Not complaining, are you?"
"Merlin, no. It's better then wasting resources on a hundred people sitting by a fountain."
"Three hundred," Edgar corrected, still studying the chess board. "Does Dearborn honestly think we've been searching this house for clues for nearly nine hours?"
"Dearborn is not particularly educated on what an auror does," said Kingsley. "Between the three of us, I hope the Wizengamot listens to the two hundred people sitting by the fountain."
"Three hundred," Edgar corrected again.
"Here, here," deadpanned Lathe. "Any word from Birmingham?"
"Nah," said Bones. "Eckles has gone too, though. Oh, not for anything important. They wanted someone to handle the presses; the Prophet gets fussy when they can't speak to actual aurors. No other developments, though."
Lathe nodded. He was watching the chessboard intently and, after a minute or so, spoke again. "Bones, you might as well give up. Kingsley's only toying with you. He'll have you checkmated in three moves."
Edgar looked up at Kingsley, who nodded.
"Damn it, Kingsley."
An invisible bond had been used to restrain their hands behind their backs, and Lily, James, and Alice were marched hastily down the corridor. Besides Falstaff, there were three other wizards, one of whom wore an auror's badge.
They were brought into Falstaff's office at the end of the corridor. It was a plain room, with beige, picture-less walls and a large oak desk. An owl sat perched in a cage with an open padlock in the corner, and the shades over the window behind the desk were drawn. On top of the desk, a quill was signing one of many scrolls of parchment piled there on its own accord. Lily, James, and Alice were ordered by one of the wizards to line up on the step below the desk, and they stood there—hands bound—as though in front of a firing squad.
"Three more, eh?" muttered Falstaff. "Red, just like the idiots in the Atrium."
"That one there," muttered the auror, nodding towards Alice. "Her name's Griffiths. She's in the A.T. program."
Falstaff rolled his large, pale brown eyes and approached Alice, tapping the badge on her robes. "Obviously," he murmured. "The other two?"
The auror merely shook his head, and both the other wizards followed suit. Falstaff walked up to James, looking at him very carefully.
"I've seen you somewhere."
"I'm ubiquitous," said James.
Falstaff began to say something else, but then he stopped himself. He turned to the other three wizards and addressed the ones that did not wear the auror badge.
"Get their wands," he muttered, and the wizards complied. The man charged with grabbing Lily's was a short, balding wizard of about thirty, and he winked at her as he felt about for the object in question.
"Back pocket," she snapped. He reached around, grinning, and located the object, and it took all of Lily's patience not to kick him. The other wizard took James's and Alice's wands and offered them to Falstaff, who shook his head and pointed to the auror. They were given to him instead, and then Falstaff issued another order.
"Svilt's with the other one in his..."
"Find him and tell him about this."
The two wizards left. Falstaff, meanwhile, raised his wand and directed it first at Lily.
"Sit," he ordered, and beside her, Lily could feel James tense. She sat down on the step, and Falstaff pointed his wand at her feet. He waved it once, and she felt the muscles in her legs seize up, her ankles clicking together as her wrists had done earlier. They were locked together. "Sit," said Falstaff to James, and he complied as well. Falstaff repeated the spell on James. Without command, Alice began to sit as well, but Falstaff shook his head.
"Not likely, Miss A.T.," he said with a small smile. "You..." He looked at the auror, and Lily guessed that it was quite intentional that he refrained from saying his name (which was equal parts encouraging and bewildering, as it apparently meant that there was a chance that the three of them might later be in a position to repeat anything they knew). "The A.T.s are on furlough. She has no business here. You'll escort her off the premises."
The auror nodded, and, grabbing Alice by the arm, led her—not gently—towards the door. Falstaff made to follow, but turned and looked at Lily and James, smiling again.
"Don't go anywhere," he said, knowing it was not likely. "I'll be back in a moment. You don't mind if I lock up, do you?"
"Wait," said Alice quickly and loudly, from where she stood near the door. She wriggled loose from the auror's grip and was at James's side before anyone could react. The witch leaned over and kissed him on the cheek, just as the auror caught up with her and guided her back towards the door. The auror was rougher this time in escorting Alice out of the office.
"Girlfriend, eh?" scoffed Falstaff to James. "Personally, I thought you looked better with the ginger." He followed the auror and Alice out. The door clicked closed behind him, and then there was an additional click, as Falstaff evidently locked it from the outside.
Lily and James were alone in the office. There was a moment of silence, before James spoke.
"Okay, Snaps..." he began to say, but Lily was already struggling to get her arms underneath her, so that they were no longer behind her back. It took her all of ten seconds to do this, and James was impressed. He was about to comment, but was distracted by the fact that Lily was now beating his arm with her the side of her bound fists.
"THIS... WAS... YOUR... PLAN?"
"Ouch! Stop... stop that! Evans!" James tried to scoot away, but his hands were still behind his back and his legs were useless, so it wasn't easy. "I never said it was a good plan!"
Lily stopped hitting him. "Are you joking, you GIT?" She began to hit him again.
"OUCH! Lily! Please! There isn't much time!"
Lily once again ceased her assault, permitting James to get his hands out from behind his back. She continued to survey him with the utmost suspicion, however.
"This was your plan?" she demanded again.
"Quite probably not my best..." James allowed.
"Was it your worst?"
"I don't really think that's relevant."
"That really and truly terrifies me, James."
James was already busy at work, however. He took off his fedora, and said: "Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs," and it was only then that Lily realized something.
"Your wand—you put it in your hat. So what did they take just now?"
"A fake. I've always said that fake wands were prosaic, but in the right situation..." He carefully placed the hat between his knees and lifted the fold so that he could locate what he had hidden there earlier.
"Why did you have a fake wand on you?" Lily wanted to know, while James rummaged around in the hat.
"I don't know what possessed Sirius to bring them along," admitted the Marauder. "But he, Remus, Pete, and I all took one from his hat when we decided to enter the phoenix bond. There we go..."
James located his wand and pointed it at Lily's legs, murmuring the counter to the leg-lock curse. "I don't know what spell they used on our hands," he added, looking at her hopefully.
"Try finite incantatum. It's generally effective for things like this, isn't it?"
James tried, and it, mercifully, worked. He freed his own legs next, and then handed Lily the wand to undo his wrists. Lily hesitated.
"That's not funny, Snaps."
"Fine, but you absolutely deserve it. Finite Incantatum."
Freed completely, now, James took his wand back and pointed it at the inside of the fedora again. "I told you it was a nice hat," he added, and Lily rolled her eyes. "Accio mirror."
The two-way mirror flew out of the hat, and James caught it.
"Shouldn't we get out of here first?" asked Lily, rubbing her sore wrists.
"This first," muttered James. "We don't know when he'll be back, and there might not be enough time to escape at any rate. And this is more important. Sirius Black!" he said loudly into the mirror. Nothing happened, and the mirror remained dark.
"Why do you need to talk to Sirius?"
"Alice told me what Frank was supposed to tell Moody."
Something clicked in Lily's brain. "When she kissed you. Oh, Merlin, that makes so much more sense." She was half expecting a, "What? Jealous?" from James, but he said nothing, except to repeat the name in the mirror.
"It should be in his hat. Why isn't he answering?" James muttered. "Sirius! Sirius Black!"
They both hovered over the mirror, listening and watching, but no one appeared. There was a muffled sound that might have been a voice, but neither could make out any distinct words.
"Hurry up, hurry up," whispered Lily to no one in particular. "You're sure he has it on him?"
"Yeah, he used it this morning—remember?"
Still, no response.
"What was Frank's message, then?" Lily asked while they waited.
James frowned. "He's supposed to tell Moody to 'send them in.'"
"Send them in?" Lily echoed. "What exactly did Alice say?"
"She said 'Vance tells Moody to 'send them in.'"
"Send them in... send them in..." Lily murmured, leaning against the desk behind her, as James continued his battle with the two-way mirror. "The aurors, do you think she meant?"
"I don't know. Why would Vance want to bring in the aurors?"
Lily frowned thoughtfully. "Maybe... maybe he wants them to all be taken in by the aurors!" she realized. James arched an eyebrow. "Why not? What's the penalty? A fine, maybe? If Vance thinks that the hit-wizards under Dearborn are going to do something illegal, or question people or something, maybe he wants the aurors to come in and deal with them, because this Moody bloke is in charge, and he'll keep it all on the books."
James nodded slowly. "That actually makes sense. Sirius fucking Black!"
But beside the vague muffled sound, there continued to be no reply. Lily sighed, looking anxiously at the door.
"Falstaff could be back any minute, James. Say the message...maybe he'll hear it..."
"I don't have much of an choice, I guess. Padfoot, this is James," he spoke very clearly, as though to a child. "We're on level two... D.M.L.E. In a bloke named Falstaff's office. It's me and Lily—Alice is being escorted off the premises, because they recognized her as an A.T. Vance told Frank to send in the aurors, but you need to tell Vance that his message didn't get delivered, and he needs to find another way to contact the aurors. Repeating that, in case you're an idiot—Vance's message wasn't delivered. We think Frank got intercepted..."
"And is with a bloke named Svilt!" Lily added.
They paused and waited, hoping to hear some kind of response. What they heard, instead, were footsteps from the outside corridor.
"Shit," swore James. "I hope he heard it." He was already throwing the mirror and his wand into the hat, however, before promptly closing the flap and replacing it on top of his head. Both he and Lily resumed the positions they had held prior to escaping the bonds, but as the footsteps drew closer, James grabbed Lily's shoulder suddenly, turning her to face him. "If they ask you your name, say it's... say it's Felicity McKinnon."
"Pureblood. They let Alice go because they thought she was too well connected, and if they know you're a muggleborn, they'll be a lot less careful about your well-being. Alright?"
The lock was charmed open, and James had resumed his position of faux captivity by the time the door opened.
Falstaff entered, alone this time. He closed the door behind him, and walked over to the teenagers, squatting down in front of them so that they were at eye-level. "Now," he began in a smooth voice; "You, boy—what's your name?"
"Who's asking?" retorted James.
Falstaff poked him in the neck with his wand. "Your name," he repeated, pretense of cordiality gone.
It took every ounce of strength in Lily not to look at James just then. What in Merlin's name was he playing at?
"I don't know any 'Bakers.'"
"You wouldn't. My folks are muggles."
Falstaff stared at James for a moment, as though sizing him up, and then turned to Lily. "And you?"
Felicity McKinnon, James had said. Felicity McKinnon.
"Lily," she said. "Lily... Deslauriers."
"And do I know any Deslauriers?" asked Falstaff.
"Do you know any East End florists?"
"What would a pureblood be doing protesting muggleborn rights?"
Falstaff snorted and then straightened up. "You'd be surprised," he muttered. He began to pace, and the moment his back was to the two adolescents, James sent a furious look in Lily's direction, and she kicked him.
"The question, of course," said Falstaff, rounding on them, so that the pair had to resume their sedate positions and expressions, "is what exactly are you doing here?" His eyes slid from Lily to James to Lily again. "Miss Deslauriers?"
To the best of her ability, Lily concealed the fact that she was swallowing hard and suddenly wished she had talked over a cover story with James in their brief moments alone. In the end, she opted for almost the truth. "We were looking for our friend."
"Mr. Longbottom,' said Falstaff knowingly, so perhaps Frank had been taken. "Rather a waste of time, my dear. Your friend is in no danger from us. We are the Ministry of Magic. We are here to protect."
"Even off the clock?" Lily asked. Falstaff made no reply. He continued to look at her curiously.
"How did you two get past the gates in the Atrium?"
"Disillusionment Charm," Lily heard herself answer.
"And where were you going?"
"To get our friend; we told you."
"And what was he doing in the offices?"
"How should I know? I only saw him leave and be followed. I didn't ask why."
Falstaff faltered before asking another question. "I do not believe that a few teenagers snuck into the Ministry after their friend with no idea why."
"We saw your bloke with the ponytail follow him," James spoke up. "Others in the crowd knew him to be friendly with Dearborn. Two and two."
"And what do you have against Dearborn?"
"What has he got against muggleborns?" Lily said. Falstaff arched his eyebrows.
"Miss Deslauriers," he began, "you were trespassing on Ministry property. I could have you arrested."
"You could and should. Why haven't you?"
"Because I have questions that I want to ask first."
"How did you really get past the guard at the gate?"
"She already told you," said James. "Leave her alone, why don't you?"
"You would hardly have surrendered the truth that easily."
"I'm very honest."
Falstaff hesitated. The brown in his large eyes was so pale, it was almost beige, and there was something disconcerting about being watched by those eyes. "Who leaked the Population Protection Act to The Daily Prophet?"
Lily did not have to fake surprise at this question. "How should I know? I only found out about the whole thing from the newspaper, just like everyone else."
"I don't believe you."
"Well it's the truth!"
"Do you honestly believe that everyone who was in the Atrium today knows the answer to that question?" cut in James. "Or that anyone does? Seriously, do you? Because if you do, you must be thicker than I thought."
"Tom," Lily snapped warningly, and she wanted to kick him again, but Falstaff would have seen.
"Mr. Baker," began Falstaff coolly. "I have no idea what you know. But I will find out, and it won't be difficult."
"We're supposed to believe that you're going to torture us?" asked James wryly, and Lily watched the older wizard's reaction very carefully. Unfortunately, he smiled.
"Of course not," said Falstaff. "But my friend Mr. Svilt is much more creative than I in his methods of interrogation. Once again..." He spoke to James, but he pointed his wand at Lily; "Who leaked the Population Protection Act to The Daily Prophet?"
This time, James hesitated before replying, and Lily had just enough time to mutter, very rapidly: "He-won't-do-it. He'll-get-Svilt."
"Silence," ordered Falstaff, jabbing the wand forcefully against her forehead. Lily tried not to look utterly terrified. "Mr. Baker?"
"Neither of us know," said James. "Honestly, we were just looking for our friend."
Falstaff considered the wizard before him. Without removing his wand from Lily's forehead, he reached with his other hand and picked up James's fedora. "This is very nice," he mocked, toying with it idly in one hand. "Now, one last time—who, Mr. Baker?"
"I don't know," said James stiffly.
Though his intent was, no doubt, to annoy James, Falstaff could not have known how it worried both teenagers when he placed the fedora upon his head. His wand was still on Lily, however, and he muttered something under his breath as he flicked it.
A hundred miles away, James's voice said Lily's name, but the world was going dark for her. Before black unconsciousness overcame her entirely, Lily was aware of two thoughts running through her head: first, recognition of the fact that she had been stunned, and second, that she sincerely hoped James would not forget to act as though his hands and legs were bound.
Lily stirred, and James let out a heavy sigh of relief. "Thank Merlin," he muttered, as her eyes fluttered open. "Are you okay? Agrippa's sake—what was he thinking, stunning someone at that range? You could have been seriously..."
"Your hands," Lily muttered hoarsely, for James was—gently as possible—helping her into a sitting position. He leaned her against the desk.
"What? Oh, Falstaff's still gone," James explained, reflexively glancing towards the office door.
"How long has it been?" Lily rubbed her forehead gingerly.
"About ten minutes. I think he went to get Svilt. You were right about that, incidentally: Falstaff's too big of a coward to do anything himself. He's just... what's wrong?"
For Lily was now looking at him with a rather intimidating light in her eyes.
"You're angry because I didn't tell him the truth when he had the wand pointed at you?" guessed James worriedly. "Listen, I'm..."
"You were trying to get rid of me," Lily interrupted.
"Oh." James frowned. "Okay, that, obviously, didn't exactly work, and... are you going to hit me again, or are you going to let me explain?"
"Explain? Explain what, TOM SODDING BAKER?"
"Okay, I understand why you're angry..."
"Angry?" roared Lily, getting to her feet. "Angry was twenty minutes ago! I am furious. I am unfathomably murderous!"
"You need to calm down and listen to me," said James. "There's..."
"Don't tell me to calm down. Don't talk to me like a child, especially not after that stunt. If we get out of this any time soon, I am never speaking to you again. Do you know why?"
"Because you'll be dead, and I don't speak to dead people!"
"On principle, or just out of habit?" asked James, also hopping to his feet.
"Don't try to funny you're way out of this. I am definitely going to murder you."
"Is that a fact, Miss Deslauriers? Speaking of which—Lily Deslauriers? And your folks are East End florists? I'm surprised he didn't see through it right away! You couldn't say 'Smith' or 'Jones' like any normal human being would?"
"Well, I'm sorry for having an imagination!"
"Well, I'm sorry for trying to get you out of this without an arrest on your record!"
"Well I forgive you!"
And then they were both quiet.
"I can't believe he took my hat."
"Will they be able to get inside it?"
"I doubt they'll look," muttered James. "Falstaff only took it to irritate me. But even if they do have a look at it, there's a password you need to open it up."
"Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot, and Prongs," realized Lily, remembering what he had said earlier. James nodded. Lily sighed, folding her arms. "We need to find a way out of here. Any idea how much longer we have?"
"No," said James, clearly still glum about the loss of his hat. "I thought he'd be back by now."
"Where exactly did he go?"
"To get this Svilt bloke, I think," said James. He began to pace and didn't try for the door, so Lily assumed he must have done so while she was still unconscious.
"Svilt's with Frank," Lily muttered to herself. "Maybe he needs to find a sitter for him while he uses Svilt on us."
"Maybe. But why wouldn't they let Frank go, like they did with Alice? He's wearing his A.T. robes, too."
Lily had no adequate response for that, however. They were both silent for a time. James searched through the desk drawers, possibly for an extra wand or something they could employ towards escape. Unfortunately, the entire office seemed to be utterly lacking in anything useful.
"Listen, Snaps," James began presently, sitting down on the step again. Lily looked at him, eyebrows raised. "When Falstaff comes back... can you... can you please just say your name is Felicity McKinnon?"
"It's a little late for that," retorted Lily, annoyed.
"Well—well then we can make it look like I'm ratting you out or something."
"No, listen—if he has two of us, he can use one of us as leverage against the other, and..."
"James, relax—ten galleons says the worst they do to us is give us a sip of Veritaserum. It's safer and more effective, anyway."
The wizard had not thought of that. "All the same," he muttered, "I'll feel exceptionally guilty if you have brain damage from that close-range stunning spell, and it'd be all my fault, because..."
"It's not your fault," Lily interrupted. "Alright? I made you take me along, and I understood the risks. So, once again, stop treating me like a child, and let's do something a little more proactive."
"Coming up with a new plan, for starts."
"Well, getting rid of you was sort of my Plan B."
"Thanks for that," said Lily, rolling her eyes. "And, what exactly, was your plan A? Getting us locked up in an office?"
"Well, I rather hoped they'd throw us in with Frank, which would at least accomplish our goal of finding him, yeah?"
"Well, they didn't."
"I've already admitted that this wasn't my best plan, Snaps."
Time passed; Lily wasn't sure how much of it, but enough for the sense that Falstaff's return must be imminent to diminish significantly. They had been in the office for about an hour total before Lily asked the question that bothered her most of all.
"You don't think something's happened, do you?"
"Why do you reckon something's happened to Frank?"
"I don't. But..."
"Well then, let's not talk about it."
Lily sat in the chair, her legs propped up on the desk surface, and James leaned against the front of the desk, his back to her; he could feel her eyes on him and rather wished she had not brought up the possibility of anything happening to Frank. It made him feel even more useless, sitting there like this.
It was about half past seven o'clock now. Alice had said that this was the time that the Atrium would be sufficiently empty for the hit-wizards to act (if that was, indeed, their plan). Of course, it was a busy day... maybe there would be more time. Or maybe Sirius had heard their message, and the aurors would come...
"So—how was the West Country?" Lily asked suddenly.
James looked at her disbelievingly. "Are you serious, Evans?"
"Well, what else have we got to do? Our wands and your hat are gone, the door is bewitched, and I thought we established that you were all out of plans."
James sighed heavily. "Fine. It was fine."
"That's it? Fine?"
"Fine, lovely, fantastic—what do you want from me?"
He got up and folded his arms, pacing back and forth again. Lily watched him, frowning.
"Are you angry with me?" she asked at length, more curious than anything else.
"Well, that's a lie."
"I'm not angry with you."
"You are clearly annoyed."
"Can we not do this now?"
"Do what? I don't know what we're doing! You're just being moody and angst-y, just like you've been all day around me, and I don't have the faintest clue why, because last time I checked, you were the one who jumped out in the hallway in front of the people who were supposed to be chasing us and said, and I quote, 'Alright, you've got us.'"
James opened his mouth to retort, but then stopped himself. He paused and sighed. She had a point, damn her. "You're right. I'm sorry. I just was..." he trailed off, wondering what exactly he was doing. "I'm sorry," he repeated. "Holiday was—very nice. Fantastic, really. And you? How have you been since..." (an awkward moment they both acknowledged) "...your sister's wedding?"
"Alright, I suppose," muttered Lily, thinking briefly of a now twice repeated dream featuring a very shirtless James. "Nothing too exciting. Oh..." she remembered, "I got Head Girl."
James looked up, but he did not appear surprised. "Yeah, Remus told me. That's... good..."
"I don't know if it is, though."
Lily shrugged. "I don't know. I'm just anxious about the Head Boy."
Confused, James raised his eyebrows. Had she already heard? "What do you mean?"
"Well, it's not Remus. I was hoping it would be Remus. But it's not, and it's not the Ravenclaw prefect—I wrote him to ask—and I just asked Benjy Fenwick today, and he says he didn't get the badge, so I don't know who else it could be, except the Slytherin prefect. And that's Snape."
"Oh. Er... Evans..."
"I know," she interrupted. "It doesn't seem likely, but the Head Boy is always a prefect, and he's the only one left! And I don't want to work with Snape. I don't want to... to think about him or look at him or... have to deal with the fact that for years, he was my best friend, and now he's..." She stopped abruptly. "I just can't believe that I thought I could reconcile with him, or save him or whatever it was. I thought I..." but once again, she stopped. "Anyway, it's over with, and I don't want to have to face him anymore. Which is—I mean, it's incredibly selfish. If he deserves Head Boy, he deserves it, and I shouldn't wish him bad luck, just because I can't stand to stand next to him anymore. You know?"
"Shockingly, yes," James muttered, gulping.
"Anyway, I suppose he does deserve it," Lily went on dismally. "For all his faults, he's quite clever. I certainly can't think of anyone else who deserves it more..."
"And if he's picked, he's picked, and there's nothing I can very well do about it, is there?"
"I just—I think I'm afraid that working with him, I'll start to feel like I can... I dunno... redeem him, somehow, which I know is wrong, but..."
"I'm Head Boy," James blurted out, when he didn't think he could hear another word of Lily's tirade. She looked at him, confused.
"I'm Head Boy."
She sighed. "James, must you always make fun?
"No. I'm seriously Head Boy."
Lily raised her eyebrows.
"No. Really," he repeated earnestly. "I am Head Boy. I don't... I don't have a clue how or why, but I got the badge with my Hogwarts letter. I'm... I'm the Head Boy."
For a few seconds, Lily didn't believe him. Then she did. She clapped her hand over her mouth. "Oh-my-God-I'm-so-sorry!"
And for whatever reason, James found this exceptionally funny. He began to laugh, and so did Lily, although she was covering her face with her hands in humiliation as she did so.
"I am... so bloody sorry," she gasped. "I just—I never thought..."
"That someone on the verge of expulsion would get Head Boy?" asked James. "Yeah, me neither. It doesn't make sense..."
"No, it's... it makes sense..."
"Oh stop trying to salvage it," scoffed James, amused. "Of bloody course it makes no sense! I'm not Head Boy material! I'm a Quidditch obsessed deviant who has broken just about every rule there is. It makes absolutely, positively no sense whatsoever, and you know it."
"Stop romanticizing your misdemeanors," Lily reprimanded. "You saved Snape last year; that's probably why you got it."
James shrugged. "Or Dumbledore's having a laugh at my expense, the git," he said, rolling his eyes. He tried once again at the locked door, knowing it was futile, and then leaned his back against it, hands in his pockets, legs crossed at the ankle. There, James was directly across from Lily, who had removed her legs from the desk and now sat more normally in the chair. "I wish I had my bloody hat," he muttered, for no real reason, except that it occurred to him.
Lily nodded, her glumness returning. She slouched over the desk, chin in the palm of her hand. "Let's just hope Sirius got the message."
"I dunno, though," James went on, half to himself. "Maybe I could knock the door down... especially if Falstaff isn't coming back any time soon."
"With a sealing charm?" asked Lily wryly. "Not likely."
"I don't know if he used a sealing charm," said James, turning to examine the door. "He might have just locked it. I only heard the click."
Lily got up from the desk. "He didn't use a... why wouldn't he use a sealing charm?"
"He thought we were immobile," James reminded her. Lily took him by surprise in appearing quite suddenly at his side. "Maybe we could use the desk to ram it... or, hey, didn't you say your first bit of accidental magic was to make a door fly off its hinges? I don't suppose you can do that on demand?" He looked at her, grinning, but Lily's expression was thoughtful. "What? You can?"
"I might be able to," said Lily. "But not in the way you're thinking."
She turned and hurried back to the desk.
"I already looked through there," James reminded her. "There's nothing but quills and ink and parchment and books."
Lily opened every single drawer, pushing aside the contents in search of something, but James did not know what. At length, not finding whatever it was that she sought, Lily straightened up, pushing her hair away from her face in frustration.
"I need something like a... a screwdriver..."
James sent her a blank stare.
"Y'know... muggle tool. Plastic or wood handle, long metal stick, with a head... you use it to pry or unscrew things... no? Didn't you take muggle studies?"
"We didn't cover every single muggle knick-knack, Snaps."
"Fine, well... if I had something with a flat, narrow head, I could..." She trailed off, as her eyes fell on something that James could not see from his angle. He joined her behind the desk, following her stare.
Lily pointed at the drawer handle. It consisted of a brass strip, about half an inch wide at the ends, but wider in the middle of the handle, between the two mounts. Lily, however, seemed more concerned with the edges; she knelt down, examining them carefully, and then looked up at James.
"You're stronger than I am, aren't you?"
James rolled his eyes. "Have you seen yourself, Twig?"
"None of that, now," Lily retorted. "I dislocated Nick Mulciber's jaw once, if you remember."
"Don't be cute," replied James coolly. "What do you need?"
"Do you think you could get one of these handles off?"
"Reckon so, yeah—why? That's not a screw-what's-it, is it?"
"It might work."
James sighed and knelt down beside her. He jostled all the identical drawer handles, finding that the top one felt slightly looser than the others. They emptied the drawer and removed it from the desk.
It took James a few minutes to work the handle off, too, and though he pulled the hem of his shirt up to mediate between his flesh and the metal, when, at last, the handle was wriggled free, the palm of his hands was red and blistered.
"Sorry," muttered Lily, who had kept a close eye on the door. If Falstaff returned now, James did not know how they would avoid revealing that the leg-locks and wrist-binds were long since vanquished.
"No problem—though you might do to tell me what exactly what you're planning on doing with this..."
Lily rolled her eyes. "What? Don't you trust me?"
James handed over the brass handle, and Lily hurried to the office door again.
"Wait a minute," she said, once there. "I need something to hit it with. Like a hammer. You do know what a hammer is, don't you?"
"Something to do with electricity, isn't it?" retorted James sarcastically. "Yes, I know what a hammer is. Here..." He jogged over to the owl cage in the back corner of the office and pulled the unfastened padlock from the door. It was large and heavy, and he gave it to Lily, who eyed it appraisingly for a moment.
"This might do," she muttered. The owl in the cage gave a loud hoot, and Lily positioned the narrow end of the drawer handle against the top door hinge. James stepped closer to see exactly what she was doing, and she had slipped the handle between the hinge pin and the top rung of the hinge. "You may want to step back," she told him, and as she secured the handle in her left hand, she raised the padlock in her right. She brought the lock down on the handle with all her strength, and the hinge pin moved infinitesimally upward.
"Where did you learn to do that?" James wanted to know.
"My dad remodeled our kitchen summer after second year," Lily replied. "The hinges on the old door didn't match the décor, so he had to put new ones on. I watched."
"God bless him," muttered James, and Lily snorted. She continued to hit the door handle with the padlock like a nail with a hammer, until the hinge pin became quite loose. It was a noisy process, however, and she stopped every few seconds to listen, but—besides the fluttering of the owl in the cage—all was silent.
When the first bolt was loose enough, James reached up and slid it out of the hinge. The door remained secure, but Lily moved to the second one. In a few minutes, the second pin was removed too; the door wobbled.
"Hold it, will you?" asked Lily. "I ought to have done the bottom one first. Dad told me that, damn it."
"Don't beat yourself up over it," said James. "You're about to get us out of here."
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves," replied the other, sitting down on the floor to begin on the last hinge. "If Falstaff comes back..."
"We'll throw the door at him," joked James, and Lily smiled as she beat the lock against the handle once again.
Finally, the last bolt was removed. James would have been impressed, if he hadn't been so busy being relieved. He did not remove the door right away, however. "Before we leave, we might want to figure out where we're going."
"We need our wands."
"I need my hat."
"Right. Where in Merlin's name do you think they are? We're in Falstaff's office, and he didn't leave them here."
"Maybe that Svilt bloke's office?" suggested James. "I bet that's where Frank is, if they didn't let him go once they had two 'muggleborns' to interrogate."
"But where's that? How would we begin to find it?"
They thought about it for a minute; Lily was massaging her palms and wrists, which had been severely chaffed by the drawer handle. "I hope Mum hasn't telephoned the house," she muttered inconsequentially. "She'll be worried that I'm not home yet..."
And that gave James an idea. "Hold the door, will you?"
Lily nodded. She hopped to her feet and steadied the door, while James stepped away, towards the back of the office again. He grabbed a slip of parchment from Falstaff's desk and folded it into a square. He took the quill that had long since stopped writing on its own accord and found some ink in one of the still-handled drawers. On the front of the parchment, he scribbled a single word. Then, he opened the owl's cage, and the bird within let out another noisy hoot. Lily arched her eyebrows.
"We'll send him a memo," said James. He held up the parchment, which had the name "Svilt" written on it.
"And follow the bird," Lily finished, catching on. "That's... kind of brilliant."
"I do have some good ideas."
"Right. Move the door, will you?"
The owl, Lily thought, really was a good sport. Once the door was removed, the bird was easily convinced to deliver his "message" to the appropriate office, and Lily and James set out after him. Unfortunately, the process of following the bird through the corridors turned out to be among the most nerve-wracking experience of Lily's seventeen years.
The corridor immediately outside of Falstaff's office was mercifully (and inexplicably) empty, but at every turn, Lily expected someone to jump out at them. Without the invisibility cloak, of course, they could move quickly and were able to keep up with Falstaff's owl, but, at the same time, speed meant both visibility and volume.
The bird flew, and Lily and James sprinted after it through the corridors, and, to an outside observer, it might have looked funny, but the pursuers themselves had no occasion to be amused. Svilt's office was not on level two, which Lily had guessed might be so, as Alice had not mentioned his having one at all, and the owl flew up to the lift doors, flying in small circles as it waited for one to arrive.
Lily started to round the corner into the corridor with the lift at the end, but James grabbed her hand.
"If someone gets out of the lift," he explained, holding her back, and Lily nodded. She moved back around the corner, looking over James's shoulder at the owl; he hadn't let go of her hand yet.
The lift arrived empty (it must have been bewitched to turn up, even for owls), and as the gates opened, Falstaff's bird swooped inside, and Lily and James sprinted to step aboard before the doors closed. Inside, James noticed he had been holding Lily's hand the entire time, and he let go quickly.
"What? No awkward comment?" teased Lily, as the lift doors closed and they began to move upward.
"Your fingernails are purple," James remarked.
"It's nail varnish."
"And you said my fedora was ridiculous."
The owl disembarked when the lift stopped on level four, Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures, or, as it was more commonly known: D.C.M.C. The hall was empty, and a clock on the wall told them that it was about twelve minutes to eight o'clock.
"Alice said the hall would be cleared by seven-thirty or eight, didn't she?" Lily asked, as she jogged after James and the owl.
"I hope Sirius got that message."
They stopped at a corner, peering around it to make sure the coast was clear before following the owl again.
"Who knows, though?" muttered James. "Maybe the others have already gone..."
"You heard Dory—she's not going anywhere. And after that rousing rendition of 'Seven Drunken Nights, I'm sure spirits are pretty high...'"
James smirked, and they stepped into the intersecting hallway. The bird was already halfway down, but he soon turned around, flapping frantically, and swooped towards one of the doors. The parchment in his beak dropped into a square memo box connected to the door, and as the bird delivered his letter, his beak knocked against the wooden box, which had evidently been designed specifically for that purpose.
Mission completed, Falstaff's owl made to return to his cage. Lily, meanwhile, pulled James back around the corner, and they both waited to see if anyone opened the door. No one did, however.
"What now?" Lily wondered aloud. They both leaned against the wall behind them, James tapping his head against it thoughtfully. At length, he turned to look at Lily over his shoulder.
"Do you trust me?"
Lily slapped his arm. "No I don't bloody well trust you! Are you mad?"
"Snaps, none of this is going to work if we don't trust each other a little..."
"Is that why you tried to trick me into getting myself out of here?"
"I already apologized for that!"
"Yes, but... but... Damn it." She sighed and rolled her eyes. "Merlin help us: do what you've got to do."
That was, evidently, good enough. He turned and walked towards Svilt's silent office. A name plate beside the door had four names on it, including Antoine Svilt, and bore the label: "Pest Advisory Board."
James frowned. "Bloody hell," he whispered; "He's a PAB?"
"What's a Pab?" asked Lily, matching his hushed tone.
James pointed to the sign. "Pest Advisory Board. PABs are basically nothing."
"Well maybe they consider teenagers pests," suggested Lily, and James snorted. He reached out and tentatively knocked on the door. For several seconds, they listened, but the office remained quiet.
"Where did everyone go?" Lily wanted to know. James shrugged. He grabbed the door knob and turned.
"I should have known you would be involved in all of this," sighed a voice behind them.
Lily and James froze.
(Approximately Thirty-Five Minutes Earlier)
The trick for Alice had been finding a floo network that was directly connected to the aurors' office. She had no idea where the Shacklebolts lived, nor any of the other aurors with whom she was acquainted, and only aurors were allowed to have fireplaces directly connected to the aurors' floo.
Since Falstaff's auror and his friend had dropped her into the Leaky Cauldron, returning her wand and smirking maliciously at her, Alice had been trying to work out how she could get back into the Ministry of Magic.
"What about the other A.T.?" the auror had asked of Falstaff, as they marched her towards Dearborn's office (not that she'd had any idea of her destination at the time). "Now we've got the other two, we don't need to keep him."
"Keep him while we wait on Svilt's potion," Falstaff had replied. "The others are practically children. They might not know anything."
And so Alice had waited in the Leaky Cauldron (Tom was working by himself) for Frank to arrive, just in case. But he did not arrive. Twenty-five minutes passed, and the fireplace remained cold. Tom brought her butterbeer, which she could not taste at all. And that was when Alice concluded that she needed to get back into the Ministry of Magic.
As a mere Auror Trainee, Alice did not have a floo connection to the auror department, and she quickly decided that the auror department would be the safest place to floo into the Ministry. She had been brought to the Leaky Cauldron via the floo in Dearborn's office, but that would be no good, and she couldn't go back through the Atrium, as Dearborn had almost certainly ordered that the guard stop certain personnel from re-entering the lower levels. But Alastor Moody might be in the Auror department (Vance had certainly thought him to be there earlier), and she could accomplish two goals: one, communicating the message to the head auror, and two, gaining entry into the building where Frank was held.
The problem of how to get into that floo terminal plagued her for some time, before she came to the realization that Caradoc Dearborn might have a connection. He was not a field auror, but he trained the A.T.s and did work with the department regularly, so it was certainly possible; best of all, Alice had his address. Or, at least, her mum did.
Thus, Alice came to be sitting in Caradoc Dearborn's kitchen, spilling the tea he had given her all over the saucer, while she thoroughly butchered her own attempts to explain the situation.
Doc Dearborn was quite different from his younger brother Sam. He was almost a decade older, for one thing, with dark hair, spectacles, and a practical face. He had a quieter, calmer demeanor, but shared a friendly temperament with his younger brother, as well as a distinct distrust of his elder brother, Egbert's, politics. Alice was about to find out how deep this distrust went, when he answered her request to use his floo.
"You realize I could be in quite a bit of trouble if I were to allow you to use it," said Caradoc slowly.
"You could say I broke in," Alice told him earnestly. "I'll break a window, if you like."
Doc smiled. "That won't be necessary. The fireplace is this way."
Alice was just grateful for an excuse to set down the tea, and she followed. Dearborn picked up a clay jar of floo powder and emptied some into Alice's palm.
"The call is 'Aurors' Office,'" Dearborn told her, as she stepped into the fireplace.
"Thank-you ever so much."
Caradoc shrugged. "Give my regards to Sam."
"Bloody hell, I'll send him your birthday cards if you want after this." Grinning, she dropped the floo powder and gave the call.
Alice had been inside the auror department several times, but she had never seen it empty. Indeed, she had been rather under the impression that it was never empty, because, these days, a considerable number of the aurors were called upon to work graveyard shifts. But now, though the offices were lighted and ready for occupancy, not a single person could be seen in the room.
It was troubling. She cautiously stepped into the hallway of level two, and thought briefly of going to Falstaff's office. But she had no idea if Lily and James were still there, and, honestly, the fact that there were two of them spoke well for their chances. Frank, wherever he might be, was apparently alone, and she had to find him first.
Alice knew that Svilt worked on level four, and she thought she had heard him referred to as a PAB, but she had no idea if he had an office there or anywhere at all. Still, it was the best plan that she could come up with, and so, holding tight to her wand, she found the nearest lift and traveled upward to level four.
She encountered a pair of secretaries as she dismounted the lift, but they only acknowledged her with a nod, before returning to their own conversation. She walked with her head held high, exuding false confidence in every step, should she come across someone else who would be similarly ignorant of her trespassing.
Alice had explored half the floor in this manner before she finally located a plaque on the wall that pointed her towards the PAB chambers. It consisted of a single narrow corridor, with three doors on one side of the wall and darkened, bewitched windows on the other. There were name plaques beside each of the doors, but Alice did not have to read them. She knew at once which office held her answers, as there were voices emanating from the only door that seemed to be lit.
She slowed her steps, listening carefully to the sounds from within.
"What about the other two?" one male voice barked, and though familiar, Alice could not distinguish the speaker. "Still in your office?"
"Yes of course."
"You just left them there, Falstaff?"
"Leg locked and bound in a locked office," snapped the second speaker, also male. "What are they going to do? Blow it up? You shouldn't lecture me. This is your fault..."
"We have to find him. Merlin only knows what he might be up to..."
"Taft and the others are on it..."
"We'd better get back to the kids, then..."
"What good will that do? You haven't got the potion anymore..."
"We could use the Imperius. Dearborn said whatever we needed..."
"If that gets out, Svilt... You're willing to risk it all for Dearborn..."
"Hush—if someone heard..."
They were both silent for a moment; Alice did not move a muscle. Then, Falstaff and Svilt resumed their dialogue, but Alice could scarcely make out every other word, as they spoke in much lower tones now. At length, the words stopped altogether, and she knew what was coming. She pointed her wand at the nearest dark office and whispered: "Alohamora."
The locked clicked, and she practically fell into the pitch black room. She did not release the door knob, so there was no closing click. It was fortunate, too, because a second later, she heard a pair of footsteps in the corridor. They did not pass the office in which Alice had hidden, but seemed to be heading in the opposite direction, until they slowly faded. She waited a few seconds more and then opened the office door just wide enough to stick her head out.
The corridor was empty.
Alice left the office, re-locking it conscientiously, and then moved towards the middle door, from which Falstaff and Svilt had evidently emerged. The light was still on, but the room was utterly silent. Alice raised her wand and reached for the door knob.
She pushed open the door with energy, and it swung back, hitting the wall behind it. The room was empty, too. Glancing about, Alice stepped inside.
It was a large, well-lit office space, accommodating four desks, two on each side, with an aisle down the middle. An owl sat perched against the back well, and there was also a chair positioned underneath the cage. Remnants of rope were draped over the back of the chair, and Alice swallowed fearfully. The desk in the right back had the nameplate "A. Svilt" and it was covered in papers. There was also a wand, which Alice thought might be Lily's. She picked it up and placed it in the pocket of her robes, before moving towards the chair with the ropes.
They had not been cut, it seemed, but were arranged in an awful mess: untied, in all likelihood. Alice frowned at the scene, unsure of what to make of all of it.
"We have to find him," Svilt had said. Did they mean Frank? But who else could they mean? Had he escaped? But how on earth could he have done so without a wand?
Alice pushed her hair back, her other hand on her hip as she surveyed the office and tried to figure out what to do next. She stood there for a few seconds, before her eyes fell upon something glistening on one of the other desks. She walked over and picked up the small object.
It was a badge, with the letters "A.T." etched upon it.
She was suddenly sure of that.
Alice put that in her pocket too and started for the door, when she heard a knock upon it. The witch froze, her heart pounding as she tried to determine what to do next. A few seconds passed, and the knock was not repeated, and Alice moved hastily behind one of the desks. She knelt there silently praying, but the room and the corridor remained still.
A minute or two slipped by in silence, and Alice grew impatient. She stood up again, still listening intently, but received no gratification. Then, as she started for the door again, there was a second knock, and she made out voices in the outside corridor. She had no time to hide this time; the brass door knob quaked as someone gripped it, and Alice readied her wand.
The door, however, did not open. The handle was released, and Alice listened confusedly as someone again spoke outside. It was a male voice, but her head was all a blur, and for a moment, she could not make out words.
She stepped closer to the door.
"I should have known you would be involved in all of this," sighed a male voice behind them, and James let go of the door knob. The both of them were frozen in the spot for nearly a second, until Lily registered to whom that voice belonged. "Honestly, Evans, you must go looking for trouble."
She exhaled heavily and turned to face the wizard there, folding her arms as she did.
"It's about time you showed up," she retorted, and Lathe—for that is who it was—rolled his eyes, smirking nonetheless.
"I thought you were in Falstaff's office," he said, as James, too, turned. "Or are you the ones who took the door off its hinges?"
"That was her," said James. "Lathe, isn't it?"
"Potter, isn't it?" replied Lathe, and they both nodded.
"How did you sneak up on us?" James wanted to know. "You were... seriously silent just now."
"Stealth and Tracking," replied Lathe, as though it were obvious. "It's one of the first thing's you're tested on in A.T. Also, I was quite scrawny in school..." He gestured vaguely, "I got a lot of practice hiding from bigger kids." He grinned. "So—shall we?"
"Shall we what?" asked Lily.
"Leave," said the auror, as though it were obvious. "That is what you wanted to do, isn't it?"
"Wait," said James quickly. "We were after Frank. And Vance had a message for Moody..."
"Send in the aurors; yes, I know."
"You mean Frank delivered the message?" asked Lily. "He's alright?"
"Frank Longbottom?" asked Lathe. "Oh, he's just fine. I mean, he's missing at the moment, but Svilt and Falstaff don't know where he is, so he should be fine."
The office door behind Lily and James opened, and they all turned at once. Lathe even raised his wand, but the figure standing in the office was that of Alice Griffiths.
"What do you mean 'he's missing?'" she asked, stepping out into the hallway and closing the door behind her. "Hullo, Lily, James."
"Alice!" sighed Lily, relieved. "Did you give them the slip, too?"
"No, but I got back in. Sorry, but, Lathe—what do you mean, Frank is missing?"
"Taft was a little vague," admitted Lathe. "Mostly because he's embarrassed, I reckon. But a few of them were 'keeping an eye' on Longbottom in Svilt's office there and... somehow he managed to get free, knock one of them out, and get a wand... which he proceeded to use to steal an entire set of Veritaserum they intended to use on him... and most likely you two as well."
"So Frank didn't give you the message from Vance?" asked Lily. "I am so confused."
"Why would Frank give me the message?"
"That was the whole reason we were up here," said James. "Vance sent Frank to get Moody to tell him to 'send them in.'"
"Which we thought meant the aurors," Lily added.
"It did," confirmed Alice.
"But Frank didn't come back," said James; "so we followed him up here, but we got caught..."
Alice and Lily cleared their throats meaningfully. James rolled his eyes.
"We got caught," he repeated, "and then they turned Alice loose, and..."
"Wait a minute," Lily interrupted. "The aurors. There are hit-wizards in the Atrium, and Victor Vance said..."
"No, no, I know all about that," said Lathe briskly. "That was the message. There are half a dozen aurors downstairs with your lot now, and Bones is in charge, so you have nothing to worry about. You three, on the other hand, have been acknowledged by Dearborn, and I am supposed to deal with you. Well, no, Taft is supposed to deal with you, but if I catch you first—which I just did—then I'm supposed to deal with you."
"Deal with us how?" asked James suspiciously.
"Well," said Lathe, "Taft is under orders to take you to Dearborn—find out what you were 'really' doing here and all that. But I was never officially given that order, so if I were to run across three miscreants after hours, I would only feel obliged to... escort them from the premises?"
"Couldn't you just escort us back down to the Atrium?" asked James.
"But what about Frank?" Alice pressed. "He could be in trouble."
"He bested three wizards, tied to a chair, without a wand," said Lathe. "I'm sure he'll be fine."
"But if he didn't give the aurors Vance's message," Lily began thoughtfully, "he probably doesn't know it's been received. He might have gone downstairs to try to find Moody."
"Moody's not downstairs," said Alice.
"Yes he is," Lathe contradicted her.
"He wasn't there fifteen minutes ago..."
"You must have just missed him, then," said Lathe. "He's certainly down there now."
"Well, can't we go see if Frank is there now?" asked Alice earnestly. "It'll only take a few minutes..."
"Halliday and Eckles are down there with Moody now," Lathe told her, and the names might have meant something to Alice, but they meant nothing to Lily and James. "He'll be alright."
"But can't we check?" pleaded the witch again. "If he's not there, you can just floo us out of the auror floo terminal anyway..."
"Or I could floo you through any other terminal, which is not located on the same floor as Egbert Dearborn, and, therefore, a much more logical solution."
"Please," Alice pressed. "I'd only sneak back in—I've done it before now."
"So would I," agreed James.
"I would probably go home and take a shower," said Lily. James looked at her. "I was just being honest."
Lathe sighed. He rubbed his forehead. "Alright," he said at last. "But if we run into anyone, we say that I'm arresting the three of you. Clear?"
"Clear," they chorused.
"Oh!" Alice remembered, drawing a wand from her pocket. She held it out. "Does this belong to anyone."
"That's mine!" said Lily, grabbing it. "Thank Merlin!"
"You haven't seen my hat, have you?" asked James, but Alice told him that she hadn't.
"Come along," said Lathe. "We haven't got all—er—night. Walk in front of me, yeah?"
They encountered no one on the fourth floor, but, when they reached the lift, a witch with short, fair hair stepped off. She was familiar to James, but it was a moment before he placed her as the witch that had come to Hogwarts at the beginning of the last year, before Lathe.
He searched his memory for her name, but before he found it, Lathe uttered it as a greeting with evident dislike: "Ms. Drake."
"Mr. Lathe," Drake replied coolly. She eyed the three of them suspiciously. "What are they doing here?"
"These are the ones Taft is looking for," said Lathe, calm as anything. The witch, Drake, frowned.
"They can't be."
"But they are."
"There must be some mistake. Mr. Falstaff said that only one of them..." Her eyes flickered towards James, and he suddenly realized her dilemma. She recognized him from her questioning concerning Carlotta's mishap in the Common Room in September. She knew who he was, and she knew that he was no 'Tom Baker.' "It can't be them," she reiterated stiffly.
"They," corrected Lathe."
"It cannot be 'they.' To be proper, you ought to use 'they.'" Drake understood him at last and, fuming, began to say something, but Lathe cut her off. "I'm sorry, but did you have business on this floor? Because I need to catch the next lift... duty and all that." He smiled charmingly at her, and she huffed.
"Mr. Dearborn would like to speak to them," she said. "In his office."
"Did he say that? I mean, did he give that order?"
"Because Mr. Moody ordered me to take them to the auror department, so unless I have a specific order to the contrary..."
"Mr. Lathe, you remember that I am your superior now..."
"I remember that Dearborn promoted you two days ago, yes. But I am auror, Ms. Drake, and I answer to head of the aurors, except under special circumstances. We are in entirely different chains of command."
She could not argue with that. "I'll accompany you, then."
"Not at all," said Lathe. "I'm sure I can handle a few teenagers, and, after all, as junior vice-head of D.M.L.E., you must have very important business to be wandering level four at eight o'clock in the evening."
Drake scowled, but nodded curtly. "I will report your find to Mr. Dearborn as soon as I finish here."
"That would be most courteous and helpful of you, Ms. Drake."
With a final look at the group, Drake walked curtly passed, and Lathe ushered the three of them into the lift. When the gates were closed and they had begun to move down to level two again, he sighed.
"Well, this is lovely. Now I'm not sure what we're going to do."
"What do you mean?" asked Alice.
"Hopefully we'll get you out before she gets to Dearborn," said Lathe.
"But we don't want to leave," argued James.
"Well that might your go way then," replied the auror casually. "Although, I have to ask—what's your opinion of cells?"
"As in—bars and keys and locks?" asked Lily.
"Generally negative," said James.
"That's what I figured."
They arrived on level two, which was now more alive than it had been ten minutes earlier, when Lily and James had last crept through the corridors there. There was no one visibly about when they stepped off the lift, but voices and motion could be heard from a nearby corridor, and the hallway was thoroughly lit.
"When did you all arrive?" Lily asked of Lathe, voicing James's mental inquiry.
"A few minutes ago," he answered. "We flooed into the Atrium. Eckles and Halliday came down to man the desks, though." He led the way towards the auror offices. "Step lively, then."
The auror office was now bright with magic light, and Lathe gestured them all inside, glancing hastily about as he did. In the office, a witch and a wizard sat at two of the many desks. The witch was in her thirties, with shoulder length, sleek black hair, and the wizard was older, probably forty, with a hook nose and a shaved head.
"Well, I've got them," said Lathe, sitting down on top of a desk, while the three adolescents stood awkwardly by. The witch with black hair stood.
"You've got them?" she asked, surprised. "How on earth did you find them? Falstaff's been tearing the place apart."
"He's looking for the other one," said Lathe.
"Oh no, we've got him," said the witch.
"You've got Frank?" asked Alice loudly. "Where?"
"In the back," said the still-seated wizard. "I'm Eckles, by the way," he introduced himself to Lily and James. "That's Halliday."
"In the back?" Alice demanded, before James or Lily could reply. "Why is he in the back?"
"What's in the back?" Lily muttered to James, but James only shrugged.
"Dearborn came through and saw that we had him," said Eckles. "Apparently, he didn't think it was professional to let a captive sit on the sofa, so we put him in a cell. No worries—Moody's back there with him."
James noted the article of furniture in the corner. "Why do you have a sofa in here?"
"That's the question you choose to ask?" Lily murmured, raising her eyebrows.
"It's quite comfortable," said Lathe casually. "I'd let you sit on it, but apparently that's not professional. What shall we do with you lot, then? Drake spotted us," he added to Halliday and Eckles; "she'll be maliciously giggling her news to Dearborn as we speak."
"It'll be a few minutes 'fore that can happen," said Eckles. "Dearborn just went upstairs. He's gone to speak with the aurors. Should be a laugh."
"We could put them in the cell," Halliday, the witch, suggested, referring to Lily, James, and Alice again. "I hear it's quite the professional thing to do."
"Can I see Frank, please?" requested Alice.
"In a moment," said Lathe; "we've got to decide what to do with you first."
"Are you going to arrest us?" asked James curiously.
"I don't particularly want to," Lathe replied. "Awful lot of paperwork, that. But you ought to go sit in the lock-up."
"I'd really rather not," said James. "I mean, if you could help it."
"It won't be so bad," said Halliday. "And Dearborn can't get at you, then."
James briefly imagined Egbert Dearborn thrashing at him through a wall of iron bars. It was an amusing image, but all the same...
"Perhaps you shouldn't be talking like that with the door wide open?" suggested a new voice, as a tall, black wizard entered the office.
"Kingsley," greeted Lathe, and Kingsley Shacklebolt closed and locked the door behind him. He set down a wand and a satchel bag on a nearby desk.
"Lathe, Eckles, Halliday," replied Kingsley nodding at each of them. He observed Alice, Lily, and James. "Of course, it would be Potter. Hello, Miss Evans; Griffiths."
"Hello, Kingsley," said Lily and Alice, and James nodded.
"How was Kent?" asked Lathe.
"Nothing there," said Kingsley. "Another false alarm—a few kids thought a muggle firework was the mark..." He broke off, as though realizing that he should not be discussing such things now. "I got your note."
"Evidently. Have you been upstairs, then?"
"In the Atrium? Yes. Dearborn was finishing his raving."
Kingsley nodded. "It was not particularly dignified."
"No wonder he's about to lose his job," said Halliday.
"Knock on wood," muttered Lathe. He turned to Lily, Alice, and James again. "Alright, you three—it's up to you. Either I floo you out of here, tell Dearborn we gave you a fine for trespassing, you promise not to come back, and all of this is over... or you go and sit in a cell, while we pretend to interrogate you, so it looks like you're arrested and Dearborn won't sack us all."
"What happens after the cell?" Alice wanted to know.
"No idea. Moody will have to come up with the second half of the plan," said Lathe. "It's not a very good idea to begin with. I mean, it's much easier on us, because it means we don't have to bother with Drake's sniveling, but, on the whole, for you, I recommend the first plan. Cells aren't very comfortable." He did not sound terribly troubled by any of it. "So, what's it going to be?"
"I'm staying," said Alice.
Lily looked at James, and James at Lily, and he had already decided, but he didn't know if she had. After a second or two, Lily sighed.
"Marlene's upstairs," she said, more to herself than anyone else.
The back room to the auror office was smaller than the front, and about two thirds of it was occupied by two giant iron cells—oversized cages, really—outside of which sat a broad-shouldered wizard in mud-brown robes. She had seen pictures in The Prophet, but Lily had never imagined that Alastor Moody would be more frightening in real life.
His hair was long and slightly grizzled, his face aged and battered, and the glint in his eyes fierce.
When Alice, Lily, James, and Lathe entered the back room, he was talking with Frank, who stood in the open doorway of one of the cells, listening to whatever Moody had to say with eager attentiveness. Frank wore a black fedora. Upon the entrance of the other four, Moody's wand-bearing hand twitched, but he remained sedate, seated on the bench against the wall furthest from the cells, and he did not address them at once.
"...You'll have that to deal with," the auror finished presently. "Anyway, it's something to think over." Moody turned to the new arrivals, getting to his feet in the process. "Mr. Lathe. Mr. Potter. Miss Griffiths." His eyes turned to Lily, and she felt quite small. "Who are you?" he half barked.
"Lily Evans," said Lathe. "She's from the group upstairs. Evans—this is Alastor Moody."
"You're certain it's Lily Evans?" asked Moody.
"Not an imposter?"
"Of course it's Lily," said James. "I've been with her all day."
"But how am I to know that you're the real Potter?" growled Moody.
"You've known me since I was four," James replied, shrugging. "Ask me anything you like."
Lily thought that this was rather a rhetorical proposition, but the auror took James up on his offer. "First time I met you, Potter, I gave you something. What was it?"
"Chocolate," said James. "Literally, the most disgusting chocolate I've ever eaten."
"'Teach you not to accept treats from just anyone."
"I was four, and it made me sick."
"His Mum wasn't pleased," mused Moody, and, for a moment, Lily thought he was actually making a joke. Then, his eyes narrowed upon her, and he spoke to James again: "Test Miss Evans, Potter. I don't know her; you'll have to do it."
Lily folded her arms, while James ran an awkward hand through his hair. "I suppose I can..." (Frank and Alice exchanged meaningful looks that Lily had no interest in interpreting), "Last Halloween," said James, recollecting something. "What happened?"
The witch thought back; several things had happened. She had been partnered with James in Defense class, she had confronted Frank about telling Alice the truth, she was pretty sure it was raining that day—but, all of that aside, Lily knew which incident James referenced.
"We became friends," she said, smiling. "Potentially."
For an instant, James matched her smile, and then he turned to Moody nodding. "Not that there was any chance to the contrary, as we've been together since we took off from the Atrium, but yes—it's the real Evans."
Frank tested Alice on her favorite song lyric, and then Moody was satisfied.
"Well this has been fun," said Lathe. "But Dearborn will be along any moment, so: business."
"If you're going to take a cell," began Frank; "I suggest this one. It's much more comfortable."
James looked at the former Head Boy, eyebrows raised. "Is that my hat?" he asked, following Frank and Alice into the cage.
"Oh, yeah. I recognized it in Svilt's office, so I took it. There are three bottles of Veritaserum in there; hope you don't mind..."
Lily hesitated. "My self-preservation instinct is telling me that I shouldn't just walk into a lock-up," she told the aurors.
"It's for your own good, Evans," said Moody gruffly.
Lathe leaned against the bars, arms crossed. "Don't worry about it. I'll interrogate you in German; it'll be grand."
Lily rolled her eyes, but she entered the cell. Moody closed the gate behind her; he didn't lock it, and Lily guessed that it must lock itself.
"Alright," said Lathe, and he now seemed businesslike; "Dearborn is going to want to know what you're doing here. Best not to let on that you know anything much at all, and, let's face it, you're a handful of teenagers; he won't have to stretch his imagination to believe it."
The door to the front offices opened, and Halliday popped her head in. "Dearborn's on his way down," she said, before promptly disappearing once more.
"Alright, lad," said Moody to Lathe; "Now we'll see if you're really up for this job."
"Three years hasn't proved me capable?"
"We'll talk when it's thirty years."
"But I'll be old."
"Watch it, lad."
They left, and the moment the door had closed behind them, Alice threw her arms around Frank's neck and kissed him.
Lily and James suddenly felt quite uncomfortable. Nearly a minute of snogging commenced, before James cleared his throat loudly. Alice pulled away, but only slightly; her forearms still rested on Frank's shoulders, hands folded behind his head.
"I told you not to come down here..."
"You shouldn't have followed me..."
"...If something happens to you..."
"...Much too dangerous..."
"...Just lucky Moody found you..."
"...Sneaking around down here like that..."
"...Completely out of your mind..."
"...Merlin only knows what might have happened..."
"...What were you thinking...?"
"...Is that a bruise, Francis Longbottom?"
James cleared his throat again, and this time, Frank looked up at him and Alice peered over her shoulder.
"What, Longbottom?" the Marauder asked dryly. "No kiss for me?"
Alice rolled her eyes, but she moved to stand beside her boyfriend, arm around his waist now, with his around her shoulders.
"Well?" said Lily. "It seems like there's some exchange of stories that needs to take place."
Frank, at least, acknowledged this to be true. "I overheard Svilt and one of the others saying they'd taken another A.T. and turned her loose in Diagon Alley; they mentioned there were others with Falstaff, but I didn't know it was you two..." He looked to James and Lily. "How'd you get free?"
"Evans took a door off the hinges," said James, with a hint of pride. "We went to find you, then, but we found Alice in Svilt's office..."
"I snuck back in with another floo network," said Alice. "But the auror office was empty then."
"Did you contact Moody, then?" Lily asked of Frank. He shook his head. "Then who did? Unless it was Sirius..."
"Why would it be Sirius?" Alice wanted to know.
"We may or may not have contacted him," said James. "Long story; we're not sure if he got the message."
"Wait... how did you know the message?" asked Frank.
James looked uncomfortable.
"I told him," said Alice, rolling her eyes. "Don't be a prat, James. It's not a big deal."
"What's not a big deal?"
"They had an affair," said Lily.
"I'm really confused..."
"Falstaff thinks they're dating."
"Would you like to leave now, Evans?"
Alice rolled her eyes again. She looked at Frank and said quite simply: "I kissed James so that I'd have time to tell him the message that he should give to Moody, as I was about to get escorted away. Lily's just being cheeky."
Lily grinned at the remark, and Frank seemed unperturbed. "Bottom line—do I have to hit anyone?"
"No, I don't think so."
"You see?" said James to Lily, "You laugh, but I'm the one who gets punched."
"Oh, honestly, James..."
The door opened, and they all fell quiet. Frank and Alice had separated before the new arrival was entirely visible.
It was a wizard, and he entered, flanked by Moody and Halliday; he wore fitted, dark grey robes with a mandarin collar that buttoned at his throat. He had iron colored hair and eyes, and a long, thin face that agreed with his lean build. The wizard—Egbert Dearborn—looked at each of the four witches and wizards in the cell, and he frowned when his eyes fell upon one of their number.
"James," he murmured with dread, sounding as though he were going to be ill; his voice did not match his appearance at all. Everyone else looked at James, too. "Dear boy, there has clearly been some mistake."
"No mistake, Cousin," replied James, almost sweetly.
"Of course," said Dearborn, now in a more moderate tone—he almost cooed: "I'll have you taken home at once. Gracie must be worried sick."
"Lovely!" said James cheerfully. "The other of-age witches and wizard here will be taken home to their mums too, will they?"
Dearborn hesitated. "James, you understand that there are certain protocols..."
"The same protocols apply to the lot of us, yeah?"
"It's different, my boy. I can vouch for you."
"I'm sure there's someone around here who can vouch for the others."
"Of course," said Dearborn warmly. "Frank and Alice have every right to be here..." Lily guessed by the surprised looks exchanged by the pair that they'd had no notion of Dearborn knowing their names.
"And Lily?" asked James.
"My dear cousin... I don't know anything about your friend Miss Evans."
James leaned close and whispered to her, "You begin to see my point, Deslauriers?"
"Shut it, Baker."
"I'm not leaving without her," said James, in what he must have meant to be a reasonable tone.
"James, it's not a question of what you want... Miss Holiday, please..."
Halliday grimaced at the mispronunciation but started towards the lock up.
"I'll only sneak back in of you take me home," said James quickly. "And then you'll have to lock me up again."
"Mr. Dearborn," Moody spoke up, "I recommend keeping the kids for the night. 'Teach 'em a lesson."
"But they want to be kept," hissed Dearborn.
"They haven't tried sleeping comfortably on that bench, yet," Halliday pointed out.
Dearborn deliberated for a long moment. When he finally reached a conclusion, he folded his hands behind his back and lifted his chin, speaking to Halliday again: "Miss Holiday, bring Miss Evans to my office. I wish to speak with her." James opened his mouth to protest, "...That is, if you do not object, Miss Evans."
Lily did not know what to say. As far as options went, there did not seem to be very many, and so she shook her head. "I don't object."
Holliday opened the gate to the lock-up.
"I'll be fine, James," she told him. "If I'm not, I'm blaming you."
"Mmm, for bringing me here in the first place." She winked and walked with Halliday and Dearborn out into the auror offices.
"Mr. Moody," said Alice sharply, before he had gone as well.
"I know, I know," he replied. "I'll keep an eye on her."
Then the door closed, and the three were alone again. Frank and Alice drew close to one another once more.
"Dearborn won't hurt her or anything," said Frank confidently. Alice looked at him.
"What makes you so sure?"
"He hasn't the nerve."
Alice seemed skeptical, but James, whose back was too them as he leaned against the front of the cage, nodded and said, "He's right. Dearborn wouldn't. Especially if he thinks she's got connections."
"Why would he think that?" asked Alice.
"Because she's in here with the three of us."
Dearborn's office was a far cry from Falstaff's. The room was larger, the desk was grander, the chair more comfortable, the lay out far neater, and the walls lined with a great many books. An elegant candelabra sat near the window with its faux night, and there was a boxy sort of wooden framed lounge in one corner that looked about as comfortable as the floor in the lock-up.
Lily was not bound on her way there, but walked beside Halliday with Dearborn behind them. When they entered, Halliday was told to return to her "duties," and Dearborn closed the door behind her. He drew his wand and flicked it twice, and a chair from one corner of the room sprang forward to sit in front of his desk. Dearborn offered this to Lily, and then sat down himself behind the desk. They did not speak at once, but it was the wizard who broke the silence.
"Your name is Lily Evans," he said. "You're muggleborn."
Lily nodded, because there was hardly any point in denying it now. She did not know how he had learned it, but it was hardly surprising that he had.
"You're a Hogwarts student, with James."
Lily nodded again.
"What do you want?"
This did surprise her. She wasn't quite sure what he meant, and so she told him uncertainly: "James, Alice, and I came after Frank..."
Dearborn ignored this. "What do you want from me?" he asked, and it was the oddest thing—he was almost pleading with her. Perhaps it was the late hour, but he appeared suddenly exhausted. The lines around his eyes became more pronounced, and his frown looked more desperate.
"Are you taking requests?" asked Lily bewilderedly.
Dearborn again ignored her reply. He rose from his desk and began to pace. "Your kind is—is graciously admitted into magic... welcomed, given a wand... the ingratitude... the disrespect for us—for purebloods..."
His voice trembled; Lily began to understand what he truly meant by bringing her to his office...
"...The audacity and the... the arrogance is—in-incomprehensible. That you should dare to enter into this establishment... I have never done anything except what was in the best interest of magic-kind, and that you, dressed like a common muggle, should dare to criticize..."
She had almost been willing to feel sorry for him when she'd entered the office, too...
"...And after all else; this war, the death eaters—the wizards who have been killed because of you..."
He was rambling, not really speaking to Lily at all. And how could he? Dearborn did not know her at all...
"I would like to go back to the lock-up, Mr. Dearborn," Lily interrupted softly. He started at the sound of her voice.
"I would like an answer," Dearborn responded coldly after a moment.
Lily hesitated. She met the wizard's eye for several long seconds before responding. "You did not admit me to magic, Mr. Dearborn. My common muggle mother and father did that seventeen years before you'd ever heard of me. And you did not give me a wand: I bought it in Mr. Ollivander's shop, like all of the other witches and wizards of my age. I haven't taken anything from you, sir, and I don't want anything."
(Carlotta in the Cell)
Lily had not been gone ten minutes before Moody re-entered the backroom and asked for a word with Frank. He opened the barred door to the lock-up, and Frank followed him into the auror office; Alice and James were left alone. The latter sat down on the lone bench in the cell—a short iron thing, but it allowed him to sit in moderate comfort with his back against the wall.
"So how are you then?" asked Alice presently, joining James on the bench.
"Oh, alright I suppose, given our current location." He removed his fedora and flipped it idly in one hand. "How are you?"
"How's auror training, then?"
This time, the witch smiled. "It's actually brilliant. I didn't expect it to be anything like it is, but—it's... it's fantastic." She looked at him. "You should consider it."
James shook his head, eyes fixed on his hat. "No thanks."
"I dunno. Just nothing I'm interested in."
"What do you want to do?" Alice asked. "Play Quidditch?"
"You meant to be funny, didn't you?"
"I'm good enough, y'know."
"I do know."
"I bet I could play, if I wanted to."
James cocked his head to one side. "Then what?"
"You don't think I should play Quidditch," the wizard insisted. "I can tell."
"No, that's not it," replied Alice. "You—you should do what you think will make you happiest."
"Which is Quidditch," said James firmly. Alice nodded.
And they were both silent for nearly a minute, while James mulled over what she had just said. What he thought would make him happiest...
"I'm seeing Carlotta," he told her suddenly.
Alice's eyes grew wide; she turned to look at him. "You—you're... seeing her? You mean—you're shagging her?"
"I mean I'm... dating her." He gauged Alice's reaction carefully. She seemed to be taking it all in. Several emotions passed over her face before she spoke, and when she did, she was smiling.
"You know how I know I've completely moved on from the Frank-and-Carlotta debacle of '75?" she asked softly. "Because that was the first time anyone has said Carlotta's name in front of me since it happened that I haven't instinctively thought 'that whore!'" James grinned and shook his head, and Alice turned a little more reflective. "How did this happen, now?"
"Oh—we... um... we sort of... got together... just a few weeks ago..."
Alice looked knowingly at him. "Last summer, Frank stayed at your family's house in the West Country..."
Alice waved him off. "I told you, it doesn't bother me. I'm just thinking... wait a minute—does she know?" There could be little question about whom she spoke. All the same...
"Carlotta? Yes, I reckon she's figured it out."
"You know who I mean, James. Does Lily know?" James did not reply, but he hung his head a bit, and Alice got the message. "How does she not know?"
"I hadn't seen her before yesterday, and it hasn't come up..."
"You should tell her..."
"Why does everyone keep saying that?"
"Because you should."
"Because she'll be hurt if you don't."
James looked at her again. "What do you mean?"
"I can't explain it better than that," said Alice, shrugging. "But she'll be hurt if you don't tell her yourself."
"But why?" James repeated.
"Well, why not?"
She had a point there. "Because... because Lily doesn't like Carlotta. It'll be awkward."
Alice raised her eyebrows skeptically. "With a teaspoon of effort, Lily likes everyone. And are you sure that's the reason?"
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Just that I'm not certain that you want Lily to like Carlotta."
"That's rather mean."
Alice shrugged. "You're up against six years of evidence, Potter, and you've done some crazy things to get that witch to notice you..."
James actually looked offended. "You think I'm seeing Carlotta to make Lily jealous?"
"Well, it seems rather nasty when you put it that way..."
"Then why are you dating her?"
James crossed his arm petulantly. "You can't imagine a reason in the world that anyone would want to date Carlotta Meloni except to make another girl jealous?"
"Of course I can. But not you."
"Why not me?"
"Because you've been in love with Lily Evans since you were eleven years old," said Alice. "Oh, yes, I said that out loud; I'm not afraid of you. Don't look so shocked."
James leaned back against the wall, huffing impatiently. "I'm not in love with her anymore."
"Then tell her about Carlotta."
"I will, I just..."
"Good. Because I'm not going to do it for you."
James raised his eyebrows. "What do you mean?"
"Oh, don't think you were being sneaky, Potter," chuckled Alice. "I know perfectly well that's why you told me just now... hoping I'll subtly drop it to Lily. Girls aren't universally gossipy, you know."
"And blokes aren't universally cowardly," retorted James. "That wasn't my plan. I just—I don't know... I thought you'd be interested in knowing. Because of Frank."
"Oh, I don't care about that," said Alice.
"Not at all?"
She shrugged. "Frank doesn't care about Carlotta any more than he cares about anyone else."
It was certainly a very rude thing to ask, and yet James, somehow, could not help himself, because the confidence with which she declared this interested him somewhat: "You're sure?"
He thought back to the conversation he'd had with a very drunk Frank on the Astronomy Tower some months ago. It amused him to think that the Carlotta they referenced in that conversation was the same person he now called his girlfriend. "I think you're right about that."
Alice smirked. "What makes you say so?"
"I once wasted a perfectly good buzz listening to him opine about it."
"Really? That must be an interesting story."
"Very interesting. You were flirting with my best mate at the time."
The witch actually began to laugh at that. "It's been a very strange year, hasn't it?"
James was inclined to agree.
"You will tell Lily about Carlotta, won't you, Potter?"
"Though I still don't see what difference it makes."
"You'll just have to trust me," said Alice.
Lathe was, apparently, called upon to collect Lily from Dearborn's office, as it was he who escorted her back into the lock-up, and he was followed by Frank. Lily's face seemed paler, more somber, when she returned, and James and Alice rose from the bench when Lathe readmitted her into the cell.
"What did he want?" Alice asked. "Are you okay?"
Lily nodded briskly. "Oh, I'm just fine. Dearborn could use some sleep, though. He seems a little... exhausted."
"What did he say?" James questioned suspiciously.
The witch shrugged, masking some emotion with the innocent gesture. "Not much. He just wanted to know what I wanted."
"What you wanted?" echoed James and Alice, but they did not get to interrogate her any further, because Lathe interrupted.
"Alright, listen up," the auror began wearily, "Dearborn wants us to take you home," (This to James) "He wants to have you two in 'for tea...'" he indicated to Frank and Alice, "and you're to stay in the cell." The last was, of course, Lily.
"I don't think so," said James coldly.
"Moody's seeing what he can do," agreed Lathe. "I wouldn't be too troubled about yourselves... it's your friends you ought to be worried about."
"What do you mean?" asked Alice quickly.
"When Dearborn went up to the Atrium, he ordered the hit-wizards to arrest everyone," Frank said, sighing.
"They couldn't move them, though," said Lathe. "Bewitched net, I suppose, and Dearborn was furious."
"What do you reckon he'll do?" Lily wanted to know.
"Nothing good," replied the auror.
"You should talk to Vance," said James. "Or Tilda Figg."
"They wouldn't leave, Dorcas or Sam or Em..." said Frank knowingly. "Even if they were in danger. I told Moody I wouldn't be able to convince them any better than anyone else could."
They all pondered that miserable fact for a little while. Suddenly, Lathe chuckled quietly to himself.
"I don't see what's funny," Alice grumbled.
"Nothing really," admitted the wizard; he leaned against the exterior side of the bars. "Only, I can imagine what Dearborn must have looked like down in the Atrium. Freeman... she works for the department—she was there. She said Dearborn was practically hysterical, waving his arms and all that..."
"I bet that reporter had a field day," said Lily, remembering the blond witch who had snuck into the Phoenix bond with the others. "If she gets to publish, that is..."
"What reporter?" asked Lathe.
"There's a witch from The Daily Prophet upstairs," Lily explained. "She's bonded in the Atrium like the others."
There was a moment of silence, and then Lathe frowned thoughtfully. "I actually might have an idea," he said. "Wait here one moment."
"Where would we go?" James responded, rolling his eyes, as Lathe exited the backroom once again.
He did not return.
Minutes passed. Frank and Alice sat down on the bench, Alice dropping her head onto her boyfriend's shoulder; they held hands and said nothing. James, meanwhile, sat down on the floor near the door, where Lily joined him.
"So what happened with Dearborn?" James asked.
Lily gestured vaguely; "Not much, really."
James frowned, baffled. "I don't—what does that mean?"
"No great number of interesting events transpired during my time in aforementioned wizard's office," said Lily dryly.
"Well, what did he say to you? And don't you dare shrug..."
Lily made a face. "He just—he just talked ideology with me. It wasn't terribly interesting."
"Was he—was he unkind?"
"That's a funny thing to ask."
"You know what I mean." Lily's silence on the matter, however, left room for broad interpretation: "Did he—did he call you a... y'know...?"
"James..." Lily sighed.
"He did, didn't he! That git..."
"He's your cousin..."
"Barely," said James, waving off this with an unconcerned hand. "He's head of D.M.L.E.—he's not allowed to use language like that, especially to random seventeen-year-old witches!"
The color began to return to Lily's face, and, even though she was mostly amused by James's anger, he was glad to see that at least. Nonetheless, his rant continued on for a good five minutes, before Lily begged that he change the subject. For a while, they speculated—rather anxiously—about what was going on elsewhere in the Ministry, and Lily once again attempted to crack the mystery of how Lathe and the aurors had been summoned.
"Remind me to ask next time they're in here, yeah?" she asked, annoyed with herself for having forgotten again.
Minutes passed; the dialogue lagged. Frank and Alice, on the other side of the holding cell, had begun to speak to one another in whispers, and James knew that the opportunity had arrived.
"Snaps," he began, when they had both been quiet for a few minutes.
"There was—there was actually something I wanted to talk to you about..."
Lily looked at him. "You're not miffed about that Head Boy business are you?" she asked wryly. "I've already apologized, and..."
"No, it's not that," James cut her off, and there was something nervous in his laugh that piqued Lily's interest. "No, it's..."
Halliday entered the office at that moment, however, drawing everyone's attention towards herself.
"Longbottom, Griffiths," she began, unlocking the cell gate. "Dearborn wants to speak with you."
Frank and Alice exchanged nervous looks, but nodded and rose, following Halliday out into the offices. James and Lily were now alone.
"What do you reckon he wants to say to them?" asked Lily. "They won't be dropped from auror training, will they?"
"No idea," admitted James glumly.
Lily sighed heavily. "I reckon they'll be taking you soon, too."
"Not if I have anything to say about it."
"James, if they do have to take you... don't do anything stupid."
"Stupid? Me?" He sounded a bit offended. "When have I ever done anything stupid?"
"Can't think of anything, can you, Tom Baker? Interesting choice of name, by the by..."
"First thing that popped into my head."
"The point stands, Potter. Please don't do anything stupid... especially on my account. Go home and get some sleep. I'll be fine."
"You can't possibly know that."
"Well, I can't possibly be any worse off than I am having you coming up with plans."
"You're making a joke out of something that is very serious," James reprimanded, but Lily only smiled.
"Look who's talking." They were quiet for a bit, and then Lily remembered their conversation before Halliday's interruption. "I'm sorry; you were saying something..."
"You said there was something you wanted to discuss? Before Frank and Alice left..."
"Oh. Right." Flustered, James nodded. "Something, yes. I wanted to talk to you about... something..."
Fate had other plans, however.
The door to the office once more swung open, hitting the wall behind it with a bang and admitting—not another auror—but Sirius Black.
The two in the cell rose, while Sirius strode inside, quite casual, grinning at the sight of them. "Oh, fantastic, you're both okay. I nearly didn't believe them, you know."
"What are you doing here?" Lily asked, but Sirius did not reply, as he was now followed by the auror Eckles, who was, in turn, followed by more witches and wizards. Remus, Peter, Sam Dearborn, Dorcas Meadowes, Emmeline and Victor Vance, Marlene—in they marched, and more besides that Lily did not know, but recognized from the Atrium.
They totaled almost thirty by the time the procession ended, the last two new arrivals being Moody and Lathe. Everyone chattered loudly, and the space outside the cells was cramped with moving bodies. Sirius and the Marauders—as the first to enter—were pressed against the bars.
"What's going on, Padfoot?" asked James loudly.
"Oi, mate—it's kind of brilliant... hang on a minute, though..."
Lathe pushed his way through the dense gathering of people, grabbing keys from his pocket in the process and unlocking the second, so far unemployed cell.
"Half of you in there!" called Moody loudly, and those in front—including the other three Marauders shuffled cooperatively inside.
"Oi, Padfoot!" complained James, rolling his eyes; "wrong one! Here..."
As Moody unlocked the gate to the first cell, James managed to squeeze out and then squeeze into the next one, before Lathe had locked it again. Lily felt rather left out, until Marlene and Sam were among the half of the group that entered into her cell.
"Okay, what is going on?" she asked of them, as everyone else seemed to be talking rather cheerfully for a lot of people who had just been ushered into a lock-up.
"Oh my Merlin, you should have seen Dearborn!" Marlene told her, beaming. "I was embarrassed for him!"
"What happened?" Lily pressed, forcefully squashing her own impatience.
"Egbert came up to the Atrium to get the aurors to arrest us," began Sam; "That was... what... half an hour? Twenty minutes ago? But the aurors said they needed authorization from Alastor Moody..."
"So he—that is, Dearborn—started yelling at them, and then he started yelling at us," Marlene went on, "And I was right next to that reporter witch—Rita What's-It, who was asking all the questions—oh, no, you missed that, too. Long story. Point is, I've never seen anyone so excited. She was like a five-year-old on Christmas... or Donna when she gets full marks on a piece of homework..."
"So, moving forward a quarter of an hour or so," Sam continued, "Eg's gone, but Moody and Lathe come upstairs and ask to have a word with the Vances..."
"And we were standing right there, or we wouldn't have heard at all..."
"Black was nearly having a panic attack, mind you, so he was sure to keep a keen ear in case he heard anything about you and James..."
"So, that Moody bloke tells Victor and Emmeline that they, essentially, have two options; sit in the Atrium all night, or let some of us get thrown in here for the night. Victor says he doesn't mind sitting in the Atrium, of course..."
"But Moody points out that if some of us stayed in the Atrium, all of us stayed. Including the Prophet reporter who would probably much prefer to make her deadline for the morning edition."
Lily began to understand. "Oh no..."
"Yep," said Sam proudly. "Gid and Fabian were finally convinced to take down the net, Lathe took volunteers for who would stay up here... made it look like we didn't want to go, of course, and then we were brought up, and the rest were 'escorted' from the premises, including that Daily Prophet witch."
"Your brother's going to look like an idiot when she writes that story," Lily pointed out. Sam shrugged.
"So what? He is an idiot, and it's not as though he needs the job—that he'll be destitute without it, or anything like that."
"Well, there's that."
Marlene raised her eyebrows, surprised. "Don't you want him to be sacked, Lily? If Dearborn had his way, we'd never have been accepted to Hogwarts to begin with."
"If he had his way, purebloods wouldn't be allowed to consort with you at all," Sam agreed.
"That's just it, I suppose," mused Lily. "He really and honestly believes it. It's almost—heartbreaking. Of course I don't want him to be made permanent head of D.M.L.E. or for his Population Protection Act to pass, but I—I can still feel sorry for him, can't I?"
"You're mad," said Sam lightly. "Eg's fine. Now—do you reckon they'll let us out to use the loo? I haven't gone since this afternoon, you know..."
"I'm not going," James told Lathe obstinately, for now that he was surrounded by Sirius, Remus, and Peter, he absolutely refused to be taken home.
"Why on earth would you want to stay?" Lathe wanted to know. "It won't be fun. It'll be bloody rotten."
"So tell Dearborn you took me home," said James. "He won't know the difference."
"But what if he comes in to check?"
"He'll have a lot more on his mind, I reckon," said Sirius. "What with thirty detainees guilty of disturbing the peace in his lock up."
"Disturbing the peace?" James echoed, confused.
Marlene, who now stood immediately beside them, but on the other side of the bars that separated the two cells, smirked. "After Seven Drunken Nights, we may have gotten a little carried away with the pub songs."
"I would have paid serious money to see that," remarked Lily at Marlene's side.
"I have my orders," said Lathe helplessly.
James leaned against the bars. "Afraid of getting in trouble from Mum, are you?" he taunted. Lathe scowled.
"You think that's going to work? Insulting my nerve? I'm an auror, Potter. I have all sorts of training to withstand many, many different kinds of persuasion. That's not going to work."
"Well," sighed James resignedly. "I wouldn't want to get the big, scary auror in trouble with the boss..."
"It's not going to work."
The Marauders all looked at him skeptically. Lathe stared defiantly back.
"It will not work."
But it absolutely did.
"Bloody hell—if he comes in here, you're to stand in the back, d'you hear me, Potter?"
Lily wasn't exactly sure when she had volunteered to spend the night in the lock-up, but the fact that everyone of the other thirty had done literally just that made her reluctant to point this out.
The hour grew late, and she began to feel it more and more, so that, as her legs grew sore from excessive standing, she found a spot of free floor in the back corner, where bars from the adjacent cell met the back wall, and she sat down there. She leaned her head against the wall, arms propped up on her knees, while she contemplated falling asleep.
Sam sat down beside her.
"Exhausted," she admitted. "It's been rather a crazy day."
"You'll have to explain how the second half of it went," replied the wizard. "You've got bruises on your wrists."
He was right; Lily had scarcely noticed.
"I took a door off its hinges," she said.
"With a drawer handle."
Sam raised his eyebrows. "That must have been an interesting life experience."
"I'm journaling about it the moment I get home," said Lily dryly.
"A diary sort of bird, are you?"
"It's my fatal flaw, I'm afraid."
"Of course it is. You ought to sleep—you look bloody knackered."
"If everyone else is staying awake, I might as well."
Sam shrugged. "Suit yourself," he said. "But I bet you fall asleep."
He was, himself, asleep on Lily's shoulder half an hour later.
"Fancy meeting you here," said Sirius Black's voice, and Lily looked up, just as Sirius, in the adjacent cell, sat down on the floor beside her. They were separated by bars, but that did not deter conversation, nor, as it turned out, sharing. Sirius pulled off his silver fedora and lifted the flap, muttering as he did so: "Up to no good." From within the hat, he produced a bag of potato crisps—a muggle brand—which, upon opening, he offered to Lily.
"Will you marry me?" Lily asked seriously, taking a crisp (and then several more) hungrily.
"I'm not the marrying kind," Sirius replied idly. "I see you and Sam are getting on well." He nodded towards the slumbering wizard on Lily's.
"He's a funny bloke, isn't he?" she said, quietly so as not to wake him. "He's not at all like his brother."
"Prongs mentioned you met Dearborn the Elder..."
"Briefly, yes." Lily took another crisp. "He's not what I expected either—for a born and bred pureblood, I mean. The way people talk about them..."
Sirius snorted. "Are any of us?"
Sirius smiled, somewhat bitterly, popping another crisp into his mouth. "I speak French, you know."
"I didn't know, no," Lily replied, surprised.
"Yeah. And Prongs might still know a bit of Greek... that was the language his mum wanted him to learn. Blacks always learn French, though. Ballroom dancing, also—for some reason, we all learn ballroom dancing. And Quidditch, and Goblins' Gallop, which is a card game you've never heard of, and the family tree... we memorize our family trees..." Sirius trailed off. For a moment, Lily thought he might have forgotten she was there at all, but then he recollected himself. "There are a lot of traditions that the old families uphold... the very old ones, that is. Potters, Blacks, Malfoys, Sellwyns... and they're part of us. Whether it's ballroom dancing or thinking muggleborns are mudbloods—it's all the same... it's why all of this is happening to your lot..."
"It doesn't go away, either," he interrupted. "I can still dance quite well, you know."
"None of this is your fault, Sirius," said Lily softly. He looked at her.
"No, I know—only, I wish I were lucky like you."
"Sure... maybe your lot's in danger, but at least you've got nothing to feel guilty over."
Lily rolled her eyes, but she could not help but think of what Dearborn had said earlier. She wondered if it would be weird if she took Sirius's hand, but settled, instead, for taking another crisp from the bag.
"You're different from them, Sirius. You know that. And whatever there is left in you of the pureblood—the Blacks..." She searched for the words to describe it, "well... there's nothing wrong with ballroom dancing." She took yet another crisp.
Sirius smirked at her. "Hungry, are you?" he asked.
"Bloody famished." She remembered something. "Oi—did you get our message? From the mirror?"
"Nah—Prongs mentioned that, too, but I haven't heard a thing from up there all day."
"That's weird," muttered Lily. "Then who called in the aurors?"
Lily remembered something else. "Oh! The wizard... from the Atrium. In the blue robes, with the parchment and quill; did you...?"
"Oh, I dealt with that," said Sirius, grinning.
"What did you do?"
"Well, the hit wizards were so distracted by all the singing..."
"Merlin and Agrippa..."
"...So I just sort of... confunded him. It's rather my specialty, you know. Then I summoned the parchment and scorched it."
"What was it? What was he writing?"
"Names," said Sirius. "He didn't have yours, but a lot of the others were on there. Myself included..."
"You don't know what it was for?"
Sirius shook his head. "He left a little while later. I don't have any idea what it was about."
"I don't like that," muttered Lily. "It's worrisome..."
Sam, however, took that moment to stir slightly, mumbling something in his sleep. Sirius grinned.
Lily smirked. "Oh, terribly."
Frank and Alice had discovered this particular Westbourne Grove café in July, when they had spent their first week working directly with the auror department. They mostly did tedious tasks, like paperwork, when working with the aurors but the hours had been long, and the fact that they had been paid for that time was small comfort. At any rate, hearing of this corner caff from another Ministry employee had been a far greater reward—it remained open at all hours and was a magical establishment, so there need be no worrying about having muggle money on hand.
Nonetheless, for all the sleepless nights and early mornings spent there, neither Frank nor Alice had ever had one quite so dismal as this. It was a few minutes past five in the morning; since their abrupt ejection from the Ministry hours before, they hadn't had very much sleep, and so apparated to their favorite haunt in pursuit of comfort.
"Do you reckon we'll be kicked out of the A.T.s?" asked Alice, sipping her tea.
Frank shrugged. "I suppose we'll have to wait and see, won't we?"
"I'm not very good at that," admitted the witch. She smiled across the laminate table, but it was a mere impression of her genuine smile. "I suppose it'll be alright. The things Dumbledore was discussing..."
"That wasn't meant to be an alternative to the auror program," Frank pointed out. "In fact, I don't know how much good we'll be to him if we're not A.T.s."
Alice scoffed. "Speak for yourself."
Frank chewed dully on a slice of bacon. "You know what I mean, Ally. As A.T.s, we're in a different position then most..."
"He doesn't just want aurors, Frank," replied Alice seriously. "He wants us."
An old-fashioned, jazzy tune played on the wireless in the empty café, and except for the occasional clink of china cups setting themselves down after washing in rows on the shelf behind the counter, the music seemed the only noise when Frank and Alice, the only patrons, were quiet. The sun had not yet risen, and the occasionally flickering greenish-yellow bewitched light of their greasy spoon shelter, combined with the streetlamps outside, provided all the light they had to enjoy.
Alice poked at her fried eggs. "Do you suppose the others are okay? I wish we'd been allowed to stay, too. Told you I should have hexed someone."
Frank rolled his eyes. "Well, then we'd be out of the program for cert."
"Hmm, but how satisfying would it have been?"
Alice set down her fork without taking a bite.
"Ally," began Frank softly, and she looked at him with the same imitation smile as before.
"I think I fancy you."
Alice laughed appreciatively. "Don't tell anyone, but I might fancy you, too. I suppose we'll have to sort out the rest as it arrives."
"It'll be alright."
The bell over the door to the street jingled as a young wizard entered, carrying a stack of newspapers, which he dropped upon the counter. The proprietor—an elderly witch in gauzy grey robes—emerged from the kitchen and paid the boy, who smiled and departed.
"I'll get a paper, shall I?" said Frank. "I reckon it'll be interesting to see what they've got to say about last night."
He went to fetch one of the newspapers, and when he returned, his eyes were wide as he read the front page.
"What is it?" asked Alice, worried.
Frank raised his eyebrows. "Have you ever heard of Rita Skeeter?"
"Er... no, I don't think so."
"Well, I reckon you will."
"Are crisps all you brought to eat?" complained Peter, as Sirius produced yet another (his third) bag of them and subsequently passed the snack around the group of those still awake (no one over twenty-five).
"I don't see you providing a chicken dinner," Sirius retorted.
"Who's turn is it?" Marlene wanted to know, looking around at the hodge-podge circle of witches and wizards that had formed in the two cells, with the bars cutting through the diameter. The Marauders and the Prewetts sat on one side, with Lily, Sam, and Marlene on the other. Everyone held cards, but no one except James and Sirius understood the rules of the game. "This is ridiculous—can't we play Exploding Snap again instead?"
"It's not that complicated," protested James. "Honestly, Sirius can figure it out; I don't see why the rest of you are having so much trouble."
"Anyway, Emmeline said Exploding Snap was too noisy," said Lily. "I have a pair—that means something, right?"
"No, you need three."
"But Gideon had a pair before, and that meant something..."
"Right, but Gideon was the borrower at the time..."
"What the hell is a borrower?"
"The person who has the most pairs of three..."
"You can't have pairs of three," Marlene pointed out. "A pair is always two."
"I don't think that's true," said Peter. "I think you can have a pair of three, but you have to specify."
"No, a pair is always two," agreed Lily. "It's like 'couple.' Always two."
"Unless she's into it," said Sirius. "Oh, don't look so sour; that was funny..."
"Quiet down over there!" groaned Dorcas Meadowes from across Lily's cell. Everyone had taken a seat on the floor, now, except the lucky few who had snagged the benches, and just about everyone was asleep or trying to fall asleep. Those engaged in the inter-cell card game were the only ones who had embraced their inevitable consciousness.
It was past five o'clock now. The sun would be up soon, and Lily had hit her second wind, no longer exhausted. Sam had slept for a few hours, as had the Prewett brothers, but the Marauders, Lily, and Marlene had kept alert. Halliday sat in a chair in the corner of the room with a book, occasionally relieved by either Eckles or Lathe for short stints, but mostly stationary. She paid little attention to her charges.
"You're so old, Dory," retorted Sam. "Sleeping at a time like this!"
"You were asleep before midnight," Lily pointed out, but Sam ignored her.
"You're practically all of you teenagers—I thought you were supposed to be able to sleep anywhere!" grumbled Dorcas.
"Only during the day," replied James blithely.
Dory grunted, and then curled up into a tighter ball, closing her eyes once more.
"How long do you reckon we'll be in here, then?" Peter asked in a loud whisper, as the game moved along. "I'd kill for something better to eat."
"These are delicious crisps," Sirius defended his snack petulantly.
"Yes, but a hot meal..."
"A hot shower," sighed Marlene longingly.
"A nice bed," said Fabian.
Lily preferred not to think of those things and instead focused on the card game at hand. "It's your turn, Remus," she said.
For all their talk, however, by six o'clock, nearly everyone was, at the very least, dosing. Lily wasn't comfortable enough to sleep, however, and neither, apparently, were James and Remus. The three of them alone remained awake when, at a few minutes past six, Lathe entered the room carrying a newspaper. He gestured at the three teenagers to come towards the door, and they rose at once.
It was hard work getting to the front of the lock-up without stepping on anyone, and Lily had to tiptoe through the sleeping bodies of her companions with great care to avoid crushing hands or heads. Lathe unlocked the doors of both cells, and Lily, James, and Remus stepped out into the offices.
"Well," whispered the auror, "have a look then."
There it was—
D.M.L.E.'s Dearborn: Dedicated and Delusional
by Rita Skeeter
Lily skimmed the story. "Well, Remus—you were there. Accurate?"
"More or less, yeah," he allowed, nodding.
"He sounds delusional, how she describes him," said James. He looked up at Lathe. "When does the Wizengamot vote?"
"They go into chambers at ten."
"How do you think it'll end up?" Lily wanted to know.
"Dumbledore won't support Dearborn," said James. "That's one, at least."
"He doesn't stand a chance," Lathe declared. "Who in the Wizengamot is going to vote for the bloke that shouts 'Mudblood' in the Atrium? He sounds mad."
"Who will they get instead?" asked James. "I heard someone saying Clovis Bagman..."
Lathe merely shrugged, however. "I guess we'll find out today, won't we?" He smiled cordially. "Well, the others will wake up soon. Eckles is making tea for everyone, because he's a softy at heart, but if you lot want to tidy up and use the loo, I recommend you do so before everyone else wakes, or you'll have to quarrel with thirty people for a place in the queue."
Lily and Remus went first, and then were returned to the cells, while James departed to clean up. Lily was tempted to enter the Marauders' cell instead this time, but she didn't want to desert Marlene, so she went back to her original one instead. Remus pushed Sirius's sleeping mass to the side, so that he could sit in the corner immediately beside Lily.
"Some day, huh?" he asked. "You okay?"
"I'm fine," she said. "How about you?"
Lily smiled weakly.
"What's wrong?" asked Remus, detecting her worry. Lily only shook her head.
"I don't know," she replied. "I'm just wondering how this is all going to end, you know?"
"End? Well, hopefully it will end with us all going home and sleeping."
Lily nodded and did not explain herself any further, because she knew that Remus had understood what she really meant by "end," but that he, wisely, would rather not think about it.
As everyone else woke up, there was more noise and more speculation on the upcoming decision of the Wizengamot. Joints were stiff and no one was particularly well rested, but a buzz circulated through the lock up as the hour of the Wizengamot's convening approached.
"Dearborn's back in the building," an older wizard whom Lily did not know informed some of the group, as he returned from the washroom. "I heard some aurors talkin'—he's in a right state, apparently."
"After a cover story like Rita Skeeter's?" muttered Marlene. "I'd be in a right state, too."
"Will he come here?" Lily wanted to know. The wizard shrugged.
"Don't know—never met the bloke myself. I work here, you know... Accidents and Catastrophes, but I never did much work with Dearborn."
"Won't you be in loads of trouble for missing work?" asked Marlene.
"My wife'll owl I'm sick, I reckon," he replied cheerfully. "Anyhow, it's worth it for something interesting to do. A bloke might think Accidents and Catastrophes would be a fascinating department, but it can be dull. Though—last week, mind you, we had a spot of fun... we were charged with trying to make it rain."
"Clearly you weren't successful," noted Lily. "It's been dry for months."
"Just the problem, isn't it?" replied the wizard. "The sky simply don't feel like opening up. Never seen such a dry summer..."
Ultimately, Dearborn did not come to the auror department, and, once ten o'clock arrived, Lily knew not to expect him. He would be waiting for the Wizengamot ruling.
It was decided—and Lily knew not by whom—that they would all be released at noon, when the Atrium was full of Ministry workers taking their luncheons. How to get rid of thirty people without causing too much upset in the Ministry was another problem; some, it was decided, would be escorted through the auror floo, some taken out through the main floo terminals in the Atrium, and some through the visitor's exit.
As the morning progressed, the auror offices grew louder and busier. At eleven, there was a great flurry of excitement, and several aurors left through the floo in a hurry. Everyone in the lock-up seemed to guess the cause, but they didn't speak about it much.
The morning stretched on. "I hope they make the announcement soon," said Lily to Sam, as the time of their release neared. "It'll be rubbish if we don't find out until five o'clock tonight."
But they did not, in fact, have to wait until five o'clock.
The announcement was made at eleven-twenty a.m., after only an hour and a half of deliberations. Eckles, who had now replaced Halliday as the custody auror, had brought in the wireless and was listening to the updates.
There was a lot of cheering.
"Who the hell is Barty Crouch?" Marlene wanted to know.
"Wait a minute—wasn't he at Hogwarts a couple of years ago?" asked Peter, confused.
"No, that was his son..." said James.
"Well who is he?" Marlene pressed.
"He's not Egbert Dearborn," said Gideon Prewett. "That's certain. He's notoriously anti-death eater."
"Well that's good," said Lily.
Everyone else in the cells was still clapping over Dearborn's defeat.
"Calm down!" whined Eckles. "I'm trying to hear the wireless!"
(The Real World Again)
Lily was too excited to properly feel the fact that she was hungry and tired beyond anything she was used to. She practically skipped through the Atrium with the Marauders, Sam, Marlene, the Vances, and the Prewetts, holding onto Remus's arm as she did so. "I think it might be because I haven't slept or eaten anything except salty potato crisps in about twenty four hours," she said confidentially, "But I feel kind of high."
"Alright, this way," called Lathe, leading the way. They passed through the busy Atrium, and Emmeline, Victor, and the Prewetts, with a final farewell to their younger compatriots, stepped into one of the fireplaces. The others made their way for the visitor's entrance. Sam and Marlene stepped into the lift first and disappeared a moment later.
Lily was about to climb inside with Remus, when she remembered something. She turned to Lathe again.
"Wait a minute," the witch began quickly. "There's still one thing I'm confused about—who called in the aurors? It wasn't Frank, it wasn't Sirius... who else could possibly have known? I mean—you even knew we were in Falstaff's office, and that Frank was with Svilt... I don't understand..."
Sirius and Remus departed, but Lily and James waited with keen interest for an answer.
Lathe smiled, scratching the back of his neck. "I received an owl last night," he replied slowly and deliberately, "from... a mutual friend, relaying a very strange and garbled message that I had to translate, Merlin knows how, but, which ultimately made it quite clear that if anything were to happen to either you or Potter, I would no longer be welcome in the Leaky Cauldron."
It was a second before Lily realized—"Donna?"
Lathe bowed his head.
"But how did she...?"
"The mirror!" James said loudly. "Of course, the mirror! We didn't talk to Sirius on the mirror yesterday morning! We talked to Donna! The git forget to get it back from her, and then forgot that he forgot to get it back from her!"
"She overheard the message and owled Lathe!" Lily finished. "Is that right?"
Lathe shrugged. "I dunno. I didn't ask many questions."
"Thank-you," said Lily. "For helping us."
"We'll call it even," replied the auror. He nodded towards the lift. "Your friends are waiting."
They all stood there on the street, which went about its business with no special deference to them or the night they'd had.
"What now?" asked Remus of no one in particular.
"I need to eat," said Lily.
"And shower," said Marlene with longing in her voice.
"Actually, I feel alright," Sirius said cheerfully. "I say we go to Prongs' house."
"Why do you want to go to my house?" asked James.
"Because I miss your mum."
"Don't be weird."
"'Can't help it—she has that effect on me."
"Well," said Remus, "my mum doesn't work until three, and it'll be much easier if I'm already cleaned up when I try to explain this to her, so I'll go to the Potters'."
Somehow, it was then settled that everyone was going to the Potters'. Marlene promised to meet them there, but she wanted to pop home, take a shower, and fetch Mary first. Then, Lily had a thought.
"Wait a moment," she said, before anyone had apparated. "There's something I should do first."
Sam ended up escorting Lily to the Leaky Cauldron, because, while Marlene had no qualms with attempting blind apparition to the Potters' address, Lily felt less sure of her abilities.
They stepped into the pub, and Lily smiled at the sight of Donna behind the countertop, as always.
It was a moment before Donna spotted them, but when she did, a number of emotions flickered across her face, before she forced her expression to be resolutely calm.
"I see you got out all right," she said stiffly.
Lily sat down at the bar. "You owled Lathe, did you?"
"I nearly died of shock when I heard my trousers talking to me in James Potter's voice," said Donna sullenly. "It took me a good minute to figure out what had happened... I completely forgot I had the mirror."
"Sirius completely forgot you had it, too," replied Lily.
"So what are you two doing here?" Donna asked, nodding at Sam. "You're not on a date, are you?"
Lily and Sam both chuckled at that.
"She's a sweet kid," allowed the latter, collapsing onto the barstool beside Lily's, "but not that sweet."
"We're here to get you, actually," said Lily. "How much longer is your shift?"
"I'm only working half an hour more,' said Donna glumly. "I'm scheduled until six, but my replacement is replacing me."
"What does that mean?"
"The witch that Tom hired to replace me when I go back to school," Donna elaborated. "She's taller than me, and Tom said I could go home early, because she'd be here at one, and she's already gotten the hang of things."
"Lovely! You can come to the Potters' with us!" said Lily, excited. Donna scowled.
"It's not lovely! I'm being replaced!"
"Yes, but it's not as though you wanted to be a barkeep for your whole life anyway," Lily pointed out. "You're just angry because she's taller than you. How is that possible, incidentally?"
"You're a bloody giantess," Sam agreed.
"It's insane," muttered Donna. "You should see her. I think she might have giant blood in her, because that cannot be normal..."
Lily and Sam drank butterbeer while they awaited the end of Donna's shift, and then she told them that she wanted to pop home to make sure that all was well with Mrs. Fowler, the housekeeper, who was to take her siblings to the muggle zoo that afternoon. She would meet them at the Potters'.
Lily and Sam stepped out onto the road again, the merciless sun and oppressive dryness of the day setting in already.
"I ought to call my mum, too," said Lily thoughtfully. "In case she's phoned the house and is worried because I didn't answer."
"Don't you live with your mum?" asked Sam curiously.
"Yeah, but she's visiting my sister at the moment."
"What are you going to tell her you've been up to?"
Lily shook her head. "Honestly, I have no idea. Why don't you wait in the pub—I'll apparate home, ring up my mum, and meet you in ten minutes?"
"Alright—but don't you try to sneak a shower... if the rest of us have to walk about feeling like rubbish, you bloody well will too!"
Mrs. Potter was not happy. On a scale of one to livid, she was furious.
"What exactly were you thinking, James Alexander Potter?" she demanded of her son, the moment he walked through her front door, bringing with him Remus, Sirius, and Peter.
James sighed. "You lot better head up to the Blue Room," he said wearily to the others; "I was hoping she'd be happy to see me, but it looks as though this is going to be an unhappy reunion after all."
Sirius cheerfully led the way upstairs, and James was left alone with his mother.
"You were supposed to be home for supper last night," she informed him. "And then, do you know, that I received an owl from Alastor Moody at nine o'clock last night, after I'd worried myself to death, saying that you were safe, but it looked as though you'd be spending the night? Can you imagine? Can you possibly fathom what it felt like to hear that?"
"I'm sorry, Mum!"
"And, of course," Mrs. Potter continued, ignoring her son's apology, "your father was no help! 'If Alastor says he's safe, I'm not going to question it.' What rubbish! I didn't sleep a wink last night!"
"Well neither did I!" argued James.
Mrs. Potter faltered. "Where exactly did you spend the night, James?"
"Mum, that's one of those things you'll be happier not knowing. Just take comfort in the fact that I was surrounded by friends, and no one ended up dead or pregnant. All in all, not a bad record for the night..."
"James Alexander Potter..."
Mrs. Potter sighed heavily. "Come along. We'll discuss this upstairs."
"Because it will be easier to dispose of the body."
"It's frightening how quickly your mind jumps to murder."
"With you for a son, it's shocking I haven't actually done it yet."
The kettle of water on the fire in Frank's kitchen had all but boiled out, but Frank and Alice did not notice. The cup of tea scheme had been abandoned in favor of a more pleasant pastime. At length, they broke apart long enough for Frank to brush a loose strand of hair from her face.
"I don't know what I'd have done if anything had happened to you," he murmured, before leaning forward and kissing her softly again.
"Back at you," she whispered against his lips. He stepped closer, pinning her against the kitchen counter. "So what are we going to do about that?"
"Problematic," Frank admitted. "Considering our chosen profession."
Alice rested her forehead against her boyfriend's, wrapping her arms around his neck. The smile she wore was sad, though, and Frank gently touched her cheek.
"I love you, Alice Geraldine Griffiths."
And Alice met his eye. The sad smile had changed; there was warmth in her expression again, and she looked at him with such affection that, for a moment, a response to his declaration seemed unnecessary.
"What?" asked Frank, chuckling. "Why are you smiling at me like that?"
She paused. Then—
Frank's eyes grew wide. Nonetheless, almost immediately, he replied: "Yes." Then he shook himself. "I mean, no. I mean—yes, but... you weren't supposed to ask me. I'm supposed to ask you! Look, look, I've..." He pulled away, disappearing into the adjacent bedroom for nearly a minute. When he returned to the kitchen (a bewildered Alice had removed the now empty kettle from the fire), Frank carried a small black velvet box, wrought with potential.
Alice grinned. "That's not earrings, is it?"
"No," mumbled Frank. "I was waiting for September first, because that's the eight year anniversary of when we met, and…"
Alice cut him off with a rough kiss, which she did not break, even as she guided him, pulling the collar of his robes, towards the bedroom. She kicked the door closed, falling back upon it and bringing Frank with her. He smiled as he kissed her neck, and she tugged at his clothing.
"Bed," he murmured, his breath warming her skin, and she only nodded hastily.
It was not until rather later that Alice got to see the ring itself. They lay in his bed, when it occurred to her.
"Oi—where's my ring?"
Frank laughed. "I don't know. I think I dropped it."
"Distracted, were you?"
He kissed her on the lips again, before emerging from the blankets long enough to locate the velvet box amongst a heap of discarded clothing. He climbed back into the bed, toying with the box thoughtfully. Alice raised her eyebrows.
"Well, then, it's your turn, Francis. I proposed last time."
He grinned and opened the case. For a moment, Alice did not say anything. The ring that sat there had a gold band and a round, un-mounted diamond that winked at Alice in the orange lamplight. She smiled and held out her hand expectantly.
"Will you marry me?"
Frank slipped the ring onto her finger, and she did not take a moment to see how it looked there, before she pulled him into another deep kiss—deep and sad and overjoyed all at once. She fell back upon the pillows, and in the brief seconds that their lips were separated between kisses, she managed to whisper, "I love you, you know."
"I love you too."
Alice had not completed even half the kissing she wanted before Frank pulled back again, biting his lip and staring thoughtfully at the square of bed sheets somewhere above Alice's left shoulder. She raised one eyebrow.
And then he smiled.
"Frank?" she asked again, slightly relieved by his change of expression. "What are you thinking?"
He met her curious stare once more. "I have an idea."
The house took her breath away.
"This—this is his house?"
"One of them, yes," said Sam, amused by the awe on his companion's face.
"No wonder he had no trouble adjusting to living in a castle in first year."
Sam grinned. "Amaryllis," he said to the great double doors, and they slowly opened. "Gracie's favorite flower," Sam explained, but Lily was barely listening. The inside was, if anything, grander. The doors opened into an enormous entrance hall. The floor was a marble tile, and exquisite landscape paintings lined the walls to Lily's (far) left and right. Directly in front of the pair was a wide, grand staircase, with a banister of ivory, intricately carved to resemble climbing vines.
The walls behind the paintings were pearly white, which gleamed in the light from the crystal chandelier that hung (no, levitated, Lily realized) up above. The domed ceiling—very high up—did not seem to exist at all. It was not bewitched to imitate the real sky, like the ceiling in the Great Hall; rather, it seemed to be made of nothing but clouds: soft, celestial white clouds.
Sam smirked—probably at her naïveté.
"It's beautiful," Lily admitted, relieved that she didn't sound completely awestruck when she spoke. "I wonder that he never told me he lived in Buckingham Palace. He gloats about enough." She tore her eyes away from the foyer and looked at Sam; "And what do you mean 'one of them?' There are others?"
"Sure. Wanna see?"
Lily arched an eyebrow. "Now?"
"Pictures." Sam nodded towards one of the walls, and Lily followed him there. "That's the house in London... that's the place in the West Country—Harthouse, where he's been for the last few weeks, and that's the one on the French Riviera." Lily looked from the painting of the French Villa to Sam.
"He has a house in the south of France?" she demanded. Sam nodded. "Oh, he's just showing off now..."
Sam laughed. "Before you get any ideas about marrying him for his money..." (Lily scoffed), "You should know, he won't get all of these. Aunt Gracie's auctioning off the house on the Riviera right now. Charity or something. The townhouse goes the same way when Alex dies. Jamie only gets this old coffin and the house at Godric's Hollow."
Lily remembered the letter she'd had from James at the beginning of the summer. He had been at this place Godric's Hollow at the time of its authorship...
"That's it, there," said Sam, leading the way to a picture hanging further away. It was what Lily imagined they might have called a cottage two hundred years ago, with its beige stone walls and picturesque gables. Still, it was a lovely house: the yard was green, especially against the grey sky (the little black outline of birds could be seen, soaring across the back of the canvas), and there was a certain air of romance to the whole thing. "I like it," she decided.
"Why? The town's dead boring."
"It has soul."
"Merlin, you sound like Gracie."
Lily began to wander away from the paintings. "Where are the others, do you think?"
"No idea—we can ask an elf. Ten to one, they know."
"An elf? A house elf? James has house elves?"
"Sure," replied Sam, leading the way to a door off the hall; "all the oldest families do. Of course, Gracie doesn't like to do anything that the old families do, so she freed them all first thing after marrying Alex. But of course, loads of times, if someone finds a free elf, they'll only enslave it again and claim it's been in the family for years, because it makes their line look more pure. So Grace said that any of them who didn't get legitimate jobs could come back here for pay, and a few wanted to stay anyway, because they think it's their duty to serve the family of their ancestors. I don't know—we've only ever had one, and she's ancient..."
They pushed through into the kitchen, a large, clean hall that seemed to be carved entirely out of white stone. Lily marveled, walking along one edge of the rectangular room, unconsciously gliding her fingers across a countertop. Several crystal orbs provided the light (in addition to a series of high, narrow windows), levitating near the ceiling; they did not remain stationary, like muggle lights, but drifted around, like a dozen, slow-moving fireflies.
There were two house elves in the room, and one was occupied at a giant sink; he was closest to the door, and it was to this elf that Sam addressed himself. The other sat nearer to the back, at a small wooden table in the corner at the opposite end of the hall. The table could not have been designed for house elves, in that—though relatively petite—the item seemed human-sized, and yet Lily had a hard time fathoming that the sort of meals that must be prepared in a kitchen like this could ever be consumed at such a comparatively inelegant piece of furniture.
"Hello," Lily greeted the house elf there. The elf sat at the table, her legs dangling off the chair, while sipping a tall glass of something brown and atrocious smelling.
The creature looked up at her with large, eerie green eyes. "Good afternoon, Miss Evans!" she squeaked.
Lily raised her eyebrows. "Did you just... how did you...?"
"Lily!" interrupted Sam's voice, from across the kitchen. "Twitchet says they're in the Blue Room."
Lily, with a last skeptical look at the house elf (who had now returned to her drink) was not sure if she imagined a guilty blush on the elf's face, but she turned and followed Sam out of the kitchens again and back into the foyer.
"How did that elf know my name?" she asked of Sam, who only shrugged.
From there, they ascended the grand staircase—with every step, Lily felt as though she were shrinking. The round second floor landing was separated from a rather distant fall to the first by a banister of the same make as the staircase, and Sam pointed at one of the deviating corridors as containing James's room. Lily was curious, but she followed her host to a staircase that started about twenty degrees away from the mouth of the grand staircase; this second stairwell clung to the wall, spiraling upward along the perimeter, and therefore made for a much longer walk to the third floor. The view was exceptional, however.
On the third floor, Sam led the way down a narrow corridor, lined with painted portraits of unfamiliar witches and wizards—some who looked quite friendly, and some whom Lily was glad she would never meet.
This corridor differed greatly from the foyer in theme; dark wooden beams ran up between roughly half of the portraits, while doors of similar materials stood in between the others, almost all of them closed. Occasionally, Lily would glance a bit of a sitting room or an unoccupied bedroom, but Sam continued to walk.
They rounded a corner, and Sam, who had been intermittently chatting about the house, grew quiet; Lily realized why quite soon. Voices emanated from a cracked door to one side of the hallway. One of them was female—a very displeased female tone, nonetheless.
"Well, that's not them," remarked Sam quietly, glancing over as they passed. "That's just Gracie hollering at James."
For a brief second, through the ajar door, Lily glimpsed a tall, older woman with short auburn hair streaked with grey. She loomed over James, despite his height advantage, speaking angrily to (or perhaps at) him, as he attempted to get a word in edgewise. His demeanor was a mixture of apologetic and defensive, but he didn't seem too terribly worried. Lily caught a few words of the exchanged before they had passed by completely.
"...Out all night, without so much as an owl..."
"Mum, I said I was sorry..."
"...And now, I find out you did it on purpose..."
"...But I had to get..."
"...In a jail cell no less!"
Neither mother nor son observed Lily and Sam as they walked by.
"He won't be in too much trouble, will he?" asked Lily in an undertone, once Mrs. Potter's and James's voices had all but faded.
"Nah, I don't reckon so," replied Sam casually. "James gets away with everything. Gracie's more like a gran or a loveable aunt than a mum. Always wished my old lady might take that lesson, but no such luck. Anyway, even if she were to punish him—and I've yet to witness that—he'll be back at school next week, and I reckon she's right pleased about his getting Head Boy."
Lily smiled at the mental image if Mrs. Potter's reaction to that bit of news (she supposed it must have been a mixture of shock and glee) and Sam noticed, grinning.
"You did hear about that, didn't you?"
"What? Oh—the Head Boy bit. Yeah. James told me in Falstaff's office."
"Did he? Had a heart to heart, did you?"
"Not quite," scoffed Lily. "I thought the Slytherin prefect got it, and I was ranting about that before he told me he was the one."
"Don't like Slytherins, is that it? No one seems to."
"Well, it's complicated," Lily attempted to explain. "It's more the particular Slytherin... we... we don't get on." (That was the simplest description of affairs, after all). "I wasn't looking forward to working with him."
Sam indicated to a door at the end as the entrance to the so-called Blue Room.
"Working with, you say?" he added as they advanced. "Are you a prefect then?"
Lily nodded. "And Head Girl now."
Sam looked at her. "Are you? I didn't know. Not very rule-abiding for a member of the management, are you?"
"Compared to James, I'm Professor McGonagall," Lily pointed out, before realizing that Sam might not have any idea what that meant. "She's head of Gryffindor. Very strict."
"Right, I remember," replied Sam.
They reached the Blue Room, and as Sam pushed open the door, Lily was relieved to see the others lounging within.
It was a large, square drawing room, painted a deep royal blue. The two sofas and chaise lounge were of a matching floral print—cream colored with blue roses and sprigs of baby's breath—while the woodwork was of the same dark oak that prevailed out in the corridor and in much of the house. A piano stood in the corner, and though no one occupied its bench, the instrument produced a quiet, vaguely impressionistic sounding tune. The afternoon light filtered in through the lace curtains (heavier, silk cream colored ones were drawn back) and moving, magic photographs lined the mantelpiece over the fireplace to Lily's right; she would have liked to examine them, except that the reunion with her friends afforded her no opportunity. Everyone looked up at the newcomers.
Sirius was stretched out upon the chaise, a half eaten apple in hand, while Remus and Peter sat in flanking chairs. Marlene and Mary had arrived too (Marlene's blond hair still wet from her much anticipated shower), and they sat on one of the sofas, while Donna occupied the other.
"She arrives," said Sirius, grinning. "And hullo to you, too, Sam."
"Thanks," replied Sam sarcastically.
"What took you so long?" Donna wanted to know. "I had to go home, and I still was quicker."
"She had to ring her mum, and I gave her a quick tour," Sam explained, as he sat down at the piano bench, and Lily fell onto the couch next to Marlene. "Oh, and I showed her the house, too."
"Very funny," said Lily. Marlene raised her eyebrows inquisitively. "Just ogling Pemberley," Lily explained lightly; the blonde—as the only one there to catch the reference—looked more interested still.
"Is that right, Lizzie dear?"
"Who said anything about Lizzie? I'm Aunt Gardiner."
"Stop saying things that no one else understands," complained Sirius, eying the apple, as though contemplating another bite. "And where the sodding hell is James?"
"Gracie's giving him a talking to," said Sam.
"Still?" asked Peter. "It's been almost an hour! And I'm famished..."
"Me too," chorused Lily, Donna, and both Prewetts.
"Well, let's eat," said Sirius. "We can call for a house elf. Twitch! Twitchet!"
With a loud crack, the small, wrinkled creature with large eyes and larger ears from the kitchens appeared at Sirius's elbow.
"Twitch, we're hungry," said Sirius. "Wouldn't you be a dear and get us something? We were all quite heroic today, you know."
The house elf bowed, as though embarrassed. "Master James has said that if Master Sirius is wanting to eat, he must go to the kitchens. Twitchet would be most pleased to bring Master Sirius and his friends something to eat, but Master James has said."
Remus laughed, and Sirius scowled. "Slick git. He did that on purpose, you know. He was always jealous that the house elves liked me better when I lived here, so he'd say I was lazy. Alright, you can go, Twitch. We'll be down in a bit."
Twitchet bowed again, and with a wide, creepy smile, he noisily disappeared once more.
"I wonder if James made any provision about liquor," mused Sirius. Remus rolled his eyes.
"You're so lazy."
"I am not. I'm conserving my valuable energy, and anyway, I barely slept all night."
Remus and he continued to bicker for several minutes until Mary, who had only heard part of the story of the last thirty-some-odd hours, requested a more complete version. Sam, after introducing himself to her with a dramatic tip of his maroon fedora, began to talk, and there were actually many details which Lily was hearing for the first time as well.
Sam, it seemed, had been breakfasting with Dorcas Meadowes, when Dory received word from her sister that several concerned individuals were planning on marching the Atrium in protest of Egbert Dearborn and the Magical Population Protection Act. Sam, always the first to jump at an opportunity to publicly object to injustice (and his older brother) tagged along, but not before fetching Sarah McKinnon and James, who had only returned from the West Country the evening before. James, in turn, apparated over to collect Sirius and Remus (this part of the story was retold by Sirius himself), but—as Peter was still in bed—a message was left with his mother.
Sam added that Sarah McKinnon and himself contacted the Prewetts and they—along with Emmeline, Victor, and Dorcas—had collected the rest of the original group (save for, of course, Lily, Marlene, and Donna, who had been fetched by Marauders).
From there, Lily knew most of the story and contributed to its reiteration to Mary. Peter and Remus explained about the arrival of the aurors, while Lily told about her capture (purposely avoiding mention of the Marauders' Invisibility Cloak) and briefly touching upon the stay in Falstaff's office and then the auror department. Everyone was sufficiently impressed by the removal of the door from its hinges.
Marlene explained about the Rita Skeeter article, and the story was all but done by the time James finally arrived in the Blue Room. Twitchet the house elf had circumvented his master's command by brining two trays of butterbeer, when James—fedora in hand—strolled in, followed by his mother.
"You're still alive, I see," remarked Sirius.
"Budge over, you lazy arse," said James, but he summoned over a chair from the desk for his mother before he actually sat down on the chaise himself.
"You aren't off the hook either, Sirius Black," scolded Mrs. Potter, folding her arms. "Nor you, Samuel,"
Sam jumped up from the piano bench, crossing the room and taking his cousin's hand. "Gracie, you aren't really upset with me, are you?"
"Hmmm, we'll see," was the witch's enigmatic reply, but her lips twitched humorously.
Besides the brief glimpse almost an hour earlier in the corridor, Lily had seen Mrs. Potter on a number of previous occasions. She was always present to see James off from Kings' Cross Station, and it was difficult to miss the extraordinarily well-dressed mother of one of Hogwarts' most popular students. However, Lily was now granted a much more thorough examination of the witch in question, and, perhaps due to her since altered opinion of the son, the mother also seemed improved—certainly more than an average wealthy matron.
Grace was of a willowy build, smartly dressed as ever in champagne colored robes. She did not wear much jewelry, but what she did wear—a diamond ring, a plain gold wedding band, and large sapphire earrings—was largely designed to be noticed. They caught the light from the window. Mrs. Potter's hair was brown with suggestions of auburn and grey, and the shape and shading of her eyes were quite like James's.
"I suppose you ought to meet everyone," James suddenly seemed to remember, hopping up from the chaise again and leaving the hat to save his place from Sirius. "Of course, you know most of us. I'm James, your sole progeny."
"Sole progeny of which I am aware, at any rate. That's Sirius—he's a git—and that's Remus, the son you wish you had..." He got around to the real introductions eventually. "This is Donna, but I guess you've met, too..."
"Miss Shacklebolt," said Grace warmly. "It's been far too long."
"It's nice to see you again," replied Donna, and Lily was stunned by the un-Donna-like politeness she maintained.
"This is Mary MacDonald and Marlene Price—they're in my house and year," James went on, "And... oh, well, I suppose..." he faltered almost imperceptibly, "...this is Lily Evans, same story. Everyone: my mother."
And there was the typical nodding and shaking of hands and smiling. "I hope my son hasn't landed you all in too much trouble..."
"Now, Mum," said James. "I know Sirius used to live here, but he's not actually your son..."
"Sod off, git," said Sirius, kicking his friend.
"Play nice," commanded Mrs. Potter.
"Don't worry yourself, Mum. I already told you—the aurors all took as down as persons unknown. We weren't even properly arrested..."
"James didn't get anyone into too much trouble, Mrs. Potter," Sirius assured her. "Although, he's a git for trying to starve me to death..."
James sat relatively far from Lily, but she could not help but notice that, throughout his mother's stay, he seemed unusually tense, and she wondered if that concerned his earlier "conversation" with Mrs. Potter. Eventually, excusing herself, the older woman said she would see to refreshments, and she departed.
"Does anyone know who won the pre-season match last night?" Marlene asked presently. "I completely forgot to check the scores..."
"Harpies slaughtered the Tornadoes," Sirius told her. "No surprise there. The new captain is supposed to be brilliant..."
"She is," said Donna, enthusiastic now that the conversation had turned to Quidditch. "Twenty-two goals against the Canons in the last month..."
"Well, that's the Canons," said Sirius.
"Oh, I like them," argued Marlene. "There's something endearing about them."
"What would that be?" replied James. "Their inability to win a match?"
"I bet they're cursed," said Peter.
"Nah, it's the management..."
"But they've had three owners in a decade..."
And it was exceptionally odd, sitting there in James Potter's drawing room, talking about Quidditch after the day and night and morning and afternoon that they'd all just had. It was bizarre and somewhat surreal, and this was heightened by the fact that Lily had not eaten in about hours. The only thing that conquered her hunger just then was her exhaustion, which made her reluctant even to rise a little from the couch to reach for a second butterbeer.
She dropped her head onto Marlene's shoulder, contributing a little to the discourse, but mostly listening and watching.
Sirius—draped over the chaise lounge like a castaway cloak—laughed a lot.
Marlene fidgeted absent-mindedly with her new haircut.
Sam could not keep still and would jump up from his seat every time he had a point to make.
Remus appeared tired, but innocently so: he seemed neither weary nor careworn, but only sleep-deprived.
Peter had to fight to get his words in.
Donna argued with everyone.
Mary spoke more knowledgably about the Harpies than she possibly could have about any other team.
James scarcely stopped talking.
Time slipped by at an unusual pace. Moments stretched unnaturally long, but very soon, more than an hour had passed, and it seemed to take only a few minutes.
Eventually, another house elf appeared with food—cheese and tea and biscuits and cake—and Lily's stomach growled longingly as she reached to take a slice of the lattermost. She was cut short, however, by the calling of her name.
She looked up; Mrs. Potter stood at the door again.
"Yes?" replied the younger witch, bewildered. The others chattered noisily on; no one except James noticing the interruption.
"There's someone here to see you," Mrs. Potter told her.
"To see me?" asked Lily stupidly.
Mrs. Potter nodded.
Momentarily forgetting the cake, Lily rose and followed James's mother out into the corridor.
"Who wants to see me?" she wondered, as they walked.
"Alice Griffiths, actually."
"Alice? Is Frank Longbottom with her?"
"No, just Alice. Sweet girl, too. She... well, never mind, you'll see." Mrs. Potter smiled James-ish-ly. "Are you two close?"
"Pretty close, yeah," said Lily, and she was inexplicably nervous. "Alice was the first mate I had in my house at school."
"Invaluable," remarked Mrs. Potter. "Oh, this way, dear. It's much quicker. Are you a Gryffindor, then?"
"James's father was a Gryffindor, also..."
"Yeah, James mentioned."
Mrs. Potter looked at her; "James talks about his father?"
"No... well... sometimes. It was actually one of the first things he ever said to me... on the train going to Hogwarts in first year, he said he wanted to be Gryffindor, like his dad..." She recollected the incident vividly; "He mimed brandishing a sword..."
Mrs. Potter burst out laughing. "That child..."
They arrived on the bottom landing, and Mrs. Potter pointed to a little drawing room off of the left. "Alice is in the study—it's this way," she said, guiding the way. "She wanted to speak with you alone first."
"Is everything alright?"
"I suppose you'll have to ask her yourself," said the older witch, but she was beaming, as though she were purposely keeping some grand secret. They reached the study, and Alice stood within, pacing back and forth and wringing her hands nervously. She started at Mrs. Potter's greeting.
"Oh! Oh, hello."
"I'll give you the room then," said Grace.
"Thank-you ever so much," said Alice, and Mrs. Potter nodded, before disappearing into the corridor.
"Alice, are you alright?" asked Lily, hurrying up to her friend. "How did you find me here?"
"We heard on the wireless that you were all out, so I went to your house, but no one was home—then I—I went to Marlene's..." (She was quite distracted), "But Marlene's mum said she'd gone to the Potters' with a group of her friends, and I assumed that if she was here, you would be, too..."
"Is something wrong? Lathe said the aurors were escorting you away... I thought... Has something happened to Frank?"
"What? No. No, of course not. Well... that is—something's happened to the both of us."
Lily raised her eyebrows. "I'm confused."
"The thing is," Alice began, cracking her knuckles, "I've—I was wondering if you might be able to—that is, if you're willing to... to... to lend me something."
"Lend you something?" Lily echoed. "Lend you what?"
"It doesn't much matter," Alice told her; "Earrings... not a necklace, though. I've already got a necklace—a blue one. But earrings, maybe, or anything, really. Stockings. Stockings would do, too."
"Earrings and stockings? Al, what are you talking about?"
"Well," Alice started again, "I need to borrow something..."
"Yes, but why?"
"Because... because, you see, I've already got a dress... an old one, and new shoes, and the necklace is blue, like I said, so I've... I'm afraid I've got to have something borrowed."
Alice beamed. She held up her left hand, upon a significant finger of which sat a diamond engagement ring.
"I'm getting married in two hours, Lily."
Dumbstruck for several seconds, Lily wasn't even sure what she thought or felt, much less what she ought to articulate. Then, everything—including the realization that Alice was quite serious—struck her all at once, and Lily heard herself saying: "I might have some stockings."
Then she was hugging Alice, and then Alice was explaining about the how she and Frank had gotten engaged, and how Frank knew a bloke in the licensing department, and that Mrs. Longbottom was positively furious over the whole thing, and they were to be at an office in Diagon Alley at six o'clock, and Frank's brother was to stand up for him, and, of course, everyone upstairs was welcome to come along, because it was only Alice's and Frank's families that knew so far, and it was awfully depressing to have a wedding with no friends there.
"...But I wanted to chat with you alone first," Alice said, slowing down her rapid speech suddenly. "Because—well, Hestia's lounging on a beach in Monaco at the moment, and I've only got brothers, and—like I said, Frank's brother is witnessing for him, so I was rather hoping that you would... I mean, if you don't mind—would you like to—be my bridesmaid?"
Lily was visibly stunned.
"Well, gosh, Alice," she began slowly, "I mean, it's awfully short notice—of bloody course I'll be your bridesmaid! Agrippa's sake, you're mad the both of you, but of course I'll do it!"
Then there was more hugging, and there might have been crying, if there had been enough time for it. As it was, a great deal of vital information—how had the proposal come about? What did her mother say? What was Alice to wear?—had to be communicated very quickly.
"Oh, and do you think any of the Marauders have a decent necktie? I love Frank more than anything, but the bloke's necktie situation is atrocious..."
"We'll find something," said Lily absently. "Did you say you were wearing pink? Dear, no—white is a necessity."
"But I haven't any white dresses..."
"We're witches, aren't we? Mary will back me up: you must wear white." She stopped suddenly. Alice looked confused.
"What's wrong? You haven't remembered another wedding you're supposed to witness this evening, have you?"
Lily shook her head. "Alice," she began seriously, "I adore you and Frank; you know that. You're the fairytale I tell Donna when she's cranky..." Alice smirked appreciatively, "...But are you entirely sure? Are you and Frank both completely and positively certain? I'm sure it feels right, but does it... does it all make sense... in your head, too?"
And Lily believed her. "You're barking." She sighed, smiled, and shook her head. "Let's go see about a necktie, shall we?"
It may come as a surprise to very few that planning a wedding in two hours is rather tricky. Lily never did get to have a slice of the cake in the Blue Room, as, suddenly, there were a million things that needed to be done, not the least of which was retelling the tale to everyone upstairs (leaving out some of the sordid details which Alice had mischievously told Lily in the first retelling of the proposal).
Then, quite unexpectedly, the whole thing was a group project. Frank was already in Diagon Alley at the moment, filling out his portion of the paperwork, and he was soon joined by the Marauders and Sam, who brought with them clothing (and, of course, neckties), much to Frank's surprise—and, secretly perhaps, his relief. He had been close with the Prewett brothers in school as well, and they, too, were issued hasty, verbal invitations.
Mary, who had not spent all night in a lock-up, had but to pop home, grab one of her many dresses (she selected a tiny magenta one) and pop across London again, which she did. She also joined Frank and the males, because she said Sirius and James were the only ones she trusted to pick out a suitable tie-sock combination (James's tie collection had been embarrassingly broad), and she did not trust them not to pick a ridiculous combination as a joke.
The other girls, meanwhile, went to their own homes, picked up the "bare necessities," and reconvened at the Griffiths house.
Marlene filled out Alice's paperwork, occasionally handing the quill and parchment to the bride for a signature, but completing the majority by dictation alone. Lily ended up charming the dress white, all the while keenly aware of the irony, for the original white of her own t-shirt had long since begun to bleed through the magically contrived red. However, she put considerably more effort into Alice's dress, a simple but elegant sundress.
Marlene left to slip into a dress of her own, and she brought an argumentative Donna with her. Lily, aided by the fidgeting Mrs. Griffiths, set Alice's hair at wand point. She left it curly at Alice's request, and then began on her make-up.
"I can do it myself, Lily, honestly..." the bride pointed out. "You're still not dressed..."
"I'll change there, like you," Lily replied, biting her lip as she focused on the white eye liner pencil in hand and applying it just right.
"But you have to fetch your dress."
"No, Marlene's going to my house to grab something for me."
"No arguments, and sit still, or I'll stab your eye."
Donna returned first, in a royal purple dress reluctantly borrowed from Marlene, because the blonde was closest to her size, and she had refused to go home to get her own. In fact, throughout, Donna had been rather recalcitrant about the whole business, the only one who didn't seem even slightly enthused.
"You look lovely Donna," Alice said, while Lily groomed her eyebrows.
Donna nodded curtly and sat down again.
"Don, what's wrong?" asked the distracted Lily.
"I've already said it," replied the other. "This is a bad idea."
"My getting married, you mean?" called Alice, whose position necessitated her back being towards Donna.
"Yes, of course."
"Well, if it goes south, you're welcome to say 'I told you so.'"
Donna rolled her eyes. "Why would you want to get married anyway, Alice? You're practically a child."
"I'm practically an auror, actually."
"That's not a reason to get married."
"You don't believe in the institution," Lily pointed out, glancing briefly up from her work. "Would you approve of this any more if they were thirty-seven and two-years-engaged?"
"Not much more," Donna admitted. "But this is just that much more obviously a mistake. I know you lot like the idea of getting dressed up, and Lily's romantic side must have temporarily knocked out her rational one..." (Lily rolled her eyes), "But honestly, Alice, I can't see how you think this is a good idea."
Lily and Alice looked at each other, and then the former straightened up, stepping away so that the latter could turn to face Donna.
"I'm going to be an auror, Donna," she began slowly. "And so is Frank. And we have no idea what's going to happen tomorrow. It sounds cliché, but I—truthfully... that is... what if he were to die next week, and...?"
"But what if he doesn't die next week?" Donna interrupted earnestly. "I'm sure it's easy to do this looking at things that way—like you could be dead at any minute... but what if neither of you dies? What if you get married and you both live, and then you're just stuck with each other?"
Alice smiled, raising her eyebrows in amusement. "Donna, that's the plan. Dying tomorrow isn't what we want; it's a possibility—honestly, it's the possibility we don't think about often enough. But the point of getting married is to live together, not just to die together."
Donna's expression was not immediately interpretable. After a second or two, she sighed and rolled her eyes—standard Donna reactions—before folding her arms and leaning back in her chair.
"I suppose you'll do exactly as you please regardless," she said simply. Alice did not seem satisfied, but she was less experienced than Lily in detecting when Donna had surrendered a point.
One day, in the not too distant future, Sirius Black would serve as the best man in his best mate's wedding. In the mean time, he received ample practice with Frank Longbottom.
"Firewhiskey?" he asked, holding up a flask that had been produced from his silver fedora.
Frank, who was busy going through some final papers, shook his head, and Sirius shrugged. He handed the flask to an unusually introspective James, who took a swig, before handing it to Remus. The Marauders, the Prewetts, Sam Dearborn, Frank, and Frank's brother, Geoffrey, occupied one little room allocated for their use in the brick Diagon Alley office that was to be the location for the wedding. The families—Alice's brothers and parents of both bride and groom—waited in the office of the officiating wizard, while the bride and those witches accompanying her were in the room across the hallway.
Peter stood near the window, looking down into the street.
"Strange weather we're having," he observed. "Hazy."
"Maybe it'll rain," speculated Sirius hopefully, walking over towards Peter to see for himself. Geoffrey Longbottom scoffed.
"Not likely. The Ministry hasn't been able to do anything about the drought in all these months, and it's not expected to lift on its own until September."
"Shame," remarked Remus absently, joining Peter and Sirius by the window.
James had been seated in a corner with The Weekly Quaffle—a magazine he'd lifted from the reception room—but he now looked up at his three fellow Marauders all standing near the window. With the idea of pursuing the flask, now in Peter's possession, he too rose to join them.
Peter handed over the firewhiskey, and they watched passersby in the street below with no real interest.
A funny thought occurred to James—that less than three months ago, he had confessed to Lily in the Gryffindor Common Room that he didn't see much point in coming back to Hogwarts for seventh year. Everything here is—Sirius...
Lily had scolded him for being an idiot, of course, and she'd been right, because here the four of them stood (at a wedding for the love of Merlin), preparing to go back for their last year. James suddenly felt very old.
"You know," he muttered, just loud enough that only the Marauders' attentions were stirred; "you're not rubbish as mates go."
The others looked at him, bemused, but James was saved elaboration as Frank finished his paperwork and requested the flask.
James volunteered to locate Lily at the request of Mary and Donna, who had joined the bride across the hall. Apparently, they—with Marlene—were occupied still with Alice and needed someone to tell their missing maid-of-honor that the ceremony was about to begin.
The officiating wizard—a petite, elderly wizard who seemed perpetually hassled—informed James while passing him in the corridor that he had directed the "redheaded witch" towards a room that she might employ to tidy up in. James followed the same directions, and came to a half-open door at the end of one corridor.
It was a small chamber with two little round tables, a full-length looking glass, and Lily. On the table in the corner sat a bouquet of daisies, while the other one—closer to Lily and the glass—held a velvet bag, out of which spilled cosmetics, what looked like Lily's wand, and several combs and hairbrushes, the necessity of which James could not fathom. A pair of jeans, trainers, and a fading red-t-shirt were in a heap on the floor underneath the table.
Lily was looking at her reflection in the mirror—staring, really, as though searching for something amidst the familiar lines of her face. Eventually, she shook herself and picked up the mascara brush, applying the make up to her eyelashes and then surveying her image in the glass again.
James forgot to knock.
"You look nice," he told her truthfully, and Lily started. She regained herself quickly, turning to face him.
"Thank-you. So do you. Fedora aside..."
"I could use a shower... and I thought we learned not to mock the fedora."
"We could all use a shower, and it's still a ridiculous hat."
"You're better at faking it, and the hat is classy."
"Well you're welcome to borrow some perfume."
"That would just spawn a whole new set of problems," said James, wondering what Carlotta would think should she detect another girl's perfume on his dress robes. Not that Carlotta would be back from Italy for a few days still...
Lily didn't catch the reference, however, instead inquiring as to his presence there.
"I was sent to look for you, actually," he explained. "They'll be ready in a minute."
"I see. And you drew the short straw, did you?"
"Volunteered actually." Lily looked at him curiously. That dress must have been crafted by Satan himself. "I just—I wanted to talk to you."
And he wanted to tell her. He really did. He wanted to explain about Carlotta, and explain how this would be a good thing, because it meant that they didn't have to be uncomfortable around each other, and he was usually so good at saying what was on his mind, but... this was different.
Because to bring it up would be to imply that she was curious, and that was only another uncomfortable conversation that he didn't want to have. Then, there were the other two options: first, that she wouldn't care at all, and second, that she would be relieved. He wanted her to be relieved by the news (or, he wanted to want it, at any rate), but he didn't think he could tolerate seeing her relief.
"I guess to say thank-you."
"Thank-you for what?"
James's hands found his pockets. He thought of the expression on her face in Falstaff's office, when he had tried to trick her into getting out of it all. "Trusting me, I guess. And the thing with the door, too."
He smiled a little at the recollection of Lily Evans—hammering away at the hinge pins—and met her eyes. But only for a moment, because—quite suddenly—she was hugging him.
And, for the first time since he had gone to the coast, James questioned his assumption.
They hadn't kissed.
She had said that she couldn't.
She didn't want him.
He had known this. He'd been so convinced. But was there any chance that he was wrong? And, if he had been wrong, would it make a difference?
Because Carlotta was in a lot of ways, quite fantastic. He did enjoy being with her. And as much of a gamble she might be, Carlotta Meloni did not pose half the risk that waiting for Lily Evans did.
Lily really did look beautiful, though, so he pulled back.
"You weren't kidding about the perfume," he said, hoping she wouldn't notice how his voice didn't sound right at all.
"And you weren't kidding about the shower," she replied lightly. James's doubts vanished. This was too easy for her. Friends. Just friends. Like she'd told The Daily Prophet reporter. "Thank-you for checking in on me, but I'll be alright." He wanted to argue, but she added: "Really, I'll be just fine."
"And what if you're not?" he asked. Because the last thirty-six hours had been a small battle compared to what seemed to inevitably lie ahead.
Lily might have sensed his meaning from the change in his tone, but she had no opportunity to reply. Marlene's voice broke their solitude.
"They're ready." The blonde entered the room. "Are you?"
Lily looked at James, as though repeating the question to him, asking him whether there was anything else that needed to be said between the two of them. "'Course I'm ready," replied James. "I don't have a job to do, though, do I? Are you ready, Snaps?"
Lily picked up her bridesmaid's bouquet. "I'm ready."
She followed James and Marlene out of the room, and somewhere in the corridor, she leaned over with a mischievous smile on her lips. "How does your house elf know my name?"
James pretended not to hear her.
There was no procession, very little ceremony, really, with all of them crowded into the office, Lily and Alice with the daisies transfigured by the maid-of-honor.
Frank glowed, and the wizard in black said his piece, but James doubted that either bride or groom heard what he had to say. They weren't looking at each other; their eyes remained fixed in front of them, but they held hands, and he knew—he could just tell—that every bit of concentration each possessed was fixed upon the other.
If there was a right way to be married, James thought, this must be it—not because Frank and Alice had not had to worry about guest lists and flower arrangements... it was because they were Frank and Alice, and everyone there was convinced that this was right—even, he supposed, the eternally skeptical Donna. The ceremony could have been planned for months, with an orchestra and a million magical family traditions put carefully in place, and that would have been nice, too. But in this moment, it was perfect.
And this coming from someone who wasn't entirely sure he believed in the institution.
He stole a glance at Lily again, who met his hazel eyes with her own teary green ones, and he grinned at the sight of her. She made a face—probably thinking he was mocking her for her sentimentality—because, of course, she had no idea how she looked there... what the tears did for the color of her eyes and in her cheeks... how he wanted so desperately not to care... not to want her at all...
He would try (because requited fancy might be nicer than unrequited love).
He wouldn't think himself doomed to failure (even if he was).
He'd do his best (it was only fair).
But in the crowded little brick office—with his three best friends and several classmates and Sam and all the Longbottoms and the Griffiths and the wizard in black and Frank and Alice and the daisies and Lily—nothing and no one had ever made him feel like this. And when Lily did not look away at once, James knew there was some kind of understanding there.
Alice was hyper conscious of everything Frank did; his breathing, his blinking, the way he looked as though he were about to be ill.
It was kind of beautiful.
She was getting married.
She was getting married to Frank.
Frank could see her looking at him, even if it was only out of the corner of her eye. Her hand did not shake as it remained tightly clasped in his; he thought he might be ill.
In a good way.
He was marrying Alice.
Of course he was.
It was the only way that the day could have ended.
Lily was smiling through tears, and, at one point, she noticed James smirking at her. He was mocking her, but she didn't care, and she made a face at him.
She was tired and hungry and, fuck it all, she would be sentimental, too.
For a moment, just a second really, Lily did not look away from James, however, and in that instant, it was almost as though they were sharing something—communicating some thought... a quiet reflection about everything that had happened (between them) that day... a certain understanding that they both possessed about this event—that only they possessed maybe.
"Husband and wife," said the little wizard, and everyone clapped, and James joined in when Frank and Alice kissed. Lily laughed tearfully with the others, grabbing and squeezing the nearby Marlene's hand.
James tore his eyes away and found Sirius watching him.
"Nothing," said Sirius, shrugging (and looking obnoxiously knowledgeable). "Nothing at all."
They stepped out onto the cobbled road of Diagon Alley, stumbling and laughing, half delirious with exhaustion. Frank grabbed Alice's hand, twirling her right there in the street and causing Sirius to roll his eyes. The Marauder, in turn, took Lily's hand and imitated the gesture, so that Alice stuck out her tongue and continued to dance with her new husband.
They were supposed to head over to the Leaky Cauldron (much to Mrs. Longbottom's despair), while the adults (which now included Sam and the Prewetts) dawdled inside chatting, and yet the ten teenagers lingered in the road.
"I can't believe you're married, Longbottom!" James told him.
"I can't believe Sam Dearborn was at my wedding," said Alice.
"It's bizarre!" Peter marveled. "You're so... old!"
"Thanks, Pete," said Frank, rolling his eyes.
"And to think," mused Sirius, "a few short months ago, I was on a date in Hogsmeade with the bride."
Lily punched Sirius's arm, and Remus groaned loudly. "Shut up, you idiot!"
"It's alright," said Frank cheerfully; "Black has every right to be a sore loser."
The others laughed at that, and Alice stood on her toes to kiss Frank for what must have been the hundredth time in the last two minutes.
"Disgusting," said Donna, pretending to shudder.
"Sod off," muttered Frank, beaming against Alice's lips. "Or we'll un-invite you to this lavish wedding."
"And modifying the guest list at this stage would be such a bother," laughed his wife.
"Alright, then," said Sirius; "Drinks at the pub, yeah?"
"Nothing but the best," joked Frank.
They started vaguely towards the Leaky Cauldron but had only traveled a few zigzagged steps before Lily's voice stopped them.
"Wait a minute!"
They turned to look at the redhead, whose eyes were, in turn, cast upwards.
"What is it?" asked Mary.
Slowly, Lily began to smile.
"Snaps?" asked James.
"Did you feel that?" she asked, holding out her hand, palm up.
"Feel what?" Donna began to ask, but then her eyes grew wide. "Bloody Merlin!"
"What? I don't..." Remus stopped. "Was that a raindrop?"
And all the adolescents turned their eyes towards the heavens, as—after months of drought—they opened, and it began to rain.
Drops fell, harder and harder, and Sirius started to laugh.
"You'll ruin your dress!" Mary anxiously pointed out to Alice, but the bride did not seem to care. With her left hand still clasped to Frank's, she raised the other to greet the rain. Wonderful, cold showers cut through the heat, and the ten witches and wizards reveled in it like nine-year-olds. Sirius took Mary's hand, guiding her in some strange kind of waltz.
Mary half screamed, half laughed, as the rain undid her perfectly arranged chestnut hair, and the others were laughing, too, mostly at Sirius's ridiculous show.
Marlene dropped her head back and breathed. The water slid down her short blond locks, and this was exactly what she needed. Everything—she could not help but think—would be okay.
Frank brushed one soaking curl out of Alice's eyes. Perfect.
Donna searched about for her wand, because she, at least, did not want to get drenched. But, in the second before she cast an Impervius charm on herself, she hesitated, just to really feel a few raindrops, and she thought she just might be able see the appeal...
Alice kissed Frank again, softly on the lips this time, closing her eyes; she wasn't sure if there were any of her legitimate tears mingled in with the raindrops.
Remus blinked water out of his eyes, laughing and shaking his head at Sirius, who was now tipping his fedora to Mary.
Peter looked at the other three Marauders, and he was mostly just glad.
James was shielding his spectacles from the rain, and he didn't notice much at all until Lily sidled up to him.
"Thank-you," she said loudly, over the din of the rain and the voices of the others. Additionally, other Diagon Alley residents, shopkeepers, and shoppers stepped out to marvel at the first rain in months.
"For what?" he asked, confused.
"For coming to get me yesterday."
"You're not angry with me for getting you kind of arrested?"
Lily shrugged. "I dunno. It'll make a good story, I reckon."
James shook his head. "You enjoy this too, don't you?"
"Battling beaurocratic injustice."
Lily smiled. "Well, I guess it was inevitable."
"That eventually we'd end up picking the same battle, you and I."
She was right, too.
"I suppose so," James agreed, grinning. "It's about time, isn't it?"
"It certainly is."
And it certainly was.
"Now, bloody hell, James, can we please get something to eat?"
A/N: Finished that. Phew. Okay. Review thank-yous and a lot of other nonsense on my blogspot, as linked in my profile. More generally, thank you to everyone who is reading and reviewing and being oh-so patient with me!
Reviews are 88 freaking pages of chapter.