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The time that is given to us (6th year)

Chapter Text

“- I wish it need not happen in my time,” said Frodo.
“- So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, I

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

“Time is the longest distance between two places.”

– Tennessee Williams

 

 

“...oh, absolutely, my daughter did it too-"

"… you hear what happened in Manchester? A whole family-"

"… obviously sorted in Ravenclaw, what with his-"

"… and she told me yes, so I-"

"… bloody brilliant, mate! You should've seen-"

"… a whole bunch of them, with capes and masks-"

"… always manage to forget how many people there are here.”

The last voice is James's, who has to lean towards Sirius and almost shout in his ear for him to hear what his best friend is saying. Sirius can't but agree with the messy-haired boy: two months of summer and stillness are more than enough to forget the throng that presses on Platform 9 ¾ on September the first. Dotting parents, nervous soon-to-be First years, over-excited students reuniting with their friends and the usual groans, meows and hoots of the various pets in their cages create a cacophony that has Sirius wincing – and the fact that his hearing has been slightly enhanced ever since Padfoot has come around doesn't help at all.

Sirius doesn't realise he has slowed down until he feel Mr. Potter's – Charles – warm hand gently push him forward. It does make him move again, but its effect on the sickening tension that's been weighing on his stomach for eons verges on nil. And if the fact that James's shoulder keeps bumping his means something, he is being rather transparent about it. Although let's not forget James is now more than ever his brother, and has known him long enough to be able to read him at first glance.

They keep hearing snatches of conversations fluttering from everywhere at once, and the diversity of faces and people emerging from the smoky platform is nearly astounding after having spent more than a month at Potter's Manor, in the literal middle of nowhere. The crowd doesn't part before Sirius like it used to when he stepped on this platform flanked by the Black family, but he isn't going to complain about anything having to do with his still recent fugue. He is lucky enough the Potters took him without a word or even a look of reproach, and, even more than that, with open arms and concerned smiles. So, having to push through a half-hysterical mass of sweaty people? not a problem.

They meet Peter, who is as usual being fussed over by his mother, in front of the entrance of their carriage. The round boy's whole face lights up when he sees them approaching.

“Hi guys,” he nonchalantly says when they arrive at a decent hearing range. His casual demeanour doesn't fool anyone: they are all feeling the same warm contentment in their bones at the prospect of being reunited again. James ruffles Peter's hair, who ducks and surprises Sirius by briefly hugging him.

“Okay, Pete, easy there,” laughs Sirius while patting his friend's shoulder. Peter smiles at him.

“It's just, I'm sorry I wasn't able to see the two of you, even after you finally decided to leave Castle Madness.”

Sirius is extremely grateful for the light-hearted way Peter is treating the whole being-tortured-by-mother-and-running-away-from-home thing.

“It's okay,” answers James for both of them. “But why didn't we hear of you?"

"Remember I told you I'd be staying with my muggle relatives until the beginning of August?"

"Yeah."

"Well, Mum randomly decided to sell our house and find another, a bit closer to London, so I had to stay with them until yesterday. And there was a no-owls rule the whole time."

"But muggles do have a postal system, don't they?” asks Sirius. James pats him on the head, muttering something like “good boy, pays attention in Muggle Studies”. Sirius shoves him hard enough to make him stumble a bit and then turns his attention back to Peter, who is watching them with an eyebrow raised, very much like Re-

Nope, not going there now, Sirius berates his treacherous mind.

“Well, yes they do,” answers Peter. “But I didn't think either you nor Prongs would be able to actually handle it.”

James scoffs at him (despite the assertion being painfully true), but any further discussion is interrupted by his parents' and Mrs. Pettigrew's arrival.

“Peter, darling, how are you?"

"Fine, Mrs. Potter, thank you."

"Good. But...” Hannah frowns. “Where is Remus?”

And here we go.

“In the carriage, ma'am. He was sick last week, and was quite tired when he arrived. But look, here's Mrs. Lupin.”

Hope Lupin is indeed getting off the train when she sees her son's friends and their parents gathered a few feet away. She smiles tiredly – something in this otherwise lovely woman has always been so tired, Sirius reflects – and heads towards them. Sirius knows for certain that neither Remus nor Dumbledore have told the Lupins about last year's monumental fuck-up he is ninety per cent responsible of. He also knows Hope was called back in emergency soon after having left Remus at the Potters'; being a retired Healer with no recent connections with St Mungo's, and therefore no need to engage in administrative procedures, she was the only one able to try and heal Sirius, broken as he was by the Crucio his mother had inflicted on him. But he can't help but being a bit uncomfortable and nervous when his friend's mother approaches them. They all exchange greetings, and, as Hannah Potter enquires after Remus's well-being, Hope answers :

“Oh, he is fine, just a bit tired and roughened up. He was quite sick last week – a nasty case of food poisoning – and wanted to sleep a bit.”

James and Sirius exchange a quick impressed glance. They've always known Remus picked up his lying abilities from his mother, but even their friend's skills pale in comparison to hers. Hope's face is so earnest and open absolutely no-one could ever think of doubting her word. Unless you already knew “food-poisoning” stands as a synonym for “full moon two days ago”.

 

They all say goodbye to the adults and, swearing and sweating a bit, haul their trunks on to the train and down the narrow corridor to the compartment that's been theirs since the end of first year.

“Hold on,” says Sirius before James can slide the door open. “If Moony's sleeping, we'll wake him up at once barging in like that."

"Well, yes. What do you want us to do? Find another compartment?"

"No. Just wait a second before you come in,” replies Sirius. He carefully opens the door and immediately points his wand at Remus's sleeping form huddled against the window. “Silentio muffliato,” he murmurs before turning to his friends and motioning them in.

“Okay, what was that?” asks Peter once the door is firmly shut. “I've never heard that spell before."

"It's... I heard Snape use Muffliato on some students who came too close to his bigoted group of friends last year. Turns out it causes some kind of buzzing in the target's ears so they can't eavesdrop on a conversation. And I added Silentio for its effect to be noiseless. That way he won't hear anything until he wakes."

"And when he does wake?"

"Did you see how I flicked the tip of my wand downwards at the end of the movement? It's a time-related factor that means his waking up will end the spell. ”

Peter lets out a low, appreciative whistling and lowers himself next to Remus – Sirius's usual seat, but they all know better than to rush things, despite the soothing promise Sirius heard when he was already drifting back to his coma-like state in July. He settles on the seat near the window, across their sleeping friend, and James flings his legs on Sirius's lap and props his back on the compartment's wall.

At first, they all stay silent, just watching the bustling people on the other side of the slightly tinged windowpane. They never used to be silent before. There always was one of them to fill the calm, and the air was continually simmering with words, gestures, ideas and carefree laughter. But things have changed, and how much they have depends on the quiet, scarred boy who is dreaming across Sirius. Besides, his own summer hasn't exactly been pleasant nor peaceful, so he isn't dying to talk about it, and James isn't sure he can speak freely of it yet. Peter soon starts telling anecdotes about his slip-ups with his cousins, and while James chuckles good-naturedly, Sirius just tunes them out to focus on Remus.

The werewolf's face is paler than usual, almost white, the only colour in it being the twin purple, bruise-like bags under his closed eyes. His left cheek is cut by a single silvery, deep scar, that runs vertically from his cheekbone to under his jaw, and whose sight leaves Sirius almost choking with guilt. The thing is, Sirius spent the whole week Remus was at the Potters' sleeping, eating and sleeping some more. Hope Lupin said his mind was trying to overcome the trauma induced by the pain, and that continuous sleeping was the most common way of doing it. He doesn't really remember anything happening from the moment his mother cursed him until the moment he woke up in James's bed, six days later. He kind of recalls telling his story to Remus, and his friend's arms embracing him and lulling him to sleep, but nothing more. All in all, he knows Remus has forgiven him; but with the state they already were in before he went and blew all to hell, they can't possibly go back to that. They have to talk, and until then, everything is terra incognita.

The train soon leaves King's Cross, but even the sudden movements don't wake the sleeping boy. After sending him a concerned look, James turns to the other two.

“Okay, lads. We can't wait until Mister Moony wakes up before starting to plan this year's program. You got any ideas?"

"Before we start, may I remind something to my respectable fellows, Mister Prongs?"

"Of course, Mister Padfoot."

"Thank you. Mister Padfoot would like to point out the fact that he cannot be caught in any kind of remotely illegal activity unless he desires to be expelled in the shortest delays."

"Oh bugger, that's right,” winces James, while Peter grimaces. Sirius scrunches up his nose in his usual fashion but doesn't add anything. His friend sighs and ruffles his hair – as if the poor thing needed that.

“Well, we'll just have to be careful, I guess. I mean, you don't take part in any explosion-related prank and you create solid alibis, but you do participate in all the... subtler projects."

"Did James Potter just use the word subtle?” asks a voice that makes the three of them startle and look wide-eyed at a smirking, very much awake Remus Lupin.

“Moony!” exclaims James.

“Hello lads."

"How long have you been awake?” asks Peter."

“- Since James started to think he of all people could be careful and subtle."

"Oi!"

"It's okay, Prongs. None of us can be perfect…"

"… although you are particularly far from it,” Sirius finishes the phrase they've used for years when making fun of James. Remus looks at him, and his smile grows a bit but becomes softer and a little tense at the same time.

“Hi, Pads."

"Hi Moons,” Sirius feebly smiles back, feeling a sudden pang of nervousness in his chest. “Slept well?"

"Enough to keep me awake until tonight. You okay?"

"Fine. You?"

"Well enough, I guess.”

For an instant, the rest of the world fades for Sirius, and all there is left is this boy three feet away from him whose amber eyes make his stomach tighten; but James's voice soon shakes him out of it.

“Okay, Moony. Now that you're awake you're going to help us. See, this idiot here,” he says poking Sirius's ribs with his foot “has managed to get himself a... what do you call it? an axe of Patroclus?"

"A sword of Damocles, you uncultured moose,” grunts Remus.

“Yeah, right, that. He's managed to get himself that crap over his head, so he can't take part in any Marauding adventure if there's a risk of being caught, unless we want him expelled."

"Wait,” interrupts Peter, “Sirius could always lay down the two first months so everyone thinks he's taken the path to redemption and then he starts marauding again."

"Now that would be taking inconsiderate risks,” muses Remus. James and Sirius grin at each other at seeing their Moony back. “We should... we should have a way of warning if there's anyone approaching us when we're out. Like a way of telling us where is everyone in the castle so we know the coast is clear."

"A tracking spell?” offers Sirius. Remus frowns and quickly shakes his head.

“No, that can't work. How do you cast a tracking spell on every single inhabitant of Hogwarts? And anyway, where would we keep track of them?"

"Don't muggles have a way to know where people are?” asks James.

“Not that I know of it. Wormtail?"

"No idea. And anyway it wouldn't work within the limits of the grounds, so it'd be pretty useless."

"Right... okay, let's look at it differently. What do we want this device to do?"

"Track people in the castle and on the grounds,” answers Sirius, who clings to his idea like a dog to its bone.

“And show us these people's location in relation with ours,” adds James.

“What about a map?” Remus and Peter simultaneously suggest, high-fiving each other as soon as they realise they've had the same idea.

“Like... like a map of the whole castle? You think we could do something like that, Moony?"

"Why not, Prongs? It's going to take a lot – I mean a lot – of time, patience and precision to obtain something remotely accurate, but at least it'll keep us busy and no-one can expel Sirius just because he's walking in a corridor, right?”

The carriage's door opens at that moment, giving way to Lily, which elicits an immediate gargle from James, a small squeak from Peter, a huff from Sirius and a grin from Remus.

“Hum... Rem? I've been searching for you... I didn't think you'd be here...”

Remus immediately looks a bit guilty.

“Yeah, I'm sorry... the full was-"

"Two days ago, I know,” she interrupts with a small smile. Remus chuckles.

“- Anyway, I was tired, so I fell asleep here. Sorry."

"It's okay. I just have to tell you that-"

"Wait wait wait. She knows?!” James suddenly shrieks. Lily rolls her eyes and turns towards him, even though she's apparently tried very hard to not even glance in his direction.

“Yes, Potter, I know, get over it. Remus, I was supposed to tell you that the Prefects' meeting is in five minutes."

"Oh, right. Wait, I'm coming. Bye children,” he says standing up and turning to the boys. “Have fun, don't blow anything up and if you could think about you-know-what a bit more thoroughly it'd be great."

"Yes mum,” answer the three in choir. Remus snorts and leaves the carriage. James sighs and runs a hand through his hair as soon as the door is closed.

“Well, that... went rather well, didn't it?"

"What did? Evans not calling you a headless arrogant toerag or Moony accepting to put up with us again?” asks Sirius, earning himself a sharp jab in the ribs.

“You know very well I was speaking of Moony, you bastard."

"Tell that to my mother, I'm sure she'll be delighted to know you've figured it out."

"Your mother and your father are cousins anyway, so technically you're still a Black."

"I still don't know how you didn't end up a Squib or with a pig tail, what with all the inbreeding thing,” interjects Peter. Sirius grimaces.

“Actually, the inbreeding does show. Why do you think I ended up a Gryffindor and a blood-traitor?”

James guffaws loudly and Peter rolls his eyes in a very Moony-esque gesture. It's incredible how much they rub on each other, Sirius muses while grinning at his two friends. The snake of pure tension in his stomach has uncoiled a bit, and he feels like he can breathe a bit more freely now that he's seen Remus is, at the very least, willing to talk to him and look him in the eye. Even though it's when they're surrounded by other people. Baby steps, right?

 

* * *

 

The first week back at school is rather uneventful. Remus blows up his first cauldron of the year in Potions under the Slytherins' mocking eyes and taunts, James and Sirius hex their skin green in retaliation when no one is looking (which causes a memorable uproar at dinner), Peter accidentally discovers a new secret passage that goes from a corridor near the Entrance Hall to between Greenhouses Three and Four, they all start setting up the big fireworks for Halloween and thinking about their new pet project, the Map, or the M-plan, as James would rather call it (Sirius and Remus point out that in French, one of plan's meanings is map, and that James's name is therefore redundant. A fight ensues that ends up with Brussels sprouts in Remus's ears, mini-bats tangled in Sirius's hair, James's glasses dangling from a Quidditch pole and Peter laughing so hard he gets a cramp in the jaw).

 

It soon becomes obvious to Peter that they have all been disconnected with the Wizarding World's news these last few months, and he receives confirmation of it not long after the beginning of classes. He is in the Common Room when Evans barges in and half-shouts to Mary McDonald who is seated near the hearth (and whom Peter has absolutely not been observing):

“Mary! Professor McGonagall just gave me a letter from Alice!”

Peter frowns. He's always been proud of his observational skills but he didn't even realise Alice Blossomheart hasn't been at school since September the first. A few curious heads look up as well, but an imperious wave from their fiery Prefect has them all ducking again. Peter casually takes his comic and goes to settle a little closer the fire, and to the two girls who are now animatedly talking.

“... says she's okay,” is saying Lily. “I don't get it. How can she say that?"

"What would you want her to tell us then?” asks Mary.

“I don't know, but you can't be okay when your aunt, uncle and cousins were murdered a week and a half ago!”

Peter lets out a little gasp that doesn't go unnoticed.

“What are you doing here?” sharply asks Lily, shrugging the placating hand Mary puts on her shoulder. Peter gets a little closer, and sheepishly answers:

“I'm sorry, I... I just wondered why Alice wasn't here,” a little lie doesn't hurt from time to time, “and I heard you talking about her.” He can see Lily soften a bit. Mary sighs put pats the cushion next to her, and Peter doesn't need to be told twice before taking the offered seat.

“Did you hear what happened in Manchester?” starts Mary.

"Erm, no. I was with my muggle relatives, so no connection with the Wizarding World.”

That earns him a curious glance from both girls.

“A whole family was murdered there two weeks ago. They were Alice's uncle's family."

"Murdered by whom?"

"The Death Eaters.”

Peter shivers. They've been rumours about a kind of a terrorist organisation called the Death Eaters, led by an extremely powerful wizard who calls himself Voldemort (“Voldemort? Literally 'Fly of Death'? Couldn't the bloke be any subtler?” “Shut up, Sirius.”). At first, they were only masked people protesting against the Equality Blood Rights Act in the Fountain Hall in the Ministry, even though said rights have been in vigour for a while now. Their actions had taken a more violent turn last year though, when they'd paraded with a whole muggle family floating twenty feet above them and screaming at the top of their lungs – the Obliviators had had a lot of work to do when they'd gotten there. But neither Peter nor the rest of the Marauders had expected them to openly claim a murder – the victims being relatives of someone they see every day at school.

“Why? Why them?"

"The Blossomhearts are quite an influential family, and her uncle married a muggle. He's been warning wizarding society about raising hate, fear and what could be called xenophobia for years. I guess the Death Eaters thought he'd make quite an example,” explains Mary.

“He used to write for the Red Wizard,” adds Lily, who has been surprisingly silent for the whole conversation.

“Oh, really? Is it why they censored it?"

"The Ministry censored it because they thought it, quote-unquote, 'was an alarmist journal just aiming at the creation of a climate of fear and discontentment towards the authorities in the wizarding population',” spits Lily.

“Did you read it?” asks Mary. Peter nods.

“Yes, I'd taken to read it instead of the Prophet. I grew tired of all that consensual, government-approved crap” he answers a bit pompously. Mary smiles at him, and he feels the beginning of a blush on his cheeks.

“Do you think they'll be more victims?” asks Lily, thankfully distracting him from this particular line of thought.

"There will,” grimly says Sirius. He and James have approached the group without being noticed, and James apparently hasn't realised Lily Evans was here yet. She frowns and lifts up her chin at once.

“How would you know?"

"The odds are my whole family is wearing masks at this exact moment, Evans. And the only reason I am not is because the Hat had the good idea to put me in Gryffindor instead of Slytherin.”

Peter pokes at Sirius's foot with his own as no-one is looking while James's hand takes its place on his grey-eyed friend's shoulder. Lily bites her lip looking vaguely apologetic.

“So you think there'll be more deaths,” sighs Mary.

“I don't think, I know it. The Death Eaters and that Moldywart bloke aren't just aiming at a few good scares and some walking protests. Their objective is to clean wizarding society, and if that means a genocide, then so be it."

"But how do they plan on doing that?” asks Lily.

“By killing people like you, Evans,” answers James – Sirius and Peter share a surprised look at James's sudden ability to talk to the redhead –, “or you, Mary, or Remus, or Alice's uncle. By killing every Muggleborn and Half-blood they can find, and then killing every Pureblood who's opposed to their ideas."

"You mean all of us hereare potentially threatened?” Mary's voice trembles as she looks at James. He and Sirius nod at once.

“Not right now, mind you,” interjects Peter. “Not right now, and I guess not if you decide not to fight. And we're safe as long as we're at Hogwarts. Rumour has it Dumbledore is the only wizard You-Know-Who fears.”

Remus has joined them during the conversation and has listened to everything in silence, arms crossed over his chest as some unconscious gesture of protection. When he speaks though, it makes everyone's heart tighten a little.

“But what is certain,” he says gravely, “is that we're soon going to have to pick sides. And some have already taken them.”

He shares a glance with Lily Peter doesn't fully understand and then turn his eyes to Sirius, who is observing him like a man lost in the desert stares at the mirage of an oasis.

Even the beginning of what looks more and more like a war can't help these two mend their bridges, Peter thinks.

 

* * *

 

They all pointedly ignore Snape for the first half of September or so. Remus hasn't said anything, but if the tension in his jaw each time one of them so much as glances towards the Slytherin means something, he'd rather act as if Snape didn't exist. Anyway, Sirius is still feeling far too sheepish to even approach Snivellus with a ten feet pole, Peter is being his usual perceptive self and doesn't mention their enemy once, and with James acting strangely mature with the whole thing – and already obsessing over Quidditch practice –, none of them is about to open hostilities once again.

But that doesn't prevent Snape himself from taunting them. He keeps throwing jinxes at them, specifically aiming at James and Remus – and at the latter only when Lily is nowhere in sight, which seems rather difficult these days, as Remus and her are together all the time he isn't with the boys. Snape and Lily aren't on speaking terms anymore – she's told Remus that he hadn't denied her accusation of him having joined the Death Eaters, and that added to the 'Mudblood' incident just made her do something her friends keep saying she should have done ages ago, namely terminating their friendship.

“I was keeping it up just for the sake of old times anyway,” she sighs as they make their way to Arithmancy. Remus nods and squeezes her hand. She huffs.

“And by that, Lupin, I mean that I don't need to be comforted about it. I'm fine."

"I know you are, Lils. But growing apart doesn't change the fact that for a long time your grew side by side*, and the memory of how things were before can still hurt."

"Now you would know that, wouldn't you,” she says gently. He shrugs but still passes an arm around her shoulders when she burrows against him, and utterly misses the look of pure hatred Snape sends his way from across the small courtyard they're crossing.

 

Next morning, there's silver powder in Remus's porridge, and he realises it when his throat starts burning like Fyendfire. He starts chocking and coughing like mad, his eyes watering while the powder makes its way down his insides. It's expertly calculated, he thinks. A dose small enough not to present any real danger for him, but enough to make him hurt like hell. He manages to grab his glass full of pumpkin juice, and the wonderfully cool liquid washes down his throat and lowers the horrid fire into tolerably low embers. A few curious students are looking their way but James's harsh What're you lot staring at! chastises them enough to get rid of their inquisitive eyes. His three friends are observing him concernedly, and Remus realises his hand is clasped in Sirius's. For a second, his resolve falters, and he just wants to leave it there, but he can't. Not yet, not any time soon, and anyway this is not about Sirius, this is about the fact there is silver powder in his porridge and he knows exactly who put it in there.

He moves his hand away and gulps down more juice.

“What happened?” asks Sirius.

“I can't tell you here.” His voice is a bit husky, like the two excruciating months in Fourth year when he didn't know what would come out of his mouth when he'd open it, whether a squeak or a croak. James and Sirius had laughed like madmen until their own voice dropped a month later.

“Let's go then, we've all eaten enough,” declares James. Peter doesn't say anything but puts some toasts in a napkin before following them.

“Okay, now, tell us what happened,” demands the Seeker once they're out of the Great Hall and walking down to the Transfiguration wing.

“Nothing, it was nothing."

"You mean you coughing like you suddenly got a Kneazle down your throat was nothing?” deadpans Sirius. Remus purses his lips.

“I just choked on some porridge, you're the ones who made a fuss about it."

"Remus, you looked panicked. One does not simply look panicked just choking on food."

"Don't patronise me, Sirius."

"I'm not patronising you, I am – we are – trying to get you tell us what was in your porridge that made you almost spit your insides!”

Sirius's voice has raised a tad too much. Remus looks away from his friend's inquisitive eyes and purses his lips. He was going to tell them he suspected Snape had managed to put silver powder in his bowl, but Sirius is being far too pressing for his liking.

“Moony, look,” James soothingly says. “We're Marauders. We protect each other, and we've known each other for more than five years now. There was something wrong earlier, and we'd like to know what. We're your friends, remember?”

There is something akin to understanding in James's eyes, something that would sound like I know he's difficult, but that's because he cares about you. Remus sighs.

“There was silver powder in my porridge,” he quietly admits without slowing down."

What?!” is his three friends' instantaneous reaction.

“Are you sure?” Peter

“How are you feeling?” James

“Who was it?” Sirius

“Down, boys. I know who it was and I don't want any of you to do anything about it."

"Wait, you expect us to accept the fact some buggered bastard tried to poison you and not do anything?” incredulously asks James. Sirius is just looking at him with his noise scrunched up and his eyebrow raised, a comically deformed reflection of Remus's own expression. Remus shrugs and glances at Peter, who hasn't said anything yet, and is intently munching his piece of toast. For all Remus knows of Peter, he might already know who is the culprit. Not that it is very hard to guess, mind you.

“Yes, because I don't want trouble.” A pause. “It was Snape. Who else would know that I'm allergic to silver?"

James and Sirius abruptly stop walking, perfectly synchronised in their rage, the only difference being that James is openly fuming while Sirius is pale and has guilt exuding every pore of his being. Remus starts talking again before James launches in one of his scandalised tirades.

“Don't. Prongs, or Padfoot for that matter, I don't want you to do anything. Is that clear?” Remus's voice has taken a steely edge that has both boys nodding without even realising it.

“Good.”

They don't really retaliate; but from that moment, the two black-haired boys stop ignoring Snape, and although Sirius isn't ever caught hexing the Slytherin, there is no doubt he is behind some of the meanest, nastiest pranks set on him. Remus even suspects Peter of helping in some of them, but he isn't about to say anything. Anyway, his three friends are under Lily's “prefectly jurisdiction”, as states the Decree of Official Authority and Neutrality, also known as Resolution number M-1975-5.01, and Remus can't help thinking that Snape does deserve what they throw at him. Not that he is ever going to voice that thought to Lily, even though she might agree now.

 

What Remus doesn't voice to anyone at all is the hole in his chest, the same hole that's been there since that bleak morning last June. He doesn't say that it's still there, sometimes expanding a bit, sometimes receding a little, but never disappearing. He doesn't say that he's been asking himself for more than three months the reason why he gets up every morning. He doesn't say that he doesn't manage to lose himself in books nor in studies anymore, nor that most of the time he feels like there is a thin grey veil on the world, like a soft rain that makes it all a bit blurry, a bit hazy, a bit sorrowful. He doesn't say that laughter tastes like ashes and sounds muffled by some kind of cotton, like a foghorn blowing miles and miles away on the water. And he never says that he's grown tired, so tired, tired of dragging his traitorous body from full moon to full moon, just waiting for the agony to happen again, and again, and again, a never ending story, a sick, horrible circle in which he's trapped for ever. No, Remus is a good liar, a good actor, and he knows how to hide that blankness in his eyes, how to conceal the small sigh that escapes his lips every morning before he gets up, how to silence the voiceless cries of no more, I don't want to fight any more that echo down to the marrow of his bones. No, no one knows that Remus Lupin is slowly drowning on the inside.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Two

“And we'll hate what we've lost but we'll love what we've found.”

The Paper Kites, Featherstone

 

The letter arrives on a Tuesday morning in the second week of October, brought by the Blacks' regal eagle owl that sweeps down from the high ceiling of the Great Hall to land between the mug of pumpkin juice and Sirius's plate. At his left, Remus is still buried in his cup of steaming tea – two spoonfuls of sugar and a hint of milk –, but Peter elbows James, who blinks owlishly at the imposing bird and his best friend's ashen face.

The envelope is made of an expensive thick, creamy paper on which the Blacks' seal and motto stand out like a monstrous drop of blood. The owl glares down at Sirius doing a generally good impression of his mother. His own hands are slightly shaking when he takes the heavy letter and stares at it for what feels like a small eternity, a cold snake of dread hissing in his entrails. Remus's soft voice shakes him out of his contemplation.

“Aren't you going to open it?"

"Yeah, I... yeah, better do it now, right?”

Remus shrugs and says nothing. Sirius looks across the table to Peter, biting on his lip, and James, who gives him a poor smile – but a smile nonetheless.

“Open it now, mate. Then we can light a bonfire with it."

"Right you are, Prongsie dear.”

It is a business letter, such as the ones his father used to write in his study when Sirius was a child. Very formal, cold words written in his father's elegant penmanship inform him that he has been officially disinherited and that, while he can still call himself a Black – after all, Black blood is Black, even after a treason –, he is not considered his parents' son anymore and has no more access to their deposits in Gringotts.

And that's it. Three paragraphs, two signatures sharp as razor-grey eyes and a green wax seal, and the No son of mine takes all its meaning. He has no parents. No family. No resources. And if there was something left in him of the little boy who still longed for his Dad and Mum, it is truly dead now. Dead, dead as is his past in the Black house, as is his stupid pride and his rotten bloodline, and he is alone. So, so alone, a free aster hated by his constellation, with no-one to turn to, no parents, Merlin, he has no parents.

He hands James the letter as he starts laughing. A bitter, quivering laugh that runs shakily on the edge of madness, cutting like a sharp cold knife in his chest. He knows that James gives the letter to Remus, feels more than sees the incredulous, concerned way his friends are looking at him, and Remus's hand on his shoulder is feather-light, an useless whisper against this last excruciating wound. He gets up, his scrambled eggs forgotten, and makes his way out of the Hall without even glancing at the Slytherin table, his legs surprisingly firm and steady, an occasional puff of acid laughter escaping his lips.

 

Sirius tries to act normal the whole day, and apparently fails quite miserably. His hands won't stop trembling, and his distress grows more and more as the day unfolds, created by his original helplessness and by the fact that he's incapable of not caring. He hasn't seen his father since last Christmas at the official Black reception, his mother tortured him with an Unforgivable curse before throwing him out two months ago, and he still can't bring himself not to care, not to hurt. And he hates himself for that lost, clingy part that's still theirs to maim and harm and destroy.

At the beginning of Transfiguration, Remus goes to speak quietly with McGonagall without even asking Sirius about it first – although given he is the Official Foreign Relations Delegate and Ambassador ever since Resolution number M-1972-2.17, he has the right and even the ethical obligation to do it, so Sirius sends him a small grateful smile when he sits beside him. At the end of the double period, McGonagall calls him at her desk and quietly asks him if he's okay.

“I'm fine, Professor,” Sirius carefully answers without looking her in the eye.

“Sirius,” she starts, making him looking up in wonder, “if you ever feel the need to talk to an adult, you know where to find me, don't you?”

He nods once, not really believing what he's just heard.

“Thank you, Professor.”

She smiles at him – she actually smiles at him, the world must be coming to an end – and nods him good-bye as he exits the room to join Peter, Remus and James where they're waiting for him.

 

That night, even though Sirius has cast a Silencing Charm on his bed, Remus is certain his friend is perfectly awake behind his closed curtains. He himself is tucked under his covers, completely unable of getting up, crossing the small space separating their two beds, pulling Sirius's curtains open and taking him in his arms, offering Sirius the consolation he'd usually given without a second thought. By all rights, Remus should grow a spine and go to Sirius : he knows his friend needs him, not as much as he did in July, but almost so. It has always been what Remus does, getting up in the middle of the night when all is eerily quiet and sliding in Sirius's bed, because some weird sixth sense has woken him up without any particular reason other than this knowledge, settled deep in his bones, that there is an anguished boy waiting for him two metres away.

He knows all that, and he can't move.

It is as if all the aborted movements and avoided glances that have been piling up between them since their reunion on the train suddenly take all their meaning, all their weight, and crush him under their compact, nonsensical importance. And none of it makes sense, because everything is just fine between Sirius and him, isn't it? Sirius apologised, Remus at last said it was okay, he even promised they'd be fine. He bloody well woke up his parents at six in the morning in Summer because, from the other side of Britain, Sirius had asked for him!

And still...

Everything isn't okay, and Remus can try and fool everyone else, but he should at the very least be honest with himself. He has spent enough years in a solitary tête-à-tête with himself to be more than self-aware, and he internally acknowledges this lead weight that's been dragging him down for some time now, a bit like the Ring on Frodo as he and Sam approached Mordor. He also knows this feeling of blankness and weariness and nothingness has a name, an ominous name now historically linked with the year 1929, a name he can't even bring himself to face because it would make everything far too real to be ignored, and Remus Lupin thrives on ignoring issues and going on no matter what. And in his messed-up head, this thing is connected with Sirius, with what Sirius did to him, and it all blends and blurs and melts to leave a horrible tightness in his chest and an inescapable urge to flee Sirius, never mind the want in his bones that he's long ago learned to ignore and just let be. There are too many factors, too many unknowns, too many things that have been dwelling in his mind for ages, and it makes it all extremely confusing and hard to figure out. No wonder he's drowning, Remus distantly reflects.

His musings are interrupted by the rustle of curtains pulled open and bare feet padding on the cold floor stones. Apparently, he isn't the only one who's aware of Sirius's distress, and James has decided that, if their resident werewolf and emotional manager isn't going to do anything, he'd better take up the mantle and try and help his surrogate brother. A small sigh leaves Remus's lips that could very well be relief itself, but that tastes strangely like frustration and sadness.

 

The stars Sirius and James had magically sown and enchanted on Sirius's bed's canopy in First year have lost a bit of their glow, Sirius distantly muses, his eyes trailing after the clean lines that link Canis Major's stars. He studiously avoids looking at the Orion constellation, wondering why they'd even put it here in the first place, never mind Betelgeuse is a star Sirius rather likes. They'll take it off in the morning, he decides, and feels a pang of irritation towards the Black ancestor, whoever he was, who decided he'd spoil the sky by giving its jewels' names to members of his family.

The dorm is peaceful, the silence only broken by Peter's light snores and James's and Remus's quiet breathings. He knows Remus isn't asleep – his breathing is too deep to be the one of a sleeping person –, and he isn't sure James is either, but he isn't going to check. He can't get a wink – and hadn't gone to bed luring himself with false promises, being very much aware of the sleepless night that was likely to follow. He reluctantly admits that if Remus, if only for old times' sake, decided to come and visit him, he'd likely be able to rest, but he hasn't been capable of saying what is going on in the werewolf's head for some months already, and forcing him is the quickest path to disaster.

His curtains are suddenly pulled apart by a sleepy James, who mutters a budge over and is soon clinging to Sirius like a mussel to its rock.

“Oi, Prongs, ever heard of personal space?” half-heartedly grumbles Sirius. James snorts in the collar of Sirius's pyjama.

“Personal space is something that happens to other people. This is Us, Paddykins.” Sirius very clearly hears the capital U but says nothing, just closes his eyes as something that tastes a lot like peace starts blossoming in his throat. They stay silent for a long moment, and when he is already on the brink of sleep, he hears James whispering :

“You know we're your family, right? I mean, you shouldn't care about these tossers. They don't matter. We're here, and we're not letting you go. Not now, and not ever.”

Sirius squeezes James, hard, and falls asleep lulled by his brother's respiration, a steady ebb of love and closeness at the very edge of his mind.

 

* * *

 

The Saturday of the first Quidditch match of the season dawns bright and clear, with a light East wind that has James grinning like a manic (he knows, Remus and Peter have repeated it four times since they've gotten up). Despite the insane workload they've been under since the beginning of the year, the dark tidings whispered by anxious-looking students and the rift gasping like a phantom wound between Remus and Sirius, he has been adamant on having the team practising at least biweekly. Let it not be said that James Potter is an irresponsible captain.

He swears up and down McGonagall winks at him from the Head Table at breakfast, which only increases the buzz of excitement going through the seven members of the team. They have all trained hard, they know they are good, and even though over-confidence is one of the most direct paths to defeat, they know the Ravenclaw team is no challenge for them. And if James repeats this at least ten times between the breakfast table, where he forces Sirius to swallow a glass of juice and two toasts (Come on, Padfoot, you've got to eat. Don't be a pansy and swallow, for Merlin's sake!) and the lockers room, well, at least he's sure his team got the message.

Last night, while James had the team huddled in a corner of the Common Room for a last tactical discussion (Potter, you're anal. All of us here could recite your strategics while sleeping by now, had growled Alice, who's been back for three weeks now), the rest of the Sixth Years – namely Remus, Peter, Mary, Marlene, Lily and Dorcas, helped by Frank – had dyed a bed-sheet red and drawn an enchanted prowling lion on it. The makeshift banner is now proudly fluttering in the wind, along with several other declarations of House pride; and if James's eyesight is right, even Dumbledore seems to be wearing and red-and-gold scarf, while maintaining as an open and guileless face as ever. Sirius must have spotted it too, for he snorts beside him while swinging his Beater bat with a studied carelessness; but even his legendary nonchalance can't hide the look of apprehension he wears while searching for a certain someone in the Gryffindor stands. If I look half as pathetic when I'm looking for Lily, I should seriously listen to Remus and go and hide somewhere, James thinks. He knocks their shoulders together before taking a step forth and shaking hands with Abhay Patil, the Ravenclaw team captain.

The outcome of the match becomes clear five minutes after Mister Twig has whistled the beginning of it. On their own, Alice and Sirius are dangerous when given a bat, manoeuvring space and Bludgers; but together, they are a terror. Aiguo Chang, Susan Summers and Jane Grey soar through the pitch like bullets, tossing the Quaffle to one another so fast the ball is an orange blur; and the one time the Ravenclaw Chasers go near the posts, David Blurton blocks the tossed Quaffle with a rather spectacular loop that makes James's heart almost burst with pride and the Gryffindor stands break in a deafening ovation. In ten minutes, they have scored sixty points and Ravenclaw's score is still nil; but James knows his Chasers have to score as many points as they can before he catches the Snitch, to give Gryffindor as wide a berth with the other teams as possible. He still keeps an eye on the Ravenclaw Seeker though, a lean, petite girl by the name of Aya Kosso with far too many reflexes and wits for his liking.

Gryffindor has scored for the eighth time when James sees a small golden object flutter near the Hufflepuff stands. He could let it go and give his team a bit more time to get a few more points, but they already have a considerable advance, even though Patil has just managed to put the Quaffle through one of their goal posts while the Ravenclaw Beaters both aimed at Blurton. He takes the decision in half a second and soars towards the wiggling winged ball. His move doesn't go unnoticed though, and, from the corner of his eye, he sees Kosso diving towards the Snitch too. His broom is faster than hers, but she is lither and lighter, and was flying closer to the place where the Snitch is still waiting.

“Fuck fuck fuck, I'm not gonna make it,” he mutters to himself while plastering himself even more on the broom's handle. In a last desperate attempt, he shouts “Sirius!” as loud as he can.

Soon enough, he feels more than sees the Bludger Sirius has sent roaring towards Kosso, who has to abruptly turn up and left to avoid it. James reaches out with his right hand, his left still holding the broom, but, as he is inches from grabbing the Snitch, the ball suddenly zooms by his ear and dives towards the grassy ground. James lets out a trail of obscenities while roughly veering and plunging after the orb, as Skeeter's excited commentary buzzes in the background. The pitch is surging forwards too quickly, but he extends his hand again and stretches as far as possible on his broom. His hand closes on the Snitch and he immediately pulls the broom handle to avoid crashing, the tip of his feet grazing the lawn.

The eruption of noise from the Gryffindor stands is almost mind-blowing. Even though the Hufflepuffs had been prudently neutral during the whole game, they cheer as well while Skeeter announces in her incredibly annoying voice that Gryffindor wins with two hundred and thirty points, while Ravenclaw has won ten points. James is sure she starts badmouthing him after, but McGonagall must silence her very fast, and anyway he's in a headlock with Sirius whose barking laughter is the most joyous he's heard for months, has the Snitch still weakly fluttering in his closed fist and knows his team-mates are hurrying towards him, so he couldn't care less.

When they all touch the ground at last, their fellow Gryffindors have already entered the pitch and are waiting for the team to drown them in cheers, pats in the back and bits of improvised songs. Peter is almost bursting with excitement and is already babbling James's praise (oh and James when you dove to the ground I was sure you would make it even though it looked like you were going to crash but you didn't and when you avoided both Bludgers at the beginning and when-), and Remus is grinning – grinning for real, none of the half-fake smiles he's been wearing for weeks – and squeezes both Sirius's shoulder and his, his eyes alight with a joy James hadn't seen in a long time.

And then he turns around a bit, and he sees her. She is a mere few feet away, releasing Alice from what looks like a bone-crushing hug, her big green eyes crinkled with laughter, her cheeks rosy from excitation and her dark red waves matching the banner she's draped around her body like a cape, and James had somehow forgotten how breathtakingly beautiful Lily Evans is. Her eyes meet his, and he doesn't know what face he's making – a breathless fish's one, would surely say Sirius –, but her smile widens a tiny bit.

“Well done, Potter,” she says. He doesn't really know what or how to answer and ruffles a nervous hand through his wind-blown hair, but Gryffindor's victory must have made her lenient, because none of the usual disgust appears on her face. She laughs softly and turns back to Alice.

When he manages to extract himself from his contemplation, Sirius is talking animatedly with Jane and Susan, and Remus is observing him with an amused smile playing on his lips. James sticks his tongue in his direction and Remus rolls his eyes good-naturedly before turning and joining Peter, surely to go and fetch some Butterbeer and Firewiskey at Hogsmeade for the party.

Sirius reaches out and ruffles James's hair.

“We won, Prongsie!"

"I knew we would, and I told you we would."

"Yeah, yeah, thank you, oh mighty Oracle of the Golden Lion,” he retorts. James snorts but says nothing. He is too busy feeling the warmth in his chest to bicker with his surrogate brother.

How can he, when Lily Evans just smiled at him?

 

* * *

 

Sirius has been growing restless without any long-term project keeping him focused. The fireworks they'd planned for Halloween were a success – Remus is still particularly proud of the big red-golden dragon that whizzed over the heads of the bewildered and frightened students at dinner –, but planning them had taken a surprisingly small amount of time (“that's because we've gotten good, lads”, had boasted James), and he knows it is only a question of time before–

“So, what are we going to do with that Map? Keep hinting at it or really work on it?”

this.

It's Sunday afternoon, and the boys' post-match high has finally decreased to a tolerable level. Peter is at his desk in the dorm (the advantage of being only four boys in their year is that each of them has more living space, and it hadn't been very hard to find extra furniture once James had charmed the House Elves in First Year), currently trying to finish the fifteen inches essay Flitwick has given them – Remus hasn't reminded him yet of the one Slughorn has given them, because Peter doesn't do well with stress and deadlines. James and Sirius have been playing Gobstones for the better part of two hours now, and Remus is reading a tome on Advanced Defence Professor Barnes has lent him. He looks up and cocks an eyebrow at the restless Animagus, who is currently doing an impersonation of a sea-sick Flobberworm on the floor.

“You finished your homework yet?"

"That is of no importance whatsoever, Moony,” answers Sirius waving a dismissive hand in the air. “I talk Maps and you talk homework, we're never going to agree on anything at this rate."

"But neither of you has done any of the two essays due for tomorrow,” objects Remus, more for the sake of it than out of real worry. Peter shrieks a dismayed “Two?! ” and James snorts without taking part in the conversation. That leaves Remus and Sirius. Talking. To each other. It's okay, the others are here, Remus frustratedly reminds himself. He carefully marks his page and closes the book, looking up to find three pairs of eyes fixated on him.

“Why are you all staring at me?"

"It was your idea,” offers James.

“That's not true, Peter thought of a map at the same moment!"

"But when you say things, you've usually thought them through,” objects Sirius.

“So you expect me to pull a magic sentient Map out of my hat."

"Can you do that?” asks Peter. Remus pinches the bridge of his nose and huffs. The other three snigger.

“You're doing it on purpose,” he accuses them.

“Not at all, Moony dear,” answers James while batting his eyelashes in such a ridiculous fashion Remus can't help but chuckle.

“All right, fine. I've got one or two ideas about this.”

Peter abandons his essay and comes to sit beside him on his bed, while James picks Sirius up and half-drags him to the foot of Remus's bed.

“First, we have to draw every single part of the castle. With correct proportions, of course."

"How are we going to do it?” anxiously enquires Peter.

“I'm sure I've heard of a spell that draws on a chosen surface a rough map of the place you cast it on,” interjects Sirius. Remus smiles at him, too taken by the subject to keep himself in check like he usually does.

“Yeah, there is one. I found it last week in the Library. It's Locum Describe*, and it's one hell of a thing to cast."

"Requires a lot of concentration, does it?"

"More than that, it takes rigour. Before you cast it, you've got to take all the measurements of the place you want to represent, and then calculate the scale in which you're going to represent it, and then cast it while thinking of these variables."

"Merlin's pants, we have to measure everything then?” whines Peter. James pats him on the arm reassuringly before getting up to get a piece of parchment and a muggle pen and sitting back down.

“Don't worry Pete, we'll try to find a spell that can take the measurements of a room. There must be one, right?"

"I think we could find one in the Architecture or the Cartomancy sections of the Library,” answers Remus. James nods and dots it down.

“So. Spell for measurements, then a bit of calculus – Moony, you'll do that..."

"Any of you could do it, it isn't even Arithmancy. And you'd probably be better at it then me."

"Doesn't matter, you're the one who deals with numbers here, Resolution M-1973-3.07, remember? Then the Locum Describe – Padfoot and I could do that, right?"

"As long as you get the wand movement right, yes, you could. Although given the size of the castle, we'd better all learn how to cast it."

"Good. And then what?”

Remus sighs.

“That's when it gets difficult. We've got to find a way to connect a moving object in space to a moving point on the map, both because of the staircases and the people. At the same time, we'll have to manage to cast a Homonculous Charm on the whole castle and grounds, I don't know how, and a variant of Homenum Revelio, to show people's true identity on the Map even under Invisibility Cloaks or Animagus form."

"You did think it through, didn't you,” murmurs Sirius with something resembling to awe. Remus sends him a shy smile but doesn't answer. James writes it all down before looking up, his expression set and determined.

“Well, lads, we've got work to do, I believe.”

 

* * *

 

It isn't that Sirius doesn't like Lily Evans. He does. She's pretty – even though he's starting to realise girls maybe aren't entirely his cuppa, he still can acknowledge beauty when he sees it –, really smart, nice to almost everybody and even if she sometimes voices her opinion in too strong a voice, he concedes her moral and ethical compasses are surprisingly similar to his own (not that he's ever told her that). She bears that fire in her that makes her stand out of the mass of the girls in their House and their year, that necessity to do the right thing and to stand up for the small and the weak which he finds admirable.

But until not so long ago, Lily Evans only was two things to him : his best mate's more-than-a-crush and the annoying goody-two-shoes of a Prefect who, because of unfathomable reasons, was best friends with Snivellus. Neither was a good base to start a slightly friendlier relationship. The thing is, Evans has lately become something more, that is Remus's best girl friend, and likely his confidante. And Sirius needs information.

James is currently giving way to his generous streak and explaining the subtle art of turning vinegar to wine to Peter, who'd passed in Charms this year only by what could be called a miracle. Remus is on Prefect Duty with Whasshisface from Hufflepuff and Evans is alone, huddled in a low armchair in the Common Room reading such an old book it would give Remus a hard-on.

Woops. Not going there, brain.

Sirius clears his throat and Evans looks up, her gentle smile instantly becoming an annoyed scowl. She still resents him for master-class fuck-up in June, which Sirius understands.

“Black. What is it."

"Could we talk? Please?” Evans cocks an eyebrow but seems somewhat mollified and, after a second or two, nods down to the plush carpet at her feet. He gingerly sits cross-legged in front of her, his eyes at the heigh of her bosom, which he doesn't find interesting in the slightest, but he'll address that particular issue later. She looks at him expectantly while he clears his throat again and bites his lip, not knowing how to ask what he needs. Her eyes slightly widen, and he realises that a speechless Sirius Black isn't usually beheld by anyone but his fellow Marauders.

“Do you know what is wrong with Remus?” he finally blurts out.

“I'd have thought you of all people would know the answer to that particular question,” she coldly answers, all sympathy gone from her face. He passes a hand through his shoulder-length hair as he struggles to find the words to make her understand.

“It's just that... he said we were all right, okay? I didn't ask, and he said, he promised we'd be fine."

"When?"

"Last summer."

"But..."

"He told you he'd spent some time at James's, right?”

She nods.

“That's because I was there. I ran away from my parents and I ended up at James's and I needed help and apparently I asked for Remus so James sent him an owl and he came,” he explains in a rush, his face heated up in shame. He hadn't planned on telling her his life story, but well. He's looked away from her face while talking and, when he looks back at her, he doesn't see any of the dreaded pity or mockery but a quiet understanding.

“I'm sorry. I'd heard the rumours, but I didn't know they were true,” she says before clasping a hand on her mouth and looking at him rather sheepishly. “Sorry again. Sometimes I tend to forget I don't have a brain-mouth filter.”

Sirius laughs and she joins him, because that could be him talking, and because he's starting to see all the things the two of them have in common.

“To answer your question, no, I don't specifically know what is wrong with Remus. He won't tell me either, and he closes up like a mussel each time I approach the subject."

"Bloody hell."

"But I don't really need him to tell me what is wrong to know it. And I'm actually surprised you don't."

"Yeah, well, I haven't exactly been able to guess what's going on in his head at least since May. If he's closed up with you, just imagine what it's like when I am around,” he scoffs. Lily purses her lips but says nothing for a while – and isn't it something, that in two minutes she's passed from being Evans to being Lily?

“Look,” she says at last, “I can just tell you that you've got to give him time. It's very hard for him right now, because of what happened in June and because of other things he's been struggling with for years and that came up again with... with that incident."

"But before, when he had trouble with something, he would come to me and talk to me. And now you're telling me he won't even tell you what's going on, so he isn't actually talking to anybody, and I know him, Lily, he lets things simmer until one day they explode and it's painful for everyone but for him it's agonising.”

Lily stares at him for a moment before sighing.

“I'll try to get him talk to me. I promise, Bla– Sirius.”

Sirius gives her a small smile before scrambling up. She grabs his arm as he turns away.

"You know, I think... I mean, I don't know him as well as you do, but I think he's really forgiven you. It's just that everything is complicated for him at the moment, and he's trying to figure things out. Let him know you're there for him, and wait. He'll come back to you.”

 

Sirius nods once, his throat suddenly tight, turns away and heads for the Portrait-hole for his nightly detention.

 

He doesn't need to look back to know Lily is watching him go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Three

 

“ Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”

- Cormac McCarthy

 

The castle of Hogwarts certainly is one of the most imposing and beautiful buildings in the United Kingdom, and the most noble in Wizarding Britain; and only the goblins at Gringotts would dare say otherwise. In winter, the grounds are very often covered in expanses of light white snow, and the drops of frozen water clinging to the bare branches of the trees at the edge of the park glimmer and glint like a thousand diamond-like pearls in the cutting, cold air.

And there lies the problem.

Everything is fucking freezing, and the fact that the whole bloody castle is made of stone doesn't help one bit. The Entrance Hall is a big glacial cavern, and Sirius can see his breath form puffs each time he exhales. He is rather sure that if he doesn't make it to the Common Room in the next ten minutes, he'll have to ask Pomfrey a new set of hands. And toes too, because big scary leather muggle boots are well and good, but they don't stand a chance when even the armours' teeth are chattering.

He should never have said yes to this trip to the kitchen alone, but James had been asleep, Remus positively loathes cold and he owed a favour to Peter for vanishing his hair last week. And now he's in the middle of a deserted school, a Sunday afternoon in November with a heap of choux-à-la-crème, biscuits and chocolate pudding balancing precariously in his arms. And, because the deities that govern his fate don't think he has atoned enough for last year's stupidity, his brother – not really, not any more – is apparently waiting for him at the bottom of the Great Stairs. A ridiculous, desperate urge to run and hide seizes Sirius's heart, but he is a Gryffindor, for Godric's sake, and last time he checked, he was still faster and stronger than Regulus. Even though it's been six month since they last talked. He lifts his chin up and starts walking a bit faster, ignoring the lithe black figure that looks too much like him for his own taste.

Sure enough, Regulus calls him when he sees Sirius is going to ignore him and sweep by him without even so much as a glance.

“- Sirius. Sirius! Oi, Sirius!

- What,” he snarls, turning to face Regulus, who backs down a bit. A feeling very similar to the one he'd felt with Snape in the corridor several months ago possesses Sirius. And if a part of him tells him it isn't the same, because Regulus is his little brother and he still loves him, Sirius doesn't listen to it.

“- I... I just wanted to know how you've been doing,” mutters Regulus.

“- Oh, because now you care?

- Yes, I do.”

Sirius is taken by surprise by the answer, and by the sincerity that shines in Regulus's stormy grey eyes – his own. But his anger is too powerful, and the hurt too.

“- Yeah, bet you do. How much did Mother bribe you with this time? Or maybe nothing, because, as the good lapdog you are, you do exactly what she wants, when she tells you to do it, don't you?

- You're... you're being unfair. Mother didn't ask anything, she doesn't even speak of you anymore since Father and her sent the letter in October. I just wanted to talk to you.

- What for? What do you have to say that I haven't heard thousand times already, in their mouths if not in yours?

- You're being unfair,” Regulus repeats.

“- You're being unfair,” Sirius mockingly mimics. “And that's all you've got to say?

- Look, we haven't talked since you left.

- Oh, I wonder why!

- But you left me! You fucking LEFT ME, SIRIUS!” shouts Regulus, his voice breaking and what looks suspiciously like tears in his eyes.

“- I DIDN'T LEAVE YOU! I LEFT THAT INSANE PLACE AND THAT BATSHIT CRAZY WOMAN!

- But you didn't even say you were leaving!” Regulus all but sobs. If Sirius weren't too far gone to care, he'd wonder at the lack of the usual self-restraint Regulus has always had. But talking to his brother has just cleared away the numbness he'd managed to wrap around his feelings, and everything hurts like mad again.

“- Oh yeah? AND DID YOU SAY SOMETHING WHEN YOU KNEW OUR MOTHER WAS TORTURING ME?!” he hoarsely cries. Regulus's face crumbles.

“- I... what could I do, Sirius? I'm fourteen! What could I have possibly done?

- I don't know, beg her to stop, something? But no, you didn't, because you're a coward, and you'd rather follow their sick ideas than speak for yourself!

- It's not as if you'd left me an option, you know!

- What do you mean?

- You've always been the Heir, Sirius,” Regulus almost murmurs, his voice hoarse with tears. “You were the Heir, I was the spare. They lost the Heir, and now what can I do? I'm a replacement, Sirius, but if I have to do the impossible to keep our family's name from being dragged in the mud, then I'll do it. I don't have a choice.

- You... you could always stand up to them, Reg. Say no. Join us.

- I can't, Sirius! Don't you get it? I'm not as brave as you are, I need my family! And the world isn't a chessboard, it isn't made of black and white like you seem to think. Nothing is as easy as it seems, and that's what you've never understood. Why don't you just come home, apologise, and we can start from where we left? Come back, Siri. Please come back.”

Siri. The nickname Regulus used when they were children makes Sirius's heart painfully clench. But he knows they're a train-wreck, something that's bound to collapse and fall, because the tracks aren't well installed, and maybe they were always meant to arrive at this point. They're on each side of an unmeasurable chasm constantly widening, two brothers for whom love is now a spike in each other's heart, two slightly different versions of the same person who took opposed paths and now have nothing in common but stormy eyes and a past definitely lost.

“- Go away, Reg,” mumbles Sirius, averting his eyes from his brother's face. He hears a sigh and hesitant decreasing footsteps. The food he carried in his arms is now scattered on the polished floor, and he can't bring himself to care. His blood must have frozen in his veins for all he knows, because he can't feel anything but the hopeless emptiness that comes from irrecoverable loss.

 

The only reason he manages to reach Gryffindor Tower safely is that he's done the trip so many times it might as well be ingrained in his genetic code. He croaks the password – Nifflerbooze this month –, mechanically passes through the portrait hole and up the stairs to their dorm where James is still asleep, Remus is working on the Map on his bed and Peter is nowhere in sight. He walks to James's bed and pokes the latter on the shoulder until he wakes up.

“- Oh bugger, what the hell-” James starts before reading whatever is on Sirius's face and shutting up. “What happened?”

“- Are you my brother?

- What?

- Are you my brother, Prongs?

- I... of course, Padfoot. Of course. Since we met and forever onwards till death do us part and even beyond, we're brothers.”

Sirius lets out a sigh of relief he didn't realise he was holding in and sags in James's open arms, closing his eyes for a moment and just feeling the open wound he's got inside start mending a little.

“- Now, what happened?

- Nothing. Nothing happened, just saw Reg and he wanted to talk but there's nothing left to say, you know?”

Sirius feels James nod. Some minutes pass in silence – he doesn't even hear the sound of Remus's quiet breathing across the room – before he moves away. Remus has apparently cast some kind of Silencing Charm and closed his curtains, and Sirius is grateful for his friend's tact and discreet carefulness. James is watching him with concerned eyes, but returns Sirius's sudden grin in a second when it appears.

“- I'll just... go cool off a bit, I guess.

- Fair enough. And take your gloves this time, you stupid mutt.

- Will do, my deer.”

 

On his bed, Remus hears the door closing after Sirius before re-focusing on the weathered parchment, a small frown being the only evidence he's heard anything. James draws the curtains apart five minutes later and pokes his head in.

“- We've got a problem here,” Remus says as James sits cross-legged in front of him.

“- Why?

- Because the castle is simply too big. We'll never manage to cast a Charm on it, you understand? I'm not even sure Dumbledore could do it, and even less attune that spell to a piece of parchment.

- Bugger.

- Hear, hear,” Remus mutters, staring at the map as if it could suddenly start blabbering all its secrets and the way to make it bloody work.

James clears his throat. Remus privately wonders at his friend's patience : he hadn't expected James to resist the need to blurt out the question dancing in his head for more than a second, but small miracles, heh.

“- Did you hear everything?” asks James at last.

“- It was you or me and I figured you'd like to feel like there wasn't anyone around,” apologetically answers Remus as he looks up.

“- Merlin's blue balls, you make it sound like Padfoot and I have an illicit affair going on.

- You know that incest's frowned upon in the majority of societies, right?

- Har har, Lupin, you're hilarious,” James deadpans. “What do we do then?” he asks after a moment of silence.

“- You mean, with Regulus or with Padfoot? 'Cause mini-Black hasn't actually done anything wrong, by what I've gathered.

- I meant with Padfoot.

- Doesn't he want to be left alone?

- That's what he thinks. But he's gonna get all worked up again and I swear I try, Moony, but I don't know how to handle all this feelings stuff. That's your area of expertise, that's what you're here for.

- Oh, really. Should've figured that's why Dumbledore asked me to come to Hogwarts, to be Sirius Black's personal handkerchief.

- Stop being a smartarse, it doesn't suit you.

- That, Prongs my friend, is the biggest lie you've told all week, and I'm counting the moment you explained McGonagall you weren't the one who'd jinxed the stars of the Enchanted Ceiling to spell out 'Slytherins suck'.

- Trifles, lies and slander, all of it,” protests James, waving a hand dismissively. “My point here is that you should go and do your Moony thing and make Sirius right. I did my job, I told him the truth – and luckily, that's what he needed to hear – but now it's up to you.”

Remus rolls his eyes but puts Map Foetus Number Three aside anyway, gets up and grabs his coat as well as his battered copy of The Hobbit. James hands him a pair of gloves and his scarf and frowns at the book.

“- What's that for?” he asks. Remus chuckles.

“- If you read what I told you to read, you'd know Tolkien solves all problems. He's Plan B, and far more reliable than Plan A.

- And what's Plan A?

- Something Padfoot and you lack as much as common sense, namely ability to talk about your feelings.”

James snorts and waves good-bye as Remus exits the dorm, his mind already racing through all the places Sirius could be hiding in.

He could be in the Astronomy tower – no, it's too cold out there, so the Shack's ruled out as well. There's the abandoned Cartomancy, Latin or Asclepiosean corridors, but he doesn't like it because it's too dark. He's not at Honeydukes, Sunday is the day the Turrones make the inventory. There's always the small cupboard under the seventh floor stairs... let's try that. It's time they bloody well finished that Map, it'd be dead useful in such a situation. He starts making his way towards Sirius's most probable hideout, paying no heed to the strange nervousness - fear - he feels at the prospect of having to handle an emotional Sirius, when he's is tottering on the edge himself.

 

Sirius is indeed crouched in the cupboard under the stairs with a dim Lumos illuminating the cramped place. He shakes himself from his stupor half-haunted by memories of hateful words and maddened eyes when Remus opens the door and lets himself in. T he two of them found that cupboard in First Year, and it has been their emergency refuge ever since. He suppose s Peter and James know of it – after all, it is on the latest version of the Map –, but the other two haven't ever mentioned it. Remus and him couldn't fit in now if they hadn't done this for ages before though, what with their gangly limbs that get absolutely everywhere now. Remus has to break his unspoken rule of no-touching that has been being going on since September nonetheless, and it warms Sirius a little to see the werewolf doesn't hesitate a second before tangling their legs and pressing their sides together.

“- Hey,” greets Remus.

- Hey.

- Wanna talk?

- No.

- Okay then,” says Remus before opening the book he's brought with him and clearing his throat. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit-

- Oh, come on, really?

- Look, you listen or you talk. It's up to you, but make up your mind.

- Okay, shutting up,” Sirius concedes. He can hear the smirk in Remus's voice when he starts again.

“- Good. In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole...”

 

* * *

 

“- Does anyone know the difference between Superficial and Essential Transfiguration?” asks McGonagall, her stern eyes watching her sixth-year Gryffindor-Hufflepuff class. Lily's hand immediately shoots up and it soon becomes clear she's the only one who knows and who is willing to answer the question – because, frankly, Remus is sure James and Sirius know the answer too, they're just too cocky to participate in class. “Yes, Miss Evans?

- Superficial Transfiguration only affects the external appearance and characteristics of the transfigured object, while Essential Transfiguration affects its very essence, its core.

- Very well, five points to Gryffindor. And why is Essential Transfiguration much more difficult that the Superficial? Yes, Miss Evans?

- Because you have to change the essence of the object you transfigure, and thus include its Nominal Runes in the spell you use.

- Excellent, Miss Evans, ten more points to Gryffindor. This is why you will not learn Essential Transfiguration here at Hogwarts. Only Transfiguration Apprentices or Masters are allowed to practice it. The laws are similar to the ones that regulate the Animagus transformation, although accidents are seldom as dangerous as they can be with irresponsible Animagi.”

Remus doesn't need to look at James and Sirius to see the satisfied smirk they share at these words, nor the way Peter struts a bit at James's side. Remus lets an amused huff but doesn't say anything : they are perfectly entitled to feel proud of what they've done, as long as they don't act suspiciously. Having to break them out of Azkaban because they couldn't hide the fact they are unregistered Animagi is certainly not how he's planned to spend the remaining of his Sixth Year.

McGonagall is starting to explain something with mirrors and changing one's eyebrow's colour when the realisation hits him like a derailed train.

Nominal Runes. The essence, the core, and Nominal Runes.

“- Of course,” he breathes. Of course. It's so plain, so easy, so obvious he doesn't understand why he hadn't thought of it before. The theories and the concepts flash behind his eyes, wordless still but with all their sense and meaning already, and everything unfolds like an unwound red thread of ideas showing him the way out of the labyrinth he'd gotten himself lost in.

Sirius looks up from the mirror that has appeared on his desk, as well as everyone else's, and frowns a bit at the sight of what looks like a daydreaming Remus.

“- Moony? Are you all right?”

Remus shakes his head as he comes out of the sudden flood Lily has unwittingly caused and throws Sirius a brilliant smile, too far gone to care about imaginary boundaries and restraints.

“- Yeah. Yeah, I'm more than all right, Padfoot.”

 

Remus spends the double Transfiguration period almost vibrating in his seat. He doesn't seem to be able to concentrate, and thus ends up with a strand of white hair and half a blue eyebrow. He couldn't care less. Sirius and Peter share slightly concerned looks over James's slumped head – he'd managed to dye his eyebrows thrice five minutes after the beginning of class and has been sleeping since – but don't say anything. The trepidation emanating from their friend isn't the feverish, frantic full-moon sort nor the drowned-by-work sort either, so whatever it is that has him squirming in his seat like a PMSing twelve year-old girl, it mustn't be fundamentally bad. They catch him staring in the distance various times with a dreamy smile on his face and, if Sirius didn't know better (he really hopes he does know better), he'd say Remus is in love.

Which is preposterous, of course.

(Although Sirius will be damned if he can say why.)

Remus jumps out of his seat as soon as the class ends and shakes James awake while the other two pack their things. They haven't even set foot in the corridor when his resolve snaps and he grabs James's arm, walking backwards so he can face the other three, trusting them to navigate him among the students.

“- I have an idea,” he starts.

“- What about?” asks James.

“- The Map. Look, we've got it all wrong. All this time we've been trying to find a way to cast a Charm on the castle, which, frankly, is ridiculous, have you seen its size? If I summarise, we've been wanting to attune the castle to the Map, while we must do the exact opposite.

- Wow, Remus, please calm down and explain, we're not in your mind, okay?” pleads Peter. Remus nods and starts munching on his fingernail, only to have his hand swatted away by Sirius. He purses his lips for a moment, trying to get his ideas right, and finally starts explaining while James manoeuvres him around a group of Third years.

“- Do you know what Nominal Runes are?

- The thing Lil– Evans mentioned earlier?” says Sirius. Remus nods. The others just shrug.

“- Well, it isn't something we're supposed to know, see, because it isn't even in the NEWT-level Ancient Runes program, but – Prongs, where are we going?

- It's Wednesday, Rem. We've got a free period right now, remember?

- Right,” answers Remus with the look of someone who hasn't paid attention to what they've just been said. He can't be side-tracked from his idea now, and the other three know that very well. “You know Runes are a far more powerful way to connect to the magical core of a being, or an object than, say, Latin-derived incantations, right? Because they're far older, they... they sort of speak to a wilder form of magic than the one a wand and an incantation give you access to, okay?” The boys nod. Remus distantly realises they're in an almost-abandoned corridor and that they've stopped walking. “Good. Runes were first used in the Second century before Christ. Wizards in that time decided to bind a thing's essence to a certain combination of Runes. Do you understand?” James and Sirius nod again, but Peter looks a bit troubled. Remus keeps talking nonetheless. “That was the creation of the Nominal Runes. We don't really know how they managed it. Of course, they had access to an older, far stronger and wilder magic. My point is that by doing so, they said that if you happen to know a thing's Nominal Runes, you can affect its essence. Now, places like Hogwarts, but also the Beauxbattons Academy in Southern France, for instance, are partially or entirely built on foundations where stone is woven with Runic incantations. They're highly magical buildings, and the Runes are used to... to keep them together. It isn't like when you magically add a room to a house or something; here, the magic is in the castle's bones. As far as good?” He can practically see the cogs starting to turn in the boys' minds, as they begin to understand where he's leading them. “We aren't supposed to know that, because even though Nominal Runes are sometimes fleetingly mentioned in Transfiguration, it's a rather dangerous subject. Lily and I know about it because Professor Orald gave us an authorisation to check out some books in the Restricted Section some time ago.

- Okay, but how is this going to help us for the Map?” asks Peter, now completely lost. Remus smiles.

“- Just imagine for a moment, Pete, that we find the combinations of Runes the castle and the outer wall are built on. Runes are primarily an alphabet, meaning that you can write them down. Now imagine we write these specific Runes on the lines we've drawn on the Map to represent the castle. That way we would have Hogwart's very essence on the Map, meaning that–

- Meaning that we would already have all the inherent magic on it,” finishes Sirius. “Meaning that we would only need to weave spells on the Map and not the castle.

- Exactly.”

The silence ensuing is at least a scale-three deafening one. Remus can see his friends slowly coming around the idea, embracing it in all its dimensions and–

“- But wait,” says Peter, “those Runes aren't written in Hogwarts : A History, right?

- Of course not. That would be extremely dangerous.

- Then where are we going to find them?” he asks. Remus chews thoughtfully on his lip while Sirius and James look at each other.

“- I think that there's a part of the Restricted Section...” starts Sirius.

“-... that is devoted to the castle...” continues James.

“-... and in which there is a book called The construction of Hogwarts with an under-title in what must be Runes now that I think of it. It bites when touched, by the way.

-... and if that book is in the Restricted Section, it means there must be something really important in it, right?” finishes James. Remus and Peter stare at the two in wonder.

“- How on earth would you know that?” finally asks Remus. The boys shrug at the same time.

“- When we were researching for the A-project, we had to scavenge a bit in the Restricted Section. The Cloak was pretty useful, I must say,” says James.

“- And you remembered that of all things.

- That's visual memory, Moony dear.

- And I got bitten. You don't forget that kind of book,” adds Sirius with a very straight face that dissolves in giggles the moment his eyes meet James's. Remus smiles, crosses his arms and leans back against the wall, trying to capture this instant and make it last as long as possible.

It keeps a bit of the grey blankness at bay.

 

 

* * *

 

The one thing you learn about Remus Lupin after five years and a half of friendship is that he doesn't ever talk about problems – he lets them lie, slowly gathering dust in a faraway corner, and generally makes an excellent job of ignoring them. It fits with the whole mild demeanour and carefully blank and polite smiles he gives to everyone who doesn't belong to his inner circle – and it has always thrilled Sirius a bit to know he got the see the real Remus. And he isn't going to say he has no more access to the private version of his friend, because he has, it's true they've been okay since July; but he knows Remus hasn't opened to him for months, as he knows Remus himself is certainly not as fine as he wants them to believe. Besides, there is something missing in them, something Remus isn't willing to give even though it's what their friendship is built on in the first place, and it's that uncanny closeness the two of them have had for years. Granted, Sirius has had some real smiles directed at him, even though Remus hasn't smiled very often lately, and last Sunday he thought those new barriers had been abolished at last. But Remus had pulled away once they'd gotten out of their shared cupboard, and has kept his distances ever since. And he still won't speak about that thing when it so obviously needs to be spoken of, while Sirius doesn't really push the issue, wary of anything that could upset their friendship more than it has already been.

Thus is the general line of thought that is keeping him awake, tossing and turning in his bed every few minutes. After an hour or so, he gets up with a gruff and pulls his curtains apart, planning on taking James's cloak and raiding the kitchens, or just wandering around the castle until weariness and the cold drive him back to sleep. But all plans are forgotten when he sees Remus's dark form seated on the small bench of the windowsill, gazing at the frozen landscape. Sirius tiptoes to the small alcove and sits in front of his friend, who acknowledges him by a small nod and smile and then returns to his quiet contemplation.

The moon hangs swollen and bleary in a pool of ink, and its cold, copper-scented chant is already running in Remus's veins like a legion of icy, greedy needles. A parenthesis of time breathes before Sirius gathers enough courage to throw a stone in this pond of silence.

“- Moony,” he whispers.

“- Hmm?”

Let's get back to be us, to be one, to this meteor we were. Let's get back to it before I forget who we were and it becomes a “who we've been”.

“- I'm sorry” is all that comes out. Remus huffs.

“- I know. You've said it plenty of times, Sirius. I forgave you, there's no need to address the issue now.

- No, you don't get it, Rem. We've got to talk about his because there's still something that isn't okay between us, and we'll never heal if we don't make this right.

- I...

- Listen. I'm not saying “I'm sorry” because I'm English and it's the first thing we learn to say. I wish there was another way to say it, something to make it more meaningful. Je suis tellement, tellement désolé, Rem. Fuck, I...” Sirius stops for a moment, not knowing how to say what he wants to, and runs a hand through his hair. “I know you shove your skeletons somewhere deep in your cupboard but I can't–

- Are you really going to make this about yourself again?!” Remus coldly interrupts.

“- No!

- Then stop talking.

- Moony, look, I know I'm not good with words, not like you are, but I'm only trying to tell you that I'd willingly endure ten times what my mother did to me last summer if it could erase what I did to you.”

Remus stares at him in silence. Sirius runs a hand through his hair again – James's quirk has finally become contagious – and, with his eyes firmly locked on the glimmering surface of the Black Lake, glancing at the immobile boy across him from time to time, softly adds :

“- After you left James's place this summer, I... pondered things. Thought them through. Prongs helped me for some of it, but I mostly did it alone. I don't know whether I'd spilled the beans had James been the werewolf here. But I realised you were right. That even though I've been worrying for you almost since we met, it was all still kind of a big, dangerous, exciting game. And I also realised how wrong all of it had been. I was so stupid, Moony, and everything you said was right, and everything you didn't say but I heard anyway was right too. And I'm sorry I was such an arrogant, self-centered twat...

- I guess it isn't entirely your fault,” Remus gently says. Something in his eyes has softened, like an inner window has opened and is letting a bit of his soul peek through the amber. “ I mean, that's the way you were raised. You've done a lot of progress on your own and against everything you've been told since you were born.

- Yeah, I guess you're right. But this isn't who I am anymore. I...” Sirius pauses again, takes a breath and in an almost-whisper : “I don't have anyone left but the three of you now. And Charles and Hannah, and that's all. You're so important, Moony. You're so bloody important, and it took me to almost lose you to understand that.”

Remus lowers his eyes and stays motionless for a minute, and Sirius can almost see the battle raging silently behind his half-closed translucent lids. Suddenly, he looks at Sirius and gets up, and Sirius gets up at the same time. They take a step, and their bodies collide and press and tangle at the exact middle, two halves of something that is nameless and faceless still but there, its form slowly taking shape, shadow and purpose, the possibilities endless but all frozen in a heartbeat of relief. Because it has been so hard , so painful, all of it, every single minute of silence and distance in this limbo, this in-between they'd forced on themselves, like a quiet, discrete agony in each aborted touch and avoided look. Remus rests his forehead on Sirius's shoulder and feels a rising tightness in his chest, a searing hot bubble of sadness bursting up at last.

“- Oh my god, Padfoot,” he whispers. “I missed you so much.

- Me too, Moony, Remus, me too.”

 

When Peter finds them both asleep in Remus's bed next morning, he lets out a sigh of relief and, with a small smile tugging at his lips, starts preparing the lie he'll serve Professor Barnes concerning the boys' absence.

The world can wait for these two.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Four

 

 

“I am to see to it that I do not lose you.”

– Walt Whitman

 

“-Moony,” whines Sirius, “I'm booooored.

- Why don't you do something with James?

- He's in detention.”

Remus looks up and frowns.

“- How come you aren't in detention too then?

- Because Prongs is an idiot and he got caught.

- And you didn't.

- Nope.

- You kept the Cloak to yourself.

- Yes. No! Wait, how do you know that?

- You've been wanting to get back at him ever since he conjured a swamp in your bed last week.”

Sirius grins and sits down on the table Remus is using to write whatever essay Slughorn gave them for next week.

“- I'm still bored, you know,” he says after a minute or two.

“- Go and find Peter then.

- But he's in detention!

- With James?

- Yup.

- What on earth were you doing that got the two of them caught?

- We tried to get that book, you know, The construction of Hogwarts or whatever.

- You had an Invisibility Cloak and a rat Animagus and you still managed to fail.

- But James stepped on my toes! And then Peter panicked and he bit James's ear and James yelled and we thought Pince was sick but apparently she's not so she called for Filch and his horrendous cat to come and we only had time to dash out of the Restricted Section but James tripped and fell and Peter changed back so he was seated on James's head.

- So you grabbed the cloak and ran.

- It was all James's fault anyway.”

Remus rolls his eyes but can't help the smile that's starting to tug at his lips.

“- This goes against the Act of Loyalty and Brotherhood, you know.

- Are you implying that I'm a traitor?

- I'm just saying that James will retaliate. And probably Peter too, since he had a study-date with Mary.”

Sirius's eyes grow big as saucers.

“- Oh bugger,” he murmurs. “Oh. He's gonna hate me, isn't he.

- Yes he is,” sing-songs Remus while scribbling something about Golpalott's Third Law on his parchment. “Go and tell Mary you landed Peter in detention, it'll soothe things over a bit.

- But...

- Sirius. If you don't, she'll think he's stood her up. He's been dying to get her notice him since Third year, it's the very least you can do.”

Sirius huffs but obediently gets up and crosses the room to where Mary is anxiously waiting at a small round table. Remus watches him smile winningly at the girl before starting to explain what he's done, his arms and hands gesturing wildly in his usual exuberant fashion. He realises belatedly that he must have the equivalent of a dreamy smile plastered on his face, but he can't really look away. Everything has not been miraculously righted by their conversation in the middle of the night two weeks ago (although the following full moon was particularly easy for this time of the year and the length of the night), if only because the state of his relationship with Sirius is just one of the many things that have been eating him up for months. But the knowledge that there are no more stupid imaginary rules between Sirius and him is incredibly alleviating. He shakes his head and goes back to his essay.

Antidotes really are a fascinating part of Potions. He knows Golpalott's Third Law could be linked to a trigonometry formula in mathematics, but he isn't ever going to mention that to his friends – after all, they might ask what are mathematics. Contrary to popular belief, he likes Potions, and is rather good at theory; but he lacks the instinct that makes a true Potion-maker, and the fact that his sense of smell is stronger than a human's doesn't help : a lot of the ingredients used just give him earth-shattering headaches that leave him shaking like an autumn leaf. With all that said, he still doesn't know how to fill the three remaining inches of his paper.

“- You've forgotten to mention alchemy,” says Sirius from above his shoulder, making him start and spill a drop of ink on his parchment.

“- Don't do that. You scared me,” Remus growls looking up at his friend who is smirking at him.

“- I'm not going to apologise, it's the first time in months I've managed to startle you.”

Remus huffs but turns back to his essay and quickly fills the rest by explaining what has alchemy to do with all that while Sirius perches back on a corner of the desk.

“- You done?” he asks when Remus gently blows on the ink for it to dry before rolling the parchment.

“- Yes, but I've still got a History of Magic essay and that Runes translation I haven't started because I had to catch up on what you've done when I was 'sick' and the Map is taking too much time and I'm not sure I understood what we did in Transfiguration yesterda–

- Remus. You're babbling.

- Sorry,” he mumbles while scrubbing his eyes raw. He gets startled a little when Sirius puts a hand on his shoulder and gently squeezes it but soon relaxes. It's okay. We're okay.

“- I'll never understand how you do this,” says Sirius. Remus looks up at him.

“- What?

- All this,” he says with a large sweep of his arm encompassing the table littered with parchment rolls, books, quills and dry inkwells. “I mean, you're taking six NEWT-level classes, you're a Prefect, you've got your furry little problem to deal with every month and you still find the time to do extra research for Barnes and Orald and to figure out how we're going to create a magic, half-alive Map.

- It's sentient, not half-alive,” he automatically corrects. “And you guys have done a good part of the job too.” Sirius huffs.

“- Maybe, but you're the one who's brought in the theory behind it. And you're the one who's doing all the Runes work.

- Well, I'm the only one who's able to do it, aren't I?

- As for that...

- Hmm?

- I've been going through your Ancient Runes notes, way back from Third Year.

- What for?

- I think I'm able to read them now. I'm extremely slow and my translation skills are appalling, but I could help you. If you want.”

He stares at Sirius for a moment before letting escape a small unbelieving laugh.

“- You're incredible, you know? You've caught up with, what, two years–

- One so far.

-... one year and a half of Ancient Runes classes in what? Three weeks?

- A month and something.

- You're mad.

- And you love it.”

Remus rolls his eyes at the statement, but it's more about keeping up appearances than anything else, though Sirius has blindingly hit far too close to home for his liking. Sirius puts a hand on Remus's scalp and starts slowly massaging, something the boys do before full moons to help him evacuate a bit of the stress. Remus closes his eyes and leans into the touch, letting the tension slide away for a moment, just breathing in the calm of a December Friday afternoon in the Common Room when everyone else is still in class or working in the Study Hall, breathing in this closeness, this intimacy he's always shared with Sirius and he thought he'd lost.

It feels a bit like coming home.

“- Can we go out or something?” asks Sirius. He opens his eyes.

“- All right, let's go for a walk. I'm not getting anything else done anyway. Just wait a second, I'll go take my gloves and –

- Already taken care of,” Sirius interrupts him, shoving a pair of gloves and a scarf in his hands and getting up. Remus raises an eyebrow.

“- It seems you were dreadfully sure you'd win that case.

- What can I say, my dashing looks make me irresistible,” his friend grins at him while spinning around like a drunk elephantine ballerina. Remus snorts.

“- I still need another jumper and my coat.

- Here you are. I Accio'd them when you were lusting after your essay.

- When I was lus– oh, Merlin, you're such an idiot,” he fondly says as he puts on his extra jumper and folds his coat over his arm.

“- An idiot at your service, dearest,” retorts Sirius bowing in a very dwarf-like fashion that has Remus quietly laughing. Truth is, the weight on his chest has started to ease since Sirius and him went back to what they were before.

Or better than that, whispers the part of his brain he never listens to unless he really wants to end ankle-deep in crap.

 

They get across the castle bickering and laughing together, falling into a well-worn pattern they had both missed more than they care to say. Sirius steals glances of a laughing Remus, whose hair glows a soft copper colour under the firelight of the torch embedded in the walls and whose amber eyes twinkle like fallen stars in deep luminous wells that seem to lighten up for him and him alone.

He's trying very, very hard not to turn into Gollum.

As they cross the Entrance Hall, they're met with the familiar, heart-warming sight of a shuffling, grunting pine tree with legs.

“- Hullo, Hagrid,” greets Remus as they stop by. The gamekeeper's hirsute head shoots up from behind the tree, a grin on his face.

“- Well hello there lads. Yeh goin' out with all thet snow and cold?

- Yes. How are you?

- Ne'er been better. Ther're beau'iful trees this year, yeh know. The Hall's gonna look incre'ible.

- I don't doubt it, you always manage to make it look magical,” answers Remus, whose kind remark is rewarded by an even warmer grin.

“- Right, we'll be going then. Good luck with that tree, Hagrid,” shoots Sirius.

“- I'll see yeh aroun' then lads.”

They put on their coats before stepping out of the Entrance Hall into the cold. Remus bites a curse as he slides his gloves on and wraps his scarf around his neck. Their breaths form white puffs in the clear, sharp air.

“- Padfoot.

- Hmm?

- The gloves are warm.

- Oh, yeah. I cast a warming charm on them earlier.”

Remus turns and smiles at him like he just hung up the moon. Or took it off, in their particular case.

“- That's great. Thank you.

- Anything for you, Moons,” he sends back. They both act like they don't know how true it is and start walking towards the frozen Black Lake, their shoulders bumping together every few steps in a companionable silence.

“- What are we doing for the holidays?” asks Sirius as they draw near the silent shores of the lake. Remus shoots him a quick glance before looking back at his booted feet crunching snow.

“- What do you mean?

- Were you planning on going home for Christmas?

- Well, I... I didn't really think about it. Why?

- We, I mean James and I, we thought we could all stay here. Get sloshed, sleep late and work on the Map.

- Sounds like a plan,” Remus chuckles. “I know Lily's staying too.

- Yeah, she told me so. Something to do with her sister, right?”

He can't miss the surprised look Remus throws him.

“- And since when are you and Lily on casual speaking terms?

- Since when I didn't have any other source to tell me what you were thinking.”

He realises he's put his foot in his mouth as soon as the words leave it. Remus hunches his shoulders and sets his gaze on the tip of his feet. Sirius swallows a lump, his heartbeat quickening as he starts panicking.

“- I... I'm sorry, Rem, I shouldn't have...

- It's okay, Padfoot. Don't worry.

- No, but I–

- Sirius.”

Sirius looks up at Remus's suddenly more earnest tone. The werewolf throws him a weak smile.

“- You don't have to be sorry. No need to start walking on eggshells again, all right?”

He nods and shuffles a bit closer to Remus as they take the long way along the shore. He opens his mouth a few times, but the words he's been playing again and again in his mind won't come out. He feels Remus slowly tensing beside him and suddenly snaps :

“- Are you okay?”

All the tension drains from Remus's body at once, and his shoulders slump a little. He draws a deep breath.

“- No. I'm not, not really.”

Sirius stops, which forces Remus to stop too and stand in front of him, intently looking at the white ground and biting on his lower lip. Sirius could swear there are hardly-restrained tears in his friend's eyes. He gently puts his hand on Remus's cheek, covering the silvery scar he can't help but thing he put there, and makes him look up and meet his eyes.

“- What is it?” he almost tenderly asks. Remus leans in his hand, closes his eyes and takes another long, painful breath, struggling to keep tears back.

“- It's just that I... it's become too much, Sirius,” he starts in a trembling almost-whisper. “I've become so tired, so weary, I... I feel like I can't do it anymore.

- Do what anymore, Rem.

- Everything,” Remus answers, opening his eyes, distress now clear in his voice as the floodgates start to open. “Waking up every day knowing there is a week left before my body and my mind snap again, before I've got to go through it all again, before I become that thing

- Don't say that.

-... that thing that's still me despite it all. And going through that tunnel knowing what's waiting for me at the other hand, when I've got to wait naked for the moon to show and start tearing me up, knowing you're going to come and risk your lives, Sirius, your lives to help me–

- Remus–

- And having to catch up every month, in every class I've taken because I know there's nothing for me out of Hogwarts, no job offer, no second Dumbledore willing to give me a chance, I know that, I've talked with McGonagall, and I've got to do everything I can if I want to have a roof and bread on the table, and having to fade away because if students start noticing me then they'll notice my absences and it will be the end of everything, and having to live up to my parents' expectations because the day I was bitten their lives were destroyed too, and just having to fight, Sirius, to struggle every single second of every single day, and what for? For nothing.

- Rem–

- For nothing, Sirius, because all this is just pointless, because you know what? For me, everything ends at the moment I step out of Hogwarts for the last time. And I just can't do it anymore, Padfoot, I can't...”

Sirius's horror has been growing with every word that achingly stumbles out of his friend's mouth, like small, true-sharp knives that knead his heart open. He pulls Remus against his chest, a hand around his waist, the other cradling Remus's head against his neck as horrendous sobs start wrecking through Remus's body. The world becomes a white and grey blur until he realises he's crying too, silent cold tears that pool in his eyes and roll down his cheeks to fall in Remus's clear locks.

“- Oh, Remus, Moony, don't think that, don't...

- But it's true, Padfoot, you know it's true...

- It isn't, Rem. It isn't, because we'll always be there, I will always be there, with you, and we're never going to let you down.”

He repeats James's words over and over again, because they are the truest he can think of, in their bare simplicity of heart-beat promises.

“- How long? How long have you been feeling that way?

- I don't know, from before last June, and it's been growing ever since,” mumbles Remus between two sobs. Sirius's heart clenches even more, if possible.

“- And you haven't told anyone?”

Remus slightly shakes his head in negation.

“- Oh, Moony, dearest, you've kept it all bottled up that long?

- Yes,” whispers Remus. Sirius presses a dry kiss on his hair and closes his eyes, gently rocking them back and forth as Remus's sobs slowly subside into quiet wet sniffles in the white air.

“- You can tell me things, you know? When you aren't feeling well, when you just need to let it go, because you never do, Rem, you never let go and you've got so much to carry... just talk to me, okay?” he pleads into his friend's hair. Remus nods and sighs a bit of soul through his chapped lips.

 

They stand like that a long time, woven together in the afternoon, raw plates slowly growing closer and closer again, an inexorable tide that pulls them together as surely as it pulled them apart six months ago.

 

* * *

 

No news of the Death Eaters' activities have been heard since the Manchester murders. Of course, there are rumours – rumours of assassinations disguised under accidents, but whose pattern is unmistakable; rumours of freshly-gratuated Slytherins putting on masks and cloaks and joining Voldemort; rumours of Hogwarts students creating a micro-cell within the school –; but nothing is said openly, and it looks like the Ministry isn't aiming at putting a stop to Voldemort's doings as much as burying it all under grand declarations of “all is well and nothing is wrong at all” regularly made by a Ministry employee named Cornelius Fudge, whose popularity is inexplicably rising. But the lack of official acknowledgement doesn't prevent the insidious hiss of fear that starts slowly seeping through the cracks, tainting the younger students' eyes with incomprehension and the older ones' with the first bludgeons of panic. Still nothing really happens until a week and a half before the start of the Winter Holidays.

The four of them are seated at the breakfast table when the owls come sweeping down from the small window high above their heads. A few minutes later, they hear a keening noise coming from the Hufflepuff table loud enough to make heads from the three other tables turn around in curiosity and mild alarm.

Iana Brook, a girl from their year Remus had (very) briefly dated in Fourth year has her hands clasped over her mouth in a expression of devastated shock. Her best friends, Melinda May and Daniel Wilson, are reading a letter and wearing almost the same identical expression.

Peter knows Iana is a Muggleborn, and that she has an older sister who's known for her commitment to the cause of ill-represented minorities in Wizarding Society, be it werewolves or lesbians and homosexuals.

The math isn't difficult to make.

He turns to Remus and they share a look of understanding. Of course, the werewolf has joined the dots too. Remus looks around in search of the Hufflepuff Prefects, but they haven't come down yet. He sets his shoulders in a resolved pose, gets up and heads to the Hufflepuff table, tapping Lily's shoulder as he passes behind her. She looks up, seems to see something on her friend's face, and follows suit. Peter watches with a little admiration as the two of them part the small crowd gathering around Iana and her friends, Lily crouching down next to the girl who's white with shock and Remus ushering the curious students away and waving for Professors Daffodil and McGonagall to come.

James and Sirius have been whispering, heads bent together, since the beginning of breakfast, and are only now taking in the commotion and Remus's empty seat. Peter distantly marvels at their obliviousness.

“- Where's Moony?” asks Sirius. Peter jerks his chin toward the black-and-yellow table and the two boys twist around to watch interestedly as Dumbledore himself approaches Iana's slumped form.

“- What happened?” inquires James.

“- I think... I'm not sure at all, but I think Brook's received bad news from home. You've heard of Mathilda Brook, right?” James and Sirius nod in time. “I think something happened to her. I mean, Brook's Muggleborn, but she isn't the only one here. The only thing that differentiates her from the rest is her sister, who's been saying things that go against everything You-Know-Who fights for.

- Why won't you say his name?” asks Sirius as James goes back to his contemplation of Lily Evans in fire-mode action (both completely missing the point). Peter tugs on his sleeve self-consciously but is thankfully prevented from answering by Remus who has come back, looking pale and shaken. Sirius's focus immediately leaves Peter.

“- Rem, are you okay?

- Me? Yes, I am. Iana? Not so much.

- What happened?” asks James again, shaken from his wistful gazing by Sirius's shove. Remus sighs and blindly reaches for his tea, which Sirius obligingly puts in his hand.

“- Mathilda, Iana's sister, she was... she was killed last night.”

Peter feels more than hears the small gasp that escapes his lips. He usually likes it when his guesses are proved right, but this time, he just wishes no-one had asked anything at all.

“- Muggles in her neighbourhood alerted the police – their Law Enforcement Squads –“ he adds for James and Sirius, “because there was a greenish gas cloud over one of the houses at the far end of the street. I don't know how, but someone at the Ministry heard of it, and alerted the Obliviators and the MLE.

- What was the cloud?

- I don't know, Melinda wouldn't – or couldn't – say more. I just know that they found Mathilda's body as well as her partner's, a Muggle woman.

- Avada Kedavra, right?” whispers James. Remus bites his lip and nods.

“- I'm sure the green thing is the Death Eaters' seal,” mutters Sirius. They all look at him with interest. He shrugs. “First Alice's uncle, then Brook's sister : they're targeting known opposition figures. They'll want to claim that murder, and the ones following.”

Peter gulps down and stares at the cold bacon in his plate. He isn't hungry at all.

 

Mathilda Brook's death seems to be a signal of some kind. In the week that follows, four other students receive letters from home, letters that weight far more than a sheet of paper and some inky words. Distraught stares now follow the owls that come down in the morning, and the relief is greater when none lands in front of one's plate. In the corridors, students only walk in groups, keeping their friends at arm's reach, and in the classrooms, the professors have a hard time keeping their class focused – not that they aren't repeatedly caught staring in the distance. Only the older Slytherins don't seem to be affected by the general distress, and some, such as Seventh years Crabbe and Goyle, and Sixth years Avery and Mulciber, openly strut around. And fewer people each time dare to pronounce Voldemort's name, as fear distillates into quiet panic and the name itself starts to bear as much power and darkness as the man.

 

Three days before the official start of the holidays, after they have all taken their seats for dinner, Dumbledore gets up from his chair at the Head Table and clears his throat. All the whispers instantly die, and more than two hundred pairs of eyes turn in his direction. He doesn't smile.

“- As some of you may have heard, regrettable tidings have reached us this whole week. Mathilda Brook, the leader of the Equality For All movement, was murdered a week ago. Aristotle Pyoming, Head of the Auror Department, and two other Aurors, Teresa Whippleton and Theseus Marshall, all of them students' relatives, were killed in the last four days. And Alicia Rockwood's family was assassinated yesterday.” A wave of frantic whispers he interrupts with a raised hand. “And I am well aware I just said murdered, killed, assassinated. Some of these terrible events may be disguised under accidents or natural deaths, but we must not fool ourselves, nor let ourselves be fooled. These people's lives were taken in cold blood.” A pause. “We are entering dangerous times, where brothers raise against each other, friends turn their backs to friends, and suspicion starts to cloud our minds. All this is the product of fear and hatred. Fear of the unknown, of the other, of the different, that breeds hatred and death. This is not the time for dissension nor discord. Rely on your friends and your loved ones, keep your mind open and accepting but never lower your guard. This time more than ever, learn to appreciate difference and diversity, but remember that beyond questions of blood and magic, we are all part of this immense ensemble called humanity.”

A long silence follows the Headmaster's words. Suddenly, slow claps start resonating in the Hall.

Alice has risen from her chair and is solemnly applauding, glistening streaks of tears on her cheeks. She always seems so strong and determined everyone has but forgotten that she was one of the first to lose loved ones to the Death Eaters. She isn't applauding Dumbledore's words. She is paying her own modest tribute to the ones who lost, and the ones who died.

Lily, Mary, Marlene, Dorcas and Frank rise to their feet and start clapping too, followed by Remus, James, Sirius, and Peter himself. Soon, it is the whole Gryffindor table who's applauding, as Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs do it too, lead by Melinda, David, and the other missing students' friends. Some Slytherins get up too, under the witheringly glares of those of their housemates who sit still, arms crossed, while others just look down, not daring to go against their House's loyalties but neither taking part to the opposition.

Later on, Peter will reflect on that moment and realise that that's when the war truly started for him.

 

* * *

 

Despite the gloom brought by last week's events, it is very hard to remember that there is a war brewing outside when you're in a magic castle with corridors decorated with Christmas paraphernalia and you practically have it all for yourself, James thinks. The four of them plus Lily and two Third years are the only Gryffindors who are staying at Hogwarts for the holidays, and Remus told him there are five Slytherins, four Hufflepuffs and nine Ravenclaws that have stayed as well. Not that he cares, really.

They spend their days sleeping until mid-morning, shovelling extraordinary quantities of food down their throats and fighting epic battles with enchanted snow-balls, fortresses and giants until Flitwick comes down running from the castle to inform them in his tiny voice that “this is not a Duel Club, boys”. In the afternoon, they explore the castle, spend tones of parchment copying down every single corridor, classroom, staircase and broom closet while Remus patiently wriggles out an authorisation from McGonagall to check out some books from the Restricted Section, “for curiosity's sake, Professor, and no, of course, I wouldn't ever dream of letting the boys look at them”. The lack of any tension between him and Sirius gives them all some breathing space, and James interiorly points out that both of them look far happier than he's seen them in a long, long time.

(He also sees the flicker of what looks suspiciously like jealousy on Sirius's face each time Remus leaves them to spend some time with Lily, but as he is jealous as well, though not for the same reason – he hopes –, he isn't going to say anything. The kettle and the pot and all that.)

 

On Christmas morning, he wakes up with his face dripping of sticky, smelly slobber, and a far too excited Padfoot bouncing on his bed.

“- Merlin, your breath stinks, you mutt,” he groans without really opening his eyes, burying his face in his pillow before thinking better of it. After all, the House Elves have been a little wary of his and Sirius's bed ever since the fallout of the Doxy Incident of 1973 of which no-one shall ever talk again, and he'd loathe to change his bed-sheets on Christmas just because he's put dog slaver on them – yes, there is always Scourgify, but he never really got the hang of it and the smell lingers after he's cast it. He feels Sirius changing back on him, not that he isn't less excited in his human form.

“- Prongsieeee, it's Christmaaaaas,” he sing-songs right in James's ear.

“- Argh.

- Now that really wasn't eloquent at all.

- You can put James's eloquence exactly where I think,” grunts Remus from behind his still closed curtains. Sirius and James share a glance, a similar bloodthirsty grin blooming on their faces. Sirius climbs down from the bed as James pushes the covers and suppresses a shiver when his feet hit the cold stone-floor. They burnt the carpet three years ago when making the potion for the second step of the Animagus transformation and, along with an ever-increasing list of things, never replaced it. Without making a noise, they tiptoe around Sirius's bed to reach the werewolf's.

Sirius mouths “one, two, three”, and they violently pull the curtains open and leap on Remus, whose head shoots from beneath the pillow with an indignant yelp.

“- YOU WANKERS GET OFF ME RIGHT NOW YOU DECADENT, PSYCHOPATIC MADMEN, GET OFF,” he hoarsely yells as he blindly swats them with flailing arms. James grabs the covers and yanks them off as Sirius settles on Remus's legs, and they start tickling him while laughing like maniacs.

“- NO, STOP, YOU UTTER TOSSERS, STOP IT, ESPECE DE TRAÎTRES, FUCK YOU BOTH SIDEWAYS WITH A BROOM HANDLE– “

- Oooh, Moony, what a dirty mouth we've got there,” drawls Sirius without stopping the mad dance his fingers are tracing on Remus's sides. Remus almost kicks him off when James grabs his feet and starts tickling his soles, but they hold on, and their friend is soon reduced to an incoherent, babbling mess of laughter, cries and pleas. Suddenly, he bucks on the mattress, hard, and both Sirius and James are thrown off and end on the floor in a heap of gangly limbs. James realises he's laughing and completely out of breath, as are Sirius and Remus, for that matter.

“- You are despicable hooligans. I hate you both,” groans the werewolf as he rather dramatically throws an arm across his face to hide his eyes. On top of James, Sirius is quietly shaking with laughter. “You better go and wake Wormy too now.

- I'm perfectly awake, there's no need for an intervention,” calls Peter's sleepy but alarmed voice from across the room. Sirius and James leap up at once and scramble to Peter's bed, repeating the treatment they just inflicted on Remus.

There is no better way to start a Christmas day.

 

Two days later, James is coming down the stairs of the dorm to join Sirius on the seventh floor, where he has found something strange – the wanker won't say more, even though James has been pressing him with questions through the two-ways mirror he's given him for Christmas –, when he looks up to the Common Room that's beneath him and stops in his tracks.

It's not that he has been avoiding Lily – for Merlin's sake, he's been in love with her for the better part of three years now, he'd live in her shadow if he could –, but they've been busy, and she has been busy as well, doing... he doesn't really know what, though he hopes it isn't someone instead of something. Last summer, during the week Remus had spent at his house, they talked a lot – about everything, things they wouldn't usually tell each other, things they wouldn't have said if it weren't for the wrecked emotional state they were both in. Remus told him about his hopes for the future, his conversation with McGonagall, they'd spoken about the events in June, and James had told his friend about Lily. Not about her hair, nor her eyes – okay, about her hair and her eyes, but not that much – but rather about what he really feels for her. The fact that his crush has turned into love. The fact that even though they haven't had a proper conversation since Second year he feels she is The One, the love of his life. And Remus had made a lengthy list of reasons why she wouldn't even glance in his direction if she could help it, and what he should do if he wanted to change things about it. And the first item on the list had been : give her space.

He's followed Remus's advice, but he doesn't really see the results. Although the number of times she's sneered at him this year is noticeably lower than priorly. Small victories.

And there she is, in the Common Room near the big hearth, huddled in an armchair reading a book. The golden light makes her hair look like it's on fire, and even from the distance he can see the small, contented smile curling up her lips. He stands still, transfixed, as he watches her when she doesn't know she's being watched (and yes, that is creepy, but he takes what he can). When she doesn't have to be Lily Evans the Prefect, nor Lily Evans the Friend, nor Lily Evans the Brightest Witch Of Her Generation Who Also Happens To Be A Muggleborn And Will Maim You If You Even Think Of Saying The Other M-Word. No, at this moment, she's alone with her book, and she's just Plain Lily.

He's never loved her more than on this precise instant.

He startles when he feels a warm hand on his shoulder and turns to see Remus.

“- You could go and talk to her, you know,” he quietly says. James nods but doesn't move.

“- Just remember what I said : no bragging, no strutting, no pose-making. Just plain old Prongs, all right? Be our James with her, just once, and you'll see if it doesn't pay up.”

James nods again, throat suddenly dry.

“- All right. But Padfoot...

- Pete just kicked my arse at chess again and is currently studying down my moves to see if he couldn't have won even faster. I'll go to meet Sirius, if you want.

- I... okay.

- Give me the mirror?

- Nah, I'll keep it, you know where Padfoot is. Oh, Moony!” he calls as Remus starts walking down the stairs, “you don't get to go out dressed like that.

- Prongs, I am literally going two floors away.

- But it's chilly out there. Go and put on some gloves. And a scarf. And take your coat, for Circe's sake!”

Remus rolls his eyes but climbs back, muttering “bloody mother hen” when he brushes by James. The latter chuckles, shakes his head and makes his way down the stairs.

“- Hello, Evans,” he says when he's a few feet away from the girl. He almost runs a hand through his messy hair but changes his mind at the last moment and shoves his fists in his pockets, keeping temptation at bay. Lily looks up.

“- Potter,” she curtly greets, but without any of the usual disgust or hatred (though now that he thinks of it, both elements have been conspicuously absent ever since... ever since last June, in fact. He should ask Moony about that.)

“- What are you reading?” he asks. She arches an eyebrow but shows him the cover of her book.

“- Pride and Prejudice. I liked it,” he says. The corner of her lips twitches a bit.

“- You read it?

- I... yeah, I did. Last year, I think?”

She actually looks surprised by now.

“- I didn't know you read muggle literature.

- Moo– Remus has been shoving classics down our throats since we met. Said he wouldn't survive sleeping for seven years with such, I quote, uncultured people like us.”

Lily chuckles.

She chuckles. He just made Lily Evans chuckle.

“- Sounds like him. Although I'm surprised it's taken you so long to read Pride and Prejudice. I'd have thought it would be one of the first Rem would make you read.”

Rem . James really tries to shove down the irrational spur of jealousy that goes through him as Lily calls Remus by his nickname. It's Remus, for heavens' sake, he's got to get a grip on himself.

“- Um, yeah. Actually, he started by Conan Doyle with Sirius and Dumas with me, and Sirius has read all Sherlock Holmes three times so far and I've read The Three Musketeers twice. First impressions and everything, you know.

- Was it the first time you read a muggle book?

- Yeah,” he laughs. “Muggle literature is certainly more diversified than wizarding one, and a lot of things were completely new to me. Remus had to explain thrice what a musket was, and even after it took me some time to understand why the hell people behaved that way at the King's Court.”

She laughs as well, warm and genuine, amused.

He's internally panicking now.

“- But as for Pride and Prejudice, the summary always put me off. I mean, it's the story of a witty girl whom an aristocratic arsehole falls in love with? Told that way, it isn't really... beckoning.

- That's true. What made you change your mind?”

I saw you reading it once and decided I'd give it a try doesn't seem to be a good answer, but his mouth says it anyway before his brain processe s it all . Shit shit shit Potter you're stupid you

“- Well, I'm glad I somehow helped you discover the wonder this book is,” she teases. He laughs again, relieved.

“- Yeah, me too. Although I must warn you, I don't like Darcy at all.

- Oh, he's an idiot all right,” she admits, “but he sees the mistakes he's done and tries to become better. And after all, he's always been a good man with his friends and servants, he just doesn't...

- … doesn't show the world the true Mr. Darcy?” offers James. Lily nods, a smile playing on her lips.

“- Don't you want to sit?” she unexpectedly asks. He raises an eyebrow and, before he can think of it, passes a hand through his hair, realising his mistake as soon as he's done it. But Lily doesn't seem to see, or to care, as she just looks up at him, her green eyes flickering with amusement. He nods and sits on the plush carpet, facing the fire, far enough from her to keep all appearances of platonic camaraderie. A small voice in his head that sounds like Sirius's murmurs good work, Prongs.

“- So I take it you really like this book?” he asks.

“- Oh, it's my favourite, and a bit of a comfort book as well... you know how Remus rereads parts of The Lord of the Rings when he's stressed or angry or upset? That's the same for me.”

His eyes widen a bit at the impromptu vote of confidence and hers mirror his as she realises what she's said. He clears his throat, desperate to find something to say to avoid this conversation – the first real conversation he's had with her since he was twelve – turning awkward. But of course, being James Potter, what comes out instead is :

“- Are you... are you upset then?”

He can practically hear his inner Remus, Sirius and Peter kick his inner self. In the balls. With lead-toed combat boots.

Lily bites on her lip – no, he is not watching as the tender skin turns redder and redder under the white teeth – and looks down to her lap. Some silent seconds tick by, and he's getting ready to jump to his feet, make an embarrassed apology and flee when she sighs and looks up at him.

“- No, it's just that... I had kind of a... falling-out with my sister.

- That would be... Petunia, right?

- How... never mind. Yes, Petunia.

- Is it why you stayed here for Christmas?”

SHUT UP, POTTER.

“- Yes. She... she wrote to tell me that her fiancé was coming home for Christmas and she'd really appreciate it if I didn't show up.

- But why?

- It's complicated. Let's just say that she resents me for being a witch, and our relationship has been sour ever since I showed my first outer signs of magic.

- Is she jealous?”

Lily throws him a surprised look an frowns a bit. James's thumbs ache from the need to soothe out the vertical wrinkle that's appeared between her eyebrows.

“- No. Well, yes, you could say that, she was jealous at the beginning, and sad, because why would I be a witch and not her? I mean, it's unfair.

- But it isn't your fault.

- I didn't say it was, and I don't think it is. Still, it's unfair, and at the beginning she was jealous, and then jealousy morphed into disgust and contempt. She calls us freaks. Monsters.”

Some of James's incomprehension and anger must show on her face because she immediately adds :

“- Not all Muggles are like that, you know. My parents aren't.

- I know that. Remus's dad is a Muggle, and he's incredibly nice.

- It's just that I don't want you to think that Muggles hate wizards as a rule.

- I know they don't,” he assures her. She smiles at him, tiredly, and he really wishes he could wrap his arms around her and comfort her. She's so strong, Lily, always so poised and smart and biting and ready to fight with the whole world, and she carries her burdens without ever so much as bending. He admires her, he realises, like he's rarely admired anyone.

“- If I may ask,” he dares, “why aren't you with Alice then? Or Mary?

- Alice's family wanted to spend a quiet Christmas. After all, her uncle's death was only a few months ago.

- Of course,” he murmurs.

“- And as for Mary and the others, well, I wasn't going to impose. Christmas is a family affair, you know.”

He nods.

“- You... you aren't lonely, are you?” he asks after a moment of silence. She looks up from the fire and smiles at him again, this time warm and open, friendly.

“- No, don't worry about me. I don't mind being alone. It's refreshing, when you spend your whole time with four other girls and hundreds of students.”

He nods again and is scrambling for something else to say when he hears a muffled “Prongs? Oi, Prongs! James!”. Lily throws him a questioning look as he shuffles to reach the mirror he's put in his back pocket and puts it at eye level.

“- Padfoot?” he asks. He can only hear muffled exclamations, a “Give it to me!” and a “Bugger!” before Remus's amber eye and a part of his brow and nose appear in the glassy fragment he's holding.

“- Prongs, you should come here, we've found something rather interesting, I think.

- Move it, Antler-Boy. And give the mirror back, Moony,” interjects Sirius from somewhere behind. Remus rolls his eye but pays him no heed.

“- Oh and James, bring Wormy too. This is important.

- Remussss! Give me my mirror!

- Stop whining, Sirius, it's unbecoming.

- Stop bickering, the two of you,” shoots James. “I'm on my way. And don't break my mirror!

- Technically, it's mine,” objects Sirius's faraway voice. James can hear Remus sigh and he smirks.

“- I don't care whether it's yours or not, Padfoot. Still my mirror.

- That's not true.

- You're insufferable, both of you,” cuts Remus. “James, move your arse over here and bring Peter. Now.

- Yes, mother,” he bites back before putting the mirror away and getting up.

“- What was that?” asks Lily. He'd almost forgotten she was here in the first place.

“- Um, Remus and Sirius.

- I'd gathered as much. What's this mirror thing?

- Oh, something I found for Sirius and me. It's like... a bit like a pheletone, you know.

- A telephone, but yes. And what are the four of you doing?

- Nothing illegal, I promise. At least so far. I think,” he babbles. She raises an eyebrow. “Um, a map. Of the castle. Bloody hell. Don't tell them I told you, they would kill me.

- A map of the whole castle?

- Yep.” She sends him a mystified look and he feels the need to justify himself, something even Sirius very rarely manages. “Keeps us busy, right?” As she keeps staring at him, he fidgets and adds : “Well, I'll be going. Bye, Evans.”

He turns back to the stairs and, as he reaches the first step, decides that some traditions are meant to be kept.

“- Oi, Evans,” he calls, turning back to her. She looks up from her book and makes a non-committal noise.

“- Fancy a date with me?”

For a moment, he thinks he's read her wrong and he's gone and put his foot in his mouth again.

“- In your dreams, Potter,” she immediately retorts, but without any of the usual scorn. Instead of it, there's a smirk playing on her lips and an amused light dancing in her eyes. Maybe he hasn't read her that wrong after all. He shrugs, knowing he looks far too casual and flippant to be true (but heh, appearances), and starts climbing up the stairs, not looking back. And no, he is definitely not bouncing – he's still got a reputation to maintain, god dammit. But in one conversation, he's learnt more about her than in five years and a half of sharing classes and a Common Room.

The boys could have found Ali Baba's cave and he couldn't care less at the moment.

 

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Five

 

“In increments both measurable and not, our childhood is stolen from us – not always in one momentous event but often in a series of small robberies, which add up to the same loss.”

– John Irving

 

“- I've got the book!” yells Peter, barrelling in the dorm making as much noise as a stampeding horde of schizophrenic hippogriffs and waving an old tome like the banner of a fallen enemy.

- Good. Pass it to Table Two,” answers Remus without looking up from the piece of parchment he is furiously scribbling Rune s on. Peter frowns.

“- What is Table Two?” he asks, looking back and forth between James, seated on his bed, and Sirius, sprawled on the ground at the foot of Remus's desk. James is supposed to be preparing the incantation with all the spells they'll need to cast on the Map after Remus and Sirius have finished transcribing Runes on the clean, precise lines Peter's spent the last three weeks neatly drawing – they've discovered Locum Describe is better used as a draft, as it tends to get a bit sloppy when cast on highly magical buildings like Hogwarts. Remus says the ink will start moving on its own once he's figured what part of the Runic inscription is related to the moving parts of the castle and they've written it down on the right portions of the Map. It's a shame they're probably infringing half a dozen laws by creating it – they haven't checked, but it's been years since the first time they decided they'd better suppose everything they do is illegal, and probably avoided a lot of trouble by doing so –, because the magic they're using for it is far beyond NEWT-level. Although he should be used to it, after having spent three years practising in secret to achieve a tightly-regulated transformation.

“- Me,” James and Sirius answer in chorus. Remus sighs and pinches the bridge of his nose.

“- No, Table Two is James, Sirius. You are Table Three.

- But you said I was Table Two!

- No I didn't.

- Yes you did.

- Sirius.

- Why not just call us by our names then?” Sirius relents in a half-whine. Remus sighs again.

“- We already went through this. We are calling ourselves by numbers so we can swap tasks if needed.” His statement is met by three blank stares and a puzzled silence. He sighs a third time and starts writing again.

“- Stop sighing, Moony dear,” says Sirius from the ground. “You'll end up breathless.

- I've got a few other ideas of things that'd leave you breathless,” Remus automatically shoots back. Sirius winks at him and licks his lips while James and Peter groan.

“- No, this is absolutely not happening again. We'd almost gone six months without your flirting, couldn't you hold back a bit longer?” protests James.

“- Why, are you jealous, Prongsie love?” asks Sirius, all fake innocence and batting eyelashes.

“- Absolutely, Padfoot. I thought that what we had was, well, serious.” Sirius lets an undignified snort. Remus rolls his eyes, but given that he's fighting very hard not to let his grin show, James clearly counts it as a win. Peter clears his throat.

“- Um, so, who do I give it to again?” He waves the book on which he's found the long sought-for spell that will allow them to bind James's incantation to the Runes Remus is now carefully starting to write on what looks like the Great Hall from here. The parchment seems to faintly hum each time the werewolf traces a new symbol.

“- To him,” answers Sirius pointing at James, who looks up again.

“- Who, me? No, I thought it was you!

- Of course not, it's you.

- No it's not!

- Moony just said you were Table Two.

- But Pete's got to give the spell to Table Three.

- No, to Table Two.

- You're wrong.

- Am not.

- Are too.

- Am not.

- Are to–

- Oh, shut up, both of you,” snaps Remus. James and Sirius immediately fall silent, and Peter has to hide his snicker behind a cough, which doesn't prevent him from earning himself a glare from Remus. James opens his mouth again but is interrupted by Remus again. “Get out, you two. I don't know where, and I don't care for that matter, go and have a fly or something, but out.

- But Moony, it's pouring!” protests James. Remus raises an unimpressed eyebrow.

“- Since when has a bit of water stopped you from flying?

- Touché.

- But I don't want to fly,” complains Sirius. Remus leans over the edge of his desk and glares at him for a minute before Sirius gets up, mumbling, “Okay, okay, we're leaving. Or you could just say Wormtail and you want to be left alone to shag it out.

- It's no use, he won't have me,” answers Remus while distractedly waving at Peter with his quill, who blushes a lovely shade of crimson. He doesn't mind Remus's and Sirius's jokes in the slightest, and finds them rather amusing. Some people might be bothered by the fact they're two blokes, but Peter's and his mum's motto has always been live and let live, and anyway, they all know they're only joking, right? But he's never felt comfortable with being dragged in sex-related jokes, no matter the gender of the people involved. Sirius scoffs.

“- That's because he's blind, Moonbeam. You're a balm for sore eyes.

- And sore arses,” stage-whispers James. Remus chuckles while Sirius shoots back a :

“- Yeah, you of all people would know that, wouldn't you.

- Actually, he does know,” answers Remus. “We shagged for a time until he asked me to dye my hair red and find green contacts. I called quits after that.”

It's James's turn to blush while Peter and Sirius burst out laughing. The Seeker grabs his fingerless gloves and his scarf – it's late January, the weather is chilly, and it's raining frogs and Kneazles outside – before taking Sirius's elbow and stomping out.

“- If we get pneumonia, it's your fault, Lupin!” he shouts over his shoulder. Remus and Peter share a glance before bursting up again.

“- Won't it slow us down to have them out?” asks Peter after a minute or two. Remus shakes his head.

“- Nah. I've got to finish this before we can do anything else, and Padfoot has already copied enough of the inscription for me to work for a few hours.

- But I don't get it. Why should he copy it from the book if you're going to write them down just after?

- Because they're not written in the right order in the manuscript. All the combinations are whole, but the ones bound to the Astronomy Tower, for example, are next the ones describing the West part of the dungeons. Sirius and I have been trying to get some order so I don't make a mistake when I put them on the Map.

- Really, what's the worse that could happen if you got one wrong?” objects Peter as he drags a chair, settles it next to Remus and sits down. The werewolf smiles at him and puts his quill down before entering in what the boys have dubbed his Professor Lupin mode.

“- I know it's hard to get it, but try to visualise Runes as potential vectors of power. These,” he gestures at the lines scribbled on a sheet of muggle paper at his elbow, “are gathered in unique combinations bound to a specific part of the castle. The symbols that look like arrows at the beginning and the end of each line are dampeners, they take the meaning of the Runes off so we can write them down properly. If you look, it's the same on the book, and on every book about Runes. I don't put these symbols on the Map, and that means the Runes I write are connected to the castle's magic. If I alter their order, I don't know what might happen. To the castle, nothing, I presume, but the Map could take fire or something.”

Peter's eyes have been widening during the whole explanation.

“- I knew you were doing something difficult, but I never thought it required that much...

- … thought? Precision? Carefulness?

- Yeah.”

Remus shrugs.

“- Well, it's certainly illegal. I mean, the sheer possibilities of something like that... it took me three weeks to wrestle the authorisation from McGonagall to check the book out of the Restricted Section, because it's one of the few Prefects can't get, and I'm not even sure she realises what's in it.”

Peter chuckles at the echo of his own earlier thoughts, before another question flashes through his mind.

“- But wait, how come you know all this? I mean, they can't possibly teach that in Ancient Runes, do they?

- Nope. The Runes we use in class are mostly numerical ones. These ones are a mix of the Cirth and the Futhark alphabets, very old ones. I told you before, I only know of them because the subject is fascinating and I've been doing extra research for Orald ever since Third Year. And I don't think he really knows I've come this far,” he adds with an smirk.

“- You could become a Rune-master then, couldn't you?

- I... I don't know. I don't think so,” answers Remus, shrugging and looking away from him.

“- Why?

- It's... the anti-werewolves regulations are becoming harsher every time. I'm not sure I'll even be able to study anything at all.”

Peter blinks.

“- What do you mean? Last time the law changed was eight years ago.

- I know. But there's this woman, Dolores Umbridge. She's been saying that the murders were actually committed by werewolves. She's becoming powerful at the Ministry, I'm sure she'll manage to pass some laws for the sake of the Wizarding community or whatever.”

Hell. He'd thought Moony hadn't seen the articles in the Prophet. He'd made sure none of the boys did, because Remus would've hated Sirius or James throwing a tantrum and making a fuss about it and, well, he hadn't wanted Remus to see them either. His silence speaks volumes though.

“- You knew that already, didn't you,” murmurs Remus, letting his head fall on the back of the armchair and staring at the ceiling. Peter hums. “And you thought I didn't.

- Well, I still was the Newspapers Delegate and Correspondent last time I checked.

- There wasn't a war going on last time you checked.”

The apparent ease with which Remus says it doesn't soften the blow at all. They'd somehow managed not to acknowledge it aloud, because doing so was giving the situation a reality none of them is able to face. Or was.

Remus glances at him when he fails to answer and mutely takes his hand. Peter squeezes it.

“- That's it, isn't it. It's not just some trouble that's going to blow over on its own, is it.”

Remus nods.

“- Fuck,” breathes Peter. Remus squeezes his hand a little harder.

“- Even if I could study Runes, or anything else for that matter, I'm not sure I would,” he finally says. Peter raises an eyebrow and waits for the rest. He knows when to stay silent and let his friend find his pace and speak at his own rhythm. He's had years to learn him, after all. “Because, you know, that would be safety,” Remus finally adds. “I mean, I can't. Not when there's a war out there. Not when innocent people are getting murdered. I can't. It would be too selfish, you know?

- But what would you want to do? I mean, you're not even seventeen yet!

- I don't know, Pete. I don't know. I just know we've got to help, because we can, and others can't. Because we have the power to face Voldemort and the Death Eaters, we've got the responsibility to do it, do you understand?

- So what? You're going to fight as soon as you're out? Become an Auror? Cause you have the abilities for it.

- I can't become an Auror, Pete,” he laughs, bitter and jagged, sounding far too disillusioned for a sixteen-year-old. Peter can't help but feel the same.

“- That's because they're idiots.

- Who? You mean, the whole world?

- Yeah. All of them. Stupid as a drunk Puffskein.”

Remus laughs again, but brighter, clearer, this time. Some of the weariness and the disenchantment have passed away like clouds in front of the sun.

“- I'm telling you, Peter Pettigrew, the world needs more people like you.

- Well, you're lucky to have me then,” he answers as he lets the warmth of Remus's last sentence settle in, sweet and golden like an autumn apple gorged with sun and bathed in honey. Remus turns his head a bit to face him and beams at him.

“- Yeah. Yeah, I am.”

Peter doesn't say the reciprocal is true, but he thinks Remus hears it anyway as the werewolf takes his hand back and returns to carefully copying down the sharp lines of the Runes, a small smile on his lips, the faint hum of the parchment getting lost in the low crackle of the logs in the hearth and the soft patter of raindrops on the roof tiles.

 

* * *

 

“- Prongs.

- Hmm?

- Do you really want to fly?”

James throws Sirius a sideways glance and shrugs.

“- Not that much. But we were getting cabin-fever in there.”

Sirius hums in assent and loops his right arm through James's left, huddling closer to him for warmth and out of sheer habit.

“- We could go to the kitchens instead,” proposes James as they enter the second-floor corridor, lightly dragging his fingers against the spines of the books at his right. Sirius hums again, mechanically pushes the tapestry aside and ducks down into the narrow staircase, jumping over the trick step and hearing James do just the same behind him.

The kitchens are already busy with dinner preparations, but that doesn't stop a small army of House-elves from assaulting them as soon as they've set foot in it.

“- Hello, Misters, what will Misters have today?

- Hello, Twinkie,” greets James, crouching to eye-level with the small creature. Sirius rolls his eyes behind him but doesn't say anything. Despite James and Remus's joint efforts, he can't help but feel sightly repelled by the Elves, call it childhood trauma. But he's had an ear Vanished by Remus on that matter, and he isn't going to express himself about this any time soon. “We'd like two hot chocolates,” continues James, “and apple pie...

- … and pudding,” adds Sirius, not paying heed to James's disgusted expression.

“- And biscuits.

- Which ones, Sirs?

- Do you have more of that blueberry ones you gave us last time?

- Yes we do, Sirs.

- Well then, that's all.

- Will Sirs be staying here, Sir?

- Yes, I think so, Twinkie. Thank you.

- Always a pleasure, Sir,” squeaks the elf, bowing so low that her pointy nose grazes the floor. James gets up, grabs Sirius's elbow and leads him to a dimly-lit corner of the enormous room, where there are two small round tables set up for the occasional visitor (namely the Marauders, although they've had the suspicion for a few years that Dumbledore enjoys midnight snacks).

“- So,” starts James, looking at Sirius over the brim of his chocolate-filled mug. “Moony, hmm?”

Sirius can't help the smile brought by the name.

“- We're... we're good,” he says at last, settling down against the chair's back and stretching his legs under the table, bumping them against his brother's. James sips on his chocolate but says nothing, his hazel eyes shining behind his glasses with the reflected light of the fires. “It's... we talked, and we're... not back to how we were before, it's a bit different, but we're back to... to...

- … to being you? As in, RemusandSirius?” provides James. Sirius nods and fiddles with his spoon before attacking his pudding. He raises his gaze when he feels James fidget.

“- What is it?”

James shakes his head and takes a bite of his pie before suddenly putting it down and setting his hands squarely on the table, his leg still bouncing nervously under the tabletop.

“- Looks like we're down to business,” Sirius feebly jokes, wondering what on earth is happening to his friend. James Potter doesn't fidget. He messes with his hair and struts around and plays with a stupid stolen Snitch – although they haven't seen the latter for quite a time –, but he does not fidget.

“- Sirius. Have you ever thought that, maybe, you might feel... I mean, you might see... I mean, you... you...

- Spit it out, for Merlin's sake!”

James takes a deep breath and plants his eyes in Sirius's.

“- Has it ever crossed your mind that you might feel more than friendship for Remus?”

What.

Maybe he hasn't voiced that aloud.

Maybe he can't.

“- What??!!”

Apparently, he can.

“- Look,” starts James, “I'm not implying anything–

- Aren't you?” coldly interrupts Sirius. Rationally, he knows he is freaking out for absolutely nothing – it's James –, but the only thing he can feel is bubbling, bursting anger at his brother, anger that drowns everything and leaves him seething, teeth bared, looking more feral and canine than ever. “Aren't you implying that I'm a bloody poof?!

- Not necessarily, and don't use that word, I'm just saying that–

- I did hear the first time, there's no need to repeat it,” he lashes out, getting up. James looks at him, lips thinned and jaw firmly set.

“- And there's no need for you to get all defensive.

- I'm not getting defensive!” shrieks Sirius. James raises an eyebrow at the contradiction.

“- I don't get it. You play along with every bad joke Moony makes and you can't stand–

- Shut up, James.

- But Sirius–

- I'm leaving,” he says, turning away and stamping towards the kitchen entrance, not caring about the House-elves that might get in the way, or about James who is still calling his name.

He stomps through the corridors, ignoring the few professors and students he passes by, not really knowing where he's going until he receives a bucketful of icy water on the face and realises he's out on the grounds. The wind is howling, pushing the rain westwards, creating endless undulating grey curtains of freezing, wet needles that slap his unprotected face and hands already numb with cold. He's unwittingly taken the passage that leads from near the Entrance Hall to the Greenhouses and thus painstakingly Alohomora's his way into Greenhouse number three – there are protections against intruders, after all.

His chattering teeth and wheezing breaths sound loud in the warm, humid silence of the arboretum. He walks to an isolated bench at the end of the greenhouse and sits on it, arms encircling his legs and his forehead against his knees, ignoring the shivers that run up and down his soaked body.

He pertinently knows his reaction is completely out of proportion. James hasn't really said anything, and even if he had, it's James. One of the three people he trusts and loves the most in the whole world. His best friend. His brother. Besides, it's not as if his sexual orientation was unknown to him. He has been aware for quite a long time that he wasn't attracted to girls, not like James or Peter or even sometimes Remus are. When he wakes up with soiled, sticky sheets, or an aching tent between his legs, it isn't to images of soft curves or long hair or petite hands. When the boys talk about girls, he always fails to muster up the interest, the attraction and desire he knows his friends feel. He would think he's somehow broken if Remus and Peter hadn't enthusiastically been commenting for years on the progress the queer community has slowly been making in Western countries ever since 1969.

But still. There's a significant difference between internally acknowledging his difference and hearing someone else saying it aloud. And an even bigger one when it comes to maybe, possibly, facing the fact that he's attracted to one of his best friends.

No, not even attracted.

Sirius sighs, gets up and starts pacing the central aisle up and down, staying well clear of the rows of plants on either side, not really knowing which ones are dangerous and which ones are simply frightening and murderous-looking.

“- Think, Black,” he irritably mutters to himself. Think.

He's felt that magnetic pull, that attraction towards Remus, for as long as he can remember. He can't recall a single instant, apart from the first months in First year, when there wasn't that gravitational force that drew the two of them together, gyrating around one another like the binary system of Sirius, the star. Even in the hectic weeks that preceded the Prank last year he felt this tug towards Remus that somehow fed the irrational irritation and anger that seized him in the werewolf's presence. Regardless of details, this thing has always been there, they've built their friendship on it, on this instinctive wordless closeness that makes them more than the sum of their parts. He loves Remus, and he knows it. And he loves James and Peter too, as much if not equally.

But he doesn't exactly feel like he belongs in James's or Peter's arms.

“- Every friendship is different,” he half-heartedly whispers to himself to no use whatsoever.

He summons the feeling of loss that came with Remus's half-absence in the months following the Prank. Would he had felt the same had James been the victim of his carelessness? Would he had felt like he'd lost a limb had Peter been the one not talking to him?

Fuck. I don't know.

And that's when he sneezes.

 

 

“- So you didn't think of anything smarter than taking a stroll on the grounds?” asks Remus with more than a hint of dry sarcasm. Peter snorts, hidden behind his comic, and misses the face Sirius pulls at him. He's seated on James's bed, a quilt around his shoulders, a steaming cup of tea cradled in his hands.

“- You were the one who told us to go flying, Moony,” points out James from behind Sirius, where he is vigorously drying his best friend's long hair with a fluffy towel. Remus sets his book down and raises a very unimpressed eyebrow at them.

“- James Potter, since when do you actually listen to what I have to say?

- That's not fair, I do listen to you!

- Only when I'm talking about Lily.

- It's the second time in three hours that you use my lily-flower against me. That's not gentlemanly, Moony. Besides, I also listen to you when you get your crazy ideas, which is all the time.”

Remus almost looks offended.

“- I'll have you know the two of you are the ones who get crazy, or shall I say stupid, ideas. I just point out all the flaws and rectify them.

- Sure, whatever you say, darling,” sing-songs James as he makes his way to the bathroom with the damp towel in hand. Sirius shivers and is shaken by a series of coughs that leave his throat raw. Remus redirects his focus on him and smirks.

“- Anyway, what led you to taking an impromptu outdoors shower a Sunday afternoon in January, Padfoot?

- I second that question,” quips Peter from behind his comic-book. He manages to dodge the pillow Sirius throws at him without even glancing up, which Sirius must recognise is quite impressive.

“- Siriuuuus, I've asked you a questiooooon,” croons Remus.

“- James and I got in a fight,” he croaks. Agreed, it isn't the most intelligent thing to answer, but he can't be held responsible for anything that comes out of his mouth at this moment. Remus's face does an interesting twitch, and he distantly wonders if his rougher-than-usual voice is the reason of it. Then again, he might very well be imagining things.

“- And what did you find to fight about between here and the kitchen?” asks Peter, finally looking up from his Phoenix Saga, though Sirius will be damned if he knows what it is.

“- We strongly disagreed on whether Minnie's children would be kittens if she had sex with a cat in cat form but gave birth in human form,” answers James from the bathroom. Sirius sends him a psychic wave of gratitude and love.

“- You what?!” screeches Peter. Remus is just looking at him, slowly shaking his head.

“- You are so weird,” he mutters before turning back to his book. James's head peeks from behind the bathroom door and he winks at Sirius.

Crisis averted.

 

* * *

 

James looks up from his Transfiguration theory book when Sirius pulls his curtains open, steps in, closes them and climbs on the bed.

“- Hey,” he says.

“- Hey,” answers James. He carefully marks down his page and sets the book aside as Sirius makes himself comfortable in front of him. They look at each other for a little while before James waves his hand muttering a Silentio.

“- So?

- So what?

- You're not going to make this easy, are you,” mumbles James. Sirius shrugs and James rolls his eyes and crosses his arms, unrelenting. Seconds pass by, marked by the staccato of the rain on the roof. It sounds like grains of uncooked rice are falling right from the heavens.

“- It's just that... I... I didn't even know I liked boys, you know?” finally says Sirius, sighing. “I mean, I did, but I didn't really accept it.”

James chuckles a little.

“- What?

- Pads, I've known you don't like girls for ages. It's fine.

- No, it's not!” Sirius suddenly snaps. James blinks once, then frowns.

“- Sirius. It is perfectly fine to like boys instead of girls, or to like both, or even none at all.”

Sirius sighs again and hangs his head down. James squeezes his calf.

“- Look, I know you were always told it's unnatural and wrong, but so were you about werewolves. And look where it landed us all,” he finishes with a small smile. Sirius snorts. “And apart from me, you've got Peter, who's the most accepting bloke on the planet, and Remus, who knows very well how it is to be different and shunned and would never do that to anyone. So, really, you liking boys? not a problem.

- Thanks, Prongs.

- Don't mention it,” he gruffly replies, his words betrayed by the affection behind. He lies down on his pillows and stares at the canopy of his bed, where the small golden Snitches and brooms they'd sown in response to the constellations on Sirius's bed are faintly glowing. He can feel Sirius playing with the slightly frayed hem of his pyjama legs.

“- Are you going to tell him?” he asks after a silence. Sirius's hands stop moving, and a glance tells James his best friend is perfectly still, staring at him like he's grown a second head.

“- Are you barking?

- No, I believe that's more of your area.

- Are you mad?” Sirius asks again, not even granting the pun a nod nor a snort.

“- Then again, that's debatable.

- James. Did you really ask whether I was going to tell Remus I'm in love with him?!

- Hah! At least you acknowledge it!” exclaims James, sitting up and pointing an accusatory finger at his best friend. Sirius frowns, purses his lips and says nothing; but the tight set of his shoulders makes his discomfort quite clear.

“- Why wouldn't you tell him? He's Remus. You'd have to do something terrible to make him hate you.

- Already done, mate,” mutters Sirius. James's eyes go as wide as saucers when he realises the full extent of his words.

“- Bugger, I'm sorry, Padfoot, I didn't mean that...

- I know you didn't, it's okay.”

The silence that follows is borderline uncomfortable. James stares back at the Snitches and Sirius starts playing again with James's pyjamas' loose threads.

“- I just really don't want to fuck things up again.”

James sits back up and Sirius takes his hand and starts tracing the lines, not looking up at him. His chiselled face is half-hidden by the black curtain of his hair, but James can see he's biting his lip very, very hard, as if by doing so he's going to stop his voice from trembling.

“- It's such a relief, you know. Being able to talk to him, and touch him, and smile to him and be sure he's going to smile back. And I really don't want to fuck this up again,” he repeats. James nods and squeezes his friend's shoulder.

“- Yeah, okay. I get it. I do.

- I'm not sure you do, Prongsie,” laughs Sirius in a fit of his mercurial temperament.

“- Why wouldn't I?

- Because you haven't got anything to lose with Lily. I mean, you're at rock bottom, you couldn't fall any lower.

- Ouch, low blow, Padfoot. That's dirty fighting.

- Nah, it's called payback, dear,” Sirius shoots back before being interrupted by a coughing fit. They both get startled by Remus when he draws the bed hangings apart, carrying a glass of water he hands to Sirius.

“- Pads, get something around your throat, you'll end up voiceless if you keep up like that. Drink. And Prongs, you should really practise on your Silencing Charm.

- How much did you hear?” asks James tonelessly as he casts a swift glance at Sirius, whose face is white as a sheet.

“- Nothing much, I promise. Just enough to know that Padfoot mocked you with Lily, which makes it the third time this afternoon alone. You should report us for bullying.” Remus at last seems to take in Sirius's stony expression and raises his eyebrows in surprise. “Wow, easy there, Pads. I promise nothing I heard was compromising.

- Anyway, you know everything about me that's compromising, Moony,” says Sirius in a strangled laugh, tugging on the hem of Remus's jumper to bring him closer, circling the werewolf's waist with his arms and burrowing his face in Remus's stomach. The latter absent-mindedly starts playing with Sirius's hair and looks over at James.

“- That said, it looks like Lily has taken on talking to you like a regular human being, hasn't she?

- What can I say, I knew she couldn't forever stay immune to my charm.

- Or maybe your ego has grown so big it knocked her common sense out,” shoots Sirius from the depths of Remus's numerous layers. Remus chuckles and starts massaging Sirius's scalp, his glinting eyes still fixed on James. A change of subject is essential, James decides.

“- Anyway, where's Wormtail?

- With Mary.”

Sirius pulls back in surprise and both him and James stare at Remus in surprise.

“- It's – Tempus – ten o'clock on a Saturday night,” points out the dog Animagus.

“- Your observational skills are astounding, darling.

- No but Moony, wait. Is Peter getting laid?!

- I don't know, Prongs, I'm not there with them so I can't tell you.

- Remus, do cooperate,” groans Sirius, smashing his face back where it was in the first place. Remus sighs.

“- You guys are the most unobservant people I've ever met.

- That's not true, I was the one who put two and two together concerning your badly-behaved rabbit,” mutters Sirius.

“- That was one time!

- And you were already pretty obsessed with Moony,” offers James. “I mean, less than now, but still.” He snickers when Sirius gives him the two-fingered salute.

“- No but really, guys. Pete's been dating Mary for the past three weeks.

- And they're already going at it?!” indignantly exclaims James.

“- Without telling us they were dating in the first place?!” outrageously adds Sirius.

“- He did tell us,” protests Remus. His statement is met by two equally blank stares. He pushes Sirius back and sits down on the bed next to him, gaping at both of them. “Gosh, I can't believe you genuinely didn't know.

- He never told us,” repeats Sirius.

“- He did, you just didn't listen.

- When did he tell us then?” defiantly asks James, sticking out his chin. Remus rolls his eyes.

“- Exactly two weeks ago? Before the Hogsmeade visit?”

Sirius and James share a look.

“- Oh, hell. That's right, he did tell us, didn't he,” murmurs Sirius. James nods, biting on his lip. He remembers now. He even remembers they'd decided to smuggle Firewiskey out that very night to celebrate. But they do get sloshed on a semi-regular basis, and he just... he just forgot what they were drinking at. And apparently, so did Sirius.

“- You two make such appalling friends,” dryly comments Remus, shaking his head and looking like he can't actually believe what he's seeing. James feels a twinge of guilt in his gut and looks at Sirius, who is pointedly mapping out the twists and turns of the cover's intricate pattern. This ability Remus has of making them feel ashamed of themselves is quite astounding, he thinks. It doesn't always work, and he seldom uses it in the first place, but still. Remus yawns.

“- I'm going to bed,” he announces, getting up.

“- Rem, you're such an old fart sometimes,” says James. Sirius slaps him soundly on the thigh. “Oi! That hurt!

- I'm the only one who's allowed to say Remus is an old fart.

- Why, thank you, Padfoot. That's very kind of you,” shoots Remus from near his bed.

“- Anything for you, Moony,”answers Sirius. Both share a meaningful glance before Remus looks at James and tells him good night as well. James stares at the closed hangings of his friend's bed for an instant before turning back to Sirius and casting another Silencing Charm.

“- You've admitted you're in love with him and you still act the same as before,” he remarks. Sirius shrugs.

“- I've been waiting for him to let us get back to normal for months. I'm not going to change something about it just because I've said aloud what you and I have known for ages, right?

- But you're still freaking out.

- Of course I am, Prongs, what the hell? This entire thing is stupid, and it's not because I rationally know being g... being not attracted to women is okay that it automatically makes it okay for me, all right?”

James nods and opens back his Transfiguration book, as Sirius summons the book he's currently reading and sits down next to James this time. After a few minutes, the tension in Sirius's shoulders starts bleeding away, and he burrows deeper into the heap of pillows James sleeps with.

James feels his lids getting heavier and heavier and, as he falls into a dreamless sleep, he forms the last coherent thought that things might be beginning to look up.

Of course, he wakes up coughing the next day.

 

* * *

 

“- Black, where is Potter?

- I don't know, Professor,” answers Sirius to a frowning Barnes. Remus quickly looks over Sirius at the empty seat between him and Peter. James had left them saying he had to go to the loo before Double DADA, but that was fifteen minutes ago. Last year, him being late to class wouldn't have been troubling at all, but he's been making considerable efforts this year – and the now friendly smile a certain redhead greets him with has surely played in the balance –, and the buzzing tension that's been mounting between Slytherins and Gryffindors is enough to make his absence disquieting.

Of course, James Potter being the Second Most Dramatic Drama Queen Of All Times (the first being Sirius, whose title remains undisputed), that's the moment he chooses to enter the class, as if he'd been waiting behind the door for the most opportune moment.

He's got antlers protruding from his now bald head.

“- Wow, I didn't know Prongs could look that ugly,” murmurs Peter. Sirius snorts. Remus is too busy staring at James and trying to push back hysterical laughter.

“- I'm sorry, Professor. I found myself at the wrong end of a spell,” says James, raising his hand as to pass a hand through his hair, only to remember at the last moment that he's as bald as he can get without calling himself Charles Xavier.

“- Anteoculatia, was it?

- It seems so, Professor.

- Well, get a seat, kid. And don't forget to pay a visit to the nurse,” Barnes says with his thick North American accent before turning back to the class at large. James ambles to his seat and sprawls in his usual manner on his chair; but the unexpected weight of the antlers unbalances him and almost sends his face to a spontaneous meeting with the surface of the desk. He groans and nearly enucleates Peter as he bends down to take out some parchment and a quill.

“- You'd think he'd be used to manoeuvring in reduced spaces with spades sticking out of his head,” murmurs Remus.

“- It's been some time since he had the prongs but not the accompanying coordination,” Sirius mutters back.

“- If you really think I can't hear you both you're wrong,” furiously whispers James. Peter almost chokes trying to swallow down his giggles and Remus hides his smile by bending down to retrieve a functioning quill from his messenger bag.

“- Black, since you're listening so much, care to tell us what an Inferius is?” half-barks Barnes.

“- Of course. An Inferius, whose plural is Inferi, is a dead body reanimated through the art of Necromancy to be used as a puppet by the Dark Wizard who cast the spells,” Sirius nonchalantly answers. Barnes looks at him for a moment.

“- Tell us what you fight Inferi with and what you have to be wary of,” he finally demands.

“- First, as Inferi are reanimated corpses, they don't feel pain and can't be slowed down nor stopped by slashing, or by spells that aim at creating pain. Besides, they are stronger than humans. But you can fight them with fire or light.

- Good. Ten points to Gryffindor. Now stop cackling and do pay attention.

- Yes sir.”

Sirius is poking James's side as soon as Barnes gives his back to the class and starts writing on the black board.

“- Prongs,” he whispers. “What happened?

- Slimy wankers, that's what happened,” groans James. “Avery, Mulciber, Snape and their goons cornered me in the bathroom.

- And you didn't lose a limb?” asks Remus, surprised.

“- Filch was passing by, so they made a run for it. But Snape managed to jinx me before he left.

- I'm almost sad he doesn't get the full irony of the situation,” comments Peter, giving way to general chortling interrupted by a paper plane that lands in front of James. They all look up to meet a pair of green eyes that look furious unless you see the small glint of amusement behind.

“- Hello, Evans,” mouths James with his best smile. Lily just rolls her eyes and turns back to the front of the class, gently taping Mary's shoulder and getting her friend out of the love-struck gazing into Peter's eyes.

James unfolds the plane. Shut up, the four of you is written in a loopy handwriting with, in smaller letters under it : Potter, you look ridiculous.

The topic of the lesson isn't really suitable for the ridiculous smiles plastered to James's and Peter's faces, as Sirius points it out to Remus.

“- Don't be harsh on them, they're in love. That turns you stupid,” answers Remus.

“- True, true.

- Merlin, that's so hypocritical of you,” grumbles James.

“- Shut up, Potter,” say Sirius, Lily and Barnes at the same time.

 

* * *

 

“- Why aren't there any mirrors in this bloody castle?!

- Prongs, you're like the only person who feels the need to have a full-body mirror at hand at all times.

- That's not true, I bet Padfoot would love being able to gaze at himself wherever he goes.

- Shut up, Wormtail.

- He has a point though.

- Stop fraternising with the enemy, Moony.

- Could we please re-focus on my predicament?

- Did you just accurately use the word predicament?

- You're not the only one who knows complicated words, Lupin.

- But he's the only one who uses them.

- Thanks for your input, Pettigrew.

- So we're on last name basis now? Comrades, have we fallen low.

- Breathe, Prongsie, everything will be all right.

- Make them shut up!

- I for one know how you could make me shut up, Sirius.

- I don't want details, thank you.

- I'm in, Moonykins.

- I know you are, darling.

- ARGH!

- You all right, Potter?”

They all turn around to come face to face Alice and Lily.

“- Uh, hi. Evans. Alice.

- Are you okay, James?

- Um, yes, I'm fine.

- You look a little flustered,” pips in Lily.

“- Nono, I'm... peachy! Good, that is.

- Merlin, stop laughing,” mutters Remus to Sirius and Peter between two giggles.

“- I... can't...” says Sirius in a breathless voice while Peter just gasps for air, bent in two. James glares at them as he stomps on Sirius's foot, which only makes them laugh harder.

“- Well, if you say so,” teases Alice, grabbing Lily's elbow and going round them. “I'm sorry, gentlemen, but we've got business to attend to.

- Fare you well then, fair ladies,” calls Remus. Lily turns around and blows him a kiss, and James's resulting face is enough to make Peter and Sirius dissolve into another fit of giggles.

“- You've got to stop making fun of me in front of her!

- Prongs, Prongs, it only makes you more human,” soothes Remus.

“- Not that you're a monster, mind,” says Peter.

“- That's what you think,” grumbles Sirius, massaging his aching foot. “And back to the original topic–

- Thank you,” hisses James.

“- … why on earth do you feel the urging need of a mirror?

- I just want to check if what's left of the antlers is visible,” huffs James. Remus snorts.

“- Don't worry, dear, your hair hides any remaining stumps.

- Don't think I still trust you, Rem.

- Ye of little faith.

- He's telling the truth though,” comments Peter. “There's nothing visible left.

- And you should believe Wormtail,” points out Sirius. “He's the only one here who wouldn't say you're uglier than you really look.

- Thank you, chaps. With friends like you, who needs enemies?

- Well at least you know that if you die someday, it won't be Peter's fault.”

They make their way up the main stairs, bickering, playfully shoving each other and laughing. Remus loops his arm through Sirius's, rests his head on his friend's shoulder and yawns.

“- Tired, Moons?” Sirius softly asks.

“- A bit.

- But the full's in four days...

- I know, I just couldn't sleep last night.

- We've got a free period now, you can take a nap.” Remus hums in answer and, although he straightens up, he keeps his arm where it is.

 

Remus is woken up by a loud intake of breath. He is lying on a couch near the fireplace, his head resting on Sirius's lap; and, as he opens his eyes, he sees James seated cross-legged on the rug in front of them. The stag Animagus is wearing a widening grin and sightly... bouncing?

“- Be quiet, you'll wake Moony up,” murmurs Sirius's voice somewhere above his head.

“- Already done,” he mumbles. A warm, wide hand immediately starts massaging his skull and he fights the urge to purr with the remnants of his dignity.

“- Sorry, Rem,” says James, looking vaguely apologetic. Remus half-shrugs, which, in his position, ends up as an aborted shoulder movement, but James gets the message nonetheless.

“- Pads, I just thought of something,” he starts.

“- Careful there,” teases Sirius. James keeps going as if nothing had been said.

“- The mirrors, Paddikins. It's brilliant, I don't get why we didn't think of it earlier, but bloody mirrors on the walls!” A silence. Then:

“- Oh. Oh.”

Remus slides from his foetal position and gets up, stretching his half-asleep muscles. Sirius and James look like they're competing for the title of “highest raising of eyebrows”, entirely communicating through jerky eye movements and Legilimency, even if they won't admit the latter. He turns around and looks at the rest of the Common Room, waiting for the moment his friends will remember he isn't fluent in manic grins. His eyes fall on a table near a high window, at which is seated the usual trio of girls – Lily, Mary and Alice. As Sixth Years, they have a lot of free periods, such as the whole Friday afternoon and an hour after Transfiguration on Wednesdays, compensated by a continuous assault of homework, which he should be attending to. But he has trouble sleeping – has had for months, knows it's linked with the rest and tries to fight it off, but some things can't be righted by will alone –, and given the ever-increasing difficulty of the curriculum, he needs all the energy he can gather for the following double Charms period, even though he has what could be called a good feeling about Nonverbal spells – but then, that doesn't mean much.

Peter is seated with the girls, and even without his somewhat enhanced hearing, Remus would know they must be talking of Herbology just with the way Pete's face is lit up. Remus watches as his friend talks about the Barroccoca, a newly-discovered South-American plant. His extra-curricular knowledge brings a faint smile to Lily and Alice's lips and a slightly impressed look in Mary's eyes as the three of them interestedly listen to him. Remus leans against the back of the couch and smiles. He is slowly starting to feel better, and he knows the state of his and Sirius's relationship plays a big part in the balance. Deep down, he knows he has changed, matured, maybe affirmed himself suit to last June's events. And he isn't the only one who has evolved. James is less cocky and headless, doesn't throw hexes at people only because he doesn't like their face anymore, nor does he shut himself from everyone but Sirius. And Sirius... Sirius is more careful with what he says and does. He laughs less than before, but so do they all, and ever since things have been righted between them his infectious bark-like laugh is heard more often. In a way, he burns less bright than before, but with far more intensity and purpose, like a pulsar: less light but so much passion he melts everything he touches. Peter has changed too, and he might be the one that has done so the most. His eyes still light up with admiration every time he sees or talks to James, but the adoration is gone, replaced by something more like the healthy respect a man feels towards a worthy equal. He sometimes still scrambles to answer to James's or Sirius's every whim, but the silly boy that applauded to a show-off with a Snitch seven months ago is gone for good. He has grown up a bit, lost some weight, but the real change, the thing that finally caught Mary's eyes after three years of wistful pining, is the new assurance with which Peter now interacts with others. He still counts on the other Marauders to protect him, because that's how they work, but he is slowly taking the form of the man he will be.

What is incredible, Remus reflects, is that they have managed to evolve so much, in so little time, without ever irremediably growing apart. If anything, they're even more interwoven than before, not really knowing where one finishes and the others start; sometimes, he will phrase an thought a certain way, or have a certain association of ideas, and turn around to check he is the one who has spoken and not the others. By the constant ebb and flow of bestowal and acquisition that friendship is, he has given the other three parts of him he never knew he had in the first place, and has unintentionally taken possession of bits and pieces of the others that now make him a patch-worked whole.

“- PETER, COME HERE!” bellows James, starling Remus, Peter and the girls.

“- Did you really need to yell, Potter?” asks an annoyed Lily. James just grins cheekily at her and gestures for Peter to come, as Sirius creeps behind Remus on the couch, grabs his shoulders, and tugs backwards, sending Remus over the seat and on the couch with a yelp.

“- My dear associates in mischief-making, we just had a fan-tas-tic idea,” starts James, whose nostrils Remus has a plunging view of. “Moony, pumpkin, would you mind turning around and behaving like a civilised person? I know you mutts do have trouble with socially accepted behaviour, but make an effort,” he sweetly adds.

“- Only if you swear never to call me pumpkin again,” shoots back Remus as Sirius complains about being put in the same bag when he hasn't done anything for once (as for the other insults, you've got to pick your battles, Remus thinks).

“- So,” says James when Remus isn't upside down anymore, “Mister Padfoot and I here just had a brilliant...

- … wonderful...

- … awe-inspiring...

- … marvellous...

- … sensational...

- … superb...

- … idea.

- Cut the dramatics and tell us, will you?” gruffly asks Peter, who seems a bit ruffled about having had to abandon Mary – but Resolution number M-1974-3.21 states that Marauder business outweighs any romantic duties. James puffs up a bit and shares a glance with Sirius, whose grey eyes are glinting with triumphant trickery and mischief.

“- Mirrors on the walls,” he finally says with the air of someone revealing the truth of what lies beyond death to poor mortal masses.

“- How very anti-climatic of you,” dryly comments Remus. “Apart from showing us the fact that you haven't overcome your narcissistic tendencies, or that you actually know Snow-White,” at which James raises a perplexed eyebrow, “this doesn't give us any indication whatsoever.”

Truth to be told, James looks quite put-out at this point. Sirius sighs and puts a comforting hand on his surrogate brother's shoulder.

“- Prongs, remember they don't live in your brain.

- Thank you, Sirius,” says Remus. James sighs and rolls his eyes. He is becoming more and more of a drama queen.

“- We. Are. Going. To. Transform. The. Walls. Into. Mirrors,” he enunciates.

“- Oh,” breathes Remus. “Oh.

- Exactly what I said,” pips Sirius.

“- Wait, like, the whole castle?

- Yes, Wormtail. The whole castle.

- Isn't it a bit... big?

- We can't touch the dorms, I have no idea how to enter the Hufflepuff ones, and we shouldn't try the Slytherins',” starts saying Remus. “The Great Hall would be complicated, and I'm not certain we could enchant the classrooms, at least not all of them, but we could at least affect all the corridors in the castle...

- Remus, breathe,” commands Sirius.

“- See, I told you he'd like it,” smugly says James.

“- … but we wouldn't really be using mirrors, right? More like, charm the stone walls so they can reflect light like a mirror does, that should be fairly simple.

- And I told you he'd come up with ways of doing it,” shoots back Sirius. Peter is just looking at them with an expression of “there is so much bullshit going on” that should be on Remus's face instead. Sirius seems to sense Peter's lack of enthusiasm.

“- Come on, Wormtail, just picture it! The castle's already a labyrinth, imagine when you have your image reflected from everywhere at once!

- It'll be havoc.

- Exactly!!!

- Hum, gents.” They all look up to Alice, who hopefully hasn't been listening for long. “We've got Charms in ten minutes.

- Thank you, Alice,” smiles Remus, getting up and tugging Sirius along.

“- You're welcome. Just,” and she lowers her voice, “make sure the crazy red Prefect over there doesn't hear anything, right?

- Will do, my lady,” says Remus, bowing low. Alice giggles.

“- Aren't you yourself a Prefect?

- Moo– Remus here,” says Sirius, putting an arm around Remus's shoulders, “has officially laid down any and all prefectorial responsibility when it comes to us. Ask Lily, she must have kept the signed form.

- I'm not sure that's what Dumbledore had in mind when he made me a Prefect but I didn't have much choice,” points out Remus, keeping pace with Alice out of the Common Room.

“- Did they threaten to drown you?

- And much worse.

- Don't tell anyone, but his manhood was at stake,” stage-whispers Sirius, making Alice laugh out loud.

“- You understand, for the love of my future children …

- … you had to submit, right?

- Exactly.

- I understand.

- I'm glad you do, darling,” laughs Remus. Alice smiles and runs to catch up with Lily and Mary. Behind Sirius and him, he can hear James finishing to convince Peter of the merits of their latest idea.

All is well.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Six

 

“Il nous faut arracher la joie aux jours qui filent.”

- Vladimir Maiakovski

 

He wakes up, bare, twisted muscles against rough wood. At first, his eyes see nothing but a butter-yellow halo of light that slowly fills itself into pale golden beams and patches of soft darkness. Particles of dust dreamingly wander through the quiet air, intermittently reflecting the light like myriads of sun-drenched moths. The air on his skin tastes like the end of winter and laughter hidden in creaky floorboards.

He lays still, stretched limitless over the years, every breath carved dozens, hundreds of times, the sigh before the fall, an empty parenthesis of whispers he can almost feel on his fingertips. He is a newborn, still nameless and oblivious, and he lets the dull pain ebb away at the tempo of the sleeping stag's and rat's breathing, a hot, steady pulse beneath his crystal-like wrists. There is a breathing mound plastered to his side, from which radiates a nostrum warmth of love and trust, and he doesn't know yet who he is but he knows he belongs there, his bits and pieces scattered on a splintered floor, whitened by the brumal morning, faded howls clinging to every corner of the stripped room.

Who is he?

The furry heap by his side shifts and changes but the warmth remains as paws become human hands attached to hairless limbs, black fur retracts and leaves expanses of silken skin behind.

“- Remus?”

A murmur.

He is.

 

Remus's eyes, that looked unfocused and vague as they tend to when he wakes up after transforming back, suddenly snap to attention, and he exhales as if he had been holding his breath.

“- Remus?” Sirius tries again, pulling on a thin, thin thread that will show Remus the way back from this in-between he gets stuck in in the mornings, all traces of the wolf gone with the moon but with something missing, some vital part of Remus that's absent, still hidden somewhere in the depths of his mind away from the pain and the blur of the night.

Remus fractionally turns his head and his eyes meet Sirius's. He smiles, achingly slow, like the first hint of dawn at the end of a wintry night.

“- Hey,” he rasps.

“- Hey,” Sirius whispers back. “You sound like Heathcliff after he spent a night out on the moors.

- Does that mean I'm going to die soon?

- Nah, I won't let you.

- As long as I don't end up a cadaver in the swimming pool...

- I think you're mixing up references.

- I have alleviating circumstances,” answers Remus in a breath, closing his eyes for a moment and drawing up the quilt that had been laid on him. Sirius burrows closer to him, shared space, shared breath and, for a second, shared eternity in the eyes that have re-opened. “The moon tasted like pineapple last night,” says Remus. Sirius smiles and delicately pushes an unruly brown-and-silver lock out of the way.

“- And what did it sound like?”

Remus purses his lips and stays silent for a while.

“- In my memories, like Debussy's Première Arabesque. But that's subsequent memorial reconstruction.

- How on earth can you mix up Brontë and Fitzgerald and yet say “subsequent memorial reconstruction” without a stutter?”

The smile grows a bit more, a ray of fresh light peeking over the top of a mountain.

“- I think there was a Chopin's Prelude as well in there. Did we find a pond?

- Yeah, we did.

- There were fireflies, right?

- You remember?

- That's why there's Chopin.

- Because of the fireflies?

- And the pond.” A pause. “Why were there Centaurs as well?

- You... you remember that too?

- Sirius.

- Why must you remember the one thing we didn't want you to?” grumbles Sirius. Remus arches an eyebrow. He's got a new light cut on the temple, already looking silvery and years-old when it's only been there for a few hours. Werewolves heal fast, but scars never disappear. He huffs. “We ran into Magorian's herd.” Remus briefly closes his eyes.

“- Fuck.

- It's fine, really.

- Did anyone end up with arrows sticking out of their arse?

- Nope.

- Small miracles, eh. Tell me.

- They arrived at the pond maybe two hours after midnight, we'd been there for a while.

- And?

- We were all quite tired, the place is rather far from here. It took us an hour and a half to get there. We tried to leave, but the Centaurs wouldn't let us. Magorian wasn't very happy and Bane was rather pissed off.

- No shit, Sherlock.

- You got very... edgy–

- Not me, the wolf.

- Rem. We already discussed this. The wolf is part of you, whether you want it or not.

- That's rich, coming from someone who can choose when and how to transform,” he tartly retorts. Sirius purses his lips.

“- I know, I'm sorry. But you've got to accept yourself as a whole.”

Remus huffs and looks away.

“- I don't want to discuss this now. Just keep going.

- All right... So, you got very edgy, snarled at them and they let you pass, and me too. So I got you away with Wormtail on my back while Prongs changed back and–

- What?!

- He had to apologise and promise you weren't a threat to the foals, just like last time. You know they've got a bit of a moral dilemma concerning our status.

- What happened after?

- I tried to get you as far as possible so you wouldn't smell James as he started explaining but... well, we're just lucky Ronan, Ahearn and Suibhne were there. They pleaded for us and apparently said something about Mercury and Venus being in conjunction or whatnot and Magorian let him pass.

- And there really weren't any arrows involved?

- No.

- Thank Merlin.

- Oh, come on, it's hardly the most eventful night we've had.

- You mean, compared to that time we almost barrelled into a tipsy Flitwick and McGonagall coming back from the Three Broomsticks at half past eleven on a Friday night?

- Exactly my thought,” answers Sirius, beaming. Remus gives a soft snort and closes his eyes again, sliding back into sleep. “Moony, wait. You can't sleep on the floor.

- But Poppy's coming soon...” he mumbles without opening his eyes.

“- Not on Sundays, you know that. Come on, get up,” he orders, sitting up and slightly tugging on Remus's arm.

“- Don't wanna.

- The bed is a floor away. Remus.

- 'M tired.

- Me too, and I really want to sleep in a bed, and before you say it, no, I won't go without you. Get up.”

Remus groans, sits up, grabs the quilt that is threatening to desert and leave his modesty unprotected and wraps it around his waist as a makeshift kilt.

“- My legs hurt,” he whispers.

“- I know, mine too. We ran quite a fair bit last night, I'm afraid. If you really think you can't walk I'll carry you though.” Remus throws him an insulted look.

“- No thank you,” he hisses. He draws a deep breath and gets up, immediately leaning on Sirius for support. They've whispered all this time and hadn't woken the other two but, as they make their way up the creaking stairs Prongs opens an eye and snorts disdainfully, successfully conveying the message of “you wankers couldn't just sleep on the floor like normal people and let others sleep, could you”. Sirius blows him a kiss from the top of the stairs and, in three steps, crashes on the bed, while Remus retrieves his underwear from the cupboard, puts it on and joins him under the covers. He curls up into his sleeping foetal position and Sirius lays close at his back, his breathing moving the small hairs at Remus's nape.

Outside, birds are chirping as sun rays caress the ground covered in a thin veil of frost. Remus's scarred, beautiful body radiates warmth as he moves closer to Sirius and lets out a small, almost contented sigh that definitely has nothing to do with the night they've just had.

 

* * *

 

“- So,” says James that afternoon, elbows squarely planted on the desk. “About that prank.

- Shouldn't we work on the Map instead?” asks Remus in a sleepy voice from under his covers. Sirius, who is seated cross-legged on James's desk, tosses a crumpled parchment at him.

“- If we don't do it now we'll never do it. This school hasn't heard from us in far too long.

- We've been doing something few people here could though,” points out Peter who is meticulously drawing fresh ink over the faded Runic inscriptions on the four enormous parchments that cover his table – two floors on each of the first three, and the seventh floor and the towers on the fourth.

“- But no one knows that. And I don't want people to forget how brilliant we are,” whines James.

- Don't worry, they won't, not with how much you say it aloud,” says Remus, whom James ignores.

“- We haven't done anything since Halloween. Let's do this now, if we start working on it today we can have it ready in a couple days.

- Maybe a week,” amends Sirius. James grunts in acknowledgement. “Moony, you said you knew how to make walls reflect light.

- No I didn't, I just said it'd be relatively easy to make them. Besides, I don't know if there is a spell that can do that.

- If there isn't, we'll make one,” says Sirius dismissively. Remus's incredulous eyes peek from under the blankets.

“- You can't just make spells like that, Sirius.

- Can't you?”

 

“- Speculaulaeum,” enunciates Remus, firmly pointing his wand at a bare patch of wall next to the dorm's door. The stone shivers and undulates, as if covered by a thin falling veil of water, and finally becomes a smooth, tarnished silvery surface in which can be seen the four boys' silhouettes facing the circular walls of the room. The area before Sirius is completely covered by a perfectly polished mirror, while James's looks like the glass has already lived through a century or so, and Peter's returns the vague reflection given by a murky and quiet mere. Remus huffs and closes his eyes. Focus of mind, focus of power, focus of intention.

“- Speculaulaeum,” he repeats, trying to project all his power through his wand, tinged with the intention of turning the bloody wall in front of him into a decent mirror and not thinking of anything else. When he opens his eyes, a pair of amber ones silently answer to the slow smile that stretches his lips.

 

* * *

 

“- Moony, mate, where are you?” whispers James to the piece of mirror he holds in his right hand, the left brandishing his wand as if it were Gryffindor's sword.

“- Near the Trophy Room,” answers Remus's muffled voice. “We've got the whole West Wing charmed up to the third floor, you?

- East Tower, same for the East Wing.

- You're taking care of the Transfig' corridor and the Astronomy Tower?

- Yeah, sure. Don't forget the Ravenclaw and North Towers though.

- Merlin, guys, we've been through this already, it's fine,” interjects Sirius's voice, sounding as distant as Remus's. “Crap, demon cat ahead!”

James hears a muted swearword and an imperious Hush!, shrugs and puts the glass in his back pocket.

“- Lucky you're not there,” he murmurs to Wormtail on his shoulder, who gives a faint squeak of approval. He gives a quick once-over to the walls they've spent the last fifteen minutes charming and then silently moves down the flight of stairs, relying on Wormtail's heightened sense of smell and hearing to warn him if anyone else has had the idea to take a midnight walk. The stone walls stare at him blankly, grey and inconspicuous : the charm will activate in a few hours, hopefully when everyone, including Filch and his cat, is in bed. On the first floor, he peeks at the corner of the DADA corridor, mentally checking his and Peter's earlier work.

“- We didn't forget anything here, did we?” he whispers to Wormtail, who just shakes his head vigorously enough for James to feel it. He shrugs lightly, careful not to dislodge the rat on his shoulder. On the ground floor, he ducks into a narrow passage behind a tapestry that emerges directly on the cloister-like Transfiguration corridor. The courtyard's grass looks silver under the pale sliver of moon hanging high in the sky. Wormtail shifts purposefully on his shoulder, and James gently lifts him and sets him on the floor, where he changes back.

“- So, what do we do?” he whispers. James purses his lips and looks around, across the frost-sprinkled courtyard to the quiet, shadowy hallway at the other side of it.

“- I'll go left, you go right, we meet there,” he answers, pointing at the opening that joins this part of the castle to the Astronomy Tower and the West Wing. Peter nods and silently drifts to the wall on his right, sweeping his wand over the biggest area he can stretch to and muttering the incantation. James watches as the stone shivers, flashes a brief glimpse of their own faces and then turns to stone again. He feels oddly proud at Peter's easy, successful spell-casting, and he pats him on the back before turning around and getting to work.

After all, they don't have all night.

 

“- I'm cold,” groans Remus for the hundredth and seventy-third time. Sirius hums and doesn't give further acknowledgement to the complaint.

“- It's cold,”repeats the werewolf a minute later.

“- Yes, I believe you've said that already.

- Why did we do the dungeons first? We should've done the Towers first and then the dungeons.

- Moony, you know why we did the dungeons first, you're the one who came up with the idea in the first place, stop complaining.

- I'm not the one who decided to indulge Prongs's increasing narcissism!

- But you said we should put a Sleeping Potion in the snakes' food so they wouldn't bother us.

- I really don't see how that makes me responsible for the poor decision doing the Towers last is,” Remus bites back as they step out in the open on the footbridge, shivering even harder. Sirius unthinkingly draws Remus closer and takes his friend's hands in his own, softly rubbing the numb fingers.

“- You should have taken your gloves,” he murmurs, all argument forgotten.

“- Couldn't find them.

- You're a mess.

- Let me rephrase. I'm your mess,” says Remus, clearly going for sarcastic and witty – when does he not – but somehow ending in a soft, affection-charged statement. Sirius's heart misses a beat or ten, but he still amusedly huffs in acquiescence.

“- You think Prongs and Wormy are in the Transfig' corridor yet?” he asks when they're back inside the building.

“- Dunno. Want me to check?

- Nah, they'll be fine. We should've told them we'd do the Astronomy Tower though, we're just there.

- Doesn't matter, someone needs to take care of the rest anyway and they won't be finished in less than an hour,” Remus points out. He crouches and taps the first notes of Rowena's Ravishing Raven on a worn-looking slab, and immediately jumps off it as it grinds and slides under its neighbours, revealing a few dusty stairs that lead to a low passage under the courtyard over to the first floor of Ravenclaw Tower. “I don't like using this one,” he mumbles. Sirius snorts and directly jumps into the dark opening, eliciting a gasp from Remus.

“- I told you not to do that!

- Moony, you tell me not to do a lot of things, and I still mostly do them anyway.

- You'll end up in Azkaban and I won't be the one who gets you out, you flea-ridden mutt.

- Yes, and you'll cry your eyes out. Now move faster, we've got two towers of nine floors each to charm up.”

 

The chaos that ensues on the morning, when the students come out of their Common Rooms face to face with a wide-eyed reflection of themselves, repeated over and over on every vertical wall of the castle, is definitely worth a few cold fingers, a roaring headache and a three-hours night of sleep. And well, if McGonagall (and three quarters of the school) suspiciously stares at them, she can't prove anything. Besides, James swears Dumbledore winks at them at breakfast.

 

* * *

 

One week later, an announcement in the Common Room offers Apparition lessons for all who are seventeen or will turn so before next September. James and Sirius start making plans at once, sharing over-excited whispers over something that will surely be the demise of England once they get their license. Peter is worried at first, being the youngest of the four, but is soon reassured by the two bouncing golden boys.

“- Merlin's balls, Rem, I know you don't like the idea of getting splinched but you've got to admit this is brilliant,” says Sirius as their friend keeps his eyes resolutely fixed on his Transfiguration textbook. Remus hums and turns a page. The other three share a half-concerned, half-exasperated look.

“- Okay, Lupin, spit it out. What's the problem?” demands James, hands over his hips. Remus doesn't look up.

“- There's no problem, Prongs. You're becoming more and more paranoiac. Do something about it or you'll end up like Stalin.

- What's a Stalleen?” asks Sirius, which does have the effect of making Remus look up, incredulous. James takes the book from the werewolf's hands, steps right into the his personal space and examines him closely, narrowing his eyes. The fact that he has to slightly lift his chin to get a proper look at Remus's face doesn't really help his case.

“- You shouldn't be behaving like an old fart over this.

- Oh, because you have jurisdiction over what I'm allowed to be an old fart about?

- Yes,” he says at the time as Peter coughs a discreet “no”. “And this is on the no-list. Do you realise? We could visit one another during summer all the time !

- I do know what Apparition is, James.

- Then show a little enthusiasm about it!

- Okay! I'm very happy to know you'll be able to visit me during summer, all right?

- Wait.

- Why should we visit you and not you visit us ? I mean, Moonshine, I'd visit you all the time if your mum could stand me that long, but–

- I'm not taking these lessons, guys,” Remus breaks in, effectively cutting Sirius mid-rant. Sirius frowns, opens his mouth to say something and abruptly closes it, understanding dawning on his face, his eyes clouding with disappointment. Of course. Cost 12 Galleons .

That's eleven too much.

But before he can say anything, the big oaf that's supposed to be his best friend and adoptive brother opens his mouth wide to put his foot in it.

“- Why? Don't you want to be able to Apparate? Is your dad concerned? Cause I can totally write to him to explain how un-dangerous this is compared to... to a lot of things at Hogwarts, for example. You know, like that time in Third Year when I wrote him about that Potions incident–

- Shut up, James,” says Sirius. It has the desired effect, but only because James apparently didn't expect such an interruption. “Moony, if we talk to McGoomaggie she'll be able to find a way, I'm sure the school has funds for such cases.

- Wait, is this because the lessons are too expensive for you?” asks James. Remus turns crimson red and averts his eyes.

“- My god, James,” murmurs Peter, face-palming.

“- No but Moony, I can totally pay it for you! I mean, twelve Galleons isn't that much–

- Potter.

- … really, I pay, you take the lessons and we can all Apparate! I swear it won't be a problem, that's like half of my monthly allowance–

- JAMES, SHUT UP!” bellows Sirius. Half of the Common Room turn their eyes to their little group and the other half precipitately gather their things and leave. No-one wants to get caught in a fight between Black and Potter. They are a bit like volcanic explosions, happening once or twice a decade but with enough violence to destroy everything in a ten-miles radius. Or at least nine.

James clams up, blinks owlishly, takes in Sirius's furious expression, Peter's downcast one, and Remus's mortified face, and suddenly feels horrible.

“- No, look, Moony, that's not what I meant. I just really want you to take these lessons so we can all learn together and–

- No.

- But Rem...

- That's very kind of you, but I don't need charity,” bites Remus before stalking out of the Common Room, his face still heated up in shame. Sirius makes an abortive move to follow him but turns back to James.

“- You know his pride is the only thing he's left, and you stamp on it.

- I just wanted to do good,” he murmurs. Sirius huffs but at least looks pacified.

“- I know you did. But you've known him for six years and you forgot that's not how things work for him. Now I'm going to find him and make him forgive you and convince him there's a reason the school has money, but he won't want it because he already feels like he owes too much to Dumbledore and I'm in for at least two hours and of course he hasn't taken his cloak, where are my gloves, all right, I swear, Prongs, I know I don't always think before speaking but you kind of broke a record here. Wormtail, if this tosser here starts freaking out you have my permission to drown him in a bucket of ice. I'll protect you from any retaliation, Marauder's word,” he finishes, backing up to the Portrait-hole and through it. James stares at it in stunned silence and the other Gryffindors stare at Peter and him. Peter lets out an exasperated huff.

“- What're you all looking at?” he snarls at the small crowd. Everyone immediately returns to their previous occupation. He might have learnt one thing or two in five years and a half, after all.

 

In reality, it takes Sirius three hours to convince Remus that yes, it is normal to request financial help from the school, and that James is a spoiled twit – you'd know all about that, wouldn't you, snorts Remus – but a good-meaning one, and he's probably worrying himself sick and pestering Peter, who really doesn't deserve all the shite he gets to deal with. This Remus heartily agrees with.

Sirius himself doesn't mention to anyone that the money he'd taken from his personal vault at the end of last summer is rapidly dwindling and that, with no source in sight, he will at some point have to ask for help from the Potters, his pride be damned.

 

* * *

 

The weeks fly by, dragging February away with its cold and frost and bringing March about, as well as ten inches of mud that have Filch shrieking all day at students coming in from the grounds. The week following the Hogsmeade week-end sees a generalised case of flu take over the school and stop all activities for three days straight, since most of the teachers are bed-ridden too. In their House and year, Remus, Lily and Dorcas are the only ones to remain unscathed and are enrolled by Pomfrey to prepare Pepper-Up potions at an industrial cadence, until Remus blows up his fourth cauldron and is expelled from the ward, nursing singed fingers Poppy has refused to heal. In the dorm, the boys are going stir-crazy, and Remus ends up dragging them to the Prefect bathroom. The ensuing water-fight is enough to scandalise the siren and dissuade Moaning Myrtle from any peeking, although they all end up in detention with Filch afterwards.

Slytherin wins the match against Ravenclaw in terrible weather conditions that have James and Sirius grudgingly admit that the snakes are good. As long as Gryffindor wins against Hufflepuff in early April, which, given the intensity of James's training, is going to happen, the final match will be between the two rival Houses. The fact that Regulus is Slytherin's Seeker doesn't help.

 

“- I think Dad's going to be sent out on the field again,” says James one afternoon after Quidditch practice. Sirius looks up from under the towel he's using to dry his hair and frowns.

“- Did you get a letter?

- No, I would've told you. But...

- … the Auror Department doesn't recruit enough to leave veterans behind desks when they could be out and fighting?

- Yeah. Besides,” he adds, voice muffled by the robe he's putting on, “there's no actual reason for him not to be out.

- He's fifty-five,” points out Sirius, clasping on his cape over muggle clothes. “I mean, he isn't old per se, but you're far from being as reactive at his age as when you're thirty.

- My grand-father stopped being active at sixty-five.

- Your grand-father was the most stubborn Potter of a long lineage of stubborn Potters. Of course he did.

- But you never got to meet him,” says James, holding the door open. Sirius shrugs as he steps out, their two brooms on each of his shoulders.

“- Your mum has a lot to say about Fleamont Potter. Particularly when she's been drinking tea spiced with Billywig sting powder.

- You put Bylliwig powder in my mum's tea?!

- No, she put it herself. Said it made life more interesting, or whatever.

- Sweet Merlin,” murmurs James, trampling alongside him through the mud, “my mum's an addict.

- Stop being dramatic and hurry the hell up, Potter, it's cold out there,” retorts Sirius. James huffs and accelerates.

“- You spend far too much time with Remus. Only him and McGoogles can be that dry.

- We're not talking about this,” Sirius replies, immediately defensive. He feels more than sees James eye-balling him but the bespectacled boy miraculously stays silent.

 

“- So, ready to get your arse kicked?” gleefully asks Peter, setting down his chessboard on the low table near the fire-place. Sirius rolls his eyes but doesn't protest, knowing very well that what Peter says is true. Instead, he glares at a couple of Second years who are trying to edge near them, glad Remus is too engrossed in a theoretical discussion with James to notice him. They realised two days ago that, as obvious as it seems, they hadn't thought about the fact that four enormous pieces of parchment don't exactly make a handy map. James seems to know how to merge them all into one, and the Marauders' two official theoreticians are debating whether to cast the Tracking Charm, the Homunculus and the Homenum Revelio before or after doing so. Charms interferences not being Sirius's forte, he is more than happy to let them bicker about obscure laws and try to figure out how on Earth does Peter do to come up with such devastating tactics.

Half an hour later, he hasn't anything figured out but is beginning to hate Peter's chess pieces. They're just so bloody arrogant, it's unnerving.

“- Rem, time to go,” says a feminine voice over the buzz of the crowded Common Room. They all look up to find Lily ready for Prefect duty. Sirius frowns as he looks at Remus.

“- Weren't you supposed to go tomorrow?

- Frank asked me to switch rounds,” he answers, getting up. He turns back to James : “And I still think we should do it before.

- Yeah, well, you're wrong.”

Remus rolls his eyes and mutters something about bloody pig-headed Potters. “I'll just go fetch my cloak,” he tells Lily.

“- Don't forget your scarf,” calls James.

“- And your gloves, there's a reason your mum sent you new ones for Christmas,” adds Sirius, cackling when Remus flips them the bird.

“- Do you really need to remind him?” asks Lily. James shrugs, consciously not looking at her and instead rearranging his notes.

“- He hates cold but he always forgets his stuff. I still don't understand how.

- He's just messy, is all,” says Peter from where he's studying the board. Like he doesn't have his next five moves planned, with contingency ones in case Sirius does something unexpected. Which won't happen.

“- Stop badmouthing me, lads. It's ungentlemanly,” huffs Remus who's already returned and is currently fighting with his scarf. James sighs and beckons him, rearranging his dishevelled appearance in ten seconds.

“- There, you're fit to be seen with Evans.

- Thanks, mum,” groans Remus, batting his hands away. Sirius huffs in amusement at the scene : an incredulous Lily observing full battle-mode mother-hen James and grumpy Remus. The latter turns to him, smiles softly and reaches a hand to his shoulder.

“- G'night, Pads. Don't let Pete defeat you too easily.

- Too late for that, mate,” calls Peter. James snickers. Sirius just tries to convince himself he can't feel the warmth of Remus's hand through the layers of jumpers he's wearing. He reaches up and squeezes his friend's hand.

“- Take care too. Rumour has it the Slytherins are booby-trapping certain parts of the dungeons on nights Gryffindor Prefects are on duty.”

Remus just raises an eyebrow and nods, briefly rubbing Sirius's shoulder before stepping away and out with Lily. Sirius returns to the game in front of him, fully feeling the heavy, gently mocking gaze James is pinning on the back of his head.

A man will take what he can, after all. Pining isn't that fun to live with.

 

A few hours later, the Common Room has considerably emptied. James has gone to bed – given that he flies and yells as much as the rest of the team combined during practice, it's no wonder he's dead on his feet afterwards. Peter is drawing at one end of the couch and Sirius had his head on the couch's arm and his feet in Pete's lap. He's keeps turning James's words about Charles Potter in his mind.

“- Wanna talk about it?” asks Peter, not looking up from his still life. Sirius shifts.

“- You're too perceptive. It's weird.

- No need to be called Remus Lupin to know there's something bothering you.” Sirius doesn't answer. “That's a no-zone, then. I figured as much. But there's something more, isn't there?

- It's Prongs's dad,” Sirius says, carefully not thinking about the fact Peter seems to know, and what the hell, is he that obvious?

“- What's wrong with him?” Peter sets his pencil and strange muggle bound-together parchments down, looking concerned.

“- He just told me Charles would probably be returning on the field.”

Peter bites his lip.

“- But he's good, right? Nothing is going to happen, don't worry.

- Pyoming was Head of the Department, and he got killed all the same.

- Doesn't mean that's going to happen to Papa Prongs.

- Yeah, I guess,” sighs Sirius. He stays silent for a moment before adding : “but, you know, it's also that I don't want Prongs to know I'm worried.

- Why not?

- Because he already is, and I'm not supposed to... to care that much, you know?

- Bollocks. The Potters have been taking you in ever since First Year.

- I know. But they're not my parents.

- You've got the right to love them, Sirius.”

He tears his eyes from the contemplation of the stone ceiling and looks at Peter, who is staring straight back at him.

“- Your family's shite, they've never loved you liked you deserved. And I guess we,” he says, encompassing the now empty seats were Remus and James were seated a few hours ago, “can only do so much. James's parents have been good to you since you were eleven, they've given you something we couldn't, if only because they're adults. What wouldn't be normal would be you not giving a shit about James's dad.” His voice is stern, almost lecturing, and that forces Sirius to do a double-take. But it truly is little Peter, twitchy Peter, follower Peter that is currently calling him out on his bull and setting things straight.

He has changed, more than Sirius had realised. And that makes him oddly proud, but a bit scared too.

“- Mum says,” Peter says, and somehow reverts back to the soft boy Sirius has known for what feels like his whole life, “that you get to choose your family. I mean, that you were born among certain people, but family's the ones you love, and these you can choose.” He shrugs. “She said that a lot after Dad died. Dunno if she realised that meant he wasn't really family for me.” His eyes meet Sirius's and he shrugs again. “Guess you can only disappoint someone so much before you stop caring about what they think of you, or how they feel about you. Only, I realised that long after he died.”

Sirius doesn't say anything, just sits up and pats Peter on the shoulder before lying down again. Peter isn't one for physical closeness, no matter how many years spent with the rest of them. Besides, he doesn't need to be comforted. He's come to terms with the fact that his father was disappointed in him from the day he was born to the moment Pilmore Pettigrew died from badly splinching one drunken night after spending too much time at the pub and not wanting to get home on foot, leaving behind a muggle, stay-at-home wife and a nine-year-old boy who hadn't shown any sign of magic yet. It has taken Peter time and long discussions with Sirius about not meeting one's parents' standards to accept it, but it's done and there is no going back.

“- So don't worry. Write to the Potters, ask them how it's going. I don't know them half as well as you do, but I'm pretty sure they'd be pleased to hear directly from you for something else than Christmas or their birthdays,” he says before going back to his meticulous study of the fireplace, the armchair beside it, and the tapestry and rows of books behind. Sirius sighs and lets his head fall back over the edge of the couch's armrest.

“- Thanks, Wormtail.

- No problem.”

 

“- So. Sirius.”

Remus throws a sideways glance at Lily, burrows further in his scarf and studiously doesn't answer.

“- Everything you will say may be held against you,” jokes Lily.

Still no answer.

“- Rem, come on, it's me. Just talk to me.

- There's nothing to talk about that you already don't know. We're good, everything's good, actually.

- Quite looks like it,” she muses. He looks at her again.

“- What do you mean?

- The two of you looked quite... domestic, I'd say.

- No more than with James,” he points out with a placid voice. Internally, he's panicking and running in circles.

“- You don't hold Potter's shoulder, or hand for that matter,” she retorts.

“- Oh, it's still Potter then? And here I thought you were on first name basis. Or maybe you haven't acknowledged your growing crush on him yet?” he bites back with more spite than originally intended, but successfully derails her train of thought for the time being. Lily stops and swirls around.

“- My what?!

- I'm pretty sure you're able to walk and shriek at the same time, dear,” he answers without stopping.

“- My crush? What do you mean my crush?! There is no crush here!” she says, almost running to catch up with him.

“- You said it,” he answers, taking down a flight of stairs. “Tempus. Bloody hell, it's midnight. Time to get back to the Tower.

- All right, Lupin, I get it. But don't think this is over!” she exclaims. He laughs softly as she elbows him none too gently. Crisis averted.

A read, blaring alarm is still going on full-force in his mind.

 

* * *

 

They end up casting the charms after merging all the parchments into one, because James Potter is nothing if not a stubborn bastard. Remus gnaws on his nails the whole time it takes James to cast the merging charm and coldly sweats when the four of them set on the incantation James has been preparing for ages. It takes them two minutes to chant it all, and Remus feels ten years slip by at a moment's notice.

“- … quae moventurque litteram movere, veritatem imitari et indivem verisimiliter monstrare,” they finish.

The big – unique – parchment on which are drawn lines over lines over lines of ink quivers, and, suddenly –

blanks.

There is nothing. Under their wands is a tired, yellow piece of parchment, completely free of any drop of ink.

“- No,” Remus murmurs. “No, no, NO!

- Fuck,” spit out Sirius and Peter at the exact same time.

“- What did we do? Where did we go wrong? We fucking knew this incantation, we could say it backwards in our sleep, what the fuck went wrong?!” yells James, turning around and kicking the nearest bed's foot.

“- Wait,” says Remus. James turns around, Sirius lifts his hands from his face, Peter opens his eyes again as they all stare at the would-be Map.

On the middle of the large parchment, thin, pale lines start drawing the Entrance Hall, slowly expanding towards the Great Hall and the main staircase, moving faster and faster, sinewy veins of ink that bleed in all directions from the centre of the Map, drawing the outlines of the rooms and corridors and passages and greenhouses and cupboards and stairs, one floor after another in superimposition like a blurry photograph.

And then, four tiny dots appear in an otherwise blank room, soon followed by a minute banner reading “Gryffindor Sixth Year Boys Dormitory”. They collectively hold their breath as very small labels appear near each dot, one for each of their names, James Potter, Sirius Black, Peter Pettigrew and Remus Lupin.

They forget how to breathe.

Suddenly, there is an explosion of dots and banner and names, one for each room and each person in Hogwarts, some moving, others standing still, dozens, hundreds of dots on all the floors in the whole castle, in the Library, in Dumbledore's office, in the kitchen, in the Common Rooms, on the Quidditch Pitch, near the Black Lake, in the greenhouses, everywhere.

“- Oh Merlin all-mighty,” whispers James. Peter gasps.

“- We made it. Fuck, we made it,” breathes Sirius. He looks up and his eyes meets Remus's, wide and wild as thunderstorms meeting the sun, electricity springing in the air. “Moony, we made it,” he repeats. Remus nods, struggling to break the eye contact but wanting to see, wanting to look at the miracle they've just created.

They feel like kings, they feel like gods. Even better, they feel like cartographers.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven

 

 

“Cuando creíamos que teníamos todas las respuestas, de pronto, cambiaron todas las preguntas.”

- Mario Benedetti

 

 

James, honey,

Your dad and I were wondering if Sirius got a watch from anyone on his birthday. We know the two of you celebrate it together, but doesn't he have a wayward uncle somewhere who would have thought of it in October? I am terribly sorry this letter is so abrupt, my love, but we are to visit your grandparents in London and Charles keeps telling me we are late. Please answer soon, I should like to shop while we are in the city.

Kisses to you and the boys, especially Sirius.

Your mum and dad.

P.S.: the Owl Emporium seems to have exactly what you wanted for Remus. I guess you do not want him to see it yet; I will send it this afternoon so it can arrive tonight. You did say he was patrolling this evening, yes?

 

“- What is it?” asks Sirius while pouring Remus's tea at breakfast. James shrugs and shoves the letter into his messenger bag.

“- Mum fretting about my birthday and telling me that they're off to visit Granfa and Granmo. And she sends kisses.

- That's nice of her,” comments Peter as Remus flops down next to Sirius, eyes still half-closed.

“- Oi, Moony, you're going to need to wake to drink this,” Sirius says. Remus just yawns and reaches blindly for his cup. “Are you still having trouble sleeping?

- Yep. Insomnia, Poppy says. She's going to give me some kind of infusion to help,” the werewolf mumbles before taking a sip of his tea.

“- Guess whose birthday it is tomorrow?” sing-songs James while sending a meaningful look to Sirius, who nods minutely. Remus groansin his cup.

“- I know today's the 9, no need to remind me.

- Aren't you excited?” asks Peter, his mouth full of toast and bacon. Remus shrugs, not looking at any of them.

“- I... I guess I am,” he answers at last, smiling feebly, as the other three try not to think about words like Registration or unemployment. This is not the time.

 

“- An owl.

- Yup.”

The silence that follows has time to mould itself to the canopies of the beds and the wooden edges of the desks before it is broken by a soft hoot.

“- You're giving me an owl for my birthday.

- Yup.

- The three of you.

- Yup.

- To be fair, it was Prongs's idea.

- Mostly.

- I…

- Hoot.”

Silence.

“- Look, Moony. It's small, it's smart and it's not afraid of you.

- Yeah, about that…

- Canine intuition.

- What–

- Don't ask.

- Hoot.

- It really isn't afraid, is it.

- Nupe.”

Remus tears his eyes away from the little ball of fluffy feathers in his hands and looks up at his friends, an unabashed grin forming on his face.

“- Thank you. Thank you, guys.”

 

* * *

 

Sirius, my nephew,

I am sorry that I haven't contacted you earlier. In my defence, I only recently heard of what happened last summer, seeing that my relationship with your mother is non-existent, not to mention the rest of the family. But lovely Andromeda I saw not long ago : she invited me to her daughter's sixth birthday. The Tonks are a very nice family, and Ted, though his blood is the colour of mud, is surprisingly well-educated. (I hope you heard the irony in the statement; there is a reason I am a Black only in name.) Nymphadora is lovely, a breathtaking Metamorphmagus, and already shows traces of both an incredible clumsiness and a very strong personality. She scowls whenever you call her by her name; Dora is an accepted compromise. Andromeda thus told me of your recent, how shall we call it, adventure, and Merlin knows where she heard of it – for she hasn't received news of you since. But I believe she didn't before either; only, see, ugly little Jarveys need to stay close to each other.

As you might have understood, I do not write this letter to give you news of the Tonks, as charming as they might be. I understand you lack a fixed residence for vacations, and was going to offer you my flat in Muggle London. I am leaving for China in two months, and should like to know it is in safe hands – as I should like my nephew. Of course, if this interests you, I shall immediately start on the paperwork (Muggles are so fond of it!). It might drag on a bit, and I haven't been there in ages : things like the plumbing need to be looked at, for, as much as we might not need electricity, I believe you can't conjure enough water to take an acceptable shower. As “crippled” as they might be, Muggles do have a fairly sane notion of comfort. I think you should be able to have the apartment before the end of June. If you are interested, of course. Consider it your – very belated – birthday present. Having heard of the Potters' generosity, I believe you already received the traditional watch; have here something more unusual.

Regards.

Your uncle,

Alphard Black, the Dispossessed (although you do share the title now, don't you?).

 

* * *

 

It happens on a Tuesday morning. He has Runes first thing in the morning, which means he's the only one who gets up early, but also that he's got the bathroom for himself, without an irate James pounding on the door yelling for him to move his arse so he can fix his hair. As if.

He always tries to get the room as warm and damp as possible so the mirror is but a grey, indistinct things that reflects other grey, indistinct things and turns the world into a blur where edges are softened and scars don't exist, where he can brush his teeth and comb his hair without meeting his own eyes. He runs his fingers through the soggy brown strands, feeling the remaining droplets run on his skin and leave a slight coolness behind...

… and makes the terrible – terrible – mistake of imagining the moistness is left by something else, someone else –

“- Bloody hell.”

– the bold tip of a tongue tracing intricate patterns on the back of his hand, to his wrist, soft lips setting over his pulse and slightly pressing as it speeds up and up and up –

“- Oh no,” he whispers, pressing the heels of his palms against his eye-sockets.

– a warm hand tilting his chin up, a thumb running feather-like over his cheek, laughing quicksilver eyes

- Shut up,” Remus whines softly. “Shut up, shut up, shut up!”

Meanwhile, the fog over the looking-glass has cleared. Outside its sheath of denial, truth is a dagger that cuts hearts open. Remus feels sick.

How could you. How could you turn even more abnormal. How could you betray his trust this way.

Because, see, sometimes cupboards get eaten by termites and crumble to dust, leaving the skeletons in the open for everyone to see. Or skeletons grow sinews and muscles again and cheerfully walk out of said cupboards, waving red flags at you until you're forced to acknowledge them and their demolishing of the carefully constructed lie you lived on.

After all, the mind can only repress so much, and the water can only press against the barrage until the point at which the dam must -

break.

Remus takes a deep breath, nods to the small voice in his mind that says he's got fifteen minutes to make it down to breakfast and then to class, steadies himself against the sink and firmly escorts the dancing corpses back to where they come, the dusty cupboard of non-belief, locking the door and throwing away the key.

There, problem solved. Not looking at things does make them disappear.

He straightens up, tugs on the sleeves of his too-short, second-hand robes, opens the door and almost falls over Sirius.

“- Moony? What are you still doing here? Hurry up, you won't be able to get breakfast if you don't!

- What? But...

- I'm always awake at this hour but you're usually gone. Now off you go!” Sirius shoos his out of the dorm to the stairs. “See you in two hours. Have fun in Runes.”

Remus takes the stairs two at a time, his mind racing at a distinct tempo of shit shit shit shit on a very Sirius-themed background.

Time to find a plan B.

 

“- What do you mean you're leaving?” asks James, looking up from his extra-credit Transfiguration paper.

“- Exactly what I said. I am leaving. Going away. Departing from this place –

- Yes, disappearing, absconding, decamping, defecting, parting, etc, etc. My question was rather referring to the cause of such decision.

- Mum wants me home next week for the Spring break,” simply answers Remus, shrugging from where he is undertaking a methodical organisation of the bookshelves above his bed.

“- Prongs, Pince says someone already borrowed the book you're looking for, you'll have to wait,” says Peter as Sirius and him enter the dorm.

“- And we'd like to point out that a fair number of snakes are having a meeting in one of the abandoned dungeon rooms near the lake-stairs,” adds Sirius, waving the Map. His eyes sweep over the room, taking in Remus's tense shoulders and James's raised eyebrows. “Are we interrupting something here, chaps?

- Nah, Moony is just abandoning us,” James lightly replies. Peter snorts at the exasperated sigh Remus makes and joins him in the dusting of his books as Sirius whirls around and practically pins Remus under his glare.

“- What do you mean you're abandoning us?!

- Put that way, it sounds far worse than it is,” answers Remus mildly, his gaze imperceptibly slipping over Sirius as it has done the last few days. James wouldn't have noticed it if it weren't for the distressed Animagus that climbed in his bed two nights ago. “Do you think he knows?” Sirius had asked with the slightest edge of panic. “I'm just going home for the break, I'll be back before you've had time to miss me. Hopefully it will also be before you've had time to set fire to the castle.

- You're not our impulse control, you know,” interjects James. “Or perhaps, like, eighty per cent of it. Which leaves twenty per cent...

- … at the mercy of whatever mad idea that gets you. Wormtail, I just really hope you'll talk them out of anything involving fire, Billywig powder or muggle sodas.

- I am not their impulse control,” tuts Peter, waving a battered copy of the Oxford Thesaurus at Remus before dropping it on the bed and stretching. “Moony, mate, can I have your Charms essay? I'm rubbish at that thing.

- Copying down my essays with the help of a thesaurus for synonyms won't give you your NEWTs, you know,” comments Remus, bending down and rummaging through his bag. He hands him his fifty-inches paper on the Aguamenti charm. Peter shrugs and flops down on the covers to read the thing.

“- But... why are you leaving? Don't you want to spend the break here with us?” asks Sirius in a small voice from where he still stands. Remus turns to him and arches an eyebrow.

“- Breathe, Padfoot, I'm coming back. I just miss my parents, and they miss me too. I haven't seen them since the beginning of the school year.

- But neither have Pete nor Prongs nor I!

- Well, that's your problem, not mine,” Remus dryly retorts.

“- No need to get defensive,” grumbles Sirius, finally crossing the room to fall on James's lap. James himself slides his parchment to the left so his hand can still reach it and keeps writing, his right hand tracing mindless soothing patterns on his best friend's arm. Sirius sighs and leans his head back on James's shoulder, staring at the ceiling.

“- What are you writing about?” he asks.

“- The link between Transfiguration and Alchemy.

- That's what Flamel based his work upon, yes?

- Yup,” confirms James before launching into an explanation of the formulae and concepts complicated enough to distract Sirius from his Moony-related issues.

On his side, Remus stares blankly at Whitman's Calamus before letting out a small laugh and putting it back where it belongs. Next to Rimbaud and Verlaine.

Space. He just needs space.

 

* * *

 

Dear Remus,

I'm quite afraid that your absence only drives your Three Devils to new, unheard-of summits of mischief. Although nothing has been done of proportions such as what you did with the mirrors last time (do not give me your innocent eyes, everyone knows it was the four of you and anyway they couldn't have done it without you, although Jam Potter does have a hand in Charms and Transfiguration), they managed to somehow convince all – ALL – the portraits in the castle to sing “Here comes the sun” each time Professors McGonagall or Dumbledore come in sight. Alice said Sirius promised an individual strip-tease to each of them, and that for such a price she was ready to sing anything, upon which Frank turned red as a tomato and took her to the 7th Years' dorm – and I don't want any details. (I'm kidding. I actually know everything, but I guess you won't want any details whatsoever.) I've seen them (your three idiots) lurking around corners and come to the Common Room drenched to the bones – if I didn't understand your reasons to go home these two weeks, I'd beg you to return. At the very least, I hope you are putting your time with your parents to good use, you must have missed them dreadfully. As usual, Potter is the worst of the lot, he keeps strutting around with his windswept hair, it's absolutely ridiculous. But I guess you must know all this already.

Fewer people have gone home than for Christmas, but given the tense times the castle is emptier than it usually is during Spring break. I don't know whether you've heard, but there have been more deaths. Have you seen what was written in yesterday's Daily Prophet? How dare that fat, cowardly, poorly-dressed idiot say that everything is fine?!! And how dare this sodden piece of stinking paper repeat it?! But what I find even more alarming is that he is steadily climbing in the popularity polls. We'll soon have a Fudge Minister of Magic. I wonder if people lose brain capacity in periods of stress. It is truly terrifying that we should come of age and enter the world outside the halls of Hogwarts in such dark times, is it not? I believe we must do something soon. Stand up. But we'll talk more of this when you get back.

All right, enough small talk. Remus Lupin, if you think I don't know why you really went back home you are sorely mistaken. You told me once you preferred full moons at Hogwarts, although I still don't know why but that's your problem. And you also told me that, although your parents miss you, it's somewhat easier for them to have you at school because they can act as if you weren't a werewolf. My apologies for the bluntness of the wording, but I loathe skirting around issues. You did not go home for the reasons you cited, at least not entirely. There is something else, and if that something isn't an extremely infuriating Black then I am no witch. Remus, dear, I thought matters of the heart didn't bother you? Besides, it would be quite hypocritical of you to judge people for such a little thing as the gender of the person they are attracted to. Sorry for the bluntness. Again. I am getting too worked up.

I took a walk and came back to finish this letter. I might have been a bit harsh but I think it is important to show you the truth, as uncomfortable as it may be. I understand your panicking and your need of space – because that's what it is, isn't it? – but I don't think the solution lays in flight. Talk to me, yes? I am here, and as I told you last year, I am not leaving. It is time you started trusting me, Remus.

I miss you, you stupid boy.

Love,

Lily.

P.S. : I'm afraid this letter took an almost Darcy-esque turn. My most sincere apologies.

 

 

MOONY MOONY MOONY EVANS ACTUALLY TALKED TO ME TODAY!!! MERLIN'S BALLS THIS IS AMAZING SHE LOVES ME I AM SO BLOODY HAPPY –

Hey Moons, Padfoot here (as if you couldn't tell. My penmanship is definitely sexier). Pete just took Prongs outside, he's tossing him these little yellow Muggle balls to train him – the wanker “lost” his Snitch (Prongs, not Wormtail) (actually, Hannah took it away from him last summer when he broke a China vase diving for it. But you know that already.) That old book in the library was right : there is an actual passage beneath the Lake stairs, it's just that only First Years and Hagrid take these and it happens once a year, so no-one has been there in ages. It isn't on the Map, which is slightly problematic because – as you know – some Slyths are having reunions near the stairs. I just really hope they'll never be dumb enough to get in the water and swim around the staircase to find it – yes, I know, stupid idea, but that's why we did it when you weren't there. I might or might not have caught a cold but it's fine, really. We also found that we'd forgotten to include Hagrid's cabin on the Map – it's a dead spot. I don't think any murderer is ever going to hide in there, but it pisses Prongs off to no end – bloody perfectionist that he is. The two of you are so alike on this. Point being, the passage exists, but we thought we'd wait for you to explore it – I've been perfecting my drying charm, it even warms your clothes, you can totally come. And it's not as if the Squid were lurking under the castle, I think it doesn't like the cave. As for Lily I think she's warming up to our Prongs, she didn't even insult him today. Tell the truth : what did you tell her? Did you bribe her? No wait that wouldn't work, she's got morals. And ethics. Dreadful, all of it. I still think you should have taken the two-ways mirror – not that I don't like writing letters, but I don't like writing letters. There's so much to say, and a quill just slows you down. Just come back, Moonshine, yes?

Sirius

AND JAMES YOU SON OF A GOBLIN I'M HERE TOO MOONY well yes I'm here too guys no need to insult each other Moony I think this only shows we've become gravely codependent but we need you mate.

As you can see, Peter hasn't discovered punctuation yet. Come back later see if it's changed. And I'm sending this letter now. - Sirius

 

 

Remus John Lupin,

I will say this once – answer before Friday or I swear I am coming for you. The moon was three days ago, I need to know how it went. And you still haven't answered the previous letter.

Lily

 

 

Dear Lily,

Thank you for your kind letter. I am glad to see that my demons, as you call them, have not yet set fire to the castle, which I secretly feared. I myself am fine, a little roughened up on the edges but nothing important, and no permanent scars. I will forever be surprised at my mum's ability to heal anyone with anything. She is a goddess and makes the best pancakes ever tasted by beast or man. Amen.

I tend to agree with your need to act, although I'm at loss on the “how” of the question. I had a similar discussion with Peter a few months ago and no solution has popped up since. But constant brainstorming might bring us some surprises, right? I'll talk to the boys about it, see what they think. I believe we all agree with you. What of the girls? I understand Alice is quite eager to act, even more now that Frank is applying to the Auror program. On that note, please keep all information on their intimate activities stored away, I certainly don't want to know what they get up to behind closed doors, or how they do it.

Lily, I trust you. I do. But you must understand opening up is difficult. The guys had to discover everything on their own, because, even though I trusted them, I was afraid of their reaction. Pad Sirius had to extricate information from me the last time we had a Talk (besides, a Talk with Sirius? Who'd have guessed?). My point is that I just don't can't don't want to don't know how to say things. It. The thing. The one you guessed. I don't know how to and I don't want to and I think I am panicking now.

I went to have a hot chocolate and am back now. It seems you and I both get too worked up writing letters (and yes, it's very Austenian of us). Understand I seriously considered denial as a course of action when thinking about this answer, but I think I owe you this. Sirius would say I owe it to myself because I keep things bottled up and whatnot, but given that he has the emotional sensibility of a drugged peony, I won't take his analyse into account. Can you Do you understand Can you imagine realising you l fancied Alice? Your best female friend? You are right on the fact that I don't mind if men date men, women date women, or both, or none. But that is when it comes to others. I can't allow myself something like that, not in my situation. Can you imagine? A Half-Blood bisexual werewolf? I struggle enough as it is without such a factor. Besides, I don't want anyone. I mean, no-one would deserve, or even want, to be with someone like me. Don't get angry. You know it's true. I am an outlaw – unregistered, receiving a wizarding education –, will never have a proper job, even if I never register, if only because I'll keep being suspiciously absent at that time of the month. I turn into a bloodthirsty beast one or two nights a month, and will keep doing so until I die. I am poor. I am scarred. For Merlin's sake, I already have grey hair! Lily, no-one wants someone like me. I wouldn't want someone like me. And it's my best friend we're talking about. I care too much about him. He's already given me too much. I can't betray his trust like that.

That said, I did come here to have space, to order my thoughts. I will be fine. I promise everything will be normal when I get back in three days. No-one will be the wiser.

I hope you are all right.

Kisses,

Remus J. Lupin

P.S.: you mention James a lot for someone who is supposed to hate him.

 

* * *

 

“- Hello guys – oomph,” groans Remus as a small, roundish, red-haired thing whoops and slams into him when he pushes his dorm door open.

- Hello Rem,” mutters Lily from somewhere on his chest. He laughs, surprised, sets his bag down and squeezes back.

“- Not that I'm not pleased to see you, Lils, but what are you doing here?” he asks, extricating himself from his friend's fierce grip.

“- She couldn't resist my attraction,” says James, coming from behind Lily and pulling him into a brief hug. “You all right?” he murmurs. Remus gives the briefest nod and is rewarded by a wide grin.

“- Hey Moony,” calls Peter from where he is still seated on the plush rug between his and Remus's bed. Remus waves back and is startled by two arms sneaking around his waist from behind him.

“- Hullo Pads,” he softly says, not totally managing to relax against Sirius's chest. His friend must feel it, because he soon unwinds his grip and turns Remus around to scrutinise him.

“- You look tired, Moons.

- I always do.

- True,” the dog Animagus softly smiles and ruffles Remus's hair before stepping back and flopping down next to Peter, where James and Lily have sat again in a circle.

“- What is this, a powwow?” asks Remus as he bends to retrieve his bag and places it on his bed.

“- A war council's more like it,” answer Lily as James and Sirius ask what a powwow is in unison, and are ignored by the other three.

“- A war council? What for?

- I didn't feel like waiting for you to ask them,” Lily gestures at Sirius, James and Peter, “what they thought we should do. So I decided to do it myself.

- Good initiative,” nods Remus seriously, taking off his shoes and putting them on the floor before sitting cross-legged on his bedspread. The others rearrange themselves so he is part of the circle. “What are the results so far?

- We've been at it since yesterday afternoon,” starts James, whose ability to speak doesn't seem hindered by Lily's presence. Remus smiles slightly. “Pete here has proposed an anti-hate campaign, with explicative leaflets.” Sirius snorts and adds :

“- We don't think it's a very good idea.

- Oi, at least I proposed something!” cries Peter indignantly.

“- Yeah. But Padf – Sirius is right,” starts Remus.

“- You know you guys can use your ridiculous nicknames when I'm here, right?” cuts in Lily. They all stare at her. “Apart from Rem's, I have no idea what they are supposed to mean, and frankly, I don't care,” she raises a hand to stop James, who has opened his mouth to offer a probably hair-brained explanation. Remus snorts. “What?

- You are the worst liar, Lils. You're dying to know what they refer to.

- Okay, I do,” she concedes, eliciting a laugh from James. “But that doesn't mean I'm going to pry into your stuff. Don't feel censured by my presence, is all.

- Thank you. Padfoot is right,” Remus says again, turning to Peter. “Most people here don't share Voldemort's convictions. And the ones who do,” he ploughs on, ignoring Peter's shiver at the name, “won't be swayed by a few leaflets.

- That's what we thought,” says Sirius. Remus nods. For a few moments, the room is silent, everyone brooding over what seventeen-year-olds could do.

“- A DADA club,” blurts James. They all turn to him. His eyebrows are raised like every time he finds an idea and sees its detail unwind before his eyes. Sirius grins.

“- Brilliant. One open to Fifth Years and beyond.

- If students under OWLs level want to do something they'll have to make something up on their side. We can't have too many disparities.

- We'd learn and teach how to fight.

- Duel.

- Neutralise without killing.

- Fight in a team.

- Fight Inferi and Dementors.

- Resist the Imperium.

- Wow, wow, wow, guys,” Remus cuts in. “Breathe, will you? How can we manage this if there isn't anyone who's able to teach us?

- We'll teach ourselves.

- Find books.

- Improvise.

- Brainstorm.

- Lily, what do you say?” asks Remus, visibly seeking help.

“- It's brilliant. I'm in,” she answers, grinning almost savagely. Remus sighs, but the sound is drowned by James and Sirius's whoops. His eyes meet Peter's, who just smiles and shrugs. Better follow them now that they're started, he seems to be thinking. He is right. Between the three of them, James, Sirius and Lily shine as bright as a star would. Remus and Peter have no choice but to follow.

“- We'll have to ask for permission,” Remus says. Lily sobers up at once, nods and gets out a muggle pen and a small paper pad from her robe's pockets on which she starts jotting notes down. James, who had started blindly reaching across Peter's bed for a quill and some parchment, huffs in amusement and sits back down. “Find a room, a time in the week. Decide what to do. Perhaps train beforehand so we can focus on other students and know how to help them. Research. Pads, you mentioned Dementors. We could start with the Patronus charm, but it's extremely difficult. And I don't see how we'll train to fight Inferi. We'll have to look things up in the library. Ask Professor Barnes for advice, maybe? I hear he's going back to the United States at the end of the year, but I know he's been involved in some kind of special operations a while ago. He might know some useful things.

- Moony, breathe,” says Sirius amusedly, setting a warm hand on his knee. Remus shivers but smiles.

“- Sorry.

- Don't be. That's why we need you,” answers his friend, jerking his head towards where Lily is furiously scribbling on her notepad, James listing things off to her. Peter is looking at the scene with a fond light in his eyes. For the first time since he stepped out of his parents' house, or maybe since the last full moon, Remus feels the tension seep away, drained by two laughing grey eyes.

 

“- Moony? Are you awake?” Sirius whispers in the dark.

“- No,” a muffled voice answer moments later.

“- Hah. Can I come in?”

The bed hangings shift open in response. Sirius sneaks in and closes them again before sitting on Remus's bed.

“- Can't sleep?” Remus asks, his face barely visible in the dark. Sirius huffs.

“- Didn't try yet. Prongs has been ranting to me about Lily for forty-five minutes now.

- He's gotten good at his Silencing Charms then, I didn't hear a thing.

- That's because I cast it.

- This explain that. What did he say?

- The usual. The moment I think he can't fall more in love, he does. It's terrific.

- Oi, I heard that,” says James from his bed. Sirius slips a hand out and gives him the finger before muttering a Silentio.

“- Did you just cast a wandless Silencing Charm?” Remus asks.

“- Yup. It's not that difficult, you know.

- The moment I think you can't become more surprising, you do. It's terrific.”

Sirius's heart leaps at the words before settling down again. Remus's use of his own words is intentionally sarcastic. There is nothing behind that. And wishful thinking is a Bundimum.

“- Actually, I... I wanted to talk.

- Oh dear. What have you done?

- Nothing!” Sirius cries indignantly. Remus chuckles in the dark. “Your suspicion wounds me. Can I get under the covers or do I have to keep freezing my arse and feet off?

- Way to get in someone's bed, Black,” Remus mutters, shifting sideways. Sirius softly laughs and slides under the blankets, turning around to face Remus, who does the same. They have done this so often they could be twelve again. “What's wrong?” asks Remus once they've stopped moving.

“- I was going to ask that. Way to put me under the spot, Lupin.

- We need to stop repeating what the other says.

- True. So. What's wrong?

- Nothing, Pads.

- Rubbish. You're not acting normal.”

Sirius feels Remus stiffen at once.

“- I just told you. Nothing is wrong, Sirius.

- And now you've lied twice. Wait,” he says, stopping Remus as the other boy starts defending himself, “that's not how I wanted this to go. Don't get angry, okay?”

Remus deflates.

“- I'm not angry,” he mutters.

“- Good. It's just that... you don't seem okay. And you've been acting strange.

- What's this new habit of talking about feelings, Black? I'm staring to worry.

- Stop deflecting, Moony.

- I'm not deflecting.

- Yes you are.

- What if I am? I don't have to tell you everything, do I?

- Rem, don't get defensive.”

Remus huffs, put out, but says nothing.

“- Look, last time you started acting like that with me, we ended up not speaking to each other and I fucked up like I never had before,” says Sirius. Remus sighs.

“- I've forgiven you that.

- I know. My point is that I don't want this to happen again. Talk to me. Tell me if I did something wrong. If you're cross with me,” he pleads, his heart racing in fear. Please please please say I did nothing wrong, please don't know what I'm talking about.

“- You did nothing wrong, Padfoot,” answers Remus in a soft, tired voice. Sirius feels relief flood through him. Catastrophe avoided. Again.

“- Then what's the problem, Moony?” asks Sirius, groping for Remus's hand and squeezing it. “You know you can tell me things.

- I know. I... It's nothing, Pads, I swear. I'm just tired.

- That excuse is getting a bit old, you know.

- It's no excuse, you plonker,” protests Remus, shoving him. Sirius barks a laugh.

“- Plonker yourself. But you're sure you're all right?” he asks again, sobered.

“- I promise I am, Padfoot.

- Okay. Okay, good.”

They both lie for a while, listening to James's calm, regular breathing and Peter's almost imperceptible snore. Remus's breathing has started to even out when Sirius asks :

“- Can I sleep here?

- Sure. But come closer or we'll both fall off.”

Sirius complies until only a hair's width separates their foreheads. He feels more than sees Remus smiling in the night.

“- Good night, Pads.

- G'night, Moons.”

 

The planning for a Defence club is put aside as soon as classes, Quidditch practice and Prefect duty begin again. The professors all seem to think they must learn like there is no tomorrow, and students are soon drowned under an unending pile of homework. Poppy Pomfrey gets eight cases of panic attacks, although, as McGonagall says, “it is dubious that school should be the only factor in the equation”, before announcing a surprise quiz. Even James is irked by that one.

He would really like to spend more time on their new project, but their recent victory against Hufflepuff means they are competing against Slytherin for the Cup, which makes it a matter of life and death, as McGonagall herself explained to him a few days after the start of classes. He can't help but agree. He might be a little dramatic, but he knows there is more to this match than simple Quidditch; and the fact that three of his players have already made a sojourn in the Hospital wing after “unfortunate accidents” only further confirms it.

Still, it is well into April when the dam breaks.

Sirius and Remus are headed down to Hagrid's cabin as they promised to take tea with him. The sky is blue, the newborn leaves of the whispering trees at the eve of the forest are a tender green that almost matches the lawn and Remus is so busy explaining the photosynthesis process to Sirius that they don't immediately hear the shuffle of feet behind them.

“- Sneaking off to snog your boyfriend, Black?” drawls someone in their back. They whirl around as one, instinctively grabbing their wands and drawing them out. Snape, Avery, Mulciber, Crabe, Goyle are standing between them and the castle, wickedly sneering. Sirius growls and Remus places a light, placating hand on his shoulder.

“- Severus. What a delightful encounter. Did you at last realise your oily nose and hair could do with some fresh air? Although I must say I'm at loss with your need to take these gentlemen out with you,” he gestures with his wand at the Slytherins. “Perhaps you decided to undertake a collective therapy? I hear the dungeons are dreadful for skin hygiene.

- Very funny, Lupin. Do you really need to hold your boyfriend back? What a dog,” Snape spits out.

“- Why, Snivellus, I didn't know you were that interested in our activities,” says Sirius with a smile that's all teeth. “It does sound like wishful thinking.

- You filthy–

- Shut up,” Avery cuts him. “You'll bicker like old witches later. Where's Black?” he thunders. Remus and Sirius share a surprised look without easing their grip on their wands. The air hums with tension.

“- He said he'd be coming,” starts Crabe. Avery grits his teeth.

“- Wonder why he's not here yet.

- Maybe he can't deal with facing his blood-traitor of a brother,” sneers Mulciber. Next to Remus, Sirius stiffens, eyes blazing. Only Remus's hand on his shoulder seems to be stopping him from hexing their opponents. That, and the fact that there are five of them.

“- I don't care if Black's here or not,” says Goyle. “That kid's going to get killed soon anyway, we don't need hi–”

With a roar of rage, Sirius shakes himself free from Remus's grip and throws a hex at the hulking Slytherin, who staggers and falls. Behind him, Remus stays unmoving for a moment, until a red hex whistles past his ears, at which moment he yells an Expelliarmus and ducks to avoid what looks like a Petrificus Totalus. Remus and him are severely disadvantaged, both numerically and because of the slopping ground under their feet. He hisses as an invisible blade opens a bloody gash in his arm – what is this hex? – and petrifies Mulciber as the other boy starts casting something in Remus's direction. He looks around for one of the three remaining adversaries when something hits him between his shoulder-blades. The last thing he sees are soft leaves of grass rushing to meet him.

 

“- Prongs, we have a problem.”

The urgency in Peter's voice is like a cold shower. James looks up at once from his essay to Peter, whose eyes are focused on the Map.

“- What is it?

- Moony and Padfoot.

- Yeah, they're going to Hagrid's, wh–

- Snape, Avery and Co are heading toward them.”

James can feel the blood leaving his face. They all know what happened last time a Gryffindor met these Slytherins with no-one close. Mary still won't go out of the Common Room alone.

“- Shit. Okay, take the Map, we're going.”

They run. It is some kind of horrible remake of last June's events, their feet slapping on the stone floor and staircases as they run; only, it's Peter at his side. But the fear is the same; it might not be a question of life and death right now, but he wouldn't bet on it. Not with how things are going.

“- How far were they?” he asks as they thunder down the hidden stairs.

“- Maybe... five minutes... away... from them...” pants Peter behind him. James swears and almost twists his ankle jumping over the tricky step. He's seldom hated this castle for its size, but it's becoming recurrent. He doesn't like that at all.

They hear Filch shrieking and cursing them as they skid across the Entrance Hall, past the gigantic hourglasses and through the great oak doors. Their robes flap around them as they hurry down the slopping lawn toward a cluster of black dots that grow by the second. They are soon close enough to see their friends' defensive stance, wands drawn and eyes blazing, and the threat in the five Slytherins in front of them, but not enough to stop Sirius from hexing Goyle, or Snape from cutting him with who-knows-what, or Avery from almost shooting Remus into the sky, or Sirius from receiving a strange hex in the back and falling down

“- STOP!” roars James.

And, miraculously, they do. There are three bodies on the ground Sirius is on the ground Sirius fell he's on the ground he's not moving oh Merlin HE IS NOT MOVING think. Goyle and Mulciber are stunned, Crabbe has only just retrieved his wand from where it had been sent by Remus's disarming spell, and Snape and Avery both have their wands a mere feet away from the werewolf's chest. The latter's is fixed on Snape's face, although Remus is staring at Sirius's prone form with horror. Peter gasps.

“- What do you think you are doing?” howls James, furious. He marches to where the three teenagers are holding one another still and brusquely takes all three wands. He can feel Remus's surprise but doesn't care at the moment. He knows Crabbe is standing behind him, as he knows that Peter will react before he can do anything.

“- Potter–” starts Snape, loathing carved in his sneer and his whole body language.

“- Don't. We're going to the Hospital. You,” he turns around, imperiously opening his hand, “give me your wand.

- Why should I?” asks Crabbe defiantly.

“- Because I don't trust you.”

Crabbe gives the wand.

Later, he will wonder at it. That despite the hatred they all have for him, they comply. Perhaps it is because of the blood that seeps from Sirius's cut, dark red on the grass. Perhaps it is because of the fury James knows he radiates, or the fact that a few Ravenclaws are approaching who would take the Gryffindors' side at once. James gives Remus his wand. They wake Goyle and Avery with an Enervate and give their wands to Peter before carefully levitating Sirius and floating him all the way up to the castle, where a harried Flitwick comes to them.

There are going to be consequences, far more important than a scolding by McGonagall – scolding which, in fact, is more of a fuming monologue against Slughorn's students over a cup of tea and biscuits. Even the fact that Sirius started it is waved away when Poppy Pomfrey sends word that she doesn't know the nature of the hex Sirius was thrown and is thus incapable of saying when he'll wake up. McGonagall sighs when Remus repeats what Goyle said about Regulus. They can all feel what this incident entails.

The war is in Hogwarts too, now.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight

 

“For the present is the point at which time touches eternity.”

- C.S. Lewis

 

 

Waiting, Remus realises, is quite horrible.

The thing is, he's never had to wait. As a boy, he'd waited for his parents to come home, or for his birthday to hurry along the calendar. Later – not so much in time, but After – he waited for the moon to swell in a bleary bulb as the dread stirred up in his bones, for the howls to clench his throat; now, he still does, and he waits for the pain to fade, knowing it will come back in time. He waits for spring, for tests, for the last Prefect to clear the bathroom so he can sink in scented bubbles alone, for Gwaihir to come in the mornings with a letter from his father and a dried lavender flower his mother picked up last year. He expects, he dreads, he anticipates.

But he's never had to wait. Wait for something, anything, to happen, seeing the seconds trickle by and thinking – begging – for the next one to be the last of the wait. He's never had to wait for an event to happen while ignoring whether it will happen or not.

He's never had to sit by a bed and pray for his friend to just open his eyes.

Peter is snoring quietly on his uncomfortable hospital chair. James in leaning forward in his, hands clenched together, elbows resting on his knees. His eyes could burn holes into Sirius's lax, immobile face. Remus is leaning against the wall next to the head of the bed, worrying the already chewed pad of a finger between his teeth. He closes his eyes, counts to five, ordering Sirius in his mind to open his eyes before Remus opens his. He decides that at the end of a certain countdown, Sirius will have awoken. He sets that his friend will stir before his own heart beats thirty times.

They wait. Sirius doesn't wake up.

Is it like that every time for you?

At the beginning, it must have been. He realises how terrifying it must have been for the other three, seeing him lying motionless and bandaged in a white bed, not really knowing the whys of the gashes on his arms or the hows of the creaking of his joints. But it can't be that scary now, he thinks. They've had years to get used to it. But he has never been on this side of things, staring down at a hospital bed, feeling helpless and scared and awake.

Hours later, when Sirius stirs awake, James's eyes are bloodshot, Peter has stomach cramps that have nothing to do with what he ate at breakfast and dried blood defines the outlines of what used to be Remus's nails.

“- How do you feel?” softly asks Remus – too softly, perhaps. Sirius grimaces.

“- Like I got run over by a drunk hippogriff and then got swallowed and digested by a Flobberworm.

- That's more or less what happened, yeah,” blurts out James, his voice hoarse. Sirius turns his head and stares at him for a moment, eyes shifting over his best friend's face as if reading what's carved in James's frown and anxious eyes.

“- Hey, Prongs. Don't get mushy on me. I'm all right, yeah?

- I know,” James gruffly retorts, busying himself with the pile of chocolates on the night-stand to hide his shinning eyes. Remus shakes his head, gropes for Sirius's hand and squeezes it. Peter just lets out a shaky sigh and pats Sirius on the shoulder.

“- Glad to see you awake, mate. With any luck we'll be on time for dinner.”

Sirius lets out a bark-like laugh and even James laughs a little, still frail and scared but like things can be okay again. Remus closes his eyes and wills the vice around his heart to loosen a little. It's fine. They're fine. There is no need to be scared. The wait is over.

 

When he came to Hogwarts, James held Albus Dumbledore in the utmost respect and admiration. Dumbledore was the man his parents always mentioned, talking about great but obscure deeds, a man named Grindelwald, a place named Hogwarts James knew he would one day come to see. For a ten-year-old James Potter, Albus Dumbledore was the paragon of the perfect wizard, the only person he admired more than his father. And, all throughout his almost six years at Hogwarts, it had kept being so.

Until today.

When James, Remus and Peter enter the Dining Hall – without Sirius, who is confined in the Hospital Wing until further notice –, their eyes automatically find the Slytherin table and James almost stumbles on his own feet. Because sitting there sneering and laughing are Severus Snape and his goons, unpunished, unchecked. Regulus is nowhere to be seen, but James doesn't think much of it.

He spends dinner fuming. Peter throws him worried looks and even hesitantly pats him on the back. He mostly ignores conversations, not answering Frank's questions and punctuating Lily's with grunts. Remus, always the spokesman, quickly explains the situation to their friends, calm and composed as ever. James would be furious at him for being so cool and collected if he didn't have a direct view of Remus's long trembling hands that grip the copper cutlery a little stronger than necessary.

How dare he.

After dinner, instead of getting up and leaving, he stays seated waiting for the Hall to clear a little. Dumbledore is speaking in hushed tones with McGonagall, and James will be damned if he doesn't give the Headmaster a piece of his mind before the end of the evening. Remus and Peter don't say anything but remain still as well. They have his back; they always do. Remus looks nervous, worried; James knows well he hates defying The Powers That Be. He knows, but he can't do anything else than feeling sorry.

“- Sir. Professor.”

Dumbledore and McGonagall look up at him. He stands erect, his hands clasped behind his back, respectful but unmoving, Remus and Peter at either side.

“- Potter, if you need to see me, you know where my office is.

- Professor, this is about Sirius.”

McGonagall frowns. She knows him, knows where he's going. Still, she doesn't say anything to stop him, which is implicitly a mark of agreement.

“- Sir,” he says, turning to Dumbledore, “after attacking him and Remus, Snape threw him an unknown hex that landed him in the Hospital Wing.

- But assuredly Mr. Black is now perfectly healthy.

- The hex might have unexpected secondary effects. Sir, Snape put Sirius's life in danger, and he hasn't even been punished!”

Remus's hand appears on the small of his back, solid and grounding. Stay calm, it says. He draws a deep breath, but Dumbledore beats him before he can say anything else.

“- I seem to recall Mr. Black putting Mr. Snape's life in danger some time ago.” Remus's hand suddenly grabs his robes. James wished he could squeeze it, do something, anything else than staring at Dumbledore in complete disbelief. McGonagall's pursed lips scream of disapproval, but she says nothing.

“- With all due respect, sir, that didn't come to pass, while Sirius is presently in the Hospital,” Peter pipes in, and James really wants to high-five him. The twinkling in Dumbledore's eyes dims a little.

“- I seem to recall,” he repeats, “that Mister Snape did not say anything about what he might or might not have seen that particular night. It came at a price.” A pause, Remus's sharp intake of breath, gears turning in James's mind. “Everything is in a very delicate balance these days,” Dumbledore adds, more gently. “And preventing it from toppling over requires mastery. Now, you should all go back to your Common Room. And no sneaking out to the infirmary tonight, boys!”

As they make their way to Gryffindor Tower – mostly to take the Invisibility Cloak –, James turns the old wizard's words over and over, recalling the events of almost a year ago. Under his veiled words, Dumbledore seemed to want them to understand that he too is aware of the unrest within the school. He sighs, draping an arm over Peter's shoulders. He wouldn't accept the charge of Hogwarts Headmaster for all the gold in Gringotts.

 

Remus looks around the corner, plastered against the cold stone wall. The Arithmancy corridor stretches long, dark and blessedly empty towards the Great Staircase; the entrance of the secret passage that leads to the Fifth Floor, hidden up there behind the statue of Gregory the Smarmy, is at the other end of the corridor. Last time he checked on the Map, Filch was prowling in the East Wing and his demon cat – who, for a mysterious reason, appears on the Map, although Remus has a theory on why that is – was stalking the North Tower; but better safe than sorry. He lightly pats the bulge of Wormtail in his pocket and starts walking towards the entrance of the Smarmy Passage. If caught alone, he can always pull the Prefect card, but that doesn't work if Peter is there with him, and Wormtail is easy to hide in his large school robes' pockets. They have left the Cloak to James, who is staying with Sirius for the night.

He has almost reached the tapestry when someone turns the corner in front of him and almost barges into him.

“- You.”

Regulus Black lowers the wand he'd drawn, although he doesn't pocket it yet. Remus and him stare at each other for a long moment.

“- How is he?” Regulus asks in a small voice.

“- Better. Tired, a bit light-headed with a small concussion. No secondary effects as of now.”

Regulus nods and slumps against the nearest wall, still tense but no longer on guard. Remus and him reached an understanding a long time ago: Remus gives him news of Sirius and Regulus never acknowledges him publicly nor partakes in any mocking or taunting against him.

“- They could have killed him.

- I should have been there.

- I'm glad you weren't.” Regulus darts a glance at him and returns to staring at the opposite wall. Remus's palm rests lightly on where he knows Wormtail is, drawing comfort from the small heat there. He wishes Peter were at his side. “And I think he is too.

- Why?

- Neither of you wants to draw wands against the other.

- He chose the wrong side.

- Debatable, and not the point.”

Regulus shrugs.

“- Is Potter there still?

- Yes.” Silence. “You can go if you want, though. He might not be sleeping, but Sirius certainly is. Tell him we spoke. Just so you can see your brother.

- Were he awake, he wouldn't want me there.

- Well, good thing he's asleep, then.”

Regulus fixes him.

“- Why are you doing this?”

He could be referring to a lot of things. But the answer is the same to most of them.

“- Because I care for him,” Remus replies, shrugging. Something akin to understanding flashes in Regulus's eyes. “And I think it makes two of us,” he softly adds. They watch each other a little longer before Regulus nods, once, and makes his way towards the infirmary. Remus doesn't look back. He strides towards the tapestry, pokes thrice at it with his wand and ducks in the low entrance that's appeared. His chest hurts with something that might be sadness, or the weight of words unsaid.

 

Sirius gets out of the Hospital Wing two days later and things go back to normal, or as normal as they can be. Spring has arrived in full force, bringing with it a restlessness, a bubbling, simmering tension everyone can feel. Fights between students increase, and Pomfrey spends her days treating cases of abnormally large tongues and teeth, donkey ears and suddenly furry skin. Though the Daily Prophet doesn't always mention it, people keep disappearing. Britain's wizarding world is not that big; students leave for a funeral every week or so. Some don't come back.

They're scared.

Alice says so a Friday evening. All the Sixth Years plus Frank are seated in a semi-circle in front of the chimney. It's late and most students have gone to bed. The Common Room isn't exactly empty, but it's certainly quieter than usual.

Frank shuffles even closer to her and passes an arm around her shoulders, tugging her at his side. She burrows against him without looking away from the fire.

“- I'm just… so, so scared,” she repeats.

“- Don't be,” says Frank. She frowns.

“- That's stupid. I can't not be scared, Frank. And even if I could, I wouldn't be, because things are scary at the moment.

- Yeah,” murmur Mary and James at the same time. Frank sighs. Alice suddenly draws a little away and turns to him so they can see each other's faces.

“- And us, we're still staying at Hogwarts for a year. We're still more or less safe. But you, you're entering the Auror training in three months!

- I'll be an Auror-in-training, love. I won't go on field missions.

- Actually...” starts James. Lily elbows him in the ribs before he can say anything else, but Alice looks at him, almost glaring.

“- Actually what, James.

- It's just that there's a little shortage of Aurors at the moment,” says Sirius, who is seated on James's left and thus out of reach for Lily's murdering elbows. Alice pales a little.

“- See? That's what I meant,” she murmurs

“- We're not ready for this,” says Marlene, grasping Dorcas's hand like a lifeline. Remus and Sirius share a look before Remus glances at Peter on his left and Sirius silently checks in with Lily and James. He lightly elbows Remus.

“- Speaking of that. We… we have a plan,” starts Remus. The other nine look at him. He can feel Sirius playing with a loose thread of his jumper's hem but doesn't let this distract him. “We thought we could open a Defence club.

- How so?” asks Mary.

“- Well, somewhere we'd meet, say, once or twice a week, and where we'd learn to defend ourselves.

- Who would teach us?

- Professor Lupin here,” says Sirius. “James, Lily, me, whomever wants to. Remus has started working on his Patronus–

- You weren't supposed to tell them,” Remus grumbles. Sirius ignores him.

“- We can do some research before, train a little so we can help the others afterwards.

- And you'd have time for this?” asks Frank, doubtful.

“- We're used to carrying side-projects and, what do you call it, extracurricular activities all year long,” grins James.

“- We don't want to know, do we,” mumbles Dorcas.

“- Even if you did, we wouldn't tell you, honey,” answers Sirius. Marlene sniggers.

“- I don't really see how this helps,” says Alice.

“- It's easy, look. We'd actively learn how to protect ourselves against Dementors, Inferi and the such. They need specific charms, but both the Patronus and the fire charms can be useful otherwise. We could also work on duelling, acquiring reflexes, and–

- Lily, you do realise the Death Eaters use the Unforgivable Curses, right?” cuts Alice. “How are we supposed to fight against that?

- Alice. All of us here agree on the fact we're going to fight Voldemort. I'm not keen on learning how to kill someone, and I'm certainly not going to do it here at Hogwarts, but there are other spells I'm sure we could use.

- There are,” says Remus. “I've been looking things up in the Library. What we see in DADA is nothing compared to everything there is.

- And there's more,” says James. “We could learn how to fight as a team.

- And good healing spells,” interjects Lily.

"- How to cast strong protection spells,” suggests Peter. James and Sirius nod in unison.

“- How to resist the Imperius,” adds the latter.

“- You guys already have it planned, right,” deadpans Frank. Lily snorts.

“- There might be a list somewhere,” she says. Alice looks outraged.

“- Wait, you're saying you were planning this with them and you didn't tell me?

- I… we wanted to make sure it was happening?

- I can't believe you, Evans. One day you start talking to Potter and the other you've eloped with him and stopped giving news.”

Lily rolls her eyes but her redhead's skin doesn't hide her blush. Alice and Mary snicker and poke at each other. James ducks his head, suddenly very much interested in the threadbare carpet he's seated on, and, if it weren't for his darker skin tone, his blush would be visible as well. Remus worries his lower lip with his teeth and sends Sirius an amused glance that is returned in earnest.

“- Yes, well, whatever,” cuts Lily. Alice snorts and Mary shushes her, giggling quietly. Lily sends them an irate look and continues. “The point is that we should agree on a place to meet and train.

- Don't we need to talk to McGonagall first or something?” asks Marlene.

“- Done,” answers Remus. “She spoke to Barnes and he said we could use his classroom on the evenings.

- Who is it for then? Who will be coming?

- I don't know. Us, I suppose. We'll see as it goes.

- The thing is,” says Sirius, “we don't know who to trust.

- Sirius, the people here are students,” protests Frank.

“- He ended up in the infirmary not two weeks ago,” spits Remus almost aggressively. Sirius startles and gives him a surprised look, mirrored by the others. Remus shrugs, uncomfortable. From Sirius's other side, James flashes him an understanding look. Remus isn't the only one who still feels shell-shocked from that incident.

“- Yeah, Frank. Ask Mary here if some people in the school aren't dangerous.”

Mary shrinks on herself and Dorcas squeezes her shoulder, glaring reproachfully at James, who doesn't care.

“- All right,” Lily says, defusing the tension. “We'll need to work around our schedules. Besides, final tests are approaching, I'm not sure we have much time to do anything.

- I for one can't say I'll come,” says Frank. “I've got NEWTs to prepare and, well. Alice is staying here next year.”

Lily pauses and looks at them. Alice is snuggled against Frank's side, her head lying on his shoulder. His hand is casually resting on her hip, like it belongs here. Like they belong together, through thick and thin, like no storm can tear them apart. Seeing them like that is suddenly daunting; they have been talking of war and fighting for almost an hour but it's this quiet sight that really gets to Lily. They're itching to act like adults, all of them, to get ready, go out and fight, throw their youth and their rage at this world they hadn't dreamt about; but seeing Alice and Frank together makes her feel like a little girl all over again. They have each other. They know it, they can feel it, feel that they're bound to be together till death do them part, and Lily isn't ready for something this absolute.

Suddenly, she's scared. Suddenly, she sees them, these people all around here, her friends, this family she chose, and she's so scared of losing them she stops breathing. James is saying something to Marlene, who is playing with Dorcas's hand; Alice and Frank are listening, throwing a comment here and there and silently basking in each other's company. Mary is staring at the fire in her own bubble. Sirius and Remus are talking quietly, as much with words as with hands and looks and minute expressions no-one but the other can understand. Peter is propped against the empty couch, emptily gazing at the rug.

They are all so terribly young.

 

“- Filch is near the balcony of the North Tower,” says Peter.

“- Third floor, am I right?” distractedly asks Sirius, rummaging in his bottomless pockets to get his wand out. Peter nods in assent and checks one last time before starting to fold the Map that, despite their best efforts, is still impossibly big.

“- What's this?”

Peter freezes and glances at Sirius who shoots him back a panicked look before turning to Lily.

“- Lily! What a surprise to see you here!

- Sirius, this is the Gryffindor Common Room. We both live here.

- Still. Aren't you supposed to be in class?”

Peter realises Sirius is partially hiding him from Lily's view. He precipitately folds the rest of the parchment and stuffs it into his pocket.

“- Um, it's ten o'clock at night so no. Was that a map?” she asks, undeterred.

“- I don't know what you're talking about.

- Black, stop it. Is that the map of Hogwarts you've been working on?

- We've been working on no map of Hogwarts. You're mistaken.

- But James told me you were…

- Oh he did, didn't he?” Sirius grits out. Peter can see a muscle twitch in his jaw. James is in trouble.

“- Yes. But I didn't know it was a moving map. Can you see people on this?

- Really, Evans, I don't understand what you're saying. That would be stalkerish. We might have had entertained for a while the fanciful idea of mapping Hogwarts but the castle is too big and well, it moves.

- That thing did move,” Lily points out.

“- That's your imagination speaking. Besides, can you imagine the difficulty of doing such a thing? That would require, like, far too much technical knowledge for us. Too complicated. Not that I ever thought of it, of course…

- You're a terrible liar.

- Don't know what you mean. Come on, Wormtail, we've got places to be. Bye Lily!”

Sirius rushes out of the Common Room, Peter hot on his heels, not listening to Lily's dry “you do know it's past curfew right?”.

“- I can't believe it. She talks to him for a second and he looses all his higher brain functions. He just ratted us out! No offence, mate,” he adds, throwing Peter an apologetic look as they make their way to the one-eyed witch statue. James and him decreed there should be one last Gryffindor party before they all entered full study-and-Quidditch mode, and they need liquid provisions for tomorrow night.

“- None taken,” pants Peter, struggling to keep pace with Sirius's long legs. Sirius fumes all the way to Honeydukes. When they get there, they silently lift up the trap door and get out of the passage.

“- You know what we should take tonight?” whispers Sirius.

“- What?

- Firewhiskey.

- But there'll be First and Second Years to the party!” protests Peter. Sirius waves a dismissive hand and makes his way to the door, and from there, silently to the entrance of the shop. Peter sighs, runs a trembling hand in his hair – no matter how many times they do this, he still doesn't like it – and changes into Wormtail before scurrying after Sirius. It's late enough most people are home with their shutters closed; and the rampant insecurity and sense of danger keeps people out of the streets. They quietly get to the Three Broomsticks' back-door. Sirius opens it with a wave of his wand and no incantation – Wormtail feels jealousy pinch his heart a brief instant – and, once inside, makes his way to one of the whiskey crates. He crouches down, gets a bottle out and replicates it once. He carefully opens the duplicate and takes a sip as Peter changes back.

“- That'll do.” He shoves the second into his pocket and putting the original back where it belongs.

“- Since when do we replicate things instead of taking them?

- Since Moony figured it'd be suspicious if five bottles of Firewhiskey suddenly disappeared. Besides, it's expensive. We're not stealing anything expensive,” he grumbles. Peter shrugs.

“- We should've taken the mirror passage,” he mumbles.

“- It didn't occur to me we might need to go somewhere else than Honeydukes. Rosmerta does keep some of her Butterbeer there.” He takes a look at Peter and adds: “If you want, you can go back to the castle that way. I'll go to Honeydukes and take the rest.”

Peter bites down a sudden bitterness at the words. Sirius offered out of kindness, but he still feels there's a part of contempt hidden somewhere in there. Maybe, if Remus had offered, he wouldn't have felt the same. As it is, he shakes is head and says no. Sirius simply nods, ushers him out of the room and locks the door after them. Back at Honeydukes, they stuff their pockets with candy and clinking bottles of Butterbeer and slowly make their way back home.

They're in the middle of the tunnel when Peter remembers the incident with Lily.

“- That was a close call with Lily, earlier.”

Sirius hums but doesn't answer at once. Peter can almost see him think.

“- Yeah,” he finally says. “We might want to make the Map safer. You know, secure it some way or another.

- How do we do that?

- Dunno. I might have an idea, I need to talk to the lads.”

Because I'm not good enough, right.

This time, the bitterness doesn't back down so easily.

When they get back panting to the dorms, after having narrowly escaped an encounter with Mrs. Norris, they find James and Remus reading on James's bed.

“- So I was thinking,” starts Sirius while emptying his pockets in the chest whose sole purpose is to contain food and drink for parties and celebration.

“- Congratulations on that,” murmurs Remus, flicking a page. Sirius shoots him a Tickling Charm over his shoulder. It goes and hits one of the posts of the bed, which starts wriggling. James groans a finite incantatem and keeps on reading.

“- No but really. Chaps, I was thinking we should improve the Map.

- The Map is perfectly good as it is!” exclaims Remus, outraged, laying down his book at last.

“- I mean. We should protect it.

- There already is a battery of protective charms on it,” James points out, sitting up.

“- But there is none that protects the information it has,” counters Sirius. James's eyebrows shoot up at once.

“- You mean, we should prevent people from being able to read it?

- Yeah.

- Why?” distractedly asks Remus, picking at his nails.

“- Because Prongs here is incapable of keeping his mouth shut in front of redheads and half of Hogwarts already knows–” Peter coughs. “okay, Evans already knows we've been working on a map.” James has the good grace to look down, abashed. Remus tuts.

“- That's not good, Prongs.

- Yeah, sorry 'bout that.

- It's okay, I saved the day,” says Sirius.

“- You didn't. You just ran away,” mildly comments Peter. Remus sniggers as Sirius shoots Peter a betrayed look.

“- Point in case is that we need to hide the information.

- We could cast a spell so only the four of us can see what's written on it,” offers Remus.

“- Like the Anagnomos spell?” asks James. Remus nods.

“- Yeah, something like that.

- There are several things that don't work with that. First, it's weird if we walk around with an enormous blank parchment,” Sirius points out.

“- Also, our legacy, Moony,” adds James. Sirius nods. “We want people to be able to use it.

- So it would be more of a password, or something,” offers Peter around a bar of chocolate he's fished from under his mattress.

“- Yes, exactly, that's it.

- So what would it be like?

- An empty page. Our names.

- I'm not putting my name on this,” protests Remus.

“- Our nicknames, Moony. Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs… something something… the Marauders' Map,” offers Sirius. James looks thoughtful for a minute.

“- We could say that anyone who uses the Map is a Marauder. Legacy and all.

- So the Marauder's Map? In singular?” says Sirius.

“- Yeah.

- Are proud to present,” says Peter.

“- What?

- It's what announcers always say in the radio. Mr. Gibbins is proud to present the Great Gibbins Garter.

- You just made this up,” says Remus. Peter laughs.

“- He's right, though. Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs are proud to present the Marauder's Map.

- It's a bit… lacklustre,” mumbles Remus, getting up and padding to his bed.

“- Well then, give me something better to work with mate,” says Sirius.

“- Ideas take time, Padfoot. I'm going to bed. We'll think better tomorrow morning.

- You sound like my mum,” says Peter.

“- No offence to your mum Wormtail, but you sound like an old fart, Moony,” shoots James from his bed. Remus gives him the finger from under his covers and James snickers.

“- Prongs. The only person allowed to call Moony 'old fart' is me.

- You made up that rule.

- Yeah, and I'll be enforcing it.”

Sirius shrugs out of his clothes and puts his pyjama on, imagining he almost catches Remus looking. He shakes his head to himself and climbs into bed as well, facing left towards Remus's bed. Remus turns around and curls up in a ball facing him.

“- Dim the lights, Prongs,” he asks. In the soft orange glow, his eyes look black.

“- How are you feeling?” whispers Sirius.

“- The pull is starting.

- I'm glad the full is after the last match.

- Yeah, me too,” mumbles Remus. He closes his eyes.

“- Moony.

- Hmmm?”

Suddenly Sirius wants to say something stupid, like I love you or You're three feet away but I miss you all the same or I'm sorry I can't magic you up an easier life. He bites his tongue so hard he tastes blood.

“- Nothing. Good night.

- G'night, Pads. Sleep well.”

His heart is beating too hard, Sirius thinks. Remus will hear it pounding.

He goes to sleep as James quietly whispers nox, plunging the room into darkness... and is woken up by James who, at five o'clock in the morning, excitedly shakes him while loudly whispering they've got to add Messers to the Map's title. Sometimes, Sirius hates his best friend.

 

The last Quidditch match is against Slytherin. Added to the already-present tension in Hogwarts, this increases exponentially the number of fights and magical injuries as the date of the match slowly approaches. James makes the team train like there is no tomorrow, wearing them out four times a week. Two days before the game, as he rounds up the team to go down to practice on the evening, Alice categorically refuses.

“- Potter, we've been training like mad since the last game. We've been on a winning streak since the beginning of the year. We're ready. Now let us rest and have a minimum of energy for Saturday.

- She's right, mate,” says Sirius, landing a heavy hand on James's shoulder. “You and all of us have been doing the best we could. There's no use to it if we fall off our brooms out of exhaustion on Saturday.”

James huffs loudly but gives in and stalks off, presumably to review strategy or something. Before Sirius can follow him, the Keeper, David Blurton, and two of the Chasers, Susan Summers and Jane Grey, throw him a grateful look.

The day of the game is windy with some heavy-looking clouds in the sky, threatening to rain. It's supposed to be late May, but no-one said the weather in Scotland respected the seasons.

All the trepidation vanishes when they walk into the pitch, acclaimed by three houses out of four. Three quarters of the stands are full of red-and-gold scarves, flags and robes, while Slytherin sits lonely in its green-and-silver colours. The game starts viciously not five seconds after Mr. Twig has given the signal, Slytherin's beaters sending a Bludger straight into Aiguo Chan's face, who swerves into Jane Grey at the last moment to avoid it. The Slytherin Chasers take the opportunity to fly straight to where Blurton is hovering; their trajectory is deflected by a Bludger Alice sends careening in their direction. Rita Skeeter excitedly comments, throwing poorly-veiled insults and barbs at Gryffindor until McGonagall explodes and takes charge of the running commentary. James and Regulus float over the pitch, James searching for the Snitch and the other watching James like a hawk. Slytherin and Gryffindor are tied on points: it's a question of rapidity, the Snitch grants more than enough points for either team to win without scoring. Sirius follows their plan and lets Alice take care of the rest of the team; his mission is to look after James. Under him, closer to the ground, the Quaffle is an orange blur as Chasers of both teams toss it to one another and intercept it, almost crashing into the others at every lurch and dive.

Suddenly, Sirius hears the tell-tale hiss of a Bludger fast approaching, headed towards James. He gives a warning shout and reclines on his broom, speeding as much as he can and deflecting it not five feet away from where James is. He sends it to one of the green chasers who drops the Quaffle in order to avoid it. When he looks back, James has left and is climbing up in wide circles, Regulus tailing him. His gaze sweeps across the pitch, looking for Bludgers, when it hits a small golden glint near the Hufflepuff stand. He looks up, searching for James; but the latter has already spotted the Snitch and is diving towards it full-speed. Regulus is fast behind him; he is lither, lighter, but he reacted too late. Sirius hears what sounds like Lily yelling his name. Alice has sent a Bludger towards Regulus, which has been deflected by a Slytherin Beater… and is hurtling straight to him.

“- Oh no,” he manages to say before he is hit.

 

“- This is becoming a habit,” says Remus's voice.

Sirius slowly opens his eyes. The world is bright, a blur of yellow and red with a background of white. He blinks once or twice and James and Remus's faces come into focus.

What, not used to not being the one who's in the bed? his eyes ask Remus, not daring voice the thought aloud when the whole team is just there. Remus hears it all the same; his eyes crinkle in mirth and relief.

“- You scared us here mate,” says James. The others nod.

“- I'm sorry, Sirius. That Bludger was mine,” says Alice apologetically.

“- No worries. You were doing your job,” he answers. “More importantly: who won?”

James pulls an offended expression.

“- I can't believe you're asking. We did, of course!”

He should have known. From the grins on his team-mates' faces, he should have known. He laughs in relief.

“- Brilliant. Party tonight?

- Of cou–

- There is no way you are getting out of here before tomorrow morning, Black,” cuts Pomfrey. “Gryffindor will celebrate without you. Now, out, all of you, you're muddying my infirmary.

- But–

- No buts here Potter. Go get showered and changed.” Remus throws her an almost imploring look and she seems to melt a bit. “Remus, you can stay.

- Thank you ma'am.

- Hush. Shoo, you all!”

The Quidditch team grumbles their way out of the infirmary. James lingers behind, hovering beside the bed.

“- I'm sorry, Pads.

- Yeah, it stinks. Have fun for me Prongsie.

- I will. Take care.

- Yeah.”

Once the team is gone, Remus sighs and slumps a bit in his chair.

“- Hey, Moony, you okay?

- Yeah, I… you scared me there, Padfoot. Like, really, really bad.

- It was only a Bludger.

- It hit you full-force and you fell off your broom.

- I did?

- Yes. Prongs managed to catch the Snitch and catch you before you hit the ground because he's amazing like that.” He chuckles. “I think Lily squeaked at that point.” Sirius laughs and, this time, registers the pain in his chest and shoulder. He grimaces, and Remus sees it.

“- I know. You had a few broken ribs and a dislocated shoulder from when Prongs caught you by the arm. Poppy took care of it, you should be fine tomorrow morning.”

Sirius nods and tries to get more comfortable on the bed.

“- Where's Wormtail?

- Dunno, he was there a bit before you woke up. Did you two have a fallout?” Remus carefully asks. Sirius shrugs with his good shoulder.

“- Not that I can think of.

- Maybe he just went to stock up for tonight. Sorry about that, by the way.

- There's nothing you can do. At least we won.

- Yeah.

- You know, Regulus almost got the Snitch.”

Sirius pauses and looks at Remus.

“- Why are you telling me that?

- I thought you might want to know. He's really good.

- I don't care.

- Okay. I'm just letting you know.”

Remus sighs again, crosses his arms on the bed and rests his head there. Sirius absent-mindedly combs his fingers through his hair.

“- How are you feeling?

- Tired. My bones hurt,” Remus mumbles. The full moon is in two days. Flashes of the conversation they had on the lake's shore before Christmas come back to Sirius, making his heart tighten. He starts rubbing soothing patterns on Remus's scalp, privately enjoying the slide of soft hair between his fingers.

“- I wish you weren't sleeping down here tonight,” Remus whispers.

“- Yeah. Me too.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine

 

“Love is friendship that has caught fire.”

- Ann Landers

 

 

 

The night sounds like copper and damp soil. Run, run, howl-roar-bark at the floating magnetic light above – don’t forget the little one, paws boom boom swoosh on the ground, pine-needles prickly sap smells of fresh bubbling spring sunset – blood.

RunrunrunrunrunrunrunrunrunrunrunrunrunrunrunruWATER. Cold and refreshing, stag and dog here with us, mates, pack; and the little one on the shore, watching.

Howl again, wet and powerful.

Freedom tastes like pain and exhilaration. Want, never stop.

 

Years and a night later, the light.

It hurts.

 

“… of the year, chaps.”

Prongs opens an eye, then another. Three indistinct form are on the bed above him, two seated and one laying on the duvet. The stag blinks a few times and gets up, strong, graceful legs and long antlers. He bows his head once, nuzzles the ground with his muzzle, straightens up and changes.

“Wow, look, a wanker!” exclaims Sirius, jumping from the bed into James’s arms, who staggers a few feet back and finally hits the wall.

“Look, an idiot,” he shoots back at the mass covering him. Sirius laughs, deep and satisfied, and gets off. “Stop pulling shit like that, you’re taller than me already,” James grumbles half-heartedly, pushing past him to the bed where Peter is stretching and yawning widely. Remus’s eyes are shut again, if he’d ever opened them in the first place, but he distinctly mutters a “Hey Prongs”. Peter waves at him, still yawning.

“Charming, Pete, mate. I’ve always dreamt of seeing the insides of your mouth first thing in the morning.” Peter gives him the finger, eyes laughing, but doesn’t stop.

“I was saying to the others this was the best night we’ve had this year,” says Sirius from behind him, where he’s probably taking their clothes from the cupboard.

“True. Even better than two months ago when we ran into Magorian and his donkeys,” James says, stretching with a lazy grin.

“Prongs, that’s really disrespectful,” mutters Remus. James shrugs and joins Sirius, tosses Peter his trousers and robe and puts his over his pants.

“You’re going to freeze like this,” Sirius points out.

“Nah. It’s sunny and middle-of-May-y outside.”

“Middle-of-May-y is not a word,” grumbles a Remus-esque dictionary in the background as Sirius retorts: “It’s also Scotland-y and seven-in-the-morning-y.”

“Shit, seven in the morning already? Tempus. Yeah, okay, point taken. Lads, we’ll want to hurry up if no-one here’s keen on getting a Minnie-scolding with an empty stomach and dirty clothes.”

Remus groans and slowly sits up, Sirius at once by his side to hand him his shirt, trousers, robe and scarf as Peter climbs down the bed and puts his shoes on. James looks up from where he is unsuccessfully trying to untie the horrible spell-made knot he’d done with his laces the previous day.

“You okay, Moons?” he asks.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m all right.” No new scars, no torn muscles. Assessment: positive.

“Remember anything from last night?” asks Sirius, hopeful. Remus’s eyes glaze over for a moment before lighting up.

“The river, I think. It was… I think it was pretty cool.”

Sirius grins so wide James feels like he’s supposed to have been blinded. “Yeah, it was brilliant. I’m glad you remember.”

“Me too,” Remus smiles. For a moment, they just stare at each other, lost in their own world. James turns to Peter, who is watching them with a blank face. Sometimes, James feels he doesn’t really know what’s going on in that boy’s mind. When a few seconds have passed, James clears his throat, shaking them both out of their weird stasis and eliciting a small laugh on Remus’s part.

They manage to sneak into the Dinner Hall without anyone noticing they’re coming from outside – or so James hopes; if anything, they can always pull the card of early flying for Sirius and him, and mental support or a loss at Truth or Dare for the other two. They take a quick breakfast and run up to Gryffindor Tower to have a shower. Peter declines and stays at breakfast with Mary – after all, he hasn’t spent half the night running and bathing in river-water – with the promise of taking enough food for Remus’s post-full, constantly hungry body. Seeing him emerge from the shower ten minutes before the bell rings (quit being such an old fart, Moony, you just spent twenty minutes under the shower, never mind the hot water is good for his sore muscles), smiling at Sirius’s latest stupid joke, as relaxed as exhaustion lets him be, James is glad this year’s second-to-last full moon has been so good to them all.

He is truly, ridiculously content with his life at the moment, and Lily’s smile and little wave as they enter the Transfiguration classroom only deeper settles the feeling.

 

* * *

 

“We should at least do one meeting or two before the end of the year,” says Lily at breakfast next day.

“I don’t see the point of setting a structure when our schedules are going to change in a month and something and finals are in three weeks anyway,” replies James, a few seats away.

“At least we’ll have something ready in September. I’m saying this so we can win some time next year, Ja- Potter.”

“You can call me James, you know, Evans. Lily,” he answers, completely missing the point. Lily turns a crimson red and sputters for a moment before tartly retorting “I’ll call you however I want, thank you very much,” simultaneously digging an elbow in a cackling Alice’s ribs. Sirius snorts before stepping up to put her out of her misery.

“She’s right, though, James. We’re not setting a permanent structure, just enough for it to be easier to start at once in September. Get things going. We’re all turning seventeen this year, or already have. If we start working on something here we might train a little during the summer break.”

Remus nods beside him, mouthing He’s right at James, who rolls his eyes good-naturedly and turns to the others.

“What do you people think?”

“You’re the boss, James. I’m down with anything,” answers Dorcas.

“Aside from being down on me, mind,” adds Marlene to the ensuing laughter of everyone.

“Well, I guess that settles it then,” Sirius cuts.

“Yeah,” mumbles Remus around a piece of toast. “I’ll go talk to Barnes later today, see when we can have the classroom. We should have something ready for next week, I guess.”

 

They do have something ready for next week. They have had something ready for months, but as the date approaches Sirius gets more and more excited. It feels important, this little club of theirs, only made of Gryffindors for now. Just a group of friends who’ve decided to have some extra-curricular fun; just a bunch of teens who want to learn how to fight. Starting by casting Patronuses.

“Shouldn’t we begin with something easier and more directly applicable?” asks Peter the night before. Sirius shrugs and turns back to the big, silvery dog he has been managing to create for a few weeks now. He doesn’t tire of the sight, feeling like he did in Third Year when they tried to discover their Animagus shape.

“Patronuses are cool,” James answers to Peter instead, probably remembering his own beautiful stag. “The spell is hard, but cool. I think it’s a nice way to start. We won’t really be able to start proper fighting lessons before next year, there’s no time left, and we’re not ready anyway. Besides, we learnt all the basic spells in DADA.”

“Does it bother you, Pete?” Remus asks, surrounded by a misty, shapeless white cloud. Peter purses his lips and shakes his head. He’s the only one of the four who hasn’t managed the spell yet.

Sirius turns to Remus and his formless Patronus.

“Why is yours like that, Moony?”

Remus purses his lips just like Peter did and takes a while to answer, long enough that he has the attention of the three of them when he does.

“I don’t like mine.”

Sirius's and James’s eyebrows shoot up at the same time.

“What? What do you mean you don’t like yours? Is it a toad or something?”

Remus sighs, pinches the bridge of his nose and heavily sits on the nearest bed. All the windows are open, and in comes the fresh breeze of a Scottish June night, making the beds’ hangings undulate. Remus sighs again, with something like deep anger in his eyes, and suddenly Sirius knows.

Expecto Patronum!”

It is a witness to Remus’s strength in that kind of spells that he manages to cast a whole Patronus, angry and unhappy as he is. The white cloud appears again, but the caster’s intention must have changed a little, because it quickly coalesces into a solid, tell-tale shape.

A wolf.

Remus laughs, grating like glass on stone.

“A wolf. My Patronus is a bloody wolf. The thing that’s supposed to represent my protector is a wolf.”

Sirius’s eyes meet James’s, worry and sorrow mixed with anger. They forget, they keep forgetting, despite knowing better than anyone else bar Remus himself. How he is plagued, hounded by an illness he lives as a curse. If they were in a play, Sirius would call this dramatic irony. As it is, he can only say that life is a bitch.

“Since when do you know?” Peter asks, curious. Remus shrugs.

“A month or so. I’ve been training. It was nice, until it wasn’t.”

Silence descends again. Sirius shivers in the draught of air and casts non-verbally to shut the windows.

“We should swap forms,” he tells Remus after dinner. The other chuckles a little, empties his glass of water.

“We would if we could.”

 

“All right, Alice, that’s better, but you need to focus even more on your happy memory. Remember: focus of mind, of power and of intention,” Remus’s voice says somewhere behind Peter, who turns around and looks at the scene. Alice grunts and glares at the twinkling, milky fumes that had vaguely coalesced at the tip of her wand a few seconds ago.

“How is this so hard?” she complains before rolling her shoulders, cracking her knuckles and getting settled once again. She takes one deep breath and –

EXPECTO PATRONUM!”

The silver wisp is definitely more consistent, but Peter isn’t sure it’s as much a consolation to her as it would be to him. On her right, Lily is glaring at her wand as if it were personally responsible of the indistinct cloudy mass floating before her. Peter watches as, knowing her propensity to wild bouts of uncontrolled magic, Remus passes behind her and lets his hand rest on her nape for an instant. She sighs, leans a little into the touch, then straightens up and makes the same series of movements than Alice. Remus smiles and moves on to his next target, Peter himself, who turns his back to him and focuses intently on the wand in his hand, muttering “Expecto Patronum” with more spite than originally intended.

There is something about the Patronus Charm Peter can’t seem to grasp. The theory he understands well enough – it’s not that hard, he is not an idiot and Remus had explained it all very clearly. But there’s something, this little something that happens in your blood and in the air when you cast such a powerful spell, a little something that’s missing here. And that’s why Sirius’s enormous dog and James’s graceful stag are frolicking all around the cleared up DADA room, and he is still trying to produce anything else, anything more than a vague hint of white cloudish stuff. He feels Remus arrive behind him and tenses up. Leave me alone. I can do this. I don’t need your help.

“Are you sure you’re focusing enough?” Remus asks. There is something bouncy in his voice, something like happiness. He’s doing what he likes, teaching something he’s good at to other people. Feeling useful.

For a second, Peter hates him.

“Yes,” he curtly answers without turning. Ignore him until he leaves. He stands still, not even trying to cast the spell again. Remus’s presence is somehow too irritating.

“Don’t you want to try again?” Remus prods him. Peter grits his teeth and lets out:

“I’m trying to focus. Don’t worry about me, go and help someone else.” He tries to soften his tone at the end, if only because he can’t face Remus’s baffled face. The other lets out a placid “All right” and does as he’s said. Peter instantly feels bad. Remus felt he didn’t want him there and acted like nothing was unusual. The others would have made a fuss about it, but Remus… he gets it, somehow. Peter swears he’s going to give him a special Honeydukes chocolate and caramel bar later, and refocuses on his wand.

An hour later, nothing has come. Peter’s cheeks burn with shame. He knows he’s going to have to fake a smile all evening and force himself to cheerfulness so the guys don’t ask him if there’s something wrong, and he hates the thought. Patronuses take time anyway, he tells himself, not looking at Lily’s white mass that is definitely showing two pairs of legs, nor at the other’s more or less consistent glittery forms. A single white wisp curls in the air in front of him, soon dispelled by a movement of the room’s air.

He feels like these Defence Club sessions are going to be less enjoyable than planned.

 

* * *

 

“All right, but what happens if you put a werewolf on the moon?” James asks one morning at breakfast.

“He’ll explode and die because there’s no oxygen on the moon,” Peter replies without looking up from his newspaper.

“We never said we’d send him without a suit, you absolute monster!” exclaims Sirius, throwing a piece of bread at him.

“Shove it,” grumbles Remus in his cup of tea while the other three tear up.

That’s when the tell-tale ruffle of feathers and moving air announces the arrival of the whole school’s owls. There is something twisted with receiving the post on mornings. Of course, they’re not going to get their letters in the middle of a class-period, or at lunch; besides, owls fly at night. But there’s something about knowing the news you’re going to receive might be really bad that doesn’t let you eat correctly. Oh here, look, your aunt’s been killed, and enjoy your pumpkin juice!

Peter would say there is no good time to receive a piece of bad news, but still, James thinks, stomach leaden as he sees his parents’ owl swirl down from the high ceiling, on this year’s last Tuesday morning. In his last letter, his father had said he was going back on the field, Auror shortage oblige. The school year ends in less than one week. His parents don’t need to send him a letter when they’re seeing each other in a few days. James wants to shoo the owl away. Better no news than the potential of horrific ones.

Sirius is watching the bird too, jaw clenched like he does when he’s angry or worried. Athene lands between the pile of toasts and the jar of pumpkin juice and immediately steals a piece of bacon from Remus’s meat-laden plate. James reaches for the parchment secured to its long leg and slowly unfolds it. After a moment, he gasps.

Sirius tenses. “What.”

“Is your dad okay?” asks Remus, concerned. James nods, closes his eyes, opens them again and passes the letter to Sirius beside him, whom he audibly hears relax.

“Yeah. It’s not him. A cousin twice-removed, young Auror. She was killed two days ago in a mission that turned south.”

Remus grimaces. “I’m sorry, Prongs.”

“Same, mate,” says Peter.

A few seconds later, a large hand settles on his shoulder.

“Hey, you all right?” Sirius asks. James briefly closes his eyes again, runs a hand through his mess of a hair and sighs.

“I… yeah. Yeah. I didn’t know her very well. She graduated at the end of our First Year, I’d only spoken to her a couple times.” A pause. “I feel horrible, because the only thing I can feel right now is relief it’s not dad.”

“Hey, that’s normal,” Peter replies. “What’s happened to her is awful but you don’t have to feel guilty because you’re glad your father wasn’t killed.”

“Yeah, mate,” adds Sirius. “Let it sink in. You’re not guilty of anything here, all right?”

“Yeah,” James mutters. “Yeah, okay.”

The obvious, if secondary, consequence occurs to him one day later, after their Herbology exam. Sirius and him are lounging on the lake’s shores, James basking in the sun, Sirius doodling a Venomous Tentacula whose tips look like a deformed, very ugly (or uglier than usual) Snape. James won’t ask.

“Oi, I just thought of something,” he mumbles.

“Congrats, mate. Want me to clap?”

James swats at Sirius’s leg where he’s resting his head on and continues.

“You can’t come home with me at once. We’ll have to go to the funeral, and then to a family reception, and my great-grand-aunt Amelia wants us to spend a few days at hers. I’m not doing this to you.”

Sirius stops doodling on his parchment and focuses on him.

“How long will it take?”

“Dunno, say a week.”

He purses his lips and says nothing for a while. Then:

“Okay. I needed to have a look at that flat in London my uncle gave me in March anyway. I’ll do that and then crash at yours, if your parents are still okay with that.”

“That’s bollocks. Mum’s been sending you care packages this whole year and Dad just gave you a book on magically engineered muggle vehicles. And you sent them a letter yesterday to say you were sorry about my cousin. They love you.”

Sirius ducks his head, a small pleased smile on his lips. James huffs, gives a little nudge to his leg and turns his attention back to where the clouds are tracing intricate, fluffy patterns in the blue June sky. This one might be a dragon. That one, a skull and a snake.

Let’s think of something else.

 

“Hey, Moony. Are you up?”

Remus opens his eyes in the darkness of his pillows – he is sleeping, as usual, with his head squashed between two of them.

“No,” he grumbles, feeling his bones sigh with weariness. Curse Blacks and their impossible sleep schedules.

“Liar,” whispers Sirius’s voice. Remus hear him slide from under his covers and pad across the moonlit space between their two beds, before seating on the edge of Remus’s. Remus takes the top pillow off and glares at the sleepless Animagus for good measure.

“Pads, you do realise I’ve got a full week of exams and a full moon to recover from, right?” he mumbles.

“Yeah, I know, but this is urgent. It’s something James told me this morning.”

Remus sighs, recognising this as a case of force majeure – an insomniac Sirius with something urgent to say –, sits up against his headboard and beckons him over. Once they’re both comfortably seated cross-legged, knees touching, Sirius continues.

“Okay, so, remember that flat my uncle gave me in March?” Remus nods. “Well, I’ve got to have a look at it. I’ll stay in London the first week or so while Prongs does the family thing. Thing is, I really don’t know anything about Muggles. And I’d like us to have some time together,” he adds. Remus’s heart stutters for a millisecond before he gets it back under control. “So I was wondering if you’d come with me. For a week, or more if you want. Prongs’s parents haven’t seen him in like years, I reckon they’ll want some time alone with him, even if they won’t admit it.”

Remus’s smile is quick to blossom, lips parting and showing white teeth that must gleam in the dark.

“I’d like that.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Really. I’ll send an owl to my parents tomorrow morning so they don’t wait for me on Saturday. I was supposed to Apparate home from the station.”

“Won’t that make them cross?”

“Nah, it’s all right. Besides, I’m an adult now,” and his grin widens, to Sirius’s answering one. They both laugh a little.

“That’s so great,” Sirius whispers. Remus nods, his smile dimming a little as he tentatively opens his arms. For all their daily – hourly, even – casual touches, they haven’t properly hugged in what feels like ages. Sirius scuttles up the bed until he’s against the headboard as well and they meet in the middle, limbs tangling and sliding down until they’re lying intertwined under the covers.

“Thank Merlin we widened the beds last year,” Remus whispers once they’re settled. Sirius hums in acquiescence, tracing patterns on Remus’s arm where the sleeve has ridden up. “Or else you ridiculous mutt couldn’t have slept on any of them,” Remus adds. Sirius huffs a laugh and doesn’t stop his small, circular movement. Remus shivers a little. His heart-beat picks up, nervousness and elation singing in his veins as they instinctively burrow closer to each other. This is it, he distantly thinks, reason gone and feeling first. This is it.

It being nothing, almost nothing more than usual. Sirius slowly slides his hand up Remus’s arm, shoulder, and lets it rest on the juncture of his throat and collarbone, below the point where his pulse flutters like a trapped butterfly. In the hushed silence of the night, their breaths sound too loud, gently caressing the other’s face, mingling in a warm bubble of air between their bodies. Remus tightens his hold on Sirius, his hands wander on the other’s back, from neck and shoulders to the dip just before the swell, where they pause, almost trembling, not daring yet. He closes his eyes, unable to keep them open despite the darkness, leaving nothing else than feeling. Sirius’s hand leaves its place and sneaks under the hem of Remus’s shirt, warm skin against warm skin, some scars and ridges here and there and vast expanses his to discover. A brief, dry press of lips against exposed skin – a closed eyelid –, the embrace tightening, melting further into each other; an itch, pulsating between their legs – not yet.

This slow exploration lasts hours, years, or nothing, time stopped in this parenthesis written by the twin curves of their bodies. Facing each other in a shudder as gates open and the flood begins, piled-up months and whole existences of waiting taking flight and thundering down, hearts in each other’s mouth.

It is nothing and yet feels momentous as reality shifts under its own weight, world off-kilter before it’s righted again, a bit differently, things slightly out of place in this new order, slightly altered.

They sleep, hearts thundering with the brilliance of all possibilities.

 

* * *

 

An outlandish heat has settled on the castle by Thursday morning. Classes are unofficially over and students leave in mass to lounge around the lake, under the trees’ fresh shadow. At around ten o’clock, Peter, with the help of the Map, manages to find Mary as she and a few other girls are getting down the main staircase.

“Hey,” he grins, a little out of breath. Mary freezes and stares at him for a second before smiling back. “Would you like to go down the lake or something? It’s been a while.”

She turns to her friends, seemingly unsure, does a complicated eyebrow-motion to Marlene, who answers in kind, before turning to Peter. “Yeah, all right, let’s go,” she answers at last, not taking his offered arm – must be the heat, bodies next to each other aren’t really comfortable in this weather.

The sky is low and heavy, a steely grey with patches of blue, like a brewing summer storm. Mary doesn’t say anything, just walks alongside him in what’s becoming an awkward silence. Peter panics and does what he always ends up doing in that case: he starts rambling.

He rambles about everything: the weather (electric), his summer plans (nonexistent), how he did on his finals (average), the last book he read (he doesn’t really remember).

“Peter,” Mary cuts. They’ve reached a part of the shore that’s a little less busy, with fewer scattered trees but the Forbidden Forest looming near. Peter stills and looks at her. Her short blonde curls are gently swaying in the east wind, robes unclasped, muggle shorts and t-shirt underneath. She is pretty, Peter thinks, so pretty he can’t swallow.

A sense of foreboding suddenly gets hold of him, set off by the strange atmosphere, Mary’s silence, her closed stance, her reluctance – he now reads it as such – at his offer of a stroll…

He should have seen it coming, he thinks. Stupid.

“I… I don’t really know how to say this but I…”

Peter knows. He knows where she’s going, he knows what he wants to say. He isn’t going to make it easy for her, either. She lets out a huff, frustrated, mechanically fixes her hair behind her ear – a gesture Peter has been fixating on since an inordinate amount of time – and, staring at the ground:

“What I mean is that,” another breath, “I don’t want this to keep going any more.”

Peter knew, but it’s still like a punch in the gut.

“Why?” he asks, stupidly. She bites her lip – stop it – and shifts her gaze, pins it on the mass of trees at Peter’s back.

“This isn’t going anywhere. I don’t… I don’t enjoy spending time together as much as I used to. I’d rather… I’m no longer interested in pursuing this. I’m sorry,” she softly says, looking at him for the first time. Peter swallows. “I should have told you sooner, but finals…”

“Sooner? What, you mean you’ve been seating on this for a long time?”

Mary looks mortified now, bites the inside of the cheek – he can see the little hollow it makes – and shifts a little.

“I mean… No. A few weeks at the most. But I wasn’t sure. I thought it could be stress, or, you know, what’s happening,” and here she makes a general wave with her hand, encompassing… well, everything. Them, the grounds, the students, the castle, the world. “I’m sorry. It’s not you–”

“… it’s you, yeah, I know,” Peter cuts her. His left eye is twitching, he knows; it always does when he’s stressed, like Remus’s left leg. Speaking of. He could take this in a cold, mild manner like Moony would. Or with a dramatic final line and an elegant stroll like Padfoot, or a joke, a clap on the shoulder and a perfectly controlled exit of Prongs’s. But he can’t. He’s just Peter, twitchy, plump little Peter, who’s just been dumped and really should have seen it coming. He lets out a nervous laugh, shuffles on the spot, sticks his hand in his hair and knows he looks ridiculous. He wishes he could transform and disappear.

“I’ll just… I’ll go, yeah?”

After a final apologetic smile, Mary turns on the spot and takes the walk back to the castle, leaving him alone, stupidly alone, standing like a fool between the shore and the forest. Tears of rage prickle his eyelids. He wasn’t enough. He’s never enough. Always too short, too slow, too awkward, too average, at this and at everything else. He hates her, and the others, but mostly himself.

Looking around, he checks no-one is close enough to pay him any attention, and then does the most dangerous thing he’s done in a long time. He changes on the spot, in plain daylight, out in the open where anyone could see.

Wormtail scurries away to the forest.

No-one sees. No-one ever does.

 

* * *

 

“Wotcha Evans.”

Lily tears her eyes from where, knees drawn up and arms encircling her legs, she’s watching Alice and Frank, huddled up against one another under a nearby tree. She looks up to James and draws a slight smile.

“Potter. Care to sit down?”

James rakes up his hand through his hair and sits down next to her under the oak as she resumes her contemplation of their friends.

“What are you looking at?” James asks. Lily huffs and starts picking at the grass.

“Alice and Frank. It’s their last day here together.”

“That’s rough.”

“Yeah.”

They remain silent for a moment, Lily methodically tearing a blade of grass to shreds and James alternating between glancing at her, at Alice and Frank and watching their fellow students play, horse around, shriek and laugh under the half-grey, half-blue sky.

“They makes me feel like a child sometimes,” Lily blurts out before laughing a little, embarrassed. As it happens, Lily Evans is no stranger to embarrassment and bashfulness; she just doesn’t show it to anyone but her friends. With a start, James realises that’s what they are now. They have, grudgingly, almost reluctantly, become friends. A warm feeling settles into his chest as he refocuses on what she’s just said.

“How so?”

She lets out another huff, as if annoyed at herself. “I dunno. It’s like, they found each other a year ago, and now they’re talking of getting married when Alice gets out of Hogwarts, and she’s been of age for six months, and Frank is leaving, and I honest-to-Merlin heard them discuss of babies names once. They’re behaving like grown-ups.”

“But you are too.”

She shakes her heard, glances at him for a second. “It’s not the same. We’re playing at it, more or less successfully. Them… they’re planning their life together. And that scares me.”

James nods, not sure he’s understood but vaguely seeing what she means.

“And they’re scared of losing each other, too,” she continues. “I mean, I’m scared for Frank, sure, but to Alice, losing Frank is losing this whole life they’re building up in dreams. It’s horrible.”

“It’s kind of beautiful too, if you think about it,” James answers. Lily hums and nods. She waves her wand at the grass and some blades start knotting around one another. James smiles.

“Love is scary,” he says, almost unthinkingly, because it is. His heart thuds in his chest, because Lily is beautiful and a little lost, strong and a little frightened, and her eyes are the colour of grass and she’s got the beginning of a sun-burn on the edge of her nose, and they’re friends and James is both terrifyingly happy and happily terrified. She turns to him, rests her cheek on her knees and looks at him like that, head tilted, eyes squinting a little.

“That’s because it calls for absolute. And absolutes are always scary.”

Will you be my absolute?  James almost blurts then, because he’s stupid and ridiculous and sappy and really in love with his friend, and he gets it. Instead, after a moment of silence, he chuckles and shakes his head when Lily raises an eyebrow at him.

“Nothing to do with the matter at hand, but don’t you think it’s time we started calling each other by our names, Evans?”

Lily laughs, clear and happy, throwing her head back a little like she does.

“It’s Lily to you, James.”

 

 

 

 

 

 THE END.