"You want to stop looking altogether?" James said. "We've almost figured it--"
"I want you to think for a moment, James Potter." Lily paced back and forth. "Professor McGonagall didn't tell us to be careful for nothing, all right! And, and Sirius. He nearly, he was nearly--"
James hesitated. This was the right time to tell her, if there ever was one. "Lily," he said, and swallowed. "When Sirius and I were visiting my uncle last holidays, I was going through some of my father's things." She stood still. "And I was reading the Daily Prophet." He sighed. "My father was working for Dumbledore somehow, you know that." Lily nodded. "Well, I don't think Dumbledore was working alone."
"And we both know he's not under the Ministry," she said quietly. "So now you want to help too," she finally added, and sat down heavily. "Well."
"How can I not want to help?" James replied. "People are dying all over. There has to be something I can do."
"You mean," she said with steel, "something *we* can do."
James wrapped his arms around her tightly, and Lily leaned on him, pressing against his chest. James suddenly felt very, very afraid.
"Why is this so important?" James asked, eyes darting from McGonagall to Moody and back again.
McGonagall, inexplicably, looked at the portraits on the wall of her office. She stood up and motioned for the two of them to follow her outside. "Let's go for a walk," she said. James glanced back at Moody, examining the paper, but went. McGonagall led them outside to walk a little ways from the side of the castle. James could just see the Whomping Willow in the distance.
"All right," Lily said, "what is this all about?"
McGonagall said, "There are things that the two of you don't know about what is going on." She sighed. "I'm sure that very soon, you'll find out."
"So you and Dumbledore are involved in something outside the school?"
McGonagall glanced around, worried. "Do not mention this," she said, "outside of your circle, please."
"Of course, we--"
"I'm probably telling you something you already know, but there may very well be dark wizards, even Death Eaters, in this school."
"Why hasn't Dumbledore--"
McGonagall cut Lily off. "I have already explained this somewhat to James and asked him to keep it to himself. Now, I trust you'll allow this information to filter into the others' ears. Perhaps the knowledge will prevent anyone from doing anything as indescribably daft as Mr. Black--" and here McGonagall looked away quickly, put a hand to her forehead, upset. After a moment, she continued. "Dumbledore has made the decision to take certain - risks," and she paused, "in the past, in the hope of protecting lives. He does so again, by allowing Death Eaters certain access to the school."
James shook his head. "The villain underfoot, and all that?" McGonagall nodded. "We'll have to do our best, then," he said. "You can count on us."
"Yes, I know," McGonagall answered. She looked to them, clutched her hands together. "This is why I am entrusting you with this information. Now you'd best get back to your work," she told them, and then lowered her voice even more. "And be careful, you two." She bit her lip and looked away. "Please."
"It's weird," James said, flipping a Galleon through the air.
He'd told the others what McGonagall said to him; none of them were surprised, but saying it aloud made things even worse. He and Sirius had decided to slack off for a half hour, take a walk. James found himself looking behind himself constantly. It wasn't much of a break.
Sirius ducked to avoid a low branch. "What is?"
James dropped the Galleon, on purpose, and bent over to pick it up. The twigs under their feet crackled. "I dunno."
"What?" Sirius said. He pushed a few more branches out of the way, and they snapped back once the two of them had passed. The whole world, today, seemed determined to bend just long enough for them to roll past, saunter past, and then snap back into shape as if they'd never set foot in it at all.
"Getting used to being afraid," James replied. They both stepped around a larger rock, falling back into rhythm. "I dunno," James repeated, low. He said, "It's just weird. Being able to think this kind of thing is normal."
Sirius pointed his wand up instantly, off to their side, narrowing his eyes at the dim shade beyond their little clearing. James pocketed the Galleon and crouched down behind him, making sure to keep a rotten stump between him and the rest of the Forest. Eventually, a Bowtruckle screeched past them, fear on its face. "Nothing," Sirius said, teeth clenched, "about this is normal."
They resumed walking. James shrugged. "maybe," he said. "Did you study for your second Runes exam?"
"A bit," Sirius answered. "Remus and I spent an hour in the library while you and Lily were downstairs." They continued to move farther into the Forest and away from the school. They both knew that eventually they'd find something. That was the problem.
"Think you'll do okay?" James asked him.
Sirius blinked; in three seconds, he'd already forgotten all about his N.E.W.T.s, about his classes, and even about Remus; all he knew was the path in front of him and all those distant sounds that may or may not be footsteps over leaves.
It wasn't James that found them. Somehow, looking back, he thought it should have been.
"What did you think of that N.E.W.T.?" he asked Sirius, flipping the exam paper closed without another look. "I think I may have written that asleep."
"I know I did," and Sirius yawned. "Remus, luv, sit back down. This is the last one, you can stop now." He grabbed the other boy's hand and yanked until Remus sat down. James tried not to grin - they weren't allowed to leave the classroom until all the exams were collected and McGonagall dismissed them. Sirius added, "I'm starving," and then, "I missed breakfas--" and then everyone stopped short.
Theresa all but ran into their N.E.W.T. examination room, where McGonagall was just collecting their papers. "Please," and a moment before she spoke, James knew what had happened. He nearly closed his eyes, plugged his fingers into his ears to pretend he didn't.
McGonagall held her hand up. "You are dismissed," she told the few Seventh years who'd made it all the way through the exam. The two Slytherin sevenths looked at each other, and McGonagall added, "Please go to your dorm rooms and stay there."
As James and Lily made to stand, Lily murmured, "I love you." James took her hand, squeezed it tightly.
"James, Lily, would you stay."
In the doorway, Remus and Sirius turned around to look back. Remus was patting Theresa on the shoulder. She was stark white and clutching her bag, James suspected to stop from trembling violently. Sirius's face spelled murder.
McGonagall nodded to them, and they closed the door behind them, Remus's hand transferred to Sirius's shoulder.
"I'm sorry to interrupt," Theresa said belatedly. It was as if her script had been derailed all of a sudden, and she had no idea what to say next.
"Where did you find - it?" McGonagall asked kindly.
"In - in the Tower," and Theresa gulped. "Gus is there, making sure no one goes up there. He was coming up to our Common Room, and I was just coming out to meet him-" and suddenly she flushed scarlet, blotchy, so her face was a mottled patchwork of embarrassment and fear.
"I believe you're quite good friends with him, are you not?" McGonagall asked. When Theresa nodded dumbly, she said, "Well."
McGonagall looked at James and Lily; James was still standing stupidly by his desk, but now he started stuffing his quill and exam paper into his bag. "I'll find Professor Dumbledore," he told her.
"Yes, I was about to suggest that. The password is 'tutela'." McGonagall's eyes narrowed. "The illusions are rather hard to dispel, and I'm afraid I don't know whether --"
"Professor," and James was almost to the door. Later, he would have given anything to have already been out the door, if it could have given him a few more minutes' peace, not knowing what Theresa already did. She took another gulping breath of air, and it gave her the appearance of choking on her words. "I'm not sure if you know Sarah Smith, she's a Hufflepuff second year? Her and Jesse Figg, and Mark Chang from Ravenclaw. They're all second years. They."
McGonagall froze, James stared at Theresa; he'd coached Jesse for the Gryffindor Quidditch team - he'd been pretty good. Mark was a little boy with red hair. Theresa said, "They were hanging by their feet, blood pooled. Their blood. It - I don't know if it was after they. They were. I don't know if it was painful, or." Already, James could picture the three students, hair hanging, faces probably bruised. What an awful thing to--
Lily went to put an arm around Theresa's shoulders, because she was trembling even more violently, teeth audibly chattering through her words. James mentally begged please. Oh please. Oh please. Not--
James would be grateful, later, that they were alone, because the next moment was probably one of the most awful in his entire life. As Theresa said it, McGonagall's eyes narrowed to slits, although brimming with tears. Theresa said, "The, the Dark Mark - it, it was hovering. They were real."