Chapter 18 - Memento Mori
Boom. The entire castle shook. James woke with a start.
For one blissful moment, he had no idea where he was and why he was there. And then the events of the day came back in a rush. He was in his father's office, and the goblins were attacking the castle again in revenge. And Dad wasn't around to talk to them and make them stop.
It was wrong. It was all wrong. And it won't be alright again, because the only way to fix things would be for his father to still be alive.
James looked at the Pensieve. That was the last memory there - his father, walking to his death, walking to meet Voldemort - and then surviving. The Pensieve didn't say how he survived; that must not have been as painful a memory as everything that came before it, James thought. As for the victory, that was not likely to be there - that he only knew from his grandfather's story. The Pensieve didn't show him what everyone else had thought at the time - were they like him, curled, full of despair, positive that there was no hope left, even though there was hope, because Dad didn't die, he survived and defeated Voldemort.
And if he could survive Voldemort and come back to save everyone else against all odds, why couldn't he do the same now, when he faced the goblins? If the only way to make things better was if his father were still alive, then why couldn't he still be alive, miraculously survive, and come save them all?
Because that was what he saw in the Pensieve, really. He was wrong; they were both wrong, he and his father. These were not the worst moments in his father's life, these were the moments when his father had always beaten the odds. The moments he always survived, even if it made no sense that he would.
He knew what his father would have said to that. He would have probably called James immature, or hint that it was stupid, to believe that just because James needed him to be alive, he could be, he would be. But James didn't care. He got up, sniffled, and wiped his face. He wasn't going to sit there, to cower from the goblins, and think it was all lost. He was going to find his father and tell him that he had to come back home, because they needed him. Because James needed him.
He looked around, slightly confused. He had no idea what time it was, except that it was the middle of the night. He had no idea what to do and how to achieve his great plan to find his father, to prove that his father had once again beaten death, but he knew he had to do it quickly. It must have been twenty-four hours since the goblins had announced that Dad was dead, possibly more. James was running out of time. Even if they were lying. It was like Christmas, in a way. There had to be some time to allow for action, but not if they were going to waste it on crying and thinking it was all lost.
But where to begin? On Christmas, Ron had been with Dad most of the time. He knew where he had disappeared, and so the Ministry knew where Dad was, more or less. James didn't even know where Dad had gone to, all he knew was that he went to meet the goblins. Presumably, he went to the goblins' own camp. Dad was like that - he had learned to speak the goblins' language, he probably had no problem visiting them right in the enemy's stronghold.
And no one knew where the enemy's stronghold was. Ron certainly didn't - if they had, they would have attacked that camp, not the one with families of the goblins. The only wizard who did know the location of the camp was Dad, because he'd been there. And James. Because he'd been there too.
He needed a broom.
James walked to the door and opened it a crack. The corridor was completely empty. He wasn't surprised - the students would be sleeping in their dormitories, or else hiding. And the teachers must have all been outside, with the Aurors, fighting the goblins.
He still tiptoed out, and closed the door softly. He didn't want to alert anyone to his presence. As if to remind him of the danger, the entire castle shook again. The battle was going on and on. If the goblins made it into the castle again... but no. They wouldn't. He would get to the Astronomy tower first, then get Dad, then manage to stop this whole thing.
The climb to the Astronomy tower had never felt this long. He was terrified that he would be caught by a teacher, or perhaps by Professor McGonagall. He had no idea whether the wounded were still in the hospital wing, or whether they had joined the fight. If he knew Professor McGonagall at all, she would be out there, fighting the goblins, protecting the school.
After a walk that felt like eternity, he made it to the tower. There, exactly where he had left it only a few days before, was the broom, the same broom the goblins had given him, the same broom that had taken him to the goblins' camp. Twenty minutes's northeast of Hogwarts, he told himself. That was all it took.
He mounted the broom and started flying.
From up above, the battle looked almost like a game. Here a flash of light, there a small dark figure advancing. But it wasn't a game. It was real. He hadn't realised just how many goblins there were, not until he could see them, all of them, from up above, rushing at the castle.
For a moment he was worried; what if McGonagall and the others had put protective spells around the castle? What if the skies were blocked? It definitely looked as if some advanced spells were blocking the goblins on the ground. But he passed above the walls of Hogwarts without a problem. The teachers were not afraid of what could arrive from the sky - or, perhaps, never got the opportunity to protect the castle in that direction.
He continued his flight towards the goblin camp.
Twenty minutes later, and he started panicking. Was it possible he got the direction wrong? Perhaps he veered too much east, or too much north? Or not enough? Shouldn't he have seen the goblin camp by now? But all he could see beneath him was the forest. Trees, trees, trees, and perhaps, if he looked down carefully, he could see dark spots between the trees, a clearing between the woods, just like - that was it. That was the camp, beneath him.
It didn't look like it had a few days ago, when James had first made the journey. There were campfires then, and movement. It looked abandoned now. There was no one there. Were they all at Hogwarts, attacking the school, trying to kill wizard children in revenge for the goblin children who had died? He didn't know. And if there was no one there, was there still a chance his father was there? He didn't dare ask that question, not even think about it. Instead, he started descending, looking for a spot to land his broom.
He found it, right outside the camp. He didn't need to worry about goblins spotting him. Just as he had seen from above, the place was deserted. But now, up close, as he walked into the camp, he knew it wasn't deserted because of the attack. The goblins who had made it there did not join the effort to destroy Hogwarts.
They were dead.
He looked around in terrified fascination. Something - someone - had attacked all those goblins. There weren't so many there, he saw, there were less bodies than the goblins he had seen alive a few days ago, and the dead centaur here and there definitely did not come up with the amount of centaurs who were in the camp a few nights ago. Some of the goblins got away, some of the centaurs got away - or perhaps, he thought, some of the goblins and centaurs had killed the others.
There were so many of them, covered with blood, their eyes open but unseeing.
For a second, nausea took over him. The blood, the bodies, he couldn't look at it. He shook his head and forced himself to move forward. He had to. If his father was there, he was the only one who knew about it, and the only one who could help him. His father never cowered from such situations, James told himself off. His father would have gone on. James should, too.
He didn't dare think the obvious - what if his father's body was lying there, somewhere, between the goblins.
"Dad?" he asked in a whisper. There was no answer. "Dad?" Just the dead goblins all around him. He stopped and rubbed his eyes and started looking around again. All he could see were dead goblins. He had to focus. Maybe... something... anything - was that black hair, over there?
He paused. It was black hair. Human black hair. Buried somewhere underneath the goblins. He didn't dare move. He didn't dare breathe. He wanted to go there so badly, and yet - and yet he couldn't. He couldn't, not until he knew that the owner of that black hair was still alive, wasn't going to be like the goblins, covered with blood and his eyes open and glazed and unseeing.
"Dad?" he whispered again.
There was no response.
And then - a cough. Something moved. Was it there? Was it his father? It looked like it was the same place, like whatever was shaking these bodies could also be the owner of the black hair... James ran and ran until he reached the goblins and started shoving the bodies away, one by one.
The impossible had happened. The miracle was true - another miracle, once again. Harry Potter was alive, despite everything.
Dad was covered with blood. His robes were in tatters. James could see the wounds underneath them, and the fresh blood. His father coughed again, and relief washed over James. His hand shook as he grabbed his father, as he tried to pull him out, but Dad was so heavy, too heavy, and James couldn't drag him out.
"Dad," he repeated in whispers, "get up, wake up, I need to get you out of here."
His father stirred, but his eyes did not open. He opened his mouth, and blood trickled out.
"Dad," James said now, louder and stern, almost as stern as Professor McGonagall. "You need to wake up. I need to get you out of here, but I need your help. Wake up."
His father moved again, coughed again, and opened an eye. "James?" he whispered, or rather, tried to whisper, because only his lips moved. Almost no voice came out, except for a gurgling sound.
James laughed in relief. "It's me, I'm here, I've come to take you home, I'm here to take you to Hogwarts, we need to go."
"No one else. Just me. Come on."
Dad blinked, but didn't move. He made the gurgling sound again, but didn't make any attempt to pull himself out from between the bodies. He closed his eyes. The relief drained out of James just as it had appeared - Dad was still alive, but he wasn't doing well at all.
"Dad. Stay with me. Please. I need your help. I need you to help me, alright? And stay awake, I need you to stay awake, please stay awake, please don't die..."
Dad opened his eyes again, then nodded. "Get... out..." he muttered.
"Yeah, we need to get out of here. I got a broom here, we'll take it back to Hogwarts, alright? But I need you to help me get you out of here, I can't pull you myself."
James looked at his father in confusion, then at his wand. Of course! There were spells for that, weren't there? And while he didn't know the spell Professor Longbottom had used to move Teddy around, he knew a couple to make Dad a bit lighter, and perhaps even to move him, just a bit. Wingardium Leviosa wasn't much good for heavy objects like people, but it might just give him the push he needed. He aimed his wand at his father and said the incantation. Dad moved, just an inch, then another, then another. It was all James needed. Now he could grab him and push him out.
Out in the open, not obscured by dead goblins, James could see just how badly his father was wounded. The blood was flowing freely out of some of the wounds, while others looked so deep that there couldn't possibly be any blood left in them. he remembered what Teddy had said about Dad's wand - he was fighting for his life in the end. He certainly looked that way. His face as grey and ashen, and he could barely keep his eyes open.
There was no way he could carry him back on the broom. There was no way Dad could hold on. But he couldn't leave him there - not in this condition. Even with this impossible miracle, James could see it wouldn't be long before his father would be dead.
"Dad," he knelt in front of his father, taking Dad's hand in his. "I'm gonna tie you to me, so we could take the broom back, and you wouldn't fall, okay? That way we'll both get to Hogwarts. But it's going to be a bit uncomfortable."
Dad snorted. Or maybe just tried to breathe. James wasn't sure. He decided to assume it was a snort, because if it were, then maybe Dad's condition was better than it looked after all. He quickly climbed to the broom, then pulled his father behind him, again using the levitation spell, and then aimed his wand again. Small ropes shot out of the wand and engulfed the both of them. He put his father's hands around him anyway, just in case.
"Hold tight," he told his father and kicked up to the sky.
He was flying as fast as he could, but the broom was heavy with the weight of the two of them, and his father was barely holding on. He could feel him slipping, and shouted behind, above the wind, "Hold on! Just a little bit longer, you need to hold on!" He could feel his father's hands loosen their grip on him. "No!" he shouted. "Hold on!"
"James..." his father's voice came in a rasp and sounded nothing like his father usually sounded.
"It's okay, I'm getting you to Hogwarts."
"No, Dad, we're almost there, only fifteen minutes to go, only ten, we're almost there."
"Land... please..." Dad's grip slackened some more.
Now James could feel the panic rising. What if his father fell? Was this what he was trying to tell him? He scanned the ground, and when he found another small clearing, isolated between the mountains and the trees, he made for it.
As soon as he landed the broom, he released the magical ropes that bounded his father and jumped to check on him. Dad was as cold as ice and shaking violently. James swore - he didn't think about it, but above, with the winds and the clouds, it was so much colder, and with so much blood lost... his father was now in the danger of freezing to death, too.
"It's okay, it's okay," he whispered, and started pulling off his robe to cover his father. He would do with the jumper underneath. "I'm sorry, I didn't think about the cold, I'm sorry."
But as he tried to cover his father with the robe, his father's hand shot and grabbed him. Despite the blood loss, despite his wounds, his father's grip was as strong as steel.
"James... in my pocket..." Dad rasped.
"It's okay, we're almost there, we're almost - "
"No! Listen to me," Dad said in a hoarse voice, then had to pause and breathe. His voice came out again in rasps, almost in a whisper. "My pocket... take..."
"I will, I will," James said, and sent his hand to his dad's pocket, but Dad shook his head. "Chest pocket... inside..." James opened the robe, and searched for a pocket on the inside - and then he found it. There was something in there. Papers. Dad's blood was smeared all over them.
"Important... You need to get that... Kingsley... get that to Kingsley."
"We both will," James said clearly and sounded much more confident than he felt. "You'll give it to him yourself."
"If I don't - "
"James. Stop. Listen." He could see the effort in his father's eyes, the pain it was causing him, just to speak, and nodded.
"I'm listening, Dad," he said.
"Whatever happens. Kingsley. Give it to Kingsley. Tell him... tell him... binding... magical..." Dad started coughing again. Blood trickles down his mouth. There was no time to lose.
James hauled him back up on the broomstick, covered him with the robe, then used the ropes again to tie the two of them together so he wouldn't fall, and kicked up towards Hogwarts.
Ten minutes later and he reached the Hogwarts grounds. The broom kept on above the walls, above the grounds, straight to the Astronomy tower. Beneath him, there was no sign of the battle, no explosions in red and green, no small figures on the ground. It was over. The castle, it seemed, was safe for another day.
He landed the broom on the top of the Astronomy tower. Immediately, he turned to check on his father - his breathing was shallow, his skin clammy, and his eyes were closed. "Dad," James called quietly, but Dad didn't even stir. "Dad..." he whispered again.
A moment's hesitation, and he rushed down the stairs and towards the hospital wing. It only took five minutes, but they seemed like forever.
The lights in the hospital wing were on; the room was packed. It seemed like after a war - in a way, James knew, it was. Madam Pomfrey was rushing around, giving potions and casting healing spells. Some of the seventh-year students, those who knew enough about Potions and Charms and were already planning their career as Healers, were helping her. Some of the teachers, too, were treating the wounded, even though those teachers were wounded themselves: Professor Longbottom still had the wound in his arm from before; Professor McGonagall had acquired a new gash on her cheek; and Hermione did her best not to put any weight on her right leg as she performed spell after spell on one of the Aurors.
No one looked up when James walked inside. No one noticed him. As far as he could tell, no one had even heard him - mayhem ruled, and barely anything could be heard over the commotion.
He walked to Professor Longbottom; he was treating Ron, but Ron was on his feet and didn't look as bad as Mrs Finnigan or Professor Flitwick.
"Ron..." he started. Both his teacher and his uncle jumped.
"James!" Ron said in shock, and the call alerted Hermione as well, who was standing nearby. He looked him up and down in concern - no wonder, James realised, as he was covered in blood. "Are you hurt? Did you run into goblins?"
"I'm fine. Dad..."
"They haven't returned his body yet," Ron said in confusion. "We don't - "
"No - he's alive! He's here! I need you to help me get him here!"
Ron and Hermione looked at one another. Then Hermione looked at James critically. They were thinking he was confused, he thought, they were thinking he got hit by something the goblins did. "James, let me check if you're - "
"I'm fine! That's not my blood! It's Dad's! He's here at the top of the Astronomy tower and I need you to help me get him here because I don't know how to do it myself and if we don't get him here soon he will die!"
"I'll go," he heard a voice - Teddy. Teddy still didn't look very well, but he could now stand on his feet. James felt a rush of gratitude to Teddy.
"I'll come with you," Professor Longbottom said quietly.
"We'll all go," Hermione and Ron said together. Hermione cast a quick spell in James's direction, undoubtedly to check whether he really was alright. He ignored her.
Without waiting further, James turned on his heels and started running the distance back to the Astronomy tower. None of the others were running after him - they weren't in any shape to run.
When he reached the top of the tower, he couldn't even see his father. Had he not known where he had left him, covered with James's own robes, he wouldn't have been able to guess. As it were, he could only see a dark lump, slightly darker than the space around it.
He rushed to the lump - to his father - with growing dread, the same dread he had felt before in the goblin camp. What if, while he was gone... No; he could hear Dad's rasping breath beneath the robe. "It's okay," he whispered, even though he knew his father couldn't hear him. "They're coming. It's okay."
The others didn't seem to take him too seriously - it had taken them forever until they got there. But at last they arrived, and then - "What's that?" Ron asked in a strained voice. "Where James is..."
Teddy was already running. He crouched next to James and stared at Dad. "Harry!" he called. The rest appeared in an instance.
"He's still alive," Teddy confirmed. "Merlin... Harry... How did he..." Teddy was rambling now.
"Come on, help me get him to the hospital!" James said, and they all returned to their senses. Professor Longbottom flicked his wand, and Dad was lifted in the air; Hermione started casting spell after spell, undoubtedly to prevent Dad from bleeding more, to prevent any more damage. Ron tried to wrap Dad with the robe. Teddy just stood there, shaking.
It took longer to get Dad back to the hospital wing - ten whole minutes until James rushed and opened the door. This time, their entrance did not go unnoticed. The room slowly turned quiet as more and more people noticed them walking in, noticed there was someone floating in the air, in front of them - and then realised who the wounded man was.
Someone gasped. Padma Finnigan got on her feet with obvious difficulty, tried to look closer, as if to make sure her eyes were not deceiving her. "Is that...?" Professor Scamander asked.
"Madam Pomfrey," Hermione said, her voice clear but shaking. "We need a bed. And we need you."
At that exact moment, the Minister walked into the hospital. "Ron!" he called and hurried towards them. "I heard - someone said..." his eyes fell on Dad. "Is he...?"
"He's alive," Ron said, and all of a sudden, James remembered what Dad had asked of him.
"Minister," he said quietly. The Minister didn't hear him - he was too busy asking how could Dad still be alive, how did he get there, and other unimportant questions.
"Minister!" James said again, loudly. The Minister stopped mid-sentence and looked at James. "Dad said to give you this." He handed over the papers from his pocket - crumpled and blood-stained, but they were readable. Now that James handed them over, he saw the writing on them - not in English, but the same writing he had seen all those months ago in Hogsmeade. Gobbledegook. And then he understood. "He said it was a binding magical contract," he said.
The Minister's eyes widened in surprise. He stared at the papers for a moment, then called Professor McGonagall. He pointed at something on the paper. "Isn't that the goblin word for..."
"Peace," she said. Her hand shot to her mouth, and her eyes travelled to Dad. "He did it."
"Macmillan!" The Minister roared. Someone showed up behind him.
"Get this translated! As soon as possible!" He pushed the papers into his aide's hands. Macmillan barely walked two steps towards the door, when the Minister shouted again.
"Macmillan! And tell them to check it through legal!"
"Yes, sir." Once again, the aide managed two steps before the Minister's booming voice stopped him again.
"And call Seamus! Stand them down! Stand them all down!"
"And tell legal to check that these battles today aren't a problem!"
"What the hell are you still doing here?" the Minister roared, and his poor aide rushed through the door, afraid of any more instructions.
The Minister turned his attention to Dad. "He did it," he said. "I didn't believe... he did it."
In all the commotion, Madam Pomfrey now wheeled Dad's bed to the corner, further away than anyone else. James followed her. "Get back to your dormitories," Madam Pomfrey snapped at him between applying potions and spells.
"No, I'm staying."
"James," Ron tried, "this isn't - "
"I'm staying right here!"
"Let him stay," Professor McGonagall said. She had followed the Minister to the corner of the room and was now looking at Dad, a strange expression on her face. And then she looked back at James, and gave him a rare smile. "Let him stay if he wants to."
Madam Pomfrey looked at her sullenly, as if about to argue, then nodded. James grabbed a chair and sat down, far enough not to get in the way, but close enough to make sure he could see his dad all the time.
He stayed there even after Madam Pomfrey said she had done all she could for him, even after she had sent a message to the Healers of St Mungo's and requested help in transferring Dad to the hospital. He stayed there even after most of the wounded were released from the hospital, and the few who remained went to sleep. The hospital was dark now, Madam Pomfrey was busying herself elsewhere, and all around him he could hear the deep breaths of the sleeping.
His father's breathing had become more regular too, more relaxed. He wasn't out of danger yet, that was what Madam Pomfrey had said, but if they got him to St Mungo's in the morning, he would be alright. James nodded when she said so, but still refused to go to his own bed. "I'll stay here," he said, and this time, no one argued.
He tried to stay awake, to make sure his father was alright, but he fell asleep at some point. Then he woke up again - he wasn't sure what had woken him up. Another goblin attack? No, the castle was completely still. Perhaps it was a dream, he thought and was about to close his eyes again, when he saw light reflected in something in front of him. His father's eyes were open.
He didn't say anything. James wasn't sure he could. He just lay there, his eyes open, looking at James.
"It's okay," James whispered. "It's just me. Go back to sleep."
Dad closed is eyes, and so did James.
"James," someone called his name. "James."
He opened his eyes. He was lying in bed, but it wasn't his bed. Whose bed... he was in the hospital wing. It took a moment before he remembered everything, and then he sat up with a jump.
Professor Longbottom was standing in front of his bed, with no sign of his wounds from the night before. Other than the two of them, the hospital was completely deserted.
"Dad - " he started, but Professor Longbottom smiled.
"They moved them all to St Mungo's hours ago," he said. "He's going to be fine. And..." Professor Longbottom hesitated, then said, "I guess it will do no harm to tell you, everyone will know soon enough. The treaty checked out. He knew what he was doing with it. The war is over. We talked to the goblins. There won't be any more attacks, on the school or anywhere else. He did it. He ended this war, too."
Professor Longbottom was smiling now, a huge smile, but James's eyes stinging with tears all of a sudden. He tried to blink them away, but couldn't. Why was he crying now, when everything was fine? It was ridiculous! His father was going to be okay, and the war of twenty years was over, and everyone would be celebrating and happy and why was he crying?
"It's okay to feel a little overwhelmed," Professor Longbottom said quietly. "That's quite some news - and you've had quite a difficult day yesterday."
"No, it's not that, it's just..." James shook his head. He didn't really have the words to explain. "Do they know why the goblins tried to kill him? If they just signed a peace treaty?"
Professor Longbottom nodded. "Harry told us what happened. There were two factions of goblins. He was negotiating with their leaders, the people who had the authority to negotiate for all the goblins. Another group of goblins didn't want them to sign the treaty, no matter what. They tried to kill everyone there, to stop them from signing it. But they were too late."
"But if the goblins who wanted peace are dead, doesn't that mean the war will just start all over again?"
"No. There are plenty of goblins who want this peace - actually, it's a pretty good deal they got from Harry. And goblin magic and contracts work a bit differently to wizarding ones."
"Like the goblins in Gringotts," James said.
"Exactly. Like the goblins who kept working in Gringotts all through the war. It's a different kind of contract. As soon as it became public, they can't back down, unless some pretty serious things happen - and that's quite unlikely," Professor Longbottom added hastily, as if to reassure James. "Harry already talked to them. They agreed that the circumstances yesterday are special enough that the agreement will not be annulled despite the fighting. They trust Harry enough to accept that - and I think they probably feel a little guilty as well."
James thought of yesterday, but not about how his father turned out to be alive. He thought of how everything went wrong, when they all thought he was dead. "What happens when he dies?" he asked quietly.
"What?" Professor Longbottom asked, taken aback.
"This worked because of him. And then they agreed the treaty is still valid because of him. This whole peace - that's thanks to him, isn't it? What happens when he dies? Even if it's naturally, even if it's in a hundred years, what happens then?"
"I don't know," Professor Longbottom said quietly. He sat now on the bed next to James. "You know, back at the end of the war, the very end... your father came here, and then Voldemort came here too."
"He had to turn himself over," James said automatically, thinking of the memory he had seen in the Pensieve. "I know."
"Yeah," Professor Longbottom looked down for a moment. "Voldemort thought he had killed him, and then he came back here and announced it, that Harry was dead, and - " he looked now at James. "I know it's hard. He's your father, but he's also a symbol for everyone else. We all want a bit of him," Professor Longbottom chuckled, and even James smiled. "You can't understand what he means for the rest of us," he added as an afterthought, "but that's a good thing. You shouldn't understand that. Not ever."
Then Professor Longbottom jumped on his feet. "Anyway," he declared, "time you got out of here. Professor McGonagall wants to see you in her office."
"McGonagall?" James looked at him in confusion.
"There's still the unfinished business of your breaking the school rules," Professor Longbottom said, and James stared at him in horror. After everything - after all that had happened - they couldn't possibly - "I think it it would be okay if I told you that you won't be packing your bags today," Professor Longbottom said carefully, but with a twinkle in his eye. "But off you go, before she changes her mind."
Relieved, James climbed down from the hospital bed and rushed through the door and to McGonagall's office. He hesitated for a moment before the great oak door, then knocked.
"Come in," he heard McGonagall's voice from behind the door. He pushed the door open and walked into the room. "Sit," she said.
He sat down in front of her. She studied him quietly with her stern expression, and all the relief he got from Professor Longbottom's words evaporated. She didn't look very likely to let him off the hook.
"Your father also had a penchant for breaking the rules of this school when he was a student here," she said all of a sudden. "In his second year, he had done some ridiculous stunt that almost caused his expulsion. By the end of that year, he must have broken a dozen school rules more, and that resulted in his receiving a special award for services to the school - after saving several students' lives."
James didn't quite dare ask the question he was thinking, and when Professor McGonagall had next opened her mouth, he was glad he didn't.
"You are not about to receive a special award for services to the school," she said sternly. "However, I think we can put the matter of your expulsion away for the moment."
"Thank you, Headmistress," he said weakly.
"I expect you not to break any more school rules, Mr Potter."
"Ever?" he couldn't stop himself from asking.
Her expression was as stern as ever, but he was sure he saw the edges of her mouth twitching. "For the rest of this year, at least," she said, and he broke into a smile.
"Yes, Professor," he said.
"Off you go, then," she said, and he jumped out of the chair and left her office.
It was hard to believe, but life at Hogwarts continued normally. The news, mixed with a generous amount of ridiculous rumours, spread around the school; classes continued as usual, with the exception of Defence Against the Dark Arts, which once again had no professor to teach it, and Astronomy, as no one was quite sure what to do with Griphook; and on Saturday, Gryffindor was playing Ravenclaw in the Quidditch House Cup.
Roxanne caught up with James on Friday, looking almost apologetic. "Look, you're a great player, and I want you to play, but Professor Longbottom said you're still not back on the team," she said.
"It's okay," James said with a smile. "Don't worry about it." He knew if his ban from the team continued all the way to May he would probably be angry and upset about it, but right now, only days after the excitement and with both his parents alive and soon to be well, nothing could ruin his good mood, not even sitting and watching the Quidditch game from the stands.
And so, on Saturday morning, he joined Al and Lily as they were walking towards the Quidditch pitch. "Shame you're not on the team," he told Al. "Should be a Potter there playing."
"I hate Quidditch," Al said all of a sudden. James stared at him in shock. How could anyone hate Quidditch?
"You're just yanking my chain," he accused his little brother.
"Nope. Hate it."
"Are you sure you're my brother?" he demanded, and then -
"Well, I certainly hope so, seeing as I was there when he was born."
Dad's robes were loose, looking more like hospital robes than real ones. The colour still wasn't back to his face, and the old lightning-bolt scar looked red and angry. He was leaning on a walking stick. But there was a huge smile plastered all over his face, and James needed all his self control not to jump on him in greeting - Dad looked too frail to withstand it.
"Dad!" Al and Lily shouted and rushed to him. Dad hugged them, loosely and weakly but with much enthusiasm. Then he let go of them and looked at James.
He studied James for a moment, then a smile appeared on his face, and James could feel himself cracking a smile too. He rushed forward and hugged his father. Dad's hands wrapped around him too, and while they weren't their usual strength, and it felt as if Dad was using him for support as much as hugging him, James didn't mind one bit.
Eventually they broke free of each other, and Dad looked at him again, the smile still on his face. "You saved my life," he said.
"Yeah, I did, didn't I?" James answered.
"I seem to remember telling you not to try and play the hero," Dad said, but there wasn't any anger in his voice, only amusement. And something more. "Come on, let's go watch the game," he said. They walked towards the Quidditch pitch, Dad half leaning on his walking stick, half on James. Everyone stared at them walking with mouthes open wide, gaping in awe at Harry Potter.
There were benefits to watching the game from the stands, especially with Dad's commentary, who seemed to be slightly exasperated with the Gryffindor team. "Who are these chasers?" he demanded after James's replacement fumbled an easy pass. Another time, he made such a frustrated voice that James couldn't help but ask, "What?" and in response, Dad pointed at the other end of the pitch, where the Golden Snitch was flying around, unnoticed by either Seeker.
Gryffindor won - by ten points, and only because the Ravenclaw Seeker was "Completely incompetent, what is he doing on the team?" as Dad complained.
The stands were slowly emptying around them. Lily drifted somewhere to discuss Quidditch with Aaron, and somehow, James wasn't quite sure how, Scorpius Malfoy had managed to lure Al into the promised victory party in the Gryffindor common room. A few minutes later, and the only people still sitting in the stands were James and his father. Dad didn't seem to be in a hurry to get up.
"You're missing the party," he said quietly.
"I'm sure they'll save me something," James answered.
"You know, James, there's one thing I haven't quite managed to figure out," Dad said all of a sudden, and James knew he wasn't talking about the game. "Do I want to ask how you knew where to find me?" Dad was now looking at James, as if trying to read his mind.
He didn't look angry, but James was still full of shame. Shame that he had gone behind his father's back, shame that he had almost betrayed him, shame that he ever believed Tom Riddle.
Voldemort. In the end, he never got the chance to tell his father about the ghost's presence.
"There's a room," he said quietly. "A chamber. Hidden underneath the school. A huge room, with statutes and everything, and there's this huge dead snake there."
"The Chamber of Secrets?" Dad asked sharply. He sounded almost shocked.
"I don't know how it's called. And he's - I meant to tell you. And then everything happened and I never got the chance." James stared at his fingernails now. "I never should have listened to him."
"Listened to whom?"
"I didn't - I wanted to tell you! I was looking for you, and then Mum was attacked and I forgot."
"Listened to whom, James?" Dad asked again. He sounded worried, almost afraid, and James thought he must already know the answer.
"He's a ghost. He says... not exactly a ghost. He said two pieces of his soul died there."
"Voldemort." Dad's voice shook when he said the name. James nodded, still looking at his fingernails. Next to him, Dad got up.
"Where are you going?"
"I need to see this," Dad said.
"I'm coming with you."
Dad opened his mouth, probably to say no or argue, but then closed it again and nodded. "Alright," he said. "Alright, I suppose you should. Maybe it'd be better if you did. Come on." They walked together into the castle.
To James's surprise, Dad didn't go to the seventh-floor corridor. Instead he chose a girls' toilet on the second floor.
"Er, Dad?" James asked. "Why are we going here?"
"This is the entrance to the Chamber of Secrets. Where did you get in from if not through here?"
"The seventh-floor, there's this room there."
"The Room of Requirement," Dad's forehead wrinkled in surprise. "That's... one hell of a detour. Come on, this way is faster. Less climbing," he said, then entered the toilet. He stopped in front of one of the basins, then let some odd, hissing noises out of his mouth. The basin opened to reveal a slide, much like the one from the Room of Requirement. "After you," Dad raised an eyebrow. James threw himself in, and could hear his father entering the slide behind him.
There was a tunnel, completely dark and damp, and the light from their wands didn't offer even half of the encouragement James felt from his father's presence. Dad had a bit of trouble walking down the tunnel with his walking stick and his wounds, but James helped him through some debris and they went forward. And then the tunnel came to an end, with a solid wall, and two serpents carved on it.
Dad paused. He didn't make the weird hissing noises to open the wall, like he did the basin. He stared at it, an odd expression on his face. Worry - no, James realised. Not worry. Fear.
"It's okay," he said quietly. "It's just a ghost."
Dad smiled a weak smile. "Yeah..." he said, and didn't sound too convinced. Finally, he rolled his eyes, muttered, "What am I doing?" and put down the walking stick next to the wall.
"You don't want - " James started, then Dad shook his head.
"Better not show Voldemort any sign of weakness, huh?" he said, then took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He hissed again, and the door opened.
They walked inside.
The ghost of Voldemort didn't look like a boy anymore. He didn't look now the way he appeared to James in his previous visits. He was fully grown, a tall man with a snake-like face and a horrible expression. Only the scarlet eyes looked the same. It was Lord Voldemort, exactly as he looked in the old photographs, just as terrifying, just as horrible.
"Harry Potter," he said in contempt.
"Tom," Dad answered, quietly and carefully but with determination.
"Pity," Voldemort said. "I really hoped you would die this time."
To James's surprise, Dad finally managed a smile. "Not today, I'm afraid," he said quietly.
"As I said," the ghost spat. "Pity."
"What are you doing here, Riddle?"
The ghost Voldemort didn't reply, just stared at Dad with obvious hatred. Dad nodded. "I doubt you can be exorcised, although I'd love to give it a try. But I can't let you try and interfere again. I'll be putting some spells around this chamber. No innocent child is going to find their way in here again."
"Someone will," Voldemort hissed.
"And then what, Tom? You've lost. You've lost twenty years ago. What are you going to do now, see the rest of us fall and burn in flames? See the entire wizarding society destroyed as revenge?"
Voldemort didn't answer.
"The war is over, Riddle. It's been over for twenty years. Time to let go." Then Dad turned to James. "Come on, James. Let's go."
They started walking towards the door, towards the exit, when the ghost called suddenly, "Potter!"
"You think I don't see the fear in your eyes?" the snake-like ghost whispered. "You think I don't know your fears and your nightmares? You may hide it from the rest of the world, but not from me, Potter. Deep down you're still that boy who relied on luck and other people to save him!"
To James's surprise, Dad didn't argue or protest. "Maybe," he said, and his voice was a lot calmer than it had been until that point. "But I don't think you're a very good judge of that."
He started walking towards the exit again. Voldemort called his name again, "Potter!", but Dad didn't stop. He walked with sure steps until they reached the door, then opened it to let James through. He then walked through the door himself and closed it behind him.
Only then did he stop, leaned on the wall, and closed his eyes, breathing deeply.
It was another minute before he opened his eyes. He looked then at James, raising his eyebrows. "Well, that's one unpleasant man, even years after he died," he said dryly. His voice shook a little, but James pretended he couldn't hear.
Dad pulled out his wand, aimed it at the door, and started whispering incantation after incantation. James didn't recognise any of them. A few more minutes, and Dad was done.
"There," he said. "I don't think even the Room of Requirement could get past that... I hope." He smiled again, and looked his usual confident self. "I'll ask Hermione to drop by anyway. Come on then, we've been in this stinky cellar long enough."
They didn't go to the Gryffindor common room. It felt silly, but James didn't really want his father out of his sight - not yet. So he accompanied him, all the way to his office. Dad didn't say anything, just opened the door, and waited for James to walk in.
They weren't the first into the office. Lily and Al were there too, and with them Hugo and Rose, and Scorpius Malfoy, and even Houda. They were all talking while sitting on the floor of the small office, because there weren't enough chairs in the room. They stopped talking when the two of them walked into the room, but none of them asked James anything, nor did they say anything to Dad.
Dad didn't tell them to get out, or asked what they were doing there. Instead, he walked quietly to the Pensieve, the same Pensieve where James had seen his memories, the worst of his memories. Dad paused for a moment, and picked up the photograph next to the Pensieve, the one from the Quidditch World Cup. It didn't look weird to him that the three children there were laughing, apparently, as he smiled when he put it back in its proper place. Then he aimed his wand at the Pensieve, whispered something, and the long grey strands shot through his wand and into his mind. It looked almost painful, and the expression on Dad's face made it look even worse, but then the smile returned to his face.
Scorpius Malfoy, however, looked mortified. "Professor Potter," he said, his voice shaking.
"I know," Dad said quietly.
Malfoy looked at his feet. "I'm sorry."
Dad put down his walking stick carefully, then sat down on the chair vacated hurriedly by Houda.
"Sir," Scorpius started again. "Those memories..."
James remembered those memories; it felt as if they were just as relevant to Scorpius Malfoy's family as they were to his own.
Dad, however, shook his head. "It would have been easier had you heard about it before seeing it," he said. "I guess some things are still painful. Not very easy to talk about, even to you guys, even to those who should know."
"That's what Professor McGonagall said," Scorpius said quietly.
"Very wise woman, Professor McGonagall," Dad answered. "Maybe it's time you did hear about it properly. All of you."
But if Dad was going to start talking, he gave no sign. His eyes weren't fixed on anything in particular, just staring at the empty space.
"Dad?" James asked quietly, and Dad shook his head and looked at him. "Are you going to tell us about it? About the War?"
"Maybe it's time," Dad answered. "I just... I don't even know where to begin. There's so much of it, and it was all so complicated."
He thought for a moment, wrinkled his forehead, trying to figure it out. "Maybe with Voldemort? He was born - no, that doesn't feel right. Not Voldemort." His gaze fell on Al. "Maybe with Severus Snape and my mother. They knew each other, you see. But..." He looked as if something was escaping him, something wasn't quite right, then his gaze fell on Houda and he smiled.
"No," he said. "I think I got it now.
"Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal - thank you very much..."
The last line, of course, is taken from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.
...And that's it. Hope you enjoyed it, dear readers! Much like this story was a loose sequel to War is Over, I am planning a loose sequel to this one which should be called War Without End - and much like this one to War is Over, the world would be the same world and the story will have similar themes, but it won't be a direct sequel. I'm not quite sure when I'll get to write it, so it might be a while yet.