All James and Remus wanted to talk about on the train back to school was the next Junior Defence League meeting.
"We can find people at supper, and tell them we're definitely meeting on Friday," said James.
Remus nodded. "And we can put the word around the common room tonight. Maybe we'll get a few new people."
Sirius scowled. Two weeks out of contact, and it felt like James and Remus had forgotten about him and become best friends with each other instead. "I wonder what's for supper?" he said loudly, interrupting their conversation.
"It's always something good, the first night back," said Peter. "Maybe there'll be cake."
But Sirius did not really want to talk about food. He wanted his friends to notice him. He wanted them to act like two weeks without him had been a hardship for them. He wanted them to know how truly terrible his holiday had been, and to feel bad about it, but he did not want to have to tell them.
"I'm hungry, too," said James. "Maybe we should go around the train and get the word out now, rather than taking time out of supper."
"That's probably a good idea," Remus agreed. "I can take the front half of the train, if you'll take the back."
"I'll come with you," volunteered Peter, hastily getting to his feet.
James looked at Sirius. "Are you coming?"
"If you want me to," Sirius shrugged.
They made their way down the narrow corridor, stopping to peer into each compartment for Junior Defence League members.
"So, how was your holiday?" James asked, tone carefully neutral.
Sirius shrugged again. "It was nothing special."
"Remus said you didn't write to him, either."
"Oh and I suppose you and Remus wrote a lot over the holidays?" sneered Sirius.
James frowned. "Yeah, we did. We wrote to you, too, but I guess you never got our letters."
"No," Sirius relented. "My parents took my owl. It was no big deal, though. Not much happened that was worth writing about."
James's frown deepened. "Mum was worried about you. Dad went 'round to your place to see if you were OK. Your parents said you were ill."
Sirius bit his lip, looking away. He had been ill, but not with anything he could name. He had spent most of the holiday feeling trapped and sick to his stomach, awash with anxiety, hardly able to eat or sleep. When he heard Joe Potter's voice through the sealed door of his room, Sirius had shouted himself hoarse, beating at the wood with his fists, but no one had heard him, and no one had come to let him out. Each day, his hopes that his friends were planning a daring rescue faded a little more. Only the thought of going back to Hogwarts had kept him going.
"Sirius?" James's hand was on his arm.
Sirius shook himself. "It was nothing."
"Are you sure you're OK?"
He took a deep breath. "I am now."
In the next compartment, they found Lily Evans sitting with Severus Snape and Dorcas Meadowes.
James grinned, ruffling his wayward hair. "Hey, Evans."
"Hullo, Potter. Good Christmas?" She gave them a friendly smile, but her eyes were wary, and she shifted her position slightly, putting herself between the Gryffindor boys and Snape.
"It was all right," said James. "We're just letting people know that Junior Defence League is definitely on for Friday, at the usual time. Spread the word if you see anyone, yeah?"
"I will," Evans promised.
Snape scowled. "Dunno why you're wasting your time with this lot. They're rubbish. You're loads better off practising with me."
Evans rolled her eyes. "I do practise with you, Sev. I'm learning different things with the JDL, though. It's really useful. You should consider joining. People could learn a lot from you."
James and Snape eyed one another with dislike.
"Yeah," said James doubtfully. "You should do that."
"I don't want Snivellus in our club," Sirius burst out when they left the compartment.
"Nor do I," said James, "but we can't bar anyone without a good reason. He probably won't come. Why would he? He thinks it's a waste of time."
"To ruin everything," Sirius said darkly.
James sighed. "We'll fight that dragon when we get to it."
Three compartments farther along, they found Alice Finch sitting with Venice Corbet, Elswith More, and the Hathersage sisters. Of the group, only Finch was a Junior Defence League member.
"You're all welcome to join," James told them. Sirius saw him look at Matilda Hathersage, then quickly away. "We meet Fridays after supper in the third classroom down the Charms corridor."
"Do you teach people how to fight werewolves?" asked Corbet.
"Eh?" Sirius stared at her in confusion.
Corbet ignored him, addressing James instead. "My parents say that werewolves did Dunheath. It happened right before the full moon, and if it wasn't an accident like the papers say, then it stands to reason that it was Dark creatures, doesn't it? No person could do something like that."
"Werewolves are people, you dozy cow," snapped Sirius. "They're no different from --"
"Shut it, Sirius." James's hand clamped down on his shoulder, restraining him. To Corbet, he said, "You can learn any kind of Defence you want in our club, so long as it's legal. And if you do come, I promise you the chance to hex this git."
He did not let go of Sirius until they were in the corridor once more, with the compartment door shut behind them.
"How can you let her say things like that, and not do anything about it?" Sirius demanded.
James gave him a sharp shove into the wall of the carriage. "I thought Remus was teaching you about self-control. But I guess you've forgotten everything over the hols. If you keep defending werewolves, people are going to start wondering why you care so much. Is that something you want people thinking about?"
Sirius lowered his eyes. "No."
"Then keep it to yourself."
Though James and Sirius tried to keep it from him, it did not take Remus long to hear the rumour about Dunheath being the work of werewolves. By Tuesday, it was all over the school, gaining wild embellishments with every telling. Remus kept his head down, and his face carefully blank whenever the theory was mentioned, practising his breathing exercises, and trying to let the words wash over him as meaningless noise, but it was hard hearing people talk about werewolves as if they were mindless killers. Still, Remus knew he could keep his mouth shut. He was more worried about Sirius, whose eyes flashed fire every time the word "werewolf" was mentioned.
"He won't say anything," James assured him. "I've spoken to him about it. Anyway, I think I've figured out a way to nip it in the bud."
"How?" asked Remus suspiciously.
James winked. "You'll see."
This did not relieve Remus's anxiety, but at least he did not have long to wait to find out what James's plan was. That afternoon, at the start of their Defence Against the Dark Arts lesson, his friend put up his hand.
"Yes, Potter?" barked Professor Gandolfsson.
"Everyone's saying Dunheath was werewolves. Do you think they're right, Sir?"
Remus stiffened. Sirius, sitting beside him, stared at James as if he had grown a second head.
"Werewolves. Bah!" snorted the Defence master. "People are fools. The attack on Dunheath happened in broad daylight, not under a full moon."
Gandolfsson's piercing eyes scanned the classroom. "When something bad happens, people look for someone to blame. Werewolves make easy scapegoats. They are already hated and feared. Wizards are constantly making laws to control their movements and behaviour. These laws may make people feel safer, but that safety is an illusion, because a werewolf in its untransformed state is only human, and no more or less capable of violence than anyone else."
Very carefully, Remus drew in a breath. He was beginning to understand James's plan, but he was not at all certain that it was a good idea.
"Werewolves are not responsible for the massacre at Dunheath," Gandolfsson continued. "Werewolves do not hate Muggles. Most Muggles don't even know that werewolves exist. Do you know who werewolves do hate?"
No one put up their hand. Remus knew the answer. His knuckles gripped white around his wand, waiting, knowing what was coming.
"They hate us," said Gandolfsson. "Out of fear, wizards make life hard for Dark creatures. Housing, employment, family. All these things are restricted to a greater or lesser extent for werewolves. They are left little choice but to seek the society of their own kind, bound together by common experience and by bitter hatred of a world which shuns them. Some embrace their baser natures, becoming the beasts we have told them they are, because it is the only power we cannot take from them. I assume you children have heard of Fenrir Greyback? If someone comes along offering werewolves a better life, make no mistake boys and girls, they will flock to that person's cause, and that person will use them to target wizards, not Muggles. We will have created our own worst enemy."
Remus could feel his friends looking at him. He kept his eyes fixed on Gandolfsson, his face an expressionless mask.
"But we're not here to talk about Dark creatures," the Defence master went on. "At least, not today. Today, we begin a unit on disguising techniques. Potions, glamours, and illusions to change the features and render a person unrecognisable, or at least unnoticeable. You will only be learning the theory behind these methods, and the pitfalls associated with them. None of you are advanced enough to wield the magic we will be discussing. But one day, if the more gifted among you survive long enough and apply yourselves, who knows what you might achieve?"
He raised his hands over his head, and in an instant, all thought of werewolves was forgotten. The class gasped as a large tawny owl took flight from the floating carpet which had supported their teacher only a moment before, and swooped over the heads of the awed students. The owl circled the classroom once before returning to the carpet, wings flapping furiously as it slowly lowered itself. In the blink of an eye, Gandolfsson was settling himself back into his seat.
"Not a bad trick, eh?" he smirked. "The Animagus transformation takes years of study to master. Many wizards attempt it, but only a handful succeed. It has its uses, in terms of disguise. I lived undercover as a Dark wizard's owl for a year, before he found me out. I lost the use of my legs because he happened to glance at the Ministry's Animagus Registry. Bad luck, eh? No disguise is foolproof."
Exciting as it was to see a rare bit of magic performed, Remus knew it was too much to hope that it would distract his friends from Gandolfsson's words about werewolves for very long. He tried to postpone the inevitable by disappearing to the library after class, but when he arrived in the Great Hall for lunch, all three of them looked at him in a way that made him certain they had been talking about him only a moment before. Feeling like a coward, he went to sit with Lily and her friends. She, at least, treated him exactly the same as she always did.
They were waiting for him in the entrance hall afterwards.
"Can we do this outside?" he asked, resigned.
"It's cold outside," said Peter. "We haven't got our cloaks."
"C'mon," said James. "It'll only take a minute."
The grounds were icy cold, and crunchy with weeks-old snow, but they were deserted. There was no one to overhear them.
The second they reached the foot of the steps, Sirius rounded on Remus. "Is he right?" he demanded. "D'you hate wizards?"
Remus hunched his shoulders. "I -- it's complicated, all right?"
"But you don't hate us, do you?" asked Peter, looking worried.
"He doesn't," James soothed. "He knows we're all right. I told you --"
"Not all wizards hate werewolves," Sirius pointed out, interrupting him. "Just stupid ones who don't know any better. You can't hate all wizards just because some of them are tossers. That's just as bad as wizards hating all werewolves."
"It's not the same thing," Remus burst out, trying to keep the pleading note from his voice. "You don't know what it's like, having all these laws and rules telling you what you can and can't do a hundred times a day. If I get caught breaking or forgetting one, it's not detention I have to worry about. I could go to prison. Wizards made those laws, and other wizards kept quiet and went along with it. Whether the three of you agree with them or not doesn't matter. It doesn't affect you -- at least not any more than you decide you want it to. I don't get to decide that. No matter how 'good' I am, I don't get to live my life in peace. I don't ever get to not think about it. If I say 'I hate wizards' -- if every werewolf in the world says it -- maybe your feelings will be hurt, but you still get to live your lives however you want. It's not at all the same thing as wizards hating werewolves. And now Gandolfsson's gone and made everyone even more afraid and I just can't --"
Remus broke off, breathing hard. His friends stared at him in stunned silence. He felt as if he was about to cry, and swallowed hard, forcing the feeling down. Not here. Not now. Not when it was so important that they understand. He had to be in control.
"I don't hate you," he said in a much quieter voice. "Of course I don't. You're my friends. But I do hate the Wizarding world sometimes, because it's so hard for me to live in it, and it's probably never going to get any easier. Can you understand that?"
Slowly, Peter nodded.
"That makes sense," said James.
"I'd hate it, too," agreed Sirius. "All those rules. But you're not going to change sides if someone offers you a better deal, are you?"
"No," Remus said firmly. "Not if they think that killing people is the right way to go about it."
More than twenty people showed up for the Junior Defence League meeting on Friday. Among the new faces were a Hufflepuff fourth year called Frank Longbottom, the Hathersage sisters, and even a couple of first year Slytherins whom James did not know.
"OK, everyone," he said, raising his hands to call the meeting to order. He avoided looking at Matilda Hathersage, but his cheeks grew hot, knowing she was watching him. "Remus and Evans have something new to show us. You're going to want to see this."
The other students crowded curiously around the boy and girl sitting cross-legged on the floor, holding hands, a bronze Knut lying between them, the head of Merlin showing.
"Ready?" Remus asked quietly.
Evans nodded, and the two of them closed their eyes and began drawing deep, even breaths. "Wingardium Leviosa."
For a moment, nothing happened. Then, the coin moved. It scooted a fraction of an inch across the floor before slowly tipping up on its edge. It balanced there, trembling, for a moment before flopping back to the ground, reverse side pointing its crossed wands at the ceiling.
A few of the older students applauded, but one of the Slytherins asked, "What use is that?"
James scowled at him. "You don't think learning to do magic without a wand is useful?"
"Well sure, if you can do more than coin tricks," said the Slytherin.
"You can," said Remus as Evans helped him to his feet. "But we just started, and we're only second years. It takes practice to get good at it. You can do any kind of magic without a wand that you can do with one. It's harder, though. Wands focus and direct magic. If you don't have one, you have to focus with your mind."
"And how do you do that?" asked the other Slytherin.
"Meditation and breathing exercises can help," said Evans. "Learning concentration can also help you get better at advanced magic quicker."
Remus nodded. "I think we should start doing meditation practice at these meetings. But you'll have to do it on your own or with a partner, too, a few times a week if you want to get good at it."
The Junior Defence League's first meditation exercise was not an unqualified success. As had happened the previous year when James, Sirius, and Peter had tried to meditate with Remus, every time someone shifted position, or coughed, or scratched themselves, everyone got distracted and had to start over again. Someone even began to snore before a neighbour elbowed them awake.
"This is boring," muttered the complaining Slytherin.
"Shut up," hissed his friend.
Only when the group had managed thirty seconds of stillness and silence in a row did Remus finally say, "OK, that was good. If you practise that on your own this week, next week should be easier."
They split up into pairs then, for their Disarming and Shield charms warmup exercise. Matilda Hathersage tried to catch James's eye, but he panicked and quickly partnered with Peter, and she turned away, looking disappointed.
James could not focus. He kept glancing over to where Matilda was working with Remus, wielding her wand with a serious expression on her face. Peter managed to Disarm him three times, which did wonders for Peter's confidence, but made James a bit grumpy. When they changed partners, he signaled to Remus. The two of them stood apart, watching the others work.
"Did she say anything to you?" James asked in an undertone.
"No." Remus frowned. "But she thinks you're still angry with her for making the Quidditch team. Lily told me."
"She's a good Seeker," Remus pointed out. "There's no reason why she shouldn't have tried out, or that Brown shouldn't have picked her for the team. You know she wouldn't be acting like this if you had made Seeker."
James made a face. "I know."
"Are you still angry with her?" Remus asked.
"No," said James, embarrassed. "I was for a bit, but I got over it."
"So what's the trouble, then?"
James looked across the room to where Matilda was facing off against Lily Evans. "I was rude to her," he said. "I know it. And now -- it's awkward."
"You could apologise," Remus suggested. "If you like her --"
James flushed. "I do like her. But I don't really know her, do I? We've never talked and we're not friends. I wouldn't know what to say."
Remus grinned. "'Sorry I was such an arse' might make a good start."
"Yeah," said James, smiling reluctantly. "You'd think I'd be pretty good at saying that by now."