(1) James, Sirius, and Remus cannot be evil;
(2) the Potters don't die;
(3) Harry's school years (but focused on the adults, not the kids)
(4) No sexual violence
Summary: This is what might happen if Lily and James Potter had survived Voldemort's final attack, if Harry grew up in a close-knit family far away from the wizarding world, if it was Harry's eleventh birthday and there was a whisper of trouble in the air...
Ships: R/S, L/J
A/N: This was sheafrotherdon's wonderfully flexible prompt, ignipes' seed of an idea and beta-work, lacylu42 superhumanly fast readthroughs, JK Rowling's world and characters. I merely filled in the details.
James Potter still dreams about that night: shouts, running, curses flaming in the open doorway, breaking glass, shattering bone, dark, fire, and pain -- and over it all, the sound of someone screaming.
His sleeping mind recalls what he cannot. He imagines the chaos, the whirl of time that followed, memories like butterflies tossed about in a storm.
Now, years later, the nightmares no longer shake him from himself, no longer rattle his spirit and body. He doesn't wake anymore with cold sweat beading on his brow, breath laboured and shallow. Now, the dreams are only images muted by time and distance and the thick cotton quilting of a new chance at life.
Lily sits at the kitchen table, writing a letter in dark blue ink. It is her fourth this week: a dispatch, an explanation, a plea. She writes with quick, deliberate strokes, small and tidy words covering a fresh sheet of parchment, carefully restrained at the edge of desperation.
Monday, she acknowledged the rift between sisters who had gone their separate ways. Tuesday, she begged forgiveness for nose-biting teacups and sneezewort in socks, for childish sins, for a thousand small omissions. Wednesday, she told her story, a tale of fear and hiding, a final call to the only family she had left. Today she sends her goodbye; should the worst come to pass, her love will survive.
Before she posts the letter to Privet drive, there is a knock at the door.
Neither James nor Lily knows how Petunia found the house. Perhaps they are not as well protected as they thought.
James reinforces the wards and leaves the sisters alone in the kitchen to make tea and amends. Harry squeals with delight at meeting someone new. "Tuni." He learns her name quickly, smart boy. "Tuni!"
Lily's hand on his shoulder wakes him.
"Morning," she yawns.
Morning banishes the shards of his dream. James stretches and turns to kiss her, thrilling still, after all these years, at the proximity of her sunlit body, her sugar-soft face, her halo of sunburnt hair. He refuses to imagine -- to remember -- a world in which she isn't the first thing he sees when he opens his eyes.
"Wake up. Wakeup. Wake Up. Wake UP!"
A stuffed bear flies through the space between doorway and bed. Daisy follows, pouncing on James' feet; he stifles a grunt while she clambers and scrambles into his arms. Black hair and wire-rimmed glasses bounce, and her green eyes dance in the sunlight over the bed, charged by the energy that only a seven-year-old can muster at dawn.
Looking him straight in the eye, she says again, "Wake up. Get up. Come on!"
"Daisy," Lily says, propping herself on one arm and running her hand through her daughter's long hair, "he'll be up in a minute."
Daisy considers this for a moment. James can see the locomotives and hot air balloons of thought flying behind her lopsided grin as she reviews her options, the tiniest of dimples appearing and vanishing from her cheek. Then she nods, climbing off the bed. "'Kay, but you know what today is? You didn't forget?"
"Me, forget?" he protests. "Erumpents never forget." He yawns loudly and feels around the nightstand for his glasses.
"We're still going, right?"
"Of course we are." He reaches out to tickle her, but she darts away with the ease of a hare and leaps from the bed. "Why don't you go see if the Birthday boy is awake."
Remus feels the cool crinkle of cotton under his cheek. The summer sun falls through an open window and warms his face, and a playful breeze rustles the bedroom curtains.
"Planning to sleep all day?"
Remus decides that the question is rhetorical and stretches, brushing the headboard with his knuckles.
"You do remember what today is?" Sirius' voice rumbles with barely-contained excitement -- far more than anybody has a right to on such a lazy summer morning.
There is a pause, and Sirius closes the door behind him. He must have risen early to work on the bikes. The tangy-sweet scent of motor oil and magic follow him into the room. Remus can hear mischief crackling through his sleepy stupor; Sirius' playful machinations roll towards him with the subtlety of a Quintaped in tights. Sirius places a hand on the mattress, and his energy spreads over the old springs. He is coiled, ready to jump.
Remus recognises the shift of air. He reads the signs of an impeding attack and braces himself under the covers.
Sirius lands on the bed with a thud of limbs and fur, elbows and ears, paws and heat, tail wagging and tongue lolling -- uncoordinated in his exuberance. A wet nose snuffles along the backs of Remus' legs, nudges the sensitive skin behind his knees, skates over the soles of his feet.
"Not the toes!" Remus cries, and then he is laughing too hard to say anything at all.
Remus finally squirms off the bed, gasping for breath, and Sirius regards him with canine satisfaction. He shifts form and dons clean clothing while Remus goes into the bathroom to shave.
Fully recovered from the fit of early morning tickles, Remus smiles at his reflection and reminds himself for the twenty-thousandth time that a simple Impedimenta charm would preclude such shameless displays of giggling. He puts down the razor and splashes his face with cool water, knowing he would gladly remind himself another twenty thousand times before giving up mornings like this.
Remus goes down to the kitchen several minutes later, fully dressed. Sirius is sipping coffee and carelessly flipping through the pages of Classic Motorcycle Digest. "Well?" Remus asks loftily, taking the bag of presents from beside the door. "Are you coming? Today's a big day, you know."
They fall into step on the dirt lane outside their house. Somewhere overhead, a crow calls, and then the trees are alive with birdsong. Sirius hums, and Remus recognises the tell-tale tune of "Wizards Do It With Their Wands". He smiles, wondering what new offensive verse Sirius is composing today. Without breaking stride, Sirius pulls a leaf from a nearby oak and twirls the stem between his fingers. Remus' hand slips into his as they walk, and Sirius squeezes it gently.
"D'you think they're up yet?" Sirius asks. He holds open the garden gate for Remus to pass through.
"With Daisy around?" Remus raises an eyebrow, laughing. "She's more excited about this than you are."
Harry is wide awake long before his little sister bolts into his room, yelling, "Wake up. Wakeup! Wake UP!"
"Get out," he says, lobbing a pillow at her head.
She plants her feet and puts her hands on her hips, accustomed to the attack. The pillow glances off her shoulder like a twig tossed at a tree. "You have to get up," she commands, "because it's your birthday, so Mum and Da said we could go to Diagon Alley." Her eyes mist, then flash at him again. "But not without you. Come ON!"
Harry shoos her out and spends the next ten minutes deciding which shirt to wear for the occasion. He finally picks one of his favourites, a worn tee with a picture of a Quidditch team called the Wimbourne Wasps on the front. He hopes that the wizarding kids won't laugh at him if he's wearing a Quidditch shirt. Besides, it used to belong to Uncle Sirius, and still has grass stains on one arm. Uncle Sirius says that makes it authentic. Harry pulls it over his head, then grabs his trousers from the top of a pile and a pair of mismatched socks from his drawer. He looks at himself in the mirror, searching for any outwards signs that he is now eleven years old.
"Uncle Remus! Uncle Sirius!" he shouts, thundering down the stairs. They are in the kitchen, talking to his parents, and he wonders when they arrived.
Harry is instantly smothered in a chorus of "Happy Birthdays" and passed from adult to adult in a series of hugs. Someone thrusts a plate of pancakes into his hand and ushers him into the living room. Presents and balloons are waiting for him, and Harry sits in his favourite chair, legs dangling over the edge.
"Uncle Remus," he asks. "Can I have a glass of milk?"
"Chocolate?" Remus guesses.
Mum, Da, and Uncle Sirius are talking quietly across the room, and Daisy is examining the presents to see if any have live animals inside. Da shakes his head like he does whenever Harry gets into trouble with old Mrs. Treadle, when he has to come over to fetch Harry and say, "I'm sorry he trampled your azaleas. I don't know what we're going to do with him." Harry wonders who's in trouble this time.
As Uncle Remus walks into the kitchen, Daisy brandishes a small parcel. "This one! This one first!" The adults stop whispering and turn towards Harry with bright smiles, because it's his birthday.
Remus reaches into the cupboard for a glass, before fetching milk and chocolate. He pours and stirs, watching the colours swirl round and round, blending and diffusing until they are one.
Before, Remus never thought of babies as anything but amusing curiosities, little hands grasping at his large ones, strange gurgling-sound makers, bundles of blankets to bounce on his lap when their parents needed a rest.
Yet here he is. He's changed more diapers in the past seventy-two hours than in his entire life. He is covered from head to toe in spit-up, and he just spilt half a cup of warm milk on his jumper.
Harry is finally asleep, drooling peacefully, heavy in Remus' arms, wrapped in a wad of blankets Remus found in a large trunk upstairs. For the first time in days, the house is truly quiet.
Sunlight slants through the window, orange and bright. Remus is numb. He concentrates on the next task, and the one after that, an endless list of things to be done. Lay the child in the crib. Write to the headmaster. Clean the kitchen. Find food for himself and Sirius.
Sirius nearly bumps into him in the narrow hall. They stop just in time, breath held, watching the baby in Remus' arms. Harry murmurs and wiggles in his blanket but does not wake.
"That was close," Sirius whispers. His eyes are shadowed; he hasn't slept in days.
Remus nods. They glide past each other silently, and Remus puts Harry to bed.
On his return to the kitchen, he stops at the door of the master bedroom. The light is dim and it smells of potions, salves, and antiseptic, the odour of illness and injury. Remus' nose rebels against the too-familiar scents. The air crackles with magic over the supine figure on the bed. Except for the hiss of air in and out of his lungs, James is silent, broken, his face a twisted smattering of scores and bruises. There is more magic holding his body together than biology. His eyes are closed.
Remus sits by the bed, and examines the bandages around James' hand. The healer came by today and promised to return in the morning. She is an old friend of Dumbledore's, discreet, telling no one where she goes. She wants the Potters in St. Mungo's, but Albus is worried. There are still Death Eaters on the loose, and the fewer people that know where they are, the safer he thinks they will be.
Remus shuts his eyes and wonders.
Later, Sirius returns. He stops in the doorway, shoulders sagging, and offers Remus a bowl of soup.
"You should sleep," Remus says quietly. Neither speaks above a whisper in this room. In fact, they rarely say a word to one another at all. "I'll watch over him tonight."
The days pass.
Sirius is tired, more so every day. They read in the Prophet that the traitor has been caught. Sirius grunts and bins the rag.
Weeks pass, and the moon waxes full. Sirius manages the house alone.
The following evening, Remus rests a hand on Sirius' shoulder. The recent transformation has left him drained, but it has also given him time to think. Together, they watch the sun sink below the horizon. Trees shiver in the winter wind. "It's not your fault," Remus whispers. Sirius shrugs. "It's not your fault." Remus' arm circles Sirius' waist from behind, and Sirius leans into him, the curve of his spine pressing against Remus' chest. Together, they breathe: deep in, easy out.
"I just--" Sirius starts.
"Shhhh. You're the strongest person I know," Remus says. He is surprised to find that any resentment has melted away, set with the moon, fallen with the sun. He means every word, and Sirius believes.
The months pass by, but their time is not without joy. Harry takes his first steps and begins to speak in more than baby babble. Christmas arrives, and they sing carols in the parlour.
James survives, worn and weary. Remus searches his eyes to find the James he remembers -- flashing smile and messy black hair, quick to hex his enemies, quicker to help his friends, hero on the pitch and in the war.
Slowly, he returns, opens his eyes, holds his son.
At first, they do not tell him about his wife, but when he grabs Remus' hand and fixes him with a desperate stare, Remus cannot lie. Lily wanders the house in her sleep. While awake, she only lies in her bed, staring at the wall. She does not recognise them when they bring her food.
They do not know what Voldemort did to her that night, and she does not say.
Autumn comes again, and James is stronger. He ventures outside on mild days, leaning heavily on Sirius' shoulder. The healers tell him he will never run again. He laughs and says, "At least I can fly." In the evenings, they sit by the fire and read aloud to one another. Harry likes the stories about knights and dragons. He curls up in Remus' lap, sucks his thumb, and asks Sirius to "do the voices". He always has a cup of warm chocolate milk before bed.
Sirius finishes telling Daisy about the Three-Headed Horklump of Knockturn Alley. She fixes him with a glare so reminiscent of her mother's it makes him grin, and says, "I don't believe you."
"You didn't believe me when I told you the motorcycle could fly, either," he reminds her.
She shrugs and grins wickedly. "I'll believe you if you give me a ride," she says.
Sirius laughs out loud, revelling in it. He can’t keep the smile from his face, nor ignore the anticipation of returning to the dusty shops and mysterious back-ways of wizarding London. Over the past ten years, he has occasionally returned for supplies and potions ingredients, but he always travels incognito, wearing dark glasses, a curly red beard, bushy paste-on eyebrows, and sometimes a pillow stuffed in the front of his robes. He comes and goes with barely a glance from side to side, almost as though he hasn't been at all. The eyebrows are fun, and Remus playfully threatens to leave him should he grow a real, pillow-like paunch in his lazy middle age, but Sirius is tired of skulking in the shadows.
Harry is eleven. He will go to Hogwarts, where he will be safe. They do not have to hide any more.
James and Lily are explaining Floo powder to the children; their hearth has been connected to the network for the day.
"-- then toss the powder into the flame, and step inside --"
Harry looks sceptical.
"I'll demonstrate," Sirius volunteers. "Travelling by Floo is fun," he adds, "like travelling by broom."
"Except without the broom," James counters, "or the wind and ice."
"There's no ice." Daisy laughs at him. "It's summer."
"Clearly, young lady, you've never flown through a cloud," Sirius says.
"But the most important thing," James continues, "is that you speak very clearly, when you say 'Diagon Alley'."
Harry nods solemnly. Daisy pipes up, "What happens if we don’t?"
"You might end up landing in some poor witch's apple pie," Remus says.
"That only happened once--"
"Sirius Black a la mode." James reminds him dryly. "Ready?" he asks. "You do remember how, don't you?"
"I was born knowing how," Sirius responds, taking a handful of powder. It is dry between his fingers, and smooth as satin.
"Signal from the other side," Lily reminds him gently, "if everything's okay." Sirius nods.
"Sirius," the laughter disappears from James' eyes, "Be careful. If Dumbledore's right--"
"Don’t worry, old man," Sirius chides. "I always am."
He can't blame James for his caution; the headmaster's letter of warning would worry anyone. The rash of attacks this summer has followed a pattern steadily approaching London, targeting unicorns, ambrosia trees, and other means of extending life. Dumbledore's friend, Nicholas Flamel, has received no fewer than three threats this week, no one is certain what it means, though they fear the worst.
Sirius tosses the powder into the fireplace. The flames rise in an emerald tornado, sucking air from the room. Harry gasps and Daisy claps her hands and laughs with excitement. Sirius steps into the swirling fire; the flames lap at his cheeks like eager puppies, tousling his hair and lifting the hem of his robes. Oh! How he's missed this magic, full and alive, and rushing over his skin.
"Diagon Alley," he pronounces carefully, looking back over the cosy room in the moment before the fire takes him.
Daisy is a fireball of joy. Harry stands beside her, reserved and expectant. Their eyes, reflecting the flames, are etched into Sirius' memory. Lily glows over her brood, and James--James has everything, which means he has everything to lose.
James' hand is limp, his body torqued in a way no human structure was meant to bend, his eyes closed, skin charred, glasses broken across his nose.
They were born brothers, James told him once, family even before they met. James' mum used to say that if you cut one of them, the other would bleed.
Sirius' heart stops with James', the steady tick-tock replaced by the stillness that waits forever, a pendulum poised mid-swing. James is cut, sliced, dashed upon the ruins of his home, and Sirius bleeds for him, breathes for him. Darkness clouds the corners of his vision. The acrid smells of smouldering timber and burnt flesh creep into his nostrils, wind along his sinuses and fill his head.
He understands with the cold certainty of a honed blade, what he must do. Clinging to James' lifeless hand, he also knows that he is the only one who can. His muscles writhe like snakes beneath his skin, worms crawling up from the earth, fuelling the desire to run, to hunt, to attack. Whatever he does to Pettigrew, it will never be enough.
As he stands, a red-black vertigo swirls behind his eyes, and he hears it.
A soft moan rises from the ashes, the colour of whispers and dew-grass mornings.
Sirius falls back to his knees and barely registers the sting. He has found his heart, and it is throbbing, pounding against his chest, climbing up his throat.
James is still alive.
Sirius' resolve and certainty crumble. He forgets about magic; his wand is only the wooden stick falling from his grasp. He forgets how to think; coherence is driven away by the soft, fractured sound. James is alive.
Hold on, he says, Prongs, James, hold on. Stay.
The minutes are marble forevers, yet they pass in a blur of motion and sound, and the small movement of James chest. Stay.
Somewhere nearby, a baby cries. Sirius should move, can't move, is torn.
A giant arrives. Hagrid. Sirius points to James; he doesn't know what he says. The words tumble out, beyond his control. The baby is crying in Hagrid's arms. He calls for help. More people arrive.
They find Lily, silent, staring up at the sky.
Sirius fears he will never be able to wash the smell of ash from his hair. He runs his hands, scraped and red, over the ruins. This is his fault. He cannot say it, cannot explain. He meets Dumbledore's steady blue eyes, like islands in the sea of destruction, and the headmaster sees the plan, sees the betrayal. He rests a wrinkled hand on Sirius' shoulder.
Sirius sinks back to the ground.
Hold on, James, stay.
Then Remus is there, whom he has not seen in days. Remus' arms are around him. Remus whispers words in his ear. He cannot feel them at all.
They bring James, Lily, and little Harry -- crying softly -- to a house. Sirius does not ask how the headmaster procured it so quickly. Albus does not ask whether Sirius and Remus will stay; he leaves them instructions for the family's care, summons a healer, cautions them to avoid the wizarding world, that they are still in danger, to use their magic with discretion, and to send him any news of Lily and James.
Harry reaches The Leaky Cauldron first, more than a little dizzy, and thinking that motorcycles are a much better way to travel than fireplaces. Uncle Remus and Sirius are waiting for him. Daisy jumps out of the fireplace next, laughing and brushing off the ashes that tickle her nose. Harry would normally tell her to be quiet, but he is too fascinated by the room he has stepped into.
There are strange people in the corners wearing robes and hoods, other people floating cups and utensils, bald people, hairy people, young people, old people. Some are laughing, some reading, some just walking through, some sipping quietly from smoking cups and staring off into space. Harry takes in every detail as they go into the alley behind the pub and watches with amazement as the bricks on the back wall yield to his father's touch, rolling back to reveal an entirely new world beyond. Magic.
They walk through Diagon Alley in a tight group, watching the street performers transfigure purses and shoes of passers-by. Shoppers scurry along with their parcels floating behind them, and a monkey plays music while a wizard dances before him. Harry looks from side to side, trying to see and remember every detail: the smell of the chips and exotic food, the feel of cobblestone under his feet, the sound of owls flapping overhead.
Suddenly Daisy breaks away. All four adults move to follow, but she quickly stops. "O-L-L-" She begins to sound out the words on the sign over her head. Harry, who has always enjoyed reading, is faster.
"Ollivander's," he says to Uncle Sirius. "Makers of fine wands since 382 B.C."
Sirius relaxes and pokes Harry in the ribs. "That's right. We'll be going there to get your first wand in just a little while."
Harry feels his cheeks warm. He's held his parents' wands before, but today he will have one of his very own. He looks up at his mum. There are tears welling in her eyes.
Harry lets go Remus' hand and starts to run. "Race you," he says. Remus can't catch him with all the bags he's carrying. No one can catch Harry, not since he learned about racing, not even the birds or bugs or garden gnomes. Sirius can't even beat him when he decides to become a big, black dog. Harry can run like the wind.
He is first to the garden gate. He pushes it open and charges up to the house. He glances back. Remus is laughing, but he doesn't catch up. Harry wins.
Then he smacks into somebody, and he falls down. The shock and the bump and the floor against his bum bring tears to his eyes. Harry is a big boy, almost four years old, but he starts to cry and rub his forehead anyway. He looks up, expecting to see Da or Uncle Sirius.
It is the quiet lady.
She has never talked to him or Da or Uncle Sirius or Remus. All the adults whisper around her. Uncle Sirius tells Harry to call the quiet lady 'Mum'. He does, but she never says anything back. She is grey and white, thin and pale as tissue.
He asked, once, if she was a ghost, but Uncle Remus only shook his head sadly. And now Harry knows that Remus was telling the truth, because ghosts don't knock you down when you hit them.
"Mum?" he asks quietly, sniffling a little. His head still hurts where it bounced into her bony legs.
She looks down with green eyes that are unfocused and too big for her face.
Then, something changes. Harry can't say what it is, but he knows. He stops crying right away.
"Harry?" she whispers. Her voice is so soft he can hardly hear it. It doesn't sound like a human voice at all. He wonders if this is the way angels speak.
"You're alive?" she asks. Confused, he lowers his hand from his head. She says his name again. "Harry."
There are tears in her bright green eyes, tears that spill over onto her cheeks, then her thin, spindly arms are around him, and she is telling him that she remembers, that she loves him.
In her arms, everything feels suddenly right to Harry. It is like putting the flag on top of a building block castle, or fitting the last piece into one of Uncle Sirius' puzzles and running his hands along the smooth, paper surface to feel a complete picture under his fingers.
"Mum," he says, and he can feel her smile.
Remus is standing in the doorway. He is smiling as well, but Harry thinks he sees a tear in his uncle's eye.
After that, Mum is different. She talks to the adults. She talks all the time, and makes jokes and laughs when Sirius is a dog chasing his tail in the living room. She holds Da's hand, walks with him through the garden, cooks breakfast in the morning, and sings to Harry at night. She does not look like a ghost anymore. There are freckles on her nose from being in the sun. She lifts him up and carries him around on her back.
And Harry loves her.
After almost a year, when Harry is nearly five, she tells him he is going to have a baby sister. Uncle Remus and Uncle Sirius move into a different house. They are sad, and Harry doesn't know why; they say they will miss him, but they are only going right down the street. Harry helps Mum paint the new baby's room, and she lets him pick out the colours. His mum is glowing, and Harry doesn't think he has ever been more excited in his life.
Remus has been in awe of harmonized weight and airiness of Gringotts Bank for as long as he can remember -- ancient goblin architecture that raised a domed roof on pillars of sky, a thing so massive and light that his breath looses itself somewhere between his eyes and lungs. He watches the children and remembers the first time he came here, wondering if he ever looked -- still looks -- the way Harry does now, open-mouthed and gaping at the towering pillars and tiny tellers, listening to the low hum of business and the cutting clink of gold against stone.
Sirius and James walk up to the counter and arrange for a cart to take them down the vaults. Remus and Lily mind the children.
Remus feels a cool shiver as a man in front of them turns. Harry suddenly grips his hand, and Remus tenses for a moment, but when he sees the face, his heart settles back to its normal rhythm.
"Quirrel!" he exclaims, extending a hand in greeting.
"W-well," Quirinius stutters, clearly surprised. He wears a large, purple turban and glances over his shoulder, as if he's waiting for somebody. "W-w-elcome back, all-all of you," he says.
James walks over, greets their former schoolmate, and introduces the children. "Harry, this is Professor Quirrel. He'll be teaching your Defence Against the Dark Arts class."
Quirrel looks away suddenly, apparently fascinated by a Muggle changing money at the counter. He buries his hands deep in his pockets. "N-not that you n-need it, eh, H-Harry?" Harry shrugs, his grip still tight on Remus' hand. Quirrel turns to Sirius. "G-going to the Black family vault, today?"
Sirius rolls his eyes and nods, but Quirrel is scanning the room fretfully, studying each group of wizards in turn. His nervous energy penetrates the group. Sirius and James exchange glances; they are ready to make their excuses and their way over to the carts.
The goblin, Griphook, is waiting for them. With four adults and two children, there is standing room only in the small, rickety cart. Remus swallows, feeling the press of wood beneath his fingers, splintery and solid. He has always had an unreasonable fear of riding in antique, wooden boxes at high speed, through tunnels with little light and no way to reach the outside. Sirius, who can't understand why, climbs in beside him, smiles and rests his hand on Remus'. The cart groans under its burden.
A moment later, they are rocketing through dark tunnels. Daisy and Sirius whoop with joy, and Remus loosens his grip on the railing, watching Harry glory in his first ride through the Gringotts Vaults. Harry's eyes flick back and forth, trying to read the inscriptions on the gates they pass. The wind ruffles his hair and he presses his glasses against the bridge of his nose. He studies the passing, grey scenery so intently, that he does not seem to hear when Lily asks if he's having fun. Periodically, he points at the statues speeding by, and spins around to watch their retreat. "What's that one?" he asks. "And that? Oh! And that?" By the time they reach the Potters' vault, Remus has begun to enjoy the ride.
"That wasn't so bad, eh?" Sirius asks him, while the family climbs out and the children stare in awe at their shiny pile of gold.
"You know what would be better?" he retorts. "If they would let us Apparate in."
Sirius laughs. "What fun is that? Besides, then we wouldn't have nearly so much quality time with my friend Griphook here." Sirius claps the goblin on the shoulder, and is rewarded with some cross between a smile and a sneer.
Griphook grunts. "No Apparation," he informs them. He resumes his place in the front of the cart as James, Lily, and the children climb back in. "Dragons are trained to attack anyone without a guide."
"Dragons?" Daisy squeals. "Real dragons?"
"No," Lily says, "That's just a story to scare robbers. There aren't any dragons that live this far underground."
"Yes there are: Mole Dragons!" Sirius exclaims. Remus nudges him in the ribs; he has never heard of such a creature in all his travels. "What?" Sirius asks innocently, waggling his eyebrows.
"Right." James picks up Sirius' lead. "Mole Dragons. They live in tunnels, with the bats. They're--"
Daisy looks dubiously from one to the other, and Lily laughs.
"Black!" Sirius interjects, "with papery wings and purple eyelashes." Remus shakes his head and smiles. "Remus doesn't believe me 'cause no one's ever seen one."
James pauses thoughtfully, then adds, "But that makes perfect sense if you think about it. They're very hard to spot, Old English Mole Dragons. You can't see them until they can see you -- and living in the dark, they've got very poor eyesight."
"No need for it, when their noses are so--"
But Remus never learns what a Mole Dragon's nose is like. As they round a bend in the tunnel, the cart gives a mighty lurch, throwing its passengers to the side and slipping the tracks. Remus is knocked from his feet. He scrambles back up, then sees a pair of small feet flailing in the air. Without stopping to think, he grabs Harry's legs, and after one powerful yank, they are all safely squashed inside again, waiting for their hearts to stop pounding. Remus would gladly face a flock of Made-up Mole Dragons rather than another ride in these rickety carts. Even Sirius glances worriedly at Griphook.
"Shouldn't do that," Griphook mutters under his breath, pulling several levers and recalibrating various knobs near the front of the cart.
"Was that--?" James suddenly twists around to look back at Remus and Sirius, gesturing toward a featureless vault door passing by. He is frowning, eyebrows knitted.
"Yes," Remus nods, scanning it. The door disappears into the darkness. "Vault seven hundred and thirteen."
"Where they keep--?" Sirius begins.
Remus nods again.
After recovering its speed, the cart continues without pause. Harry seems more thrilled than upset by his near-spill and whines, "Mu-um, don’t!" when Lily pulls him away from the edge.
The cart slows, and the Black family vault towers out of the darkness, its massive door adorned with spires and statuary. Carved, serpentine eyes glitter at them from ledges and stalactites around the entrance.
"Brilliant taste in décor, your family," Remus says to Sirius. He is rewarded with a cuff to his shoulder as Sirius climbs out of the cart.
When Sirius returns, he is carrying a heavy leather satchel and grinning with anticipation. He has been waiting to buy Harry's real birthday present for years. Over the past few months, he and James have been poring over every new edition of Which Broomstick to find just the right one for Harry.
"Why are you winking?" Harry asks Sirius.
"Wink? Me?" Sirius feigns astonishment. "What?" He winks.
Harry's eyebrows knit. "You just winked. I saw you."
"I saw you, too!" Daisy adds.
Sirius winks again. "I've no idea what you mean. Now if you'll excuse me, your father and I have some very important business to discuss."
The cart starts back up the tracks, and the only thing Remus can hear over excited chatter, is the rattle of the wheels on the tracks.
Sirius is the first to see the light. It is wandlight, icy and blue, in the tunnel ahead. He recognises the bend where the cart tried to throw them earlier -- and remembers the vault nearby. His stomach plunges and pools somewhere below his knees, and his heart churns in the empty cavity of his chest.
He pulls his wand from his pocket and touches Remus' arm, then he points up ahead. Remus tenses immediately and draws. James glances at them, then nods slightly and wraps a protective arm around Harry. Lily pulls Daisy close, whispering something in her ear.
Griphook senses the change and slows the cart. Studying the semi-darkness ahead, he swallows audibly. "What in Gadzook's--"
The cart screeches to a halt.
On the tracks ahead of them, two lean, black dragons lay motionless, wings akimbo, eyes closed. Sirius can't see if they are breathing or not. Beside the track, the door to vault seven hundred thirteen is cracked open, and a dusky breeze stirs the air in the tunnel. Blue wandlight glows from within, illuminating the heavy door and stone floor before it. There is a severed goblin hand on the threshold.
For a moment, no one moves.
Then Daisy screams, and Lily quickly covers her daughter's mouth.
A cloaked figure dashes from the doorway and races away from the vault, to the dark stone tunnels leading away from the tracks. Without pause, Remus and Sirius leap from the cart and follow. The thief's cloak swirls and he disappears around a corner without missing a step. A rush of cold air is all that he leaves in his wake. They sprint, twisting and turning with the passages, never losing sight of his wandglow. Footsteps echo through the tunnel, coming from all directions at once.
Step for step they chase, lungs screaming for fresh air, but he is always ahead, certain of his way in the deserted tunnels. Slowly, they begin to draw closer. Sirius' heart is pounding, a stitch in his side. "Stupefy!" he yells. The tunnel is momentarily flooded with red light, but the spell glances harmlessly off the rock over the shadowy thief's head.
Suddenly, the figure whirls and his wand blinks out. The last thing Sirius sees, before being plunged into total darkness, is a large, unwieldy head and two, narrowed eyes. Sirius stops, still as the sky before a storm, and beside him Remus scarcely dares to breathe. The tunnel is silent; there are no footsteps, no magic, nothing. Sirius can hear only the blood pounding in his ears. Straining to see anything in the absolute darkness, he imagines the eyes penetrating it, just beyond the edges of his vision, targeting him, targeting Remus, waiting to attack. He cannot help but feel the horrible sinking sensation of a man who has just walked into a steel trap.
James stares as Remus and Sirius dash away. Within seconds they are out of sight, and the tunnel is silent again. He tightens his arm around Harry's shoulder and tries to think: Dumbledore was right, someone has been searching, someone bold enough to rob Gringotts Bank. He feels dizzy when he considers the implications. James longs to follow Remus and Sirius, to chase after the thief, change into a stag and bolt down the corridors, a taut ball of muscle and instinct and speed.
He glances down at the cane by his side and he knows he cannot. Anger and frustration pound at his head before good sense finally struggles through.
Daisy whimpers despite Lily's calming words, and Griphook wrings his hands and sniffles. Phlegmy and loud, he begins muttering, "Can't.... can't get help. Signals broken -- only the cart."
James is not a man to idle with indecision for long. "Come on," he says to Lily and hoists himself out of the cart.
He walks into the vault, his cane tapping loudly on the stone. The air inside is cooler, deader than in the tunnels. The room itself is empty except for a grubby wrapping discarded on the floor. James picks it up and carries it out to the goblin.
"It was in here?" he asks, already knowing the answer.
"What?" Harry asks. "What was in there?"
"A treasure," the goblin snaps, "more valuable than gold."
"So the rumours were true, then" James says. The goblins prize little more than their gold, but that little may include the Elixir of Life. Griphook nods, and James sighs. He looks down at Harry, who is peering anxiously into the dark tunnel. "Don't worry, lad. They can handle themselves. They'll be alright." To Griphook, he says, "We can't Apparate out, can we?"
Griphook shakes his head glumly.
"Alright." James takes a deep breath. "Lil, help me get these things out of the way. Mobilidraco--"
But Lily does not cast the spell with him.
She is staring into the tunnel. A look of mingled terror, fury, and cold comprehension crosses her features. "I'm sorry," she says. She drops Daisy's hand, leaps from the cart, and bolts.
James flushes and his nostrils flare. The children look at him, frightened and bewildered, but her flight does not change what he needs to do. "Stay in the cart," he orders. "Mobili--"
Running footsteps interrupt his spell yet again. Harry has launched himself after his mother, and Daisy is following. For the first time in a very long time, panic threatens to overwhelm James Potter. It clouds his vision, makes his muscles twitch. He charges after them, fear driving him on, one step and then another before his leg gives out and he collapses on the stone. His voice, when it finally leaves his throat, is a roar of frightened thunder that shakes the papery dragon wings in the tracks.
"STOP!" he cries.
Daisy pauses and looks back.
James struggles to his feet and to his senses. Calmly, he says, "Daisy, I need your help. You have to help me here."
Reluctantly, she obeys.
Lily imagines she can see lightning in the tunnels ahead, like distant fireflies. She hears faint shouts, precise Latin and quick barked spells cast in the murky distance. Around her, however, the air is damp, the stones slippery, and she is alone. When there is a fork in the path, she follows the sounds.
Her wandlight flashes along the stone walls, past locked doors, forgotten vaults, and crumbling statues, moving up and down with every step and swing of her arms. Beyond the last vault the tunnels are old, unused, and Lily wonders if even the goblins know that these passageways exist. Over her own heavy breaths and footsteps, she hears a groan around the next bend.
At a fork in the path, Remus and Sirius have fallen against the wall, huddled amid a pile of loose stones. Sirius' lip is split and in the dim, blue light, his blood shines like black pearl. His arm is wrapped around Remus' shoulders. Remus is unconscious, mouth open, breathing softly, his head in the crook of Sirius' neck.
"Sirius!" Lily hisses. "Sirius, where did he go?"
Sirius' eyes flutter open, confused and unfocused for a moment before he raises his hand and points down a tunnel. Lily starts running again.
Soon she hears steps ahead of her and sees clots of dark blood on the floor. A light appears: sun, floating into the dark on dusty wings. She has chased her quarry to the surface. Lily treads cautiously and extinguishes her wand.
Silently catching her breath, she steps through a hidden door into the bright light of an alleyway behind Gringotts. High walls tower on either side, and boxes, crates, and rubbish litter the ground.
The thief hasn't yet noticed her presence. From behind, he is smaller than she had expected, hunched over and clutching his hooded head. He shudders as he tries to catch his breath and as he stumbles down the alley, he drags a leg; one of the boys must have caught him with a hex.
Lily takes aim, determined that he will not get away. "Expeliarmus!" she shouts.
The thief's wand flies from his hands and lands behind him, deep in the debris. He stops so suddenly that the hood falls from his head, revealing a turban. A purple turban. Lily gasps. She knows who this is -- not Lord Voldemort -- this is the teacher from up at the school. But why did he--
She almost laughs. The stumbling, stuttering professor stole the Stone, and now he is standing, wandless, right in front of her. She prepares to Stun him.
But he easily dodges the spell and turns. His is not the nervous, kindly face she expects to see. These are not the movements of a cowering teacher. He leaps towards her with the agility of a jungle cat, talon-like fingers extended. His face is dark, twisted and distorted. As though through thick, old glass, Lily sees the face of fury. She knows those slitted eyes and sharp, pointed teeth. A hand shoots out and closes around her throat.
He smiles at her surprise and laughs at her attempts to breathe. The sound is high, hissing and reptilian. His calloused claws dig into her neck, and black spots erupt in the corners of her vision. The daylight dims, and her limbs begin to prickle. She can't move; her body refuses to obey.
For the second time in her life, she wonders if this is what it feels like to die.
Lily pours two cups of tea. She and Petunia are talking -- actually talking -- about husbands and children, all the little nothings of one another's lives, the somethings they have missed. They watch Harry play, and Petunia offers pictures of her own, perfect baby boy.
There is a knock on the door, and the entire house shudders. Alarm Spells bubble and sputter around the window frames and through the walls. Lily tenses and drops her tea. It spills in a widening puddle over the table and drips down to the floor. The air in the kitchen changes, charged; it crackles in their ears, electricity arcing from surface to surface. Harry whines into the head of his stuffed toy.
James bursts in.
"He's here! Lily, take Petunia and the baby. Go into the forest. I'll hold him off for as long as I can. Go! Now!"
"James?" Lily stands and reaches for his hand. It is cold and slick with sweat. He holds her close for a fraction of a second and looks into her eyes. She uses the time to memorise the curve of his lips, the gold tips of his eyelashes, the tan across the bridge of his nose. "I'll find you," he tells her, kisses her quickly, and then he is gone. He seals the door behind him.
"Come on," Lily calls her sister. She lifts the baby and holds him close to her chest. "We have to go." She opens the back door
Petunia does not move. Her eyes are wide with fear.
They hear the front of the house blow open, then a cacophony of spells and counter-charms. Furniture explodes, green light flashes under the doorway. Lily is frantic. Petunia is frozen. "Petunia, come! He's here!"
Lily pulls her sister's arm, but they are moving too slowly. She knows they will not make it to the forest before he finds them. She must find another way to save the baby. And then she knows what she has to do.
Lily stops, hands Harry to Petunia, and pushes them into the den. "You have to protect him, now," she explains. "Don't you or the baby make a sound." She kisses Harry's forehead and closes them in.
Back in the kitchen, she unseals the door and looks in to the room beyond.
James is on the ground, unmoving. Voldemort's wand is raised. "Avada Kedav--"
"Wait!" Lily yells. The spell flies wide. The house creaks and groans. Voldemort turns slowly towards her and advances. She backs into the kitchen, drawing him away from James until her hands hit the sink behind her. The dishes clatter in their racks.
"Where is the child?" He is careful, menacing, a cobra waiting in the grass. She avoids looking into his eyes.
"You'll never find him." Lily tosses her long, red hair and forces her voice to be steady. "I made a Port-key. I've sent him away."
Voldemort laughs, high and piercing, teeth bared. "You are a brave little girl," he says, "brave but foolish," He spits on the floor. "You cannot hide him from me for long."
He catches and locks her in his gaze. Lily feels a piercing, shattering pain behind her eyes. She can feel him enter her mind, a red-hot poker, searching. She holds on to her secret for as long as she can, lets him in without giving it away. She shows him pictures of her school years, warm nights by the fire, Christmas puddings spread over the kitchen. He ignores the images, burning his way to the information he seeks.
She cannot hold on a moment more.
Behind her back, she aims her wand. It is not two feet to the nape of her neck. She pits the strength of her desperation behind the spell and whispers a single word.
Everything is white.
Whiteness and floating.
There is no up or down.
She blinks. There is a man holding his head in his hands and stumbling in the room.
She considers moving but she does not know this body, does not understand its hows or whys. Sounds are soft. Everything glows with pale fire.
Then she hears a whimper.
The man does, too.
He looks up, shakes his head. He is panting, a high hiss in the back of his throat. He moves towards a door.
She cannot let him reach it, but she cannot move. This body is weight, not will.
He opens the door, and she can see inside. There is a lady, there, with a baby in her arms. He is going to hurt the baby! The lady turns to shield it with her body, wrapping the child in arms like wings. The man raises his hand. There is a flash of green light. She is burning. The world turns a furious green, then black.
She wonders if this is what it feels like to die.
Lily struggles back to the alley behind the bank, struggles to see the face in front of her.
She hears a child's voice rise over the throbbing in her head. "Let go of her!"
Harry follows and follows. It is the hardest race he has ever run, and his heart pounds even faster than his feet. He cannot see, but that does not slow him down. He trips over the things in the path, stumbles, sprawling, then finds his feet and runs again. He follows his mum's distant wandlight, but even without it he would know the way. It is in his head. His scar hurts, a hurt that he's never felt before, but he can't let her get away.
He knows there were people in the room he just passed. He heard somebody call out, but he couldn't see them and he didn't stop. He just kept running. His mum is ahead.
Then, suddenly, there is light, and everything is too bright, dark shapes and golden halos.
Two of the dark shapes become the bad man and his mum, and the bad man is choking her. Her back is arched to the ground; her wand hangs limply at her side.
Harry sees his mum hurting, and he is all anger, fear, and action. He does not remember that he is eleven years old, that he has no wand or magic at his call.
He runs the last few steps and leaps onto the bad man's arms, pulling the grey, clawed hands away from Mum. The man hardly seems to struggle at all as he stumbles backward. Harry can smell burning skin, bitter and sharp in his nose, and looks down. The thief is burned where Harry touched him. Mum falls, and Harry grabs the thief again. He bellows with anger, pushing Harry away and staggering towards the street.
Harry drops to his knees beside Mum and shakes her gently. Her eyes flutter open, and she smiles. "Harry," she says. He nods. Then she shakes herself, like a dog after a bath, and sits up. She raises her wand at the retreating figure and shouts, "Accio Stone!" Something bright and red flies into Harry's outstretched hand. The man screams, but does not come back. He disappears with a pop.
Harry hugs his mum and helps her to her feet. She leans against the wall for several minutes, rubbing her neck. "What happened?" he asks.
"I don't know." Her voice is a whisper, like when she and Da talk about grownup things. "But I think I'm beginning to understand." She rests a hand on his shoulder, and they walk down the alley.
Her breath is laboured, and Harry is still afraid. He wishes his Da were here, or one of his uncles. He holds his mum's hand as they round the corner where the thief disappeared.
Then commotion breaks over him. Voices call from every direction, pound at his ears, loud and confusing. There is a crowd of people outside the bank; cars, brooms, and carriages with flashing lights line the street; people are yelling and gesturing wildly, sending multicoloured sparks up from their wands in an attempt to restore order. Harry feels very small and holds his mum's hand tighter.
Then he sees his father in the middle of the crowd, telling people to step aside, to be quiet, calling for order. Daisy, standing beside him, spots Harry and waves. She whispers to their father and points. Da sees them, and then he and Daisy are pushing through the crowd to find Harry. They are followed by healers in lime green robes.
The next minutes are a blur. Daisy hugs him -- he is too relieved to be embarrassed -- and his father hugs them both, and Mum, and then hugs Harry again. People ask, "What happened?" from every side but nobody answers. A mediwizard heals the scrapes on his knees. His parents hug him again.
His uncles come up from the tunnels, bruised and dirty, blood on their face. They are escorted by several protesting healers. Anxious and grey, they look around worriedly until they see him, and then they smile. They smile even more when Harry tells them what happened.
Uncle Sirius roughs his hair and says, "What a birthday."
Remus grins. The colour has returned to his cheeks. "Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition," he says, and all of the adults laugh.
Harry laughs along with them, even though he does not understand the joke.
Someone pulls on his sleeve. He looks down and sees Daisy chewing her lip. "Guess what?" she asks.
"I got to see the dragons."
He shrugs again.
"Da woke them up and they looked at us--" She shivers, and Harry is suddenly, completely jealous. Daisy got to see real live dragons, and all he got was this silly little stone in his pocket.
"And then," she pauses to make certain she has his attention. The furore of the crowd has died away, though official-looking wizards are questioning his parents, his uncles, and Griphook, the goblin. Daisy looks up at him, a dimple appearing in her cheek. "They flew away."