"It's all down to me, really," said Sirius, hefting a tray of sausage rolls in one hand and wondering how many he could get away with eating before they got back to Gryffindor tower.
"Sure," teased James, trying to balance his own tray of fairy cakes on his head, before realising what a bad idea that was. "It's all because you're the most brilliant mate in the entire world."
Sirius stuck out his tongue at his friend, righting the tray just in time before the meat pastries could slide onto the dusty stone floor. "I'm your best mate," he reminded the other boy. "Said so yourself. And he's happier, isn't he?"
"If you eat any more of those, there won't be any left by the time we get back, and then how happy will he be?" said James.
Sirius ignored him, popping another pastry into his mouth and talking around it. "It was me who convinced him we should be friends. It was me who told him to sort things out with Evans. It was me who did his Potions essay for him. And he almost got a perfect mark on that. Saw it on Friday when Slughorn handed 'em back."
"I still can't believe he turned that in."
Sirius looked smug. "What else could he do? He's rubbish at Potions, and he'd only finished a third of it. I'll have him do one of mine sometime to make it up to me. History of Magic or something."
James allowed that that was only fair as he intercepted another sausage roll on its way to Sirius's mouth and popped it into his own. In retaliation, Sirius stole a cake.
"Good thing I rescued him in time, too," he continued. "Evans was turning him into a girl. I caught them hugging the other day. Without our manly influence, he'd be lost."
James laughed. "By your reckoning, mate, they wouldn't even be friends anymore if you hadn't stepped in. What does he see in her, anyway? I mean, all right, the hair's nice enough, but she's skinny and she studies all the time and she doesn't even like Quidditch."
"Well, Remus studies all the time, too," Sirius reasoned. "And I don't think he's ever even been to a Quidditch match."
"That's just not right," said James, shaking his head. "We've got to fix that."
"And now we can, thanks to me," Sirius said triumphantly, "because we're mates."
"It's the least we can do," muttered James, peering around the next corner for any sign of Peeves or Pringle. "He did teach us that Noodle-Arms jinx. Whadoyoucallit? The one that makes it so they can't raise their wand?"
"Bracchia Languida," supplied Sirius. It had impressed Professor Tynedale so much when she had asked if anyone could demonstrate any other neutralising spells that she had awarded them ten House points apiece.
"Right. That one."
Sirius bit his lip. "I just wish there was something we could do to help him with -- you know."
"Sure," James said. "But what? Tell Dumbledore? What can he do if it's not happening at school?"
"Maybe the Ministry --"
James weighed the possibility. "But who? You want to just start at the top and work our way down? 'Dear Minister: My mate's parents are knocking him about, and I was just wondering if you could have a word with them?'"
Sirius punched him in the arm that wasn't occupied with cakes.
"You know he wouldn't thank us for interfering," said James more seriously.
"I know," Sirius sighed as they arrived at the portrait of the Fat Lady. "Salazar's Pink Knickers."
The portrait swung open, and they and their burdens were joyously received by the Prewetts and by Peter, who was in the middle of a chess game with Remus, and wore a paper crown.
"Happy birthday, mate," James grinned, presenting the short, blond boy with the tray of cakes. "First choice is yours."
Sirius set his own tray down on the table next to the chess board. Glancing at the game in progress, he was surprised to note that Remus had lost almost as many pieces as Peter had, and that Peter's remaining bishop was shooting threatening glances at Remus's king.
"You're not letting him win just because it's his birthday, are you?" Sirius asked.
Remus shook his head. "I'm teaching him how to beat Potter."
"Never happen, mate," said James, squishing himself into a space on the sofa between Gideon and Peter.
"Remus says you always lead with your queen's bishop, and that if I can just remember to --"
Remus shushed him. "Don't give your game away, Pete. Just beat him next time and make me proud."
The Prewetts had been waiting for James and Sirius to return from the kitchens before presenting their contributions to the refreshments. They had been to Hogsmeade the day before, and had returned with a butterbeer for each of them, half a dozen of the ever-popular chocolate Chocolate Frog, and --
"Fizzing Whizbees!" cried Peter, eyes lighting up.
He immediately began handing out the sweets to his friends. They were getting too big for the candy to make them fly properly anymore, but it was still fun to float a bit, and to leap halfway across the common room in a single bound, though Fabian had to perform a quick evasive manoeuvre at one point to keep Peter from ending up in the fire.
Remus, who had been acting almost normal until then, refused to touch the flying sweets. As Sirius watched, the carefully blank expression fell across his face like a veil.
"You all right, mate?" he asked in an undertone.
Remus merely nodded, eyes swept down, and reached for a Chocolate Frog instead. He didn't rejoin the conversation when the floating had died down, though he raised his butterbeer along with the others when the Prewetts proposed a toast.
"To Peter," Fabian intoned solemnly, "most senior among our first years. May he laugh long and loudly, and at the expense of others."
"To Peter!" the others declared, clinking their bottles together.
Peter's ears and nose went pink. He loved being made a fuss of. Unlike some, thought Sirius, eyes flicking back to Remus.
The topic of conversation shifted to the Shrieking Shack, which the Prewetts had been to see at while they were in Hogsmeade, but Remus did not emerge from his silence. Gideon and Fabian had gone with Amelia Bones to look in through the cracks between the boards that covered the windows, but they had had no better luck than Sirius, James and Peter had on their ill-fated New Years adventure.
"Couldn't see more than a couple of the downstairs rooms," said Gideon. "We tried to get in, but it's shut up tight. Maybe even by magic."
"Why anyone would go to the trouble of protecting a bunch of broken furniture is beyond us," said Fabian.
"Maybe they're breeding prize-winning dust bunnies," suggested Gideon, and all the younger boys giggled appreciatively except Remus.
"It's not haunted, though," Fabian told them. "Amelia has this spell for detecting spirits, and there aren't any at that end of town."
Gideon shrugged. "It's a mystery, but it's not a very interesting one. Probably just someone's party house, and they've started the haunting rumours to keep unwelcome visitors out."
With that conclusion drawn, the boys returned to discussing their current favourite subject of investigation: the putative romance between the school matron and the Defence mistress.
As if that's any more interesting, thought Sirius petulantly.
He wondered if all mysteries were so mundane once their secrets were brought to light. Like Remus. What happened to him at home was an awful shame, of course, but it wasn't very mysterious. Sirius didn't even see much point in questioning him about it anymore. Remus wasn't going to talk, and Sirius wasn't sure he wanted to know about it if he did.
He's safe when he's here, at least. Only time would solve the rest of Remus's problems.
In the weeks since Sirius had extended the olive branch of friendship to Remus, he had begun acting less like a stuffy junior professor with tendencies towards girliness -- in Sirius's opinion -- and more like a real boy. To Sirius's disappointment, they could not cure Remus altogether of spending time with Lily Evans. Most weekdays, he ate lunch with her, and the two of them disappeared off to the library afterwards to study, and he still preferred her over Peter as a classroom partner. Not that Sirius could really blame him for that. But evenings frequently found Remus dining at the far end of the Gryffindor table with his roommates and the Prewetts, if not actively taking part in the planning of mischief, at least occasionally suggesting ways in which it might be accomplished without getting caught and losing yet more House points.
Sirius worried that they were losing the battle when Remus began to disappear with Evans more frequently in the afternoons towards the end of February, but when James and Sirius practically ordered him to attend the Gryffindor v Hufflepuff Quidditch match, he voiced no objection.
"I don't really know anything about Quidditch, though," he admitted as they made their way down the grounds on Saturday morning, scarves wrapped tightly against the February winds. The Prewetts were absent, having taken the opportunity afforded by the empty school to try and sneak into Professor Tynedale's quarters or Madam Pomfrey's office.
"There's not all that much to it," Sirius informed him. "Just two teams scoring goals."
"First off, there's the Chasers," said James. "They've got this big, red ball called a Quaffle --"
"Like your owl?" Remus asked.
James nodded. "Exactly like." He dodged sideways, hefting an imaginary ball in one hand, and pretended to throw it to Sirius, who jumped to grab it out of the air. "The three Chasers throw the Quaffle back and forth and try to get it through the goal hoops, past the other team's Keeper."
"Like this." Sirius whirled on his toes and mimed hurling the imaginary ball past Peter, who dove sideways with a yell.
"Think I missed it," he mumbled as Remus helped him to his feet.
"So that's it?" asked Remus. "Not to insult your favourite sport, Potter, but that doesn't sound very interesting."
James grinned. "Oh, that's not nearly all of it, mate! See, then you've got the Beaters."
"Right!" said Sirius, striking a stance and miming hitting something with a stick, tongue sticking out between his teeth. "There's two of them on each team, and they've got bats for hitting Bludgers -- those are the balls that fly around on their own, knocking people off their brooms."
James dodged out of the trajectory of Sirius's phantom Bludger, and Peter took a dramatic fall off his imaginary broom.
"The Bludgers will go for whoever's closest," James informed Remus, "so the Beaters' job is to knock them away from their own teammates and towards the Slytherins -- I mean, the other team," he amended at Sirius's snort.
A cluster of Slytherins including Severus Snape pushed past the Gryffindors, shooting dirty looks at them, and passed through the entrance to the Quidditch pitch.
"C'mon," said Sirius, giving James a small push, "or all the good seats will have gone."
The four boys climbed the wooden steps to the Gryffindor section of the stands. Sirius felt quite warm by the time he reached the top, but when they exited the stairway, the winter wind, unobstructed at that altitude, hit him full-force, making his nose run. He wiped it on the back of his sleeve as they made their way to a cluster of unoccupied seats.
The wind whipped Sirius's too-long hair into his eyes, and he pushed it out of the way impatiently. Remus paused in the midst of trying to rewrap his scarf.
"Here," Remus said, taking out his wand. "Let me. Crinis Constringo."
Obeying the voice of authority, Sirius's hair pulled itself neatly back, as if bound by an invisible hair-tie.
Remus peered critically at the results of his spell. "Not bad," he said with a nod of satisfaction.
James laughed. "Where did you pick that one up, Lupin?"
"From Lily." He blushed. "Sometimes she gets annoyed with her hair falling in her face when she's studying. It'll wear off in a couple of hours."
"I can't believe you used some girly hairstyling spell on me," pouted Sirius. "I thought we were friends."
"It doesn't look girly," Peter said reasonably. "And your hair's out of the way now, isn't it?"
But as the match began and his attention turned towards the pitch, Sirius couldn't hold onto his gloom. Remus, seated beside him, was fidgeting with his scarf again. Sirius suspected the problem was that the scarf was too short to wrap twice around the other boy's neck, and not warm enough when wrapped only once. As he impatiently unwound it for the third time, a gust of wind caught it, and before Remus or Sirius could snatch it back, it sailed away, fluttering down to the pitch far below.
"Damn," muttered Remus, peering over the edge of the stands after it.
Sirius unwound his own long scarf. "Here," he said, wrapping one end firmly around Remus's throat, and the other around his own. "We can pick yours up after the match."
"Thanks," said Remus, flashing him a rare half-smile.
They turned back to the pitch in time to see Gryffindor score their first goal of the match, Cecilia Hathersage neatly putting the Quaffle past the startled Hufflepuff Keeper. Gryffindor's Keeper, third year Florence O'Neill, a scrappy girl with light brown hair and freckles, was letting nothing get past her. She performed a complicated loop-the-loop, catching the Quaffle while upside-down, and causing James to leap to his feet, proclaiming his undying love to her.
"What's he doing?" asked Remus after several minutes of silent observation.
"Who? Oh." Sirius caught sight of a gangly seventh year named Bilius Weasley, skimming low over the ground, far from the action of the match. "He's our Seeker. It's his job to catch the Snitch."
"The what?" Remus sounded confused.
"The Golden Snitch," Sirius explained in an undertone, leaning closer in order to be heard over the enthusiasm of the other spectators. "It's a tiny gold ball that zooms around all over the place. The game's not over until it's caught, and the Seeker who catches it gets 150 points for their team."
"Oh," said Remus. "Doesn't that make the rest of the game sort of pointless?"
"Sometimes," Sirius admitted as Gryffindor scored another goal. "Not always."
James had apparently overheard them, despite the fact that he was leaning halfway out of the stands, in danger of plummeting to his death. "If the Seeker's any good, the game can be over almost before it's started. Weasley's rubbish, though."
"Maybe the Slytherins hexed him," Sirius suggested, eyeing the unsteady progress of the Gryffindor Seeker.
"No," said Peter. "He was the same in the match against Slytherin in November."
A Slytherin in the stands opposite shouted a snide comment about the quality of Weasley's broomstick. Weasley turned as red as his hair and changed direction quickly, swooping away from the laughing Slytherins and almost running headlong into Lancelot Ames, Gryffindor's sixth year Beater.
"I almost feel sorry for Gryffindor!" a mocking voice called after him.
James shook his head, unable to summon up any real anger at the taunting. "The rest of the team's not bad, but without a decent Seeker, there's almost no way we'll win the cup this year."
"Weasley's a seventh year," Remus pointed out. "They'll have to get someone new next year. They're bound to be better, aren't they?"
"It'll be me," said James confidently. "Mum played Seeker. I've got Quidditch in my blood."
"I just thought you had a Bludger for a brain," quipped Sirius.
"Shut it, you," James replied, punching him affectionately in the shoulder. "See if I don't make the team."
"I suppose you couldn't be much worse than Weasley," teased Sirius, reaching out and plucking James's glasses off his nose to settle them on his own. The whole world went out of focus. "We'll see what happens when the Slytherins vanish your specs, shall we?"
"Arse," said James, flailing blindly at him.
He tried to snatch his glasses back, but misjudged the distance and ended up steadying himself on the scarf wrapped around Sirius and Remus's throats. When they could breathe again, Remus nudged Sirius.
"Give them back," he said. "They make you look like McGonagall."
"Ten points from Gryffindor for impertinence, Mr Lupin," Sirius replied in a prim Scots accent, but removed the spectacles and handed them back to James.
They turned their attention back to the pitch just in time to see third year Aleric Thomas aim a Bludger at Amos Diggory, Hufflepuff's Seeker, a handsome fifth year. The crowd went wild. Diggory swerved, and the Bludger missed him by inches, to cheers from the Hufflepuffs and cries of dismay from the Gryffindors.
James was leaning out of the stands again. "Nice one, Thomas! If we can knock their Seeker out of the running, we stand a chance, at least."
As the match progressed and Gryffindor scored goal after goal with no sign of the Snitch, Remus became more and more involved in the action of the game. When Gertrude Brown, the Gryffindor Captain, scored the team's tenth goal, Remus was on his feet, yelling as loud as any of them. Their shared scarf had become a hindrance to his enthusiasm, and Remus impatiently threw it off, claiming he was too warm for it now, in any case. His cheeks were flushed, his eyes bright with excitement. Sirius watched him covertly, mentally congratulating himself for forcing the other boy out of his studious fog.
When the inevitable happened and Diggory finally caught the Snitch, the points stood at 170 for Hufflepuff and 130 for Gryffindor. Every member of the Gryffindor team had acquitted him or herself heroically, except Weasley, who dragged his broom off the field in disgrace.
"Thanks," Remus told the others as they made their way across the school grounds after retrieving his scarf. "I think I needed that."
"Told you so," Sirius grinned, clapping him on the shoulder. "Study too much and you'll be the one who ends up looking like McGonagall."
"Oh, I dunno," said Remus thoughtfully. "Did you see her shaking her fist at Weasley at the end? I think she must be a Quidditch fan."
"No wonder if she was upset," James sighed, kicking despondently at a stone. "With two losses, we're out of the running for the Quidditch cup."
"A pity, that," said a mocking voice from behind them.
They turned to confront a group of Slytherins including Severus Snape and Rabastan Lestrange.
"We would've loved another chance to thrash you lot for the cup this spring," Lestrange continued. "Is Weasley really the best Gryffindor can do for a Seeker? How sad."
"Shut it, Lestrange," Sirius growled, hand twitching towards the wand in his pocket. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw James make the same movement.
Lestrange ignored him, turning to his friends to ask, "Who's in the lead for the cup now? Oh, that's right! We are!" The other Slytherins snickered approvingly.
"Now, what's all this?" asked a hearty, jovial voice. A tall, broad-shouldered boy waded into the midst of the younger Slytherins and glanced from them to the glaring Gryffindors. "Not making trouble, are you, lads?"
"We're just having a chat with our Gryffindor classmates, Bagman," Lestrange replied easily.
"Glad to hear it," said Bagman, patting the younger boy on the shoulder. "Remember, it's not sporting to mock a defeated foe. We're better than that. We're winning, and that should be enough for us."
When Bagman did not seem inclined to move on, the Slytherins began reluctantly to disperse. At last, only Snape remained, black eyes boring into Remus, who studiously did not meet his gaze. Bagman looked at Snape, shrugged, and wandered off with no more than a friendly nod to the Gryffindor boys.
When Bagman was out of earshot, Snape spoke. "How is it that you can treat her like nothing, and she still thinks you're something special?" he hissed. "If you weren't such a failure at Potions, I'd think it was a love philtre. Whatever you did to her, I hope you get expelled for it, Lupin."
Nothing showed on Remus's face, but Sirius could see his hand clenched in a white-knuckled fist in the folds of his cloak. Rather than respond to the taunt, he turned away. "C'mon," he said to the others. "It's freezing out here."
Peter went willingly, glad to avoid confrontation whenever possible. James turned away, too, but kept glancing back over his shoulder. Only Sirius didn't move, and he was the only one to see Snape draw his wand. He quickly drew his own, but at that moment, the hair-tying charm failed and the wind whipped his hair back into his eyes. His Noodle-Arms jinx went wild, but Snape's Jelly-Legs jinx hit Remus squarely between the shoulders, and he collapsed onto the muddy ground.
Sirius shoved his hair out of the way and glared at Snape with a loathing he usually reserved for his family, wand pointed at his sneering face. This filth had hexed Remus in the back! "Of all the foul, cowardly, Slytherinish things to do --"
"Mr Black!" cried a shocked voice. "Sympathetic though I am to the sentiment, losing at Quidditch is no excuse for hexing one's school fellows!"
And then McGonagall was standing between him and his target, and Sirius realised belatedly that Snape had somehow managed to stow his wand before the Transfiguration mistress could notice it.
"But Professor," he protested, "Snape hexed Remus!"
McGonagall turned to where James and Peter were helping Remus to his feet. "Is this true, Mr Lupin?"
Remus cast his eyes down. There was a smear of mud on his cheek. "No, Professor," he said quietly. "I just slipped."
The professor's disapproving gaze returned to Sirius. "Twenty points from Gryffindor for unbecoming behaviour," she announced, "and detention in my classroom before supper every night this week. Now, off you go."
Sirius whirled away in a huff, but not quickly enough to miss the smirk on Snape's face. Vowing a hundredfold vengeance upon the smug Slytherin's greasy head, he stormed past his friends.
"She's just in a snit because we lost," James said soothingly, hurrying to keep up. "Snape's a tosser. Everyone knows it."
Sirius ignored him. "I cannot believe you let that wanker get away with it," he growled at Remus. "I'm gonna hex him into next month if I ever catch him alone."
"It wasn't your fight." Remus's tone bore an edge. "You shouldn't've got involved."
"Well, I am involved," Sirius declared hotly. "We all are. No one messes with one of us without the others coming 'round to set him straight. Am I right?"
James and Peter nodded, though Peter looked a bit terrified at the thought that he might be called upon to stand up for himself, let alone anyone else.
"What are we?" asked Remus sarcastically. "The three Musketeers?"
"Four!" Peter chimed in, assuming he had been left out of the count.
James looked puzzled. "What's a Musketeer?"
"Never mind." Remus waved a hand impatiently. "I just meant I don't need a champion."
"Yeah, well, you've got one," Sirius told him.