Remus gave Pettigrew a long-suffering look. "What d'you mean you've got detention again? What did those nutters drag you into this time?"
As Pettigrew mumbled something about being off school grounds, Remus pressed his fingers against his temples. He hadn't been back in Gryffindor tower more than ten minutes, and already he felt a headache coming on. Whether it was the length of the nights or the cold that clung to his bones, winter full moons were frequently the worst for Remus, and he had not yet fully recovered from the one two nights past. Thank God he hadn't stayed at Hogwarts for the holidays, since his idiotic roommates had apparently chosen that night of all nights to go snooping around his safe house.
I shouldn't have come back, he thought. It's getting too complicated.
Being with his family and not having to hide or lie about anything for two whole weeks had been an enormous relief for Remus. He had spent Christmas surrounded by warmth and love and family.
But not laughter.
Remus had never really noticed or been bothered by the absence of mirth at home. For a long time after the attack, he hadn't felt much like laughing, and by the time he had recovered as much as he was ever going to, joy had become a stranger to the Lupin family. He and Natalie might share a chuckle over a humorous passage in a favourite book, but full-throated belly-laughs were virtually unknown.
By contrast, the corridors of Hogwarts rang with laughter, and hardly a day went by without Black, Potter or Pettigrew collapsing in helpless mirth at something one of the others had said or done. Remus found he missed that sort of unrestrained joy.
And he missed Lily. Of course, at home he had his sister, but now there were things he couldn't talk to her about. One of Remus and Lily's favourite topics of discussion was magical theory. They could happily spend hours discussing the origins of magic, and the ways in which it could be controlled and tamed. But when Remus began to talk of magic with Natalie, much as she claimed to love hearing about it, she could not understand it, and it made them both a little sad to think that she had not yet shown any sign of magical ability.
Natalie so longed to be a part of the magical world that it made Remus's heart ache for her. He had begged his parents to be allowed to take her to Diagon Alley, and they had reluctantly agreed. There, he had spent all his pocket money on a small, secondhand owl, which Natalie had named Wol after shrieking and hugging Remus for several minutes.
His mother was worried about him. Sylvia Lupin always worried about her son. When he began to speak of his roommates, she had reminded him of the need to be careful and trust no one, and of what might happen if they ever discovered his secret. And when he spoke of Lily, and sent her an owl on Christmas day, his mother had become downright alarmed. Remus didn't understand until his father had sat him down the next day to explain things.
"I hoped we wouldn't have to have this talk for a couple of years yet," Marcellus began, looking uncomfortable. "Your mother says you have a girlfriend."
Remus had blushed, embarrassment squirming in his guts. "She's not -- Lily's just a friend, Dad."
"Be that as it may," his father continued, "there are some things that are going to start happening over the next few years, and it's probably better if you know about them beforehand."
His father had explained that Remus needed to be especially careful to maintain control around girls before full moons, because there was a danger that he might hurt them without meaning to. There was also a risk, he was told, that if he "became involved" with a girl, his lycanthropy could end up tainting her. Marcellus had been painfully vague about what any of this meant, but Remus could guess what he was talking about. By the end of the conversation, Remus had decided he would rather go to Potions class in his underwear than suffer through such a mortifying discussion with his father again. He had promised that he would be mindful of the dangers, and that, to both of their very great relief, had been the end of it.
The full moon had fallen on New Years Eve, and Remus awoke late the next afternoon to find Natalie curled up in her usual place beside him.
"Happy New Year," she said, smiling. "How do you feel?"
"Not too terrible," he admitted. It was the first moon since he had started school that he hadn't woken exhausted after dreaming of his fruitless search for the black dog. "What time is it?"
"Almost teatime. Mum said she'd bring ours in."
"Tea in bed," he groaned, sitting up painfully. "And company to share it with. I'll miss that when I go back tomorrow."
"Are you glad to be going back?" she asked.
Remus thought about it. "I guess so. I'm learning a lot. But I'll miss you."
"I'll miss you, too. But -- it's good you're making friends. You seem different. Happier."
He smiled at that. "I dunno about 'friends', but there's Lily at least."
"There's your roommates, too. You like them. I can tell by the way you talk about them."
Remus shook his head ruefully. "Maybe so, but Black is a snob, Potter is arrogant, Pettigrew's sort of pathetic, and they all think I'm boring. Probably glad to be rid of me."
Natalie rolled her eyes. "You're a werewolf! That's not boring."
"Yeah, well, they don't know that, do they?" Remus pointed out.
"So?" his sister said, scowling at him. "They don't know everything. If they think you're boring, they're wrong."
Remus couldn't help grinning. "Thanks. Maybe you should come with me and talk them 'round."
"I wish I could." She snuggled closer beside him, and he put an arm around her.
"I wish you could, too, Nat."
The following morning, he had taken an almost tearful farewell of his family at King's Cross Station, and stumbled, still exhausted, to an empty compartment on the Hogwarts Express, hoping for at least a couple of hours sleep before arriving back at school. When he awoke, Lily was sitting across from him, reading.
"Rough holiday?" she had asked, raising her coppery eyebrows.
Remus stretched, wincing. "Something like that."
He had thanked her for the Potions theory book she had sent him for Christmas, and apologised for not sending anything in return, but she waved his apology away. When she asked him if he had done anything interesting over the holidays, he told her about his sister and the owl, and definitely not about the conversation with his father. Just thinking about it still made him blush.
The day had gone rapidly downhill from there. As soon as they arrived back at school, he promptly bumped into Black, Potter and Pettigrew in the entrance hall, heading down to supper. Black's eyes had narrowed at the new scratch on his neck that his robes didn't quite conceal, as if it confirmed all his worst suspicions, and exchanged a significant look with Potter. He had told, after all.
But apparently Pettigrew still wasn't in on it. "What happened to your neck?" he asked.
"Cut myself shaving," Remus said acidly.
"You shave?" Pettigrew sounded awed.
Remus sighed. "No. Just got on the wrong side of Veteran."
Even Pettigrew looked dubious at that. All three of his roommates were familiar with the placid disposition of the Lupin family owl. But they let it pass.
"How's your mum?" Black asked a little sharply.
It took Remus a second to remember his lie. "She's ill. And she's a Muggle. What do you care, Black?"
Black's tone was indifferent. "Just curious. Can't I ask after your Mudblood family?"
The word stung, and Potter shot Black a quelling look the haughty boy didn't appear to notice. Remus, who had almost been considering sitting with his roommates at supper, changed his mind, and veered off to join Lily as usual. He caught Black shooting him a speculative look during the meal, but chose to ignore him.
When they returned to Gryffindor tower following the meal, there had been a few unpleasant surprises awaiting him.
The first was the state of his favourite jumper -- the one that had been his father's before Remus was born. It was stained and misshapen and scorched and snagged, and it smelled like --
"Black, have you been wearing my jumper?" he asked, incredulous.
Black shrugged. "It got lonely without you, so we invited it along on a couple of adventures."
"Well, next time remind it that it's not allowed out without permission," Remus said tartly. The garment would never be the same again, but rowing with Black wouldn't change that.
The second unpleasant surprise was Pettigrew's new pet. An animal living in the same room with him was not good news for anyone. When he tried to introduce Remus to the ball of fluff which bore the unlikely name of Constantine, the thing squeaked and burrowed into Pettigrew's shirt and refused to come out.
"What the --?" Pettigrew cried, startled, as he fumbled through his clothing, trying to get a grip on the thing.
"Better keep it away from me," Remus had informed him. "Animals don't like me."
"Why not?" Black had asked.
That lie was an easy one. "Dunno. They just don't."
And now the third and most unpleasant surprise of all. Detention. For being off school property. For sneaking into Hogsmeade and poking their noses into something that was none of their business. For prying into secrets that could get him expelled and sent home in disgrace. Yes, there was definitely a headache coming on.
"We only got caught because Pete's such a rubbish lookout," Potter complained.
"Yeah," said Black, flouncing petulantly onto Remus's bed. "It was Tynedale who knicked us. If you'd been there, you could have just fluttered your eyelashes, and she'd have pinched your cheeks and sent us on our way."
"Professor Tynedale?" Remus said, surprised. "What was she doing in Hogsmeade in the middle of the night?"
"Dunno," Potter shrugged. "Probably some New Years do at the pub."
"But that old place is on the edge of the village. It's not on the way back to the castle." Remus realised his slip and could happily have bitten his tongue clean in two. Stupid.
"Spent some time in Hogsmeade, have you?" asked Black, raising an eyebrow.
"It's where I leave from when I go home," Remus hastily invented.
"We only made Pete lookout because he wouldn't go anywhere near the house," said Potter.
"Oh, like you're so brave," Pettigrew whined, tired of being out of favour. "You two were making so much noise daring each other to go peek in the windows that I didn't even hear Tynedale coming. You'd need Godric's own courage to go into a place like that." He shuddered.
Potter made a face. "Are you a Gryffindor or not, mate? At least we looked. Couldn't see anything inside, though. Didn't hear anything, either."
"I'd've got away if only your stupid jumper hadn't got hung up on a splinter, Lupin," complained Black. "James only got caught because he was helping me get free." The two boys shared a fraternal grin.
Remus sighed. "How many House points've we lost this time?"
"Fifty," said Pettigrew glumly. "And detention every night this week."
"Lovely," said Remus. "I'll have some quiet time to study."
It was a relatively quiet week, and between the four of them, they managed to earn back most of the lost House points, though Remus didn't think his own points earned in Charms and Defence Against the Dark Arts should be counted towards making up his roommates' deficit.
"Maybe they should consider thumbscrews," he said meditatively the following Saturday.
Black, who had been grinning at him deviously, clearly planning some new mischief, blinked in confusion. "Eh?"
"Detention and taking points don't seem to have any effect on you lot," Remus said. "You do your time and make up your points -- or not -- and then you're off on the next caper."
That made Black laugh. "You're not wrong, Lupin. Dunno that thumbscrews would stop us, though."
"So what is it this time?" sighed Remus, closing his book and sitting up. He had seen his roommates with their heads together with the Prewett twins over supper again. "Or don't I want to know?"
Black's grin widened. "I was just going to ask if your jumper could come out tonight. And you in it."
"It hasn't recovered from its last outing," Remus reminded him. "And what makes you think I would want to come along on one of your 'adventures'?"
"C'mon, Lupin! Live a little!" Black bounced over onto his bed, causing it to dip alarmingly, and Remus had to shift his position quickly to avoid colliding with the other boy. "The Prewetts are planning this one, and they almost never get caught."
"And you think they'd want the Most Boring Gryffindor along?"
"The first step is admitting you have a problem, Lupin," said Black with mock-solemnity. Then the grin was back. "'Boring' is curable. Come with us!"
"All right," Remus capitulated, remembering what his sister had said. "Just this once."
If he had known they were heading into the Forbidden Forest, Remus might not have agreed so quickly. Not that he was afraid; after all, he one of the scary things in the darkness that other people feared. No, it was the name. "Forbidden". As in, "entirely against the rules". As in, "the rules one should really abide by if one is a Dark creature and only able to go to school at all through the goodwill of the headmaster". The forest was completely off limits to students, which was no doubt part of its appeal to his housemates.
The ground sparkled with frost in the waning moonlight as they hurried, silent as shadows, towards the amorphous blackness of the treeline.
Pettigrew hung back a moment before plunging into the darkness. "Hope the werewolves have already eaten tonight," he joked weakly.
Black paused, peering between the trees. "Are there werewolves in the forest? Really?" He sounded more interested than alarmed.
Gideon snorted. "Why are you lot wittering on about werewolves when it's not even the full moon?"
"There are plenty of other things in there that would enjoy a mouthful of juicy first year," added Fabian, pinching Pettigrew so that he squeaked.
"Where do werewolves go when the moon's not full?" wondered Black.
"Home. I expect," Remus said quietly.
"Nah," Potter grinned. "I bet they go to wild parties with vampires and veela and things, and argue about who are the tastiest victims."
Remus was not sure what veela were, but the sentiment made him feel a trifle queasy. His roommates' speculations on the private lives of Dark creatures became wilder and wilder until the Prewetts shushed them. They were deep in the forest by this time, and the moon cast only the weakest glow between the trees' skeletal branches.
"Right," whispered Gideon, beckoning them close around him. "What we're looking for is centaur tail hair. It shines in starlight, which makes it easier to find at night."
"It's dead useful for all kinds of stuff," Fabian explained. "Strengthening potions. Aphrodisiacs." He gave the younger boys a wink, though their lack of appreciative giggles made Remus suspect that the others were not well-read enough to know the word.
"And," Gideon added, "you can make a bit of extra pocket money selling it on to Ollivander. Seers love a wand with a centaur hair core."
They split up into pairs for their search, though never far enough to be out of sight or sound of the others. Potter went with Fabian, Black with Gideon, and Remus was left with Pettigrew, who clung to him like an unhappy burr, jumping at every sound. It was a cold night, and the deeper they went into the forest, and the more chilled his fingers became, the more he wished he had not agreed to this particular outing. They were bound to be caught on their way back in, and he was fairly certain centaur hair was not something students were permitted to be in possession of.
Pettigrew spotted the first hair, and Fabian found the second.
"We're getting close to their part of the forest," the prefect said in a hushed voice. "Look sharp."
In the event, it was Remus's ears that picked them up first. Hoofbeats, coming towards them fast and hard. He raised his head, scenting a strong animal smell on the wind. A second later, the others heard it, too, and looked around for the source.
There were three of them, all males with shaggy winter coats, and they were armed with bows and stern expressions. They stopped at the edge of the clearing when they saw the boys. One of them, a shining palomino, recognised the Prewetts.
"Why do you bring human foals and creature cubs into our forest, little friends of Hagrid?" His voice was deep and forbidding.
Remus's heart pounded, and he stepped to the back of their little cluster, where Pettigrew was cowering, to avoid undue notice. It hadn't occurred to him that the denizens of the forest might give him away. I never should have come here, he thought for the dozenth time that night as he watched Gideon surreptitiously stow the collected tail hairs in his sleeve.
But Pettigrew was too frightened and Potter and Black too fascinated by these unusual beings to wonder at their strange speech.
"We're teaching the boys about night-blooming plants," Fabian said with deceptive ease.
"Winter is not the time of growing things," a dappled centaur objected. "Return when Aries rises, if you must come at all."
The palomino raised his bow. "The forest is not safe tonight. Take your foals back to the castle before they are harmed."
"What do you hunt, Lach?" asked Gideon.
"A creature of the deep wood," answered the palomino. "In its own place, it is no enemy of ours, but it has become separated from its colony, and last night, it wounded a foal."
"Why do we linger to answer their foolish questions?" grumbled the third, dark-coated centaur. "We should hunt while Diana's light is bright. If their fate is to fall victim to the creature, what concern is that of ours?"
Lach nodded. "Go," he urged the boys, and as one, the three centaurs turned and galloped away into the darkness.
"Maybe we should." Pettigrew's voice was high and somewhat hysterical. "If there're -- things about."
"What sort of creature do you think --?" Black began as he and Potter moved to the edge of the clearing to peer into the shadows.
"C'mon," interrupted Fabian tersely. "Pettigrew's right. We should get out of here."
The two young pranksters looked at their mentors in surprise, only to see that the older boys had their wands out and were glancing about warily. Remus drew his own wand, and Pettigrew clutched at his sleeve, whimpering softly.
"Shhh," he hissed, shaking him off. "We'll be all right."
With quickened, quiet steps, they turned back towards the castle, Fabian in the lead with Remus and Pettigrew just behind him. Potter and Black followed, still looking more excited than scared, urged along by Gideon who brought up the rear. The forest all looked the same to Remus, and he devoutly hoped that the Prewetts knew where they were going. All his senses were on the alert, and there was no room in him for fear. If he only knew what it was they were watching for --
"Stop," he said softly, too focussed on listening to be surprised when the others instantly heeded his command.
For several seconds, no one moved or breathed.
"I don't hear --" Potter began, but Remus held up a hand to silence him.
There. A scuttling sound, somewhere off to their right. He stared into the darkness, wishing werewolves had better eyesight in addition to keen senses of smell and hearing.
"Lupin," Fabian said, "what --?"
Pettigrew shrieked. A large black shape with far too many legs broke away from the shadows and rushed towards them at alarming speed.
With no time to think, Remus shoved Pettigrew out of the way and stepped between him and the oncoming creature. "Stupefy!"
The spell hit the creature with such force that it flipped over, landing on its back, legs quivering in the air.
There was a moment of stunned silence in which Remus could hear nothing but his own harsh breathing and the pounding of his heart.
Gideon whistled. "Good show, Lupin!"
"Quick thinking, mate!" said Potter, clapping him on the shoulder.
Everything felt distant and unreal, and Remus wondered dimly if he was in shock. He turned to Pettigrew and offered a hand to help him to his feet. "You all right?" he asked.
"Think so," said Pettigrew, still staring at the stunned creature and vaguely moving his hands to dust himself off. "Thanks."
"Yeah," said Black. "Not bad for a Mudblood."
The tension that had held Remus in its grip snapped, and he whirled on the boy, eyes blazing. "I don't ever want to hear you use that word again, Black!"
Black took a step back, startled. The others tensed uncertainly. Then, to Remus's surprise, Black grinned and bowed to him. "Whatever you say, Lupin."
Fabian cautiously approached the stunned monster. "Acromantula. Eugh!" he shuddered.
"My brother dislikes spiders," Gideon informed them.
"Loathes," Fabian corrected, retreating back to where the rest of them stood. "Your brother loathes spiders."
They were interrupted by hoofbeats, and the hunting party reappeared out of the trees.
"What are you still doing in the forest, wizard foals?" Lach demanded. Then he caught sight of the creature. "Which of you has done this?" he asked, looking back and forth between the Prewetts.
The twins looked at Remus, who suddenly very much wished he was invisible.
Lach stepped forwards to stand over him. "The centaurs owe you a debt of thanks, cub. Should you tire of human company, the forest is yours to roam, so long as you harm none."
"Thanks," Remus muttered.
The centaur hesitated. "You should not hide yourself behind that human face."
"Dunno what you mean," mumbled Remus, staring at the ground and wishing it would swallow him. He could feel the others staring at him.
"As you will," said the centaur.
He and the others trotted away to bend their heads over the fallen monster. Remus, eyes still fixed on the ground, could hear the centaurs arguing about whether it was honourable to kill it while it was defenceless. Any moment now, the questions would start.
Black was the first to speak, but to Remus's surprise, he only said, "Sounds like you managed to impress them, Lupin. They don't think a human could have done it! What do they think you are? A goblin?"
As they left the forest, Remus breathed a tentative sigh of relief.
Pettigrew gushed about how Remus had saved his life. "I owe you one, mate! If there's ever anything I can do --"
"What could you do?" Potter laughed.
"I could do something!" Pettigrew insisted hotly. "Maybe not save his life, but there could be other stuff."
"Too bad we didn't find more hairs," said Black. "Only two. Hardly seems worth the trouble."
Gideon shrugged. "It wasn't a total loss. We still had an adventure, and we learned something new," he said, winking at Remus.
"Lupin's in the gang," declared Fabian. "Anyone who can stun an Acromantula at twenty paces gets my vote."
"What say you, Lupin?" said Gideon. "We could use a man of your talents. You OK to come along with us sometimes?"
Remus felt a bit overwhelmed by so much acceptance and goodwill all at once. He nodded, a small, unaccustomed glow burning in the pit of his stomach.