Disclaimer: We like soup. We do not, however, like taking credit for other people's work. Is this a pathetic excuse for a disclaimer or what? You'd better be used to it by now.
The sun had barely risen. Half-light crossed the glassy panes of the kitchen windows, coating the countertops and tables in a shadowy cloak beneath the glow of the synthetic ceiling lamps. Lily, who had her bag propped on the counter, was clad in jeans, a tank top and running shoes. James was mirroring her from across the granite benchtop, dressed in a similarly practical outfit with Bob's old hiking pack spread out in front of him. Two travel mugs of coffee bridged the gap between their bags. Meanwhile, Remus, Sirius, and Peter were all lounged about, a portrait of pyjamas, bedhead and general dishevelment.
"You know," Lily said, eyeing her backpack wryly as she pulled the zipper shut across its contents, "this really isn't the trip I thought I'd be going on this summer."
"But isn't this so much better?" Sirius replied. He was munching corn flakes straight out of the box, feet resting brazenly on the kitchen table. "Who needs a lake
house when you've got the Knockturn Public Library?"
There was a squeak of running shoes on linoleum, and suddenly Petunia rounded into the kitchen. She had on cargo pants and a dark jacket and was touting a floral rucksack that appeared to be stuffed to the brim.
"What's that for?" Lily asked with trepidation, nodding toward the bulging accessory that was dwarfing Petunia's figure. She was fairly sure she knew the answer already.
"I was doing a bit of thinking," Petunia said, clearly trying to pass for casual as she swung into a bar stool, "and I decided that maybe I should come along after all." In her haste to explain, she sounded like an elementary school student nervously rushing through a stack of cue cards. "It's just that if one of you is driving and one's navigating, then who's going to keep an eye out for the paparazzi? They could be anywhere. Not to mention there's that tricky lock in the truck that only I can work... Of course, it's not that I really want to go or anything, but just to be safe..."
The outburst came as a surprise to nobody. Lily, for one, had been predicting this moment ever since Petunia had suggested that she take the coveted second road trip spot in her stead last night. She had to give her sister credit; the 'hard to get' charade was lasting much longer than she had initially thought possible. It was clear, however, that the whole thing was beginning to wear thin.
"Petunia," Lily reminded her. "One of us needs to be here, remember? We can't just leave these three in the house." She waved a hand at Sirius, Remus and Peter. "What if Mum and Dad call?"
"Well it's not as though any of them would actually pick up the phone," Petunia said. "We can just call back later. I'll tell Mum we were at Tesco or something."
"For two days? Yes, that's entirely plausible."
"Well, we could..."
Lily shook her head. "Look, if you want to go, that's fine. Take my rucksack and I'll stay here. I honestly don't care."
James shot her a sharp look, but she ignored it.
"No," Petunia said, seemingly with great difficulty. "No, that's alright. I'll stay. There's no real reason for me to go instead of you..." Her eyes remained glued to James. She bit her lip. "Or, well, maybe we should just all go."
"Twiggie," Sirius barked. He removed his legs from the table and swung forward, depositing the cereal box in front of him. "Come off it, alright? Longs are going. End of story."
"Yes, I know," Petunia snapped. "I just figured it wouldn't hurt if someone else was prepared as a back-up, just in case."
Nobody spoke for several seconds. There was a pitter-patter of footsteps as Harry's lithe silhouette leaped onto the counter to sniff Lily's bag. It was a testament to Petunia's current state that she did not so much as lift a finger in protest.
Lily patted the cat absently. "I suppose we should make sure we're not forgetting anything," she said. "Remus, do you have the checklist?"
He pulled it out of his pocket with a silent nod, smoothing out the creases in the paper. "Directions?" he began, looking questioningly at Lily and James.
"Got 'em," James confirmed, picking up the Google Maps print-offs that Petunia had put together last night.
"To start off with, anyway," Lily said. "I imagine we'll be stopping a few times to refill."
"How long of a drive is it, again?" Peter wanted to know.
With a grim expression, James replied: "Ten hours, give or take."
"Do you have spare clothes?" Remus continued. "Money? Water? A phone?"
"Yes, yes, yes and yes," Lily confirmed. "Is that all?"
"All that seems applicable, anyway," said Remus. He made a face. "Who wrote 'pudding'?"
In response, the cuckoo clock by the pantry burst open to chirp out the arrival of six o'clock. Harry jumped off of the counter and Petunia scooted backwards in her chair, and the flurry of noise and movement seemed to announce that it was time for them to get going. Lily picked up her bag and slung it over her shoulders.
"Right," James said as he did the same. "I guess we're off." He avoided Lily's eyes as he said this. The two of them had been dancing around the issue of their impending companionship since the previous night, and now that the moment had arrived, Lily felt a strange nervousness begin to crawl over her skin.
"Remember," Remus reminded them as they made their way toward the front door, "don't do anything rash." He was looking mainly at James. "All we really need is information at this stage. Just stay low and try not to draw attention to yourselves."
James dropped his brows into a dispassionate stare. "But I had this grand entrance planned," he shot back sarcastically. "It involved fireworks and glitter and a horse and carriage and now I'm very disappointed."
"Oh, shut up."
On the outskirts of the gathering, Petunia was twisting her newly acquired hemp bracelet around her wrist so quickly that a small patch of rope burn was forming. Lily caught her eye.
"Are you sure you'll be okay?" Petunia asked with some hesitance.
Lily couldn't tell if this was a show of concern or simply another attempt to delay James' departure. Strangely, she suspected that it was a mixture of both.
"We'll be fine," she replied, not unkindly.
"Remember," Petunia added, "two clicks to open the passenger door and sometimes you have to smack the lock to get it to open."
"Got it. And you'll be fine babysitting this lot?"
Petunia's lip curled as her eyes slid toward Sirius. "Some of them are not exactly the most pleasant of company," she said, "but I suppose I'll manage."
Sirius barely lifted a brow. "The feeling is mutual, Petty, believe me."
"Would you please stop calling me that."
"Anyway," Lily said abruptly. "You'll probably need to get milk either today or tomorrow. And maybe bread. And make sure Mum and Dad's room stays off-limits, yeah?"
"Of course." Petunia turned her attention away from Sirius and there was a long pause. The elder girl seemed to be struggling to say something as she stared into her sister's eyes. "Be careful," she finally managed. "And good luck."
Lily nodded, and the tiniest hint of a smile graced her mouth. "You too."
"Oi, by they way, I'm expecting a souvenir," Sirius said.
James, who had his hand on the doorknob, turned around and snorted. "Right. Would you like a library book or a relic from the cult of death?"
"I think the answer to that one is fairly obvious," Remus observed dryly.
"Right," said James. "Toenail necklace it is then, you illiterate bugger."
"Fantastic. Have fun, you two." This, naturally, was punctuated with a wink.
"Stay safe," said Remus.
"If you know what I mean."
"Alright, going now," said James, pulling open the door. Reddish sunlight beamed in, making them both squint.
"Remember not to let anyone in," Lily tossed back as a final bit of advice. "And please, please don't burn the house down."
Lily barely heard the tittering chorus of "Yes, Mum"'s and "Well, obviously"'s as the door clicked shut behind her. And then it was just her and James, alone on the porch, suddenly and tremendously aware of what lay ahead.
The sunrise was just beginning to peek over the cheerful slopes of the roofs, and the two of them were casting long, awkward shadows onto the white clapboard behind them. As though suddenly aware of her stiff posture, Lily reached up to hook her fingers under the straps of her backpack. James stuck his hands into his pockets and turned his gaze towards the pickup truck that was parked in the driveway.
"Shall we?" he said.
Lily only managed a nod. Something about this situation was throwing her completely off-kilter.
The two of them loaded their packs into the truck in silence, and once the passenger door had successfully been wrestled open (a joint effort), they clicked their seatbelts into place, and Lily brought the grizzly-esque engine to life. She backed out without a word; only once they had turned onto the main road did she clear her throat and speak.
"Do you have the map?"
"Right. Yes," said James. He seemed somewhat flustered as he twisted around to retrieve his pack. "Sorry, should've got that out before."
"It's alright," Lily assured him, glancing in the rearview mirror before changing lanes. "We probably won't need it until we get closer anyway."
"Good point." James tossed the map onto the dashboard and stowed his pack away once more. "You know the roads round here pretty well I guess?"
"Decently. I mean, it's fairly simple once you get on the freeways."
The silence was practically suffocating after that. As they cruised down Main Street and bypassed the heart of Gryffindale in all of about three seconds, Lily was focused more intently on the road than need be and James was looking out the window, tapping his fingers on the leather in what was most likely an endeavour to seem relaxed. This was hardly successful. Lily kept sneaking glances at him out of the corner of her eye, and when their gazes occasionally met, they drew back immediately and resumed their individual fixations.
Things were more awkward now than ever, and Lily wasn't entirely sure why. It wasn't the first time they'd been alone together; there had been that revelatory heart-to-heart as they'd washed dishes side by side, and then the night when— Oh, yes. It was that night hanging between them now like an over-pungent air freshener from the rearview mirror. It was impossible to ignore and would have to be dealt with sooner or later, but nobody wanted to make the first move. Lily thought about just biting the bullet, but she couldn't think what to say. So she kept her eyes on the road, willing the hours to pass quickly.
Fortunately, James offered a reprieve from the tension.
"Mind if I turn on the radio?" he asked (in true rockstar fashion, Lily thought) as they merged onto the freeway, heading north.
"No, go ahead," she told him. "Mind you, it's a bit fuzzy sometimes. Doesn't always get the good channels."
James leaned forward to fiddle with the buttons, and a voice crackled to life. "And that was the Marauders, with 'Deluminate', yet another rebound chart topper. Album sales have absolutely skyrocketed since the legendary vanishing act—not that they needed the help to begin with. Is it all some sort of publicity stunt? Head over to our website and cast your vote at www dot—"
James jammed his finger down on the channel button. The grainy voice gave way to a classical music interlude, and the soaring trill of flutes and violins was a comical addition to the tense atmosphere.
Lily wanted to make some sort of wisecrack, but one look at James' clenched jaw killed that notion fairly swiftly. Instead, she removed one hand from the steering wheel and switched radio stations, stopping when a recent summer hit caught her fancy.
The song was all bubblegum and sunshine, and though Lily was loathe to admit it, it was rather catchy. She had heard it enough times on Petunia's workout mix to have memorized most of the lyrics. As the sugary beat bounced around the car, and with the morning sun now blazing in the sky, it was impossible not to feel in better spirits. Within moments, she was tapping her fingers against the steering wheel and singing along quietly.
She stopped when there was a tiny expulsion of breath from the passenger seat.
"What?" Lily slid her eyes quickly to the side.
"Nothing. It's just," James laughed properly this time, "you're a really terrible singer."
"Gee, thanks," she said, offence written all over her face.
James shook his head. "No, no, it's strangely endearing. Carry on."
Lily looked at him as though he was insane. "Well I'm not going to now."
"Oh, come on," James said. He picked up the next line with gusto. "Sweet lips in the magical sunlight." The fluid depth of his voice contrasted humorously with the girly lead vocals, and Lily snorted despite herself. She couldn't resist adding the next line:
"One kiss and everything's alright."
They sang together, "Endless summer, I'm yours tonight," and then suddenly they were belting out the corny lyrics as the truck sped down the freeway. The impromptu duet culminated in lots of air guitar on James' part and some vocal riffs from Lily.
James reached behind his glasses to wipe tears from his eyes. "Oh my god," he said. "I'm sorry, I just—you're amazingly out of key."
"Well, not all of us were trained by bloody Pavarotti."
"Try a dingy old radio in the garage," he retorted, making a face.
Lily scoffed. "Come on, you've had lessons—at least once in your career."
"That's true. Management wanted to get the husk out of my lower register."
"Oh really? And how'd that work out?"
"They sent me back a changed man. I couldn't go all Bob Dylan now if I wanted to."
"That's a shame."
"Are you a Dylan fan? Or was that just sarcasm?"
Lily cracked a smile and reached to turn down the volume just a notch. "Not sarcasm, believe it or not. Street-Legal was the only CD in my dad's car for years. I've got a bit of a thing for husky voices."
James appeared to evaluate this information for a moment. He cleared his throat. "Your dad has good taste in music."
"Yeah. Thank god someone in this family does."
"I dunno, I'd say Petunia's is pretty excellent."
"Ha, ha." Lily wrinkled her nose. "I'm not sure it's your music she's so in love with, mate."
James sucked in a breath. "Yeah, about that..." he said, fidgeting uncomfortably in his seat. "I've sort of tried everything I can think of to let her know I'm not interested." He turned to appeal to her with a wrinkled forehead. "It doesn't seem to be working."
Lily took one look at his expression of despair and broke into snorting laughter.
"Oi, don't do that," James said. "I'm serious!"
"Sorry," Lily said, sounding anything but. She put on a solemn face. "It must be awful having so many willing females falling at your feet all the time. You have my full emotional support."
James laughed, but it was more a sound of exasperation than amusement. "It's not like that."
"Oh?" Lily raised her eyebrows, then turned her head to change lanes. "What is it like?"
He hesitated. "Pretty fucking terrifying, to be honest."
"I can imagine. All those rabid hordes of preteen girls..."
James was not impressed. He looked at her stonily. "Are you always this sarcastic?"
"Unfortunately." Lily flashed a toothy smile, still staring straight out the windshield at the road ahead. "Sorry. Tell me about how terrifying it is to be loved and adored by half of the world's female population."
"That's just it, though." James was staring out the windscreen as well now. "They don't love me, do they? They don't even know me."
Finally, Lily offered nothing in the way of a mocking response. In fact, she remained completely silent until he inhaled loudly and carried on, "Your sister's the perfect example. She's got this idea in her head that she knows exactly who I am because she's read a few hundred magazines."
"A few thousand," Lily corrected.
"Whatever. The point is, that's not me. Sometimes..." He faltered for a second, as though having second thoughts about sharing what he was about to say, "I do wonder, you know, what they'd all think if they really knew me."
Lily chewed her lip, choosing her words carefully. "If they knew your personality, you mean?"
"Yes and no." James was flexing his fingers. "Just... I dunno, things like... I hate giving interviews. I was bullied in school for my specs. Sometimes I'd rather stay on the tour bus and play video games than go out and do a show. That sort of stuff."
"Trust me," Lily said. "You'd have to come up with a lot worse than that to change their minds."
There were a few minutes of silence as the conversation faded out and the two of them contemplated what had just been exchanged. They were venturing into deeper territory than their previous banter had ever allowed, and Lily couldn't help but feel as though she was navigating blind through an unfamiliar landscape.
"You know," she said after a while. "For what it's worth, I actually like the real you a lotbetter than the bloke who's plastered all over Petunia's bedroom walls."
James let out a bark of laughter. "Thanks," he replied, squinting grimly into the sun. "I suppose that's not saying much, huh?"
Lily shrugged, dodging the question. "He does have way better hair, though; I'll give him that."
"The mystical powers of Photoshop, I hear."
Now it was Lily's turn to laugh. Somehow, the conversation became much easier from there on out; they talked music and video games, made fun of the radio announcer's far too nasal voice, played "I Spy," and tried to spell their names from passing license plates until they gave up due to a lack of fellow travellers. All the while, the kilometres rolled on by. James dozed off at one point, and when Lily looked over his mouth was open and his glasses set askew by the window pane. She smirked to herself and kept on driving.
An hour or so passed before Lily hit a pothole and James lurched forward, jolting awake. As Lily tried to apologize through her laughter, he just rubbed his eyes and said, "God, I'm hungry. What time is it?"
"Coming up on eleven," she said. "About time for second breakfast, I reckon."
"I like your thinking," said James. He reached for his rucksack again. "I wonder what Twi— er, Petunia packed for us."
Lily groaned. "You let Petunia pack our snacks?"
"She volunteered," said James, cringing as he pulled out baggies of carrot sticks, apple slices, and almonds. "Looking back, I can see it may have been a mistake to accept."
"No kidding," said Lily, grimacing at the meager pickings. "Honestly, you'd think she wanted us to starve."
"Well, we could always stop for something," James suggested.
Lily nodded. "There's a town coming up," she said, noting a sign to their left. "Ottery Saint Something-or-Other."
"Perfect," said James. "Fingers crossed for a KFC."
They kept their eyes peeled as the town materialized around them, all red brick and waterlogged fields, but Ottery Saint Catchpole did not appear to be the sort of place that would have a KFC. They bypassed a rundown cafe, deciding they would do better to grab something for the road. Then James spotted a tall red-and-blue sign for "Rosmerta's Homestyle Hamburgers - Eat In or Takeaway" in the distance and Lily was sold.
"I haven't had a burger in years," she explained, veering into the left lane. "I don't even remember what ketchup tastes like."
"How are you still alive, woman?" James joked. Lily was about to answer when something caught her eye, up ahead on the sidewalk. A cluster of denim shorts and neon fabrics and oversized sunglasses was coming toward them, moving across Rosmerta's driveway with an astounding lack of efficiency.
"Dammit," said Lily, noting that she was about to parade James Potter past this gaggle of smoothie-sipping vultures. She wasn't sure whether to speed up or slow down; in the end, instinct had her jamming her foot on the brake.
"What are you—?" James started in confusion.
"Get down," she said frantically. "Hide your face. Do something, I don't care, just..."
A few of the girls had glanced up at the slight commotion, but they weren't yet close enough to study their faces. At least, Lily hoped not.
"Oh, shit," said James, cluing in. "Ugh, it's alright. Just keep driving."
Although she was wary, Lily did as she was told. James had the sound of somebody who'd done this many times before, and—it occurred to her now—he probably had. As she cruised along at half the speed limit, she watched him recline his seat all the way and place his rucksack over his face.
She drove by the group as nonchalantly as possible, all too aware that she carried their fugitive prince in her passenger seat. She listened for any snippets of their conversation she could catch, but all she heard was "There's broccoli in this? That is so gross!" and someone insistently shouting the name "Jessica." Satisfied that they knew nothing, Lily stepped on the gas.
Once they had left the downtown behind, James sat up and Lily glanced back wistfully at the burger joint.
"Maybe on the way back," said James sympathetically.
The rest of the drive was punctuated by growling stomachs and elaborate food fantasies. Petunia's "snacks" were quickly devoured; the empty ziplocks scattered the dashboard. Every fast food chain they passed sent them into a desperate, salivating frenzy, but in the interest of minimizing public exposure, they pressed on. By the time they reached Knockturn, it was late afternoon and Lily was certain her stomach had eaten itself.
"Looks like we're just about here," she said. They had pulled off the highway onto a road thick with trees, and a few buildings were visible through the foliage ahead. Despite the lack of any "Welcome" sign, Lily knew they had come to the right place. The road was shade-mottled, the buildings made of greyish wood and their windows foggy with cobwebs and dust. They came over a short bridge, but the water underneath was still and rust-coloured. Overhead, the sky was the colour of a fuzzy television screen. It seemed that the entire town was ringing with dead radio silence.
Lily shivered. "Reckon anyone actually lives here? It's like a—"
"Zombie apocalypse?" James suggested,
They carried on down the main street, the truck cutting a solitary path along the bumpy road until, finally, they spotted two older men stumbling out of a pub named Borgin and Burkes. The sign of life was momentarily reassuring, but their ragged clothing and the way they leered at the vehicle as it passed did nothing to put Lily and James at ease.
"Right," James glanced down at the crumpled pages of maps in his lap. "Library should be just up ahead, if you turn right at the next intersection." His stomach let out a heinous growl. "Sorry," he said. "I'm so fucking hungry."
At the mention of hunger, Lily's abdomen made a similarly loud and vicious noise. She grimaced. "Apparently, my stomach sympathizes."
"They're probably complaining to one another about what terrible people we are."
Lily snorted at the mental image. "Imagine how Petunia's feels. Am I turning here, then?"
They ended up on another lifeless street littered with crumbling stone cottages, rotting trees, and rusty mailboxes. Although they kept their eyes open for the library, they reached a dead end and had to double back before they found it nestled between two homes. The sign was faded and half-covered by a drooping branch, but on a second pass they just managed to make out: Knockturn Public Library, est. 1865. There wasn't much to distinguish the building from its neighbours, save that it was slightly bigger and somebody had cleared the dead leaves from its porch.
Lily pulled hesitantly into the small clearing that served as a driveway, studying the darkened windows with doubt. "Do you reckon they're even open?" she asked.
"Should be," answered James. "It's only three-thirty."
"No, I mean—does anybody still work at this place?" The fact that they'd only counted two living beings so far did not bode well for their intentions. For all they knew, the Knockturn Library may have closed down years and years ago. Lily's writhing stomach clenched at the thought; all this way, only to return empty-handed...
James was already opening his door. "Only one way to find out, right?"
Lily was about to follow suit when she had a thought. "Wait!" she called out. "What if somebody recognizes you?"
"Shit, I forgot," said James, slamming the door shut. He immediately started rummaging around in his pack, saying: "Not likely we'll meet any die hard fans in here, but just in case..." He pulled out a bundle of oddments and shook them out on his lap.
"Oh god," said Lily as he assembled the disguise. Onto his head went a floppy ginger wig, long at the sides and back to cover the mess of hair underneath. Next, he donned a red-and-purple baseball cap. Lily almost lost it when she saw the word "Swag" displayed on its front, and then James popped a gold cap onto his lateral incisor and she doubled over laughing. Combined with the glasses, it was the most ridiculous thing she had ever seen.
"What?" said James in mock earnestness. He grinned broadly; "do I have something in my teeth?"
Lily took a deep breath to recover. "Way to blend in," she said. "You can't actually go in there like that."
"Why not?" said James. "I look nothing like myself."
It was true, she had to admit. This guise was the furthest thing from James Potter she could possibly imagine.
"Well, do you have a name?" she quizzed.
James screwed up his face in thought, almost sending her into hysterics again. "Vernon," he finally blurted out. "Vernon... Dudley."
"You are bonkers."
James reached for his door handle. "That's the idea."
Lily followed suit, and when their car doors echoed along the deserted street, a yellow-eyed tabby bolted from the library's porch in alarm.
"What the—that was the creepiest bloody cat I've ever seen," James said, craning his neck to follow its path across the yard. "What is wrong with this place?"
It was a completely valid question. When Lily noticed that the door knocker was a metal replica of a human skull, she began to have serious misgivings.
"Do we... knock?" she said, floundering in confusion.
James looked equally unsure. "Well... there's no sign or anything. Maybe we should, just to be safe."
"Alright..." Making a face, Lily grasped the skull loosely between two fingers and gave a tentative couple of raps.
Surprisingly, the response was almost immediate. The woman who answered was thin, dressed in black, and resembled an underfed vulture.
"Yes?" she said, eyeing them up and down.
"Er, hello," James greeted her with an awkward raise of his hand. "Is this the library?"
"Right. Sorry for knocking, we weren't sure..." He trailed off as his eyes fell upon the inside of the building. Lily followed his gaze to find a cramped, dark space stacked to the ceiling with overflowing shelves and dusty-looking books.
"Come in, then," the woman said, gesturing for them to join her inside.
The library smelled very strongly of old people. There was about a centimeter of dust on the wooden floor and not a single computer in sight.
"What might I help you find today?" the librarian asked. It sounded almost like a challenge.
"Er, we're just having a look around for now," said Lily. "But thank you."
The woman did nothing to acknowledge the comment, but simply retreated behind a large wooden desk. Lily and James had agreed it would be safest to conduct the search on their own, but with no idea where to start, they couldn't help but falter. They stood in the centre of the room for a moment or two, then took off determinedly in completely different directions and crashed into each other as they righted themselves. Finally, Lily muttered "We're going this way" and pushed James toward the farthest aisle. She could feel eyes on her back as they walked away.
"That woman gives me the creeps," she breathed, grabbing his arm to drag him behind an enormous shelf. "All right, now what are we looking for?"
James, who was glancing at her hand on his bicep, seemed distracted. "...Uh, newspapers, right?"
"Yes," Lily said, releasing him. "But where are they? I didn't see any on the way in."
"Might I suggest a browse through our newspaper archive, located on Level Two." The librarian appeared so suddenly that Lily and James both stumbled backwards into the shelf with a thud. A shower of dust rained down upon them, and they coughed, swatting the particles away from their faces.
The woman seemed unaffected. She fixed them with a ghoulish expression that resembled neither a smile nor a frown, but was the most odd and terrifying thing that Lily had ever seen. "If you'll allow me to escort you..." She turned, motioning for the two of them to follow her.
Lily made wide eyes of frustration at James, who simply shrugged in defeat. "Maybe she can help," he whispered.
And so they followed the woman's hunched back up a rickety flight of stairs and found themselves on a half-storey with questionable railings that overlooked the bottom floor of the library. Against the outer wall was a row of display cases. Each was filled with an array of historical artefacts, from a gramophone to a model sailboat. The lower parts of the cases were made up of wide, shallow drawers, which Lily could only assume were the archives.
"The drawers are labelled by year," said the woman. "You can look for yourselves, but please do not tap on the glass."
"Right, thanks," said Lily.
If they thought those were her words of parting, they were sadly mistaken. She took a few steps back but otherwise stayed exactly where she was to oversee their every move.
James coughed. "Eighty-seven, was it?"
"Yeah," Lily answered. She started toward one of the middle cases, noted the date, and paced over to the right, James close behind her. "This one," she said, stooping to open one of the lower drawers.
Inside were two stacks of the Knockturn Weekly. The two on top were labelled the 5th of January and the 6th of July.
"Shoot," whispered Lily. "What was the month?" They had written down the exact date, but it was on a slip of paper tucked safely away in one of their packs. Behind them, the librarian looked ready to pounce.
"Er, um, try August? Or October maybe?"
It seemed that luck was on their side for once; Lily had only to lift up two July newspapers and there it was:
Ten Dead in Local Forest Fire
A quick flick through the article showed it to be much more extensive than what they had found on the internet; it spanned several pages. Lily moved excitedly to pull the newspaper out of the archive.
"Ah, ah," the librarian cut in frantically. "The papers are not to be removed from the drawers. They are very fragile."
By this point, Lily was completely fed up with their overzealous vulture of a babysitter. "Sorry," she snapped. Then, with the entire mess still in the flat compartment, she attempted to read the article while holding up the top of the stack with one hand.
She stopped when James nudged her gently, motioning to something in his pocket. By instinct, Lily huddled in close. What James was doing—although harmless—wasn't likely to go down well with the librarian. Fortunately, she was still a few metres away as he positioned his phone over the pages and snapped as many pictures of the article as he could manage. When he was finished, he deftly stowed the phone back in his pocket.
Lily gave him a grateful smile. "I wonder if there's anything el—"
A shadow fell over them that could only mean one thing: the librarian's need to meddle had trumped all consideration for personal space. Aware that her every move was being scrutinized, Lily put the top papers down gingerly and slid the drawer back in. James stood and offered her a hand.
"I wouldn't advise you to go searching in such dark corners around here," said the librarian coolly. The words puzzled Lily until she realized that the woman must have seen the article they were studying so intently.
"We're sorry," said Lily, looking at her feet. "It's— it's a personal interest thing is all. Our parents used to live near here and they mentioned it."
The librarian blinked at them both. "We do not speak of it in these parts," she said darkly. "It was a horrible, horrible thing happened that night. You won't find the truth of it in these papers—only man who could tell you any of it is in no fit state to say a word."
Lily looked up. "There was a witness?"
"Not a witness, girl." A shadow fell over her face as she spoke. "A survivor."
A chill zipped up Lily's spine. "I—I didn't know anyone survived the fire."
"There was one," she reiterated. "Of course, he was never the same after what he'd seen. Trauma-induced psychosis, they called it. Still up at St. Mungo's, 'sfar as I know. Dreadful, dreadful."
"What was his name?" James asked, and Lily feared that his forwardness might put an end to whatever spell the librarian was currently under, but the woman carried right on.
"Gaunt," she said. "Morfin Gaunt. Boy's father was a schoolteacher—never knew the little one would get mixed up in such dark business..."
"And this St. Mungo's—where is that?" asked James.
Lily would have very much liked to kick him as she watched the librarian snap out of it and fix them with a glare. "What did I tell you about dark corners, boy?"
"Right, sorry," said James. "Er, it's about time for us to go anyway. Thank you for all your help."
The librarian grunted and followed them down the stairs. Her piercing gaze followed them all the way out the door.
"So, first impressions of Knockturn?" James asked when they were back inside the truck.
"Forget the lakehouse," said Lily, "we're taking a family trip out here next summer."
James laughed, loud and pure, and for a moment it was easy to forget the gravity of the task upon them.
As evening began to descend upon Gryffindale, the Evans house quietened down to match the stillness of the summer air outside. Sirius, Remus and Peter sat around the coffee table engaged in a lazy game of cards, while Petunia sequestered herself in the kitchen and meticulously chopped celery for her bedtime snack. An odd chorus of scuffing and growling sounds became gradually apparent above the silence, growing from a slight murmur to a blatant racket, until finally, there was a ridiculously loud crash that reverberated through the entire lower storey. The curtain rod had been yanked off of the sitting room window.
The three boys started. Peter dropped his cards.
"Good lord," Sirius burst out over the despondent meows that were now circulating the room. "What the hell has gotten into that thing?"
Harry, the culprit, jumped down from the windowsill and proceeded to stalk restlessly back and forth across the carpet.
Peter leaned over the arm of the sofa and extended his hand, clicking his fingers together stupidly. "Here, kitty kitty kitty," he said. "Here, kitty kitty—YIKE!"
The cat had pounced on his hand. Peter snatched his fingers back and clutched them to his chest. "Ow, bugger it."
"Clever," Sirius deadpanned.
"Really, though," Remus said, ignoring this exchange and eyeing Harry with interest, "it's almost as though he's possessed or something."
"Maybe he's hungry," Sirius suggested. Then, in a louder voice: "Oi! Twiggie! Your cat's gone mental!"
It took a few seconds for Petunia's footsteps to become audible. She stuck her head through the doorway. "First of all, he belongs to Lily," she snapped. "And therefore, it doesn't concern me. And second of all—" She stopped abruptly when she noticed the bare window frame and the heap of floral lace lying below. Her shoulders rose. "Sodding cat," she snarled, reaching to pick up the carnage and unleashing a series of crashes and bangs as she wrestled the whole thing back into place. Harry stood by her ankles and hissed.
Petunia had been in an exceptionally foul mood all day long. It didn't take a genius to figure out why, considering she had spent much of the afternoon angrily re-organizing her library of Marauder DVDs and glaring out the window every time a car rolled past.
When the curtain rod popped back into place, Harry began shredding a section of carpet and Petunia stood back with an almighty growl. She turned around to find herself being ogled by three sets of eyes. Peter averted his gaze immediately, bending to retrieve his scattered cards, while Remus offered a tight-lipped smile and coughed. Sirius, meanwhile, did not relent. He held her gaze firmly and said, as though they'd been discussing it all along:
"Give it up, Twiggie."
Petunia started. "Give it up? Give what up, Black?"
"Don't play stupid. Hell, you've already got that covered naturally."
"Excuse me?" She took a shuddering step toward him, the red in her face quickly overtaking the bright hue of her hair. "What are you even on about?"
"This... thing with James. It's going to have to stop, you know."
"What? There is no—"
"The hell there isn't. The way you act around him, it's childish and creepy and to be perfectly honest, it's never going to go anywhere so you should really stop trying."
A block of stunned silence followed, broken by Remus' low warning of "Mate...".
Sirius seemed to realize that his words had been rather harsh. He released his stare, letting out a sigh as Petunia began to blink furiously. "Come on, Twiggie, you know what I mean. You've got to stop pining over him. You're only driving yourself mental."
But as her teary reflex response abated, Petunia could only gape at him with raw fury pouring out of every inch of her skin. She did not seem to be able to reply.
Sirius carried on, though it was clear his level of comfort was declining. "All I'm saying is that you'll be way happier if you can just bloody well move on already. You know, for your own sake—"
"Stop!" Petunia finally burst out. It was a high, grating sound that made everyone wince. "Just stop." She expelled something that may have been a sob or a maniacal laugh. "My god, every single thing you say is less and less your business."
"The bloke's my best mate, Twiggie. You can bet your ass it's my business."
"You have no right to—"
"To what? State the obvious? For christ's sake! Anyone with half a brain can see that James isn't interested in the same way!"
"You know what your problem is?" Petunia shrieked. "You spend way too much time caught up in James' life because you realize that yours is absolutely... pathetic by comparison!"
Sirius regarded her coolly. "Say what you want, but at least I'm not some snivelling little lovestruck fangirl who can't catch a hint for the life of her..."
Petunia stood in front of the sofa, arm outstretched, and directed her watery gaze toward the slack-jawed Sirius, whose cheek was rapidly blooming red. She took a few steps backward and then turned, bolting from the room before any of the boys could see her face contort.
Sirius, meanwhile, lifted a hand to the stinging patch of skin. "She's only upset because she knows it's true," he said lamely.
Remus and Peter exchanged glances, finally shifting from their awkward bystander poses.
"I'm not so sure about that," Remus said.
The three boys sat in silence for several long minutes, listening as Petunia's footsteps disappeared to the upper level and then remaining frozen in an uncomfortable hush.
Finally, Peter leaned to pick up a box from the coffee table. "Er, chess, anyone?"
There was a sputtering hiss as the game was knocked clean out of his hands, sending several pawns exploding onto the carpet.
Harry stalked away, tail swishing behind him in annoyance.
St. Mungo's Psychiatric Hospital looked like something out of a B-grade horror film. When Lily ground the truck to a shuddering halt in the decrepit parking lot, she and James leaned forward for a few seconds simply to stare up at the old dwelling in apprehension.
"Blimey," James said. "Are you sure this is it?"
The grandiose piece of Victorian architecture had long ago fallen prey to neglect and disrepair. Sharp spires, chipped windows and lifeless tree corpses created a hollow, foreboding facade, and Lily expected a colony of bats to come flying out of one of the turrets at any moment. Her eyes slid to the comparatively dull and modern sign that was nailed to the gatepost. Most of the letters had been blacked out so that it read 'St. Spit'.
"So it would seem," she deadpanned.
Neither of them made a move to get out of the truck.
"Maybe this is a bad idea," James eventually said. "It looks sort of... unsanctioned."
Lily was inclined to agree, but now that the the initial shock was plateauing, a morbid curiosity was beginning to creep in. "It's definitely a bad idea," she allowed, "but can you think of anything better?"
James sighed. "Not particularly."
"Right, then let's do this."
They remained stationary.
"I think we need a code word," Lily suggested at length. "You know, in case of tortured, lobotomized ghosts."
"That seems like a valid concern. Okay, how about... mimblewimble?"
Lily let out a great snort and then proceeded to very nearly die from her hysterics. "Sorry," she gasped. "Just—that's possibly the dumbest word I've ever heard."
"Thanks," said James.
"I like it."
"Alright, mimblewimble it is, then."
Lily snorted again as they moved to open their doors. "Wait," she said, gesturing urgently to James' face. "Dudley—Vernon—whatever his name is."
"Oh, right." James rummaged around in his bag and pulled out the wig and hat, shoving them carelessly onto his head. He added the gold tooth as an afterthought, turning to flash a smile at Lily.
She cringed. "Still disturbing."
"Really? I'm becoming quite fond of it. Might have to make this my new look when we get back to touring."
"Good luck with that."
The air outside was muggy and thick. Lily swatted several mosquitos away as she manually locked the doors of the truck.
"Well," said James as they headed up the overgrown path. "It can't be any worse inside, right?"
As it turned out, it could. The lobby was a mess of peeling wallpaper and water damage, with a fishtank that appeared to be more or less devoid of life and a couple of mouldy-looking chairs. A crusty old woman glared from behind the registration desk when the door smacked shut behind them.
"Hi..." Lily said, trying not to wrinkle her nose at the smell of sandalwood and decay. "Er, how are you?"
"What's your business?" the woman replied, sending disapproving vibes overtop of her glasses as she examined James' snapback and grill.
Lily put on her most charming face. "We were wondering if your visiting hours were still going on."
"Not for much longer," she replied. "And we take family members only."
"We wanted to visit our grandfather," James said, using their pre-rehearsed explanation. "Er, Morfin Gaunt."
The woman knocked over her stapler. By the time she had righted it, her face was awash with alarm and suspicion. "Mr. Gaunt receives no visitors."
"Well, this is our first time here..."
"He also," she said icily, "has no living relatives. I've never seen either of you before. What did you say your names were?"
"Vernon Dudley," James replied, the wind noticeably knocked out of his sails. "And this is my sister, Lulu."
The woman was jotting their names down with a frown. "Yes, well, Vernon," she said, "we don't take well to silly pranks. I'll be running your names past Mr. Gaunt and our managers before we can set up an appointment for you."
"We're visiting from out of town," Lily appealed. "We're leaving tonight and we were really hoping we might see him before we go."
"Mr. Gaunt doesn't cope well with unexpected company," the woman said. "I'm sure you understand, given his condition."
Lily deflated. "Of... of course."
It was clear that their welcome had expired, and so, with no other option, Lily and James headed for the door.
"Well, that was a waste of time," Lily said as they navigated the cracked stone walkway.
James appeared to be deep in thought—something that contrasted comically with his Vernon getup.
"What?" Lily prodded. "Tell me you're not considering— Forget about it, we can't go back in now. We should just come back in the morning, right? I mean, maybe someone else will be on shift." She doubted her own words even as she said them.
James stopped in his tracks. "Just let me try one thing, okay? Wait out here for a second."
"James..." she warned, but it was too late. He had already loped back up the path and was pulling open the door.
Lily shook her head as she made her way back to the car. She wanted to be ready in case this ended badly, as it most likely would. However, after a few minutes of nail-biting impatience, she saw James grinning as he beckoned her toward the entrance. It wasn't the sight she had expected.
"Come on," he said when she reached him. He held the door open as she stepped cautiously inside. The decrepit interior was the same, but the receptionist had utterly transformed. Where before there had been a grimace carved into her stony face, there was now a demented sort of upward curve that might have been a smile save for her still-furrowed brow. It was terrifying, but Lily fought to keep a straight face.
"Have a nice visit," the woman said somewhat pleasantly as they passed. James held up a hand in thanks and led the way around a corner to a set of double doors. Lily couldn't be sure, but she thought she saw the woman counting notes out of the corner of her eye.
It was a well-known fact in the Evans household that when Petunia was riled, or sulking, or determinedly avoiding something, she routinely took solace between the four pink, poster-clad walls of her bedroom. And so, the afternoon following her scuffle with Sirius, this was precisely where she could be found—if anybody were brave enough to seek her out.
Today, however, the blazing fuchsia brought her no comfort. Neither did all the James Potters staring down at her. She began her exile cross-legged and straight-backed among her lacy pillows, but it didn't take long before she'd thrown every one of them onto the floor and torn off her carnation quilt and ruby sheets in a fit of internal conflict. She had then spent an hour or two sprawled inelegantly on a bare mattress, furiously Googling new styling ideas, composing and deleting long-winded texts to Fliss and co., and generally avoiding the thousand hazel eyes on her walls.
By about four o'clock, it seemed unlikely that she could sink any deeper into despair.
And then, from somewhere below, there came a loud clunk and the sound of shattering glass.
Petunia tensed up, then rolled her eyes and continued gnashing her sugar-free gum. But she appeared to reconsider as she toyed with the hemp bracelet on her wrist, and a moment later she made her way tentatively downstairs and rounded the corner into the kitchen, preparing her unimpressed eyebrows and condescending tone.
"If one of you idiots broke something, I swear—"
The scene before her caused everything else to flee her mind, leaving only a vortex of confusion and a giant sign flashing "Danger! Danger!"
It was not the Marauders who had broken something, in fact, but a newcomer. Vernon Dursley stood frozen in the centre of the kitchen, his hands awkwardly outstretched as if trying to solve an invisible Rubik's cube, his head tipped to one side, his already-magnified eyes bugging out of his skull. At his feet, a grotesque puddle of glass shards and some kind of fruit preserves.
Across the counter, three similarly petrified figures were caught in varying stages of flight: Sirius had his hands on the table, and his chair had tipped over behind him; Remus was reaching for the basement door; and Peter had managed to get halfway under the table, but his protruding backside was a dead giveaway.
The boys looked positively panic-stricken, and when Petunia entered they looked to her at once as if for direction. Sadly, she could do nothing but match their doe-eyed stares. There was a long and almost comical session of heads swiveling in every which direction, and then Vernon stumbled backwards. The sole of his ergonomic loafer crushed a shard of glass into the linoleum.
"Them." Vernon's single-word reaction, expelled with great effort, was accompanied by a trembling finger aimed in the direction of the Marauders. He turned to Petunia, taking odd, screechy breaths.
"Vernon," Petunia said in a tone that she hoped was placating. "I can—I can explain."
Sirius stared at her as if to say: "Good luck".
And indeed, when Petunia searched her mental catalogue for a suitable excuse, she found all of the pages to be filled with the words 'bad, bad, this is bad' and very little else.
In the end, Vernon beat her to the punch. "It is them, isn't it?" he demanded. "Those Marauder gits."
"Oi," Sirius said.
Petunia struggled internally for a moment, and then hunched in defeat. "Yes."
"I knew it." Vernon's face was beginning to soak up the plum colour of the jam at his feet. "I knew it. I mean, I've been seeing shadows through your windows and hearing strange noises for days, but I never expected..."
Vernon stepped forward, ignoring this comment and tracking jam all over the floor. He peered skeptically at the three boys, all of whom had now straightened up and looked ill at ease. "They are real, aren't they?" Vernon said gruffly. "Not that cosplay nonsense or some such?" He leaned over the table and inspected the sleeve of Sirius' jacket at a frightening proximity.
"Fix your specs, mate," Sirius said, pulling away in disgust.
Vernon let out something that sounded like a growl. "Petunia," he said. "Please explain yourself."
There was silence as all eyes fell upon her. Petunia cast another look around the scene: Sirius, glancing distastefully at the intruder, Remus looking cautious and worn, Peter resting his hands on the table and twiddling his thumbs, and finally Vernon, who was fixing her with a flawless Sherlock Holmes deadpan as he waited for the verdict. As many times as she went through the options in her head, she couldn't seem to find a logical way out of this. What was she supposed to say? Oh, they just dropped in to say hi? Even the truth would likely seem a ridiculous concoction.
"Vern," she said, "if I tell you, you must promise not to repeat this to anyone."
"Hold up," Sirius cut in, looking alarmed. "You're not—You can't actually tell him—"
"Vernon," Petunia maintained, staring at him. "Please, for... me."
It was like watching a pair of puddings form in place of his eyes. Vernon's lips curled into a silly half-smile. "Of course."
"Right," Petunia said, shifting uncomfortably. She took a deep breath, and before she knew it, most of the twisted tale was pouring out of her mouth. Not too much, but just enough to convey the fact that they were in trouble, and it was serious. As he listened, Vernon's face darkened from purple to blue, and by the time Petunia was done talking, he had turned a shade of indigo that was actually concerning.
"I don't like this," he grunted. "I don't like this at all. Petunia, I don't feel right having you alone in a house with three young men."
"Four," Peter corrected.
Vernon's eyes bugged out when he realized that the key member of the ensemble was missing. "Not that bloke... Jack Whatsit?" he erupted. Turning, purple-faced, towards Petunia, he demanded, "Where is he?"
"James," she said in exasperation. "And he's gone... out."
"Run off, has he? Taken advantage of your generosity and bolted, I suppose, the swine."
Petunia pinched the bridge of her nose. "For goodness' sake, Vernon."
But it appeared that their unwanted guest was already headed down a different corridor of thought. "They're on the run," he was saying, mostly to himself, as he paced back and forth. Petunia cringed and tried to ignore the sticky red mess that was spreading under the soles of his feet. "Possibly hiding from the authorities... no—no, I can't let this stand." He looked up sharply. "I have no choice but to report them."
"WHAT?" Sirius and Petunia had both spoken at once. Behind them, Peter and Remus exchanged a look of wide-eyed alarm.
Vernon crossed his arms and adopted a pose reminiscent of old-time detective movies. "Petunia, the story you just told me was vague and confusing at best. It makes no sense unless they're hiding from the police."
"Trust me, then," Petunia appealed. "It's more complicated than that."
"Why stay here?" Vernon carried on, addressing the three boys now. "Why not go straight to the authorities and get protection? I'm sure the secret services would be positively gagging to safeguard the ruddy Marauders."
"Look," Sirius finally burst out. "Last I checked, you were the one breaking and entering here, mate."
Vernon took a step forward. "Are you threatening me?"
"Obviously," Sirius scoffed.
Remus grabbed the fabric of Sirius' shirt, restraining him. "Stop," he advised.
"Thentell this spec-faced git to mind his own business!"
That was all it took for Vernon to cross the space between them and jab his finger into Sirius' chest. "Look, mate," he mocked, "Anything that's Petunia's business is mine as well."
"What, are you dating her or something?"
"No," Petunia said in horror. "No, no, no." She pushed forward and swatted Vernon's hand away from Sirius' sternum, forcing them apart. "Just stop it, both of you!"
The two of them continued to direct ugly glares at one another as they were separated.
"You," Petunia swiveled to face Vernon, "promised me that you wouldn't tell anyone. So you'd better not go back on your word. And you," she was glaring at Sirius now, "...just... shut up."
"Listen." It was Remus, surprisingly, who spoke. He stepped forward cautiously, holding his hands up to Vernon as though in surrender. "I'm sorry you've been dragged into this—"
"Trespassed his way into it, more like," Sirius muttered.
"—and I'm sorry we can't tell you more. But please." If there was anyone who could appeal to a person's sense of sympathy, it was Remus Lupin and his deep-set gaze. "All we can do is ask you to keep this a secret. Just for now, until we sort things out."
Vernon lifted one side of his mouth in a cross between a grunt and a snarl.
"Please, please, please," Petunia added, clasping her hands together for dramatic effect.
This, of course, was the tap of the hammer that finally crumbled his rock-solid resolve. "I don't approve of this," Vernon warned. "But if it's what you want," He sighed and shook his head in Petunia's direction. "then... well... you have my word."
"But Petunia," he continued. "I'd like to speak to you alone for a moment."
She tensed, reflexively uncomfortable at the mention of any sort of one-on-one interaction with Vernon Dursley. But... perhaps she did owe him this small grace. She felt her shoulders sag. "Alright."
After much hinting and prodding, the Marauders filed into the adjoining room, but not without one final death glare from Sirius. Petunia returned it tenfold and then, maintaining the evil eye, she shut the door in his face to block out any potential eavesdropping. "What is it?" she asked, turning her attention back to Vernon.
He looked suddenly uneasy, as though he had only just noticed that he was the sole other occupant of the room. Petunia, upon some reflection, realized that she hadn't actually had a private conversation with him in several years. She had a tendency to barricade herself behind others in such situations.
Vernon's Adam's apple bobbed in his throat as he swallowed. "I need your word. Are you sure they're not dangerous?"
"Of course," Petunia said. "Don't be stupid."
Vernon's brow was lowered as he narrowed his eyes in thought. "I really don't like this."
"But... why?" she asked in exasperation.
"Because," Vernon replied, sounding equally as irritated, "rock stars aren't the most trustworthy of things."
"Of people, you mean."
Vernon just rolled his eyes and pushed his glasses further up his thin nose. "I don't want anything to happen to you."
"They're not serial killers." Petunia redirected her gaze to the ceiling briefly. "But if it makes you feel better, I've got Lily."
Vernon blinked, finally cluing in to the younger sister's absence. "Right. Where is she, anyway?"
"With James." The clipped response was undeniably sour.
Vernon did not look particularly upset at this news. He folded his arms in satisfaction and crossed his ankles, crunching a piece of glass underfoot as he rearranged his footing. They both glanced down at the sugary red mess on the linoleum.
"Ah... That was meant to be for you." Vernon cleared his throat. "Strawberry—I made it fresh this morning. I can drop by with another jar later on."
"No," Petunia said, glancing down in distaste. "That's alright. I'm... er, allergic."
"No you're not. You don't have any allergies; only a mild irritation to dust." The answer was so immediate and precise it was almost as though he was reading off of her medical chart. He coughed. "Anyhow, you love strawberries."
"How did—?" Petunia pressed her lips together and regrouped her thoughts, trying not to be disturbed by this evaluation. "I meant the preservatives and sugar and things," she amended. "They hurt my stomach."
Vernon was unblinkingly maintaining eye contact. "No they don't," he said quietly. "You just say that so that you don't have to eat them."
There was silence. Nobody had ever called her out so explicitly and solemnly before, and Petunia felt oddly exposed.
"Yes," she snapped after a moment's pause. "They do, thanks. I think I know my own body. And I also think it's time for you to leave."
Vernon wasn't about to argue with her. As he turned for the front door, however, he hesitated. "I just wish you could see..." He trailed off. "That is, I wish you wouldn't do that. To yourself."
And then he was gone.
Petunia stood there for a good minute or so, heartbeat erratic in her chest. Then, she fetched the kitchen broom and swept up the sticky disaster, the sweet smell of strawberries floating up to her nose as she carried the shards to the bin. Almost immediately, she grabbed a bottle of disinfectant and murdered all traces of the tantalizing scent, wiping up the goo with a paper towel and then washing her hands under scalding water.
She was just folding the tea towel back over the handle of the oven when the basement door burst open and the Marauders reappeared.
"Did he propose?" Sirius enquired lazily.
"Yes," Petunia said through gritted teeth. "We're having a June wedding in the Bahamas, and you're not invited."
Remus headed over to a bar stool and sat down with a long-suffering sigh. "In all seriousness, though," he said. "Was that anything we should be concerned about?"
Petunia shook her head. "No," she said. "He'll keep his word." She grabbed a Vitamin Water from the fridge, preparing to head back upstairs, but paused one last time to add, "It was nothing".
"What did you do?" Lily hissed as the doors shut behind them. "James, you can't just bribe peop—"
"I got us in, didn't I?" he whispered back. "Just go with it."
Lily had to accept that she had no choice. They hadn't taken five paces down the whitewashed hall before a balding man in a lab coat stepped out of a room to greet them.
"You are visitors for Mr. Gaunt?" he asked.
"Yes," said James. He gestured toward the lobby, clearing his throat. "I spoke with the receptionist—we're his, er, grandkids..."
"I understand," said the man politely. "However, your grandfather's room is located in the high security wing, so I'll be accompanying you for safety reasons."
Safety reasons. Lily shared a worried look with James, wondering just how dangerous the man could be.
"Right. Sure," said James to the attendant as they started down the hallway. "Er, is he very unstable? See, we've been told of his condition, but we haven't actually been to visit him before..."
"Unstable?" said the man. "Well, to a certain degree, yes. Most of our patients are. But Mr. Gaunt was placed in this ward under personal request."
"Ah, I see," said James. They stopped at another set of doors, and the man pulled out a keycard to let them through.
"It's best if we keep fairly quiet in this hallway," he told them.
Lily was acutely aware of the scuffling of her sandals on the tiled floor. The doors on either side of them were blank and windowless with several locks each. A muffled wail came from beyond one of them as they passed by, and the sound was so chilling that Lily instinctively stepped in closer to James. His response, surprisingly, was to put a hand against her lower back.
"All right?" he mouthed, legitimately concerned.
Lily shrugged away, nodding, and James hastily withdrew his hand to jam it into his pocket.
"Just through here," the man said in a low voice, turning the corner sharply and guiding them into a corridor that was devoid of doors.
That is, until the very end, where a solid metal doorframe flickered under dying LED lamps.
"Mr. Morfin Gaunt, room 713," their guide announced, raising his keycard to the handle. "If you don't mind waiting outside for a moment, I'll let him know you're here."
Lily felt her stomach clench in fear as the man disappeared inside, leaving the two of them to fidget nervously in the hallway. "James, what are we doing?" she whispered frantically. "He's going to know we're not his grandchildren. Blimey, this was a mad idea."
James looked pale. "Too late to back out now."
Beyond the door, they heard the placating tones of the hospital worker along an odd sort of hissing that could easily have been a snake, had they not known better.
The door creaked back open. "He will speak to you," the bald man said. "Come in."
James shot her a look that was equal parts amazement and trepidation. Lily nodded and followed him inside, where the attendant closed the door behind them with a sharp click.
Morfin Gaunt was a shrunken man. He had the look of somebody who had once been tall, but his navy robe drooped from rounded shoulders and his bony frame was withered and wilting. He was seated in a metal folding chair, his spindly arms outstretched on a table where his fingers fiddled with the beads of an abacus. James nudged Lily's side subtly, pointing to the exposed skin of his forearm, and she saw it immediately. There, faded amidst the spidery veins and scar tissue, was the Grim Seraph.
"Here they are, Mr. Gaunt," the man in the lab coat said. "Your granddaughter and grandson."
James and Lily stiffened, gauging Morfin's reaction, but the man continued to push beads around on his abacus, unconcerned.
Their supervisor was nodding encouragingly, and so James cleared his throat. "Hello, er, grandfather," he said. "It's Vernon and Lulu."
Lily gained some courage. "How are you?"
Gaunt let out a quiet hiss and frowned at his abacus, retracing his latest calculation with violent motions.
"His condition has rather deteriorated in recent years, I'm afraid," the attendant said with sympathy.
As though in response, Morfin Gaunt unleashed a series of hissing noises, still staring fiercely at the black and white beads between his fingers. Lily's spine prickled; she found herself irrationally creeped out by the way his mouth moved around the sounds with such intensity and precision, as though he was speaking some sinister language.
"Er, we're here because we, er, wanted to ask you about something," said James, shifting his stance. "We, er..."
"We're working on a school assignment," said Lily, because it was the first thing that popped into her head. "About our family history."
James shot her a look of surprised appraisal that said 'Good save'.
"Right," he added. "We were wondering if we could ask you a bit about your early life—you know, for the biography section."
It was beginning to seem highly unlikely that they would get anything whatsoever out of this man. He stuck his tongue out this time, giving a wide-mouthed hiss.
"You see," Lily said, looking a bit rattled, "we're quite estranged from our parents, so they're no help. Going off of the research we've done so far, there seem to be a lot of connections to a certain... organization." She paused. "Er, Sons of Salazar, I think it's called."
Gaunt's response was immediate and terrifying. With a single swipe of his seemingly frail arms, he overturned the table and sent his abacus skittering across the room with a sound like an angry rattlesnake. Lily threw herself back against the wall in response, with James placing himself slightly ahead of her.
What they saw as he finally raised his head was shocking. The man's face was scarred and twisted, his left cheek shiny and pink with the unmistakable remnants of severe burns. Lily sucked in a gasp of air at the gruesome revelation.
"Mimblewimble," said James.
Gaunt made no move toward them; he launched himself into the corner of his bed, made himself as small as possible, and began to grapple at the walls as if to better conceal himself in their depths. At the same time, he was shouting in a rough voice full of fear.
"HE SENT YOU!" the man roared. "Riddle, to finish... disgusting business—MURDERERS—Gone, all of them gone." He was shaking furiously. "OUT! I want them out!"
"I'm sorry," said the attendant. He kept a half-eye on Gaunt as he ushered them through the door. "Please, go out the way you came." With that he closed the door behind them, and they were alone in the hall.
"Shit," said James in bewilderment.
"Let's go," said Lily.
The two of them hurried down the hall and around the bend, past the doors in the high security ward where the wailing had grown louder in response to Gaunt's outburst. Lily's pace quickened in time with her heartbeat, and soon enough they came through the final set of doors. James tossed another few bills at the receptionist as they whisked through the lobby and out into the moonlit evening.
"How did it get dark so quickly?" James panted as they flung themselves into the truck.
Lily tried to calm her pulse, falling against the back of the seat and closing her eyes. "Just one more creepy-arse thing about this ruddy town."
"Fuck." James leaned back as well, breathing heavily. "I'm going to have nightmares for years."
The two of them remained silent for several long minutes, struggling to recover from the utter fright that was still pumping through their veins.
Finally, Lily opened her eyes. "Riddle," she said.
James looked over. "Pardon?"
"Riddle," she repeated. "Gaunt mentioned that name."
"Yeah," recalled James. "Bit of a stupid name, isn't it?"
"Well, yes, but do you suppose it's, I dunno, significant?"
James opened his mouth, but before he could answer, Lily let out a snort and reached out with a limp hand to swat his hat off of his head. "Take off that stupid disguise. I can't take you seriously."
James smiled. "Sorry," he said, yanking off his wig. "What I was going to say was, maybe it's not a name at all. Maybe he's just shouting about riddles because he's, you know, mad."
Lily considered. "Could be, but then why was he shouting about 'He sent you' and all that? I feel like it's got to be a person."
James sighed and squinted out the window. "Riddle," he said. "Riddle... It's not a lot to go off of, is— hold on, let me check something." He reached for his back pocket.
"What?" said Lily, suddenly anxious.
James was scrolling through something on his phone. "It's probably nothing, I didn't even read this properly before..." He stopped scrolling. "Holy— no way, here it is!"
"Here is what?" Lily demanded, practically climbing the console to read over his shoulder.
"Riddle's mentioned in the article," said James excitedly. He began to read: "Forensic analysts identified the bodies of nine confirmed members of the group. A tenth body, too damaged for analysis, is assumed to belong to the only outstanding member, twenty-two-year-old Thomas Riddle."
Lily's eyes were alight, even under the evening sky. "So basically..." She missed the way James gulped when he raised his head to find her so close. "...Gaunt was telling us that this Riddle bloke started the fire! Do you reckon? Er, sorry." She scrabbled back over the console in reverse.
"Riddle, who is apparently dead," James reminded her. "I'm also not sure Gaunt was the most reliable of sources. But," he put his phone away, "it does seem that way."
"But what does that mean?" Lily said, slumping back in frustration. "And how does any of this have anything to do with Val DeMort?"
"It doesn't," James agreed. "Actually, I'm starting to wonder if Val's tattoo is just a random coincidence."
Lily blew strands of hair off of her forehead. "What now, then?"
James seemed to be considering something, but he hesitated. "This is probably going too far," he said slowly, "but, well, what if we spoke to the police? We could give them the same 'family history assignment' crap and see if they might let slip something about the fire."
"Are they even allowed to do that?"
"I dunno. As I said, it's a bit of a crazy thought. Just throwing it out there."
Lily was silent for a moment. The more she thought about it, the more it seemed like a truly idiotic idea. But try as she might, she couldn't see another plausible direction to take. They were in over their heads, that was for sure—but to go through this much and return home with barely a lead to show for it? That would be the most idiotic idea of all.
"We'd have to be really careful," she said. "Chances are, even the cops in this craphole have got you on some kind of missing persons file."
"Right," James agreed. "Beyond careful. But do you really think we should do this?"
Lily didn't reply. Instead, she flicked on the headlights, stuck the key in the ignition, and brought the truck roaring to life.
So, uh, hey guys. Nice to— Wait, where did those pitchforks come from? Why are you all advancing on us like a crazed army of Morfin Gaunts?
Before you tear us apart with your rusty farm equipment, please let us say a few things.
1) We have spent the past six months on opposite sides of the planet. We know that's not an excuse (plenty of people successfully co-write without even meeting face to face) but for us it was a real departure from our usual collaboration style and we struggled quite a bit. It wasn't a total failure though—we did manage to write a decent chunk of the chapter while separated. (Eight pages in six months? Where is our trophy?)
2) Like the story? Sick of waiting your entire life for one lousy update? Feel like strangling those darn authors? Stay tuned at the sevenscribbles tumblr for more info, coming soon. (Seriously though, we have a legit announcement and everything.)
3) Yesterday, we saw two deer in our backyard; one male, one female. We could have taken a picture for you, but we were too lazy. Instead, we took it as a sign, because clearly these deer were actually Lily and James, urging us to finish this chapter. So here you go. Thank the spirit deer.
There was probably something else we were supposed to mention here but we can't English no more.
Liz and Sam
We just typed that by mistake and it was too funny to delete.