"We did 'fun with colours' last year," said James. "Let's try something new."
"What about making them spill all their secrets?" suggested Sirius. "Not that I want to know what that lot get up to in private, but it could be embarrassing for them."
James shook his head. "I've looked up Veritaserum. It takes forever to make and some of the ingredients are restricted. Slughorn would have to get special permission from the Ministry and Dumbledore to even bring them into the school."
"Temporary ageing potion?" mused Sirius. "Make them all old and saggy for a couple of days?"
"I think we can rule out potions," said James regretfully. "The only way to dose all the Slytherins at once is through the kitchens. The house-elves aren't going to let something like that get by them twice."
"S'pose not." Sirius scowled. "What about you, Lupin? Any ideas?"
Remus sighed inwardly. He had been hoping that, if he kept his nose in his book and his mouth shut, his roommates would not try to include him in their latest attempt at becoming Slytherin targets number one and two. He wished James and Sirius would leave the other House alone, but he wasn't about to say so. His gratitude was still too raw.
"I just want to stay out of trouble," he said, not looking up from his Charms text.
"But you're a Marauder!" protested Sirius, bouncing knees-first onto Remus's bed. "You can't not help with at least planning the Second Great and Wonderful Official Marauders' Halloween Prank!"
Remus drew his feet up the bed, eyeing Sirius warily for signs of imminent pouncing. Ever since Sirius's mad actions the previous week in the hospital wing, Remus had been more than a little nervous of him.
"Dunno how I got to be a Marauder," he mumbled. "Marauding's not really my thing."
"Sure it is," said Sirius. "You just haven't had enough practise. Anyway, James and I say you're a Marauder, and that means you are, so you have to help."
"All right," he sighed. "If I have any brilliant ideas, I'll be sure to mention them. In the meantime, I have Charms to catch up on. I'll be in the library."
He snapped his book shut and hurried out of the room, leaving a dissappointed-looking Sirius behind him. Remus felt a little bit ashamed about running away, but for the past five days he had been having some very confused and complicated feelings regarding his friends, especially Sirius, and he needed breathing room to sort them out. That, and he really didn't want to know about whatever they were planning for the Slytherins.
In the Gryffindor common room, he found Lily sprawled across a big, squashy armchair beside the fire, immersed in her History of Magic text.
"Library?" he asked.
She sat up and began to gather her study supplies. "Noisy roommates?"
Lily rolled her eyes. "What are they up to now?"
"Nothing much," said Remus uncomfortably.
His conscience twinged at not telling her about his friends' plans to prank the Slytherins, but since he didn't know what those plans entailed, there wasn't much to tell. If he mentioned it, she would undoubtedly tell Snape, who would warn his Housemates. The Slytherins might even make a preemptive strike, and Remus wasn't sure they wouldn't include him on their list of targets. Anyway, he owed his friends for their astounding loyalty, and he didn't owe Snape a damn thing.
Lily hesitated at the crossroads between the library and the Refuge, glancing at Remus.
"Library," he said hastily. "There are some books I need."
It was only half a lie. Being around his roommates might not be conducive to sorting out his mental turmoil, but Snape would almost certainly be in their secret study room at this time of day, and he could be twice as bad as James and Sirius put together. Lily was doing a better job of reining in the worst of his nastiness this year, but he was no more cordial to Remus than he had ever been.
Remus hung his bag on a chair as he passed one of the library's large study tables, heading towards the shelves. The first three stacks on either side were the books most frequently referenced by students. Beyond them, there were a dozen tall, broad cases of volumes used mainly by OWL and NEWT level students, or by visiting scholars and researchers. These books were often older, often rarer, and many of them had gone untouched for years. Consequently, if one was looking for a quiet space in which to breathe, the dusty stacks at the back, next to the Restricted Section, were as good a place as any.
Remus leaned against the comforting, well-worn spines and closed his eyes. Avoiding Snape. Avoiding his roommates. And now he was avoiding Lily, too. He sighed. He wanted so badly to just accept the wonderful gift his friends had given him, but like everything else in his life, it was more complicated than that.
It had been five days since the morning in the hospital wing when Sirius had rashly sealed his declaration of friendship in his own blood, and Remus still could not believe he had done something so foolish. Ever since that morning, Remus had avoided being alone with the other boy as much as possible. Sirius had been hurt and disappointed by his reaction, he knew, but there was nothing Remus could do about that, anymore than he could change what had happened.
He had spent the intervening days watching Sirius closely for any overt signs of tainting -- changes in his appetite, senses, or behaviour -- but had so far spotted none. Every time he thought about what Sirius's family might do if they noticed any telltale changes in their son, Remus felt ill. It hadn't been his fault -- he had tried to stop Sirius, after all -- but the courts hardly ever ruled in a werewolf's favour, especially not against people like the Blacks.
Sirius, however, did not see any of that, because he was utterly, utterly mad. That was all there was to it. Mad and impulsive and infuriating and occasionally downright terrifying. Unfortunately for Remus, those were also the things that drew him to Sirius. His exuberant friend never held anything back, and Remus couldn't help envying him that.
James was mad, too, of course, but not in the same way as Sirius. He was pretending that nothing had changed. And really, nothing had, except that Peter knew now. Sirius and James both acted as if lycanthropy were nothing out of the ordinary, and young werewolves enroled at Hogwarts all the time. Perhaps that meant they didn't take his condition seriously. Maybe this was just another grand adventure to them.
The only sane one of the lot was Peter. If Remus had been avoiding Sirius, Peter had been avoiding Remus. While he didn't relish the idea that one of his friends was frightened of him, at least it was a reaction Remus understood. Peter wasn't nasty about it, and Remus didn't think he would tell, which was better than he had hoped for from any of them. He couldn't resent his timid friend's feelings.
Sirius, however, had decided to take umbrage against Peter on Remus's behalf, putting Remus in an awkward position for a day or two until James had put a stop to the barbed comments and jinxes Sirius flung in Peter's direction. After that, Sirius had taken to giving Peter the silent treatment, which meant Sirius had been partnering with Remus in their classes while Peter worked with James, who was at least mildly sympathetic to his misgivings.
Remus was grateful for the friendship of all three of them. But that did not mean he wanted to involve himself in their idiotic rivalry with the Slytherins.
"There you are."
Remus opened his eyes to see Sirius's impish grin peering around the corner of the stacks.
"Hey," he said, briefly mourning the loss of his quiet moment as the nervous feeling that he got every time Sirius was nearby returned.
Sirius sauntered over, hands in the pockets of his robes. "Evans said you weren't here. Lying bint," he said without heat, glancing at the shelf opposite Remus. "What're you looking for? Old Charms books? That's not a bad thought. Might find something we can use that everyone's forgotten." He pulled a book entitled A Charming History off the shelf and sat down on the floor, already turning pages.
It was only two days before Halloween by the time James and Sirius's nebulous plans for an assault on Slytherin House finally crystalised. They were brainstorming in their dormitory on Sunday afternoon, Sirius sprawled across the foot of James's bed, Peter digging through his trunk, trying to locate his camera, and Remus, as usual, reading on his own bed, trying to avoid becoming involved.
"We could try to capture something that lives in the forest, and release it in the dungeons," said James, idly making sparks of different colours with his wand and getting them to rotate around one another like a tiny solar system.
"What? One of those spider things?" Peter paused in his rummaging to shudder.
"Maybe not," James sighed.
"We could put it about that Snape's a vampire," suggested Sirius. "He looks enough like one."
"No," said Remus before he could stop himself.
The others looked at him, surprised.
"No Dark creatures," he pleaded.
Sirius frowned. "We wouldn't say anything about werewolves, mate. You know that."
But Remus shook his head. "It doesn't matter. When people get scared, they start looking for clues and seeing things around every corner. They could figure it out. I'd rather not have an angry mob after me."
"They'd have to get past me and James first," Sirius declared stoutly.
"Tosser." James shoved Sirius's arm with a foot. "It's OK, Remus. No Dark creatures. I promise."
Remus trusted James, for all he was mad. Sirius was volatile and Peter was easily intimidated, but James was all Gryffindor; his word of honour was a sacred bond. He would keep the other two in line.
"What about booby-trapping the dungeons?" said James, breaking the awkward lull in the conversation.
Peter was still digging haphazardly through his trunk, shoving robes and books out of the way, when one of the objects he had tossed aside hit the floor, and with an obscene sound, dissolved in a cloud of noxious green. He staggered back, gagging.
"Stink Pellet!" Sirius shouted the alarm.
"Windows!" gasped Remus.
Unfortunately, only two of the windows in the dormitory were designed to open, and neither of them very far. There was a brief scuffle as the four of them vied for access to a limited amount of damp autumn air, before realising it was no good and slamming the door behind them to collapse on the tower steps.
No sooner had they gulped down a lungful of relatively untainted air than Peter cried, "Constantine!" and rushed back into the room. He returned a moment later, a faintly greenish cast to his face, with his stricken Puffskein cradled in his hands. The little creature was so far gone that for once it did not seem to care about Remus's proximity. Manfully suppressing his own nausea, Remus attempted to feel grateful for small mercies.
"Slytherin's arse," James coughed, fanning himself. "I'd only just got the smell out of my things from last time."
"Yeah," growled Sirius, pinching his nose. "If I wanted to smell like a Slytherin, I'd ask to borrow Snivellus's robes."
There was a moment's silence in which Remus saw James and Sirius's eyes meet, their faces perfect mirrors of epiphany. Remus groaned and subsided against the stone wall, guessing what was coming next.
"Hey, Pete," said James slowly.
"Yeah?" Peter's attention was still focussed on his fainting pet.
"How many more of those things have you got?"
"Huh?" Peter glanced up, confused.
Sirius slapped him on the knee, forgetting, in his excitement, about giving Peter the cold shoulder. "Stink Pellets, Pete! How many?"
"Oh." Peter shrugged. "They come in boxes of twenty. So eighteen left, I guess."
"So that's one for each of the Slytherin dormitories, two for the common room, leaving two extra for Snape's room," said James counting off on his fingers.
Sirius snorted. "You think he'll notice?"
"You're forgetting," Remus pointed out. "You still have no way to get anything into Slytherin."
There was a moment's frowning silence before Peter said, "Well, they must have windows, too, right? I know they're in the dungeons, but --"
"Oh, sure." Sirius rolled his eyes. "We'll just say, 'Oi, you lot! Open up and stand back.'"
"No, he's right," said James, sitting up straighter. "Levitating them in through the windows could work."
Sirius looked unconvinced. "How?"
A wide grin spread across James's face. "It's like you said to Gandolfsson. We'll smash 'em."
Remus did not, in so many words, tell his roommates that they shouldn't fill the Slytherin dormitories with Stink Pellets, but he did tell them all the reasons why it wouldn't work, and why it was a terrible idea.
"How many Slytherins are there, and how many hexes do you think they know?" he muttered to Sirius as they negotiated the crowded corridors towards Defence Against the Dark Arts on Halloween morning. "The minute you break the windows, every wand in that place is going to be pointed at you."
Sirius just grinned. "We've been over all that. It'll be dark. We'll be wearing black robes. James will chuck the Stink Pellets in, and I'll handle the Shield charms. They won't be able to come 'round and catch us because we'll seal them in right after curfew. By the time they get out, we'll be back in Gryffindor, safe and sound. Stop worrying, Moony."
"Could you at least not call me that in public?" Remus made a face.
"You know," said Sirius, ignoring him, "if you really cared about us, you'd come along and help out with the Shield charms." He fluttered his eyelashes absurdly.
Remus shook his head. "You're going to get caught and you're going to get detention. You don't think Slughorn has a way of knowing if the Slytherins are under attack?"
It was Sirius's turn to make a face. "You're as bad as Pete."
Remus tried not to let the barb get to him. He knew Sirius didn't mean it. Not really. Having supplied both the Stink Pellets and the planned method of delivery, Peter was back in favour. He had balked, though, at making any further contribution to the prank that might land him in trouble with McGonagall. But Peter wasn't a werewolf, and his place at Hogwarts wasn't dependent on Dumbledore's goodwill.
As they entered the Defence classroom, Remus let the matter drop, and moved away to sit near Lily. If Sirius was going to be pigheaded, there was nothing Remus could do about it, and no good could come of whispered conversations under Gandolfsson's nose. The wizened professor was already flicking his eyes suspiciously over the class.
"Concealment," the Defence master began, once everyone was sitting at attention. "There are many methods of hiding objects and people one does not wish to be found. You lot are too inept to be able to do it effectively yet, and I'm not going to waste my time trying to teach you. However, it is possible that one or two of you may not be too stupid to detect magical concealment."
His piercing eyes rested on Remus as he said this, and the boy gripped his wand beneath the desk, holding his breath, in case a hex was coming. When Gandolfsson's carpet slid away from him, he relaxed ever so slightly.
"In this classroom," Gandolfsson continued, "there are thirty hidden items. You have until the end of the class period to locate and collect them. You may begin now."
Remus stood up and glanced around. His fellow students were doing the same, or else were wandering blindly about the classroom, their hands in front of them, grasping at the air.
When a small explosion knocked Madeleine Yaxley off her feet, Gandolfsson crowed, "You can't just blunder into them; you have to find them."
Right, thought Remus irritably. How do you find something you can't see? He narrowed his eyes, turning his head slowly, and tried to relax his mind to sense the Concealment charms. He had noticed he could sometimes sense nearby magic when he was meditating.
There. A slight shimmer at the edge of his mind. Remus took a step towards it and tried to "see" it again. Bending down, he closed his fingers around the place where he thought the item should be. When he opened his hand, a piece of yellow chalk lay on his palm.
"Well done Lupin," Gandolfsson gave him a curt nod. "Keep at it."
Remus set the chalk on his desk and turned slowly, feeling for the next object. Gandolfsson's methods were a source of ever-increasing frustration to him. He understood that the Defence master used doubt and insults to urge his students towards excellence, but Remus could not help thinking that a real teacher would have explained the exercise in more detail -- might have described how to "look" for the items and sense the spells surrounding them -- if he hoped for his students to show much success.
He was just reaching for his next identified target, when an explosion stung his hand and sent him tumbling into the desk behind him.
James helped him to his feet. "You OK, mate?"
"Yeah." Remus shook his head, confused. "I guess I must have slipped."
It was only after the second near miss, when he glanced up in time to catch Snape smirking at him, that Remus realised what had happened. The Slytherin had amasses a tidy pile of found items on his desk -- two books, a slipper, a mug, and a stone -- and having mastered the exercise, had apparently decided to spend the rest of the class antagonising his least-favourite Gryffindor.
Remus turned away, determined to ignore the other boy. But as he zeroed in on his next objective, his eyes flicked up to find Snape grinning nastily at him, wand hand concealed in the folds of his robes.
"Severus --" he began.
"Focus, Lupin!" Gandolfsson shouted, though Remus did not see how the professor could have missed Snape's goading when nothing else seemed to get past him. "An Auror can't afford to get distracted."
Snape smirked, and Remus gritted his teeth and turned away, trying to focus his mind on the exercise. But by the end of the class, he had only managed to collect three objects that Snape had not exploded out from under him. Besides the piece of chalk, he had a stale bread roll and a deck of playing cards to show for his trouble. Still, that was better than most of his classmates had managed. Only Snape had accomplished more, and some had not found anything at all. One of these was Peter, who was nursing a burnt hand, which Remus suspected was also Snape's doing.
"Hogwarts has many secrets," Gandolfsson said before dismissing them. "Use what you learned today to try to identify at least one hidden object or location in the school. You will write up your findings, along with thirteen inches on methods of magical concealment, for next Tuesday's class."
Remus was the last to deposit his found items on the Defence master's desk.
"You should've hexed him," Gandolfsson growled. "You're as bad as the girls, always using a Shield charm or turning the other cheek. It won't make him like you any better, Lupin. You'll never be an Auror if you don't defend yourself. You want your enemies to think twice about crossing you."
"Yes, Sir," said Remus putting on his blankest face and ruthlessly shoving down any wayward feelings. "Why do you let him get away with it?"
Gandolfsson searched his face, and Remus stared blandly back at him. At last, the man nodded. "I watch him. I watch all of them. They are what they are. And in a few years, when they're out and about in the world, I'll know which ones to look out for, and some of what they're capable of. Meanwhile, dealing with them is good practise for the rest of you. Next time, you'll hex him. Am I understood?"
"Yes, Sir," Remus said again, imagining how Snape might choose to retaliate if hexed, or what Lily would have to say about it.
He left the classroom with few charitable feelings towards either the Slytherins or the Defence master.
The Halloween feast was marvelous, and the anticipation of the adventure to come only added to James's enjoyment. He kept catching Sirius's eye across the table, and then they would both have to look away quickly or stuff something into their mouths to hide their grins. It wouldn't do for anyone to get suspicious.
Peter was grinning, too, but his own smile had a nervous quality to it, which James thought was silly, considering Peter wouldn't actually be coming with them. Remus, seated next to Sirius, kept his eyes on his food, his face expressionless. He had given up trying to talk them out of their plans, which was all to the good so far as James was concerned. Remus was a good bloke, but sometimes he was a bit of a McGonagall when it came to fun.
"Well?" said James in an undertone, when at last the plates had vanished and the chattering students began to move towards the doors of the Great Hall.
Sirius grinned. "Let's do this."
Peter wished them luck, and Remus did, too, albeit reluctantly. "If you don't get expelled, we'll see you at the Prewetts' party in the common room."
James clapped him on the shoulder. "Save us some pumpkin juice."
He and Sirius joined a passing group of Hufflepuffs in the entrance hall, and from there, slipped into a broom cupboard partially concealed by the main staircase. Then there was nothing for them to do but wait.
There were only two hours between the end of the feast and NEWT student curfew, but two hours was a very long time when one was twelve and stuck in a dark, stuffy cupboard with nothing to do.
"We need to find another way in and out of the school," James muttered as the sound of milling students outside the door faded away. "Using the entrance hall all the time is too risky."
"The Prewetts must know a way," said Sirius, trying to get comfortable between a bucket and several pots of cleaning potions. "They've always got stuff from Hogsmeade."
"Yeah." James sat, resting his back against the door. "They said they'd teach us everything they know about the school before they leave."
"Seems like they've forgotten about us since last Easter," said Sirius. "Now they're all about the Defence club."
"Which they won't even let us join," James grumbled. "I thought they wanted us to be good at that stuff."
"If Dumbledore thought it was important, he'd've hired a decent teacher," Sirius complained. "All Gandolfsson ever does is tell us we're rubbish and make fun of us when we get it wrong. I can't even see what he's on about, half the time."
"Yeah," James agreed, lighting his wand to peer at his watch.
Only twenty minutes had elapsed, and James was becoming increasingly aware of the eighteen Stink Pellets in their pockets in the confined space of the broom cupboard.
Sirius had noticed it, too, and wrinkled his nose. "How much longer, mate?"
James made a face. "Ages."
"Can't we just wait outside?" Sirius asked.
"No," said James. "We have to wait for curfew and then seal the Slytherins in. We can't be going in and out the main doors a hundred times."
They waited for another uncomfortable three-quarters of an hour before Sirius said, "Who studies on Halloween, anyway? You know they're all going to be celebrating in their common room, same as Gryffindor. Let's just get it over with."
James relented. The stench emanating from their pockets was getting to be overwhelming, and he was beginning to worry that if they waited another hour, they would end up asphyxiating themselves. He eased open the cupboard door and peered around the dark and silent entrance hall.
"OK," he whispered to Sirius. "Pringle should be patrolling the seventh floor right now, but Peeves could be anywhere. Let's go."
They kicked off their shoes, which made too much noise on the stone floor, and carried them across the entrance hall and down the steps leading to the Slytherin dungeons.
If the Prewetts had not told them how to find Slytherin House the previous year, they would never have been able to locate it on their own. The entrance looked like nothing more than a blank stretch of stone wall.
"Ready?" whispered James as they raised their wands.
"One -- two -- three -- Colloportus!" they finished in unison.
There was a squelching sound as the door sealed itself, which they hoped could not be heard inside the Slytherin common room, and they turned and hurried back the way they had come. Moments later, they were crossing the entrance hall again and pushing open the heavy oak doors out of the castle.
It was colder outside than it had been in the dungeons, and James shivered. Wearing cloaks to supper would have looked suspicious. Scarves were often worn in the colder months as a mark of House pride, but James had thought it better not to wear any bright colours or identifying markers. They didn't dare light their wands, which might be seen from the castle windows, but the low-hanging half-moon was enough to see by as they crept around the dark bulk of the school.
At the back side of the castle, the lake came up to lap against the walls. Standing at the edge of the water, James and Sirius emptied their pockets and piled the Stink Pellets between them, before raising their wands once more.
With a crash, all the windows within reach of their combined spell shattered, raining glass down into the lake. The two boys sprang into position.
"Wingardium Leviosa," said James, ushering up the first Stink Pellet, and shooing it towards the open windows.
In the dark, not knowing which windows were Slytherin and which weren't, he knew there was no chance of distributing the pellets as they had originally hoped. The only thing to do was fling the things in as quickly as possible and hope for the best.
"What in Merlin's name is going on out there?" cried a voice.
Too late, James recognised it, and realised that the last Stink Pellet he had launched had sailed straight through the window out of which Professor Slughorn and several students were now leaning, wands drawn.
"Shields, Black!" James hissed, cursing under his breath. Some of the faces surrounding Slughorn belonged to Slytherins.
"They've shattered the windows, Professor!" someone cried. "The dormitories will flood!"
James's eyes dropped to where the lake met the stone wall of the castle, and realised with horror that air was bubbling up from somewhere below the surface. The dungeon dormitories, where, thanks to them, the Slytherins were sealed in.
"I see them!" shouted a voice.
A volley of hexes followed. James and Sirius threw up Shield charm after Shield charm, but they were outmatched and outnumbered. A Noodle-Arms jinx hit Sirius in the chest, and his arms dropped to his sides, useless.
"C'mon," said James, yanking the back of his friend's robes. "We have to get out of here!"
Abandoning their remaining pile of Stink Pellets, they turned tail and ran.
The Prewetts knew how to throw a party. The tables of the Gryffindor common room were covered in treats and beverages that Gideon and Fabian had purchased in Hogsmeade the previous weekend, and there was even a bottle of firewhiskey somewhere, though the twins would not let anyone below fifth year touch it.
Peter tried to enjoy himself, but he couldn't. For one thing, his burnt hand was still hurting him; for another, he was nervous on account of James and Sirius, who had not returned yet; and for a third, there was a werewolf looking at him. Taking a swallow of butterbeer, he tried to put everything else out of his mind.
"Where are the dynamic duo?" asked Fabian, slapping him on the back and making him sputter and cough.
"Dunno," Remus answered for him, blank-faced. "They were here a minute ago. Maybe they went up to the dormitory."
Gideon gave him a curious look. "Were they? I don't think I've seen them since the feast."
The interrogation was cut short when the twins had to go forcibly reclaim the firewhiskey bottle from Dorian Gaveston, a third year, who had become very giggly and was sitting on the lap of his best friend, Stubby Boardman. Peter breathed a sigh of relief, until Remus moved into the vacant seat beside him.
"How's your hand, Pete?" he asked in an undertone. "Still hurting?"
"A little," Peter admitted, leaning away ever so slightly from the other boy.
Remus looked sympathetic. "D'you want to go see Pomfrey? She's probably got something to put on it."
"It's OK," mumbled Peter.
"Let me see."
Remus reached for his hand. Peter flinched away, and Remus drew back.
"I won't hurt you," he said softly. "I promise."
Peter didn't think he was talking about his burn. Reluctantly, he uncurled his fingers.
Remus sucked in a breath, cradling Peter's hand gently in his own. The palm was a shiny, angry red, with a large blister running across the heel of his hand.
"You should definitely let Pomfrey have a look at this," said Remus. "You won't be able to use a wand for a week, otherwise."
"It's not so bad." Peter shifted uncomfortably. "I don't want to go see the matron."
Remus's brown eyes were puzzled. "Why not?"
Peter hesitated. James and Sirius would laugh at him if they knew. But Remus never laughed at anyone. "Becauseitsspooky," he said in a rush.
"The castle. At night." He could feel his ears and his nose turning pink.
Remus did not laugh, or even smile. "What if I went with you?"
Peter bit his lip. Being alone in the castle at night was spooky, but being alone with a werewolf -- He weighed his options. His hand was hurting him quite a lot, and Remus was probably right about not being able to use a wand. His performance in class was poor enough as it was. Reluctantly, he nodded.
"I'm taking Pete to see Madam Pomfrey," Remus told Fabian.
The Head Boy waved them off. "I'll check in at the hospital wing when I do my rounds in a bit. If you're still there, I'll walk you back."
Their footsteps echoed in the dark stone corridors, and Peter shivered, trying not to walk too close to Remus.
"Was it Snape?" Remus asked, making him jump.
"Was what Snape?" Peter glanced around nervously, but the greasy-haired Slytherin was nowhere in sight.
"He was blowing things up in Defence class," said Remus. "He did a bunch of mine before I could get to them. I thought maybe he did the one that burnt you, too."
"Dunno," said Peter. "Maybe. Probably. He hates me."
Remus snorted. "Not as much as he hates me."
"But he doesn't even know --" Peter bit his tongue sharply.
"No," said Remus. "He doesn't. And I hope to God he never finds out. He'd make my life a living hell if he knew. No, he hates me because I'm friends with Lily."
"Oh. She's -- nice," said Peter.
"Yeah, she is."
Peter nodded. "She's really good at Potions and Charms and Defence, isn't she? I don't get why Gandolfsson thinks girls are rubbish at magic."
"I'm not so sure he does think that," said Remus as they turned to take a shortcut behind a dusty tapestry and down a rickety wooden staircase.
Peter was confused. "But -- he's always having a go at them."
"He's always having a go at everyone," Remus shrugged. "I think he thinks it will make us try harder. Prove him wrong, you know?"
"Oh," said Peter. "But he just makes me think I'm rubbish at Defence and I'm probably going to die."
Remus shot him a sympathetic look. "That's because he's not a very good teacher. You're not going to die, Pete."
The confident tone of Remus's voice made Peter feel a little better. "You're really good at Defence," he said shyly.
"Cheers." Remus gave him a rare smile. "If you want, I can show you how to do some of the stuff Gandolfsson's meant to be teaching us."
"Yeah," said Peter. "That'd be cool."
The hospital wing was dark and empty when they reached it, but a knock at the office door brought the matron out as if she had been waiting for them to arrive.
"Are you well, Mr Lupin? What seems to be the trouble?" Madam Pomfrey asked, all business.
Remus nudged Peter, and he held out his hand for her to inspect. She tutted and sat him down on a stool under a warm, yellow light, before fetching a jar of soothing ointment.
"This may sting a bit," she warned before spreading the pink cream over his palm.
It did, but not as badly as the burn itself, and he thanked her as she wound a thick, soft bandage around his hand.
"You just sit tight here for a minute," she told him. "I'll put a bit of the ointment in a smaller jar to take with you, in case you want more of it later."
When the matron had disappeared into her office, Peter looked up to see Remus watching him, and quickly dropped his eyes back to his bandaged hand.
The other boy cleared his throat. "Are we OK?" he asked, voice quiet.
"I guess so," Peter said uncertainly, not looking up.
"It's all right," said Remus. "I get it. Really."
"I'm sorry," Peter mumbled. "James and Sirius are --"
"James and Sirius are nutters," Remus said, a hint of a smile in his voice. "You're the sanest one of the lot."
Peter glanced up, smiling shyly. "Yeah, I guess so. They really like you, though. They wouldn't go after the Slytherins like that on my account."
"Like what?" Remus's brow furrowed.
Peter was surprised. "Like tonight. Sirius is always going on about the way Snape treats you, and after what Lestrange said in Defence the other week --"
He broke off as Madam Pomfrey returned with a much smaller stone jar and a handful of extra bandages. The familiar blank expression had fallen over Remus's face. It was impossible to tell what he was thinking.
"Put some more of the ointment on in the morning," the matron instructed, "and wrap it in a fresh bandage. Try not to do too much with that hand tomorrow. I've written you an excuse for your classes. It should be good as new by the next day."
Peter thanked her again, and she bade the two of them good night. At the doors to the hospital wing, Remus hesitated, then turned right instead of left.
"What --?" Peter started.
"C'mon," Remus said. "We're going to rescue those idiots."
At the top of the main staircase, he paused.
"I'm going to try something," he told Peter. "Hold still."
Peter shifted nervously from foot to foot as Remus waved his wand over both of them. "Disillusio." Something cold trickled down Peter's neck, and he shivered.
"What's that do?" he asked.
Remus was looking at him critically. "Nothing, apparently. You've just gone sort of fuzzy at the edges. It works better when Madam Pomfrey does it." He sighed. "We'll just have to be careful."
Peter nodded. "What're we going to do?"
Remus glanced around, peering over the bannister to the darkened entrance hall below. "I'm going to create a diversion so they can get back into the school without being seen. You're going to go up to the landing and look out the window directly over the main doors to the castle. When you see them coming, signal me. Got it?"
Nodding again, Peter scrambled back up the stairs the way they had come, heart pounding with excitement, and wedged himself onto the ledge of the narrow window, squinting down into the darkness of the grounds below. Every now and then, he glanced back to where Remus crouched at the turn of the staircase, wand out, a look of calculation on his face. Then he tensed.
A moment later, Peter heard it, too. Shouts drifting up from the dungeon staircase, and a splashing sound. In another moment, there would be people coming up into the entrance hall.
"That'll have to do," he heard Remus mutter, pointing his wand. "Engorgio." A suit of armor positioned near the top of the dungeon steps gave a metallic screech and loomed suddenly huge. Then -- "Confringo!" -- it exploded, enormous steel plates crashing and clattering and finally splashing down the stone steps, to the audible consternation of those below.
"Leg it, Pete!" Remus grabbed him by the sleeve as he passed, yanking him into a stumbling run.
They doubled back past the hospital wing before they slowed, panting for breath, Peter pressing his uninjured hand against a stitch in his side.
"Pringle!" Peter squeaked as the caretaker loomed out of a doorway fifty metres ahead of them.
"Keep walking," Remus muttered. "Act normal."
Pringle's eyes were narrowed with suspicion as he bore down upon them. "Well?" he barked. "What do you have to say for yourselves?"
Remus's blank mask was back in place. "We've just been to see Madam Pomfrey. Peter hurt his hand."
Peter held out his bandaged hand for inspection, doing his best to maintain an expression of fearful, wide-eyed innocence.
The caretaker sniffed at the bandage and grunted. "And the matron'll vouch for you, will she?"
"You can take us to her, if you like, Sir," Remus said blandly.
Pringle looked as if he was still trying to decide whether or not to call their bluff when a set of footsteps echoed up the stairs.
"There you lads are," said Fabian cheerfully. "Evening, Mr Pringle. Did Pomfrey patch you up, then, Pettigrew?"
Peter nodded dumbly, showing his hand again.
"Good, good," said the Head Boy. "Did you need these boys for something, Sir? Only there's a spot of bother in the dungeons. Professor Slughorn asked me to fetch you."
Pringle grunted and turned away. Peter let out a sigh of relief.
"You lads run along back to Gryffindor," said Fabian, giving them a jaunty wave. "I'll see you later. Mr Pringle, I think we might need Professor Flitwick as well. We'll be wanting some powerful Sealing and Drying charms."
The caretaker and the tall, sandy-haired boy headed off in the direction of Ravenclaw Tower, and Peter and Remus turned back towards Gryffindor. At the portrait of the Fat Lady, they met a panting and wild-eyed James and Sirius. Sirius's arms hung limply at his sides.
"What're you two doing out?" gasped James.
"Saving your sorry skins," Remus told him. "You can thank us by telling us why the dungeons are flooded."