For all its worldwide fame, the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry rarely saw visitors enter the castle at 3 A.M. during the middle of summer vacation. Yet a total of four people now sat in the headmaster's office at just such a time; theirs would be one of many gatherings across wizarding Britain that day, and one of the few that would not be jubilant.
The room was cloaked in silence, save the whirring and buzzing of the headmaster's various contraptions and the soft cries of a one-year-old boy with a curious lightning-shaped scar on his forehead. The boy grasped at the air in front of him, dreaming of his crib in Godric's Hollow, of the floor falling from underneath him, and of a blinding green light.
Seated behind an elaborate wooden desk, a kind-faced man with half-moon spectacles and a long white beard broke the silence.
"Lily," he said, addressing the red-haired woman who cradled the sleeping child in her arms. "I'm…I'm so sorry."
Lily Potter shook her head. "No," she told him, holding back tears. "It wasn't your fault."
The man sitting next to her seemed to be on the verge of bursting with rage. "Anyone's but yours," he growled, staring at the floor. "Especially not yours, Dumbledore."
He couldn't hold it in any longer. "That filthy rat!" he cried, standing up and kicking the wooden desk, sending a bust of Helga Hufflepuff clattering to the floor. "He would've had you all killed! I would've had you all killed!"
Lily stood and grabbed the man firmly by the shoulder, the now-crying baby in her other arm. "Sirius, we all thought it was a good plan. We all thought we could trust Peter."
Sirius fell back into his seat, but when he spoke again, his voice was still filled with rage and disgust. "I killed him, Lily. If I hadn't shut up, James would still be alive. I gave you and him and Harry to Peter, and now I have to live with my best friend's blood on my hands."
"Sirius, please," Lily pleaded, as she simultaneously attempted to coax her son back to sleep. "Don't blame yourself." She took a deep breath. "We have to at least tell Dumbledore the story first."
Sirius leaned back in his armchair and stared up at the ceiling. She was right, of course. "Okay," he said. "Let's get it over with."
It was just past midnight—only a couple hours ago, Lily thought amazed as she began the retelling—when the door to the Potters' house in Godric's Hollow was blasted off its hinges.
James, sitting in the living room, saw him first. A tall, pale man with a flat nose and red slits for pupils had just walked in. A muggle would've thought he looked rather like an alien, or maybe that he had been raised by snakes.
"Lily, take Harry and go," James shouted to Lily, who was in the next room. "It's him! Go! Run! I'll hold him off!"
Lily Potter fled up the stairs as fast as she could. Behind her she caught a glimpse of James rushing to block the path to the staircase that led to Harry's bedroom. Voldemort would know to go upstairs; Hominem Revelio would show him the location of the third person in the house—the one person that had to be saved at all costs.
The little child who would turn one year old that day.
Lily reached her son's crib, where he lay, to Lily's amazement, fast asleep. She had to get him to safety, and safety was far away. Portkeys and apparition were too dangerous for a one-year-old, and Voldemort was sure to be tracking the Floo Network. So instead, she pulled out her wand from the pocket of her jeans and whispered, "Expecto Patronum."
A silvery doe burst forth from her wand, circled the room once, and bound out the window in search of Sirius Black.
Downstairs, James was fighting—delaying as much as he could. Lily reached into her other pocket and pulled out a tiny glass vial containing a couple milliliters of a shimmering golden liquid. Horace would be proud, she thought, as she drained the bottle of Felix Felicis.
She could only hope that James had had enough time to do the same.
These hopes were dashed an instant later, when Lily heard her husband cry out in pain and slam against the wall with a loud THUMP. He had not taken the potion, and Voldemort had murdered him; now he would murder his son. Or he'll try, thought Lily, ice water seeping through her veins as she steeled herself for her last duel.
But James Potter was apparently not dead, for a couple seconds later his voice cried out, louder than ever. "NOOOOOO! Don't leave me here and kill them!" And before the words came out, Lily's heart sank, because she knew what James would yell next, knew what Dumbledore had told them would provoke Voldemort's rage every time. "You dirty half-blood son of a muggle, KILL ME INSTEAD!"
Lily stood in Harry's bedroom in horror as she heard Voldemort turn and race back down the stairs. James had gotten under the skin of the Dark Lord. He had done his job by buying time for the escape. He would die protecting his wife and his son.
Lily couldn't see James's face at that moment, but she could imagine it perfectly—focused and defiant, as if he would stop at nothing to get what he wanted. It was the look he would always get when she refused to go out with him years ago, and it used to always make her laugh inside.
She did not laugh now. She wanted to scream, but Felix helped her just barely catch hold of herself.
"Avada Kedavra," cried a furious voice, and she knew now that her husband really was dead. But she steeled herself again and refused to let this fact register in her brain: not until her work was done. There was another bastard that needed to die tonight.
But two hours later, that fact had registered, and a burst of tears flowed down Lily Potter's cheek. She turned to look at Sirius, who sat stone-faced, fists clenched tightly. She took a deep breath, wiped her tears on her sleeve, and began the strangest part of the entire ordeal.
"I went out into the hallway," she recounted, "ready to fight him at the top of the stairs, to stop him from getting to Harry." She stroked the boy, who had gone back to sleep. "But he never came up the stairs. Someone else came into the house first."
Dumbledore looked surprised for the first time that night. It would not be the last. "And who would that be?"
"Well, we don't know," answered Lily. "That's what Sirius and I have been trying to figure out. He looked like Peter, but there was something odd about his gait. I think it was Polyjuice. Anyone could've tortured Peter to get the secret and then yanked out some of his hair."
"No way it could've been Peter," announced Sirius rather loudly. "That coward wouldn't have dared look James in the eye after he gave away his location, let alone come back and try to save him. I doubt Peter Pettigrew has ever thought to save anyone from anything his entire life."
This claim was met with silence. After several seconds, Dumbledore addressed Lily again. "And what did this…disguised savior do?"
"Well, he came in and started yelling at Voldemort not to kill James, and tried to get him to spare me and Harry. And then they started dueling."
Sirius flicked his hand as though swatting a fly. "Yeah, as if Peter was ever any good at dueling. He wouldn't have lasted two seconds against Voldemort."
Lily continued as if she hadn't heard Sirius. "I was shocked at first, of course, but then I raced down and helped him duel Voldemort. If we could delay him enough, Sirius could get to Godric's Hollow with his bike and take Harry to safety. But then,"—Lily shook her head and stared off into space for a while before continuing—"Then he managed to knock us both to the floor. He blasted a hole in the ceiling and Harry's crib came falling down, and he cast the killing curse on Harry."
Lily stopped here, unsure of how to describe the utter nonsensicalness of what transpired next. "But the curse must have backfired, or something, because there was a huge explosion and everyone was flung backwards. I was knocked unconscious. And when I woke up, Sirius was cradling Harry, Peter was gone, and Voldemort's body was sprawled beneath my dining room table."
Dumbledore raised his eyebrows in surprise, but Lily decided to press on.
"And there's one more thing," she added. "When I woke up, Voldemort's wand was gone."
Now, Dumbledore was truly shocked. For the first time that Lily had ever seen, he seemed to be at a loss for words. Sirius had to push the debriefing along.
"It was Bellatrix," he informed Dumbledore. "I saw her when I arrived in Godric's Hollow after I got Lily's Patronus." He swore under his breath. "Another one of my brilliant ideas. If I hadn't insisted on splitting everyone up, I could've been in Godric's Hollow the whole time, and gotten Lily's Patronus in an instant."
Lily put her hand on Sirius's arm, and he seemed to snap back into the conversation. "Right…er," he stammered with an embarrassed grin—the only grin he would manage that day.
"I got to Godric's Hollow, and the duel had already happened—the roof had a giant hole in it from the rebounding curse. I ran towards the house, and as I got there I saw Bellatrix running out of the house carrying two wands. I shot a hex at her but she blocked it, and she managed to disapparate. I ran into the house and found Harry crying, Lily unconscious but alive, and Voldemort stone dead."
Lily breathed. She was glad the storytelling was finally over. Maybe now they could get some answers. "What does it mean, Albus?"
For a man who had just been told that the Lord Voldemort, his great nemesis, was dead, Albus Dumbledore looked deeply troubled. "The fact that Bellatrix Lestrange was ordered to collect Voldemort's wand can only mean one thing—that Lord Voldemort intends to return to power."
"But how?" interjected Sirius. "He had no pulse, and Lily put a curse on his body to make sure he couldn't be revived."
"Well he can't come back in that body," observed Lily, "but he can make another. Or rather, Bellatrix can make one for him."
Dumbledore nodded at Lily. "Yes, it sounds like that is Voldemort's plan. His goal has always been to become immortal, to become immune to bodily weaknesses such as death. Whether or not he has succeeded, we cannot know. But he certainly believes that he is not finished."
Lily frowned. "Do you have any idea how he intends to come back to life?"
The old wizard lowered his head, resting it on his left hand. "I have pondered this question for many years, Lily." He exhaled slowly and looked back up to face her. "And now I must give you a difficult task, but a very important one, if we wish to solve this puzzle. I do not wish to trouble you without needing to, but you are possibly the only one who can succeed at this task. You were, as you know, one of Horace Slughorn's favorite students."
Lily wasn't sure where this was going. "What does Horace have to do with anything?"
"Horace has had many favorite students over the years. One of them was a charming young man named Tom Riddle. I believe Horace may have some knowledge of Voldemort's early plans, but he has kept quiet out of shame for letting those plans come to fruition."
Lily suddenly felt quite unclean for being one of Slughorn's favorites. Any honor that she shared with Lord Voldemort couldn't possibly be good. And then there was another concern…
"Harry needs a mother, Albus," she said, gently combing the boy's untidy hair. "I can't just jump into a mission on a whim anymore. I need to know: can we—" she broke off, realizing that the question she was about to ask was incredibly silly, that the answer was completely obvious; but then she remembered Peter Pettigrew's betrayal, and remembered that nothing was obvious. "Can we trust Horace?"
Dumbledore had expected this question. "Horace is a man who enjoys his creature comforts. I'm sure he would've liked to retire years ago and lounge around eating crystallized pineapple all day long. But he has stayed at Hogwarts these last few years because he knew that if he left the protection of the school, Voldemort would certainly come to find him, either to recruit him or to kill him. Horace is no Death Eater material; he wants nothing to do with Voldemort anymore. In fact," Dumbledore mused, "the fact that he wishes to forget the very existence of Tom Riddle may be the biggest problem we will face."
Lily looked down at the little bundle of joy still fast asleep in her arms. She would do whatever it took to keep him safe—and he would only be safe when she could ensure that Lord Voldemort would not return. She looked up at Dumbledore and nodded. "I'll do it."
But another thing seemed to be bugging Sirius. "I still don't understand what happened when Voldemort tried to kill Harry. How did he survive the curse?"
Dumbledore's eyes watered as he cracked a gentle smile. "James's sacrifice, Sirius." He paused, remembering James Potter, the talented Gryffindor boy who had matured so much and had saved so many lives. "When James sacrificed his life to prevent the deaths of those he loved, he offered to them the most powerful protection he could give. That sacrificial protection prevented Voldemort from being able to kill Harry."
The explanation didn't make sense to Lily. "But sacrificial protection is really rare, isn't it? It has to actually be a sacrifice. Are you saying that Voldemort wouldn't have killed James without James provoking him?"
Dumbledore froze for a moment before answering. "Yes," he finally replied. "It appears that we must conclude that Voldemort did not wish to kill James tonight." His gaze looked sincere, but Lily couldn't help but feel that there was something the Headmaster wasn't telling her.
Dumbledore's eyes drifted away dreamily. "Love is our greatest asset," he continued. "Our ability to love each other, our willingness to give ourselves up for a greater cause—this is what Voldemort will never understand. This is the power he can never have."
Lily thought she heard Sirius mutter that Peter didn't have that power either, but she didn't comment. Instead, she summoned three glasses of mead, which landed silently on the wooden desk. She looked around the room, first at Sirius, then at Dumbledore, and finally at Harry, and felt a warm glow in her heart. "To James," she said, raising her glass. "To love."
Tom Riddle was nearly overcome with rage. How could he have been so foolish as to trust a man like Peter Pettigrew? He should've just taken the secret and killed him. "People," he spat, or would have spat had he still had a mouth. Emotions and attachments made them weak, made them ill-suited for his ends.
But next time would be different. Next time he would have something more…reliable. So Lord Voldemort forced the image of Peter Pettigrew's foolish antics out of his mind—or whatever part of him was now thinking—and concentrated on the one place that would change everything: Albania.