Professor McGonagall was waiting for him when he staggered out of the fireplace at the Three Broomsticks. As Head of Gryffindor House, it fell to her to collect him from the village.
"Potter," she greeted him with a nod, setting down her glass.
"Sorry I'm late, Professor."
"We've missed supper, but I'm sure Rosmerta can conjure up something for you, if you're hungry."
James was too worn out to even feel surprised at the offer. He glanced at the pretty young barmaid, polishing the bar with a rag, and shook his head. "No, Ma'am," he lied. "My mother fed me before I left."
The night was cold and misty, and James pulled his cloak tight around him, shivering, as they walked down Hogsmeade's darkened high street, their way lit only by the glow of the Professor's wand.
"How are your parents, Potter?" McGonagall asked.
James shrugged, distracted. "Fine."
"Your father is recovering well?"
"'Yes, Professor'," she corrected, not unkindly.
"Sorry. Yes, Professor. He's -- better."
"How is Ellie holding up?"
James glanced up, startled. "I didn't know you knew my mum, Professor."
"Only slightly," admitted McGonagall. "She played Quidditch for Gryffindor when I started at Hogwarts, but she left school before I joined the team."
James shook his head, dismissing the thought of a young McGonagall in Quidditch robes as too ridiculous to contemplate. "Mum's doing all right. But she seemed -- tired. Professor."
"No wonder if she is," said the witch. "It's a hard time to be married to an Auror."
The way she said it made James wonder if the Transfiguration mistress had ever been married, but it was far too personal a question to ask, so he merely nodded.
They lapsed into silence as they passed between the great winged stone boars that flanked the gate into the school grounds. At the castle's heavy oak doors, McGonagall paused.
"I know how you children think of me, Potter," she said, "but the Head of House doesn't exist only to dole out punishments. I hope you know that if you ever feel the need to speak with an adult in confidence, you can always come to me."
"Thank you, Professor," said James, doubting the possibility.
"Well, then ..."
Supper was just wrapping up in the Great Hall, and a few students leaving in ones and twos cast curious glances at James, standing at McGonagall's elbow. Part of him wanted to hurry up to Gryffindor tower and pretend to be asleep before anyone he knew saw him and started asking about his weekend, but that would only postpone the inevitable. Better to have it over with.
He pasted a grin onto his face. "Thanks for seeing me back, Professor. I hope I'm not too late for pudding!"
"Good night, Potter," she said as he hurried away to slip into the noisy cheer of the Great Hall.
Remus saw him first, and said something to the others. Sirius turned, eyes lighting up, and shoved Peter farther down the bench to make room between them.
"Hey, lads," said James, scooping a large helping of sticky toffee pudding into a bowl as he sat down. "I hope you weren't too bored without me."
"Nah," said Sirius. "Moo- Remus showed us a secret cupboard on the third floor, and I think I found a new way to sneak down to the kitchens. How are your mum and dad?"
"They're fine." Hungry though he wasn't, he stuffed his mouth with pudding to avoid any further questions.
Later, as the four of them got ready for bed, James took twice as long as usual about cleaning his teeth, and made himself very busy putting his things away, and getting out books and parchment for the next day's lessons. When he could find no more to do, he yawned hugely.
"I'm all in. G'night, lads," he said, pulling his bed curtains firmly shut.
There was a brief silence. Sirius started to say something, but Remus interrupted him, voice too low for James to catch what he said. The pre-bedtime rustlings resumed, unaccompanied by conversation.
Darkness and quiet descended on the dormitory, broken only by Peter's familiar snore. James couldn't sleep. His thoughts kept going around and around in the same endless circles they had been following since he first learned his father was in hospital.
He didn't realise one of his friends was out of bed until the curtains parted and the mattress sank under someone's weight.
"How are they really?" Sirius asked.
"Told you. They're fine."
"Pull the other one, mate."
James turned away from him. "Dunno what you're talking about."
Sirius gave a soft snort. "I actually saw you fold your clothes. When've you ever done that before? So either Remus has rubbed off on you more than I thought, or something's wrong."
"It's nothing," James sighed. "Really, they're fine."
"I thought we were brothers," said Sirius quietly. "They're my mum and dad, too. Sort of. As good as. If something's wrong --"
"It's not them, it's me," James finally admitted, moving over to give Sirius room to stretch out. "I just never thought -- Did they seem old to you when you met them?"
He felt Sirius shrug. "Not much older than my parents. And not as old as Pete's mum."
"But they are," said James in an exasperated whisper. "I just never saw it before now. Dad moved like an old man. He could barely get off the sofa without mum's help. Mum looked so tired. Did you know she's older than McGonagall? And Dad's even older than her."
"He's going to get better, though, isn't he?" asked Sirius.
"Yeah. I guess. But he's not going back to work until after the Christmas hols, and he made a joke about his fieldwork days being over. At least, I think it was a joke."
"Well, that's good, isn't it?" Sirius reasoned. "I mean, if he's stuck behind some desk at the Ministry, nothing bad can happen to him, can it? Your mum won't have to worry about him all day anymore."
"But he's one of their best Aurors! And now they're acting like they don't need him anymore? Gandolfsson's always going on about how much they need good Aurors, and now Dad's out of it and Ambrose is dead. Who's going to catch all those Dark wizards now?"
"We are," said Sirius.
James frowned at his friend's outline in the darkness. "We're second years, Sirius. What are we going to do?"
"Not right away, I don't mean," Sirius elaborated. "But next year, they'll have the Prewetts, and a few years after that -- Without your dad in it, if this war thing happens, it will probably go on for a bit. They might need us by the time we're old enough."
"But -- if they got to Dad, how can we --?"
"We'll be just as good as him," said Sirius eagerly. "Better than. You'll see. We'll make him proud. Until we're old enough to start training, we'll learn everything we can. We'll practise everything Gandolfsson teaches us, and we'll make the Prewetts let us into their Defence club."
"They won't," James said glumly. "And Gandolfsson doesn't teach us anything; he just knocks us on our arses and tells us how rubbish we are at everything."
"Moony always figures it out," Sirius reminded him. "He can show us. We'll study with him properly, like he's always after us to do."
"C'mon," Sirius elbowed him in the ribs. "Who at this school is cleverer than us? We always find a way."
"We do." In spite of himself, James grinned. "I'm feeling peckish. Did you say you found a new way down to the kitchens?"
He hadn't noticed anything at first. Directly after, Sirius had been on high alert, trying every minute to figure out whether anything had changed, but he felt disappointingly normal. Everything smelled and tasted the same as it always had. Then there had been all the worry over James and his family, and for a while, he was too distracted to think about much else. But over the past few days, Sirius had begun to notice -- something.
The feeling was hard to put into words. It was somewhere between a flutter and a tug, and he couldn't say whether it was in his belly or only in his mind.
The dormitory door opened behind him, and there it was again, just at the edge of his senses. Sirius smiled to himself, but didn't look up from his Transfiguration homework. He didn't have to.
"Hey." Remus no longer seemed to mind the use of the nickname when they were alone, or maybe he had just given up hope of making Sirius stop using it. "Are you finished with my History of Magic notes? Lily and I are going to study in the common room."
"Studying History with Evans?" Sirius leaned over the side of the bed to rummage through his bookbag. "How do you always manage to come up with such thrilling ways to spend your free time?"
The parchment was somewhat the worse for wear. With a twinge of guilt, Sirius tried to smooth out the worst of the creases before handing it over.
The corners of Remus's mouth tightened as he accepted his rumpled notes. "You can join us, if you like," he said reluctantly.
Sirius swallowed a sarcastic reply. "I've got Transfiguration to do."
"OK. See you at supper."
As the dormitory door closed, Sirius grinned. There was no doubt in his mind. He could sense Remus. Whenever the other boy was nearby, Sirius knew it, whether he could see him or not, and the sense of him was only growing stronger as the moon waxed towards full.
Sirius could sense that, too. Indoors or outdoors, day or night, Sirius had begun to notice that he could tell where the moon was in the sky without thinking or looking, and he could feel it getting fatter with each passing day.
He scratched down a few more words on his Transfiguration homework, and then pushed it aside. The assignment wasn't due for another three days, and Remus would be studying with Evans until supper. It was safe to do a little extracurricular reading.
A History and Physiology of Lupus Lycanthropus by Hati Vlkodlak was hidden at the bottom of Sirius's trunk. He and James had "borrowed" it from Madam Pomfrey's office the previous spring. It was old and heavy enough to make the bed creak when Sirius dropped it onto the red-and-gold coverlet. It was quite possibly, in Sirius's opinion, the dullest book ever written on the subject of werewolves, but sometimes it was informative. He flopped onto his belly and propped the book against the pillows, thumbing through until he found the section he was looking for.
Secondary infection, commonly called 'blood contamination' or 'tainting', occurs when the blood, saliva, or other bodily fluids of an untransformed lycanthrope enter the bloodstream of an uninfected human, whether Wizard or Muggle, via an open wound or absorption through a mucus membrane. Such infection is irreversible, but is generally harmless to the affected person, and depending on the degree of infection, is sometimes symptomless. Secondary infection transmitted via blood-to-blood contact or coitus invariably produces the most potent effects, with the venereal form of infection sometimes being passed on to an affected female's subsequent offspring. Prolonged or repeated exposure to the lycanthropic pathogen has been known to increase the severity of symptoms. Known symptoms of secondary infection may include but are not limited to...
Vlkodlak's list filled more than ten pages. Sirius scanned through them, frowning. The ability to sense the presence of a werewolf or the moon was not listed. Or maybe it was. There were a lot of scientific, Latin-sounding words which Sirius was unable to make head or tail of. Come to that, he wasn't certain what "pathogen", "coitus", or "venereal" meant, either.
After more than an hour of checking the index and flipping pages in vain, Sirius thumped the book closed with a sound of annoyance. How was he supposed to learn anything from a book full of words no one had ever heard of before? Making a mental note to raid Madam Pomfrey's office for more satisfactory reading materials, he returned the book to its hiding place and pulled on his robes for supper.
In spite of his irritation, Sirius couldn't suppress a smile of satisfaction when he sensed Remus approaching him in the Great Hall.
"What are you smiling about?" he asked, casting Sirius a wary look.
Sirius quickly turned his attention to his food. He had no intention of telling Remus about his discovery. Not yet. He would not mention it to James or Peter either, since neither of them knew about the incident in the hospital wing. It would only alarm them, Remus most of all. For now, it would be his secret.
Stabbing his fork into a thick slab of steak, he sawed at the tender meat with his knife. The rich scent and the sight of the red juice that ran from it made his stomach growl, and he hid another smile. He had never liked rare steak before. Quickly, Sirius popped a piece into his mouth and began to chew to hide his expression. It tasted of triumph.
"We don't have to know where it is, so long as we know when it is," reasoned James as he performed a quick scouring charm on his cauldron before shoving it into his bookbag. "They're bound to come back to the dormitories after class to stow their things before they go."
"You're sure it's this afternoon?" asked Peter as the four of them exited the Potions classroom.
James nodded. "Heard them talking about it at lunch."
"OK, so we'll wait in the common room and follow them when they go," said Sirius. "You want to see Pomfrey for that headache, M- Remus?"
"No," said Remus, pinching the bridge of his nose, eyes screwed shut. "I just need some fresh air."
Back in the dormitory, Remus opened the two windows as wide as they would go and lay down on his bed, an arm flung across his eyes. Peter caught Sirius's frown of concern.
"D'you want to come with us, Lupin?" James asked.
Remus sighed. "No, I should try to get some classwork done while I can. I'll be useless by this weekend."
"I'm coming," declared Peter, brandishing his wand as he imagined all the new spells they were about to learn.
"You?" Sirius snorted. "It's the Advanced Defence Club. The only thing you're advanced at in Defence is getting knocked on your arse."
Peter's shoulders slumped.
"Sirius." Remus's reproof was barely more that a whisper.
"OK, you can come, Pete," Sirius relented. "Just don't expect to be brilliant at it."
Peter cast a grateful glance toward Remus. "I know," he admitted. "But if I can even learn one or two more Defence spells, it will be worth it."
"If we're going to do this, we'd better head down to the common room." James was already standing by the door. There was an irritable hint in his voice.
"Keep your shirt on, Potter," said Sirius, rummaging through his book bag. "I just need to find my Potions notes for Moony."
James gave a huff of annoyance. "Fine. I'm going down. I'll see you there, or not, as you like."
Peter scurried after him before James could slam the door behind him.
"This is going to be brilliant," he babbled as they descended the tower steps. "D'you think it's more likely to be Shield charms or hexes that we'll learn?"
James only grunted.
"I hope it's hexes," Peter continued. "Not that Shield charms aren't good, but they're not very exciting, are they?"
"Shhh," hissed James. "D'you want the Prewetts to know we're planning on crashing their meeting?"
The good squashy armchairs and comfortable sofa by the fire were all occupied by older Gryffindors, so Peter and James had to settle for a couple of wooden chairs around a study table in the corner. Neither of them had thought to bring anything to do, so Peter stared at his hands while James scowled into the middle distance.
Fortunately, it was not too many minutes before the Prewetts appeared, clattering down the steps, deep in animated conversation. When they saw their younger cohorts, they stopped.
"What are you lads up to?" asked Fabian.
Peter panicked, face going red. "I -- we --" They had never talked about a cover story!
"We're waiting for Black," James mumbled, barely glancing up.
"Not planning any mischief, I hope?" grinned Gideon. "Some of the Slytherins have only just finished drying out."
James shot the twins a look. "Well, that was nothing to do with us."
"Never said it was," said Gideon, eyebrows raised. "See you at supper."
"How do you do that?" asked Peter, as the portrait hole closed behind the Prewetts.
"Huh?" James twiddled his wand distractedly.
"You always act so cool, and you always know the right thing to say."
James shrugged and stood up. "If you freak out, people know something's up. C'mon, let's go."
"You're not waiting for Sirius?" asked Peter, surprised.
"If we wait any longer, we'll miss our chance."
Outside of the portrait hole, James paused, motioning for silence, then the two of them hurried off in the direction of the twins' echoing voices. They stayed well back to avoid being seen, only venturing around corners after the older boys had turned the next one. They had been forced to stop and wait for a moment when running feet sounded behind them and Sirius appeared, out of breath.
"We need a way to find one another," he panted. "This school's too bloody big."
James looked annoyed. "If you hadn't been fussing over your notes, you wouldn't've needed to find us."
"Remus needed them," Sirius scowled.
"Shut up," James whispered over his shoulder, already slipping around the corner. "D'you want them to know they're being followed? When we get there, let me do the talking."
Sirius's scowl deepened. "Who died and left you in charge?"
"I'm in charge because I'm smarter than you and Pete put together. C'mon if you're coming." He hurried off down the corridor.
Sirius followed, a stormy look in his eyes, and Peter brought up the rear, suddenly doubting that this was the jolly adventure he had first thought. He was glad James was smart and the leader, though he could understand why Sirius might not be. Sirius was almost as smart as James, but he was impulsive, which sometimes led him to do foolish things without thinking. The thought of having to talk his way around the Prewetts and into the Advanced Defence Club made Peter break into a cold sweat, but James would get them all in without half trying.
Peter had almost managed to regain his usual optimism, when they rounded the next bend and his feet were roughly yanked out from under him. He found himself suspended by his ankles several feet above the floor, his robes falling about his face.
"Lemme go! I didn't do it!" he squeaked, flailing his arms uselessly.
He could hear similar cries of outrage from James and Sirius somewhere nearby. When he finally managed to push his clothing out of his eyes, he found his view still largely obscured by the robes of his two friends, who hung between himself and a pair of unamused Prewetts.
"Not very stealthy, are they?" said Gideon.
"They do seem a little high-strung," Fabian agreed.
"Let me down, you tossers," Sirius growled. He drew his wand, twisting in the air to point at the twins, rather than the stone wall a few inches in front of his face.
Fabian flicked an almost lazy "Expelliarmus," in his direction, which was followed by the clatter of wood on stone.
Sirius directed a stream of foul language at the wall.
"Shut it, if you don't want us to shut it for you," snapped Fabian, waggling his wand meaningfully. "Now, would you amateurs mind awfully explaining what you thought you were doing?"
James attempted his usual easy-going grin. "We want to join the Defence Club."
Peter admired his composure. Only James could be so charming while dangling from the ceiling by his feet.
The Prewetts, however, were unimpressed. "We've told you before; you're too young."
"It's not like we're babies or girls," Sirius grumbled. "We're practically the best at Defence in our year. You should be glad we --"
"Claudeos." James had managed to get his own wand free.
Sirius twisted and flailed in the air, screams of outrage muffled by his suddenly sealed lips.
"See?" said James. "We know our stuff. At least, I do. Think how much more we could learn from you, if you'd let us."
"Look," said Fabian, frowning, "it's not that that isn't a useful little hex, but it's small beer compared with the stuff we're practising."
Gideon nodded. "Have you even heard of the Patronus charm?"
"The what?" Peter asked. James shook his head. Sirius, tired out from flailing, simply hung in the air, looking disgruntled.
"Exactly," said Fabian. "It's very advanced magic. We're too busy to teach you lot everything you'll learn between now and OWLs in order to catch you up to where we're at."
"You can't keep us out," James told them. "I checked the rules on school clubs. You have to let anyone in who wants to join."
But Gideon shook his head. "That may be true for social clubs, but the Advanced Defence Club is technically a study group. We're within our rights to restrict entry based on academic achievement. No one below OWL year is allow in, not even Egbert Bones."
James did not have a ready answer to that. Egbert was Amelia Bones' younger brother, a fourth year Hufflepuff. Their father had been killed in the Easter Murders the previous spring, the event which had prompted the creation of the Advanced Defence Club in the first place. If even he was not permitted to participate, the chances of second years being admitted were slim.
Peter summoned up his courage. "Will you at least let us watch?"
"No," said Fabian. "You'd only be in the way."
Gideon glanced at his watch. "We're going to be late."
Fabian nodded, eyes still on the suspended second years. "I didn't mention to anyone that you were all out the night the Slytherins got soaked," he said, a warning note in his voice, "so let's let this be the last we hear of you wanting into the Defence club. All right?"
James hesitated a moment. "Yeah, OK," he said at last, grudgingly.
Peter nodded vigorously. "Can we come down now?"
"We might as well not have even bothered," Sirius grumbled as the three of them made their disgruntled way back to Gryffindor Tower.
James cast him a dark look. "So sorry to have wasted your time, Black. I didn't realise you had better things to do. Did I intrude on study time with Moony?"
"Shut it," barked Sirius.
"Maybe they're just tired of having second years hanging around all the time," said Peter, hoping to change the subject and halt his friends' bickering.
The Prewetts had been kind enough to let them down and unstick Sirius's mouth before sending them on their way. Peter rather wished they hadn't. He hated it when his friends were cross with one another, and Sirius's cutting remarks often made matters worse.
"No surprise if they're tired of Black," snapped James. "What part of 'let me do the talking' did you not understand? Now we'll never get into their club."
"As if it was all my fault," Sirius sneered. "Dunno why we want into their rotten club anyway."
James threw up his hands in exasperation. "Do you never take anything seriously, Black?"
"No," said Sirius grumpily. "And neither do you, Potter. At least, you didn't before Dad --"
"Don't." There was a warning note in James's voice. "I'm not in the mood to be one big happy family right now."
Sirius looked wounded.
He's right, though, thought Peter. Sirius was often sarcastic and belligerent -- though he seemed a little touchier than usual today -- while James hardly ever was. He had been on edge ever since his father's attack has been reported in the newspaper, his normally-cheerful disposition transmuted into tense moodiness. Peter wondered what it would be like to spend the next six years living in a dormitory with two warring roommates. The thought made his belly hurt.
"You can't blame me just because you've suddenly gone all swotty about Defence," said Sirius.
"I can and I will," grumbled James. "If I wind up dead, it'll be all your fault, Black.