One of the main topics of conversation during the students' first night at Hogwarts was the highly dangerous Whomping Willow which had been planted on school grounds just a few weeks before the students arrived. Sirius and James had caught only a brief glimpse of it silhouetted against the night sky on their way into the castle, but their curiosity was piqued by the repeated, dire warnings so sternly delivered by everyone from Dumbledore to McGonagall to the Gryffindor prefects.
Clearly, anything supposedly deserving of such caution was something Sirius would want to master, preferably with less effort and more quickly than anyone else, and he had a few half-formed thoughts as to how he might go about it. He imagined that, eventually, he might like to climb the Willow, although he knew it would be best to save the potentially expellable offences for a day sometime in the distant future, when he finally tired of this place. Besides, he'd definitely want a large audience for that.
In the light of the morning, however, as Sirius drew closer and closer to the tree itself, the idea of ever climbing the Whomping Willow became less and less attractive, and it was clear that a rethinking of his plans was in order. In spite of there being a good number of climbable knots and low branches, it was all a bit more violent than Sirius felt he had been led to believe.
'Whoa,' James said breathlessly. 'They weren't joking, were they?'
'Aren't we close enough?' Peter, too, was breathless; he had to jog to keep up. 'You can see it quite well from here.'
But Sirius knew where he was headed. A lone figure, a boy, was already there, standing just outside the tree's reach. Sirius gasped as one massive branch, then another, swooped down and across; from where Sirius stood, it appeared to just barely miss him.
'Oi! Better watch it!'
The boy did a slight double-take at the sound of Sirius's voice, turning to look as they approached. It was Remus Lupin, the pale, sickly boy who had hardly spoken a word the night before and had disappeared from the dormitory before they woke up that morning. He smiled at them tentatively. 'It's all right,' he said, gesturing at a small cluster of rocks lying on the ground a short distance away. 'It can reach only as far as that.'
'What—measured it out, did you?' James asked, grinning.
'Yes,' Remus said, very matter-of-factly, and then turned back to continue watching the tree.
Sirius shot a quizzical look at James, and they both shrugged. 'Right,' Sirius said. 'Let's see, then.' He walked right up to the rock-pile border.
'Oh...no...you shouldn't,' Remus said, as Sirius picked up one of the larger rocks and hefted it in his hand. He was apparently standing close enough now to whip the tree into a really foul temper. All of the branches were in motion, thrashing about and sending flurries of leaves whirling in the air around them. Sirius took one step back, then tossed the rock high into the air. It sailed upwards in a lazy arc; just as it began to descend, one of the Willow's branches swung into it with staggering force. All four boys ducked as the rock whistled over their heads, narrowly missing them.
'Bloody brilliant!' James said, already scrambling forward to grab a rock of his own. Sirius began looking around for other, more interesting things to throw. Peter, however, remained in a crouch, watching James with eyes as wide as saucers.
'You're nutters, both of you,' Peter said, laughing nervously.
'Professor McGonagall was very clear... ' Remus's hands were clasped tightly in front of him, as if he was afraid of what they might do if they were set free. 'She said the Whomping Willow wasn't to be provoked.'
'Yeah?' Sirius said with a smirk. 'What were you doing when we got here, then?'
'I was only...' Remus paused, and then it looked as though a war was going on in his mind. He wrung his hands even harder, his face showing first fear, then hopefulness, then nervousness, then indecision. Finally, there was simple resignation. 'Nothing. I was only looking.'
Sirius eyed him with scepticism but didn't press the issue. 'Do what you like,' he said coolly. 'And we'll do the same, if you don't mind. Now...I wonder whether any of the pumpkins in that patch over there are ripe enough...'
'Sirius, look!' James had gathered several rocks together, cradling them in one arm. When he was sure Sirius was watching, he hurled each rock high into the air, one after the other, then dived to the ground as the Willow used four of its boughs to drive them, in rapid succession, far out toward the castle.
'Nice one, James!' Peter exclaimed from where he lay in the grass. Sirius grinned as he watched the rocks' trajectories, which were indeed impressive. Remus, however, was already gone, trudging back towards the Castle, and hadn't seen a thing.
'Where's Lupin off to?' James asked. 'Can't believe he missed that!'
'Needs to get back and polish McGonagall's wand or something, I expect,' Sirius said, picking up another rock.
'Oh, lay off him,' James said, frowning. 'He has enough trouble without someone in his own house adding to it.'
'What do you mean?'
James sighed and shook his head in that way he'd done so many times since he and Sirius met on the train the day before. It was starting to get a bit annoying, really. He took Sirius by the arm and turned him to face the castle. 'Well, that, for starters.'
In the distance, a gang of three Slytherins had, in the time Sirius's back was turned, surrounded Remus where he stood, their wands drawn.
'Happened on the train, too,' Peter said. 'But he can take care of himself. You should have seen—'
'He shouldn't have to, though, should he?' James said sharply. He gave Sirius a pointed stare as he started off across the lawn, reaching into his robes for his own wand.
Sirius hesitated, weighing his indignance at being shamed into action by the likes of James Potter against the infuriating idea of a fellow Gryffindor being openly harassed where he could see it. He looked over at the Slytherins, whom he thought he recognized as first-years. They appeared to be plucking at Remus's robes at the moment, most likely ridiculing the rather sad state of them.
If I'd been sorted into Slytherin, would I be standing there with them?
Sirius's stomach flip-flopped sickeningly. He swore under his breath and jogged along after James, his hand clenched tight around his wand.
As he drew closer, he was able to catch snatches of what the Slytherins and Remus were saying to each other.
'...new curse we just learned...'
'...want to see it, Lupin?'
Remus's voice remained strangely unperturbed. '...warning you. I wouldn't...'
'...yeah, what are you going to do?'
'Oi!' James yelled, breaking into a run, but it was too late—the Slytherins had already cast their spells, but Sirius heard Remus cast a spell at precisely the same moment. There was a flash of light, and all three Slytherins were thrown backwards several feet.
James reached him first and, laughing, gave him a friendly clap on the shoulder. Remus spun around, wand raised, until he saw who it was. Again, he smiled that same tentative smile, as if he were afraid it was all a mistake and James might not have actually meant to be friendly towards him.
'Good one!' James said, looking down at the Slytherins where they lay motionless in the grass. 'What'd you do to them, anyway?'
'Oh—well, I'm not really sure...' Remus took a few steps closer and peered down at them. 'I think they might have been trying to petrify me or something, so...'
'Cast a shield charm, didn't you?' Sirius kicked one of them lightly; it was a bit like kicking a rock. 'Bounced it straight back at them.'
'Yes,' Remus said. 'I did warn them...'
'Well, I think it was brilliant,' James said. 'They deserved worse, really.'
'Not an easy spell, that.' Sirius pocketed his wand and studied Remus as though he was seeing him for the first time. 'Never tried it myself, but once I heard a few of my cousins complaining that they still bollocks it up after studying magic for years.'
Remus's cheeks were turning bright pink. He looked down at the ground, apparently intensely interested in his own shoes. 'I've...practiced it quite a lot.'
'Well, you're going to have to teach us, aren't you?' James said, slinging an arm around Remus's shoulder. 'But right now we'd best get to Potions.'
'What about—?' Remus looked back at the Slytherins, who were already starting to move again, wriggling about like beetles that had been flipped onto their backs.
'I'm sure they'll be fine,' Peter said with a nervous glance at his watch. 'It wasn't a very good curse, was it? It's already wearing off.'
'Mmmggrrrrrrch!' one of the Slytherins offered in response.
'Don't want to be late,' Sirius said, prodding the other three boys toward the castle. 'Can't stand around worrying about this lot. Besides, they asked for it, didn't they? They're lucky they weren't the next things we threw to the Willow.'
Remus still looked reluctant, and Sirius was forced to conclude he might be one of the strangest creatures he'd ever come across, although his main attitude towards him was no longer irritation so much as curiosity. James, thankfully, physically steered Remus away from the twitching Slytherins, and the idea of being late for his very first class apparently got the better of him, because he put forth no further resistance.
Sirius shot one last, disdainful glance back at the boys on the ground, none of whose names he was able to recall from last night's Sorting Ceremony, not that he'd been paying a great deal of attention once he'd been through it himself. He seemed to have a vague recollection of at least one other boy being sorted into Slytherin, although it wasn't anyone he had recognised. In any case, if this was the best Slytherin had to offer this year, Sirius was very glad indeed that the Hat had sorted him the way it had.