"Lily, I don't understand. How did you get in here?"
She sighed in exasperation as she attempted to get him standing. "Magic, Potter. Makes you wonder if Merlin gave you any brains or just decided to cover your head in extra hair to compensate."
James stared at Lily with rapture. The sound of her insulting him was glorious.
She rolled her eyes. "I used a Disillusionment Charm to get in here unnoticed, and then I found the keys that unlock your cell. It wouldn't open with a charm. Sirius, Remus, and Peter got some black robes to try to blend in as guards. They're waiting for us. There seems to be some magic protecting this place, so we can't just apparate out."
James blinked as he tried to absorb all the information. His mind seemed too heavy to understand it all completely. His head was still reeling over the fact that the real Lily Evans was with him. Now, he had to process an entire escape plan. He forced his brain to interpret all of this new information. Then, he remembered something. "Dumbledore!" he croaked out. "We have to warn Dumbledore! They want to hurt him!"
"James, be quiet," Lily muttered with apprehension in her voice. She looked over her shoulder wearily before turning back to James. "We are trying to make this a subtle rescue mission, not alert the bad guys that we've entered their secret lair."
"But they want to hurt him. They think he has a secret. It has something to do with us," protested James.
"Us?" asked Lily, surprised. "What's supposed to happen? Are the Head Students going to take over the world by taking away points from Slytherin?" She scoffed and rolled her eyes.
James was glad she underestimated these people. He never wanted anything to happen to her to make her fear them like he did.
"Lily," said James urgently. "Where is Dumbledore? Is he safe?"
"He is at some type of meeting with the Ministry of Magic. Sirius, Remus, and Peter went to his office, but he wasn't there. Apparently, McGonagall sent them back to bed. They were plotting and speaking rather loudly in the Gryffindor Common Room when I woke up. They, apparently, were just going to storm into the place and try to take it by force. I came downstairs to make them be quiet so the First Years could sleep, and then I had to help them."
"Such a good Head Girl," James said warmly as he grasped Lily's hand lightly. He smiled when she did not pull away. "But how did you know where to find me?"
"That bloody map of yours. I'm confiscating it when this is all over."
"So we're not that far from Hogwarts?"
"No, we're someplace underground. However, we might never get back there if you keep asking me all these bloody questions when I'm trying to save you!"
James grabbed her hand tightly and stood up, pulling her up with him.. "Let's go home."
Lily took out her wand when they heard the sounds of footsteps coming closer. She looked at James with a panicked glance. "Someone's coming," she whispered.
James looked around vigilantly as he formed a plan. His brain, hazy and confused, worked as fast as it could. "Be evil," James whispered to her before a man walked towards the bars of the cage.
"Still playing with the puppy?" sneered the man, whom James recognized from his first encounter with these people. "I thought your time was up, Bellatrix."
"Time moves slower than you think," said Lily, glancing quickly at James. Her voice sounded slightly nervous, but James figured he just knew her too well. "I still have some time left with the prisoner."
"Well, just don't torture him so hard that he dies. The Dark Lord will be unhappy."
"Of course, I won't!" said Lily in a scandalized tone. Then, she remembered her role. "I would never do anything to upset the Dark Lord."
James frowned. This all sounded so wrong coming from Lily. He needed to get her out of here. She needed to survive.
"Ahh, Bella, always the lovestruck sycophant."
"I would get out of here," threatened Lily in a hushed voice. "Just because I can't kill the prisoner doesn't mean I won't kill you."
James almost pitied the man. He knew what it was like to be on the receiving end of one of Lily's rants. She scared the crap out of him.
"Merlin, Bella," the man murmured. "Fine, I'll leave. You don't have to be such a bitch about it."
James watched fearfully as Lily's fingers tightened around her wand. He could tell she wanted to hex him into oblivion. She was a feminist, and James loved her dearly for it. However, in this moment, as she struggled against her desire to protect him, he had never loved her more.
James and Lily both let out an exhale when the man finally left.
"What was that?" Lily whispered. "Who's Bellatrix and this Dark Lord fellow?"
"I'll explain later," James said. "We've wasted too much time talking in here."
"I'll remember that the next time."
"Let's go," said James imperatively.
"Right," she agreed. Lily took out her wand and put it to James's head. She muttered something, and he felt his entire body tingle. When he looked down, all he saw was the grimy floor. He looked up at Lily but saw nothing.
"Lily?" James asked. She had been a dream. He knew it.
"James," she answered. "Give me your hand, so I don't lose you again."
James complied willingly.
They managed to walk through the dark corridors without encountering anyone for a while. James let Lily lead. She knew the way better than he did, and he was having trouble moving. They remained perfectly silent to not arouse suspicion, but Lily had to support a lot of James's weight as they moved. It made them slower. Still, James appreciated the feeling of her body against his bare chest. He knew he should be worried and petrified, but the smell of her warm vanilla scent made him feel calm. He traced her hand with his thumb to try to pacify her, as well. She whacked his arm, and he stopped but could not eradicate the huge grin from his face. It really was his Lily.
A cloaked man walked by, and Lily let out a gasp. James covered Lily's mouth hastily with his hand. The man looked around as though he heard something. James and Lily became statues as they waited for the man to walk away. James's heart pounded loudly in his chest as he walked closer to them. Lily was shaking against his body. Finally, the man shrugged and kept walking. James waited until he turned the corner before he let go of Lily. He looked at her meaningfully, and they began to tiptoe again silently.
As they rounded the corner, James spotted his robes and his wand inside an abandoned room. He tugged gently on Lily's hand in its direction.
"No," she whispered in his ear.
"Please, it's my wand," James pleaded quietly.
She didn't say anything, and James hobbled to the room with her help. James grabbed his wand quickly and felt strong again. It was amazing how defenseless a person could feel without his wand. Not bothering with his shirt, he slipped on his robes, which felt heavy on his wounded body, and checked his pocket. His invisibility cloak was still there.
"How could the boy just escape? There are guards everywhere!" a voice bellowed.
James turned to Lily. The Disillusionment charm was wearing off. He could see bits of red hair where air should have been. He quickly wrapped the Invisibility Cloak around them both.
"James," Lily breathed. She was frightened and shaking.
He wrapped his arms around her consolingly. "It's going to be okay, Lily. We're going to get out of here," promised James, wishing he would believe his own words.
"I want every inch of this place checked. He is hiding somewhere. No muggle-loving fool can be smart enough to outwit Lord Voldemort. I want him found."
James looked at Lily, and together they both began to walk. There was not much room underneath the cloak, but they both crouched down together. Neither of them had fully mastered wordless magic, and it was too risky to make even the slightest sound. People in black robes were everywhere. They sent out random curses and flares with their wands every few seconds. It was terrifying. James's heart was pounding unevenly. He was surprised that they could not hear it.
As they rounded another corner of the labyrinth dungeon, they ascended upon Lord Voldemort. James had never seen him so angry before. His fury seemed to seethe from him. Lily grasped his hand tightly but made no sound.
"I sense fear," Voldemort mused with a smile. "Someone's mind is very afraid."
"Master," Bellatrix called as she walked into the hallway. "I have found three trespassers in our ranks. It seems my dear cousin has found us. Too bad he doesn't seem to have changed over the years. He still just as idiotic as he always was."
Sure enough, Lucius Malfoy came with his wand pointed at Remus, Peter, and Sirius. James covered his mouth with his hand to keep silent. Malfoy kicked their shins so they would kneel before Voldemort. James examined their defiant stares with heartbreak. They had risked everything to save him, and Voldemort was just going to hurt them. He could not allow this to happen to his friends.
"Kill them," Voldemort stated simply.
"No!" James bellowed as he threw the Invisibility Cloak off. He slammed it down quickly so that Lily would still be hidden.
"Potter!" Voldemort exclaimed.
"Stupefy!" James yelled as he pointed his wand at the soulless man. He easily deflected it, but the damage was done. The first shot had been taken. Soon curses and hexes were flying everywhere, and bedlam ensued. The air was thick with bursts of green and red sparks. James dodged and ducked and threw spells of his own. He noticed, with a heavy heart, that Lily had revealed herself and was dueling with Bellatrix. More servants arrived. James aimed stunning spell after stunning spell as they approached. A few fell down, but most kept coming. Sirius and Remus rushed to attack.
"James!" Sirius called out as he dueled with a dark-haired man.
"Sirius!" James answered back as he shielded himself from a jet of red light. He realized horrifically that this would be the last conversation they would ever have. He sent out another hex.
"I think we should stay out of the Forbidden Forest for a while."
"Sounds good!" James yelled back.
Remus stunned a man who was about to attack James. James let out a breath and smiled at his friend.
"At least until the next full moon," Remus told him with a quick grin before turning to look for an attacker.
Combat continued for what seemed to be eternity. Back to back, Sirius, Remus, and James fought off as many people as they could, but they still kept coming. Peter was missing, and James silently hoped he was okay. Curses kept flying everywhere. James was exhausted, but he forced his failing body to continue fighting.
"Enough!" Voldemort bellowed. His men lowered their wands immediately, and James stopped fighting, as well.
James looked up. Voldemort was holding Lily by her elbow. James's jaw tightened as he clenched his fists to his sides.
"Lay down your wands, or the girl dies."
Sirius, Remus, and James grudgingly put down their wands.
"He's a git, isn't he?" Sirius whispered in an undertone into James's ear.
"Potter, this is your last chance to tell me what you know. You tell me now, or I will kill her."
Lily whimpered as Voldemort tugged on her elbow. "Don't, James!" she shrieked.
James watched in horror as Lily cried silently. He grew brave and stupid.
"Kill me instead," James said. "I don't have the answers you are looking for. You ask for the impossible. You want something you can never have. But I know you are not satisfied with his. You want some action, you want violence. You can have that, but leave Lily out of this. Kill me."
"Fine," Voldemort decided frankly as he pushed Lily away. It only took a second. He really did not care whose life he took as long as he took it. James shuddered at the thought.
James looked back at his friends for the last time. Remus was staring at him with anguish, and Sirius had tears welling up in his eyes. James smiled at them. "It's going to be okay," he assured them before turning around. His back was screaming in agony, but he forced it to stand erect.
He looked at Lily. "I love you," he told her, and she began to cry even more.
James forced himself to look away from her mesmerizing green eyes and stood directly in front of Voldemort. James stared directly into the brilliant red of his eyes and took a deep breath. He watched in slow motion as Voldemort raised his wand.
Then, everything turned white.
James groaned. His entire body was limp with exhaustion. It took a herculean effort just to open his eyes. He strained against the beautiful temptation to sleep forever and opened his eyes sluggishly.
"Ah, Mr. Potter, you're awake."
James's head shot up. He groaned in pain, and his eyes snapped shut.
"Yes, Poppy did tell me to warn you not to make any sudden movements. Your body has been through a great deal of stress."
James looked up. Impossibly, an old, twinkle-eyed wizard was staring at him fondly as he fiddled with his long fingers.
"Dumbledore?" James croaked out.
"James," the man greeted him tenderly.
"Am I dead?" James asked.
"Merlin, no!" Dumbledore assured him with a smile. "You're in the Hospital Wing."
"At school?" James asked. His brain was taking a long time to understand the information.
"Yes, James," Dumbledore assured him. "You're back in Hogwarts."
James, making sure to be careful to not cause any more pain, looked around. He was lying in a hospital gown on a clean, white bed. Sunlight was pouring in through the windows. He heard a snort and turned to see Sirius snoring in a chair nearby his bed.
"He's been sitting there for three days," commented Dumbledore, who noticed James's gaze.
"Three days?" James echoed.
"Yes, it was quite a bit of time. I finally convinced Misters Pettigrew and Lupin and Miss Evans to leave this morning to get an actual meal. They have been looking dreadful for days. They were so worried. Mr. Black, however, refused to leave your side. Poppy was irritated at first, but then she didn't seem to mind. He's quite a charmer."
"Yes," James agreed as he tore his eyes away from his best friend to look back up at Dumbledore. He took a deep breath and prepared himself for what needed to be said.
"James, I can only say how truly sorry I am. You were put through a hideous ordeal that I should have never allowed to have happened. It is my fault. I hope you can accept my deepest apologies." His voice sounded pained and tired with grief.
"Professor Dumbledore, sir, it wasn't your fault," James assured him quickly. "We should never have been out in the Forest to begin with."
Dumbledore chuckled quietly. "Yes, please forgive me if I don't give you four detentions, however. I think you've had quite enough punishment."
James looked down as he thought about the dark green cell. He never wanted to go anywhere like that place again.
"James, the bravery, the courage, the heroism you showed was truly remarkable. I have heard scattered accounts from your friends, and I could not be more proud of you. Regretfully, I must ask you to be strong once more and tell me what happened, if you can."
James swallowed, took a deep breath, and began. He told Dumbledore about the surprise attack in the woods, the Unforgivable curses in his cell, the man who called himself Voldemort, the polyjuice potion, and the final battle in the long corridor. It was easier to relay than he thought it would be. Once he began to speak, words kept pouring out of his mouth. It was almost like drawing venom from a wound.
"That's quite a tale, Mr. Potter," sighed Dumbledore once James had finished.
"The only thing I don't understand is why I'm not dead. Voldemort was going to kill me. I saw his wand," said James, confused.
"I believe that's my fault. As soon as I received word that you had been captured, I came back right away. Your friends were very smart to tell Minerva that you had gone missing. It seems I arrived just in time. Forgive me, James, but I stunned you to make Tom believe you were dead."
"Tom?" James asked.
"Yes," answered Dumbledore gravely. "The man you said called himself Voldemort was once named Tom Riddle. He was one of my students here not so long ago. It pains me to say that I failed him as a teacher."
"So," began James, trying to put all the pieces together. "You stunned me, and then what happened?"
"I was able to convince Tom to let you all go."
"How, sir?" asked James curiously.
"I can be very persuasive when I want to be, James," answered Dumbledore enigmatically.
James desperately desired to ask him what that meant, but he held back his questions. Dumbledore would tell him what he needed to know.
"And then you brought me back here," finished James.
"Yes," replied Dumbledore gravely. "I brought you straight to this very room, in fact. Your body has suffered severe trauma. You have a few broken ribs and some very nasty bruises. However, Poppy was more concerned with your vitals. You were extremely dehydrated."
"Yeah," said James quietly.
"However, as long as you relax and allow your body to heal itself over the next few weeks, there should be no reason why you won't be able to be up in the air soon."
James grinned at the thought. "I would like that."
Dumbledore smiled back, and his eyes glimmered underneath his half-moon spectacles.
"Sir," James began slowly. "The reason Voldemort wanted me was to tell him about some prophecy. He thought that you would know something about it."
"Why do you think he did not go directly to me?" Dumbledore mused.
"He said it had something to do with me. That Lily and I were involved somehow."
Dumbledore sighed wearily. "Yes, that would make sense," he muttered quietly to himself. "One down, two to go."
"Excuse me, sir?" James asked.
Dumbledore smiled sadly at him. "The future is always subject to interpretation, James. Our actions determine our course, not what has been decided for us."
James stared at him in wonder.
"Though, Mr. Potter, if I may, I would like to share a secret with you. It seems that after everything you've gone through, you deserve to know at least something from my mind. I know that I can trust you," added Dumbledore with a weak smile.
"Of course, Professor."
"James, we are heading into dark times, I fear. Battles need to be fought, and people need to decide where their loyalties lie. I have decided to create a secret organization called the Order of the Phoenix to help fight against Voldemort and his supporters. I was wondering if you would like to be our first member."
James sighed. Dumbledore's voice had been very calm, as though he was really giving James the option. He could decline right now and have nothing to do with this entire situation ever again, and Dumbledore would not think any less of him. James's entire being cringed at the thought of ever enduring torture once more. Yet, as he listened to the snores still sounding from his sleeping friend and thought about all the lives he held dear, he knew his answer.
"I would be honored, sir," James told him earnestly.
Dumbledore smiled at him poignantly. "How I wish I could provide better times for you, James."
"We'll make it better for my children," James promised him hopefully.
"Yes," Dumbledore agreed. "For the next generation."
Dumbledore left about an hour later. James, although he put up a valiant effort, eventually succumbed back to sleep. When he woke up, his friends were eagerly surrounding him.
"James!" Sirius rejoiced. "Mate, you're awake!" He wrapped his arms around James's middle, and James winced in pain. "Sorry, mate. It's just, I was so worried."
"I know," said James comfortingly. "It's been a long couple of days." This earned him a weak bit of chuckling.
Tears formed in James's eyes as he looked at the faces of Sirius, Remus, and Peter. They were slightly scarred in a few places and exhausted, but James had never been so happy to see them before. "Remus, mate, I think I know what it feels like now after a full moon."
Remus rolled his eyes in feigned annoyance. "You wish you were as cool as me," he teased. His face then turned more sincere. "It's good to have you back."
"It's good to be back," James replied. "And Peter! You, rat! Going off to battle to save me? Who knew you had it in you?"
"Well, we couldn't leave you behind, James," replied Peter.
James smiled at him widely before turning his attention to Lily. He sighed as he saw her face. Covered in tears and worry lines, she looked more radiant than ever.
"Lily," he breathed.
"James Potter, don't you ever try to die for me again," she threatened.
James sighed. "I'll try not to," he replied just to appease her.
She sighed too and then reached over to grab his hand. She laced her fingers in his own and squeezed gently as she pulled it up to kiss his knuckles gently. "Thank you," she whispered.
"All right, settle down," Madame Pomfrey ordered as she bustled into the room with a goblet in her hands. "Mr. Potter needs his rest. I said you could only stay until Mr. Potter woke up."
"Please, Poppy? We promise not to strain him," Sirius pleaded.
"Fine," she acquiesced. "Make sure he drinks his sleeping potion. He needs his rest."
"Thanks, sweetheart," replied Sirius with a heart melting smile.
Madame Pomfrey rolled her eyes, but there was a faint hint of a blush on her cheeks as she turned around to walk back to her office.
James sniggered, and found that his ribs throbbed painfully. His fingers flew to his side, and he moaned loudly.
"You should probably take the potion now, mate," Sirius advised him anxiously.
James nodded as he took the goblet and began to drink it. He felt his eyelids immediately begin to droop. "You guys won't disappear when I wake up, right?" he asked weakly.
Sirius laughed and patted James's leg brotherly. "We'll be right here."
James smiled, and, with Sirius's hand still resting on his leg, Remus and Peter sitting against his bed, and Lily's hand in his own, he drifted off to sleep.