"Are you nervous?" Sirius said as they filed into the Great Hall.
James shook his head. "Not in the least. I intend to make it up and hope for the best." He snuck a glance at Lily. "Old money, you know," and he saw Lily try not to grin. "I don't need to worry about test scores."
"You will worry," said a voice from behind him, "if you wish to incur the respect of your professors, and others."
James didn't turn around; Dumbledore had to be joking, since there was no way he'd dare to ask for James's respect, nor think he'd ever get it. Surely. *Surely*. As he wandered over to the side, Lily, Remus, Peter and Sirius following, James could feel Dumbledore's eyes, heavy and veiled.
"I'm nervous," Peter admitted as the five of them stood around, waiting to be assigned to a tester.
Sirius smacked his shoulder. "You should be," and he turned around to stare at front of the hall. "Don't you recognise them? Aurors, all of them, and mean, too."
There were five testing stations, with a wizard or witch behind each. Two of them had scarves covering their entire face and head, save for the eyes. At the last little table, Moody was sitting on a short stool, arms crossed as one of their Advanced Defensive Counterspells classmates tried valiantly to finish the exam. Moody's expression didn't waver.
Remus winced a little bit and hunched his shoulders up. "I recognise that fellow, second from the end. I had an interview with him last year."
"Oh?" Lily turned, head tilted. "He doesn't seem so bad."
"He doesn't much trust those of us that aren't entirely normal," Remus answered quietly. James stared at the man, too. He, at least, was smiling at the student trying to answer all his questions. Moody hadn't moved in the five minutes they'd been waiting, and then he turned his head a fraction, to look at them.
James had a nightmare.
He was back on the Hogwarts' Express, only it was all dark and there were Dementors surrounding the car he, Sirius, his father, and Peter were sitting in. James hadn't ever faced a real Dementor before - he could taste the fear in the back of his throat, in between his teeth. It was like one of the spells they'd tried to counter last term, a really nasty curse that affected your senses, left you vulnerable and confused. One of the by-products was a foul taste in the back of your throat.
They had named it the manifestation of fear, which was the purpose of the spell - to instil heightened fear within someone or something else. The mouse they had first tested it on died of a heart attack.
James clearly knew he was in a dream and that Peter's hand melting off, Peter watching it and screaming, couldn't really be happening. The smell of acidic flesh hit James' nostrils at the same time as he started to hear the lower school chanting "Dementors, Dementors," all down the train, over and over and over again.
His father stared blankly; Sirius pulled his wand out and opened the carriage door. The entire scene played out in silence, aside from the chanting, the whisper of "dementors".
James peered out the door into the gloom and saw Lily lying face down in a piece of Scottish ditch somewhere, just off the train tracks. Her head was in a pool of darkness, but gradually the moon came out from behind a cloud, showing her, his Lily, soaked and lolling in a puddle of red and unnatural green.
He woke up crying, just like when he and Sirius had tried to counter the spell the first time. They'd given up in three days, but it had taken James nearly a month to start sleeping properly again. He couldn't shake the sense of deja-vu, of the shuddering feeling that Lily, dead, was a familiar scene to him.
James sat up in bed. He tossed and turned, breathing heavily and eyes open, until first light.
It was the lime jelly, the particular eerie shade of green, which twigged his memory.
"I know what they're doing," he said without preamble. McGonagall looked up from her desk, and waited for him to speak. James closed the door to her office, and then said, "it's," and he paused. "It's just a joke."
McGonagall sputtered. "I don't know how you can *dare* to--"
"To them," James interrupted. "It's a joke, a prank." He stared at his shoes. "Bellatrix, Rodolphus. Whoever. They're just," and he spat out, "having fun. Imitating their parents, probably. Copying what's in the news."
She studied him. "Have you seen these students' faces, James?" When he shook his head, she sighed. "We cannot simply accuse someone without proof," and when he opened his mouth, she held a hand up, "though I do not necessarily believe you are wrong." Her hands were clenched on the desk tightly. "I trust you understand me."
"Does Dumbledore know what's going on?"
"Dumbledore usually is aware of what is going on moreso than anyone else," she replied, and that would have to do, since it was obvious to James that she was unwilling to say anything else. She did add, in an odd tone, "tell me what you know."
"Invisibility Cloaks," he said, "that's what they're using. About a dozen of them, Sirius thinks - he and Remus saw them out a window. They think. A few nights ago."
"I see," she said. "It was one possibility. Interesting that Mr. Black and Mr. Lupin should see."
"There - Dumbledore has a map that should tell you where everyone is at night," James blurted. "It should prove who is--"
"He has been seeking to put it to use," McGonagall cut him off with, "and that is all I will say. What else?"
"Well, obviously someone in the school is getting outside help," James finished grimly. "I think we both know from whom."
"Yes, yes, well."
James sighed. "We've been doing the best we can, but so far no one has managed to get close enough to find out who, exactly, is involved - even if we can guess. The only luck we've had is that Snape let a hint out about the charm they're using."
McGonagall nodded. "I heard that information, James. It was very valuable."
He twisted his lips. "And that's it, you send me out of here with nothing new."
McGonagall looked thoughtful. "Actually, I thought it best to let you finished speaking before I gave you these." She pulled four pieces of rumpled newsprint from under a stack of essays slowly. James glanced at one; none of the pictures were moving, so obviously they were from a Muggle publication.
McGonagall put them down on her desk, pictures facing James's direction. There was a picture of a girl hanging from a garret, her hair partly covering her face; and then an article dating from this morning's press, which showed the lower half of an old man, caption reading 'head missing'. One was a teenager, savage gashes in his side. The final picture was from a week or so ago and showed a little girl, dragged out of the river. The police had assumed she'd drowned.
James said faintly, "I recognise her." McGonagall nodded.
It was the little girl Sirius and Remus had fished out of the lake, he was certain of it. *Certain*. He grabbed the first picture, dragged it closer to his face to examine it, forcing himself to look carefully. It had been dark that night on the Quidditch pitch, and he'd never got a good look at her, but - "that's the girl I saw before."
McGonagall nodded again.
"They knew about it." James lowered the hand holding the article slowly, and then slammed it down on McGonagall's desk. The wood was solid and thick, absorbing the shock easily; James bruised his hand and made only a dull slapping sound. "Why are they still here?" he asked, and bit his lip so hard he could taste the salty blood on his tongue, the copper, the tang at the back of his throat.
Suddenly he remembered his dream, vividly and distinctly, that green tinge to Lily's skin. That tinge was the only thing missing from these news photographs. It was a sign of the most horrible curse of all, and no one knew what it looked like without having seen it first hand, or color wizarding photographs - something more than simply the paper. Even the Daily Prophet published in black and white. James thought back. The little girl, she'd been blue and bloated - but, around her eyes and the nape of her neck, that mint jelly tinge, yes. It had lingered.
He remembered his parents' faces, going home for the funeral.
James stood up. He looked down at McGonagall. "They knew about it *before*. First hand."
She nodded, once. "Professor Dumbledore brought these articles to my attention this morning, Mr. Potter. My hands," and she blinked rapidly, "are tied."
"You have been keeping an admirable watch upon the school, James." She tucked her robes more firmly around herself, as she rose. "I haven't seen a better Head Boy in all my years. But James," and she leaned forward, thin fingers pressing down upon her desk, "as you are watching, so are they." She stared him down. "Dumbledore cannot allow them to know that we are aware."
"An acceptable risk," James muttered.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Something," he said, "that my father once said." James turned away. "Sometimes it is necessary to take an acceptable risk or two." He felt his fingers tighten. "If Dumbledore wants us to stop just to protect your secret," he said, "we will."
"James, I cannot do anything, there is too much at risk. We *cannot* do anything." McGonagall took her hand from the table, and deliberately gripped his shoulder. "But you can."
At tea, James sat down with Lily and Theresa. They were both hunched over. James began with, "listen, I know what they're doing - they're all in the news." He looked up to where Sirius and Martha were sitting down. "They're copying real, well, they're copying real things. I saw the newspaper clippings, McGonagall showed me." He paused, staring at them. "What?"
Sirius looked at Lily. "No one told you yet?"
"I just finished an Arithmancy final not two minutes ago," James said, irritated. "*What*?"
Looking around at them and really seeing their faces, he felt that old familiar chill. Lily was pale, too pale. Sirius had a permanent wrinkle in his forehead. Lily said, "They found another bod-- another one."
James stifled a sigh, an unhappy exhalation of breath. "What this time?"
Lily glanced at Martha, who was sitting with them once again. It was Martha that told him. "An, an old man, missing his head." Martha swallowed, and mumbled, "In the Hufflepuff common room."
James asked the Fat Lady who knew their password three times. Each time, he envisioned someone letting it slip - how easy would it be to simply wait, hidden under an Invisibility Cloak, until someone were to enter the Tower - and blanched.
Everyone agreed. Something must be done.
"We know what they're doing, how, and why," James started, and looked around at his friends. "Now all we have to do is figure out how to find them, since they've figured out we're following them." When no one spoke up, James hesitated. "Our best bet," he finally said, "I think, is to follow Snape. After all, he knows what's going on--"
Sirius stood up. "Give me the Cloak," he said immediately, and slapped a hand over Remus's mouth when he started to protest. "James and I are best able to defend ourselves, and I will *not* let someone else take the risk for my fucking family. Believe me, I'll find them."
James handed him the Invisibility Cloak only because he knew, not assumed, but *knew*, that Sirius would stun him, all of them, if he refused, and then go anyway. He passed it over, and closed his eyes.