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The weather remained stormy throughout the first week of November.

After Halloween night’s break-in, the atmosphere at Hogwarts grew tense with rumors. Sirius Black had somehow managed to get into the castle and attack the Fat Lady—Gryffindor’s common room portrait—when she refused to grant him entry to the dormitories.

As a result of the incident, dementor activity increased tenfold.

Though the dementors weren’t supposed to cross into the grounds, they disrupted Saturday’s Quidditch match mid-game, making Gryffindor’s seeker pass out on his broom a hundred feet in the air. If Malfoy hadn’t still been milking his injury and gotten Slytherin’s match rescheduled, the victim that day could have just as easily been a Quidditch player from your house.

How could such an accident have been allowed to happen?

The incident made you even warier of the dementors’ occupation; you never felt safe from them, especially not when you could still catch them out the corner of your eye, drifting aimlessly like enchanted smears of ink across the distant landscape. Even from afar, they filled you with unease. You were finding it more and more difficult to concentrate.

On the night of your first Animagus transformation with Snape and McGonagall, returning to your human form took an hour of careful focus. Not being able to use your wand to revert back made the task exponentially more difficult; though you were warned of this beforehand, it didn’t make the inability to change at will any less terrifying. You needed practice, practice you couldn’t do on your own, as you had to wait for your Ministry of Magic registration to go through before transforming without supervision.

In the meantime, you trained with McGonagall as often as her schedule would allow.

The exhausting drills of transforming from one form to the other and back again took place in her office. Once you got the hang of it, she started transforming alongside you, leading you on excursions on lunch break or between classes. As a raven, you would follow her around the school grounds, through small spaces and crevices you would have never noticed otherwise, mapping out shortcuts around the castle. Sometimes, you even got the chance to terrorize Mrs. Norris. McGonagall would pretend not to notice.

McGonagall’s Animagus was that of a sleek grey tabby cat. Her movements were graceful, postured, and sure, which was a stark contrast to your novice, unwieldy handling of your own feathered mass. You were still getting used to maneuvering properly—sometimes, you would clip a pillar mid-flight, or misjudge your landing and fall off a given surface. On one occasion, you flew straight into a library window and shattered it into a thousand pieces; when you heard Filch’s curses of frustration approaching from a distance, you and McGonagall exchanged glances, and ran.

Above all, you found the hardest thing to reign under control was the powerful animal instinct nagging at you from inside your head. If the voice wasn’t trying to get you to fly higher or draw your attention to random shiny objects, it was alerting you to McGonagall’s presence.

Fake cat. Fake cat. Fake cat.

I know,’ you kept telling yourself. ‘Shut up, already, I know.

The most memorable outing occurred the following week.

To familiarize you with navigating natural terrain outside the castle, McGonagall took you just outside of Hogwarts grounds, where you found a dementor floating directly in your path. It was the closest to one you had ever been—the massive black wraith hovered in place, wearing cloaked, tattered robes whose edges faded into billows of ever-moving smoke. Whenever a human passed it, you noticed, it would give a slight turn of its hooded head, like a dog checking a scent in the air.

You and McGonagall walked directly in front of it.

The dementor did not notice either of you.

You couldn’t get your mind off the revelation throughout the remainder of your classes. Strangely enough, being in your Animagus form was the one instance you had ever felt safe around a dementor. You did not ask McGonagall about it, lest she suspect you of wanting to sneak away from the grounds on a regular basis&mdash. Somehow, the discovery felt like forbidden knowledge you weren’t supposed to have.

Dementors could not tell the difference between Animagi and normal animals.

You were still thinking about it when Defence Against the Dark Arts ended. By the time you handed in your spell theory essay, you were the last person in the classroom.

“Just the Slytherin I wanted to see,” Lupin spoke up, taking the parchment from you. “You seem a bit distracted, today. Everything alright?”

You'd let idle thoughts cut into your attention in-class. That was a problem. “Sorry, Professor. Lots of studying this week. I feel like the moment I stop, everything I’ve learned will come pouring straight out of my ears.”

“The joys of seventh year. Might I recommend earmuffs?”

You smirked, and he smiled up at you warmly.

“Well, now I feel terrible asking this of you,” he started, “but would you be able to meet me after classes this evening? I was quite ill last weekend and could do with some help catching up.”

The request took you by surprise—his proposition to have you as an assistant had only come a little over a week ago. “You’ve already spoken to Professor Snape?”

“Oh, yes. Seemed thrilled with the idea, actually. Did he not tell you?”

“It...must’ve slipped his mind.” You knew full well that was a lie.

To say you were astounded was an understatement. Though you picked up on Lupin’s sarcasm—it was impossible to imagine Snape being ‘thrilled’ about anything—the fact remained that Snape had given Lupin his approval to take you on as his teaching assistant. No summoning you for a meeting in his office? No passive-aggressive remarks during Potions? No pushback at all? You couldn’t imagine what Lupin may have said or done or promised to get Snape to agree so readily. The thought alone was oddly terrifying.

“I know you’re busy,” Lupin winked. “Think you can pencil me in?”

The wink he shot you was like an arrow to the heart.

How could you say no?

-

Being a teacher’s assistant was dreadful work.

As November trudged on, you were visiting Professor Lupin’s office after school two to three times a week. Half of your time was spent helping him organize sixth-year curriculums, while the other half was spent grading assignments to his unreasonably thorough specifications. Terrible as it may have been, you couldn’t help but think that if Lupin's standards for helping his students were just a little lower, assisting him wouldn’t have proven to be so tedious; you hadn't realized there was so much work behind the skilled instruction he made seem so effortless.

Still, you had accepted the position for completely selfish reasons, and those reasons were proving worthwhile.

You enjoyed receiving the random owl at lunchtime asking if you could help him after classes. Grading through twenty essays on the same topic was just another form of rote repetition for your own studies. Marking sixth-year answers wrong, but also having to detail why they were wrong, did much to help cover the gaps in your knowledge from your academically void year with Lockhart. The trouble was worth seeing what pun would appear on Lupin’s tea mug that day, and the stolen glimpses of him at his desk, focused, nibbling at the end of his quill as he read across parchments.

The bits of colour you had during your week made the rest of it feel that much more desaturated.

Today, you were studying outside, a large table all to yourself due to the colder weather keeping everyone indoors. You were running through multitudes of steps and ingredients for Potions, your many notes spread across the wide stone tabletop. Before your N.E.W.T. classes, you had always thought Potions was an exact science with no room for variation or interpretation, but Snape had done well to prove you wrong. Skipping a single one of his classes would have proven disastrous to your studies, as the majority of the material he provided had absolutely no mention in the assigned textbook; it was frustrating, but following Snape’s generous liberties to the book’s instructions yielded flawless results, results he would be expecting you to replicate from memory.

You looked over the Shrinking Solution recipe for the thousandth time, seeing but not reading any of the words.

You’d rather be flying.

Being an Animagus was invigorating in ways nothing else was. Everywhere you looked, the world around you was recontextualized with new possibilities. What would it feel like to fly over there? Could you reach that point without getting tired? How long would it take to touch that tree in the distance and come back? Five minutes? Ten?

McGonagall had warned you of this, of how addicting your Animagus form could be at first. She told you it was important to regulate your thoughts, to have strict control over your random urges to transform and escape. You had the rest of your life to fly, after all. You just had to stay grounded for another couple of weeks.

Another couple of weeks...

Breathing in a lungful of crisp autumn air, you tried once again to focus on your Potions studies. You realized Snape’s in-class instructions for the Shrinking Solution was almost completely different from the textbook’s—quite literally, all they had in common were the damned ingredients.

Already overwhelmed, you glanced up from your notes.

You spotted Lupin across the field.

He was clearly in a hurry, carrying stacks of parchment and fast-walking down the corridor, when a first-year stopped him to ask something. A split-second of exasperation flashed across his face before melting away, all at once—then, he was talking, his explanation to the young student full of kind smiles and enthusiastic hand gestures. Even when he was stressed, he was happy to be helping.

You found his unbridled enthusiasm enchanting.

To your surprise, you sensed someone approaching you from behind; the sense itself was a weaker, more diluted version of the same instincts you had when you transformed.

“Afternoon, Professor Snape,” you greeted without looking.

You felt a swell of pride at how you managed to give him pause. All it took was years of study and the ability to turn into an animal to keep him from sneaking up on you.

“Afternoon,” he said, flatly. “How is the assistant’s position faring?”

“Very well, I think. Unless you’ve received news of the contrary.”

He acknowledged your attempt at humour with a sarcastic little hum. “You may be wondering why I approved the request.”

“I’ve learned not to question your judgement, sir.”

“Though wise of you, in this instance it would be useful for you to know my reasoning.”

You were both watching Lupin from across the field, now. At this point, Lupin had taken a seat on a nearby bench with the first-year, placing his papers aside completely to review something in their textbook.

“I trust you are familiar with the recent incident involving Sirius Black.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Suspicions and security alike have been heightened across the board,” Snape continued. “As Professor Lupin’s aide, I will need you to keep an eye on him. Report to me of anything...suspect you may find. Understand?”

You kept your reaction neutral, though your mind began racing at once.

So Snape approved Lupin’s request just so you could spy on him? This seemed to be coming out of nowhere. Yet, if Snape was resorting to asking you for help, it meant he had suspicions that weren’t being taken seriously by other members of the faculty. That included the other teachers. That included Dumbledore. Though you had no idea what led Snape to believe Lupin had anything to do with Sirius Black, Snape would not have brought his concerns to you lightly.

He also would not have trusted you, lightly.

You had several questions. Now was not the time to ask them.

“Understood, sir,” you said simply. “I’ll keep you informed.”

-

To your mild frustration, being mysteriously enlisted to keep secret tabs on Professor Lupin only served to make the man more attractive. Snape would not have levied his wariness without good reason. You always had the sense there was more to him than he let on—now you were sure of it.

But what on earth could he have been hiding?

Several days had passed since your conversation with Snape, and all you saw of Lupin thus far was one severely overworked teacher trying to manage way too many students at once. Were all the teaching positions at Hogwarts this strenuous? McGonagall’s iron temperament and Snape’s perpetual state of irked impatience suddenly made a lot more sense—it was a wonder any of your professors had free time, at all.

You were grading papers at the small side-table and extra chair Lupin had brought into his office for you. Your stack of assignments was running as thin as your tea was empty; it was getting late, and you were on your last paper. Quill in hand, you read the next answer on the exam before you.

You snickered, louder than you intended.

The sound of your laughter put a reactionary smile on Lupin’s face. “What is it?”

“‘Why are they called The Unforgivable Curses?’” you read aloud from the parchment. “‘The Unforgivable Curses are named as such because they are curses that are unforgivable.’”

“Well. It’s not wrong.”

“It’s not right, either,” you said, marking the paper. You flipped through the textbook beside you to cite the exact page where the proper answer could be found. “You’d think being thrown into Azkaban would be a more memorable punishment.”

“Things like the Unforgivable Curses and Azkaban are abstract concepts to those who have no knowledge or experience with them. They're little more than scary stories, to most.”

“I never thought of it that way,” you admitted. “I suppose most people have never seen an Unforgivable used, before. I know I haven’t.”

Lupin made a thoughtful noise. “Pray you never have to.”

You glanced at him. This was the second time you’ve heard him make a vague reference to some terrible experience, voice laden with an unexpected severity that carried an unspoken weight. He had some personal experience with the Unforgivable Curses, that much you could gather. The morbid curiosity of the revelation had you treading lightly.

You tried to keep your tone curious. “Don’t you think it’s something we should see?”

“How do you mean?” he asked, still scratching at his parchment.

“You’re the most practical Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher I’ve ever had, Professor. Wouldn't you agree that we should see every spell and its effects, so we would know how to recognize them in a duel?”

“You’re suggesting I ask for a volunteer?”

There was a gentle edge to his voice that wasn’t there before.

“Well, not a student,” you said. “Maybe a Doxy, or something.”

“No living creature deserves to suffer an Unforgivable Curse. Not even a Doxy.” He sounded final. “Ethical considerations aside, there’s a certain level of intent required to cast such spells—an amount of darkness within you needed to make it work. To speak plainly, I don’t believe myself capable.”

You raised an eyebrow. “How do we defend against them, then?”

“You run.”

The sudden ice in his tone made your blood run cold. You wanted to ask him of his experiences. You wanted to ask him what he’d seen. With a few well-placed questions, you had stolen a glance into a depth of him—the same depth he kept well-hidden, the same depth that drew Snape's suspicions.

Lupin suddenly looked rather tired, as if he knew he’d revealed too much, and you realized too late that you had given him the wrong impression. You had no interest in the Dark Arts, yet your house colours betrayed you; if your questions had come from anyone else, it was curiosity, but because they came from you, it was a warning sign.

“It’s getting rather late,” he said, rising from his desk. “I need to return some creatures to the lake before it gets dark. We can finish up next time.”

“Would you like me to come with?”

“No need. It’s a simple errand, I can manage on my own.”

Lupin had his back turned to you as he gathered several large glass jars from his bookshelf, a large cloth draped over each to shield their inhabitants from direct light. You had encroached on a sensitive topic, and now he was trying to put distance between the two of you to dispel the awkwardness.

You didn’t like how that felt.

“I’m sorry, Professor, it was ignorant of me to suggest—” The apology tasted too much like self-pity, so you stopped yourself and rethought your words. “Like you said, Unforgivable Curses are just scary stories for people who have no experience with them. But I’m sure they’re nightmares, for those who do. I should have kept that in mind before speaking of them so lightly.”

You noticed he stopped shuffling through his shelves.

Getting up from your desk to approach him, you made sure your hands were outstretched by the time he turned to face you.

“Let me help, Professor.”

He stared at you for a moment before handing you a jar.

-

The walk down to the Black Lake was cool and quiet; the temperature continued to dip as the sun lowered, the slight breeze now biting against your exposed face and hands. You carried two large glass jars apiece, with each jar containing a different-coloured Hinkypunk from third-year lessons from the previous weeks. Hinkypunks were somewhat dangerous pests that were easy enough to dispose of, and though you didn’t question his decision, you were surprised Lupin was going through all the effort of returning them where he found them. Somehow, you imagined he was also the kind of man who escorted wandering spiders from his home without harming them.

One at a time, you released the creatures with no issue. Though they were normally aggressive little tricksters, the Hinkypunks didn’t seem too keen on attacking you once they were set free, instead taking their miniature lanterns and disappearing with a puff of smoke and a squelching shriek.

On the way back to the castle, through the thin layer of fog floating above the Black Lake, you spotted a large cluster of what appeared to be slimy balloons floating in the water.

“What are those?” you asked.

Lupin peered over to where you were looking. “Plimpies, I reckon.”

You approached the waterside to get a closer look. You were familiar with Plimpy eyes as a potion ingredient, but you had never seen the whole animal before. “What happened to them?”

“Merpeople handiwork, from the looks of it. They consider them a bit of a pest, so they tie their legs in knots and let them float away. As you can see, Plimpies inflate when they get stressed—they gather along the shoreline, eventually, and are left to the mercy of nearby predators.”

You thought getting the opportunity to see the Plimpy close would make them look less like balloons, but it had the exact opposite effect. They looked like regular fish hit with Inflating Charms and frog legs cobbled to their undersides—only, their long, skinny legs were tied up in complicated nautical knots that shouldn’t have been possible with organic appendages. There were about twenty of them, give or take. The longer you stared, the creepier the scene became.

Rolling up your sleeves, you squatted by the shoreline and grabbed the one nearest to you. You pulled out your wand from your inner robe pocket. “Deimplicitus.

The Plimpy’s tangled legs untied. You tossed it back into the lake. It bobbed around for a bit before deflating with a very rude noise and disappearing beneath the water.

You grabbed another Plimpy and started over again.

Lupin called at you from a distance, a small laugh in his voice. “What are you doing?”

“You go on ahead,” you called back, throwing the second freed Plimpy into the lake. “I’ll catch up.”

“It’s nearly dark. If you’re caught outside the castle without a teacher at this hour, you’ll get detention.”

“It’s alright, just go back without me. I won’t be long.”

Unable to leave you alone in good conscience, Lupin watched as you repeated your process, over and over again, with several more of the magical fish floating helplessly at the shoreline. You would grab a Plimpy, perform a Detangling Charm on it, and hoist it back into the water, where it blew a giant raspberry before sinking below the surface. You were ankle-deep in the lake. The bottom of your robes were getting soaked.

Burying his hands in his pockets, Lupin walked over to you. “You really should just let nature take its course, you know.”

“I doubt I’ll disrupt the magical ecosystem by doing it just this once.”

“But why bother?”

“Because I saw them. So I can’t just leave them.”

To your surprise, Lupin pulled up the knees of his trousers, and he knelt down to help.

The two of you continued the task in silence, the quiet broken only by the occasional, hilarious sound of a Plimpy deflating. The sun had already dipped below the horizon by the time you cleared out the cluster. The last fish in sight bobbed in the crook of a large log nearby. You leaned further into the shore, reaching out to get it.

The log moved.

In an instant, the large, wood-like creature rounded on you and snapped at your outstretched arm, sinking its teeth into your wrist. You shouted in surprise—the shock of it sent you reeling backwards, and you landed on your bottom as the creature waded off into the fog.

“Are you alright?” Lupin asked, already at your side.

“I’m fine,” you hissed, quickly getting back on your feet. “Just a Dugbog, I think.”

“Probably here for the Plimpies. We appear to have interrupted dinnertime.”

“How rude of us.”

“Not to worry, Dugbog bites aren’t venomous,” he said, already reaching for your arm. “They tend to get a little nasty if not looked after properly, though.”

Lupin held your wrist in his hands, rotating your forearm to examine the wound. To both of your surprises, there didn’t seem to be any blood or broken skin.

That’s when you noticed what saved you.

You cursed. “The bloody thing made off with my watch!”

“Quite quickly, too. Perhaps it was on a time crunch.”

The snort of laughter you gave was most unbecoming.

From the corner of your eye, you saw a familiar giant of a man approach the two of you from afar.

You turned to him and smiled. “Evening, Professor Hagrid.”

He called you by name. “And Professor Lupin! Blimey, it’s after sundown. What are yeh doin’ out ‘ere so late?”

“My assistant and I were returning some creatures to their natural habitat,” Lupin explained. “What brings you to the lake tonight, Hagrid?”

Hagrid raised the net he was carrying. “Harvestin’ Plimpies.”

You paled, but Hagrid misinterpreted your look of shock completely.

“Now, don’t you look at me like that,” he said defensively. “They make a fine soup.”

Lupin leaned towards you so only you could hear. “Told you we should’ve let nature take its course.”

You couldn’t help but burst into laughter, which was met with Lupin trying—and failing—to hold back the cheekiest grin you’d ever seen on the man. Unconsciously, perhaps, he hadn’t yet let go of your hand, and in a rush of fleeting courage, you let yourself curl your fingers around his own for a moment.

Just a moment.