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Pawprints

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Remus tried to press his nose as deep into A Beginner's Guide to Transfiguration as possible without using that phasing spell he'd found in the Charms textbook. The train was filling up fast, and a quick bit of math told him that there would be few empty seats. Which meant, eventually, the other students would stop passing this compartment up, and then he'd have to talk to whoever came in. Or he'd have to leave when they told the first year to move. Or they'd—

The door opened with a crash and Lupin dropped his book, almost barking and turning pale at the near-flub so early in the school year.

Two dark-haired boys stood there, looking incredibly tall for their age. Both were impeccably dressed, their robes crisp and deep black, obviously brand-new instead of nearing light gray from second-hand washings. The one on the left blinked and narrowed his eyes a fraction. He had a pair of glasses tucked into the collar of his robes, which also looked shining and new.

The other boy had hair down to his jaw and, a second after he'd taken in the single boy in the compartment, he displayed a smile that showed off bright, perfectly straight teeth, which contrasted with his sharply-focused storm-gray eyes. "Hullo!" he cheered, stepping forward and offering a hand. "Mind some company? I'm Sirius. The four-eyes is James."

James frowned at Sirius and sent a reproachful look down at his spectacles.

Remus had thought he would freeze when another student finally intruded on his solitude, but he found his mouth opening, saying his name, and then falling back into a wide grin that maybe wasn't as handsome as the outgoing boy's, teeth being a bit crooked, but which was just as enthusiastic. "Yeah. Go ahead."

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Here is how they walk: James on the very right. Sirius on the very left. Remus in between the two. Peter flitting to either side, never sure whom to stick with. They fell into this pattern even before they started padding through Hogwarts at all hours.

Sometimes, Remus worries, because it's James and Sirius who are really connected. He worries he's separated them, and one day they'll gravitate back together and squeeze him out. Leave him alone again.

But he will never bring himself to ask, because their shoulders brush against his with every few steps, and that is just...right.

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They'd talked about it once..

James said the afterlife would be one unending adrenaline rush. Crowds cheering, monsters roaring, and the damsel squealing to be rescued. Maybe you'd be afraid, on occasion, but you'd never back down, and each adventure would be more epic than the last.

Sirius said it was completed challenges; the thrill of fighting for something you wanted, and the satisfaction of getting it after that struggle. Fighting was all good and fun, but he'd much rather the damsel be squealing after the rescue than before.

Peter was more of the opinion that your ultimate reward would be all the world's luxuries, obtained with a mere thought, or even presented to you before you knew your own desires. You'd spend your entire life working and struggling, after all, so your afterlife should be the complete opposite.

Remus thought it was knowing. Learning. And not just an eternity of reading and thinking, because, as Peter said, you could do that all your life and be left wanting. What about those questions no one could answer? What was the source of magic? Was there ever an Atlantis? What if he had taken route B at some point in life, instead of the route A he had taken?

As it turned out, all of them were right, at least for their own selves (well...not Peter, of course), but somehow their idea of "Heaven" wasn't always "perfect." Looking across the dark forest, past the gentle smiles of James and Lily, to the cocky grin of Sirius, which got just a bit more twisted when he matched eyes with his scraggly friend, Remus decided that knowing what might have been really wasn't the reward he'd hoped it would be.

As for Sirius...well, he could start on the challenge, finally.

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"You made a pie?" Sirius gaped. Then that gape turned into an open-mouthed grin.

Remus chuckles. He could almost see his friend's Animagus tail popping out to wag so hard his entire body would shake, ears perking forward. "Yes. I am in charge of dessert."

"A whole pie? You made it?" Sirius shot a look at his own plastic container of store-bought fettuccine.

"Well...yes." The slightly shorter man gestured at the windowsill, where the dessert—his contribution to a Marauders dinner—was cooling.

"What kind? What kind? Is it peach? I love peach pie!" Sirius practically squirmed, and Remus was pretty sure he'd beg for an early slice if he thought he had half a chance of getting one.

"Yes. Yes it is." Remus nodded.

Both men suddenly winced as the apartment's buzzer went off, alerting them to the presence of a guest downstairs, ready to be let in.

"Mind getting that while I clean up?" Remus said, and Sirius vanished in less than half a blink, lest he be asked to trade and do the cleaning, instead. Once he was gone, Remus turned to the windowsill and pulled out his wand.

"Factus persicus."

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It happened over summer. But, really, it always happens over summer. You turn your back on someone for two months and they reappear with suddenly cleared-up acne or a deeper voice or a rack to make movie stars jealous.

The Marauders had made efforts to see each other over break, but things hadn't meshed well at the end, so Sirius's first sight of Remus in nearly a month came as he found his friends' compartment on the Hogwarts Express.

He stared, not so much with unabashed interest as he was unable to control himself. He stared a the thin brush on Remus's upper lip and the dark shadows on his cheeks and his plain white t-shirt, which had failed to grow along with the boy, displaying ribs and, above them, the hint of muscles.

"Woah." Sirius said, but he said it loud enough that the rest of the Marauders laughed and went back to their previous conversation, which seemed to center around Remus's sudden superior knowledge of razors (including an admonition to never borrow the werewolf's blades), giving Sirius time to more closely examine the boy's little, pretentious 'stach and reach up to stroke his own barely fuzzy face.

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"Where were you?"

Remus spun, letting go of the portrait, which he had spent the last half-minute closing slowly, carefully, silently. His stomach sank as a figure rose from one of the chairs facing the common room fire.

Sirius scowled at his friend, stepping around the furniture, moving stiffly, eyes faintly red. "Well? Where were you?"

"Er...popped down to get a bit of a snack." Remus really hoped his stomach didn't growl and betray him. It had been a long night.

"Remus," the other second-year snapped, closing the distance between them, stopping when they were in arms' reach of one-another. "I was up until 2am doing the Potions essay, and you weren't in bed when I came up."

His mind worked fast and Remus lifted one corner of his lips, leaning back and looking downward at his friend, even though they were nearly the same height. "Why would you be peeking into my bed, Sirius?"

It had worked before, in first year, when another of their year-mates found him absent, but Sirius didn't even flinch. "I've been waiting here, Remus. Where were you?"

"You don't have to wait up for me," Remus said in that same sneering voice. Why wasn't it working, this time? Sirius should be backpedaling at top speed after an insinuation like that. All boys did.

"Yeah? Well, I did. I've been up for hours and...and I didn't tell any of the others that you were gone. So I think I deserve an explanation!"

"I...I was out," Remus stumbled."I just...decided to go out. Walk the castle."

"And none of the teachers caught you? I don't see James's cloak."

"I got lucky."

Sirius's eyebrows briefly shot up, then were taken back under control. "Remus. I think I deserve to know what's going on."

"Yeah, well, I don't!" Remus shot back, so loud in the quiet, early-morning common room that Sirius leaned away.

There was a long, tense silence.

Then Remus began to edge sideways, around his friend, finally getting out of reach and walking swiftly towards the staircase to the boys' dorms.

Sirius didn't turn his body. Just his head, just enough to watch his friend leave him. Remus felt a brief flash of heat along his back as he passed the fire, and it seemed to linger, along with Sirius's tired, intense stare.

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People were surprised to find how energetic Sirius Black actually was. A "morning person" of the very worst sort. Up before the sun, ready for the day, berating his friends as they rolled out of bed, groaning.

He spent every spare moment in the sun. One of the first spells he learned was the sunburn healing charm. It kept his skin lighter than should have been expected, but Sirius never really wanted a tan. He just wanted to be out there, in the light, warmth on his face, grass between his toes, mud from the lake splattered up past his ankles. Acting wild; something he was never allowed during holidays at home, in the Black House, where there was not only no yard, but far too many thick drapes, sun ousted by the manufactured warmth of magical fires.

The Marauders would follow him outside. Allowed him his freedom and energy. James even joined in. He said it kept him in better shape than even Quidditch could. But Remus and Peter soon found a tree to sit under, watching the pair or studying, waiting for their next class to begin or for the sun to fall.

And then Remus would seem to awake. When the sun was gone and the air began to cool, the life in Sirius would leave him, flowing into Remus, who would study late into the night. Pace the common room, obviously deep in thought. Flex his hands, fingers splaying then going into white-knuckled fists. Bite the corners of his lips and look to the windows, going suddenly still at the sight of the dark blue sky.

And Sirius would sit in a chair, near the fire, finally accepting its warmth, watching his friend's eyes as they began to glow in the light of a half-moon.

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The Black family went to France for Christmas vacation. Walburga preferred to call it an "ancestral sojourn," but Sirius doubted his family had roots at Rue St. Honore or the Ritz.

"I'll write," Sirius told Remus and, finding his words had done nothing for the look of utter abandonment, went on with, "It's just a couple of weeks! I'll..uh, bring you a souvenir! What d'ya want?"

Remus looked at his feet, sprawled on top of his well-made sheets, muttering something about books.

Paris had very little impact on Sirius, though the same couldn't be said of his mother's hand. A few too many smart comments, and Sirius was sent from dinner one night with a face that would have sported a bright red mark, but for a little glamor from his father. One couldn't let the common folk see a Black in such disgrace.

Sirius barely left the hotel after that. Room service supplied all his needs and, though his mother had berated him for the bill, a simple question about the state of her credit line was enough to earn him peace until he was back at Hogwarts.

He came back to find Remus sitting exactly where he'd left him: on his bed, though now the sheets were a tangle and there were long scrapes on the boy's bare feet.

"Remus! Bloody hell, what happened to you?"

Remus seemed startled by his classmate's presence. "I-I...here. I've...I had to stay here."

Sirius tried to think of something to say. Something to ask. Something besides how much he desperately wanted to learn healing magic this very second, and his confusion over why the school nurse had not yet alleviated his friend's suffering.

Remus smiled. Large and entirely fake. "So...what did you bring me from Paris?"

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In retrospect, it should have been really, really obvious. Remus's periodic weakness. His waspishness. His tendency to disappear for a few days every month, even with excuses. But, well...James, Sirius, and Peter were all eleven-year-old boys. Of course they didn't catch on! They were idiots!

Sirius was always angry that James figured it out, and James was irritated over what had triggered the realization. Remus was off again, taking away one of the quartet's most vital potions partners. Sirius found himself forced to work with one of his fellow Gryffindors: Muggle-born Lily Evans.

He'd done something wrong. Diced a frog's tongue instead of fileting it, or something, and she'd said some pretty well-aimed and (in Sirius's mind) unfair words.

Sirius had come back with a less-than-friendly laugh. "What's the matter Evans? I'll go get a replacement. Calm down. Getting a visit from the little white mouse?"

James had looked up, ready to snap a reprimand—this was going a bit far, even for Potter's tastes—but the words died on his tongue and he dropped the amphibian's own into his potion a half-minute too soon, sending up a cloud of blue smoke that made Peter's eyebrows turn glow-in-the-dark green.

"Oh...bollocks."

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Remus worked it out; he'd spent twelve years, seven months, and nine days convinced that Sirius Black—easily his closest friend—had betrayed James and Lily Potter, and murdered Peter. Yes, there had been a little wavering there, but all of the evidence...all of it pointed to the Sirius.

Five minutes of explanation—if that—and all the facts he'd been told by the Ministry were thrown aside. Because what was the Ministry to him? It didn't protect him; it demanded he rave behind bars once a month, and always acquitted wizards on charges of assault against werewolves. It didn't help support him; he'd never had a job in government, and he'd lost several sure job offers when he was forced to admit to his "little furry problem." And it never tried to heal him; research money once set aside for finding a cure to lycanthropy was cut when the process for brewing the Wolfsbane potion was standardized and apothecaries began to offer it in shops.

The Ministry never mattered. And, after five minutes of hearing Sirius speak and seeing his face and smelling the man—rank as he was from being on the run—twelve and a half years didn't seem to matter, either.

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The dog ran his tongue along the other's muzzle. Eyes averted. Tail between legs. Hunched low to the ground. Among others of his species, he would have never done so. Never backed down. He was a king among his kind; he could claim any territory, any food, any bitch.

But this other was not his kind. Not completely. Something more ancient. More powerful. More wiry and maybe a bit smaller, but with teeth twice as sharp and an instinct that barely recognized the dog as "like me."

The wolf let the dog clean his muzzle, lips curled in constant threat, an almost imperceptible rumble in his chest.

When the wolf was clean, the dog lowered himself further, shifting to lay on his side, lifting his head to expose a neck that would have been defenseless, but for thick fur that had been bred into him, generation by generation. Fur that would protect him against wielders of sharp teeth and instinct.

With a last snarl, the wolf turned his back on the subdued dog and walked back to the boar laying on the forest floor, plunging his muzzle into it's recently-opened stomach, seeking out the softest organs and best meat.