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"the greatest weapon one can wield is--"

fear

 

~

Sirius knew very well the confines of McGonagall's office.

In six years he had practically memorized all the cracks in the stones at his feet, so staring at the one right there, that looked kind of like a broomstick, it didn't hold his attention. The one over there, it looked kind of like the symbol carved into Professor Kettleburn's wooden leg. And yes, there were practically as many cracks in the floor as constellations in the star chart he still had to copy out for tomorrow night, but since he'd been staring at the floor for almost an hour anyway--

"I appreciate you waiting, Mr. Black," McGonagall said crisply, striding into the room. "There were a number of things we needed to clear up before we could attend to you." She stopped beside her desk. "As you might well imagine."

Sirius wasn't sure if that 'we' was the royal We of the school, or whether it referred to a specific group of people who'd spent the better part of the hour cleaning up his mess. He almost asked, but then glancing up at her face, prudently closed his mouth. Whatever he might say to the Professor right now would almost assuredly be the wrong thing.

She studied him over her glasses for a moment. "I see that you've finally discovered the fine art of keeping your mouth shut, Sirius," she said, archly.

The table he was currently trying to hide behind had a bizarre set of rotating globes on it, and four out of five of them were whizzing round, chiming delicately. Sirius stared at them, getting a little dizzy with the effort of trying to focus.

He still really couldn't answer her, so keeping quiet felt like the safest course.

"Regardless," McGonagall went on, "eventually you are going to have to explain what you did, Mr. Black." He swallowed, feeling a little nauseous from watching the globes spin. His stomach was spinning too, a bit. "Being a member of Gryffindor, normally you would answer to me, however," and he looked at her, "on such a grave matter, the headmaster must be consulted."

"I," and Sirius went back to staring at the floor. The constellation of Orion was near his foot, in little pocks and stains. "Right."

"This is," she continued, "a little more serious than the majority of your capers, Mr. Black." If possible, McGonagall's voice was even more stern, even more flat, and a little, sad? She said, "You do realize this, don't you?"

Sirius swallowed. "Oh, I know."

"Good," McGonagall answered.

Sirius could probably describe this room in his sleep, he'd been called here a hundred times or more. It was the first time he'd ever stood in here and been afraid of what was going to happen. The feeling didn't go away as she said, "Then come with me."

~

The first thing that Sirius saw when he entered Dumbledore's chamber was the snarling, scowling face of Snape. The second thing was the very, very calm face of Professor Dumbledore himself. The second immediately closed off every course of action Sirius might have taken in regards to the first.

"Mr. Black," Dumbledore said. "I will be with you in a moment." He looked back to Snape. "I am giving you a chance to think about what we discussed, Severus." He did not smile. "Do not disappoint me. That is all."

"But Professor--"

"Severus," Dumbledore said quietly, "Go back to your dorm."

The words weren't exactly a warning. Severus turned on his heel and stomped out of the office, down the stairs. His lips were pinched together, white.

"You and I," Dumbledore said to Sirius, "are going to have a little chat."

It was definitely a warning.

~

Sirius was genuinely, horrifically, nearly-knees-quaking, afraid. "I do not know what possessed you to do such a thing, Sirius," Dumbledore said. He held a hand up. "And I know your penchant for interruption and excuses, Professor McGonagall tells me you are quite the master. Under normal circumstances, I might allow that."

The implication of "but not today" was obvious.

"Sirius, I have before me a grave decision to make. Not in a long time has a student shown so flagrant a disregard for human life." Sirius' face drained of all color, cheeks, lips, eyes white and bloodless. "These have been difficult times, for everyone at this school," he said, "but in no way does that provide an excuse or a just reason for your actions."

Dumbledore paused long enough that Sirius thought he should say something. "I know," he mumbled.

"I know the reasons behind your actions. Loyalty to James and his family, anger at brutal death, people you perceive as monsters. Grief." Dumbledore's voice was still calm, unruffled, and yet sharper than anyone had ever been with Sirius. "I have compassion for your feelings, Sirius, and for James' suffering. I know that his family has been all you've had, this year." There was another weighty pause. "But Sirius, this is something that, had you succeeded, you could not have taken back. Ever."

Sirius mumbled again, "I know." He was sure his whole body was in tremors.

"Fear does things to us, Sirius," he said softly. "We do things we don't mean. We do ruthless things. Brutal things ourselves."

He knew.

~

"A lecture? That's all?" Peter said. "And you didn't get detention or anything from him?" The three of them were sitting in a corner in the Common Room while James had a nap. "He just dismissed you?"

"McGonagall gave me a month's detention," Sirius answered. "And I'm on probation." He shrugged. "I think they might have considered expelling me."

"Really?" Peter's eyes were wide. "And we'd all be suspended if it weren't for you, mate."

"Think nothing of it," Sirius answered. He glanced over at Remus. His face was calm, though there were dark circles under his eyes. Not enough sleep. They hadn't spoken since Remus woke up human, not truely spoken; perhaps they'd never speak again. Perhaps it was all over and Sirius just hadn't received notice.

"But then, as far as the school's concerned, it's over?" Peter asked.

He was trying to think of a good reason for murder, one that didn't make him sound like his mother. Over. Sirius shrugged again. His hands were still shaking, little tremors he could feel all through his arms. "I suppose."

Remus asked quietly, "Would you do it again?"

It was the smell of Dumbledore's office that frightened him. Musty, old, tired. Worn. It smelled like the comforting surroundings of everything you'd get in a headmaster's office. But deep under that, there was a musty, tangy odor that signaled fear. He knew Dumbledore had done things, and he knew that the ends justified the means, in certain cases. He just didn't know which ones.


skill

 

~

Peter had a lot of homework to do.

Peter had a bloody lot of homework to do.

He pulled all his notes together in a pile, trying to blow the ink dry on the essay that he'd just finished that was already late. Just now, he'd finished it. At one in the morning. He hadn't stayed up until one in the morning doing homework in years. Now just the Charms equations, or the Defense equations and the Charms essay. Something.

Peter had so much to do.

He pulled out his problem set - that's what it was! a problem set! - and got to work. It wasn't that he couldn't do it. He could do it. At least, everyone told him he could. But he'd never had to do it alone before.

"Bloody--" and then, it seemed like things were done. Actually, really, done. He had a pile of finished work in front of him. And of course, no one would bother copying him, because they'd do it in half the time.

~

"Thank god it's the weekend," Peter said.

Remus looked up. "What?"

"Well, I just mean," and he pulled another book out, "it. We've got a few days with no. Obligations."

"Oh, yes," he answered. Peter tried not to stare. Remus didn't seem to be showing any outward signs of anything. He hadn't yelled at Sirius, he hadn't done anything really differently and yet something was terribly wrong. It felt as if perhaps he had lost some ability that previously came naturally, a naturalness to his actions, and now he couldn't get that ease back.

"Are you all right?" Peter asked.

"What?" and Remus seemed startled. "Oh, yes, of course. It's James I'm worried about, really." He looked around, Peter imitating his movements to peer around the Common Room even though they both knew he wasn't there.

"Where is he?"

"With Lily, I think."

"Good," Peter said. "At least, I think good."

"Lily will be good for him right now," Remus answered quietly. "I guess."

Peter consciously waited a moment before answering, to make sure his comment didn't appear at all in relation to their previous conversation. "Have you seen Sirius about?"

~

The four of them passed a group of upper-level Slytherin students, and as they walked past, everyone pointed and scowled. Remus tugged uselessly at the hems of his robes, the cuffs of the shirt he was wearing underneath them, head down as the Slytherins said whatever they said. There were a thousand reasons for them to be laughing and pointing, and only one was a dire secret they kept. The rest were just cruel.

"Just, c'mon," Sirius said, but didn't step out in front of them.

Peter was used to standing a few steps behind him while walking - it was convenient, in that Sirius tended to drift when he walked and a person could stay out of his way, as well as avoid tripping over anyone's feet. Today, however, he was paced exactly with Sirius, as if Sirius was trying not to trip over his own feet.

James looked at Remus. "Come on, chap," he said. "We'll be inside in a minute."

To Peter, the walk across the courtyard felt like forever. Half a dozen students called out to them, waving hello and smiling, and still it felt like they were alone in a sea of unfriendly faces. Peter, instinctively, patted Remus on the shoulder a few times.

Sirius held the door open for the four of them, but they waited in front of it for a minute, awkward, as if no one knew who was supposed to go through first.

~

"Do you think they all know?" Peter asked quietly. He hated to bring it up with Sirius, but he was the best choice. He might not be a genius with Charms but he wasn't insensitive.

"I don't know," Sirius answered. He looked very unhappy.

The two of them were alone. Remus preferred to stay upstairs, citing work and a touch of the flu. Normal wizards would go to the hospital wing for flu, but not Remus. He liked to wait it out, said any way he could avoid the hospital was better than having to lay in bed somewhere unfamiliar.

"Look," Peter said, akwardly. "I know you two, mind, so take this as advice?" Sirius waited. "You've got to smooth things out."

"It." Sirius looked around hopelessly. Peter knew he was looking for Remus, it was obvious and it was kind of sad.

"You know where he is. You're capable of climbing a flight of stairs."

"It's not." Sirius shrugged. "We're not bad."

Peter felt sorry for them. He was the one without a girlfriend or boyfriend, and yet he felt sorry for Remus, Sirius and James all. Though it was hard not to, the way they'd been walking around the last few days. No one had smiled once.

~

Peter laughed, hand covering his mouth, as one of the fourth years told everyone a joke. It was juvenile, maybe, to find a fourth year funny when he was in sixth, but the kid was a laugh a minute.

"Oh, hi," Sirius said. "I didn't know you were back." Peter had had an extra half hour prep, teacher supervised. He'd surprised them and himself by finishing in less than half an hour.

"Yeah, it seems my brains aren't half bad after all." He shrugged. "They were easy problems, but I knew how to do them."

"Bully for you." Sirius glanced around at all the students gathered. "What's going on?"

Peter didn't say 'fun'. It felt horribly wrong, suddenly, to be enjoying himself while his other friends were miserable. "Where's everyone else?"

"James went to the Quidditch pitch." Peter clucked his tongue. "Yes, well."

"Look, I can't believe you haven't spoken to Remus yet."

Sirius turned to him, finally. "What do I say?"

~

"Right, chaps, have to run." James nodded to them, and then to himself, and walked mechanically out.

The three of them were in their room, sitting on their respective beds. No one had the heart to ask James where he was going or whether he was going to be all right. The teasing - upped a mite - had gotten quite a bit worse when any of them were on their own. Remus shook his head. "Should we let him go off on his own?"

Sirius answered, "He's probably going out with Lily."

"She can handle herself," Remus said.

"True, true," Sirius answered.

Peter sat between them and fiddled with a quill.

"He doesn't seem to be."

"Yes."

Peter glanced from one to the other. "He seems all right, though," he said. It was unfair, changing the subject in such a back-handed manner, but he couldn't, he just couldn't talk about serious things anymore. "He still aced our pop quiz."

Sirius folded another sheet of parchment into a delicate paper animal. There was a stack of them on his pillow. "He's not, though."

Peter echoed, "No, he's not." He looked glumly over his paper. "I bet he got a better mark than I did."

"You all probably beat me."

"What's wrong?" Peter asked, surprised. He couldn't imagine Sirius ever failing something as easy as a pop quiz unless it was on purpose.

Remus stayed silent, pretending to read when they both knew he was merely staring at the page. Sirius didn't meet Peter's eyes. "I couldn't concentrate."

Peter nodded.

~

This time, when Lestrange pointed a wand in their direction, it was Peter and not Sirius who scowled at him. The Slytherins laughed, but Peter had his wand ready under his robes. He knew enough spells.

They were just walking around the school. Remus had pretended he'd rather read up in their dorm than get some sunshine, Sirius trudged along, glumly, with only a few pointed swearwords in the Slytherins' direction, and only after the fact.

"Did you rehearse for the quiz today?" Sirius stared at him blankly. "Quiz? in--"

"Don't bother telling me now," Sirius replied. "If I don't know it now, I can't learn it. It'll be like getting a surprise. Except a bad kind."

Peter grinned. "Not like you'd have studied anyway."

"Yeah, well." Sirius didn't grin. "I might have."

"We're all a bit off, lately, aren't we?" Peter said. He kicked a stone, and it flew across the paved stone and into the grass. They were heading for a nice little grassy area, good for sitting and pretending things were happy and safe.

They sat down, and Sirius said again. "Yes. Well."

Peter looked at the lake. He didn't want to bring it up with Sirius, again, but to mention anything to James seemed, disrespectful, and to bring things up with Remus was just cruel. "I keep wondering. How."

"How what?"

"How we." Peter winced. "Did that."

"Oh," Sirius said. "That. Yeah." Peter waited for the answer, but Sirius just sat there. They had their books spread out over the grass, but neither of them were paying the least amount of attention to them. Peter was laying in the sun, and Sirius was staring at the water intently. He didn't seem to have any idea of what to do.

~

Later in the Common Room, they had a bunch of nice neat little piles of finished work for Remus and James to copy out. Sirius was just finishing up the last of it, quill scratching quickly. His eyes looked like he wasn't even seeing the paper. Eventually, he said, "Do you want this chart to copy?"

Peter bent over Sirius' shoulder, and said in surprise, "oh, I already did it."


knowledge

 

~

"How've you been sleeping?" Peter said.

It was a question more to fill up ephemeral space, rather than a probing concern. None of them were sleeping well. Remus stretched, arms over his head and mouth open wide in a yawn. "Not so well." He shrugged. "Last night I dreamed about wandering through a swamp, blindfolded, with a marching band in the background that refused to do anything but a funeral dirge, or Send In The Clowns." Rubbed his eyes. "Night before, I kept dreaming up different scenarios for Sirius and Snape to duel it out. He poisoned him twice with lemonade. They were both wearing carnival masks."

Peter pulled his robes straight, trying to make his hair lay flat. "Does the snake even like lemonade?"

Remus shrugged. "Fucked if I know."

"You know, even Muggles think that dreams are signs of the future, a window to who you really are inside."

They had taken Divination, not because they enjoyed it but because the amount of effort required was very much less than the other classes. They never even bothered copying each other. Sirius brought back-copies of Muggle newspapers with him in his trunk, and they stole from the Muggle horoscopes each week. "What does a mask mean?"

"I think something about a person being two-faced." Peter said it kindly, but still the words hurt a little.

"I don't need a Muggle dream guide to tell me that," Remus answered. "Come on, we're going to be late."

Peter followed him. "Where's James?"

James, they found, was already seated and ready for breakfast. His routine hadn't changed much; rising earlier, perhaps. He and Lily were sitting close together. Remus was fairly sure she was holding his hand.

~

Remus found himself wandering the halls at lunchtime the week after his transformation. One foot in front of the other, he found himself outside strange classrooms, storage cupboards, hallways that seem to go forever and ever in circles. Some day they were going to have to map out Hogwarts', the twists and turns, the endlessly changing geography of the school. Someday maybe they'll have time.

"My dear," the Divination Professor said, eyes wide, "what are you doing inside on such a day?"

Remus hadn't even realized he'd made his feet follow themselves all the way to the seventh floor, the usual haunt of girls who wanted to see the future, predict their husbands, their lives on a minute scale. He didn't have much time for Divination, though it had been an easy class compared to most. They'd dropped it mostly from boredom.

Instead of the usual flippant answer they all normally had at the ready, Remus found himself staring into the Professor's sad, distant eyes dumbly. "You wish to See?" she asked, voice soft.

His feet, his entire body seemed to be working without him, ever since he got back from the hospital. Instead of resting up in the dorm, however, he couldn't stop walking around the school. The confusion and hopeless circles his thinking had been going through mirrored his wanderings. "I want," he said, suddenly. His mouth, too, was yet another rebellious body part, acting independent of his mind. "I want to know," he finally said, almost desperate.

"Child," she answered gravely, "one must be on the constant alert for signs of truth, of the Sight giving us clues into the future, into the past." She pushed a wisp of hair back from her face, jewelry jingling. "To know is to see."

Remus looked at his feet. "I think you're a fraud," he said.

~

"Have you spoken to him?" Peter asked in a low voice. "I mean--"

Remus shrugged. "We had a conversation after advanced Transfiguration yesterday." He kept flipping over Sirius' Runes II notes, over and over and over again, hoping that by pure force of will there was some chance he could memorize the lessons he'd missed. There was no other way Remus could possibly absorb the information he was staring at. It might as well have been in Russian.

Peter was struggling through their Transfiguration. A half-finished pile of Defensive Curses was beside him. He'd valiantly taken over half of James' homework, with Sirius catching up the rest. Normally Remus would have tried to make up the slack, not Peter, but he'd missed more important work than usual this month and missed too many lessons of his own. The Curses he'd missed he'd probably never, ever make up. Yet another magic lesson lost to him.

Remus finally flipped the pile of paper over in disgust, giving up on any pretense of activity other than staring moodily at their table. The Common Room was unnaturally quiet. "So," Peter tried again. "But nothing, about?"

Remus made up his mind, looking at his watch. He had two hours to finish all his homework for tomorrow. Two hours until midnight, then he'd go to bed. "I don't know what to say," he said to Peter. "What do you say?"

Peter was content to pick his quill back up.

~

James cornered him, finally, and Remus felt sick.

"Have you made up with Sirius?" James asked, low. "I mean, I don't want to pry, but, it." He scratched his head. "It's just already, crazy enough."

Remus stopped reading the book he was trying to read, tiny text scrawling in patterns wholly unfamiliar. Studying never seemed so hard. "We weren't. Yes, we're."

James sat down without being asked. "My name's down for stay-through, for the holidays. Sirius too." He snorted. Remus was pained to hear his flat tone of voice. "Of course. Anyway, it seemed the prudent choice. What about you?"

What about Remus.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," Remus finally answered. "I." He shrugged. James didn't need this confession, on top of the others, but it was begging to be released. Remus said, "I've been considering leaving school."

"Leaving school?" James said. "Really?"

He shrugged. He could give the reasons it was a good idea: he was dangerous, and proven so, making the top of the list. He could give the reasons he shouldn't: it was dangerous out there, and proven so. James knew those, both. "Yeah, I've been considering it."

"And?"

"I don't know."

James shuffled. "I thought about it." Remus looked at him. "When I first got the news, like, that day." James' smile was still kind of odd, his eyes not all there. Of course his homework was still impeccable. "Then I figured, no, if we're here we can do some good."

"Yeah," Remus said. He didn't know he was doing good.

~

There was no way of getting out of it; he was going to have to talk to Sirius.

Remus went to classes, mind in a fog. He turned the problem over in his mind, over and over again, trying to come to terms with what had happened. Sirius and Snape and James and the Potters and him. The facts of the matter were simple: he couldn't believe what Sirius had done, he couldn't believe that James' parents were dead. He couldn't be angry with Sirius, he couldn't help James, he couldn't make life where there was death or sense where there was none. Most of all, he couldn't seem to find a way to reconcile all of these things in a satisfactory enough way to even concentrate on their homework.

"Where's James?" he asked Sirius, as they left the last class of the day. Remus wasn't even sure he knew what lecture he'd been in. His notes were gibberish.

"They have him out on the pitch, of all the daft ideas," Sirius replied.

"Do," Remus started. "How is he?"

Sirius stumbled, had to shoot his hand out and brace himself against the cold stone wall. He dropped his bag, spilling ink and papers and books everywhere. Two Slytherin second years had to narrowly sidestep a textbook. "He's, James, you know?"

"You think Quidditch will help?"

Remus didn't really know what to do, whether gathering up the papers laying strewn everywhere would be better or worse than standing back and letting Sirius mutter spells to clean up his own ink, his own mess. "I don't know," he answered. "I've decided," Sirius said dryly, "all things considered, maybe I'm not the best person to try and help James."

Remus kneeled down, then, not caring if between the two of them on the floor they were effectively blocking up pedestrian traffic for the whole hallway. No one had anywhere urgent to go, and he didn't hear the mild complaints. "We should save him some dinner," he said, stuffing Sirius's own homework into his own bag. They could sort it out later. "Knowing James, he'll be out there all night."

~

It was Peter who finally asked James, "Why didn't you just let him, go?" Sirius, perhaps, was still feeling more than a little guilty. Remus refused to ask any more questions.

James said, "I'm a Prefect." It answered the question to his satisfaction, and it was evident that it would have to suffice for everyone else, as well.

~

Dumbledore gave him a few days reprieve before he called him into his office. Remus mentally wondered if all of their friends had been in to see him in the last week and a half. He would bet yes. James hadn't gotten anything out of his private interviews, no tears, no peace. Sirius had gotten a month's detention, and a probation.

"Remus." Dumbledore greeted him, offering him a seat. "I do not intend to keep you longer than I must. I know that in difficult times, it is always best to be with one's friends."

He had nothing to answer to that.

"I wished to inform you that I have spoken with Severus Snape." Dumbledore paused. "I have instructed him that should anyone come to know of your condition, I will be incredibly suspicious." He steepled his fingers. "He has assured me that no one will discover your secret from him."

Remus said, "Thank you." He didn't know how or if it were even possible to keep Snape quiet, but if it were, Dumbledore probably could do it.

Dumbledore seemed to know something else was wrong. "Remus," he continued kindly, "I do not consider you responsible for what happened last week, and in no way has my trust in you diminished. Your secret is safe, and it is my hope that life will be able to continue on its normal course for all of us."

Remus thought about running through the Forbidden Forest last month, Sirius pining him to the ground with two heavy paws as he tried to skirt the boundaries and head back to the school. Secrets were never safe.

"Thank you," he said again.


loyalty

 

~

James received the owl at lunchtime, at one o'clock, not the usual post time. The students in the hall, mostly those upperclassmen who were stuck with a fifth period lunchtime instead of the normal fourth, all looked up. The noise died down. An irregular owl didn't necessarily mean bad tidings, it wasn't necessarily a reason to glance around, warily, while James opened the envelope.

It wasn't necessarily, but most of the irregular owls coming in lately weren't burdened with an abundance of good news.

~

"I'm so sorry, Mr. Potter," McGonagall said, blowing her nose roughly. He had been excused from classes. She had a cup of tea sitting beside her on the desk, untouched and cool. James knew it was cool because there was no steam rising off of it. It smelled like blackberry tea, not her usual flavor. "I'm so sorry," she said again.

"Thank you," James answered.

"There," and she wiped her eyes with a hanky. "do you need anything from the school? A leave of absence? Will, is a service arranged? Do you need help doing it?"

James could smell the blackberry very strongly. He thought there might have even been milk and sugar in her tea, an oddity. "No, thank you," he answered, politely. "I, there were provisions made." He blinked. "For them." Pushed his glasses back onto his face. "In case."

"I'm so sorry," and she wrapped her bony fingers around the delicate china cup. James wondered if the cup was even warm still, whether holding it was giving her any comfort or whether it was just habit. "If you need anything," she said.

James had never known McGonagall to be so kind, to show so much emotion in one sitting. Once, maybe, she'd reached this level in anger, maybe when he and Sirius let all the dung beetles into the third floor showers and then locked the doors. Her face had been red and her lips white, and her voice had been quiet. They'd gotten detention for a month.

"I think," he answered faintly, "I have homework. I guess I'd better do it."

"Feel free to skip your Transfiguration prep," McGonagall said. She rubbed her nose, her eyes again. this time, her face was white and her eyes were red. "I'm so sorry," she said again, and let go of the cup. James figured the blackberry tea was useless.

~

The next day, everyone knew. A lot of people murmured things like "I'm so sorry," awkwardly patting his shoulder. They had to do it quickly, all at once, in case tomorrow their sympathy was needed elsewhere.

They knew not from James's face. It was just the way of bad news to travel.

~

"I heard you didn't sleep so terribly well last night, Potter," he said. James stared right at Snape, at him and through him as if he didn't even exist. His eyes were glassy, bulging, and blue. Deep blue. "Nightmares?" Snape tsked. "That'll happen when you don't have mummy and daddy around--"

James kept staring. He couldn't do anything, since Madame Pince was standing not five feet from them. He could almost see through Snape, to the stone wall on the other side.

"--of course, that tends to happen to people from your House, doesn't it? Terrible coincidence, that."

James kept staring. There was a mark on the far side of their table, right above a little groove in the stonework - a watermark or something, a nice big blotchy thing that if he could only keep staring at long enough, Snape would

"You know, Snivellus," Sirius murmured from behind him, "if you're not careful with that tongue, someone'll cut it out."

maybe shut up. And then maybe he could go about his day, at least semi-normally, even if everyone had excused him from his tests anyway, Charlene hadn't stopped going to classes even if her eyes were red, and she'd even passed her O.W.L.S., even if her scores weren't as high as everyone

"Oh, Black." Snape snorted. "Running after our dear boy like a trained poodle?"

had thought she would get. 'Oh, it's such a shame,' everyone had said, 'the poor girl, didn't have enough time for the funeral and her tests - she'll do well anyway, surely, she's got such a bright mind.' And if she could take her O.W.L.S. and still get a level five, then he could do something as normal as get through

"Although," Sirius continued conversationally, as if Snape hadn't even spoken, "I guess snakes' tongues are already forked. Care to stick yours out, see if there's a split down the middle?"

one fucking study break. After all, Charlene would be all right, James decided. His eyes wavered from the splotch on the stone down to the little groove below it. Charlene finished her O.W.L.S., she was going to

Sirius leaned over. "If it isn't, I'm more than willing to oblige. You don't have Lily Evans sticking up for you anymore." He had his hand on his wand, tucked in his belt as always. "Just say the word."

be fine.

"Boys," Madame Pince said, coming over to them. "Be quiet or leave!"

James murmured, "Sorry," and left.

~

Lily came to find him in the Common Room. "James, I--"

"Please, don't," he said. "It's hard enough pretending I'm all right around other people, it's exhausting, I don't want to talk about it or Snape or anything." He pressed his fingers into his eyes. "Can you just help me do this homework?"

"Okay," she murmured. They concentrated on the Transfiguration for a while, until things floated past James' sight. He was holding her hand, and he - some day, they could die just as easily as his mum and dad.

The feeling was that of a tickle, a faint tremor deep in his belly. "D'you ever think about leaving?" he asked her, low. "Like, getting out of here?"

Lily put down her quill. "You don't mean because of the homework." He looked at her, searched her face. "I. No. Because I feel like my place is here."

He nodded, slowly. "I miss my family so much."

"Oh, James," Lily said, low and plaintive and hurting.

An ache was forming in James' head. He rubbed his face again. "I just don't know if I think I'm doing the right. I." He sighed. "I'm considering leaving."

"James," Lily said again.

~

"I wanted to offer my condolences, James," Dumbledore said kindly. "It is never easy, losing family, and a great many people were fond of your parents." He coughed, gently. "I know that it cannot bring them back, but understand, James, their lives served the greater purpose."

James nodded, tongue thick.

"Your parents were heroes, James," Dumbledore said. "What they did last week saved a great many lives. You should be proud of them."

James blinked, looked at Dumbledore. "If it weren't for you," he said slowly, "and what you asked them to do, they'd still be alive." He felt like he'd found a fundamental truth about the world, something that he had to know, ached to know in his gut and now he did. "You asked them to be targets."

"James, I understand your anger--"

"Were my parents your friends?" James said, suddenly. "I know that you respected them, but were they your friends?"

Dumbledore stroked his beard, face impassive. "Of course," he said quietly.

"Did your parents die in the war?" James hadn't really ever read the hundreds of scrolls about Grindelwald and how he'd asked wizards to fight and die in the great Muggle war, he didn't really know the casualty lists. For all he knew, Dumbledore had lost his parents in just a battle.

Dumbledore studied him for a long moment, content to let James think. Obviously, he wasn't going to answer the question. James didn't really care anyway. "My parents died in a war," he finally said. It was a little thoughtful. "They died in a war, but they weren't fighting."

"No," Dumbledore admitted, "they were not."

"They were having dinner when they died," James said. "Mum probably made pumpkin pie. I would have probably got a piece in the post," he said.

"It's possible you would have," Dumbledore said.

"Does hate ever go away?" James asked, suddenly. There was a burning in his throat, a burning and a tightness, and he could taste bile. The physical manifestations of hate, in his belly and his mouth, every time he looked at Dumbledore. James licked his lips.

Dumbledore finally looked away, looked what James wanted to think was ashamed. "It fades."

"I'm staying on here," James said. "I'll stay on."

Dumbledore said, "I'm glad to hear that." He didn't say 'thank you'.

~

"So," James finally said, "when are we going down to see Remus?"

Sirius and Peter both looked at each other. "We weren't sure," Sirius started. "Whenever you want, I suppose."

James nodded. Remus needed them each month. It was nice, to know that someone needed them, and even though certain things in his life were gone now, gone and gone and never coming back

"It's probably dark enough now," Peter said.

he could still be useful. There were people that needed him now, and however much

"Common room's pretty empty," Sirius said, poking his head out the door. "C'mon."

he missed the people that. That were gone and

"James?" Peter said.

they weren't coming back, and Remus was. James nodded. "Let's go."

~

They were almost home free, but James took the Cloak off too soon.

Snape hissed, "You're going to be in so much--"

"Sod off," Sirius interrupted. The moon was partly hidden behind some clouds, a storm front off the coast teasing at the idea of cooler weather. James was a little chilly, and his feet were wet.

"Still not sleeping well, James?" Snape crossed his arms. "And you two, out for a walk with him, keeping secrets, going god knows where." He sneered. "Keeping little Potter company while he frets about his parents."

James sighed. This wasn't going to ever end, they were going to have to hang him off the roof by his suspenders or something. Maybe they could

"I said sod. Off."

tie his legs together and roll him down a hill. Talking about his mum and dad like that. Stupid Snape, always going around making as if he owned the world just because

"So where are we off to tonight, anyway?" Snape asked. "I only wonder because McGonagall will be asking when I tell her."

no one would stand up to him. They'd stand up to him, all right. They always did. you couldn't let these Slytherins

"Take your slimy hair and sod off," Peter said, fists balled up.

have an inch. James didn't realize he had his fingers curled around his wand. Well, and he'd better, hadn't he? Some day they'd show all those Slytherins, once and for all, but Snape especially. The way he followed them around as if he had a right to know. Someone needed

"Don't have anything to say, Potter?" Snape asked. "Maybe you're still upset about your parents."

to stand up to him. Besides, it was almost as if

"Nothing you could do about that," he added, voice tinged with sarcastic sympathy. "Dead before they could reach their wands. Say," he said, "Maybe you'll be next."

he was asking for it.

"All right," Sirius said, stepping forward. "You're right." His face was white underneath the full moon. "You want to know where we were going? See that knothole on the trunk? find a stick and press it." Sirius was standing in front of James as he was talking. "You'll see. It's our secret. Go ahead."

They were going to be late getting to Remus, Remus was going to be all alone in the Shack. Really, they'd best hurry up

"Go on," Peter suddenly said. "You want to get us into real trouble? Try it."

or Remus was going to be all alone.

James watched Snape pick up a long branch, and approach the Whomping Willow carefully. He watched him press the knothole in the trunk. Peter's look was darting back and forth from James to the passage to Sirius and back again. Sirius's lips were thin and tight.

"He's actually going," Peter gulped, "this is. What."

James shook his head rapidly back and forth. It didn't seem right, some how, and there was going, he was

Sirius said, "well I'll be damned. He has the guts to go down there."

going to have to do something about it, he just. There was Severus, climbing down, and they. And he.

Oh.

"What, what are we gonna--"

Oh no.

~end~